Sunday, November 12, 2006

Lux perpetua luceat eis

The Sarabite gives us the following thought-provoking prayer:

I am sorry, Lord, that I have wanted to be an angel and not a man.

I am sorry that I have expected others to be angels and not men.

Lord, grant me the strength to accept my own humanity.

Amen. It’s a standing paradox that “angelism” poisons the wells of our spiritual lives, precisely because everything becomes subject to a perspective that can never be ours. As a consequence, even things good and proper to us become suspect, or lose their former power to move us or to communicate the realities that stand behind them. This disincarnational spirit is everywhere today – in the liturgy and the liturgical arts most obviously, but as a consequence, perhaps, of an underlying drift into the notion that truth is a proposition rather than a Person (which amounts to a failure of faith); that the means by which we attempt to represent and communicate the Truth are therefore of marginal importance. Thin Calvinistic air starves our capacity to engage as we ought with things both seen and unseen. We are alienated and displaced in both worlds. It ought to be obvious to us that we can’t be integrated ourselves, or think in an integrated way about anything, if we start out by falsifying our own nature – but it isn’t.

The Catholic novelist Alice Thomas Ellis (RIP), in a riveting interview several years ago with “radio shrink” Dr Anthony Clare, described a protracted breakdown in her late teens, during which she received an intimation of Hell, not as a place of darkness, but of unendurable, inescapable, endless light. This marked the beginnings of her conversion. It has the ring of authenticity: the lux perpetua for which we pray is of course insufferable to souls separated from God; but it’s also a consequence of "angelist" theology that Heaven itself begins to assume an equivocal aspect - a place where nothing human can be taken, or found; a place that might easily be mistaken for the Other Place.

Edwin Muir’s poem The Good Town opened this blog as a kind of manifesto. Here’s another by the same author, who has also given consideration to The Good Man in Hell; I think of the following poem, “There’s nothing here…” as its complement - not quite “The Bad Man in Heaven”, but the natural man, in the "Heaven" of the Calvinists:

There's nothing here I can take into my hands.
Oh, for the plough stilts and the horse's reins,
And the furrows running free behind me.
The clay still clings to me here, and the heavy smell
Of peat and dung and cattle, and the taste of the dram In my mouth, the last of all.
These things are what I was made for. Send me back.
There is not even a shadow here. How can I live
Without substance and shadow? Am I here
Because I duly read the Bible on Sundays
And drowsed through the minister's sermon? I knew my duty.
But in the evening

I led the young lads to the orra lasses
Across the sound to the other islands. Summer!
How can I live without summer? And the harvest moon
And the stooks that looked like little yellow graves, so bonny
And sad and strange, while I walked through them
For a crack with Jock at the bothy : old-farrant stories
He had, I could tell you some queer stories. And then we would dander
Among the farms to visit the lasses, climb
Through many a window till morning. But that's no talk
For this place. And then I think of the evenings
After the long day's work ...

Paul VI’s idea that the church could move “as far as possible” in the direction of Calvinist-style worship without detriment to Catholic souls so long as the traditional orthodoxy continued to sleep between the covers of the Catechism, is a conception essentially “angelist”. It’s shared by a great many Catholics today, in whom a tenuous, theoretical orthodoxy coexists with indifference, if not aversion, to the traditional formulations of faith and worship. This manifests itself in the context of the sacraments in a kind of crass “validitareanism” that prides itself in emancipation from anything beyond the bare requirements of sacramental validity. “Oh, I don’t need all that…God doesn’t care about all that…”

Here's how pious Catholics destroy their own religion:

Point A - God isn't concerned about that
Point B - That's trivial - God doesn't care...
Point C - Come on - I don't think God minds very much...

These were all pretty minor things, so we'll also concede D - P as belonging to the category of trivialities, beneath the attention of the Almighty and superfluous to spiritual advancement. Nobody got hurt, so let's press on...

Point R - My faith isn't dependent on all that
Point S - I don't need any of that to worship God or pray properly
Point T - Haven't we got beyond all that?
Point U - What's the relevance of this is to Catholics today...

...and now we're getting on a roll. We've established a principle: that we can construct, reconstruct or discard according to our own perceived needs, without detriment to anything theoretically "essential". We've also started to alter somewhat the way our religious practice and beliefs look and "feel", because all those little minor changes of "unimportant" things, taken together, add up to something suggesting a real shift. We experience this shift as exhilarating and liberating and can't help feeling scornful of those who, unlike us "need all that". Forget them. They're the chaff, we're the wheat; nor do we consider ourselves under any obligation to take seriously the warnings of those who can see trouble coming: prophets of doom, reactionaries, Pharisees, fearful conservatives and others who never “got” the Gospel.

