Winter’s come and gone

March 21, 2017

Technically.


Kelly: Rediscover Catholicism

March 19, 2017

Rediscover Catholicism
Matthew Kelly
(Beacon, 2011) [2nd ed.]
336 p.

Matthew Kelly is by reputation a lively and engaging Catholic speaker and author. When an opportunity arose to peer into one of his books, I took it. This particular book, I understand, has often been given away at parishes, and is one of his most popular.

Based on the title, one would expect the book is written to half-hearted or lapsed Catholics who have to some extent lost their faith and need to rediscover it. And there are sections that seem to be written to that audience. But the book also seems to be intended for dedicated Catholics looking for ways to improve their spiritual life and to bring others to the faith.

The best part of the book for me was the long central section on “the seven pillars of Catholic spirituality”, which Kelly enumerates as: Confession (and he even calls it “Confession”!), daily prayer, the Mass, the Bible, fasting, spiritual reading, and the rosary. I’m sure we all have room to improve our relationship with these touchstones of Catholic life, and his remarks about them were instructive and encouraging.

Kelly appeals throughout the book to a rather chipper formulation of the goal of Catholic life: “to become the best possible version of yourself”. I’m sympathetic to this way of framing the matter (viz. the Biblical idea that Christ came “that you may have life, and that more abundantly”, or the Thomistic notion that the implicit objective of all human action is happiness, or the counsel of St. Irenaeus that “the glory of God is man fully alive”). But somehow Kelly’s formulation also grates on me.  Naturally I do want to become the best possible version of myself, and yes, I do think that my Catholic faith helps me to do that, most importantly by teaching me what that means — but his way of putting it still has for me too much of the self-help / personal-actualization aura about it.

My other criticism is that the book is long-winded. Asked what I was reading, I might well have answered as did the young prince: “Words, words, words”, in plenty. Although you’d never guess it from my gregarious manner on this blog, as a reader I generally favour compression and concision, and in consequence I confess I skimmed through much of this book. But the parts that were good were really quite good, and I think I would recommend it with only slight reservations.


Quartet for the end of time

March 17, 2017

As this year marks 25 years since the death of Olivier Messiaen, I have been listening to his music on a regular basis, with an ambition to listen to all of it, chronologically by date of composition, by year’s end. This week I came to the Quatuor pour la fin du temps, which is probably his best-known work, largely on account of the conditions under which it was composed and first performed — namely, in a POW camp during the Second World War.

All of that is wonderful, but even more wonderful is the music itself, which is by turns fiery, weirdly unsettling, and miraculously serene. That serenity is heard to good effect in one of the quartet’s middle movements, “Praise to the Eternity of Jesus” . I love that this hymn of praise came from Messiaen’s heart in the midst of a great war. Here it is, played by Mihai Fagarasan and Rikke Sandberg:

Several books have been written about this quartet, including one for children that I can recommend highly: Music for the End of Time, by Jen Bryant, illustrated by Beth Peck.


Benson: The Dawn of All

March 13, 2017

The Dawn of All
Robert Hugh Benson
(Aeterna, 2005) [1911]
226 p.

In Lord of the World, written a few years prior to the present novel, Benson had imagined a future confrontation between the Catholic Church and a global secular power, a conflict in which the Church was, in its capacity to assert strength at least, severely over-matched, and reduced to a scattered remnant. The Dawn of All is in many respects a companion piece, a thematic complement to the earlier book, for in it Benson again imagines a global future, but in this case the power balance is reversed: the Church is ascendant, nearly the whole population of the earth has been converted to Christianity, and its truths are taken for granted in all spheres of life.

One might think that for Benson, a Catholic writer, this would be an opportunity to paint an attractive portrait of a harmonious world informed by the truths of the Catholic faith, and one might think that such a portrait would appeal to Catholic readers. Strange to say, this isn’t the case. It is an odd, odd book, either too inept, or too cunningly sly, I’m not sure which.

Our central character is an English prelate, Monsignor Masterman, who, in the opening scene of the novel, finds himself in the middle of a public ceremony with no idea what is happening or what he is doing there. It turns out that he has suffered a sudden amnesia, and remembers nothing of what has happened for at least a half-century. Everything seems strange to him.

Everything seems strange because so much has changed. The wholesale conversion of the world’s peoples to Catholicism has taken place more or less entirely in the interim, so that he finds himself, psychologically at least, suddenly transported from a world like our own, in which Catholicism vies alongside other religions and is largely sidelined in halls of power, to a world transformed, in which Catholicism reigns supreme, occupying a place in culture, law, and government much like the place liberalism occupies in our own, “the centre and not merely a department of national life”.

