Distinctive Voices

The Bible, writes Marilynne Robinson, displays ‘an interest in the human that has no parallel in ancient literature’. Her Reading Genesis is so thrilling because she understands this interest and shares it. Take Rebekah, who ‘alone in Scripture laments the discomfort of her pregnancy’. Did she feel let down by life? ‘Did Abraham send his servant to find a wife for Isaac, and forbid him to take Isaac with him, because Isaac himself was unprepossessing? […] Would the bride have been pleased to be brought to Sarah’s tent, and to comfort Isaac for the death of his mother?’ The more Robinson engages with Rebekah, the more she brings out her ‘very distinctive voice’ marked by ‘expectations she cannot bear to have disappointed, though I speculate, they have been disappointed since she first saw Isaac walking in that field. Disappointment is a very familiar turn in human affairs, therefore always relevant to the larger question of divine providence at work in it.’

Not Simply Itself

Early this morning, having listened to the BBC World Service‘s updated account of anguished realities in Ukraine and Gaza, of the forthcoming election in Great Britain taking place ‘against a pretty sour backdrop’ with voters not liking ‘any of the politicians or any of the political parties’, being citizens of a country ‘that senses it is on the wrong track and that life is getting worse’, I found myself reading an essay by Alice Albinia about a recent book, The Rising Down. It chronicles ‘the human experience of land and describes with acuity how the places we know are often linked through our experiences, thoughts and memories to other lands.’ The book’s author, Alexandra Harris, describes this as ‘the very common, complicated, unpredictable habit humans have of making places from other places, so that nowhere is simply itself.’ When this is acknowledged, Albinia writes, even patches of territory will be found to ‘sing’. It seems to me that political rhetoric worldwide moves in the opposite direction; and that that accounts in part for serial political, cultural and religious deadlocks.

View of China

One discovery leads to another. I’m interested in the linguist Ross Perlin’s work. He writes: ‘At the current unprecedented rate of language shift, a significant portion of the world’s cultural and linguistic diversity will disappear over the next century.’ As codirector of the Endangered Language Alliance, he documents languages at risk and supports linguistic diversity. Reviewing his recent book Language City in the New York Times, Deirdre Mask praises it as ‘a gorgeous new narrative of New York’. She throws in this aside: ‘I invite you, too, to binge-watch Perlin’s fascinating YouTube dispatches from China.’ The invitation was irresistible. That is, I haven’t binged, but have watched one now and again. In a series of ten-minute features filmed by his fiancée some 15 years ago, edited by a couple of mates, Perlin takes us on a journey to visit synagogues in Shanghai, shamans in the uplands, old people walking pet birds before settling down to mah-jong, roadside cooks. He converses fluently with natives in Chinese dialects while presenting a humane, witty, philanthropic account for his viewers – in Yiddish. This series is a phenomenon, heart-warming and enlightening. Take a look at A New York Jew in China.

Maturity

Ina Weisse’s film The Audition wasn’t a box office success, as far as I know; perhaps it couldn’t have been. The story of an ambitious violin teacher pushing a student over the brink is too marginal to engage the mainstream. There are cinematographic imperfections – excessive longueurs. Yet it is a powerful film, credibly displaying a Cain-and-Abel rivalry and, at the same time, a delicate and difficult motif present in art since Antiquity: that of a mother devouring her children. It is wholesome, albeit unpleasant to be reminded that the pursuit of beauty – of perfection in beauty – can be terribly compromised; and of how imbalance in our own lives can make us make impossible demands of others. There’s an exchange that will remain with me. At one point Anna Bronsky, the teacher, hears a recording of herself playing the violin. At first she cannot recognise her own sound. Then she remarks to her husband (whom she cheats): ‘It’s rather immature.’ He replies: ‘That’s what’s beautiful about it.’ One realises: When ‘maturity’ comes to spell ‘iron control’ or even ‘loss of innocence’, it can be fatal.

One Step

With elegance Daniel Capó draws an arc from the well-known line in Newman’s poem, ‘one step enough for me’, to the scene of an eleventh-century Iranian sheikh before a crowded audience in Tus, making the figure seem self-evident. What promise there is in a single step taken freely, benevolently towards another! It is a matter of caring and of accepting others’ care.

Capó notes: ‘We know we are fallible. We know no less that none of our faults — however grave they may seem — will define us forever. We are poor and weak, absolutely, but there is beauty concealed in this fragility of children. There is truth in it, too — in the image of a mother dandling her child on her knee; of a family tramping under the stars looking for a home. Love grants us this certainty. The one thing it asks in return is that we draw one step closer, from one heart to another, so to discover the substance and savour of humanity.’

Keeping Rubrics

I am reminded of a request one of my predecessors made to Rome a few years ago for a liturgical dispensation. It was not granted. Here is Gregory IX’s responsum to Archbishop Sigurd of Nidaros (medieval Trondheim) dated 8 July 1241:

‘Since we have learnt from your account that it sometimes happens in your country that children, for lack of water, are baptised in beer, we give you the following response: since according to evangelical doctrine it is needful to be born again of water and the Holy Spirit, those who are baptised in beer are not to be counted as rightly baptised [non debent reputari rite baptizati]’ (DH 829).

A marginal concern, but perhaps worthy of a footnote to Gestis verbisque?

Chastity Overseas

The last few months have seen many thoughtful responses to Chastity: Reconciliation of the Senses in the United States, where the book was published in January. I’d single out three. Nathanael Peters reviews the book in a contextual essay, stating a premise with which I am in full agreement, ‘I’ve come to see chastity as primarily a question of freedom’. He goes on to provide an illuminating juxtaposition with Maestro. Carl E. Olson is attentive to ‘a robust and self-aware anthropology’ and, a really important point, to the eschatological dimension of chastity. Jared Staudt engagingly writes of ‘the resurrection of chastity’ – and indeed there is much to suggest that it is not dead but, like Jairus’s daughter, ‘sleepeth’. He notes: ‘My largest takeaway from the book regards the way in which chastity fulfills our nature rather than diminish it’, and this delights me. It is a blessing for a writer to have careful readers. The book, already out in Spanish, is currently being translated into Italian, French, Portuguese, Swedish, Norwegian, and Greek.

What Is Truth?

A spate of reviews convinced me I should go and see Ilker Çatak’s The Teachers’ Lounge, which premiered in Norway yesterday. I am glad I did, though I can’t say it was a fun night out at the cinema. The film is painful to watch as it places its finger deftly in one societal wound after another. It touches issues of racial prejudice, surveillance culture, subverting rhetoric, and the backfiring of good intentions. At one level it can be seen as a critique of liberalism gone dictatorial, driven by a mixture of self-righteousness and a furious desire to please. But there is more. Mathematics are a motif, pointing towards the question of what constitutes an objective burden of proof. Can truth ultimately be proven? This question suffuses the whole. I was unprepared for the burlesque of the ending, set to a rousing interpretation of the overture to Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Puck’s final monologue in the play might provide one interpretative paradigm. The Biblically minded might find another in Leviticus 19.14.

Bonum facere

 

The German Bonifatiuswerk has done a tremendous amount to assist the rebirth of Norwegian Catholicism, enabling strong bonds of assistance and friendship.

To celebrate the foundation’s 175th anniversary, EWTN Norway has made a small video to chronicle the activities of the Bonifatiuswerk in the prelature of Trondheim.

You can watch the video here.

Athanasius

From The Shattering of Loneliness: ‘Athanasius does not maintain that all sensual impulses lead to God. There is a distinction to be drawn between our heavenly, ‘logical’ longing and our earthbound, ‘illogical’ desire. Yet the fundamental principle holds: any authentic longing, any longing that, even implicitly, points towards eternity, is a possible path towards God. Dying, Christ declared a sentence of death on death. Death alone is dead. In Christ, we go beyond what is ‘natural’ so that our nature, one with the Word, is no longer what it used to be. The condition of newness, which corresponds to what at first we were, makes of us, too, possible epiphanies. ‘Our arguments’, says Athanasius, ‘are not composed merely of words, but have the proof of their truth in experience itself.’ On this basis he concludes by professing the principal result of the Word’s incarnation: ‘He became human that we might become divine.’’

The Church celebrates the feast of St Athanasius today, 2 May.

Akhmatova

From the Notebook of Anna Kamienska:

Akhmatova. A thick volume of her collected poems, as if they were written by one person. But after all there were so many — from youth to old age. The elegant, refined lady and the old peasant who roars in pain and beats her forehead against the church floor: “Lord!” The poet thronged by crowds of admirers and snobs, and the old woman: wise, comprehending, like the earth, like a peasant rocking her dead child in her arms. […]

Music teaches us the passing of time. It teaches the value of a moment by giving that moment value. And it passes. It’s not afraid to go. […]

The dangerous passion for absolute purity. To evaporate with the atom. Wake up!

Poor Fit

In 1959, in Erasmus and the Humanist Experiment, Louis Bouyer wrote: ‘Many, indeed, consider that the Christians of the sixteenth century were unaware of what was required to christianise the immense fund of experiences and new realities that characterised their epoch, and that was why the new world broke from a Church whose representatives were incapable of emancipating themselves from their own set ways. This explanation is at once convenient and flattering for Christians today. It should cause no astonishment that many of them consider it all but axiomatic. They contend, in effect, that, were the modern world to pay them proper attention, their intelligent sympathy would quickly conquer it, and that this world remains alienated from the Church solely through the failure of its retrograde elements. Convincing though this thesis may at first sound, it is certain that such simplification fits in poorly with objective history.’

Blake

One is so accustomed to everything carrying a price-tag these days that it seems surreal to be offered something rich, instructive, and beautiful for free. But that is what happens if you go to the Fitzwilliam Museum to see William Blake’s Universe, on until 19 May. It is a fascinating show. I appreciated its endeavour of contextualisation, which goes beyond the obvious statement that Blake was a Romantic in a Romantic age. It stresses the conviction of several disconnected intellectuals around 1800 that Europe had gone spiritually bankrupt, that a new foundation must be laid. The very fact of such a collective conviction’s arising provides  food for thought now. Apart from that, I largely agree with Jonathan Jones’s well-written critique, though I admit I am less enchanted than he is. Jones notes: ‘The point of Blake is the ebullient and unique totality of his vision, which you have to dive into and embrace.’ The totalitarianism of Blake has a suffocating aspect that this exhibition evidences, also in its juxtapositions. A morning’s dip was sufficient for me. Afterwards I was content to emerge into a sea of concrete daffodils.

Living Vastly

Today’s collect begins with a tripartite confession. It formally lists names of God. At the same time it defines the human condition: ‘Deus, vita fidelium, gloria humilium, beatitudo iustorum’. On this account, true life unfolds in response to fidelity and trust; glory, the conforming of our being to divine nature, is a function of illusionless self-knowledge, known in tradition as humility; beatitude, the durable perfection of happiness, correlates to just reasoning and action. We are recalled to a fundamental tension of the Christian condition: sublime aspiration presupposes realism and calls out for implementation in positive action. There are no short cuts in learning to sustain this tension. It calls for perseverance, creativity, and  courage. It enacts a broadening of perception and of sensibility. To be a Christian is to learn to live vastly, to be drawn towards a horizon that forever broadens, though its coordinates correspond precisely to the intimate motions of our heart of hearts.

More Alive

With characteristic accents, Elizabeth Anscombe shares her remembrance of Ludwig Wittgenstein:

‘He had an extraordinary understanding of why people thought the things that they did think in philosophical argument, so that, when he undermined it, his undermining showed that he was getting at the nerve, the root: it was not a superficial refutation.

