The Benedictines of San Benedetto

October 21, 2014

Rod Dreher recently made a trip to Italy — research for a book on Dante, I believe — and along the way he stopped at the Monastery of San Benedetto, an abbey built on the birthplace of Sts. Benedict and Scholastica. He was taken by surprise:

The monks of Norcia are Benedictines who pray the old mass, and who chant the hours in Latin. To be in their basilica during mass or the hours is like stepping into another century. To describe it as aesthetically rich and spiritually nourishing hardly does the experience justice.

But to really understand what’s happening in at St. Benedict’s Monastery in Norcia, you have to talk with the monks. Except for the prior, Fr. Cassian, they are all young men. And they are easygoing, gentle, and luminous. They radiate joy. Casella and I could hardly believe that a monastery like this exists. To talk with them about their lives as Benedictines, and how and why they came to embrace the monastic calling, was a profound grace…

I kept thinking: Anybody who despairs of the Church, or of their spiritual lives, should come to Norcia. This monastery and basilica glows with peace and joy. It is, as I said yesterday, both a lighthouse and a stronghold. More people should know about this monastery. I don’t know what exactly they are doing, but the spiritual fruits of their community are palpable. They are gaining so many vocations that they are outgrowing their small quarters. We read and hear about so many defeats for the Church these days, but in the mountains of Umbria, the faith is winning.

You need to go see this place for yourself. If you can, make a retreat there. Casella and I hated to come down off the mountain today, but we have a plane to catch in the morning. Tonight we walked around Rome and visited some of the great churches of Christendom, but all we could think about was the monks of Norcia, and wishing we were back there with them.

Read the whole thing. It’s nice to see Dreher, who has had a troubled relationship with Catholicism, to say the least, responding so positively to these Catholic monastics.

When I think of St. Benedict, I usually think of Montecassino. I admit I’d never heard of San Benedetto, which is situated near Spoleto, not all that far from Assisi, and less than 200 km from Rome. I’d love to go there one day.


Ker on Chesterton on humour

October 15, 2014

A few months ago I gave brief notice to an essay by Fr. Ian Ker about Chesterton’s views on the importance — even the seriousness — of humour and comedy. Here he gives a good lecture on the same topic:


An incident

October 13, 2014

W. Jackson Bate relates an episode from the life of Dr Johnson, drawing on the memoirs of Frances Reynolds, sister of Johnson’s friend Joshua Reynolds:

“An incident occurred shortly afterward — again at the Miss Cotterells’ — which both Reynolds and his sister thought amusingly characteristic. While Johnson was following some ladies upstairs on this visit, the housemaid, noticing his shabby dress, seized him by the shoulder and tried to pull him back, exclaiming, “Where are you going?” Startled into shame and anger, Johnson roared out like a bull, “What have I done?” Meanwhile a gentleman behind him quieted the maid, and Johnson “growled all the way up stairs, as well he might.”

Already chagrined, he became more offended when two ladies of rank suddenly arrived (the Duchess of Argyle and Lady Fitzroy), and the Miss Cotterells, engrossed in their titled visitors, neglected to introduce him or Reynolds. Inferring that this was because they were ashamed of him and Reynolds as “low company,” he sat for a while in silent meditation and then, “resolving to shock their supposed pride,” called out to Reynolds in a loud voice, “I wonder which of us two could get most money by his trade in one week, were we to work hard at it from morning to night.”


Reynolds: St Nicholas Owen

October 11, 2014

St Nicholas Owen
Priest-Hole Maker
Tony Reynolds
(Gracewing, 2014)
200 p.

The plight of Catholics in England during the tumultuous generations that followed Henry VIII’s self-investment of ecclesiastical authority has been a long-standing area of interest for me, and, of the many Catholic recusants who suffered and struggled through that period, St Nicholas Owen has long been a subject of particular personal interest. In most treatments of his historical period, covering the last few decades of Elizabeth I’s reign and the first few years of James I’s — roughly 1580-1610 — he appears only as a peripheral figure, fascinating but furtive. I was therefore delighted to see this recently published biography devoted to him.

