Posts Tagged ‘Saints’

Brown: Magnus

May 28, 2018

Magnus
George Mackay Brown
(Berlinn, 2018) [1973]
208 p.

Just why it is that the Orkney Islands exercise such an outsized influence on my imagination is hard to say. Maybe it has something to do with their remoteness, dropped in a swath of cold, wild seas, in combination with their proximity, both geographically and culturally, to the familiar terrain of Scotland, which together give them the character of a borderland, not wholly alien, but still distant and mysterious.

George Mackay Brown was a poet and novelist who himself hailed from those islands, and here he novelizes the life of St Magnus Erlendsson, a twelfth-century Earl of Orkney. Magnus is not a conventional saint; he is a powerful man embroiled in a succession dispute in a violent age. There are few scenes of gentleness or cheerful piety; this world is hard and stern. Yet even so, Magnus stands out. In one memorable scene he goes to war in a longship; surrounded by brutal violence on all sides he stands, courageously, reading aloud to the men from the Psalter. But, as Earl, he bears not only his own interests, but also the interests of those who depend upon him for their livelihood, safety, and welfare. This responsibility he cannot escape, and it drives him forward, tragically.

The story is told unconventionally. We never, unless I am mistaken, get very close to Magnus himself. Rather the tale is told by those around him, or those under him: monks, tinkers, farmers. Sometimes the story wanders, following the trials and travels of these other figures in apparent forgetfulness of its main subject. But Magnus is always there, in the background, in fragments of conversation that refer to him, or simply inasmuch as he is responsible for the conditions under which these, his people, live, work, and suffer.

As one might expect from a poet novelist, the writing is superb. Brown is exquisitely sensitive to tone, and he varies it effectively as he switches from scene to scene. For the most part the prose is unadorned, as befits the rough condition of his setting and characters. Here is a passage chosen at random:

Mans the peasant from Revay Hill in Birsay laboured at the rowing bench. His clenched fists made circles. His oar rose and fell. He sweated. His face went from bilgewater to the gulls above the mast, then back again to the swilter and glug of foul water among the bottomboards.

That gives a sense of the style in which much of the book is written, but there are numerous exceptions. The opening chapter is a beautiful description of a bridal party preparing the bride — Magnus’ mother — for her wedding night, a sequence that concludes with a scop composing bridal songs:

Blow out the lamp now. There is a hand at the latch. Now I pray to Christ and the Blessed Immaculate Virgin and to all saints and martyrs that this shape I imagine in my body, this boy, may wear the white coat of innocence always. War to redden it, intrigue to fray it, lust to filthy it, treachery to tear it: these things must be. But I pray that his soul may never be wrapped in the seamless flame of eternal loss. I pray that he may bring his white weave continually, this Magnus, to the waters of grace, and in the hour of his death to the last brightest rinsings of absolution.

A miracle of imaginative fiction is that by it we see the world through the eyes, and with the sensibility, of another, and this whole bridal sequence is an outstanding example of an author allowing us to see and feel how our ancestors saw an intrinsic connection between marriage, sexuality, love, and fertility.

There is another marvellous section in which Magnus prays through the night in a church, meditating at length on the Mass and the nature of sacrifice in religion. It is a beautiful piece of writing in itself, but I recommend it particularly to Catholics, whom I think would appreciate it both aesthetically and spiritually, as I did.

Returning to the tonal variations: at one point the authentic ring of Anglo-Saxon verse can be heard:

I must tell now concerning the jarl Hakon Paul’s son, how he summoned about him an host, and set them in eight war-hungry ships. Then those tryst-men heard a great boast, how that from the meeting in Egil’s Isle but one jarl would fare him home at sunset, and that not Magnus. A death-lust on listening faces about the mast, a weaving of warped words. Sigurd and Sighvat were the blackest mouths in all that hell-parle. Fierce sea stallions trampled the waves.

And, finally, there is one virtuoso example of tonal shift, dramatically placed at the climax of the story, that put me in a state of wondering admiration, not only at how Brown subtly transitioned from medieval to modern times, his setting and characters gradually transforming into something else, creating a literary effect very much like a cinematic dissolve, but also for how his doing so greatly expanded the book’s range and ambition. I’m strongly tempted to write about this in detail, it being, in some real sense, the centrepiece of the novel, but out of consideration for those who might like to read the book and be surprised, I will not.

