Archive for July, 2007

Pelagian Drinking Song

July 31, 2007

Pelagius lived at Kardanoel
And taught a doctrine there
How, whether you went to heaven or to hell
It was your own affair.
It had nothing to do with the Church, my boy,
But was your own affair.

No, he didn’t believe
In Adam and Eve
He put no faith therein!
His doubts began
With the Fall of Man
And he laughed at Original Sin.
With my row-ti-tow
He laughed at original sin.

Then came the bishop of old Auxerre
Germanus was his name
He tore great handfuls out of his hair
And he called Pelagius shame.
And with his stout Episcopal staff
So thoroughly whacked and banged
The heretics all, both short and tall –
They rather had been hanged.

Oh he whacked them hard, and he banged them long
Upon each and all occasions
Till they bellowed in chorus, loud and strong
Their orthodox persuasions.
With my row-ti-tow
Their orthodox persuasions.

Now the faith is old and the Devil bold
Exceedingly bold indeed.
And the masses of doubt that are floating about
Would smother a mortal creed.
But we that sit in a sturdy youth
And still can drink strong ale
Let us put it away to infallible truth
That always shall prevail.

And thank the Lord
For the temporal sword
And howling heretics too.
And all good things
Our Christendom brings
But especially barley brew!
With my row-ti-tow
Especially barley brew!

– Hilaire Belloc

A month of music

July 30, 2007

This month, when the heat of the summer has been in full blaze, I decided to turn to music for the flute. It seemed a fitting choice, for the flute in its lower range is hazy and sultry, but bursts into a bright and airy timbre in its upper range. I had intended to make a pilgrimage through the flute repertoire, but in the end I only managed a smattering of things.

I began where so many good things begin: with Bach. He has left us a set of seven flute sonatas (three being of contested authorship). They are delightful works, dancing and melodious. In the recording I heard they were played on a baroque flute, which has a very pleasing wooden, earthy quality, much less piercing and precise than a modern flute. I liked it very much. But the biggest surprise awaiting me on that recording was a performance of Bach’s Partita for solo flute (BWV 1013). I didn’t know there was such a thing! It’s a wonderful find. If you know his works for solo violin or cello, you’ll have some idea of what to expect: top-flight virtuosity, intellectual rigour, and — always — beautiful music. The timbre of the flute, however, has none of the moody warmth of the cello or stern dignity of the violin. It’s bright and charming instead. I’ll be returning to this piece again and again.

I had planned to listen to Mozart’s two flute concerti and his concerto for flute, viola, and harp. But I didn’t have time. In fact, I jumped over the classical and romantic eras completely, landing firmly in the twentieth century.

More precisely, I landed in France, and the music of Debussy. He is famous for many very original compositions, but not least among them is a little piece called Syrinx, for solo flute. It’s shy of three minutes in performance, but it packs a world of feeling and atmosphere into that small space. I have no idea what Debussy was seeking to convey in the music. For me it conjures up desert sands, wavering oases, exotic spices, the beauty of Cleopatra, and a wide sky of hot sun. It’s a sultry, seductive piece of music, wandering at whim from one lovely idea to the next. Delightful.

I then turned to a short work by Toru Takemitsu, called Toward the Sea. Takemitsu is the only Japanese composer I know of to have earned a (moderately) wide hearing in the western musical world. His compositional style has been heavily influenced by western classical music — particularly that of Debussy and Messiaen — which helps explain the appeal his music has to our ears. And it is very appealing, despite what initially seem to be peculiarities. Perhaps the first thing to strike the listener is how unstructured his music sounds: wisps of sound drift in and out of earshot as though carried on a wind, plucked strings drop like pebbles into a pond and then subside, and it can often be difficult to find a musical pulse. In an interview, Takemitsu once said that he liked to take a ten minute walk in the garden, then come home and write a ten minute piece about the experience, and this captures very well the felling one gets from his music. It is impressionistic and ephemeral, but beautiful nonetheless.

Toward the Sea is a three movement work scored only for alto flute and guitar. The textures are very clean and open. In the alto range the flute has a rich, warm sound, and Takemitsu has given it a lyrical, wandering melody to play. In some ways the piece is a study in timbre, calling also on a variety of unusual flute effects, such as rapid vibrato. The general impression, however, is of languid repose. Not as characterful as Debussy’s short piece, but still very fine.

