Archive for the 'Catholicism' Category

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!

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.

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