Posts Tagged ‘Catholicism’

Douglas: Natural Symbols

August 29, 2022

Natural Symbols
Mary Douglas
(Penguin, 1973) [1970]
216 p.

When, in the course of my reading, a particular book is cited by a number of different authors, I begin to think about peering into it, and such was the case with Mary Douglas’ Natural Symbols, a work of anthropology that develops a framework for understanding how social restraints and social roles are interrelated. I think. She said the book was “an attempt to develop Durkheim’s programme for a comparative sociology of religion,” which doesn’t sound like the same thing, and is probably why I was baffled much of the time.

The title sounds contradictory; aren’t symbols, almost by definition, conventional signs that vary with social context? She argues that certain basic features of human life, however, such as our bodily reality and our fundamental social relationships (to children; parents, friend, authority, etc.) provide a basis for a fundamental set of natural — that is, based on these basic features of life — symbols that govern human societies. That’s an interesting argument that I’m not in a position to evaluate.

My primary reason for interest in the book turned out to be somewhat peripheral to its main lines of argument. In her discussion of social controls she argues that certain social contexts give rise to anti-ritualism, and one of her case studies for anti-ritualism is the tide of reforms that overtook the Catholic world after Vatican II. She argues that the clerical and academic class were driving the anti-ritualist push, often against the grain of the ordinary churchgoer. The anti-ritualist reforms were promoted as a means of heightening commitment to the faith, but Douglas points out that an attachment to ritual is itself a form of commitment, and that a precipitous effort to undo the ritual risked undoing the commitment as well, which is indeed what happened, at least in some cases.

Ritualism is not a shining word for us; indeed, our leading churchmen sometimes use it as a term of abuse, but for Douglas ritualism is a positive capacity, “a heightened appreciation of symbolic action”. Ritualism, she argues, is absolutely essential for a sacramental religion, which relies on symbolic (and more than symbolic) acts throughout. Lose the ritual, and a strong sense of symbolic power, and you will start to lose the sacramental sense too.

Where ritualism is strong, and symbols are valued, external actions are considered important, and, for instance, what counts as a sin is specified clearly in terms of acts; but where ritualism withers everything moves to the interior, and people will talk instead about internal dispositions and intentions. This internal focus has arisen every time I have asked a priest about the difference between mortal and venial sins.

She identifies three phases in the migration from ritualism in religion: first, a contempt for ritual forms; then, an internalization of religious experience; and finally, a move to humanist philanthropy. On bad days I worry that Pope Francis is already in phase three, but I hope I’m wrong about that.

A main idea of the book, which I’m skirting around here, is that the degree of ritualism in a society is closely tied, by mutual influence, to the structure of social groups in that society, and in particular to the strength of social ties. She gives various arguments for this, and presents various case studies drawn from the anthropology literature to support the claim; all of that is too complicated for me to go into here.

An interesting and provocative corollary of her theory is that anti-ritualism, and indeed outright irreligion, is not at all a disposition unique to modernity, but arises whenever certain social conditions obtain:

Secularization is often treated as a modern trend, attributable to the growth of cities or to the prestige of science, or just to the breakdown of social forms. But we shall see that it is an age-old cosmological type, a product of a definable social experience, which need have nothing to do with urban life or modern science… The contrast of secular with religious has nothing whatsoever to do with the contrast of modern with traditional or primitive. The idea that primitive man is by nature deeply religious is nonsense. The truth is that all of the varieties of skepticism, materialism, and spiritual fervor are found in the range of tribal societies. They vary as much from one another on these lines as any chosen segment of London life.

In a similar way, she sees our contemporary anti-ritualism — a general preference for casualness and a sense that formality is foreign or fake — as a consequence of larger social forces that have weakened social roles and social stability.

Interestingly, she argues that anti-ritualism is typically a posture of protest, raised against a prevailing symbolic order, and that, when it is successful at weakening or overthrowing that order, anti-ritualism fades out as a new set of symbols and rituals assert themselves. Were I adept at thinking, and seeing, like an anthropologist, I might be able to assess whether this is likely to happen, or has already happened, to us.

She argues also that anti-ritualism is usually accompanied by a heightening of ethical sensitivity. In religion it has not been at all uncommon that churches in which dogma and doctrine soften adopt instead a commitment to social reform, etc., so there may be something to this idea. It is consistent with the notion that ritualism tends to focus on external actions, and its negation to involve an inward turn toward motivation, intention, and so forth. A ritualist can find purpose in life through conscientious performance of set practices, but an anti-ritualist feels a burden of conscience and must do something in the world.

Moreover, a trend to anti-ritualism affects religion in other ways as well. For an anti-ritualist, for instance, the person’s relationship to God is conceived as an intimate, inward one, rather than as an objective one governed by rituals. But at the same time the idea of God, because it is captured in the orbit of “friendship” or “personal relationship”, tends to be drained of glory and power. One doesn’t typically find the Pantocrator in an evangelical revival church.

As a case study in the decline of ritualism, or the attack on ritualism, she takes the Catholic custom of abstinence from meat on Fridays. After Vatican II this obligation was nuanced: no longer a strict obligation, Catholics were given the option to replace the long-standing practice with a personal act of charity. It sounds harmless enough, perhaps, but the result was the wholesale collapse of the custom. Why did that happen? She argues that it was foisted on ritual-oriented Catholics by well-meaning but symbol-blind clergy, who did not understand what they were doing. The clergy wanted their people to deepen their faith, and considered the Friday fast to be “mere externals”, mere habit, without the religious depth that they thought preferable. But Douglas argues that any custom strongly adhered to is serving some important purpose, and can be tampered with only by the bold or careless. As Chesterton said, a fence should not be taken down until you understand why it is there. Undermining the symbolic order tied to the Friday fast, whatever it was, sowed confusion that reverberated in that space where Catholics related to the Church, and to one another. The Friday fast disappeared, but not because everybody was conscientiously doing good deeds. It was just gone. But even if they had been conscientiously carrying out acts of charity, something basic would have nonetheless changed:

Friday no longer rings the great cosmic symbols of expiation and atonement: it is not symbolic at all, but a practical day for the organization of charity. Now the English Catholics are like everyone else.

It might be worth noting that many Catholics whom I know, myself included, have returned to the Friday fast, albeit without much encouragement from our pastors and bishops. I won’t try to specify exactly what purpose it is serving, but that there is one I do not doubt.

***

There is a great deal more to this book than these notes would indicate. As I said, I didn’t understand most of it. I suppose what I take from the book are a few things. First, as a general observation, the way anthropologists see things is quite intriguing; the conceptual framework, and the habit of perception it makes possible, was unfamiliar and felt kind of exciting and kind of dubious at once. Second, I was surprised by her claim that the drift from religious sensibility to irreligious isn’t at all a peculiarly modern one, but rather a commonplace in the anthropological literature in all sorts of contexts. Third, the specific association she makes between formality, ritualism, religion, hierarchy, and strong social structures on one hand, and anti-ritualism, irreligiosity, and weak social structures on the other looks, in retrospect, rather plausible and even obvious, but it’s an association I hadn’t seen fully made before. Finally, I found that the application of her ideas to the post-Vatican II Catholic Church valuable insofar as they cast new light on a much-mulled phenomenon.

