Easter Feed

Bach: Christ Lag in Todesbanden

I've never ventured very far into the Bach cantatas, having heard mostly the "greatest hits," such as BWV 140, "Wachet Auf" (which my mental ear insists on hearing as "Watch Out!"). There are just so many of them, and--I hope you will excuse me if this sounds blasphemous or at least disrespectful--there seems to be a fair amount of music in them that is less than great. I mean, for instance, chorales that don't seem particularly distinctive. 

But thanks to an article by Ken Myers in the most recent issue of Touchstone (the article is not available to non-subscribers), I sought out a recording of this one: "Christ Lay In the Bonds of Death," based on a hymn by Luther. I recognized the title but am not sure I'd ever heard it before. It seems to me a standout. I'm posting it as the one acknowledgement of Holy Week that I plan to make here--I won't be online very much for the next week or so. I would say that I hope you enjoy this but I feel fairly confident in saying that you will enjoy it, if you listen to it and you don't have an aversion to classical music, or classical choral music. 

From Myers's article, here's an interesting bit of musical analysis that even I can grasp:

And the musical device Bach introduces here—a succinct motif that pervades the entire work—is the simplest of melodic gestures: a descending half step. Play an A on a keyboard, followed by a G-sharp. It’s the tightest of intervals possible in Western music, but that short descending sigh becomes, in Bach’s development of Luther’s hymn, an emblem of death.

In the melody of Luther’s hymn, the first two notes are a descending whole step, from A down to G. That’s how generations of Lutherans had heard and sung the opening notes of this hymn. It’s the interval borrowed from the chant on which the melody is based, and then heard in dozens of compositions for choir and for organ based on this tune. Bach had the musical-theological shrewdness to recognize in this slight (but radical) alteration in the melody a musical resource that would enable him to more powerfully convey both Passion and Resurrection.

As the BWV number suggests, this is thought to be an early work, written around 1707, when Bach was in his early twenties. You can read a great deal about it on the Wikipedia page. But you'd be better off listening to it first. The performance is by those baroque workhorses, Gardiner, the English Baroque Soloists, and the Monteverdi Choir.

I don't as a rule especially like watching musicians up close, or for that matter at all, when they're performing, but I did enjoy watching these. 

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. 


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.


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.


"Es ist vollbracht" -- "It is finished" (Bach, St. John Passion)

I know I said I wasn't going to post till Monday, but I've been listening, for the first time, to Bach's St. John Passion, and this aria seems perfect for Holy Saturday, containing both the sorrow and the triumph of the Crucifixion. (Regarding the title of the post: I still prefer the traditional "It is finished" to other English versions of those words.)

Es ist vollbracht!
It is accomplished !
O Trost vor die gekränkten Seelen!
What comfort for all suffering souls!
Die Trauernacht
The night of sorrow
Läßt nun die letzte Stunde zählen.
now reaches its final hours.
Der Held aus Juda siegt mit Macht
The hero from Judah triumphs in his might
Und schließt den Kampf.
and brings the strife to an end.
Es ist vollbracht!
It is accomplished!

(Text and translation from www.bach-cantatas.com), which seems to be one of those wonderful group labors of love that are found on the web. It started in 1999 and the web site still looks that way, but don't let that bother you.)

This performance by Christa Ludwig is not from the Passion I've been listening to, which is a more recent one (i.e. 1986!) conducted by John Eliot Gardiner and more in the favored style of recent years, said to be more authentic. But I saw this one on YouTube and I find it more moving. It's almost a full minute longer than the Gardiner version. 

The St. John is not nearly as well-known as the monumental St. Matthew, but it has many, many virtues which I'm happy to have discovered better late than never. 

"Run, y'all!"

Another one of the many bits of C.S. Lewis's writings that rattle around in my head is one in which he discusses a phenomenon which troubled his youthful Christianity: he was not able to feel things that he was told, or at least that he felt, he should feel. It may be in Surprised By Joy. Or maybe it's a discussion of his reasons for writing allegorically in the Narnia stories.

Anyway, I have the same problem. In a few days I'll be attending various Holy Week liturgies, and in some of them, especially the Stations of the Cross on Friday, I will be contemplating the Crucifixion and quite likely, depending on the texts, be reciting words that say I'm weeping, filled with grief, and so on. But for the most part I won't actually be feeling these things. For whatever reasons, having to do with long familiarity but not only limited to that, I don't feel the intense emotions I rightly should feel about the Passion. I don't mean that I'm indifferent, and sometimes  am touched, but mostly my reaction is somewhat abstract: I think very cosmic thoughts about the awesome significance of it, rather than feel simple human grief for this innocent who is so wrongly tortured and killed.

I did feel those emotions very powerfully once, long ago, watching a TV show. Sixty years is a long time not only to remember a TV show but to be touched again by the pity and sorrow which it produced. I'm pretty sure I would find myself having difficulty speaking if I were to try to tell the story out loud. 

The show was the old General Electric Theater, hosted by Ronald Reagan. I thought I remembered that much, and thanks to the Internet I was able to find more exact information: the episode was called "The Patsy," and it was first broadcast in February of 1960. So I was eleven years old. 

