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Two Novellas by Jon Fosse

Jon Fosse won the 2023 Nobel Prize for Literature. In stating that, I'm supposing that those reading this might not already be aware of it. That supposition in turn is based on another: that there are a considerable number of people like me who read a lot but aren't necessarily aware of who wins the Nobel and other big prizes every year. 

For my part, I just don't give much thought to those prizes, or, as a rule, to the writers who receive them. This is not any sort of contrarian snobbery. I don't look down on them; in fact I feel a vague and slight sense of shame about my ignorance. It's true that I don't assume that Nobel winners are necessarily the best the world has to offer, but neither do I assume that they aren't. Most of them are probably excellent. It's just that for the most part my literary interests don't take me in the direction of contemporary writing. 

Those interests do, however, take me very much in the direction of writing by Catholics, contemporary and otherwise, and that's how Fosse came to my attention: he is a fairly recent Catholic convert, in spite of being Norwegian. I don't really mean for that last bit to be funny. The Nordic countries went thoroughly Protestant as soon as they had a chance, then even further and faster into secularism than the rest of Europe, and Catholics there have been not just scarce but rare. Still, I wouldn't have gotten around to reading Fosse if it hadn't been made convenient by an online seminar produced by the Global Catholic Literature Project of the Collegium Institute of the University of Pennsylvania, in partnership with Dappled Things magazine. I've taken a couple of these and found them interesting and helpful.

Fosse has published an enormous amount and I would have had no idea where to start with his work. The seminar made the choice for me: two novellas, A Shining and Aliss At the Fire. There were four Zoom sessions taking place on four consecutive Monday nights in March, two each for each of the novels.

It was perhaps a mistake to take the seminar, as I was more interested in other writers at the moment--for instance, Dickens--and had other things going on, including a week-long trip that made me miss the last session. So I didn't really give either the works or the seminar itself as much attention as they deserved. Moreover, the works are rather mysterious, and despite the vigorous efforts of the excellent presenters (who, I must say, made me feel rather stupid with the intelligence and depth of their analysis) I still have only a vague idea of their meaning, and even, in Aliss, of what actually happens. Therefore I am not going to attempt to discuss them in much depth, and am writing this post mainly to point them out and suggest that you may want to investigate them yourself.

A Shining is the simpler of the two. It's even, in a sense, straightforward. I'll give you a lengthy quote from the opening which will give you the flavor of it: 

I was taking a drive. It was nice. It felt good to be moving. I didn't know where I was going. I was just driving. Boredom had taken hold of me--usually I was never bored but now I had fallen prey to it. I couldn't think of anything I wanted to do. So I just did something. I got in my car and drove and when I got somewhere I could turn right or left I turned right, and at the next place I could turn right or left I turned left, and so on. I kept driving like that. Eventually I'd driven a long way up a forest road where the ruts gradually got so deep that I felt like the car was getting stuck. I just kept driving, until the car got totally stuck. I tried to reverse but I couldn't, so I stopped the car. I was sitting in the car. Yes, well, now I'm here, I thought, now I'm sitting here, and I felt empty as if the boredom had turned into emptiness. Or maybe into a kind of anxiety, because I felt something like fear as I sat there empty, looking straight ahead as if into a void. Into nothingness. What am I talking about, I thought. There's the forest in front of me, it's just a forest, I thought. All right then, this sudden urge to drive off somewhere had brought me to a forest.

And it goes on like that. There are no paragraph breaks in its 74 pages. The man begins to walk into the forest. Night falls. It's very cold. He walks a long way, and he encounters a mysterious entity, the Shining of the title. He encounters several people, including his parents, and a man in black, as mysterious as the Shining. And there is what I will call a consummation at the end. The novella can be taken as a mystical or theological allegory (a dark wood and all that), but until I've read it again, which I do intend to do, I don't want to say anything more definite.

Fosse-AShining

Publisher: Transit Books

Aliss At the Fire is a bit longer and considerably more complex. And puzzling. And as it happens it occupied the last two sessions of the seminar, when I was distracted for one and absent for the other (though I was able to watch a video of the session later). But I think this much is accurate: the people and events are fixed in place but not in time. The place is an old house near the sea, by (in?) a fjord, and its immediate surroundings. Over this place time is sort of...smeared. The place is inhabited by at least four or five people, all members of one family, going back several generations.

The point of view shifts without notice or acknowledgment. The books opens with an "I" who is watching someone--a woman named Signe--in a room in the house. Almost immediately the point of view shifts to Signe's, in third person: "She watches...she thinks...she sees..." Among the things she sees is her husband, Asle. After a few dozen pages there is a sort of pivot and the point of view becomes Asle's. Signe sees Asle and herself at different points in their life together. Asle sees Signe, his great-great-grandmother, Aliss, and several people from the intervening generations. There have been at least two deaths, untimely and deeply lamented, apparently by drowning in the fjord. The overall effect is of a connection, very deep and very much alive, among the persons along the timeline, as if to demonstrate Faulkner's "the past is never dead; it is not even past."

I don't think the "I" reappears until the last line, and if there is any explanation of him or her I missed it (which is possible). I'm tempted to quote that line. But it would be a species of spoiler, so I won't. 

Browsing through the book just now, I noticed that there seemed to be, typographically, no sentences. The narrative goes on for many pages with no punctuation except commas and question marks, and with paragraphs only used to indicate spoken dialog. I was going to say that there are no periods in the book at all, but there are a few. On page 41, more than a third of the way through the book, Asle is seeing his great-great-grandmother, Aliss, roasting a sheep's head at a fire near the shore.

...she moves the sheep's head back and forth, back and forth in the flames. That's Aliss, he thinks, and he sees it, he knows it. That's Aliss at the fire.

Unless I've missed one, that period after "flames" is the first one in the book. There are a few more in that passage, very very few after. No doubt that means something, but I don't know what.

Fosse-AlissAtTheFire

Publisher: Dalkey Archive Press

Giving these books a little attention for the writing of this post has made me see that they deserve more attention than I gave them during the seminar, and are probably better than I gave them credit for. I plan to re-read them fairly soon. 


This Is the Last Time I Write About the Current State of the Catholic Church

Well, at least during this papacy. 

The fort is betrayed even of them that should have defended it. And therefore seeing the matter is thus begun, and so faintly resisted on our parts, I fear that we be not the men that shall see the end of the misery.

Wherefore, seeing I am an old man and look not long to live, I mind not by the help of God to trouble my conscience in pleasing the king this way whatsoever become of me, but rather here to spend out the remnant of my old days in praying to God for him.

    --St. John Fisher's "reply to Bishops Stokesley, Gardiner and Tunstal, sent to the Tower by Thomas Cromwell to persuade Fisher to submit to the King" (full text at the link)

I do not of course identify myself with St. John Fisher's courage in the face of the immediate and fairly certain prospect of decapitation. I'm not in any personal danger from either secular or religious authorities. I'm not even in danger of financial or social penalties. I suppose I might experience either or both of those if I were in a situation where the opinion of progressives had that kind of power over me, but I'm not. Nor do I mean that the Catholic Church, in my country or universally, has been decisively conquered in the way that Fisher witnessed. 

What I identify with is Fisher's understanding that it was the authorities within the Church who had given it over to its enemies, his resignation in the face of the result, and his certainty that the trouble he sees will long outlast him. 

The turmoil in the Catholic Church, the conflict between the Faith more or less as it has been understood for 2000 years and doctrinal revisions intended to make it acceptable to that godless fool, "modern man," is a grave crisis which is not going to be resolved in my lifetime. The evangelization which Vatican II and other changes were meant to enable is now crippled by that internal conflict (among many other things). And this crisis has mainly been the work of church authorities.

I know I've said things like this before, but not, I think, with quite so much emphasis and finality. The occasion, as you might have guessed, is the issuing of the decree Fiducia supplicans. I don't think I need to say much about it. If you want to dig into what it actually says and what it actually means, there are plenty of opinions out there. (I think Larry Chapp has it right.)

My own view is simple: the decree is the answer to the question "How can we do this while denying that we are doing it?" I know the document is carefully constructed to be technically orthodox, and I recognize the good will of those who argue that it changes nothing. But I think they're mistaken. The homosexual rights activist Fr. James Martin, S.J., thinks so, too, quoted by Chapp: “Be wary of the ‘Nothing has changed’ response to today’s news. It’s a significant change.".

Fisher of course did not live to see the church which replaced his own be surrendered in a similar way, not to a king but to the diffused sovereignty of the spirit of the times, which I think is clearly the spirit of the Antichrist. Many of us who watched, helplessly, the internal apostasy of most of Anglicanism recognize Fiducia supplicans as a maneuver in the struggle which wrecked that communion. Whether that maneuver will be followed successfully by others I won't try to guess. I think the most likely long-term result is a gradual continuation of the hollowing-out process which leaves "official teaching" more or less intact but a dead letter. 

I don't care to speculate about the motives of the pope. I'll just go back to something I've said before, but with more emphasis: Pope Francis is a bad pope in the functional sense that he is bad at his job, like a builder whose buildings fall down. He has  exacerbated--deliberately, it appears--the divisions in the Church and insured that the crisis of which I spoke above will be prolonged for quite some time. It is entirely possible that it will become much, much worse, in part because of his approach to it.

There's something else on this subject that I may or may not have said here before, though I have certainly said it in other places. I'll repeat it as I leave the topic: I had never, as far as I recall, so much as heard the name of Cardinal Bergoglio before his election to the papacy, and therefore had no prejudice against him. But when he stepped out onto that balcony to greet the crowds after his election, I immediately had what I can only describe crudely as a bad feeling. It had no particular content and I wouldn't call it a premonition, just...a bad feeling. I've thought about it often since then, and have spoken to others who had the same experience. It's a small thing which may be significant. Or not.


Jordan Peterson's Wife Becomes Catholic

See this article in the Catholic Herald.

I don't, obviously, try to follow the news here. I didn't even write about the October 7th invasion/massacre in Israel, or anything that's followed it, but I have certainly given it a lot of my attention. But this seems significant in a way not very far distant from some of the things I do write about, e.g. posts in the "Catholic Stuff" category, to warrant mention.

Peterson is an interesting guy. Interesting and smart. I haven't read any of his books but I've seen him in interviews and talks and he has, as you probably know, a great many very sensible things to say, and apparently a strong and healthy respect for the religious traditions of Western civilization. That's enough to make him unusual for someone who has as much popular appeal as he does. I don't think anyone would be surprised if he followed his wife into the Church. 


The Synod's Deep Depravity Revealed

They want us all to participate in a structured "discernment" process guided by facilitators. Perhaps, being progressives with a bureaucratic-administrative sort of mindset--i.e. the sort of people who like this sort of thing--they don't realize that for many or most others it's partly to be ridiculed and partly to be feared. It's frequently manipulative, aimed at pushing a group in a certain direction while providing a veneer of consensus.

I wonder if it's not just frequently but intrinsically so. Maybe not. But I don't think I'm far off in thinking that most people who have been obliged to participate in it see it as something of a sham. This is especially true if the "facilitators" are in positions of power over the facilitated. I'm slightly surprised that America magazine would spill the beans on this. But here is the former editor, Fr. Thomas Reese, S.J., asserting that "Pope Francis wants the synod in every parish":

Like the members of the synod, parishioners should be divided into groups of 10 members sitting at round tables.

In addition, at the synod, there was an experienced facilitator to guide the members of each group in the process. The facilitator’s job is not to impose his or her views on the group but to be an impartial moderator who encourages respectful listening and makes sure everyone is able to participate.

Each group also chooses a secretary to draft a report of the group’s discussions.

The actual work of the small groups involves “conversation in the Spirit” on the question they want to discern. The question could be a decision facing the parish or any of the topics (Communion, Mission, Participation) outlined in the synod working paper or Instrumentum Laboris. Perhaps most fruitful would be reflection on the questions that come out of the first session of the synod, which ends this week.

Etc. etc. You can read his whole proposal here. And here's a link to a PDF of the PowerPoint presentation (of course) outlining the process as implemented in the synod. 

At the parish level, I doubt that many people apart from those odd ones who thrive on committees and meetings and such would really want to do this. Likely conclusion, whether at synod or parish: "The Spirit is telling us to do what we wanted to do. Our God is a God of surprises!"

Or maybe I'm just too cynical. That's probably it. 

There was a similar program back in the '80s. It was called Renew. Everybody who participated recalls it with excitement and nostalgia. Those who are too young speak of it reverently and regret that they were not present for it. Right?


Values

As I think I mentioned not too long ago, I've been going through old notebooks containing odds and ends of writing, with the aim of getting rid of the notebooks, as part of a bigger de-cluttering process. Some of the material is drafts of blog posts or essays which were eventually published. Much is only fragments, briefly noted ideas, not worth preserving. A few are more substantial. This is one. I have no very definite idea of when I wrote it, but I think it was at least fifteen  years ago. 

I seem to develop allergies to certain words or phrases from time to time. I'll notice myself having an irritable reaction to a word such as, for instance, "empowerment." Once I realize that this is happening I begin to analyze the term and usually find that it is being used in some way that strikes me as dishonest, evasive, or simply wrong.

The first instance of this which I can recall at the moment occurred in the late '60s or early '70s, and the word was "lifestyle." It seemed a harmless, perhaps even useful, term, but it always rubbed me wrong. Eventually I figured out that it was the savor of self-indulgence about it that put me off, and soon enough it became clear that it had two meanings: one, a way of living which ran defiantly counter to traditional morality, as in "alternative lifestyle," and, two, money, as in "we'd like to maintain our lifestyle." (Test-drive it and see: try talking about "the Trappist lifestyle"; it should make you feel uneasy.)

"Values" is another such irritating word. What's wrong with it? Isn't the lack of "values" one of our serious problems? Don't we need values? If so, why do I feel gloom descending upon me when I read in the bulletin of a Catholic college that it is "committed to Catholic values"?

The problem is that values alone are not worth much. The term has come to mean a mere preference.

That was all I wrote at the time. But I know that what I meant to go on and say was that "values" are not principles. "Values" are soft, malleable, somewhat subjective, possibly even a matter of personal inclination. Principles are hard and fixed. You can stand on them.

Catholic values are fine; they ought to include many qualities which almost everyone would applaud--in a Catholic college, they ought to include, for instance, academic excellence. Concern for justice and peace, if taken in a non-ideological sense, is a worthy value. But notice that those are abstract and a little vague. Why are these things valued? What are the principles which justify their being valued? If they aren't founded on Catholic principles--by which I mean the faith itself, starting with the creeds--then what? And with what justification? 

The gloom I described arises from a suspicion that use of the word "values" is often an attempt, possibly unconscious, to avoid or minimize that foundation, in the interest of appearing more accommodating to the secular modern suspicion of religion as such.

