Wednesday, July 29, 2015

St. Martha in Tradition

Last Wednesday marked the feast of St. Mary Magdalen the Penitent. Today is her sister Martha’s feast day, the woman known by most only for asking her apparently lazy sister to help her prepare a meal. A selection from the medieval Golden Legend of Bl. Jacobus de Voragine is in order for presenting a fuller picture of this saint.
Saint Martha, hostess of our Lord Jesu Christ, was born of a royal kindred. Her father was named Syro and her mother Encharia. The father of her was duke of Syria and places maritime, and Martha with her sister possessed by the heritage of their mother three places, that was, the castle Magdalen, and Bethany and a part of Jerusalem. It is nowhere read that Martha had ever any husband ne fellowship of man, but she as a noble hostess ministered and served our Lord, and would also that her sister should serve him and help her, for she thought that all the world was not sufficient to serve such a guest. After the ascension of our Lord, when the disciples were departed, she with her brother Lazarus and her sister Mary, also Saint Maximin which baptized them, and to whom they were committed of the Holy Ghost, and many others, were put into a ship without sail, oars, or rudder governail, of the paynims, which by the conduct of our Lord they came all to Marseilles, and after came to the territory of Aquense or Aix, and there converted the people to the faith. Martha was right facound of speech, and courteous and gracious to the sight of the people.

Lesser known in our age is the story of how St. Martha destroyed a dragon that was afflicting the French people:
There was that time upon the river of Rhone, in a certain wood between Arles and Avignon, a great dragon, half beast and half fish, greater than an ox, longer than an horse, having teeth sharp as a sword, and horned on either side, head like a lion, tail like a serpent, and defended him with two wings on either side, and could not be beaten with cast of stones ne with other armour, and was as strong as twelve lions or bears; which dragon lay hiding and lurking in the river, and perished them that passed by and drowned ships. He came thither by sea from Galicia, and was engendered of Leviathan, which is a serpent of the water and is much wood, and of a beast called Bonacho, that is engendered in Galicia. And when he is pursued he casts out of his belly behind, his ordure, the space of an acre of land on them that follow him, and it is bright as glass, and what it toucheth it burneth as fire. To whom Martha, at the prayer of the people, came into the wood, and found him eating a man. And she cast on him holy water, and showed to him the cross, which anon was overcome, and standing still as a sheep, she bound him with her own girdle, and then was slain with spears and glaives of the people. The dragon was called of them that dwelled in the country Tarasconus, whereof, in remembrance of him that place is called Tarasconus, which tofore was called Nerluc, and the Black Lake, because there be woods shadowous and black.

St. Martha, industrious housekeeper, traveler by sea, converter of the French, and destroyer of evil serpents, pray for us!

Monday, July 27, 2015

Roman Feasts

Interior of St. Lawrence by Francesco Diofebi
Each rite and usage has its own peculiar and particular feasts which characterize the diocese of that rite's origin, be it Greek, Latin, or Assyrian. The Greeks have their feasts, like "Mid-Pentecost" and the "Protection of the Theotokos." We Latins have a number, too, many of which are coming up next month.

The month begins with St. Peter in Chains, recalling the chains that held St. Peter while he was imprisoned under Herod and Nero, the Jewish and Gentile persecutors of the Church, as well as the cardinatial church that holds two links of those chains. Pope Julius II's tomb, bearing Michelangelo's Moses, resides in this church. The Greeks have a feast commemorating the chains in January, but Rome possesses the actual church with these relics. Rome held a unique place among the churches of Christendom in that it could claim the two foremost Apostles of Christ as its fathers in faith, prompting the city to do its best to multiply their presence throughout the seven hills for stational liturgies.

Next is the feast of the Dedication of Our Lady of the Snows—the "Liberian basilica" of St. Mary Major. The Constantinian basilicas of Rome were dedicated to Our Lord (Lateran cathedral) and Ss. Peter & Paul, but the Virgin had no church dedicated to her. Snow began to fall over one rectangular space in the city, which St. Liberius took as a sign. The saintly pope began construction on the basilica, which is the Roman stational church for the Nativity of Christ and Pascha.

Lastly, Rome enjoys a vigil and an octave for St. Lawrence, the deacon of Rome who teased his torturers and entered eternal life with true Christian joy (I imagine that were he a martyr, St. Philip Neri would have died in a similar manner). His octave and vigil remind us that prior to Pius XII, the local church occupied a place of liturgical prominence: a Double of the First Class with an octave was observed for both the dedication of a parish and its patron saint. St. Lawrence enjoyed a similar place as a foundational saint for the spirit of the Roman church. When the popes wore the maniple on their left arms, it always bore gold and red thread. Gold for the joy of the Byzantine Church, red for the martyrs of the Roman Church.

In the Apostle Peter, the Roman Church recalls the place given to her by the Prince of the Apostles. In the miracle of Our Lady, she recalls that Our Lady laid the cornerstone of her own enduring presence in the Eternal City. In St. Lawrence, she recalls her happy witness to Christ. These feasts do not celebrate Biblical events nor do they teach theological lessons. These feasts are acts of worshipping God for God's own sake, for thanking Him for counting the saints as the closest intimates of the city of Rome, for showing gratitude for His continuing presence in the Roman Church. August, as much as June 29, is an appropriate time to sing O felix Roma.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

The Historical Muhammad?

Supposedly, a Koran written and dated to 12 years after the death of Muhammad (may peace not be upon him) has been found in Birmingham, England. The academics on the project, many of them understandably Muslim, can barely conceal their school boy giddiness at the find:
Prof Thomas says the dating of the Birmingham folios would mean it was quite possible that the person who had written them would have been alive at the time of the Prophet Muhammad."The person who actually wrote it could well have known the Prophet Muhammad. He would have seen him probably, he would maybe have heard him preach. He may have known him personally - and that really is quite a thought to conjure with," he says.
I remember some years ago, historians discovered one of the small and seemingly random scraps of paper recovered at Nag Hammadi contained a sentence from the Gospel of Mark. The paper had been dated to about 45-50 AD. Instead of something analogous to the response above, we were told "this isn't Mark's Gospel, this is the tradition that later people used to make up Mark's gospel," a dish of cold shoulder followed by a dessert on the "historical Jesus."

