Posts Tagged ‘Catholicism’

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.

 

Topping: Renewing the Mind

March 17, 2019

Renewing the Mind
A Reader in the Philosophy of Catholic Education
Ryan N.S. Topping (Ed.)
(CUA, 2015)
xvi + 397 p.

Where I live we have a government-funded system of Catholic schools which educates roughly half of the children in the province. The curriculum is set by the government, with approval from the bishops. Every school has a priest-chaplain, and the school body attends Mass together a few times each year. Sometimes the Rosary Apostolate comes to visit. Students can, and most do, attend these schools for twelve years and graduate knowing next to nothing about Catholic history, Catholic art and literature, Catholic theology, or Catholic ethics, and without any conspicuous adoption of Catholic spirituality or devotion. If the aim is to graduate students with a robust understanding of Catholicism and a strong personal commitment to Christ, these schools are a dismal failure. If the aim is more modest, if it is just that students graduate with a tenacious personal attachment to Catholicism, that the Catholic tradition, broadly considered and roughly speaking, is inherited and appropriated by the next generation, much the same conclusion follows. Clearly, something is amiss deep down.

The problems are multifarious. One, of course, is that the schools have largely surrendered their ability to hire teachers on the basis of religious commitment; teachers who are strongly committed to their faith — and there are some! — must be weighed against those who are wishy-washy or worse, and students can be pardoned for getting a mixed message. Another, no doubt, is the decision to adopt, or allow to be foisted, the self-same curriculum as is taught in the non-Catholic public schools; immediately whatever Catholicism is to be found in the Catholic schools is reduced to a patina. And this is tolerated, I believe, because we have largely lost sight of what a Catholic education should be: not just what it should teach, but why it should teach it, and how, and what it is supposed to achieve.

Into this amnesiac reverie comes this hefty, small-print reader on the philosophy of Catholic education. It is the sort of book about which one writes two paragraphs or twenty pages; my notes on it are the latter, but in this space I’ll steer toward the former.

It consists of a judicious selection of readings from the long tradition of Catholic thinking about education. The texts are grouped broadly into four categories: first, on the aims of education; second, on the subject matter of a Catholic education; third, reflections on effective methods of teaching; and, finally, a lengthy collection of essays and articles on our contemporary situation and signs of renewal in modern Catholic education. The selections are almost uniformly from the top shelf: starting with Plato and Aristotle — yes, they too are part of the Catholic tradition! — up through Augustine and Basil, Bonaventure and Aquinas, to Erasmus, Montaigne, Newman, and Clive Staples Lewis. Among those modern writers who make the cut are Christopher Dawson, Dorothy Sayers (with her Lost Tools of Learning, of course), John Senior, Maria Montessori, Jacques Maritain, and Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Some authors appear more than once; Plato and Aquinas, at thrice, share the honours at the top of the heap. There are 39 selections in all.

It is impossible to summarize this wide range of sources in a brief space, but let me mention a few highlights. I had never before seen the Ratio Studiorum written in the 16th century to guide the huge network of Jesuit schools; I cannot say I was greatly inspired by it, but it has been very influential and I was happy to read it. I relished the section from Newman’s The Idea of a University in which he discusses the challenges the Protestant tradition in English literature poses for English-speaking Catholics; I really must find time to read that great book in its entirety. And I was fascinated by Pope John XXIII’s Veterum Sapientia, a 1962 encyclical in which he commended to all Catholic schools the importance of teaching and learning Latin! I wasn’t sure whether to be sad that a papal document of such authority could be such a thoroughly dead letter, or, given subsequent developments, encouraged for the same reason.

A more ambitious person than I would draw on this wonderful collection to synthesize the consistent and foundational principles of Catholic thinking about education through the centuries. It could be that the editor of this volume, Ryan Topping, has done just that in his book The Case for Catholic Education; I’d like to find out. The barest, briefest summation would be something like this: we are made to know and love God, and love of God, the highest Good, should guide and shape our study; the human mind desires to know and love truth, and this desire is not in vain; education has intellectual, moral, and aesthetic dimensions; and, finally, Rousseau was a flap-eared knave.