I also learned two new words from this book: cachinnation and eleemosynary. Perhaps you already knew them, but let’s not have any cachinnation, even in an eleemosynary spirit, on that account.

Rome 1300

July 11, 2022

Rome 1300
On the Path of the Pilgrim
Herbert L. Kessler & Johanna Zacharias
(Yale, 2000)
237 p.

Rome is a city that sprawls through time like no other. Buildings separated by centuries sit cheek-by-jowl, and the span of the city’s memory stretches back to an ancient pedigree that few can rival. A stimulating thought experiment is to take a time-slice of the city: what would it have looked like in the year X?

That is just what Kessler & Zacharias have done in this book. They imagine what it might have been like to be a pilgrim coming to Rome in 1300, the year in which Pope Boniface VIII declared the first Jubilee. Modern visitors to Rome tend to think first of ancient Rome and of Renaissance Rome, so the choice of 1300 is a very good one; it gives us an opportunity to imagine the city as we probably have not done before.

What would a pilgrim have seen and heard at that time? No Michelangelo, no Raphael, no Borromini, no Bernini. St Peter’s basilica, as we know it, was not there. Go further back.

They put us in the shoes of a pilgrim who arrived, at the city’s south side, on August 14, the eve of the Feast of the Assumption. On that night there was an annual procession through the city from St John Lateran to Santa Maria Maggiore that passed by many sacred sites. Over the course of the book, we walk to the marvellous church of San Clemente, then past the Colosseum and through the ancient Roman Forum, visiting the church of Sts Cosmas and Damian before turning north to pray at Santa Prassede and then, in the early hours of the morning, at Santa Maria Maggiore. After a brief rest, our pilgrim then makes her way down to St Paul’s Outside the Walls, and, finally, to St Peter’s to conclude her pilgrimage.

Reading the book has been an unalloyed delight for me, bringing back so many wonderful memories of my time in Rome. San Clemente is my favourite church in the city; when I was last there I rented an apartment from which, leaning out the window, I could touch the façade of Santa Prassede; I have myself followed a procession from the Lateran to Santa Maria Maggiore (although it was for the Feast of Corpus Christi, and followed a much more direct route). At every turn of the page more wonders were in store.

Although many of the sites and sights were familiar to me, not all were. Some things have changed in the intervening 700 years, though not as many as you might think. The book spends a good deal of time on the Sancta Sanctorum at the Lateran, which I not only have never visited (few have), but did not know about. And of course St Peter’s is radically different today; the earlier basilica was, in structure, much more similar to St Paul’s than to the new church, and I read this section with fascination. But the great candlestick at St Paul’s is still there.

The narrative device used by the authors to organize the book — of pilgrimage — is an appealing one, but it is a device. In its bones, this is an art history book, dedicated primarily to describing and understanding the architecture and art of the churches. The pilgrim would have had to be unusually thorough to apprehend all of the details the authors describe, and would have been accustomed to thinking in unusually academic prose to boot, but this didn’t bother me. The book is illustrated with over 200 photos, many of them in colour. It’s a wonderful book.

von Hildebrand: Trojan Horse in the City of God

May 18, 2021

Trojan Horse in the City of God
Dietrich von Hildebrand
(Sophia Institute, 1993) [1967]
332 p.

Writing shortly after the conclusion of Vatican II, von Hildebrand issues in this book a passionate critique of the changes being wrought in the Church’s life in the name of the Council. He must have been one of the earliest voices to point out the marked difference between the letter and the putative “spirit” of the Council:

It would be difficult to conceive a greater contrast than that between the official documents of Vatican II and the superficial, insipid pronouncements of various theologians and laymen that have broken out everywhere like an infectious disease.

Hildebrand saw the Council as having the potential to enrich the Church’s life by correcting imbalances that had grown up over the years since Trent. He thought that an “ossification and legalism” had come to characterize the Church in her own life and in her relationship to the world, and that the Council was trying to correct this. He saw traditional Catholic teachings on certain subjects as needing rebalancing by complementary truths: the Church stressed the value of religious life, to the relative neglect of married life; she stressed love of God, to the relative neglect of love of neighbour; she valued supernatural goods but undervalued natural goods; she practiced certain forms of Scriptural interpretation but neglected others. There were partial truths in need of completion.

Yet a partial truth is a truth, not an error, and the proper response is to add to it, not to repudiate it. He wrote because he saw in what was then already called “progressivism” a rejection of what was true in tradition in favour of the opposite half-truth: preference for married over religious life, substitution of love of neighbour for love of God, an overemphasis on natural goods, and a neglect of sound, traditional Scriptural interpretation. Above all, he saw the Church, in the name of the Council, being captured by the secular spirit of the age:

Enamored of our present epoch, blind to all its characteristic dangers, intoxicated with everything modern, many Catholics no longer ask whether something is true, whether it is good and beautiful, or whether it has intrinsic value. They ask only whether it is up-to-date, suitable to modern man and the technological age, challenging, dynamic, audacious, or progressive.

The bad fruit of this attitude was, already in 1967, beginning to become evident, and von Hildebrand surveys its many aspects. He saw traditional Catholic philosophy being abandoned in favour of philosophies, such as relativism and historicism, flatly incompatible with the Church’s teaching; he saw the evangelical imperative to present the Gospel in a manner suitable to our time and place being perversely interpreted as a requirement to change her teachings to suit the times; he saw the emphasis on religious pluralism and ecumenism betraying the Catholic commitment to religious truth; he noted a false, and characteristically modern, view of freedom disrupting the Catholic view of the moral life; he saw a turn from a transcendent to an immanent frame of reference for the Church’s life and activity; in the Church hierarchy he saw a reluctance to condemn heresies and errors as betraying either a lack of charity or a lack of faith, or both; and, perhaps above all, he saw the Church captured by a superficial optimism that the world was, somehow, bound to improve, such that whatever was happening must be good.

In 1967 the most obvious on-the-ground effect of the Council – the replacement of the Latin Mass by the new, vernacular Mass – was still in its nascent stages. Nonetheless von Hildebrand found reason enough to decry the loss of beauty and the disruption of the sacred atmosphere of the liturgy that was being pushed in parishes. He is not specific, so it is hard to know precisely what he was objecting to, but it is noteworthy, I think, that he already felt it was necessary to sound the alarm and defend the value and integrity of the Latin Mass. Little good it did us.

Against this “progressivism”, he argues, sensibly, that every age is a mixture of things better and things worse, that the newness of something has no bearing whatever on its truth, and that by denying the value of their tradition, progressives deprive themselves of the resources and advantages that those traditions provide.