Nicholas was from a staunch, working-class Catholic family in Oxford. As an adult he was, for nearly two decades, a special assistant to Fr. Henry Garnet, the Jesuit Superior in England. This, of course, at a time when merely being a Jesuit priest on English soil was sufficient grounds for arrest and execution. Nicholas was a layman (probably), and he was widely regarded among the Jesuits and the Catholic recusants as a man of discretion and trustworthiness. He was also a carpenter and a mason, and his principal claim to fame is as the probable architect of many of the most cunningly designed secret hiding places built into the homes of Catholic recusants. All of that romantic tradition of old English manor houses with sliding panels, false floors, pivoting beams, and rotating bookshelves owes much to St. Nicholas, and has its roots in the real, and decidedly unromantic, peril faced by priests of the time. The country homes of wealthy Catholic families served as harbours and safehouses for the priests ministering clandestinely to Catholics, but they were subject to sudden search by government-funded “priest hunters”. If a priest was present in the home at the time of a search, he would, if possible, retreat into a hiding place — a “priest-hole” — and wait out the search, sometimes for as long as 8 or 10 days. Nicholas’ ingenious priest-hole designs were credited with saving the lives of many Catholics, both priests and laymen, over a period of several decades.

In 1606 Nicholas was arrested in a series of general raids upon Catholic homes during the fallout from the Gunpowder Plot. When the authorities realized who they had captured, they had him tortured for information in the Tower of London. Records of these interrogations still exist, and in this book Reynolds does a nice job of showing just how little useful intelligence Nicholas yielded up under duress. After several days of torture his long-standing hernia burst and he died in the hands of his interrogators; the authorities put out a story about his having committed suicide, but Reynolds does a good job picking that story apart. St Nicholas Owen was canonized in 1970 by Pope Paul VI as one of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales. His particular feast day is 22 March.

Readers who do not know much about this absorbing period of English and Catholic history would, I expect, find this little volume fascinating. Reynolds does a good job introducing the main people within Nicholas’ world, and although the focus is on Nicholas himself, Reynolds is able to tell the broad story of the Jesuit mission through those crucial years. He also gives a concise but well-judged overview of the historical background which led to the straitened circumstances in which Nicholas and his Jesuit friends were forced to operate. On the other hand, those who, like me, have previously read some of the first person accounts surviving from this period, such as those written by Fr. John Gerard and Fr. Oswald Tesimond, will find much of the story familiar. Even in this case, however, Reynolds filled in some details drawn from official government records that I did not remember having seen before. There have been a few other books published in recent years covering some of the same territory — such as Michael Hodgetts’ Secret Hiding Places, Alice Hogge’s God’s Secret Agents, and Jessie Childs’ God’s Traitors — but I appreciated Reynolds’ rather more forthright admiration for Nicholas and sympathy with his cause. It’s a very nice little book.

Related Book Notes:


The flaming heart

October 7, 2014

st-augustine

Following my recent post about devotion to the Sacred Heart, and my aesthetic difficulties with some of the images related to that devotion, Janet has very kindly been searching for less objectionable ones, and she turned up this image of St. Augustine holding a flaming heart. I don’t know if this is, technically, His Sacred Heart, but it’ll do. I really like this image. It is a window in St. Thomas’ church in Oxford — though neither Janet nor I are sure if that means St. Thomas the Martyr, or some other church dedicated to St. Thomas, if there is one.

In his book, Love’s Sacred Order, Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis writes about this image (or ones like unto it):

…traditional iconography has represented Augustine as the mitered bishop with the intense gaze, holding out to us in his hand . . . a flaming heart. Mitered head and flaming heart:  an eloquent icon of what an authoritative teacher and shepherd after Christ’s heart should be–a mouth teaching without compromise the full truth handed down by Christ through the Church, and yet a truth intended not so much for codification as for burning up the world with love.

A suitable text, given the events in Rome this week. Thanks, Janet.

