Archive for March, 2012

They do make them like they used to

March 30, 2012

Here is a fascinating project: an attempt to build a monastery using the tools and techniques of the 9th century —

Beginning in 2013, a Carolingian monastery town will be built here using only the materials and techniques of the 9th century. From the mortar to the walls, the rain jackets to the menu, every aspect of the operation will be carried out as just as it was in the days of Charlemagne. “We want to work as authentically as possible,” says Geurten.

The building contractor from the Rhineland region has long dreamt of carrying out his plan. When he was a teenager, the now 62-year-old was inspired by a model of the St. Gallen monastery plan in an exhibition in his home city of Aachen.

The photos accompanying the story are well worth seeing. The project is expected to take about 35 years to complete, with contributions from scholars, contractors, and volunteers. I would love to give a few weeks of my time to help with a project like this, but, my handyman skills being what they are, I’m afraid I’d ruin the whole thing.

Here’s hoping they can find some monks to move in when they’re done.

Kierkegaard: The Point of View

March 30, 2012

The Point of View for my Work as an Author
Søren Kierkegaard (1848)
170 p.

These notes originally written 28 January 2006.

In some respects Kierkegaard’s authorship presents a bewilderment. The proliferation of outlandish pseudonyms — Johannes de Silentio, Constantin Constantius, Hilarious Bookbinder, Anti-Climacus — is bound to leave a newcomer scratching his head. And there is this: although Kierkegaard is commonly regarded as a philosopher, his works bear little resemblance to traditional philosophical texts. Indeed, he commonly avers that he himself has nothing to teach, no doctrine to expound, no syllogism to unfold. What then is he up to? A good friend, who went to the trouble of writing a doctoral dissertation on Kierkegaard, once remarked to me that he thought that, rather than calling him a philosopher, we ought to call him an evangelical psychologist. This is exactly right.

Yet the reason for the insistance with which he obscured his authorship remains something of a mystery. His pseudonyms were pretty unconvincing, so why bother with them? I had assumed that, as he did not wish to teach an original doctrine, he did not wish to be regarded as an authority, and so refused to put his name to his work. This may be partly true, but it is weakened by the observation that in many cases he did put his name to his work, and not just in one period, but intermittently throughout the course of his life.

In The Point of View for my Work as an Author, which appeared rather late in his authorship, many of these questions are addressed and answered. Kierkegaard let the masks drop, not just to speak with his own voice, but also to explain why he was wearing the masks in the first place. In this way he illuminated his entire body of work in a particularly direct way, and the book serves as an excellent introduction to his writing, his methods, and his central concerns.

Early in the book he gives a summary of his position:

The contents of this little book affirm, then, what I truly am as an author, that I am and was a religious author, that the whole of my work as an author is related to Christianity, to the problem ‘of becoming a Christian’, with a direct or indirect polemic against the monstrous illusion that we call Christendom, or against the illusion that in such a land as ours all are Christians of a sort.

By calling himself a religious author he intends, of course, to contrast himself with an aesthetic author. In his taxonomy, a person living in the aesthetic sphere of life — which by Kierkegaard’s reckoning includes most people — is attuned to the sensual rather than the spiritual, to the temporal rather than the eternal, to a life oriented outward rather than inward, to pleasure rather than duty or love. The great task which he undertook was to seek out those who were capable of greater depth — that is, those who were capable ‘of becoming a Christian’ — and helping them toward greater inwardness. His task, he said, was to make people aware, to wake them up. He knew that people have a tendency to settle into a crowd, to take their bearings from those around them, to abdicate their own responsibility for working out their salvation in fear and trembling. He believed that his responsibility was to be concerned with the inwardness and spiritual awakening of ‘the individual’.

He knew, however, that to simply berate people for their faults and failings was more likely to provoke them to anger than to repentance and new life. And so, he says, he undertook a program of indirect communication, in which he disguised himself as one living an aesthetic life in order to show, from the inside, the deficiencies of that life, and so to compel his readers to seek higher things. He calls this method one of “incognito and deceit” which “does not begin directly with the matter one wants to communicate, but begins by accepting the other man’s illusion as good money”, for “if you can find exactly the place where the other is and begin there, you may perhaps have the luck to lead him to the place where you are.”