*

One casualty of the winnowing and discarding process I mentioned was some dozens of pages of a novel for which I once had great hopes. I could still see glimpses of promise in it, but not many. It was a little painful to discard those scribbled pages and close the door on that project forever.

I'm always a little annoyed by the cheerful counsel that "it's never too late!" to do this or that thing that you always wanted to do. Sometimes it really is. Sure, I could start working on that novel again, but it would be at the expense of spending time on other things I want to do or should do. At my age I can be pretty certain that I won't have time and/or good health for them all. 


"Peak Post-Conciliar"

I try not to pay too much attention to current developments in the Catholic Church, as probably does everyone not in some way directly involved with the Church. It isn't difficult. It's like following, or rather abstaining from following, political campaigns. Every day brings some development which is reported upon excitedly for a while, then fades, and within weeks or months may be completely irrelevant and inconsequential, like, for instance, Bill Weld's 2020 campaign for the presidency. This effort is part of my broader attempt to break my habit of anxiety and worry about things over which I have no control. 

But, as with political campaigns, in the longer run what happens in the Church does affect me, and so I don't ignore it completely. 

I take it as more or less given that the Synod on Synodality is a waste of time at best, at worst a source of further trouble. All the sanctimonious talk about accompaniment and inclusion is fatally compromised by the malice of Traditionis Custodes. So I'm not paying much attention. The fact that the thing is happening at all is more interesting than the thing itself: what, really, is going on? What makes so many in the hierarchy, and others, see this as an important activity?

And so I am passing along these remarks from Amy Welborn

I’ve often said that one of the negative outcomes of the Second Vatican Council was the emphasis on internal church affairs. Not only that people got the notion that the most important Catholic marker of all was being “involved in the Church” but more importantly, because everything – everything was up for grabs afterwards, that’s where the energy went, that should have been about continuing to share the Good News with the world – it became all about organization, dividing spoils and struggling for power.

This Synod on synodality – is the pinnacle. It truly is peak Post-Conciliar.

I guess I could ask whether this is really the peak, and whether there are greater heights which the churchy can attain. I am constitutionally inclined to say "Things could always be worse." Still, I love the phrase. And it is plainly the case that since the Council the Church has spent more energy on internal conflict than on the outreach to the world that was the justification for it. 

There's more worth reading in that piece. It's brief, but it links to this one from July, which in turn links to others, all equally perceptive and worth reading.

If you're interested, I gave what is probably my last extensive remark on Vatican II in this post from about a year ago. I suppose I'll never leave it completely alone, but it seems unlikely that my views will change significantly.


A Remark on Jimmy Buffett

He was a smart businessman who made millions telling y'all it's okay to goof off all the time. 

That was my wife's observation, and I thought it was too funny to keep to myself. 

I mean no serious disparagement of Jimmy Buffett. I was oddly saddened when I heard of his death--oddly because I wasn't a great fan of his music, and never even heard much of it apart from the few songs that were played on the radio. 

Maybe it was because I loved "Margaritaville" when it appeared in 1977. My family vacationed on the Florida Panhandle coast when I was growing up, and I always had a sort of romantic relationship with that area. The crush had been dormant for some years, but "Margaritaville" caused it to flare up again. (I think it was the line about the flip-flop and the pop-top. And the shrimp.) It's a good song by any reasonable standard, and an awfully appealing vision of beach life without major responsibility, yet including that offhand serious movement from evasion to responsibility ("It's my own damn fault.")

I'd probably like more of his music if I heard it. The truth is that I was put off his work not long after "Margaritaville" was a hit. He played in Tuscaloosa, where I was living at the time, and I went to see him. It was the only concert I've ever left before it ended. Buffett seemed to be pandering to the dumb college audience, causing them to erupt in frantic cheering by saying the word "beer" or anything else to do with drinking. Or sex. I was hoping for something with more depth than simple-minded party music. The songs may actually have had that, but I didn't know them and of course couldn't hear the lyrics very well, and the atmosphere was brainless college party. (Isn't it sad that "dumb," "brainless," and "college" go so easily together?) It was disappointing and dull and I left early. I'm pretty sure his music, at least some of it, deserves better. "Margaritaville" itself is no shallow celebration of indulgence. 

A White Sport Coat And a Pink Crustacean remains one of my all-time favorite album titles, though as far as I remember I've never heard it. He was very good at that kind of wordplay, though the number of people who get that particular joke must be diminishing rapidly. 

Buffett grew up in Mobile and is thought of as a local  hero, but I have the impression that he didn't much reciprocate the sentiment, in part maybe because Mobile radio was not receptive to his music, especially in his early days. A few years ago I heard a snatch of one of his songs in which he complains about that. His family lived in the Mobile area called Spring Hill, the most affluent neighborhood in the city, and he went to the Catholic high school and reportedly was an altar server at the chapel of Spring Hill College, which in his day was the unofficial parish of the neighborhood. According to this article in Church Life Journal, "Catholicism left an indelible mark on his imagination":

O bless me father yes I have sinned
Given the chance I’ll prob’ly do it again

Yeah, I hear that. And the article continues, making a point similar to my wife's:

Once again there is a contradiction in the telling: in order to show that one can have a successful life by just having fun, Buffett commits himself to work hard...

He might be the world’s most famous beach bum, but he eschews excess in his personal life and is a driven, hands-on entrepreneur. 

You don't create the kind of empire that his Margaritaville restaurants and resorts became without being driven. I've never been to one (there's not one here), and probably wouldn't like it much if I did. But he gave a lot of relatively innocent pleasure to a lot of people, and our deteriorating popular culture is the worse for his loss. RIP.

Local lore says that the cover photo of this 1981 album, which I have never heard, was taken in Point Clear, up the road from where I currently live, which was, in Buffett's youth, where many affluent Mobile families had summer homes. It certainly looks like it could have been, apart from the phone booth. Piers like that are seen all along the shores of Mobile Bay, not at the Gulf.

BuffettCoconutTelegraph

Forty-five years after "Margaritaville," I live an hour away from the Gulf and don't go to the beach very often--once or twice a year, maybe--because of the traffic and the condominiums and the crowds. "Nobody goes there anymore, it's too crowded." When I do go, it's in late fall and winter, when it's still pretty nice. 


Prayers For the Young Priests

This past Easter I wrote about going to the Vigil at a small parish where the pastor is a young priest, and said this:

The young priests I've encountered in recent years are all similarly committed to the traditional mission of the Church, which makes them "conservative" in the confused mind of our time. And they are very brave. The orthodoxy is not surprising, because, as has been pointed out for decades, who would give up everything a priest has to give up for an ill-defined mission of which he is half ashamed? The bravery is almost true by definition now, because in the minds of many all priests are automatically suspected of child molestation and other crimes. And the accusation obviously gives a lot of pleasure to those who already hate the Church for other reasons. I certainly would have trouble walking around in public if I thought people were looking at me with that in mind. God give them strength. 

This has been much on my mind for the past week or so because of a situation in my diocese. I haven't seen it mentioned in the national news, but then I don't see that much national news, so perhaps it's out there. There are quite a few local and state news stories about it, but I think I'll refrain from linking to them, because I don't want to be even slightly responsible for it getting wider attention. It illustrates a different sort of difficulty and threat faced by young priests--any priests, really, but especially young ones.

I also won't mention the name of the priest involved. It isn't the one whose parish I attended at Easter, but they're about the same age. I'll call this one Father M (for Mackay). I don't know him personally but I heard him speak a year or so ago at my parish. Our then-assistant pastor, also a priest of around the same age, had organized a series of talks for men, and Father M was one of the speakers. It was a good talk. He was intelligent, articulate, and obviously passionate about the orthodox faith, about the need for committed spiritual combat against all the temptations and distractions that the contemporary world presents, about the need for courage and self-mastery.

But there was one thing that made me a little uneasy. Before I mention that, I'll speak generally: any young person with an intense commitment to anything runs the risk of either burning out, because the intensity can't be sustained over the long haul, especially in the face of life's typical disappointments, or of going off the rails in some way, passion overriding prudence and balance: out of gas, or crash and burn. Some young priests make me a little uneasy on this count. They are orthodox, often traditionalist, devoted, and intense, and I worry that they won't be able to keep their balance over a lifetime of ministry, and will come to a halt in one of those two ways. 

Where religion is concerned, the form taken by that second possibility--intensity that goes out of control in some way--is likely to be fanaticism, superstition, and other spiritual diseases. Father Ronald Knox devoted an entire book, Enthusiasm, to the syndrome as it has manifested itself since the beginning of the Church. (He means the word "enthusiasm" in a sense that's pretty much fallen out of use now, more or less equivalent to "fanaticism.") It can be difficult to tell the difference between intense healthy devotion and intense unhealthy fanaticism, but there is a difference. It's even more difficult, I suspect, to recognize it from the inside: to know how, in one's own interior life, to maintain the former without falling into the latter. (I wouldn't know; I don't have the kind of zeal and energy that puts me in that danger.) 

One particular danger for the very religiously committed seems to be excessive interest in signs and wonders, particularly those having to do with the workings of evil. As best I can tell from what's public knowledge, something like that seems to have happened to Fr. M, and to have led him into trouble.

As good as his talk at my parish was, some of it made me, as I said, a little uneasy. He was clearly intense, and that sparked my usual concern, that he would not be able to sustain it while keeping his balance. And he talked a lot about demons, prayers of deliverance, purging one's space of things that might carry evil influences, and so forth, and that made me concerned that he might be giving more attention to those things than is really healthy. I don't mean that I definitely concluded that that was the case; when I say "concerned" that's all I mean; I had that little warning-bell feeling. From what I hear, this interest--which, if not excessive, is clearly great--has been a strong tendency of his for some time. 

It seems to be at the root of the current situation--the current disaster, it's fair to say. Fr. M was often asked to speak to classes at the local Catholic high school, and his talks often were heavy on the topics I just mentioned. And he sometimes had counseling or spiritual guidance sessions with individual students. He was apparently pretty quick to blame the direct influence of Satan for their problems, which in my experience is a cause for concern. And he had gotten very interested in certain Marian apparitions, especially the one(s) in Garabandal, Spain, which as far as I can tell from a little reading about them are at best of dubious authenticity. Excessive interest in those is also, for me, a cause for concern. Again, I don't mean that these things are plainly misguided, only that I've seen and heard enough over the years to know that interest in them can become quite unhealthy.

Reportedly his talk of demons and exorcisms was enough to alarm some parents. Were they justified? Or did they, like many contemporary Christians, just want a tame faith? I don't know. 

Apparently he became very close with one female student. And a couple of weeks ago he and the girl, who had graduated in the spring, disappeared and were found to have  fled (the word seems reasonable) to Garabandal, for reasons that remain unclear. The archbishop immediately deprived Fr. M of his priestly faculties (which the local media keep incorrectly calling "defrocked"). The girl's parents are understandably very upset. When she and Fr. M were located, they both denied that they have a sexual relationship. But of course that's being met with "yeah right" by many or most people, and that's at least somewhat understandable--it certainly looks bad.

But I believe them. Based solely on my experience of his talk, I am quite willing to believe that it is not a physically sexual relationship, and that Fr. M did not "groom" the girl, as the irresponsible local sheriff is saying. However, I also think it's quite likely that it was and is sexual in the broad sense--i.e., that he is a handsome young man and she is a no doubt pretty young woman, and they developed romantic feelings for each other. Perhaps they didn't even really or fully recognize that it was happening. That's hardly an uncommon phenomenon. 

Anyway, this is obviously a disaster for all concerned. Is it even in principle possible for Fr. M ever to function as a priest again? Does he even want to? Would any bishop ever let him? What will this have done to the girl's spiritual life and general emotional health? Will she leave the Church? Will her parents? Will he? 

And somewhere out near the edge of the ripples generated by this splash am I, seeing what is probably the loss to the Church, and in a small way to me, of a gifted young priest. You don't have to believe that a demon whispered directly into Fr. M's ear to see that this is a victory for the arch-demon. At least for now. I pray every day for "all bishops, priests, deacons, seminarians, and religious." Especially the young ones.


A Couple of Questions I'm Not Interested in Discussing (Anymore)

Some years back there was, in the comments here, an exchange about the tendency of political and other opinions to harden in older people. If I remember correctly, one person suggested that this was essentially a sort of ossification, with certain opinions becoming so much a mental habit as to become an unchangeable part of the person. There may also have been an implication that it was a form of fatigue or laziness; I can't remember for sure and have not been able to formulate a query that will locate the exchange for me.

But I do remember thinking--I don't know whether I said--that the mechanism is a little different. A few years before he died, when he was getting too old and infirm to sail, as he had loved to do for most of his life, William F. Buckley, Jr. published a column in which he mentioned that he had at last sold his boat, giving it up as "a prelude to giving up everything." (I put that in quotation marks because I remember the words that way, but I could be mistaken. I'm pretty sure I'm not mistaken about the meaning.)

Old age is among other things a process of giving up, willingly or not; of letting go. That, I think, is a factor in the way this  narrowing of opinion happens. You simply recognize that the limits on your remaining time and abilities force you to abandon certain things that you had once done, or wanted to do. And it applies to thought as well as to activity. Perhaps you once had enough interest in the debate about health care, insurance, and so forth to formulate and publish an opinion about it. At a certain age you may, possibly without consciously deciding to do so, put that question among those on which you no longer want to expend your time as the remaining amount of it diminishes. That opinion thus becomes "hardened," not so much because you are obstinate and ossifying but because you no longer devote mental space to it. It's like moving to a smaller house or an apartment: you no longer need or want or perhaps even are able to use and maintain the larger one. 

Here are two matters which have for me passed into that stage of abandonment:

(1) What is conservatism? And its ancillary, what does it mean to be a conservative?

Attempting to define words that are intrinsically--by definition, you might say--impossible to define with great precision can be an enjoyable pastime, and in some instances useful. Discussing these questions can lead to a clarification of one's thinking. But sometimes it's a waste of time. And in this particular case there is, lurking behind the debate, an attempt to draw a boundary which allows one to say "So-and-so is not a real conservative" or "Such-and-such is not real conservatism." Often the word "real" is dropped. A standard of orthodoxy is erected, and some attempt at enforcing it is made. 

On this subject the debate is made even more frustrating by the fact that in this country "conservatism" is usually classical liberalism. Trying to sort it out is tiresome. I've never cared very much about doing it, and now I don't care at all.

