Grace, Gratitude, and the Incarnation

The adoration of the Shepherds. (Source)

I sometimes wonder how all creation wasn’t annihilated by the Incarnation. I find it extraordinary and edifying that God, Being Itself, Omnipotent and Omniscient, Holiness Untouchable, chose to enter this world in a way that did not overwhelm us…that actually raised us, nothing that we are, to Divinity. As T.S. Eliot puts it, “Human kind cannot bear very much reality.” Our continued existence after the Incarnation is a marvel of God’s infinite mercy and condescension as well as His love for us. The point is not even that we are sinful so much as that, in comparison with Infinite Being, we are cosmically insignificant. Yet God chooses to turn His gaze upon us, to love us, even to become one of us. We don’t reckon with this merciful condescension enough. The most fitting response is a profound sense of gratitude.

By contrast, the worst possible response to this love is ingratitude. How common is this sin! How often do we obscure God’s condescension with ungrateful thoughts and acts! Especially at this time of year.

To receive communion sacrilegiously is to disfigure the face of Christ. Yet how common is this sin in Christmastime, when we should celebrate the appearance of that holy face! (Source)

Consider the Masses of Christmas. How many Catholics present themselves for communion who do not have the proper disposition to receive the grace of the sacrament? Worse, how many communions on this holy occasion are not merely unworthy, but actively sacrilegious? How many communions work death in the souls of those who receive at Christmas, a feast that should only impart grace and joy? Is there any other night when, all around the world, so many of the faithful take up the mantle of Judas and betray their Lord in the Sacrament of His eternal love? We ought to make special acts of reparation to the Eucharistic Heart of Jesus throughout the Christmas season. Yet even here, we observe the tremendous condescension of God. He suffers Himself to be blasphemed in this manner the better to augment His glory in the latter end. And He endures all this for love.

I was disturbed to read on Twitter a further example of ingratitude in what should be a season of humble thanksgiving. A priest of the Lexington Diocese, Fr. Jim Sichka, posted a thread on the Feast of the Holy Family in which he wrote, among other things, that “What makes a family holy is living out the Gospel messages of love and hope, and pursuing big dreams for our children.” Without any contextual grounding in the sacraments, this vision of sanctification tends dangerously towards Pelagianism. Fr. Sichka, who is a Papal Missionary of Mercy, later buckled down on this error, writing, “Like it or not, there are many kinds of families. Every kind of family is called to be holy. And, since every person is made in God’s image, each is holy and has inherent dignity given by God.” He was not explicitly describing the baptized; it would seem that Fr. Sichko intends for us to take this statement as a universal descriptor. And while he is right to suggest that all families are called to holiness and that all possess God-given dignity, there is another, far more serious issue here.

Let us leave aside Fr. Sichko’s confusion of is and ought. The real problem here is the Pelagian notion that holiness is inherent in the human being. The opposite is true. In the state of original sin, we are naturally corrupt, deficient, concupiscent, and enslaved to the flesh, the world, and the passions. Holiness is not something we can achieve by our own effort alone. It is rather the supernatural indwelling of the Holy Ghost in us by sacramental grace, especially the grace granted in baptism. This gratuitous presence of the Holy Ghost in our souls is the only true way we can grow in virtue. We must water this growth by the salutary irrigation of deliberate ascesis. Holiness is not natural, but the supernatural repairing and building on nature.

Pietro Perugino’s Virgin and St. Jerome and St. Augustine (1500). May these two anti-Pelagian Doctors pray for us in the holy season of the Nativity. (Source)

It is astounding to find any priest suggesting that grace is unnecessary. It is unnerving to discover a priest who states in public that holiness is intrinsic to the human being. It is dismaying to read of a priest advancing opinions that will lead to lax preparation for holy communion. And it is tragic to find a priest deprecating, overlooking, or downplaying the singular grace vouchsafed to us in the Blessed Sacrament.

This is not a trivial error. It cuts to the very heart of what holiness is and how we acquire it. Is holiness the life of God within us? Or is it something less? Is it something that needs cultivation by sacramental grace and an ongoing life of ascetic endeavor? Or is it something we carry within us from birth? The answers make a difference about how we respond to the mysteries of this holy season. Christmas is preeminently a festival of grace. The utter gratuity of the Incarnation – and thus, of our redemption and sanctification in the sacraments – is the true meaning of Christmas. Pelagianism is unlike other heresies in that it adds a venomous ingredient to error; its essence is ingratitude, directly contrary to the spirit of this holy season.

Let us pray then for a lively faith in the mysteries of grace, for a more ardent jealousy of the Truth, for a renewed desire to follow the Lord in all things, for a generous spirit of adoring reparation, and for an unstinting gratitude as we contemplate the Divine Love who chose to save us by His Incarnation.

Pearls from the Blessed Abbot Marmion

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A French icon of the Blessed Abbot. (Source)

Today is the feast of the Bl. Abbot Columba Marmion OSB, Abbot of Maredsous. The Irishman who served most of his priestly life (and all of his monastic profession) in Belgium is not yet canonized, but I and many others pray he will one day become a Doctor of the Church. Here are some of his words for my readers’ consideration, along with my own occasional commentary. No doubt, my readers will observe what has often been noted about the Blessed Abbot – that he combines a firm dogmatic foundation with penetrating mystical insight and the soundest of practical advice.

“We must be careful to supernaturalize our work. Never begin your studies without having prayed. Try to watch over your intention: see that it is for God and for truth…Never become the dupes of your own learning: in this life our knowledge will always be imperfect.” (Christ – The Ideal of the Priest, 79). Admirable advice for any students, though perhaps especially for those who have made the divine mysteries their object of study.