He also rightly argues that “progressivism” in Catholicism, while it might, arguably, have a certain limited role to play, cannot be allowed free run of the house.

Even a man in no way conservative in temperament and in many other respects progressive must be conservative in his relation to the infallible magisterium of the Church, if he is to remain an orthodox Catholic. One can be progressive and simultaneously a Catholic, but one cannot be a progressive in one’s Catholic faith because the Church’s faith, and any true reform, is founded on unshakable faith in Christ and in the infallible magisterium of his Holy Church. It admits no possibility of change except … the explicit formulation of what was implicit in the faith of the Apostles or of what necessarily follows from it… This is simply the Catholic position, without further qualification.

*

The book is valuable not only because of when it was written – a dispatch from the front – but by whom. Von Hildebrand is normally associated with the reformers, not the embattled reactionaries. Yet here he lays out a sustained case against the principles and ambitions that have guided the “spirit of Vatican II” in the intervening decades.

Almost all of the problems he identifies are still with us. The young priests who came of age after the Council are now our senior churchmen, and, as is well known, many of them remain fond of this silly season. In some respects the battle has died down today, sometimes because issues faded in importance, and sometimes because trenches were dug and people got comfortable in them, but in other respects the conflict he describes remains timely, though the flashpoints have changed. But the book remains relevant. It would be great if the publisher would issue a new edition, because it is very hard to find.

Von Hildebrand knew Joseph Ratzinger in Germany when the latter was a young priest, and Ratzinger’s respect for him is on record. I’m not at all surprised to learn this, because the position von Hildebrand stakes out – openness to reform, love for tradition, and mistrust of sunny appraisals of modern habits of thought – reminds me in many respects of Ratzinger’s own.

Esolen: The Hundredfold

January 25, 2021

The Hundredfold
Songs for the Lord
Anthony Esolen
(Ignatius, 2019)
224 p.

“It is manna”

I am at peace under the open skies,
Gathering berries into a gallon pail,
As finches twitter, and the small gnats wail,
And if a cloudy empire lives or dies,
No news will reach me when the seagull cries;
More potent is the snuff of last year’s leaf
In the pouch of the earth where worms abound
And black ants carve their boroughs, reef to reef,
Reveling in the joy of being brief
Beneath the eye of heaven, where I have found
Blessings of God like hoarfrost on the ground.

Poetry was once more popular than it is today. We have the modernists to blame, at least in part, for that. Their abandonment of form, disdain of popularity, and retreat into something approaching private language left the reading public cold. But the problem goes deeper than that, for poetry itself — even the older, once popular, poetry of Blake, or Longfellow, or Frost — has been mostly abandoned. Modern life feels out of step with poetry. The nearest we get to it, I suppose, is in pop songs — a beggarly substitute, by and large.

Anthony Esolen has long been an advocate for our great poets, and for the reading of poetry. He sees in the decline of poetry’s fortunes a sign of cultural decay, and, likewise, in a revival of poetry a green shoot. But a revived poetry would be a poetry that once again touched the heart, and took up residence in the memory, of ordinary people.

Hence The Hundredfold, a long poem — a single poem, he is careful to insist — in one hundred parts, intended to be accessible and attractive to as many readers as will deign to pick it up. It is religious poetry, largely, as much of our greatest poetry has been. Like the Scriptures themselves, the poem follows an arc from creation to redemption, pivoting on the life of Christ, and especially on Easter.

The architecture of the poem has been carefully designed. I have said that it consists of 100 segments — which, for convenience, I shall call “poems” in their own right. Two-thirds of these (66) are short lyric poems, like the one above, each prefaced by a phrase from Scripture. Sometimes these poems are absorbed in the Scripture itself, and sometimes the verse of Scripture is the basis for a meditation on modern life:

“Then wrought Bezaleel and Aholiah, and every wise hearted man, in whom the Lord put wisdom.”

I was a boy, and gazed into the dome
Flocked with the saints and angels of the Lord:
Mysterious clarity, keen as any sword,
Alien shores and faraway, but home;
Holiday language of the loving eye
Summoning worshipers to rise and come
Robed in the heraldry of God on high.
Then came the learned with their sidelong speech,
And sat about the glory like a swarm
Of weevils on the corn in ear, to preach
Only such wonders as their wit could reach,
With the vague softness of the common worm:
Flesh without bone, and structure without form.

With these lyric poems are interwoven 21 hymns, written expressly to be sung to well-known hymn melodies. Taken as a group, these are, perhaps, my favourite parts of The Hundredfold, and I would love to see them incorporated into hymnals. As poems, they are vastly better than most of the recent material that fills modern hymnals. Esolen is a student of hymnody, and understands the appeal of sturdy, poetic song for group singing. He writes in the great tradition that has given us the lion’s share of our finest hymns. As an example, consider this hymn written for the tune CVM RHONDDA:

In this far-off land of famine,
Gentle Shepherd, come to me.
I have wondered from Thy plenty;
Sands and bones are all I see.
Son most faithful, Son most faithful,
Let me ever feast with Thee,
Let me ever feast with Thee.

Leave me not upon the journey,
Halt and lame and like to fall.
Hold my arm when I shall tremble,
When the thieves and death appall.
Stand beside me, stand beside me,
At the final trumpet-call,
At the final trumpet-call.

Break the bonds of flesh and darkness,
Thrust to hell the powers of night!
Shower Thy living grace upon me,
God of God and Light of Light!
Lord and Conqueror, Lord and Conqueror,
Let me praise Thee in Thy sight,
Let me praise Thee in Thy sight!

Tell me that doesn’t stir the heart!

The third main plank in the architecture consists of a set of 12 dramatic poems — epistles, monologues, and dialogues, in iambic pentameter — expressly after the manner of the master, Robert Browning. These are marvellous, and, if I may, I’ll change my mind and claim these as my favourite parts, albeit for private rather than communal enjoyment. The first eavesdrops on the thoughts of the Blessed Virgin as she silently ponders her sleeping son; another is told, many years after the fact, by the boy who had brought the loaves and fish when he went to hear Jesus preaching; another is spoken by Blind Bartimaeus; and still another relates a conversation between the two men whom Jesus met on the road to Emmaus. These verses are wonderfully flexible, the characters vividly portrayed, with their own distinctive voices, and the poems themselves, like Browning’s exemplars, are deeply thoughtful and imaginative creations. By the very nature of their form, they are hard to excerpt, but let me illustrate with this passage which opens an epistolary poem written by Pontius Pilate to the Emperor:

To the Sun-Brilliant Giver of Increase,
The great Bridge-Builder spanning heaven and earth,
Chief of the Julian clan, First Citizen,
Mild Counselor to our gathering of old men,
Commander of armies fortressed from the banks
Of the Euphrates to the chilly Rhine —
Whose barbarous sots once struck from the black woods
And slaughtered a whole legion, while their whores
Poured like a swarm over the corpses, spoiling
The spoilers of their gold, so Parthian rings
Still wedged on dead men’s fingers shed their gleam
On the beer feasts of some grease-eating king
Who has to use two hands to count to ten,
Mocking with all his thanes your southern godhead
As his sheep leave their droppings in his hall —
To thee, O Claudius, from the rocks of Spain
I send obedient salutations: Hail.