When I closed the last page of Magnus I wanted to go back to the beginning and start again. As it happens, I did not actually do this, but over the intervening weeks it has lingered in my imagination, and I may return to it again before too long.

From the book’s Wikipedia page I have learned that Peter Maxwell Davies adapted this novel into a 1977 opera. I’d like to hear it.

Some Catholic films, briefly noted

December 19, 2017

I’ve been going over the list of films I saw this year, preparatory to drawing up a list of favourites. I’ve noticed that I saw a healthy handful of films that were, in one respect or another, about Catholicism. Some of these will make my Top 10 list, but today I am grouping together those that will not, with a few brief comments on each.

*

Bresson’s Procès de Jeanne d’Arc (1962) follows the trial of St Joan of Arc, apparently with a relatively firm grounding in the surviving records. It cannot escape comparison with Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, a contest from which it does not emerge triumphant. The problem, for me, was the flat — characteristically flat, I am tempted to say — visual and dramatic sense Bresson brought to the material. Although I did appreciate it, in the end I thought it would have worked about as well as a radio-drama, and that is surely not a compliment to a film.

I also saw Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (1951), a film that I was primed to love, as I loved the book on which it is based, but my Bresson Blockade continued. Certainly scenes worked very well, but overall I found him cold as ice, despite a good lead performance. This is essentially a story about a man’s inner life, and to tell it through the medium of film is, arguably, to start with an insurmountable handicap. However, this is by reputation a great film; the fault is mine.

I watched The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima (1952) because of the anniversary of Fatima this year. It’s not bad, exactly. It has some sparkle, and I did appreciate Big Hollywood’s effort to make something to honour ordinary Catholic devotion, which is not something we can count on anymore. But it played much like an ordinary homily: pious, inoffensive, and, in the end, rather forgettable. One character was strikingly irritating. The film’s epilogue, showing real footage from a ceremony at Fatima in 1951, with a million pilgrims on hand, was for me the best part.

No Greater Love (2009) is a documentary that takes us inside a community of nuns in London, mostly during the events of Holy Week. We see them doing the ordinary work of the community: washing the floors, ringing the bells, ordering food, dancing. We meet several of the sisters in interview segments; they tell us something about themselves and about the challenges and rewards of the life they have chosen. All of this is excellent. The film is, unfortunately, marred by poor lighting and sound through much of the production. I’m still glad I saw it, but I wish it had been up to the exemplary standard set by its kindred predecessor Die Große Stille, which is this film’s superior in pretty much every respect.

I hardly know what to say about Silence (2016), a film that suffers many of the same troubling ambiguities and confusions as its source material, but which nonetheless, I think, deserves to be in a conversation about important religious films. It was moving, it was vexing, it nearly cracked under the strain, and so did I; a difficult movie to watch, and probably too long for its own good.

Set in Poland in the months after WWII, as the Allies were cleaning up and the Soviets were moving in, Les Innocentes (2016) centers on a convent of cloistered nuns who suffered horribly in the waning days of the war, and on a young French nurse who befriends and assists them.  The plot, beyond that setup, is best left quiet. Thematically it is a rich stew: God, evil, suffering, family, love, and compassion. The religious life is neither romanticized nor demonized; on one hand, some of the nuns have doubts, some even commit terrible acts, but others are devout and authentic in their faith, and their distinctive way of life is shown as one having its own integrity. My main reservation is that the film’s denouement draws a rather too-sharp contrast between the vocations of Mary and Martha, and is too ready to grant advantage to the latter. That said, it tells a compelling story about how good can come from evil, and is well worth seeing.

*

I expect to post my list of favourite films from 2017, including a few with Catholic themes, in a week or two.

St Athanasius: On the Incarnation

October 22, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To summarize, two things were accomplished by the Incarnation:

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

or, restated in a more elaborate way:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scorn not the least

February 21, 2017

Today is the anniversary of the death of St Robert Southwell, poet, priest, and martyr.

SCORN NOT THE LEAST.

WHERE wards are weak and foes encount’ring strong,
Where mightier do assault than do defend,
The feebler part puts up enforcèd wrong,
And silent sees that speech could not amend.
Yet higher powers must think, though they repine,
When sun is set, the little stars will shine.