He also struck one as a great deal more alive than almost anybody else.

He also had an amazingly good judgement of what it was it was sensible to tell somebody to read, what was right for them.’

It is a wonderful tribute.

Learning to Pray

Before Mass this evening, I read this passage in Father Irénée Hausherr‘s Prière de vie, vie de prière, surely one of the most helpful books ever written:

‘There is talk of the “particular friendships” that are an obstacle to prayer. They are indeed. But it is above all “particular enmities” that render prayer impossible. Do not, then, do anything at all that would hinder you from giving yourself up, immediately afterwards, to peaceful silent prayer. For this to happen, “may God walk alongside you” [as Evagrius wrote]. That is to say: may no enterprise of yours be realised without prayer. The true path to contemplative prayer is life itself. It would be an illusion to dream of union with God by some means other than that practice which leads to contemplation.’

Undset in the East

 

Selma Ancira, distinguished translator of Russian literature into Spanish, shares an insight from ‘the book by Marina Tsvetaeva I’m in the middle of translating’. The great poet wrote to a friend:

‘And Sigrid Undset, have you read her? Kristin Lavransdatter. It’s a wonderful book. A Norwegian epic. The best thing that’s been written about the fate of woman. Faced with it Anna Karenina is a mere episode.’

 

Peregrine Falcon

The Ben Jonson epigraph, ‘Now thou but stoop’st to me’ all but sums up a poem by D.S. Martin that has accompanied me and in a way haunted me throughout Holy Week and Easter this year. It is a variation on the theme of the Hound of Heaven, though denser than Thompson’s famous text. At one level the key image is uncomfortable. The falcon is a bird of prey; its intentions are not benevolent. At the same time – anyone who has seen a falcon dive knows the reverence one feels, the stunning beauty of the spectacle. The associations evoked in a Scripture-soaked mind are relevant: we should not reduce the Bible’s likening of Israel’s God to an eagle (e.g. in Dt 32.11) merely to stuff for sentimental songs. There is exultancy and yearning in the last two lines. They seem to me appropriate for the Easter Octave. The invitation to effect a Sursum corda is ultimately an invitation to prepare for the definitive journey home, where the Risen Christ awaits us. We have here no abiding city.

The Fifth Evangelist

A reminder of my note from 2 April last year.

I think of something Elisabeth-Paule Labat once wrote: ‘there is more music in a single one of Schumann’s Kreisleriana or Kinderszenen than in an entire opera by Massenet, in a brief Bach chorale charged with mysticism than in the complete organ works, in themselves not uninteresting, of Pachelbel.’

The concentration of music, intelligence, and pathos contained in Bach’s Passions is miraculous. I have no other word for it. Jeremy Begbie has spoken of Bach’s music as ‘resonant witness‘. Justly, the Leipzig Master is known as the Fifth Evangelist.

If you want to go deeper into what we’re in the middle of on Holy Saturday, listen to this.

Choose Life

Abortion has again become a prominent subject in public debate. Norway’s Council of Catholic Bishops has just presented a statement on a proposed change to our country’s legislation on abortion. You can read our statement here. Here is a note about it on Vatican News.

It is heart-rending that reasoned discourse on abortion is often drowned in violent polemics or even sabotaged by violent gestures, as recently happened at the meeting of a pro-life student group in Manchester.

One of the most important things the Church can do, it seems to me, is to remind ourselves and others of just how complex this matter is, of what vulnerabilities are involved, of the responsibilities we carry. It is crucial to remember to see the subject from more than one angle. We need quietly authoritative statements like this one by Andrea Boccelli. Or like David Scotton’s in I Lived on Parker Avenue.

Hammarskjöld

The person, destiny, and legacy of Dag Hammarskjöld exercise perennial fascination. Interest has been nurtured in recent years by works of enquiry. Roger Lipsey’s Dag Hammarskjöld: A Life from 2015 is recognised as a watershed in scholarship. In a different register, Mads Brügger’s investigative film Cold Case Hammarskjöld (2019) opened the Pandora’s Box, hung with multiple locks, of the 1961 plane crash in which Hammarskjöld died. It signals conspiracy theories the viewer (left, as Ann Hornaday wrote, feeling ‘shockingly uncomfortable’) wishes were less persuasive. Last week Per Fly’s epic Hammarskjöld was launched in the Norwegian cinema. It raises questions – not least regarding the legitimacy of inventing a key character supposed to embody a tendency in Hammarskjöld’s life. Nonetheless, the film impressed me. I found the portrayal credible. One is left with much to think about that is of relevance. Faced with today’s array of global emergencies, one wishes one could look towards the UN as an objective arbiter fit to be an agent of peace only to discern, again and again, complexes of partial interest. The thought of Hammarskjöld prompts the question: Where on the international political scene do we now find voices worthy of our trust?

A Pastor

A recent conversation about Gregory of Nyssa’s De hominis opificio, a treatise for our times, taught me that the best Greek edition is still reckoned to be that of the Reverend George Hay Forbes (1821–75). I found an obituary of this singular man appended to a memoir of his brother. ‘An illness in early childhood had left him an incurable weakness of the limbs, […] but his ardent soul could not be satisfied without reaching onward to the highest form of service possible to him.’ This service was not least a matter of loving the Lord with all the resources of his mind. He was immersed throughout his life in the study of ancient texts. That did not make him aloof. People did not experience him as distant. This appears from the moving account of the day of his funeral: ‘While every window was darkened and every bell tolling, the whole population of the place, headed by the municipal authorities, followed the coffin down to the water’s edge where the steamer awaited it that was to convey it to the beautiful cemetery at Edinburgh. They watched the vessel quit the shore and then when they turned away there was many a touching token of the sad sense of bereavement which smote upon their hearts, as they felt that they should look upon his face no more.’

Remembering Well

In a strong statement issued yesterday, the Permanent Synod of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church recalled the importance of realism and responsible remembrance in discourse pertaining to Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine: ‘Ukrainians will continue to defend themselves. They feel they have no choice. Recent history has demonstrated that with Putin there will be no true negotiations. Ukraine negotiated away its nuclear arsenal in 1994, at the time the third largest in the world, larger than that of France, the UK, and China combined. In return Ukraine received security guarantees regarding its territorial integrity (including Crimea) and independence, which Putin was obliged to respect. The 1994 Budapest memorandum signed by Russia, the US, and the UK is not worth the paper on which it was written. So it will be with any agreement “negotiated” with Putin’s Russia.’ The synod further remarks: ‘It is worth mentioning that every Russian occupation of Ukrainian territory leads to the eradication of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, any independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church, and to the suppression of other religions and all institutions and cultural expressions that do not support Russian hegemony.’

Lætare

There’s a festive expectancy in our liturgy. The Church likens Lent to a pilgrimage. Today we stand on a promontory with a view on Jerusalem. We rejoice in the distance already covered. We rejoice that our destination is in sight. In the collect we pray for grace to ‘hasten towards the solemn celebrations to come.’ There has to be a spring in our step. We are called home. The word ‘home’ has a sweetness unmatched by any other word. Our home is not necessarily where we come from. Think of Israel: the men and women who came home to the Promised Land had never seen it before; they were born abroad. Many of you gathered here will have had similar experiences. The home you have made for yourself is premised on a departure, in some cases a painful departure, from an original home that no longer feels like home. Where am I at home? Where do I belong? These questions are crucial for us humans. They’re not always easy to answer. (From a homily for Lætare Sunday)

Rembrandt

The Jonathan Sacks Foundation, thank God, still circulates the rabbi’s texts. This week’s reflection on the Parashat Vayakhel cites Rav Kook‘s observation: ‘Literature, painting, and sculpture give material expression to all the spiritual concepts implanted in the depths of the human soul, and as long as even one single line hidden in the depth of the soul has not been given outward expression, it is the task of art to bring it out.’ Elsewhere the Rav wrote about his habit of going to see Rembrandt paintings in the National Gallery: ‘We are told that when God created light [on the first day of Creation, as opposed to the natural light of the sun on the fourth day], it was so strong and pellucid that one could see from one end of the world to the other, but God was afraid that the wicked might abuse it. What did He do? He reserved that light for the righteous in the World to Come. But now and then there are great men who are blessed and privileged to see it. I think that Rembrandt was one of them, and the light in his pictures is the very light that God created on Genesis day.’ This light, Sacks adds, unveils ‘the transcendental quality of the human, the only thing in the universe on which God set His image.’

Oikoumene

I have spent the past forty-eight hours at a pastoral congress in Sweden on ‘The Heart’s Discipleship’ organised by the journal Pilgrim, to which I am privileged to contribute as a columnist. There were over 300 participants from a broad spectrum: Lutheran, Free Church, Catholic, and Orthodox. Conferences and seminars were excellent; conversations were deep; liturgies were prayerful; the atmosphere was cordially hospitable. The fact that such an encounter is possible at a time when the wind has largely gone out of the sails of institutional ecumenism is significant. I am strengthened in a core conviction: the way to Christian unity, a Gospel imperative, must set out from personal encounters; it will proceed through friendship and mature through trust, which takes time to develop; its goal will be a deepening of life in Christ, the Truth, nothing less; its impetus will be the call to conversion; along the way shared silence will be at least as important as a multitude of words.

Nugax

At Lauds today, the Church gives us this prayer among the intercessions: ‘Libera nos a malo nosque a fascinatione nugacitatis, quae bona obscurat, defende’. The English breviary translates, ‘Set us free from all evil; show us in the confusion of our lives the things that really matter’. That is woefully inadequate. The phrase ‘fascinatio nugacitatis’ occurs in the Vulgate translation of Wisdom 4.12 and has deeply marked Christian consciousness. In Latin, ‘nugax’ refers to something (or someone) that is trifling or frivolous. Lewis and Short render ‘nugacitas’ as ‘drollery’. The nugacious tendency draws us away from earnestness, from engagement. It distracts us, persuades us that nothing really matters much. It seduces us with entertainment and prospects of immediate satisfaction. It seems innocent but in reality, as the prayer says, it ‘obscures the good’. It subverts the very categories of good and evil. It is ultimately joyless. ‘Nugacitas’ sums up contemporary pop culture in a nutshell. It is beneficially countercultural to pray to be ‘defended’ from it. We are called to be mindful of essential boundaries. A fragment by Pascal reads: ‘Fascinatio nugacitatis. That passion may not harm us, let us act as if we had only eight days to live.’

Silence & Darkness

Werner Herzog’s 1971 documentary The Land of Silence and Darkness is ostensibly a portrait of Fini Straubinger, a philanthropist devoted to the care and instruction of the deaf-and-blind, having herself lost hearing and sight after a childhood accident. More fundamentally the film is an induction into a mode of existence redoubtable in its intensity and abstraction. It lets us intuit the possibility of solitude so overwhelming that the mere thought of it is shocking. Herzog is a keen, unsparing observer, sometimes outraged by what he sees: certain scenes would be unthinkable in contemporary reportage. Yet there is deep humanity in his gaze, and respect for the unknown grandeur of pathos in certain destinies. The final sequence, showing a man cut off from human commerce embracing a tree, is a poetic statement at once beautiful and searingly painful. The articulate Miss Straubinger speaks of the Seelengwalt, violence of soul, afflicting the deaf-and-blind. Its specificity is incomprehensible to anyone who has not known it; yet this extreme experience points towards a universal aspect of the human condition. This film, difficult at times to watch, is deeply affecting. It raises timeless, necessary questions.