The Hundredfold concludes with a tour de force: a 100 line coda written in 33 Dantean tercets. It’s a poetic form that is very difficult in English, but Esolen is equal to the task. (He has done it before, in the concluding canto of his translation of Dante.) The neat numerics of this coda are no accident; the whole of The Hundredfold is built on a strict numerical plan. The dramatic poems and hymns, together, are 33 in number — being the age of Christ at his Passion — and they total 3333 lines. The 66 lyric poems total 100 stanzas and 1000 lines. The coda, as I’ve already said, echoes the 33 and 100. I don’t know about you, but this kind of thing sets my heart racing and my palms to sweat.

It is not for me to say whether Esolen is a great poet, but I am confident in my judgement that he is a good poet. As a contribution to a revival of poetry, and of Christian culture, The Hundredfold is an admirable effort. I can recommend it unreservedly.

***

“You shall not make your children pass through fire.”

They are not half in love with easeful death,
They are not half in love with anything;
No field in summer makes them catch their breath
Where the corn ripens, and the sparrows sing;
The man wishes he had no seed to cast
In the warm spring upon the ready earth;
The woman, that her womb were bolted fast.
Death they may fear, but birth
Is perfect terror, or the sad and slow
Contraction of the little life they play,
Without a germ or root or bloom to show,
Numb to the pulse of both the night and day.
Nor do they haunt where Moloch’s flames appall,
Because they would not bear a child at all.

**

“Ephphatha,” which means, “Be opened.”

Because I lay under the weight of earth
And the dust was a pillow to my cheek —
The dust and blood that swaddled me at birth,
When I first wailed as if my heart would break —
I could but hear and speak
Faintly, and in confusion of the sound;
And all my fellow men who dwelt in tombs,
Where never a call of clarion trumpet comes,
Spoke and heard as if muffled by the ground
And by the crowds of buried men around.

Lord, let me not be deaf forevermore.
Open my clotted ear, untie my tongue,
Let me break forth in song,
The double prayer that ear and tongue are for.
Lead me to the clear air where I belong,
Where the least whisper is a call to be
One with the listening angels in their throng,
As they await the call of victory.

**

Christ is the image of the invisible God.

At the ninth height of being, eyes are bright
With what is now, what was, what is to be.
Shall we then cup our hands to sip the light?
Nay, in the river frolic and be free,
While the nine choirs like rollers of the sea
Sing of the far-flung spray of flower and star,
I have the abyss of glory here, for He
The Three and One, who thunders from afar,
Is the intimate wellspring where the blessed are.

Mosebach: The Heresy of Formlessness

April 15, 2020

The Heresy of Formlessness
The Roman Liturgy and its Enemy
Martin Mosebach
(Angelico, 2018) Second edition.
xviii + 199 p.

“I admit quite openly that I am one of those naive folk who look at the surface, the external appearance of things, in order to judge their inner nature, their truth, or their spuriousness.”

So says Martin Mosebach early in this gentle and appreciative meditation on the traditional Roman Rite — what is today, following Pope Benedict XVI, called the “extraordinary form” of the liturgy for Latin-rite Catholics. It is one thing to listen to what theologians or liturgists say about the public worship of the Church, and another to see what they do. One sometimes belies the other, or at least the connection between the two is not always obvious.

“Liturgy wars” have waxed and waned for the last fifty years in the Church, since the radical changes introduced in the wake of the Second Vatican Council: the Latin abandoned, the altar turned around, the altar rails removed, the music changed, and so forth. For a long time the pre-Council rite was broadly forbidden — or was thought to be so. Benedict XVI liberalized its celebration in 2007, but today it is nonetheless the case that the vast majority of parishes worldwide celebrate the Mass in the new, “ordinary” form, and most Catholics have never attended, and most priests have never celebrated, a Mass in the older, “extraordinary” form.

Mosebach’s love is for the older form, and his book is a thoughtful account of why. It’s not a polemical book. Apart from a few paragraphs here and there, the new Mass hardly gets a mention.

His instinct to judge on appearances is, he believes, the natural attitude of “people of aesthetic sensibility”; those sensitive to artistic unity, to beauty, and to form are, in his experience, less inclined to admit, or at least to tolerate with equanimity, a putative division of form and content, which he calls “the German vice”. A loss of form, he argues, almost always entails a loss of content. To be sure, the Mass is not merely a work of art, but surely it is at least that.

The argument, which I have heard myself, that the form of the Mass, its aesthetic face, is irrelevant to the underlying reality and meaning of the Mass, he finds unconvincing. It has a certain validity, of course, for the gracious Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist is not dependant on the celebration of the Mass being beautiful or alluring. But surely the Mass, if by it Christ truly becomes present to us, ought to be surrounded with as much beauty, honour, and glory that we can muster. Our liturgy should, insofar as is possible, make that reality tangible to our senses. That would be fitting. That should be our aspiration. We are human creatures, after all, who know what we know through our senses. And so, when, decade after decade, this does not happen, when the liturgy is tawdry or banal, something is awry. The defect of form may possibly begin to affect our understanding, and even our apprehension, of the truths the Mass celebrates and enacts. The true reality of the Mass is not determined by its form, but neither is the latter irrelevant to the former.

Among the most fruitful observations Mosebach makes in the course of his reflections is that liturgy is a kind of revelation: it makes God known to us. We therefore ought to treat it with the reverence we own to other sources of revelation, like Scripture:

“Even in the earliest Christian times Basil the Great, one of the eastern Church Fathers, taught that the liturgy was revelation, like Holy Scripture itself, and should never be interfered with. And so it was, until the pontificate of Paul VI [that is, Vatican II]. Naturally this attitude did not prevent essential modifications, but such changes as occurred took place organically, unconsciously, unintentionally, and without a theological plan. They grew out of the practice of liturgy, just as a landscape is altered over centuries by wind and water.”

The reforms of the liturgy that occurred to create the new Mass were not of this organic kind; this was a consistent theme of Pope Benedict XVI’s extensive theological reflections on the liturgy. The Mass has been subjected to all manner of experiment in the meantime, pushed here, and pulled there, and sometimes treated as something that we make for ourselves according to our own perceived needs. (Mosebach cannily draws a connection between liturgical reformers and historico-critical exegetes of Scripture, both of whom he sees as tempted to make themselves masters of revelation rather than allowing revelation to master them.)

But this is quite at odds with the understanding that Mosebach (and Benedict) think proper. Liturgy, as with any revelation, is to be received as a gift, and it is a great advantage of the old rite that it comes to us in this way: not authored by anyone, not flexible enough to suit all tastes, not requiring the priest to be spiritually gifted in order to render it reverent. It is “begotten, not made”, to echo Mosebach’s wittiest appropriation.