I wasn’t entirely tied to the flute, however. A discovery this month was Gian Carlo Menotti‘s ambitious Missa O Pulchritudo. In fact, Menotti (1911- 2007) himself was a discovery, for this is the first I have heard of his music. I was introduced to him through a warmly appreciative eulogy from Robert Reilly. The Missa is a big, glorious work scored for vocal soloists, chorus, and orchestra. At about 45 minutes in duration, it is a concert piece rather than a liturgical one.

The Kyrie sets the tone: a majestic chorus sounds over a lushly scored orchestra, now joyful and confident, now hushed and delicate. The music is tuneful and harmonically palatable, with no trace of the astringency that too often characterizes modern music. The Credo is absent, which came as something of a surprise. Menotti has replaced it with a motet O Pulchritudo, in which he sets St. Augustine’s famous prayer from his Confessions: “Late have I loved Thee, Thou Beauty ever old and ever new”. I wish I had the full text, but sadly eMusic, from whom I acquired the disc, does not provide liner notes. In any case, it is a beautiful interlude. The Agnus Dei opens with a plaintive tenor solo, soon joined by an alto, then by the full chorus. Taking a page from Beethoven’s playbook, the movement erupts into a rough martial passage, the chorus quietly intoning Agnus Dei beneath the bluster. But this storm eventually subsides, replaced by sweet harmonic swells on the words Dona nobis pacem — obvious word-painting, perhaps, but effective for all that.

It’s a very fine piece. I can’t help hearing it as a genuine expression of religious fervour, for it aims quite directly at the heart. The recording — at present the only recording of the piece, I believe — is on Cedille, sung by the William Ferris Chorale. The sound is good, but not above criticism. It is a live performance, and quiet moments are sometimes interrupted by coughs from the audience.

Speaking of audiences, I was part of two this month. My life-list of songwriters to see in concert has included a short-list of Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, and Leonard Cohen. Courtesy the Ottawa Bluesfest I was able to add another notch to my Bob Dylan tally (now at three), and to scratch in my first marker for Van Morrison. They were both great concerts. Now I have only to see Leonard Cohen for my ambitions to be satisfied. Since I believe he no longer gives concerts, it’s going to be tricky.

TV: agony and ecstasy

July 27, 2007

I have no television, and generally speaking I’m glad of that. But it is true that from time to time it means that I miss out on something. The Internet is slowly changing that as more programs come online. Recently two television-related items have come to my attention that seem worth sharing, though for very different reasons. The first is whimsical, the second substantial.

First, the whimsical. Here is a clip from a Japanese program that well illustrates the depths to which television programming is capable of sinking. It is, as they say, so bad that it’s good. I’ve heard of games in which one bats balls around, but this is ridiculous:

(Hat-tip: Korrektiv)

Second, the substantial. One of my favourite programs when I did have a television was the Charlie Rose Show, a very thoughtful interview program. Mr. Rose brings in talented and articulate people to discuss the arts, politics, religion, and any number of other topics. There’s nothing sensational about the program, there is no cracking of distracting jokes, no playing to a crowd, but just lively and serious conversation about interesting subjects. This program is one of the few that I have missed over the years.

But no longer. They have recently put an enormous archive of past interviews online. I’ve been looking through it, and it’s a treasure trove. Where to begin? You could do worse than start with Jacques Barzun, Paul Johnson, or Margaret Atwood.

True philology

July 25, 2007

Studies in Words (1960)
C. S. Lewis (Canto, 1996)
350 pp. First reading.

In An Experiment in Criticism, Lewis said that a good reader is one who is attentive to the tone and nuanced meanings of the words he reads. Studies in Words demonstrates that he himself was a good reader.

It is in some ways a curious book. Lewis chooses a set of words and phrases with particularly rich semantic histories, and traces their usage over the centuries. His words are, for the most part, quite ordinary, and there is a reason for this: when reading old books the really difficult words are the ones we think we know, for we will often not pause to wonder about them.