Finis terrae

On a pastoral visitation this morning to the isle of Leka at the northern frontier of the prelature of Trondheim – an island over which sea eagles fly, whose strangely coloured rocks are of a kind otherwise only found in America – I remembered Christ’s injunction reported in the Acts of the Apostles, ‘You will be my witnesses to the ends of the earth’, and thought, ‘Well, here we are’. It is impressive to encounter the austere majesty of the scenery and the gracious, hospitable kindness of a small community determinedly making a living in this place, as people have done for ten millennia. How to respond and correspond to the Lord’s missionary call? By remembering, precisely, our smallness and God’s greatness; by being humbly mindful of the long history of which we are part; by listening in quietness to the Word by which all things were made; and by believing in the Word’s continued, effective power to make the weak strong, to create something out of nothing, to heal any wounds – as today’s collect reminds us in its audacious affirmation: ‘Lord God, you love innocence of heart, and when it is lost you can restore it.’

 

Inhuman Intelligence

I was heartened to read Eric Naiman’s angry essay about students handing in ChatGTP-generated papers about The Brothers Karamazov. He sees in this trend a resurfacing of the Grand Inquisitor’s ruses, a cowardly relinquishing of responsibility, be it just for having an opinion, for formulating reasoned statements. Added to that, there’s the humiliation of being expecting to honour the pseudo-creations of a robotic engine: ‘Taking stock of the queasiness and rage that was overcoming me as I looked at my mounting pile of AI compositions, I understood how nauseatingly insidious the work of the machine has become.’ Some students – even at Berkeley – regard the machine’s output as a standard exceeding their own. I was struck by Naiman’s observation: ‘Eventually students who work with ChatGPT may become so adept at understanding what “good writing” looks like that they will not even need to use it: they themselves will become artificially intelligent. That won’t be an improvement, because an essay that sounds as though it were written by a computer is no better than an essay actually written by one.’

Sebald

I was given WG Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn as a birthday present almost thirty years ago, started it but didn’t get on with it. The book ended up languishing on my shelves until, somehow, I lost it. I had a vague sense there was unfinished business attaching to it. In 2019 I picked up Die Ausgewanderten from a second-hand book store almost as an act of reparation for negligence. These past few days I have read it at last, with a depth of emotion no book has provoked in me for a long time. Anything I might say about it sounds trite even before words are uttered. The beauty of Sebald’s prose is almost unbearable; the brittleness of the destinies he draws is affecting. The reader feels entrusted with a treasure of immense significance in the light of which his own life demands to be reread. Perhaps I needed all this time of waiting to be ready. Mark O’Connell has observed that reading Sebald is ‘a wonderfully disorienting experience’. I’d say it is no less an experience that might lead you home.

Grant Gee’s film about Sebald can be found here.

Prayer is Power

The voice of His Beatitude Sviatoslav Shevchuk remains a light in the world’s darkness. In an interview given for the second anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, he reflects on prayer – and thereby outlines, too, a perspective on pastoral care whose substance, rooted in compassion, reveals the shallowness of certain current platitudes: ‘We are living in the midst of adversities, pain, tragedy, constant danger of death. There is pastoral care of people who are suffering, who are crying. Very often you can say nothing. You can only be present, cry with those people and share their pain. That pain affects you, because by sharing, you are bringing in your heart their pain. And you have to be careful what you will do with this, too much pain in your heart. This pain in a certain way contaminates you. And you have to pray. This is how we are rediscovering the importance of prayer, because prayer is not a symbol, a ritual, a simple ceremony. Prayer is a power which goes through your heart. Prayer is communion with God. Prayer is something which transforms you and the reality around you.’

Saying Yes

In a reflection on the feast of St Scholastica, Mother Christiana Reemts cited a book by Hans Urs von Balthasar: ‘Love is limitless agreement with God’s will and providence, whether this will has already been expressed or not; love is a resolute Yes in advance to everything, whatever it may be, even the cross, even immersion into absolute abandonment or forgottenness or futility or insignificance. The Son’s Yes to the Father; the Mother’s Yes to the angel, carrier of God’s will; the Yes of the Church in all her members to her sovereignly provident Lord.’ The abbess went on to observe: ‘There are statements that, when I read them, leave me with the certainty: Yes, this is exactly how it is, even though I fail again and again to live up to what they ask. Even when I rebel, justifying rebellion by appeals to ‘what is just human’ or to the example of Job, the longing to utter an unqualified Yes remains. For only that will make me truly happy.’ Cf. Notebook 6 May 2022. 

Focus

Worth reading is the 2024 edition of Focus, the Norwegian Intelligence Service’s assessment of current security challenges. It states that ‘the Russian armed forces remain the main military threat to Norway’s sovereignty, its people, territory, key societal functions and infrastructure’. There is a section entitled ‘Russia’s Permanent Break with the West’: ‘Moscow expects a lengthy confrontation with the West and has identified a need for expanding the Russian armed forces. According to official plans, the armed forces will increase from 1 to 1.5 million soldiers by 2026. The Moscow and Leningrad military districts will be revived, and new units will be formed in Karelia. Russia is also set to establish several new infantry and airborne divisions. An expansion of the military structure on this scale will be a time-consuming and challenging process, particularly due to the war. Although Moscow’s plans are first and foremost political posturing, some changes may take place near Norwegian borders already this year. […] Even before the war, Russia was in the process of reducing the number of brigades and reintroducing the division level, as according to Russian thinking, divisions are seen as better suited to fighting a regional war with NATO.’

A Global View

Almost two years ago (Notebook 6 April 2022) I referenced a 2003 speech by Otto von Habsburg about Vladimir Putin. As far as I can see, this video is still not available with English subtitles. It is a pity, for it is instructive. Perhaps somebody who knows how to do this sort of thing could look into it. Anyone curious meanwhile about the relevance of Habsburg’s understanding of Russian policy might consult a paper on ‘The Globalisation of Politics’ from 2006 partially available here: ‘During the period from Stalin to Putin, Russian imperialism has always nurtured the objective of reconquering Ukraine, folding it into Russia and using it for further operations against Poland and other parts of Europe. That turns Ukraine into a critical location within Europe and necessitates its integration into the EU. This circumstance has not been considered seriously and is, therefore, dangerous. It could still be corrected today were one ready, once and for all, to recognise the need for a genuine European policy.’ Reflections in terms of ‘What if?’ are often futile; but not always. One is drawn to ask a further question: Who, now, proposes or is even interested in a genuinely European, not to mention a global policy?

Lent

Lent is a time during which to deepen our prayer. If anyone seeks advice on how to go about it, I recommend again Dom André Poisson’s text on The Prayer of the Heart:

‘I cannot possibly pray without praying in my body. When I turn towards God, I cannot abstract my incarnate reality. It is not merely a question of religious discipline if certain gestures are prescribed, if certain material conditions direct me, when I turn to God. These are pointers to the one and only truth: God loves me the way he made me. Why should I want to be more spiritual than he? This is how I shall learn to live at the level of my body with its constraints, whether I eat, sleep, or rest, whether I am ill or exhausted. Between God and me, such experiences are not obstacles.’

You can find the text in English here. Here is the French original. An unofficial Polish version can be found here.

No Eloquence

On the news yesterday, I heard an aid worker express noble rage at the idea that Israel, in view of the planned assault on Rafah, would simply send one and a half million people ‘up a country road’. The misery in Gaza is unconscionable. While remaining committed to a view that remembers the full complexity and global tragedy of the ongoing war, one cannot but be aghast at the destructiveness of the Netanyahu regime’s campaign, which makes the well-known passage from Exodus 21, ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth’, appear for what it is: a disposition of justice, to keep vengeance within bounds. The other day, I happened upon an interview with Mourid Barghouti (whose I Saw Ramallah is a book to re-read at this time) from 2008. It gives much food for thought. Barghouti’s cited poem keeps ringing in my ears: ‘Silence said:/truth needs no eloquence./After the death of the horseman,/the homeward-bound horse/says everything/without saying anything.’ I also keep thinking of this piece by Ahdaf Soueif, Barghouti’s translator.

Mäkelä

For more than half a century Bruno Monsaingeon has been making revealing films about music and musicians. He has come a long way since producing his portrait of Nadia Boulanger in 1977, but the founding intuitions back then were right, they have simply matured. He has now brought them to bear on the 28 year-old Finnish conductor Klaus Mäkelä. We are given insight into a musical vocation marked by freedom and intelligent joy. Mäkelä’s bonhomie that does not feel forced. It seems to transmit a genuine delight in others, united by music. Striking is his respect for musicians. He is demanding, but does not shout; he is wary, he says, of using too many words. A conductor must transmit his message through presence. If he sufficiently embodies his vision, he will not need bombastic gestures. I have never before seen someone conduct an ensemble with his eyebrows. This courtesy before artistic greatness and before artists indicates a pedagogical model transferrable to other walks of life. Monsaingeon says he considers Mäkelä the greatest conductor of the 21st century. Worth watching.

A Great Actress

No one who saw Helene Weigel (1900-71) perform seems to have forgotten the experience. Her diction, gestures, and sense of drama were meticulously equilibrated. A biographer has written that ‘Weigel’s movements on stage were employed deliberately and economically, as the actress believed that too many details would lead to an extreme naturalism that could ruin a character’. That’s worth remembering also on the stage we all share of ordinary life. Weigel’s great-heartedness was proverbial. I love the story of how she, a signed-up member of the Communist Party, took pity on the FBI agent assigned to watch her house on a bitterly cold day during her WW2 American exile, so invited the fellow inside, ‘where’, she said, ‘he could observe her more easily’. On YouTube I have found this recording sparkling with intelligence of Weigel reading works by her husband Bertolt Brecht. Oh, the mystery of the human voice! Though Weigel has been dead for half a century she becomes tantalisingly near as we hear her tell of Giordano Bruno’s overcoat, a story of tenderness, of the composition of the Book of Tao Te Ching and of the Soldier of La Ciotat. And what noble indignation in her rendering of Brecht’s Class Enemy.

Transhumance

Mireille Gansel’s Traduire comme transhumer is at once an autobiography and an essay on the translator’s art, which like all art presupposes craft. The notion of transhumance is suggestive. It refers to the practice of moving livestock from one grazing-ground to another in a seasonal cycle, permitting the finding of like nourishment differently. Gansel has dedicated her life to the translation of massive, complex works. She has rendered Paul Celan and Nelly Sachs; she has revealed the sonorous universe of Vietnamese poetry. With quiet authority she evidences rather than argues that literature has a political dimension in as much as it transgresses boundaries, making me see that understanding does not always come from drawing the other to myself, but from letting myself be drawn into it: ‘I well remember that morning when the snow was thawing and I sat at an old table under darkened beams and suddenly realised: the stranger is not the other, it is I — I who have everything to learn, to understand from him. That was no doubt my most essential lesson in translation.’

Music of Colour

When I grew up it was common to find prints of Harriet Backer (1845-1932) in people’s homes; the art of this gifted impressionist had penetrated national sensibility, had become national property. I missed the exhibition dedicated to her work at the National Museum in Oslo this winter, unfortunately. The website remains a good resource, though I suspect Backer, of whom her friend Hulda Garborg said, ‘I have never known a more contented or happier artistic soul’, would have liked to be remembered more as an artist in her own right, less as a woman breaking gender stereotypes. The exhibition’s didactic material is a sterling example of our time’s myopia, a distinct disadvantage when it comes to looking at pictures. In Oslo the show was called ‘Every Atom is Colour’. When it removes to the Musée d’Orsay in the autumn it will be called ‘La Musique des couleurs’. A happier choice. Harriet’s sister Agathe, a pupil of Liszt’s, was a composer of note; music recurs as a visual motif in Harriet’s painted interiors. More essentially, do not her very colours sing? And do we not pick up, still, a note of contentedness that has become strangely unfamiliar to us?