“For everything in the life of Jesus, the Incarnate Word, is full of signification. Christ, if I may thus express myself, is the great sacrament of the New Law…each of Our Lord’s mysteries ought to be for us an object of contemplation; His mysteries ought also to be, as it were, sacraments producing within us, according to the measure of our faith and love, their own special grace. And this is true of each of the states of Jesus, of each of his actions. For if Christ is always the Son of God, if in all that He says and does He first of all glorifies His Father, neither does He ever separate us from the thought of Him. To each of His mysteries, He attaches a grace which is to help us to reproduce within ourselves His divine features in order to make us like unto Him.” (Christ in His Mysteries, 232-33). Here we see Dom Marmion presenting two important points, one explicit and one implicit. The explicit note is that every act of Christ, the God-Man, is a substantive work of our salvation even as it lifts up all glory unto the Father. This two-fold movement embedded within all of Christ’s actions thus constitutes the continuing and hidden mediation of Christ as Priest and Victim. Dom Marmion’s implicit point concerns how we come to know of this mediation. As a monk whose soul was well-calibrated to the rhythms of liturgy and lectio divina, Dom Marmion stood in a far more totalizing relationship to the Sacraments and the Scriptures than most of us will ever know. But it is precisely in these, Christ’s “mysteries,” that we encounter His mediation. And the posture of the soul required of the believer is not based primarily on her intellectual capacities, but on that deeper, more personal, super-linguistic sensitivity we call “contemplation.” One could write much more about “contemplation” as an epistemology of the Transcendent, but I digress.

“Whence came this human love of Jesus, this created love? From the uncreated and divine love, from the love of the Eternal Word to which the human nature is indissolubly united. In Christ, although there are two perfect and distinct natures, keeping their specific energies and their proper operations, there is only one Divine Person. As I have said, the created love of Jesus is only a revelation of His uncreated love. Everything that the created love accomplishes is only in union with the uncreated love, and on account of it; Christ’s Heart draws its human kindness from the divine one…The Heart of Jesus pierced upon the Cross reveals to us Christ’s human love; but beneath the veil of the humanity of Jesus is shown the ineffable and incomprehensible love of the Word.” (Christ in His Mysteries, 370-71). Reading these words, I am reminded of the phrase of St. Augustine that Scripture is a tree with its roots in heaven and its fruits on earth. The same could be said of Christ Himself.

“Faith is a seed, and every seed contains in germ the future harvest. Provided that we put away from faith all that can diminish and tarnish it; that we develop it by prayer and practice, that we constantly give it the occasion of manifesting itself in love, faith places in our hands the substance of the joys to come and gives birth to unshaken confidence.” (Christ, the Life of the Soul, 141). The point, here, is that faith is not simply a propositional assent. Its effect is not automatic, as in some of the simpler Protestant ideas of it. It must be lived – it must be cultivated if it is to bear fruit.

“Soon, however, in the same measure as the soul draws near to the Supreme Good, it shares the more in the Divine simplicity.” (Christ, the Life of the Soul, 317). In context, the Blessed Abbot is discussing the practice of prayer. The closer we grow to God, the closer we move to that knowledge of Him in which words fail. For in God, all words are utterly extinguished – all words, that is, except His own divine Name.

“Let us often beseech God to give us that light of faith and strength of love which will render our obedience perfect. Thus supernaturally sustained, this obedience will become easy, generous, simple, prompt, and joyous.” (Christ, the Ideal of the Monk, 279). Although the Blessed Abbot wrote these words for the special edification of monastics, there can be little doubt that they find a wider application in the lives of every devout Christian. For all of us must render obedience to the law of God. As Dom Marmion notes, the “luminous arms” of obedience are made up of faith and charity as a sword is made of hilt and blade. And neither faith nor charity are the exclusive purview of vowed religious.

“The devil tries to trouble you by his [subtleties], so that you may cease to act well for fear of acting from vanity. We must never cease doing well for that reason, but quietly purify our intention. The best way is to unite it with Jesus Christ, and with His intentions, and if there is anything imperfect in your intentions this union with Jesus Christ will heal it.” (Letter quoted in Union with God According to the Letters of Direction of Dom Marmion, 70). Here we see the theological basis behind a point made independently by Julian of Norwich and, later, T.S. Eliot. In the words of the latter: “And all shall be well and / All manner of thing shall be well / By the purification of the motive / In the ground of our beseeching.” That ground, of course, is Christ dwelling in us.

 

Charles Williams, Marriage, and a Shameless Plug

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Love Among the Ruins, Edward Burne-Jones (Source)

I have a very exciting if somewhat tardy announcement. I have some poetry being published in Volume II of Jesus the Imagination, the hot new Sophiological journal by Angelico Press. There’s plenty of other really good material in the journal, too, including work by friends of mine. Plus an interview with the Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus! What’s not to love? As far as I’m aware I’m making no money whatsoever off this venture, but I still encourage you to buy a copy (or two, or three) if you want to read my contributions…or just the far more brilliant materials you’ll find there, too.  Either way, I can promise you that Jesus the Imagination won’t disappoint!

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A portrait of Charles Williams: poet, critic, lecturer, editor, author, sorcerer, mystic (Source)

The theme for this volume is Marriage. As I’m sure many of you know, marriage is an extraordinarily deep mystery in the heart of the Church’s sacramental life, mystical being, quotidien experience, and esoteric practice. To celebrate, I am reproducing here a poem by Charles Williams that scratches the surface of Matrimony’s essence. Williams, a friend of T.S. Eliot and fellow-Inkling to C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, was a profound mystical thinker who kept returning to nuptial themes over the course of his career. The poem below comes from his first poetry collection, The Silver Stair (1912), a slim book I recently examined in the Bodleian. Enjoy.

Of Marriage and of its Priesthood

Charles Williams

Here shall no pagan foot nor claw of beast
Enter; nor wizard sorcery be seen.
But sometime here have all true lovers been,
Nor hath the tale of outland riders ceased.
With hands of consecration now the priest
Exalts the holy sacrament between
The altar lights. Now, if your souls be clean,
Draw near: Himself Love gives you in His feast.

Whose voice in solemn ritual lifted up
Praises the Name of Love? Whose hands have blest
For you, His votaries, the mysterious Cup,
And set before you the ordained Food?
Voice of Himself, to narrow vows professed,
And hands of His adorable maidenhood.