On a journey like this, Lewis is an ideal guide. He moves lightly, and with humbling ease, through the length and breadth of Western literature. I’m looking at a single page, for instance, that moves from Lucretius to Virgil to Shakespeare (both Othello and The Tempest) to Milton to Swift to Sterne.

These studies in words are interesting in their own right, but I found myself stepping back from the contents of the book and taking an interest in the fact of the book itself. Why did Lewis write it? He is advancing no argument, and telling no story. If I may put it this way, the book does not seem to require an audience. It feels like the fruit of a private passion; it is what happens when a man becomes absorbed in what he loves. Lewis loved words, and here he fondly gathers them up, turns them this way and that, and admires their beauty and complexity. Lewis was a true philologist.

The words he discusses are, as I said, very common: nature, sad, wit, free, sense (with sentence, sensibility, and sensible), simple, conscience and conscious, world, life, and finally the phrase “I dare say”. Each of these has a dominant meaning today, but each also has a constellation of variant meanings. We may speak of “a man of wit”, meaning a humorous man, but also of “having my wits about me”, meaning being alert and mentally agile. Or we may speak of something as “natural” when we mean that it occurs in nature (“The flowering of plants is natural.”), but “natural” may also mean something fitting or appropriate, even if in fact counterexamples exist (“It is natural for a mother to love her child.”) The danger for the reader of old books is that the meaning that was dominant for the writer and his contemporaries may no longer be the dominant meaning for us, and if we miss that fact we misread.

In the final chapter, entitled “At the Fringe of Language”, Lewis considers the phenomenon of words which were at one time full of imaginative or conceptual content but have since become the equivalent of inarticulate sounds, expressing an emotion and not much more. Words which suffer this fate tend to be terms of abuse and complaint: “damn” was once a technical theological term, now it is an ejaculation; to call someone a “swine” once meant something specific, now it conveys only dislike. (Incidentally, the process can also happen the other way, when inarticulate sounds acquire standard spellings and appear in dictionaries. Examples would be “tut-tut”, or “heigh-ho”. Such words, however, if they do manage to creep into the fringe of language, rarely penetrate any further into the center.) This migration out of language occurs when the emotional connotations of a word are permitted to overwhelm its sense, and Lewis closes with some choice words about the need to use words responsibly and judiciously. He has certainly done his part.

[Words turning sour]
For innocent, simple, silly, ingenuous, and Greek euethes, all illustrate the same thing — the remarkable tendency of adjectives which originally imputed great goodness, to become terms of disparagement. Give a good quality a name and that name will soon be the name of a defect. Pious and respectable are among the comparatively modern casualties, and sanctimonious was once a term of praise.

The extraordinary rite

July 24, 2007

A couple of days ago I set down some thoughts about the context for Benedict XVI’s recent decree Summorum Pontificum, the decree which has liberated the liturgical rites that were restricted in 1970 as part of the reforms of Vatican II. Whether the things I said made any sense, I’m not sure, but tonight I thought I’d sort out my thoughts on the decree itself, and collect a few helpful links for anyone else who has an interest in this subject.

I think I discern at least three purposes served by this decree. I’ll call them continuity, reconciliation, and correction. For many years before he became Pope, Cardinal Ratzinger had been a vocal critic of what he saw as the marked discontinuity in the Church’s prayer and worship that resulted from the Vatican II liturgical reforms. In particular, he stated that the decision to completely suppress the liturgy in use prior to Vatican II was a poor one, arguing instead that developments ought to occur organically, and slowly. As he says in the explanatory letter issued together with the decree, “What earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and great for us too.” Thus, as I argued a few days ago, he hopes that the reintroduction of this ancient rite into the life of the Church will serve to remind us of our past, and of our inheritance, and to make that inheritance live again.

As for reconciliation, about this too the Pope is quite explicit: “It is a matter of coming to an interior reconciliation in the heart of the Church.” After Vatican II there were certain groups who did not accept the Council’s authority — I, and I think the Pope too, am thinking in particular of Bishop Lefebvre and those who followed him — which resulted in a formal schism. Looking back at previous periods when Church unity has been broken, the Pope acknowledges that often the Catholic Church did not do all that it legitimately could to reconcile. He does not want to make the same mistake in our own time, and hopes that the restoration of the old rite will help to bring schismatics back to the Church. Let us hope that he is right.

