Archive for the 'Catholicism' Category

Psalm

March 24, 2015

There are certain passages of Scripture that have become permanently associated with a particular piece of music. I cannot hear the phrase “For unto us a child is born” without hearing Handel’s music dancing beneath it.

The Psalm at today’s Mass is another example. Psalm 102: “Hear my prayer, O Lord, and let my crying come unto thee”. I can never hear it without hearing Purcell’s poignant 8-part setting:

Jean Vanier

March 12, 2015

I am delighted to learn that Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche, has been awarded the Templeton Prize this year. The Templeton Prize is awarded annually to a person “who has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension”.

Vanier is a Canadian, the son of a distinguished Canadian family, who has devoted his life to living with and caring for those with severe disabilities. I have had the privilege to hear him speak on two occasions, both of them unforgettable. It is hard to put into words the effect his presence had on me. The man is luminous. There is a simplicity and gentleness about him that is very attractive. If I had to wager on anyone I have met being a saint, I would wager on him.

Previous winners of the Templeton Prize have included the Dalai Lama, Charles Taylor, Freeman Dyson, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and Billy Graham, but one would have to reach all the way back to the very first award, which went to Mother Teresa, to find a more deserving recipient. Just thinking of Jean Vanier affirms life’s spiritual dimension.

(Hat-tip: Rod Dreher)

Lenten reading: “the sharp dart”

March 6, 2015

He may well be loved, but not thought. By love He can be caught and held, but by thinking never. Therefore, though it may be good sometimes to think particularly about God’s kindness and worth, and though it may be enlightening too, and a part of contemplation, yet in the work now before us it must be put down and covered with a cloud of forgetting. And you are to step over it resolutely and eagerly, with a devout and kindling love, and try to penetrate that darkness above you. Strike that thick cloud of unknowing with the sharp dart of longing love, and on no account whatever think of giving up.

The Cloud of Unknowing.

More on Mantel’s malicious More

January 24, 2015

My central complaint about Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell novels was her “mean-spirited and calumnous” treatment of Thomas More, whom she portrayed as “a remorseless kill-joy and sadist.” (I am quoting myself.) At the time I recommended Peter Ackroyd’s biography of More for its more balanced appraisal.

Today I came across an even better, because more intimate, assessment of More’s character:

In a word, if you want a perfect model of friendship, you will find it in no one better than in More. In society he is so polite, so sweet-mannered, that no one is of so melancholy a disposition as not to be cheered by him, and there is no misfortune that he does not alleviate. Since his boyhood he has so delighted in merriment, that it seems to be part of his nature…

In human affairs there is nothing from which he does not extract enjoyment, even from things that are most serious. If he converses with the learned and judicious, he delights in their talent; if with the ignorant and foolish, he enjoys their stupidity. He is not even offended by professional jesters. With a wonderful dexterity he accommodates himself to every disposition. As a rule, in talking with women, even with his own wife, he is full of jokes and banter.

In other words, hardly the crabbed old vulture of Mantel’s imagination. These words come from the pen of Erasmus, the great humanist of the age and no sycophant. Read the whole thing at Supremacy and Survival.

From the same source I learn that there is a new television programme based on Mantel’s novels, which more than justifies a renewed critical look at her portrayal.

(Incidentally, to base a television programme on those books seems an odd choice considering that their greatest merits are distinctly literary: their tone, diction, and even grammar, none of which translate well to the screen.)

Epiphany 2015

January 6, 2015

adoration-magi-giotto

Epiphany, which closes out the twelve days of Christmas, is always a joyful feast but this year I have a particular, additional reason to rejoice, for today a friend has been received into the Church. Or, I should say, “today”, for these movable feasts can sometimes prove elusive quarry, and in fact he was received on Sunday. But no matter! Let’s celebrate today.

Since this friend is rather fond of music, I offer John Sheppard’s setting of Reges Tharsis, the Gradual from the Epiphany Mass.

Reges Tharsis et insulae munera offerent,
reges Arabum et Saba dona (Domino Deo) adducent.
Et adorabunt eum omnes reges terrae,
omnes gentes servient ei.
Gloria Patri et Filio et Spiritui Sancto.

The kings of Tarshish and the islands will offer tribute,
the Kings of Arabia will bring gifts to the Lord God;
And all kings will adore him,
and all nations will serve Him.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost.

Why do I use my paper, ink, and pen?

December 1, 2014

Today is the feast of St. Edmund Campion, martyred at Tyburn on this day in 1581. A young man, Henry Walpole, was present at the execution and afterwards wrote a poem, “Why do I use my paper, inke, and penne?”, to commemorate the occasion. Walpole was inspired by Campion’s example to become a priest and, in time, a martyr as well.

Some years after Campion’s death, William Byrd set a few stanzas of Walpole’s poem to music. This was a rather bold move on his part; the only previous attempt to publish the poem had resulted in the torture and death of the publisher. But Byrd, because his talent had made him a favourite with the Queen, had more latitude, and made use of it.

