Death of Stalin
The rehabilitation of Stalin has for years been a fixture of Russian public life. I thought it time to watch at last Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin from 2018. Quite how one might make of this subject a comedy had defied my imagination, but Iannucci did somehow manage. The cast is exceptional. Made up largely of theatrical actors, it confers on the film something of the dignity and intensity of a play performed on stage, which in turn justifies liberties taken with historical details and sequence. We are given to observe the dissection of a body politic reduced to a corpse. The only ligament left holding it together is fear. ‘The humor’, wrote Anthony Lane in The New Yorker, ‘is so black that it might have been pumped out of the ground. To defend the film as accurate would be fruitless. Yet the compression of time is allowable, because the panic and the fawning dread […] ring all too true. Here is a society on the verge of a nervous breakdown.’ Unsettling light is thrown on things going on right now.
In Marilynne Robinson’s Jack the eponymous hero, persuaded of his dissoluteness, ever expecting the worst, is told by a preacher: ‘Mr Ames, if the Lord thinks you need punishing, you can trust Him to see to it. He knows where to find you. If He’s showing you a little grace in the meantime, He probably won’t mind if you enjoy it.’ I thought of this while watching a decent documentary about Mahalia Jackson. Thomas Dorsey said: ‘The key to Mahalia was very simple: she enjoyed her religion.’ Having grown up with Jackson’s voice (my mother had LPs), still feeling immensely comforted by it, I wonder if this is not what I’ve always sensed, somehow, without articulating it. Mahalia, a key player in the civil rights movement, had known hardship; she had few illusions about life; yet the visceral vocal power of this woman, who ‘took the beat from the nightclubs back to the church’ is charged with joyful zest. Coming to think of it, most of us could probably risk enjoying our religion a little more.
No Walk in the Woods
The Prelature of Trondheim now has an Episcopal Vicar for Synodality. What is that supposed to mean?
Our Holy Father Pope Francis likes to point out that the synodal process in which he invites us to take part seeks to learn from the Oriental Church’s experience of synodality. A qualified representative of that Church, Bishop Manel Nin, reminds us that the ‘shared journey’ at stake is not a matter merely of a crowd of believers going together for a walk in the woods, as it were, but that the Church — the ecclesia or called assembly — must walk together with Christ. The chief task of an Episcopal Vicar for Synodality is thus to help the bishop ensure that everything that happens in the Prelature, in administration and pastoral care, is focused on the Lord Jesus Christ and his Gospel, our source of new life.
From my letter to the faithful.
Art & the Weather
I smiled when, on the escalator into the Arrivals lounge at Oslo’s airport, I saw this display. It was nice to be told that a pleasant evening was waiting outside; also to see that the supposedly congenitally dour existentialism of Norwegians is able to wink at itself. Munch’s Scream is one of the world’s best-known paintings, an emblem of fright. Yet how lovely the setting is. It was the beauty of an evening rich in contrasts that pierced Munch in Nice in 1892, causing him to record the experience both with colours and with words: ‘I walked along the road with two friends, then the sky all at once turned into blood, and I sensed a great scream sounding through nature.’ There is palpable terror; perhaps also hopeful anticipation. What Munch sensed could have been birth as well as death. In any case, his record enables us, 131 years down the line, to recognise within one man’s moment of crisis the loveliness of a Mediterranean sunset. And thereby to gain a perspective on our own inward moments of extreme agitation.
Ida Görres wrote Bread Grows in Winter in 1970. She affirmed the ‘great and promising sowing’ that had taken place at the Second Vatican Council, yet was shaken by the amount of sheer deconstruction going on in the Church. In the middle of it all, and in her own perplexity, she determinedly looked out for those trying to build on the Council’s true foundations. ‘It is for them that we, the elderly, the ones bowing out, must preserve the ground plans and seeds that now have been all but forgotten. Who knows, we might see a generation after this that will be tired of their fathers’ delight in pulling down and will look for material with which to construct time-bridges between what has gone before and what will be their own today. Development does not happen in straight lines or on a single track, the way we would like; it zigzags and spirals. At the next great turning point, the old and the true must be at hand for those who seek it. It must not have been ground to smithereens in a waste truck.’ This task, said Görres, is entrusted to two groups above all: ‘the bishops and the little ones in the people of God’.
In yesterday’s keynote introduction to the Dennoch conference in Hannover – a collaborative undertaking – Dr Thomas Arnold addressed features of western modernity that pose challenges to the Church’s proclamation. Challenges are not necessarily obstacles. Though he pointed out that a rhetoric of deficit will not take us far. (I had occasion to reflect on this on my way home last night, when a man approached me on the tram and told me: ‘Religion is psychiatric illness!’) To go around proclaiming that contemporaries, for whom the question of the divine seems irrelevant, are missing out on something is unlikely to engage them. Furthermore, it plays into an attitude of condescension which the Holy Father often condemns. In Lisbon he reminded us: ‘the only valid reason I have for looking down on someone is if I am helping him or her up’. Christian evangelisation, today as in antiquity, must testify to a superabundance of life, to a plus ultra. This something is not of human making. It must stem from an encounter with God through the Church that results in a transformed life. Ultimately, the only thing that will truly impact on our self-sufficient world is the testimony of sanctity (Cf. Notebook of 11 October 2022). The illustration is El Greco’s Saint Martin and the Beggar (1597/99).
In a quirkily insightful and personal introduction to The Pillar’s weekly news summary on the Feast of Our Lady of Sorrows, Ed. Condon writes: ‘“Celebrating sorrow” is one of those quasi-oxymoronic formulations the practice of our faith can sometimes seem to throw up. But really I don’t think it’s so. Love is always, I think, bound up with a measure of sorrow […]. In many ways, at least this side of heaven, to love is to suffer, at least some of the time. But we celebrate in our sorrow, and celebrate the sorrowful love of Mary at the foot of the cross for Christ and for us, because our love is grounded in the sure hope in the resurrection.’ I agree. One of the magnificent things about Christianity is that it legitimises grief, for which secular society has no vocabulary. The only possible response to grief in a perspective void of the supernatural is outrage, easily morphed into bitterness. On 15 September each year, the Church proposes a conceptual framework for grief imbued with hope. Pergolesi set an essential text of the day’s liturgy to music. In my opinion, no interpretation of it surpasses this one.
In one of the emblematic rebellions of Israel during the exodus from Egypt, the people were beset by serpents which bit and poisoned them. ‘And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and every one who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.’ So Moses made a bronze serpent, and set it on a pole; and if a serpent bit any man, he would look at the bronze serpent and live’ (Num 21.8-9). The Church tells this story today, on the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross; for in Moses’s bronze serpents, the Fathers saw an image of Christ’s Passion. The story has an immediate, pragmatic meaning for each of us. What is wounding me, troubling me, perhaps robbing me of life? If I can name that thing and expose it to the light – set it on a pole – it will lose its power. This makes plain psychological sense. Within the mystery of faith, another dimension opens. On the cross, Christ brought light out of darkness, as at the beginning of creation; ‘and everything the light shines on becomes light’ (Eph 5.13). Even the darkness most intimate to me.
The tendency of our time is to idealize nature, with its impulses and appetites, not to transcend it. While anthropological discourse since antiquity has dwelt on what sets man apart from other species, there is a strange determination abroad, these days, to evidence that we are no more than animals. This does not mean, though, that our age is impervious to the Spirit. The claims of the soul are evident for being often expressed negatively, a function of pain. While moderns are loath to speak of God, they readily admit to feeling trapped in creaturely limitation. While giving no explicit credence to doctrines of the afterlife, they are consumed with a yearning for more. While determined to assume their incarnate humanity, they vaguely know that our body points beyond itself, since every apparent satisfaction is but achingly provisional.
From my forthcoming Chastity: Reconciliation of the Senses
Letting Grief Go
Thanks to a good tip, I have discovered Rainer Kaufmann’s powerful film Running about tackling grief in terrible circumstances: an abyss of incomprehension in the wake of a suicide. Juliane has lost her partner Johann. She is caught in a web spun of different threads, some self-justifying, others self-condemning. At one level she is determined to be honest. At another, she surrenders to delusion. But when one’s world collapses, how can one know what is real? The film’s strength is its portrayal of Juliane’s gradual easing back into reality, enabled by determined friends prepared to comfort and hold, but also to speak a word of truth. At one point Juliane is told: ‘You are feeding your grief like a pet to make it stay next to you lazy and fat – for it’s the one thing still connecting you with what you have lost.’ One cannot live on loss indefinitely, even loss that seems to have taken a part of oneself away. (FAZ review here)
Visiting the cathedral in Poznań with the Nordic Bishops’ Conference, I paused before the tomb of Antoni Baraniak, archbishop of Poznań 1957-77. He was among the prominent Polish clerics sequestered by the Communist regime, submitted to solitary confinement, refined humiliations, and various forms of torture. The authorities’ concern was to cause a split in the Polish episcopate, mobilising Baraniak against the country’s primate, Cardinal Wyszyński. They failed. Braniak’s endurance was heroic. In the eulogy at his funeral, the cardinal spoke of the ‘remarkably strong bond’ that had formed between them, two churchmen of exceptional stature. One wonders how they would have regarded today’s ecclesiastical tussles.
You can find a Polish documentary about Baraniak here.
Weighing Up Options
‘Many listen more gladly to the world than to God; they follow more easily their physical appetite than the things that are pleasing to God. What the world offers is temporal and circumscribed, yet people serve it avidly; what I promise [says the Lord] is great and eternal, yet the hearts of mortals yield to numbness. Who serves and obeys me in all things with the sort of care that goes into service of this world and its masters?’ A little later we are told: ‘I tend to visit my elect in two ways: by temptation and by consolation.’ Is that a perspective we sufficiently consider, that our temptations might be customised, providential opportunities to grow in grace?
I’m not sufficiently a curmudgeon to miss the intended comedy of this scene from the centre of Oslo, within view of the royal palace: three public toilets painted blue, white, and red, named after the Republican virtues. At a certain level it is funny, not least because ‘Liberté’ carries a yellow notice saying ‘Not Working’.
At a deeper level, though, the scene leaves me thoughtful, sad. It seems representative of a cultural trend ever more in evidence betraying inability to relate to any exalted ideal except by means of irony. Is this because we’ve seen too much double-dealing, too little coherence in proponents of ideals? Perhaps. That’s no reason, though, to pull in the oars and let ourselves drift. No, we should take ourselves in hand, examine our lives, prepare to change them. A society – secular or sacred – without revered intelligent ideals does not just become uncreative and boring; it leaves itself open to bogusness.
Given the importance of the event we commemorate, we cannot fail to be struck by the squalor of its circumstances. We know King Herod from several passages in the Gospel, also from Josephus and other historians. We know him to be a weak ruler, conceited and unprincipled. How gladly he listened to John! How cavalierly he ignored what he heard! Over and beyond such spinelessness, today’s account presents him in a light that is positively lurid. Reclining at an executive luncheon, he is so enthralled by the suggestive charms of his stepdaughter that he promises to give her anything — well, almost anything — to show his appreciation. The gruesome request that followed shook him, yet Herod was bound by his word, his vain and presumptuous word. John was executed forthwith, with the guests still at table. A lecherous king, a jealous queen, a fickle child: should these bring the Old Testament to a close?
A trend much talked about in our time concerns what we might call secularist religion. People put forward very high ethical demands on the basis of a standard often recently acquired; at the same the threshold is low to thrown somebody out and say: ‘You are no longer allowed to have a voice in this assembly’. Is it a kind of pietism without grace?
Yes, and pietism shorn of grace becomes cruel.
From a conversation (in Norwegian) with the journalist Tore Hjalmar Sævik about the longing for God, human dignity, and brewing.
I have just re-read Elisabeth de Miribel‘s life of Prince Vladimir Ghika, a remarkable man and priest, now beatified. He remained steadfast and true, ‘a teacher of hope’ as he liked to call himself, in the most diverse circumstances, from the salons of royalty to the squalid prison cell in which he died. Other, better studies have appeared since Miribel’s, yet it remains a valuable resource, not least for the extracts it contains of Ghika’s writings. This passage from one of his letters is alive within me, challenging me: ‘We suffer in proportion to our love. The capacity for suffering is within us the same as our capacity for love. It is in a way like its ardent and terrible shadow — a shadow of the same dimension, except when evening falls and shadows lengthen. A revelatory shadow that discloses us.’
‘A bishop’s ministry is ‘pontifical’. To be a pontifex is to build bridges. Given the amnesia to which the West has succumbed regarding its Christian patrimony, a chasm extends between ‘secular’ society and the Church’s sacred shore. When attempts are made to holler across, we risk misunderstanding: for even when the same words are used on either side, they have acquired different meanings. What poses as ‘dialogue’ easily ends up being a dialogue de sourds. Bridges are needed to enable encounter. Christians must present their faith integrally, without temporizing compromise; at the same time, they must express it in ways comprehensible to those ill-informed about formal dogma. They will often do this most effectively by appealing to universal experience, then trying to read such experience in the light of revelation.’
From my forthcoming book Chastity: Reconciliation of the Senses
Cinema can never have the immediacy of theatre, yet some performances are marked by such a grace of empathy that they leave the spectator with an awed sense of presence notwithstanding the screen’s mediation. To see Max von Sydow in Bille August’s Pelle the Conqueror is to see a humiliated father who has long since relinquished a sense of dignity for his own sake yet tries to maintain a semblance for the sake of his son. It makes you ache. Hal Hinson wrote: ‘This is a performance that comes from the joints and ligaments; it’s conceived in marrow. […] Von Sydow’s style has the essence of poetic compression’. Hinson is rather dismissive of the rest of the cast. I do not agree. I was stunned by this film when I first saw it 35 years ago. I find myself stunned now, having seen it again. For being an historic drama it speaks timelessly of degradation, of dreams nurtured and lost, of the complex relationship of fathers and sons, and of the startling tenderness that stirs in the human heart despite all.
The CoramFratribus owl on a beer bottle? Indeed. The first official invitation I received qua bishop of Trondheim was to a private tour of the city’s flagship brewery, E.C. Dahl. The brewmaster had heard of my vague credentials in the world of brewing. A friendship evolved. It later extended to the brewmasters of Alstadberg and Tautra, leading to the idea of creating a new beer rooted in the rich history of our region. In the Middle Ages Trondheim (then called Nidaros) was truly a European city. The archbishopric was the centre of a vast ecclesiastical province extending to Iceland, Greenland, the Orkneys and Man. Cultural exchanges were frequent, carried by the waves of the see suggested on the beer’s label, with a red wave symbolising the legacy of the martyrs – Trondheim’s significance derived from the cult of St Olav. Inspiration, though, came also from abroad. We have named the beer after the patron of the Orkneys, a kinsman of Olav, St Magnus, who died a martyr’s death in 1117 (a story told in this hymn). It is said he visited Trondheim in 1098, the year Cîteaux was founded. The beer is to be enjoyed with moderation.
Appeasement! Is that all Christianity has to offer a wounded heart crying out to love and be loved, to know and be known? Must the Christian just wait and burn while fire within spends itself and live coals turn into ashes? Has he or she no other response to love’s passion than resignation, eyes mournfully raised heavenward?
Often it has seemed thus. It is a blessing that the cultural shift of recent decades has exposed how harmful a rhetoric of appeasement, drenched in piety, can be when used to silence the voracious hunger of the human heart. Instead of bringing healing, anaesthetics of devout abstraction are prone to cause sickness in the form of arrested tenderness, of vulnerability soured into spite, of unmet affective need seeking satisfaction in addiction or cruelty, or in gradual petrification.
From my forthcoming Chastity: Reconciliation of the Senses
‘The dogma of the Assumption of the Mother of God into heaven was defined by Pius XII on 1 November 1950. Outside the Catholic Church, and in some circles within, the pope’s constitution Munificentissimus Deus was greeted with incredulity. What was going on? The year 1950 saw the first TV remote control. It was the year of Annie Get Your Gun, of Sunset Boulevard. The credit card was born in 1950, as was Stevie Wonder. And here was the Church making statements about things purported to have happened mystically to the Blessed Virgin Mary 1,900 years ago? Protestant critics thought the dogma a hodgepodge of fairy-tales, not just unbiblical but anti-biblical. Established thinkers like Barth and Niebuhr decried what they saw as papal arrogance. Fears were voiced that Catholics worldwide were lapsing into mother-goddess paganism. Everyone’s worst suspicions seemed to be confirmed. Catholics concerned about Christian unity – a growing number – experienced trepidation. I can’t help thinking that the dogma’s hysterical critics didn’t in fact read Munificentissimus Deus. If you do, you will find it breathes serenity, is responsibly argued, and bears the imprint of profound humility.’ From Entering the Twofold Mystery.
At the end of the Mass presided by the Holy Father that concluded World Youth Day a French bishop approached me in the sacristy to present his condolences on the death of Dom Godefroy Raguenet de Saint Albin, abbot of Acey. I reacted with disbelief. Dom Godefroy had just concluded the regular visitation in my own community of Mount Saint Bernard. He had emailed while he was there. And now this prodigiously strong, athletic man, an ex-navy seal, had died in a mountaineering accident? I couldn’t believe it. And still can’t quite believe it. Three strong testimonies have helped me: one by the Abbot General of the OCSO, one by the Abbot General of the OCist, and one by the Abbot of Hauterive. They summon up the mystery of Dom Godefroy’s life and vocation with affection and fraternal realism, helping us see the action of God’s grace in this singular life, whose abrupt end, mysteriously, was preceded by the unselfconsciously erupting joy of a heart become broad, very broad. Requiescat.
The memoirs of Alice Habsburg have been put into my hands. This distinguished Swede, a woman of legendary beauty, married into the epicentre of Old-World European nobility and eventually operated valiantly as a member of the Polish resistance. Her fortitude may be gauged from an account of her visit early on in WWII to Galicia, where she hoped to pick up a few things from her mansion of Busk: ‘When I reached Lvov I had someone ask the Bolshevik chief of police who resided at Busk if he would mind my coming briefly to collect some letters and other possessions I had had sent there from Zywiec. His answer was: ‘She is welcome to come, but will not return to Lvov with her head still on her shoulders.’ Having received such an impertinent reply to my courteous request, I had no choice except to travel straight to Busk.’ Alice obtained what she wanted and brought her head safely back with her, to be reunited with her husband and children. Her eldest son, the revered Dominican Fr Joachim Badeni, fought alongside Norwegian troops in the Battle of Narvik.
it lay before me on the path:
earth’s lightest book —
it has but two pages.
Filled with wonder I read its magic signs.
Then it ascended into the air.
Only a couple of words from summer’s
Aglais io, peacock butterfly.
Christine Busta (1915–1987)
Todos, todos, todos
In Lisbon, Pope Francis insisted that the Church is ‘para todos, todos, todos’. His words are illuminated by a passage in today’s breviary from a sermon by St Augustine on the martyrdom of St Lawrence. Having celebrated Lawrence’s path to sanctity, the bishop of Hippo reminds his hearers that it is not the only path. ‘The garden of the Lord, brethren, includes – yes, it truly includes – includes not only the roses of martyrs but also the lilies of virgins, and the ivy of married people, and the violets of widows. There is absolutely no kind of human beings, my dearly beloved, who will need to despair of their vocation; Christ suffered for all. It was truly written about him that he wishes all to be saved, and to come to acknowledge the truth.’ Note the same rhetorical device: the threefold ‘includes’ which renders the threefold ‘habet’ of Augustine’s Latin. So no kind of person is excluded; but all are called to transformation in truth. The Lord’s concern is to realise our God-given potential, to make us whole and holy; not to leave us in a state of fragmentation and self-satisfied mediocrity.
Alice Babs, born in 1924, sang in nightclubs from her teenage years. She became that most unlikely thing, a Scandinavian jazz legend. Duke Ellington said of her that her voice contained ‘all the warmth, joy of life, rhythm and tragedy that make up the inner secret of jazz’. Alice and Duke worked closely together, not least in producing their joint Serenade to Sweden.
It is surprising to find this familiar voice in a totally different register, singing an aria by Bach. Yet when you hear her perform Jesu, Jesu, Du bist mein, one of Bach’s spiritual songs, her voice seems made for it, at once limpid and intense, sincere. One genre of music can illuminate another. I dare say the same holds for much discourse.
Was it fear of nature that impelled me towards the supernatural? Such can the strength of conjecture be that it seems more real than reality. I aspired to live chastely, but regarded the endeavour as sheer mortification. It did not occur to me, I think, to see chastity as possessing an intrinsic, never mind life-giving attraction. I thought of it in negative terms, as not being, not doing what lay at the heart of the contemporary image of masculinity. Hence a further complex arose. In a culture glorifying sexual expression, was chastity not somehow unmanly?
If only I had thought of reading Cicero! He could have let me discover that, in the ancient world, the goddess of chastity, Diana, was known not only as lucifera, ‘light-bearing’, but as omnivaga, ‘roaming everywhere’, so sovereign and free.
From my forthcoming Chastity: Reconciliation of the Senses
A friend sends me this image. It sums up the experience of World Youth Day.
It needs no commentary. But a few verses from Psalm 51 come to mind:
But you delight in sincerity of heart, and in secret you teach me wisdom.
Let me hear the sound of joy and gladness, and the bones you have crushed will dance.
God, create in me a clean heart, renew within me a resolute spirit.
The message has been heard and acted upon. One can only give thanks.
It is hard to describe what has been going on in Lisbon this week. I have never known anything like it. There have been people everywhere, almost all of them young, tending to gather in large clusters while waving national flags and loudly singing. Crowds have sometimes been overwhelming, filling tube trains and narrow streets. In a different setting one might have felt anxious, conscious of the risk of confrontation. Remarkable here has been the utter lack of aggressivity. Instead of closing in on themselves, groups have reached out to other groups, inviting encounter, exchanging little gifts. I had the sense that Lisbon had been turned into a sacrament of friendship, sweeping up the locals, too, in a peaceful effervescence. The experience, of course, has been brief and intense, not set to last. It does not pretend to manifest a political model of society. Yet what it confers is intensely real, authentic, leading one to ascertain that a world established on terms of fraternity is possible. To have seen this even in the twinkling of an eye is a blessing, a blessing that can alter lives. The fact that a million and a half young people choose to gather like this, for a purely idealistic purpose, without prizes to win, simply for the sake of sharing what is essential to them, is tremendous. It is news that should be on the front page of every paper.
Tonight’s Stations of the Cross in the Parque Eduardo VII, led by Pope Francis, were an audacious spectacle. It is a risky business to plan liturgies audaciously. They can easily turn into mere display. That risk was averted. The ensemble was infused with creative intelligence, rooted in the mystery of Calvary and addressing the immense crowd of youth from (literally) every nation. The dancers enacted meditations on each station. They were remarkable, carried by strong choreography and beautiful music. They showed us that it is possible, without banal compromise, to represent and bear suffering with dignity, beautifully. It is a crucial lesson. For centuries Christians have communicated it through painting, sculpture, music. Many of these works are immortal. Yet it is wonderful to see the same message transmitted in a radically modern artistic idiom. Our world needs to hear it.
You can see the stations here, starting at ’45.