Becket’s “Easier Victory”

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Saint Thomas of Canterbury, pray for us and for England. (Source)

It’s that time a year again. The Feast of St. Thomas Becket, Martyred Archbishop of Canterbury, defender of the Church’s independence from the Crown. Which means we get to watch that fantastic and ever so Catholic film, Becket (1964). For those without access to the full movie, you can watch the very best scene here.

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One of the film’s great charms is its collection of beautiful Romanesque vestments, all used properly. (Source)

Let me also add in a great excerpt from T.S. Eliot’s classic 1935 verse drama about the Archbishop, Murder in the Cathedral. It comes from the most climactic moment of the play, when Thomas is about to be killed. His priests have barred the doors of the cathedral to the four assassins, but Thomas will have none of their worldly prudence. His speech presents a brief theology of martyrdom that must stir the heart of any Catholic.

You think me reckless, desperate and mad.
You argue by results, as this world does,
To settle if an act be good or bad.
You defer to the fact. For every life and every act
Consequence of good and evil can be shown.
And as in time results of many deeds are blended
So good and evil in the end become confounded.
It is not in time that my death shall be known;
It is out of time that my decision is taken
If you call that decision
To which my whole being gives entire consent.
I give my life
To the Law of God above the Law of Man.
Unbar the door! unbar the door!
We are not here to triumph by fighting, by stratagem, or by resistance,
Not to fight with beasts as men. We have fought the beast
And have conquered. We have only to conquer
Now, by suffering. This is the easier victory.
Now is the triumph of the Cross, now
Open the door! I command it. OPEN THE DOOR!

(MITC 73-74)

May we so speak in the many trials of our own lesser martyrdoms.

Elsewhere: Michael Martin on Heresy

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Haublin’s portrait of Jacob Boehme. (Source)

I have just finished a rather interesting piece by Michael Martin, perhaps the leading Catholic sophiologist, on the subject of heresy. Martin argues that we even ostensible heretics have something to offer orthodox Christians. It helps that he grounds his points more in lived experience than any kind of normative Christian discourse. I quote at length:

But cries of “Heresy!” are in no way confined to those usually identified as adherents of a religious conservatism. My own work in sophiology, for instance, moves into territory some might consider dangerously heretical, but the most vicious attacks on me and my work—-calling both me and it “satanic”—-have come not from those of a manualist persuasion, but from those more aligned with a social justice approach to religious questions (although the manualists and Neo-Thomists have not been my most sympathetic readers, at least they haven’t suspected that I was possessed!).

For my part, I doubt I’d have any faith at all were it not for heresy. As a former Waldorf teacher and a practicing biodynamic farmer, I don’t know who I’d be without encountering the work of Rudolf Steiner (a guy who will set off the “heretic alarm” in just about any religious tradition) who taught me, among other things, about the centrality of Christ’s incarnation and sacrifice for not only human beings but for the cosmos at a time when I was wandering in the desert of postmodernity and consumer culture. Likewise, had I not stumbled across Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece The Last Temptation of Christ (based on the novel by Niko Kazantzakis) and Denys Arcand’s Jesus of Montreal in my late twenties, I doubt I would have returned to the Catholic Church. Likewise, my engagement with the work of Jacob Boehme opened for me a way into religious understanding paralleled in some degree by the radical way Martin Heidegger redefined philosophy for me. There are many other heretics to whom I owe a debt of gratitude, but these will suffice.

I differ with Martin on some important points. I am much more sanguine towards the Dubia and the Correctio than he is (I see them as necessary for the preservation of orthopraxis as well as a helpful move away from ultramontane ecclesiology; both movements vindicate Cardinal Newman). Likewise, when Martin writes later that…

It may be that these so-called heretics possess something many allegedly “faithful” Christians don’t: a sincere approach to the figure of Jesus, unencumbered by obligations to dogma. Because of such sincerity, Jesus is able to bleed through obscurity and fable.

…he may be putting just a bit too fine a point on it. Dogma matters. One could cite any number of perfectly respectable theologians who write of how desperately we need dogma (once again, I think of Newman in the Apologia), but I’d rather not belabor the matter. The problem lies not with dogma, but with dogmatism, a tendency to regard far more as settled than actually is. Moreover, Martin makes much of the fact that he has “learned much about Jesus from heretics.”

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Johann Georg Hamann (1730-1788), the Magus of the North. A Lutheran whose idiosyncrasies could certainly earn him the label of heretic. (Source)

Here, I am in a somewhat qualified agreement with Martin. First, because I, too, have been deeply influenced by figures whom some would consider heretical, from George Herbert to Johann Georg Hamann to Jacob Boehme to Ernst Fuchs to William Blake. I came to the faith in part because my imagination was prepared by that deeply heretical musical, Jesus Christ Superstar. One of my closest mentors in college was an Armenian Orthodox theologian and ethicist —technically, a miaphysite. I have something approaching a devotion to Charles I, King and Martyr, even though he was not reconciled to Rome at the time of his death. Thomists at least would frown upon my fondness for St. Gregory Palamas and his mystical theology. A number of Jewish authors have helped me find my theological bearings—particularly Halevi, Solomon ibn Gabirol, Maimonides, and the authors of the Zohar. Various authors of the Frankfurt School made a tremendous impact on me in college. Walter Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History” still resonate deeply with me, and force me to reckon with the complications of my own tradition. If you want to be really strict about what constitutes heresy, even someone as ostensibly Marian and Ecclesial as T.S. Eliot, a poet who has shaped my thought in more ways than I know, would nevertheless be heretical for his high Anglicanism as well as his unsound views on birth control. And need I mention that far more egregious heretic, Herman Melville? Moby Dick was like a revelation for me when I first read it last year.

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Origen of Alexandria. Church Father and something of a heretic. (Source)

There are more thinkers I could cite who are problematic in the face of formal orthodoxy. The Catechism tells us,

Incredulity is the neglect of revealed truth or the willful refusal to assent to it. “Heresy is the obstinate post-baptismal denial of some truth which must be believed with divine and catholic faith, or it is likewise an obstinate doubt concerning the same; apostasy is the total repudiation of the Christian faith; schism is the refusal of submission to the Roman Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him.” CCC 2089

I would wager that most if not all of the authors I mentioned could be charged with at least one of these sins. So what? I don’t regret the wisdom they have shared with me. To the contrary, I am a better person for my contact with their lives and works.