This clarifies a few things about his writing. The aesthetic writings, such as Either/Or, Fear and Trembling, Philosophical Fragments, and Stages on Life’s Way, were pseudonymous precisely because in them he was not speaking with his true voice. He was presenting himself falsely in order to gain a greater victory. He seems troubled that it was necessary to adopt this method, but insists that it was only “truth’s way of deceiving”. He had to speak indirectly if his point was to be heard.

This is what is achieved by the indirect method, which, loving and serving the truth, arranges everything dialectically for the prospective captive, and then shyly withdraws (for love is always shy) so as not to witness the admission which he makes to himself alone before God — that he has lived hitherto in an illusion.

In contrast, the works in which he was speaking candidly, as a religious author, such as in his Edifying Discourses, were published from the beginning under his true name, for in them he writes with no covert design.

After this explanation of how his overall authorship should be understood, he goes to some trouble to relate how his personal life was a reflection of his writing at each stage. Kierkegaard believed that an author was more than his words; the integrity of his words was derived from his life. He relates how, when writing the aesthetic works, he took pains to live as though he were indeed a target for his own designs. You might think this would occasion a little internal confusion (and might wonder why he would commit himself to this virtuosic, perilous, and not obviously necessary challenge) and you would be right to do so; he returns again and again to his need of intense interior focus so that in the thick of his artful deception his overall purpose should not be forgotten.

That he should not forget was critical, and a recurring theme in his writings is that he — and all of us with him — must struggle not to lose consciousness of ourselves and our responsibilities. He could not fall into forgetfulness or complacency because this task of awakening his readers was not something he had chosen to do, but a task that had been laid to his charge by Providence, and he was answerable for the results. The final section of the book discusses this aspect of his work, relating the ways in which he perceived divine guidance in his life and his vocation as a writer.

To anyone who is beginning to read Kierkegaard, I cannot think of a better place to begin than with this little book.

O’Brien: Theophilos

March 27, 2012

Michael D. O’Brien
(Ignatius, 2010)
450 p.

It seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write unto thee in order, most excellent Theophilus, that thou mightest know the certainty of those things, wherein thou hast been instructed.

It is a good premise for a novel: tell the story of the early Church through the eyes of Theophilos, the otherwise-unknown man to whom St. Luke addressed his Gospel. Who was he? How did the new Faith appear to him? Why did Luke write to him? And what became of him? All good questions, and Michael D. O’Brien imagines us into a possible set of answers.

In his telling, Theophilos is Luke’s adoptive father, a Cretan with a classical education and a love of philosophy. A physician by trade, he has brought Luke up to follow in his footsteps, and is dismayed when he sees him falling in with a Jewish sect devoted to Christos. At Luke’s invitation, he journeys to Galilee and Jerusalem to meet his friends and others who knew Jesus during his boyhood and ministry.

All this takes place in around the year 65, when there are still men and women alive who knew Jesus as a boy, growing up in Nazareth. There are some who remember him simply as “the carpenter’s son”, and regard the story about Resurrection as a fancy. Others are believers. Theophilos meets several people who are themselves represented in the Gospels, being those whom Jesus healed, or to whom he spoke.

Generally speaking, O’Brien does a good job of bringing the reader into that first-century world in which Christianity was still nascent and strange. There are a few instances in which the development of doctrine seems to have been accelerated, but for the most part he succeeds in drawing a convincing portrait of how the Faith may have appeared to its first adherents. Interestingly, he brings in several elements most associated today with charismatic and Pentecostal Christianity, in addition to the solid Catholic core.

The central thrust of the story concerns how Theophilos’ investigations affect his relationship to the new religion. I’ll not say too much about this for fear of spoiling things, but I will register a mild complaint, or, if that is too strong, a concern. I have read all of O’Brien’s novels (saving the most recent), and I admire his writing, but I believe that he does have a tendency to over-dramatize the spiritual life, chiefly, it seems to me, through what I will call externalization. When portraying a spiritual crisis, he tends to rely on certain external devices — voices, visions, things said in italics — rather than on the pain-staking (and admittedly extremely difficult) task of showing the subtle action of grace in the soul. For me, the voices and visions are a let-down because I have never experienced anything like that, at least not as overtly as they are presented in O’Brien’s work. Of course, there is no particular reason why the nature of my spiritual experience should be normative for writers, but I believe that my experience is not all that different from most people’s. Perhaps I am wrong about that. In any case, I would prefer to see something more subtle.