This amnesia is a — well, I’ll stop short of saying it’s “effective”, but it is helpful — a helpful literary device, because of course the reader is in precisely Masterman’s position, transported suddenly to a world unlike that we know, and it gives Benson a plausible reason to dump a lot (a lot!) of exposition on the reader without being too tedious about it.

Benson has to give us some explanation of how Catholicism suddenly conquered the world, so to speak. This he does by annexing, more or less, the authority of the sciences, for he argues that the findings of maturing sciences, especially medicine and psychology, began to corroborate the claims of Catholicism. Illnesses, it is discovered, are almost all psychosomatic, and it is Catholicism’s cure of souls that is found to most effectively cure the body too. Miracles are confirmed by scientific observation. And so the Catholic faith comes to be generally accepted, but not really on spiritual grounds. It’s just due to an objective finding, rather than an interior conversion.

Is this a problem? I have to be careful here not to prejudge. The scenario Benson describes, for instance, is perhaps not so different from how things looked in medieval times, when the Church was powerful and generally acknowledged as a teacher of truth, and when there was harmony between faith and reason. People believed in the Church more as a brute fact, like we view the political sphere, yet weren’t always greatly devout in consequence. By contrast, a common line in Christian apologetics since at least Pascal has been that the claims of faith are possibly but not certainly true, and that this in-between status is important, indeed essential, to the Christian faith, for had they not that status the appropriate response would be something other than faith, other than trust in God; it would be knowledge or irrationality. But is it really the case that having faith is preferable to having knowledge? To claim so strikes me as, possibly, an instance of using lemons to make lemonade. Indeed, it is contradicted by Catholicism itself, which says (for instance) that the existence of God, at least, can be known by reason, or, to make the point more forcefully, that ultimately the articles of faith, which we see at present through a glass darkly, will become knowledge.

Benson anticipates this response in his readers, and Masterman himself wrestles with these questions, for he too is taken aback. He struggles to adjust to a world where religion is “concrete and effective”:

“somewhere in the back of his mind (why, he knew not) there lurked a sort of only half-perceived assumption that the Catholic religion was but one aspect of truth—one point of view from which, with sufficient though not absolute truth, facts could be discerned.”

And so I am wary of my own initial response to Benson’s setup — that the “conversion” it contemplates is superficial and disappointing. Perhaps then, at a deeper level, I find his scenario discouraging simply because this coincidence of science and religion that he imagines does not seem to be true. Not that I think there is irreconcilable disharmony between them, but we have witnessed nothing like the “hand in glove” relationship between them that he puts into his book.

Setting aside how the world came to be as it is, what does Benson imagine it is actually like? The best part is that Ireland has become an island inhabited almost exclusively by religious orders, full of monasteries and retreat houses. This is nice — although also rather depressing when compared with the contemporary reality. Family life is strong and healthy: divorces are rare, large families are common, and adultery and fornication are censured. But Benson’s picture of what Catholic society would look like is not wholly attractive: there are heresy trials, monarchic government (no more the “intoxicating nightmare of democratic government”), and an educational test for the vote (only 1 in 70 pass).

But the bigger problem for Masterman is that as the Church becomes authoritative for society, and as her power increases, she must exercise that power, and doing so seems to Masterman to be inconsistent with her nature. He believes that the Church, like Christ, must be always ready to suffer, not to inflict suffering. He witnesses a heresy trial, for instance, which greatly disturbs him, all the more so because the man condemned fully accepts the verdict and the authority from which it issues.

The principal action of the novel, insofar as there is action in the novel, addresses precisely this worry of Masterman’s. Has the Church forgotten how to suffer after all? There is a plotline involving the Holy Father and a small group of rebels holding out against the Church that speaks directly to this point, and does so fairly satisfyingly.

**

An oddity about The Dawn of All is that it spends a great deal of time fascinated by volors. These flying ships, sort of like airborne trains, I believe, appeared in Lord of the World too, but peripherally. Here they sometimes seem to be the main attraction, as Benson returns to them time and again, dilating on exactly how they work, how they dock at platforms to let passengers on and off, how it feels to ride on one, what can be seen from one, how quickly they travel, and so on. I grant that thinking about flying machines is interesting, but Benson’s interest in them, or the interest he presumes in his readers, begins to feel excessive.