Interestingly, the article does not speculate about Muhammad and Islam in the same way academics loosely speculate about early Christianity. Islam is fertile ground for speculation. If the dating of this Koran is indeed authentic, it would have to indicate a tradition formed around nomadic tribes living near mercantile areas in Arabia rather than the expansive Arab Empire that filled the void left by the Byzantines and their enemies. There is no mention of Muhammad, the Koran, or the religion in the documents, letters, and archaeological record of the various regions of the Arab Empire, which we are to believe conquered vast expanses of Africa and Asia to spread this new faith, for a century after the fact. In all likelihood, the Empire already existed and used this local tradition as the glue to bind a culturally diverse expanse of territories.

Christians already populated enough of Rome during the time of Nero to be worth persecuting and mocking. They wrote letters, they built churches, and they recorded what they did, yet we still hear about this fictive "historical Jesus." This artifact, in contrast, is the first evidence for Muhammad's existence before the mid-eighth century. When will we get to hear about the "historical Muhammad", who might have existed after all?

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Robert Barron: A Bishop for Today's Church

Fr. Barron at the Taj Mahony
Origen would be remembered as a saint if not for two spectacularly bad ideas: that the soul pre-exists the body and that because of the soul's pre-existence all beings with souls, right down to Satan in Hell himself, will one day be saved in an act of restoration. True, he was condemned without a specific citation to his works by an ecumenical council and there have since been efforts to restore his name, most notably by Benedict XVI, but the lingering doubt over his beliefs persists. Neither one has been explicitly condemned wholesale. Origen was a chain between St. Clement of Alexandria and later writers like St. Gregory of Nyssa, who also believed in universal salvation. In Origen, the Church had its first great thinker. Even St. Vincent of Lerins asked, "Who would not rather be wrong with Origen than right with anyone else?" The spiritual life of the Church stood athwart his condemnation at the Second Council of Constantinople and ignored it for the most part until after the middle ages. The various local rites of Latin Christianity read his works during the Divine Office, most notably Sarum dedicating his commentary on Matthew to Christmas Eve. In the Greek Church, his book on prayer has always been read. None would doubt his luminous place in the history of the Church if not for those two bad ideas, which is why it is so irritating that he has resurfaced in some circles precisely and exclusively because of those two bad ideas. 

Modern conservatives are fond of complaining about President Obama, understandably, because he promised to change America "fundamentally." The America of this president, candidates will clamor, is one of identity politics, mediocre quasi-socialism, limp-wristed foreign policy, and a passive aggressive hostility to his own armed forces. They are absolutely right, so why are they complaining? Leaders in democracy are no better or worse than the people who elect them. They are who we are. They give us want we want. They want whatever we want. Christianity in the media age is no different. Although not a democracy, Christian belief has caught the bug of 1776. The Church of England has been in full communion with political correctness for some time. The Eastern Orthodox have generally resisted it in the old world, although Kallistos Ware, Anthony Bloom, and a handful of others have made remarkable progress in the West. And in the Latin Catholic Church we have modern episcopal conferences which, fine institutions which will not affirm political correctness, but will leave it uncorrected. Enter Fr. Robert Barron.

Fr. Barron's name has floated on the internet for years. He used to make watchable movie reviews and ten minute commentaries on modern issues from a Catholic perspective. At some point he discovered that large sums of money were available to fund projects and his Catholicism series was born. Catholicism was supposedly an evangelization tool, but it is more often a visual spectacle viewed by Catholics with neo-con politics to affirm their perspective on things, a feel good movie. Fr. Barron took Origen out of the dustbin of history some time ago not for his book on prayer or his commentary on Matthew, but for his defective reasons for believing all men will be saved. The appeal behind feel good movies and tepid theology disguised as ancient thought (the purification process latent in the older belief behind universalism is conveniently forgotten) is feeling. Sweet, sugary and smooth feeling. 

Fr. Barron has been made an auxiliary bishop of the archdiocese of Los Angeles, where he will be fortuitously near cameras ready to capture his every idea about Origen, his every thought on blasphemer and heretic Hans Urs von Balthasar, and his every gripe with the assault on the first amendment. He is what the American bishops perceive modern Church-goers want to hear: more or less Catholic with a lightened attitude and some progressive ideas that will keep Aunt Marge out of the eternal flames. He is what we are. He wants what we want. Yes, this selection by Francis' men is almost assuredly a reward for promoting a moderate pro-reform and pro-spirit of the Council line when "continuity" and traditionalism were both popular under Benedict. He was faithful to the Church they wanted all along, and now he has been granted our hearts' desire.

This torpid brand of religion demands little of the faithful and even less of the unfaithful. Rather than demanding conversion of heart and mind, it tells us that we are all saved, but should encounter God for the sake of experiences of holiness. By contrast, Mattins today for St. Mary Magdalen tell us of a woman who encountered holiness, embraced it, converted in repentance, and found heaven only after this baptism into Christ:
"At first when she sought Him, she found Him not; she went on searching, and so it came to pass that she found Him; and this was so, to the end that her longing might grow in earnestness, and so in its earnestness might find what it sought. Hence is it that the Bride in the Song of Songs saith as representing the Church: By night on my bed I sought him whom my soul loveth. We seek on our bed for Him Whom our soul loveth, when, having got some little rest in this world, we still sigh for the Presence of our Redeemer but it is by night that we so seek Him, for though our mind may be on the alert for Him, yet still He is hidden from our eyes by the darkness that now is."