Zone of Interest

I have frequently been moved at the cinema; I have been fascinated, sometimes outraged; but I have never emerged from a screening feeling as battered as I did after seeing Jonathan Glazer’s The Zone of Interest. Though praise is not unanimous (you may consider Manohla Dargis’s review in the NYT, but I think she missed the plot), the film has earned great critical acclaim. There is a substantial body of commentary emerging. Sean O’Hagan calls The Zone of Interest ‘a study in extreme cognitive dissonance’. It is also an account of deliberate, self-induced moral paralysis. I have never experienced such a profoundly auditive film. The drama unfolds at two simultaneous levels: the level of what you see and the level of what you hear. It made me think of the Book of Revelation, in which sight and sound are frequently in contrast, but intelligence of the whole comes from what you hear. The sound design is by Johnnie Burn. He has remarked: ‘even though you don’t ever see the horror, it is by far the most violent film I have ever worked on’. To call this film timely is an understatement. It is necessary. I urge you to see it.

Habitus

A young nun of Ryde reflects on the religious habit, first from her perspective of seeing others wear it, incursions of otherness into the fashion-world of a modern university town: ‘While in the colourful hotchpotch everyone was trying to express ‘himself’ as best he could, the habit gave its wearer an ordering to a community, to a meaningful whole, even if only that one member of the whole was to be seen. Curiously, the habit seemed to me to emphasise the essential personality of its wearer, in contrast to the elaborately accessorised conformity I could see all around it.’ She then speaks of the experience of actually wearing it: ‘The habit reminds me continually who I am – a child of God whom the Lord has graciously placed in his service – and it demands of me that I do justice to this calling. What could better express a total self-gift to Christ than a garment which surrounds me entirely, like a second skin?’

You can read the whole piece here.

Sweep of the Real

In a rich, multifaceted essay prompted by the passage through Spain of a Norwegian Cistercian, Armando Pego reflects on ways to avoid a trap into which exegetes are prone to fall. He defines it as the tendency to separate as if it were a matter of two incompatible planes literalism on the one hand from symbolism on the other; or science on the one hand from poetry on the other. Pego contends that such tidy categorisation fails to take account of reality. It fails to take in, quite simply, the full sweep of the real. The letter, he says, is part of the story; but does not exhaust it. There are points at which it must be exceeded, where mere literalism fails to do justice to things as they are. This holds for the interpretation of ancient texts. I’d say the principle can be applied no less to journalistic accounts of current events. How often are not what we are given to think of as ‘facts’ instrumentalised as tools of a blatantly partial, even willingly falsifying discourse? It is good to be helped to think about these things; to think about how we communicate and how we perceive others’ communication.

Poetry of Silence

A friend has sent me a link to this documentary about the abbey of Mariawald. From one point of view the film, produced in 1959, is old-fashioned and quaint; from another it is cutting-edge. There is poetry to it. It convincingly shows that quality of contented lightness which marks authentic monastic life, though one hardly ever sees it portrayed, for people who have not themselves experienced it presume that a life of prayer and penance must perforce be grim and weighed down by self-conscious solemnity. The monk is presented here as a man profoundly engaged in the drama of this world, yet deliberately choosing and maintaining a life apart. In a rush to affirm their relevance and to seem attractive, monasteries sometimes forfeit this apartness, thinking the ancient ideal of fuga mundi outdated. This reversal rarely generates, in my experience, vitality over time. Indeed, as monks and nuns seek to revitalise their charism and call, a portrait like that of this short film gives food for thought. It has a romantic aspect, yes; but is nonetheless fully matter-of-fact, a simple reminder that a vow to give all requires a giving all in fact.

To Be a Human Being

John Bridcut’s portrait of Janet Baker is not just an account of a distinguished life; it is a distillation of humanity. Baker speaks of the death of her brother when she was still a child, a shattering event from which she was excluded by parental solicitude. ‘It was food in a terrible way for the kind of sensitivity I have needed in my working life, a tremendous gift to me from him.’ This early experience, she thinks, sealed her vocation as an artist, equipping her for a paradoxical ministry of consolation: on account of it, ‘somewhere in my voice there is this capacity to reach out to this place in people’, ‘this place’ being where one feels that life is just too much, that it’s impossible to carry on. To be able to re-read trauma in such a way, renouncing bitterness, testifies to exceptional maturity. The vitality that marks her art remains undiminished in old age. Baker speaks of taking the train into London now, ‘as a doddery old woman’, finding herself in a crowd of youngsters ‘at Covent Garden’, finding it ‘totally terrifying’ and ‘also totally exhilarating; they feel just like I did at 20, and I am so glad.’ ‘ It is not an easy thing’, says she before the film ends, ‘to be a singer; but it is far more difficult to be a human being.’ One cannot help feeling that, despite all, she has succeeded rather wonderfully.

Voicing War

Wilfred Owen was 25 in 1918, when he wrote in The Calls: ‘For leaning out last midnight on my sill,/I heard the sighs of men, that have no skill/To speak of their distress, no, nor the will!/A voice I know. And this time I must go.’ Having come back to Britain to be healed of Shell Shock, he felt the moral imperative to return to his comrades, to use his gift to speak the ineffable, to ‘cry [his] outcry’. The resolve cost Owen his life.

War can awaken poetic genius, enabling testimonies that pierce the carapace of indifference and insensitivity in which we clothe ourselves, for no one can endure being exposed to extreme stress, even to the thought of extreme stress, over time. Such awakening is happening in our time, at the Ukrainian front. The young poet Artur Dron writes work marked by sobriety and intensity, imbued with faith. If you are not yet familiar with his The First Letter to the Corinthians, do read it. Read it aloud.

 

Very Bones

The bishop Diadochos of Photiki, a small town in north-west Greece, was born about 400. He is believed to have been among a group of Epiran notables captured during a Vandal raid when he was well over 60, to be shipped off to North Africa where he eventually died. Diadochos did not spend life cozily cooped up in an ivory tower or a quiet cell. It is all the more impressive to read this testimony from his treatise On Spiritual Perfection: ‘Anyone who loves God in the depths of his heart has already been loved by God. In fact, the measure of a man’s love for God depends upon how deeply aware he is of God’s love for him. When this awareness is keen it makes whoever possesses it long to be enlightened by the divine light, and this longing is so intense that it seems to penetrate his very bones. He loses all consciousness of himself and is entirely transformed by the love of God.’

A longing so intense it seems to penetrate one’s very bones.

Heaven’s Gate

From a conversation with Bénédicte Cedergren about the consecration of the monastery church at Munkeby:

Reflecting upon the distinctiveness of the place and the historicity of the event, Bishop Varden emphasized that “in a way, there is nothing special about this monastery,” explaining that Cistercians usually seek withdrawal, rather than to be seen or heard. The very Constitutions of the order specify that the monks are called to persevere in a “life that is ordinary, obscure and laborious.”

“In that sense,” the bishop continued, “this monastery is as normal as any other. But at the same time, every abbey is heaven’s gate and, in that sense, something absolutely extraordinary.”

You can read the whole piece here, in the NCR.

Umbrellas

I have watched again Les Parapluies de Cherbourg. For all its garishness, for all its being locked in time (a production of ’64), it remains a moving, humane, and powerful film, a credible evocation of passion and vulnerability, of doubt, generosity, despair, and the possibility of new beginnings. Rich in emotions, it somehow manages not to be sentimental. Michel Legrand’s score is brilliant, of course, and has been interpreted by great divas. But it is the acting that makes the film immortal. Catherine Deneuve at 21 is extraordinary in the role of Geneviève. Having seen her in this film one takes for granted the stellar career that was to follow. Anne Vernon, 100 last week, is likewise impressive as Geneviève’s mother. When her daughter is tempted by self-hatred during an unwanted pregnancy, she penetrates as a matter of course the morass of her own conflicting emotions and declares with authority and conviction: ‘A pregnant woman is always beautiful’, a statement full of self-evidence we nonetheless need to hear.

They don’t make ’em like that anymore.

Religious Life

Zena Hitz’s book is presented as a philosopher’s view of religious life. What does that mean? Hitz is a learned woman. She has mastered the canon of philosophical writings; she refers to Plato and Husserl with easy familiarity, as if they were squash partners with whom she lunches. The point of the book, though, is not to shower the reader with quotations or technical terms. Hitz shows herself a philosopher chiefly in the sense that she asks “Why?” about things we take for granted. She states that her intention is not “to do justice to the enormous variety of religious communities and their influence on Christian life”—to analyze, say, the Neoplatonist strain in the Cappadocians, the mendicants’ part in rehabilitating Aristotle, or the Benedictine response to the French Revolution. This is a book designed not to flaunt learning, but to seek understanding: “I am a philosopher, and my gross ignorance, like the ignorance of Socrates, provides opportunities.” The approach works. It is refreshing, given that literature on religious life is often weighed down by ponderous self-affirmation.

From my review of A Philosopher Looks at the Religious Life in the latest issue of First Things.

Opposites

I love the passage from Sirach in today’s Office of Readings: ‘All things go in pairs, by opposites, and he has made nothing defective; the one consolidates the excellence of the other’ (42.25f.). We are offered a hermeneutic for inhabiting the world. We also get a much-needed key to self-understanding. It involves an acceptance of tension. On the one hand, I am asked to believe I have been given all I need to reach a personal, unique perfection. On the other hand, I am told I cannot reach this perfection alone. It will come to me through relationships with others, my ‘opposites’, whose differences are not in principle a threat, but a contrast needed to reveal my possibilities and potential. This perspective offers a serenely helpful corrective to an assumption present in much contemporary, secular discourse, which takes it for granted that I am defective and must repair this perceived deficiency self-sufficiently. Taken to extremes, it is an outlook that generates terrible solitude. The Biblical way of seeing meanwhile draws me into encounters and discoveries, into grateful communion.

Seminal

In a review published in La Lectura, the literary supplement of El Mundo, on 5 January Daniel Capó writes of Chastity: ‘It is, undoubtedly, one of the year’s seminal books and should be recognised as such.’ He goes on: ‘Chastity looks toward the horizon of a naturalness lived integrally, of a man reconciled with his senses, his personality ordered according to his deepest inclinations: not towards evil or selfishness, but towards a greatness that manifests in the form of service. ‘This hope,’ we read, ‘is illumined by a flicker of ontological remembrance. We perceive it in both body and mind, variously with delight and with pain, as a yearning for infinity.’ It seems no one escapes the thirst for the infinite that comes to us as a memory of a prior love. Precisely because we were first loved and knew the sweetness of that love, we are also capable of loving. This seems to me an anthropological truth. And Erik Varden explores it in his essay with unusual vigour.’

You can read the full text here.

Enter Other Lives

Reading Emily Kopley’s essay – a cracking piece of writing – on the new five-volume edition of Virginia Woolf’s diaries, I am moved by a particular entry she cites. It is from August 1937, shortly after Virginia’s nephew Julian Bell, an ambulance driver in the Spanish Civil War, had died when his vehicle was bombed in Fuencarral. He was 29. The entry reads: ‘A curiously physical sense; as if one had been living in another body, which is removed, & all that living is ended. As usual, the remedy is to enter other lives.’ Remarkable is not only the testimony to familiar closeness, showing that a statement such as ‘his life is mine’ can be verified experientially, but even more the indication of a remedy for grief. Sorrow tends to make us retreat into ourselves. No!, says Woolf. Instead it must open us up, extending our compassion. For her this process took place primarily in the realm of the imagination. The tragic end of her life shows that she was not able to live up to her counsel. That, however, does not invalidate it.