 


Devotion to the Sacred Heart

October 1, 2014

Several months ago while at dinner with a group of Catholics whom I did not know very well, the topic of devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus came up. I remarked that, though I was aware of this devotion, for whatever reason it had never made a strong appeal to me, and it did not have a significant place in my own devotional life. Nor, I continued, had I often heard any of my friends speak of the importance of the devotion to them.

To my surprise, my remarks were met with wide eyes and some astonishment. Our wonderful priest, who was present, gently outlined for me the importance of the devotion, and in the days that followed several people gave me reading material, including Pope Pius XII’s encyclical Haurietis Aquas (On Devotion to the Sacred Heart), all of which I appreciated, and all of which I have been reading.

Prior to this encounter, my basic attitude to this devotion had been more or less as follows: the Catholic Church is replete with devotional practices — rosaries, novenas, pilgrimages, expositions and benedictions, offerings, devotions to particular saints, and so forth — and there is no obligation for each person to participate in all of them. Rather, each person practices those which make a special appeal to him or her, and holds the rest in fond regard. There is an ecosystem of devotion here, and each of us finds our niche. Devotion to the Sacred Heart was one of those devotions which, for me, was held in fond regard, but not more.

To be quite honest, part of my ambivalence toward this devotion has been due to the iconographic tradition associated with it. The devotion originated — at least in its specific contemporary form — in the early modern period, in France, and in particular in a set of revelations to a female religious, St. Margaret Mary. To my mind most of the artistic elaboration surrounding the devotion has borne those origins with it: it has been, at best, rather saccharine and effeminate, and, at worst, tipping over into kitsch, as so much modern Catholic art is prone to do. Since, in my ignorance, I assumed that the devotion was more or less a specifically iconographic one, and since most of the visual representations of the Sacred Heart that I had seen more or less repelled me, I concluded that this devotion was not for me.

As I read Pius XII’s encyclical, however, it was my turn to have wide eyes. Some of the things he says about devotion to the Sacred Heart are quite startling. For instance, writing more or less directly to me, he says:

There are some who, confusing and confounding the primary nature of this devotion with various individual forms of piety which the Church approves and encourages but does not command, regard this as a kind of additional practice which each one may take up or not according to his own inclination. (10)

I’ll say more about what I think he means by “the primary nature” of the devotion, as contrasted with “individual forms of piety”, in a moment. He stresses at several points that this devotion has, or at least deserves to have, a special status in the life of the Church:

The honor to be paid to the Sacred Heart is such as to raise it to the rank — so far as external practice is concerned — of the highest expression of Christian piety. (107)

And again, a little later:

Can a form of devotion surpassing that to the most Sacred Heart of Jesus be found, which corresponds better to the essential character of the Catholic faith, which is more capable of assisting the present-day needs of the Church and the human race? (119)

In one section (para.71-2) he even argues that both the Eucharist and the Blessed Virgin, two incontestably central elements of Catholic piety and devotion, are themselves “gifts of his Sacred Heart”, which seems to imply that the Sacred Heart is even more foundational, and presumably even more worthy of devotion.

One of the principal arguments Pius XII makes is that this devotion, which is at root really a devotion to the love of God, is one which has been present, latently, in the Church’s life from the beginning, and which only came to particular prominence, and found a particular expression, in the early modern period. Among those whom he lists as making particular contributions to the flourishing of this devotion, for instance, are St. Bonaventure and St. Albert the Great, both of whom lived centuries before our contemporary form of the devotion took shape. That made me feel quite a lot better; I always feel more at home among those medieval folks.

As to what this means for my own devotion to the Sacred Heart, I’m not sure that I can say. I have begun to say a daily “Morning Offering”, which makes explicit reference to the Sacred Heart. I have been talking to friends about their own views on the subject, and have discovered that the devotion is dearer to some of them than I had known. I am myself more interested in, and more open to, the devotion than I was before, but I cannot say that I have, as yet, warmed much to it. I am happy to know that participation in this devotion in no way obliges me to enjoy or approve of disagreeable art.