Friday, July 17, 2015

Josephology Part 11: The English Go Cherry Picking

“When Joseph was an olden man, / He lived full many a year, a year, / He courted and wedded the Queen of Heav’n, / And called her his dear.”

Not too long before Spain started getting creative with their Josephite devotion, England was proudly handing down the ancient tradition of St. Joseph as an elderly, concupiscible widower in their hymns and mystery plays.

The Cherry-Tree Carol

Known most widely in America as an Appalachian ballad, the Cherry-Tree Carol actually has its roots in Medieval England and the Coventry mystery plays performed at the feast of Corpus Christi around AD 1400. The events narrated in the song are apparently a modification of the Flight into Egypt as told in the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew. In that apocryphal work, the fleeing family takes their rest beneath the shade of a palm tree. The Virgin expresses her desire for one of the tree’s fruits, but Joseph declares the branches to be too high, and goes looking for water instead. The Christ Child commands the tree to bend down so his mother can eat its fruit, and it does.

The Cherry-Tree Carol changes the palm tree to a cherry tree, and removes the incident from the context of the Flight to Egypt. In some versions of the carol, Joseph is angered by the request, and bluntly tells the Virgin to ask the father of her Child to gather cherries for her. Sometimes the toddler Christ Child playfully commands the tree to bow down, but in other versions Mary is still pregnant. (A much longer examination of the carol’s history and variations can be found at the Hymns and Carols of Christmas website.)

When Joseph was a old man,
A old man was he,
He married Virgin Mary,
The Queen of Galilee.

Then Mary spoke to Joseph
So sweet and so mild:
Joseph, gather me some cherries,
For I am with child.

Then Joseph flew in anger,
In anger flew he:
Let the father of the baby
Gather cherries for thee.

Then Jesus spoke a few words,
A few words spoke he:
Let my Mother have some cherries,
Bow low down, cherry tree.

The cherry tree bowed low down,
Bowed low down to the ground,
And Mary gathered cherries,
While Joseph stood around.

Then Joseph took Mary
All on his right knee.
What have I done, Lord?
Have mercy on me.

Then Joseph took Jesus
All on his left knee.
Tell me, little baby,
When thy birthday will be.

The sixth day of January
My birthday will be,
When the stars in the elements
Shall tremble with glee.

Here is a version sung by the folksinger Shirley Collins:

The artist Daniel Mitsui describes the historical circumstances of the carol:
The story had been acted in the pre-Tridentine Coventry Mystery Plays performed each year at Corpus Christi, and it at this celebration that the carol probably originated. The song, but not the pageant, survived the Reformation, remaining in the popular consciousness of England long after it was forgotten by Catholics raised in the new Tridentine spirit of literalism, and its complete re-imagining of the old and humble St. Joseph (the only St. Joseph known to the first three quarters of Christian history, on whose memory the trustworthiness of all revelation depends) into a more marketable handsome young man.
While the Cherry-Tree Carol is an oversimplification of the Nativity story traditions that came from the Proto-Gospel of James, it still crudely retains the basic elements of those traditions: Joseph is old, a bit of a crank, and suspicious of Mary’s virtue. The overflowing of miracles around the Nativity and the childhood of Christ are also on display.

Joseph’s Troubles about Mary

The mystery play cycles were a popular Medieval production in which the whole of sacred history was recapitulated on the stage, from Creation to Passion to Judgment. Often the entire cycle would be performed in one day or over a few days at Corpus Christi. Some of these plays took great liberties with tradition and the scriptural text—for example, Noah’s wife is quite the doubting shrew in many cycles—but for the most part they followed the popular beliefs of the time. The events surrounding the Nativity follow the narratives of the Proto-Gospel of James and the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew where they are not being entirely inventive (such as with the Wakefield Shepherds’ Plays).

The York cycle of plays features one play specifically about Joseph’s suspicious reaction to the Incarnation, bluntly titled Joseph’s Troubles about Mary. It begins in media res, right after Joseph has discovered his wife’s pregnancy. He monologues about the poor hand he has been dealt (the modernization of Richard Beadle and Pamela King is used below),
For shame what shall I say,
That thus-gates not on mine old days
Have wedded a young wench to my wife...
Now Lord, how long shall I lead this life?
He recounts the story of his betrothal to Mary, complete with the test of the budding staff, and is “beguiled—how, wot I not / My young wife is with child full great.” Yet, as broadly as he is portrayed, he is not simply a comedic cuckold. He cannot reconcile his wife’s apparent virtue with her apparent vice—“And loath methinketh, on the other side, / My wife with any man to defame”—and he calls to mind the messianic prophecies—“But well I wot through prophecy / A maiden clean should bear a child, / But it is not she, [truly].”

He decides to cross-examine his wife, who has defenders in her maiden companions. They tell Joseph that an angel would come daily to bring Mary food (one of the ancient elaborations on the Jacobian narrative), and he sees here a way of maintaining her naiveté without entirely letting her off the hook,
Then see I well your meaning is
The angel has made her with child.
Nay, some man in angel’s likeness
With somekin gaud has her beguiled.
He asks Mary repeatedly whose the child is, and her answer is always the same: “Sir, God’s and yours.... Yours sir, and the king’s of bliss.... Sir, it is yours and God’s will.... God and you,” etc. Joseph will not be convinced, and he wanders into the wilderness to pray and ask for a sign of God’s will. He sleeps with a heavy heart, is visited by the angel Gabriel, and is relieved of his burden.
Now, Lord God, full well is me
That ever that I this sight should see,
I was never ere so light....
My back fain would I bow
And ask forgiveness now,
Wist I thou would me hear.
Mary waves off the need for forgiveness, and the happy couple begin their trek to Bethlehem. For, as Gabriel says, “this [very] night / There shall a child born be.”