Having said that, I must also say that O’Brien is a very fine writer. He has a gift for dialogue, a good ear, well-developed characters, and he always writes with a seriousness of purpose that befits his themes. If there were greater justice in the fishbowl of Canadian literature, he would be having chats with Ms. Reisman, and his house would be as big as Mr. Martel’s. But such justice is eschatological.

Feast of the Annunciation, 2012

March 25, 2012

The eyes of Our Lady are the only real child eyes that have ever been raised to our shame and sadness. Yes, lad, to pray to her properly, you have to feel those eyes of hers upon you. They are not the eyes of indulgence — for there is no indulgence without some kind of bitter experience. No, they are the eyes of tender compassion, sorrowful surprise, and with something more in them, something inconceivable, something that makes her younger than sin, younger than the human race from which she sprang, and though a mother, by grace Mother of All Graces, the youngest sister of the human race. (Bernanos)

MacMillan on musical modernisms

March 20, 2012

A couple of weeks ago, the wonderful Scottish composer James MacMillan gave a talk at the church of St. Mary Magdalene, Brighton on the topic “The Future of Music, Modernity and the Sacred”. The talk turns out to have relatively little to say about the future, but it does provide an illuminating overview of the music of the twentieth-century, and of the competing interpretations of what musical modernism means.

His basic view on this period is similar to that set forth in Robert Reilly’s splendid book: a radical, ideologically driven, anti-traditional movement dominated the narrative, and it sidelined those composers who resisted. Yet in MacMillan’s view the dominance of that group is slowly but surely being overturned, in part because of the ineliminable element of craft in musical composition.

If the thought of a cage match between Pierre Boulez and Charles Ives sets your heart racing, this talk is definitely for you. In any case, it’s a very enjoyable survey of what has been happening in music over the past century.

(Hat-tip: The Chant Cafe)

Fermor: A Time to Keep Silence

March 19, 2012

A Time to Keep Silence
Patrick Leigh Fermor
(Penguin, 1988) [1957]
95 p.

When Patrick Leigh Fermor arrived at Fontenelle Abbey, it was not his first encounter with Christian monastics; we infer from his sun-drenched memories of “pouring out raki, cracking walnuts, singing mountain songs, stripping and assembling pistols…” that he had previously sojourned among monks of the Eastern tradition. Those earlier experiences set him up for a rough surprise that first evening, for he discovered a rather different ambiance: the monks filing into the chapel for Vespers were, he wrote, “exact echoes of Mrs Radcliffe’s villainous monastics and of the miscreants of Protestant anti-popish literature.” He sat back in a kind of dumbfounded disappointment:

As I sat at Vespers watching them, now cowled, now uncovered, according to the progress of the liturgy, they appeared preternaturally pale, some of them nearly green. The bone-structure of their faces lay nearly always close beneath the surface… [Here,] in the Abbey’s boreal shadows, there was never a smile or a frown. No seismic shock of hilarity or anger or fear could ever, I felt, have disturbed the tranquil geography of those monastic features. Their eyelids were always downcast; and, if now and then they were raised, no treacherous glint appeared, nothing but a sedulously cultivated calmness, withdrawal and mansuetude and occasionally an expression of remote and burned-out melancholy… I had a sensation of the temperature of life falling to zero.

Fermor retreated to his simple room that night in the monastery’s guest house with a sense of dismay bordering on disgust. And there, in the great silence, alone with his thoughts, he “suffered what Pascal declared to be the cause of all human evils”. It was a difficult beginning.

Yet is was only a beginning, and a good deal of the pleasure of this fine book is in seeing these first impressions slowly overturned, greater familiarity breeding respect, understanding, and admiration. Fermor was and remained — so far as I know, and for the purposes of this book — an unbeliever, and so in a real and significant sense he could see and experience monasticism only from the outside. This was a limitation. Yet, as observers go, one could look long and fail to find one as perceptive and generous.