Finally, the reintroduction may serve as a corrective to the many degradations, great and small, that have afflicted the new liturgy since the Council. It is quite instructive to read Vatican II’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy Sacrosanctum Concilium and compare it to the received wisdom about what the Council taught. One hears, for instance, that “The Council replaced Latin with the vernacular.” Well, not really. The Council Fathers agreed that the readings should be rendered in the vernacular, and that for pastoral reasons “the limits of its [the vernacular’s] employment may be extended” (SC 36). May be. Latin remains the official language of the new rite; any priest may celebrate that rite in Latin at any time. (This is the reason why it is wrong to refer to the old rite as the “Latin” rite.) Or one hears that “Chant was replaced by hymns and other congregational songs.” Again, the Constitution is quite clear that Gregorian chant is to retain “pride of place” in the new liturgy (SC 116), though the Fathers conceded that other music, “especially polyphony”, was “by no means excluded”. Clearly, they did not foresee our current situation! In any case, the last few decades have seen a wide range of liturgical experiments, most of it done seemingly without reference to what the Council had said. These “arbitrary deformations of the liturgy”, as Pope Benedict calls them, might be opposed by the reintroduction of the old rite in two ways: there’s little room in the old rite for experimentation, so it itself will resist that sort of mischief; and, exposure to the old rite may teach us the ethos of the Mass as it has been historically celebrated, and it is to be hoped that this will rub off on the new rite as well.

There have been some people, and even some bishops, ringing alarm bells over the decree. They accuse the Pope of “turning back the clock”. I don’t understand this at all. The Pope is not imposing anything, he is only permitting. At most, he’s letting another clock run in tandem with the existing one. And in any case it is disconcerting to hear alarums about backwardness from a body that’s supposed to carry its past with it. The theory of inevitable progress has no foundation in Catholic thinking. Remember what Spenser said: “For he, that once hath missed the right way, The further he doth goe, the further he doth stray.” Amen.

As it happens, I have some experience with the old rite — let me call it the “extraordinary” rite, since that is its new name. There is a parish in my diocese that celebrates it regularly, with the permission of the bishop. I have been a number of times. It is a beautiful rite. At this parish they have a competent Gregorian schola to sing the chant, and that is wonderful. When I am there I think of all the many generations of Catholics who celebrated that same rite, and I am much more aware of the connection between them and me.

There are a few things about the extraordinary rite that take some getting used to, however. First, the readings are in Latin. In his decree, the Pope has, very wisely in my opinion, stated that even in the extraordinary rite the readings may be given in the vernacular. Scripture is to be proclaimed; I like to look at the lector and listen to the proclamation, not read along in a translation. In my judgment, the use of Latin for the readings raises a curtain between the celebrant and the congregation, and I’m glad that won’t be obligatory now. Second, the old rite is very much more textured, more “three-dimensional”. Not all the prayers are said aloud. Much of the Eucharistic prayer, for instance, is said by the priest sotto voce. This makes the rite, for me at least, and with my limited experience, difficult to follow. I’m never totally sure, for instance, when the consecration is taking place. That seems less than ideal, and it certainly implies that the reintroduction of the rite will need to be accompanied by catechesis. Finally, I am always a bit irked to rediscover that the only part of the Pater noster that the congregation gets to sing is the last line: Sed libera nos a malo. I really do prefer to sing the whole thing. It will take some time to adjust to such, admittedly minor, details.

Interesting times!


Here are a set of links that may prove interesting:

Summorum Pontificum: the unofficial English translation of the decree

Explanatory letter: the beautiful, very pastoral letter accompanying the same

Summorum Pontificum blog: a forum dedicated to the decree and the responses to it

Summorum Pontificum database: a resource for finding people willing to help in some way with the revival of the extraordinary rite

Fixing the Mass: a thoughtful blog post challenging the idea that Latin in the liturgy is bad

Sunday night meditation

July 22, 2007

I’m home tonight, sick. I’ve discovered this recording of Arvo Pärt‘s beautiful meditation Pari Intervallo. It was composed for the organ, but I don’t see any reason why it can’t be played on the . . . accordion. (Duration: 7 minutes)