This play has very close parallels with other mystery play cycles. Joseph’s complaint against Mary does not usually have its own play, but is folded into another one, like that of the Annunciation. Here is an example of that story being performed:

For all of his flaws, the St. Joseph of the mystery plays remains a good man trapped in a seemingly bad situation. He is clearly older, and bemoans the fact that he was pushed into taking this young girl as a wife. He does not wish to jump to conclusions about his wife, but cannot see any other options except that she cheated on him. From Gabriel’s visit onward, he remains Mary’s humble and pious companion.

St. Joseph, not given to cherry-picking what you believe, pray for us! (source)

Monday, July 13, 2015

Liturgical Boutique: Is Sarum Possible?

For a rite that has not been used continuously since the reign of Good Queen Mary Tudor, the Sarum usage has occupied copious amounts of time in the minds and speeches of liturgists, historians, and more common laymen looking for something different from the average parish offering. Most recently one Bernard Brandt has argued for the restoration of the Sarum liturgy on a legal basis, reiterating in depth what Fr. Séan Finnegan wrote years before. Fr. Chadwick is unusually a celebrant of the unadultered Sarum rite in Norman France and occasionally mentions his hopes for the tradition. Other than two Masses by Fr. Finnegan in the 1990s—promptly shut down over legal concerns, Sarum has not been subjected to any visible celebrations.

Why has it remained a more popular point of discussion than the neo-Gallican rites, the use of York, Braga in Portugal, or the idiosyncratic liturgies of Toledo and Milan? Various overlapping Anglican movements (the Tractarian, Oxford, and Ritualist movements) wrought liturgical scholarship into England's Catholic past and new printings of old Sarum books. Scholars in the liturgical movement revived history in the medieval developments that took place in northern Europe. Many of these studies were either conducted in England or were quickly translated into that tongue; the works of Dix and Batiffol come to mind. Lastly, there was the traditionalist movement. Many English Catholics adduced the example of Sarum and York to prove that the liturgical tradition of Latin Christianity existed beyond the Roman rite and was never subjected to proactive papal fiat, hence the pope could not uniformly and unilaterally impose one liturgical rite over a traditionally established praxis. Sarum is discussed, but rarely practiced. What future could it have?

Sarum resources abound the market if one looks hard enough and is willing to pay a handsome sum for hardcover books. Digital books and scholarly materials are available online in both Latin and English. Various ensembles have recorded settings of the Christmas Masses. One enterprising scholar even made a project of uploading the Missal and Divine Office with musical instructions online here, making a restoration feasible outside the Music department at Oxford.

So, we have a Missal, musical notation, a choir and a dozen men ready to serve, but who would be our congregation? In 2011, when the British Ordinariate came to be, there was quite a bit of chatter on St. Giles Street in Oxford that Msgr. Andrew Burnham was fond of Sarum and intended to ask permission to use it as an "extraordinary form" for the community. I met Burnham half a dozen times, but never had the interest to ask him if he even had an affinity for Sarum. The English Ordinariate, unlike its formerly Anglo-Catholic American counterpart, is comprised of former Anglo-Papists, who had been celebrating and interpreting the Pauline liturgy in a conservative Oratorian fashion for decades prior to Anglicanorum coetibus. Their primary concern was not the Catholic heritage of England, it was bridging high Roman Catholicism with Anglicanism. Other than Fr. Hunwicke, not many Ordinariate priests seem interested in older forms of the Roman rite, much less in its English children. 

The best chance for Sarum in the Catholic Church is likely as an exceptional form of liturgy for the Church in England to use on special occasions. It is a rite that belongs to English Catholics as a whole, not uniquely to those of "Anglican patrimony." Sarum descends from the Roman rite and the Prayer Book, although part of a new faith, descended in many strong parts from the Sarum praxis and texts. Traditionalists would be best equipped for a minor restoration: they more readily have scholae, priests versed in Latin, laity unafraid of Latin, and, in England, have a sympathy for the heritage of their predecessors who kept the faith. 

Would they be interested? A large enough portion for the rare Mass or Vespers, surely. Would they be willing? Herein one finds the sticky situation of relying on other clergy and the benevolence of Churchmen. After the backtrack in 1996/7, one would need a very confident dragoman to examine the laws of the Latin Church and then proceed to do exactly what they allow. An old saying "In England, everything is allowed except what is prohibited; in Russia, everything is prohibited except what is allowed" recapitulates the transformation of liturgical perspective in the last few generations. Interest will get us to the door, but eventually some clerics will have to turn the handle and smile at Rome as they stride over the threshold. 

(As a note, the archbishop of Birmingham approved Fr. Finnegan's celebrations in the 1990s. The fallout with Basil Hume and the Vatican can be followed on Mr. Brandt's blog.)

One would hope that if Sarum ever does rise from the dead, its celebrants will utilize its distinctive non-Roman features. Who would not want to read Origen at Mattins on Christmas Eve?

Given the popularity of this quasi-Sarum related post, I think it is at least stocking coped cantors in the boutique for my fellow fetishists.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Conversion as Trauma; or, How to Not Despise the Weak

(The Conversion of Saint Mary Magdalene, Juan Correa)

I don’t see many films in theaters these days. The gluttonous sequel-making and overindulgence of digital effects makes mainstream films tiresome, and the arthouse film scene is so deeply in bed with worldly progressivism that one feels ashamed to even glance at its movie posters. However, I have been long enamored with the Pixar studio, believing them to be capable of some truly great all-ages artistry when their parent company Disney isn’t demanding another movie with talking automobiles.