In closing, I would be very interested in hearing from fellow Catholics who have a special devotion to the Sacred Heart, or from those who, like me, have not heretofore made much of it. Comments welcome.


Shostakovich, at the end

September 17, 2014

Over the past few months I’ve been enjoying a big listening project — no, not that one. I’ve been listening to all of Shostakovich’s symphonies and string quartets, in chronological order. There are 15 of each, and they are both generally considered to be major contributions to their respective traditions. Certainly they are full of tremendously good music. I am more fond of the string quartets than of the symphonies, and this listening project hasn’t changed that, but I have gained a new appreciation for some of his symphonies, especially Nos. 7 and 14. I continue to hold Nos. 4, 5, and 10 in high regard.

The last piece in the survey is his devastating String Quartet No.15, written in 1974 while Shostakovich was in failing health and faltering spirits. I consider it to be one of the great masterpieces of the 20th century, and among the greatest string quartets ever written. Here is the Emerson String Quartet playing the final movement. Farewell, dear Shostakovich! Requiescat in pace.


Singing like a Byrd

September 13, 2014

One of my favourite choirs, Stile Antico, has a new recording out this week, and the news sent me scrounging for some concert footage. I found this clip of them singing William Byrd’s Ave verum corpus, recorded last year at Wigmore Hall. This piece is one of the “greatest hits” of the period; certainly it is one that I love. The sound here is tremendously good, and the singing is so precise that one can hear all four parts clearly. Follow along with the score?


Pratchett on Chesterton

September 3, 2014

Since I like to keep an eye on Chesterton-related items, I’ll draw your attention to a recent interview with Terry Pratchett in the New York Times Book Review:

Sell us on your favorite overlooked or underappreciated writer.

G. K. Chesterton. These days recognized — that is if he is recognized at all — as the man who wrote the Father Brown stories. My grandmother actually knew him quite well and pointed out that she herself lived on Chesterton Green in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire, here in the U.K. And the man was so well venerated that on one memorable occasion, he was late in sending a piece to The Strand Magazine and a railway train actually waited at the local station until Mr. Chesterton had finished writing his piece. When she told me that, I thought, Blimey, now that is celebrity.

[...]

If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be? And the prime minister?

Well, it would have to be The Man Who Was Thursday. It’s a damn good read that I believe should be read by everyone in politics.

You’re hosting a literary dinner party. Which three writers are invited?

Mark Twain, G. K. Chesterton and Neil Gaiman, because he’s a mate who knows how to order the most excellent sushi.

The whole interview is worth a read; it’s not long, but it brings in Tolkien, Kenneth Grahame, and an old joke that Chesterton himself once used.

I confess I’ve never read one of Pratchett’s books, but on this evidence perhaps I ought to do so. That he would bring Neil Gaiman to dinner with Chesterton and Twain is not surprising: Pratchett and Gaiman co-authored a book some years ago called Good Omens and they dedicated it to Chesterton, “a man who knew what was going on”. Indeed, he did.


Mechanical bliss

September 1, 2014

My pop music odyssey recently reached the mid-1970s and I have been listening to an assortment of things by Van Morrison; today I’d like to share a curiosity.

According to his official discography, Van Morrison recorded nothing between 1974’s Veedon Fleece and 1977’s A Period of Transition, but actually there was another record in there which, owing to contractual problems, was never released. It’s unofficial title is Mechanical Bliss. Some of the songs recorded for that album eventually made it onto Van Morrison’s back-catalogue showcase The Philosopher’s Stone in 1991, but one of the songs that didn’t make the cut was “Mechanical Bliss” itself. I’d never heard it until just these past few weeks.

It’s an interesting song that I’ve been having a lot of fun with. I’m convinced it is a parody of the Beatles in their late period, and a pretty good one too. I’ve never heard anything like this from Van Morrison before. Have a listen:

As I say, it’s a curiosity, but undoubtedly very curious indeed.


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