The fact is, most of us are probably indebted to heretics of some kind in some way or other. We arrive at this state, not through any deliberate, insidious intent, but merely by a thorough education. And what is education if not learning how to find diamonds amidst coal? A well-read man will inevitably encounter writers whose view of the world is imperfect (as his own is). But that encounter can be very beneficial if wedded to discretion and wisdom. Surely this maxim is just as true for the theologian as for any other scholar. The perfection of his discipline consists not in the purity of his intellectual lineage, but in attaining the vision of God. At a certain point, systemic rigor breaks down in the face of the absolute and ineffable mystery.

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The Philosophers, Mikhail Nesterov, 1917. Here we see both Fr. Pavel Florensky and (soon to be) Archpriest Sergius Bulgakov, two of the great Russian Sophiologists. While technically condemned as heretics by the Soviet Patriarch, their profound insights into the mysteries of Divine Wisdom remain seminal in contemporary Orthodox and Catholic theology. And that’s a good thing. (Source)

Let me add a brief theological note. Like Martin, I think sophiology is a terribly important idea. The sophiology of Bulgakov et al. was (sort of) condemned by a (compromised) Moscow Patriarchate in 1935. The Orthodox remain deeply divided over its actual status as a heresy. Nevertheless, its intellectual legacy lingers in both East and West, and it is still proving to be a fertile source of theological discussion. I pray that it will continue to develop in the 21st century.

Thirdly, as an historian, I have to admit that Martin’s conclusion isn’t all that unusual. Scholars have increasingly recognized since the 1930’s that, as a matter of historical fact, the boundaries between heresy and orthodoxy have been notably porous over the centuries. The case of Origen alone would suffice to illustrate the issue, though more could be cited. What may seem perfectly orthodox in one era could turn out to be declared heretical as doctrine develops and clarifies over the course of the ages. Or quite the opposite; we lay faithful can now receive the Blessed Sacrament in both kinds. Previously, Utraquism was condemned along with all the rest of Jan Hus’s errors (though personally, I dislike this liturgical practice and rarely receive in both kinds myself).

There are practical concerns at play, too. Theologians must retain a certain level of intellectual freedom if any kind of development is to happen at all. How are we to approach that freedom? How to canalize the vast and manifold energies of the spirit, so often diffused in an erratic array of chattering and solipsistic spurts of “dialogue” online? The free “Republic of Letters” spoken of by the Humanists and their early modern descendants is, I think, a much better model for our own theological era than the mechanistic logic and endless citation of authorities seen among the classical Scholastics. I’ll add that the increasingly important field of visual theology poses other important questions. The encryption and interpretation of meaning through art, emblems, ritual, and other aesthetic media opens itself to all manner of views. Some are orthodox, others heterodox. This very heterogeneity requires a certain degree of freedom for discussion and discernment. There is an irony in Martin’s rejection of the Dubia and the Correctio. Both documents rely upon and exemplify the very academic freedom that his piece latently extols.

Don’t get me wrong. Heresy is and always has been a sin, and a mortal one at that. We should oppose it; the proper authorities should correct it through the proper channels, and in the case of open and public heresy, the laity can and should do so as well. But Martin is right to note that the individual ideas of heretics can be fruitful for deepening properly orthodox meditations. More importantly, God can make whatever use of them He wishes. I doubt that Martin is or will be the only one who has “learned much about Jesus” from those deemed heretics.

On the Coronation of the Coredemptrix

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Corredenzione, by Giovanni Gasparro. This painting convinced my heart of the doctrine of the Co-Redemption of Mary. (Source).

It is appropriate on this Feast of Our Lady’s Coronation and Everlasting Queenship that we contemplate the fleeting thrones of this lesser world. Let us commemorate the loss of two great English dynasties, fixed on this day by Providence.

On Aug. 22, 1485, His Majesty King Richard III was defeated on Bosworth Field by a usurper from the House of the Tudors. The Red Dragon of Wales eclipsed the White Rose of York; years later, T.S. Eliot would wear the flower every 22nd of August.

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The Personal Standard of Richard III. (Source).

On Aug. 22, 1642, His Majesty King Charles I raised the Royal Standard at Nottingham. This act has widely been considered the formal start of the English Civil War that would end in Puritan dictatorship, the slaughter of the Irish and Scots, and the martyrdom of the King himself for the doctrine of Episcopacy.

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The Royal Standard of the Stuarts, 1603-1649. (Source).

Consider the leaden weight of these crowns. Worn by men alternately noble and feeble, loyal and inconstant, heroic and fearful, they rot away with the passage of time. The gilt of their craft and the earthly acclaim of their subjects have gone the way of all flesh. Those crowns are memories, but even in memory they do not earn the glory and affection they once inspired. Their reputations are occulted with cumbersome connotations. Richard has been much maligned ever since his death, in part by no less a personage than Shakespeare himself. Charles, a more complicated figure, has been swallowed up by his role as the symbolic center of Tory anxieties and Whig acrimony for the better part of four centuries. More bitterly, both kings “Accept the constitution of silence/And are folded in a single party.” They have become an unimportant datum of historical trivia for most people, even in England.

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The Coronation of the Virgin, by the Limbourg Brothers. (Source)

How unlike those crowns is that won by Mary! She who was immaculately conceived and preserved from every stain of sin never sullies her crown by any failure of virtue. Having borne the Son of God in her womb, no other glory could ever outstrip what she has already known in her perpetually virginal maternity. Assumed into heaven, she is preserved from the terrible corruption of the grave. And now, as the Church celebrates the Octave Day of the Assumption, we contemplate the eternal joy which her coronation engenders in all the ranks of the blessed. All generations have called her blessed, and all will forevermore. She will never be reduced in the eyes of the world, because no one is more perfect in the eyes of God.