The Church, the world, the liturgy

July 22, 2007

In his recent motu proprio decree Summorum Pontificum, Pope Benedict liberalized the celebration of the liturgy according to the pre-Vatican II rite. This rite, now called the “extraordinary form” of the Latin rite, had been the standard prior to Vatican II, but was suppressed in 1970 to make way for the Novus Ordo liturgy, now the “ordinary form”, which is what one encounters today in most parishes. The Catholic press and blogosphere has been all astir about the decree for the past few weeks. My purpose here is not to try to assess the tenor of that chatter, nor even to offer my own thoughts on the matter — though I may well do that before I’m through — but instead to reflect for a few minutes on Vatican II itself. What did it try to change, and why?

I’m aware that my theme, as stated, is too vast to handle, so I intend to restrict my scope in two ways: first, by making special reference to liturgy, which is, after all, the locus of the recent changes; second, by drawing on a very interesting recent essay by James V. Schall entitled The Culture of Modernity and Catholicism. Fr. Schall is a Jesuit who teaches political science at Georgetown. This essay is in fact a lengthy review of a book called Culture and the Thomist Tradition: After Vatican II by Tracey Rowland. The book, and the essay along with it, is an inquiry into the roots of modernity, modernity’s relationship to Catholicism, and what happened to that relationship at Vatican II. Vatican II, you will recall, was a call to “open wide the doors and windows of the Church”, to initiate a new conversation with modern culture in the hopes of advancing the evangelization effort of the Church. The questions asked by Schall and Rowland are, “How has that call been interpreted?” and “What have the consequences been?” What has really happened to the Church and her relationship to modern culture in the intervening forty years?

Both Schall and Rowland contend, and there are many reasons to agree with them, that the “open door” policy the Church adopted with respect to modernity has hurt her. Catholic culture in the western world has suffered serious attrition, not least inside the Church herself. We have seen a catastrophic decline in religious vocations. Catholic schools, hospitals, universities are now rarely run by priests or religious, and many have largely forsaken their Catholic roots. Ignorance of Catholic traditions and history is high, and little wonder, for people see no evidence of it around them. Even so strong a marker of Catholic identity as the Friday fast has disappeared almost entirely. Our ecclesial calendar has given way to the secular calendar, such that we no longer celebrate our major feasts — or we lazily transfer them to the nearest Sunday where they can pass without being noticed. For those who love the Church these things are painful to behold. Have we seen compensating advantages in other areas to balance these setbacks? It could perhaps be argued that the Church, through the papacy, has a more prominent voice in debates over political and moral issues than was the case previously. But how much of that is a result of modern media’s need for a sound-byte from somebody, and does that voice translate into real influence? It may be so; I’m not sure. But my eye is drawn back to the sufferings of the Church in her inner life. Why has this happened?

The answer given by Schall and Rowland is that when the Council Fathers opened the Church’s doors and windows to modernity, they misunderstood the deep grammar of modernity and underestimated the extent to which it was not capable of accepting the truths the Church offered. Modernity, in their telling, is in its foundations hostile to Catholicism, and the attempt to translate Catholic teachings into language native to modern thought cannot be done faithfully. Rather than help modernity to understand the Church and the revelation of which she is steward, the effort has damaged the Church’s own ability to understand herself. As Schall puts it:

… modern culture is not neutral but replete with customs, laws, ideas, and assumptions that either are difficult or impossible to reconcile with classical Catholic orthodoxy. This conclusion means that the famous project of “opening” the Church to specifically “modern culture” did not and could not result in any new evangelization or success in making Catholicism more acceptable to the modern mind. In fact, this opening to modern culture undermined many of the basic assumptions by which understanding and living the faith was possible… “To what is it to which Catholics are bringing themselves ‘up-to-date’?” Karl Barth wanted to know of Vatican II, in a query again often cited by Rowland. Within it, the culture did not have the basic operative principles capable of accepting the intellectual coherence that is the faith if properly spelled out. As John Paul II was to point out in Fides et Ratio, the faith cannot be supported by just any philosophy, but only by a true philosophy.