Someone once raised his main objection to the whole debate by noting that, for him, the word "conservative" is descriptive, not prescriptive. Exactly. I'm willing to call myself, and be called, a conservative, because the word seems reasonably accurate, both abstractly and practically, as a description of my views. But debating the nature of True Conservatism? In the early days of that recognition I was mildly interested in debates about the definition. By now I think I've heard it all, and I don't care if someone says I'm not a True Conservative. (I especially don't care about the juvenile taunt from progressives who think they've won a victory when you say something that doesn't fit their idea, usually equally juvenile, of what conservatives think.)

And now it's almost crazy to have the debate at all, with the institutions that conservatives wanted to preserve being dominated by progressives who use them to destroy the principles behind them, to keep the name and facade while turning the institution into something else entirely. (Another debate in which I am rapidly losing interest: whether or not that is happening. If you don't see it, it's very unlikely that you can be persuaded to do so.)

(2) What is Catholic art? And the ancillary, what does it mean to be a Catholic artist?

This one's been abandoned for different reasons, almost the opposite reasons, from the previous one. In this case the question is not intrinsically forever unsettled, but pretty definitely settled, and the debate can only go back and forth repetitively over the same ground. Maritain, O'Connor, Percy, and many others have said what needs to be said: Catholic art is informed by Catholic belief but need not and in general should not be didactic. If you want to discuss that further, go ahead, but I'm going to go read or listen to music. 

This crochety post was prompted by an encounter with that second question. Frequently it's accompanied or prompted by a complaint that "There is no [or little] worthwhile Catholic art/fiction/poetry today" or, in question form, "Why is there no [or little] worthwhile Catholic art/fiction/poetry today?" 

Simon Caldwell discussed the matter at The Catholic Herald:

And in the secular culture the Catholic Faith is once again a source of scandal, viewed, in the words of Dana Gioia, the American Catholic poet, as disreputable, déclassé and retrograde. It means that it is nearly impossible today to get a “Catholic” novel published. Mainstream publishers are not well-disposed to books with religious content.

What makes a novel “Catholic”? 

I wanted to stop reading at that point, and in fact only skimmed the rest. I agree with almost everything he says in answer to his question. But do we really need to go over it yet again? Maybe some do, but I don't. And by the way his "nearly impossible" is not true. There is surely prejudice (and more) against visibly Catholic writing in secular literary circles. But if the work is really good it has as much of a shot at publication as anything else of comparable quality. I put it that way because it's surely the case that bad or mediocre work that flatters progressives and pushes their ideas is more likely to be published than bad or mediocre work that pushes Catholic ideas. So write better, Catholic novelist.

In response to Caldwell, Katy Carl, novelist and editor of Dappled Things, wrote an exasperated response, "We still have no Catholic fiction?":

Our time is precious and tragically brief, so I will get straight to the point. The point is that I want ever so gently to suggest, in response to a recent Catholic Herald (UK) piece, that “the time for the 21st-Century Catholic novel” has not only arrived, it dropped its luggage on our metaphorical doorstep a good round number of years ago and has ever since been crashing on our collective couch. It’s time we all noticed. Maybe it would be cool if we brought it a cup of coffee or something.

Last time the Herald got worried about the state of Catholic fiction—a bit less than three years ago, now—I was invited to participate in a response piece that pointed to the actual, vibrant, flourishing state of Catholic contributions to the culture of arts and letters. Since then the picture on the ground has only grown lusher. The truth is that we are living in an explosion of high-quality Catholic fiction being produced in every quarter, by writers from around the world and around the corner.

She goes on to list a number of recent distinctly Catholic works of literature, mostly novels, some published by big-name publishers and pretty well-received. She's right. In this case it's not age, but relative youth, that should leave the debate behind. The time for fretting about the nature of Catholic literature and its current prospects is past. Time to just get on with it. 


On Benedict XVI

Much of the current issue (Lent 2023) of The Lamp is devoted to Benedict XVI, to "the life and legacy of Joseph Ratzinger," which is to say that it looks not only at the pope but at the theologian and cardinal. Most of it is only available online to subscribers, but if you don't subscribe  you can read the first article, by Archbishop Gomez of Los Angeles, here. It's very good, and of the two dozen or so contributions there isn't one that I don't agree with, The Lamp being an orthodox and intelligent publication, though naturally I appreciate some more than others. The only possible exception is the essay by theologian John Milbank, and that's only because I can't understand most of it. 

There is, however, from my point of view a noticeable lacuna in the array of tributes. Almost all the writers are prelates, priests, professors, or politicians. (I'm sorry, I couldn't resist the alliteration.) Those who are not actively engaged in ministry or theology or some other activity directly connected to the Church are public figures to at least some degree, like the British Member of Parliament Jacob Rees-Mogg, or Christopher Caldwell of the Claremont Institute. It's not a criticism of the very fine contributions made by all these men (and, a bit surprisingly, they are all men) to note that the voice of the ordinary Catholic layman is missing. 

By some oversight I was not asked to contribute to this symposium. But as it happens I am in a position to add that missing voice, or at least something closer to it: the truly ordinary Catholic layman probably does not much care who is pope or what he is doing, beyond acknowledging a certain deference to him. I am not exactly that person, as I'm more engaged than that, have written for a few Catholic publications over the years, and am in the twentieth year of this pretty Catholic blog. Still, I'm basically what is referred to, somewhat but perhaps not altogether dismissively, as a pew-sitter, or pew-warmer. 

Returning to Christian belief as an adult in the late 1970s, after a not-untypical abandonment in adolescence, I was naively surprised to find that there was a whole contingent of Christians, mostly clergy and academics, who had ceased to take the fundamentals of the faith more or less as they had been understood for almost two thousand years, and instead were interpreting the whole business as a form of literature and/or psychology. I had joined the Episcopal Church and discovered that it was split roughly between those who did and those who did not believe the traditional doctrines in anything like the traditional way. I'll call those, for convenience, the orthodox and the modernists. In practice it was a three-way split: the orthodox, the modernists, and the more or less indifferent who just wanted to carry on as they always had. But of course all the noise was made by the first two. 

I was troubled by this conflict, which was deeper than a conflict within a community really ought to be or safely can be--safely for the community, I mean--because it went to the heart of the reasons for the community's existence. More significant than the conflict itself was the absence of any authority which could resolve it. The division was not trivial; it was not a fine point of theology or an argument about the language and music of the liturgy. It represented conceptions of what the faith is which, if understood in their essentials, were fundamentally irreconcilable. Only a factional power struggle could resolve the conflict, and even in 1980 I thought it was pretty clear that the modernists would prevail, as in fact they have. 

At the same time John Paul II had been elected to the papacy, and pretty soon it was pretty clear to me that I would have to become Catholic. The question of authority was a significant factor in that recognition. 

Even before I entered the Church I was aware that the modernist-traditionalist conflict was very much alive there, but the institution seemed to possess the authority to settle the matter, or rather to clarify it: to state the authoritative teaching of the Church, and, if necessary, to name specific ideas that are contrary to that teaching. And in the person of John Paul II it seemed to have someone who was clearly orthodox. So it seemed that, no matter how many heretics were running around, an authoritative and clarifying judgment would be available. John Paul was obviously not the tyrant-inquisitor that progressives tried to portray him as. And neither was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who had been put in charge of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, making him directly responsible for those judgments which always have been and always will be necessary.

At the beginning of my conversion I read a little theology and a little history, enough to reassure me that Rome was the right choice. But I realized fairly soon that I was not going to be a Catholic Intellectual. Even if I had had the brains I did not have the temperament, and even if I had had the brains and the temperament I did not have the time: I had a very demanding job and a growing family. I did not want to be wrapped up in intra-Church debates requiring expertise which I did not especially want to acquire and attention I did not want to spare. I did not care to be a close observer of the conflict, much less of Vatican or intra-Church politics of any sort. I did not want to be a liberal Catholic or a conservative Catholic, just a faithful Catholic layman. And I did not want to be in the state of suspicion which comes all too easily to those who are aware of the modernist-orthodox conflict. 

The conflict was however in full swing, and I was always aware of it, far too often finding myself in precisely that state of suspicion and ready for combat. It is not a healthy spiritual condition. I'm tempted here to complain about the state of the Church over the forty years in which I have known it, but I long ago grew sick of the sound of my own complaining voice. Suffice to say that the conflict has been at the root of most of the complaining--both the conflict itself and my own reactions to it. 

And now I can get to the point which makes this about the life and legacy of Joseph Ratzinger. I read the collection of interviews with him published in 1985 as The Ratzinger Report, and thought Here is a truly wise man, exactly the kind we need: orthodox without being reactionary, learned but not narrowly academic, both shrewd and generous about the currents agitating the Church and the world. 

I can't separate John Paul II and Ratzinger/Benedict. The latter was an essential part of the papacy of the former, his own papacy essentially a continuation of it, and during that long period I felt that whatever might be going amiss in the Church at the moment the trajectory was toward clarification and stability, especially clarification of what Vatican II had really meant and really intended. I had always thought that if I had been an adult Catholic in the 1950s I would have agreed with both Wojtyla and Ratzinger about the need for the Council. I could never, obviously, have been convicted of nostalgia for a Church I had never experienced, though I was (and am) deeply sympathetic to those who regretted the loss of much that they had known and loved.

And when Ratzinger became pope in 2005 I thought the tide had really, definitively, permanently turned, that perhaps in another generation the amorphous thing that opposed the faith from within the Church would have largely passed into history. It might not be in my lifetime, but I was heartened by the belief that this would be the trajectory of the coming years, that the domination of the Church's life by factionalism was fading away. That would be the legacy of Joseph Ratzinger, of the long John Paul II-Benedict XVI papacy.

I was of course entirely wrong. The only coherent opinion I can express about Benedict's resignation is that I didn't understand it, and still don't. About the papacy which has followed I can say with assurance only one thing: that it has revivified the modernist movement and given it life that will surely continue for much longer than I had supposed. In the face of one of the greatest challenges in its history, the rush of Western civilization to embrace and establish as the undeclared but actual state religion a post-Christian anti-Christianity, the Church will continue to be divided and confused. God knows why this happened and how it will work out according to his will, but I can only see it as a tragedy.

I should mention here my deep gratitude for Benedict's creation in 2009 of the Ordinariates for the continuation of the Anglican liturgical and devotional heritage. That it came thirty years too late to have the effect it might have does not lessen my gratitude, or mean that it will have no good effects, though those will be less obvious than they might have been in the early 1980s. Bishop Lopes of the Ordinariate is currently the head of the USCCB's Committee on Divine Worship, i.e. liturgy, and the drabness of Catholic worship was one of the things that for a while held me back from leaving Anglicanism, and one of the things I spent far too much time complaining about in the following years. 


A Couple of Things After the Triduum

(The title is for you, Stu)

For various logistical reasons we didn't go to the Easter Vigil at the cathedral this year, or even to our regular parish, but rather to a very small parish in a very small town a bit further away than our own.

Well, why not be specific? It was St. John the Baptist in Magnolia Springs (Alabama). I'd never been there before and I was impressed. I think it was not so long ago only a mission and a relatively poor parish, and the building is small and plain. But the interior has fairly recently been redecorated, and it's very appealing. Good taste can do a lot without a lot of money. The liturgy can be described as simple but passionate, in a good way. And it included a fair amount of Latin and a great deal of incense. I don't think the church  holds more than a hundred people, and it was packed, so much so that my wife and I felt a little guilty about taking up space that some parishioner might have used. I think we were all accommodated, though.

I got the feeling that it's a very healthy parish. And that is undoubtedly in some large measure due to the young and very dedicated priest, Fr. Nick Napolitano. I've known him slightly for a while. He was a high school classmate of one of our children, and when he in seminary sometimes was an altar server in our Ordinariate Masses. He is fiercely--the word is not too strong--committed to his mission. I hope he can sustain it in the face of all the opposition, from without and within the Church, that will come to him, and from the risk which no doubt faces all priests of simply growing weary and jaded with the passage of time. 

This link will take you to a video at the parish site of Fr. Nick discussing the visual features of the church. I had not noticed the bugs.

The young priests I've encountered in recent years are all similarly committed to the traditional mission of the Church, which makes them "conservative" in the confused mind of our time. And they are very brave. The orthodoxy is not surprising, because, as has been pointed out for decades, who would give up everything a priest has to give up for an ill-defined mission of which he is half ashamed? The bravery is almost true by definition now, because in the minds of many all priests are automatically suspected of child molestation and other crimes. And the accusation obviously gives a lot of pleasure to those who already hate the Church for other reasons. I certainly would have trouble walking around in public if I thought people were looking at me with that in mind. God give them strength. 

*

Post-Lenten drinking update: I had given up my regular evening drink, usually a beer, for Lent. I did, as the questionable practice allows, give myself a Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon break. And I had a few lapses, some for social reasons, but didn't too very badly. 

One thing I did not do during Lent was to sneak a little of this wonderful scotch. One of my children had brought it for the Christmas holidays, and there was a little left, which I have been saving for a special occasion. I thought Saturday night after the vigil was special enough. 

ReallyGoodScotch

Scotch is not my favorite whiskey, but this is something else. People talk about the "peaty" taste of scotch, and I guess it's a marker of its non-favorite-ness for me that I don't think I especially like that quality. And this has much less of it than most. I don't think I would ever have applied the term "fresh" to any other scotch, but it comes to mind here. All that "nose," "palate," etc., stuff on the label, which I have a hard time taking very seriously (which may just mean that I'm a clod) uses comparisons to various fruits, which, again, would never have occurred to me in relation to scotch, but which seemed justified. Not that it tastes fruity, but there's a lightness and brightness to the flavor which I don't associate with scotch. 

I don't want to know how much it costs but I do know that it is not available in the state liquor stores here, which maybe is just as well. Happily, there is still another ounce or two in the bottle.

I also let alone during Lent another holdover from another offspring's visit: a couple of canned cocktails from TipTop Cocktails. Canned cocktails may sound like a terrible idea, but to my unsophisticated taste anyway they are extremely good. My son had brought an assortment, and one that I especially liked was the daquiri. I don't think I'd had a daquiri since I was in college (long ago). I have the impression that it's out of fashion. One of the company's mottos is "never too sweet," which was what made the daquiri better than I expected. 

Unfortunately they are not available in Alabama. You can order them online in an package of eight for $40. I don't want to bother doing that, and shipping cost would probably be pretty high, but that's only $5 for a very good drink. So if store prices are around the same they are very much worth it.

TipTopDaquiri*

As I have often mentioned, I have a peculiar attraction for offbeat and little-known music. One such that I found (at eMusic, of course) fifteen or twenty years ago was Voyager, an album by a group called Space Needle. A week or two ago something reminded me of an odd little track from that album, "Dreams." The lyric consists of one repeated line, which I heard as 

In time you will know that dreams no longer come true.

