Archive for the 'Catholicism' Category

Feast of the Annunciation, 2021

March 25, 2021

With the Annunciation this year in such close proximity to Holy Week, let’s hear a beautiful pre-Reformation poem on the Seven Last Words of Christ, which begins “Mary, full of virtue, pity and grace…”. The full text can be read here. This musical setting is by Robert Fayrfax, an astonishingly great composer whose 500th anniversary we are marking this year; the score can be read here. The ensemble in this video is the Tallis Scholars.

A happy and blessed feast to all!

Esolen: The Hundredfold

January 25, 2021

The Hundredfold
Songs for the Lord
Anthony Esolen
(Ignatius, 2019)
224 p.

“It is manna”

I am at peace under the open skies,
Gathering berries into a gallon pail,
As finches twitter, and the small gnats wail,
And if a cloudy empire lives or dies,
No news will reach me when the seagull cries;
More potent is the snuff of last year’s leaf
In the pouch of the earth where worms abound
And black ants carve their boroughs, reef to reef,
Reveling in the joy of being brief
Beneath the eye of heaven, where I have found
Blessings of God like hoarfrost on the ground.

Poetry was once more popular than it is today. We have the modernists to blame, at least in part, for that. Their abandonment of form, disdain of popularity, and retreat into something approaching private language left the reading public cold. But the problem goes deeper than that, for poetry itself — even the older, once popular, poetry of Blake, or Longfellow, or Frost — has been mostly abandoned. Modern life feels out of step with poetry. The nearest we get to it, I suppose, is in pop songs — a beggarly substitute, by and large.

Anthony Esolen has long been an advocate for our great poets, and for the reading of poetry. He sees in the decline of poetry’s fortunes a sign of cultural decay, and, likewise, in a revival of poetry a green shoot. But a revived poetry would be a poetry that once again touched the heart, and took up residence in the memory, of ordinary people.

Hence The Hundredfold, a long poem — a single poem, he is careful to insist — in one hundred parts, intended to be accessible and attractive to as many readers as will deign to pick it up. It is religious poetry, largely, as much of our greatest poetry has been. Like the Scriptures themselves, the poem follows an arc from creation to redemption, pivoting on the life of Christ, and especially on Easter.

The architecture of the poem has been carefully designed. I have said that it consists of 100 segments — which, for convenience, I shall call “poems” in their own right. Two-thirds of these (66) are short lyric poems, like the one above, each prefaced by a phrase from Scripture. Sometimes these poems are absorbed in the Scripture itself, and sometimes the verse of Scripture is the basis for a meditation on modern life:

“Then wrought Bezaleel and Aholiah, and every wise hearted man, in whom the Lord put wisdom.”

I was a boy, and gazed into the dome
Flocked with the saints and angels of the Lord:
Mysterious clarity, keen as any sword,
Alien shores and faraway, but home;
Holiday language of the loving eye
Summoning worshipers to rise and come
Robed in the heraldry of God on high.
Then came the learned with their sidelong speech,
And sat about the glory like a swarm
Of weevils on the corn in ear, to preach
Only such wonders as their wit could reach,
With the vague softness of the common worm:
Flesh without bone, and structure without form.

With these lyric poems are interwoven 21 hymns, written expressly to be sung to well-known hymn melodies. Taken as a group, these are, perhaps, my favourite parts of The Hundredfold, and I would love to see them incorporated into hymnals. As poems, they are vastly better than most of the recent material that fills modern hymnals. Esolen is a student of hymnody, and understands the appeal of sturdy, poetic song for group singing. He writes in the great tradition that has given us the lion’s share of our finest hymns. As an example, consider this hymn written for the tune CVM RHONDDA:

In this far-off land of famine,
Gentle Shepherd, come to me.
I have wondered from Thy plenty;
Sands and bones are all I see.
Son most faithful, Son most faithful,
Let me ever feast with Thee,
Let me ever feast with Thee.

Leave me not upon the journey,
Halt and lame and like to fall.
Hold my arm when I shall tremble,
When the thieves and death appall.
Stand beside me, stand beside me,
At the final trumpet-call,
At the final trumpet-call.