And modernity is not true. To claim so is hardly revolutionary: Nietzsche announced it a century and a half ago. Modernity’s attempt to reject Platonism and Christianity, founding itself on reason alone, was incoherent, for, as Nietzsche argued, reason itself derived its transcendent authority from God, and when he died, so did it. Of course, the death throes have been prolonged, and we are living through them as best we can. This is why we find ourselves in a world increasingly unable to recognize the existence of goods external to the individual will, much less to reason about those goods to discern their bearing on human action. Modernity acknowledges no governing order above or outside of the immanent sphere of action. Our theorists declare that moral principles are projections of preferences, gurgling up from our emotions and unconscious, or merely asserted for our own benefit. It is a system beset by intellectual and moral poverty.

Schall illustrates the modern quandary using the concept of human rights. In the Catholic understanding, human rights are reflections, in human subjects, of the objective order of the world. Humans are endowed with rights by virtue of what they are, and on the authority of some power or reality that precedes them. But modernity cannot affirm this view of rights, founded as it is in transcendence. Modern philosophy has tried to found rights in reason, but according to Nietzsche, and according to Schall, it has failed. It has rejected both metaphysics and revelation, has concluded that reason is merely instrumental, and has largely rejected the view that the world has a normative “nature” that defines it. And so rights, not being something derived from outside ourselves, can only become something derived from inside ourselves: they become something that we will. In fact, rights are what we will for ourselves, or what some temporal authority wills to grant us. But on this account rights cease to be universal. People go on talking about “universal human rights”, but they have to be careful not to inquire too closely into what they really mean, lest the incoherence be uncovered. This kind of thing can continue for a while, but eventually it will fail. The point to make now is simply this: the Catholic understanding of rights and the modern understanding of rights are not the same. They are founded on profoundly different premises. When the Church begins to use the language of modernity and is not sufficiently wary, she exposes herself to those contrary premises, which act as a corrosive agent on her own thought and self-understanding.

This is but one example, but it serves to make the point. If the post-Vatican II project was to make Catholicism “more acceptable” to modernity, the precise sense in which that is true needs to be very clear. Too often it has meant accommodation to secular culture, and that at the very time when the weak foundations of modern culture are ever more apparent, even, or most especially, to her leading thinkers. There is a kind of sickening humour to the situation. But deep down it is not funny, for if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again?

In all honesty, I don’t understand the cultural history well enough to be confident in the story that Schall and Rowland tell. I don’t even know how much I can trust Nietzsche. I wish I did, but the issue is just too complex and many-sided for me to see it all clearly. Yet I can see that for some reason the influence which Catholicism is to have on secular culture is running, too often, in the wrong direction.

We see the effects in the liturgy (to bring the discussion around again to the topical subject). When the liturgical changes of Vatican II were promulgated, they were widely misunderstood. Or perhaps “misunderstood” is too generous, for I don’t see how the changes that occurred could have been honestly derived from a careful reading of Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Church’s Constitution on the liturgy. But however it happened, the Council was said to have decreed that the liturgy be made more “relevant” to ordinary people. In practice, in this part of the world, this has often meant a erosion of reverence, as though we had forgotten that the liturgy does not exist to appeal first to ordinary people, but, in the words of Pope Benedict, “to offer a worthy ritual to the Divine Majesty”. Relevance should not be an overriding concern. As Rowland puts it (citing, to my pleasure, G.K. Chesterton):

What Chesterton understood was that it was precisely one of the great graces of the Catholic Church that she makes it possible for people, poor as well as rich, to transcend their cultural limitations, to rise above their cultural poverty and be citizens, or rather subjects, of an eternal city. The effect of the Church on the culture of the world, and in particular on the life of “common man,” ought to be ennobling, ought to be affirming of an aristocratic status as a child of God, as a member of a royal priesthood, a people set apart. This does not happen when mass culture is “baptised” by its use in the liturgy or when its idioms are taken to wrap the Church’s doctrines. Contrary to the rationale behind such pastoral projects, their ultimate effect is not to make the Church relevant to the modern world, but to make it indistinguishable from the modern world, and this in turn makes it completely irrelevant.