It spoke to my condition, as they say: I was more melancholy than usual when I heard the album. But I had only heard it in the car. When I listened to it at home the other day I thought Wait--is she saying "that" or is she saying "bad"? I decided it was the latter. I searched for the lyrics online and found only one attempt at transcription, at one of those dodgy lyric sites, and whoever did it agrees. So:

In time you will know bad dreams no longer come true.

Happy thought.

 


A Couple of Things Before the Triduum

A few things I meant to say about The Dry Wood:

I'm not sure exactly what the title means. It's an allusion to Luke 23:31: 

For if in the green wood they do these things, what shall be done in the dry?

That's the Douay-Rheims translation, which is the one Houselander uses, not surprisingly. I admit that I've never been entirely sure what it means. It's part of the warning Jesus gives to the people as he is about to be led away to his crucifixion, a warning that very bad things are coming for everyone. Flammability is one obvious difference between green and dry wood, so maybe "They're trying to burn green wood, so what will they do with dry wood?" is meant.  Anyway the general idea is that bad things are happening now and worse ones are coming. 

Here's what the editors of this edition say about it:

When a perfectly good green tree is burned (that is, when Christ sacrifices himself on the cross), what can the dry wood of fallen and broken humanity expect to find when it meets with fire? Fallen humanity can follow Christ to new life, but only at a price.

Well, that's obviously true, and the novel is very much about suffering, but I'm not totally convinced either that it's the correct interpretation of the words themselves or what Houselander had in mind in using them. I wonder if she meant something a little more specific: that her story describes the kindling of a fire in the dry wood of the people of Riverside. The plot supports that interpretation.

I mentioned the character of Solly Lee, a Jewish businessman who cynically tries to cash in on the popular devotion to Fr. Malone. That is obviously a somewhat stereotypical scenario, though probably, like most stereotypes, having some grounding in reality. But if that sounds like it might be heading toward anti-Semitism, it most definitely is not. The portrait of Solly is rich, sympathetic, and deeply and seriously engaged with his situation as a secularized Jew. To say much more than that I'd have to give away more of the story than I want to.  Suffice to say that it is not a hostile portrait.

*

The Trump indictment is a disaster for the nation. I say that with no sympathy at all for Trump himself. I think I've made my low opinion of him sufficiently clear over the years; search for his name on this blog if you want verification. If this involved a serious crime I would support it. But it's transparently contrived for political purposes, as the basic offenses are not only misdemeanors but misdemeanors for which the statute of limitations has expired, turned into felonies by the charge that they were committed in pursuit of another and so far unspecified crime. Even the vigorously anti-Trump David Frum thinks it's a bad case: 

From the moment rumors swirled that the Manhattan district attorney would move against Trump, many of us felt an inward worry: Did Alvin Bragg have a case that would justify his actions? The early reports were not encouraging. Many Trump-unfriendly commentators published their qualms. Over a week of speculation, though, it seemed wise to withhold judgment until the actual indictment was available to read. Now the document has been published. The worriers were right.

That's from The Atlantic, and I can't read the whole piece because I'm not a subscriber, so I don't know where he goes from there. I am a subscriber to Bari Weiss's Free Press, which has this analysis from Eli Lake; maybe you can read it. After explaining how thin the case is, he says:

All of this raises a question—not just for Bragg, but for the Democratic Party, the online resistance, and the media ecosystem that seems to exist simply to stoke outrage about Donald Trump for its overstimulated, progressive base: Is it worth it? Is the catharsis of seeing Trump indicted worth the damage a politicized prosecution of the former president will do?

Trump is bad, but it's the Democrats' reaction to him that is doing the most to tear this nation apart. Are they willing to do it because they know that Trump's supporters will be enraged enough to make him the Republican nominee next year, and believe they can defeat him? Or is it just the blood lust, the pleasure of humiliating the man they hate so much? (I was very surprised a while back to hear a progressive friend deny that she and others hate Trump. It confirmed my impression that zealous progressives are remarkably unaware of the demeanor which they present to those not of their faith.)

Either way, they are enlarging, possibly beyond repair, the rip in the fabric of our society. They are feeding the divisions that led to Trump's election in the first place. And they don't care. There are tens of millions of decent people who support Trump and believe that the ruling class of this country despises them and wants to render them powerless, or worse. Now you're encouraging them to believe that the law will not protect them if the progressive establishment goes after them. I suppose the Democrats think they can control the outcome, permanently defeating their enemies. And they may be right. But what will be the cost? 

One day, if history is told with any accuracy, they will be held in deserved contempt (along, probably, with Trump himself). But it will be too late to heal the nation. 

On that grim note, I'll sign off till after Easter. 

*

On second thought, I won't leave it on that note. Something reminded me of this picture, taken last fall at a state park in north Alabama. The light was extraordinary and though my phone didn't really capture it, it's still rather pretty.

LightInTrees-WheelerStatePark


Caryl Houselander: The Dry Wood

I thought I was reasonably familiar with Houselander's work, but it came as a surprise to me to learn that she had written a novel: only this one, published in 1947. So when I saw an ad for an online seminar on the book, a joint effort from Dappled Things and the Collegium Institute, I signed up. 

There were four sessions, and of course participants were assigned a set of chapters to read for each session. Being a bad student, I usually just managed to get each week's assignment done in time for the class, except for the second week when I ended up still one or two chapters behind when the appointed hour came. Had I been an actual student, held accountable for not having read quite all the assignment, I would have been tempted to cast a little of the blame on the author, for not having made the story interesting enough. 

It is not a page-turner. In fact, after the first week's reading I said to myself This is not a novel at all, but rather a lyrical meditation on Christian themes. But "novel" is a very, very broad category, especially since sometime in the 20th century when the kind of fiction known (at least by its practitioners and fans) as "experimental" stretched the concept so that it could include almost any non-factual prose of sufficient length. For that reason among others I won't push my initial reaction.

But I can't escape it entirely. The Dry Wood is certainly a novel by any reasonable definition; the  question is whether it's a good one. Answering that question obviously requires some reasonably definite idea of what a novel is and what makes a good one. Now, having finished the book and given it some thought, I've come to this relatively firm conclusion: it's not all that good a novel, but it's a very good book. 

It is a story, and it has a cast of characters who do one thing and another. Still, my description of it as a lyrical meditation on Christian themes is justifiable. It comes across to me more as a sort of tableau, a series of pictures, than as a flowing stream of narrative. And the pictures are accompanied by words which are often...well, it's hard to find a word that doesn't have at least slightly negative connotations, at least with regard to a novel. "Preachy" is obviously negative, but not unwarranted. "Didactic" is only a little better. "Homiletical," maybe. Somewhat abstractedly theological, anyway. But whether the negative suggestion is deserved depends very much on what the author is trying to do. I think these qualities are best considered not as a fault in a novel but as a virtue in the sort of book this is. 

I think it can be compared to a couple of C.S. Lewis's books: The Screwtape Letters and The Great Divorce. Both these have the fictional elements of plot and character, but as far as I know they are not generally called novels. The Dry Wood is far more a novel than either of them, but it has in common with them that neither plot nor character is as finely and elaborately drawn as we expect in a novel, and like them it exhibits, contrary to standard fictional advice and practice, at least as much tell as show.  Yet those of us who like the Lewis books don't regard their un-novelistic qualities as defects; we're judging them by a different standard. 

I suppose I'm dwelling so much on this in part because I keep imagining what an ordinary secular-minded reader would make of Houselander's novel. In fact one of the questions proposed for discussion in the seminar was whether one would recommend the book to such a reader. My immediate reaction, thinking of several people I know who are anywhere from indifferent to hostile to Christianity, was an immediate and definite no. Perhaps I'm underestimating them, but I can only envision them dismissing the book as preaching, and that mainly to the converted. The homiletic element is deeply and often mystically Catholic, engaging and moving to one who sees the world in much the same way, dismissable as misty nonsense by one who does not. Someone in the seminar made me laugh by calling some passages of the book "spiritual purple prose." I think Flannery O'Connor would not have liked it; she thought even Bernanos's Diary of a Country Priest too heavy on ideas. 

The basic situation in the novel is this: the saintly priest, Fr. Malone, of a parish in a poor dockside London neighborhood called Riverside has just died. Members of the parish, including Fr. Malone's successor Fr. O'Grady, believe that Fr. Malone was (is) in fact a saint and are caught up in a fervent desire to see a miracle which can be attributed to him. To this end they come together in a novena asking him to save the life of a child, Willie Jewel, who is beloved by the whole community. Born with birth defects that will prevent him from ever walking or speaking, but always smiling and responsive, and now apparently declining toward death, he has been taken to heart by the community as a sort of little Christ of their own, a Christ-child who embodies the suffering of their own impoverished life while seeming to transcend it, and to whom they can bring little things that please him. 

The story of the novel is essentially the progress of that novena and its effects on the relatively large cast of characters: Willie's parents; the agnostic physician Dr. Moncrieff who thinks Willie probably should not have been born at all; the young ex-Communist convert Timothy Green (he's the one who first made me think of The Screwtape Letters); Rose O'Shane, a fading beauty with a drinking problem; Solly Lee, a Jewish tailor and businessman who attempts to make a good sum of money off holy cards featuring Fr. Malone; Carmen Fernandez, a beautiful young woman more or less the kept lover of Solly Lee; the wise Archbishop Crecy, unsure of how far the enthusiasm for Fr. Malone ought to be allowed to go; Monsignor Frayne, a somewhat too urbane convert from the Church of England.

Those who are acquainted with Houselander's work will find familiar themes, most notably the idea that every person is Christ, fully alive in some, struggling to be born in others. There's also the sympathy and indeed love for the poor, and the necessity of the embrace of suffering. And skepticism, tinged with ridicule, of rich Christians who think they can drop in now and then and improve the poor, of activist Christians who believe that what the faith needs is a Movement led by the talented who can make it more attractive to the world. The book is not heavy on humor, but it does have some funny moments, and some of them are at the expense of these last two. 

A taste of both the style and the sensibility of the book is in order:

The sun was going down when Father O'Grady reached the Jewels', and in the warm light the man and woman looked as if they were made of bronze. But Willie, even in this light, was a child of ivory.

He was as fair as his parents were dark, and his fairness, with its contrast to his own flesh and blood, added to the unspoken and perhaps unrealized impression among the people that there was something supernatural about the child. An innocent, who is visibly destined to die young, could not fail to have a certain radiance for people of simple faith. A little creature shining as purely from the waters of Baptism as on the day when they were first poured on him, and soon to be in the blue fields of Heaven. But when, as in Willie's case, such a little creature also suffers, and suffers with a smile on his face, then indeed it is hard to measure the awe, the sense of mystery, with which poor people approach him.

For those without the means that riches give for hiding, drugging, and disguising sorrow, or the ways that more sophisticated people have of finding at least temporary escape from its realization within themselves, suffering is not in itself a thing to be dreaded, as it is dreaded by those who imagine themselves to be more fortunate....

Those who suffer always are the aristocracy of the poor. So Willie Jewel was unique in the love and reverence of the people of Riverside. Not indeed that they wanted to see a child suffer, but they did want to be constantly easing his suffering, bringing him their gifts, seeing his sudden radiant smile, and a flush of pink on his white face. They came to him as simply as the shepherds did to the Child in the manger: not exactly glad that their God shivered in human flesh and lacked all things, yet glad that, since He chose to need, He needed the gifts that they had to give....

Remember, by the way, that Houselander had been among poor people and been poor herself, so this is not sentimentality--or if it is, it has a solid core. If you think some of it is a bit much, especially in a novel, well, I sympathize with you. But I repeat: this is a good book, a book I will re-read. And though I don't know what  a reader who is unfamiliar with Houselander would think of it, I'm fairly sure that those who do know her other work will find it worthy to stand with the rest. Possibly--just possibly--an evaluation of all her work would put this one at the top, as it brings together all her themes very powerfully.

This book is one (the first?) in a series from Catholic University of America Press called Catholic Women Writers. Its aim is to re-publish works by Catholic women writers who have been neglected, or in some cases neglected works by writers like Muriel Spark, who have received fairly wide attention. The series is edited by two academics, Bonnie Landers Johnson and Julia Meszaros. Dr. (I assume) Meszaros was the presenter for two sessions of the seminar, and on the basis of that I am very happy to say that all is not lost in academia. 

I should mention, too, something very dear to my old-fashioned paper-book-loving heart: the physical production of the book is lovely and should be durable. At my age that latter quality isn't so important to me personally, but if anyone wants to read my copy after I'm gone it should be in good shape.

Houselander-TheDryWood


Epiphany

I was working on a post earlier today but didn't have time to finish it, and may not tomorrow, so, briefly:

A remark from a priest seen on Facebook on Thursday: "I thought I was having an epiphany this morning but it was transferred to Sunday."

This evening my wife and I were shamefully late for Mass. We deserved to be escorted to the front pew and mocked, but fortunately that's not done. We sat on a bench in the lobby with a woman and a girl, presumably mother and daughter and presumably also having been quite late to Mass, though not as late as we were. (I know "lobby" is not the right word, but this is a fairly modern building and that's what it feels like. Fortunately, for the kind of architecture it is, the building is not unpleasant.) The doors were closed but there's a speaker in the lobby which is wired to the priest's microphone. That made for a slightly odd effect, since we could hear the priest very well, and during the hymns a few voices from people who were especially close to the priest or especially loud, including one especially loud but not very tune-capable one, and not much else. The choir was audible but muffled.

Feeling that we really ought not to receive, we remained where we were during communion. During that ten minutes or so I couldn't hear anything much except the soft near-whisper of the priest: Body of Christ. Body of Christ. Body of Christ. I could see people leaving and returning to the pews, including a little boy who looked no more than eight and is in a wheel chair and seemed eager. So many people, so many unique little worlds full of unique and yet universal thoughts and cares and hopes and pleasures. 

It was quite beautiful to kneel there while that was going on, to watch the people, to hear Body of Christ. Body of Christ. Body of Christ, on and on, like little waves splashing quietly on a shore. 

The choir sang "What Child Is This?" As you probably know, the tune is an old English folk one called "Greensleeves," and no words of mine can do justice to its beauty, which will last as long as music does. But I had never given any thought to the English words written for it. I had unthinkingly supposed that they were traditional, too, or at any rate anonymous. But they were written in the 19th century by William Chatterton Dix, and they are extremely well-wrought. Since I was old enough to notice and understand them I've loved these two lines:

Good Christian, fear, for sinners here
The silent word is pleading.

I think it's that paradox of the silent word that gives me such a sense of reverence bordering on awe. "Fear"? Isn't that out of place? No, not if we really grasp what's going on. And I always notice that it's "Christian," singular. Not a collective but you, me. 


