Archive for the 'Catholicism' Category

Douthat: To Change the Church

May 7, 2018

To Change the Church
Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism
Ross Douthat
(Scribner, 2018)
256 p.

My interest in Church politics ranks somewhere below my interest in professional sports, and I last watched a game of professional sports about two years ago. Nonetheless, I have been aware of at least some of the controversies that have been unfolding during these past five years of the pontificate of Pope Francis. My response has been, mostly, to ignore them. For most of history Catholics have not bothered themselves with the minutiae of papal governance, and my basic attitude has been that it will sort itself out in the end, without my contrivance. I owe the Holy Father my prayers and my good will, not my anxious criticism.

This is a defensible position, but, then again, being informed about goings-on in the Church is not a bad thing either, and when the opportunity came up to read Ross Douthat’s new book about Francis’ pontificate, I took it up with curiosity. He gives an overview of the main events thus far, including those that have generated the controversy, sets them in the context of Catholic politics since Vatican II, and speculates on what the likely consequences might be for the future.

Douthat is a broadly conservative writer, but employed as columnist at the New York Times, and so accustomed to rubbing shoulders each day with liberals, and adept at seeing things from their point of view. Something to admire about his book is that, although he has a variety of concerns about what Francis has been doing, his assessment is remarkably even-handed — more even-handed than I would be, quite honestly. He is critical of liberal trends under Francis, but he is critical too of the conservative elements that have resisted them. He does not pretend to know how things will, or should, turn out, but he does raise a number of questions — questions that seem to me to be entirely reasonable.

It is conventional to frame the main disagreements that have roiled Francis’ papacy as being between “liberals” and “conservatives”. I don’t particularly like this language, borrowed from secular politics, but no other terms have gained currency. Generally speaking, it is fair to say that liberals put emphasis on the Church changing to keep up with changing times, while conservatives put emphasis on stability and continuity, and Catholics know that since Vatican II, especially, a conflict between the two sides has played out across many issues, ranging from the Church’s moral teaching to her liturgical practices.

The book begins with an overview of how Church affairs have developed across those fifty years since Vatican II, sketched first from a broadly liberal point of view (“a promising renewal betrayed by the hierarchy”), and then from a broadly conservative (“a temporarily hijacked renewal recovered by John Paul II”). He discusses the dramatic resignation of Pope Benedict XVI in 2013, not without some pointed criticism (“an implicitly secularizing act, one that undercut the traditional image of the pontiff as a spiritual father”), and then the election of Jorge Bergoglio as Pope Francis. We learn — which I did not know and am probably not supposed to know — that Bergoglio had been second in voting at the conclave that elected Benedict, and emerged quickly as the favourite at the 2013 conclave.

To Douthat’s way of thinking, the first year of Francis’ papacy was a very promising one, especially against the backdrop of Church history since Vatican II. The Pope brought a new perspective to the papal office, and this was healthy. His pontificate shifted emphasis away from certain hot-button issues (mostly pertaining to the sexual revolution and all its empty promises) toward the Church’s social teaching on solidarity with the poor, economic injustice, and stewardship of the natural world, and the hope was that in so doing he would bridge the divide between liberals and conservatives, reduce the heat on the long-simmering internal controversies, and forge a new Catholic centre. Writes Douthat:

“Part of the promise of his pontificate was that there could be once again in the developed world an orthodox Catholic liberal-left, as in the time of Dorothy Day and Catholic New Dealers and the Christian Democrats of Western Europe. The hope in Francis’s early days was that he would revive a form of Catholic engagement with modern political economy that was populist or anti-plutocratic .. but also orthodox in its theology, countercultural in its attitude toward the sexual revolution, zealous in its commitment to the essentials of the faith.”

But then — alas! — came the Synod on the Family, first in 2014 and then, a second meeting, in 2015, and on those shoals the pontificate struck; its aftermath has, in Douthat’s view, undermined most of that early promise, consumed the good will of both right and left, and ignited a high-stakes debate over Catholicism’s future.

Douthat’s basic reading of Francis’ pontificate, of which the story is the Synod is an important part, is that it is an attempt to make peace with certain aspects of the modern world, and especially with the sexual revolution. I resist that conclusion, but it is Douthat’s view. The Catholic Church has, over the past few decades, as the sexual revolution’s consequences have gradually unfolded, been the principal public institution opposed. This has cost her influence and friends, of course, and there have always been voices within the Church complaining about that, but she has held fast to her teachings in fidelity, she said, to the faith once delivered.

To a conservative, there is nothing particularly troublesome about this state of affairs. Prevailing moral norms vary from time to time, and from place to place, and the Church teaches what she teaches in season and out. Those who have ears will hear. Of course the conflicts between her moral vision and that of whatever culture she finds herself confronting should not be artificially exaggerated, and searching for common ground is good and healthy, but neither should the mere fact of a conflict occasion any serious doubts about her teachings, and certainly it would be foolhardy, in a short-sighted vein, for her to abandon those teachings in order to make herself more appealing. “He who marries the spirit of the age soon makes himself a widower,” said Chesterton; the Church is married to Christ.

And so, in the face of the sexual revolution, with its legacy of broken families, dead children, casual intimacy, and loneliness, the Church would seem to have all the more reason to hold fast in confidence to her teachings, presenting them as winsomely as possible, patiently, against the day when people will, once again, begin to listen. In the meantime, she does her best to treat the wounded and welcome home prodigals. And there might indeed be certain measures she could take to make that treatment more widely available, and make that welcome more fulsome. A variety of reforms, such as a relaxing of the conditions for annulment, have been proposed.

But at the Synod on the Family, an influential group of Cardinals, seemingly but not certainly supported by the Holy Father,

“fastened on the one reform that the Church could not contemplate — at least not without falling into self-contradiction and performing an auto-demolition on its own claim to authority.”

The reform in question was, of course, admitting the divorced and re-married to Holy Communion. This reform seemed (but see below) to contradict Catholic teaching on the indissolubility of marriage, a teaching founded directly on the still-shocking words of Christ (in Mark 10 and Matthew 19). This reform, first put forward by Walter Cardinal Kasper (at the invitation of the Pope), was supported by a group hand-picked by the Pope to manage the Synod. But they were opposed by a considerable conservative block; liberalizing language did not garner enough support to qualify for inclusion in the final report. Whereupon the Holy Father ordered its inclusion anyway, and concluded the Synod with a memorable speech berating the opposition.

All of this was remarkable enough. Then came the post-Synodal exhortation Amoris laetitia (which, I confess, I have not read). The many different readings of this document that have proliferated in the meantime testify to its ambiguity. Some claim it is fully consistent with what the Church has always taught about marriage, family, and sacramental life; others say that it introduces a “new paradigm” in Catholic moral theology. Some have claimed to discover, in a footnote — a footnote the Holy Father has claimed not to remember writing — warrant to change the Church’s practice about admitting the re-married to Communion, and several bishops’ conferences have acted on that alleged discovery. These liberal readings of the document follow a pattern familiar from the aftermath of Vatican II: “whatever was novel was taken to control the text’s meaning and implications; whatever was conservative was assumed to be vestigial.” It’s a tactic that seems to have duped the conservative Cardinals now as then.

To these liberalizing changes there has been little resistance from Rome, and some encouragement. Douthat’s interpretation is that, having lost the battle at the Synod, the fall-back position for the liberals has been to decentralize, pushing decisions out to local bodies of bishops, and letting a thousand roses bloom, as it were. (A recent instance.) The problem, of course, is that what is a sin in one diocese can now, apparently, be acceptable in another. This is irrational.

In all of this, my inclination has been to give the Holy Father the benefit of the doubt. When the Synod was happening, my hopeful reading of the turmoil was that he was gentle and cunning; perhaps by seeming to give support to Kasper, he was actually giving the most liberal Cardinals enough rope with which to hang themselves — and this may yet prove to be the final result, but not, Douthat has convinced me, during this pontificate. In the meantime, it is hard to understand the Pope’s actions as anything other than favourable to the liberal faction.