Why do I use my paper, ink and pen?
And call my wits to counsel what to say?
Such memories were made for mortal men;
I speak of Saints whose names cannot decay.
An Angel’s trump were fitter for to sound
Their glorious death if such on earth were found.

That store of such were once on earth pursued,
The histories of ancient times record,
Whose constancy great tyrants’ rage subdued
Through patient death, professing Christ the Lord:
As his Apostles perfect witness bare,
With many more that blessed Martyrs were.

Whose patience rare and most courageous mind,
With fame renowned perpetual shall endure,
By whose examples we may rightly find,
Of holy life and death a pattern pure.
That we therefore their virtues may embrase
Pray we to Christ to guide us with his grace.

***

Byrd did not publish the more controversial stanzas, of which these are but a sampling:

My soveraigne Liege behold your subiects end,
your secret foes do misinforme your grace:
who in your cause their holy lives would spend
as traytors dye, a rare and monstrous case,
the bloudy wolfe, condemnes the harmles shepe
before the dog, y whiles the shepherds slepe.

England looke up, thy soyle is stained with blood,
thou hast made martirs many of thine owne,
if thou hast grace their deaths will do thee good,
the seede wil take which in such blood is sowne,
and Campions lerning fertile so before,
thus watered too, must nedes of force be more.

You thought perhaps when lerned Campion dyes,
his pen must cease, his sugred tong be still,
but you forgot how lowde his death it cryes,
how farre beyounde the sound of tongue and quil,
you did not know how rare and great a good
it was to write his precious giftes in blood.

But these stanzas could have been, and, with the right audience, perhaps were sung in performance.

You can read the whole poem here.

The Benedictines of San Benedetto

October 21, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The flaming heart

October 7, 2014

st-augustine

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

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

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

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

 

Devotion to the Sacred Heart

October 1, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And again, a little later:

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

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

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

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

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

Brown: Augustine of Hippo

August 28, 2014

Augustine of Hippo
Peter Brown
(California University Press, 2000; Second Ed.) [1967]
563 p.

Though it is now nearly 50 years since its first publication, I believe that this biography by the distinguished historian Peter Brown is still considered to be among the most eminent modern studies of Augustine’s life and thought. I first read it — in a fragmentary and harried fashion — when I was an undergraduate taking a course on medieval philosophy. To revisit it now, many years later (though still under circumstances that only a satirist could describe as leisurely), has been a great pleasure. I may have greater affection for one or another saint of the Church, but there is no saint whom I revere more than Augustine.

All biographers of Augustine have to contend with the fact that they are writing about a subject who has already written, famously and with penetrating insight, about himself. Of course his Confessions were published when he was yet “in the middle of the way,” and there remains much to say about his long and productive life. Brown covers the principal events of his life — his boyhood in north Africa, his migration to Italy as a young, ambitious man, his embrace of Manichaeism, his encounter with St. Ambrose and conversion to Christianity, his election as bishop of Hippo, and his many subsequent struggles to defend the Christian faith against rivals, struggles which decisively shaped Christianity itself. More than this, however, his purpose is to set Augustine in his context, filling in the background not with gold-leaf, as in so many of those beautiful medieval portraits, but with the intellectual and social ferment of the times. In this he is notably successful, though it must be said that even his living, breathing Augustine turns a bit wan and pale when Augustine’s own voice is given room on the page. Is there another figure from antiquity who speaks to us today with such immediacy?

Brown emphasizes the influence of Plato, mediated by Plotinus and Porphyry, on the thought of Augustine. His reading of Plotinus was a deep and creative one; he assimilated that mystical system so thoroughly that he was able to extend it in a way that was distinctively his own, grafting it fruitfully onto his theological work. Yet as he aged he moved away from the neo-Platonism of his youth in important ways, and the care with which Brown traces this gradual change is one of the principal virtues of the book.

As a young man, Augustine believed that with the proper discipline, education, and determination it would be possible to achieve a kind of complete spiritual transformation in this life, to live the life of a “philosopher”: wise, virtuous, and untroubled by sin. But his own experience, not to mention his troublesome duties as a bishop among his wayward flock, gradually convinced him that this was mistaken. Our hearts are so ‘wounded’ (his own word) that in this life they are likely never to be entirely healed; even our baptism does not lift this burden from us; we struggle onward, helped by grace but struggling even to co-operate with it. Much of his most potent and valuable philosophical and theological work, on grace and freedom, on faith and reason, and on love, was born directly out of this darker view of our human condition. Brown puts the matter this way:

“The ideal remained the same: the ‘purification’ of the mind, where shadows gave way to reality. ‘In the morning I shall stand before Thee and contemplate.’ But the process of ‘purification’ itself, had become infinitely more complex. In Augustine’s early works the soul needed only to be ‘groomed’ by obvious and essentially external methods, by a good education, by following rational demonstrations, by authority conceived of primarily as an aid to learning. In his middle age, this ‘purification’ is treated as more difficult, for the soul itself, he thought, was more deeply ‘wounded'; and, above all, the healing of the soul has come to involve more parts of the personality. The problem is no longer one of ‘training’ a man for a task he will later accomplish: it is one of making him ‘wider’, of increasing his capacity, at least to take in something of what he will never hope to grasp completely in this life. No one can truly understand a book, Proust has said, unless he has already been able to ‘allow the equivalents to ripen slowly in his own heart’. This profoundly human truth is what Augustine will always tell his readers: they must ‘look into the Scriptures, the eyes of their heart on its heart’.

“… To separate ‘faith’ and ‘reason’… goes against the grain of Augustine’s thought. For what concerned him was to set a process in motion: it was to ‘purify’, to ‘heal’ a damaged mind. He never doubted for a moment that this process happened through the constant interplay of the two elements: of faith ‘that works by love’, of understanding, ‘that He may be known more clearly and so loved more fervently’.”

And, in another place:

Augustine’s early ideal had been to lead a life of spiritual elevation achieved through intellectual effort and in the company of like-minded friends. He later came to see himself much more as a pilgrim, seeking something which he would never find in this life, and always necessarily incomplete: “Do we not all long for the future Jerusalem? … I cannot refrain from this longing: I would be inhuman if I could. Indeed, I derive some sweetness from my very lack of self-control; and, in this sweet yearning, I seek some small consolation.”

These mature views entered directly into Augustine’s famous conflict with Pelagius. In many respects, in fact, Pelagianism bears a striking resemblance to Augustine’s own youthful views, consisting as it does of an essentially optimistic view of human nature, a simple notion of human freedom, and an expectation that a life of moral perfection is attainable in this life. In struggling with Pelagius, Augustine was, in a sense, struggling again with his own self, and this perhaps accounts not only for his perceptiveness but also the passion with which he entered the fray.

Against Pelagius’ rosy view of human nature, Augustine’s can seem dire. Yet Brown argues that it was, deep down, the kinder and more forgiving: “Paradoxically … it is Augustine, with his harsh emphasis on baptism as the only way to salvation, who appears as the advocate of moral tolerance: for within the exclusive fold of the Catholic church he could find room for a whole spectrum of human failings.” And he did find room: it is reassuring to hear the language with which this pastor of souls discussed his own moral failings and those of the flock entrusted to him: “Many sins are committed through pride, but not all happen proudly… they happen so often by ignorance, by human weakness; many are committed by men weeping and groaning in their distress…”.

For Augustine in his maturity, self-control and reason were insufficient: man was beset by unconscious and conflicted desires that eluded control, and could only be healed by a long process, under grace.

A fundamental difference between Pelagius and Augustine was the way they understood freedom: “For Pelagius, freedom could be taken for granted: it was simply part of a common-sense description of a human being…” For him “the difference between good and bad men was quite simple: some chose the good, some the bad.” But for Augustine matters are more complex: “‘I could say with absolute truth and conviction (that men were not sinless) because they did not want to be sinless. But if you were to ask me why they did not want to be so, then we are getting out of our depth’.”

At the root of our action and even our thought, for Augustine, is our love. He distinguished his two great cities, the City of God and the City of Man, on the basis of the objects of their love. “My love is my weight,” he said, and so no account of human life can be adequate if it does not place love at the center of things:

“For an act of choice is not just a matter of knowing what to choose: it is a matter in which loving and feeling are involved. And in men, this capacity to know and to feel in a single, involved whole, has been intimately dislocated… Men choose because they love; but Augustine had been certain for some twenty years, that they could not, of themselves, choose to love…

“Freedom, therefore, for Augustine, cannot be reduced to a sense of choice: it is a freedom to act fully. Such freedom must involve the transcendence of a sense of choice. For a sense of choice is a symptom of the disintegration of the will: the final union of knowledge and feeling would involve a man in the object of his choice in such a way that any other alternative would be inconceivable.”

That last thought is a rather striking one. I remember being startled by it when I first encountered it — not in the pages of Augustine, mind you, but in Aquinas. It is, perhaps, just one small indication of the pervasive influence which Augustine’s life and work has had on subsequent Christian history.

There are many threads running through this book; I have here plucked at only a few. In an extended (~100 p.) epilogue for this second edition, Brown surveys the extensive academic work that has been done on Augustine and his world since he first wrote. I was surprised to learn that substantial collections of otherwise unknown sermons and letters of Augustine were discovered as recently as the 1970s and 1990s; he gives an overview and discusses their importance. And he candidly assesses his book’s strengths and weaknesses. The latter, while not absent, are rather minor when set beside the book’s sobriety, competence, and humane spirit.

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