Break the bonds of flesh and darkness,
Thrust to hell the powers of night!
Shower Thy living grace upon me,
God of God and Light of Light!
Lord and Conqueror, Lord and Conqueror,
Let me praise Thee in Thy sight,
Let me praise Thee in Thy sight!

Tell me that doesn’t stir the heart!

The third main plank in the architecture consists of a set of 12 dramatic poems — epistles, monologues, and dialogues, in iambic pentameter — expressly after the manner of the master, Robert Browning. These are marvellous, and, if I may, I’ll change my mind and claim these as my favourite parts, albeit for private rather than communal enjoyment. The first eavesdrops on the thoughts of the Blessed Virgin as she silently ponders her sleeping son; another is told, many years after the fact, by the boy who had brought the loaves and fish when he went to hear Jesus preaching; another is spoken by Blind Bartimaeus; and still another relates a conversation between the two men whom Jesus met on the road to Emmaus. These verses are wonderfully flexible, the characters vividly portrayed, with their own distinctive voices, and the poems themselves, like Browning’s exemplars, are deeply thoughtful and imaginative creations. By the very nature of their form, they are hard to excerpt, but let me illustrate with this passage which opens an epistolary poem written by Pontius Pilate to the Emperor:

To the Sun-Brilliant Giver of Increase,
The great Bridge-Builder spanning heaven and earth,
Chief of the Julian clan, First Citizen,
Mild Counselor to our gathering of old men,
Commander of armies fortressed from the banks
Of the Euphrates to the chilly Rhine —
Whose barbarous sots once struck from the black woods
And slaughtered a whole legion, while their whores
Poured like a swarm over the corpses, spoiling
The spoilers of their gold, so Parthian rings
Still wedged on dead men’s fingers shed their gleam
On the beer feasts of some grease-eating king
Who has to use two hands to count to ten,
Mocking with all his thanes your southern godhead
As his sheep leave their droppings in his hall —
To thee, O Claudius, from the rocks of Spain
I send obedient salutations: Hail.

The Hundredfold concludes with a tour de force: a 100 line coda written in 33 Dantean tercets. It’s a poetic form that is very difficult in English, but Esolen is equal to the task. (He has done it before, in the concluding canto of his translation of Dante.) The neat numerics of this coda are no accident; the whole of The Hundredfold is built on a strict numerical plan. The dramatic poems and hymns, together, are 33 in number — being the age of Christ at his Passion — and they total 3333 lines. The 66 lyric poems total 100 stanzas and 1000 lines. The coda, as I’ve already said, echoes the 33 and 100. I don’t know about you, but this kind of thing sets my heart racing and my palms to sweat.

It is not for me to say whether Esolen is a great poet, but I am confident in my judgement that he is a good poet. As a contribution to a revival of poetry, and of Christian culture, The Hundredfold is an admirable effort. I can recommend it unreservedly.

***

“You shall not make your children pass through fire.”

They are not half in love with easeful death,
They are not half in love with anything;
No field in summer makes them catch their breath
Where the corn ripens, and the sparrows sing;
The man wishes he had no seed to cast
In the warm spring upon the ready earth;
The woman, that her womb were bolted fast.
Death they may fear, but birth
Is perfect terror, or the sad and slow
Contraction of the little life they play,
Without a germ or root or bloom to show,
Numb to the pulse of both the night and day.
Nor do they haunt where Moloch’s flames appall,
Because they would not bear a child at all.

**

“Ephphatha,” which means, “Be opened.”

Because I lay under the weight of earth
And the dust was a pillow to my cheek —
The dust and blood that swaddled me at birth,
When I first wailed as if my heart would break —
I could but hear and speak
Faintly, and in confusion of the sound;
And all my fellow men who dwelt in tombs,
Where never a call of clarion trumpet comes,
Spoke and heard as if muffled by the ground
And by the crowds of buried men around.

Lord, let me not be deaf forevermore.
Open my clotted ear, untie my tongue,
Let me break forth in song,
The double prayer that ear and tongue are for.
Lead me to the clear air where I belong,
Where the least whisper is a call to be
One with the listening angels in their throng,
As they await the call of victory.