It starred Sammy Davis, Jr., whose name is probably not as well known as it once was, at least not to younger people. He was one of the most successful and best-known black actors of the time--well-known even in comparison to his fellow members of the "Rat Pack"--Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and others. In the show, Davis is the titular "patsy" (a dupe, a scapegoat, the butt of jokes--I point that out in case that old bit of slang is no longer generally known). He plays the only black member of a squad of soldiers. He's naive and maybe somewhat simple-minded, and the other men are constantly making fun of him, playing practical jokes on him, and so forth. If I remember correctly he does his best to take it good-naturedly but is clearly hurt by it.

In the final prank, one of the men drops a grenade which everyone but the patsy knows to be a dummy. The others feign fear and move away. The patsy throws himself down on the grenade and lies there yelling "Run, y'all! Run!," waiting in terror for it to go off. When he realizes it isn't going to, he just lies there, sobbing, still muttering "Run." 

At least that's the way I remember it. As a boy growing up in that post-World-War-II time, I had heard of this act of heroism, seen it enacted in movies. The thought of such a self-sacrifice was always moving, but what made it so very much so in this case was that the one giving his life was despised and rejected of men.


I won't be posting again until next Monday. But I'm not going offline completely (probably should), and will still see comments, and respond if/when inclined.

Miserere: Music For the Holy Week Liturgy...

...performed by the Westminster Abbey Choir and the Abbey Consort, under the direction of Martin Neary.

I received this CD as a gift a few years ago, a fact which I mention because the cover photograph would probably have kept me from buying it for myself.


This picture of a rather malevolent-looking young man struck me as the sort of thing a record company might do to get the attention of a browser (this was 1994) for what I presumed to be a sort of anthology of liturgical music on the themes of Holy Week, with Allegri's well-known Miserere as the selling point. I say well-known because even if you don't recognize the description you may well have heard it, as its striking long high ornamental melody has been heard in sound tracks.

I was wrong on both counts--about the photo and about the music, I mean. More about the photo shortly, but the music is by no means a casual miscellany, as the number of different composers included had led me to suppose. It is instead a carefully constructed program of first-rate music beautifully performed. I've listened to it five or six times in recent weeks, and it's become a favorite. 

The centerpieces, so to speak--more accurately, bookends--are two settings of the Miserere, or Psalm 51. In addition to Allegri's, there is one by Bai. Here is what the very extensive liner notes say:

It was a desire to set this remarkable pair of Miserere settings in some kind of fruitful apposition that was the point of departure for the present recording. This gradually assembled itself around their twin poles to form a near-palindrome of chant and polyphony for Holy Week: a musical meditation on the Passion and Death of Christ that revolves slowly on itself like a solemn ring-dance of penitence and mourning. 

Plainchant and polyphony alternate. The first track is a plainchant hymn, "Vexilla Regis" ("The King's banners"). Next is Allegri's Miserere, then the plainchant antiphon "Christus factus est" ("Christ was made obedient"). And so on. Next to last is the Bai Miserere, (credited to Bai and Allegri, for reasons discussed in the notes), and then a closing plainchant hymn with a refrain (I think) composed by King John IV of Portugal.

The polyphonic works were all written in, roughly, the late 16th and early 17th centuries, except Bai's, which is a bit later. The other composers are, in order of appearance, Lotti, Gesualdo, Gabrieli, and Monteverdi. Of their works included here, I like Gesualdo's best, which is not surprising. Church polyphony is in general a kind of music for which I have more respect than genuine love. I usually feel like I don't entirely get what's going on; I suppose I'm not sensitive enough to harmony, and the kind of instantly affecting melody that one hears in the Allegri Miserere doesn't appear very often, at least to my ears. But there's something about Gesualdo's music that appeals to me, something that seems a bit strange and a bit dark, though that latter perception may be partly a result of the fact that the only music of his that I've heard is for the Tenebrae service. And perhaps even something to do with the fact that Gesualdo is, as far as I know, the only composer of note to have murdered his wife and her lover.

Which brings me to that photo. As I mentioned, the liner notes for this recording are extensive, including a very detailed essay which focuses on the performance history, both technical and historical, of the Allegri, as well as the Latin texts and their English translations. (The two Miserere settings were for more than a century heard only in the Vatican during Holy Week, and were a very big deal. Dickens tried to get in, but couldn't; Mendelssohn did, and made a transcription of the Allegri. The fourteen-year-old Mozart had done the same, only he didn't bother to actually write it down till afterward.) By the time I got to the acknowledgments at the end of the booklet, I didn't pay much attention: thanks to "the Dean and Chapter of Westminster, all at Sony Classical," etc. etc. But later, trying to find out who was responsible for the cover, I read them more carefully, and discovered this credit: "Roberto Valeri (Prince of Venosa)". 

Then it dawned on me, and I checked Wikipedia: yes, Prince of Venosa was Gesualdo's formal title. And the back cover of the booklet shows the prince in an attitude of devotion, touching a crucifix to his forehead, and looking troubled. 

So that cover which I found off-putting is actually a subtle comment on sin and repentance, most appropriate for the project. According to Wikipedia: "The evidence that Gesualdo was tortured by guilt for the remainder of his life is considerable...."

Not surprisingly, this recording of Allegri's Miserere is one of many to be found on YouTube:


No More Posts Till Easter Monday

As is fairly usual with me, I started off pretty well with Lent and gradually got slacker and lazier. I'm going to make an effort during Holy Week to attend more to the occasion. It seems especially important this year since I can't actually go to Mass. So I won't be posting anymore till Monday April 13. I'll still participate in conversations, if there are any, but there won't be any new posts. 