World Youth Day, that most wonderfully improbable of gatherings, is upon us. At the Night Vigil that closed the meeting in the jubilee year 2000, Pope John Paul II, whose initiative gave birth to WYD told the world’s Catholic youth: ‘It is Jesus you seek when you dream of happiness; he is waiting for you when nothing else you find satisfies you; he is the beauty to which you are so attracted; it is he who provokes you with that thirst for fullness that will not let you settle for compromise; it is he who urges you to shed the masks of a false life; it is he who reads in your hearts your most genuine choices, the choices that others try to stifle. It is Jesus who stirs in you the desire to do something great with your lives, the will to follow an ideal, the refusal to allow yourselves to be ground down by mediocrity, the courage to commit yourselves humbly and patiently to improving yourselves and society, making the world more human and more fraternal.’
On his 70th birthday, Romano Guardini acknowledged a debt to Max Scheler. The philosopher had once told him: ‘You must do what is intrinsic to the word Weltanschauung [consideration of the world], that is you must look at things, people, the world, but do so as a responsible Christian with a view to articulating scientifically what it is you see.’ This, said Guardini, was exactly what he had ended up spending his life doing, methodically considering ‘the encounter of faith with the world. And not just the world in a generic sense, the way theologians approach it in various modes of questioning, but the world in the particular: culture and its forms of expression, history, societal life, etc.’ After several decades of such enterprise, he poignantly concluded (in 1955, only eleven years after the end of World War II), he had come to ‘appreciate how important this work is, and what happens when it is not carried out.’ Words worth pondering.
Life in Depth
In ancient Greek a city state, the basic civilisational unit, was known as a polis. To be a ‘political being’ is to see that man, in order to thrive, must be part of a context that exceeds him. Other beings too lead an organised existence. Think of a beehive. Yet we take it for granted, not without reason, that human beings are more essentially political than bees.
I suspect that spiritual superficiality, conceptual impoverishment, and a shrinking vocabulary pose problems for public health in our time. Our lives touch great depths; we experience and feel deeply. That is simply the way we are. But ever fewer among us have words to name the depths we intuit, feel, and experience. We are vulnerable therefore to simplifying categorisations and to offers of relabelling. To live – indeed to survive – we must practise the art of living at a certain depth, there to encounter ourselves and others, to interpret the meaning of our pains and joys.
From my book Seeking Togetherness: Political Impulses launched this week.
As a story within a story dealing with modalities of artistic creation, Stefan Andres imagines the context that brought – and enabled – El Greco to paint his View of Toledo in 1599/1600. It began late one evening, writes the novelist, in which distant thunder could be heard to pass through the night ‘like a retained yawn of the night’, leaving the air heavy and thick. A new crash of thunder ‘rolled like an anchor’s chain’ out of night’s darkness. ‘[The painter] soaked the weather up like a sponge soaks up water, saturated, thoroughly shaken by bluish lights. Each rod of lightning went down his spine like a shudder of frost; the thunder resounded on his skin as much as in his ear. Then, out of his pores colours drizzled and slid onto the canvas, and there, a little later, stood Toledo on the hill in a storm, frighteningly bright in a ghostly present, leaving one to fear that the next moment would spell perpetual darkness, although only painted lightning remains, perpetuating terror.’ The account is imaginary. Yes when you look at the picture – doesn’t it ring true?
It is good now and again to see oneself from the outside. Looking up a passage in Navid Kermani‘s fabulous Wonder Beyond Belief: On Christianity, I am struck by what he, a Shiah Muslim, says on the importance of maintaining the dimension of beauty in Christianity. He recognises that it is a battle against considerable odds: ‘I’ve only got to visit a standard Sunday Mass in Berlin to ascertain how badly today’s Christianity lacks beauty’. Much the same observation could be made throughout the world. I thought of these things recently, while visiting a fine exhibition on Urban VIII in the Palazzo Barberini. Urban was pope 1623-44, a period during which the Catholic Church, committed to the Council of Trent, saw a revolution in works for the poor, the sick, the needy. At the same time Urban VIII was a discerning patron of the arts, seeing that this dimension too is intrinsic, indeed essential, to true worship. As Kermani remarks, ‘Poverty alone makes no God great.’
Laure Adler is not a woman to mince words. She begins a long conversation with George Steiner: ‘There’s this thing, this arm, this deformity, this physical thing.’ Has Steiner’s withered arm made him suffer, she asks? He answers: ‘It has enabled me, I think, to understand certain conditions, certain kinds of anguish on the part of the sick that are difficult to grasp for the Apollos of this world, for those blessed to have a magnificent body and terrific health. What are the connections between physical and mental suffering and certain intellectual endeavours? That is something we still do not understand very well. Let’s never forget that Beethoven was deaf, that Nietzsche was subject to terrible migraines, that Socrates was very ugly. It is so interesting to try and see in others that which they may have had to conquer. When I meet someone I always aks myself: what has he or she lived through? What has been his or her victory — or signal failure?’
The historian Zara Steiner died in 2020, ten days after her husband George, after 60 years of a marriage marked by complementarity. The two were introduced to one another by their Harvard professors who ‘bet each other that the two would get married if they ever met’. So it turned out. Zara Steiner produced massively learned work on international relations in Europe between the World Wars. Coming across The Guardian‘s obituary, I am struck by a remark regarding policies of appeasement in the 1930s: ‘Zara’s criticism of Chamberlain, Eden and Halifax, hopelessly out of their depth in the brutal world of the dictators, is unanswerable. In researching European international history between the wars, she remarked, she had encountered “few heroes, two evil Titans and an assortment of villains and knaves.”’ It is a useful point to bear in mind when reading the news now, hungry as we are for heroes and inclined ourselves to be blue-eyed about dictators. ‘In her final years’, writes David Reynolds, Zara Steiner ‘sensed that the lights were beginning to fail. Her hope was that this did not presage another triumph of the dark.’
Saving vs Serving
A young mother writes to me: ‘I have gained the trust and confidence of some priests, insight into their sufferings and dealings. In seeing their humanity, humbly, I am left with even more reverence for the priesthood, and more love, but ultimately a deeper sense of how many, even the best, have been wounded by the present climate and suffer some hopelessness where “I must save the Church” replaces “I must serve the Church”. We need shepherds and priests truly espoused to their mission, more apt to fall to their knees in hiddenness than storming through the world without a harness of humility.’
It is good to be reminded.
I am gratefully discovering the work of Stefan Andres (1906-70), whose carefully codified fiction from the 30s and 40s evokes the experience of life under totalitarianism while carefully, but audibly, upholding an ideal of inalienable freedom. His complex novella from 1943, ‘We Are Utopia‘, recounts a scene from the Spanish Civil War. Two men from opposite sides meet during a decisive night of battle. One is a renegade priest; the other is an officer with a heavy conscience. The conversation between them is equilibrated with consummate skill, showing ability, and will, to go beyond stereotype. The ex-priest is alert to a deeper, more existential layer in the officer’s trouble. He asks: ‘Were you never happy?’ Andres describes the response: ‘”Happy?” Don Pedro spoke the word and listened to it the way a musician attends to the tone from a tuning fork.’
Many of us need to hear that tone afresh, to retune our aspirations by it.
Trauma of Loss
Fortunately, the Rabbi Sacks Foundation maintains its mailing list, enabling those of us on it to benefit still from Jonathan Sacks’ learning and insight. This week’s instalment lets an intimate experience of grief and failure shed light on a momentously mysterious passage from the Book of Numbers. Scripture lets us confront deep truths:
‘We are not always masters of our emotions. Nor does comforting others prepare you for your own experience of loss. […] We are embodied souls. We are flesh and blood. We grow old. We lose those we love. Outwardly we struggle to maintain our composure but inwardly we weep. Yet life goes on, and what we began, others will continue. Those we loved and lost live on in us, as we will live on in those we love. For love is as strong as death, and the good we do never dies.’
You can read the full text here.
When last week I saw this marble head, carved in the late second or early third century, the time of Caracalla, in the Archaeological Museum of Nicopolis, I was moved and puzzled. Having admired it, I walked on; but I found myself compelled to return. It was as if the lady was trying to say something to me. I could have sworn I’d seen her that same morning in downtown Preveza coming out of a hairdresser’s, her perm carefully reset. It is extraordinary how a skilled artist can convey personal presence in such a way that it arrests us still after the passage of millennia. Though to have a presence that carries, and so a gift of communion to share, I must first discover and consolidate it. Gregory the Great wrote of St Benedict that he spent a crucial time of his life ‘living alone with himself in God’s sight‘, thus preparing himself for decisive encounters. The order is taller than it may at first seem. A lot of the time, we tend rather to run away from ourselves.
When Bishop Meletios Kalamaras of blessed memory was consecrated metropolitan of Preveza on 28 March 1980, stepping into a troubled situation marked by scandals, he said: ‘The bishop, and every priest, must be a messenger of peace, a source of calm for souls which are troubled, for whatever reason. In order to be so, he must not seek honours, but must imitate Christ who, when He was reviled, did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten. And he must always be prepared to say from the depths of his heart: ‘To those who hate us and wrong us, Lord, give pardon; and grant them your bountiful mercy and your Kingdom.’ Yet for the mission of the priest, that is not enough. The chief mission of our Lord Jesus Christ was to give His soul, His whole self, to save the world. Initiating His disciples into this, the Lord taught them, saying: ‘My friends, see that no fear separates you from me. For though I suffer, yet it is for the sake of the world. If then you are my friends, imitate me.” If we truly seek remedies for clericalism, surely they are found in this mindset, this state of soul.
St Benedict, Patron of Europe, was keenly aware of being heir to an Eastern tradition. He saw it as intrinsic to the treasure from which, in his Rule, he asked abbots to bring forth things old and new. In Orientale Lumen, Pope John Paul II submitted that ‘members of the Catholic Church of the Latin tradition must be fully acquainted with this treasure’. Drawing on the metaphor of Vyacheslav Ivanov, he insisted that the Church needs to breathe with both lungs, Eastern and Western, so to be rescued from asphyxiating provincialism and imprisonment in the immediate: ‘Today we often feel ourselves prisoners of the present. It is as though man had lost his perception of belonging to a history which precedes and follows him. This effort to situate oneself between the past and the future, with a grateful heart for the benefits received and for those expected, is offered by the Eastern Churches in particular, with a clearcut sense of continuity which takes the name of Tradition and of eschatological expectation.’ Are we now, in the Latin Church, breathing to capacity?
CoramFratribus will take a holiday for a couple of weeks.
I thank you for your interest in the site.
May you have a happy, restful summer – like the one sung about here.
+fr Erik Varden OCSO
I have long valued Jennifer Bryson’s work in spreading knowledge about Ida Görres, whose insights speak clearly to the present moment. Only this week, thanks to a reference in Luke Coppen’s indispensable Starting Seven, did I learn something of Bryson’s biography and work in Guantanamo Bay. What she says about her experience there is worth reading. I was struck by her remarks on conscience. Conscience, she reminds us, is not some kind of faultless software we carry from birth; it needs formatting: ‘I didn’t know anything about conscience formation when I went to Guantanamo. And I’d been a Catholic at that point for almost 13 years. […] What I realized in Guantanamo is, first of all, that formation really needs to happen before the difficult challenges come. And because we can’t predict when those come, the time for conscience formation is right now.’ This is a theme at the heart of Görres’s work, too. ‘Understanding that there is a cosmic level of justice and that each of us, as human beings, will meet our Maker’, Bryson adds, ‘does provide a broader perspective’ on present choices.
In an intelligent review of Matt Walsh’s What is a Woman (Notebook 3 June), Abigail Favale writes: ‘Contraception has reshaped our cultural imagination about what it means to be a man or a woman. There has been a collective forgetting about what sex is for, that it has a clear teleology around which our bodies are organized. When gender is no longer linked to generation, it becomes merely an aesthetic, a signifier without a signified. And when the signifier bears the full weight of meaning-making, the external signals of gender become intensely important—too important. We must perform and express our gender because that is all gender is now: a performative expression. These gendered signals, moreover, are increasingly shaped by the soulless forces of consumerism and pornography. We are what we watch, buy, wear, and click. Femininity and masculinity have become products, costumes, commodities.’ If one re-reads Humanae vitae in this key, one is impressed by its prescience.
Lyuba Yatskiv, one of the major Christian artists of our time, has created an apse mosaic for the Church of Holy Wisdom at Ukraine’s Catholic University. It is nothing short of astonishing. Its inspiration is a passage from Proverbs (9,1–6) dear to the Church Fathers, who saw in it a prophecy of Christ’s economy of grace: ‘ Wisdom has built her house; she has hewn her seven pillars. She has slaughtered her beasts; she has mixed her wine; she has also set her table.’ The visual representation is subtle, combining Old Testament themes with sacramental symbolism. What remarkable angels! The whole is marked by unity of intelligence, line, and colour. The heart is invited to rise, the mind to fix its attention, the eye to rest. Ms Yatskiv’s work sets a standard by which to evaluate other contemporary essays in mosaic art. Victoria Emily Jones wrote about the design in 2018. You can find her article here.
Too Easy Gospel
Squalor characterises Roberto Abbado’s production of Madama Butterfly once we get into the second act – Butterfly and Suzuki go shabbily dressed and live on a building site. This jars at first. But the approach grew on me: it displays the ingloriousness of betrayal. In Act 1, the cavalier Pinkerton tells the consul in Nagasaki about his good fortune. He has acquired a lease on a house for 999 years, yet is free each month to cancel it; the bride he will put in it cost him a mere 100 yen. He sings a hymn to the man of enterprise: ‘His anchor boldly he casts at random, until a sudden squall upsets his ship, then up go sails and rigging. And life is not worth living if he can’t win the best and fairest’. The consul retorts, È un facile vangelo – ‘that gospel is too easy’. He tries to make Pinkerton see that for Butterfly the wedding is real. She gives herself to him heart and soul. Pinkerton nods pensively: he is not wicked, yet can’t conceive of anything but a provisional commitment. When he finally sees that Butterfly is a real human being, not a plaything, it is too late. The pathos of his outcry at the end is heartfelt, but shallow. The tragedy was predictable, and was his doing. Pinkerton is a type of the narcissistic lover. He comes across as startlingly contemporary. As for Butterfly, she is timeless in her patient, self-sacrificing waiting. This interpretation of the role remains unsurpassed.
It is hard to speak of the death of someone we have loved, even many years on. So it is balm to the soul to hear a voice that can – and may help us find our own voice with regard to private, hidden, perhaps still unarticulated griefs. In a recent essay Daniel Capó reflects with dignity and beauty on the anniversary of death of his younger brother: ‘When we die we begin to belong to others, to become others. Our voice perdures as a legacy in others’ souls. It is our responsibility to preserve an inheritance consigned to us from the very moment in which we knew love. Indeed, it is our duty to remain faithful to this light which we have received, to nurture it, and to protect it from the world’s miseries in order, thus, to pass it on to others. […] Our personal light presupposes the reflection of many other lights and of a love that, at times, in death can come to be terrible, yet whose mystery leaves within us a deeper, more indestructible truth.’
A 2018 Festschrift to Fr Elmar Salmann described him as being ‘neither conservative nor liberal, but rather classical and liberating’. The source of the description is not given, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it comes from Fr Salmann himself, enunciated as an aspiration. He is a deeply aspirational man, ever in via. This comes across in a recent, readable interview with the Osservatore Romano. Among other things he says: ‘The Council led to a humanisation of the kerygma, spiritualising it in a Lucan key – we are living in the era of the third Gospel – a dramatic and extraordinary passage that has run its course in parallel to my own life. But this humanisation hasn’t made us more human. I mean, it has given no profile to the mystery. The Eucharist today is a ‘fraternal meal’, which is fair enough, but what have we done with the Mystery, the real presence, the making-present of Jesus’s passion? Tension has been pushed in the direction of making the Mystery comprehensible. As a result, we have lost it as such. Thus the humanised Christian undermines the framework of the mysteries and with them the role of the Church.’
Impact of Words
It is said of Dayan Chanoch Ehrentreu that he once prevented someone who declared disbelief in the Torah’s divine inspiration from being called upon to read the sacred text in the synagogue. In an inclusively-minded climate this might seem shocking. However, the Dayan’s reasoning was simple and sensible: had the reader ‘uttered the requisite blessing, “Our God … who gave us the Torah of truth …”, he would have committed the grave sin of giving false witness for something he did not believe. Ehrentreu always believed words had consequences.’ This belief is profoundly Biblical; indeed it encapsulates a chief dimension of Scriptural revelation. It is a perspective society urgently needs at a times when words are being devalued — and not just in secular contexts. Am I conscious of the force of the ‘Amen’ I repeatedly utter as part of liturgical prayer, of the commitment it entails?
I have come to know and appreciate the voice of Sibylle Lewitscharoff posthumously, intrigued by obituaries published after her death on 13 May this year. A writer of virtuosity, she was also a woman of wit – and a wonderful reader. In a terrific lecture given in Vienna in 2016, she considered the lasting impact of Dante by discussing not so much the merit as the fundamental options taken by various translators, to great effect. She remarked how Dante haunts Samuel Beckett and his ‘aesthetics of negativity’, representative of much modern fiction: ‘The essence of the modern novel is brokenness. That’s what it lives on. Happiness has become a subject for kitsch.’ Dante might teach us to dare to envisage happiness, to rediscover hope. Lewitscharoff gave this aspiration voice in her writing. It also informed her life. Diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2010 she knew hardship. Not long before her death, she said with a characteristic mixture of earnestness and irony: ‘In the next world I imagine a differently constituted spiritual-embodied, simultaneously glorious beauty. I hope for a new connection with the body – I’m not so keen on the old one.’
Mozart’s Litanies to the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar (K 243), a youthful work, are not much performed now. They were greatly loved in their day. On 20 November 1778, having rummaged through his piles of manuscripts, Mozart wrote agitatedly to his father, ‘Now all of them, and even my Lord Prelate, have been pestering me about giving them a Litany de venerabili. I said I do not have it with me. And I was not really sure. I searched, and did not find it. I said, write to my Papa. Now they are doing whatever they want.’ Leopold found the score and sent it off, enclosing a bill. He assured his son afterwards that the work had been performed ‘when the great procession takes place, with full applause’. This music remains a catechesis in sound. Listen out for the ‘Stupendum supra omnia miraculum’. The movement ‘Viaticum’ could draw even the most hard-hearted listener to his or her knees. You can find the text of the litanies here.
The Eucharist, let’s remember, is food for pilgrims. It is not a snack for sedentary holiday makers; it is manna for those who’ve a distance to cover each day, who strain forward to be worthy, at last, to enter the Father’s house, and to feel at home there, taught by the journey through exile what homecoming means.
The Eucharist gives both a pledge and a challenge. One of today’s liturgical texts puts it thus: ‘The bread of life will incorporate us into itself if we are transformed into his likeness through a pure mind, firm faith, and perfect charity.’ That is our roadmap. In the strength of the bread from heaven, we continue on our journey of transformation with zest, great love, and gratitude.
Throughout the Western world there are fewer seminarians. The average age of priests is rising. Parishes close. At the same time people ask, ‘But do we need priests – aren’t they a relic of a bygone patriarchal age?’ Part of the problem is that we’ve developed a view of priesthood that is almost exclusively functional, expressed in ‘pastoral’ terms, that is, in terms of being helpful and kind to others. One does not need to be ordained to be helpful and kind. So what is the priest’s consecration for? The New Testament is radical: ‘A good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep’ (John 10.11). In this view, the pastor is called to a sacrificial existence, to be, like his Master, both shepherd and lamb, his very being caught up in a sacerdotal dynamic. I have just watched again Robert Bresson’s version of Bernanos’s Diary of a Country Priest. The film is bleaker than the novel, but reaches the same depths. I reflect: there was a time when the life of a Catholic priest was popularly perceived – the film drew great audiences – as being an oblative drama, the embodiment of radical charity grounded in, an illumined by, the mystery of the cross, a sacramental existence. This perception was true. We must acquire the words and symbols needed to express it afresh.
We easily accuse others of disturbing our peace of mind. But can another rob me of genuine peace? Consider the scenario put before us by Dorotheus of Gaza (I am conflating a passages from Discourse 13). A monk sits quietly, minding his own business, when a brother approaches him and says something unpleasant. The monk gets angry, and justifies himself: ‘If that brother had not approached him and said those words and upset him, he never would have sinned. This kind of thinking is ridiculous and has no rational basis. For the fact that he has said anything at all in this situation breaks the cover on the passionate anger within him. A brother comes up, utters a word and immediately all the venom and mire that lie hidden within him are spewed out. He should return thanks to this brother, who has proven an occasion of profit to him.’ Unacknowledged reserves of anger, usually grounded in experiences of hurt, are major obstacles to freedom and peace in many people’s lives. We should be glad when they are revealed to us; and get on with the unpleasant but necessary work of clearing out the septic tank.
I’m not on the whole a great watcher of cartoons, but the Cartŵn Cymru series from 1996, Testament: The Bible in Animation, equipped with a sourcebook from the UK Bible Society, has enchanted me. The imagery is beautiful. The stories are intelligently retold. I am intrigued to find the source book suggesting taking children further into the narratives by having them listen to great music (Haydn, Britten) and read poetry. There is poetry in the films. In the one about Moses, Israel’s future liberator, seated at night in Jethro’s tent engaged in confidential exchange, says: ‘I was conceived in slavery, and born in the stink of death. Our tribes have multiplied. Rameses saw mutiny striding towards him and subtracted the space between birth and death. One swift harvest rid him of our lastborn sons and his fear. And who was I, after all this dark arithmetic, to be the remainder? A cuckoo floating into Egypt’s nest. […] I was loved, but it came a difficult way. […] I came by my life dishonestly. I am looking for another.’ What a joy to find a catechetical resource aimed at children that does not talk down to them. Moses sounds like a Welsh bard. I intend that as the highest compliment to the script writer.
Jesus’ parting words to his disciples are a commission to spread the communion of divine life as widely as possible: ‘Go, make disciples of all nations; baptise them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teach them to observe all the commands I gave you.’ If we have some inkling of God’s love, we will be drawn to draw others into it. If we feel jealous of our faith; if we hoard graces received; if we want to keep others out of our private sanctuary: well, then we do not know God, Father, Son and Spirit. Then we are worshipping an idol. Our triune God shares himself infinitely while remaining undiminished. That is the mystery of the Trinity. The desire of God, Father, Son and Spirit, is to attract all mankind into their current of divine love, which is the source of all life, the foundation of all things, visible and invisible.
Matt Walsh’s film, What Is a Woman?, is clocking up millions of views on the internet. The question raised in it is real. It generates perplexity in our day, sometimes in unexpected fora. A year or so ago, Professor Hanna Barbara Gerl Falkowitz spoke (at 37.45) of a recent vote in the assembly of Germany’s Synodaler Weg. A call had been made for this vote to be taken by women only, something the assembly’s constitutions allowed. So far, so good. Yet when the procedure was about to begin, someone asked, ‘What, then, is a woman?’ No one could come up with an acceptable answer. A solution was found. Those members were allowed to vote who were ‘not men’. Gerl Falkowitz calls this option ‘incredibly interesting’, adding: ‘Here we are back before Simone de Beauvoir, before feminism’, with womanhood described in terms of negation, no positive definition being speakable. Intellectually, this is a deadlock. Intellectual deadlocks tend to be short-lived. Minds, men’s and women’s, do have an innate appetite for sense and an impatience with nonsense.