Christ’s Baptism

‘By his descent into the River, Christ marries a world of promise to one of reality, transposing the future tense of prophecy into the present. He is conscious of his passage through the waters as ‘fulfilment’ (Mt 3:15), and so is the Baptist, himself a bridge (on one bank the greatest, on the other, the least), who testifies to the horizontal, historical axis of the event. Christ utters no word, makes no gesture, and the action he performs is not in itself extraordinary. He follows a throng of anonymous others. But while they drown individual loads of guilt in the Jordan by intention, he carries the totality of sin in his body and for real (cf. John 1:29). The categorical ‘in him’ that underpins the Christology of the Pauline corpus with locative force becomes effective here, on the threshold of God’s Israel, as Christ enters fully, freely into his mission. The crossing happens secretly, but silence is broken when the Father’s voice erupts in jubilant approbation. It establishes a vertical axis of praise— praise that, in this instance, resounds from heaven to earth. It reminds us that Christ’s offering is directed, not towards a faceless Transcendence but to a Father who receives it thankfully and seals the exchange by sending the Spirit in the form that once flew forth from Noah’s hand, hovering upon the waters, unable to find rest for its feet in a drowned and stricken world, yet now coming to ‘abide’ (Jn 1:33) on the first fruit of a new creation.’ From an essay on liturgy.

About the Soul

No one has done more than Tiina Nunnally to enable the rediscovery of Sigrid Undset in the English-speaking world, revealing her as an acutely modern writer, not a producer of mock-medieval mush. Nunnally’s awaited translation of the great cycle about Olav Audunssøn is now complete. In the Christmas issue of the TLS, Hal Jensen writes: ‘Undset takes us right into the minds of Olav and Ingunn, giving voice to their thoughts, matching the big themes of sin, forgiveness, repentance and duty with the subtlety of her understanding of the psychology by which humans attempt to wriggle out of their uncomfortable moral predicaments. Sin is not a crude slogan here, it is a thing of slithering and wavering, delusion and self-deception, well-meant promises to self and self-defensive rationalizations. Undset records these internal trials with the same clear and non-judgemental eye that she brings to natural history. Although there is a strong religious element to the setting, she never climbs to the pulpit. Nor does she reach for any waffly rhetoric of transcendence. There is, however, a cumulative and mesmeric immensity to her focus. This is how to write about the soul.’

 

Theotokos

Each new calendar year begins with the twin feasts of the Theotokos on 1 January and of Sts Basil and Gregory on the 2nd. They carry especial significance this year. Everyone now has pet theories about the various crises of the Church. As far as I can see, there is only really one big crisis: the gradual eclipse of a true understanding of who Jesus Christ is. Catholics recognise that Jesus intervened with singular force of presence in history, but more and more fail to see him – such is my perception – as Lord of history, as the divine Logos or Reason by which (and by which only) things and destinies reveal their meaning. Once this sense is lost, all sorts of compromises begin to seem not only appealing but necessary with regard to one’s conduct and with regard to one’s understanding and proclamation of the faith. Basil and Gregory brought forward the Athanasian legacy which upheld the doctrine of Christ’s divinity, ignored and laughed at in a world, and Church, that ‘groaned to find itself Arian‘. Is a similar groan, uttered with ennui, not perceptible in our time? The determination of Basil and Gregory prepared and made possible the definition, at Ephesus in 431, of Mary as truly ‘Mother of God‘. It remains a touchstone of Catholic faith. We are called, indeed obliged, to test all our thoughts, actions, sentiments, and procedures by it.

New Year

It has become a tradition that I celebrate new year with the nuns on Tautra. Driving north this afternoon, past multiple stores advertising cheap fireworks, I rejoiced at the prospect of seeing out 2023 in a setting of simplicity and recollection. I kept thinking of the words of Paul VI, from a speech he gave in Nazareth in 1964, set as the second reading for Vigils this morning, for the feast of the Holy Family: ‘May esteem for silence, that admirable and indispensable condition of mind, revive in us, besieged as we are by so many uplifted voices, the general noise and uproar, in our seething and over-sensitized modern life. May the silence of Nazareth teach us recollection, inwardness, the disposition to listen to good inspirations and the teachings of true masters. May it teach us the need for and the value of preparation, of study, of meditation, of personal inner life, of the prayer which God alone sees in secret.’ There is stuff, here, for a realisable, life-giving resolution for the new calendar year.

Hungarian Shattering

‘‘The peace of heaven’, wrote Abbot de Rancé in one of his letters to the Duchess of Guise, ‘is only for those who will have preserved it on earth.’ To preserve peace, I must find it, not as an abstract ideal, but as historical reality. I must seek reconciliation with my past. I must never forget my redemption. I must learn to be grateful, then strive to live a life that is worthy of the freedom won for me. In this way, even memories of time spent in the cruellest captivity can become a source of peace, erupting in praise.’

From The Shattering of Loneliness, which this week was published in Hungarian, by L’Harmattan.

Happy Christmas!

Coram Fratribus will take a little break during the Octave.

Thank you for your interest in the site, and for your encouragement.

To accompany you through these luminous days, here is Leontyne Price singing Vom Himmel hoch with the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Karajan. If you want something to read, how about Selma Lagerlöf’s The Christmas Rose? If you go here, you can either read it yourself or have it read to you.

Today’s collect: ‘O God, who wonderfully created the dignity of human nature and still more wonderfully restored it, grant, we pray, that we may share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity.’ Here is the decisive paradigm we need for life and thought.

Happy Christmas!
+fr Erik Varden

In medio Ecclesiae

At a time of polarisation in society, and in the Church, it is good to take up position squarely in medio Ecclesiae armed with supernatural faith. One finds this position embodied in Mère Cécile Bruyère, first abbess of Sainte Cécile de Solesmes. On 18 May 1885 she told Mère Aldegonde Cordonnier: ‘Ruins are our only building material.’ Five years later she developed this image in a letter to Dom Albert L’Huillier: ‘If you knew how clearly I can see that God founds nothing, builds nothing except with ruins, impossibilities, paralyses. It is like a mysterious game played by eternal Wisdom on the earth’s orb. I exhort you to pour all your worries, anxieties, and prognostics into the lap of God. After all, we risk nothing, we who have not to eternalise ourselves here below. Success and victory are won for us, and cannot be taken away. Let us believe that all will likewise be well for the Church we love.’ She was fond of saying: ‘We must live our Creed; that’s what gives strength for everything.’

Blessing

The question of what is and isn’t a blessing, what can and cannot be blessed, has always exercised theologians.

A helpful, careful reading of today’s declaration from the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, Fiducia supplicans, can be found in Luke Coppen’s analysis for The Pillar. Among the insights of the piece is one gleaned from a footnote, often a fruitful source of reflection, that at least implicitly frames the pronouncement. It is a text drawn from a homily by Benedict XVI for the Solemnity of the Mother of God in 2012: ‘Like Mary, the Church is the mediator of God’s blessing for the world: she receives it in receiving Jesus and she transmits it in bearing Jesus. He is the mercy and the peace that the world, of itself, cannot give, and which it needs always, at least as much as bread.’ Let us, then, invoke that mercy upon the Church and on the world, living in a way that makes us fit to receive the supersubstantial bread that alone can transform our lives. O Adonai! Veni ad redimendum nos in brachio extento.

Art of Life

It is a high form of charity to recognise in others qualities they’d no idea they had, to see a potential they might not have expected, thereby giving them courage to keep trying, to grow and blossom.

Someone able to see in this way is Ana Zarzalejos Vicens, whose profound and witty essay ‘Beer and Chastity: The Art of Living‘ appeared yesterday, filling me with gratitude.

She sums up something I said in Madrid in the following phrase: ‘If you’re going to play the great game of humanity, don’t let anyone downplay its significance for you!’

I stand by that message, glad to hear it resonate.

Opening Doors

‘The word of salvation does not go looking for untouched, clean and safe places. Instead, it enters the complex and obscure places in our lives. Now, as then, God wants to visit the very places we think he will never go. Yet how often we are the ones who close the door, preferring to keep our confusion, our dark side and our duplicity hidden. We keep it locked up within, approaching the Lord with some rote prayers, wary lest his truth stir our hearts. And this is concealed hypocrisy.’

From Custodians of Wonder: Daily Pope Francis, a florilegium just published by Silentium.

You can read the book’s preface here.

Dead Leaves

For the sixth year running, Finland is top of the UN’s Happiness Report. Talking to happiness-hungry foreigners, Finns will tend to nuance the nomination. How do they address the question among themselves? Go and see Aki Kaurismäki’s film Fallen Leaves. I did this week. I loved it. I wasn’t the only one. At the end, the audience clapped. The setting is contemporary. At regular intervals, people switch on the radio. The talk is unfailingly of Russian atrocities in Ukraine. Finland shares a boundary with Russia that is 1340 km long. One is reminded of the precariousness of things. Interiors and costumes might as well be from the 70s. Technical advances, we are left to surmise, do not change deep sensibilities. Authority is largely presented as callous. There is no idealisation of structures. Finns aren’t happy just because their country works well. Kaurismäki points to the source of wellbeing in the tenderness with which he portrays individuals, their vulnerabilities, foibles, and mad hopes. There are moments of great beauty. Also, the film is brimming with liberating self-irony. The point is not trivial. I find it to be a rule that the happiest people I know are are the ones best able to laugh at themselves.

Books of the Year

It’s the season of book supplements.

Chastity made it onto George Weigel’s list compiled for First Things. He writes: ‘In Chastity, Bishop Varden explains just why that much-misunderstood virtue is a matter of living what John Paul II called ‘the integrity of love.”

In The Tablet, Dom Luke Bell writes: ‘With an extraordinary sensitivity to the meaning of words in languages ancient and modern, Erik Varden’s Chastity: Reconciliation of the Senses is a brave and timely book which restores the full resonance of the virtue of chastity. Grounding his reflection in the ancient Syriac text The Cave of Treasures, he finds it to be about seeing with unclouded gaze, “attentively and reverently”. With culture and humour, he leads us to the sublimity of the beatific vision.’

Liturgy

Today marks the 60th anniversary of Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Second Vatican Council’s constitution on the sacred liturgy, a document worth re-reading from time to time.

For me, the most essential part of Sacrosanctum Concilium is this: ‘Christ Jesus, high priest of the new and eternal covenant, taking human nature, introduced into this earthly exile that hymn which is sung throughout all ages in the halls of heaven. He joins the entire community of mankind to Himself, associating it with His own singing of this canticle of divine praise’ (n. 83). It is a wonderful, endlessly fascinating statement. By means of it the Second Vatican Council reminded us that liturgical worship is essentially mystic incorporation —  through Christ, with him, and in him — into the ineffable communion of the Blessed Trinity. This theological dimension must ever remain a criterion for liturgical practice, even more for liturgical change. It reminds us that the liturgy is not a human project; it is a work of divine transformation, a novitiate for eternity.

From a conversation with Luke Coppen, for The Pillar.