Last Post of the Year

So Joseph Ratzinger aka Pope Benedict XVI has left us. It's an odd and not really very relevant association, but seeing his obituaries in the press makes me think of a remark by a non-Catholic friend of mine early in the pontificate of Pope Francis. His view was based on the appearance of the two popes, mostly as they were seen on television, and my friend admitted that it was superficial. He thought Benedict looked (I don't remember his exact words) stern and vaguely mean, and all too much like the Emperor Palpatine. That latter resemblance was enjoyed by some of Benedict's detractors, and "superficial" is probably too generous a word for any conclusion drawn from it. (Of course you know that Palpatine is the super-evil Sith Lord in Star Wars.)

Francis, on the other hand, struck my friend as open, generous, etc. I think it's pretty clear now which of the two is more likely to speak maliciously. Well, impressions based on television news are apparently as accurate as one might suppose. As far as I know Benedict was never snide or cruel in his public speech. Nor was his concern for preserving the inheritance of the Church--not just his concern of course but his duty--exercised in a brutal way, though I know that for some any resistance to post-Vatican-II progressivism is intrinsically brutal. I have never read anything by Benedict that was not carefully and generously worded, even when it contained stark criticisms and firm directives.

But I suppose millions of people have my friend's image of Benedict as the closed-in, introverted, cruel authoritarian, and can never be persuaded out of it.

As for his actual thought, one of the first things that comes to my mind is a remark quoted in a book-length collection of interviews with then-Cardinal Ratzinger, published in the 1980s as The Ratzinger Report

It must be clearly stated that a real reform of the Church presupposes an unequivocal turning away from the erroneous paths whose catastrophic consequences are already incontestable.

That's true as an abstract principle: if you're headed in the wrong direction you can only correct yourself by changing direction, not by going faster or pumping up your commitment. And it's as true as a description of the state of the Church as it was almost forty years ago. As I've written more than once here, the internal conflict within the Church between what I will call, tendentiously, the drive toward acceptance of the faith as a species of the therapeutic (see this post) and the determination to preserve it as itself is not going to be resolved in my lifetime, and probably not within yours, no matter how young you are.

I can at least tentatively agree in general with this obituary by Michael Brendan Dougherty, Why Future Generations Will Celebrate Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, and with its conclusion:

Benedict XVI was the greatest mind to reach the papacy in a millennium. I write his obituary now. But centuries hence, he will be recognized as the man who buried the dictatorship of relativism — and the doubts of the 20th century.

I take Dougherty to mean in that last sentence a philosophical, theological, and just plain logical burial. Obviously the thing is still very much alive. Is it, as a cultural force, a dead man walking, mortally wounded and soon to totter and fall? Or is it about to rule the world for a time? I don't know. And I have to admit that I haven't read enough of Benedict's theological writings to judge whether "burial" is too strong a term. But he was a great man of the Church, and I put it that way because I think his importance, influence, and achievement are greater than his papacy alone. 

*

I long ago lost what little inclination I ever had to make a big celebration of New Year's Eve. I believe it was a New Year's Eve party back when I was in college that played a role in dampening my enthusiasm for the custom. I drank at least an entire bottle of cheap Chianti, and though I don't remember for sure it may have been most of two bottles. It's possible that I smoked something besides tobacco as well; I don't remember that, either. At any rate, the next day was by far the worst hangover I've ever had. I recall waking up with a terrible headache and a dire thirst, going into the kitchen and drinking a big glass of water, and immediately throwing up. I staggered back to bed and slept, not very comfortably, for the rest of the day. Later in life, as a more prudent adult, I just never felt much excitement about marking the stroke of midnight. Ok, well, that's that, here we are, good night. And I'm lucky in that although I very much enjoy a drink and a mild buzz, I have no inclination at all to go much beyond that. Perhaps cheap Chianti was an influence there.

*

Just when I'm finally ready to enjoy the Christmas lights, most people have taken them down. There were still a few last night when I went to my usual Friday night Adoration hour. And in a development that seems providential I was asked several days ago if I could substitute for someone in the 11-till-midnight hour tonight. This seems a good, maybe the best, way to mark the turn of the year. I hope there will still be some Christmas lights to be seen on my drive home afterwards.

Last night I had an opportunity to explain Eucharistic Adoration to a non-Catholic. I don't think I did very well. It is a really weird thing, isn't it?

Happy New Year to all. 


An Advent Note

This year I have to a great extent managed to stay clear of the un-Christmas, the festivity now generally referred to in public as Holiday, or "the Holidays." That was partly because of various circumstances that kept me even more at home than usual. And it was partly the silver lining in Alabama having lost two games this season. I loathe TV commercials in general, and rarely watch TV that includes them. But when I do see them it's during football season, and from some time in October until the end of the year many of them involve Holiday, and thus are doubly, no triply, annoying. But Alabama football was over at the end of the regular season--no SEC championship game, no watching other games that might affect Alabama's place in the playoff picture--but also no more Holiday commercials. (I only care about the NFL when former Alabama players are prominent--congratulations, Jalen Hurts.)

And it was partly just the latest phase in a general re-orientation of my feelings at this time of  year. I've realized that one element of my hostility to Holiday was the way it had come to seem like something of a parody of Christmas. So it seemed like a cheat, making me struggle not to dislike it, even to hate it.

But as the divergence has continued I find that the two are now more separate in my mind. I wrote about this last year in my very brief career writing for The Lamp. And I find that this year I've been more able to take my own advice, and that Holiday does not much intrude on my observance of Advent. I'm even mildly cheered by the lights and other spectacles at people's houses, though walking into a store pretty much sours my mood, as does the Holiday music (which naturally gets stuck in my head).

Which does not mean that I've been very good about observing Advent by treating it more like Lent. But I have done something, and in this department something is always better than nothing. And one thing I've done is to begin reading a book that I've had for several years and that is very well suited to Advent: the prison writings of Fr. Alfred Delp, S.J.

Alfred_Delp_MSM_2018_540x

Delp was an opponent of the Nazi regime, and in the last days of the Reich he was arrested on a charge of involvement in a plot against Hitler. He was not involved, but the prosecutor was determined to convict him of something, and as is almost inevitably the case when the law becomes a tool in the hands of power, he succeeded. It was late 1944 and early 1945, when the Reich was clearly doomed, and its enemies were pouring destruction upon Germany; the consequences of the nation's madness were being made brutally clear. The prison writings are the voice of a man unjustly imprisoned by and facing death at the hands of unreasoning and implacable enemies, a man stripped of any impulse toward sentimentality and false hope. It's a voice I need to hear. 

Unless we have been shocked to our depths at ourselves and the things we are capable of, as well as at the failings of humanity as a whole, we cannot understand the full import of Advent.

If the whole message of the coming of God, of the day of salvation, of approaching redemption, is to seem more than a divinely inspired legend or a bit of poetic fiction, two things must be accepted unreservedly.

First, that life is both powerless and futile insofar as by itself it has neither purpose nor fulfillment. It is powerless and futile within its own range of existence and also as a consequence of sin. To this must be added the rider that life clearly demands both purpose and fulfillment. 

Secondly it must be recognized that it is God's alliance with humanity, his being on our side, ranging himself with us, that corrects this state of meaningless futility. It is necessary to be conscious of God's decision to enlarge the boundaries of his own supreme existence by condescending to share ours for the overcoming of sin.

It follows that life, fundamentally, is a continuous Advent; hunger and thirst and awareness of lack involve movement toward fulfillment. But this also means that in this progress toward fulfillment humanity is vulnerable; we are perpetually moving toward, and are capable of receiving, the ultimate revelation with all the pain inseparable from that achievement.

While time lasts there can be no end to it all and to try to bring the quest to an ultimate conclusion is one of the illusory temptations to which human nature is exposed. In fact hunger and thirst and wandering in the wilderness and perpetual rescue by a sort of life-line are all part of the ordinary hazards of human existence. 


Vatican II; Sherwood; Trump the Jerk

Continuing the discussion of the success or failure of Vatican II, from this post: Ross Douthat (as quoted by Rod Dreher, because I can't view Douthat's entire New York Times column) asserts that the council was and is a failure on its own terms. The measures intended to invite and draw "modern man" to the Church have been accompanied not by growth but by decline, as measured by membership and activity, at least in Euro-American civilization. That's a plain fact. Whether the decline would have been greater or lesser without the council can only be speculative. I'm sure that question has been studied and answers attempted, but it's the sort of thing where sociologists can probably make either case, depending on what questions they ask and how, and on their own predilections. (Is sociology a science? Not really. Statistical methods are no doubt mathematically sound, but they don't choose or interpret their own data.)

In that post I linked to this one by Larry Chapp which goes ferociously after the follies that came and have continued, following and often in the name of the council. Let's call that Chapp 1, because there is also Chapp 2, which says that the council was "a success, in spite of the many deviations from orthodoxy and sanity that followed in its wake."

Success or failure, then? It's largely a matter of the time frame in which one makes the judgment. Douthat is looking at the time from the end of the council till now, and in that frame it is certainly true that the council has not succeeded in making the Church any more of a factor in modern life than it had previously been. One could argue about whether it is less so--I think it is--but it is clearly not more so. "Modern man" in the mass has only drifted, or in many cases run, away from Christianity at large and the Catholic Church in particular. In fact it is not at all fantastic to foresee, a century or two from now, the reduction of the Church to a few tiny bands of holdouts, as in Robert Hugh Benson's Lord of the World, at least within that part of the world which was once known as Christendom.

The argument of Chapp 2 is really twofold. The first part, that the council has been a great success, is really not based on a measurement of success in the terms Douthat examines (in fact Chapp agrees with Douthat's assessment in that respect) but on the assertion that many or most of the council's changes (the actual changes, not those speciously done in its name) were for the better--the vernacular liturgy, for instance--and are now taken for granted. Some of those, the liturgy in particular, are, as we all know, still very much debated, but I agree with Chapp that they were good. It's only an accident of history that I appear to be a "conservative" Catholic; I've always said that if I had been an adult Catholic at the time of the council I would almost certainly have sympathized, at least, with its aims and the documents produced by it.

The second part of Chapp 2's argument is that the council will in time be truly successful, contributing powerfully to the long-term health of the Church and the effectiveness of its mission. Chapp 2 accepts that these things can take quite a long time--centuries--to work themselves out. I certainly hope so and am willing to believe it, but none of us will be here to see it. (I personally, as I lamented in that other post, cannot look forward to anything but continued intramural strife.) Chapp presents a picture of a renewal which he believes the council intended, and which he believes may yet come, and I very much share that view and that hope.

As for the present, though, Chapp 1 presents a grim and discouraging picture, not nearly as positive as Chapp 2. For me the grimmest single item in that piece is the mention of the progressive party, encouraged by Pope Francis, as viewing the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI as an "interruption" of the council's work. This view represents nothing less than the abandonment of authentic renewal and the re-energizing of the destructive forces which would turn the Church into something like liberal Protestantism, a voice of solicitous approval for whatever is demanded by and for the therapeutic mentality.

Philip Rieff saw this very clearly at the time the council was actually in progress:

What, then, should churchmen do? The answer returns clearly: become, avowedly, therapists, administrating a therapeutic institution--under the justificatory mandate that Jesus himself was the first therapeutic.

Some of the psychobabble I've seen attributed to the "synod on synodality" supports--no, expresses--that view.

*

The emergence of the very well produced cinematic work for which the term "television series" is inadequate is, like craft beer, one of the compensations for living in a culture which seems to be falling apart, both in an organizational sense and in the sense of mental breakdown. I've just finished watching a new one from the Brits, Sherwood. It falls into the pretty conventional category of "crime drama," but a very very good one. It's set in a place referred to bitterly as a "former mining town" in Nottinghamshire; both Sherwood Forest and an archer are involved. 

The story takes place in the present day but has deep roots in the mining strikes of the 1980s. I don't know very much at all about those, but I know the British left hated and still hates Margaret Thatcher as much as the American left hated Ronald Reagan, so I don't necessarily take the show's view of those conflicts as the last word. But I don't doubt that they were as bitter as portrayed. 

It's a very complex story, very well done, on a level with Broadchurch, among the best in this genre. Maybe no single character is quite as memorable or as memorably performed as those portrayed by David Tennant and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch, but anyone who watches a lot of British TV will recognize many faces, if not the names that go with them. It's available on Britbox via Amazon. 

*

Donald Trump is a jerk. That's been pretty obvious all along. His presidency had some very good results (and some very bad ones), but his basic and base nature didn't improve. He did not, as some hoped, rise to the office. What his supporters liked to dismiss as "mean tweets" were often expressions of a really deep ugliness. He's now vilifying Ron DeSantis, a popular conservative  who actually cares about and is skilled at governing, because, as Rich Lowry says, DeSantis is in his way:

Trump will have no compunction about crushing the future of the party to maintain his grip for another two years and possibly beyond.  

It's grimly appropriate, I guess, that a nation in such decline as ours, committed to narcissism as a way of life, would have two presidents in succession who are men of such plainly bad character, each in his own very special way.


"Only the dead...

...have seen the end of war."

A quick search finds that sunny observation attributed to Plato and to Santayana, which is an awfully wide chronological range. I did not learn it from any such noble source, but rather as the name of an album by an Iraqi heavy metal group, Acrassicauda ("a black desert scorpion"). A metal band trying to get started in Iraq in 2001 probably had better reason than most of us to judge the truth of that saying.

It came to mind the other day as I was reading a couple of articles about the 60th anniversary of the opening of Vatican II (October 11, 1962). I jumped in to the Catholic mess in 1981, just past the worst post-Council days, and from the beginning hated the intramural Catholic war. Why did we have to be either "Vatican II Catholics" or reactionaries? Wasn't it obvious that both sides had good and bad points? What were Catholic theologians doing dividing history into before and after segments on any basis other than the one that gave us A.D. and B.C? 

Well, of course that was extremely naive of me. But I had seen enough of liberal Protestantism to recognize that many of the passionate advocates of a "conciliar Church" seen as a rupture with the past were in all but name liberal Protestants who would, if they had their way, take the Church down the same path as the Episcopal Church. I wanted nothing to do with that, but on the other hand I didn't see myself as a capital-T Traditionalist, either. Why did we have to have this division, which, mirroring secular ideologies--an obvious bad sign--were often labeled "liberal" and "conservative," terms which, as Henri de Lubac said in a remark that I cherish, have no place in the Church except as descriptions of temperament? 

The pontificates of JPII and BXVI tried to rescue the Council from its modernist advocates and insisted upon its continuity with everything that had come before. And it seemed, or maybe I just hoped, that the war was gradually waning. Then Pope Francis chose to fire it up again, and I realized that it will certainly outlive me. If I count myself among the dead who alone will see the end of this war, it doesn't sound so very gloomy, as I'm in my seventies. It's gloomy to me, yes--but perhaps those who are only fifty will see the end of it? I doubt it. Or at least those who are twenty? Maybe, but I wouldn't bet on it. Is another fifty years long enough? You would think that the first fifty years would have been long enough. 