The human ear is constituted in such a way that it can hear several voices at once and perceive them as united. The history of western music is the story of development from the sublime but austere monody of Gregorian chant to ever more complex polyphony. Our minds, too, are equipped for polyphonic perception, but this faculty must be practised and refined. We seem, alas, inclined more and more to underuse it. The following remarks by Micah Mattix make me thoughtful: ‘Education, which used to be understood as an induction into the conversation that is civilization, now understands itself primarily as a problem-solving and knowledge-acquiring enterprise. It trains students in the use of a single voice. Such an education is barbaric, no matter how developed it may be. An increasingly monopolized discourse, Oakeshott writes, ‘will not only make it difficult for another voice to be heard, but it will also make it seem proper that it should not be heard.”
A quarter of a century ago, in Paris, I went to see Corneille’s Polyeucte, the story of an early Roman martyr, performed in a small theatre. I’d read the play, but it’s a different thing to hear lines spoken aloud. I was unprepared for the force of Polyeucte’s serene confession, ‘I am a Christian, and I am one entirely’. I came out of the theatre thinking, ‘Am I?’ I thought of the experience this morning, re-reading the martyrdom of Justin and his companions. Justin was decapitated in 165, under the reign of Marcus Aurelius. Terrible things can happen in the state’s name even under an enlightened king. Asked to renege, Justin simply answered, ‘I am a Christian’. Justin was a learned man. He’d thought his way to faith and was not prepared to give up on truth: ‘No right-thinking person falls away from piety to impiety.’ Doing so would be stupid, and stupidity is unworthy of a human being. There was more to it, though. Justin could surely have made the same confession as his friend Hierax, ‘Christ is our true father, and faith in him is our mother’. Of that union I am the fruit. And would be so entirely.
Awful Grace of God
The status of Edith Hamilton’s The Greek Way as a civilisation marker is well documented. In Indianapolis on 4 April 1968, facing crowds distraught and enraged at the murder of Martin Luther King, Robert F Kennedy cited from memory, ‘In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God’. This is Aeschylus in Hamilton’s version, not a very accurate one, as classicists will tell you. To read the book today is to be aware of the author’s schoolmistress-like demeanour. Yet her fundamental proposition remains fascinating: ‘Very different conditions of life confronted [the ancient Greeks] from those we face, but it is ever to be borne in mind that though the outside of human life changes much, the inside changes little, and the lesson-book we cannot graduate from is human experience.’ The Ancient Greek account of such experience remains phenomenal. Hamilton’s knowledge of that account, while imperfect, was profound, and she wrote it up beautifully.
Renew the Earth
At Pentecost we pray, ‘Come, Holy Spirit, renew the face of the earth.’ Powerful words in our present circumstances.
With so much awry in the world, we can feel powerless. It is important to resist this feeling; to realise that we can all do something to aid renewal, to prepare the ground for fraternity, friendship, justice.
This Pentecost, all principal Masses in all the Catholic churches of the Nordic countries will be offered for just peace in Ukraine. All collection will go towards the work of Caritas in Ukraine, to provide food and hygiene packages.
‘In a celebrated marble relief, the monumental Pazzi Madonna, the half-length Virgin and Child are set within a sharply perspectival window embrasure that both locks them in place and puts them on stage. They enact the most intense of clinches, noses and foreheads touching, eyes drilling into each other’s face. The mighty Virgin’s Roman nose overlaps her son’s in an unprecedented partial eclipse of Christ’s head; the fingers on her hands reach out to clutch him. She seems to want to shield him from the outside world – and from his preordained future.’
The Art of Cleaning
For most of my adult life, it has been part to my job to clean public areas, so to clean up after others. I have the highest esteem for the cleaner’s profession. So it was with interest that I recently watched Maria Hedenius’s film from 2003, The Art of Cleaning.
It is a contemplative, intelligent portrait of Mrs Wally Pettersson, for whom cleaning was no demeaning task but a way of humanising society. One senses a metaphysical dimension to her work, for Mrs Pettersson was a person alert to ultimate realities: cleaning was for her a day-to-day participation in the great task of creating kosmos out of chaos. Remarkable throughout the film is the protagonist’s matter-of-course respect for other beings, humans and animals, and her sensibility to beauty. She says, ‘I like helping others. Isn’t that the purpose of life?’
Hedenius presents before our eyes a noble life, though this is nobility of a kind we might easily overlook.
Risk of Self-Deception
A seminarian soon to be ordained a priest recently sent me Jelly Roll’s Son of a Sinner, remarking that the artist sings about ‘regret, hope, the dangers of self-deception, and the tenuousness of sobriety’. In an interview with the NYT, Roll has said he wants to perform ‘real music for real people with real problems’. He is on to something. His songs are racking up millions of views. People hear something there they don’t hear elsewhere: an engagement with life as it is. They go to Jelly Rolls for it, not necessarily to church. Yet such engagement was what people heard when they first encountered Christ’s Gospel. It was what made them see the Lord as one speaking ‘with authority’, credibly. These days, the Church is in the throes of a credibility crisis. She is perceived as eschewing accounts of things as they are, as being phoney. Such perception is sometimes biased and malicious. But not always. There are reasons for it. So preachers might take a leaf out of Jelly Roll’s book and seek to give voice to the biblical New Song (cf. Ps 96.1) as ‘real music for real people with real problems’. Deep calls out too deep (Ps 42.7).
We think of the eighth century as a dark age. Out of this supposed darkness shines the Venerable Bede. Notker of St Gallen, who lived 200 years later, likened Bede to a new sun God had caused to rise, not in the East, but in the West, to illuminate the world. Bede was not an ambulant preacher with a great propaganda machinery. He was a monk who lived in peaceful stability in his Northumbrian monastery, where he was deeply content. How did he help England’s Church to find a way into the future? By engaging with the past. Bede was a careful historian, analytic in his reading of source. At the same time he read the chronicle of mankind in a supernatural, Biblical perspective. He knew that God reveals himself and acts through history; therefore history is a branch of theology. Our time is strangely historyless. What concerns us are the signs of our time. We keep assuming that some categorical rupture frees us from past experience, that the past is an encumbrance. Is that not a mark of presumption? Are not we the ones tumbling into a new Dark Age without clear points of reference? Bede offers us an alternative model of life and thought, far fresher and livelier than our weary, unanchored, hopeless postmodernism.
At One with the Task
A departure gives us a chance to say things we wouldn’t otherwise say, especially when it is final. Paul’s speech in Miletus is moving. Elsewhere, too, we have heard him speak of his experiences. Think of the tirade in 2 Corinthians (‘thrice whipped, once stoned, thrice shipwrecked’); or of his correction of the Galatians (‘Let no one trouble me, I bear in my body the marks of Jesus’). At Miletus the tone is different. There is tenderness in Paul’s voice. His words testify to acceptance. He, who has preached kenosis and crucifixion to the world, shows us what the Christian condition consists in. It is as if he no longer has eyes for himself. The only thing of consequence is to complete the mission received: ‘to testify to the gospel of the grace of God’. We can sometimes perceive discipleship as a burden, not least when the world is against us. We kick against the goad, complain, and cry, ‘Usquequo? How long, O Lord?’ In the mature Paul we see a Christian fully at one with his task who finds freedom and fulfilment in it, even when he knows that ‘imprisonment and afflictions’ await him. We glimpse what it means for the glory of Jesus to be alive in a person. Then everything else recedes into the shadow, even things that normally, humanly speaking, would scare us witless.
Faith in the Real
Last week, having travelled back to Cracow from Kyiv, I saw an exhibition at the Wawel. It shows sculptures made by Johann Georg Pinsel for the church in Hodovytsya near Lviv. It was my first close encounter with Lviv Rococo. A style we normally associate with colourful excess, swooning damsels and mantelpiece ornaments is present in a quite different form: rigorous, ascetic, at once elegant and angular, as if to prove that the edges of existence can be brought into a flowing design. The theme is earnest — a Crucifixion flanked by two OT prophecies: Samson’s slaying the lion and the Sacrifice of Isaac. This may jar with us, keen as we are to stress the joy of faith. But doesn’t that mantra on its own often sound like a hollow gong? Seeing Pinsel’s work just after visiting Irpin, I thought: this is how life is. The joy of the Gospel is not infused intravenously. It is born of perseverance through perplexity and loss. In former times, Christians had courage to represent this mystery visually. They recalled that ‘The cross stands while the world revolves‘ and thus had a conceptual tool to make sense of their lives, not always bright, seeing the grandeur of suffering, which is not a question of idealising pain, but of making sense of it, building up strength to bear it. This aspect of faith needs, I think, to find new form in our time, often lost in superfluity. Cf. 1 Cor 1.17ff.
Christ’s glorious Ascension restores the union of heaven and earth. But it does more, it inaugurates the recapitulation of history. Mother Elisabeth-Paule Labat has written with great perspicacity of the process in which we are caught up.
‘Growing in wisdom man will perceive the history of this world in whose battle he is still engaged as an immense symphony resolving one dissonance by another until the intonation of the perfect major chord of the final cadence at the end of time. Every being, every thing contributes to the unity of that intelligible composition, which can only be heard from within: sin, death, sorrow, repentance, innocence, prayer, the most discreet and the most exalted joys of faith, hope, and love; an infinity of themes, human and divine, meet, flee, and are intertwined before finally melting into one according to a master plan which is nothing other than the will of the Father, pursuing through all things the infallible realisation of its designs.’
To stand under the cupola of Sancta Sophia in Kyiv is to be aligned to a chronological axis evidencing dizzying proximities. Work on this great shrine began in 1011. Olav Haraldsson, later Norway’s St Olav, buried in Trondheim, stayed in exile with Yaroslav the Wise, Great Duke of Kyiv, in 1028-29. Will he have stood within the complex of Santa Sophia? It is probable. With Yaroslav he will have discussed the significance of this church and its dedication to Christ as the Father’s incarnate Wisdom. The embodied reality of Christianity was very much part of Olav’s statesmanship and projects of legislation – a significant factor in arousing the antagonism that resulted in his death on 29 July 1030, at Stiklestad. Our modern world seems orphaned of Wisdom, often enough. Yaroslav’s Rus’ is subject to a mad attack. Olav’s Norway is susceptible to seduction by absurd irrationalities. It matters, then, to look up into the cupola and remember: the Sophia this holy place manifests is not just an optional package of life skills; it is the principle by which we, and the choices we make, will be judged.
This icon of the Dormition was the one intact object left in a house in Lukhansk bombed to pieces by Russian occupying forces last year. It now hangs on the wall of the Greek Catholic Patriarchate in Kyiv. From the beginning of recorded time, wars have provoked existential questions: What is the point of suffering and destruction? Can there be meaning in it? It is difficult to formulate propositional answers; but one can sometimes see the contours of a response in transformed lives and gracious deeds. I am moved by the Ukrainian Catholic community’s commitment to humanitarian action. In the midst of war there is blossoming practical charity. The Gospel is enacted. Wounds are healed on the part of those who receive and on the part of those who give. Christian faith in the resurrection is personal and concrete, rooted in an historical, transformative event; but it also has symbolic, corporate power. It is not vain to speak of the resurrection of a society. One can see signs of it in Ukraine. Certain things cannot be destroyed; attempts to do so will simply manifest their indestructibility.
No Different Track
Famously, the Russian Empire employed a railway gauge different from that adopted in Western Europe. The laborious process of changing the bogies of trains travelling east has created the notion that a hop is involved from one tectonic plate to another, from a European World to a Russian World. This image has been used, and abused, in rhetoric to justify the war of aggression against Ukraine. To take the train from Przemyśl to Kyiv is not, though, to leave one universe for another. The continuities are obvious. Kyiv is a modern, European city whose resilience in keeping ordinary life going is impressive. The parks are in order; there are tulips everywhere; the chestnuts trees are in bloom. The city’s inhabitants refuse to be brutalised. Soul-strength finds expression in this attitude. Naturally the strain of war is great, the trauma real. But the city breathes the conviction that injustice will not, cannot, have the last word. And so the visitor comes away feeling strangely buoyed up, encouraged.
There is a justly famous recording of Marta Argerich playing Rakhmaninov’s third piano concerto with the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Richard Chailly on 5 December 1982. Her mixture of force and utter precision, of passion and intelligence gives the music rare intensity: it becomes an existential statement. To hear Argerich play Rakhmaninov today, as in this remarkable concert from a couple of weeks ago, is to find all her signature qualities undiminished at the age of almost 82. And yet there is something more. A self-evidence perhaps, a connaturality of the kind that arises in one who has spent a lifetime in the company of a great composer, author, or scientist, having assimilated a production of genius to the extent of being able to communicate it as his or her own, spontaneously, though without presumption. I am brought to think how important it is to persevere in engagement with the beautiful, good, and true, recognising that genuine mastery will not come easily or immediately, even in our culture of instant accomplishment.
‘We should take a major step in the direction of freedom were we to free our own emotions – and also our own thoughts – from those of others: if you like me, I’ll like you; if you’re unfriendly, I’ll be unfriendly. To hear, really hear what another says is a thing of capital value. The same goes for the attempt to respond to what one has heard. But my response must be more than just a repetition of what came at me. Jesus gave us an example, responding to hate with love.’ Thus wrote Mother Christiana Reemts, abbess of Mariendonk, a few days ago; and how right she is. All too often we react instead of responding to what happens, to what gets said. Thereby we let ourselves be caught in a mimetic game of mirrors. It’s a tedious game. What we are called to in fact is freely to reveal our countenance, our true name; thereby to call forth freedom hidden in others.
To Be Loved
We are told that when St Athanasius (circa 296-373) was a child, the bishop of Alexandria one day came upon him on the beach playing church with his friends. Athanasius, playing the part of priest, was performing a baptism so exactly that the bishop affirmed it to be valid. He took the Wunderkind under his wing and raised him to become the eminent theologian we admire. The story is charming. It also has depth. It shows the astonishing linearity that can mark a life viewed in the back mirror. We may have experienced it. One day we suddenly realise: I have shaped my life freely, through uncountable unplanned vicissitudes, and yet it has somehow assumed a straight integrity, like an oak that, bursting its seed, penetrates the dark earth and stretches towards the sun. In Christian vocabulary we think of this process as a vocation story. Do we realise how extraordinary it is? I can be 100% myself, live with utter freedom, and at the same time correspond to the plan another has made for me.
In this insight we realise what it means to be loved.
The Great in the Small
When Pope John Paul II stood before the image of the Comforter of the Afflicted at Kevelaer on 2 May 1987, the first thing he said was, ‘How tiny!’ It is a paradox – this great place of pilgrimage arose around what is effectively a paper postcard. Who would have thought that such a small, humble thing could help renew a continent exhausted by hopelessness and war? We think nowadays that to enable renewal we must produce spectacular gestures. But the spectacular rarely brings comfort. There is a whiff of mendacity in the spectacular – a show is a show. Comfort, meanwhile, is true, and personal. Even with slight means we can be carriers of comfort, builders of peace. The renewal of a weary world, of a Church showing signs of weariness, begins with the renewal of particular lives. No one, nothing, not even comprehensive restructuring, can renew my life on my behalf. To kneel before Our Lady of Kevelaer is to start to see existence in a new light. Our Saviour was born in a stable. But above it angels sang.
Anyone who follows human affairs with application for more than a week or two will be struck by this: how quickly we get used to war. Who now remembers there’s a war going on in Syria? Even that in Ukraine has disappeared from our headlines, once again dominated by local, pragmatic and (frankly) often pernickety concerns. Yet the wars of our time continue devastatingly; real human destinies are determined, if not destroyed, by them. After a conversation with President Zelensky last year, Timothy Snyder remarked, ‘there are moments in the world where your actions are magnified’. This is obvious for a head of state. Stefan Zweig saw such a destiny in the life of Marie Antoinette. But moments like this could come to all of us. Think of Sophie Scholl. Do we prepare ourselves – our conscience, mind, and heart – to make essential choices if called upon to do so?
If you are baffled by the background to the war in Ukraine, consider watching Snyder’s Yale lectures, The Making of Modern Ukraine.
Jacques Lusseyran, blind from the age of eight, reflected throughout his life on the nature of seeing and not-seeing. I am struck by this passage from his Conversation amoureuse. ‘Those with eye-sight speak so poorly about the imagination. It is as if they did not know what it is. They speak as if they were sure that it replaces everything, especially the eyes. They do not see that in fact it generates thousands of figures, combining them in different ways for days on end, leaving you in an emptiness as vast as that of migraine. I have always affirmed that there is no such thing as the night of blindness. If it does exist, it takes the form of an invasion of images. For not all are good. There are those that tell you the opposite of reality; which speak to you only of your own reality. If you have the misfortune to look too much at these, it’s the end of love.’ Such reality-subverting, self-absorbed images are like the noctium phantasmata from which we pray at compline that our eyes, inward and outward, may be freed.
In A Poet’s Glossary, saudade is defined as a ‘Portuguese and Galician term that suggests a profoundly bittersweet nostalgia. Aubrey F. G. Bell described saudade as a “vague and constant desire for something that does not and probably cannot exist, for something other than the present, a turning towards the past or towards the future”. It is not just a nostalgia for something that was lost; it can also be a yearning for something that might have been.’
I had the privilege of discussing the sense and implications of this term, denoting a loneliness waiting to be shattered, in a recent conversation in Lisbon with António de Castro Caeiro, translator of Pindar and Aristotle. For me a privileged encounter! If you like, you can watch our exchange here, in English with simultaneous translation into Portuguese.
What’s a Good Man?
In the opening scene of Eugene Onegin, Madame Larina, Tatiana’s mother, reflects wistfully on her youth and exclaims: ‘Ah, how I loved Richardson! Ah, Grandison! Not that I ever read it.’ The fact that Tchaikovsky could expect a Petersburg audience in 1877 to pick up the reference, shows the status of Samuel Richardson’s famously long-winded novel Sir Richard Grandison, now out in a brand new 3000 pp. (!) edition. In a spirited review, Norma Clarke admits that the work is full of ‘interminable stupor-inducing exchanges’, yet insists that it has abiding worth. Jane Austen loved it and assimilated it, which is something. But what really strikes one is Clarke’s account of Richardson’s purpose in writing: ‘Was it possible to interest readers in a man who embodied Christian virtue? What would a good man be like?’ These questions are fundamental to the fiction of, say, Marilynne Robinson and Wendell Berry. One can only hope they will continue to draw forth literary creativity in an age for which the prolixity of Grandison is just too much.
In a column in this morning’s Aftenposten, the Swedish scholar Joel Halldorf asks why Swedes connect more readily than Norwegians with the spiritual dimension of contemporary literature. He writes: ‘We [Swedes] were long considered the world’s most secularised country. Over some years, however, there has been a steady movement towards faith and religiosity, especially in the world of culture. The trend has often been remarked on in the media. It indicates that we have passed from a stage of secular rupture to a post-secular stage. This doesn’t mean that all Swedes are about to return to Christianity; but materialistic atheism is not longer regarded as the obvious final stop on humanity’s religious journey. Atheism is no longer the norm; the norm is openness to a many-faceted religious search.’
This is well observed. Materialistic atheism does come across, now, as rather moth-eaten and old-fashioned. But we Norwegians tend to lag behind a little.
Today’s gospel confronts us with God’s wrath, a theme we’d rather not think about. God is love, and if he is loving, surely he must be nice? Note, though, that the wrath in question is not the opposite of love. It does not stand for passionate anger on God’s part, but for self-enclosure on ours. Wrath as Jesus expounds it (‘he who refuses to believe in the Son will not see life; God’s wrath rests upon him’, Jn 3,36) is the opposite of life. Wrath is a state in which we confine ourselves when we refuse to receive life from a source that transcends us. To live under wrath is to feed on our own substance. Wrath finds expression in dark sadness. Life in wrath unfolds within a dank cloud of hopelessness. God’s gift to us in Christ, by the Holy Spirit, is not just survival, but life by which to flourish and bear fruit, overflowing life. Are we open to life on these terms? Or do we wrap ourselves up, be it unconsciously, in introspective, fruitless wrath?
Latin for Fun
In certain circles Latin is considered an ancient affliction like the measles, against which the wonders of progress have happily inoculated us. To be an anti-vaxxer in this regard is to set oneself up to be publicly shamed. How refreshing, then, to read a vintage essay by Joseph Epstein singing Latin’s praise. Epstein picked it up at 81, for the fun of it and because ‘I found not knowing Latin a deficiency, especially in a person of my rather extravagant intellectual and cultural pretensions’. His complex soon yielded to delight. Latin, he stresses, is a language of beauty, at once precise and subtle, gorgeously architectural. The study of Latin is a school in clear thinking, of which we’re in dire need. The Roman Catholic Church is heir to a vast intellectual and cultural heritage composed in Latin. To access it only in translation is to miss out on treasures. Who would doubt the necessity of learning German to savour and analyse Goethe? Vatican II confirmed the status of Latin as a living language. Among other things, it laid down that ‘the Latin language is to be retained by clerics in the divine office‘, for which purpose they must learn it well. Whatever happened to that conciliar counsel for renewal?
For Easter I received a letter citing something Fr Jerzy Popiełuszko once wrote. The words arose from his ministry under a totalitarian regime, but have universal relevance. ‘Truth contains within itself the ability to resist and to blossom in the light of day, even if [truth’s opponents] try very diligently and carefully to hide it. Those who proclaim the truth do not need to be numerous. Falsehood is what requires a lot of people, because it always needs to be renewed and fed. Our duty as Christians is to abide in the truth, even if it costs us dearly.’ What especially strikes me is the true observation that falsehood cannot stand on its own. It requires bands of flunkies. This gives it a ridiculous aspect it is important to remember. We mustn’t trifle with falsehood; but it is good to recognise its absurdity. What we can laugh at heartily has no power over us.
Have you seen Rafał Wieczyński’s film?
CoramFratribus will take a break for a few days.
I wish all readers a joyful Easter Octave.
+fr Erik Varden
Hope for the Body
The good news of the body’s significance and of the realisable, death-defying scope for human wholeness was entrusted to a ragged dozen people in a collective state of post-traumatic stress, not especially brilliant humanly speaking, but shorn by stark humiliation of presumption, so freed to proclaim a message that surpassed them. Through their unlikely mediation, this message renewed a civilisation in crepuscular decline. It revitalised the body politic. It restored hope, enabled prospect.
It might do such a thing again.
In an anonymous fifteenth-century Greek poem, we find this meditation on the entombment of Christ. It speaks the ineffable.
‘The most pure Virgin saw you, Word of God, lying supine, and lamented in words befitting a Mother: ‘O my sweet springtime, my sweetest child, where has your beauty set?’ Your immaculate mother, Word of God, began a lamentation when death came over you. Women came with myrrh, my Christ, to anoint you, you, the sacred Myrrh. Death through death you destroyed, my God, with your godly power. The deceiver of men was deceived, the deceived set free from error, my God, by your wisdom.’