As Douthat said in the citation above, this is troubling for two main reasons: it seems to endorse a position at odds with basic Catholic teaching on marriage and sacramental life, teaching founded unusually firmly on the words of Jesus; and it seems to be at odds with clear papal teaching, both remote and proximate, and if the Pope can teach something contrary to his predecessors, then presumably his successors can likewise teach something contrary to him, and papal authority puts itself at risk of becoming transient and partisan. This, too, is irrational. Popes may not contradict one another on matters of faith and morals.

**

It is perhaps worth pausing for a moment, leaving Douthat and his furrowed brow, to think about the main contested issue — that of admitting to Communion those who have divorced and re-married.

The Church’s withholding of Holy Communion from Catholics in this state does not rest, unsupported, in the air, but is a conclusion from premises, and some of those premises are:

1. A valid Christian marriage is indissoluble.
2. A Catholic may be married to not more than one person at any one time.
3. Married spouses can reasonably be presumed to have an ongoing sexual relationship.
4. Adultery is a grave sin.
5. Marriage is a public commitment.
6. A public commitment to commit a sin makes that sin manifest.
7. A Catholic presumably in a state of grave, manifest sin cannot be presumed to be in a state of grace.
8. A Catholic must be in a state of grace to receive Holy Communion.

From 1 and 2 we deduce that a Catholic cannot licitly contract a second marriage without an annulment of the first, for in the eyes of the Church, and of God, he remains married to his first spouse; this is just what Christ said, and is the cornerstone of the whole argument. Adding 3 we deduce that a Catholic who contracts a second marriage without an annulment of his first can reasonably be presumed to be committing adultery. With Premise 4 we can reasonably presume that he commits a grave sin. The addition of premises 5 and 6 yields that such a Catholic can reasonably be presumed to be in a state of grave, manifest sin. Therefore, from premise 7, that person cannot presume, and should not be presumed, to be in a state of grace. And therefore, finally (premise 8), that person should not receive Holy Communion.

The peculiar position we now seem to find ourselves in is that there are highly placed churchmen, possibly including the Holy Father himself, who want to change the conclusion of this argument, but do not specify which of the premises they consider to be false. No doubt Premise 1 seems radical, but it is the most securely founded on the words of Jesus; his disciples thought it radical too, but he didn’t see fit to change it on that account. Premises 2-4 and 8 are, similarly, all based on Scripture and are declared in Catholic teaching. Premise 5 is, under normal circumstances, reasonable. Premise 6 is arguably tautological. Likewise Premise 7. The presumption of sexual union (premise 3) is of course not always accurate, and for this reason an exemption from the denial of Communion to re-married Catholics can be, and is, granted in special cases. Otherwise, an attack on any one of these premises is either going to be theologically fraught, frankly unreasonable, or both.

Yet as bad as the denial of any one of these premises would be, the denial of none of them (while denying the conclusion deduced from them) is arguably worse, for it casts doubt on all of them. It’s a difficult position to be in, not knowing which section of the roof might cave in first.

There is some evidence that it is premise 8 that is being challenged most directly. The Pope himself, in that famous, all too easily forgotten footnote, has said that the Eucharist is a “medicine for the sick”. This is true, of course, but can be read in different ways. Some of the Cardinals promoting Kasper’s proposal have taken it to mean that a person could be, objectively and knowingly, committing a serious sin (like adultery), and not to have a serious purpose of amendment (owing to some unspecified range of difficulties), but nonetheless be admitted to Communion. The Church, it is said, should “accompany” that person as he discerns what to do. This is one way to think about Communion, but it has not, heretofore, been the Catholic way.

There is also an unstated premise in the argument above: A marriage should be presumed to be valid. This too seems reasonable (and is affirmed in Canon Law) but there is evidence that Pope Francis denies it, and this might account for the decisions he makes. For if many (or even a large majority) of Catholics are in invalid marriages, those relationships are not indissoluble, and the distinction drawn between the married and re-married ceases to make demographic, and, arguably, pastoral sense. But this cure is worse than the disease, for one trades having a smaller set of adulterers seeking Communion for a larger set of fornicators seeking the same, and without sensibly mitigating the problems of the smaller set (for the re-marriages cannot be presumed to be more valid than the initial marriages). This, quite apart from the legitimate pastoral problems that such a view would create for all (putatively) married Catholics worldwide, for how could one be reasonably confident in the validity of one’s own marriage? I myself do not see a clear path out of these woods along these lines.

**

These considerations make reasonable, to my mind, the dubia which were submitted to Pope Francis after the Synod: several questions posed by a group of Cardinals seeking clarification on the meaning of things written in Amoris laetitia. The Pope, as is his right, declined to answer, which, however, only added to the prevailing confusion, raising afresh the possibility that the Pope actually does not want to speak clearly on these matters, and fosters uncertainty intentionally.

The whole situation has a certain strange quality to it. The papacy is, in its nature, an intrinsically conservative office. The role of the Pope is to be the guardian of Catholic doctrine, preserving it from error and maintaining continuity with the faith once delivered to the apostles. What, then, are we to make of a Pope who, possibly, is not inclined to exercise his office conservatively?

I put the question in that tentative form because the Holy Father has, himself, been quite reticent to speak, and seems more comfortable with ambiguity than clarity on these matters. Those churchmen with whom he has surrounded himself, however, have not been so reticent, and what they have said caused my eyebrows to go up on more than one occasion.

The most common response, for instance, to the conservative concern that the changes proposed by Cardinal Kasper alter Church doctrine — for instance, on the indissolubility of marriage — has been to say that the doctrine remains unchanged and only Church discipline is changing. This is itself an odd reply, as though a dissonance between orthodoxy and orthopraxy could be somehow advantageous, but, anyway, it is presented as a minor matter. This, at least, is the response to conservatives, but to other audiences they sometimes answer differently. Douthat does a good job of gathering up these Jekyll-and-Hyde replies in a passage that is worth quoting at length (and which, in the book, is liberally footnoted):

“Francis’ defenders, when it suited them, … downplayed the stakes when the pope faced some sort of setback or opposition; the rest of the time, they tended to play up the significance of what he was attempting to accomplish…

“The Kaspar proposal is just a change of discipline, not doctrine … but by the way, the church should establish intercommunion with Protestants as soon as possible. Conservatives are wildly overreacting when they interpret Amoris as a kind of surrender to the sexual revolution … but by the way, the church should offer recognition to gay couples and grant last rites to suicides and revisit Humanae Vitae and for heaven’s sake stop obsessing about abortion. It is ludicrous to suggest that Francis was changing doctrine on marriage … but by the way, his casual comments on the death penalty and just war meant that he was developing church teaching on those issues too, and soon any Catholic who favored capital punishment would be out of step with the modern magisterium. It is absurd to suggest that any core Catholic teaching was at stake in the synodal debates … but by the way, Jesus’ strict teaching on marriage probably reflected his mistaken view that the world was about to end, or maybe we just don’t know what Jesus really said, because after all the Gospel writers didn’t have tape recorders. It is ludicrous to draw analogies between the Amoris controversies and the great debates over Arianism or Gnosticism or Lutheranism … but in fact, now that you mention it, some semi-Arian understandings of Jesus, some semi-Gnostic concepts of the human person, some semi-Lutheran understandings of sin and the sacraments, might actually deserve a home in the Catholic Church. It was ridiculous to say that Catholicism’s intellectual integrity and theological consistency were at stake in the remarriage debate … but in fact it’s time for the church to acknowledge that “theology is not Mathematics,” and if necessary “2+2 in theology can make 5.””

