Archive for the 'Catholicism' Category

Smith: How (Not) to be Secular

November 25, 2015

smith-taylorHow (Not) to be Secular
Reading Charles Taylor
James K.A. Smith
(Eerdmans, 2014)
160 p.

It was the toast of many a publishing season: people were seen hunched over it on the subway each morning, others absentmindedly wandered into traffic while poring over its pages, neighbourhood book clubs spontaneously formed so that readers could share their insights, and Facebook was flooded with pithy quotations — I speak, of course, of Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. Alas for me. As much as I might wish to find my place within that circle of satisfied readers, I have had to take a sobering look at my circumstances and accept that a 900 page text on culture and philosophy is not a realistic ambition for me at present.

And so, instead, I have turned to this attractively slim précis, in which James K.A. Smith takes the reader by the hand and guides him through the various stages of the argument of that unattainable magnum opus.

A Secular Age is, in part, an historical analysis of how Western culture became “secular” during the past five hundred years or so, and, in part, an analysis of what that secularity consists in and feels like for those who are living through it, and, in part, a critique of the secular age and its particular pieties. I have placed “secular” in quotation marks here (but not hereafter) because, as Taylor points out, the word has multiple senses, and he intends it in a particular sense. There is an older sense of secular (which Taylor calls secular_1) which was used simply to distinguish something from the sacred, without necessarily implying any opposition: things of this world, such as politics, agriculture, and friendships could be described as secular_1. Pushing the boundaries a little, people even used to speak of “secular priests”, meaning priests not affiliated with a religious order. But a second sense of “secular” (predictably enough, secular_2) gradually developed which was conceived as the realm of neutrality and objectivity with respect to religious or metaphysical claims. Yet Taylor points to a third sense of secular — secular_3 — which he takes to describe a society in which religious belief has become actively contested, and our age is “a secular age” in this third sense.

To begin with, Taylor wants to challenge the way we think about our secular age. There is a tendency today to believe that secular society is just what remains when religion, superstition, and credulity are stripped away. Its principles are thought to be obvious and clear to any rational person; they are, in some sense, the “natural” principles governing social and intellectual life when those are unsullied by irrational traditions. (President Obama nicely illustrated this in his remarks following the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, which he described as “an attack on all of humanity and the universal values we share”. Granted, this was boilerplate liberalism, but that’s just the point: he reflexively described his own values as universal, which, in light of the obvious fact that they are not actually universal, can only make sense if they are conceived of as somehow the natural or default position.)

But Taylor sees secularity in quite a different way, and the first part of his book is dedicated to describing why. He argues that Western secularity is an achievement, a view with a positive history of its own, with its own particular assumptions and values. It is not a default position for rational people, but rather a contingent position that happens to thrive in a particular time and place. I can but sketch the basic outlines of this constructive process by which modernity emerged from the medieval world: whereas for medieval people things in the natural world were experienced as in some sense signs, grounded in a higher reality and full of meaning, the modern view is determinedly disenchanted. For modernity, meaning retreated from things into minds, any intrinsic purposes being expelled. The interior life became impermeable to the natural world or to higher realities (giving birth to what Taylor calls “the buffered self”). Society dissolved into a collection of individuals (what Taylor calls “the great disembedding”). The conception of the good life ceased to be oriented toward the transcendent. This general withdrawal from a world of intrinsic meanings and purposes Taylor, exhibiting a kind of genius for neo-logisms, dubs “excarnation”. But since people cannot actually live without meaning, modernity substituted for the realm of intrinsic meanings a cultural project to locate meaning immanently by reference to moral notions such as “benificence” or “mutual support”, all of which Taylor gathers up under the umbrella of “exclusive humanism” — exclusive of the transcendent, presumably.

The overall effect of all these changes — changes in the way the world is actually experienced — has been a shift in the plausibility conditions for religious belief. For many people it was, and is, no longer obvious that belief in God is compelling or even responsible. At the very least, religious belief and practice are contested in the modern world.

Contested, but not routed, because for Taylor it is characteristic of our age that everyone’s position is experienced as doubtful. Believers realize that their account of things is one option among others. Unbelievers, meanwhile, experience a sense of loss, a feeling that there must be “something more”. We feel the strange pressure of an absence:

“our actions, goals, achievements, and the like, have a lack of weight, gravity, thickness, substance. There is a deeper resonance which they lack, which we feel should be there.” (Taylor)

The origin of this sense of loss is ambiguous on Taylor’s account. It might be an “historical” pressure, simply a residue from old habits, or it might be a real “transcendent” pressure, caused by what Taylor calls “solicitations of the spiritual”. In any event, these “cross-pressures”, which constantly buffet against our sense of secular complacency or religious security, are, in Taylor’s view, experienced by nearly everyone, and the prevalence of such experience Taylor takes to be the defining feature of our secular age.

In his view, cross-pressures arise from three principal sources: the experience of personal agency (“the sense that we aren’t just determined, that we are active, building, creating, shaping agents”); from ethics (the sense that our ethical motives are more than just disguised biological instincts); and from aesthetics (the sense that art has meaning and significance for us). Now, it seems to me that these cross-pressures, so enumerated, pertain especially, or even exclusively, to the secular side, for it is precisely there that determinism, relativism, and meaninglessness are most likely to find a footing, and so it precisely there that the experience of freedom, goodness, and beauty can trouble one’s complacency.