The book is divided into three sections, the first devoted to his experiences at Fontenelle Abbey (as above), the second with his journey from the great Benedictine house of Solesmes to the Trappist motherhouse at La Grande Trappe, and the third with his explorations of the abandoned rock monasteries of Cappadocia, in modern Turkey. (Of these last I knew nothing prior to reading this book, and I was fascinated. Scrambling to learn more, I made the sad but predictable discovery that these wild outposts of ancient monastic life have today been converted into tourist sites.) The narrative is a mixture of history, personal observations, portraits of individual monks, and reflections upon the monastic way of life. Fermor came to admire certain aspects of monasticism: its practical self-sufficiency, its integrity, its total commitment to an ideal, its sheer durability. But mostly, I felt, his good opinion was due to his regard for individual monks whom he came to know well. They were men who could look him in the eye, with all that that entails. With the passing of time, he quietly reversed his original judgment, so that he could write, from the deep silence of La Grande Trappe:

All — and I profoundly believe this to be true — is quiet and peaceful, and the privacy of the individual silences is bridged by an authentic and brotherly love.

Fermor is regarded by some as one of our great prose writers, and there is much in this slim volume to support such a judgment. Even those of us who already know and love monastics and monasticism can enjoy the book for its literary beauty. For those who have not been exposed to monasticism, on the other hand, or for those for whom it seems especially strange or foreign, this book would make a fine introduction. It compares favourably with books which, arguably, serve a similar purpose, such as Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain or Kathleen Norris’ The Cloister Walk.


Their values have remained stable while those of the world have passed through kaleidoscopic changes. It is curious to hear, from the outside world in the throes of its yearly metamorphoses, cries of derision levelled at the monastic life. How shallow, whatever views may be held concerning the fundamental truth or falsity of the Christian religion, are these accusations of hypocrisy, sloth, selfishness and escapism! The life of monks passes in a state of white-hot conviction and striving to which there is never a holiday; and no living man, after all, is in a position to declare their premises true or false. They have foresworn the pleasures and rewards of a world whose values they consider meaningless; and they alone have as a body confronted the terrifying problem of eternity, abandoning everything to help their fellow-men and themselves to meet it.

[Spiritual warfare]
In mediaeval traditions, abbeys and convents were always considered to be inexpungable centres of revolt against infernal dominion on earth. They became, accordingly, especial targets. Satan, issuing orders at nightfall to his foul precurrers, was rumoured to dispatch to capital cities only one junior fiend. This solitary demon, the legend continues, sleeps at his post. There is no work for him; the battle was long ago won. But monasteries, those scattered danger points, become the chief objectives of nocturnal flight; the sky fills with the beat of sable wings as phalanx after phalanx streams to the attack, and the darkness crepitates with the splintering of a myriad lances against the masonry of asceticism. Piety has always been singled out for the hardest onslaught of hellish aggression. The empty slopes of the wilderness became the lists for an unprecedented single combat, lasting forty days and nights, between the leaders of either faction; when the Thebaid filled up with hermits, their presence at once attracted a detachment of demons, and round the solitary pillar of St. Symeon the Stylite, the Powers of Darkness assembled and spun like swarming wasps.

Much ado about nothing

March 15, 2012

A few interesting articles about science or philosophy of science:

  • William Carroll criticizes several recent statements about nothing by prominent physicists. That might sound like an odd thing to do, or like an awfully easy thing to do, but it is neither — well, maybe it is fairly easy. I recall that Stephen Hawking, in his most recent book, made a statement that deserved some kind of award from the Association for Short Term Memory Loss, for by the time he reached the end of the sentence he appeared to have forgotten how he started it. To wit: “Because there is a law such as gravity, the Universe can and will create itself from nothing.” One is tempted to ask, “What part of nothing don’t you understand?” Clearly, there is some conceptual confusion here, and Carroll is doing his part to try to clear it up.
  • Edward Feser gives a nice summary of Karl Popper’s arguments against the computational theory of mind. If you’ve ever passed an unpleasant afternoon reading contemporary philosophy of mind, you’ll have run into the idea: the mind is a computer program and the brain is a biological computer. Popper’s argument, which is essentially an argument against any causal theory of intentionality — where ‘causal’ means the kind of spatio-temporal causation relevant to physical science — is quite fascinating, and even thrilling. It has given rise, in the hands of folks like John Searle and others, to a suite of related arguments, all of which hinge, more or less, on the materialist’s own ‘interaction problem’, namely, the fact that there is a difference between physical causation and logical causation. Good stuff, and Feser’s writing is clear and accessible.
  • Finally, I am delighted to inform you that the Super Mario Bros. video game has been proved NP-hard. The march of knowledge is truly relentless.