It is hard to know what to make of this sort of thing. Maybe it is just human folly run amuck on Vatican precincts, and nothing to worry overmuch about. Catholicism has survived many things, including, in living memory, a silly season that persisted through most of the 1970s and 1980s, and it will survive this too. And it will. But it is dispiriting, all the same, to contemplate the prospect of future decades contending against the zombie of liberal Catholicism that just won’t die.

And it is possible that this struggle could be a long one, for, as Douthat notes,

“The Kasper proposal pertains specifically to the divorced and remarried but there is nothing in the logic that confines it to those cases. Polygamous unions, same-sex unions, even the unmarried — the same reasoning could apply to all.

After all, if a rule rooted in Jesus’ own words, confirmed by dogmatic definitions and explicitly reconfirmed by the previous two popes, linked to Reformation-era martyrdom and bound up with three of the seven sacraments could be so easily rewritten … well, what rule or teaching could not?”

It could be that there’s a good answer to that question, but I don’t see that it’s unreasonable to ask it in good faith.

**

Given the uncertainty in which the Holy Father has implicitly asked us to stew, we might ask what’s to be done in the meantime. Douthat, looking for the hand of providence, argues that maybe something like this had to happen; maybe, as Eliot said, “to be restored / our sickness must grow worse”. Liberal Catholicism had been exiled from the Church’s highest office for a few decades. Conservatives thought they had established a secure interpretation of Vatican II that was beginning to bear fruit, but, at the same time, we all knew that liberals still controlled most Catholic educational and charitable institutions. Many older churchmen, and some younger, were still in thrall to the elusive “Spirit of Vatican II”. Poor catechesis has meant that many, many Catholics have been more formed by the prevailing secular culture than by Catholic culture, and would be more happy than not to see the latter conform to the former. So the stability we thought we were enjoying under Pope St John Paul II and Benedict XVI was more apparent than real, and now, with a papacy more friendly to liberals, liberals have started to flex their muscles, and the real state of affairs has announced itself. Like it or not, these are the times we live in.

What to do? When, in the summer of 2017, Cardinal Meisner, who had been among the group who submitted the dubia to Pope Francis, died, a remarkable letter was sent by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, to be read at his funeral. In this letter, Benedict said that the Cardinal lived “out of a deep conviction that the Lord does not abandon His Church, even when the boat has taken on so much water as to be on the verge of capsizing,” and he noted the Cardinal’s love of the Sacrament of Penance and of Eucharistic Adoration. Perhaps it would not be inappropriate to take from this letter implicit counsel: your anxieties are not unfounded, but trust in God and draw close to him by the means given us. It cannot be the worst course, at any rate.

Caussade: Abandonment to Divine Providence

March 13, 2018

Abandonment to Divine Providence
Jean Pierre de Caussade, SJ
Translated from the French by Ella McMahon

(Benziger, 1887) [c.1750]
200 p.

The basic counsel of Fr Caussade’s book is that if we wish to discover God’s will for our lives, we should do so by heeding and accepting “the duties, attractions, and crosses of every moment”. This advice he founds on two sturdy pillars of Christian doctrine: God is good, and God is omnipotent. Therefore his good will cannot be thwarted, and his Providence governs the world. Therefore “that which comes to us each moment by the order of God is best and holiest and most divine for us.”

On this conception of the spiritual life, it is not a matter of finding God’s will, exactly, so much as it is a matter of apprehending it. We are living within God’s providential plan already and have only to learn to see it and then to align our own will with that of God by loving and accepting it:

O dear souls who read this, let me repeat to you: Sanctity will cost you no more; do what you are doing; suffer what you are suffering: it is only your heart that need be changed. By the heart we mean the will. This change, then, consists in willing what comes to us by the order of God.

This attentiveness to the present moment, the present moment which “is like an ambassador which declares the will of God”, is the core spiritual discipline to be cultivated. In the months since I first read this book I’ve been trying, by fits and starts, to practice this discipline. It’s not at all easy. If it is truly a path to spiritual maturity then of course we’d not expect it to be easy, but perhaps it is also not easy for some other reasons, which I’ll get to. Fr Caussade writes that the fruit of the attentiveness and openness he advocates is an inner simplicity of spirit, an uncomplicated docility, taking its daily bread from God’s hands and not bestirring itself with worry or frustration. It is a consummation devoutly to be wished:

The work of a soul in this state of simplicity is nothing less than marvellous to eyes and minds divinely enlightened. Without rule, yet exactness itself; without measure, yet nothing better proportioned; without reflection, yet nothing more profound; without ingenuity, yet nothing better managed; without effort, yet nothing more efficacious; without forethought, yet nothing better fitted to unforeseen events.

The growth of this simplicity of heart requires faith and hope and love, and in turn fosters these same virtues in a never-ending, burgeoning cycle:

The present moment is always filled with infinite treasures: it contains more than you are capable of receiving. Faith is the measure of these blessings: in proportion to your faith will you receive. By love also are they measured: the more your heart loves the more it desires, and the more it desires the more it receives. The will of God is constantly before you as an unfathomable sea, which the heart cannot exhaust: only in proportion as the heart is expanded by faith, confidence, and love can it receive of its fulness. All created things could not fill your heart, for its capacity is greater than anything which is not God.

The self-abandonment Fr Caussade recommends is, of course, intended not only for the good times, but also the bad. When we experience joy it is easy to accept it gratefully from God’s hand; when we experience suffering it is not. In suffering we are tempted to reject what the present moment offers us, poisonous waters that threaten to wash us away. But we must not do so, says Fr Caussade, for here is the true test of our simplicity. Instead, we must keep our door open, even as the flood of destruction comes pouring through, not hiding or even shielding ourselves:

Weep, dear souls; tremble, suffer disquiet and anguish; make no effort to escape these divine terrors, these heavenly lamentations. Receive into the depth of your being the waters of that sea of bitterness which inundated the soul of Christ. Continue to sow in tears at the will of divine grace, and insensibly by the same will their source shall be dried. The clouds will dissolve, the sun will shed its light, the springtime will strew your path with flowers, and your self-abandonment will manifest to you the whole extent of the admirable variety of the divine action.

All shall be well, in the end, if we but stay the course. We are asked only to apprehend that everything, whatever may come, “is a banner to guide you, a stay to uphold you, an easy and safe vehicle to bear you on.”

**

This, it seems to me, summarizes the main argument in brief compass. I have attributed the book to Fr Caussade, and the attribution is traditional, although there is some doubt about it. The book was not published until 1861, over a century after Fr Caussade’s death, apparently out of concern that the book advocated self-abandonment to an excessive degree.

You can see the problem: if we should abandon our own will, is it possible that we should carry this self-abandonment so far as to desire, or at least to accept with equanimity, harm to ourselves? Is the health of our own souls included among those self-interests which we ought to be ready to forsake? There were some in Fr Caussade’s time who argued that true submission to God’s will required consent even to our own damnation, if God should will it, and a spirituality of self-abandonment could be quite dangerous in the hands of such people.

In a prefatory essay in this volume, the editor argues that we must therefore set “just limits” to our abandonment, which is sensible, but which makes it sound not so much like abandonment anymore. But he has good reason:

… the Church has condemned this doctrine which, in proposing to man a perfection contrary to his nature, reverses the order of God’s designs. How, in fact, can perfection consist in destroying the most essential law of our moral nature, viz., that irresistible inclination which leads us to seek our happiness? How could love of God require that we rob God of one of His attributes—the one which makes Him the supreme object of our beatitude? How could one of the theological virtues be contrary to another, and charity exclude hope?