Indeed, if I have understood Taylor’s argument correctly there is an interesting asymmetry between believers and unbelievers when it comes to cross-pressures. For the believer they arise largely because of social factors — roughly speaking, there are atheists and agnostics to contest belief, and a political order has been erected without reference to religion, which unsettles the confidence believers have in the necessity and reliability of their religious traditions and experiences — while for unbelievers the cross-pressures arise directly from the intrinsic features of human experience. It would seem to imply that a religious society untroubled by cross-pressures is a theoretical possibility, but that a parallel unruffled secular society is not. But perhaps this is too simple, for the many transitions that drew the modern world out of the medieval did indeed affect the way that religious believers conceive of and relate to God and to the traditions to which they belong, and the overall tendency of those changes has unmistakably been to undermine or occlude the religious ethos. Religious faith today is more of an achievement, more subject to struggle and trials, than it was for our ancestors, and this is so not just because my neighbour is an atheist. But I am not convinced that the sources of cross-pressure which I listed in the previous paragraph are relevant to the believer’s discomfort.

The next stage of Taylor’s account features another memorable phrase: “the nova effect”. The idea is this: in a secular age, as both faith and doubt become contested, there arises a cultural “explosion of options for finding (or creating) significance”, or what he describes also as “a galloping pluralism on the spiritual plane”. The dynamics of the cultural cross-pressures drive the creation of a host of alternatives to both orthodoxy and unbelief. For the most part, these alternatives seek a remedy for the sense of loss, but do so within the immanent frame (that is, without reference to the transcendent), as in the Romantic notion of “the sublime”. Indeed, the Romantic movement in the nineteenth-century can, I think, be fairly understood as an instance, and a particularly impressive and important one, of this attempt to recover meaning apart from transcendence by investing the arts and human feelings with the highest ideals and significance.

In contemporary society, “spiritual but not religious” can reasonably be understood as a rubric under which the nova effect continues to generate tailor-made substitutes for religion. In a world sundered from transcendent sources of meaning and authority, the spiritual quest is left without referents, and people feel justified in finding their own path to whatever meaning and significance they discern. Hence arises the topsy-turvy notion that one can pick and choose to adhere to those elements of a religious tradition that make a personal appeal, and disregard the rest. “Authenticity” is in the ascendent, and the religious impulse is turned inward to serve the individual, his interests, and desires, adorning them with blossoms plucked from the vineyard of the Lord.

It is also possible, of course, that one of the options produced by the nova effect is a return to traditional religion, as cross-pressures propel one back toward the transcendent. This could be seen, and even intended, as a rejection of the nova effect and all its empty promises. But, as Taylor stresses, things are not so simple, for even those who want to reject this view of things are nonetheless embedded within it, and must contend with it. Given that expressive individualism is an option, it can be rejected only by choosing to reject the priority of choice, which, at the very least, puts one in a paradoxical position. Which is a rather sad thought, but it highlights the difficulty: we cannot escape the disenchanted world; we live in it.


Taylor deploys this distinction to good effect when considering attitudes toward transcendence in our secular age. We can be either open to transcendence, or we can be closed, but in either case we can adopt a take or a spin. Taylor himself has a take on an open frame: he is a practicing Catholic, but he is aware of and interested in the cross-pressures that he feels. But there are others who have a spin on an open construal of the world: they are dismissive of the real difficulties that a religious sensibility faces in our culture; they are perhaps combative with respect to the surrounding culture and uncomfortable with doubt. Similarly for those with a closed construal of things: there are those, as I said earlier, for whom the secular view is “just the way things are”; this is a spin on closure. Taylor argues that it is “hegemonic in the Academy”, and not uncommon beyond. But the fourth quadrant of this little chart is occupied by those who have a take on a closed frame. They are oriented toward the immanent, but are aware of “dispatches from fullness” that hint at deficiencies in their own position. (An honest question: who fits that description?)

Having laid out these distinctions, Taylor devotes a considerable number of pages to interrogating the secular confidence that a closed construal is “obvious” or “natural”. In our culture tendencies toward a closed construal are reinforced by what he calls “closed world structures”, which place constraints or pressures on our construals. These “closed world structures” pretend to be discoveries, but are actually creations, and they are typically value-laden. For example, most of the “closed world structures” of modernity rely on associating modernity with “adulthood” and alternatives to modernity with “infantile” notions like authority and comfort. Such associations coax one toward a modernist affiliation, for who wants to be childish?

Other, deeper, “closed world structures” include a false dichotomy between religion and humanism, philosophical materialism, which denies the existence of the transcendent and claims for itself the authority of science, and modern epistemology, which structures knowledge in such a way that inferences to the transcendent stand at the most remote and tenuous position relative to what can be known with certainty. “The inclination to believe…is no longer the impetus in us towards truth, but has become rather the most dangerous temptation to sin against the austere principles of belief-formation” (Taylor). I won’t go into detail, but I think the idea is clear. We stand at the far end of an immense cultural project to make a closed construal seem natural, and it is little wonder that it succeeds to a great extent.