**

Christ is the image of the invisible God.

At the ninth height of being, eyes are bright
With what is now, what was, what is to be.
Shall we then cup our hands to sip the light?
Nay, in the river frolic and be free,
While the nine choirs like rollers of the sea
Sing of the far-flung spray of flower and star,
I have the abyss of glory here, for He
The Three and One, who thunders from afar,
Is the intimate wellspring where the blessed are.

Feast of All Souls, 2020

November 3, 2020

Feast of the Ascension, 2020

May 21, 2020

Jesus led his followers into the vicinity of Bethany, we are told. “Lifting up his hands he blessed them. While he blessed them, he parted from then, and was carried up into heaven” (Luke 24:50-51.) Jesus departs in the act of blessing. He goes while blessing, and he remains in that gesture of blessing. His hands remain stretched out over this world. The blessing hands of Christ are like a roof that protects us. But at the same time, they are a gesture of opening up, tearing the world open so that heaven may enter in, may become “present” within it.

The gesture of hands outstretched in blessing expresses Jesus’ continuing relationship to his disciples, to the world. In departing, he comes to us, in order to raise us up above ourselves and to open up the world to God. That is why the disciples could return home from Bethany rejoicing. In faith we know that Jesus holds his hands stretched out in blessing over us. That is the lasting motive of Christian joy.

— Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth.

Today into the heavens has ascended
Jesus Christ, the King of Glory, Alleluia!
He sits at the Father’s right hand,
and rules heaven and earth, Alleluia!
Now have been fulfilled all of
Father David’s songs,
Now God is with God, Alleluia!
He sits upon the royal throne of God,
in this his greatest triumph, Alleluia!
Let us bless the Lord:
Let the Holy Trinity be praised,
let us give thanks to the Lord,
Alleluia! Amen.

Music by Sir Charles Villiers Stanford.

Mosebach: The Heresy of Formlessness

April 15, 2020

The Heresy of Formlessness
The Roman Liturgy and its Enemy
Martin Mosebach
(Angelico, 2018) Second edition.
xviii + 199 p.

“I admit quite openly that I am one of those naive folk who look at the surface, the external appearance of things, in order to judge their inner nature, their truth, or their spuriousness.”

So says Martin Mosebach early in this gentle and appreciative meditation on the traditional Roman Rite — what is today, following Pope Benedict XVI, called the “extraordinary form” of the liturgy for Latin-rite Catholics. It is one thing to listen to what theologians or liturgists say about the public worship of the Church, and another to see what they do. One sometimes belies the other, or at least the connection between the two is not always obvious.

“Liturgy wars” have waxed and waned for the last fifty years in the Church, since the radical changes introduced in the wake of the Second Vatican Council: the Latin abandoned, the altar turned around, the altar rails removed, the music changed, and so forth. For a long time the pre-Council rite was broadly forbidden — or was thought to be so. Benedict XVI liberalized its celebration in 2007, but today it is nonetheless the case that the vast majority of parishes worldwide celebrate the Mass in the new, “ordinary” form, and most Catholics have never attended, and most priests have never celebrated, a Mass in the older, “extraordinary” form.

Mosebach’s love is for the older form, and his book is a thoughtful account of why. It’s not a polemical book. Apart from a few paragraphs here and there, the new Mass hardly gets a mention.

His instinct to judge on appearances is, he believes, the natural attitude of “people of aesthetic sensibility”; those sensitive to artistic unity, to beauty, and to form are, in his experience, less inclined to admit, or at least to tolerate with equanimity, a putative division of form and content, which he calls “the German vice”. A loss of form, he argues, almost always entails a loss of content. To be sure, the Mass is not merely a work of art, but surely it is at least that.