A lesser, but still probing, criticism of the discipline of self-abandonment to the present moment is that it turns us away from our duties. If I were devoted to accepting whatever life brings me as a gift from God to be received with love, I might take a rather peculiar view of my children’s misbehaviour, for instance, taking it as an occasion of divine chastisement rather than an occasion for fatherly intervention and correction. I might stay home from work, day after day, preparing myself to receive as a gift the poverty and attendant suffering that I would undoubtedly receive from God’s hand by way of my employer’s boot. Fr Caussade does make some effort to address this problem:

The soul must follow no inspiration which she assumes comes from God without first assuring herself that it does not interfere with the duties of her state in life. These duties are the most certain indications of the will of God, and nothing should be preferred to them.

This is a necessary qualification, but it carves off a rather large — indeed, on some days, a nearly comprehensive — range of activity for exemption from the self-abandonment discipline. Sometimes we have to act. Sometimes we have to fight.

Sometimes we have to decide. It has been interesting, in fact, to read a book on God’s will which never really takes up the question of how to discern God’s will. For Fr Caussade it doesn’t arise, because God’s will is whatever is happening. But a common difficulty with which Christians often contend is that of facing a decision and trying to discern which choice best aligns with God’s will. Sometimes — actually, pretty often — this takes a crude form of wanting some sort of private revelation to show the way, but there are developed traditions of discernment, such as that of St Ignatius, intended to help with exactly this kind of question. We are constantly confronted with the need to make decisions. Should I accept what is happening to me, and learn to deal with it, or should I take action to change my situation? I’m afraid that Fr Caussade’s approach to life seems pretty useless in this respect.

It seems to me, in fact, that the method of abandonment, founded on confidence in God’s goodness and Providence, is missing an important theological ingredient: an awareness of the corrupting power of sin and evil. I have to be careful here, so as not to stumble. Sin and evil are contrary to God’s will, yet they undoubtedly affect what happens in the world. How, then, can I truly accept that everything that wafts toward me in the present moment “is like an ambassador which declares the will of God”? Sometimes things that happen are just evil, and they don’t declare the will of God. It is a teaching of Scripture that God brings good out of evil, but this, I think (and hope) is different from a declaration that whatever is is good. Therefore, given the reality of evil (in the phenomenological, though not metaphysical, sense) we must be discerning first, and only docile and abandoned when circumstances call for it.

And this appears to me a problem with Fr Caussade’s approach to the spiritual life. Perhaps I am wrong in my understanding of Providence, in which case I hope to be corrected. Even if I am right, however, I nonetheless do think that the discipline Fr Caussade counsels has rich potential, in its proper place, for fostering humility and a more intimate relationship to God. As I said, I’ve been trying it, with predictably mixed results. Late in the book Fr Caussade notes that his book is addressed especially to readers who “have already attained a high degree of perfection”, and so evidently I ought not to have read it in the first place.

[Love of God]
The earnest desire to love God is loving Him.

Newman on some great authors

February 15, 2018

In The Idea of a University, John Henry Newman discussed prospects for the eventual development of an organic body of Catholic literature in English to rival the Protestant literature that has formed our language to date. In the process, he made reference to a number of the greatest writers of the Western European tradition, including our English ones, and offered brief comments or judgments upon them. Some of these are quite entertaining, others surprising (Pascal!). I reproduce several of them here, without further comment from me.

**

Swift and Addison: “the most native and natural of our writers”

Voltaire: “an open scoffer at every thing sacred, venerable, or high-minded”

Pascal: “does not approve himself to a Catholic judgment”

Ariosto: “is allowed on all hands to occupy the first rank of Literature” but is guilty of “coarse sensuality”

Boccaccio: “the first of Italian prose-writers”

Shakespeare: “There is in Shakespeare neither contempt of religion nor scepticism, and he upholds the broad laws of moral and divine truth with the consistency and severity of an Æschylus, Sophocles, or Pindar. There is no mistaking in his works on which side lies the right; Satan is not made a hero, nor Cain a victim, but pride is pride, and vice is vice, and, whatever indulgence he may allow himself in light thoughts or unseemly words, yet his admiration is reserved for sanctity and truth. From the second chief fault of Literature, as indeed my last words imply, he is not so free; but, often as he may offend against modesty, he is clear of a worse charge, sensuality, and hardly a passage can be instanced in all that he has written to seduce the imagination or to excite the passions.”

Pope: “a rival to Shakespeare, if not in genius, at least in copiousness and variety”, “he was actually a Catholic, though personally an unsatisfactory one.”

Johnson: holds “the special title of moralist in English Literature”

Locke: “scarcely an honour to us in the standard of truth, grave and manly as he is”

Bacon: “deserves by his writings to be called the most orthodox of Protestant philosophers”

Hobbes, Hume, and Bentham: “simply a disgrace”

Read: Night’s Bright Darkness

December 7, 2017

Night’s Bright Darkness
Sally Read
(Ignatius, 2016)
152 p.

Not long ago I wrote about Robert Hugh Benson’s memoir of his conversion to Catholicism. As in most such stories, there was in that book a more-or-less clear thread that one could follow as he moved toward the Church: certain questions rankled, particular insights were had, specific errors were rejected or certain truths embraced. At the end, one could understand, largely if not entirely, how it came about that he became a Catholic.

Sally Read’s conversion memoir is, rather amazingly, not like that. She begins as a cradle atheist, brought up by parents who conscientiously inoculated her against any kind of religious faith, and she ends up a Catholic, almost an instinctive Catholic, and, having read the book, it’s very difficult to say how it came about. The drama of her conversion seems to have happened just below the level of apprehension, and I have the feeling that she’s nearly as mystified about it as we are. But the book is still wonderful to read, and strangely edifying.

If we’re looking for a particular moment, we have to look for something innocuous. Imagine, for instance, that she sits down one evening to read Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle, a book grown familiar over many previous readings, but this time something is different:

This time I put the book down when I read the vicar’s assessment of religion: “(Religion) is an art, the greatest one; an extension of the communion all the other arts attempt.” The conversation goes on, by the fire, over Madeira, the rain beating down outside. God, says the vicar, is “merely shorthand for where we come from, where we’re going, and what it’s all about.”

It wouldn’t pass muster in a catechism class, but from this humble beginning, so far as I can tell, the life of faith began to grow in her. She was particularly struck by the thought that a religion could be a form of art, to be appreciated and experienced like a work of art. She was (and is) herself a poet, and the sudden connection between art and religion, like a spark, suddenly altered her understanding of both her own relationship to faith and her own artistic ambitions:

Why, after so many years of reading, thinking, arguing, would this truth penetrate me now? It was as if the tin roof of the sky peeled away. My desperate yearning to write the line, to make the poem, to nail the truth was illuminated. It wasn’t for editors, prizes, readers or myself that I sought so earnestly to harness reality. It was for communion with God, who knows already, who has the metaphor, the poem, already in hand, who is already writing, and already written, the ultimate poem. It was to try to touch that poem.

That night, I barely apprehended this. What I thought was just one word: possibility, and the sibilance of that word seemed like the distant yet all-encompassing black sea that I perceived God to be. A sound like the amniotic roar of traffic in London or the simmer of sea in Santa Marinella that natives unlearn how to hear. I had begun to learn how to listen.

It reminds me of that passage in Augustine (which, naturally, I cannot find) in which he says that each of us,  when we earnestly seek what is good, or true, or beautiful, when we long for that rich and true happiness that will come with the possession of whatever is the deepest and truest good that we pursue — then we are truly searching for God. Everything that rises, as the saying goes, must converge.

But at this point she knew next to nothing about any religion, and had no particular interest in Christianity. But she moved to Rome with her Italian (and agnostic) husband, and, when taking care of her young daughter, fell in with a group of Catholic mothers, and, through them (if memory serves) struck up a friendship with a Byzantine-rite Catholic priest, a good and intelligent man. Before long, she was reading Simone Weil, Josef Pieper, T.S. Eliot, St John of the Cross, and the Gospels, and she was well launched.