Has there ever been so marvelous a creature as Mary? Can we name, in the orderly chaos of the creation, a being more closely united to the Trinity? Who else among mere mortals has been lauded as “More honorable than the Cherubim, and more glorious beyond compare than the Seraphim?” In her burns the fire of charity; in her grows the ground of humility; in her flows the water of purity; in her soars the mighty wind of patience. She is the New and Sophianic Eve, in which the Wisdom of God is most clearly manifest.

And why? Because she is the threefold Mother of the Redeemer. First, by her Fiat, she assents to a physical maternity of the Word Incarnate. Second, by the sorrows of her Immaculate Heart at the Cross, she wins a sacramental maternity of Christ in the Eucharist. And third, by her prayer in the Cenacle on Pentecost, she gains a mystical maternity of Christ in the whole Church. This threefold motherhood is but one theandric maternityand thus we see the Trinitarian character of Our Lady’s co-redemption. She and she alone of all mankind is so favored and so bound to the work of Christ.

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Coronation of the Virgin, Enguerrand Quarton. 1454. (Source). Mary crowned by the Trinity is surely an icon of the Eschaton.

A friend of mine passed on this passage from St. Amadeus of Lausanne, a Cistercian most famous for his eight homilies in praise of the Mother of God. He took it from Universalis, which gives the full liturgy of the hours online. Thus, the Church particularly commends these words to us on this holy day:

Observe how fitting it was that even before her assumption the name of Mary shone forth wondrously throughout the world. Her fame spread everywhere even before she was raised above the heavens in her magnificence. Because of the honour due her Son, it was indeed fitting for the Virgin Mother to have first ruled upon earth and then be raised up to heaven in glory. It was fitting that her fame be spread in this world below, so that she might enter the heights of heaven on overwhelming blessedness. Just as she was borne from virtue to virtue by the Spirit of the Lord, she was transported from earthly renown to heavenly brightness.

So it was that she began to taste the fruits of her future reign while still in the flesh. At one moment she withdrew to God in ecstasy; at the next she would bend down to her neighbours with indescribable love. In heaven angels served her, while here on earth she was venerated by the service of men. Gabriel and the angels waited upon her in heaven. The virgin John, rejoicing that the Virgin Mother was entrusted to him at the cross, cared for her with the other apostles here below. The angels rejoiced to see their queen; the apostles rejoiced to see their lady, and both obeyed her with loving devotion.

the-coronation-of-the-virginCimaThe Coronation of the Virgin, Cima da Conegliano. (Source).

Dwelling in the loftiest citadel of virtue, like a sea of divine grace or an unfathomable source of love that has everywhere overflowed its banks, she poured forth her bountiful waters on trusting and thirsting souls. Able to preserve both flesh and spirit from death she bestowed health-giving salve on bodies and souls. Has anyone ever come away from her troubled or saddened or ignorant of the heavenly mysteries? Who has not returned to everyday life gladdened and joyful because his request had been granted by the Mother of God?

She is a bride, so gentle and affectionate, and the mother of the only true bridegroom. In her abundant goodness she has channelled the spring of reason’s garden, the well of living and life-giving waters that pour forth in a rushing stream from divine Lebanon and flow down from Mount Zion until they surround the shores of every far-flung nation. With divine assistance she has redirected these waters and made them into streams of peace and pools of grace. Therefore, when the Virgin of virgins was led forth by God and her Son, the King of kings, amid the company of exulting angels and rejoicing archangels, with the heavens ringing with praise, the prophecy of the psalmist was fulfilled, in which he said to the Lord: At your right hand stands the queen, clothed in gold of Ophir.

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An illustration of “The Woman Clothed With the Sun.” (Source)

St. Amadeus is right; “Has anyone ever come away from her troubled or saddened or ignorant of the heavenly mysteries? Who has not returned to everyday life gladdened and joyful because his request had been granted by the Mother of God?” We who still struggle with sin on the path to beatitude cannot hope to achieve our goal if we will not be with and like Mary. We, too, are promised crowns. The scriptures mention five: the imperishable crown (1 Cor. 5:24-25), the crown of rejoicing (1 Thess. 2:19), the crown of righteousness (2 Tim. 4:8), the crown of glory (1 Pet. 5:4), and the crown of life (Rev. 2:10). Our Lady wears all these and seven more, for she is the “woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars” (Rev. 12:1 KJV). Are these other seven stars the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, her spouse? Or the seven cardinal virtues? Or the seven sacraments that constitute the Church? Or the seven lesser ranks of the angels in praise of their queen? Impossible to say. Mary is not only the fountain of all holiness, but the mother of the Church’s deepest mysteries.

How might I end this praise of Our Lady that could properly continue ad infinitum? By returning to those lesser crowns with which I began.

Earthly splendor is no great thing. It can only be built on sufferingeither our own or that of others. Even when turned to good (as, I would argue, Charles I attempted to use his power), it reflects something of our fallen state. It is slippery, contingent, and as mortal as we are. But the glory of heaven is without end. Incorrupt and incorruptible, it abides in the gaze of the Father. Mary, above all creation, receives this kind of glory. She, the New Eve to the New Adam, mirrors Him in all things. Let us run after the course she trod before us, the course of Her Son’s redemption! Only by pursuing a life like Christ’s can we hope for a reward like Mary’s.

May she pray for us as we celebrate her feast today.

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“Coronation of the Virgin,” Fra Angelico. (Source). The Blessed Angelico returned to this subject throughout his career, but this version, hanging in the Uffizi Gallery, is my favorite.

Elsewhere: Pater Edmund on Goggles, Cranmer on Bishop Philip North

PhilipNorth

The Rt. Rev. Philip North, Bishop of Burnley. Alumnus of St. Stephen’s House. (Source).

I refer you this morning to two excellent pieces I had the good fortune of reading last night. The first is a winsome yet profound meditation on goggles by Pater Edmund Waldstein O.Cist. of Stift Heiligenkreuz. Right out of the gate, Peregrine Magazine is putting forward excellent content. Here’s an excerpt:

Putting them on, I suddenly remembered why I spent so much time swimming as a child. What a world opens up! Looking down: the still forest of water plants, the rays of the sun lighting up the particles of algae. Looking up: the strange silver shield of the surface with the blazing sun above it. And the freedom of movement of swimming! The rigid postures of life on land yield to the wonderful abandon of the water. (What sense of freedom is that, I wonder).