After taking the little lady to a showing of their recent release Inside Out, I reflected upon their traditionally-minded yet inventive way of portraying the interior life of a child. Pulling equally from ancient mind palaces and modern psychology, there was an especially affecting sequence of ongoing mental and emotional disintegration within the young mind after a traumatic event. The colorful “islands of personality” that the child had developed and maintained over the years suddenly stop dead, and they begin to crumble into a memory dump as she loses the ability to cope with the changes in her everyday life.

Since this is not a film review, I won’t delve any further into it. Suffice it to say that it caused me to consider my own experience of conversion to the Faith, and its ensuing problems. I have written already about the high attrition rate of converts and the probable responsibility borne by our apologists to that effect. But what is it about conversion that drives so many of us to apostatize within a few years of reception into the Church?

Let me suggest that untreated psychological trauma (loosely diagnosed) is one major reason. The convert may suffer more or less emotional trauma depending on many factors: his starting religion or philosophy, the reaction of his friends and family, the wisdom of his catechists, the presence of a guide leading him into the Church, his education, his emotional stability, his proclivity to cynicism, his attitude towards authority figures, his romantic entanglements, and so on.

(There is a similarly themed article recently published on The Remnant’s website concerning the trauma suffered by traditionalists under their prelates, which I only mention here for the sake of thoroughness.)

Apostate monk (source)

One can imagine a scenario in which a conversion goes fairly smoothly: raised classically Anglican, which means many outward similarities to Catholicism, as well as a healthy dose of realism about church leaders; friends and family without any hatred of the Church, and indeed fairly curious about it themselves; a local priest who handles RCIA with all seriousness of duty; a beloved college professor acting as sponsor, and as a second person the catechumen can turn to for queries; a decent education that has taught him at least basic reasoning and an appreciation for the liberal arts; zealous in character, yet self-controlled for the most part; hopeful in spite of the evils of man; a healthy relationship with his parents, teachers, and bosses; and finally a girlfriend who is open-minded towards conversion, in spite of a strong emotional attachment to the Church of England. This is more or less a best-case scenario.

On the other hand, the groundwork for a weak and very temporary conversion might go as follows: raised liberally Anglican, which has outward similarities to Catholicism, but equivocates and uses good names for bad things; friends and family who shun him at the first mention of seriously considering conversion; an RCIA program run by an ignorant layman, the priest nowhere to be found; no one leading him into the Church except radio apologists and the books of long-dead theologians; a half-baked education that had more to do with personal fulfillment than learning; habitual selfishness, immaturity, and indulgence of all sorts; given to despair and frustration at every hardship; easily scandalized by political and religious leaders; and finally a wife who swears to leave him if he becomes a papist. This may not be the worst-case scenario, but it’s not a promising one.

The first convert will retain his existing social structure, his day-to-day experience of attending Mass will be outwardly similar to Anglican worship, and his arguments with those he left behind will likely be well-natured and perhaps thrilling. He even has a few new books of the Bible to read and learn! He will probably remain emotionally whole, and suffer no unhealthy dissolution of his sense of self.

The second convert will experience far more trauma as part of the conversion process, and he will require more care and assistance after finally receiving the sacraments. The outward forms of worship will be similar, but suddenly he is required to take their meaning as sincere and literal, except when Fr. Facile undermines that with his own unbelief. His social structure has entirely vanished, and if he is not good at making new friends he will be terribly alone. His wife may have left him, and the Church is meanwhile unable to grant an annulment to assuage that wound. He had gathered all of his previously unimpressive mental and emotional powers together into a surprisingly massive act of the will to convert to the Faith, only to collapse in exhaustion inside the door of the Church... and be unceremoniously swept out of the way by the janitor to make way for the parish soccer team. It is no surprise that this convert could become an apostate.

In the Parable of the Sower, Christ describes three kinds of unspiritual people and only one kind of good Christian. The first of the faithless is the one from whom the Devil snatches away the truth before it can even take root. The second is apostate, being scandalized by troubles and tribulation. The third is fruitless, choked by avarice and worldly cares. The fourth alone remains both faithful and fruitful. The third (fruitlessly banal) and fourth (fruitful) are both present always in the Church, and are apparently the subject of the following Parable of the Cockle and Wheat. The first are like those who convert for shallow reasons and leave for equally shallow ones, or who never even seriously consider conversion. Of the second, we are told “they had no deepness of earth” and “hath not root in [themselves]” (Matt. 13), and thus they are easily scorched in the sun.

(From the Hortus Deliciarum)

A good deal of trauma is self-inflicted, and St. Thomas tells us that scandal is a two-way street of the scandalous and the scandalized. Scandal is given, but it need not be received. The weak receive and internalize scandal, however good willed they may otherwise be. For the rest of us, Christ commands “that you despise not one of these little ones” who are susceptible to scandal (Matt. 18), and Paul adjures us to “bear ye one another’s burdens” (Gal. 6). How easy it is for yes-men apologists to despise and dismiss the worries of the scandalized! How much does this dismissal add to their inner torment, a torment which they begin to think can only be ended by cutting themselves off from the Church?

I once visited a small village in the south of Ireland, where I stayed with a family in their cottage and discussed the problems of religion with the man of the house, an irate Irishman, into the wee hours of the night. He had left the Church a few years before, the final straw being a dismissive priest who waved off this man’s Bible-thumping with, “I’m not in the business of converting Protestants.” The logical errors of this apostate’s fall were not hard to perceive, but the true cause was a broken heart. He had been betrayed by the Church he once loved, and he finally tried to hurt her back by shaking the dust off his feet. If my visit to the village parish was any indication, the priest’s only response would have been to take another swig of whiskey.