This “impersonal” nature of the liturgy, its given-ness, its just-being-there, he connects to the sacramental nature of Catholicism. But the intelligibility of the whole sacramental system is contingent on its being of divine, not human, origin. “For this reason these sacraments and rites must be most strictly kept aloof from all subjectivism and all private and personal inspiration.” So with the liturgy, and for the same reasons.

**

I have said that the book is not polemical, and that is true. It nonetheless has a certain melancholy air, for Mosebach knows that the liturgy which he loves, that gift which he has received from God, has been nearly destroyed. He is conscious of living in the long, sad aftermath of something beautiful befouled and ruined. The respect which he instinctively feels is owed to sacred rites long inhabited has gone unheeded:

We must admit, with no beating about the bush, that the Roman liturgy’s fifteen-hundred-year tradition has been breached, and breached irretrievably. Dismayed and speechless, we had to watch as the supreme Catholic authority bent its whole might — a might that has grown over the centuries — to the task of eradicating the very shape of the Church, the liturgy, and replacing it with something else.

He understands the reasons given for undertaking a reform, and is doubtful of them, but emphasizes the disconnect between what the Council fathers intended and what was actually perpetrated after the Council:

Disastrously, the implementation of the conciliar decrees was caught up in the cultural revolution of 1968, which had broken out all over the world. That was certainly the work of a spirit — if only of a very impure one. The political subversion of every kind of authority, the aesthetic vulgarity, the philosophical demolition of tradition not only laid waste universities and schools and poisoned the public atmosphere but at the same time took possession of broad circles within the Church.

This is an old story, hardly original observations, but stated with a certain panache.

*

The book is not like Jesus’ tunic, without seam, woven from the top throughout, but instead consists of essays and occasional pieces gathered together on account of their shared interest in things liturgical. This leads to a certain amount of repetition, and also promotes the introduction of themes and ideas that are slightly digressive relative to the main argument, eddies in the stream, but intriguing ones.

He takes up the question, for instance, whether there is something anti-ritualist in the bones of Christianity, a religion that has, after all, been periodically wracked by iconoclasm. His own father was a Protestant who worshipped alone with a small black prayer book and nothing else. But he thinks ritualism is proper to Christianity, on the grounds that Christianity is founded on the person of Jesus, a physical presence then and now, not an abstraction, and he argues that ritual is a natural way of honouring his presence and making it tangible to the senses.

Likewise he touches on the role of music in the liturgy (a much travelled theme!), the value of our Eastern liturgies as a foil for seeing what is right and wrong with our Western liturgies, and the meaning of the much-disputed Vatican II phrase “active participation” vis-a-vis liturgy. There is a wonderful essay about his visit to Fontgombault, where the monks continue to celebrate the liturgy in its old form.

*

The writing in the book is graceful and often striking in its formulations. Mosebach is a well-regarded novelist in his native Germany, and it shows. (Indeed, the last selection in this book is actually an excerpt from one of his novels.) Writing this articulate and pleasant to read is rare in any context, much less in the realm of meta-liturgical literature, where polemics have long ago calcified along partisan lines.

*

My own experience of the liturgy answers in some respects to Mosebach’s, but not in all. I am, in general, a Novus Ordo Mass-goer, like the vast majority of Catholics today. This is partly because opportunities to attend the older rite are rarer, partly because I often feel like I’m making an especially big disruption when I attend the traditional rite with my children, and partly because I myself prefer certain aspects of the new rite, such as the vernacular readings.

I’ve been lucky, though, in my experience with the Novus Ordo Mass. The number of really awful experiments I’ve seen and heard have been few in number, and haven’t been as bad as the train wrecks Mosebach describes witnessing in Germany. Of course I’ve been to many Masses that were aesthetic horrors, but generally we’ve attended parishes where the Mass is celebrated in a way that is beautiful and even glorious. Sacred music sounds. Incense billows. The vestments are beautiful. The Mass is often celebrated ad orientem (in which the priest spends much of the Mass with his back turned to the antics of my children in the aisles). The atmosphere is reverent and prayerful.

That said, I do make an effort to attend the traditional Latin rite when I can. Perhaps I go once a month or so, usually not on a Sunday, but for an evening Mass or a special feast. I love this Mass. I especially love to go alone, when I can have the freedom to sink into the silence and remain there. (I have learned from this rite the value of simply being present, which has been a boon to my child-chasing adventures at the new Mass also.) At this form of the Mass I feel especially close to the heart of our tradition, and close to the saints (especially, for some reason, to the post-Reformation English saints), for this is the form of the Mass that they knew.

I have friends who have had strong negative reactions to the traditional Mass; I don’t share those feelings at all, but I sort of understand them. They support the troubling claim that the two forms of the rite are quite dissimilar. When Pope Benedict liberalized the old Mass he did so in part in the hopes that the two forms of the rite would mutually inform one another, drawing them closer together. And I have attended Novus Ordo Masses which were very close to what I experience at the traditional Mass, so I know the dissimilarity of form is not unbridgeable. To a first approximation, I see the older form as the standard to which the newer form should aspire, generally speaking. In the meantime, I am not interested in taking sides in any contest. My desire is that both forms be celebrated as beautifully and lovingly as possible, and that I know and love both.

In the end I appreciated Mosebach’s measured and personal approach to his theme. The book is a love letter, of sorts. Agree with him or not, I think a reader with an interest in these matters would appreciate the manner in which he makes his case.

A decade of films for Catholics

January 25, 2020

It’s the end of the 2010s, and film buffs the world over are compiling lists of “Best Films of the Decade”. I’m making my own, in fact, but I’ve a number of films still to see before I’m ready to post it here.

In the meantime I’d like to write about the ten films from 2010-2019 that meant the most to me as a Catholic. These are not “Catholic films” in a straightforward sense, but rather “films that could be reasonably thought to be of special interest to Catholics”, or something along those lines, whether because of their themes or subject matter or setting or characters or whatever. Some are focused specifically on Catholicism, some are about Christianity more generally, and some are of wider scope. A few are off the beaten track. Some are about clergy and religious, some not. Some were made by Catholics, some not. Three were made by Terrence Malick, who is not a Catholic, but who is the preeminent Christian filmmaker working today. Few would be appropriate for a parish movie night, but all, I think, are very good films.

By way of prelude, let me run through some candidate films that, for one reason or another, didn’t make my list.

Regrets

These may have had an outside chance of making the list if I’d seen them:

We Have a Pope (2011); The Letters (2015); The Young Messiah (2016); Chosen: Custody of the Eyes (2017); Pope Francis: A Man of his Word (2018); The Apparition (2018); By the Grace of God (2019); The Two Popes (2019); Corpus Christi (2019).

