Archive for the 'Yours Truly' 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.

Baby boy Burrell

November 26, 2014

The purpose of this blog is not to chronicle my personal life, but every so often something sufficiently significant happens that it seems wrong to pass over it in silence. With that in mind, let me draw your attention to the set of alarms I currently have programmed into my beastly little phone:

And that is just a sampling.

Yes, that’s right: we have a new baby!

Our little boy, Joseph Arthur Owen Barthos Burrell, was born on 5 November 2014, weighing 4 lb 4 oz. Being a tad small, he spent his first few weeks in hospital, but is now home with his big sister, big brother, mom, and dad. We’re pretty delighted with the little guy.

Blogging, which has already been slow of late, is likely to remain so for some time.

Joseph is named for St. Joseph — whose name, fittingly, and, we hope, prophetically, means “He will increase”. His middle names honour his maternal grandfather and great-grandfather (Arthur) and St. Nicholas Owen, a man whom I have long admired for his discretion and courage and whose martyrdom bears some relation to the date of birth.

Forgetfulness of remembrance of times past?

December 30, 2013

Usually at this time of year I write a series of posts reflecting on my favourite books, music, and films of the past twelve months. Probably nobody has been bothered overmuch by my failure to do so this year, but, in any case, let me send this reassurance into the void: I am writing those posts, and I plan to put them up during the first week or two of the new year. They are shaping up quite well, it seems to me.

…some say in ice.

December 23, 2013

A big ice storm swept through our area this weekend. A local rag has captured some photos from around the city. The biggest problem seems to have been tree branches falling on power lines, leaving many people without electricity. A good proportion of traffic lights are out, with massive traffic jams in consequence. The silver lining is that the ice on the trees is quite beautiful.

As for me and my house, we were fortunate that our power stayed on (despite some odd intermittent dimming in the evening hours). Our car was encased in a thick layer of ice yesterday; we had to chisel it out in order to open the door. And on our driveway and sidewalk the ice is an inch thick. But the kids love it, and they say that the temperatures will rise in the spring, so I’m not too worried.

Reading now

November 16, 2013


I mentioned a few months ago that a new book of Flannery O’Connor’s writing was to be published. My copy arrived this week; that’s it on the left. I haven’t had time to read it yet, but plenty of other people are talking about it. (Sometimes literally talking.)

Part of the reason that I’ve not yet sat down with Ms. O’Connor is that I’ve been preoccupied with David Bentley Hart’s most recent book, which I also mentioned a while ago; that’s it on the right. When I read I have a habit of turning down the corners of pages that contain a passage I’d like to return to. Clearly, I am enjoying this book.

WordPress advertisements

October 15, 2013

I have just learned that WordPress is occasionally inserting advertisements at the bottom of posts on this site. This is annoying. I have an option to purchase a ‘No Ads Upgrade’, but before doing so I would like to have some idea how frequently the advertisements are appearing. One in a hundred? One in three?

If you’ve noticed ads on this blog, and especially if you’ve found them intrusive, I’d appreciate if you could leave a brief comment letting me know. If you read the blog with some regularity and have a feel for how frequently or infrequently WordPress is inserting them, such intelligence would be very welcome.

Thank you.


Lunch time

August 16, 2013

In a couple of weeks I am going to have to start packing a lunch every day for our daughter — and not just a lunch, but a lunch and two snacks! Naturally I’m dreading the onset of this particular obligation, and I’m doing my best to avert my eyes from the prospect of it continuing for 15 years.

But, as the Boy Scouts say, “be prepared”: I thought to look online for ideas for simple and nutritious meals that I could consider making for her. The very first article I found, from Canadian Family magazine, is called “15 School Lunch Ideas They’ll Love”. Sounds good, right? Their first suggestion is this:

Honey Cider Ricotta Fondue

Honey Ricotta Fondue with Fruit Dippers. 

For crying out loud.

If anybody cares to share ideas for simple lunches, you’re most welcome to leave a comment.

Wall o’books

July 28, 2013

The general quietness around these parts these days is simply because we’ve moved; those moments that might ordinarily be “spare” are instead devoted to digging out from under the boxes. There are these, for instance, in what will one day be the library:


I’ll get to them someday…

Springtime in Alberta

May 1, 2013

I am back from a few weeks vacation:


If pressed, I will admit that conditions were not quite this bad, but to say that they were entirely unlike this would also be false. It was a great vacation nonetheless.

Easter bustle

April 3, 2013

One or two people may have noticed that things have been a little quiet around here of late. This is because things have not been quiet elsewhere, and I’ve had little to no leisure.

I have been learning that selling a house is an all-consuming activity. We were advised to “de-clutter” prior to listing the house, and so, after several weeks of sorting and sifting and packing, this past weekend we moved a fair bit of furniture and about 80 boxes out of the house and into storage. I am still trying to understand the mindset of people who consider books to be “clutter”.

With that out of the way, we turn our attention to little matters like painting, scrubbing, staining, fixing, and generally beautifying the place. It’s a lovely house, and I can’t see why someone shouldn’t want it. But it will be even lovelier when we’re through. I hope.

Did I mention that the only time I have to do any of this work is when I should be in bed?

In the middle of all this was Easter: Happy Easter! It was the tenth anniversary of my reception into the Catholic Church, and I had really been looking forward to it. It turned out to be the worst Triduum that I can remember: we had to leave the Holy Thursday Mass early because the kids were crazed, we were terribly late for the Good Friday service, and I even missed the start of the Vigil Mass (which, if you’ve never been, is the best part). Between times, when I would normally want to think about Easter, I was instead thinking about boxes and tape and cleaning supplies and when I went to the church it felt as though I had parachuted in from another realm.

But there was much to be thankful for, all the same. Our wonderful priests, who delivered some of the most thoughtful and provoking homilies that I can ever remember hearing, celebrated all of the Triduum liturgies with great beauty and solemnity. Being there was a balm. We really are blessed to have found our parish (and now, of course, we will really miss it). We are thankful for friends and family who, in the middle of all of this exhausting activity, are lending a hand when and where they can. Mostly we’re just thankful for Easter.

Happy Easter!