Today for the first time since public Masses were cancelled I watched one on television. As I said in a comment here a couple of weeks or so ago, a televised Mass just seems all wrong to me in some fundamental way that I haven't made the effort to articulate. I don't mean religiously wrong, just off. Unreal. Weird. But I have already noticed a tendency on my part to start drifting without the anchor of weekly Mass (and also in my case a weekly holy hour--which I still do at home but of course it's not the same). I keep thinking of what Janet said about the Japanese Christians who held on to the faith for...what was it?...250 years without priests, and I'm ashamed.

Literally the Greatest Thing That Ever Happened

In our universe, anyway. 

1024px-William-Adolphe_Bouguereau_(1825-1905)_-_Le_saintes_femmes_au_tombeau_(1890)_img_2I had never seen this painting or so much as heard of the artist, William-Adolphe Bouguereau, until it was included in the Holy Week edition of Magnificat. (See this for art historian Elizabeth Lev's discussion of it.) 

I like the painting in part because I've always found the story of the faithful women at the tomb particularly touching. The gospel accounts are inconsistent about their identities, except that all four include Mary Magdalene, whose story (insofar as we know and speculate) is also particularly touching. 

The question is always: "Where were the disciples?" If I'd been one of them, the answer would have been "Off somewhere moping." And probably drinking.

But wherever the men were, it's strongly implied that the women were there at least partly because they wanted to prepare the body properly for burial. That is, they were going about the work that was, I assume, considered theirs, and probably a somewhat lowly task. If so, it put them in the position of being the first to learn of the most important event ever. That would constitute an excellent lesson in a principle that Jesus mentioned more than once.

Sunday Night Journal, April 1, 2018

Easter Sunday

When I was twelve years old, an aunt and uncle gave me two books for Christmas, both part of a series or set called The Looking Glass LibraryThese were The Haunted Looking Glass and The Looking Glass Book of Verse. The first was a collection of classic ghost stories, though of course I didn't know they were classic and didn't recognize names like M.R. James or even Bram Stoker; I think Charles Dickens was the only name I knew. I loved it and read most of the stories several times over the next five or six years. It included "The Monkey's Paw," which is a great story, but also a peculiarly disturbing one. I've sometimes thought I might better not have read it, because it colors my attitude toward prayer. (If you don't know it, suffice to say that it's probably the ultimate be-careful-what-you-wish-for tale.)

The Haunted Looking Glass was edited by Edward Gorey, and illustrated by him. That explains why, years later, in the early or mid-'70s, when there was a sort of Edward Gorey vogue, his work looked so familiar to me. The illustrations are rather brilliant: there is almost nothing at all in their subject matter that's directly frightening, but they manage to communicate a sense that something uncanny is invisibly present and about to act.  

The Book of Verse, however, I don't remember reading at all. I must surely have looked into at least, but obviously it held little appeal for me. I still have both books. Sometime in the relatively recent past--i.e. sometime in this century--I got out the Haunted one, recalling that I had thought the stories very good when I was twelve, and discovering that I had been reading classics of the genre. The other book, though, had been sitting unopened on various shelves as it moved around with me over the years.

One day last week a discussion here about ghost stories reminded me of The Haunted Looking Glass, and that in turn reminded me of its companion, and I wondered for the first time in many years what was in it. I found, somewhat to my surprise, and somewhat to my embarrassment, that it is a very fine anthology perhaps more fit for adults than for children, certainly more so than for my twelve-year-old self. Name any great poet (in English) that you like, and he or she is included here, including some very surprising names like Elizabeth Bishop. 

The editor is someone name Janet Adam Smith, of whom I had never heard, but she certainly had excellent taste in poetry. The biographical note in the book makes her sound interesting: 

...born in Scotland in 1905, [she] is literary editor of the British weekly, The New Statesman. She is also the author of books on mountaineering and of a critical study of Robert Louis Stevenson, and is at present writing a biography of John Buehan [sic--surely that was supposed to be Buchan].

Moreover, this anthology is a revision of her The Faber Book of Children's Verse, made "more suitable for American readers." And the fact that I'd never heard of her says more about my ignorance than her obscurity: here's her Wikipedia entry. Yes, that is supposed to be "Buchan."

Perhaps I would have found the book more interesting at, say, sixteen, than when I received it that Christmas, as by then there was some poetry I liked, but as far as I can recall I never looked at it. I hate to admit that an anthology of this quality was beyond me, though I suppose it was just as much a lack of interest in poetry that stopped me, as there are plenty of poems in the book that would have been accessible and entertaining to me, had I given them a chance. I doubt a similar project done today would be of this quality. And if it were intended for general audiences, it wouldn't contain the explicitly Christian poems that this one does.

All of this is to get around to saying that as I flipped through the book my eye was caught by the name of Christopher Smart, which I was surprised to see. And I read this poem of his, which strikes me as a great Easter piece:

Glorious the sun in mid career;
Glorious th' assembled fires appear;
Glorious the comet's train:
Glorious the trumpet and alarm;
Glorious th' almighty stretch'd-out arm;
Glorious th' enraptur'd main:

Glorious the northern lights a-stream;
Glorious the song, when God's the theme;
Glorious the thunder's roar:
Glorious hosanna from the den;
Glorious the catholic amen;
Glorious the martyr's gore:

Glorious—more glorious is the crown
Of Him that brought salvation down
By meekness, call'd thy Son;
Thou that stupendous truth believ'd,
And now the matchless deed's achiev'd,

Ordinarily I would be put off, at least, by that use of capital letters, but in this case it seems perfect: "a blare of trumpets for the Lord," as one of the Psalms puts it. I wondered at first if they were Janet Smith's doing, as various copies of the poem which I found online don't have it. But it seemed very unlikely that she (or any anthologist) would have taken such a liberty, and such an odd one.  This PDF version from W.W. Norton, though, does have it.