Facetiousness aside, I recommend this book wholeheartedly to readers with an interest in Catholic education. It is a rich feast.

Cavalletti: The Religious Potential of the Child

January 22, 2019

The Religious Potential of the Child
Sofia Cavalletti
(CGS, 1992) [1979]
250 p.

For the past five years or so I have taught catechism to children who have ranged in age from about age 3 to age 8. My previous teaching experience having been to undergraduate and graduate students, and in the hard sciences, I have found teaching catechism to be a big change, and challenging in several ways. Naturally, there’s the challenge of presenting material in an age-appropriate way. There’s also the difficulty of choosing just what to teach, and in what order. And, of course, the always daunting matter of planning a craft.

Had you asked me a few months ago, I’d have assessed myself as a middling catechist. But today, having read Sofia Cavalletti’s book on catechesis for young children, I am ready to consider the possibility that maybe, just maybe, I’ve been doing it all wrong all along.

Cavalletti is a foundress of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd programme, which began in Italy and has since spread around the world. I’ve not known much about it, apart from its existence. This book is all about the underpinnings of that program, which grew out of years of experience of teaching the faith to children aged 3-6.

**

Her principal goal is not so much to convey knowledge of the faith as to cultivate the child’s relationship with God. The emphasis is affective and personal rather than didactic and objective. Her desire is to encourage in the child a life hidden with Christ, a living spring, a planted seed. For her, the catechist’s role is to prepare the child to meet Christ, and then to withdraw, unworthy servant that he is. A catechist, she says, must know how to be silent.

A young child, she believes, has a capacity for quiet, even contemplative, prayer. Children are at ease with the transcendent; their relationship to God, especially at a young age, is naturally “open and peaceful”. Much of the catechist’s task is to cultivate an environment in which “open and peaceful” prayer can take place. To this end she recommends the creation of a quasi-sacred space, a ritual space (which, following, in this as in other matters, Maria Montessori, she calls an “atrium”). It is “not a place for religious instruction, but for religious life“; it is set aside for “recollection and silence”. Within this space Scripture is read to the children, in a solemn, ritualized manner, and elements of the liturgy, such as seasonal colours and candles, are present. Quiet time for reflection follows the slow reading. The children are given simple toys, related to the readings, to play with quietly. They are invited to draw or paint quietly. They are invited to pray. In her experience, children become pensive and recollected; the child’s “whole being vibrates, becomes tranquil, and rejoices”.

The prayer encouraged by this method is personal and spontaneous. She finds that it is typically expressed in short, essential phrases. “Jesus, you gave us light.” “Thank you because we are your sheep.” “Thank you, Jesus, for giving us our joy.”

This approach to catechesis is not didactic, but it nonetheless teaches, and the most important lesson, especially for children under 6, is, Cavalletti argues, that God loves them:

“No child … has ever been loved to the degree that he wanted and needed. For the child, love is more important than food… In the contact with God the child experiences an unfailing love.”

For this reason her catechetical approach is founded on a few themes that convey the love of God, the most important being the image of Christ the Good Shepherd, who loves his sheep and calls them by name. In her experience, this image of Christ is the most important key to unlocking the young child’s religious sense. In addition, she commends to the catechist the imagery of baptism and light, of Christ as a gift, and the Gospel parables about the Kingdom of God (the pearl of great price, the mustard seed, and so on). These images and parables are to be presented to the child without dumbing them down, and are not to be “explained, but left to unfold themselves within the child’s heart and understanding”. She dwells on these particular images and stories because, in her experience, children respond most fruitfully to them. Her criterion for assessing a child’s response is worth noting:

“If the child, in relation to a specific Biblical passage, only knows how to draw descriptive rather than interpretive illustrations, then it is better to avoid that text; it is obvious that his understanding of it has stayed on a level of superficiality.”