Among other things, I was stunned and somehow delighted to learn that the good monks of Heiligenkreuz are permitted to swim in a lake.

The second offering I have for you is a piece posted by Archbishop Cranmer. In it, he quotes at length from a recent address given by Bishop Philip North of the C of E. Bishop North is no stranger to controversy, having been shunted out of his appointment as Metropolitan of Sheffield due to his (orthodox, Biblical, and traditional) view that women cannot be priests.

…When my old Parish in Hartlepool, a thriving estates Church, was vacant a few years ago, it was over two years before the Bishop could appoint. Clergy didn’t want to live in that kind of area, they didn’t want their children educated alongside the poor – you’ll know the litany of excuses. At the same time a Parish in Paddington was advertised and at once attracted 122 expressions of interest. That is the true measure of the spiritual health of the Church of England.

This phenomenon is, incidentally, a good argument for a celibate clergy. If you don’t have children, you don’t have to worry about their safety and upbringing when it comes to ministry. But I digress. More from Bishop North:

…we need to reflect on the content of our proclamation. There is a perception that there is a single, verbal Gospel message that can be picked up and dropped from place to place. ‘Christ died for our sins.’ ‘Life in all its fullness.’ Those well-known statements which so easily trip off the Christian tongue. But the Gospel is not a message. It is a person, Jesus Christ, and the way he speaks into different contexts and situations differs from place to place. If you turn up on an estate with nice, tidy complacent answers to questions no one is asking, they will tear you to shreds. Successful evangelism begins with intense listening, with a profound desire to hear the issues on people’s minds and a genuine open heart to discern how Jesus speaks into them. If you’re in debt, what is the good news? If you’re dependent on a foodbank to feed your children, what is the good news? If you’re cripplingly lonely and can’t afford the bus into town, what is the good news? Simple formulae, or trite clichés about God’s love won’t do as answers to these questions.

This is sound Christian wisdom for all, not just Anglicans. It reminds me of the old Anglo-Catholic radicalism that animated such priests as St. John Groser, V.A. Demant, not to mention Mervyn Stockwood (before he publicly debated Monty Python), Ken Leech, and the late, great layman R.H. Tawney. Anglo-Catholicism has long been a hotbed of Christian Socialism, but a very peculiar kind. Like almost everything Anglo-Catholic, there is a note of eccentricity about their politics. These are, after all, the same people who venerate Charles I as a Martyr. Yet the prevalence of Christian Socialist ideas among Anglo-Catholics of the classical period was so great that in 1918 a priest could place an ad in The Church Times for one “healthy revolutionary, good singing voice” (quoted in Spurr 78). In his authoritative study of T.S. Eliot’s religion, ‘Anglo-Catholic in Religion’ : T.S. Eliot and Christianity, Barry Spurr tells us of the man popularly known as the “Red Vicar”:

Perhaps the most famous [Anglo-Catholic country parish], apart from Hope Patten’s Walsingham…was Conrad Noel’s parish church at Thaxted, in the diocese of Chelmsford, where elements of Roman Catholicism were combined with neo-mediaevalism and extreme socialism. (Spurr 78).

ConradNoel

Rev. Conrad Noel. (Source).

Bishop North is cut from this cloth, having attended St. Stephen’s House for his theological studies. While I can’t confirm this, the House’s Wikipedia page says that “Many former students, in the tradition of the college, go on to minister in urban priority areas and parishes which suffer poverty and deprivation.” I am proud that I, too, will be an alumnus of that same college, steeped as it is in some of the better traditions of English Christianity. I may not be studying for ordained ministry, but I hope to profit by the example of those who are and have.

May God prosper Bishop North. Let those who can make a difference heed his cryand, with grace and bit of luck, perhaps some day he’ll bring his prophetic voice across the Tiber.

 

 

Why I Am a Catholic

Paris-N-Dame-N

The North Rose Window of Notre Dame de Paris. (Source).

Right around January of 2016, Mr. Owen White (formerly?) of The Ochlophobist, issued a challenge to the religious blogosphere asking writers why they adhered to their faiths. The challenge lay in the rules; if memory serves correctly, you could only answer with five or so selections of media by figures who, to the best of your knowledge, were outside that faith. I wrote up my own list, but as I wasn’t blogging at the time, I didn’t publish it anywhere. I just found it again, decided to add an extra two pieces, and thought I’d put it here for anyone who might care. 

The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharge from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre of pyre-
To be redeemed from fire by fire.

Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove.
We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire.

TS. Eliot, “Little Gidding”

 

O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.

W. B. Yeats, “Sailing to Byzantium”

 

Rest your cheek, for a moment, on this drunken cheek.
Let me forget the war and cruelty inside myself.
I hold these silver coins in my hand;
Give me your wine of golden light.
You have opened the seven doors of heaven;
Now lay your hand generously on my tightened heart.
All I have to offer is this illusion, my self.
Give it a nickname at least that is real.
Only you can restore what you have broken;
Help my broken head.
I’m not asking for some sweet pistachio candy,
But your everlasting love.
Fifty times I’ve said,
“Heart, stop hunting and step into this net.”

Rumi, “The War Inside,” trans. Kabir Helminski

 

Somehow it has all
added up to song
earth, air, rain and light,
the labor and the heat,
the mortality of the young.
I will go free of other
singing, I will go
into the silence
of my songs, to hear
this song clearly.

Wendell Berry, “A Song Sparrow Singing in the Fall”

 

Helplessness Blues” by Fleet Foxes

 

The Tree of Life, by Terrence Malick

 

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“Mother of the World,” Nicholas Roerich, 1924. (Source).

The Waste Land of Father John Misty

image

Father John Misty. (Source).