While pike doth range the seely tench doth fly,
And crouch in privy creeks with smaller fish ;
Yet pikes are caught when little fish go by,
These fleet afloat while those do fill the dish.
There is a time even for the worm to creep,
And suck the dew while all her foes do sleep.

The merlin cannot ever soar on high,
Nor greedy greyhound still pursue the chase ;
The tender lark will find a time to fly,
And fearful hare to run a quiet race :
He that high growth on cedars did bestow,
Gave also lowly mushrumps leave to grow.

In Aman’s pomp poor Mardocheus wept,
Yet God did turn his fate upon his foe ;
The lazar pined while Dives’ feast was kept,
Yet he to heaven, to Hell did Dives go.
We trample grass, and prize the flowers of May,
Yet grass is green when flowers do fade away.

This poem introduced me to the word “mushrump”, for which I am grateful. Southwell was a contemporary of Shakespeare and Donne, and, by my reckoning, is the second greatest Jesuit poet. He was executed under Elizabeth I on 21 February 1595, for the crime of treason (viz. for being a priest on English soil). Read more about him here.

St Robert Southwell, pray for us.

St. Scholastica

November 21, 2016

I wrote a brief entry on St Scholastica for the 52 Saints series at Janet’s blog, The Three Prayers.

Children’s books: here be dragons

September 26, 2016

Beowulf the Warrior
Ian Serraillier
48 p.

A number of authors have distilled Beowulf into a version intended for children, but this is the only one of which I’m aware that does so in verse. Serraillier condenses the original 3800 lines of the poem into about 800 lines of blank verse. All of the essential plot elements of the story are included, and quite vividly depicted. Overall, the writing would be challenging for young children, but I think would be suitable for roughly ages 10 and up. This edition is complemented by interesting illustrations by “Severin”.

***

St. George and the Dragon
Michael Lotti
(CreateSpace, 2014)
162 p.

This short novel tells the story of Marcellus, a Roman soldier who encounters a fierce dragon lurking on the outskirts of his father’s estate. The story has a two-fold motion: the conflict with the dragon gradually escalates, on one hand, and on the other Marcellus encounters Christians and is gradually converted to the new faith (taking the baptismal name George). The two arcs come together in a final battle between George and the dragon — but of course we knew that would happen.

It’s a first novel for Michael Lotti, and quite a good one, best suited, I would estimate, for children aged about 8-12. The writing is not as supple and convincing as one gets from the most accomplished children’s writers, but the characters are well developed and the story is an interesting one. I would like to know how much of the material comes from the legends about St George, and how much was Lotti’s own creation. For me the most engaging aspect of the book concerned Marcellus’ encounters with the Christians, and especially with an itinerant Christian bishop named Agathon; there is a good deal of inspiring catechesis packed into those conversations, but I never felt that I was being preached to. I will certainly encourage my kids to read the book when they’re a little older.

***

The Hobbit
J.R.R. Tolkien
(HarperCollins, 2007) [1937]
300 p.

This was my third or fourth time through this book, but my first with the kids, to whom I read it aloud. I have not a great deal to a say about it, apart from reporting that it was a huge success with the older kids (now aged 5 and 7). Actually, the experience of reading it to them was enriching for me too; I do not recall enjoying it on previous readings as much as I did this time.

It is always amusing to see the light-hearted, gee-whiz attitude this book takes to the One Ring, which we know will later prove to be so doom-laden. I used to surmise that Tolkien had not yet worked out the Ring’s significance at the time of writing, but this time I noticed that he returns to the Ring at the very end, emphasizing that it was a secret ring and that Bilbo never spoke of it to anyone. This inclines me to suspect that Tolkien did know its significance after all.

Blessed John of Fiesole

April 17, 2016

I’ve written a short appreciation of the painter Blessed John of Fiesole (aka Fra Angelico) for the 52 Saints series at The Three Prayers. I’ve loved Angelico for years, and, with this opportunity to write about him, I’d really hoped to turn out a thoughtful essay on art, beauty, and holiness. Alas, the best I could manage was to witlessly point at a few of his paintings. If you’re interested, it’s here.

St André Bessette

February 15, 2016

I wrote a short piece on St André Bessette for the 52 Saints project at The Three Prayers. Janet posted it yesterday.

If you’ve come here having read Janet’s remarks at the bottom of that post and are looking for my Antarctica project, you’ll find it here, broken links and all.