Ross Douthat apparently says in a New York Times article that I can't get to, quoted by Rod Dreher, that the council was necessary, but

...we now have decades of data to justify a second encapsulating statement: The council was a failure.

This isn’t a truculent or reactionary analysis. The Second Vatican Council failed on the terms its own supporters set. It was supposed to make the church more dynamic, more attractive to modern people, more evangelistic, less closed off and stale and self-referential. It did none of these things. The church declined everywhere in the developed world after Vatican II, under conservative and liberal popes alike — but the decline was swiftest where the council’s influence was strongest.

You can argue that the decline would have been worse without the council, but that's mere speculation, and in any case the effort to be "more attractive to modern people" is hardly the most important guide for the Church.

It would appear that Pope Francis is one of those who hasn't really faced this failure. But then I don't really care to speculate about his beliefs and intentions. Whatever they are, it seems clear to me now that he is a bad pope, in a fundamental sense: not in the sense of being a bad man disgracing his office by personal sin, but in the simple functional sense that he is bad at the job of being a shepherd to the Church, just as we would say someone is a bad builder if he builds houses that start falling apart after a few years. 

And when that train of thought arrives at that point, I get off: I decide not to spend much time thinking about the Pope, and the Church as a whole, and simply try to be that thing I wanted to be, a just-plain Catholic.

And I really don't want to think much about the "Synod on Synodality" which seems to be the big enthusiasm of Vatican progressives now. From what I can see its main function is to provide material for cynical jokes. Or just cynicism. "The Synod on Synodality is a two-year process of listening and dialogue...." After decades of this kind of thing in both the secular and religious contexts can anyone hear language like that and not react with cynicism? Well, yes, apparently some can, but it's puzzling.

Proponents of what they see as "the spirit of the Council" can say that we just haven't reached the end of the story yet, that one day it will be seen as the thing that saved the Church, or something along those lines. That's a respectable argument, I guess, though it doesn't convince me. I think Douthat is right that it "failed on the terms its own supporters set." But who knows, maybe a lot of abstract talk about synodality will finally do the trick.

I mentioned that I had read a couple of articles about the anniversary. This was one, by Amy Welborn, a testimonial from someone who was a Catholic school student in the '70s. If you're of a certain age and I tell you that it's titled "Jesus Livingston Seagull," you'll have an idea of what that was like.

Amy linked to this one by Larry Chapp, which is not so much about the council itself as all the horrors--and I don't think that's too strong a word--that have followed on it. They are horrors when considered in light of what the Church is supposed to be.

*

Here's a language complaint, from an article about Rod McKuen. It's an interesting article, if you remember Rod McKuen. But it contains this sentence:

As McKuen did, Kaur writes poems that are instantly accessible to readers who might not have previously consumed much poetry.

I hate that use of "consumed." I can only think of it as physical consumption, so the image is bizarre. And it's just wrong. In most usages that I can come up with, something which is consumed more or less ceases to exist except as a part of whatever consumed it. "Fire consumed the house." "I consumed the whole pizza." "I was consumed by envy" doesn't mean physical consumption, obviously, but it does suggest that at least for a moment the speaker had more or less ceased to exist and become envy.

I see usages such as "consuming news" and "consuming music." Even "consuming art," meaning to go to a museum or gallery. Perhaps with news it's a result of the fact that "reading" or "viewing" are inadequate because most people do both, and the writer can't think of a word that readily includes both. (How about just "getting"?) But music? Poetry? Why?!? You listen to the one, and you read the other (as a rule). This just strikes me as barbarous.

*

This is Khaki. He belongs to a neighbor of mine. She was having difficulty taking him out for daily walks, so I've been doing it. Most every morning I put him in my car and take him to the bayside park that's a short drive away. We both enjoy it. One afternoon a week or so ago I was getting into my car, about to run some errands. when Khaki showed up at my house, which he sometimes does. You see him here unable to believe that I'm not going to take him with me.

KhakiWantsToRide

He followed me for several blocks, easily keeping up with my twenty miles an hour or so, even up the steep hill near my house. I finally had to stop, put him in the car, and take him home.


The Most Beautiful Phrase In the English Language?

One of the most, anyway:

    Poor Clare of Perpetual Adoration

I remember the first time I encountered it, many years ago, and being struck by its beauty. Like anything that gets pulled into everyday use, it ends up being taken for granted; losing its luster, and even, maybe, depending on where and how you encounter it, having unpleasant associations. But if you can clear all that away, it shines. 

The phrase Perpetual Adoration alone is rather wonderful. I am happy that once a week, at least, sometimes more, I am able to participate in something that is called by that rich name.

Today is St. Clare's memorial, and here is a good post by Amy Welborn about her. I was struck by the advice she (Clare) gave to St. Agnes: appealing to her vanity, in a backwards, poverty is wealth, sort of way. 


Abigail Rine Favale: Into the Deep

I do not know how to pronounce the author's last name,  and for that matter am not entirely certain about her middle name. This bothered me a bit every time I picked up the book, and is, obviously, bothering me a little right now. But it didn't prevent me from reading, enjoying, and admiring the book.

Subtitled "An Unlikely Catholic Conversion," this is the memoir of a young woman (now middle-aged, I guess) who grew up in a conservative evangelical family and subculture, partly rejected and partly drifted away from it in favor of academic feminism, and in time found her way to the Catholic Church.

That is an unusual but in its broad outline not exactly unheard-of story. Conversion stories in general are hardly rare, even conversion of many initially quite hostile to the faith; the propagation of the gospel begins with them. But they are all by nature somewhat similar, and are not necessarily of great interest to anyone except the convert and those who know him, including especially God. 

I had a personal reason for reading this one. I have my own unpublished, probably never-to-be-published, memoir, and a few years ago I queried a certain Catholic publisher about it. The editor replied courteously that although they have published conversion memoirs, they did not sell very well and he doesn't expect to publish any more such. Since then I've read a few that have managed to get into print in recent years and to get at least some attention from at least the Catholic press. I wanted to see what made them worthy of note.

Into the Deep is the most recent of these (most recently read, I mean, not published), and the best. That's not because it's necessarily the most intrinsically interesting story, but because it's told so well. It's quite well-written in the micro sense that the prose is well-crafted, and in the macro sense that the narrative is vivid and brings home a real sense of the author's experience. And also because her specific struggle involves matters that are very much part of our current cultural malaise: the nature and meaning of the sexes, the role of women in the world and in the Church, especially the confrontation of feminism and the Church. 

Back in the 1970s, when feminism--what I have since learned is known as second-wave feminism--was at its height, I was mildly intrigued by it and sympathetic to it. I thought then, and still think, that women in general are pretty wonderful, and that in many ways they get a bad deal. But I don't think I have many illusions about them, and I couldn't help being skeptical of what seemed to be one of feminism's assumptions: that apart from the obvious physical things there is no significant difference between the sexes. That this was false, I thought, should be obvious to anyone who looked at actual men and women. And I thought it would be a good thing if a feminist thinker would explore those differences deeply rather than try to dismiss or erase them. 

I didn't continue paying much attention for very long. The basic feminist doctrine seemed to be twofold: (1) men and women are exactly the same, except for those ways in which women are superior; (2) men and women should be treated in exactly the same way, expect for situations where it is to the advantage of women to be treated differently. This only caused me to be amused by the way feminism confirmed the stereotype of women as illogical. It certainly didn't help my perception that feminism was (and still is) zealous in political causes, most notably advocacy of abortion, that were at the time beginning to strike me as destructive. (I long ago moved past any ambivalence about their destructiveness.)

Well, here is a feminist, or at least former feminist, who has done the exploration which I had hoped to see. And it has led her precisely into the deep, into the profundity of sexual significance. Here was an important turning point:

Most of the time life moves at such a crawl that we remain blind to its constant change, but there are some experiences, like becoming a parent, that strike like lightning and, in just a flash, we are utterly altered.

This is what happened to me. When I first became pregnant, I was comfortable settled into my own unique brand of postmodern, feminist Christianity. I remember lounging on the couch amidst waves of nausea, watching news coverage of the controversial contraception mandate, rolling my eyes in anger and disgust at those regressive Catholic priests in their prim white collars, telling women what to do with their bodies.

Yet almost exactly two years later, I would be standing before such a priest at the Easter Vigil Mass, publicly confessing my desire to be received into the largest, oldest male-helmed institution in the world, the Roman Catholic Church.

Motherhood broke me open.

That breaking-open is of course among other things quite literally physical: a sensation and an experience that men can never know. The moment occurs less than one-third of the way through the book, so there is a great deal of road left to travel from here, and a great deal of reflection. There's a nice balance of the narrative and the abstract--of, to adapt the famous feminist catch-phrase, the personal and the theological. I recommend it both as a conversion memoir, and for that matter a memoir, period--I enjoyed the recounting of her early life--and as a venture into the rich topic of Catholicism and gender. 

IntoTheDeep3

I'm not keen on this cover. Apart from the fact that it's not especially appealing as a graphic, it suggests to me not conversion but a woman falling in love with a priest.

The venture continues with her new book, The Genesis of Gender, "a crash course of sorts, an insider’s look at the implicit worldview of gender theory, so people are better able to recognize the underlying claims that are being made." Here is an interview at Catholic World Report in which she discusses it.  Also at Catholic World Report, she demonstrates that she has by no means compromised her objections to some notions of feminine submission to male authoritarianism: she excoriates a book called Ask Your Husband, which seems to be an unwitting confirmation of secular feminism's view of Catholic thinking on this subject.

It seems to me that the current crisis in which enlightened opinion is no longer willing to say that a woman is an adult female human being is a fairly natural development from certain aspects of feminist thought. To their credit some feminists are willing to oppose it, which is hardly the first time that ideological revolutionaries have been horrified by some of the conclusions, theoretical and practical, drawn from their premises. It's going to be a long time before we settle down, culturally, but in the meantime Abigail Favale and others are doing very valuable work toward clearing up the very clouded waters.


Seán Ó'Faoláin: Newman's Way

My first impulse was to begin this post with "If you only read one book about Newman...." Then I realized that I'm not in a position to say that, as it is the only book about Newman that I've read. But I will say at least that I don't feel any need to read another.

I'm not fond of biography as a genre: it tends to be dully written, and to include more mundane detail than I really care to bother with. I'm looking across the room right now at a biography of Auden that I picked up off the discard shelf at the library, and asking myself whether I really want to read it, or perhaps should return it to the library to be re-discarded. This one, however, like the Knox brothers biography that I wrote about a while back, is the work of a very good writer and is enjoyable on its own merits. (I base "very good writer" on this book alone--I recognized Ó'Faoláin's name as a writer of fiction, but had never read anything by him.)

It's not a full biography. It's primarily the story of Newman's departure from the Church of England and entry into the Catholic Church at the age of forty-four, with the almost forty-five post-conversion years seen only in a brief and poignant epilogue. One doesn't even need to have read the Apologia to know that basic story, and even if one has, there is (of course) a great depth which is not sounded there. Ó'Faoláin shows us Newman in the midst of a family to which he has deep emotional ties and a continuing direct involvement with his siblings and other relatives up until his conversion, when a deep and permanent estrangement took hold.

The Apologia is mainly a religious and intellectual autobiography--not exactly a spiritual autobiography, either, as it does not emphasize Newman's interior spirituality. I'm tempted to say that Newman's Way complements the Apologia as an emotional biography, but that's not exactly right. Though it does emphasize the emotional currents that helped to propel Newman on his way, the portrayal of those is closely integrated with the man's pursuit of the great question, and the great decision that was the end of it. The Little Flower's title fits: this is the story of a soul. The influence of personal matters is not trivial in itself and not insignificant in a consideration of Newman's thinking. I think I know enough of that to say that his own life was in a sense an instance, or an example, of the concept of development as revealed in the Essay On the Development of Doctrine. His abstract thought was not really, or not only, abstract, but rather a manifestation of his very life in its fullness, comprehending not only reason in the narrow sense, but the entire web of perception and the mind's working thereon. He only seems abstract because he happened to be a man to whom thought was as real as walking. 

It was a little surprising to me to learn that Newman's family was not especially well-off. It had come up considerably in the world over several generations preceding his own, and his father had risen as far as becoming a banker. But the bank failed in an economic panic, and the family fell back to a sort of lower middle-class level--I mean that not in the sense in which we use it now, but relative to early 19th century England, when "the middle class" was considerably more affluent than most, only not part of the aristocracy--the sort of families portrayed by Jane Austen. This relatively less-well-off position seems to have been something of an embarrassment to Newman, especially when among his fellow fellows at Oxford; Ó'Faoláin recounts a cruel moment when a don embarrasses Newman by correcting his choice of serving utensils in front of the whole table, an ugly example of formal etiquette serving bad manners. 

It was also surprising to learn that Charles Newman, one of J.H. Newman's two brothers, was eccentric to the point of near-madness, and spent his whole life bouncing from one difficulty to another, frequently bailed out financially by John and the other brother, Francis (Frank). It was less surprising that Frank was a low-church Anglican clergyman, and that past a certain point in John's evolution the brothers could hardly speak to each other, and then only by sticking strictly to everyday matters and avoiding the big questions--a situation familiar to many of us, now probably more often due to politics than religion (but then part of the problem is that politics is religion for many). His relationship with his sister Jemima, seven years younger, seems to have been, at least in adulthood, the closest and most durable of his sibling relationships (there were three sisters, one of whom, Mary, also the youngest of the children, died at nineteen). But even Jemima ceased to invite him to her home after he became a Catholic.

I had read somewhere, perhaps in the Apologia, Newman's lament that he had given up almost everything dear to him when he left Oxford and Anglicanism. But I had not grasped the full pathos of it. Ó'Faoláin vividly communicates the deep attachments which Newman knew himself to be severing when he took the big step. And, just as vividly, he communicates the theological issues, which, abstract though they may seem to one who doesn't understand the stakes, were for Newman as dangerous and painful and as powerful to alter his life as would have been the decision facing a Virginian in 1860; only the physical violence is missing. That late-in-life epilogue begins with this:

There can have been few more lonely men in the world than the aging Newman.

Actually, on reflection, and leafing through the book again, I think I will, after all, say that if you only read one book about Newman, this is, if not the only reasonable choice, a leading candidate. There can't be many that are at once so pleasurable and illuminating. It appears to be out of print now, but used copies are available at Abebooks and Alibris. 