Saward: The Beauty of Holiness

March 12, 2012

The Beauty of Holiness and the Holiness of Beauty
Art, Sanctity, and the Truth of Catholicism
John Saward
(Ignatius, 1997)
200 p.

The inability of so much modern thought to deal adequately with aesthetics has long served me as a motive for skepticism about its adequacy in general. When the early modern philosophers stripped the world of beauty, stuffing whatever glory and splendour we might encounter into our skulls, rendering it (according to taste) a private judgment or chemical frisson, they entered upon a metaphysical landscape from which, unless I am mistaken, few of the leading modern thinkers have returned. Speaking for myself, I have not been able to follow with any confidence; my efforts to think ‘rightly’ about such matters have all ended in failure. Beauty is real, it seems to me, and it is important to a life well-lived, much as goodness and truth are. A famous passage from von Balthasar resonates with me:

We no longer dare to believe in beauty and we make of it a mere appearance in order the more easily to dispose of it. Our situation today shows that beauty demands for itself at least as much courage and decision as do truth and goodness, and she will not allow herself to be separated and banned from her two sisters without taking them along with herself in an act of mysterious vengeance. We can be sure that whoever sneers at her name as if she were the ornament of a bourgeois past — whether he admits it or not — can no longer pray and soon will no longer be able to love.

Encouraged by such statements, I have tried, in my typically middling way, to be open and attentive to beauty. Since modernity has not been able to provide a theoretical ground for this practice, I have naturally sought intellectual foundations elsewhere. Beauty was taken more seriously by ancient and medieval thinkers. John Saward, in the process of developing a theological understanding of aesthetics, nicely illustrates the contrast by comparing the views of pre-eminent representatives of the medieval and modern traditions:

St. Thomas regards beauty as a property of being, a feature of reality, whereas the Enlightenment makes it a colourful subjective ‘value’ pasted over the penny-plain objective ‘fact’. For Kant, to say that the San Marco altarpiece is beautiful is merely to voice one’s feeling of pleasure at seeing the San Marco altarpiece; nothing in the painting corresponds to the judgement. By contrast, for Thomas, a thing is not beautiful because it is loved; it is loved because it is beautiful. Our minds through our senses perceive the beauty of Angelico’s altarpiece; they do not produce it. Beauty is not read into works of art, God’s and men’s; it radiates out of them. As Gerard Manley Hopkins says, it ‘keeps warm / Men’s wits to the things that are’.

That, I think, sums up the difference rather nicely, and also (I trust) conveys the attractiveness of the Thomist view. It is evident that Thomas’ understanding of beauty requires a vastly different, and far richer, metaphysics than modernity has typically been willing, or able, to sustain.

The purpose of John Saward’s book is, in part, to present the pre-modern (and, more specifically, Thomist) philosophy of beauty, and to unfold its many intimate connections to theology. Understood theologically, beauty — like everything else that is good — ultimately has its source in God, and Saward’s special theme, as the title of his book indicates, is to explore how the beauty of God shines forth in two particular ways: through holy lives and through sacred art. In doing so he picks up on something which Pope Benedict, then still a Cardinal, once said:

The only really effective apologia for Christianity comes down to two arguments, namely the saints the Church has produced and the art which has grown in her womb. Better witness is borne to the Lord by the splendor of holiness and art which have arisen in the community of believers than by the clever excuses which apologetics has come up with to justify the dark sides which, sadly, are so frequent in the Church’s human history. If the Church is to continue to transform and humanize the world, how can she dispense with the beauty in her liturgies, the beauty which is so closely linked with love and with the radiance of the Resurrection? No. Christians must not be too easily satisfied. They must make their Church into a place where beauty — and hence truth — is at home.