A Christ in sunglasses is nailed to a papier-mâché cross. He is, in fact, not just Jesus, but also Macauley Culkin and Kurt Cobain at once, the triune victim of philistines and a squad of jackbooted, mocking Romans who are dressed as Ronald McDonald. A Xenomorphic version of the clown himself pops out of the hook-handed captain’s chest and fires a lazer at a bleeding-eyed Virgin in a red Wendy’s wig. The good thief is Bill Clinton on a confetti-colored cross. The titulus crucis has been replaced with a cardboard scroll that reads “King of the Cucks.” Before departing, the last fast-food fascist takes a selfie with the Cobain-Christ. And good old George Washington, Oculus Rift still clasped to his head, burns to a crisp in orgiastic entertainment as the virtual sacrifice concludes.

Was this an Ayahuasca trip, a mystic hallucination, or a rather heavy-handed SNL skit?

The answer, of course, is D, none of the above. It’s just another Father John Misty video. This one is entitled “Total Entertainment Forever,” and the track comes from his new release from Sub Pop, Pure Comedy. Father John Misty (alias Josh Tillman) has long produced a body of work at once blasphemous and baffling, though occasionally given to brief bursts of beauty. There is less of this latter quality in his newest album, and it’s sorely missed. Tillman has instead given us a project bloated with its own sense of self-importance and suffocating on its own shallow satirical spite.

Of course, it’s perfectly fine for an artist to mock, to rally, or to critique. Some of the greatest art does all three at once. Take, for instance, that modernist monolith, The Waste Land. T.S. Eliot may have contended for years that it was just “the relief of a personal and wholly insignificant grouse against life…just a piece of rhythmical grumbling,” but critics of every generation have recognized in the poem a powerful diagnosis of the sickness of Western civilization. Much of Eliot’s “grouse” remains relevant today, in part because, even as he pilloried all kinds of people, he grounded his art in the perennial images of human culture.

Father John Misty, alas, does not. He is content to complain without saying anything all that deep, and without investing his work with the kind of symbolic depth we recognize in Eliot.

The titular track, “Pure Comedy,” sets the mood for the rest of the album. We might as well spend some time looking at the lyrics. They reveal quite a lot about Father John Misty’s priorities and self-perception. Here are the first lines:

The comedy of man starts like this
Our brains are way too big for our mothers’ hips
And so Nature, she divines this alternative
We emerged half-formed and hope that whoever greets us on the other end
Is kind enough to fill us in
And, babies, that’s pretty much how it’s been ever since

The song goes on to announce that mankind’s lot is really just,

Comedy, now that’s what I call pure comedy.
Just waiting until the part where they start to believe
They’re at the center of everything
And some all-powerful being endowed this horror show with meaning

That right there is the little light in the plane that tells us to buckle up and get ready for the hackneyed atheist bits.

Oh, their religions are the best
They worship themselves yet they’re totally obsessed
With risen zombies, celestial virgins, magic tricks, these unbelievable outfits
And they get terribly upset
When you question their sacred texts
Written by woman-hating epileptics

For those of you who didn’t watch the video I linked above, let me save you some time. He’s not talking about Islam and Judaism. Tilman is mainly targeting Catholicism, even if he refrains from becoming explicit about it in the lyrics. Worse, he’s not even terribly original. The verse just distills the common, fedora-tipping New (c. 2006) Atheism of the Internet. Josh Tilman is no Ivan Karamazov.

Tillman has shown a longstanding interest in religious themes, as his previous two album covers demonstrate. He is known to sprinkle his songs with religious allusions. Pure Comedy features a track entitled “When the God of Love Returns There’ll Be Hell to Pay.” Tillman sings about what he would tell Jesus as the Apocalypse unfolds. He says that he would give Jesus a tour of the world, then says:

Barely got through the prisons and stores
And the pale horse looks a little sick
Says, “Jesus, you didn’t leave a whole lot for me
If this isn’t hell already then tell me what the hell is?”

Tillman, never wary of blasphemy, says to Christ, “And now you’ve got the gall to judge us.” One might point out the irony of Tillman posing as a holier-than-thou moral authority when, just a few lines earlier, he equates prisons and stores. If this fatuous and fundamentally unserious judgment doesn’t betray a warped moral sensibility, then I’m not sure what does.

On a more philosophical note, let me say that it is the prerogative of the artist to explore the bounds of the possible, especially when crafting strange hypotheticals like the one that Tillman imagines. Tillman also works in a long tradition of artists who mediate their work through the careful deployment of personae. His stage-name, Father John Misty, is a good example of this tendency (and a religiously-tinged one at that). But even granting these stipulations about the nature of art, we should remember a third point. All art inherently crafts aesthetic experience and therefore “sets the stage” for a presentation and affective reception of beauty. Insofar as art is bound to beauty, it is necessarily tied to the good and the true as well. Art can deny, flatter, hide, contest, mask, or assail goodness and truth, but it can never be rid of them and their own proper criteria. The problems that arise when we try too hard to make art “good” or “true” are many and easy to identify. But we cannot totally separate the aesthetic world from the moral and scientific spheres of life. An artist whose work displays a perverse moral sensibility may produce great art, but it will be somewhat immoral, and it may not correspond to the way things really are.

FearFun

Fear Fun (2012). A much better album. Note the religious imagery underneath all the chaos.

ILoveYouHoneyBear

I Love You, Honeybear (2015). A not very good but still better album. Here, too, FJM appropriates Christian iconography.

But back to “Pure Comedy.”

Perhaps because his criticism of religion/Christianity is so stale, Tillman spices things up a bit in the next verse by trying to be Relevant© and Woke™. Even without watching the video, you can tell that it’s about a certain unsavory Head of State.

Their languages just serve to confuse them
Their confusion somehow makes them more sure
They build fortunes poisoning their offspring
And hand out prizes when someone patents the cure
Where did they find these goons they elected to rule them?
What makes these clowns they idolize so remarkable?
These mammals are hell-bent on fashioning new gods
So they can go on being godless animals

It’s not clear whether Tillman lost his faith in humanity because of Trump, or if the Donald’s ascent merely confirmed a longstanding pessimism. One could perhaps sympathize with the latter position, if only because it would be intellectually honest.

But I digress.

We come to the emotional climax of the song.