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This book came into my hands more or less accidentally, as part of a deceased clergyman's library intercepted on its way to Goodwill. It was published in 1952. Stuck between the pages I found this seventy-year-old postcard supplied by the publisher, perhaps used by the original owner as a bookmark, as it now is by me:

Devin-Adair-Postcard1 Devin-Adair-Postcard2
It's oddly poignant to me--as a relic of the book's original purchaser, and a relic of a time for which I'm not ashamed to say I feel some nostalgia. "New York 10, N. Y." The ZIP (for Zone Improvement Plan) code was not introduced until 1963. 


My Heart's One Desire?

There's a worship song (sorry, I don't know its name) used frequently at my parish which has a refrain that concludes:

My heart's one desire
Is to be holy

I cannot honestly sing those words (and I find it difficult to believe that very many people can, but that's none of my business). "one desire"? Hardly.  Usually not even the strongest. For me the truth is closer to "Among many other things, I would like to be holy."

The problem with being holy is that it's very difficult. It requires steady effort and sacrifice, and I do not like either of those things. I like things that are easy and pleasant. I would like to be a really excellent guitarist, too. But here I am, going on sixty years since I first picked up the instrument, and I'm not all that much better than I was when I was twenty. 

About the best I can say for myself with regard to the guitar is that I have never totally or permanently given up on it. Some thirty-five or forty years ago I decided to get a bit more serious about it, and started taking classical guitar lessons at a music shop not too far from where I lived. I made some progress--I could even stumble through an arrangement of Erik Satie's famous Gymnopédie #3 so that it was at least recognizable. I made progress in part because I made myself practice consistently for at least fifteen minutes a day. That's not much, but it was enough to make a difference, and every week or so I could tell that I was a little bit better than I had been the week before.

But then, as usual with me, my resolve collapsed. I started skipping my practice sessions, blaming work and family life, though laziness and inconsistency were at least equally to blame. Eventually I had gone several weeks without practicing and dreaded going to my lesson. The teacher had been a little impatient with my lack of ability to begin with, and I was embarrassed to show up not having practiced, and therefore not having improved, at all. And clearly the lessons were a waste of money if I wasn't going to work consistently, at least, if not all that hard. So I quit them. But I didn't quit playing altogether, and I still do play (not classical music), and I still don't practice regularly, and I'm still not very good.

I'm not doing very well at all with my Lenten observances this year. I set the bar pretty low and still have fallen short of it. About the best I can say for myself, both with regard to Lent and to the pursuit of holiness in general, is that I have never totally or permanently given up.

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Apart from the words, I'm not very fond of the kind of music which that song represents. But our choir is really quite talented, they work hard, and they do that sort of thing very well. And sometimes they venture into older and better music. This Lent, for instance, they have been ending Mass with an arrangement of this chant:

They harmonized it for their six or eight voices, and in addition to the basic Latin chant, they added a sort of descant in English, by two (I think) sweet, yearning female voices. It's the last thing we hear at Mass, and is for a moment or two almost unbearably moving.

I'm a little puzzled by their translation, though. The Latin is:

Attende domine
et miserere
quia peccavimus tibi

which is something like "Hear us, Lord, and have mercy, for we have sinned against you." But the choir sings "Burdened with sin, we implore you" (or was it "thee"?) which doesn't seem a close translation of anything in the text. So I'm wondering if this is some traditional English version, possibly something from the Book of Common Prayer or some other Anglican source. But I haven't been able to find it. I like it better than the more literal translation, actually. It's more desperate.

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Here's the Gymnopédie, by the way, played by Christopher Parkening. As you can hear, it's not that difficult, and of course very pretty, so a nice thing for a not-very-advanced player to work on.

 


Laudamus anyway

The "Laudamus" from Mozart's Great Mass in C minor, K 427. (The "anyway" is because I've been in pretty low spirits, and listening to this Mass, especially this section, was beneficial.)

This is not the performance I listened to last night, which was a 1982 performance conducted by von Karajan with Barbara Hendricks. But I just found this one on YouTube and really like it. I think I'll try to find the whole recording.


A Maronite Mass

(As you probably know, but just in case you don't, the Maronite Church is one of the eastern Christian bodies that are in communion with Rome--see this Wikipedia article for more information.)

Last weekend I had the opportunity to attend a Maronite Rite Mass. (I suppose "Mass" is not the right term, since it's a specifically Latin one, and in my opinion a somewhat unfortunate one, having less to do with what it names than it might.)  I've long wanted to do that, but as far as I know the only Maronite parish anywhere near me is in Birmingham, four hours at least away from me, and though I drive through Birmingham fairly often it's never at a time when the liturgy is being celebrated. 

There really should be a Maronite parish, or perhaps several, in Mobile, as it's the rite of many (most, I guess) Lebanese Christians and there is a sizable Lebanese community in Mobile, arising from immigration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. (I still haven't quite gotten used to the fact that "the last century" now refers to the 20th, not the 19th as it did for two-thirds of my life.) I've been told that there were some not-very-nice machinations on the part of the local bishop and clergy (Latin of course) to prevent the establishment of a Maronite presence back then, which is a shame, not just because it was not very nice but because it deprived the whole Catholic community, not only the Lebanese, of an important tradition.

If I were more of a liturgy nerd (such a rude term, but it has its use), I would have managed to get to it. As it was, I had to wait until it came to me, at a parish in Mobile, with a visiting celebrant in the person of Fr. Mitch Pacwa, S.J., whose name you may recognize from his work with EWTN and Ignatius Press. It was impressive, and I think any Latin Rite Catholic who is a little, or maybe more than a little, dissatisfied with the Novus Ordo would find it so, and perhaps be a bit envious. If you search for "Maronite Mass" on YouTube you'll find a number of videos which are the next best thing to attending it. In fact, here is one celebrated by Fr. Pacwa. A certain amount of it is in English but the core is in the ancient language, or languages--some was referred to as Aramaic and some as Syriac. (Personally I find it rather weird and bordering on irreverent to watch a liturgy on video, and so did not watch all of this one.) 

But it was not any particular features of the liturgy that struck me so much as the sense of its antiquity. Parts of it are in Aramaic, and it gave me a bit of a shiver to think that I was hearing the liturgy in the very language that is, if not identical the one that Jesus spoke, then close to it, and certainly far, far closer to it than any modern European language. And afterwards it led me down a line of ecumenically incorrect thought. I mean "ecumenical" in its typical current sense, the "mere Christianity" sort of sense, referring to the attempt to find comity and common ground among Christian communities, including the Protestant ones.

If I were a Protestant, especially if I were an Evangelical, low-church, more or less congregational Protestant, the fact that all the Christian churches that can with any plausibility trace their lineage back to the origin of the faith celebrate a liturgy which is recognizably the same basic thing would give me pause. Anglicanism and its descendants, and I think also Lutheranism, preserve it in greater or lesser degree--I realized, in retrospect, that its faint outline was visible in the Methodism of my youth. But the more radically Protestant churches don't. There is nothing in any of these forms of worship that bears much resemblance to that of, for instance, a Southern Baptist church, still less the newer free-lance non-denominational churches that are more or less of the evangelical stripe and have gone in very much for rock music and stagecraft and such (or so I hear). 

I would think that any Christian who looks into the history of the Church, the one that can actually be seen to have existed, as opposed to the one that is inferred from brief mentions in the New Testament seen through a very Protestant lens, would almost (almost!) necessarily move toward one of the ancient Churches. I don't mean that he would inevitably become a Catholic, as it's entirely possible to believe that Catholicism went fatally astray at some point even though it preserved the basic elements of worship. Maybe he would become a Copt, or join the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church. But he would recognize the radically non-liturgical Protestant churches as distinctly modern phenomena (as is Protestantism in general, but that's a whole 'nother matter), severed from Christian history.

I don't say this with any triumphalist intention. It's a tragedy, because there are so many serious committed Christians in those groups. It's a great loss on both sides. 


Katy Carl: As Earth Without Water

This novel, by the editor of the Catholic literary magazine Dappled Things and published by the Catholic press Wiseblood Books, has gotten a good deal of favorable attention that's very much deserved. For several reasons, including the scripture reference in the title and the fact that it comes from an explicitly Catholic author and publisher, I was more or less expecting it to be a conversion story. And in some respects it is--let's say that conversion is an important element--but it is far from formulaic, which--let's face it--conversion stories can be. I'd say rather that it's more fundamentally a love story, beginning with the human and rising into the divine.

It's set in a milieu that I know nothing of, that of the contemporary visual arts world. I know little of the visual arts in general, and much of what I hear about its contemporary practitioners and patrons can be summed up in the word "bonkers": part hustle, part snobbery, part cold finance. But when I read an account of some nutty piece of putative art I remind myself that without a doubt there are many very serious and gifted artists at work in that milieu. This is a story of two of them.

One is the narrator, Angele Solomon. (I know, because we're told in the second paragraph, that "Angele" has three syllables and the accent is on the first, but I don't know whether it's pronounced as we normally would pronounce "Angela," or in some other way. I settled on "Angela" as I read.) The other is her sometime lover, friend, and, it's fair to say, obsession at some points, Dylan Fielding. Dylan is the more gifted artist (or at any rate is generally seen so, which is another matter). And when the story opens in July 2010 he is having a great deal of success, while Angele has more or less given up her artistic ambitions and taken a job at a commercial graphic design company. At this point they have been apart for some time, and Angele is not especially pleased, though she can't help being excited, by an out-of-the-blue phone call from him. He is in town (Chicago) for a show and wants to see her. 

From that point the story moves back and forth in time, as far back as 2001, when Angele and Dylan have just met as college students, and forward to 2017, when...well, when many things have been resolved, and some things are beginning.

After only fourteen pages we jump to November of 2015, where, I would guess, half or more of the story occurs, but not consecutively. And even when we are in that time there are flashbacks (perhaps some flashforwards, too--I don't remember for sure). In November of 2015 Angele is visiting Dylan at the monastery (which seems to be in all but name Gethsemani in Kentucky) where he is now the novice Thomas Augustine. His conversion has taken place offstage, and it is not the specific event of the conversion as much as something that took place after it that is the central crisis of the story.

I don't hesitate to say that this is a very good book, but am a bit undecided as to just how good. Leafing through it now, I think I would need to read it again to come a more definitive conclusion on that score. No doubt as a result partly of the time-jumping and partly of my own fragmented reading habits (I can't seem to stick with a single book from beginning to end), I don't have a very clear view of the narrative line, and I think that reduces for me its dramatic effect. And there is a surprising development at the end which I didn't find entirely convincing. 

The prose is excellent, especially its precise and detailed visual descriptions. As a rule I tend to be impatient with elaborate description--as I said, I'm not oriented to the visual arts or to the visual in general. But Carl's descriptions have a great deal of life in them and keep my attention. I can't help wondering if perhaps painting was (is?) her first love; she certainly convinces me that her protagonists are painters.

And that evident love is, I think, the key to the novel. Dylan loves what he paints--that is, he paints things that he loves. One of these is Angele, in a portrait which becomes a point of distress for her in part (I think) because their relationship does not fulfil the promise of the painting, and in fact becomes a mere commercial object. Angele loves Dylan as well as his work, and, like him, paints what she loves. Since the act of seeing is pretty much a prerequisite for painting, and is also an act of knowing, seeing, knowing, and loving become inextricable for these artists, in relation both to their subjects and to each other. This nexus of vision, love, and knowledge pulls in, and is pulled into, the divine, and is itself the picture with which the novel leaves me. And maybe--this thought occurs to me on the fly, as I'm revising this note after a first draft--the narrative technique gives us the story more as picture than sequence, and is a strength, not a weakness. I really will have to read it again, which is not something I do very often with fiction. 

AsEarthWithoutWater

One relatively unimportant thing which I am not the only reader to have singled out as especially strong: the all-too-convincing depiction of Dylan's parents, who are rich, godless people, the mother a bit of a monster. In general I found vivid and believable the portrayal of the monied and fashionable upper reaches of the art world--not the highest, I suppose, but high: the combination of aesthetic refinement and venality. 

Angele tells us that she's from Sepal, Mississippi, a little town not far from the Gulf Coast. As far as I can tell there is no such town, but there is a little town called Petal, which is more or less a suburb of Hattiesburg. (I live in that general area, so these are familiar names to me; I've wondered how Petal got its name.) Not much is said of Angele's earlier life except that she was unhappy and desperate to escape. I would have liked to have heard more of that. Perhaps it belongs in another book. 

The new Catholic literary revival hasn't yet given us a Percy or an O'Connor, but it is very much alive and in good hands. If you're interested in it, you'll want to read this novel. (Is it really new? Haven't there been good Catholic writers all along, since, for instance, Walker Percy's last novel in 1987? Well, that's another topic. But either way a surge of capable activity is in progress, for which we can be grateful. And supportive.)


Peter Hitchens Muses on the Wind

His latest post at The Lamp's blog is a jewel:

What is it about the wind? When I am watching some piece of ancient black-and-white archive film, imprisoned in the time when it was made, a gust of wind will lift a person’s hair or shake the trees in the background, and the whole thing will spring to fierce life. For the moment when the wind blows, it is freed from the past and is happening now. I do not know why. It just is so.

Something similar happens when the wind comes into poetry or prose....

It's not very long, but read it when you're not distracted and are at liberty to take it slowly. As those who have read this blog for a while know, I live on the hurricane coast and am all too well acquainted with truly terrible and dangerous winds. Yet even at times when I've lain in the dark wondering if a tree was going to fall on the house, or the roof come off, I couldn't help feeling, in addition to the fear, a degree of awe bordering on admiration. And I've been close enough to a tornado to hear it, and have seen the damage. Hitchens notes

I was once on a train between Denver, Colorado and Omaha, Nebraska, halted for hours by tornadoes. The small towns through which we crept, when we at last moved, looked as if they had been visited by war.

That's no exaggeration. After one tornado in Huntsville, Alabama, in 1989, I went to help with the cleanup. I saw, among other things, cars that had been picked up and dropped upside down, completely flattening the top, or right-side up, warping the wheels. Not the tires, the solid steel wheels. A wind that can pick up a car and throw it around. 

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A couple of other things worth looking at on the web:

Slant Books is doing some great things. Among their recent offerings is a collection of three plays by the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. The title play is about a family of Elizabethan recusant Catholics who...well, here's the description:

Shakeshafte imagines an encounter between a young sixteenth century Englishman with a faintly familiar surname and an undercover Jesuit missionary. Two visions of how words change the world collide and converge and slip away again.

You can read an excerpt here. Also, at this link, you can register for a December 28 online book launch for Shakeshafte which will include performance of a scene from the title play and a Q&A with Williams. 