It’s about time the Netherlands Bach Society was awarded an international prize for services rendered to mankind. What they have produced – and made available for free – these past few years is astonishing, truly an enterprise of philanthropy. I have watched and listened to Jos van Veldhoven’s production of the St John Passion with keen attention. It touches perfection, not just for its musical excellence, but for its dramatic intelligence. Raphael Höhn is a compelling evangelist. He really knows how to tell a story. And I am not sure I’ve ever heard Ach, mein Sinn, the lament following Peter’s betrayal, sung with greater intensity than that displayed here by Gwilym Bowen. By deliberate casting, almost all performers are under 35, which serves not merely to energise the performance but to make it topical. Because we’re so used, now, to thinking Christianity old and the Church tired, we risk forgetting how young most of the drama’s protagonists were. This performance has helped me to rethink many things and to experience essentials afresh.
There’s a scene in Sigrid Undset’s conversion novel The Wild Orchid I think of often. It describes the book’s protagonist, Paul Selmer, entering St. Olav’s cathedral in Oslo very late one night, after an evening ill spent. He considers himself an agnostic but is informed about Catholic beliefs, being the lodger of a Catholic family.
Sitting alone in the dark, he sees the sanctuary light flicker in the distance. It suddenly occurs to him: if this tiny flame tells the truth, that is, if God is truly present here, then life needs to be rethought entirely; then nothing is the way he’d previously thought it might be. Easter is what enables this perception.
The first half of George Weigel’s fine book about the legacy of Vatican II is in fact about the time preceding the Council. This is helpful, enabling us to understand conciliar accomplishments within an ongoing history, an oriented history of salvation. Striking is his account of the sea-change wrought by Leo XIII, symbolised somehow in the pope’s funerary monument: ‘Leo, wearing the papal tiara, stands atop the marble coffin that contains his mortal remains. His right foot is thrust forward, and his right hand is raised in a gesture of invitation, as if to say to modernity, ‘We have something to talk about. We have a proposal to make.’ With Leo XIII, a new Catholic era opened: an era in which the Church would engage modernity in an effort to convert it – and perhaps, thereby, help the modern world realise some of its aspirations to freedom, justice, solidarity, and prosperity.’
Such engagement, such help are still called for.
In a recent interview, Navid Kermani speaks with characteristic lucidity about the loss of gratuity. We’ve created a society in which everything is done in view of utility, profit, or gain. How to counter the trend? Listen to Schubert, and pray.
‘As human beings we are more than every before trapped in a system of purposefulness. We wake up and clean our teeth in order that our teeth be clean. Even love, even human relations are woven through with purposes, and not just of today. The truly political and anti-capitalist element of music resides in its freedom from purpose. Why do 2,000 people gather in the Philharmonie? If you’ve time, go and visit the church of Groß St. Martin here in the old town [of Cologne]. There you’ll find a monastic community, right in the middle of the city, largely unnoticed. The brethren sing and pray four or five times a day – no one knows why – but it is wonderful. […] They settle in cities, in centres, in order to pray precisely where everything round about is governed by business. They say this has intrinsic value. I, too, think that is the case. I see it makes sense politically. To break the utilitarian model, ‘We make music because …’, proposes, beyond the music itself, an alternative to the world the way it is.’ See also the Notebook entry of 30 November 2021.
What Is Man?
It seems obvious that the central challenge of Christian proclamation today is anthropological. ‘What is man?’ This question, posed in the Psalms, occupies our times intensely. Discussion is focussed on the area of sexuality, which touches the human being at its most intimate. Strong emotions arise. It is crucial to take discourse beyond emotional rhetoric. It is crucial to consider the question of human — and consequently sexual — identity in the light of God’s creative and redemptive work in Christ. From a Christian point of view, anthropology divorced from christology is bound to walk blindly in circles. Our bishops’ conference has tried to indicate the finality of existence christocentrically, hoping to enrich, perhaps even liberate, a conversation about sexuality that has gone rather stale. We do so as the Church prepares to celebrate Easter. Christ is Alpha and Omega. This is more than a formulaic truth; it is the vibrant principle by which we are called, each of us, to understand and shape our lives.
From an exchange with Madoc Cairns, in The Tablet.
To watch András Schiff teach is like standing next to the little child who had the courage to shout, ‘The emperor is naked!’ While remaining unfailingly courteous and kind to his pupils, he is clear in his judgements. ‘Stop the snake-charming!’ What is the difference between sentiment and sentimentality? Sentiment is emotion, part and parcel of who we are; sentimentality is ‘fake art, bad taste’. ‘What good taste is’, admits Schiff, ‘I don’t know; I just know that our world today is full of bad taste, and many people don’t know the difference.’ To discern it, education in depth is needed, and depth of global culture, but that is what, most of the time, we don’t get. ‘It’s like in medicine: if you’re an eye doctor, you don’t know where the nose is.’ The man who says these things can say them without rancour because he has acquired, by genius and patient slog, mastery of a vast repertoire. He is able to reproduce from memory subtle details from works by Bach, Scarlatti or Beethoven as if he’d just come up with them himself. Do we realise that in order to create something truly original and new, we need to have assimilated what is classical?
As far as we know, Isaiah’s message to Ahaz remained without effect. Ahaz despised the softly-flowing waters of Shiloh; he rejected the strategic and metaphysical resources of the City of David. Within a few years, Israel was obliterated, Judah reduced to the status of a vassal. Ahaz’s reign was regarded as a disgrace.
We find ourselves confronted with a carrying motif in Biblical revelation, that is, the lack of automatism in God’s work of salvation. The Lord’s redemptive agency manifests itself again and again as an invitation, a call awaiting an answer, showing baffling respect for our freedom to turn away in a gesture of rejection. The relationship between God and men builds on a dialectical structure, on a conversation conducted with mature deliberation. That is why the Lord’s word remains alive, able to renew our lives to this day.
From Påsketro i pesttid
Are you familiar with the story of Lucy, a thirteen year-old from Yorkshire who just won Channel 4’s The Piano? It is always fascinating to watch super-talented young musicians, but Lucy’s case is exceptional: she is developmentally delayed, so cannot hold a conversation, and has been blind from early childhood. What is amazing is not primarily that she is blind yet plays so well. There are other blind pianists. Zhu Xiao-Mei purposely keeps her eyes shut while performing. What is amazing is that music found a way into the mind and heart of a child largely locked up in herself, and released her. It taught her stillness. It opened her to encounters. A dormant, perhaps unexpected soul-depth within her awaited the discovery of beauty. A vulnerable youngster unable to communicate verbally acquired fluency of expression through Chopin and Debussy. To hear her teacher, Daniel Bath, speak of how he went about unlocking the universe of music for her is wonderful.
At a time when many Catholic communities diminish and die, it matters to remember that others thrive and continue to transmit a living wisdom. One example is the Trappist community of Vitorchiano, wonderfully alive. Mother Cristiana Piccardo, abbess of the house 1964-88 once wrote: ‘An anguishing phenomenon [of modern society] is the intense compartmentalisation we everywhere observe. In every sphere of our lives as individuals and as societies, procedures are marked by compartmentalised specialisation. To have an illness diagnosed, we must consult a dozen different specialists; to get it cured we must move in and out of rigorously structured sectors of help and treatment in clearly differentiated units. It is not specialisation as such that is the problem, but the loss of a unitary vision of life, of man, and of the world. We may obtain specific items of information, but we have lost the ability to integrate these into a wider picture of the mystery of personhood, into the unitary complexity of man, of life.’ The monastic life well lived witnesses to this unitary vision and helps us to recover it.
Professor Cordelia Fine’s TLS review of Hannah Barnes’ Time to Think – The inside story of the collapse of the Tavistock’s Gender Service for Children is crucial reading. While taking the phenomenon of experienced gender dysphoria seriously, it shows the extent to which public discourse on this topic is determined by ideology. The result is calamitous for vulnerable youngsters whom gender ‘science’ ostensibly sets out to serve. Fine records the manipulative quashing of dissent. The scandal we associate with the Tavistock Clinic sprang from ‘the construction of institutional ignorance’. Political pressure built up over years by activist groups had created a climate that ‘made it very difficult for people to have freedom of thought’. What was effectively medical experimentation was carried out on the scantest empirical basis. Hannah Barnes’s scrupulous research, says Fine, is ‘a painful, important reminder that clinical care that promotes the wellbeing of young people experiencing gender incongruence and distress, and that protects their autonomy, cannot be built on ideological sands of ignorance, forgetting and silencing.’ Care is called for, caution, and above all wisdom, a rare bird in current debate. See also here.
Today we read in Hosea this oracle of God, ‘ I will be as the dew unto Israel: he shall grow as the lily, and cast forth his roots as Lebanon’ (14,5). The cedars of Lebanon, desired by Solomon for the building of the temple, are a symbol, in the Bible, of stability and majesty. Yet the humble lily represent a splendour Solomon in all his glory can only envy. The dew is more subtle still. Immeasurable it descends upon earth in the night, in profoundest silence, but from it springs the manna that for forty years nurtures Israel during its errancy, a tangible symbol of the mystical, super-substantial Bread. The Lord’s action cannot be limited to any particular sphere. It can be realised by any means, now spectacularly, now imperceptibly.
Let us live, then, with great attention, sharpening our sensible sight and that of our heart.
Caesar and I
It has ever been challenging for men and women of faith to position themselves within secular structures. What exactly should one, and should one not, render unto Caesar? Pinchas Goldschmidt, formerly chief rabbi of Russia, reflects on this matter in a penetrating essay written for Foreign Policy (and discussed here by Sandro Magister). He reflects on the role religion plays in Russia’s iniquitous war against Ukraine. And states with clarity how hard it is to maintain religious integrity within a totalitarian system. Some religious communities do well by the system. But what will happen if, when, the system falls? Goldschmidt makes a vital point: ‘All religious leaders should remember one fundamental principle: Their main asset is the people, not the cathedrals. And there is a heavy price to pay for a total merger with the state. Once the state and the church become one, one of them emerges as dangerously, ominously, superfluous.’ An insight worth pondering everywhere, also in the setting of an apparently liberal democracy.
In popular imagination, the devil’s footprint is the mark of a cloven foot. It is an appropriate image. The term ‘devil’ means ‘divider’; wherever the devil passes, it leaves division in its wake. Most of the time its action is unspectacular. Don’t think in terms of Max von Sydow’s Exorcist. Evil tends to insinuate itself. It is often sweet-talking. All the more reason, whenever we face division in ourselves or in our surroundings, to repeat our baptismal Abrenuntio, which features yearly at the Easter Vigil. It is well to affirm this profession in private peacefully but with firmness. The effort to combat evil will always be an effort in view of unity, integrity, and reconciliation in truth. The truth aspect is crucial. ‘Unite my heart to fear your name’, reads a wonderful verse in Psalm 86 (Ps 86.11 RSV). In Latin, ‘Simplex fac cor meum, ut timeat nomen tuum’. To make that prayer undistractedly is a powerful weapon against dark influence. It’s an option for the light.
It is risky to seek a single hermeneutical key to a pontificate, which has many aspects. In Pope Francis’s case, though, there is a crucial statement in the exhortation Evangelii Gaudium published in 2013, shortly after his election. The text was a programme statement for his ministry as successor to the Apostle Peter. In his introduction he wrote: ‘The great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience [de la conciencia aislada]’ (EG, 2). The pope tirelessly calls us back to communion. He asks us to purge our faintheartedness and so to let the Spirit of Jesus transform us; to seek the nurturing joy that comes from forgetting oneself; to de-privatise our conscience in order to let be illumined by the Lord’s commandments, communicated through the Church. He stresses that fraternity is the only possible foundation for a humane society. Fraternity presupposes recognition of ourselves as children of our Father in heaven, who loves us, calls us, and renews our life. Let us, in gratitude for the Holy Father’s service these ten years, cast off self-centred desolation and learn to know the Joy of the Gospel as ours.
In Hannah Coulter, Wendell Berry lets the aged Hannah look back on the experience of losing her husband Virgil during World War II while pregnant with his child, then on her second marriage to Nathan. She is led to think deeply about the nature of love.
‘Sometimes too I could see that love is a great room with a lot of doors, where we are invited to knock and come in. Though it contains all the world, the sun, the moon, and stars, it is so small as to be also in our hearts. It is in the hearts of those who choose to come in. Some do not come in. Some may stay out forever. Some come in together and leave separately. Some come in and stay, until they die, and after. I was in it a long time with Nathan. I am still in it with him. And what about Virgil? Once, we too went in and were together in that room. And now in my tenderness of remembering it all again, I think I am still there with him too. I am there with all the others, most of them gone but some who are still there, who gave me love and called forth love from me. When I number them over, I am surprised how many there are.’
Call to Holiness
What is for you the most important aspect of the missionary dimension to which we are called?
It’s sort of fashionable these days to want to sum up the Second Vatican Council in a catchword – various attempts have been made and not all of them convince me. The question I often ask myself is this: whatever happened to the Council’s strong emphasis on the universal call to holiness? Hardly anyone talks about it. Yet we are called to be transformed in a way that corresponds to God’s original creative intention, which is a glorious intention.
From a conversation with Luca Fiore for Tracce, available here.
No Such Thing
‘There is no such thing as a casual, non-significant sexual act; everyone knows this. Contrast sex with eating – you’re strolling along a lane, you see a mushroom on a bank as you pass by, you know about mushrooms, you pick it and eat it quite casually – sex is never like that. That’s why virtue in connection with eating is basically a matter only of the pattern of one’s eating habits. But virtue in sex – chastity – is not only a matter of such a pattern, that is of its role in a pair of lives.’
Thus wrote Elizabeth Anscombe in her essay Contraception and Chastity, an immensely readable text marked by humanity, humour, and razor-sharp intelligence. To read it is to be reminded how muddled much of public discourse is on these subjects, and how we need lucidity and faith-based reason. Have a look, too, at my Notebook entry for 12 January 2023.
Humble & Strong
In these synodal times, when everyone’s voice is to be heard, we must listen not least to the voices of the saints. What have they to say to us? Cardinal Anders Arborelius asked this question last night at Vadstena, in a Mass celebrated as part of the Nordic Bishops’ Conference. Vadstena is the city of the indomitable St Birgitta. When she made instructions for the abbey church in Vadstena, a remarkable example of theological architecture, full of mystical measures, she insisted that it should be ‘humble and strong’. The Church of our time lives in a state of humiliation; this fact summons us to conversion and renewal. But what about her strength? Often she seems to be embarrassed to display it. All the more important, then, to remember that the strength in question is not hers, but the Lord’s. There is inward work, here, to be done. We shall do it on the right terms if we remember the phrase St Birgitta adopted as her motto: ‘Amor meus crucifixus est’ – ‘Mine is a crucified love’. Are we grounded in this truth?
If you visit the abbey church of Corvey, where St Ansgar was a monk, and climb up to the ninth-century choir of the west front, you make a fascinating discovery. On the north wall is a mural painted more than 1,000 years old portraying Odysseus battling Scylla. What’s he doing there? An example of medieval syncretism? A watering-down of the Gospel in terms of classical literature? No. In the ancient Church, Odysseus was widely seen as a type not only of the Christian journey (see Notebook 5 May 2022), but of Christ. Our ancestors in the faith were convinced that Christ was the answer to the ideals and noblest dreams of all peoples and periods, the recapitulator of culture. Their conviction was well-founded. We could do with reappropriating it, should we have lost it. One of the chief Christian tasks here and now is surely to demonstrate that Christ alone corresponds to the deepest longings and best aspirations of our own age, however confusedly they may be expressed.
Of Our Word
What sets man apart from animals is not least the fact that he can talk. An animal can be faithful – any dogowner knows that – but only man can promise to be faithful. To this day, there is solemnity in the air when someone gives his or her word. Our word commits us. It also liberates us. A promise ennobles the one who pronounces it. Fidelity provides soil in which we may grow, mature, and bear fruit. When the Lord gives us his prayer – ‘Our Father, who art in heaven’ – it is not to be repeated as pious babble. The prayer provides the foundation of a binding pact. When we pray, ‘Forgive us our trespasses’, we commit ourselves to forgive. The daily bread we pray for is given us to be shared. Do we let the Lord’s name be hallowed in us? ‘My word’, says the Lord, ‘does not return to me empty’. It can, however, sink into a black hole in our consciousness and seemingly vanish. May that not happen! Let us be receptive to God’s word, then show ourselves men and women of our word.
School for Prayer
‘We do not need exhaustive experience of the human condition, or the spiritual life, to realise that we are held captive by an almost boundless world of disorder in the form of sins, affective imbalance, unhealed wounds, destructive habits, and so forth. All these things make up the impurities of our heart. We have just noted that our heart speaks through the emotions. Now, all the disorders I have listed lead to emotions in disarray. They express themselves almost without our noticing; they order us about; they tear us apart; they close us to God; and they tie us down in an automated kind of evil. All this from within our heart!’
From a letter on the prayer of the heart by the Carthusian Dom André Poisson. It is excellent Lenten reading, and you can find it right here.
On the 365th day of Russia’s aggressive war against Ukraine, Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, chooses to speak about vocation. A significant choice on this tragic anniversary. It concerns all of us. Are we responsible stewards of God’s gift to us, resolved to carry out our task even in extremely adverse circumstances? The archbishop reminds us: ‘God calls. Man must respond. When a person responds to the call, God gives himself to that person.’ We can take God’s call for granted: ‘God never ceases to call man. If a man has already chosen his state of life by means of a definitive decision […], he must confirm that definitive decision in daily choices, daily decisions, and not change it. If that person closes in on himself and thinks of what he has received as his private property, his own treasure, he risks losing it. It sometimes happens that one who does not wish to keep listening daily to God, who calls him, can get lost and lose his direction on his journey towards daily growth. […] Then that person feels lost.’ Thus speaks one who remains steadfastly faithful, a beacon of hope for others, in the midst of war. It is only right that each of us should ask him or herself: ‘And I?’
Is there a difference between fasting and dieting?
Yes, there’s a categorical difference. Dieting has me as agent and focus, and my desire to emerge from the diet and be able to put on clothes I could put on three years ago. Fasting has its object outside myself. I deprive myself of food or some kind of enjoyment, whatever it is.
But fasting is an ecstatic practice in the strict sense of that word: it helps me to step outside myself and toward the other, and to grow in attentiveness. Dieting, I think, can sometimes be doing the opposite and make us excessively focused on ourselves.
In a beautiful essay in Mentsch Magazine, Knut Ødegård writes about ‘The Playful Rolf Jacobsen‘. He speaks of Jacobsen’s enthusiasm, his onomatopoetic exuberance, his sense of the absurd; yet all this coexisted with great seriousness. Perhaps only one who takes life seriously can truly laugh (and not just snigger) at it? There was ‘something fond and vulnerable’ in Jacobsen. It found expression not least when his wife Petra died. I have rarely read a more piercing love poem than the one he wrote on that occasion. Petra’s hands had been ‘like a home’ for him, the husband and poet: ‘They said/Move in here./No rain, no frost, no fear./In that house I have lived/without rain, without frost, without fear/until time came and pulled it down./Now I am back out on the street./My coat is thin. It is about/to snow.’ Yet even in loss Jacobsen detected meaning, though he could not grasp it. ‘Indeed, he was a performer, playful — and devout.’ ‘His broad heart was home to a Chaplin-like humour, he found ‘passages everywhere and traces in people’s hearts/and paths illumined by quiet light.’
Mario Martone’s 2022 film Nostalgia is an impressive yet troubling account of a man’s resolve to come to terms with his own past. Drawn back to a place, a world, he had left hurriedly and anxiously forty years before, Felice rediscovers both its sweetness and its terror. The description of a society subdued by violence is subtle. We encounter ‘a world of danger boiled down to pregnant pauses and minute gestures’, wrote Teo Bugbee in the NYT. Yet in the midst of it, what tenderness. Felice’s reunion with his aged, frail mother is almost unbearably movingly portrayed. An idealistic young priest, a friend to the outcast, provides that rare thing: a representation in modern media of a Catholic priest who is at once credible, humane, and profoundly dedicated. As the film progresses and Felice reintegrates a part of himself he had amputated, he grows in stature and in freedom. How one would have wished such a film to end happily!
Christianity preaches a high ideal of forgiveness; we are familiar with it. Yet to see it put into practice is always astonishing. At the New York Encounter, Diane Foley spoke of her experience of living through the agonising two years during which her son James, a war journalist, was held captive in Syria, and eventually murdered. She described her frustrated attempts to get the US government to intervene, or even acknowledge, her son’s abduction. At the same time she prayed. She told of how one day she knelt in church and prayed, ‘Lord, I surrender Jim to you’. Some weeks later, in the late summer 0f 2014, news of his death was certified. The Foleys’ decision then not to give into bitterness and to extend a hand of forgiveness, flabbergasted many. Mrs Foley said simply, ‘It’s what Jim would have wanted’. Speaking of her meeting with one of Jim’s captors in 2022, she told the BBC: ‘If I hate them, they have won. They will continue to hold me captive because I am not willing to be different to the way they were to my loved one. We have to pray for the courage to be the opposite.’
Scripture repeatedly presents restoration of health as recreation. In the story of Noah, the waters that, on the first day, receded from earth are drawn back over it to enable a new beginning. The image is of a world drowning (Genesis 8:6-22). Spiritual healing can pass through a stage of trauma. When an active collusion with death, addiction, or structural sin is washed away from a person’s life, he or she may feel rudderless and lost; passage into a state of grace may seem terrifying. Perseverance is required then, and solid accompaniment. The blind man in the Gospel likewise gains sight gradually. In a gesture that recalls the forming of Adam, Jesus moulds him, opening his eyes in stages until, eventually, he is able to take in reality as it is (Mark 8:22-26). To trust God is to believe that, as long as we commit ourselves into his hands, he will realise a blessed purpose even when what we presently experience is perplexity.
Catching up with things, I have just read the obituary of a monk of Dallas, Fr Roch András Kereszty, who died on 14 December 2022. It presents the faithful, fruitful life of this learned Hungarian who settled on what he had assumed would be just ‘a vast dry prairie, the wildest and least cultured place on the continent’, and there turned into a wellspring for others. ‘His students eventually began to perceive that, behind his rough exterior – the imposing presence, the deep, loud monotone of his voice, the face that turned to a scowl whenever he tried to smile – was a man deeply in love with all that was good in those around him, and whose hopes for you always exceeded your own, which is why he could freely be so tough on you.’ He, who had practised ‘the discipline to overcome fears’ was not afraid to ‘present us with the highest, even with absurd, ideals.’
No one forgets a good teacher.
The blood brothers Cyril and Methodius are examples of missionary zeal. They left their homeland to witness abroad to the newness of life in Christ. They displayed the Christian virtues to a heroic degree. They also served the cause of culture. We still call the alphabet used by the Eastern Slavs ‘Cyrillic’ after St Cyril, a brilliant linguist. You might say that the cultural impact was incidental. Cyril’s concern was to find a way to codify liturgical texts and to write up a translation of Scripture. But these sources became the foundation of culture. In the West today we lack a common language. Our society is atomised. We struggle to talk with one another, so violence erupts. Let us not underestimate the task of alphabetisation which pertains to us, as Christians, today. We have the only adequate tool. Christ, the Word of God, in whose image we were made, is not only Alpha and Omega, but all the letters in between. In him we find what it takes to make sense of ourselves and of the lives we live.