Worst Catholic film of the decade:

Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc (Bruno Dumont, 2017) — A prog-rock musical in which Joan alternates between mumbo-jumbo theological speculations and vigorous head-banging in wilderness landscapes. If that sounds bizarrely intriguing, you’ve fallen into the selfsame trap that I did. It is a truly horrendous film, almost unendurable, with absurd choreography and terrible (emphasis on terrible) music, but so committed to its freaky premise that it merits wary acknowledgement. Watch the trailer if you dare!

Honourable mentions: films worth seeing

The Keepers (2017): A Netflix documentary about an investigation into the 1960’s murder of a Baltimore nun that uncovers long-concealed evidence of a predator priest; a good case study in how the establishment — police, lawyers, and the Church — obstructed rather than promoted justice for the victims.

The Way (2010): Martin Sheen walks the Camino!

Lady Bird (2017): Most everybody loved this film; I liked it alright. Lady Bird has a complicated relationship to her Catholic faith, but it means something to her, even if she can’t quite articulate it. A plausible portrait of how many half-lapsed Catholics experience the faith.

The Innocents (2016):  Set in Poland in the months after WWII, as the Allies are cleaning up and the Soviets are moving in, the film centers on a convent of cloistered nuns who have suffered horribly in the waning days of the war, and on a young French nurse who befriends and assists them. A compelling story about how good can come from terrible evil.

Runners-up: films hard to exclude from the Top 10

The Irishman (Martin Scorsese, 2019): A stately, melancholic mobster picture that reckons, as Scorsese’s films have not always done, with the toll evil takes on the soul. Of interest to Catholics, I think, specifically for the final act, in which the Church, a loving mother, tries to coax a heart of flesh from a heart of stone.

***

Le Fils de Joseph (Eugène Green, 2016): A weird and winsome tale about a young man in modern France who finds his life bursting with Biblical motifs at every turn; very funny and quite possibly seriously mystical. There’s nothing quite like it; one scene, in particular, rends the veil.

***

Brooklyn (John Crowley, 2015): A film I love on many grounds, I include it here not because it’s especially theological — it is not — but because it gives us an attractive portrait of Irish Catholic parish life in New York in the 1950s, a world that has almost completely vanished in the meantime.

***

To the Wonder (Terrence Malick, 2012): Presenting us with two contrasting visions of love, one founded on romantic feeling, intense and spontaneous, and another founded on commitment, tenacious and steadfast, Malick invites us to consider which is more attractive, more fruitful, and more likely to bring happiness. Though not the first Malick film I would recommend to someone unfamiliar with his work — it is elliptical and elusive, with many narrative gaps and almost no on-screen dialogue — it is an incredibly beautiful film that is finally, I think, a loving address to “the love that loves us”.

*****

And now, without further ado, my top ten:

10. Silence
(Martin Scorsese, 2016)

An agonizing and vexing film that nonetheless deserves to be in a conversation about great religious films, Scorsese’s long-meditated adaptation of Shusaku Endo’s novel follows two Portuguese Jesuit missionaries to sixteenth-century Japan, where they are tasked with confirming or refuting rumours that one of their Jesuit brothers has apostatized. Captured by the violently anti-Christian and anti-European political powers, the two undergo horrendous suffering alongside the Christians they are trying to serve. It’s a film about faith under terrible strain, about the heroic sacrifices made by Christian missionaries, about what we owe to God, about living with doubt, and about how we discern God’s presence, or absence. As with the book, most of the vexation is packed into a climactic scene that nearly but, arguably, not quite ruins the whole thing.

***

9. First Reformed
(Paul Schrader, 2017)

Paul Schrader is best known as a screenwriter for Martin Scorsese (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull), and is also the author of a minor classic of film criticism (Transcendental Style in Film). These strands, and others, including his Reformed Christian upbringing, come together in this film in which a middle-aged clergyman, Reverend Toller, played with weary sympathy by Ethan Hawke, presides over an historic, but moribund, Dutch Reformed parish. His congregation is so small that First Reformed’s day-to-day operations, including Reverend Toller’s own salary, are paid for by Abundant Life, a friendly evangelical mega-church down the road. First Reformed is preparing to celebrate its 250th anniversary, and Toller is beset by troubles, both personal and political.

While it’s not a specifically Catholic film — all the Christians on screen are Protestants of one kind or another — I suppose it’s on this list just because it’s too well-made to pass over in silence, and its concerns about the temptation to see politics as a substitute for faith, or the hazardous byways we can be tempted down in our search for meaning in life, are of wide application. Schrader has described the film as a tribute to his best loved filmmakers, and one can catch the influence of Bergman and especially Bresson, whose country priest is never far away. It takes a wild turn in the final act, so wild that it will confound many viewers, but still very much worth seeing.

***

8. Kreuzweg 
(Dietrich Brüggemann, 2014)

Brüggemann’s searing Kreuzweg (Stations of the Cross) follows a young woman preparing for Confirmation in a schismatic Catholic sect. A variety of factors have made life difficult for her, and she wants to offer her suffering to God as a sacrifice for the good of others, but, in this as in so many other matters, teenaged judgment is deficient. Brüggemann structures the whole film around the fourteen traditional Stations of the Cross, and commits to filming each of the stations in one static shot — almost, and in that ‘almost’ lies at least a few cinematic delights.

The film wrestles with the hazards encountered by any group that struggles to retain its own nature and culture in the midst of a hostile, or even merely different, culture. The issue is not about whether these Catholics are right to resist the larger culture — this film grants the truth of what they believe — but about how difficult it can be: fraught with loneliness and isolation, and beset by risks of imbalance and fanaticism. It’s an austere but potent film that explores religious faith, friendship, and family life using intentionally minimal means, and it has a terrific ending. Of all the films on this list, this is the one most open to an anti-Catholic interpretation, but my view is that it doesn’t force us into that corner. (I’ve written at more length about the film at Light on Dark Water.)

***

7. Ida
(Paweł Pawlikowski, 2013)

Set in Poland about a decade after World War II, this quiet film follows a young woman, Ida, who, having been raised in a convent, is preparing to take her vows to religious life. For reasons that are not explained — maybe just as a courtesy, or maybe to test her vocation, or because she knows more than she lets on? — Ida’s Mother Superior sends her out of the convent to meet her only surviving relative, an aunt. The two seem to have little in common, but together they embark on a journey to find the graves of Ida’s parents, who had been killed in the war. In so doing, Ida is exposed for the first time to life outside the convent, and to the opportunities and temptations it presents. For a while the film seems like it might be pitching a simple tale of a naive girl who wises up and escapes from the narrow to the broad path, but it takes an unexpected turn that complicates that story considerably.

The film has been gorgeously shot in black and white, and the director, Paweł Pawlikowski, frames his shots such that the action usually occupies only the lower part of the frame; there is a hovering emptiness — or perhaps a fullness — above, as though there were figures hovering there whom we were just too dull to perceive. Apart from whatever thematic value this might have, it adds something distinctive to the film’s aesthetic qualities. It’s a beautiful, quiet, and tender picture. It won the ‘Best Foreign Language Film’ at the Oscars in 2015.