St Andrew

‘Modern psychology has taught us much about sibling rivalry, believed to be among the primary relations that form a life, with the potential to really mess it up. Research gleaned from the analyst’s couch is corroborated by Scripture. Think of Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Leah and Rachel. What twistedness, what pain, we see in these pairs of brothers and sisters! It is interesting, then, that in recruiting for the apostolic college, seeking heads for the Twelve Tribes of the New Israel, Christ should have wished a high percentage – one-third – to be blood brothers. If Christ assumed these complications into his closest band of followers, it was perhaps to show that natural limitations, relational conditioning, can be overcome if we truly become disciples. James and John, Peter and Andrew, grow in faith and stature through the Gospel account, to the extent that, after Christ’s rising, they are ready to be sent, each with his itinerary, to the ends of the earth, to proclaim life’s victory. They’ve grown up. They’ve left themselves behind. Thus they’re freed for mission.’ From Entering the Twofold Mystery.

Shielding Yourself

‘What photography does is to make you bold beyond your normal powers, it’s a way of shielding yourself.’ Ian Jeffrey makes this statement about Dorothy Bohm in Richard Shaw’s documentary Seeing Daylight. The film is a moving account of the great photographer’s life, a remarkable testimony to a way of seeing that is at once acute, illusionless and compassionate. Jeffrey again: ‘For a short period during the 40s and 50s tenderness dominated photography’. Dorothy, he remarks, ‘lived in that particular world’. She somehow managed to keep it alive. Her photography is marked by philanthropy. She grew up amid trauma. She was conscious of the advances achieved during her lifetime. Yet, as a Financial Times tribute observed: ‘Bohm’s greatest wish, in a world where billions of images are carelessly created every single day, is more poetic than political: slow down and take the time to really see the world around you, she says. Look through your eyes, rather than your phone.’

Choreography

We are culturally conditioned to think of discipline or rules as standing in contrast to spontaneity and freedom. The perception is mistaken as a matter of principle. I’ve recently reread a great essay by Lord Sacks that touches on this subject. Speaking of the resilience of Israel’s faith, he reflects that ‘love remains strong after 33 centuries. That is a long time for love to last, and we believe it will do so forever.’ Then he asks:  ‘Could it have done so without the rituals, the 613 commands, that fill our days with reminders of God’s presence? I think not. Whenever Jews abandoned the life of the commands, within a few generations they lost their identity. Without the rituals, eventually love dies. With them, the glowing embers remain, and still have the power to burst into flame. Not every day in a long and happy marriage feels like a wedding, but even love grown old will still be strong, if the choreography of fond devotion, the ritual courtesies and kindnesses, are sustained.’ It is helpful for Catholics to apply this insight to themselves, to the rich tradition handed on to us.

Light from Light

Today the sun was seen for the last time this year in Tromsø. It will not be visible again until after 14 January. To look forward to Christmas in such a climate is singularly meaningful. The great themes of the liturgy – ‘and in that day there will be a great light’ – speak with urgency; and we are challenged to face with courage the darkness in our own hearts, our constitutional need for illumination. For no amount of Vitamin D can make up for the absence over time of the Light from Light. In the words of a lovely seasonal hymn composed up here in the north, we sing: ‘This is for us the hardest turn/we struggle to drag ourselves forwards/towards light and Advent/Bethlehem seems a long way away.’ It can, though, be brought electrifyingly close. What is it to ‘love the light’, to choose to come to it (cf. John 3)? Long winter nights make the stakes come alive.

The Crucified’s Victory

Christians of the Middle Ages saw in Nicodemus one who had pierced the mystery of the Passion. A tradition arose that attributed works of art, moving representations of the Crucified, to Nicodemus. He was considered the creator of both the Holy Face of Lucca and the Batlló Crucifix. It is significant that our forbears found him apt to be a sculptor, master of a tactile art, forming what he had seen with his eyes, touched with his hands. Without needing to debate the veracity of such ascription, we can recognise in it perennial symbolic validity. Nicodemus is an example for us who strive synodally to be true disciples and seekers after holiness. Why? He stays away from facile polemics and theatrical gestures. Still he follows the Lord wherever he goes. When he is needed he offers his service and volunteers his friendship to the community. He shows us what it means to be faithful in the darkness of Good Friday. Contemplating the crucified, entombed Christ, he had wisdom to recognise in desolation something sublime, a glorious, divine revelation. Thus he became an authoritative witness to the Crucified’s victory. Truly, this is an attitude the Church needs now.  

From Synodality and Holiness, now available also in French, Italian, and Polish

Pauline Matarasso RIP

In my view, the best book on the Cistercian patrimony, alongside Bouyer’s Cistercian Heritage, is Pauline Matarasso’s The Cistercian World. Pauline, a woman of formidable culture, had an understanding of the monastic life that was at once intellectual and connatural. Introducing the third abbot of Cîteaux, she observed: ‘All that Stephen Harding touched bears witness to his pursuit of authenticity, of the spirit that only the authentic letter can set free.’ It is a brilliant insight. She was well placed to produce it. Spirited pursuit of the authentic letter defined her distinguished career as a translator (of medieval epics, of Bobin and Noël), historian (e.g. of her revered father-in-law Isaac Matarasso), and essayist. Even as she lay dying she kept translating, committed to finding and making sense accurately and beautifully. She was one of the noblest, most gracious people I have ever known. She once wrote: ‘Whereas a tiger is born, we are made, and in most of us the making process is still incomplete when death takes us, however late.’ I’d say what had been made when death came to her last Wednesday had reached a kind of perfection. May she now know in fullness the loving truth she sought with fidelity and, unknowingly, radiated.

Leavings

This is the dying time, when earth 
relinquishes its surplus.
These words once mine
blown on a cool wind 
from the lost land of the mind 
settled last night like quiet birds 
on memory’s shore. 
I greet them with surprise – 
together we will journey blind, 
probing the ever shifting sands, 
unsure of what’s in store . . . only 
that there is more.
Before a shivering silvered night 
lures to a feast the spoiler frost,
be quick to pick, cost what it may,
the late fruit on your tree,
– there’ll be no more –
and leave it on the roadside stall
where the merchandise is free
to all who pay their dues in kind
for other walkers on the way 
where less is more

Pauline Matarasso (1929-2023)

Consecration

Thirty years have passed since I first saw Nicolas Dipre’s Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple in the Louvre. For having been painted half a millennium ago, it is strikingly contemporary. The Virgin waves fondly, a little bashfully to her parents as she makes her way up the winding temple stairs. Anna and Joachim wave back. They’re visibly filled with pride and foreboding, trying not to show sadness at the parting. All of us can recognise this scene: the first significant departure from home, the sense of suddenly following our own path with all that it entails: responsibility, excitement, anxiety. The story of Mary’s presentation is apocryphal. That doesn’t mean it isn’t true. It shows us that a decisive Yes to God’s call, like the one the Virgin gave at the Annunciation, is prepared by innumerable hidden, unspectacular yeses. By small steps we consecrate our will, our being to a higher purpose. The temple stairs are a parable of our life. ‘One step enough for me‘. Yes. What matters is to take the one which is today’s.

Interest

This angel is a detail from a painting from about 1360 on display in the Thyssen Collection in Madrid: The Virgin of Humility with Angels. The viewer is impressed by the elegance of the ensemble. I find myself especially intrigued, though, by the representation of the angels, a subject dear to fourteenth-century artists. According to Biblical evidence, these ethereal beings are charged with a ministry of perfect worship before the face of God, yet here is a specimen contemplating a human reality, the Infant Jesus in the Virgin’s arms, with a most engaging interest. The expression on the angelic face is marked by keen curiosity. A key aspect of Christian faith is thus articulated. The incarnation of the Word does not simply restore human nature to original integrity. It realises a potential for divinisation that leaves even the seraphim astonished. The anonymous Venetian painter’s angel spurs us on to self-examination: Am I conscious of, and do I cooperate with, what God might realise, through pure grace, in my redeemed human frame?

Belshazzar

The office of readings today gives us the account of Belshazzar’s feast (Daniel 5,1-6,1), a supreme example of human presumption. Deliberately and pointedly, Belshazzar publicly profaned objects dedicated to a sacred purpose, his intention being to show himself superior to any purportedly divine institution. While his act of blasphemy was being carried out, ‘the fingers of a human hand appeared, and began to write on the plaster of the palace wall’. The message spoke of measurement, weighing, and division. It did not voice an angry judgement, simply an affirmation that Belshazzar, a ruler of men, was unworthy of the task, not up to it. That same night he was eliminated by his staff.

There is a timeless parable in this biblical story. For each of us there is stuff for self-examination. Would I, on being weighed, be found wanting, or would I correspond to the legitimate estimate? Let’s not forget that in Biblical Hebrew, ‘weight’ is correlative to ‘glory’.

Ordinary?

‘Teresa of Ávila’s Autobiography, completed in her fiftieth year, chronicles the irruption of the divine into an ordinary life. Seeing Teresa at a distance, we may object to the adjective ‘ordinary’. She seems anything but! Teresa, however, argued this point with passion. She was conscious of singular favour shown her; but she insisted that nothing in her nature marked her out from the common run of men and women. She presents her life in its extraordinariness as a typical life, an exemplar each of us might emulate, had we but faith and courage to surrender to God’s work in us. The trajectory she traces reaches from the outset right to the loftiest end of spiritual life. She counsels souls who wobble ‘like hens, with feet tied together’ but also those who soar like eagles. Nor does she forget the perplexing darkness of the long intermediate stage when the soul, like a timid dove, is dazzled by rare glimpses of God’s Sun while, ‘when looking at itself, its eyes are blinded by clay. The little dove is blind’. Everything she writes, she tells us, is born of experience. For long years she herself ‘had neither any joy in God nor pleasure in the world’. She lived in an in-between state, a no-woman’s land. What changed it?’

From a talk given in 2015.

Responsibility

It was stirring to read today’s Gospel (Luke 17.1-6) in the Carmel of the Incarnation in Ávila, St Teresa’s monastery of profession. The Lord calls us to responsibility. We are to make sure our options do not cause scandal to others. Hearing this text today, we may think chiefly of massive, public scandals, but the admonition applies no less to everyday life. Does this particular choice I make edify or break down communion? The criterion is useful in any circumstance. Jesus asks us, too, to take responsibility for others. Not to take over their lives. Each must answer for his or her freedom. But we can help each other to see clearly. ‘If your brother sins, reprove him’. We shall do this effectively if we speak the truth in love, gently holding up a mirror that reflects reality to one lost in illusion. To forgive as Jesus bids us, with endlessly renewed hope of amendment, we must pray daily, ‘Increase our faith’, a prayer embodied in the life of Saint Teresa. The courage she had to review her vocation in the light of faith, to deepen what were already good choices by better choices, then to stick to them, was a source of profound renewal for the Church in a time of decadence. Her example encourages and challenges us to do likewise. 

Digital Man

Among Ximo Amigo‘s paintings exhibited at the Encuentro Madrid is this one, entitled ‘Digital Man’. The formal reference is to a long painterly tradition of chiaroscuro; we might think of Georges de la Tour’s La Madeleine au Miroir. Whereas she, though, is rendered warm, present by the light that illumines her, her features accentuated, Amigo’s figure’s face is all but obliterated by the eery light issuing from his iPhone. He acquires an alien character. That is the great strength of the canvas. It represents a determined act of self-estrangement.

The picture is unsettling. One feels like passing it in a hurry. I found myself nonetheless compelled to pause before it — to let myself be challenged and examined by it. And to recognise an arresting account of a peculiarly modern experience of loneliness.