By now we're well on the way to re-constructing a truly “spiritual” religion entirely in our own image and likeness; but what was once, in our dim, distant and superstitious past something that brought to life the vision of Isaias or St John in the Apocalypse now consists largely of being read at by middle-class people in nice knitwear. Where did everybody go?

It’s a symptom of our disintegrity that the things we think and say about ourselves are often the furthest from the truth: and it’s precisely when a man proclaims his emancipation from “all that” that he reveals himself to be most conspicuously in need of it.


Ttony said...


The post-Vatican II Church seems to have lost the concept of the objectivity of revealed religion: "these are the facts which Catholics always, everywhere, have believed" has been replaced by a misplaced sovereignty of conscience which bypasses everything to do with the need to inform the conscience and instead puts self at the centre.

Not even "Man is the measure of all things" but "I am the measure of all things".

I blame that Cardinal Newman ...

Pseudo-Iamblichus said...

I at first did not want to respond to this post, but then I thought twice about it. I suppose Derrida would call your post a "transformative critique" of my post, which in reality had absolutely nothing to do with what you write here, for the most part. It is the Roman Catholic traditionalist legacy in my heart along with my flirtations with Easter Orthodoxy, that have done the most amount of violence to my humanity.

True, the Novus Ordo was also part of it, but the main problem is the religious dreaming that made me the person I am today, and that was all about incense, golden vestments, icons, and ancient chants. It is an escape from the world we live in and the inability to live in this fallen society, gadgets, widgets, blinking lights, and all. All of the nice and quiet ancient things blew up in my face, that is what the prayer means, at least to me. We have to be who we are, and these pretensions of transcending what is before us for something better have caused the greatest disasters in my life

I am not an angel, nor a pre-Vatican II seminarian, nor an Athonite monk. I am Arturo. I am a Christian and God loves me. What else should I want?

JGurrea said...

"It is an escape from the world we live in and the inability to live in this fallen society, gadgets, widgets, blinking lights, and all. All of the nice and quiet ancient things blew up in my face, that is what the prayer means, at least to me."

But when I see my priest fully vested and standing in front of the altar, I think he is being the most truly *human* one of us all. Liturgy is what we are made for and if it feels unnatural when we step into the liturgy, it just shows how much the post-lapsarian universe has torn "Homo adorans" from what he was originally meant to be and replaced him with the caricature of Homo sapiens.

I accept the fact that we live in this mess of "fallen society, gadgets, widgets, blinking lights, and all", but I do not think that throwing up your hands and mistaking this situation for the ideal is what a Christian soul should do. Rather, we should live right here in the mud and dung in such a way that we slowly (God willing) transfigure even a small part of it around us. And I find that without the "incense, golden vestments, icons, and ancient chants" mankind forgets the paradise that he is exiled from and tends to think of the mud and animal dung (as it currently exists) as the default or ideal condition.

That, in my view, is the one lie that the devil wants us to believe the most.

Conclusion: The Liturgy is life, and life is the Liturgy.


Moretben said...


I suppose Derrida would call your post a "transformative critique" of my post, which in reality had absolutely nothing to do with what you write here, for the most part.

I suspected almost as soon as I'd finished the piece that this would be your view, and hesitated to retain the citation - but since you started me off on the train of thought I decided on balance to acknowledge the debt.

I'm a Scotsman, from a people substantially formed by angelism of another, more corrosive kind - not pretty at all.

However it seems to me that the "religious escapism" you describe isn't really angelism - more a kind of romantic aestheticism (which is very human), that dwindled perhaps, into a kind of denial. The traditional liturgies certainly make a powerful appeal at that level, and I agree that unless the "escapist" overcomes his illusions, they can turn into something no better than hiding-place from Jesus and the world. However they also supply the remedy, because they do in fact present a far better description of what it is to be fully human than the sterile inhumanity of Calvinism, or bourgeois-minimal banality. That’s why there’s a “way back” from Port Royal (and Canterbury) that isn’t accessible from Geneva.

Sue Sims said...

I loathe people who describe things they approve of as 'awesome'.

However, this post is.

Anonymous said...

Please can you tell me what "Lux perpetua luceat eis" means in English?

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