There are twists and turns in her story, but always one has the sense that her way has been prepared, that in her progress toward faith, as rapid as it is, she is nonetheless outpaced. Despite the rocky terrain she must cover — she begins as a well-catechized secularist and holds all the traditional pieties on matters like abortion, marriage, and sex — she seems not to stumble, never to find herself on the horns of a dilemma; her difficulties melt away, or are silently displaced. This, I think, is very unusual.

She returns often to her experience of Catholicism as having an aesthetic dimension. The Eucharist she sees as a kind of enfleshed poem:

…to get close to Christ I had to let him into me — not solely through mental prayer and actions, but by physically taking him into my body. There is nothing empty in God’s poetry; nothing is mere metaphor.

Even the hierarchical nature of the Church has for her a poetic effect, for it is “God’s poem — the transformative instrument of the chaos of the everyday.” That’s more suggestive than precise, but it gets one thinking, and this is true of much of her writing, which, true to her calling as a poet, is evocative, sometimes oblique, and often beautiful, just like the story she has to tell.

All this took place just a few years ago. “What do you want me to do?” was her persistent prayer through the whole process, and this memoir is, in part, part of the answer:

God’s revelation to me that spring was already a poem. I only needed to write it down and not attempt to explain its mystery. It is, in a sense, unfinished. It takes the unhesitating energy of that wave at its breaking point; it’s a love letter in response to love.

Alma Redemptoris Mater

December 3, 2017

During Advent this year I intend to learn this lovely hymn, which is sung at Compline during the Advent and Christmas seasons.

A happy Advent to all those observing it.

Old English Exodus

November 26, 2017

Exodus
Anonymous
Translated from the Old English by Craig Williamson
(Penn, 2016) [c.850]
19 p.

After reading Genesis it’s natural to move on to Exodus, and in the Junius Manuscript we do just that. This poem, which runs a brief 590 lines in the original Old English, begins with the terrible tenth plague striking Egypt and ends with the triumph of the children of Israel on the far side of the Red Sea, with Pharaoh, his chariots, and his chariot drivers so much flotsam and jetsam. The poet has therefore focused his attention on the central episodes in the story of God’s liberation of the Israelites from their bondage, though, as we’ll see, he had other things on his mind as well.

This is a particularly vivid poem, I found, with much striking imagery. Much of it is violent. I remarked in my notes on Genesis that the warrior culture of the Anglo-Saxons coloured their telling of the Biblical story, and the same is very much true in this poem.

When the angel of death descends on Egypt, for instance, the poet gives us a passage that reminded me of Grendel stalking toward Heorot in the black of night:

“The hall-joys were drained —
The last, lonely song was a cry of suffering,
Of peril and pain. In the middle of the night
God cruelly struck down the Egyptian oppressors,
The many first-born sons. Death stalked the land —
Terror and torment piled up corpses —
Killing was king of that ravaged realm.” (ll.33-9)

When once they have left Egypt, the miraculous guidance of the pillar of cloud and the column of fire excite the poet’s admiration for a lengthy stretch. He remembers, too, the life of Joseph, whose coming to Egypt as a slave was the remote cause of the enslavement from which the Israelites are now being delivered.

The approach of Pharaoh’s army in pursuit spreads fear through the people, and the description of the approaching forces is wonderfully evocative:

“Then the mood of the Israelites grew desperate;
Their hearts lost hope as they saw Pharaoh’s army
Surging from the south, sweeping over the land
With shields gleaming, battle-swords swinging,
Boar-spears thrusting, trumpets ringing,
Banners waving, the cavalry-storm coming.
Dark death-birds circled the strand,
Carrion crows hungry for corpses,
Screeching like hellions for a bloody meal.
Wild wolves sang a hideous evening-song,
Frantic for a feast of flesh and bone.
The beasts of battle held no pity
For any people, Egyptians or Israelites.
They howled for carnage, sang for slaughter.
Those bloodlust guardians of the border lands,
Wilderness-wanderers, bayed through the night,
Spooking the souls of the men of Moses,
Who hunkered down in despair and doom.” (ll.162-79)

I note with interest how the poet pivots from a description of the menace of the Egyptian soldiers — imagined very much after the manner of his contemporary warriors — to a description of the menace of the natural world: the wolves, and the hungry crows, all arrayed against the people of God. One could imagine him taking the opposite tack, depicting the animals, which are God’s creatures, as friends of the children of Israel, but instead he makes them amoral, prowling on the borders and circling overhead, awaiting their chance. There seems no reason for hope.

In response to this threat the Israelites arm for battle, but Moses gathers them together and delivers a stirring speech, reminding them to put their trust in God’s protection:

“They will no longer live to scourge us
With torment and terror, making our lives
A mesh of misery, a web of woe.
There’s no need to fear dead warriors,
Doomed bodies — their day is done.
God’s counsel has been lifted from your hearts.
Remember his covenant and keep it always.
Worship your God, pray for his grace,
His promise and protection, shield and salvation,
His gift of victory in a time of triumph.
He is the God of Abraham, the Lord of creation,
Our eternal Maker of unmeasured might.
He holds our army in his guardian hands. (ll. 280-92)

The staff is stretched out over the waters, and they part, making a way of escape. Interestingly, even as they march across, away from their foes, they do so as if to war, and the poet underlines their ferocity:

As the noblest of people walked through the water,
They raised a banner high over their shields
With a sacred sign, the gold lion of Judah,
The bravest of beasts. The loyal warriors
Would never suffer insult or injury
As long as their lord and leader lived
And they could lift swords, thrust spears
Bravely in conflict with any bold nation.
The soldiers of Judah would always respond
To the call of battle with hard hand-play,
Sword-swipe, spear-stab, shield-thrust,
Blood-wound, body-woe, the cruel crush
Of hard helmets, carnage and corpses.” (ll.338-50)

I wonder if in a warrior culture this crossing of the Red Sea, fleeing from danger rather than confronting it, would have been considered shameful. The poet seems to be taking great care to reassure us that they had lost none of their courage and capacity for destruction.

At this point, as it nears its finish, the poem begins to become more complicated. We leave the Israelites and return to Noah, and then to Abraham, and then jump ahead to Solomon. Perhaps the poet is here calling to mind God’s enduring covenant with the children of Israel, which is here, at the crossing of the Red Sea and the decisive deliverance from bondage, being honoured and fulfilled.

The crossing complete, the path through the waters collapses upon the pursuing Egyptian forces in a scene of carnage:

“The arrogant Egyptians could not hinder his hand
Or escape his doom, the sea’s fierce fury —
He destroyed them all in shrieking horror.
The seas slid up, the bodies slid down;
Dread fears rose, death-dreams plunged;
Fresh wounds wept, bloody tears tumbled
Into the ocean’s embrace. The Lord of the flood
Ravaged the ramparts with an ancient sword
Of storm-winds and wave-walls. Troops perished.
Hordes of the sinful headed toward the bottom,
Where they lost their souls in endless sleep.” (ll.518-28)

And here, at the climactic moment of the poem, before describing the victory song and the joyous dancing of the Israelites, the poet introduces another apparent digression, but one which, it seems to me, is a key to interpreting the whole poem. He inserts a meditation on the pilgrimage of each soul through this earthly life:

“It’s true that our present worldly pleasures
Are transient. Time unravels them all.
Desire and delight fade, touched and twisted
By inevitable sorrow — an exile’s inheritance.
We wander the world pursued by woe,
Our homeless hearts mired in misery.
[…]
The day of reckoning, the hour of doom,
Draws near, a moment of might and glory,
When all our deeds will be judged by God,
And he will lead the steadfast, righteous souls
From their exile on earth to a homeland in heaven,
The light and life of the Lord’s blessing,
Where everyone in that company of joy
Will sing hymns, glorious hosannas,
To the Kind of hosts for all eternity.” (ll.566-587)

The poet is therefore encouraging us to read the story of the Exodus as a metaphor for the deliverance of each soul from the bondage of sin and death, “an allegory of the soul, or of the Church of militant souls, marching under the hand of God, pursued by the powers of darkness, until it attains to the promised land of Heaven”. (So says Tolkien.) This is a common theme in Christian theology, of course, but it is here expressed in a particularly artful and powerful way.