While not every cradle Catholic is capable of empathizing with the emotional burden of conversion, it is still necessary to account for weakness and show the convert how to grow strong in the Faith. Much of it simply has to do with learning endurance and patience in the face of scandal and adversity. Understanding often comes in time with longsuffering. The mere admission of bad ecclesiastical leadership goes a long way, as well, since the convert may feel that he is having a break with reality when others pretend it is not happening. An accurate knowledge of the Church’s liturgical traditions is useful, although it can open other avenues of scandal if done flippantly. A true ordering of magisterial and doctoral teachings in their proper places could be essential. Even the passions might need to be properly ordered—for we live in a muck of disordered passions and psychological disturbance—in order for spiritual progress to continue.

If the Church is a hospital and not a museum (as the apologists keep telling us), let the Church act like it. We mustn’t keep ignoring the trauma patients sitting in the waiting room. If they don’t receive any medical assistance, they will wander out to look for help elsewhere.

(Wanderer in the Storm, Carl Julius von Leypold)

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Abyssus Abyssum Invocat: The Futility of Fr. Facile & Friendship Up in Smoke

"Mercy," Fr. Facile began his sermon, "is not simply the absence of just punishment. Mercy is not simply what happens when a person of esteem deigns to give us something of his world. Mercy, you see, is a very really and proactive part of God's plan for us. Mercy is part of who God is in His love for mankind."

Alright, I thought, this could be quite good or quite bad.

"Think of what we sang at the beginning of the liturgy. The polyeleos repeats 'For his mercy endures for ever,' but that is just an extract of a much larger psalm about mercy. He brought the Israelites out of freedom, and his mercy endures forever. He parted the Red Sea, and his mercy endures forever. He smashed Pharaoh's armies, and his mercy endures forever. God's mercy is part of Who He is and what He imparts of Himself to us. This is what culminated with the Cross!"

This is much better than what I expected! Fr. Facile never gave a bad sermon. Some were quite good and the rest tried very hard to impress, but often fell short by overemphasizing relevance to daily life, at times passing by opportunities to focus on Who God is.

"My friends—and I know this is a controversial topic, which we rarely discuss here at St. Saccharinios—my friends, we witnessed a great act of mercy this past week." Fr. Facile paused for a moment. "God brought the Israelites out of the darkness of slavery. A similar and monumental event in the history of our country happened this past week. A great many people were brought out of darkness when their civil rights were expanded.

"Now, I know we have people with very passionate opinions on both sides, but let us remain calm in discussing this matter. This Supreme Court decision ends the conversation about this subject for our country and it has no influence on the Church."

Alright, I concluded, I know where this is going. The parish was priestless and run by church-ladies, including the notorious Helen Hawkins, prior to Fr. Facile's arrival. It is a divided parish and he is trying to placate both ends.

"The conversation in the Church is on-going...."


"....and we need to show more mercy to each other in having that conversation here and everywhere in the Church. We have bishops and even a pope that are receptive to greater mercy. We are obligated to show that same receptivity to mercy. I look on Facebook and see some of the nasty things people write about each other when having this debate. In this debate I find opponents of this new right calling those in favor of it all sorts of mean names and the proponents of the new right in return are quick to call their opponents bigots, although they often are."

Hitting a priest is a reserved sin, I recalled from a catechism class. Still, that would mean a trip to Rome and Fr. Facile could use some fraternal correction.

"We need more mercy, like the mercy of the Cross and the mercy of delivery Egypt from bondage. For His mercy endureth for ever! Oh God, save Thy people and bless Thy inheritance!"

*          *          *

"We can never go to St. Saccharinios again, even 4 holy week," I texted to John Grump. "Meet at Cafe Preténse for breakfast?"

"Cya in 10", indicated the reply.

The clientele of Cafe Preténse

Cafe Preténse appealed to a young crowd of late teen and twenty-somethings still living off their fathers' new money. Patrons frequented the establishment to write their perpetually unpublished novels on MacBooks gifted for Christmas, to have inexpensive morning "dates," and to been seen wearing the latest boat shoes and sun dresses. An improbable assortment of National Geographics, Michael Crichton novels, and an old copy of Debrett sat on the shelves on the bookcase either as decoration or conversation pieces. No two walls were painted the same color. On a red wall sat two dozen examples of abstract bosh priced from $75 to $400 each. A pair of hipsters manned the bar.

"A pot of Earl Grey and a spice scone, please," I asked.

A sign on the counter displayed the words "Authentic European Coffee Shop." I wondered if the proprietor had ever been to Angelina's of Paris or Florian's of Venice.

I found Mr. Grump seated outside off the patio and joined him.

"How was Tradistan today?" I queried.

"Quite a standard low Mass. The sermon raised the question as to whether or not one can become demonically possessed by listening to rock music. One fellow had to be exorcised after hearing the Goodbye Yellow Brick Road album once through. Father did not wholly endorse the theory, but warned us that listening to rock was a risk we ought not take. Apparently a recent beata, Blessed Theodora Obscuria of the Hands of Joseph the Worker, had a vision of pagans dancing around a resounding noise kept in rhythm by percussive bangs while a woolly man sang mockingly of heaven. He insisted she had a premonition of a Led Zeppelin concert. "

"That last item makes the rest of it believable. Anything else?'

"There was also the weekly reminder that we aren't allowed to go sedevacantist or Greek Orthodox just because the pope is a bit loose. Other than that, nothing new. How was St. Saccharinios?"

I proceeded to discharge my memory of that horrific sermon and the unambiguous ambiguities contained therein. John barely sipped his cappuccino, listening with intent concern.

"How sad," he commented, finally taking a sip from his cup. "If he was willing to talk like this, he probably gave up inside a long time ago."

After breakfast I produced a Partagás from my jacket and peeled off the upper-most cap. "You know," I began, "I had a friend who went down this road in a rather dreary way. My best friend at university, you know." I struck a match and toasted the cigar. "I met a fellow during my first term at school after a gathering of the College Rabble Rousers. This man, name of Christopher—never Chris, noticed I was wearing a tee shirt advertising a defunct American car maker called Packard.

"'Does your family have one?'