What is perhaps surprising is that a closed construal still has chinks in its armour. Taylor devotes the final sections of the book to a critique of our secular age, drawing attention to its weaknesses and highlighting those spaces where it is susceptible to “fullness”, which is his term for a kind of rumour of glory, an echo or image within our immanent frame of the transcendent realm beyond it. It is here that Taylor’s Catholicism is most evident, for, as Smith helpfully points out, his critique typically begins with him “levelling the playing field” by describing how both secularism and Christianity face similar problems, and then arguing that Christianity deals more effectively with them.

For example, both Christianity and secular modernity acknowledge that not all is well with the world, but one of the principal transitions in modernity has been from seeing evil as sin to seeing it as sickness. This was supposed to be a liberation from feelings of guilt, but its practical consequence has been that therapy has been translated from the moral plane to the technical plane; instead of submitting to a priest one now submits to a therapist, and personal responsibility has been replaced by a sense of victimization. Which is better?

Or, to take another example: a standard modernist critique of religion is that it suppresses or mutilates human desires in pursuit of some transcendent good. But Taylor points out that the same charge can be made of secularism, which also has moral aspirations which require the discipline and denial of desires. The problem, in fact, is more acute for secularism because all of the pressure is “on us” to succeed; if we don’t, we have no one to blame but ourselves.

Having surveyed a number of such cases, Taylor comes around again to the possibility, and desirability, of religious conversion. He considers several notable examples of “those who broke out of the immanent frame”, or at least moved from a closed take to an open one, including Illich, Maritain, Peguy, Havel, and Hopkins — which is a pretty good list. Despite the hazards of this turn to the transcendent, outlined earlier, he finally endorses it not just as a possible course, but as the most fully reasonable one:

“In our religious lives we are responding to a transcendent reality. We all have some sense of this, which emerges in our identifying and recognizing some mode of what I have called fullness, and seeking to attain it. Modes of fullness recognized by exclusive humanisms, and others that remain within the immanent frame, are therefore respondent to transcendent reality, but misrecognizing it. They are shutting out crucial features of it. So the structural characteristic of the religious (re)conversions that I described above, that one feels oneself to be breaking out of a narrower frame into a broader field, which makes sense of things in a different way, corresponds to reality.” (Taylor)

And that, it seems to me, is a good place to stop.


Or nearly so. As I said at the beginning, I didn’t actually read Taylor’s book; I read Smith’s summary, and so everything I’ve said here has been filtered through him. I found his book, which would ideally be read alongside Taylor’s book, to be clear and well-structured. He has an accessible style, and seems to know what he’s talking about. I am grateful for his book, which has allowed me to learn about, and learn from, a rather important contribution to the ongoing conversation about our secular age, and all without breaking a sweat.

A wee bit here, a wee bit there

November 20, 2015

A few wee bits of note:

  • The recent Synod on the Family in Rome hasn’t, by and large, been a laughing matter, so this provides welcome comic relief.
  • Fr Longenecker, a long-time blogger at Standing on my Head, has recently launched a new blog: The Suburban Hermit. If you’ve an interest in things Benedictine, or like to look at old abbeys and read old books, it might be for you. Just today he wrote about our sort-of patroness, St Julian of Norwich.
  • Canada has a new Prime Minister, and he’s setting a new tone in international affairs.
  • Janet Cupo is planning to host an online book club during Advent this year; we’ll be reading Caryll Houselander’s The Reed of GodThere’s probably still time to get a copy if you’re interested; mine arrived in the mail today.
  • My day job, in part.
  • Wouldn’t it be great to have a school like this in your neighbourhood?
  • On a similar note: Russell Kirk on why one might want to learn Latin? I studied it for a year. Avis, avis, avis.
  • One possible reason: to realize more clearly that English is not normal.
  • Did you know there is an animal that can survive being dehydrated for 10 years, being kept at 200 degrees below freezing, and going to outer space? Meet the mightiest wee bit of them all: the tardigrade.

Julian of Norwich: Revelations of Divine Love

November 13, 2015

Revelations of Divine Lovejulianofnorwich
Julian of Norwich
(Penguin Classics, 1998) [c.1410]
235 p.

Given that this blog has, since its inception, held its motto (“All manner of thing shall be well”) from Julian of Norwich — by way of T.S. Eliot — it is high time that I finally got around to sitting down with Julian herself. She was an English anchoress born in the mid-fourteenth century, and has come to be seen as one of the chief glories of the remarkable flourishing of English mysticism that distinguishes that time. (The writings of Margery Kempe and of the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing would be others. In fact, it is worth noting that Julian herself is also anonymous: we call her “Julian” only because her cell was within the wall of the church of St. Julian in Norwich.)

Revelations of Divine Love has its origin in a powerful mystical experience which Julian had on 8 May 1373, when she was about 30 years old. She was gravely ill, and in preparation for her death a priest entered her room carrying a crucifix aloft. Upon viewing the crucifix, Julian experienced a series of sixteen visions, or “showings”. She afterwards recovered from her illness and, after meditating on the visions for some twenty or thirty years, finally wrote about them. The Revelations comes in two versions: short text and long. This volume from Penguin Classics includes both.