The poem is untitled in the book, and that's because it's only a bit, the last bit, of a much longer poem called "Song To David," which is what you'll see at that link. I wondered who "thou" in the last stanza is meant to be. I thought at first it was the reader, but in the context of the whole poem I think it must be David.

DETERMINED'D, DAR'D, and DONE: Happy Easter.

Christopher ("Kit") Smart, as you may know, was confined to a madhouse for some years because of his "religious mania." Here is what his friend Samuel Johnson had to say about that:

My poor friend Smart showed the disturbance of his mind by falling upon his knees and saying his prayers in the street, or in any other unusual place. Now although, rationally speaking, it is a greater madness not to pray at all than to pray as Smart did, I am afraid there are so many who do not pray, that their understanding is not called in question.

And on another occasion:

I did not think he ought to be shut up. His infirmities were not noxious to society. He insisted on people praying with him, and I'd as lief pray with Kit Smart as anyone else.


Here's a list of all the Looking Glass Library titles. I never had any but the two I've mentioned.


We went to the cathedral in Mobile for Mass on Holy Thursday. This was the view when we came out. The whole arc of the brighter rainbow was visible, though partly obscured by trees. 



Sunday Night Journal, April 23, 2017

For some months now I've noticed that I take great satisfaction in reciting the creed. Or, I should say, one of the creeds: at Mass of course it's the Nicene, but in my personal prayers it's the Apostles'. It's a reaction to the times. The spirit of the age is attacking the faith from many directions now, and the notion prevails in many minds that such things as specific religious beliefs are "antiquated" and obviously not just false but ridiculous, and not just ridiculous but dangerous. This has begun to bring out in me a spirit of defiance which is energized by the increasingly stupid and wicked things the spirit of the age demands that we believe. And the more it insists, and the more power it gets, the more I will, with the help of God, resist, and keep the promises I made when I became a Catholic thirty-six years ago. When I say the creed(s) now it is with a little of the feeling that I imagine a soldier might have when he digs in to defend to the death a piece of ground and says to the enemy Do your worst and be damned--I'll never back down

I was in Washington DC over the Easter weekend and attended the Easter Vigil at St. Peter parish there. It was an impressive liturgy, with lots of good music including the assistance of a small orchestra. There was of course a group of people being baptized and/or confirmed, and so the creed was said in the question-and-answer cathechetical mode. It's a fairly large church and it was nearly full.

"Do you believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible?" says the priest.

"I do!" roars back the entire congregation.

It was wonderful to hear, and to be a part of.


I first learned the Apostles' Creed in my early teens as a Methodist. As a Catholic I've never felt that I had to repudiate the most important things I was taught as a Protestant: the things that have to do with the nature of the Church and of sacraments, yes, but apart from a different understanding of "one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church," nothing in the creed. I'm happy that in recent decades many theologically "conservative" (you know what I mean) Protestants have given up their fierce anti-Catholicism, and vice-versa. This has been done in part by focusing on what we share rather than on what divides us. The brighter people on both sides realize that this only goes so far, and that differences remain which are not likely to go away anytime soon. Still, we are willing to count the others as fellow Christians.

I've gotten so used to this that it surprises me when I encounter Protestants who deny that Catholics and Orthodox (if they are even aware of the existence of the latter) are Christian at all. Apparently there are still more of these types than I think. Some of them run a web site called Pulpit and Pen. And when a prominent Protestant named Hank Hanegraaff, who apparently had a radio program called The Bible Answer Man (I assume he was that man), converted to Orthodoxy, he was denounced by Pulpit and Pen, and I'm sure others, as being no longer a Christian. 

Well, so it goes, right? Like I said, it is a bit of shock to me when I encounter this attitude, but I know it's out there. I would not be remarking on this incident except that a guy from Pulpit and Pen named Jeff Maples took it upon himself to attend the Easter Vigil (not the right term, I know) at Hanegraaff's new church, and produced a weird little screed denouncing it. 

Should we laugh at him? I'm reluctant to do that, being all ecumenical and stuff. But I think yes, we should. Pride and willful ignorance deserve mockery, and those are the two most striking qualities of the w.l.s. His denunciation is both ridiculous and malicious. Here is point 9 of his 9-point critique:

The Greek and Eastern Orthodox church is clearly a lifeless church. There was absolutely no gospel in this service. A lost person could not walk into this church and walk out a changed man. It was literally a Pagan practice. Like a seance. Pure witchcraft was going on in this place. In this religion, salvation doesn’t come through Christ’s imputed righteousness and substitutionary atonement on the cross, it comes through these dead rituals that they believe ontologically changes them into divine beings. It was truly one of the most wicked experiences I’ve ever seen.

He is of course comparing Orthodoxy to his concept of bible-only Christianity, and I'm struck more now than I once was by the pridefulness of that view as it is manifested in people like this, as dogmatically as this. When someone claims the Bible as his only authority and then uses theological terminology like "imputed righteousness and substitionary atonement," he clearly is bringing a whole lot of extra-biblical thinking to his supposedly pure straightforward reading of the text.