All of which seems to me quite correct. Where, then, does this leave us? I will not endorse the view that Vatican II was somehow misguided in its conception. The Church is always called to preach and serve within the wider culture, whatever it may be. But it is possible that it is unwise to open the doors and windows when the air is noxious. When openness to discussion results in the Church losing contact with her own traditions and self-understanding, something is wrong, and steps must be taken to salvage and restore that great heritage, for without it we have nothing to offer.

It is in this context, I think, that we should understand the Pope’s recent decree Summorum Pontificum. It is about the recovery of a tradition that has nearly been lost, and it is to be hoped that, in time (for we mustn’t expect any immediate changes), it will help the Church to restore her balance by reminding her of where she came from, and how she spoke, and how she prayed. Perhaps in a few days I’ll have something further to say about the document itself and what it portends. For now, I think I’ve said quite enough, or even more.


The links in this post to Summorum Pontificum are to an unofficial English translation. At the present time the only official text is in Latin.

Tracey Rowland’s book has been issued by Routledge as part of their “Radical Orthodoxy” series. Radical Orthodoxy is a theological “movement” or “program” attempting to do something rather similar to the aim of Vatican II: to engage modern thought theologically, largely by drawing on resources from pre-modern thought. I recommend a very interesting interview with two of the founders of Radical Orthodoxy that aired on CBC radio a few months ago. (You may want to grab the file for yourself; I’m not sure how long it will remain available.)

Narn I Chîn Húrin

July 20, 2007

The Tale of the Children of Húrin
J. R. R. Tolkien (HarperCollins, 2007; C. Tolkien, ed.)
313 pp. First reading.

Fair warning, friend: You may rue reading these my words, for they speak of things long hidden, and may despoil for you the tale ere you come to it yourself. Yet ever I have been cautious, for in truth I show little more than is shown in the book’s chapter titles.

In those days, John Ronald Reuel made his tale of the One Ring, and brought to light many things that had passed from all remembrance. Wearied from his labours, yet he was ever eager to tell of the world long-past, for he was a lore-master of great fame and skill, and those who knew his tongue and could understand his words marvelled at his knowledge of things passed away. And he took up the tale of Húrin called Thalion, Lord of Dor-lómin, and of his children Túrin and Niënor, and of the evil that befell them in the First Age by the will of Morgoth.

But the labour was long, and it came to pass that ere he finished his work, John set it aside. And in the course of time he fell ill, and died, leaving the work unfinished and in pieces. Yet his papers passed to Christopher his son, and he took them in hand, for he too had deep knowledge of the things of that time, and by long study he drew out and set in order the lay his father had made. And though the tale be the work of both father and son, yet ever the glory cleaves to the father, for the son did nought but weave with the materials his father had made. And he set forth the tale, as the records show, “without any editorial invention”.

The tale tells of Húrin son of Hareth of the House of Hador. And Húrin’s brother Huor was grandfather to the father of Elrond of Rivendell. And the boy Húrin and his brother came to Gondolin, the hidden city of the Elves. And Morgoth, the dark lord, gathering strength in the northern wastes of Angband, desired to possess and destroy the city, yet he knew not where it was. Then Húrin grew to a man, and when Men and Elves went out against Morgoth at the Battle of Unnumbered Tears, called Nirnaeth Arnoediad, Húrin was taken. And when he would not yield to the will of Morgoth, nor reveal to him the place of the hidden city, Morgoth was wroth, and lay a curse upon Húrin and his children, saying, “Upon all whom you love my thought shall weigh as a cloud of Doom, and it shall bring them down into darkness and despair.” And though he was true to neither Man nor Elf, yet he was true to this his word, and his curse upon the children of Húrin was a fell doom, thought at that time they marked it not, and knew it not.

Now Túrin son of Húrin was but a boy at that time. And he left his mother, who was with child, and came into the keeping of the Elves of Doriath. And he grew tall and strong, and won fame as a warrior in battle, and was beloved of Thingol the King of the Elves. But the malice of Morgoth was great and reached even into that place. And it chanced that Túrin was driven out of the company of the Elves, and was made an outlaw among outlaws in the woods of Brethil, and came to the city of Nargothrond, and was called The Black Sword, for he wielded Gurthang with great skill and courage.