***

6. Calvary
(John Michael McDonagh, 2014)

Another film that contends with the plague of sexual abuse in the Church, Calvary introduces us to a priest in a rural Irish parish who faces, in a very personal way, the painful fallout of the sins of his brother priests. Brendan Gleeson is superb as the priest — a man of substance, feeling, intelligence, experience, and genuine faith — and the theological aspects of the film are richly developed as, over the course of one week, Gleeson’s priest relives, in his own life, the Passion of Christ. Were St Paul a film reviewer, he might describe it as a portrait of a Christian man, under extraordinary circumstances, being conformed to the image of Christ. Lavishly vulgar and unflinchingly violent, it could nonetheless be defensible Holy Week viewing.

***

5. Knight of Cups
(Terrence Malick, 2015)

A high-wire act of extended cinematic metaphor, Knight of Cups follows Rick, a Hollywood screenwriter, who has lost the thread of his life’s meaning and who must, he faintly recalls, recover it. He lives in forgetfulness, sunk in sensual pleasures and self-gratification, chasing after wind, restless and unsatisfied. It is the story of Pilgrim’s Progress, and our pilgrim must escape life’s hazards and temptations in order to set out for the celestial city.

It’s one of Malick’s most difficult films, stylistically. There is little dialogue, intermittent and often fragmentary voiceover, pervasive symbolism, little conventional acting, multi-layered sound, and discontinuous editing. Images wash over the viewer according to a logic that is difficult to discern; we experience it “under the similitude of a dream”.  And it is gorgeous to look at.

Malick aimed, I think, to capture that universal sense that we are summoned to something higher, that in this world, beautiful as it is, we are exiled from our true native land. To a significant extent he succeeded. It is about all of us, about the quest which each of us must undertake to shake off our slumber, to leave the pomp and empty promises of the world in order to climb the dry and dusty mountain where God dwells.

***

4. A Religiosa Portuguesa
(Eugène Green, 2009)

St Augustine said, “My love is my weight.” It is my love that carries me through the world; it is my love that determines where I will go, and where I will end up. The risk is that we can love the wrong things, or love the right things in the wrong way, and end up where we do not want to be. This is the condition of Julie, the lead character in A Religiosa Portuguesa (The Portuguese Nun), as it is your condition and mine.

Julie is a French actress who is in Lisbon making a film. She has a series of mostly ephemeral romantic entanglements with men, but at night she is drawn to a candle-lit church where a young nun sits quietly before the tabernacle. When she finally speaks to the nun, who is already, in a way, her second self (for Julie is playing a nun in her film), she encounters a kindred soul of depth and understanding. What the nun, Sister Joana, says to her is essentially the Gospel: to find one’s life one must lose it; unless a seed falls into the ground and dies, it brings forth no life; love means giving oneself away until there is nothing left, and only then does one find happiness. How many films even try to address a question like, “How can I receive God’s love?” and how many fewer can do so without being trite?

What is wonderful is that this elevated spiritual drama fits comfortably into a movie with a sense of humour, and the frank religiosity of much of the film, which might be too on-the-nose from a more conventional filmmaker, is rendered strange by Green’s suite of distinctive directorial tics such that it slips past our defences.

I have cheated slightly; the film was originally released in 2009, but did not premiere in North America until 2010.

***

3. Of Gods and Men
(Xavier Beauvois, 2010)

Based on the true story of nine Cistercian monks who were caught in the crosshairs of Algerian jihadists in the mid-1990s, this is a moving portrait of true Christian martyrdom, which makes such a striking contrast with what is called martyrdom by jihadists. The film focuses on the monks’ earnest and sometimes agonizing deliberations about whether to stay or to leave the country as the violence around them increases, and the screenwriter has allowed not only considerations of safety and human solidarity to complicate the decision, but the monks also wrestle with the nature of the monastic vocation and the demands of Christian discipleship. Few and far between are films in which sound and serious Christian theology has been integrated so naturally into an intensely dramatic and emotionally compelling story. Considered specifically cinematically, this is perhaps leaning to the pedestrian side, but it is a film of high moral beauty. It won the Grand Prix at Cannes in 2010.

***

2. A Hidden Life
(Terrence Malick, 2019)

Another true tale of martyrdom, and even more intense than the last. Malick sweeps us into the world of St Radegund, a tiny village high in the Austrian Alps, where Franz Jägerstätter and his wife, Fani, are raising their young family, safe, they hope, from the infernal terror raging below. But it is not to be: in time the tentacles of the state snake up into St Radegund and Franz, like everyone else in the village, is made to decide and declare his allegiances.

I cannot think of another film that plays out so decisively against the horizon of the good — here is a man facing a specifically moral decision, and the course he chooses has no advantages to recommend it apart from the transcendental one: it is good. Franz must be incomprehensible to those who believe goodness is something subjective or conventional or confined to a world of immanence (and so it has proved). It is, despite its earthy textures and grounded characters, a film of the spirit that sees people — by implication, you and me — as spiritual beings governed by laws higher than those of nature or state. It is a grand cinematic exhortation.

What most surprised me about A Hidden Life was its emotional power. We expect Malick’s films to be overwhelmingly beautiful marriages of sight and sound — and that holds true here — but at the heart of this film is another marriage, Franz and Fani’s marriage, that is so richly developed that it gives this film a warm, beating heart Malick’s films have not always had. I think of the moment when Fani realizes that Franz has not just been expressing reservations, but intends to allow himself to be swallowed by the evil maw snapping at them, rather than commit an injustice. We feel the agony that either destroys love or forges from it something adamantine.

By any measure a luminous achievement, I believe A Hidden Life has to be given serious consideration in the conversation about which of Malick’s films is his second best.

***

1. The Tree of Life
(Terrence Malick, 2011)

No surprises here. One need only reason out the syllogism: (A) The Tree of Life is the greatest film of the decade of interest to human beings; (B) Catholics are human beings; and therefore (C) The Tree of Life is the greatest film of the decade of interest to Catholics. QED.

I’ve now seen it seven or eight times, and its beauties do not fade. Its mercies are new every morning. Certain images illuminate my imagination: a mother kissing her sleeping child, a stained-glass Christ, a dance in the air, a child swimming toward the light, a field of sunflowers, a little foot cupped by a father’s hands. Malick’s deep dive into memory has left its mark on me — or in me.

It is not possible to say in short compass just what The Tree of Life is doing — I have written about the film at greater length here and here — but I treasure it, in part, for realizing on screen the secret inner life in which a boy awakens to the world and plunges into mystery, a mystery inhabited by a hidden but alluring God. It is a work of wonder.

***

I’d be happy to hear about good films that I ought to have considered, or to hear reasons why I ought not to have bestowed my praise as I have.