In his introductory notes, Craig Williamson highlights the poem’s “deliberate ambiguities and allusions, its concealed figurations and fulfillments, and its textual and narrative difficulties”, which initially made me think I was about to read an Old English Prufrock. It didn’t turn out that way, but, nonetheless, there is something to what Williamson says; this is a complex, and quite beautiful, poem. At least some of the textual difficulties may have been mitigated by Williamson’s thoughtful translation, which is about 10% longer than the original. At any rate, I enjoyed reading it, and I’m looking forward to the next poem in the Junius Manuscript — which is, mercifully, not based on Leviticus, but on the story of Daniel.

Cecilia virgo

November 22, 2017

In honour of the feast of St Cecilia, patroness of music and musicians, here is a very fine performance of James MacMillan’s Cecilia virgo, sung by the National Youth Choir of Australia.

Virgin Cecilia, all musicians celebrate your praises,
and through your merits, supplicants can be heard by God.
With one voice and with one heart, they call upon your name,
that you may deign to change the mourning of the world into the glory of paradise;
and be willing, O protecting Virgin, to look upon your wards,
calling upon the pious Lady, and always saying:
Saint Cecilia, pray for us.

St Athanasius: On the Incarnation

October 22, 2017

On the Incarnation
St Athanasius
(Fig, 2012) [c.315]
72 p.

Christianity is distinctive first for claiming that God, the fount and origin of all things, entered human history as a man, and that this man suffered and died the death of a criminal before being resurrected. It is a story that has seemed messy and arbitrary to some, and manifestly unfitting, or even blasphemous, to others. In this important early work of Christian theology, St Athanasius mounts a series of arguments to convince his readers that the Incarnation was fitting, and that the death of Christ, both as to fact and to manner, was neither arbitrary nor unreasonable. His understanding of these events sets forth a powerfully attractive account of the meaning of Christianity.

He begins with an assessment of the state of humanity prior to the Incarnation, and specifically with the twin premises of, on one hand, sin, and, on the other, God’s promise that the wages of sin would be death. Together these two posed a dilemma:

It would, of course, have been unthinkable that God should go back upon His word and that man, having transgressed, should not die; but it was equally monstrous that beings which once had shared the nature of the Word should perish and turn back again into non-existence through corruption.

It would not be fitting for a work of God to suffer destruction, for we, being made in his image and likeness, ought properly to enjoy the fulfillment of our nature as God Himself enjoys His own infinite fulfillment in Himself. The Incarnation then appears, says St Athanasius, as the solution to this dilemma, for by taking on human nature God healed it of the corruption and injury which sin had produced in it, and by his death he suffered the consequence of sin, and by his resurrection he overcame both sin and death: “through this union of the immortal Son of God with our human nature, all men were clothed with incorruption in the promise of the resurrection.”

Athanasius illustrates this re-creation of human nature by means of an analogy:

You know how it is when some great king enters a large city and dwells in one of its houses; because of his dwelling in that single house, the whole city is honoured, and enemies and robbers cease to molest it. Even so is it with the King of all; He has come into our country and dwelt in one body amidst the many, and in consequence the designs of the enemy against mankind have been foiled and the corruption of death, which formerly held them in its power, has simply ceased to be.

He also wants us to appreciate that when God the Son became part of the created order, this was not an act wholly alien to his nature, for, being the Logos by whom all things were made that have been made, he entered a world to which he had always been intimately related:

He was not far from it before, for no part of creation had ever been without Him Who, while ever abiding in union with the Father, yet fills all things that are. But now He entered the world in a new way, stooping to our level in His love and Self-revealing to us.

Furthermore, granting God’s initiative to himself assume the nature of a thing he created, it was of all parts of Creation most fitting that he should take on human form, for the human being is made in God’s likeness and image. David Bentley Hart (on whose recommendation, incidentally, I undertook to read this book) has expressed the point in this way:

“The act by which the form of God appears in the form of a slave is the act by which the infinite divine image shows itself in the finite divine image: this then is not a change, but a manifestation, of who God is.” (The Beauty of the Infinite, p.357.)

We have then, one motive for the Incarnation: by taking human nature into himself in a particularly intimate way, he healed it and even re-created it, thereby carrying on the creative activity that he always exercises with respect to the world in general, and our nature in particular. That the Incarnation corresponded so well with the nature of God — as saviour, creator, and Logos — made it fitting.

But of course God might have healed our nature by some means other than the Incarnation had he so wished. Athanasius therefore introduces another line of argument to show its fittingness: it provided it a particularly apt means for us to know God. Before Christ, the situation was this:

Three ways thus lay open to them, by which they might obtain the knowledge of God. They could look up into the immensity of heaven, and by pondering the harmony of creation come to know its Ruler, the Word of the Father, Whose all-ruling providence makes known the Father to all. Or, if this was beyond them, they could converse with holy men, and through them learn to know God, the Artificer of all things, the Father of Christ, and to recognize the worship of idols as the negation of the truth and full of all impiety. Or else, in the third place, they could cease from lukewarmness and lead a good life merely by knowing the law.

Yet even with these ways, many men did not seek God, and did not find him. What was God to do, for it was unworthy of man, made in God’s image, not to know God. By the Incarnation, therefore, God revealed himself in a new, clearer way, suitable to our way of knowing:

He became Himself an object for the senses, so that those who were seeking God in sensible things might apprehend the Father through the works which He, the Word of God, did in the body.

To summarize, two things were accomplished by the Incarnation:

He banished death from us and made us anew; and, invisible and imperceptible as in Himself He is, He became visible through His works and revealed Himself as the Word of the Father, the Ruler and King of the whole creation.

or, restated in a more elaborate way:

We have seen that to change the corruptible to incorruption was proper to none other than the Savior Himself, Who in the beginning made all things out of nothing; that only the Image of the Father could re-create the likeness of the Image in men, that none save our Lord Jesus Christ could give to mortals immortality, and that only the Word Who orders all things and is alone the Father’s true and sole-begotten Son could teach men about Him and abolish the worship of idols.

And added to this is a third reason for the Incarnation: so that Christ could die. But why did he have to die, and why in the way that he did?

Christ renewed and transformed sinful human nature by his Incarnation, but this alone was not enough to erase the calamity of sin. God had promised that the wages of sin would be death, and that promise created a debt that had to be paid, and so Christ, by dying, proceeded “to settle man’s account with death and free him from the primal transgression”.

I am not a theologian, but I believe that this understanding of Christ’s death is called “substitutionary atonement” — personal sin imputes guilt; guilt, in justice, requires restitution; and Christ, in love, offers his own life as restitution. But I confess that I am confused, for this seems to allow that God is not free in his dealings with us, but subject to some higher moral requirement. Why could God not “overrule” the punishment for sin by offering mercy out of his sovereign power? I can think of two possible responses to this. The first is that the requirement of justice which demands a punishment for sin is not actually independent of God but an expression of God’s own just nature. (But, troubling this possibility from within is the question of whether substitutionary punishment is consonant with justice in the first place.) The second is that although God, strictly speaking, was not compelled by anything to impose punishment for sin, he did so because this logic makes sense to us, and he wanted our salvation to make sense to us. And it is true, generally speaking, that our sense of justice does make such demands in the ordinary course of events, even though, in an ironic turn, Christianity itself has gradually undermined the absoluteness of these just demands.