Dedication of the Lateran

‘What matters about the Lateran, the cathedral of Rome, is this: by its dedication, the mystical Church was shown, urbi & orbi, to be palpable and real. It was placed on the map. Constantine marked the Lateran out as a place of intersection. ‘Here’, he proclaimed, ‘our earthly city encounters that of heaven; here God’s kingdom impinges on ours.’ Like Jacob he discerned, in this transient world, the very house of God. When we recall his act of solemn dedication, we, too, say: God is with us! We give thanks for God’s mercy touching our lives in the Church, when we receive the sacraments, when we meet as church to worship, to serve. The Lateran, Mother of all churches, stands as a pledge of our ecclesial communion, making it visible. It is a wonderful gift! Yet it points beyond itself. That is the lesson taught us by our readings. A touch of Noli me tangere, of ‘Do not cling to me’, marks all manifestations of grace in this world.’

From a sermon for 9 November.

Putting up with us

Since the death of Cormac McCarthy on 13 June, tributes have been numerous. The world has lost one of its greatest, most challenging modern writers, brought up a Catholic. I have read with interest an appreciation by Valerie Stivers. It concludes with this beautiful reflection on one of McCarthy’s novels: ‘By the end of the final novel in the Border Trilogy, Cities of the Plain, the protagonist, Billy Parham, has seen much. In the final scene, a woman gives him a place to sleep. He can make little sense of his life and tells her, “I aint nothin. I dont know why you put up with me.” She responds: “Well, Mr Parham, I know who you are. And I do know why. You go to sleep now.” The Blessed Virgin Mary? Holy Mother Church? It’s foolish to try to pin McCarthy down. But it’s also foolish to ignore the invitation to rest in something, perhaps Someone, who knows us, even to the depths of our wickedness, and who puts up with us and knows why.’

House of Brede

Nuns in films these days tend to conform to two stereotypes: either they cheerfully respond to the spotlights, shedding inhibitions they never knew they had; or they embody gothic horror, subject to unimaginable captivities. There is not much verisimilitude in either extreme. I was thrilled when I discovered the other day that YouTube houses a flickering but still watchable copy of In This House of Brede, George Schaefer’s adaptation for the screen of Rumer Godden’s 1969 novel. Godden knew monastic life and understood it. Not for her saccharine or horrific caricatures. Brede, a Benedictine abbey modelled on known houses, is a place in which people learn what it really means to live, to give up illusion, not to encounter others as projections of one’s own loss or desire. ‘We had to learn’, says a key character, ‘to care less for each other and more for all the rest’, a model of the widening of the heart that engenders not estrangement but homecoming. Sr Philippa, played by Diana Rigg, speaks at the end of an ‘incredible sense of belonging – in the world’, recognition that can be a genuine fruit of contemplative living. The film is not perfect, but worth seeing.

Not la-di-da

It is sometimes supposed that studying ancient literature is a pastime for la-di-da layabouts wanting to seem clever or for irremediable nerds. What nonsense. The thing about great literature (and if people have bothered to transmit certain texts for centuries, there’s a good chance there’s greatness there) is that it takes us to the heart of things, enabling us to see clearly. I am stirred by Irina Dumitrescu’s piece on Beowulf in today’s TLS. It is the clearest commentary I’ve seen on much that we’re now living through, albeit at a distance. ‘[M]anufactured nostalgia is one way to make the violence of conflict bearable’. ‘Monsters can be vanquished – the hatred fomented between neighbours abides’. ‘How easy it is to miss the grief of others’. Dumitrescu notes that translators often ease the motif of fear out of the text. Why? ‘I have no proof, but I suspect some editors needed the Danes and Geats to be heroic for their great epic. The lesson of Beowulf is not the glory of war, though, but its inevitable failure. At the poem’s end a Geatish woman sings in grief and terror. She knows what war will bring: slaughter, humiliation and captivity.’

Worry

The board of governors of the Jewish community in Oslo has issued a strong appeal: ‘It is imperative that more people use their influence to resist hate-speech of any kind. We invite all to avoid simplification and prejudice leading to greater polarisation and hatred.’ The appeal is noble, in many ways timeless; but it issues from concrete circumstances, provoked by threats and violence against Norwegian Jews. That such a thing should occur is shameful. Anyone is free to have an opinion about a political regime; entitlement to voice an opinion is fundamental to our notion of society. Though to translate antipathy towards a regime into acts of hatred against a people is not just simplification, it is idiocy. Nothing is a surer sign of cultural decadence than then fact that antisemitism again raises its ugly head. Instruments against decadence are informed insight, learning, humanity, readiness for conversation — and spiritual values. As our poet Nordahl Grieg wrote, only spirit can halt an accelerating drift towards death. We all have our part to play, indeed we are morally obliged to play it.

La Valse

Poulenc, at 22, was present when Ravel first performed La Valse for Diaghilev, who had commissioned it. ‘Ravel arrived very simply, with his music under his arm, and Diaghilev said to him, in that nasal voice of his: ‘Well now, my dear Ravel, how lucky we are to be hearing La Valse.’ And Ravel played La Valse with Marcelle Meyer, not very well maybe, but anyway it was Ravel’s La Valse. Now at that time I knew Diaghilev very well. I saw the false teeth begin to move, then the monocle. I saw he was embarrassed. I saw he didn’t like it and was going to say ‘No.’ When Ravel had got to the end, Diaghilev said something which I think is very true. He said ‘Ravel, it’s a masterpiece. But it’s not a ballet. It’s the painting of a ballet.’’ Nonetheless, the work has proved immortal. It has been subject to the most outlandish interpretations. This performance is terrific. Towards the end Marta Argerich, normally of such austere appearance when she plays, beams with delight.

Education

It is interesting to note what Sigrid Undset, a complex-free woman, wrote about sexual eduction in schools back in 1919.

“It goes against the modesty of children, against the modesty of any human being, even to imagine a casually gathered assembly forced to sit and listen to an exposition of sexual life. Not even the crudest presentation face to face could in reality do proportionately as much harm. It is said that this is done in order to keep sexual life from standing in a mystical light — as if it were not precisely the mystical light that distinguishes human sexual relations as specifically human; the mystique resultant upon the fact that we have dragged these relations through all available mud, and exalted them high above all the stars. This is precisely what children cannot understand: the infinite possibilities of baseness and exaltation. Only a human being possessed of the urge can understand it. For sexually indifferent natures the business will seem common, bizarre, ridiculous, and unpleasant — it cannot be otherwise for a normally developed healthy child.”

Response

In his recent autobiography, François Cheng insists he is no sage. Yet he writes wisely. He describes a nocturnal experience on a balcony in Tours, seated underneath the Milky Way: ‘I am there, in this grandiose night bursting with splendour, posed between the heavenly river and the earthly river. Compared to the incommensurable volume of the cosmos, my being is so minuscule it seems inexistent. My eye is no larger than a grape, my skull no larger than a coconut, yet I am he who has seen and known. At the heart of eternity, be it for a few seconds, all is not there for nothing, for this beauty has stirred my being. What is this inexplicable paradox? What is the design of the creative force, let us say the Creator, who brought about the cosmos and Life?’ The poet answers by means of further questions: ‘Could he have contented himself with the stars that turn indefinitely without knowing it? Would he not have needed someone to respond, beings graced with a soul, a spirit, as we are, to make sense of his Creation?’

St Luke

Today we keep the feast of St Luke. He was, writes Paul (Col 4.14), a physician. A physician, like a priest, gets to know humanity well. It is his privilege to accompany people through vulnerable, sometimes anxious stages of life. A good doctor becomes a good observer. That is quality amply expressed in Luke’s Gospel. Many of the best drawn profiles in the New Testament – the prodigal son, Zacchaeus, the woman bent double – are from his pen. His influence on our culture’s imagination is immense. It followed as a matter of course that he got a reputation for being a painter. To learn to see truly, to see ourselves and other people as we are, fragile but bathed in mercy, with a tremendous ability to transcend ourselves, to be transformed by God’s power, is an essential part of the Christian condition. Today we might ask: Do I see in this way? Do I want to learn to see in this way?

Oratorio

Christian proclamation has always been pluriform. The mystery of the Divine Word exceeds what words alone can express; so art comes to the rescue – painting, music, sculpture, and architecture. A Norwegian oratorio based on the life of the apostle John was premiered in May this year. The music, ambitiously conceived, was written by Ole Karsten Sundlisæter to beautiful texts by Dordi Glærum Skuggevik. Musically speaking, I’d say the strongest parts are the most lyrical, like Mary’s account of the resurrection (‘31.10) or the dialogue between Jesus and John that follows John’s question, ‘Are you Lion or Lamb?’ (‘52.58). The sword that pierced Mary’s heart is powerfully, maternally evoked: ‘I understand so little! Your paths recede into death and the night, into darkness and the thicket. I gave you my ‘Yes’, but not to this!’ The Light shines in the darkness, to transform it. The message from John’s Gospel here finds an articulate, contemporary voice.

John XXIII

The name of John XXIII, that beloved pope, is often invoked a little reductively. We like to think of him as a rotund, friendly old fellow who cracked jokes and opened windows. These associations are not untrue; but they are incomplete. There’s an austere aspect to Pope John’s magisterium we should not forget. I find it helpful now to re-read his encyclical Paenitentiam agere dated 1 July 1962, in view of the opening of Vatican II. By this letter, he asked all Catholics around the world to help prepare the council — how? By doing penance. ‘Doing penance for one’s sins is a first step towards obtaining forgiveness and winning eternal salvation.’ Leading mankind to salvation is what the Church is about. An Ecumenical Council, ‘a meeting of the successors of the Apostles, men to whom the Saviour of the human race gave the command to teach all nations and urge them to observe all His commandments’, must be preceded by a global examination of conscience and concrete signs of repentance, like those adopted by the Ninivites at Jonah’s preaching. The ‘manifest task’ of the Council, wrote John XXIII would be ‘publicly to reaffirm God’s rights over mankind, whom Christ’s blood has redeemed, and to reaffirm the duties of redeemed mankind towards its God and Saviour.’ Have we today that same priority, or are we more concerned with what we perceive as God‘s ‘duties’ towards us?

 

Home

News from the Middle East is so awful, opening such dreadful vistas, that I am left numbed. Hamas’s terrorist attack, its hostage-taking are inexcusable; at the same time Israel’s political course prompted a BBC journalist to ask a pundit yesterday, ‘Could Israel not see this coming?’ I keep thinking of a sequence from Spielberg’s Munich from 2005. Avner Kaufman’s Mossad unit, working secretly, winds up in Athens sharing let accommodation with a Palestinian group. Tension is high, yet there is the possibility of encounter at a human level. There’s a wonderful scene with a radio. Out in the hallway, the leaders of each unit talk – really talk, with a flicker of understanding. They could be brothers. A door could be opening. At the end of the exchange, one says, as if speaking for both, ‘Home is everything’. The following day they are fighting each other to the death. There is a parable in this. Unravelling now in the Holy Land is the curse of Lamech, ‘If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold’ (Genesis 4.24): a spiral of vengeance with no end. Men must choose to end it, led by the voice of God, one of whose Biblical names can be read to mean, ‘He who says: Enough!’

Fosse

On a visit to Lisbon in Eastertide this year, I was touched to see the poster on the right. There he was, Jon Fosse, whose voice seems to me so quintessentially Norwegian I wouldn’t know how to begin to translate him, quite as a matter of course, seemingly at ease, on a billboard in Portugal, unselfconsciously cosmopolitan. Reading the press this week, I’ve been struck by the repeated stress on the universal aspect of Fosse’s work. He is, of course, deeply rooted in a global culture. It is wonderful to have a distinguished poet who is himself a translator, used to grappling with sense, noting that his version of Kafka’s The Trial aspires to the utmost accuracy, ‘each and every word’ having been weighed, who can say about the Greek playwrights, ‘they have very distinct voices, Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles. It’s very easy for me to hear and to write that voice in the way I write, in my language, in this time’. The universal in the particular, the particular in the universal: a perennial give-and-take that can be a cliché, but which in cases like this Nobel Laureate’s is electrifying because the creative act of writing is such a serious, essential business for him. Wisdom is born thereby, and beauty, a song like no other song.