The argument, which I have heard myself, that the form of the Mass, its aesthetic face, is irrelevant to the underlying reality and meaning of the Mass, he finds unconvincing. It has a certain validity, of course, for the gracious Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist is not dependant on the celebration of the Mass being beautiful or alluring. But surely the Mass, if by it Christ truly becomes present to us, ought to be surrounded with as much beauty, honour, and glory that we can muster. Our liturgy should, insofar as is possible, make that reality tangible to our senses. That would be fitting. That should be our aspiration. We are human creatures, after all, who know what we know through our senses. And so, when, decade after decade, this does not happen, when the liturgy is tawdry or banal, something is awry. The defect of form may possibly begin to affect our understanding, and even our apprehension, of the truths the Mass celebrates and enacts. The true reality of the Mass is not determined by its form, but neither is the latter irrelevant to the former.

Among the most fruitful observations Mosebach makes in the course of his reflections is that liturgy is a kind of revelation: it makes God known to us. We therefore ought to treat it with the reverence we own to other sources of revelation, like Scripture:

“Even in the earliest Christian times Basil the Great, one of the eastern Church Fathers, taught that the liturgy was revelation, like Holy Scripture itself, and should never be interfered with. And so it was, until the pontificate of Paul VI [that is, Vatican II]. Naturally this attitude did not prevent essential modifications, but such changes as occurred took place organically, unconsciously, unintentionally, and without a theological plan. They grew out of the practice of liturgy, just as a landscape is altered over centuries by wind and water.”

The reforms of the liturgy that occurred to create the new Mass were not of this organic kind; this was a consistent theme of Pope Benedict XVI’s extensive theological reflections on the liturgy. The Mass has been subjected to all manner of experiment in the meantime, pushed here, and pulled there, and sometimes treated as something that we make for ourselves according to our own perceived needs. (Mosebach cannily draws a connection between liturgical reformers and historico-critical exegetes of Scripture, both of whom he sees as tempted to make themselves masters of revelation rather than allowing revelation to master them.)

But this is quite at odds with the understanding that Mosebach (and Benedict) think proper. Liturgy, as with any revelation, is to be received as a gift, and it is a great advantage of the old rite that it comes to us in this way: not authored by anyone, not flexible enough to suit all tastes, not requiring the priest to be spiritually gifted in order to render it reverent. It is “begotten, not made”, to echo Mosebach’s wittiest appropriation.

This “impersonal” nature of the liturgy, its given-ness, its just-being-there, he connects to the sacramental nature of Catholicism. But the intelligibility of the whole sacramental system is contingent on its being of divine, not human, origin. “For this reason these sacraments and rites must be most strictly kept aloof from all subjectivism and all private and personal inspiration.” So with the liturgy, and for the same reasons.

**

I have said that the book is not polemical, and that is true. It nonetheless has a certain melancholy air, for Mosebach knows that the liturgy which he loves, that gift which he has received from God, has been nearly destroyed. He is conscious of living in the long, sad aftermath of something beautiful befouled and ruined. The respect which he instinctively feels is owed to sacred rites long inhabited has gone unheeded:

We must admit, with no beating about the bush, that the Roman liturgy’s fifteen-hundred-year tradition has been breached, and breached irretrievably. Dismayed and speechless, we had to watch as the supreme Catholic authority bent its whole might — a might that has grown over the centuries — to the task of eradicating the very shape of the Church, the liturgy, and replacing it with something else.

He understands the reasons given for undertaking a reform, and is doubtful of them, but emphasizes the disconnect between what the Council fathers intended and what was actually perpetrated after the Council:

Disastrously, the implementation of the conciliar decrees was caught up in the cultural revolution of 1968, which had broken out all over the world. That was certainly the work of a spirit — if only of a very impure one. The political subversion of every kind of authority, the aesthetic vulgarity, the philosophical demolition of tradition not only laid waste universities and schools and poisoned the public atmosphere but at the same time took possession of broad circles within the Church.

This is an old story, hardly original observations, but stated with a certain panache.

*

The book is not like Jesus’ tunic, without seam, woven from the top throughout, but instead consists of essays and occasional pieces gathered together on account of their shared interest in things liturgical. This leads to a certain amount of repetition, and also promotes the introduction of themes and ideas that are slightly digressive relative to the main argument, eddies in the stream, but intriguing ones.