**

In the end I found The Dawn of All to be disappointing, partly on account of its leaden plotting and long exposition, partly because its portrait of a Catholic society seemed unappealing, and also partly because I felt cheated by an eleventh-hour revelation that cast a different light on much of the novel, and in an extremely annoying way.

**

Some passages:

[Welfare, from Church and state]
The State can only give for economic reasons, however conscientious and individually charitable statesmen may be; while the Church gives for the Love of God, and the Love of God never yet destroyed any man’s self-respect.

[The family as the model of society]
The Socialist saw plainly the rights of the Society; the Anarchist saw the rights of the Individual. How therefore were these to be reconciled? The Church stepped in at that crucial point and answered, By the Family—whether domestic or Religious. For in the Family you have both claims recognized: there is authority and yet there is liberty. For the union of the Family lies in Love; and Love is the only reconciliation of authority and liberty.

[Two poles]
The Pope attended by princes—the Pope on his knees before a barefooted friar. These were the two magnetic points between which blazed Religion.


Here and there

March 10, 2017

A few interesting, art-related things I’ve seen in the past few weeks:

  • The Christian moral imagination of Cormac McCarthy.
  • Alex Ross writes, in one of his increasingly rare non-politically-inflected columns, about Bach’s religious music.
  • The wonders of digital signal processing recreate the acoustics of Hagia Sophia in a modern concert hall.
  • The cultured life is “an escape from the tyranny of the present”.
  • In a similar vein, Roger Scruton praises the virtue of irrelevance, with special attention to the art of music.
  • Finally, a group of mad animators have brought to life Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights:

 


Honegger: Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher

March 6, 2017

Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher (Joan of Arc at the Stake) is an oratorio composed by Arthur Honegger in the 1930s, to a libretto by Paul Claudel. Until a few weeks ago I’d never heard of it, but a recent recording of the piece piqued my curiosity. By a happy coincidence, my local library had not only the recent recording but also a copy of the score, so I was able to sit down last week and “read” the piece as I listened. I’m here to report that it’s pretty terrific.

The action of the oratorio takes place while Joan is tied to the stake and awaits the flames, during which interval we get flashbacks to her trial and sentencing. There is a cheekily surreal element in the libretto, with Joan’s judge depicted as a pig (“My name is Porcus / I am a porker”), her interrogators as sheep, and the court scribe as a donkey (“Loads of hay for you today!”). There is an interlude in which the witnesses against her play a peculiar game of cards (the import of which I did not understand). Joan herself hears the beautiful voices of St Catherine and St Margaret, comforting her and offering hope, and, at the work’s climax, it is the Blessed Virgin who sings to her.

This important moment, at which the flame begins to kindle beneath her feet, is worth looking at more closely. The choir, as well as the solo voices of Sts Catherine and Margaret, have been building to a crescendo of cries (“Daughter of God!”) and exhortations (“Now there is faith that is triumphant!”, “Now there is joy that is triumphant!”). Joan herself cries out, “And there is God who is triumphant!”, and, as the crescendo dies away to piano, Joan sings a little ditty that I’ll give in English translation:

A little cake carefully made
A little egg Henny Penny laid
A little tear for Joan!
A little prayer for Joan!
A little thought for Joan!
They’re not to fry or give away
But with them buy a candle sweet
To shed a ray at Mary’s feet.
‘Tis I shall be the candle sweet.

To which the Blessed Virgin responds with a beautiful vocal line: “I take this holy flame in gladness”, and then, over the space of about 10 minutes, the piece builds again toward a radiant finale. It’s a lovely sequence altogether, and was for me the heart of the piece.

Honegger is one of those composers whose work is usually said to be workmanlike and competent, but rarely inspired. He himself agreed with this assessment, I believe, and rather took pride in his ability to write to order. But personally I found the writing here quite good, with plenty of melodies and many interesting touches in the orchestration. The music is thoroughly tonal.

One caveat is that a half-dozen of the parts, including Joan’s, are spoken rather than sung. For me this would prevent my putting the piece on “just to listen to it”; I would have to sit down specifically to focus on it (which is what I should be doing anyway, but of course it’s hard to find the time).

Here are a couple of short excerpts featuring the same forces as made the recording I listened to; Marion Cotillard plays Joan. In this first clip Joan expresses her fear and distress at her approaching death; there are English subtitles:

And in this excerpt we hear the final 2 minutes of the piece:

In the end, I was very pleasantly surprised by the excellence of Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher. I would even go so far as to say that it deserves consideration in a discussion of great Catholic art of the twentieth century. It’s not a supreme achievement on the level of (to cite another musical hagiography) Messiaen’s opera Saint-François d’Assise, but it is devout without being saccharine, theologically serious without losing its wit, and made with irreproachable competence. I recommend it warmly.