"'No,' I replied. 'But my father had one forty odd years ago.'

"We grabbed dinner and became quite close thereafter. We were both Economics students. He told me his parents were from Armenia, but now lived in San Francisco, having escaped the Red Russians by the width of his father's ever vanishing hairs.

"Every free night I tore him away from those damn computer games he played so we could have dinner. We immersed ourselves in prolix discussions over matters of the day, but never personal matters, at least not for Christopher. He asked why I was a Catholic. I told him for the frightening reason that I really believed it all, which stupefied him."

I held up my burning cigar for John to see. "At some point during the second term Christopher bought a box of these things, imported from Cuba via some shady fellow in Canada we only knew as Matt. One night, after insulting a preacher's daughter at a university dinner, we lit our Habanos and strolled the Arts Quad, the lake, and the plaza.

"He asked me why God should matter in our lives. From a rational perspective, God must exist, but why care. 'Because,' I told him, 'because He cares about us. Whether or not we understand why God cares about us is quite unrelated to the fact He does. He intervenes in our lives personally and has since the time of Abraham. I remember once in high school having a breakdown over the troubles of a friend. No, I won't tell you how, not now, but God very literally intervened in my life. It was because I cared for this person. I learned that God's love isn't a nicety or a Santa Claus doting. It is the emptying of one's self for another entirely. It's what we Catholics believe Christ did for us and what people we called the Saints continued to do since.' His reply was 'I don't understand why people should matter. Their existence is somewhat annoying. Isn't the point just to reproduce and pass on wealth?'"

"Perhaps," John interjected, "you and your catechism could instruct these waiters on the finer points of fear of the Lord, or at least of a bad tip. I am sitting here surrounded by no coffee."

"Right! Well, I went off to study in England the next year and left him in the hands of a mutual friend of our's, Craig Lex. When I next heard from Christopher he told me he was tired of Craig ranting about some Frenchman named 'Lefeber' and the Pius X society, so he bought some cheap Porto and got the runt drunk out of his mind. It was Good Friday, too, he said. He accompanied Craig to the Novus Ordo Good Friday and was feeling better than other people for having gone to Church, so much better that he had no qualms about fibbing to the campus security concerning his under-aged possession of the Porto. Christopher was a good friend and an even better fibber.

"I suggested that the three of us meet in Rome for the break between Hilary and Trinity terms, which coincided with their vacations. Something was different in Christopher at that point. When we went into the Blessed Sacrament chapel in St. Peter's Basilica he asked us how to reverence the exposed Sacrament. I told him that he did not have to as a non-believer, but he insisted. He stared in amazement at the Latin Novus Ordo sung Mass at the throne that evening and gawked through the Lateran cathedral. At dinner he passingly mentioned that his father was out of America on holiday, visiting establishments where the women are 'cheap and clean.' I almost lost my Italian excuse for a steak.

"Later that evening we returned to the Vatican square and shared in some of Christopher's Cubanos. He kept staring at the full moon and repeating that God is good. A couple got engaged, which made him smile. Before boarding the plane back to JFK he hugged me and, perplexingly, thanked me for being a 'good influence'. I started to pray daily for his conversion.

"The next year he went to Oxford and I was back in America. He was received into the Church by a priest on St. Giles Street and soon thereafter adopted an not entirely healthy religious attitude. He could never take a joke at face value, always accosting any humor when the salvation of souls was at stake. At mere mention of the Mass, especially in Latin, his eyes faded into ecstasy. Immediately he wanted to become a monk!"

"I take it," groaned Mr. Grump, "that this story has a point, or, even better, an end?"

"Yes, yes, yes," I said. "We parted after graduation and spoke infrequently. In the Fall he had dropped the 'salvation of souls' angle and returned to the evolutionary produce-and-inherit line. By the Spring of the following year we had fallen out of contact. Then one afternoon, working from my home, he calls me at tells me, 'I've just been released from a hospital. I've gone cold on that whole God thing. You see, I'm a woman.'"

"Damn!" exclaimed John. "You've made me spill my remaining coffee."

"It's a favor, friend. Wool in the Texan summer? Really?

"Regardless, I asked if I had missed something like ambiguous genitalia, XX DNA, or something of the like. He said that I hadn't, that he was simply born with a female brain and that an operation to 'clean out of the basement' would make him a normal and accepted member of society, that 'I won't have to hate myself everyday now.'

"We talked and he confessed that his parents fell out shortly after coming here from Armenia. 'That whole God thing,' he commented, 'made me deal with them a little more, but I cannot go on with a lie. If I don't do this I'll kill myself. I've finally found who I am.'

"I tried talking some gentle sense into him a few days when he was still on an emotional from his great discovery. I pointed out some basic things, like that being a woman entails a physical experience related to brain chemistry, that he could have an incompletely male brain but not an actual female brain. I brought up his family situation, his history of embracing one new lifestyle after another. He didn't care. He asked me if I could 'accept this' and I asked him what that meant. He was a friend and I loved him as a friend, but he didn't care. He wanted affirmation and I wasn't going to give it to him. 'Bugger off,' he told me, 'until you get over your bigot bull$h!+.' That was some time ago and I have no anticipation of hearing from him again. Last I heard he had frozen some sperm with the hope of fabricating a child one day.

"The liberals have taught us the lesson of acceptance and they've taught it well. We don't question anything anymore. Anything different is now just an alternative expression of the same thing. Shacking up, divorce, single parent households, and now gay families are really just as good as straight families, if one ignores the impact on the kids. We can't ask why people are as they are. One theory behind homosexuality blames pre-natal secretions; another claims it's a recessive gene; and yet another, less accepted, says it's the result of nurturing. Even if it were a combination of the three, we still can't do anything about it. I knew a therapist who told me that in twenty years of practicing psychology he had never met a gay man who had a normal relationship with his father. It's only anecdotal, but still pretty significant. The people behind the gay rights movement are not looking for equal treatment. They're looking for personal affirmation that many of them don't get as individuals and they'll remake society to do it. It fools people. It destroys friendships. It destroys love. And it has destroyed a very good friend. Christopher, or 'Eleanor'—as he now likes to be called, was an extreme case. Still, how much of it is really normal?"