There are many Protestants, including some Evangelicals, who understand that the 1500-year legacy of thought and worship on the part of the Church before Protestantism has a great deal to say and must be given serious attention even by those who think it went wrong in ways that Protestantism corrected. But the folks at Pulpit and Pen don't need any of that. In their view the Bible requires no interpretive authority, and they are it. 

They seem in fact to regard themselves as the hammer of heretics in the old style, as their web site is full of denunciations of other Christians, at least as many of them Protestant as Catholic or Orthodox. Mother Teresa, they inform us, is damned. And a few days after the appearance of this piece, they published an "apology" to the Eastern Orthodox community in which they said they were sorry they hadn't denounced "the grave and damnable heresies" of Orthodoxy sooner and more vigorously, along with any Protestants who have anything good to say about them. I wonder where such people think they get the authority to declare anyone a heretic, or--and this is really pretty funny--a schismatic.

Apart from the religious questions, Maples comes across as a clod. He enters an Orthodox church for the holiest celebration of the year with the intention of "confront[ing] Hanegraaff in person." (Fortunately he bailed out after two and a half hours, which made me chuckle--the Easter Vigil I attended lasted a full three.) In a liturgy and a physical building that were probably at least moderately pleasing aesthetically, he sees nothing good. The incense and bells are a "noxious combination." The chant is "eerie." The icons (which he amusingly calls graven images) "looked like lifeless figures just floating around in space."

Somewhere along the line a Catholic theologian came up with the nice phrase "invincible ignorance" to describe, and to some degree excuse, those who are by reason of ignorance, prejudice, and so forth truly unable to see the Catholic faith for what it is. I think it's roughly the equivalent of "Bless their hearts, they don't know any better." I don't think that's applicable here. This is willful ignorance, and, worse, a hard ugly pride. 

The usual thing, and it's basically a good thing, is to close a criticism like this with "I'll pray for them." That often sounds insincere to me, as if said through gritted teeth. I guess we've all heard Christians say "I'll pray for you" in a tone that suggests that what they really mean is closer to "I hope you burn in hell." I suppose that's better than not praying at all. But in any case I don't feel up to it. Shaking the dust from my feet is more like it. But I can muster this bit of charity: I do hope that they'll change their minds. Jeff Maples mentions that he was married in a Catholic church (and the fact that he doesn't say it was "witchcraft" etc. may not be to the credit of that particular church) . I don't know if that means he's an ex-Catholic, or went through the motions because he wanted to marry a Catholic (which would be pretty strange for anyone who thinks the pope is the Antichrist etc. etc.),  or what, but maybe he has a Catholic wife praying for him. 


The funny thing about sola scriptura is that it isn't found in scripture. I think there are some reasonable arguments to be made for it: if you don't accept the idea of a visible Church possessing apostolic authority, it's not unreasonable to argue that only the written word is secure from the vagaries of human sin and weakness. But you can't prove it from scripture itself. Pulpit and Pen has a Statement of Faith which offers some proof texts intended to support it, but it's a pretty lame effort. I'm always a little amused by the attempt to make 2 Timothy 3: 16-17 do that work: 

All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.

True, of course. But getting from that to "The Scriptures are the only guide and rule of faith and conduct for the believer" (their words) is a pretty big leap of...interpretation. And made on what authority? 


On a more pleasant subject: today is Divine Mercy Sunday. A few months ago I made a complaint about the Divine Mercy prayers:

The thing is...I don't want to submit myself with great confidence to God's holy will, which is Love and Mercy itself. I want him to fix the problem I'm asking him to fix. 

At the time I had begun to pray that litany daily, with emphasis on a specific family problem. I'd been doing it for some little time then (not sure how much) and am still doing it, and expect to continue indefinitely. The problem has not only not been fixed but is worse and by any human measure seems to be permanent. But I have actually become much more able to submit myself with at least some confidence to what God is permitting, and which must therefore be in some sense his will. 


Sometimes the line between darkness and light is clear.

Sunday Night Journal, April 9, 2017

One of the books I've been reading as background for the book I'm writing is Theodore Roszak's The Making of a Counter-culture. Roszak may have been the one who coined that term. If he didn't, he certainly contributed to its widespread use. The book came out in 1969 and I recall reading it at the time and thinking it was pretty good, but I also was a bit dismissive or patronizing toward it, as the work of a liberal who didn't really understand the radicals he was analyzing. And when I started re-reading it a week or two ago I didn't expect much: platitudes, maybe, or naively optimistic and idealized impressions.

Well, I seem to have been wrong. It is a really fine book, and still very much worth reading in spite of the fact that much of it is specific to its time. I got about halfway through it earlier this week, then various other things got in the way and have prevented me from finishing it. I'm writing about it now because the coming week, being Holy Week, is going to be even busier, and I don't want to wait for two weeks because the book is really exciting.

Roszak is erudite, very intelligent, and very perceptive, or at least he was in this book. It's not just that he does in fact have a pretty good idea of what was going on with the hippie-radical youth culture of the '60s, but that he scoped out, correctly, that it was in essence a religious movement. 

He is, unfortunately, wrong about the potential of the movement he describes to bring about the spiritual renewal which he very astutely sees as the fundamental problem of modern technocratic civilization. The movement proved to be just a sort of sect within what we broadly and clumsily call progressivism, secular humanism, and the like. I expect I'll have more to say about it in a couple of weeks.