I have also discovered that a film version of this oratorio exists, made in the 1950s by Roberto Rossellini with Ingrid Bergman in the role of Joan. I’d very much like to see it.


Johnson: Life of Savage

March 2, 2017

Life of Mr Richard Savage
Samuel Johnson
[1744]

On a bulk, in a cellar, or in a glass-house, among thieves and beggars, was to be found the author of “The Wanderer,” the man of exalted sentiments, extensive views, and curious observations; the man whose remarks on life might have assisted the statesman, whose ideas of virtue might have enlightened the moralist, whose eloquence might have influenced senates, and whose delicacy might have polished courts.

johnson-savageCases in which one reads a biography principally from an interest in the biographer are comparatively rare, but here is one. Nothing against Richard Savage, of course, who was a friend of Johnson’s and an accomplished poet who lived a noteworthy life, but I, at least, decided to read his biography mainly from a desire to spend time with Johnson.

Richard Savage came into the world the son of a vindictive woman who, in a strange reversal of natural inclination, did all in her power to ruin him from the outset, first by refusing to care for him, later by attempting to disinherit him and, later still, scheming to send him into exile. When a man and finding himself accused of a crime, his mother entered the lists to testify against his good character. He never knew the love and comfort of a home.

Johnson, in a sally of dry wit, traces the influence of this harsh childhood on his later vocation as a man of letters:

[He] was reduced to the utmost miseries of want, while he was endeavouring to awaken the affection of a mother. He was therefore obliged to seek some other means of support; and, having no profession, became by necessity an author.

Savage become a poet, specifically, though never a greatly successful one in the commercial markets, and, like Johnson himself, never quite successful at obtaining the patronage of the great. He lived the life of a vagabond, drifting from one “situation” to another, dependent on the charity of others for his basic needs. He was inconstant and heedless in his handling of money; writes Johnson:

To supply him with money was a hopeless attempt; for no sooner did he see himself master of a sum sufficient to set him free from care for a day than he became profuse and luxurious.

And he was generous not only to his friends. Johnson relates the story, already alluded to, of Savage’s arrest over a violent altercation, for which he stood trial under penalty of death. A woman testified falsely against him during the trial, yet, upon his eventual acquittal, she, being destitute, nonetheless approached him to beg assistance, to which he responded by giving her what money he had, on which act Johnson comments:

This is an action which in some ages would have made a saint, and perhaps in others a hero, and which, without any hyperbolical encomiums, must be allowed to be an instance of uncommon generosity, an act of complicated virtue, by which he at once relieved the poor, corrected the vicious, and forgave an enemy; by which he at once remitted the strongest provocations, and exercised the most ardent charity.

It is hard not to feel admiration and affection for a man capable of such a gesture, and Johnson certainly did feel both for him. He is praised especially for his good heart, keen intelligence, fine if modest poetic gift (Johnson is, as ever, an honest judge), and eloquent conversation. Yet such sentiments were not universally held, for Savage’s wayward manner of life, moral courage, and sharp wit variously earned him enemies in many quarters:

Those who thought themselves raised above him by the advantages of riches hated him because they found no protection from the petulance of his wit. Those who were esteemed for their writings feared him as a critic, and maligned him as a rival; and almost all the smaller wits were his professed enemies.

Johnson doesn’t overlook his friend’s faults, and indeed part of the appeal of this biography is the combination of frank criticism and tender affection with which the biographer views his subject. Savage was a complex man, and his biographer is a match. It is precisely the manner in which he tempers justice with mercy that makes Johnson such a superb chronicler of a difficult life:

Those are no proper judges of his conduct who have slumbered away their time on the down of plenty; nor will any wise man easily presume to say, “Had I been in Savage’s condition, I should have lived or written better than Savage.”

**

One interested in reading some of Savage’s poetry might follow the link above to his poem “The Wanderer”, or, for a shorter example, to “The Bastard”, a witty, autobiographical ode to his ruthless mother:

O Mother, yet no Mother!—’tis to you,
My Thanks for such distinguish’d Claims are due.

**

The Life of Savage was written in 1744, one year after Savage’s death, and was later collected in Johnson’s Lives of the Poets.

**

In closing, here are several jewels of Johnsonian moral judgment and observation gleaned from these pages:

[Power and resentment]
Power and resentment are seldom strangers.