The showings themselves range from visions of blood trickling from the wounds of Christ upon the crucifix to intense experience of sorrow and joy to a vision of God in His glory. Julian’s piety focuses on the suffering of Christ, his wounds, his blood, and his sorrows, over which she lingers with great tenderness. This is a kind of piety which I myself do not share to any great extent, but which I respect as having a long history within Catholic devotion. Like the author of The Cloud, she is refreshingly plain-spoken and down to earth.

She is also remarkably sanguine and cheering; her saying that “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well” is a fair summation of her attitude. She is possessed of a great confidence in the goodness of the God who is love. Writing about repentance, for instance, she says,

When we fall through frailty or blindness, then our kind Lord touches us, moves us and calls us, and then he wants us to see our wretchedness and sinfulness and acknowledge it humbly. But he does not want us to stop at this point nor does he want us to be very anxious to accuse ourselves, nor does he want us to be inwardly miserable; but he wants us quickly to turn our thoughts to him; for he stands all alone and waits for us, sorrowing and lamenting until we come, and is impatient to have us with him; for we are his joy and his delight, and he is our balm and our life.

She makes no attempt to deny the evil of sin nor the wretchedness of the sinner, but these things find their place within a basically happy framework: “our kind Lord” stands ready, calling us to himself, and rejoicing in our return. Speaking as one who has yet to develop a good relationship with the confessional, I find her rather encouraging.

She is quite good on prayer as well. Prayer raises questions. Do our prayers really affect God’s actions? Would God not act providentially but for our prayers? If God’s will is immutable, what can be the purpose of petitionary prayer? Is it true, as Augustine said, that prayer is really about us, being God’s means for slowly conforming our wills to his own? Is prayer our reaching out to God or God speaking through us, cor ad cor loquitur? Julian reports, rather strikingly, that in one of her showings Jesus spoke to her in these words, “I am the foundation of your prayers,” and then she goes on to describe what she believes is happening in genuine prayer:

God teaches us to pray, and to trust firmly that we shall obtain what we pray for, though everything which is done would be done, even if we never prayed for it. But the love of God is so great that he considers us sharers in his good deed, and therefore he moves us to pray for what it pleases him to do…

So she seems to be in agreement with Augustine: God’s will is what it is, and it does not bend to our whims, and we pray in order to learn to see things as he sees them. In another place (see below) she goes so far as to say that we only pray for specific outcomes when we are in some way distant from God. What I particularly like about her view of the dynamic of prayer is its sense of unity and shared joy between the soul and God.

It has taken me quite a few months to read Julian’s Revelations. I started it about six months ago while on retreat at the Abbey of the Genesee, and I have slowly pegged my way through it during my private devotions. It has been a good companion.

A few extended quotations from the book are appended below. See also here.

[Three touchstones]
Man relies on three things in this life, three things by which God is worshipped and we are helped, protected and saved. The first is the use of man’s natural reason; the second is the general teaching of Holy Church; the third is the gracious inner working of the Holy Ghost; and these three are all from one God.

[A vision of God]
When our courteous Lord shows himself to our soul through his grace, we have what we long for; and then for a time we are unaware of anything to pray for; our only aim and our whole strength is set entirely on beholding God; and to me this seems an exalted, imperceptible prayer; for the whole purpose of our prayer is concentrated into the sight and contemplation of him to whom we pray, feeling marvellous joy, reverent fear and such great sweetness and delight in him that at that moment we can only pray as he moves us. And I know very well that the more the soul sees of God, the more it longs for him, through his grace.

But when we do not see him in this way, then we feel a need to pray for a particular purpose, because we lack something, and so as to make ourselves open to Jesus; for when the soul is tormented, troubled, and isolated by distress, then it is time to pray and make oneself pliable and submissive to God. But no kind of prayer can make God bend to the soul, for God’s love is always the same. And so I saw that when we see something we need to pray for, then our good Lord follows us, helping us in our entreaty.

And when though his special grace we behold him plainly, seeing no other need, then we follow him and he draws us into him by love; for I saw and felt that his marvellous and abundant goodness fills up all our faculties; and then I saw that his continual operation in all manner of things is done so kindly, so wisely and so powerfully that it surpasses all our imagining and all that we can believe and think; and then we can do no more than contemplate him, rejoicing, with a great and powerful longing to be completely united with him, resting in his dwelling, enjoying his love and delighting in his kindness.

And then we shall, with this precious grace, through our own humble and continual prayers, come to him now in this life by many mysterious touches of precious spiritual revelations and feelings, apportioned to us as our simplicity can bear it; and this is done and shall be done, by the grace of the Holy Ghost, until we die in longing for love.

And then we shall all enter into our Lord, clearly knowing ourselves and fully possessing God. And we shall all be unendingly held in God, seeing him truly, feeling him fully, hearing him spiritually, smelling him delectably and swallowing him sweetly; and then we shall see God face to face, fully and familiarly; the creature that is made shall see and endlessly contemplate God, who is the Maker.