Subversion

Professor Ritchie Robertson recently wrote about Willa and Edwin Muir: ‘The religion with which the Muirs were most familiar was Scottish Calvinism, and they roundly rejected it. Edwin tells in his autobiography of seeing, in a Glasgow slum street, a young man repeatedly hitting another for no apparent reason. To remonstrances, the aggressor replied, “I ken he hasna hurt me, but I’m gaun tae hurt him!”. In retrospect at least, Muir found this an image of Calvin’s predestination: God has decided before the beginning of the world who will be saved and who damned, and mercilessly inflicts a punishment which its victims have done nothing to deserve. Muir explored Calvinism further in his hostile biography of John Knox (1929) and in a remarkable essay, “Bolshevism and Calvinism” (1934). The Calvinist and Bolshevist elect, he argues, both consider themselves saved and anticipate with satisfaction the damnation or extinction of sinners and bourgeois.’ The aptitude human beings have for institutionalising, then rationalising their subversion of high ideals is fascinating and redoubtable.

Subversion

I keep thinking of something Professor Ritchie Robertson recently wrote about Willa and Edwin Muir: ‘The religion with which the Muirs were most familiar was Scottish Calvinism, and they roundly rejected it. Edwin tells in his autobiography of seeing, in a Glasgow slum street, a young man repeatedly hitting another for no apparent reason. To remonstrances, the aggressor replied, “I ken he hasna hurt me, but I’m gaun tae hurt him!”. In retrospect at least, Muir found this an image of Calvin’s predestination: God has decided before the beginning of the world who will be saved and who damned, and mercilessly inflicts a punishment which its victims have done nothing to deserve. Muir explored Calvinism further in his hostile biography of John Knox (1929) and in a remarkable essay, “Bolshevism and Calvinism” (1934). The Calvinist and Bolshevist elect, he argues, both consider themselves saved and anticipate with satisfaction the damnation or extinction of sinners and bourgeois.’ The aptitude human beings have for institutionalising, then rationalising their subversion of high ideals is fascinating and redoubtable.

Lejeune

Is there any person in recent times who strikes you as embodying the full meaning of chastity?

For the full meaning of chastity we must look towards the Word made flesh. But yes, I can think of individuals who incarnate this quality in signal ways. The first who comes to mind is Jérôme Lejeune, the discoverer of Trisomy 21, a husband and father. I have read some of Lejeune’s letters to his Danish wife Birthe, which reveal the depth of their relationship, marked by deep affection and respect; but I also think he represents chastity more broadly, in his way of dealing with patients (in a marvellous documentary you can hear the mother of a child with Downs say something like, ‘Seeing Dr Lejeune hold my son taught me to receive him as my child, not a problem’) and in the moral courage with which, to stay true to his convictions, he relinquished his career.

From a conversation with Luke Coppen for The Pillar

Synodos

It is endlessly fascinating to see how the word of Scripture illuminates specific situations in unexpected ways. Today’s Mass readings follow a cycle established decades ago; they are not specifically intended for the first retreat day of the Church’s synod; yet their message to this assembly called to ‘walk together’ in the Spirit is inspiring. The Church is challenged: ‘You say, ‘The way of the Lord is not just.’ Hear now, O house of Israel: Is my way not just? Is it not your ways that are not just?’ (Ezekiel 18:25). In the words of the Psalm we respond: ‘Lord, make me know your ways. Lord, teach me your paths. Make me walk in your truth, and teach me’ (Psalm 25:4f.). In the Gospel Jesus says to the chief priests and the elders: ‘John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him’ (Matthew 21:32). St Paul meanwhile summons us to ‘put on the mind of Christ’ (Philippians 2:5). It is an arduous proposition, bidding us read whatever signs our times suggest in the fiery, purifying light of him who is the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End, the same today, yesterday, always.

Prerogatives

Gregory the Great, bishop of Rome 590-604, speaks directly to our times. There are good historical reasons for this — in many respects, mutatis mutandis, the circumstances of his times resemble ours. This is in itself a useful insight for us, convinced as we are of our exceptionalism in every area. In a text given us today in the office of readings, Gregory writes of Michael the Archangel: he is sent ‘so that by his action and name [meaning ‘Who is Like God?’] it may be given us to see that no one can do that which it is God’s prerogative to do’. That is precisely what we now fail to acknowledge. We are determined to be demiurges, claiming the right to create our own reality, then to demand, increasingly by means of litigation (here‘s a current example), that others affirm our self-proclaimed reality as really real, enabling the triumph of subjective perception over what is objectively given. We are increasingly up against an epistemological battle. The old prayer to Who is Like God has lost none of its pertinence: defende nos in proelio.

Good King Wenceslaus

Not to answer violence with violence; to keep our hearts open towards those in need; to pray deeply in times of persecution; to be prepared for sacrifice: we know these imperatives well. Nonetheless, to find them embodied in a specific existence, be it one that unfolded 1100 years ago, is at once unnerving and thrilling. It shows us that it is possible to follow the commandments, even in apparently impossible conditions.

The standard set by the Gospel cannot be relativised. It reveals its potential only when lived out without half measures, when, for the sake of gaining it, we lose ourselves. Thereby we see that our poor lives can, by grace, bear fruit for the kingdom. Such fruit never decays. Even after several centuries it is a source of life, joy, strength. It is radiant and unfading.   

From a homily given in Prague in 2021

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.

Enjoyment

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.

Building Material

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’.

Dennoch

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).

Celebrating Sorrow?

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.

Bronze Serpent

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. 

Nature

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)

Baraniak

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

The Office of Readings provides a passage (3,3) from Thomas à Kempis‘s Imitation, once upon a time a book countless Christians kept in their pocket. The challenge posed speaks powerfully right now:

‘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?

 

Irony

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.

The End?

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?

From a sermon for the Beheading of John the Baptist

Pitiless Pietism

 

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.

 

Ardent Shadow

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.’

 

Bridge-Building

‘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

Conquered

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.

Magnus

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?

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

Assumption

‘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.

Dom Godefroy

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.

Impertinence

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.

Aglais io

Opened
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.
No apocalypse.
Only a couple of words from summer’s
secret revelation:
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.

Unexpected Bach

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.

Chastity

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

Resolution

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.

Peaceful Effervescence

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.

Via Crucis

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.

Something Great

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.’

Beyond Amazon

– Do we sufficiently recognise the need for spiritual realities in today’s society?
–I don’t believe so. And the older I get, the more it is my rational conviction that we don’t. The human being carries something like a seed of eternity. This can be s source of frustration, even pain, in people – this fact of carrying, albeit unconsciously, the longing for something eternal.
– How can this be remedied?
– Primarily, I’d say, by recognising that I have in me something that will not be satisfied by anything immediate, that spurs me on to extend my existence in such a way that it will reach the dimensions of my longing. It is about recognising that I carry a thirst for boundlessness that will not be slaked by a one-click purchase from Amazon.
From a conversation with Ulrik Alver Solli

Weltanschauung

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.

Lasting Terror

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?

Beauty

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.’

Against Ease

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?’

Unanswerable

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.

 

Tuning

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.

Being Faced

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.

Mission

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. 

Orientale Lumen

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?

Summer Break

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

Conscience

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.

Teleology

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.

Wisdom

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.

Perduring Voices

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.’

Mystery Undermined

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?

Integrity

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.’

De venerabili

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.

Manna

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.

From a sermon for Corpus Christi

Priesthood

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.

On Anger

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.

Talking Up

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.

Some Inkling

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.

From Entering the Twofold Mystery

Womanhood

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.

Polyphony

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.”

Entirely

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.

You can find videos presenting this initiative in English here, in Norwegian here.

Perspective

‘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.’

From James Hall’s review of the ‘largely exhilarating’ Donatello exhibition currently on at the V&A, in a basement gallery ‘as cavernous, hi-tech and high-ceilinged as a Bond villain’s lair’.

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).

Prospective memory

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.

Recapitulation

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.’

Proximities

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.

What Endures

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.

Maturing

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.

Beyond Mimesis

‘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.

Magnified Action

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.

Noctium phantasmata

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.

Saudade

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.

Post-Secularism

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.

Wrath

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?

Not Numerous

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?

Short Pause

Gaudia Paschalia!

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.   

From today’s column in ABC’s La Tercera.

Epitaphios

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.’

From Trypanis. The text can also be found here.

Philanthropy

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.

New Reality

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.

From a conversation with Luke Coppen for The Pillar.

A Proposal

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.

Beyond Purposeful

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.

Under Authority

There are people who get exercised at the sight of a bishop’s mitre, thinking it represents some sort of Oriental crown, considering that prelates should avoid such ostentation. The mitre, however, is a symbolic object. Its front and back are seen, in tradition, to represent the Old and New Testament; its lappets stand for the letter and spirit of the law. When the mitre is placed on the newly ordained bishop’s head, it is not to boost his ego, but to remind him that he is a man under authority. He is ordained to proclaim the eternal Word of God as interpreted by the one, undivided Church, having previously promised by solemn oath to do just that. It is in this spirit that the Nordic Bishops’ Conference has written a pastoral letter on human sexuality. This subject is contentious. It calls for pastoral delicacy, but also for clear thinking. Our text aims to be constructive and to root theologically a conversation often marked by superficiality and strong emotion. I invite you to read it, ponder it, pray about it, and, if you think it worthwhile, to share it with others. You can find it here.

Good Taste

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?

Annunciation

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

Lucy

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.

Unitary Vision

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.

Ideological Sands

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.

Providence

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.

Choose Light

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.

Fratelli tutti

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.

On Love

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?

From the interior of St Birgitta's 'Blue Church' (named for the colour of the stone) in Vadstena - humble and strong.

Swords to Ploughshares

This image of the Sorrowful Mother of God, in a posture suggesting a crucifixion scene, was painted by a Ukrainian iconographer on wood from an ammunition crate. The artist wanted to express stubborn conviction that beauty, aesthetic and spiritual, can emerge from ugliness and violence.  Even in the midst of the ongoing, terrible war. ‘They shall beat their swords into ploughshares, their spears into pruning hooks’, we read in Isaiah. When? When the Lord ‘shall judge between the nations’ (2,4). Judgement has been inaugurated, but is worked out at a pace that, from our perspective, seems unbearably slow. The Mother of God displays a grief inalienable from the human condition; yet we address her in wonderful liturgical texts with the imperative, ‘Rejoice!’. Christian joy is born through things as they are. It is a lucid joy not needing to abstract from reality; for reality as we suffer it is borne, held by a humanly inexplicable benevolence, in process of redemption. The mystery of faith.

Christian Odyssey

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.

Vocation

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?’

Lenten Fast

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.

From a conversation with Luke Coppen for The Pillar.

Thin Coat

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.’

Nostalgia

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!

Forgiveness

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.’

Patience

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.

Absurd Ideals

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.

Alphabetisation

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.

Between Brothers

‘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.

From Aleppo

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.

Presence

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?

Enslavement

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.

Becoming

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?

Pleasure

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.

Materialist Impoverishment

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.

Faithfulness

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.

Empoignement

‘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.

Tohu va-Vohu

‘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…’

You can find the video here, a transcript here.

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.

Learned Levites

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.

Through Fog

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.