**

Notice what, by implication, she does not recommend to a catechist of the young. She does not recommend an emphasis on doctrine, after the manner of, say, the Baltimore Catechism. Neither does she recommend beginning at the beginning, with the book of Genesis, nor even with giving the child a barrow of Bible stories; her focus is almost entirely on the New Testament, and especially on the person of Jesus. The method is not historical, but a “method of signs”, leaning heavily on images, metaphors, and religiously rich symbols. She counsels against emphasizing rote prayers like the Our Father and Hail Mary, on the grounds that such prayers risk teaching children that prayer is a separate thing from life; her aim is to teach prayer, not prayers. Neither should the catechist talk much about morality; the focus is on God’s love, not judgment:

“The adult who wants to give children a moral formation should refrain from any promptings of the common kind in the moral order; instead the adult should announce God’s love and help the child to experience and enjoy it in reflection and prayer.”

All of this is specific to the age group under consideration: roughly 3-6. As children age, these counsels change: slightly older children will need moral counsel, and teenagers need heroic exemplars; the time will come for Bible stories and historical understanding; the time will come for set prayers and spiritual disciplines. But all, she argues, will be more healthy and more fruitful if built on a sound foundation of lived awareness of the love of God.

A corollary is the importance of beginning catechesis at an early age. Parish programs that begin at the age of 7 or 8, as is fairly common, are introducing children to God at an age when it is natural for them to think in moral terms, and this risks confusing the face of God for the child, who will tend to see God as a judge rather than a loving shepherd. One wonders if the famous phenomenon of “Catholic guilt” might be corroborating evidence for Cavalletti’s argument.

**

We have all, I am sure, had the experience of meeting a person who has just read a book on a difficult topic — education, for instance, or metaphysics — and is full of enthusiasm because, for the first time, he sees things clearly. We are reluctant to mention to him that if he were to continue in his reading, with another book, or five, or ten, he might no longer see things so clearly, or, rather, he might see that things are not so clear.

I, plausibly, am that naive enthusiast, for this is the first book about methods of catechesis that I have read. Nonetheless, I can only report that I found this book immensely stimulating and rewarding. I have often pondered how to encourage just this inner, hidden life between God and a child — not only with my students, but with my own children too! — but I have not known what to do. Cavalletti’s book is full of promising ideas that I’d like to try, if I can.

***

[Wonder]
Wonder is not an emotion of superficial people; it strikes root only in the person whose mind is able to settle and rest in things, in the person who is capable of stopping and looking. It is only through a continued and profound observation of reality that we become conscious of its many aspects, of the secrets and mysteries it contains. Openness to reality and openness to wonder proceed at the same pace: as we gradually enter into what is real, our eyes will come to see it as more and more charged with marvels, and wonder will become a habit of our spirit.

[Attention]
We should not alter too often or too rapidly the object of the child’s attention… If the child does not have the time to dwell on anything, then everything will come to seem the same to him and he will lose all interest in things.

Pellowski: Latsch Valley Farm

December 6, 2018

First Farm in the Valley: Anna’s Story
Winding Valley Farm: Annie’s Story
Stairstep Farm: Anna Rose’s Story
Willow Wind Farm: Betsy’s Story
Anne Pellowski
(Bethlehem, 1982)
191 p. + 202 p. + 180 p. + 180 p.

These four books, about several generations of a Polish immigrant family living in Wisconsin, give an engaging portrait of farm and family life over a long century of changes. They are based on reminiscences handed down in the author’s own family. Nothing overly dramatic has been cooked up — which is not to say that nothing dramatic happens — and the stories have a homey, satisfying feel to them.