[Gratitude and resentment]
Those who had before paid their court to him without success soon returned the contempt which they had suffered; and they who had received favours from him, for of such favours as he could bestow he was very liberal, did not always remember them. So much more certain are the effects of resentment than of gratitude. It is not only to many more pleasing to recollect those faults which place others below them, than those virtues by which they are themselves comparatively depressed: but it is likewise more easy to neglect than to recompense. And though there are few who will practise a laborious virtue, there will never be wanting multitudes that will indulge in easy vice.

[Judgement and flattery]
He contented himself with the applause of men of judgment, and was somewhat disposed to exclude all those from the character of men of judgment who did not applaud him.

[Virtue, in love and in life]
The reigning error of his life was that he mistook the love for the practice of virtue, and was indeed not so much a good man as the friend of goodness.

[Judging degrees of understanding]
As many more can discover that a man is richer than that he is wiser than themselves, superiority of understanding is not so readily acknowledged as that of fortune.


Ash Wednesday, 2017

March 1, 2017

As a suitable meditation for today, I offer Messiaen’s beautiful Les Offrandes Oubliées:

Messiaen wrote the following note about the piece:

The Offrandes Oubliées, written in 1930, was first performed on February 19, 1931, at the Théatre des Champs Elysées in Paris, under the direction of Walter Straram. I had just turned 22. It was my first work played by an orchestra and my first contact with the public at large.

The work is in three parts:

  • The Cross: lamentation of the strings, the sorrowful ‘neumes’ of which divide the melody into groups of uneven duration, cut by long mauve and grey wailings.
  • The Sin: presented here as a kind of ‘race to the abyss’ in an almost ‘mechanized’ speed. You will notice the strong flexional ending accents, whistling of the harmonics in glissando, the incisive calls of the trumpets.
  • The Eucharist: long and slow phrase of the violins, which rises over a blanket of pianissimo chords, with reds, gold, blues (like a faraway stained glass window), in the light of muted solo chords. The sin is the forgetting of God. The Cross and the Eucharist are the Divine Offerings. ‘This is my Body, given for you – this is my Blood, spilled for you.’

To those who will be observing it, I wish you a good, difficult, and fruitful Lent.


Carpe diem

February 27, 2017

Toward the end of World War II, Pieper was imprisoned and took the occasion to read through the fifty volumes of Goethe’s collected works.

— Ralph McInerny, introducing
Josef Pieper’s The Silence of Goethe


Serraillier: The Ballad of St Simeon

February 23, 2017

The Ballad of St Simeonserraillier-st-simeon
Ian Serraillier
Illustrated by Simon Stern
(F. Watts, 1970)
28 p.

The subject of this poem is St Simeon Stylites, who, because “his ways were lonely and he loved God”, leaves ordinary life behind and, of all things, lives atop a pole for most of his life. He suffers exposure to the elements, and the jeers of those below, but he offers counsel to humble souls as well, and when a fearsome dragon threatens the city it is St Simeon whose prayers save the day.

In this large-format edition the poem is illustrated by Simon Stern. The drawings are charming and a bit amateurish, and clearly pitched at young children. Not so the poem itself, I dare say, which seems to me addressed to fairly accomplished readers:

Years Simeon stood, sat, slept
on his pole, communed with God and wept
for the sin-smudged city. Some, not many,
brought him their troubles and he offered
prayers for them but could do no miracle.
How he suffered!
The seasons steam-rollered him. In summer
the flaming sun made him boil
and the pole pain bubble and pop, and
when winter was a turmoil
of flying icicles, in spite of his mother-knitted clothes,
his goose skin hugged his skeleton. So cold was it
that chilblains marbled and the people’s oaths
froze on the air (thawing out in Spring
with a bang).

There are rhymes here, both at line ends and internally, but the rhythm is irregular and a bit tricky, and the poem doesn’t condescend. Somewhat to my surprise, therefore, my 5 year-old son loves it, and has had me read it to him numerous times over the past few weeks. Does that mean I’ve succeeded in finding its music?

As far as the subject matter goes, it’s a good story, and it is well told. Sometimes modern authors treating saints’ lives are tempted to skirt the religious elements, especially when there’s something as distracting as a dragon in the tale, but Serraillier doesn’t do this, and in fact the poem contains Biblical allusions that will render it partly unintelligible to readers without a decent religious formation. A similarly demanding poem, and a poem demanding in a similar way, would probably not be published today in this format. Let us raise a glass, once again, to oldish books.