(This quotation actually serves as epigraph to Saward’s book, suggesting that it may have been the seed from which the book itself has grown.)

In developing this theme of beauty in Christian lives and art, Saward turns, naturally enough, to one of those in whom both aspects were manifest: Beato Angelico. A significant part of the book is devoted to a close study of his San Marco altarpiece, not from an art historical perspective, but in order to unpack the many ways in which the painting illustrates the Catholic tradition’s theological understanding of beauty and holiness.

Holiness and beauty are united in an exemplary, if not quite preeminent, way in the Blessed Virgin Mary. She has greater moral beauty than any other created being, and, in agreement with Saward’s motivating concept, Christian tradition has piously put her at the center of its artistic tradition, portraying her as lovely to behold, ‘the most beautiful lady’. Her beauty illuminates all that it touches. Saward devotes a good deal of attention to this fact, tracing Our Lady’s influence upon our music, architecture, and literature, and exploring the theological reasons for it.

In the final section of the book Saward turns to the special class of saints who lost their lives for the faith. He argues that persecution and martyrdom in the Church have frequently called forth beautiful art, citing, for instance, the cases of Robert Southwell and William Byrd in the wake of Edmund Campion’s martyrdom, or Bernanos’ Dialogues of the Carmelites after the French Revolution. Conversely, Saward observes that very often persecution and heresy are combined with iconoclasm, an assault on the faithful and on Church teaching being paired with an assault on her art. This was so during the English Reformation, in Calvin’s Geneva, in the French Revolution, and, more recently, in Communist nations. That such things occur together is not surprising, for Christian art is an expression of Christian thought and devotion, and it is an arguable point whether such iconclasm constitutes an assault on beauty per se. Yet the spectacle of someone defacing art of such great beauty is unseemly, at the very least, and, contends Saward, is fruitfully suggestive of a deeper conflict.

The Holiness of Beauty is a rewarding read, with considerably more in it than I, at any rate, was able to glean on one reading. It comes bedecked with laudatory blurbs from the likes of Aidan Nichols, Stratford Caldecott, Thomas Howard, and even Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger. If you like those authors, you will probably like this as well. The writing is quite dense, but not overly scholarly, and is frequently beautiful. On numerous occasions I paused, at length, over an arresting thought or elegant turn of phrase, and it occurred to me that certain sections of the book might well serve as fodder for lectio divina. The theology is, as far as I could detect, thoroughly orthodox. Part of me wishes that the theological material was not couched so thoroughly in Thomist language — surely a theme as foundational as this could be expressed in other ways — and all of me wishes that I had understood the theological basics more clearly than I did, but these are minor complaints. It is a good book.


Some quotations:

‘When sundered from beauty, truth becomes a correctness without splendour and goodness a value of no delight.’

‘Christ is beautiful, and he comes to restore us to beauty.’

‘The creature intent on glorifying itself resents the Creator who humbled himself.’

‘The man who would venerate the holy icons must gaze with the loving attention of a child, not the peering curiosity of the connoisseur.’

‘Positivism, materialism, atheism — these are the great deadly enemies of art, for they blind a man to the wealth and wonder of being. It was from all such rude reductions of reality that William Blake asked to be delivered when he prayed, ‘May God us keep / From single vision and Newton’s sleep’.’

‘Every true love has the inner form of a vow.’ (Balthasar)

The three prayers

March 12, 2012

Good news! Our friend Janet Cupo — known hereabouts as simply “Janet” — has gone and started her own new blog: The Three Prayers. Janet has been reading and commenting here for a long time, and I, for one, am looking forward to returning the favour. I will add her blog to my blogroll just as soon as I get a chance.

Palestrina found-footage

March 9, 2012

At the end of 2011 I selected a recording by the British ensemble Alamire as my ‘Recording of the Year’. Here is some recent iPhone footage of them singing in rehearsal. The music is the Agnus Dei from Palestrina’s Missa Aspice Domine, which is rarely recorded. Beautiful! I am going to start saving my pennies now.

(Hat-tip: Chant Cafe)