‘Cain set on his brother Abel and killed him’ (Gen 4,8). The relationship between brothers — and, for that matter, between sisters — can be complicated. One is close, yet distant. It can be hard to see one another clearly. Sometimes brothers and sisters know too much about each other. A lot of prehistory feeds their relationship. Cain’s jealousy must be rooted in such prehistory. We know nothing about it, but can imagine it. He feels that Abel puts him in the shade; he can no longer look his brother in the face: ‘his eyes were downcast’. Let’s be on our guard in such instances, lest we be pulled, without noticing, into action motivated by blind anger. The question we should ask ourselves is the one God poses: ‘Why are you angry and downcast?’ Once we understand the motivation underlying a mood, we can do something about it. Something fabulous can happen. Even men’s rage, as Psalm 76 proclaims, can turn into praise, grounded in humility, marked by prayer for forgiveness, a source of new conversion.
The world had largely forgotten about Syria. When we heard of the recent earthquake, eyes glazed over – we need to root such news in personal destinies. Here is a letter from an old man in Aleppo, cited on a site run by friends of my sisters in Azeir. ‘What can I say, Joseph? I’ve never seen anything like what happened, neither in war nor in other circumstances. A terrible thing! Despite all, we keep praising God. With our eyes we saw death, then again we saw life. I remained under the debris for two days, then I was saved, thanks be to God. Although my house is badly damaged, I’ve tried to make it more or less inhabitable, and I’ve once again slept at home. There are people who have slept in the streets for three days, and people who still sleep in the streets. The situation is very serious and indescribable. But let me tell you that today I am reborn to life and I thank God.’
Let us do what we can to help.
The story of Benedict’s and Scholastica’s final conversation at Monte Cassino shows that even the consummate saint may need a sister to put him in his place now and again. It also shows us the importance of meeting face to face. Scholastica took the evening bell seriously; she was a nun, after all. But she also knew that the two of them had essential things to say to each other, and that time was short. The Lord confirmed her priority by means of bad weather. So that, too, can be a sign of celestial benediction.
We whose pockets are filled with gadgets that beep, purr, flash, and stir are constantly pulled away from where we are. Scholastica reminds us of the importance of being present, of giving priority to encounters.
It was Scholastica’s ‘greater love’, we are told, that made her prayer well-pleasing. Am I someone who loves? Do I even know what love is? Or is the word to me an abstraction? These are questions we might ask ourselves today, on Scholastica’s feast day.
Someone Who Cares?
‘I yearn for someone who is not uncomfortable with my brokenness, put off by my failures, or embarrassed by my sadness. Someone who values my deeper questions, who is certain of the meaning of life and walks with me to meet it. Someone who knows me and, inexplicably, really cares for me.’
Can you recognise yourself in this statement? It resonates as the motivating intention behind a large-scale Encounter taking place over three days in New York next week. Among other things it will feature a public conversation on the theme ‘Someone with Me’, which you can follow either through the Encounter website or on www.ewtn.no.
Pope Benedict XVI insisted: ‘Each of us is willed. Each of us is loved. Each of us is necessary.’ Why do we find this so hard to believe?
Norway’s Bible Society has decided to use the word ‘slave’ more broadly in a translation to be published next year. The decision is pondered; indeed it has been the object of a clickable internet survey. It is fascinating that the Word of God can be interpreted, as it were, by census. But is not even the learned debate somewhat abstract? Dare we assume that our notions of slavery render the thought and practice that underlay Greek usage in the New Testament? A Norwegian thrall at the time of Olav Tryggvason is hardly comparable to a character from Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Is St Paul, who calls himself Christ’s doulos, aptly described as a ‘slave’ given the word’s contemporary resonance? Today the Catholic Church celebrates a Sudanese Saint, Josephine Bakhita, who spent twelve years as a slave. She was sold five times. She was subject to unconscionable abuse of body and soul. She was a non-human until she was declared free by a court decision in 1889. It enabled her to realise a deep desire: to be baptised and confirmed, then to join an order of sisters. In the Church she had learnt what freedom means. I wonder what Josephine had clicked, had she received an electronic questionnaire asking whether ‘enslavement’ is an adequate modern description of the Christian condition.
The problem posed in today’s Gospel (Mark 7,1-13) is timeless. We, too, easily ‘put aside the commandments of God’, be it because we haven’t got strength to follow them, consider they’re past their sell-by date (like soured milk), or disagree with them in principle. By all means, we must use reason as we engage with divine revelation: it is a Christian imperative. But the real issue is deeper. Do I believe that God has expressed himself definitively in Christ Jesus? Do I believe that the Bible can meaningfully be called ‘Word of God’? Have I trust that God wants what is good for us, even when it is costly? We are children of an age that has made of the fitness centre an ultimate sanctuary. We energetically shape ourselves in an image that appeals to us. Have we still space, purely conceptually, for a God who may ask us to do or to become something we hadn’t thought of ourselves, who is able to realise what seems urealisable?
Can one live for pleasure? That is the question examined in The Triumph of Time and Disillusion by Benedetto Pamphilij, for those were the days when cardinals wrote morality plays. Handel, who met Pamphilij in Rome in 1706 set the work to music the following year. The composer was then 22 years old, the cardinal was 53. How astonished they would both have been to find their work performed in Trondheim, virtually Ultima Thule, this evening — and excellently, too. The drama, comprising four characters, is straightforward: Beauty is torn between the allurements of Pleasure and the stern admonitions of Time, helped in discernment by Disillusion, a fine contralto part. Gradually Beauty comes to see that Pleasure just isn’t a reliable long-term partner. She decides that a hierarchy of values is required to construct a life that is prospective. Increasingly she awakens to the attractiveness of truth, a category that at the outset didn’t feature in her thinking. So not a daft plot, really.
In one of her inexhaustible ‘letters’, published as essays, Ida Görres insists that God is beyond any notion of gender. ‘He is One in every respect; for he is is the fullness of being. In the earthly-human realm, though, this fullness is divided into poles of generative and receiving love, of the love that protectingly and caringly maintains and the love that bears, gives birth, and nurses. God is the Father from whom all fatherhood on earth is named; and God is the maternal God ‘in whom we live and move’. Inscrutably rich and deep is the symbolism and sacred sign-value of the sexes. Devout paganism knew a lot about this (only now – at the end of modernity – have we reduced it to a matter of pure materialism). Christians ought to know more about it still. The great and venerable spiritual tradition of the Church is rich in hidden treasures, which we should once again make our own.’ This text was published in 1949, in Von Ehe und von Einsamkeit. Görres could have no idea of the urgency her call would have three-quarters of a century later. Incidentally, who reads Ida Görres nowadays? She, too, represents a treasure we should again make our own.
In his eulogy at Ida Görres’s funeral, on 19 May 1971, Fr Dr Joseph Ratzinger cited a cry of pain from one of her essays. ‘What if the rebels really were to own the future? What if this process, which seems to us like destruction and betrayal, were actually God’s will and to resist it were impious and an act of petty faith? What if—an agonizing thought in the midnight hours—what if I were tied to a great but inexorably dying body, through just emotionally stirring, but ultimately subjective, unreasonable inhibitions, habits, prejudices, antiquated piety, wrongly grounded loyalty? . . . Are we living on a leaky ship sinking inch by inch, from which not only the rats but also the sensible, sober people jump off just in time?’
‘But all this questioning’, Ratzinger added, ‘is offset by a great, indestructible confidence. It is expressed in the simple yet likewise great affirmation: “I believe in God’s faithfulness”.’ Here is a perennial lesson, a source of balance and quiet joy.
‘I love Viktoria’, said Yehudi Menuhin about Viktoria Postnikova: ‘Such empoignement! Such power, and such wonderful commitment, strength, passion. There’s no gap between what she plays and the music. She’s off in full command.’
The remarks were made in conversation with Bruno Monsaingeon as the two listened to a recording of Bartok’s First Sonata. One can quite see what he meant here, too, where we find her playing Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto no. 1 with the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Gennady Rozhdestvensky, her husband, live at the Proms on 31 August 1979.
Though I find her musicianship even more supremely expressed in this recording, made much later in life. As an encore in Budapest she plays Schubert’s Impromptu no. 3, Opus 90 in G Flat Major. She really is one with that piano, without the slightest need to perform histrionic gestures.
‘In the beginning’, we read in Genesis 1, ‘the earth was without form and void’. What that might have been like is beyond the ken of most of us. We get tantalising impulses, however, in a recently recovered interview from 1964 with Fr Georges Lemaître. The priest-physicist, one of the first to formulate a theory of the ‘Big Bang’, insists that ‘the beginning is so unimaginable, so different from the present state of the world’ that we must first of all abstract from the image of the world as (we think) we know it: ‘there is a beginning […] in multiplicity which can be described in the form of the disintegration of all existing matter into an atom. What will be the first result of this disintegration, as far as we can follow the theory, is in fact to have a universe, an expanding space filled by a plasma, by very energetic rays going in all directions. Something which does not look at all like a homogeneous gas. Then by a process that we can vaguely imagine, unfortunately we cannot follow that in very many details, gases had to form locally; gas clouds moving with great speeds…’
Free Before Power
A review article by Josh Cohen mentions an incident from Freud’s life that was unknown to me. It occurred when Freud, subject to keen attention from the Nazis since the Anschluss, was at last persuaded to leave Vienna on the Orient Express in June 1938.
‘Freud’s late and deeply ambivalent recruitment to the plan of escape often inspires a joint sense of frustration and respect. How, for example, could he have been so reckless as to ask the Nazi official awaiting his forced signature (on the document attesting to the “respect and consideration” shown him by the Gestapo) “whether he could add one sentence: ‘I can heartily recommend the Gestapo to anyone’”? The quip risked instant sabotage of the plan; witnesses attest to the fury on the face of the officer. Still, it is hard to hear this snatch of sharp gallows humour without feeling a wave of admiration.’
May the admiration one feels grow into fortitude.
I happen to own a life of St Francis de Sales published in 1928 by Eugène Julien, bishop of Arras. It carries the epigraph, ‘A mes prêtres, ce beau visage de Prêtre’, ‘To my priests I propose this beautiful type of a Priest’. How we need beautiful examples of people whose holy lives we desire to emulate! For a bishop to put forward such an example is a truly pastoral initiative. When King Henry IV offered Francis de Sales preferment that would take him from Geneva to a wealthier see, he replied: ‘Sire, I pray Your Majesty to forgive me, but I cannot accept his offer. I am a married man. I have married a poor woman, and I cannot leave her for one who is richer.’ Herein lies a whole theology of episcopal ministry. To his priests St Francis said: ‘It is not enough for clerics to strive to be holy; they must also become learned in the science of their state. In priests, ignorance is more to be feared even than sin, for by ignorance one does not merely lose oneself, one dishonours, disgraces the priesthood. […] In a priest, learning is the eighth sacrament of the ecclesiastical hierarchy. The greatest misfortunes of the Church have come when the ark of learning has been found in other hands than those of the Levites.’ Certain Levites now seem to disagree. All the more wholesome, then, is the saint’s admonition.
At a time when much about Russia inspires fear, indignation, and rage, it is important to remember that other Russia of deep humanity and openness. It does me good to revisit Yuri Norstein‘s exquisite animation Hedgehog in the Fog, a parable that does not admit straightforward interpretation. It is multi-layered and complex, yet utterly simple. It speaks to us of anxiety, of genuine peril, of unexpected allies, of the joy of reunion in friendship, and of the fidelity and affection that can be held by a jar of raspberry jam. We all go through periods when we can’t understand where we’re going; when we seemingly can’t even see our own feet on the path. Norstein said of this film: ‘Each day, Hedgehog goes to see Bear, but once he walks into the fog and comes out of it changed. This is a story about how, under the influence of circumstances beyond our conscious ken, our habitual state can suddenly turn into a catastrophe.’
Yet the catastrophe is not final. Do the stars not, at then end, shine even more brightly for what Hedgehog has been through?
The Sense of It All
Admirably, His Beatitude Sviatoslav Shevchuk continues his daily addresses to the faithful of Ukraine and to people of good will everywhere. Yesterday he uttered this cry: ‘We want to be heard in different corners of the globe, for people to hear that Ukraine is suffering, Ukraine is crying, and we are in pain.’ Yet he does not permit himself, or us, to get stuck in introspective fascination with pain. His overarching concern is to ‘discover the meaning of our Christian existence’ in the light of Christ’s mystery and on the basis of historical reality. Contemplating the sacrament of baptism, Shevchuk cites Chrysostom: ‘Let us imagine a golden cup that was damaged. No matter how it is repaired, it will always be visible that it was damaged. What must be done to remove any sign of past defects from that cup? It must be remelted, put into the fire again, remelted again, given the shape of the same cup, but it will now be new. It will have the same piece of gold, the same shape of the cup, but it will be taken out of the fire as new, it will experience a new creation and a new birth.’ To this re-making we are called. Our world needs to be made new in Christ. With the Major Archbishop we can pray: ‘Heavenly Father, grant us Christians of the third millennium to discover our deep divine sonship.’ Thus, only thus, shall we find the lasting source of justice, of peace.
Blessed Cyprian had a keen sense of the newness of the Christian condition. It was motivated by the attraction of the Catholic faith, liturgy, and patrimony. It was also informed by awareness of what a world without Christ can look like. In 1929, when Fr Cyprian was newly ordained, working in Onitsha, a smallpox epidemic broke out in his native village. The local people attributed the spread of the disease to evil spirits. A witch hunt began. Among those singled out was Fr Cyprian’s mother Ejikwevi. She was sequestered and forced to drink poison. We can only imagine the wound left by her cruel death in the heart of her son. It is all the more striking that Fr Cyprian’s faith was marked by determined trust in providence.
People often ask: How can I pray? In a conversation with Lydia Chukovskaya on 27 September 1939 Anna Akhmatova provided an example of how not to do it. At a time of tension nationally and personally she recalled with amiable sarcasm, perhaps to distract herself, a scene from happier times: ‘Once, while waiting to try on a new dress designed by Schweitzer, the famous couturier, my cousin (who weighed more than a hundred kilos) kissed an icon of St Nicholas and said: Please, do make it fit!’
If we’re honest, don’t we often pray like that, insisting that God’s providence provide us with outfits that neither fit us nor display us to our best advantage? A prerequisite for prayer is humble, that is realistic, self-knowledge. Another is trust that God knows what is best for me, and will provide it if I am disposed to receive it. That entails willingness to let go of cherished ideas of what I want, even of what I think I really need.
Today’s Office of Readings gives us a marvellous passage from Ignatius of Antioch’s Epistle to the Ephesians (§ 15).
‘It is better to be silent and to be real, than to talk and to be unreal. Teaching is good, if the teacher does what he says. There is then one teacher who ‘spoke and it came to pass’, and what he has done even in silence is worthy of the Father. He who has the word of Jesus for a true possession can also hear his silence, that he may be perfect, that he may act thought his speech, and understood through his silence.’
Ἄμεινόν ἐστιν σιωπᾶν καὶ εἶναι, ἢ λαλοῦντα μὴ εἶναι. Does my speech enhance being? Does it affirm reality or foster unreality?
To be a Christian
Today George Cardinal Pell’s requiem is celebrated in Rome, with a final commendation given by Pope Francis. Much has been written about Pell in recent days. Matteo Mazuzzi, writing for Il Foglio, remarks that he was no natural diplomat. His outspokenness could be disconcerting – indeed disconcerts still. My remembrance of him is marked by a broadcast following his release from prison in April 2020, after months of incarceration for crimes he had not committed, after a process widely dismissed as a miscarriage of justice. What struck me was Pell’s complete lack of bitterness. With robust cheerfulness he accepted what had happened as one might accept a bad-weather day. He insisted he bore no grudge against his accusers. St Silouan used to say that heartfelt prayer for enemies is the criterion of Christian faith. In that respect Cardinal Pell has left a luminous testimony; in that light everything else he did and said must be read. In his last homily, a week ago, he urged his hearers to work for the Church’s unity, founded on charity in truth. That, too, is a lesson to remember.
Life with Reason
In a fine review article in First Things, Jennifer A Fray cites Elizabeth Anscombe‘s syllabus of errors from the mid-1980s. It is made up of ‘twenty theses, commonly held by her fellow analytic philosophers, that she deemed inimical to the Christian religion and that could, she insisted, be shown ‘false on purely philosophical grounds’.’ Nearly all these theses pit nature—conceived of as formless, and thus empty of objective meaning or purpose—against reason. I think of Chapman’s line in his Tragedy of Charles, Duke of Byron from 1608: ‘O of what contraries consists a man! Of what impossible mixtures!’ It is tragic, though (and, when you think of it, comical), that nature and reason, body and soul should be thought of in terms of contradiction. On the resolution of this quandary, the Church has crucial things to say. How we need, now, not rhetorical effusions of sentiment, but thinkers of Anscomb’s stature, integrity, and clarity apt to conduct metaphysical enquiry in the terms here outlined: ‘Metaphysics is not the project of constructing static systems of reality; rather, it is a lived praxis whose defining aim is wisdom.’
At almost 100, Henry Kissinger remains a keen observer of world affairs. In a 2021 book he discussed the way in which the balance of power is rocked by the onset of Artificial Intelligence, which Niall Fergusson has proposed we might rename ‘Inhuman Intelligence’. Recently Kissinger applied this perspective to the war in Ukraine: ‘Auto-nomous weapons already exist, capable of defining, assessing and targeting their own perceived threats and thus in a position to start their own war. Once the line into this realm is crossed and hi-tech becomes standard weaponry – and computers become the principal executors of strategy – the world will find itself in a condition for which as yet it has no established concept. How can leaders exercise control when computers prescribe strategic instructions on a scale and in a manner that inherently limits and threatens human input? How can civilisation be preserved amid such a maelstrom of conflicting information, perceptions and destructive capabilities?’ The ascendancy of the inhuman points to the urgency of Christmas. Faith in the incarnation does not just vindicate humanity; it asserts that we depend on God to know what is, in fact, human. That assertion appears to be empirically demonstrated round about us.
After worshipping the Son of God, the Magi returned to their homeland ‘by another way’. Their choice was pragmatically motivated: the angel had warned them of Herod’s plots. However, there is also deep symbolic truth in their new itinerary. An encounter with Jesus is transformative. One isn’t the same afterwards; it no long seems right to keep on walking the way one walked before. We yearn for something else on which we may struggle to put our finger.
To be a Christian is to live in this state of otherness, constantly looking for the right way. The Way, of course, has a name, a face. It reveals itself to us to us on Mary’s lap and here on this altar.
‘Ratzinger’s double name — Joseph, at birth, Benedict, as pope — refers to an unlettered saint, a poor man of God who reminds us of the Russian yurodivy, those extravagant ‘fools for Christ’ who refused to abide by the rules of the world in order to expose the sins of humanity. Joseph Ratzinger did not break any laws — he was too German for that. However, he quickly understood that in a clearly post-Christian society the light of the Church naturally orients itself — eschatologically, one might say — towards the margins. He realised that the future of the Catholic faith depends on its ability to become a counterculture formed by small creative minorities that will be a leaven of salvation. This corresponds to Biblical experience, and to Christian experience as well. We recognise here the red thread that preserved classical culture after the fall of Rome […], that saved Eastern icons from iconoclastic fury, that challenged the seemingly unstoppable power of Arianism. It was also the experience of the Jewish people through a continuous diaspora that lasted for centuries and millennia. Ratzinger saw in this a sign of God’s will.’
Benedict XVI RIP
‘In the evening of our life’, wrote St John of the Cross, ‘we shall be judged on love alone.’ It is as if we now see this faithful servant of the Lord and his Church illumined by love — he who was such a strikingly courteous man.
‘Stand firm in the faith’, Benedict XVI urges us in his spiritual testament, ‘and do not let yourselves be confounded’. What is simply transitory — polemic, sin, empty hypotheses — will pass; what is essential remains. ‘Jesus Christ is the way, the truth and the life, ‘and the Church, with all her shortcomings, is in truth his body.’ This is the confession in which the text culminates. Let us make that confession our own.
From a brief tribute to Benedict XVI
Today, two days before Christmas Eve, we invoke Christ as Rex gentium: ‘King of the nations and the one for whom they long.’ We may think we live in a time that has lost interest in Christian preaching. But people’s longing remains: longing for a firm foundation on which to build our lives; longing that our contradictions may be reconciled, our vital energies united. The Church confesses Christ as the corner-stone, the one who makes separate things into one. He redeems us from our presumption, from our illusion of thinking we must manage on our own, from our sin. In Mary’s Magnificat, the Mother of God proclaims: ‘He has looked upon my lowliness.’ He will look upon ours, too, if we grant him access to it. Today we might ask ourselves: What in me needs to be reconciled? Where do I need the grace of the incarnation? In order to invoke the Lord’s grace where it is really needed. And in order to pray, with expectation and trust: ‘Come, Lord Jesus, do not delay.’
In an affectionate portrait of Józef Czapski, Wojciech Karpiński wrote, ‘After our first encounters, I often went back to his texts. There I recognised the sharp timbre of his voice, the way he had of emphasising certain words, printed in italics in the text, by gesture and intonation when he spoke. I recognised the same rapid and precise outlook, and the use of the present indicative to speak of Delacroix, Corot, Degas, Daniel Halévy – or of himself a few years or several decades earlier. For him, all truly important problems were contemporary.’ Czapski would equally have talked in the present tense of Aeschylus, of the Prophet Isaiah, of the birth of the Messiah in Bethlehem. How circumscribed and dull life becomes when we reduce our notion of the ‘contemporary’ to what happens to be going on just at the moment. A true perception of reality will point us towards a now that is ever-present.
‘The Doctor Mellifluus‘, wrote Pius XII of St Bernard, ‘was remarkable for such qualities of nature and of mind, and so enriched by God with heavenly gifts, that in the changing and often stormy times in which he lived, he seemed to dominate by his holiness, wisdom, and most prudent counsel.’ He was also an exceptional communicator, as his epithet suggests. In a marvellous text read at Vigils today, Bernard anticipates interactive media. He has all of humanity hanging on the Blessed Virgin’s lips as she ponders her response to the Angel Gabriel’s Annunciation. ‘Answer quickly’, he urges her: ‘this is no time for virginal simplicity to forget prudence!‘ There is rhetorical delight in this passage; there is also great seriousness. Bernard reminds us that Christmas concerns each one of us. The Virgin’s ‘Yes’ is the source of our hope. We are called to make it our own.
Let’s start with an easy question: What is the Incarnation?
— Well, I’m not sure it is such an easy one. First of all, it is an impossible paradox, because it is the account of the union of two incommensurate entities: the uncreated being of God and our being of dust. The great Christian wonder is before that mysterious union. […] We need to remember that in becoming flesh, the Word didn’t simply occupy one human body as a guest for 33 years. Human nature as such — that is, flesh — was invested with a potential for divinity. And so being a human being in the wake of the Incarnation isn’t the same as being a human being before the Incarnation, whether or not one believes in Christ and whether one even knows that Christ ever walked on this Earth. We like to talk about things being ‘systemic’ these days, and something systemic happened to human flesh through the Incarnation that opened it to transcendence and to eternity.