[Closing thoughts on love]
This book was begun by God’s gift and his grace, but it seems to me that it is not yet completed. With God’s inspiration let us all pray to him for charity, thanking, trusting and rejoicing; for this is how our good Lord wants us to pray to him, as I understood from all that he conveyed, and from the sweet words where he says very cheeringly, ‘I am the foundation of your prayers’; for I truly saw and understood in what our Lord conveyed that he showed this because he wants to have it better known than it is. Through this knowledge he will give us grace to love and cling to him; for he feels such great love for his heavenly treasures on earth that he wants to give us clearer and more comforting sites of heavenly joy as he draws our hearts to him, because of the sorrow and darkness which we are in.

And from the time that this was shown, I often longed to know what our Lord meant. And fifteen years and more later my spiritual understanding received an answer, which was this: ‘Do you want to know what your Lord meant? Know well that love was what he meant. Who showed you this? Love. What did he show? Love. Why did he show it to you? For love. Hold fast to this and you will know and understand more of the same; but you will never understand or know from it anything else for all eternity.’

This is how I was taught that our Lord’s meaning was love. And I saw quite certainly in this and in everything that God loved us before he made us; and his love has never diminished and never shall. And all his works were done in this love; in this love he has made everything for our profit; and in this love our life is everlasting. We had our beginning when we were made; but the love in which he made us was in him since before time began; and in this love we have our beginning. And all this shall be seen in God without end, which may Jesus grant us. Amen.



Update: It seems that Julian’s writings are available in a handsome Middle English edition; were I to begin again, I would seriously consider it. Also, if I could choose one book to read about Julian it would be this one by Denys Turner.

Another point about Julian that is worth noting is that some of her statements are theologically controversial. Her showings revealed, to take an instance, that God does not attribute our sins to us as personal faults; I was not able to clearly apprehend to what she thinks God does attribute them. This is one of the perennial problems with private revelations: they have idiosyncracies. Meanwhile she denies that her showings were private, in the sense of being intended for her alone, and resists any suggestion that they are in conflict with Church teaching, which introduces some interesting tensions into her writing…

Childs: God’s Traitors

November 7, 2015

childs-traitorsGod’s Traitors
Terror & Faith in Elizabethan England
Jessie Childs
(Bodley Head, 2014)
463 p.

I have discussed books about the history of Catholicism in England during the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I before. Jessie Childs has written a very interesting and well-researched volume covering the same period. What distinguishes hers from others, and what gives it considerable appeal, is its focus on several generations of one prominent recusant Catholic family: the Vaux family. They figure in any competent account of the Jesuit mission to England, for they were key players in protecting the priests and sustaining the mission, but putting them at the center of the story has the advantage of letting us see more clearly how the swirling religious and political controversies of the period affected real people.

In the case of the Vaux family, the most important figures were women: Anne and Eleanor, especially. They harboured priests, allowed Catholics to meet in their homes, had hides built into the walls and staircases of their manors, and provided whatever support the Jesuits needed. There is a certain irony in the fact that the prominence of women in this story is largely a result of the social and legal position of women in Elizabethan society. Because they could not own property, they could not have their property confiscated. Because they did not have careers in public life, they were not subject to the variety of impediments facing Catholics in public life. Their private social roles allowed them to act with a freedom that was simply not possible for men.

Childs brings her story up to the Gunpowder Plot and its aftermath. She is rather critical of the actions of Henry Garnet, SJ, who was the Jesuit Superior in England during most of the period she covers. Garnet learned of the Plot — or at least knew that something was afoot, even if the details were hidden from him — under the seal of the confessional. While acknowledging the inviolability of the seal (and, generally speaking, it should be said that Childs is even-handed but sympathetic in her treatment of Catholicism), and acknowledging that Garnet did take some action to avert the disaster, she ultimately judges him to have done too little. It’s a difficult point, with reasonable arguments on both sides.

Needless to say, the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot was a calamity for Catholics throughout England. Whatever lackadaisical tolerance they might have enjoyed disappeared overnight. Numerous Catholics, priests and lay-people, including Henry Garnet himself, were captured and executed. Those tenacious Brits still burn Guy Fawkes in effigy every November 5. When it comes to the burdens English society placed on Catholics, on the other hand, and to the lives of the roughly 200 Catholics who were executed under Elizabeth in the years preceding the Plot, it is fair to say that they do not remember. Books like this one do the good service of reminding them, and us.

Seeking and finding

October 29, 2015

The seeking is within everyone’s reach; everyone may have it by God’s grace, and ought to have it by the Church’s wisdom and teaching. It is God’s wish that we should observe three things in our seeking: the first is that our search should be committed and diligent, with no laziness, as it may be through his grace, glad and cheerful without unreasonable depression and unprofitable misery. The second is that for his love we await him steadfastly, without grumbling and struggling against him, until our life’s end, for life lasts only a short while. The third is that we should trust him utterly with sure and certain faith, for that is what he wishes.

We know that he will appear suddenly and joyfully to all those that love him; for he works secretly, and he wishes to be perceived, and his appearance will be very sudden; and he wants us to trust him, for he is most kind and approachable — blessed may he be!

— Julian of Norwich,
Revelations of Divine Love.