Oh comedy, their illusions they have no choice but to believe
Their horizons that just forever recede
And how’s this for irony, their idea of being free is a prison of beliefs
That they never ever have to leave

I would take his point more seriously if it were not a banal and adolescent bastardization of Camus or Rand or Nietzsche or [insert edgelord here]. “Pure Comedy” is not unique in this sense of immaturity. Listening and reading through all the songs, I was repeatedly reminded of angsty teenage poetry. Tillman’s unhappy tendency to be biographical, abstract, and preachy was not nearly as pronounced in his earlier work as Father John Misty (I can’t speak to his releases as J. Tillman).

Unfortunately, the song doesn’t get better from there. In the final verse, Tillman croons,

The only thing that seems to make them feel alive is the struggle to survive
But the only thing that they request is something to numb the pain with
Until there’s nothing human left
Just random matter suspended in the dark
I hate to say it, but each other’s all we got

The idea of our planet being nothing more than a rock in space comes up again and again throughout the album. At the beginning of one track, Tillman calls the earth “this bright blue marble orbited by trash.” It’s Eliot’s “Unreal City,” brought up to date for the space age. But in that last line, we hear the echoes of Auden’s famous poem about the beginning of World War II; “We must love one another or die.” It’s a maudlin sentiment that Auden repented for the rest of his life. One wonders if Tillman will someday look back on the shallow clichés of “Pure Comedy” with the same sense of regret.

The rest of the album continues these themes. Tillman gives us a tour of the imbecility of human nature, especially as manifested by the entertainment industry, pharmaceutical corporations, Republicans, fast food, the religious, Middle America, social media, public intellectuals, and ideologues of all sorts. By the end, the Holden Caulfield act gets old. In most of the songs, the music trundles along aimlessly, neither powerful nor novel enough to sustain Tilman’s puerile lyrics.

Democritus-laughing

Democritus laughs because he sees that the world is hopeless. (Source).

All of which is a serious disappointment to someone like me, who’s been a fan for years. You see, this ain’t Father John Misty’s first rodeo in the American Wasteland. His earlier work often treated these same themes, but in a more aesthetically and intellectually sophisticated way. Where in Pure Comedy do we find a song that matches the sultry and haunting sense of doom rippling through “Funtimes in Babylon?” Or the perky, quirky, frenzied mania of “I’m Writing a Novel?” Or the languid malaise of “Bored in The USA?” Or the soulfully earnest and operatically desperate madman’s litany, “Holy Shit,” perhaps Tilman’s finest piece yet? All of these songs work, not just because of their evocative lyrics, but because they are genuine musical accomplishments. Each is a gem of a song in its own way. In each, Tillman flexes the considerable powers of his unique voice. His sound manages to swing seamlessly between a controlled vigor and a vulnerability that shines without brittleness.

The album is not without its strengths. The satire does sometimes land pretty well, as in “Birdie” and “Things It Would Have Been Helpful To Know Before the Revolution” and “Ballad of the Dying Man.” In “The Memo,” Tillman wields his well-refined sense of shock value to drive home an unremittingly cynical take on the entertainment and advertising industries. But perhaps I’m just gravitating to songs that are pretty clearly meant to mock the left establishment or deflate the pretensions of neoliberals and transhumanists.

In “Dying Man,” we hear:

TheHangedManTarot

“Consider Phlebas…” (Source)

So says the dying man once I’m in the box
Just think of all the overrated hacks running amok
And all of the pretentious, ignorant voices that will go unchecked
The homophobes, hipsters, and 1%
The false feminists he’d managed to detect
Oh, who will critique them once he’s left?

A nice bit of biting sarcasm there. But sadly, Tilman smothers his wit under clunky dictiona verbose, chatty mess apparently composed without any care for euphony. Paired with lackluster music, the song fails.

The only really superlative work in the entire album is Tillman’s flawless penultimate track, “So I’m Growing Old on Magic Mountain.” Here, too, he is commenting on the madness of our times. But he’s left aside the pose of the pontificating prophet. Gone are the grand and sweeping lines about “human nature” as in “When the God of Love Returns.” Gone, too, are the plastic, pop-culture in-jokes that masquerade as hot takes; gone, the pearl-clutching about the woes of consumerism and fast food and the stupid white people who vote Republican and believe in God.

Instead, Tillman tells a story. A New Year’s Eve party has just ended, and the revelry is fading away. One of the guests describes the scene.

That’s it. Observe:

The wine has all been emptied
And smoke has cleared
As people file back to the valley
On the last night of life’s party
These days the years thin till I can’t remember
Just what it feels like to be young forever

Tillman’s more symbolic and sensitive tack suits his message; our age echoes the cultural moment that led Thomas Mann to write The Magic Mountain, and coming to grips with that realization has aged us. His sonic scene-craft evokes universal images and elevates the song into a testament of the human condition. If Tilman intends to speak to our particular cultural moment in Pure Comedy, he succeeds with “Magic Mountain.”

The only real shame is that there weren’t more songs like it on the rest of the album.

Pure Comedy
Father John Misty, Sub Pop Records, 2017
5.5/10 stars.

Three Poems for Whitsunday

Fresco-Zica

The Dove Descending…(Source)

Inspired by and borrowing from Artur Rosman’s similar post, I offer you some Pentecostal poetry.

“Little Gidding” IV, by T.S. Eliot

The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharge from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre of pyre-
To be redeemed from fire by fire.

Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove.
We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire.

“God’s Grandeur,” by Gerard Manley Hopkins S.J.

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
    It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
    It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
    And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
    And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
    There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
    Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
    World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

 

“Epigrammata Sacra XIII” – The descent of the Holy Spirit – Richard Crashaw

Bear, o bosoms, bear ye what Heaven’s vintage showers,
Sacred clusters pouring from ethereal bowers.
Too happy, surely, ye who drink of wine so good;
It comes into your bosoms a sparkling, cooling flood.
Behold, with nectar’d star, each head is shining, shining;
Around your purpl’d locks a crown of life entwining.
O Spirit of all flesh, to drink who’d be denied,
Since Thou, lest they should falter, mak’st wine a torch to guide?

HolySpiritCeiling

Veni Sancte Spiritus! (Source)