First Farm in the Valley is set in the 1870s. Latsch Valley is populated by a number of Polish families, and the fact that they live in America is almost incidental: they still speak Polish, observe Polish traditions, and farm very much as, I suppose, they would have done in Poland. Our narrator is Anna, an 8-year old who is an interested observer of the goings-on in her busy household (of eight children, if I recall correctly). This book, like the others, is episodic, with each chapter focusing on a particular day or event, and the reader left to fill in the details between. We read about a Fourth of July celebration, at which the Pellowski children taste ice cream for the first time; about a hail storm that strikes while the children are herding the sheep; about a winter wedding; about a fire at the local school. The family is basically a happy one, held together by bonds of love and their Catholic faith. There are darker rumblings beyond the borders of the home: wandering tramps who might steal goods from the farm or pose a threat, or, more ominously, a diphtheria epidemic that strikes a number of homes in the valley, leaving dead children in its wake.

This second volume is similar in many respects, but is set in the 1910s. Anna appears again, peripherally, now grown with children of her own, but the narrator of this volume is Annie, another young girl who lives down the valley. Some of the stories are quite funny, especially one in which a group of boys plot to release bees, one by one, inside their one-room schoolhouse; Sister Pelagia’s method of dealing with this rambunctiousness is a model of good disciplinary tactics. The family in this book is again a large one, with everyone pitching in to help with chores. We are given a warm picture of farm life, both in the home and throughout the valley.

The third volume, Stairstep Farm, is set in the 1930s and is based on the personal childhood recollections of the author herself. Though things have changed — the children no longer walk all the way to school, and there are cars in addition to wagons — life on the farm is still fundamentally one of a family working together: lots of chores and manual labour, lots of know-how, and a pervasive sense that all is well with the world, in spite of sorrows and setbacks. The family’s Polish traditions are still alive — Dyngus still comes on Christmas Eve, and Polish songs are part of the family’s life — but American life has also begun to make inroads — they get a visit from Santa Claus, and they have learned to speak English, at least some of the time. The narrator of this book is Anna Rose, a 5-year old who wants nothing more than to finally go to school with her big siblings. The stories are about baking, a biting gander, playing games with cousins in the yard, Grandpa being struck by lightning, kicking a pig, riding in the hay wagon, and, most dramatically, a tornado.

In the fourth volume the year is 1967. Our narrator is Betsy, a seven- or eight-year-old, the granddaughter of Annie, who narrated the second volume. Once again the structure is episodic: picking blackberries, putting on a play, going to school, making doughnuts. The texture of modern life has begun to reach the farm: they drive cars, and have a record player. But some things remain the same: this is still a large (8-child) family, close-knit, faithful, and working together to keep the family farm running. Oddly, the tone of the writing is noticeably different from the previous three volumes; it is more verbose, more on-the-nose, and somehow less childlike. I do not know the order in which the books were originally written, but this one does stick out relative to the others.

I’ve just discovered that there is a fifth book in the series, also narrated by Betsy, called Betsy’s Up and Down Year. I suppose I should read it, and perhaps I will, but the inconsistent naming convention for that book — it ought to be called Betsy’s Up and Down Year Farm, should it not? — makes it seem like an adjunct, not an essential, rightly or wrongly.

For the time being I’ve rounded off my time in Latsch Valley. I’ve enjoyed the stay. One could imagine a series of books spanning this same time period that would cross-examine the changes to family life, economic life, technology, and culture, amounting to a sustained sociological critique of how we live now and how we got here. These are not those books; go to Port William if that’s what you want. Instead, these books are heartwarming and entertaining, and could be given with confidence to a child of 8 or 10 years old. Our daughter read them rapidly, and, I’ve noticed, has been reading them again from time to time.

Farewell, Latsch Valley. I may soon pay a visit to the prairie, where I’m told there’s a little house.

Ave verum corpus

July 18, 2018

Here is a beautiful performance of one of the crown jewels of sacred polyphony: William Byrd’s Ave verum corpus.

The singers are Ensemble ZENE, a French group new to me. They sound terrific.