Good Catholic books for kids

October 2, 2015

Not only am I a busy father, but I am also a busy godfather.  It is sometimes hard for me to keep track of all my godchildren, but I am pretty sure I could field a baseball team by now.  Our team would probably be called the Discalced Crusaders, or something similar.

(Incidentally, I have a hard time thinking of a good way of incorporating Catholicism into the name of a baseball team.  Think of baseball words: ball, bat, base, diamond, catch, pop, run, out, strike.  I can’t think of a way to pun on any of them in a religious sense.  When I was on the physics department’s baseball team we were called the Magnetic Fielders; I wish I could think of something with that kind of wit.  This might explain why baseball is not popular in predominantly Catholic countries.)

Anyway, one of the pleasures of being a godfather is that I get to give gifts to my godchildren from time to time, when the fancy strikes me, and I am fond of giving books.  The trouble is that when I go to my local Catholic bookstore and peruse the books for kids and young adults (my godchildren range in age from 4 to 21) I can’t help noticing something: there’s a lot of crap.

So I am looking for recommendations of good Catholic books for kids and teenagers. (I don’t have as much trouble with adults.) Suggestions are most welcome.

Let me mention a few of my own favourite books of this kind:

cooney-jugglerThe Little Juggler was adapted by Barbara Cooney from a French legend, and was first published in 1961. It tells the story of a young boy in medieval Europe who wants to serve God but only knows how to juggle. The story has been adapted, with some differences, by others (such as in Tomie dePaola’s The Clown of God), but this one is the best. The illustrations are wonderful, and the text is elegant and moving.

hodges-christopherMargaret Hodges has adapted a few classic tales about saints for children, and I really like her Legend of St Christopher. The story, which comes from The Golden Legend, tells the story of a strong man who wants to serve the world’s most powerful king. He first serves in the court of a great ruler, then he serves the devil, and finally he serves Christ. The illustrations are superb; they were done by Richard Jesse Watson.

gubbio-bedardThere are shelves of books about St Francis, but my favourite (of those I have seen) is The Wolf of Gubbio by Michael Bedard, with illustrations by Murray Kimber. It tells the story of how Francis tamed the wolf of Gubbio. Once again, the illustations are a big part of the draw here; they are fantastic.

One begins to discern the limits of my knowledge: these are all picture books suitable for young children. They are all narrative and quasi-legendary, rather than Biblical or catechetical. I’m not saying that’s a problem, but it is a limitation.

I’d be grateful for recommendations of other good books for Catholic children.

Here and there

September 4, 2015

Links to a few interesting things that have come my way in the past few weeks:

  • An unexpectedly deep and moving interview with Stephen Colbert from the pages of, of all things, GQ magazine. I don’t count myself a “fan” of Colbert, exactly, having not really seen enough of him to feel strongly one way or another, but this interview has certainly increased my respect for him.
  • Two years ago in my annual “best films” summation I praised the films of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. Steven Greydanus has recently written a longer, more informed essay on their work, and I recommend it.
  • The 52 Authors project continues to roll at Light on Dark Water, and one of the most recent entries is on G.K. Chesterton. Louise did a nice job with it, and it is well worth reading.
  • Those undercover videos exposing Planned Parenthood have been creating quite a stir, at least in certain quarters. Writing in Crisis, Monica Miller defends the tactics used to obtain the videos. I understand the argument that the videos are morally tainted because the sting involved deception and lies and lying is a great evil. I understand the argument that pro-lifers, who already occupy the moral high ground, should not stoop to unethical means to advance their good cause. On the other hand, my moral intuition is that David Daleiden has done something heroic, worthy of praise and not blame. It is not clear to me that in making that judgement I am guilty of letting the end justify the means. Miller helps me to reflect on that moral intuition.
  • If you haven’t heard about the Planned Parenthood videos, it could be because your favourite news source is in bed with the organization. Also at Crisis, Joseph Schaeffer has written a detailed examination of apparent conflicts of interest within major media companies. This essay, I believe, deserves to be widely read because it addresses an aspect of the coverage that I haven’t seen elsewhere.
  • Meanwhile, at the New York Times, Ross Douthat has been doing yoeman’s work defending the pro-life cause against objections and misunderstandings: Part I and Part II.
  • Finally, to end on a happy note, let’s have some music. The cello is my favourite instrument, and I’ve amassed quite a collection of music written for it, but only today did I discover Heitor Villa-Lobos’ Bachianas Brasileiras No.1, written not just for the cello, but for a whole ensemble of cellos! Here is the final fugue:

An Englishman and an American in Rome

June 25, 2015

Attentive readers will have noted that things have been rather quiet around here of late. This is due, mostly, to the fact that the duties of fatherhood have finally completed their encroachment upon what I used to call my “free time,” and occasions for reading and writing (and, for that matter, arithmetic) have become harder to find. I am actually enjoying at present a few months of paternity leave from the office, and I had thought that I would be able to arrange matters so as to open up some time for writing, but thus far it has not proved so.

But we did find time, last month, to holiday for a few weeks in Italy, spending our time mostly in the Eternal City (with one side jaunt to the hill country and Assisi). While there, I was reading (in addition to a wonderful guide book first published in 1903) a few Roman travel memoirs, especially those of Charles Dickens (in Pictures from Italy) and Henry James (in Italian Hours).