Pitre: Jesus and the Jewish Roots of Mary

December 12, 2019

Jesus and the Jewish Roots of Mary
Brant Pitre
(Image, 2018)
240 p.

Mary, Mother of God, Blessed Virgin, Theotokos, Our Lady, Queen of Heaven — she has, in Catholic and Orthodox theology and devotion, an honoured and prominent place. Protestants, on the other hand, generally pay her little attention, and, when they do, tend to regard the Marian doctrines and Marian piety as pseudo-pagan survivals or medieval corruptions of Bible-based, New Testament Christianity. Brant Pitre’s fascinating book throws a spanner in those works by making the case for the Catholic and Orthodox view solely on the basis of Biblical texts.

The key to his approach is reliance on Biblical typology: the ancient practice, embedded in the New Testament itself and common among the Church Fathers, of reading the New Testament in light of the Old. Jesus, for instance, is presented in the New Testament as a “new Adam” or a “new Moses”, and those connections are meant to help us understand him. In a similar way, Pitre argues that the New Testament authors — and he draws principally on the Gospels and the Book of Revelation — present Mary in a way that intentionally connects her to a variety of Old Testament figures and motifs, and that the Marian doctrines (Immaculate Conception, Perpetual Virginity, Mother of God, etc) are rooted in these same Old Testament types. Essentially he asks us to read the New Testament as it would have have been read by a first century Jew, who would have known the Old Testament well and would have noticed the allusions and resonances that we often miss, and then to hear in those resonances the distant but unmistakeable sounds of Marian piety as it would eventually unfold.

And so, for example, he argues that just as Jesus is presented as the “new Adam” so Mary is presented, especially in St John’s Gospel and in Revelation, as the “new Eve”, a woman who contradicts and undoes the damage wrought by Eve, and then he proceeds to argue that her status as the “new Eve” is the seed of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. Or he argues that Mary is associated (in St Luke and in Revelation) with the Ark of the Covenant, for she bears within herself the Word of God, just as the Ark contained the words of God on stone tablets. Mary’s special role in the Church as universal intercessor (“pray for us, now and at the hour of our death”) is rooted in her role as Queen Mother of the Church; the New Testament connects her with the Queen in the Davidic kingdom (who was indeed the mother of the king, not his wife). He makes a very interesting case that the New Testament also presents Mary as a “new Rachel”, who was, in the first century, seen as a mother figure for all the children of Israel, just as Mary is honoured as mother of all Christians.

The strengths of Pitre’s close reading of the New Testament texts are most evident in a chapter on Mary’s perpetual virginity. Protestants deny this doctrine in part because the New Testament makes a reference to “the brothers of Jesus”. The usual Catholic response to this objection is that “brothers” did not, for the Gospel writers, necessarily mean siblings, but could mean cousins or other relations. Pitre puts meat on this answer, however, by showing that the same men who are called Jesus’ “brothers” are, in other Gospels, said to be the sons of “the other Mary” who, we learn from yet another Gospel, was “the wife of Clopas”. An early Christian source tells us that Clopas was the brother of Joseph, which would explain why, in another place in the Gospels, “the other Mary” is called “the sister of Mary, the mother of Jesus” — they were sisters-in-law, in which case the “brothers” were actually cousins. QED. I’d never seen those dots connected before.

There is a lot of Biblical scholarship in the book — copious footnotes, many of them, I noted with interest, from Protestant scholars — but the main arguments are presented accessibly. It is a book meant for wide readership. The nature of the argument it is making — that the New Testament contains allusions to the Old Testament — is necessarily a bit slippery, but he bolsters his case by showing how his understanding of these texts and their significance was part of early Christian theology.

The most important conclusion to be drawn from the book is that, if his arguments are correct, the New Testament authors already saw Mary, in nascent form, very much as Catholic and Orthodox Christians see her today, and that the long tradition of Marian doctrine and piety in the Church is in strong continuity with the New Testament. It’s a stimulating read.

Sancta et immaculata

December 10, 2019

O holy and immaculate virginity,
I know not by what praises I may extol thee:
for thou hast born in thy womb,
whom the heavens could not contain.

Boyagoda: Original Prin

July 14, 2019

Original-Prin.jpgOriginal Prin
Randy Boyagoda
(Biblioasis, 2018)
224 p.

Prin is an academic at a small university in Toronto which, by a series of mischances, has come to be called the University of the Family Universal, or UFU. (One can imagine the mixed-message banner hung in a prominent place: “Welcome to UFU!”) Even in this small pond Prin is a small fish, for his particular expertise — on the symbolism of marine life, and especially seahorses, in Canadian fiction — lacks a certain je ne sais quoi.

His professional fortunes, however, are far from being Prin’s main concern as the novel opens, for Prin has cancer, and is looking, with a generous measure of hesitation and indecision, for a way to tell his beautiful young daughters about his condition.

Yet his professional fortunes won’t let him be after all, for he learns that his school faces bankruptcy, and he unemployment (and, one surmises, unemployability) unless something is done, and quickly. Thus is Prin recruited by his academic dean to travel to the Middle East to deliver a lecture (on Kafka, male genitalia as symbols of seahorses, and The English Patient, naturally) as part of a complicated scheme to save the university. The catch: he must travel with a former girlfriend from his graduate school days, a beauty for whom he harbours, against his will, a smouldering charcoal briquette that he fears might erupt into flame if provoked.

Thus far we have a setup for a promising comic send-up of academic life, and I laughed heartily as the pieces fell into place, but Boyagoda is still more ambitious, for in addition to contending against serious illness, the end of his academic career, and his own deceitful heart, Prin is also beset by a religious crisis. He is a Catholic, basically a happy and contented Catholic, who prays his rosary, goes to Mass and confession, and teaches his children to do the same. Yet, for nearly the first time in his life, Prin believes God has spoken directly to him, telling him to do something specific — something he’d much rather not do, and thinks is imprudent or worse — and he can’t understand why.

Now, comic Catholic novels are not thick on the ground — not as thick as they ought to be, if Chesterton’s claim be true that the test of a good religion is whether you can laugh at it. In fact, I’m having trouble thinking of a single other: Waugh wrote both comic and Catholic, but not generally in the same book, and while Miss Flannery’s stories have in some cases a comic thread, it is usually a dark thread, whereas Boyagoda’s tone is closer to winking and grinning satire. It’s a fascinating experiment.

The novel makes an audacious swerve in its final act into tense dramatic territory — almost thriller territory, as unlikely as that sounds. I’m not quite convinced that this works, but the book leaves enough questions hanging in the air — it is, apparently, just the first volume in a planned trilogy — that I’m willing to reserve judgement for now.

In the meantime, I recommend this book to Catholic readers, to readers who enjoy a good laugh, to connoisseurs of opening sentences, and (of course) to those with a special interest in seahorses in Canadian fiction.

Notre Dame

April 15, 2019

There could be some dispute about what is the greatest church in the world. In my heart, though, Notre Dame de Paris is first. A heartbreaking day.