My cigar was down to the nub.

"Fr. Facile bought the movement hook, line, and sinker. No use crying about the decline of Western society. I could read Russell Kirk or John Senior for that. Both of them enjoyed anti-technocratic existences. I rather wish I could be a hermit. I wouldn't have to worry about anything other than prayers and maintaining a few books."

"Amazing," John said. "Amazing how indifferent people can be."

"To God?"

"Yes, and to patrons with empty cups. Next week we should meet somewhere else, like Grandoise Grounds. Sad about your friend. People are more and more indifferent to God, too. Trads need to stop talking about abstract ideas of 'truth' and first get people to understand that there is a necessary good in the world beyond their own immediate gratification. Friendships fail for the same reason nowadays. It's not even a conscious selfishness anymore. Broken families are replaced by shiny toys from Silicon Valley or, a baby from a test tube. Whatever fills my emotional vacuum now will do. Your friend's perspective is likely the only one he can imagine."

"But it wasn't always like that," I continued. "Or maybe it was always like that. Perhaps he was sincere once. He once conspired with my girlfriend to have a surprise party for me. He bought me walking stick for my birthday once and a box of cigars just because he thought I might enjoy them. There was goodness there. Now he claims he has never had a good memory of another person, not until he found his true self. Lex orandi lex credendi. How long will he have to behave in his new religion until he is convinced he believes it?"

"I think he'll cave before I get another cup. No coffee here, but plenty of Glenfiddich at my place," John suggested with wry enthusiasm.

"It's not even noon!"

"It will be by the time we pay up and get back to my place."

"Alright, alright. The point stands. The people going down that road are not generally well off. All talk of acceptance and mercy, no care for their actual welfare."

We settled our bills with some wrangling. We picked up our jackets as I snuffed my cigar.

"How many more people," I pondered, "must go up in smoke, either in this world or the one to come, before Churchmen learn their lesson?"

"Best drink it away," assured John. "Come to my place. We'll drink 'til we've had enough, and then just a touch more."

"Isn't that a sin?"

"No, that's being drunk. I'm talking about the Point of Hilarity."

"What's that?"

"It's not yet sloshed and quite happy. It's a Chesterton idea. He might be a saint and he was lubricated all the time!"

"Let's get hilarious!"

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

The Rainbow as an Image of the Trinity

“Look upon the rainbow, and bless him that made it: it is very beautiful in its brightness. It encompasseth the heaven about with the circle of its glory, the hands of the most High have displayed it.” (Sir. 43)

(From St. Basil the Great’s Thirty-Eighth Letter, to his brother Gregory.)

You have before now, in springtime, beheld the brightness of the bow in the cloud; the bow, I mean, which, in our common parlance, is called Iris, and is said by persons skilled in such matters to be formed when a certain moisture is mingled with the air, and the force of the winds expresses what is dense and moist in the vapour, after it has become cloudy, into rain.

“Your signs bring deliverance, to me Your cross and to Noah Your bow!” (St. Ephrem)

The bow is said to be formed as follows. When the sunbeam, after traversing obliquely the dense and darkened portion of the cloud-formation, has directly cast its own orb on some cloud, the radiance is then reflected back from what is moist and shining, and the result is a bending and return, as it were, of the light upon itself. For flame-like flashings are so constituted that if they fall on any smooth surface they are refracted on themselves; and the shape of the sun, which by means of the beam is formed on the moist and smooth part of the air, is round. The necessary consequence therefore is that the air adjacent to the cloud is marked out by means of the radiant brilliance in conformity with the shape of the sun’s disc.

“The rainbow is called a bow from what the Lord spoke to Noah and to his sons, that they should not fear any further deluge in the generation of God, but fire.” (St. Victorinus)

Now this brilliance is both continuous and divided. It is of many colours; it is of many forms; it is insensibly steeped in the variegated bright tints of its dye; imperceptibly abstracting from our vision the combination of many coloured things, with the result that no space, mixing or paring within itself the difference of colour, can be discerned either between blue and flame-coloured, or between flame-coloured and red, or between red and amber. For all the rays, seen at the same time, are far shining, and while they give no signs of their mutual combination, are incapable of being tested, so that it is impossible to discover the limits of the flame-coloured or of the emerald portion of the light, and at what point each originates before it appears as it does in glory.

“As the appearance of the rainbow when it is in a cloud on a rainy day: this was the appearance of the brightness round about.” (Ezekiel 1)

As then in the token we clearly distinguish the difference of the colours, and yet it is impossible for us to apprehend by our senses any interval between them; so in like manner conclude, I pray you, that you may reason concerning the divine dogmas; that the peculiar properties of the hypostases, like colours seen in the Iris, flash their brightness on each of the Persons Whom we believe to exist in the Holy Trinity; but that of the proper nature no difference can be conceived as existing between one and the other, the peculiar characteristics shining, in community of essence, upon each.

“And he that sat, was to the sight like the jasper and the sardine stone; and there was a rainbow round about the throne, in sight like unto an emerald.” (Apoc. 4)

Even in our example, the essence emitting the many-coloured radiance, and refracted by the sunbeam, was one essence; it is the colour of the phænomenon which is multiform. My argument thus teaches us, even by the aid of the visible creation, not to feel distressed at points of doctrine whenever we meet with questions difficult of solution, and when at the thought of accepting what is proposed to us, our brains begin to reel.

(Source: New Advent, trans. Blomfield Jackson)