Now Dickens, for all his merits, seems to have been tone deaf to Catholicism, and although he has many approving things to say about Rome and the Romans, he can find little kind to say about the Catholic side of Rome. Of his first visit to St. Peter’s, for instance, he says:

Immediately on going out next day, we hurried off to St. Peter’s. It looked immense in the distance, but distinctly and decidedly small, by comparison, on a near approach. The beauty of the Piazza, on which it stands, with its clusters of exquisite columns, and its gushing fountains—so fresh, so broad, and free, and beautiful—nothing can exaggerate. The first burst of the interior, in all its expansive majesty and glory: and, most of all, the looking up into the Dome: is a sensation never to be forgotten. But, there were preparations for a Festa; the pillars of stately marble were swathed in some impertinent frippery of red and yellow; the altar, and entrance to the subterranean chapel: which is before it: in the centre of the church: were like a goldsmith’s shop, or one of the opening scenes in a very lavish pantomime. And though I had as high a sense of the beauty of the building (I hope) as it is possible to entertain, I felt no very strong emotion. I have been infinitely more affected in many English cathedrals when the organ has been playing, and in many English country churches when the congregation have been singing. I had a much greater sense of mystery and wonder, in the Cathedral of San Mark at Venice.

If you read carefully, you’ll have noted that Dickens describes the church as “distinctly and decidedly small,” which can only be stubbornness on his part, for it is the obvious opposite of the truth, and the impression of the entrance to the subterranean tomb of St. Peter as being “a very lavish pantomime” sound to me like a Protestant gentleman’s determination not to like the place. And his opinion failed to improve on further acquaintance:

The effect of the Cathedral on my mind, on that second visit, was exactly what it was at first, and what it remains after many visits. It is not religiously impressive or affecting. It is an immense edifice, with no one point for the mind to rest upon; and it tires itself with wandering round and round. The very purpose of the place, is not expressed in anything you see there, unless you examine its details—and all examination of details is incompatible with the place itself. It might be a Pantheon, or a Senate House, or a great architectural trophy, having no other object than an architectural triumph. There is a black statue of St. Peter, to be sure, under a red canopy; which is larger than life and which is constantly having its great toe kissed by good Catholics. You cannot help seeing that: it is so very prominent and popular. But it does not heighten the effect of the temple, as a work of art; and it is not expressive—to me at least—of its high purpose.

Never mind the technical detail that St. Peter’s is not a cathedral. The “one point for the mind to rest upon” at St. Peter’s is hard to miss: it is the tomb of St. Peter under the altar under the splendid baldacchino of Bernini. It is hard to believe that he visited the church twice and didn’t notice it. Especially in a space which is so distinctly and decidedly small.

But his point about the impression of the church being a somewhat diffuse one has an element of truth in it. One can wander up and down inside it without constantly having the focal point in view. Henry James picks up on this quality, but in a more approving mood than Dickens, when he writes:

You think you have taken the whole thing in, but it expands, it rises sublime again, and leaves your measure itself poor. You never let the ponderous leather curtain bang down behind you—your weak lift of a scant edge of whose padded vastness resembles the liberty taken in folding back the parchment corner of some mighty folio page—without feeling all former visits to have been but missed attempts at apprehension and the actual to achieve your first real possession.

I note with interest, and some envy, that in James’ day (writing in 1873) one could enter St. Peter’s by mounting the steps and pulling aside a leather curtain. It is a long way from the interminable lines and security checks that a modern visitor must bear. (The old paradox of tourism: I’m so pleased to be here, but what’s with all these other people also being here?) But James continues, elaborating on the same theme:

Much of the constituted beauty resides in the fact that it is all general beauty, that you are appealed to by no specific details, or that these at least, practically never importunate, are as taken for granted as the lieutenants and captains are taken for granted in a great standing army—among whom indeed individual aspects may figure here the rather shifting range of decorative dignity in which details, when observed, often prove poor (though never not massive and substantially precious) and sometimes prove ridiculous. The sculptures, with the sole exception of Michael Angelo’s ineffable “Pieta,” which lurks obscurely in a side-chapel—this indeed to my sense the rarest artistic combination of the greatest things the hand of man has produced—are either bad or indifferent; and the universal incrustation of marble, though sumptuous enough, has a less brilliant effect than much later work of the same sort, that for instance of St. Paul’s without the Walls. The supreme beauty is the splendidly sustained simplicity of the whole. The thing represents a prodigious imagination extraordinarily strained, yet strained, at its happiest pitch, without breaking. Its happiest pitch I say, because this is the only creation of its strenuous author in presence of which you are in presence of serenity.

That note of serenity is a true one: James may have been largely deaf to the specifically religious side of Catholicism, but his ear (as it were) for sensibility and aesthetics was exquisite, and he hits just the right note, I think, when he later writes that “St. Peter’s speaks less of aspiration than of full and convenient assurance.”

Anyway, it was a great trip, a many splendoured thing, full of glories. I’ll be living off it, I am sure, for years to come.