But there is a further reason why Christ died: by doing so, he dramatically overcame death. In the Gospels he asked, “Is it easier to say ‘Your sins are forgiven’, or ‘Take up your bed and walk’?”, and he said the latter so as to assure all that he had the power to say the former. In a similar way, it was one thing for him to restore and heal our nature, and another to demonstrate his power to do so by actually conquering our final enemy: “He showed Himself mightier than death, displaying His own body incorruptible as the first-fruits of the resurrection.” This is the drama of Holy Saturday, and it is a magnificent drama. Too often, I think, we get a genteel account of Christ’s death and Resurrection: by dying he showed his love, and by raising him God the Father gave us a kind of “endorsement” of Christ’s life and message. But here, instead, we find Christ descending to the depths in power, doing battle with all the powers of evil and decay and destruction, bursting the bonds that sin had laid upon us, and rising in triumph.

This dramatic, narrative approach to the meaning of Christ’s death strikes my own heart with greater power than does the more legalistic language of substitutionary atonement. Through Christ, the Word made flesh, God speaks our story again, and by so speaking he re-shapes and re-makes it, for it is always in his words that his creative power is manifest. Again, David Bentley Hart has put this point more eloquently than I can:

“It is because Christ’s life effects a narrative reversal, which unwinds the story of sin and death and reinaugurates the story that God tells from before the foundation of the world – the story of the creation he wills, freely, in his eternal counsels – that Christ’s life effects an ontological restoration in creation’s goodness; it is because the rhetoric of his form restores the order of divine rhetoric … that created being is redeemed in him.” The Beauty of the Infinite, p.325.)

Athanasius then proceeds through a quite interesting set of arguments in which he looks at the manner in which Christ died, and explains why it was an appropriate death. It was fitting that his death be public, for instance, because his triumph over death was fittingly public. His death was something he suffered at the hands of others so that he would not seem to have chosen one manner of death over another: “He, the Life of all, our Lord and Savior, did not arrange the manner of his own death lest He should seem to be afraid of some other kind.” It was fitting that the manner of his death did not divide his body (as in a beheading), for his body represented the Church: “even in death He preserved His body whole and undivided, so that there should be no excuse hereafter for those who would divide the Church.”

In two final sections of the book he addresses two specific audiences in turn: Jews and Gentiles. To the former he argues his views on Incarnation, death, and Resurrection from the Hebrew Scriptures, and to the latter he argues from pagan philosophers. His arguments to the Gentiles include a well-known celebrations of the triumph of Christ over the pagan deities:

And here is another proof of the Godhead of the Savior, which is indeed utterly amazing. What mere man or magician or tyrant or king was ever able by himself to do so much? Did anyone ever fight against the whole system of idol-worship and the whole host of demons and all magic and all the wisdom of the Greeks, at a time when all of these were strong and flourishing and taking everybody in, as did our Lord, the very Word of God? Yet He is even now invisibly exposing every man’s error, and single-handed is carrying off all men from them all, so that those who used to worship idols now tread them under foot, reputed magicians burn their books and the wise prefer to all studies the interpretation of the gospels. They are deserting those whom formerly they worshipped, they worship and confess as Christ and God Him Whom they used to ridicule as crucified. Their so-called gods are routed by the sign of the cross, and the crucified Savior is proclaimed in all the world as God and Son of God. Moreover, the gods worshipped among the Greeks are now falling into disrepute among them on account of the disgraceful things they did, for those who receive the teaching of Christ are more chaste in life than they. If these, and the like of them, are human works, let anyone who will show us similar ones done by men in former time, and so convince us.

This routing of the imposter gods, which left the sacred groves and temples vacant, was one of the most momentous developments in the history of our civilization; it is one of the main burned bridges separating us from our Greco-Roman roots, and it was a necessary condition not only for the emergence of monotheism but also, I would think, for the materialist atheism of modernity. We are contending with its consequences still.

At the very end of the book he takes a pastoral turn. Much as did David Bentley Hart in the closing pages of The Experience of God, Athanasius tells us that Christianity is not a theory addressed solely to the intellect. It cannot be understood unless one undertakes to live according to its precepts:

One cannot possibly understand the teaching of the saints unless one has a pure mind and is trying to imitate their life. Anyone who wants to look at sunlight naturally wipes his eye clear first, in order to make, at any rate, some approximation to the purity of that on which he looks; and a person wishing to see a city or country goes to the place in order to do so.

He invites us, therefore, to wipe our eyes with prayerful tears, and to make the journey to see the goodness of God made manifest in the Incarnation and Resurrection of Christ. “For the Lord touched all parts of creation, and freed and undeceived them all from every deceit.”

Benson: Confessions of a Convert

September 10, 2017

Confessions of a Convert
Robert Hugh Benson
(Christian Classics, 2016) [1913]
128 p.

Robert Hugh Benson was one of the more notable of the English converts to Catholicism who flagged in eminence behind John Henry Newman and G.K. Chesterton. Not only was he a well-known clergyman of the Church of England, but his father had been Archbishop of Canterbury, and so he had grown up in the elite circles of English society and Anglican religion. He was in his early 30s when he abandoned his position to be received into the Catholic Church, and approximately a decade later he published this brief spiritual autobiography.

It is not a spiritual autobiography worthy to compare with the greatest, but for those who have followed something like a similar course, or for those contemplating something like a similar course, or just for Catholics suffering an acute case of Anglophilia there is much here to hold one’s interest.

Despite his upbringing in a highly-churched milieu, he professes to have had little religious inclination as a child. It was only when he went to university and encountered, surely not for the first time, but with new appreciation, the sacred music of the liturgy that his religious sense was awakened: “It was the music, first and last, and it was through that opening that I first began to catch glimpses of the spiritual world.” With hindsight he considers this aesthetic experience as, in itself, incomplete, but credits it with having turned him in the right direction and urged him forward, a twitch upon the thread.

It didn’t take long for him to take a professional turn toward religion. Perhaps because of the family upbringing he had had, and without any great fervency, he thought it fitting that he become a clergyman, and began to take steps in that direction. It is amusing to read of his general view of the landscape of the Christian world at that time, the exemplar of the parochial English parson:

“The Roman Catholics, I thought, were obviously corrupt and decayed, the Ritualists were tainted, and the extreme Protestants were noisy, extravagant, and vulgar. Plainly there was only one religious life possible, that of a quiet country clergyman, with a beautiful garden, an exquisite choir, and a sober bachelor existence.”

This all changed when, shortly after his ordination to the diaconate, he travelled to the Holy Land. It did not take long for him to perceive that there, at the center of it all, the Church of England was an oddity that meant not very much to not very many. He saw that others regarded him rather as he would have regarded someone from the national Church of Zembla who thought the Church of Zembla the natural via media to which all well-balanced, thoughtful Christians ought to belong: an object of gentle amusement and benign pity.

Upon his return, then, he saw Anglicanism in a new, less flattering light, and he began to think critically about it. He became troubled by the weakness of the Anglican case for continuity with the medieval and patristic Church, and he began to see, too, the need for a living, authoritative voice in the Church to interpret and Gospel in new situations and to answer new questions. He gravitated toward “High Church” Anglicanism, on the reasonable grounds that “faith and its expression should go together”, but he came to wonder if the Anglican service, “rendered so beautiful by art and devotion, was no more than a subjective effort to assert our claim to what we did not possess.” And this doubt, once raised, could not be resolved by backing off of High Church principles; it was prompted by Anglicanism itself.

Life moved on, of course. He joined an Anglican religious community modeled on the Benedictines. In time, his wrestling with questions of authority and continuity led him to adopt the theory of “the Church Diffusive”, as he called it. The Church Diffusive consisted of all churches faithful to the creeds and having apostolic authority — in practice, in his view at that time, Rome, Moscow, and Canterbury. Where these churches agreed, the Holy Spirit was speaking authoritatively; where they disagreed, private judgement prevailed.