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The Friday Links at the Dappled Things blog usually include some interesting stuff. In this case it's all of them. I haven't watched that video about the hermit yet but I intend to. I wonder where Liechtenstein is. 

Not so sure I want to read the entire piece by the young women who says "Over time, though, I outgrew the conversion narrative as a genre." Yeah, I hear you. I'm pretty sick of the one I wrote. 


Kind Words for Some Unpopular Christians

Very early in my life as an adult Christian I realized that I had to come to terms with the fact that a lot of my fellow Christians were really Not My Sort. More significantly, they held views, or at least expressed them in ways, with which I disagreed significantly. I have in mind a particular incident: it was around 1979, and I had a friend who, like me, had recently joined the Episcopal Church. He mentioned that he had just heard on the radio a hick preacher who denounced homosexuality in terms that to say the least showed no charity or kindness.

My friend was outraged. I remember him saying vehemently "I have nothing whatsoever in common with that guy. Nothing." As far as I can remember I didn't make any reply, but I remember thinking that as unpleasant and just plain wrong as the preacher was in his approach to that particular subject, I almost certainly agreed with him on the basic tenets of the Creed (though he probably disavowed creeds in principle), and even on the fundamental question of the morality of homosexual acts, and that I had to accept the fact that in becoming a Christian I was joining myself to him and others whose company I didn't especially want. I now had more of the most important things in common with him than I did with my non-Christian friends.

The Gospel, unfortunately, is like that. It's the one thing needful, and those who accept it are united to each other in a way that they can't be with non-believers. Often over the years I've found myself defending people whom I find unsympathetic in one way or another, saying "Well, he or she or they are wrong about that, but right about the One Big Thing."

I still feel that way about fundamentalist Protestantism, though, now, forty years later, a majority of Americans are more of my friend's mind than of mine. It is certainly despised by our upper classes. And there are a lot of people out there who grew up in that culture who now despise it and blame it for their problems.

More or less the same goes for those who are sometimes called fundamentalist Catholics, who are zealous in their commitment to orthodoxy and swim hard upstream against the secular culture which is ever more hostile to them. Since the '70s and '80s there have been a fair number of Catholic families in this mold, and now many of their children are grown, and as with the Protestants some (many) are now ex-Catholics who are bitter about various things that were wrong with that subculture. Sometimes it's personal, some particular situation that was really unhealthy. Sometimes it's a general rejection of the whole mindset. Sometimes it's justified, sometimes not.

EWTN is one of the central institutions of these Catholics, and it is much despised by progressive Catholics. Pope Francis even went so far recently as to say the devil is at work in it (which is true enough, just as he's at work in the Vatican). I have to admit, with a twinge of guilt, that I've never really cared much for EWTN. I'll leave it at that, because I don't want to write a thousand words on the subject. Suffice to say that it's really not my cup of tea, and I would agree with some of the criticisms of it. But I have seen it work real good in the lives of real people, and I think it's much more a good thing than not.

So I was glad to read, a week or two ago, two pieces that came out pretty close together, by relatively young people defending these unpopular Christians. One is a Catholic convert writing in National Review. She's an instance of what I was just saying, someone on whom EWTN exercised a significant influence for the good.  The other is a Protestant (Anglican) writing in The American Conservative. I found them heartening, especially the Protestant, because the milieu he describes is the one I grew up in. Here's the Catholic: "In Defense Of EWTN", and here's the Protestant: "I Survived (Because Of) Bible-Belt Religion".

By the way, here is what the pope actually said:

There is, for example, a large Catholic television channel that has no hesitation in continually speaking ill of the pope. I personally deserve attacks and insults because I am a sinner, but the Church does not deserve them. They are the work of the devil.

This was, all too predictably, reported as "Pope Francis says EWTN is the work of the devil." Obviously the antecedent of "They" in the third sentence is "attacks and insults." I don't know what these attacks and insults are so am not expressing an opinion on whether his complaint is justified.


Another Liturgical Note

"Bishop Steven J. Lopes, the bishop of the Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter, was elected to head the Committee for Divine Worship by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) at their annual general assembly in Baltimore."

Full story at the web site of the Anglicanorum Coetibus Society.

My master plan for the Ordinariate is a slow infiltration of the Novus Ordu by the language and other elements of the Anglican tradition. So far so good. I don't really know what this means, and have not seen any commentary. The vote was as close as it could be without being a tie: 121-120. I don't know what that means, either. Does it reflect a more-traditionalist vs. less-traditionalist split? Maybe some of those folks who follow these things closely will provide some insight.

I read somewhere or other a speculation that what Pope Francis is really up to in suppressing the traditional Latin Mass is to drive those who want a more reverent, beautiful, and traditional liturgy to work with the Novus Ordo. I'm inclined to doubt it, but I guess it's possible. Anyway, the Ordinariate's liturgy is just what is needed to get us beyond the post-Vatican-II conflict. On that matter, anyway.


Olav Audunsson and Undset Translations

I recently read Vows, the title given by translator Tiina Nunnally to the first book in the tetralogy previously known as The Master of Hestviken, called in the new translation simply by the name of the main character, Olav Audunsson. From the book's brief Wikipedia entry it's not clear to me whether Undset gave titles to the individual books, but apparently the English translators and publishers have felt free to choose their own. I will say that the new title of the tetralogy seems more fitting than the old; if nothing else it makes for an appropriate juxtaposition with Kristin Lavransdatter, as both are principally concerned with one character. And as for Vows, it's as fitting a title for the first book as the older translation's The Axe. I lean toward the latter as being a more potent title, and as you know if you've read the book, an axe is a very significant part of the story, but so are vows, at least as much so.

At the moment other books have taken priority over continuing with this one, or four, but I'll get back to it, or them. Right now I just want to say something about the translations. I sat in on a series of online lectures on Vows last month, and Tiina Nunnally also attended. Of course people had questions for her, and one of them was about titles. Nunnally said she didn't care much for the titles of the earlier translations, which she thought overly masculine. Well, I don't especially agree, but I get her point. Her second volume is called Providence; the older title is The Snake Pit--there's clearly a pretty different sensibility at work. Personally I suspect Undset would have favored the concrete title over the abstract, but obviously that's only a guess, and, again, there's nothing inappropriate or unfitting about Nunnally's title. 

The differing titles, though, are suggestive to me of other qualities in the new translation, qualities which make me unable to be as enthusiastic about it as most contemporaries seem to be. Last spring when I was reading Nunnally's translation of Kristin I made a number of comments on the translation question. They're in three different posts, so I'll repeat the main points here. 

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Nunnally's prose is certainly simpler and more clear, but it's also without [distinctive ] character. I don't recall encountering anything in this volume which would be out of place in an ordinary magazine or newspaper story of our time. But neither do I recall lingering over any sentence for its elegance or flavor. I won't say it's clumsy, but I won't say it's graceful, either. Maybe I would think the same of the original; maybe Undset wrote a straightforward and not particularly rich prose. 

Nunnally's simplicity certainly makes for an easier read. Archer's prose can be something of a struggle, but I breeze right through Nunnally's without conscious effort. Whether anything is being lost I really can't say with any authority, but as the two sentences above indicate, there are often differences of nuance: "got leave to go" and "was going to accompany" are not interchangeable. 

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In poking around on the web for information about the Kristin translations, I've found that it tends to be taken for granted that the new one (Nunnally) is not just superior to the old one (Archer) but has definitively replaced it, liberating a great novel from a terrible translation. Not so fast, I say. There are many reasons to be grateful for Nunnally's, most especially the restoration of some significant passages mysteriously (as far as I know) omitted from Archer's. But I have reason to think that Nunnally's is also some distance from ideal. I will have more to say about this when I've finished the last volume, but consider the bit I just quoted: "Saint Olav had brought Christianity to the valley...." That sounded off to me. I of course have no idea what Undset actually wrote, but I'm pretty sure that medieval Christians in Norway and everywhere else did not use a term like "Christianity." So I looked at Archer, and found that he says that Saint Olav "christened" the valley. Much truer, I'm sure, to the medieval mind.

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I agree that Archer's attempt at an antique effect is awkward at best, and not even historically appropriate.  But I'm not content with Nunnally's translation...

I can't speak to the rhythms of Undset's prose--but Nunnally's reads like ordinary contemporary American English. The word "weight" keeps coming to mind: Harbison's description makes me think that Undset's prose has it, but Nunnally's does not. Maybe that's not Nunnally's fault, or only partly; maybe it's just the nature of the language of our time. But it's light, almost breezy in comparison to Archer. There's nothing much poetical, nothing much memorable, in it, and by that I don't mean that I think it should have some kind of ostentatious lyricism (which I don't like), but only that there should be something there which makes us re-read a sentence or a paragraph, not because we want to be sure we understood it fully or for any other, so to speak, practical reason, but because its language pleases and touches us....

By the way, Nunnally's inclusion of passages said to be too sexually explicit for Archer, which of course arouses all sorts of tingles in the typical contemporary critic or reader, turns out to be a big nothing. The differences are pretty trivial, apparently consisting only of a few sentences. I would not have been able to identify the passages if I hadn't seen a review which quoted them side by side.

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I couldn't shake the feeling that Nunnally lacks some kind of basic sympathy with Undset's view of the world.  In Olav Audunsson I found something that rather brought this home to me. I neglected to mark the passage, so my quotation may not be precisely accurate, but it's something like "Suddenly the foetus moved vigorously inside her." 

I don't know Norwegian, contemporary or ancient, so I suppose I could be wrong, but I find it hard to believe that a medieval Norwegian would have had such a clinical word, or that Undset would have used it. The earlier translation has simply the natural word, "child." I can't hear the use of "foetus" as anything but an anachronism at least as egregious as "I trow," and moreover reflective of the political-cultural controversies of our time. I don't accuse Nunnally of being deliberately ideological here--perhaps it's just the circles she moves in--but the term is certainly loaded; to say "foetus" instead of "baby" is a deliberate choice for many people, for reasons which I don't need to go into.

So, to sum up: one translation is fusty, giving us an attempt at antique dialog that's really more of the 19th-century than the 13th, like a tea shop in 1900 calling itself Ye Olde Tea Shoppe. (To me it's mainly the dialog in the older translations that often sounds stilted and unreal; the narrative and descriptive passages don't have that problem, and indeed are often richer.) And rightly or wrongly many contemporary readers find it too difficult; one young attendee at that online series I mentioned thanked Tiina Nunnally for "making it possible for me to read Kristin Lavransdatter."

And the other translation is all too much of its time. One owes too much to the 19th century and perhaps earlier, one is too much of the 21st. Why do I harp on this? In part I suppose because I think I may be missing something, that neither translation really does the best possible service to Undset. And even if I wanted to learn Norwegian it's a bit late for me to get started. There will certainly not be another translation in my lifetime, probably not until 2100 is a lot closer than 2000, and who knows what the cultural and linguistic condition of English will be then? 

I feel rather churlish in complaining about translations that certainly involved an amount of labor and knowledge that I can't really imagine doing and possessing, and which may very well have, as the person I quoted above said, "made it possible" for people who otherwise would not have known the work of a great novelist to do so. I really am grateful for that. It's just...well....

By the way, the earlier translations of Kristin and Olav are not by the same person. One is Charles Archer, the other Arthur Chater. But they are similar, though I think Chater's has less of the questionable antique in the dialog. 


Liturgical Note

I went to a traditional Latin Mass last Sunday. Three observations:
 
(1) I prefer the Novus Ordo (assuming no gross abuses thereof).
 
(2) Of the roughly 50 people who were there, by far the majority were no older than 40-ish.
 
(3) Traditiones Custodes was a mistake.
 
I've done my share of griping about the liturgy over the years. But really I'm content with my suburban parish and its Novus Ordo Mass. The one I normally attend has a "folk," actually pop, band, and though it's not my choice of music they do it well. 
 
More importantly, I very much agree with the basic principle of having Mass in the vernacular. It is in a sense a very different and even revolutionary approach to the liturgy. I could not hear 80% of the Latin spoken by the priest during the Latin Mass, and gave up trying to follow along in the Mass book. And it seems to me that until relatively recently that inaccessibility was not considered a problem. The ritual of the Mass was something that the clergy did; for the laity, the point was to be there, and to pray. I've noticed in books written even up until 1960 or so little indications that for the laity to pray the rosary or engage in some other form of private prayer during Mass was normal. 
 
This is a vastly different approach from the congregational participation which we now have and assume to be correct. And I prefer the latter. I'm not making any doctrinal assertion here. I'll assume for the sake of discussion that there are reasonable justifications for both approaches. But I think the Council was right to allow this change. The Mass book used by the congregation at the Latin Mass, which includes side-by-side Latin and English, strikes me as a not very successful attempt to bridge the two approaches. Unless you've studied Latin at least a little, it's difficult and distracting to follow. I suppose it was a stopgap, not entirely satisfactory from either point of view, and not especially conducive to worship.
 
I wish the language of our English Mass was more elegant. I really wish that we had, in general, better music at Sunday Masses. But it's okay. The Catholic faith that's preached at my parish is orthodox. The two priests, one middle-aged and seemingly hardly aware that the Latin Mass ever existed or why, one young and the celebrant at the Latin Mass I attended, are solid and committed. There's nothing bizarre, nothing that would constitute abuse, in the way Mass is celebrated. I am, as I say, content with it.
 
One thing I've often wondered about is whether the scripture readings in the traditional Latin Mass were in Latin. That, I have to say, I would definitely consider an undesirable practice. At the Mass I attended they were in English. Doing a quick search for the answer to that historical question, I came across this from Fr. Thomas Reese, S.J.:

After the Pauline reforms of the liturgy, it was presumed that the "Tridentine" or Latin Mass would fade away. Bishops were given the authority to suppress it in their dioceses, but some people clung to the old liturgy to the point of schism.

Benedict took away the bishops’ authority and mandated that any priest could celebrate the Tridentine Mass whenever he pleased.

It is time to return to bishops the authority over the Tridentine liturgy in their dioceses. The church needs to be clear that it wants the unreformed liturgy to disappear and will only allow it out of pastoral kindness to older people who do not understand the need for change. Children and young people should not be allowed to attend such Masses.

Well, there (and elsewhere in the same piece, which you can read here) is the voice of compulsory progress ca. 1975. It was written in April of this year. I wonder if he knew Traditiones was coming. It's a good instance of what I'm referring to when I say I've always been puzzled by the desire, the apparent need, of so many clergy, theologians, and such to stamp out the Latin Mass. If you read the rest of the piece you get a sense of how it fits into the overall progressive Catholic program. The title is really enough, if you're familiar with these controversies: 

Vatican II made changes to the liturgy. It’s time to think about making more.

p.s. I really, really doubt that Ratzinger/Benedict "insisted that liturgical texts be translated word for word from the Latin."