As a young Cartusian, Dom Jean-Baptiste Porion wrote to his sister: ‘I ascertain the riches contained in a single perspective, the outline of a mountain, say, with its pine trees in the golden glory of May, in the mists of October, or whenever. We must become the mirror of this beauty and its echo. It always reveals something new, yet every time it says it all. I wonder whether travel is worth the bother.’ In a quite different cultural environment, Zhu Xiao-Mei has written of her teacher Gabriel Chodos that he taught her this: ‘In order to really learn to play the piano, to really learn music, it is as well to penetrate to the depth of a single piece as to study many different pieces. Many great researchers know this: it is by scrutinising over time a specific, circumscribed subject that one makes the most important discoveries and thereby develops a method that will allow one to work on any subject.’ How desirable to have this degree of patience, perseverance, and contemplative flair.
The liturgy of Advent is like a camera lens shifting from panorama to focus on minuscule detail. We set out from cosmic longing as we call on heaven and earth, the dew and the fruitful earth to bring forth the Saviour. Then our expectation is anchored in history unfolding linearly from creation to the call of Abraham; from the story of Israel to the Forerunner; from Mary’s Yes to the Child in the manager. Our faith is beautiful. But it is not reducible to poetic imagery. It is based on things that happened; and points towards things that will happen. Our Lord Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God, is the presence towards which all earthly light points. He himself is a source of uncreated Light shining so that the world might find salvation, hope, and joy. In our Rorate Mass a reflection of this Light embraces us comfortingly. When the Church through the liturgy lets us hear the Prophet’s words, ‘I will save you’, it is not by way of a generic statement. It illumines each one of us. Let us then become light.
Whoever wishes to live in Christ, wrote St John of the Cross, must dig deep, for Christ is ‘like a rich mine with many pockets containing treasures: however deep we dig we will never find their end or their limit. Indeed, in every pocket new seams of fresh riches are discovered on all sides. […] The soul cannot enter into these treasures, nor attain them, unless it first crosses into and enters the thicket of suffering, enduring interior and exterior labours.’ There’s no masochistic glorification of pain in this statement, simply the expression of an incontrovertible fact: the transition from our created nature wounded by sin to the uncreated, holy Light of God is so immense, so categorical that it will be painful. We must let go of much. To perform this transition, said St John, can feel like traversing a dark night. There we become acquainted with Christ’s Cross, which symbolically effects the intersection of our life’s horizontal and vertical axes. ‘The cross is the gate that gives entry into these riches of his wisdom; because it is a narrow gate, many seek the joys that can be gained through it, but few desire to pass through it.’ Do I? (Cant.Esp. B, str. 36-37)
Fear Proved Wrong
‘On the night I was born’, says the indomitable Heidi Crowter, ‘my mum cried to my dad, saying “She will never get married or be a bridesmaid” — which’, she adds, ‘I proved wrong.’ The fears an expectant mother can feel on learning, like Heidi’s, that her child has Down’s are legion and readily understandable. What is terrible is that our society largely just confirms them, to the point of making such a mother feel it would be cruel to give life to such a child. An alternative account is needed, like the one presented a few years ago in this luminous video. It declares with great authority: ‘Your Child can be happy!’ The film was produced for World Down Syndrome Day, 21 March, which happens to be, too, the feast of St Benedict. His great question was and remains, ‘Who is the man that wishes for life?’ (RB Prologue). We might add: Which is the world that does? Jérôme Lejeune, discoverer of Trisomy 21, wrote, ‘The quality of a civilisation is gauged from the respect it shows its weakest members.’
In early Norwegian Christianity, churches were sometimes built on sites used for pagan sacrifice. Thus traces left by heathen contamination were cleansed; thus, too, one showed that faith in Christ brought obscure presentiments of battles between good and evil to luminous fulfilment. Something similar happened to the tradition of St Lucy. Lussi-Night was an established notion in medieval Scandinavia. A female demon named Lussi was thought to haunt the world on this, the year’s longest night, an outburst of evil on the threshold of Christmas. This nocturnal witch found her match in Lucy, whose name means ‘light’. The historical Lucy was born, we are told, in Sicily in 283. Enchanted by the beauty of the Gospel, she consecrated herself to Christ. Her resolve met incomprehension, but she kept it. She preferred death to being robbed of freedom to be faithful. Lucy was a young girl. But she prevailed, in her outward fragility, over dark violence by enlightened Christian fidelity. In this our Norse ancestors found a source of hope. So may we.
Ascesis of Joy
Do we think it hypocritical to perform an action not in tune with our spontaneous emotion? If so, let us remember that feelings are to a large extent formed by actions we freely decide to perform or not to perform. Resolve is a key quality in our moral and spiritual life. Think of sport. Not many of us are ready, just like that, to run a marathon. We need to get into shape over time. We live at a time, in a country, in which there is a gym at every street-corner. We know how effective regular physical exercise can be. Should we take our spiritual exercise less seriously? That would be irresponsible and unwise.
From my Pastoral Letter for Advent
The legendary Beethoven interpreter Rudolf Buchbinder declared, ‘From my fifth year, one thing was crystal clear to me: I wanted to be a pianist’. He admits he had a moment of doubt at eight or nine, when he thought of becoming a conductor (‘perhaps I dreamt I’d then have to practise less’), but this faithlessness was of short duration. He stuck to his first inspiration and seems not, 60 years on, to have regretted it. We’re wary, now, of letting children make momentous decisions too early. They must see the world! There is wisdom in this. But I wonder: do we take sufficiently seriously the clarity children often have about what matters in their lives, what doesn’t? Thérèse of Lisieux, a doctor of the Latin Church knew from a very early age that she had to be a nun, and fought to realise that aspiration. What would she have been told today? To get a degree in management consultancy first, to acquire a taste of ‘real life’? Or at least to take a gap year travelling round the Far East? Perhaps the Holy Spirit would not raise up a Thérèse of Lisieux now. But what if he did?
Some lives are so rich in experiences, contradictions, tensions, sufferings and joys that they do not seem to fit into a single biography. Such is the life of Zhu Xiao-Mei. Her autobiography, patterned on the Goldberg Variations, tells the story of an exceptional musical talent crushed by China’s cultural revolution, yet not extinguished. The account of how, in the re-education camp of Zhangjiako, she found an accordion used for a propagandist show, then managed to draw from it (and from the recesses of memory) Chopin’s Second Etude, opus 10, is proof of the human spirit’s resilience. From that moment, she who seemed to have lost everything, even her sense of self, was again ‘haunted by music’, especially that of Bach, which displayed to her the possible integration of opposites in harmony, balance, beauty. ‘If one has much to say, in life as in music’, writes Zhu Xiao-Mei, ‘one must take the time to say it.’ Thank God, she does. If you have not heard her Goldberg Variations, do listen. And hear her speak about them in Michel Mollard’s The Return is the Movement of Tao.
‘Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds’ (Mt 11,19). What is that supposed to mean? Jesus’s words spring from perplexity regarding ‘this generation’. We ascertain that a Palestinian context 2,000 years ago has much in common with our own. Today, too, it is a risky business to predict the response of the masses and to wish to please. Good PR is important, but has its limitations. At the end of the day, sincerity is more effective. Our Lord impressed people by his ‘authority’, we are told. The term (ἐξουσία) could even be rendered, I’d say, as ‘integrity’. What Jesus said and his outward gestures were at one with his being, with who he was. Therefore people listened even when he said things that cut across their expectations. Good Christian communication is not primarily about publicity hypes. It is about trustworthiness. Wisdom speaks for herself, if only it finds expression in us, through us.
Formed as we are to a scientific mindset, we think of the way things happen in terms of cause and effect. You flick a switch and the light comes on. Interest rates rise, and consumer habits change. Factories in Newcastle send out noxious fumes, and Norwegian reindeer go bald. Our gadgets, our economy, our fragile ecosystem: all seem to obey this fundamental law of causation. It is easy to assume that it’s simply the way things are. Let’s be wary of that assumption, especially in matters of theology. Today’s feast, crucial to the unravelling of our redemption, rejoices in effects that precede their cause. The Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary is not some myth of romantic purity removing the Mother of God from humanity’s common run whose stains we know all too well. The message of this feast is not that Mary did not need to be redeemed. On the contrary, she is, we might say, more redeemed than anyone else, the recipient of a unique outpouring of grace.
Time to Read
Ambrose of Milan — bishop, statesman, poet — was an exceptionally busy man. Yet he knew how to be still. I am always touched by Augustine’s description of him in Book VI of the Confessions. Augustine was no respecter of persons. Yet there is awe in his account of this man who so deeply influenced his life: ‘Often when I was present—for [Ambrose] did not close his door to anyone and it was customary to come in unannounced—I have seen him reading silently, never in fact otherwise. I would sit for a long time in silence, not daring to disturb someone so deep in thought, and then go on my way.’ This passage, often cited as a clue to the reading habits of Antiquity (reading aloud was clearly the norm), reminds anyone in leadership of how important it is to keep up determined, concentrated study in the midst of all other the claims on one’s attention. ‘Let no vain or unmeaning word issue out of your mouth’, wrote Ambrose to the newly appointed bishop Constantius. To heed that counsel, one must constantly re-ground oneself in intelligent statements of essentials, nurturing, forming and setting a standard for one’s own intellect.
Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites is an opera based on a play by Bernanos based on a short story by Gertrud von Le Fort based on a true story. It must be the most thoroughly theological piece in the repertoire of grand opera. Anyone who comes fresh to Emma Dante’s production at the Opera di Roma would never guess. Why her Carmelites are dressed like low-cost Queens of the Night, obligatorily limp, and wear blue surgeon’s gloves, I’ve no idea. The singing is excellent. Michele Mariotti directs the orchestra masterfully. But what a trial for the musicians to perform this fine work in a largely imbecile production. Such Christian symbolism as occurs is used so nonsensically as to be rendered silly, as if one had staged Turandot in the style of Little Red Riding Hood, with the wolf in a kimono. It is a missed opportunity – and a reminder that it matters to acquire and intelligently pass on symbolic literacy. What a contrast with Riccardo Muti’s landmark production of 2004, not to mention Dervaux’s version with Poulenc’s original cast, available as an audio recording in the Internet Archive.
Francis Xavier’s ministry was not one of constant success. A telling incident occurred in 1551. After several months’ effort in Yamaguchi without making a single convert, Francis’s companion Fernandez was teaching in public one day when a man came up and spat in his face. Fernandez calmly wiped his face, and continued preaching. Faced with this spectacle, one of the Jesuits’ bitterest enemies converted to the faith and asked for baptism. Within a few weeks the local Church counted many converts. We’re given to complaining, today, that society does not want to hear the Christian message. What is it, though, that niggles us? Is it that Christ is unknown? Or is it our sense that no one appreciates us and our once-prestigious institutions? Often our motives are mixed. Therefore it is important to examine them. We are called to cast fire upon the earth. Let’s make sure our hearts are set on doing just that, not on restoring tatty Christmas lights to adorn our own houses. If the world spits on us, our response may reveal the face of Christ more effectively than any preaching. The Lord exhorts us, ‘You received without charge, give without charge’. So that is what we must do. (From Entering the Twofold Mystery).
Blindness & Sight
Blindness is a leitmotif in Scripture. It can result from illness, as in the case of Bartimaeus. In such cases intervention from without is required for healing. Isaiah presents us with blindness of a different kind, resulting from immersion in shadow and darkness (29:18). Those smitten with it must step out of the murk first; otherwise no one can help them. Even healthy eyes are blind in a closed, lightless place. There’s a risk that we get used to such blindness, which does have its comfortable aspect. What I cannot see or choose not to see (in myself or around me) cannot require a response; by closing my eyes I protect myself from needing to exercise my freedom. The Gospel would make of us seeing women and men, that is, realists without illusions yet on fire with invincible hope. When we raise our eyes and meet the gaze of God, which sees us everywhere, we discover the one perspective that renders this world intelligible: we see the universe embraced by immense charity made up, at once, of justice and mercy. Ubi amor, ibi oculus. For our eyes to see clearly, our heart must be freed, widened, enabled to love.
Our Lady of the Snows
‘I have rarely approached anything with more unaffected terror’, wrote Robert Louis Stevenson in Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes, ‘than the monastery of Our Lady of the Snows.’ Such is the effect a house of God can have. Yet on closer acquaintance this Trappist abbey, where Charles de Foucauld would later begin monastic life, appeared to him full, not only of eccentrically lovable people, but of intrinsic attractiveness. Stevenson went on his way, he records, ‘with unfeigned regret’. Today something remarkable happened in Our Lady of the Snows. Having been home to Trappist monks for 172 years, it changed hands and was taken over by Cistercian nuns from the thriving abbey of Boulaur in the Gers. Sending the foundresses off yesterday, Mother Abbess said: ‘May they attract numerous vocations so as to found in their turn’. It may seem over-daring to charge a not-yet-founded community with the task of founding – but no, such is the logic of being fully alive: we receive the gift of life, natural and supernatural, to pass it on; our task is not only to flourish, but to bear fruit. Were we more alert to this fact, much in the Church (and indeed in the world) would look different.
A Valiant Bishop
500 years ago, on 28 November 1522, the Metropolitan Erik Valkendorf died in Rome. He had come to seek the support of the Holy See against the pretensions of King Christian II. This penultimate archbishop of Nidaros, whose destiny strikingly resembles that of Thomas Becket, had commissioned the Missale nidrosiense (1519) for use throughout his province, which embraced, not only all of Norway, but Greenland, Iceland, the Orkneys, and the Isle of Man. He prescribed this prayer for recitation by all his priests before the celebration of the Sacred Mysteries: ‘Grant me, Lord, inward tears with strength to cleanse the stains of my sins and fill my soul with heavenly gladness always. I pray you, Jesus, by your own most kind tears: grant me the grace of tears which, apart from your gift, is beyond me. Grant me a fountain of tears that will not dry up, that my tears may be my bread by day and by night. Prepare this table for your servant in your sight that it may strengthen me. I desire to eat my fill of it daily.’ This evening’s Vespers at the Collegio dell’Anima, of which Valkendorf was a member, can be found here, a brief video-summary here.
Awake the Dawn
If we are privileged to pray the Divine Office according to the order prescribed by St Benedict, Vigils of Saturday present a tremendous panorama. The set Psalms take us on a tour from the creation of the world through the history of Israel to a glimpse of the world to come: ‘I shall awake the dawn’.
It is good to be reminded that history moves towards a goal.
As Sr Elisabeth Paule Labat once wrote: to the extent that man grows in wisdom he ‘will perceive the history of this world in whose battle he is still engaged as an immense symphony resolving one dissonance by another until the intonation of the perfect major chord of the final cadence at the end of time.’ Advent invites this year, as every year, to attune our hearing, to establish ourselves in inward silence. Thus we may perceive the perplexing modulations formed about us now as stages in an ongoing melodic development whose climax will be glorious.
In a recent video Fabrice Hadjadj reflects on visual media. With panache and economy of means he lists strategies intended to keep us hooked. He speaks of what has become a near-universal anxiety: the fear of missing out. We are vulnerable to algorithms designed to seduce us by means of a perfect mixture of stimulus, suspense, and reward. What does it do to our general outlook on life to watch quantities of little videos with only highlights and no dramatic development to speak of? ‘Over-excitement anaesthetises you. Your attention span is in pieces. Bombarded with news items, you are better informed, no doubt, but you’ve lost your ability to think. A sentence by Proust becomes unreadable to you. A dialogue by Plato seems to you too long.’ What to do then? ‘Disconnect!’
It may be advisable to read a page of Proust from time to time to verify if the time has come to follow this counsel.
Forward & Upward
In his account from 1768 of A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy, Laurence Sterne evokes an encounter with a Franciscan begging for alms. Sterne disapproved of the exercise. He was firmly resolved ‘not to give him a single sous‘. Yet he was intrigued by the man, above all by his eyes ‘and that sort of fire which was in them’. The friar’s head, he wrote, ‘was one of those heads which Guido has often painted,—mild, pale—penetrating, free from all commonplace ideas of fat contented ignorance looking downwards upon the earth;—it look’d forwards; but look’d as if it look’d at something beyond this world.—How one of his order came by it, heaven above, who let it fall upon a monk’s shoulders best knows: but it would have suited a Bramin, and had I met it upon the plains of Indostan, I had reverenced it.’ The notion of ‘fat contented ignorance looking downwards upon the earth’ is dispiriting. We need to meet people who direct our gaze forward and upward. Perhaps, by God’s grace, we may even be such to others.
Listen to Your Heart
‘You should only listen to your heart!’ This is the message of Cristina Scuccia, until recently the world’s best-known religious sister, now a waitress in Spain, as one can read in the report, Italy’s singing nun casts off her veil. ‘You should only listen to your heart!’ It sounds great; but is in reality an ambiguous counsel. What if my heart tells me one thing today, another tomorrow? Anyone who has lived more than a half-conscious life knows that Jeremiah, when he wrote, ‘the heart is deceitful above all things’ (17:9), wasn’t just engaging in prophetic hyperbole. The heart isn’t spontaneously faithful. It pulls us in different directions, susceptible to ephemeral charms. St Cecilia, whose feast it is today, prayed: ‘Let my heart be immaculate, lest I be confounded’. That is a wholly different approach. It involves the ascesis of letting my heart be cleansed before I trust its inspirations. Living in this way taught Cecilia steadfastness to the point of martyrdom. It made her a saint.
Christ the King
Do I so fully live in the Spirit that I can say, with regard to every aspect of my life, ‘Jesus is Lord’? Do I acknowledge Christ’s lordship over my instincts and appetites? Or do I keep pockets sewed up for private use, indulging desires, dreams, and imaginings I have formally renounced? Is Jesus Lord over my passions? Or do I sublet areas to myself, breathing on embers of resentment, enjoying the bitter draught of anger? Is Jesus Christ—the same yesterday, today, and forever—Lord of my past and future? Or do I hug achievements, experiences, pleasures and hurts of distant years, while making plans for a tomorrow not my own?
Literature & Life
Ours is a time of loneliness. A year or so before I left the UK, the government appointed a Minister of Loneliness. A state department was called for. We’re aware of great needs in mental health, not least among the young. I shan’t attempt to formulate a universal diagnosis. God save us from clerical psycho-quackery! That said, it’s part of a bishop’s job to interpret societal crises from a spiritual point of view. I maintain, after all, that the spiritual life stands for something real and substantial, carefully aligned to, but not to be confounded with, psychological life. I dare to say this: I think existential superficiality, conceptual impoverishment, and a loss of words are a risk to public health in our time. We live at a great depth; we experience and feel deeply: that’s the way we are. But fewer and fewer have words with which to designate the depths that, by virtue of existing, they touch. So they are vulnerable to offers of simplifying labels, even of re-labelling. In order to live — to survive — we must reach a certain depth of consciousness, there to encounter ourselves and others, to make sense of joy and pain.
From a talk in Norwegian, here, on ‘The Power of Words’.
In his memoirs, Louis Bouyer wrote about what made him laugh. ‘I should add that all my teachers would later tell me of the superiority of character-driven comedy over situation comedy never managed to uproot from me every child’s conviction: that those who hurl cream pies at each other’s faces are funny in a far more relaxing, and, therefore, at bottom far more satisfying way, than the more subtle forms of what is called ‘wit’. In fact, it is quite remarkable that these latter forms usually grow stale in less than a generation.’
This explains why, say, a Louis de Funès, whether engaging in off-road driving, singing in choir, or speaking a range of foreign languages, has a far more durable appeal than any amount of intellectual comedy.
Which is not to say that what he represented was superficial. If you’re in doubt, just look at him here, attending to Madeleine Renaud reading Claudel’s La Vierge à midi.
The Use of Opera
This morning, waiting for an airport bus that never arrived, I and others in the queue watched with bated breath as two men abseiled up and down the wall of the Paris Opera. Were they acting in an outdoor performance of the Entführung aus dem Serail?
No, they were displaying a mega poster advertising the latest Samsung. A fine gadget, I’m sure. Still, it is dispiriting that the façade of one of Europe’s great sanctuaries of culture is reduced to a mere support for trade.
Chagall, who painted the opera’s ceiling, maintained that ‘the dignity of the artist lies in his duty of keeping awake the sense of wonder in the world’. Such wonder is of its nature gratuitous. I wish the abseilers had put up a giant portrait of Mozart instead.
Things Take Time
‘Great things take time’, said Cardinal Newman. It’s a reminder we need in a culture that expects everything to happen immediately. In 1863 a young Frenchman preparing to be a priest, Léon Dehon, visited Trondheim. ‘Trondheim’, he wrote in his diary, ‘was once a holy city. Countless miracles were wrought at the tomb of St Olav in the cathedral.’ He felt called to carry that great Christian legacy on. Nothing came of it then. Next year, however, three priests from the congregation Dehon founded, the Priests of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, will come to Trondheim to begin a mission there. It will have taken 160 years for the seed that was planted to sprout. One can only marvel at the working of providence. And pray for the wisdom to adopt a long-term, supernatural, and trustful view of our life and tasks.
Today’s Mass Gospel (Luke 17,26-37) exhorts us to remember Lot’s wife, arrestingly portrayed in a poem by Anna Akhmatova.
‘Akhmatova explores the symbolic potential of Lot’s wife from within, rescuing her from the status of a theological cartoon, conjuring up a loveable, pathetic presence. Akhmatova had tasted the bitter fruits of ideological absolutism. She, so elegantly colourful in Modigliani’s portraits, would not countenance the sketching of a complex human destiny with nothing but charcoal. She redeems Lot’s wife from two-dimensionality. Her poem enriches the story in ways that seem to me, not only licit, but indispensable. Her compassionate insight spells a lesson for all time. What holds us back from unconditional self-giving is not just attachment to vice. Much that claims us is good and dear. To remember Lot’s wife is to prepare for a severance that may bring pain.’
In the first episode of BBC’s Civilisation from 1969, still intensely watchable, Kenneth Clark sits below a Roman aqueduct wearing a very English suit, citing Cavafy. He has just asked what civilisation’s enemies are. He gives a threefold answer: fear, boredom, and hopelessness, ‘which can overtake people with a high degree of material prosperity’. That’s where Cavafy’s Waiting for the Barbarians comes in. In it the poet evokes a late antique city in a state of apathy, every day awaiting the arrival of barbarian hordes expected to turn life upside down. In the end, though, the barbarians don’t turn up; they have directed their course elsewhere. The city’s inhabitants respond with spontaneous disappointment. Cataclysm would have been better than nothing. ‘Now what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?/Those people were a kind of solution.’ For a civilisation to thrive, says Clark, it needs, above all, confidence: the sense that life is worth living, that children are worth having, that the future is worth constructing. That’s every bit as true today as 53 years ago. Only, since then our store of confidence has shrunk.
The last phrase of today’s Gospel, ‘We are useless servants, we have done only what was our duty’, may seem harsh. Is the servants’ work then valueless? Only if we see it from our society’s perspective, in which service is perceived as demeaning and everyone wishes to be his or her own boss. If, meanwhile, we are in the service of a Master who is supremely good, loveable, creative, and resourceful, awareness of our objective uselessness is no tragedy; on the contrary, such awareness will make us overjoyed that we can nonetheless be employed to produce something beautiful and lasting, almost despite ourselves. To do our duty then will be glorious, an honour.