I've also been reading a book called Turning the Tide by Earl H. Tilford. It's a history of the political changes at the University of Alabama during the 1950s and 1960s. Much of it is about the response of the university to the civil rights movement, and it's quite an interesting picture, revealing that the university administration was mostly on the side of desegregation, but had to navigate very carefully the sentiment of the state at large and Governor George Wallace in particular. I'm reading it because the last few chapters concern the student leftist movement of the late '60s and I wanted to refresh my memory about the events of 1969-70. There are some  photos of student demonstrations. As far as I can tell I'm not in any of them, but I remember a couple of the occasions. In one photo, students hold signs proclaiming the imminence of fascism. Almost fifty years on, and student radicals, and many of those who were student radicals in my day, keep telling us it's coming, indeed here. It never arrives, and meanwhile many of the ideas they espouse, especially those having to do with sex, drive more and more of the machinery of society. Don't think for a moment that Donald Trump's weird presidency means the reversal of that trend.


I'm amused every time I hear an anti-Trump demonstrator say something along the lines of "We won't let him divide us." Way too late for that. Way too late.


Yesterday afternoon I spent a couple of hours watching two of my grandsons, ages 5 and almost 7,  play on the bay shore with two little girls of their same age, daughters of a friend of their mother. It was a beautiful day, bright but not hot. The water is still too chilly for me to want to get in, but after a little hesitation the children went in and apparently got used to it. It was an almost idyllic afternoon, unmarred by any of the quarrels that often break out among children. 

Their relatively innocent happiness is always beautiful to see, but it seems so fragile and vulnerable that, gloomy soul that I am, I can't help seeing a shadow from their future over them. I say relatively innocent because of course only someone who has never been around children can believe that they are not sometimes brutally selfish, dishonest, etc.--sinful, in short, often in ways so simple and transparent that they seem funny to adults better schooled in wickedness. This afternoon my wife and I were playing a game with the boys that involved putting a number of small items on a tray covered with a towel, taking away the towel and giving everybody a thirty-second look at the things, then covering them again and having everyone write down as many as they could remember. The younger boy looked under the towel before he was supposed to.

"Lucas, you're not supposed to see what's under there yet," I said.

"I didn't."

"Right. You just lifted the towel and looked under it, but you didn't see anything?"


They may live fairly happy lives--I certainly hope and pray that they will--but even at best they are most likely going to suffer blows that they can't even imagine right now. I want desperately to protect them, but of course I can't. I found myself wondering, as I sometimes do, why God allows the world to go on and on with every child coming into the world bound, one way or another, to suffer a fair amount of pain, and in many cases an enormous amount of it. Is the sweetness of days like this worth it--whatever "worth it" might mean: how could we ever make that calculation? I found myself thinking of Ecclesiastes:

So I returned, and considered all the oppressions that are done under the sun: and behold the tears of such as were oppressed, and they had no comforter; and on the side of their oppressors there was power; but they had no comforter.

Wherefore I praised the dead which are already dead more than the living which are yet alive.

Yea, better is he than both they, which hath not yet been, who hath not seen the evil work that is done under the sun.

But that is a form of weakness. Either God (assuming he exists) is the cruel deity some make him out to be, or he is both more tender and more strong than we can imagine, and is teaching us strength, among many other things--to be like him in that way as in others. So while the children ran back and forth across the beach, in and out of the water, I prayed the Divine Mercy litany, counting the prayers on my fingers since I didn't have my rosary in my pocket, as I generally do. I had left it at the house because I figured I would end up in the water at some point, which I did, wading out with the littlest girl, who wanted to go in but was afraid to without a grown-up hand to hold.

It is worth it. I suppose I've had about the average amount of pain in my life, and I certainly would not want not to have lived. 


I couldn't remember exactly where that sentiment from Ecclesiastes was found, so I Googled "better not to have been born." Among other things I found a book called Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming Into Existence. It's apparently a quite serious case for the minimization of harm as a rationale for the human race to voluntarily cease existing. 

David Benatar argues that coming into existence is always a serious harm. Although the good things in one's life make one's life go better than it otherwise would have gone, one could not have been deprived by their absence if one had not existed. Those who never exist cannot be deprived. However, by coming into existence one does suffer quite serious harms that could not have befallen one had one not come into existence.... The author then argues for the 'anti-natal' view---that it is always wrong to have children---and he shows that combining the anti-natal view with common pro-choice views about foetal moral status yield a "pro-death" view about abortion (at the earlier stages of gestation). Anti-natalism also implies that it would be better if humanity became extinct. Although counter-intuitive for many, that implication is defended, not least by showing that it solves many conundrums of moral theory about population.

Nothing like that sort of thing to snap me out of my morose thinking. There are some ideas that should just be rejected on contact, spat out as soon as tasted, or rejected without being tasted because they stink. David Benatar is "currently Senior Lecturer in the Philosophy Department at the University of Cape Town, South Africa," according to the book's entry on Amazon. 


Amid all the talk of the "Benedict Option," it occurs to me that even more fundamentally what many, even many Christians, require right now is the Puddleglum Option. You remember Puddleglum, the gloomy but faithful marsh-dweller in C.S. Lewis's The Silver Chair? In order to keep himself, Eustace, and Lucy from falling completely under the spell of the Queen of Underland who is convincing them that the outside world does not exist, Puddleglum stamps on her enchanted fire with his bare foot, and the pain helps to break the spell. It is becoming an act of deliberate resistance in our culture to insist on certain fundamental realities. 


Cath stat

I always like--well, maybe like is the wrong word--I always find very meaningful the reading of the Passion narratives on Palm Sunday and Good Friday, because the congregation is usually assigned the words of the crowd. None of us can be sure that we would not have been among those crying "Crucify him!"

"I'd be buried in Georgia, if I could have my way, but it's a far piece to Georgia and nobody's gonna tote me. So I'll be buried up here in this cold," he added. "I don't like this cold. Of course, they say when you're dead the temperature don't concern you, but who knows the truth on that?"

"I don't," Call said.

"People got opinions, that's all they've got," the old man grumbled. "If somebody was to go and come back, now that's an opinion I'd listen to."

--Larry McMurtry, from Lonesome Dove

Good Friday, and All of Holy Week In Art

I know I said I wasn't going to post till Sunday, but I think it's appropriate to pass this on. Janet Cupo has been doing a series of Holy Week posts based on the art of Giotto, and it's really good. I was especially touched by the Good Friday series. I will make a confession: I have never cared much for Stations of the Cross. I've never been moved by it in the way I'm supposed to be. These paintings, and Janet's commentary, are more effective for me.

Here's the whole series:

Palm Sunday

The Raising of Lazarus

The Betrayers

Spy Wednesday

Holy Thursday

Good Friday

Or all on one page, latest first.

Remarkably, Lent Has Ended Again

I did a bit more for Lent this year than I usually do--not a great deal by any means, but a bit more. And I found it almost too easy, and over more quickly than I expected. I do not love Lent, and agree with the priest I heard on Ash Wednesday, that it really ought to last twenty days instead of forty. It's along about the fourth week that in years past I've felt that it really ought to be about over, and that I didn't think I'd be able to maintain for another three weeks what meager discipline I had so far managed.

This year it just didn't seem to last that long. And that's in keeping with my general experience these days, which also seems to be the common experience of people getting well up in years. The past ten years, which have seen my transition from late middle to early old age, went swiftly. It's hard to believe that I've been doing this blog for ten years, and that it's been eight since my youngest child left home. From ten years old to twenty was an epoch, and from twenty to thirty an age, but from fifty-five to sixty-five an afternoon.

Also related to the relatively easy time I had with Lent is an apparent paradox of aging: although time seems to pass more quickly, I'm more patient. It's only apparent, though, and only at first glance: though it might make sense that the consciousness of how little time remains would make one less tolerant of delay, one also sees time spent waiting for something as much shorter and more bearable. At five a child in January feels a deep grief that Christmas is past and hardly understands that it will ever come again; at sixty-five one knows that it's just around the corner.

But the sixty-five-year-old doesn't feel the same intense joy as the child, either; repetition and apparent frequency dull the experience. Suppose one were immortal, and could have the old person's sense of time passing ever more swiftly, without losing the child's thrill at the approach and arrival of some longed-for event: the times between would shrink toward zero, and one might arrive eventually at a single point of ecstacy.

Could we endure it? Not as we are, no. Christ is risen: alleluia.

The Impossible Beautiful Truth

The four gospels give us different pictures of the readiness with which the followers of Jesus accepted the resurrection. Yesterday, hearing John's version, I was struck by how difficult it must have been for at least some of them to grasp what had occcurred. "They have taken away the Lord out of the sepulchre, and we know not where they have laid him," says Mary Magdalene.

Of course that's what they would have thought. And although I don't recall any mention of it in scripture, it seems safe to assume that at least some of them made inquiries, trying to find out who might have taken the body, and why, and where.

In John's gospel Mary Magdalene does so, on the spot, saying to the figure whome she takes for a gardener, "Sir, if thou have borne him hence, tell me where thou hast laid him, and I will take him away." John himself (on the usual assumption that he's referring to himself in the third person as "the disciple Jesus loved"), having outraced Peter to the tomb after Mary's first alarm, believes at once, perhaps having already understood what the others did not, "that he must rise from the dead." It isn't clear at that point what Peter thinks. 

For some of them it may have been like it would have been like for me: first wanting to know if the body was really not there (Are you sure you looked everywhere?). Then, having a definite answer to that question, perhaps having seen for myself, I would have started trying to figure out who had stolen it, and why, and what they had done with it. Only when those possibilities seemed to be eliminated would I have begun to entertain seriously the idea of resurrection. 

And then: wild hope, too wild to be credited at first, but emerging as the only explanation, finally embraced with overpowering elation, beyond doubt when the Lord himself appeared to them. Everyone knows the instruction from Sherlock Holmes:

When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.

But the resurrection spins that sensible pragmatic principle around: the impossible pushes its way in, elbows aside both the probable and the improbable, and stands there unique among all events in human history: impossible, true, and beautiful; promising everything, because since it is true anything might be, anything each of us has ever longed for and given up for lost.


Rejoice and sing now, all the round earth,
bright with a glorious splendor, 
for darkness has been vanquished by our eternal King.

Sunday Night Journal — April 8, 2012

Easter Sunday

What were they thinking? In his Good Friday homily at the cathedral in Mobile, Fr. Martin asked this question about the disciples of Jesus as they saw him arrested, tried, and executed. What had they expected of him? Certainly not this. And what did they think when their expectations were utterly crushed? There is no evidence that any of them had any idea that the Resurrection would follow.

I know what I would have been thinking. It would have gone something like this: I should have known it would all come to nothing. This is what always happens; it’s the way life always goes: a beautiful beginning, then disappointment. Nothing ever turns out the way you want it to, or not for long. Dreams always fail. You never get what you longed for, or if you do it isn’t what you thought it would be, or it disappears even as you hold it. And in the end nothing remains but the dream itself, the same old longing.

One of three or four passages in The Lord of the Rings which haunt me, and which pass through my mind almost daily, is this exchange between Gimli and Legolas, upon their parting with a lord of Gondor; specifically, it’s the words of Gimli I recall, and which might be my own:

“That is a fair lord and a great captain of men,” said Legolas. “If Gondor has such men still in these days of its fading, great must have been its glory in the days of its rising.”

“And doubtless the good stone-work is the older and was wrought in the first building,” said Gimli. “It is ever so with the things that Men begin: there is a frost in the Spring, or a blight in Summer, and they fail of their promise.”

But Gimli’s is not quite the last word; the exchange continues:

“Yet seldom do they fail of their seed,” said Legolas. “And that will lie in the dust and rot to spring up again in times and places unlooked-for. The deeds of Men will outlast us, Gimil.”

“And yet come to naught in the end but might-have-beens, I guess,” said the Dwarf.

“To that the Elves know not the answer,” said Legolas.

Again, my sympathies are with the dwarf. It is not easy or natural for me to resist the feeling that in the end decline and extinction will have the last word. I almost wrote “the idea” in the preceding sentence, and changed it to “feeling,” because that’s what it is; it’s not a conviction, not a conclusion reached by reason, and in fact is contrary to my conscious belief. Yet to some extent it is an idea, though an unwelcome one. After all, is there anything in our direct experience to suggest, much less prove, that it is not true? I say direct experience: we have the testimonies of others, and our own intuitions and hopes. To believe in spirit as the source of material life rather than its product often requires a conscious effort, while the clear indications of the material world itself, and the conclusions of the sciences which investigate it, are that all, literally all, will come in the end to nothing: the heat death of the universe, utter cessation, futility and un-meaning. 

So I would have been thinking, with whatever adjustments in the imagery required for the knowledge and culture of the times, had I been one of the disciples. Just another of life’s inevitable disappointments, a type of the ultimate disappointment.

And what would I have thought at the news of the Resurrection? Undoubtedly I would not readily have believed it; perhaps not until I had seen it for myself. And when finally I was persuaded, I would have made that leap with tears of joy.

But this is, after all, not really speculative. I was not there two thousand years ago, but I have passed through the same doubts and into the same belief, from darkness to light. It was not as compressed in time, not as immediately intense as the experience of the disciples, but it must be a similar transition. And every Triduum I make the journey again, imagining on Good Friday that I do not know that the Resurrection is coming. What I feel and what I say when it does come begins with “Thanks be to God,” but doesn’t end there.

I have had a smaller and more personal taste of resurrection in the past couple of weeks. I came to the Catholic Church after a sojourn of several years as an Episcopalian. Though I couldn’t stomach the doctrinal problems of the Episcopal Church, I became deeply attached to the Anglican liturgy. Moreover, my roots are in the Methodist Church, which is Anglican at one remove. And then there’s my ancestral connection to the British Isles, and my love of English literature. It was painful to leave the Anglican liturgy, even though at the point I encountered it, in the late 1970s, it was being drearily modernized. I needn’t rehash the usual complaints about the banality of the post-Vatican II Catholic liturgy; suffice to say that I shared them, at times almost to the point of despair and temptation to apostasy, and that it was a trial to my faith.

When John Paul II allowed the use of a modified Anglican liturgy under the term “Anglican use,” I had a flicker of hope that I would see such a thing, but there have never been more than a few parishes in the country using it, none of them anywhere near me. And I was pleased when Benedict XVI went further, to the creation of an Anglican ordinariate, but I didn’t expect ever to benefit from it myself. For some time now I’ve been reconciled to the Catholic liturgy as it is, happy enough to receive the graces of the Mass that I could live with the dullness of its treatment.

Then one morning at work couple of weeks ago, there came, entirely unexpected, an email from my wife telling me that she had just had a telephone conversation which brought her news that a seminarian in our diocese has begun the process of establishing regular Anglican Use worship in this area. Until the seminarian, a former Episcopal priest, is ordained, it will not be a Mass; the first event is Evening Prayer, on April 15, and my wife and I will surely be there, God willing.

Thanks be to God. I can’t even say that this is an answer to a prayer; I regarded it as so unlikely that I hadn’t even bothered to pray for it more than a few times, and those long ago. This is God giving more than was asked for or expected, as he did with his followers at the first Easter. However this works out in the longer run, I’ll remember, when I feel doubtful, the happy surprise of hearing the news.

Offline till Easter

I'm going to do my best to stay completely off the net from now (Thursday evening) till Sunday. I wish and pray for a blessed Easter for everyone, especially those who don't believe.

I would like to leave you with some serious message, if only a quotation from someone else, but I'm distracted and hurried halfway to madness these days, and can't muster any substantial thoughts. Instead, I'll suggest that you go over to Janet Cupo's blog and read her series of posts on the Stations of the Cross. Click here and you'll be taken to a page containing all fourteen of them, though in reverse order. See you Sunday.