Books for children: history, folk-tale, and legend

May 13, 2015

Over the past few months I’ve read several good books for children on historical and legendary subjects, and I pass on a few notes:

crossbowsCrossbows & Crucifixes
Henry Garnett
(Sophia Institute, 2008) [1962]
187 p.

Originally published in the early 1960s as A Trumpet Sounds, this book tells the story of Nicholas Thorpe, a fifteen-year old Catholic boy in Elizabethan England who joins the underground effort to provide safe passage and hiding places for priests. Set mostly in rural locations, it follows Nicholas’ introduction to the recusant communities and his growing identification with their aims. It is a nicely imagined story that lets a good deal of real history in around the edges. The story does meander a little, and the book as a whole would have been stronger if it had a more clearly defined structure. Still, it’s a good story that introduces a young (age 10?) reader to a group of brave people struggling to save the good that they have known. Incidentally, I think the author’s name must be a pseudonym.

kingsley-heroesThe Heroes
Greek Fairy Tales for my Children
Charles Kingsley
(William Clowes, 1932) [1856]
200 p.

Charles Kingsley is most well-known today for his (rather strange, I am told) book The Water-Babies, but I have enjoyed this realization of three classic Greek tales: the story of Perseus, focusing on his quest to slay Medusa; the story of Jason and the Argonauts in search of the Golden Fleece; and the life of Theseus, including the account of his adventure with Ariadne’s thread in the labyrinth of the Minotaur. Kingsley tells the stories with a certain archness that I found distracting only at first. I like that he emphasizes the courage, virtue, and greatness of his heroes; there is no trace of a reflexive egalitarianism here. He lets his heroes be heroes. Naturally there is a considerable amount of violence in these stories; Kingsley doesn’t underline it, but he doesn’t avoid it either. The elevated tone of the prose might make it challenging for an inexperienced reader. The prologue and epilogue are unequivocally Christian, despite the pagan origins of the tales sandwiched between. I’m happy to have read it, and will encourage my children to read it when the time comes. I found this old copy at a second-hand booksale.

perrault-fairy-talesFairy Tales
Charles Perrault
(Dover, 1969) [1697]
117 p.

A superb collection of fairy tales, including those about Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Tom Thumb, and Puss in Boots — but not for children, not young children anyway. Often violent, with feints at incest and cannibalism, they are a bridge too far for this father. But considered as stories for more mature readers, they are excellent. Classics are classics for a reason.

canton-saintsA Child’s Book of Saints
William Canton
(St. Augustine Academy, 2013) [1898]
268 p.

This is a find. It was apparently out of print until St. Augustine Academy Press brought it back a few years ago in a high-quality reproduction of the original 1898 printing. Canton has written a series of elegant stories about saints, drawing heavily but not exclusively on legendary material. Although I have not checked it, I expect that some of these stories are from The Golden Legend or similar sources, but others (“The King Orgulous”) sound as though they could be part of the same folk-tale tradition that the Brothers Grimm explored.

Almost without exception they are superb little stories, with a gentle spirit and an eye for grace and beauty. Even if they are not stories about actual people, they are imaginative explorations of the allure of goodness, and that is no small thing. My enthusiasm is dampened only by the affected antiquarian tone that seeps in here and there. It is there, I know, to elevate the stories into a realm beyond the ordinary, and normally I appreciate that, but Canton’s ear is not perfect, and the prose sometimes sounds overripe. That aside, I intend to read these stories to my kids when they’re a little older.

sutcliff-arthurianThe Sword and the Circle
The Light Beyond the Forest
The Road to Camlann
Rosemary Sutcliff
(Puffin, 1994) [1979-81]
272 + 144 + 144 p.

This marvellous trilogy covers the full span of Arthurian lore, from the rise of Uther Pendragon and Merlin to the death of Arthur and final collapse of the company of the Knights of the Round Table. The stories are drawn mostly from Malory’s Arthurian corpus, with the addition of a few tales such as those of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and the tragedy of Tristan and Iseult. The first volume tells of the formation of the Knights of the Round Table and their adventures in the first flowerings of their chivalric enterprise. The second volume is about the quest for the Holy Grail, and the way in which the quest began to fragment the company of knights. In the final volume the fault lines widen and war breaks out between Arthur and Lancelot, leading to the final end of Arthur’s reign.

I have nothing but good things to say. I have read a fair bit in the Arthurian tradition, from Malory to Tennyson, but I’ve not enjoyed anything more than I enjoyed this. The books are billed as being for children, and, it is true, they would be suitable for children, but there is nothing in them to deter an adult’s enjoyment as well. For the first time I feel that I have a good understanding of the overall shape of the Arthurian stories; rather than just being a conglomeration of tales, they follow an arc. Sutcliff’s writing is rich and often striking, bringing out memorable details and pausing to dwell on moments that Malory, for instance, passes over quickly. She follows her sources closely, but brings something of the novelist’s art to her rendering. The language respects the intelligence of the reader.

As in the medieval sources, there is a strong Catholic undercurrent in these stories. I was glad that Sutcliff didn’t strip it out. Did you know that in later life, after his career as the flower of Christian chivalry had run its course, Lancelot became a priest? I didn’t.

Easter Sunday, 2015

April 4, 2015

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 to one and all!


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