The principal problem with the theory of the Church Diffusive, of course, was that the member churches of the Church Diffusive rejected it. If the theory was right, then those churches were religious authorities; but if they were religious authorities, then the theory must be false. It didn’t take Benson long to see this problem clearly.

Part of what he wanted to see in a Church was confidence and authority to speak boldly on matters of faith and morals, as one having not just a duty but also competence to do so:

“In things that directly and practically affect souls…she must not only know her mind, but must be constantly declaring it, and no less constantly silencing those who would obscure or misinterpret it.”

There are those, of course, who criticize the Catholic Church for speaking in just this way — though opportunities for such criticism seem not so plentiful of late as they once were — but for Benson it was a definite attraction; he understood that this confidence was a sign of a healthy authority.

He discussed these matters with friends, and they, in their concern that he might become a Catholic, sent him to a variety of distinguished Anglican theologians for counsel and instruction. He listened to them, and heard their learned explanations of the merits of Anglicanism, but was struck by an insight:

“I suddenly realized clearly what I had only suspected before; namely, that if the Church of Christ was, as I believed it to be, God’s way of salvation, it was impossible that the finding of it should be a matter of shrewdness or scholarship.”

And this applied also to the evidence of Scripture:

“Dogmas such as that of the Blessed Trinity, sacraments such as that of Confirmation, institutions such as that of Episcopacy — all these things can indeed, to the Anglican as well as the Catholic mind, be found in Scripture if a man will dig for them. But the Petrine claim needs no digging: it lies like a great jewel, blazing on the surface, when once one has rubbed one’s eyes clear of anti-Catholic predisposition.”

This insight — that too much subtlety was a defect — seems to have brought him up to the edge of the Tiber, and it was reading Newman’s Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine that convinced him to take the plunge: it “waved away the last floating mists and let me see the City of God in her strength and beauty”.

He was not, we may say, a happy convert. C.S. Lewis famously described himself as “the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England”, but Benson beat him to it:

“I had no kind of emotional attraction towards it, no illusions of any kind about it. I knew perfectly well that it was human as well as divine, that crimes had been committed within its walls; that the ways and customs and language of its citizens would be other than those of the dear homely town which I had left; that I should find hardness there, unfamiliar manners, even suspicion and blame. But for all that it was divine; it was built upon the Rock of rocks; its foundations were jewelled even if its streets were as hard as gold; and the Lamb was the light of it.

But the setting out towards its gates was a hard task. I had no energy, no sense of welcome or exultation; I knew hardly more than three or four of its inmates. I was deadly sick and tired of the whole thing.”

And so, in 1903, he was received into the Catholic Church. The interesting final act of the book details how people responded to his decision. He describes one Anglican dignitary who thought that approaching the Catholic Church “not as a critic or a teacher, but as a child and a learner” was immoral; he apparently considered religion rightly to be “a matter more or less of individual choices and tastes”, a view that has waxed greatly in prevalence in the interim years without becoming any less daft. In fact Benson was criticized roundly from all quarters, but the spectrum of opinion struck him as noteworthy:

“I have been told that I became a Catholic because I was dispirited at failure and because I was elated at success; because I was imaginative and because I was imperceptive; because I was not hopeful enough and because I was too hopeful, faithless and too trusting, too ardent and too despairing, proud and pusillanimous.”

But then again, somewhat to his surprise, many Anglicans, both of his acquaintance and in the general public, were also supportive of his decision. Even more surprising was the incomprehension he encountered among some Catholics who could not understand why he would abandon a perfectly respectable English church to adopt a “foreign” one. The tribal instinct is strong.

Benson has some sound things to say about the process of conversion. Though he had been largely motivated by fairly abstract questions about religious authority and about what the Church is, the resolution of his doubts involved more than abstractions:

“Catechumens, therefore, must remember that while on the one side they must of course clear the ground by the action of the intellect, on the other side it is far more vital that they should pray, purify motives, and yield themselves to God.”

And again, later:

“The puzzle which God had flung to me consisted of elements which needed for their solution not the head only, but the heart, the imagination, the intuitions; in fact, the entire human character had to deal with it.”

It could hardly be a conversion were it otherwise.

Benson died one year after publishing this book, at the age of just 42, whether from a lingering illness, or suddenly, I have not been able to discover. He accomplished a great deal in his short life, and this memoir of conversion, modest though it is, stands as a fine testament to a man who evidently loved truth, was devoted to God, and had the courage to put first things first.

**

[The spirituality of the city of Rome]
Here was this city, Renaissance from end to end, set under clear skies and a burning sun; and the religion in it was the soul dwelling in the body. It was the assertion of the reality of the human principle as embodying the divine. Even the exclusive tenets of Christianity were expressed under pagan images. Revelation spoke through forms of natural religion; God dwelt unashamed in the light of day; priests were priests, not aspiring clergymen; they sacrificed, sprinkled lustral water, went in long, rolling processions with incense and lights, and called heaven Olympus. Sacrum Divo Sebastiano, I saw inscribed on a granite altar. I sat under priest-professors who shouted, laughed, and joyously demonstrated before six nations in one lecture room. I saw the picture of the “Father of princes and kings and Lord of the world” exposed in the streets on his name-day, surrounded by flowers and oil lamps, in the manner in which, two centuries ago, other lords of the world were honoured. I went down into the Catacombs on St. Cecilia’s Day and St. Valentine’s, and smelled the box and the myrtle underfoot that did reverence to the fragrance of their memories, as centuries ago they had done reverence to victors in another kind of contest. In one sentence, I began to understand that “the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us”; that as He took the created substance of a Virgin to fashion for Himself a natural body, so still He takes the created substance of men — their thoughts, their expressions, and their methods — to make for Himself that mystical body by which He is with us always; in short, I perceived that “there is nothing secular but sin.” Catholicism, then, is “materialistic?” Certainly; it is as materialistic as the Creation and the Incarnation, neither more nor less.

It is impossible to describe what this discovery means to a Northern soul. Certainly it means the obscuring of some of the old lights that had once seemed so beautiful in the half-gloom of individual experience, or rather, their drowning in the strong sunshine. Set beside some Roman pomp an exquisite Anglican service: how provincial, domestic, and individualistic becomes the latter! Set beside a Gregorian professor lecturing to Greeks, Roumanians, and Frenchmen, on the principles of restitution or the duty of citizens to the State, an Anglican divine expounding St. Paul’s Epistles to theological students; a friar in S. Carlo beside the most passionate mission preacher in the Church of England; the olive-laden peasants shouting hymns in S. Giovanne in Laterano beside a devout company of Anglicans gathered for Evensong; an hieratic sacrificer in S. Maria Maggiore beside the most perfectly drilled Ritualist in Mass vestments! Oh! Set any section of Catholic faith and worship seen in holy Rome beside the corresponding section of Anglican faith and worship! Yet Anglicans are shocked in Rome, and Dissenters exclaim at the paganism, and Free-thinkers smile at the narrowness of it all. Of course they are shocked and exclaim and smile. How should they not?

Thus, in truth, a sojourn in Rome means an expansion of view that is beyond words. Whereas up to that time I had been accustomed to image Christianity to myself as a delicate flower, divine because of its supernatural fragility, now I saw that it was a tree in whose branches the fowls of the air, once the enemies of its tender growth, can lodge in security — divine since the wideness of its reach and the strength of its mighty roots can be accounted for by nothing else. Before I had thought of it as of a fine, sweet aroma, to be appreciated apart; now I saw that it was the leaven, hid in the heavy measures of the world, expressing itself in terms incalculably coarser than itself, until the whole is leavened.

A hymn to the Virgin

September 8, 2017

It’s the birthday of Our Lady. Here is Britten’s Hymn to the Virgin, in a wonderful performance from King’s College, Cambridge: