A Forgotten Feast

Aparición de San Miguel Arcángel en Monte Gargano

St. Michael, pray for us. (Source)

One of the great victims of the liturgical reform was a whole set of very odd, very particular feasts. The homogenizing, unpleasantly modern mindset of so many reformers back in the 1960’s and 70’s seems to have left no room for anything that could be remotely construed as anachronistic or legendary. Thus vanished the Invention of the Holy Cross, which would have fallen only a few days ago. Another feast lost to us is the one that would, in the old calendar, have come today: the Feast of the Apparition of St. Michael. How wonderful that the Liturgical Providence of God should grant us a feast simply to recall the visible presence of the Angelic Powers in our lives.

Allow me to quote Dom Gueranger at length:

Devotion to St. Michael was sure to spread through the Church, especially after the worship of idols had been banished from the various countries, and men were no longer tempted to give divine honor to creatures. Constantine built a celebrated Church called Michaelion in honor of the great Archangel, and at the time when Constantinople fell under the power of the Turks, there were no fewer than fifteen churches bearing the name of St. Michael, either in the city or the suburbs. In other parts of Christendom the devotion took root only by degrees; and it was through apparitions of the holy Archangel that the faithful were prompted to have recourse to him. These apparitions were local and for reasons which to us might seem of secondary importance; but God, Who from little causes produces great effects, made use of them whereby to excite Christians to have confidence in their heavenly protector. The Greeks celebrate the apparition that took place at Chone, the ancient Colossae in Phrygia. There was in that city a church dedicated to St. Michael and it was frequently visited by a holy man named Archippus, who was violently persecuted by the pagans. One day, when Archippus was at his devotions in his favorite St. Michael’s, his enemies resolved to destroy both him and the church. Hard by ran a brook which flowed into the river Lycus; they turned it aside and flooded the ground on which the church stood. Suddenly there appeared the Archangel St. Michael holding a rod in his hand; the water immediately receded, and flowed into a deep gulf near Colossae where the Lycus empties itself and disappears. The date of this apparition is not certain, but it occurred at the time when pagans were still numerous enough in Colossae to harass the Christians.

Another apparition which encouraged devotion to St. Michael in Italy, took place on Mount Gargano, in Apulia; it is the one honored by today’s Feast. A third happened on Mont Tombe (Mont Saint-Michel; see images at left and at bottom), on the coast of Normandy; it is commemorated on the 16th of October.

The Feast we are keeping today is not so solemn as the one of September 29th; it is, however, more exclusively in honor of St. Michael, inasmuch as the Autumn Feast includes all the choirs of the Angelic hierarchy. The Roman Breviary gives us the following account of the Apparition on Mount Gargano:

That the Blessed Archangel Michael has often appeared to men, is attested both by the authority of Sacred Scripture, and by the ancient tradition of the Saints. Hence, the memory of these apparitions is commemorated in divers places. As heretofore St. Michael was honored by the Synagogue of the Jews as Guardian and Patron, so is he now by the Church of God. A celebrated apparition of the Archangel took place, under the Pontificate of Gelasius I, in Apulia, on the top of Mount Gargano, at whose foot lies the town of Siponto.

A bull belonging to a man who lived on the mountain, having strayed from the herd, was, after much searching, found hemmed fast in the mouth of a cave. One of its pursuers shot an arrow, with a view to rouse the animal by a wound; but the arrow rebounding struck him that sent it. This circumstance excited so much fear in the bystanders and in them who heard of it, that no one dared to go near the cave. The inhabitants of Siponto, therefore, consulted the Bishop; he answered that in order to know God’s will, they must spend three days in fasting and prayer.

At the end of the three days, the Archangel Michael warned the Bishop that the place was under his protection, and that what had occurred was an indication of his will that God should be worshiped there, in honor of himself and the Angels. Whereupon the Bishop repaired to the cave, together with his people. They found it like a church in shape, and began to use it for the celebration of the divine offices (see image below). Many miracles were afterward wrought there. Not long after, Pope Boniface dedicated a church in honor of St. Michael in the great Circus of Rome, on the third of the Kalends of October (September 29), the day on which the Church celebrates the memory of all the Angels. But today’s Feast is kept in commemoration of the Apparition of St. Michael the Archangel.

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The shrine to St. Michael on Monte Gargano (Source)

Yet these stories, reflecting Medieval devotional practice more than any Biblical story or the life of any particular saint, have no place in the new calendar. It is one thing to accept Our Lady of Guadalupe, beloved by millions. It is quite another to countenance a similar story which might only be of local interest. Yet the liturgy is never purely provincial. While there has always been great variety among local rites and practices, the Mind of the Church synthesizes this diversity into an underlying, supernatural harmony. There is only one High Priest, and the liturgy is His eternal prayer as shared by His bride and body, the Church.

The irony of course, is that the reformers seem to have grasped that principal, but then applied it perversely. They acknowledged the universality of the liturgy, but understood it with prejudice against the forest of particularities that had sprung up over the whole Catholic world over the course of nearly two millennia. They could stand on the precedent of Trent and the suppression of most other rites by Quo Primum (1570). Yet that bull at least allowed those liturgies in existence prior to 1370.

Apparition of St Michael the Archangel to Diego Lázaro, Santuario de San Miguel del Milagro, Nativitas, Tlaxcala

Apparition of St Michael the Archangel to Diego Lázaro, Santuario de San Miguel del Milagro, Nativitas, Tlaxcala, Mexico (Source)

It occurs to me that, in removing feasts like the Apparition of St. Michael, we have allowed ourselves to forget many of those little stories and details that were once part of a common Catholic heritage. That forgetting coincided with a general turn away from the supernatural in Western civilization. The middle of the twentieth century saw a retreat from those doctrines of the invisible world that today’s feast (and others like it) commemorate. The result? A proliferation of “new religious movements” seeking the transcendent in a host of spurious, unsound practices. The mumblings of Victorian cranks were garbled together with bastardized Buddhism and reconstructed paganism, garnished with a generous helping of hallucinogens. And that’s just the New Age.

The task that faces us now is to remember all those things we forgot. May St. Michael pray for us in this critical venture.

The Art of Amoris Laetitia

Many of the great controversies of the Faith’s history have been played out in its visual culture. From the iconoclast mosaics of Hagia Irene to the Tridentine monuments of Bernini to the Jansenist portraits of Philippe de Champaigne and beyond, we find clear expressions of theological tensions throughout the centuries. So it should be no surprise to find the present troubles in the Church reflected in art.

I was recently in Ireland and came across a curious sight. In both of the Catholic Churches I entered during my stay, I found copies of the National Icon of the Holy Family, also known as the Amoris Laetitia Icon.

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The Amoris Laetitia Icon. (Source)

On a purely aesthetic level, the icon is visually striking. It was clearly written by an iconographer who knew his craft. Specially commissioned for the 2018 World Meeting of Families in Ireland, the icon presents the Holy Family seated at table (in imitation of the the Rublev Trinity), flanked on either side by scenes from the Gospel.

I won’t trouble my readers with the wider ecclesiastical context, as I assume most will already be familiar with the present unpleasantness in the Church. I would, however, point out two significant irregularities in the icon, both in its construction and in its reception.

To the best of my knowledge, it is highly unusual for documents to be the subjects of icons. Only the Creeds of the Church are ordinarily enshrined in the iconographic canon.

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An icon of the Nicene Creed. (Source)

To treat Amoris Laetitia as a worthy subject for inclusion in iconography is deeply problematic. An Apostolic Exhortation is nowhere near as magisterial as a Creed of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church speaking in her undivided voice. Icons are meant to manifest the transfigured reality of the Eschaton and lead us to contemplate the presence of divinized persons. Insofar as Creeds are foundational manifestations of the theanthropic Tradition, they are of one piece with the iconographic canon. Thus, we can write icons about them. But to write an icon about a document of quasi-magisterial status and, at best, uncertain orthodoxy is to do violence to the canon itself. I suppose there are those who would defend the icon by saying it primarily represents the Holy Family, and not the Apostolic Exhortation at all. The rather ostentatious title at the foot of the icon vitiates this interpretation.

The other issue with the Amoris Laetitia icon is the way it is being received. Or rather, imposed. The icon itself is currently making the rounds of the Irish dioceses, almost as if it were the Kursk Root Icon or some other wonder-working image. I found laminated copies on a side-altar in one church, and before the ambo in another (not to mention the pocket-sized editions at the back of the church; even these have the words Amoris Laetitia at the bottom). I’m not sure whether either case was really appropriate. I do know that both looked very tacky. And aside from the theological issues I have already described, there is another reason why I find it all so unnerving. It is a political icon, manifestly written and deployed to suppress dissent from the official line when it comes to the interpretation of AL. The image belongs to the Church’s present crisis of confidence, and cannot be read apart from it.

But the Kasperite triptych is not the only recent translation of the Church’s internal divisions into visual media. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander. And who should come to the defense of Tradition, but our old friend Giovanni Gasparro? I am still puzzled as to how Mr. Gasparro could have been accused of Modernism, as he continues to produce a body of Caravaggiste work that speaks very clearly to the priorities of Traditional Catholics. Case in point, his new painting.

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Amoris Laetitia. St. John the Baptist admonishing the adultery of Herod Antipas and Herodias. Giovanni Gasparro, 2018. (Source)

Like the AL icon, this painting must be read in light of the ongoing disputes within the Church. It would be simplistic, however, to see it as a merely ironic jab at the Pope’s Apostolic Exhortation. St. John the Baptist’s expression is not one of anger or rebuke. We can read in its calm confidence the firm authority that comes from knowledge of the Truth, as well as the gentleness of love. The Forerunner is not a Pharisee.

I would add that the stark stylistic difference with the Amoris Laetitia icon speaks to an important distinction in sensibilities. In the first case, it occurs to me that the selection of iconography is a very deliberate choice. It borrows the authority of the East – and all its Ecumenical associations – to implicitly justify its theology. I suppose we oughtn’t be too surprised. The dispute over Amoris is in large part a question of whether the Latin Church can accept a theology and praxis of marriage that more closely resembles the Eastern custom. And the man who started it all, Cardinal Kasper, was, of course, at one time in charge of the Vatican’s ecumenical relations with the Orthodox. Yet Mr. Gasparro’s painting is clearly situated within the Baroque, and thus Tridentine, aesthetic. His use of chiaroscuro, his slightly orientalist costuming, and the exaggerated theatricality of his gestures are all emblematic of the conventions of Early Modern sacred art.

In these two representative paintings and their disparate stylistic choices, we see two ways of thinking about Doctrinal Development: horizontal and vertical. The AL icon dramatizes the horizontal view of development. Doctrine can change through ecumenical encounter. Catholicism can move forward by learning from the experience of sister churches (or, in its most extreme iteration, other religions entirely). The Gasparro painting, on the other hand, stands for the vertical notion of development: the faith remains essentially the same through time, and is only clarified or deepened as the ages pass. There are, of course, elements of both views that are true. But the vertical view is the established theory of Tradition that, with some important developments (e.g. Newman), was put forth consistently from Trent to the Second Vatican Council. The question of which model will prevail is the center of the argument about Amoris.

Of course, someone will chime in and object to me reading any meaning into either image from the church political context in which they were produced. Fair enough. But while we should always start with the object in itself, it is not always possible in interpretation to keep art hermetically sealed off from the circumstances of its own creation. To do so in the case of either the AL icon or the Gasparro painting would be to ignore what is, I wager, a crucial context. And if we admit that important factor, we can start to see how the arts are speaking to the wider life of the Church in our own moment.

“The Fair and Fatal King”

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Two heroes, one square: Charles I and Nelson. (Source)

Today may be the anniversary of Louis XVI’s execution, but I just found a wonderful poem about His Majesty Charles I that I wanted to share with my readers. Something to meditate upon before the 30th.

By the Statue of King Charles at Charing Cross

Lionel Johnson
To William Watson

Sombre and rich, the skies,
Great glooms, and starry plains;
Gently the night wind sighs;
Else a vast silence reigns.

The splendid silence clings
Around me: and around
The saddest of all kings,
Crowned, and again discrowned.

Comely and calm, he rides
Hard by his own Whitehall.
Only the night wind glides:
No crowds, nor rebels, brawl.

Gone too, his Court: and yet,
The stars his courtiers are:
Stars in their stations set;
And every wandering star.

Alone he rides, alone,
The fair and fatal King:
Dark night is all his own,
That strange and solemn thing.

Which are more full of fate:
The stars, or those sad eyes?
Which are more still and great:
Those brows, or the dark skies?

Although his whole heart yearn
In passionate tragedy,
Never was face so stern
With sweet austerity.

Vanquished in life, his death
By beauty made amends:
The passing of his breath
Won his defeated ends.

Brief life, and hapless? Nay:
Through death, life grew sublime.
Speak after sentence? Yea:
And to the end of time.

Armoured he rides, his head
Bare to the stars of doom;
He triumphs now, the dead,
Beholding London’s gloom.

Our wearier spirit faints,
Vexed in the world’s employ:
His soul was of the saints;
And art to him was joy.

King, tried in fires of woe!
Men hunger for thy grace:
And through the night I go,
loving thy mournful face.

Yet, when the city sleeps,
When all the cries are still,
The stars and heavenly deeps
Work out a perfect will.