Then Morgoth sent forth Glaurung the Dragon to work his will, and he laid waste the city of Nargothrond, and few escaped, yet Túrin was among them, and he was called Turambar, Master of Doom, for he escaped death to meet a worse fate. For his sister Niënor was also grown, and the eye of Morgoth marked them both, and ever the curse pursued them, and though Túrin smote Glaurung at Cabed-en-Aras, and on the river Teiglin slew the Great Worm, yet the power of the will of Morgoth overcame them all, and in darkness he wrought fell destruction for the House of Húrin. And his doom was strong, and none could withstand it.

And so the tale of the children of Húrin came to an end. And it was a tale of woes and of great sorrow. Yet in the telling it is sweet, and the skill of the talesmith is strong. And we in after-times know that the triumph of Morgoth was not complete, as it then seemed to be.

I ♥ LibraryThing

July 18, 2007

For some time now I’ve been a member of LibraryThing, and it is time to extol its many virtues to my vast readership.

LibraryThing is a site for creating an online catalogue of your books. I’ve catalogued my personal library using it, and it works beautifully. It’s designed to make the cataloguing easy, and it succeeds. For each book, you enter a relevant piece of information about it, such as the author, or the title, or (better) the ISBN. LibraryThing then provides you with a list of books matching your criteria. Usually your book is among them, so you simply click to add it to your online catalogue. The site then pulls in details about your book: publication date, publisher, number of pages, cover art, subject headings, and so forth. LibraryThing’s data sources are vast: if your book isn’t held by the Library of Congress, and isn’t sold by Amazon, LibraryThing is still able to search through over 70 libraries worldwide to find your book’s data. If you have really obscure books, you can enter the data manually.

If you’re like me, I’ve already told you enough to get your heart racing. But there’s more! You can add metadata to your library using tags. Tags are just keywords you associate with your books. For instance, I tagged Pride and Prejudice with the keywords “British”, “19th century”, “Fiction”, and “Literature”. (In my taxonomy “Literature” is a subset of “Fiction”.) It might seem a lot of work to tag all the books, and I suppose it is, but the results are worth it. Want to see all your books about Cistercians? No problem. Ever wonder how many books of poetry you have? LibraryThing can count them. Are you gripped with a sudden passion to read your books from or about the 16th century? Here they are. Since you assign the tags yourself, the number of ways you can slice and dice your books is limited only by your imagination (and your willingness to enter the tags).

On top of this, LibraryThing will compile and display statistics about your library, such as how many duplicates you have (for shame!), when your books were published, and even the distribution of languages in which your books were originally written.

If I have one complaint about the site, it’s that there’s no field to enter the original publication date of a book. My copy of Utopia was published in 1970, but the work was originally issued in 1516. Some people use the “date of publication” field to hold the original date of publication, but I don’t want to do that. I want both dates.

LibraryThing is also touted as a “social networking” site. It shows you which other users have libraries “similar”, by some measure, to your own. If they permit it, you can look at their library and perhaps get some good ideas. There are also forums for discussing books with other users. Personally, I don’t really make use of these social aspects, but many people do. More to my taste is an intelligent book suggester which, by comparing your library to those of other users, recommends books you are likely to enjoy. Even more fun is their book Unsuggester, which produces a list of books likely to turn your stomach.

These social aspects improve as the number of users grows. I joined when there were about 30 000 members, I think. Today that number has grown to over 230 000, and it shows no signs of abating. Even so, the site remains a small scale operation. Tim Spalding, who started it (and who has an interesting library) remains in charge. It feels very much like a site made by a book-lover for book-lovers. Which it is.

If you like books, and like being organized, and hope your house never burns down but would like a list of your books to give to the insurance company just in case, I commend LibraryThing to you with the highest praise.

Pears, with ham

July 16, 2007

Peter Pears was one of the most distinctive tenors of the last century. He is associated especially with English language song and opera, and was a particular advocate of the music of Benjamin Britten, who wrote many wonderful pieces for him. I’ve come across this video of Dudley Moore doing a spot-on parody of Pears’ singing style. I suppose that the imitation won’t be funny if you don’t know the original, but if you do you’ll enjoy it. (Duration about 80 seconds.)