Such servants we are called to become.
East & West
Some thirty years ago, Jaroslav Pelikan remarked: ‘It has been evident to Western observers since the Middle Ages that Eastern Christianity has affirmed the authority of tradition more unambiguously than has the West. Repeatedly, therefore, it has been the vocation of Eastern Christendom to come to the rescue of the West by drawing out from its memory the overlooked resources of the patristic tradition. So it was in the beginning of the Renaissance in Italy, when the scholars of Constantinople fled to Venice and Florence before the invader, bringing their Greek manuscripts with them […]. And so it has been again in the twentieth century. One of the most striking differences between the First Vatican Council and the Second – and a difference that helps to provide an explanation for many of the other differences – is that between 1870 and 1950 the Western Church had once more discovered how much it had been ignoring in the liturgy and spirituality, the theology and culture, of Eastern Christendom.’
De bono mortis
A couple of weeks ago, on my way from Santa Cecilia to Santa Maria in Trastevere, I noticed this graffito. It’s difficult to know what’s behind it, irony, serenity, or even a kind of perversity. The only perspective in which such a statement, I’d say, can be said to make sense is the perspective of faith. St Ambrose provides it in his treatise entitled, De bono mortis, ‘On Death Considered as a Good’. He says: ‘The Lord suffered death to make its surreptitious entry [into life] to make guilt cease. However, lest the finality of nature should appear to reside in death, the resurrection of the dead was bestowed. Thus guilt would be brought to an end by death, while nature, through the resurrection, would be rendered eternal.’ We need to keep reminding ourselves of this, that death just isn’t natural and that our nature therefore, knowing itself albeit subliminally to be made for unending life, rebels against it.
Thank You, Beethoven
Han-Na Chang introduced this evening’s performance by the Trondheim Symphony Orchestra reading a passage from Beethoven’s Heiligenstadt Testament. The text, written in 1802, expresses the composer’s deep distress at his increasing deafness. Indeed it reveals hopelessness. Remember, he was only 32 at the time: ‘what a humiliation when one stood beside me and heard a flute in the distance and I heard nothing […], such incidents brought me to the verge of despair, a little more and I would have put an end to my life.’ He was withheld from this drastic decision by the imperative of creation: ‘it seemed impossible to leave the world until I had produced all that I felt called upon to produce’. Having finished reading, Han-Na Chang said: ‘Beethoven, what happened to you? You decided to live. Thank you.’ Then she raised the baton. That same gratitude vibrates within me at the end of a glorious concert, the music still resonating in my ears.
To be a Catholic, as far as I can see, is to steer clear of excesses, be they progressive or regressive. What matters is to receive the fullness of tradition in order, with gratitude and humility, to pass it on undiminished. The noun traditio, let’s not forget, primarily indicates a dynamic process.
In times marked by corporate amnesia, many young people naturally wish to drink deeply from the sources of the past. That is good. We are called to emulate the example of Isaac, that mysterious patriarch who spent much of his life unstopping the wells, dug by his father Abraham, which the Philistines had filled with gravel to prevent the Israelites’ flocks from thriving. But tradition no less calls on us to be prospective. A Christian is one who is in forward movement.
Martha Nussbaum once wrote a book with the incomparable title, The Fragility of Goodness. Once you’ve heard the phrase, it stays lodged in the memory. Often enough the good seems terribly fragile. That is when it matters to walk, not by sight but by faith, believing firmly in the supreme Goodness that bears all things. In the Dialogue, Catherine of Siena heard the Lord say: ‘I wish to act mercifully towards the world and to provide in all circumstances for my creature endowed with reason. Ignorant man, though, turns into death what I give for the sake of life; thus he makes himself cruel to himself. I always provide, and I tell you that what I have given man is highest providence. With providence I created him; and when I looked into myself, I fell in love with the beauty of my creature’ (c. CXXXV). On this account, even our destructive inclinations result from a perversion of the good, which it matters to catch sight of in order to reorient our energy towards it. Further, a gaze of love – suffered love – rests upon us even in our rebellion. If only we would awaken to it.
Today’s Vigils reading (Wisdom 7,15-30) offers an extravagant list of adjectives describing Wisdom. To give an account of the ineffable, we have two options, accumulated repetition or reverential silence. Theology’s principal sources, the Scriptures and the sacred liturgy, give examples of both. Within Wisdom, we are told, is ‘a spirit intelligent, holy, unique, manifold, subtle, active, incisive, unsullied, lucid, invulnerable, benevolent, sharp, irresistible, beneficent, loving to man, steadfast, dependable, unperturbed, almighty, all-surveying, penetrating all intelligent, pure and most subtle spirits; for Wisdom is quicker to move than any motion; she is so pure, she pervades and permeates all things.’ In the West, Wisdom has come to appear ponderous, personified by bearded sages. Biblical Wisdom, meanwhile, is fleet-footed and gracious, chaste but peaceful, not anxious. It has an edge, being sharp, yet is philanthropical. A broad semantic field opens up before us waiting to be rediscovered and delighted in.
Memory for Blessing
Anne Applebaum wrote of Linda Kinstler’s Come to this Court and Cry that it ‘reminds us of the dangerous instability of truth and testimony, and the urgent need, in the 21st century, to keep telling the history of the 20th’. For the past 75 years, remembrance of the Shoah has maintained a certain standard in Western historical consciousness. Are we aware of what is at stake now that there is hardly anyone left to recall and bear witness? Documented testimonies assume new significance, such as this 2006 portrayal of six Norwegian Holocaust survivors, including the noble Mr Jo Benkow, from 1985 to 1993 Speaker of Norway’s Storting. The last word in the film is given to Jenny Wulff (1921-2009), whose family perished in German camps: ‘When you need someone to console you, there’s no one there.’ To keep the memory of absence alive is now a moral imperative.
Up to Date
Ten years have passed since Martin Mosebach mused about Catholic bishops: ‘It is as if they have forgotten that the Church is very old and that she has survived many societal systems and upheavals throughout history and that, in many centuries, she was not completely ‘up to date’. Least so at the time of her foundation in late antiquity, in an urbanised, enlightened, multicultural, atomised and individualised society which, by a slow process, she permeated and transformed.’
Thinking people at a distance from the Church are apt to ask themselves, Mosebach contends (with customary poignancy and elegance): ‘Should they see [the Church] as dangerous or possibly as the only remaining alternative to secular society?’ The jury, I’d say, is still out.
Meaning through Form
In an essay on the art of M.C. Escher, Maria Popova explores the interface between music and visual art. Experiencing deep loneliness as a result of the fact that he was ‘beginning to speak a language these days only very few understand’, Escher found sudden, freeing enlightenment in the Goldberg Variations.
‘It wasn’t until he heard Bach’s Goldberg Variations that his mind snapped onto its own gift for rendering meaning through form. ‘Father Bach’, he called him. Wonder-smitten by Bach’s music — by its mathematical figures and motives repeating back to front and up and down, by the majesty of ‘a compelling rhythm, a cadence, in search of a certain endlessness’ — Escher felt in it a strong kinship, a special ‘affinity between the canon in the polyphonic music and the regular division of a plane into figures and identical forms.”
In his thoughtful, exquisitely illustrated account of a visit to Mount Saint Bernard, Mark Dredge says of one of my brothers, ‘It takes me a couple of days to sense that his calmness comes with something deeper, a profound contentment and happiness which I come to recognise as joy.’ What a wonderful testimony is joy! And how marvellous that a monastic brewery provides an occasion to share it! I still believe beer-making can reveal something of the mystery of the Church. By being refined to manifest their choicest qualities; by being brought together in a favourable environment; by mingling their properties and so revealing fresh potential; by being carefully stored and matured, the humble malt, hops, yeast, and water are spirit-filled and bring forth something new, something nurturing and good, that brings joy to those who share it. Considered in this perspective, the brewery provides us with a parable for monastic life, with the Lord as virtuoso brewmaster. The Scriptures favour wine as an image of the Gospel—but that is culturally conditioned; beer, it seems to me, is a much-neglected theological symbol. – Temperance in enjoyment, needless to say, is taken for granted!
Rome’s Pontifical Minor Seminary moved to its present quarters on the Via Aurelia in 1933. The apse painting in the principal chapel is a scene straight out of Sienkiewicz. It bears the inscription, ‘Hail flowers of the martyrs, sons of the apostles; by whose outpoured blood and by flames Rome was lit up’. The reference is to Nero’s ghastly action after the city fire of 64, when the emperor, who had probably been behind it, blamed the nascent Church and had crucified believers lit as torches round his garden. It strikes one that not so long ago it was considered opportune to raise young people in the faith by putting before their eyes the witness of the martyrs. Indeed, the lads who first prayed before this scene would, a decade on, as young priests, have to make courageous choices. Are young Italian Catholics now invited to contemplate themselves in the protomartyrs? I think of an English parallel. Just thirty years ago, I’d say, the witness of the martyrs was central to the self-image of English Catholics. Today that memory seems to have been eclipsed. One wonders how that happened. And why.
In his incomparable fresco of the Last Judgement at Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, Cavallini depicts the ascending orders of angels. As they rise, they become less embodied, more ethereal. Thus a subtle theological truth is rendered visibly. To draw closer to God is to be conformed to him, to participate progressively in his nature. To assert this is not to indulge in over-audacious speculation; it is to put faith in divine promises, ‘that by these you may be made partakers of the divine nature’ (2 Peter 1:4).
There is much that is positive in the contemporary culture of celebrating the human body. From a Christian point of view, though, this outlook runs the risk of being limiting. It curtails aspiration. It keeps us from learning the high art of self-abandonment. That is probably why our times find it hard to face death, which marks such an obvious letting-go intended to be freeing, yet frightening in the extreme if our sense of self is exclusively bound to what we know we must leave behind.
Is that enough?
Today, the feast of the great St Teresa, marks the centenary of the birth of Don Luigi Giussani. He continues to inspire countless people to radical, intelligent discipleship. I recently came across an exchange Giussani once had, on his way to give a lecture, with a journalist. Huge crowds were waiting. The journalist asked: ‘Why are all these people waiting for you?’ Giussani replied, ‘Because I believe in what I say.’ – ‘Is that enough?’ – ‘Yes.’ It’s good to be reminded of this from one who was a stranger to all gimmick. Cardinal Ratzinger preached at Don Giussani’s funeral. He stressed Giussani’s keen sense of Christianity as an encounter, an event. The secret of his efficacy as a teacher, educator and helper of the poor was his being always turned towards that encounter, well aware that ‘as soon as we substitute moralism for faith, doing for believing, we fall into particularisms; we lose our criteria and sense of orientation, and in the end we do not edify, but divide.’
A Dog’s Life
Elizabeth Lo’s film Stray is stirring and impressive. Ostensibly recounting a dog’s life in Istanbul, wittily interspersed with ancient quotations about the interface of human and canine existence, it in fact proposes a probing account of our world’s values, or lack of such.
Dogs provide a lens through which to contemplate human society. Through them we see human beings – children – treated like stray dogs. The stark absence of sentiment only makes Lo’s statement clearer. She calls her work ‘a critical observation of human civilisation’.
Sometimes it takes animals to recall us to our humanity. Thank God we’ve got them.
The Second Vatican Council taught: ‘In the earthly liturgy we take part in a foretaste of that heavenly liturgy which is celebrated in the holy city of Jerusalem toward which we journey as pilgrims, where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God’. The phrase makes me think of a photograph I like to keep within reach. It shows the monk-archbishop of Milan, Blessed Ildefonso Schuster, as celebrant. It shows a man transfigured, wholly surrendered to the sacred act, in symbolic and embodied continuity with the heavenly host. Schuster was a man of slender, fragile appearance. Vested for the liturgy, though, he became a giant: ‘We witnessed a holy colloquy with the invisible power of God; it was impossible to behold him without succumbing to a religious shudder.’ Arguments about worship go on and on. The decisive question to be asked, however, is surely this: Who, now, celebrates the sacred liturgy on such terms? We might recall that Schuster used to say: ‘It seems people are no longer convinced by our preaching, but faced with sanctity, they still believe, still kneel down and pray.’
I recently had occasion to cite an insight of which I am convinced: ‘Anthropocentrism kills the Church and its life.’ How to get out of the rut? We’re told in this morning’s vigils reading, one of my favourite texts in the liturgical cycle. The Irish abbot Columbanus (ca. 543-615) asks how God’s light may shine in him and so illumine others? His answer is formulated as a prayer: ‘I beg you, my Jesus, fill my lamp with your light. By its light let me see the holiest of holy places, your own temple where you enter as the eternal High Priest of the eternal mysteries. Let me see you, watch you, desire you. Let me love you as I see you, and before you let my lamp always shine, always burn. Let us know you, let us love you, let us desire you alone, let us spend our days and nights meditating on you alone, let us always be thinking of you. Fill us with love of you, let us love you with all the love that is your right as our God. Let that love fill us and possess us, let it overwhelm our senses until we can love nothing but you, for you are eternal.’
At the end of Olivier Mille’s documentary portrait of Messiaen, the composer speaks of his oratorio Francis of Assisi. He’d been reproached for it, he says, by right-minded people objecting that St Francis had been poor whereas Messiaen’s orchestration, colours, and rhythms are incredibly rich. The composer gives the following response:
‘St Francis was totally poor, that is true. Yet he retained a child’s capacity for wonder. He was in awe before all the beauty that surrounded him. So he was rich! Rich in sunlight, rich in the stars, rich in flowers, rich in birds, rich in the sea, rich in trees, rich in all that surrounded him. That’s immense wealth – and it is’, adds Messiaen, ‘something I wish you all.’
By being abstracted from belonging (belonging in a culture, in a religion, in a gender, in one’s own body), the individual is surrendered to itself on the basis of self-defined psycho-sexual criteria. The surrender reflects the mentality of our time —our wish to create ourselves. It is presumed that there is no such thing as meaningfully mediating institutions. Cultural experience, meanwhile, shows that the self-understanding of women and men tends to develop precisely through community. Hardly any other epoch has had a view of human nature as atomised as ours. This view is upheld in full awareness that loneliness is a growing societal ill, especially among the young. The law proposal shows a lack of historical consciousness. As a society, driven by the state, we are asked to capitulate before an understanding of human nature that will turn out to be ephemeral.
St Francis & the Viol
So vivid are the accounts of St Francis’s personality that we risk forming an impression that is purely this-worldly. Francis is held hostage to more pragmatic causes than any other saint. It matters to recall with reverence the supernatural foundation of his life and witness. The Fioretti speak of an incident that took place not long before his death. Weakened by abstinence and spiritual trials, Francis turned his mind to meditation on celestial joy. ‘Now while this thought was in his mind, suddenly an angel appeared to him in surpassing glory, having a viol in his left hand and a bow in his right. And St Francis stood in amazement at the sight, the angel drew the bow once across the strings of the viol, when the soul of St Francis was instantly so ravished by the sweetness of the melody, that all his bodily senses were suspended, and he believed, as he afterwards told his companions, that, if the strain had been continued, the intolerable sweetness would have drawn his soul from his body.’ Here we glimpse the soul-mystery of this singular Christian, whose being was wholly attuned to the music of eternity.
Called to Fidelity
Today’s Gospel gives us the parable of the good Samaritan, a criterion by which we must measure ourselves. Are we naturally inclined to act like the priest and levite? Do we, to avoid others’ needs, cross the street and vanish into the cityscape on the other side? Perhaps we think, ‘I can’t’ or ‘I daren’t’. Right action in extreme conditions isn’t necessarily spontaneous. Such action must be prepared by other, small choices made in secret, the sort of choices of which life consists in the main. Let’s remember: each small action carried out in the name of Jesus, for his love’s sake, can be a source of sanctification. It can prepare us for big choices lying before us, choices as yet unknown on which others’ thriving will depend. We must practise fidelity, then, in daily circumstances, in whatever task God’s providence entrusts to us now. If we get used to saying Yes! in that setting, we shall be armed for greater trials, too. Then God’s Spirit will be free to work in us. By grace we shall acquire the mind of Christ. ‘It is no longer I who live’, writes St Paul, ‘but Christ who lives in me.’ What he means is: It has become natural for me, now, to walk as he walked. May God grant us, too, grace to reach that point of identification.
Bitter & Sweet
Michael Leunig has a gift for putting his finger on things. He is almost always enlightening, often funny, sometimes infuriating. He can both write and draw with tenderness.
Here is an autumn prayer from his collection The Prayer Tree:
A great deal of nonsense is often said about angels. We may find we’re given to thinking nonsensically about them ourselves, haunted as we are by images of feathers, celestial chariots, and cascading cloaks.
So earthbound are we poor human clods, so conditioned by our bodies, that it is hard for us to conceive of pure spiritual existences.
Another hurdle that separates us from the angels we celebrate today is this: they have no truck with sin, no experience of it. They can distinguish between good and evil with perfect clarity, whereas we, often enough, are captive to deadly ambiguities, not knowing, sometimes not wanting to know, what’s what.
Law & Parables
There’d be much to say about Linda Kinstler’s important volume Come to this Court and Cry, a landmark study of the aftermath of the Shoah. I’d like, though, to hone in on a remark which indicates, as it were, the book’s hermeneutic framework. ‘In Jewish tradition’, writes Kinstler, ‘law and literature have a dialectic relation, inflecting and following upon one another. Where the law fails, parables point the way. Where stories are silent, law speaks. In this way, literature and law produce and revise one another. «The two are one in their beginning and their end», wrote Haim Bialik.’ This insight helps us understand an aspect of the contemporary cultural climate. In society, but also in the Church, a movement is abroad to abolish fundamental laws. At the same time we have largely forgotten our identity-shaping stories, no longer retold. What we’re left with is bewildering emptiness.
The Good’s Discretion
St Vincent de Paul, born in 1581, embodied the Tridentine movement. Deeply committed to the reform of the Church and clergy, he was reared on the spiritual doctrine of the Capuchin Benet Canfield, an Englishman who did much to form French Counter-Reformation spirituality. The work for the poor for which Vincent is best-known was part of an overall vision of Catholic renewal. He did not prettify corporate charity. He knew that poverty rarely ennobles people. He told a confrère: ‘The path will be long, the poor often ungrateful. The more uncouth and unjust they are, the more you must pour out your love on them. Only when they know you love them will the poor forgive you for your gifts of bread.’ This is insight born of experience, informed by a keen sense of human dignity. Many an NGO could do with taking a leaf out of Vincent’s book.
I also love this other phrase of his: ‘Noise does no good, and good makes no noise.’
People sometimes speak of finding comfort in Scripture. Often enough, though, the Word of God is anything but reassuring. The beginning of the Book of Job is an example. It presents a man’s life as subject to an eternal wager, to testing that amounts to total loss. The Book of Job, let’s remember, is an extended parable, not reportage. Through exaggerated features it invites us to recognise a pattern of divine action and human response. It is not that God is cruel. He does not deal with Job the way we may, as children, have dealt with ants in an anthill, intoxicated by the disproportion between our felt omnipotence and the tiny animals’ powerlessness. The motivating factor behind the testing of Job is not sadism but the extreme value of the supernatural call addressed to man by way of an appeal to his freedom, a freedom that demands to be tested as gold is tested in the furnace.
On Wednesday this week, the President of the Russian republic made a speech that began with the address, ‘Esteemed friends’, and ended with the phrase, ‘I believe in your support’. In between those statements lay a proposition of alternative reality. The stakes of absolutism, which Europeans thought was a superseded stage of societal development, are making themselves felt with force, not far away. This is a time to be mindful of where such tendencies lead. One way of doing so might be to watch Andrei Konchalovksy’s 2020 film Dear Comrades, a re-enactment of a massacre that took place in western Russia in 1962, when Red Army soldiers and KGB snipers opened fire on unarmed striking workers. As Peter Bradshaw wrote in his Guardian review last year, ‘Anger burns a hole through the screen in this stark monochrome picture’. What is our response, yours and mine, to the violent insult to righteousness being committed before our eyes?
Treasures can be found in unexpected places. One doesn’t normally look to the daily press for sapiential nourishment — but sometimes we find it there, to our delight and astonishment. An example is this essay by Katherine Rundell on John Donne (1572-1631) published in the New York Times a fortnight ago (it takes me a while to catch up). Rundell writes of Donne’s ease with extremes, of the way in which this supremely sensitive man could delight in life while looking on death fearlessly. From his practised capacity for tension sprang curiosity, sympathy, compassion, above all determined attention:
‘Wake, his writing tells us, over and over. Weep for this world and gasp for it. Wake, and pay attention to our mortality, to the precise ways in which beauty cuts through us. Pay attention to the softness of skin and the majesty of hands and feet. Attention — real, sustained, unflinching attention — is what this life, with its disasters and delights, demands of you.’
The notion of rest is important in ascetic vocabulary. The Greek Fathers designated it as hēsychia, a term rendered in Latin as pax. What the Fathers had in mind was not relaxation, but a state of inward balance in which the composite elements that make up human existence are gradually harmonised, attuned to the Logos, much as the members of an orchestra, before a performance, tune their instruments to the A intoned by the First Violin.
Often enough, we are conscious that this harmony and the beneficent balance it induces are absent from our lives. What to do then? An avenue is indicated by the poet Reiner Kunze, who once wrote that a poem is unrest come to rest: ‘Das gedicht ist zur ruhe gekommene unruhe‘. What if the fundamental human task were poetic, if the chief challenge before us were to make of our lives such a poem?
Who We Are
An artefact on display in a fine exhibition in Hildesheim’s Dommuseum is a candlestick made in the Meuse Delta around 1180. It represents the three continents known at that time – Europe, Africa, and Asia – as female figures. How interesting to note the attributes ascribed to them.
Asia holds a filled vessel and bears the inscription DIVITIE (wealth). Europe, bearing sword and shield, is characterised by the word BELLUM (war). Africa, meanwhile, is portrayed contemplatively, holding an open book on which is inscribed the word SCIENTIA (knowledge).
We find, here, a correction of perspective useful in the context of claims made in the European sphere, in a certain kind of political discourse, to perennial cultural supremacy, as if such a thing belonged to our continent by some sort of monopoly.
What is the relationships between an original and a copy? In the light of Genesis 1,27, ‘God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him’, this problem is urgently relevant to every Christian. Athanasius, in his treatise On the Incarnation of the Word, developed it explicitly in terms of an artist’s work to restore a painting: ‘For as, when the likeness painted on a panel has been effaced by stains from without, he whose likeness it is must come once more to enable the portrait to be renewed on the same wood: for, for the sake of his picture, even the mere wood on which it is painted is not thrown away, but the outline is renewed upon it’. This enthralling documentary on the restoration of the Mona Lisa of the Prado is of more than just art-historical interest. It provides a parable of an existential pursuit of authenticity. It shows that a true copy is not a dead re-production, but a creation in its own right, possessing integrity. This applies to the works of a painter of genius. How much more must it apply to the works of the Author of Beauty?