He takes up the question, for instance, whether there is something anti-ritualist in the bones of Christianity, a religion that has, after all, been periodically wracked by iconoclasm. His own father was a Protestant who worshipped alone with a small black prayer book and nothing else. But he thinks ritualism is proper to Christianity, on the grounds that Christianity is founded on the person of Jesus, a physical presence then and now, not an abstraction, and he argues that ritual is a natural way of honouring his presence and making it tangible to the senses.

Likewise he touches on the role of music in the liturgy (a much travelled theme!), the value of our Eastern liturgies as a foil for seeing what is right and wrong with our Western liturgies, and the meaning of the much-disputed Vatican II phrase “active participation” vis-a-vis liturgy. There is a wonderful essay about his visit to Fontgombault, where the monks continue to celebrate the liturgy in its old form.

*

The writing in the book is graceful and often striking in its formulations. Mosebach is a well-regarded novelist in his native Germany, and it shows. (Indeed, the last selection in this book is actually an excerpt from one of his novels.) Writing this articulate and pleasant to read is rare in any context, much less in the realm of meta-liturgical literature, where polemics have long ago calcified along partisan lines.

*

My own experience of the liturgy answers in some respects to Mosebach’s, but not in all. I am, in general, a Novus Ordo Mass-goer, like the vast majority of Catholics today. This is partly because opportunities to attend the older rite are rarer, partly because I often feel like I’m making an especially big disruption when I attend the traditional rite with my children, and partly because I myself prefer certain aspects of the new rite, such as the vernacular readings.

I’ve been lucky, though, in my experience with the Novus Ordo Mass. The number of really awful experiments I’ve seen and heard have been few in number, and haven’t been as bad as the train wrecks Mosebach describes witnessing in Germany. Of course I’ve been to many Masses that were aesthetic horrors, but generally we’ve attended parishes where the Mass is celebrated in a way that is beautiful and even glorious. Sacred music sounds. Incense billows. The vestments are beautiful. The Mass is often celebrated ad orientem (in which the priest spends much of the Mass with his back turned to the antics of my children in the aisles). The atmosphere is reverent and prayerful.

That said, I do make an effort to attend the traditional Latin rite when I can. Perhaps I go once a month or so, usually not on a Sunday, but for an evening Mass or a special feast. I love this Mass. I especially love to go alone, when I can have the freedom to sink into the silence and remain there. (I have learned from this rite the value of simply being present, which has been a boon to my child-chasing adventures at the new Mass also.) At this form of the Mass I feel especially close to the heart of our tradition, and close to the saints (especially, for some reason, to the post-Reformation English saints), for this is the form of the Mass that they knew.

I have friends who have had strong negative reactions to the traditional Mass; I don’t share those feelings at all, but I sort of understand them. They support the troubling claim that the two forms of the rite are quite dissimilar. When Pope Benedict liberalized the old Mass he did so in part in the hopes that the two forms of the rite would mutually inform one another, drawing them closer together. And I have attended Novus Ordo Masses which were very close to what I experience at the traditional Mass, so I know the dissimilarity of form is not unbridgeable. To a first approximation, I see the older form as the standard to which the newer form should aspire, generally speaking. In the meantime, I am not interested in taking sides in any contest. My desire is that both forms be celebrated as beautifully and lovingly as possible, and that I know and love both.

In the end I appreciated Mosebach’s measured and personal approach to his theme. The book is a love letter, of sorts. Agree with him or not, I think a reader with an interest in these matters would appreciate the manner in which he makes his case.

Easter Sunday, 2020

April 12, 2020

I got me flowers to straw thy way;
I got me boughs off many a tree:
But thou wast up by break of day,
And brought’st thy sweets along with thee.

The Sunne arising in the East,
Though he give light, & th’ East perfume;
If they should offer to contest
With thy arising, they presume.

Can there be any day but this,
Though many sunnes to shine endeavour?
We count three hundred, but we misse:
There is but one, and that one ever.

– George Herbert (1633)

Happy Easter!

Tenebrae III

April 10, 2020

Jerusalem surge

Tenebrae II

April 9, 2020

Omnes amici mei

Tenebrae I

April 8, 2020

Tristis est anima mea

Feast of the Annunciation, 2020

March 25, 2020