Consultancy is a key function in our society. Enterprises large and small invest huge sums in it. The advisability of counsel is evident. St Benedict affirms, in chapter 3, ‘Do everything with counsel and having so done you will not repent’. Anyone who has exercised government knows what he means. There are times, though, when consultancy – weighing up options – is no good, when we have to abide by principles. We commemorate the martyrdom of Cyprian of Carthage. When arrested in 258, he was urged to perform the civic ritual the emperor required: a brief visit to the city hall, a little bit of incense strategically placed, and that would be that. Cyprian said no: to obey would, to his way of thinking, be blasphemy. The imperial proconsul was shocked. Taking Cyprian aside, he said, Consule tibi – that is, ‘Exercise consultancy’. Cyprian retorted: ‘In a matter so just, there is no consultancy to be had’, In re tam iusta nulla est consultatio. Sometimes there’s a limit to what consultancy can achieve. What matters then is simply to tell truth from falsehood, and to opt for truth.
The requests put on our lips by the liturgy today, on the feast of Our Lady of Sorrows, are enormous. In the collect, ‘grant that your Church, participating with the Virgin Mary in the Passion of Christ, may merit a share in his Resurrection’; in the prayer after communion, ‘we humbly ask, O Lord, that […] we may complete in ourselves for the Church’s sake what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ’. These aren’t just words. They are pointers to the core of the Christian condition, where to be ‘passive’ is not to be inactive; on the contrary, incorporation into the Passion is the highest form of action, the presupposition for meaningful, effective Christian agency. We contemplate this truth in the ineffable compassion of Mary. Concepts fail to render its intensity. Music can hint at it, nowhere perhaps less inadequately than in Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater. This version with Mirella Freni and Teresa Berganza is to my mind unsurpassed. Both singers are at the peak of their powers. But there is more than just virtuosity at work. Their mature voices enable the maternal mystery to be voiced with singular power.
John Chrysostom is not a universally lovable saint like Polycarp or Francis of Sales. He was a preacher and teacher of genius; his fortitude was proverbial. Each year I am struck by the reference, in today’s collect, to ‘his astounding eloquence and his forbearance in persecution’. At the same time, Chrysostom had many rough edges. Some of his utterances can to this day startle us with their force, even violence.
He reminds us that genuine communion must be a function of truth, and that truth, more often than not, is something that has to be striven for.
The foundation of our oneness in Christ in the Church is radical authenticity. This requires us to be ready to denounce whatever in and around us is inauthentic, an obstacle rather than a help to the pursuit of genuine discipleship.
Like the Ore of Bells
There’s a tendency abroad to deprive the Church of her definite article, her capital letter, her personhood. What’s left, the task of ‘constructing church’ is a bit like ‘studying maths’, an exercise in human ingenuity. What a contrast in Gertrud von Le Fort’s Hymns to the Church: ‘Your servants bear ageless ornaments, your language is like bell-metal ore. /Your prayers resemble millennial oaks, your Psalms have the breath of the seas. /Your teaching is like a fastness on unassailable hills. /When you receive vows, they resound to the end of time; when you bless, you build mansions in heaven. /Your consecrations are like great signs of fire on human foreheads, no one can put them out. /The measure of your faithfulness is not the faith of men, the measure of your years encompasses no autumn. /You are like enduring fire above whirling ash! /You are like a tower in the midst of tearing waters! /That is why your silence is deep when days are loud; at eventime they will nonetheless fall upon your mercy. /You are the one who prays upon every tomb! /Where today gardens bloom there’ll be a wilderness tomorrow; where a people dwells at dawn, there is ruin at night. /You are the sole sign on earth of what is eternal; all that is not remoulded by you, is transmuted by death.’
Queen Elizabeth II lived a life admirable in so many ways that the encomia pouring out on her death yesterday, on the feast of Mary’s Nativity, are inexhaustible. What strikes me especially, though, is this: one person’s radical fidelity to her task and station lent stability to the lives of countless others. Fidelity can take many forms. Who knows what awaits us? Important is the heart’s stability, translated into embodied living. I recently came upon this noble prayer formulated by John Paul II on his 65th birthday: ‘If one day illness touches my mind and clouds it, I do surrender to You even now, with [a] devotion that will later be continued in silent adoration. If one day I were to lie down and remain unconscious for long, it is my desire that every hour I am given to experience this be an uninterrupted thanksgiving, and that my ultimate breath be also a breath of love. Then, at such a moment, my soul, guided by the hand of Mary, will face you in order to sing your glory forever. Amen.’
Man and Beast
When Anthony the Great, in the final stage of his long life, retired to the Inner Mountain, he was bothered by beasts that dug up his vegetable patch. He addressed them graciously (χαριέντως), saying, ‘Why are you doing me harm, since I do no harm to you?’ From then on, he and they lived together in peace. The restoration of harmony with the animal kingdom is a Leitmotif in ascetic literature, a sign of return to graced innocence, an indication of holiness. We are, as a generation, at the opposite end of the spectrum. A review of recent literature provides statistics that show how far our exploitation of animals has gone: ‘Spain’s porkers, nearly as numerous as its people, provide enough manure annually to fill the Barcelona football stadium 23 times over’; ‘We raise 66 billion chickens a year, eight for every human, almost all of them in terrible conditions’. The cinema is mobilised to open our eyes. I have been touched by Gunda and Cow. Both are beautiful. Neither is sentimental. Effectively these films reveal the otherness of animals, reminding us that the antiseptic, plastic-wrapped meat in supermarket fridges was once alive – and that all life deserves to be regarded with reverence.
Stepping out of Fear
In Scripture, a consequence of sin – which is a state of disorientation – is the experience of fearing where there is no fear (cf. Ps 53:5). The process of conversion involves the shedding of irrational anxiety. Sometimes, though, we’ve objective reasons to fear. This was the case with Judah in Jeremiah’s day, lending force to the Lord’s oracle, spoken through the prophet: ‘Do not fear the king of Babylon, of whom you are afraid; do not fear him, says the Lord’ (42:11). God does not tell the people their fear is groundless. He asks them to acknowledge it at a natural level, then to go beyond it in a spirit of faith. We often feel guilty about fear, trying either to suppress or dissimilate it. So it gains a deeper foothold. To say instead, ‘This is frightening, I am frightened’, can confer unexpected freedom. It grounds us in the real. To opt for the real is to aspire to truth. The truth, even when hard, liberates, opening us to the grace of courage.
אַל־תִּֽירְא֗וּ מִפְּנֵי֙ מֶ֣לֶךְ בָּבֶ֔ל אֲשֶׁר־אַתֶּ֥ם יְרֵאִ֖ים מִפָּנָ֑יו אַל־תִּֽירְא֤וּ מִמֶּ֙נּוּ֙ נְאֻם־יְהֹוָ֔ה כִּֽי־אִתְּכֶ֣ם אָ֔נִי לְהוֹשִׁ֧יעַ אֶתְכֶ֛ם וּלְהַצִּ֥יל אֶתְכֶ֖ם מִיָּדֽוֹ
It is often assumed that what puts the Church at odds with contemporary society is its ethical teaching. Many cry out for change in this area. Quite apart from the merit of considering what might be a Catholic response to particular, perhaps new problems in ethics (something each age is called upon to do), I consider the assumption false. I do not think the principal skandalon is ethical. I think it is metaphysical.
The holiness of God! The splendour of his glory, made manifest in Christ through infinitely gracious condescension! These core realities, which to the founders of Cîteaux were axiomatic, seem strange to an age whose outlook is wholly horizontal. We are children of that age. Of this we must ever be aware.
From a Letter to the Order.
Enough to Say Yes
‘For me and for each one of you, when God called us to specific stations in life, He revealed very little: the basic call, the bare bones. His invitation didn’t include a biography and a script, and so it called for faith and trust, our hand in God’s. No rose garden, only that whatever the garden, Eden or Gethsemane, He would be there faithful through all our infidelities. It’s true of every vowed existence, husband and wife, priest or religious, the law, dance, music or medicine, commerce or the State house. It’s true of the powerful and the powerless. God tells us only enough for us to say yes.’
With these words the Assuptionist Fr Philip Bonvouloir (1929-2012) offered friends a retrospect of his own experience. In it I dare say many of us will recognise our own.
To signpost what is effectively a rubbish dump as an ‘ecological isle’ requires some semantic acrobatics.
To sort waste is admirable, but is still just a way of storing it. The work of purification is a separate process, happening elsewhere, with an energy proper to it.
Really ecological would be the non-generation of junk, so as not to have to get rid of it.
The logic can be transferred, mutatis mutandis, to the inner life. There too we must beware of supposing that merely labelling and sorting amounts to cleansing.
Contemplative life is grounded in an ability to see. Contemplation is grace, of course, but grace, as ever, builds on nature, so we must exercise our faculty of sight. That’s something we all can do. In fact, if we fail to foster an ability to see and distinguish colour, the world around us increasingly appears monochrome. Czapski once noted:
‘Dusk already. Work once again, fresh and sure. Sure, in what way? In the way I control myself, objectify, expand the range of my sense of colour which, when I don’t work, is impoverished. The routine? Could you call this routine, this secular technique that opens a universe of happy, pictorial experiences before me? This slow pace couldn’t be called vision, it’s more like an apprenticeship of looking.’
Hans Ulrich Treichel’s novel Daybreak is effectively a pietà in prose. An elderly woman cradles her middle-aged son, dead after long illness, and at last feels free to express to herself – and to us – elements of the drama that has framed her life, which only in appearance has been ordinary (what is ordinary?) and banal.
How litte we know of one another! How limited is our notion of what others may be carrying, what heroism they may be called upon to exercise simply to rise in the morning!
‘Have we not passed along a steep mountain pass?’ asks the narratrix towards the end of her story. Indeed she has. And she has enabled the reader to get a sense of the risks run at such altitude.
Hunting the Pluck
This Heaney poem makes me think of John 7:38. It is one thing to carry a spring of water, another to find it.
Cut from the green hedge a forked hazel stick
That he held tightly by the arms of the V:
Circling the terrain, hunting the pluck
Of water, nervous, but professionally
Unfussed. The pluck came sharp as a sting.
The rod jerked with precise convulsions,
Spring water suddenly broadcasting
Through a green hazel its secret stations.
The bystanders would ask to have a try.
He handed them the rod without a word.
It lay dead in their grasp till, nonchalantly,
He gripped expectant wrists. The hazel stirred.
Far and Wide
In 1900, five years before Norway regained sovereignty, parliament passed a motion to grant 12,000 kroner towards the publication of Heimskringla in both established forms of the Norwegian tongue, ‘so that the book might reach far and wide, being affordable’. The notion that a nation in search of corporate identity would gain from engaging with its founding narratives was taken for granted and subsidised.
This provides food for thought in a cultural context marked by wilful amnesia. We readily live and speak as if the past were mere overweight, prospect all that mattered. And we’re surprised that we’ve trouble coming up with a sharable account of who we are, what we’re about? Never, perhaps, has there been a time in which the practice of careful remembrance was more necessary, indeed a civic (and ecclesial) duty.
It was once common for votive plaques to be fitted in churches in thanksgiving for graces received. An object might take the place of a plaque: a crutch showing that the owner had no further use for it, a photograph of a long-awaited child.
An essential passage in the Gospel is the one in which Jesus, between Samaria and Galilee, asks the cleansed leper come to thank him: ‘Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine?’ (Lk 17:17).
I love this unpretentious ensemble. Loud gestures are not always needed to give thanks. Sometimes a pine cone says it all.
What matters is the consciousness of having been graced, then the capacity to respond graciously.
This morning I stood at a window holding a bowl of hot tea while watching a swallow circling a pond into which, every third round or so, it shot like a bullet. The window was shut, I couldn’t hear the swallow. But I could see its jubilation.
This afternoon I saw a paraglider under a billowing, bright yellow sail perform gracious wind-whirls, all the lovelier for being wholly gratuitous.
It struck me that the two were doing the same thing: making being explicit and delighting in it. What a splendid urge all creatures have to enact that line in Hopkins’s poem, almost a confession: ‘What I do is me, for that I came’. Yet how much distracts us from it. How easily we surrender to unselving and so accumulate, instead of joy, dispiriting sadness.
The saint we honour as Rose of Lima was born in Peru, to Spanish parents, in 1586, 23 years after the closure of the Council of Trent, which energised global Catholicism. In Rose’s life, this energy was manifest in strong dedication to care for the poor, which brings her close to the aspiration of contemporary Christianity. We may, by contrast, feel estranged by her life of mortification. For Rose, the Passion of Christ was not a subject for meditation. It was the vital atmosphere within which her existence unfolded. Her attachment to the Cross was radical. This is an aspect of the Christian condition that, today, we tend to forget somewhat. God, says St Paul in today’s Mass reading, calls us ‘to share the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ’. Now, that glory was supremely manifest on Calvary. To recognise this fact is not to yield to a morbid religiosity. It is to read the Gospel honestly, recognising our need for redemption and affirming the effective truth of the refrain the Church sings on Good Friday: ‘By the wood of the Cross joy entered the whole world.’ Thereby, not otherwise.
In a sermon, St Bernard or Clairvaux likens the Christian’s life in this world to a man who carries a flickering flame through a long, stormy night. The wind blows, the rain lashes down. To keep his flame from going out, he cups it with both hands, focusing all his attention on keeping it safe as he makes slow progress towards the Father’s house. What keeps his courage up is the certainty that he will, as long as he is faithful, arrive there one day. ‘And in that house not made with hands’, Bernard says, ‘there is nothing to fear. No enemy enters that house. No friend leaves it.’ The last remark is characteristic. St Bernard had a life-long charism for friendship. He knew that, in order to serve God, we have need of one another, and that this fellowship of truth-seeking hearts is life’s sweetest gift.
Quixote in Odessa
In his latest dispatch from Ukraine, published today in Dag og Tid, Andrej Kurkov reports that Minkus’s Don Quixote was performed, this week, at the Odessa Opera to a full house. To stage a ballet in the midst of war is an act of defiance, upholding the attainments of the human spirit in the face of brute aggression. One could interpret the choice of repertoire as high sarcasm. For this enterprise is not ‘quixotic’; it is bound to prevail. The spirit always does, in the long term. Last week, Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk remarked, continuing his exceptional wartime catechesis: ‘the cornerstone of any society is respect for the dignity of the human person and the sanctity of human life, from conception to natural death. Because it is from the dignity of a person that all other rights and responsibilities of a person derive.’ To be determined to counter ugliness with beauty is to display what dignity is, and so to spread hope far abroad.
Grandeur of Time
A quarter-century ago I heard Olivier Clément speak unforgettably of the virtue of slowness. The world has speeded up a lot since then. We need to hear voices that remind us of the craziness of constant acceleration. Like that of Marie Noël, who in 1946 noted: ‘Here, each evening, there comes a splendid moment: the homecoming of the oxen with the great cartloads of sheaves towering over them […], they appear, slow and majestic, to come straight out of eternity. Maybe Boaz saw their like. And maybe that is the true rhythm of work, the one God devised for man, that noble gait, that powerful, unhasting tread. Perhaps our Cathedrals were conceived and built without hurry or fret, and with the steady calm of mind and hands and only the vigorous effort measured to the day’s need. Perhaps all human labour, be it of soul or body, requires for its beauty something of the grandeur of time.’ From a precious Essay in Meaning translated by Pauline Matarasso, p. 239.
Ever since I first read Simon Wiesenthal’s book Recht, nicht Rache (Justice, not Revenge), the legacy of this nobly tireless yet unbitter maintainer of remembrance has marked me deeply. In a documentary now a few years old, Sir Ben Kingsley, who played Wiesenthal in the feature Murderers Among Us, speaks about his first encounter with a man he had to get to know, so to speak, from within. What struck him above all — ‘it has never left me’ — was the way in which Wiesenthal would spontaneously draw his hand across his face in a gesture of contained despair: ‘I have never seen anyone else physically embody a whole generation of grief in one gesture. He manages to tap into the collective grief and the understanding of grief in all of us, whatever our history. This I think is tremendously healing. Because if you cannot grieve over loss, you cannot begin to redress that loss and repair the damage done.’ Kingsley stresses, though, that there was more to Wiesenthal than the incarnation of grief: ‘As well as weeping all of his tears, he was a man capable of laughing all of his laughter.’
In 1949, 53 years old, having recorded his account of a war during which he’d endured and witnessed terrible things, faced now with the suffocation of Poland, Józef Czapski asked himself if it was still possible to paint. Should he paint, a new form of expression was called for — but was the pursuit of art even moral? He wrote to Hering: ‘All I want to do now is to disconnect myself from other painters, from the Louvre, from the methods, and to use all my passions to gnaw their way into some painting of mine. Maybe a painting of an old Jewish woman in a train or standing at the Otwock station is closer to my heart today than the most scrumptious Parisian ideas. My painting really seems to have no use for Paris. I have one good friend here who continues to blast me harshly for not painting. Even though I tell him, “But the sky is falling, and you want me to sit and paint?” And he says, “Maybe the sky is falling because you and the others have stopped painting.”‘ (In Karpeles, p. 268).
At the end of 1938, Edith Stein was moved from her monastery in Cologne to the Carmel of Echt in Holland. Her superiors hoped that, there, she would be less exposed to Nazi persecution. She had, however, as a Jew, to report in person to the occupying forces. Turning up at HQ in Maastricht, she was struck by its ordinariness. It was just a busy office like any other busy office, full of girls with typewriters, their minds half on the work in hand, half on their evening engagement. How deceptively innocuous is the bureaucracy of evil! Edith’s discomfort grew while she waited. It reached its pitch when she was summoned to appear before officers of the Gestapo, whose standard greeting was, ‘Heil Hitler!’ Edith promptly declared, ‘Praised be Jesus Christ!’ She later told her prioress she knew this response could be perceived as an outright provocation, but she could do nothing else. Then and there, she said, she was intensely conscious of being caught up in the age-old battle between Jesus and Lucifer. Each day’s task is to acquire wisdom to recognise the terms of this battle, courage to step forward when we are called, grace to let Jesus work his victory through us. His strength is made perfect in our weakness if only we place that weakness unreservedly at his disposal.
Beyond the Trivial
In an insightful review of a book I think I’m unlikely to read, Rowan William provides a throw-away, elegant definition of poetry. ‘Poetry’, he says, ‘is language so constructed that it lets us see beyond the trivial, exploitative, weaponized uses of words that are deafeningly present around us.’
The word ‘weaponised’ is unexpected, but it is spot on. It recalls me to this morning’s Vigils reading from the Book of Hosea: ‘Provide yourself with words and come back to the Lord’ (14:2).
It is a great and urgent civilising task to redeem words that have been taken hostage for violent purposes, to liberate them and enable them to metamorphose into praise, the highest, noblest form of free expression.
‘The faith of God in us makes, every now and then, one of us come true. And then a heart is rhymed to the very beat of God, a mind to truth, and a mouth to gospel, wooing the matter of humanity to God.’ I find these lines, written by Fr Simon Tugwell, printed as an epigraph to a fine new edition of the Dominican Libellus Precum published by the English Province of the Order last year. Fr Tugwell continues: ‘Such a man was Dominic, messenger of God’s love, a carrier of his infinite pain and hope, a hurricane and a haven, hurling torrents of peace through the civilised corridors of comfortable half-truths, of plump correctness and wizened zeal; to dwellers in ancient darkness long familiar, a disturbing possibility of day.’
May it please God to raise up men and women of such stature also now.
Rilke on Joy
‘These things have I spoken unto you’, says Christ in the Gospel, ‘that my joy might remain in you, and that your joy might be full’ (Jn 15:11). Joy, like peace, is a criterion of authenticity in spiritual discernment. It matters, then, to distinguish it clearly. On 31.01.1914 Rainer Maria Rilke wrote to Ilse Erdmann: ‘The reality of any joy in the world is indescribable; only in joy does creation take place (happiness, on the contrary, is only a promising, intelligible constellation of things already there); joy is a marvellous increasing of what exists, a pure addition out of nothingness. How superficially must happiness engage us, after all, if it can leave us time to think and worry about how long it will last. Joy is a moment, free of obligation, timeless from the beginning, not to be held but also not to be truly lost again, since under its impact our being is changed chemically, so to speak, and does not only, as may be the case with happiness, savour and enjoy itself in a new mixture.’
St Jean-Marie Vianney was an inspired pastor. The great message he conveyed concerned the Christian call to holiness, indeed, to divinisation. For Vianney it was axiomatic that the Christian is called to share in the very life of God. The tragedy of sin lay, for him, in the fact that it impedes the divine life in man and thus keeps him from his finality, the goal for which he is made, making it impossible for him to be truly happy. Consider a statement such as the following, from one of Vianney’s sermons: ‘Like a lovely white dove which emerges from the midst of the waters and comes to rustle its wings upon the earth, the Holy Spirit sets out from the infinite sea of divine perfections to come and agitate its wings upon souls that are pure, to impart to them the balm of love.’ Couldn’t we, in our day and age, do with rather more exposure to this message?
My main musical discovery this summer has been a recording released in 1972 of Zuzana Růžičková (1927-2017) and Josef Suk (1929-2011) playing Bach’s sonatas for harpsichord and violin. Suk and Růžičková introduce the listener into a wholly new, often surprising sonorous universe. Their interpretation is marked by intelligence, rigour, and (to use that unfashionable word) virility. Quiet passages resound with an almost unbearable tenderness free of appeal to superficial sentiment. The two communicate this music as an essential statement. They play Bach as if their lives depended on it.
When you read up a little about Růžičková, you find that hers literally did, in extreme circumstances. Her existence was deeply marked by Europe’s twentieth-century traumas, yet she seems to have been without bitterness. I recommend Peter Getzels’ cinematic portrait of this remarkable musician, available here – or on Medici.
Ashamed of our Face
In her fine 1997 series on the history of painting, Sister Wendy Beckett marvelled before the murals of Lascaux: ‘All these animals are beautiful. And centuries ago, when there was room on earth for all of us, how humankind must have yearned to be strong and beautiful, free, innocent — all the things that they were not, and we are not; and perhaps that’s why they made these images secretly in the earth, to honour the animals?’ Before the same murals, three decades earlier, Zbigniew Herbert had wondered at the comparatively inadequate, often disguised representation of man: ‘Man destroyed the order of nature by his thought and labour. He craved a new discipline through a sequence of self-imposed prohibitions. He was ashamed of his face, a visible sign of difference. He often wore masks, animal masks, as if trying to appease his own treason. When he wanted to appear graceful and strong, he became a beast. He returned to his origins lovingly submerged in the warm womb of nature.’ I wonder: are we not weirdly witnessing, now, a similar kind of retreat behind a similar kind of mask, inspired by a similar kind of shame?
Never More Bishop
What’s a bishop for? The list of answers is long. Ideally he should be all things to all people! Still, something basic is expressed in this account that features in Martin Mosebach’s important book, The 21.
‘In Wadi-Natrum, in one of the ancient monasteries which had grown into new greatness, it was announced to me that the very elderly Abbot, also a Bishop, would appear. A small door opened, and there was the old man, his gaze dreamingly absent. He stood up straight, but was visibly already resident in another world, with staff and cross in hand. Could he sense the lips that touched the back of his hand? His gestures of blessing were faint; still, he must have been conscious of the presence of the faithful. Never was he more a bishop than just then, nothing but the vessel of a more