Sunday, March 25, 2007


'Issues from the hand of God, the simple soul'
To a flat world of changing lights and noise,
To light, dark, dry or damp, chilly or warm;
Moving between the legs of tables and of chairs,
Rising or falling, grasping at kisses and toys,
Advancing boldly, sudden to take alarm,
Retreating to the corner of arm and knee,
Eager to be reassured, taking pleasure
In the fragrant brilliance of the Christmas tree,
Pleasure in the wind, the sunlight and the sea;
Studies the sunlit pattern on the floor
And running stags around a silver tray;
Confounds the actual and the fanciful,
Content with playing-cards and kings and queens,
What the fairies do and what the servants say.
The heavy burden of the growing soul
Perplexes and offends more, day by day;
Week by week, offends and perplexes more
With the imperatives of ‘is and seems’
And may and may not, desire and control.
The pain of living and the drug of dreams
Curl up the small soul in the window seat
Behind the Encyclopaedia Britannica.
Issues from the hand of time the simple soul
Irresolute and selfish, misshapen, lame,
Unable to fare forward or retreat,
Fearing the warm reality, the offered good,
Denying the importunity of the blood,
Shadow of its own shadows, spectre in its own gloom,
Leaving disordered papers in a dusty room;
Living first in the silence after the viaticum.

Pray for Guiterriez, avid of speed and power,
For Boudin, blown to pieces,
For this one who made a great fortune,
And that one who went his own way.
Pray for Floret, by the boarhound slain between the yew trees,
Pray for us now and at the hour of our birth.

TS Eliot

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Breathing Together

COMING TO CONSCIOUSNESS in the wake of some catastrophe, a man gropes his way amidst the rubble and the fallout. His memory has been disrupted and his senses impaired by a recent, unrecollected trauma; he recognises, hears, sees little with any clarity. Guided, though, by some profound instinct, and sustained by unreasonable hope, as he stumbles he becomes aware by degrees of the presence of fellow human beings. Each stops and listens; each hears the breathing of the others. Are there two – or three? Hands are extended in the darkness, and the slow, painful journey continues. None asks, nor does it occur to him to ask, where the others are bound; each has recognised the same instinct, the same hope in his fellows.

As their journey advances and their solidarity develops the man admires and grows to rely upon this one’s sharper eyes, that one’s clearer head; one’s strong arm, or strong sense of structure to discern which masonry, seemingly substantial, will shelter their passage or crumble at the touch; another’s kindness and calm. After a seeming eternity of struggle during which the instinct has appeared to fail, the hope to flicker and the solidarity to dissipate amidst inevitable quarrels, desertions and defeats, the little company (no longer so little now) finds itself on open, rising ground. The air has cleared and suddenly there below them, in sharp relief, is their city - their patria – her hills, her river; the broken towers and shattered ramparts; the great, half-ruined dome.

Reconstructing Roman Catholicism
It has been my contention for some time now that what is going on in the Roman Catholic Church is not reform but destruction...

Such criticisms against this are not new, and they are formulated by a small minority in the Church known as traditionalists. Often, however, this so-called traditionalist rhetoric is embedded in its own positivist and authoritarian narratives of what the past was like and how the present should be. It is not enough to preserve in some sense the forms used in the past. One must go deeper, into the very foundations of these practices that were dismissed as medieval, baroque, and decadent. Traditionalism, as it has appeared as a movement since the 1960's, is not radical enough, in the sense that "radix" in Latin means the root of living things. Traditionalism tends to ossify liturgy, theology, and the Catholic ethos into an agenda that did not exist prior to the changes.
- Arturo Vasquez
To "breathe together" - conspirare - is the meaning of "conspiracy". It's what like-thinking, like-loving human beings do as a matter of course. It implies necessarily no organisation nor formal statement of intent; no plan of action nor party line. It’s no more than the normal and natural way of things. It’s what we all do. The wildest and most radical of all conspiracies is of those who seek to breathe together with the Man-God in His Mystical Body.

This ignorant and infirm straggler offers thanks to all friends and co-conspirators, and begs for their prayers.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Latin Passions

Among the wealth of rare and splendid things at The Sarabite, this jewel glitters especially brightly:


You are the sonnet
That the morning utters:

Silent, singing,
The incessant rustling
Of birds in the branches.

You are the song
That lifts up my feet,
Period of longing,
Period of sighs-
Sweet blade that
Plunges into memory
And cuts away all
That bends in sorrow.

You are the hue of
The sky in spring-
The light that glides off
The streams that
Gallop over stones.

You are the muse,
The recitation,
The singer,
And the tear-

All of this you consume
In your gentle eye-

And I fade away,
Lost and lifted up
In morning's prize.

Arturo Vásquez

Meanwhile, at The Muniment Room, TTony reflects on his missed Spanish wedding.

The parish church of St Eloi, Andernos, on the Arcachon Bassin, where Mademoiselle became Mrs Moretben according to the traditional rites of the Roman Church. In the foreground are the ruins of an earlier Gallo-Roman basilica.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Ignatian Retreat

"I am convinced that the ecclesial crisis in which we find ourselves today depends in great part upon the collapse of the liturgy"
- Josef Cardinal Ratzinger

"If we consider the bimillenary history of God's Church, guided by the wisdom of the Holy Spirit, we can gratefully admire the orderly development of the ritual forms in which we commemorate the event of our salvation (...) The Eleventh Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, held from 2-23 October 2005 in the Vatican, gratefully acknowledged the guidance of the Holy Spirit in this rich history. In a particular way, the Synod Fathers acknowledged and reaffirmed the beneficial influence on the Church's life of the liturgical renewal which began with the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council. The Synod of Bishops was able to evaluate the reception of the renewal in the years following the Council. There were many expressions of appreciation. The difficulties and even the occasional abuses which were noted, it was affirmed, cannot overshadow the benefits and the validity of the liturgical renewal, whose riches are yet to be fully explored..."
- Pope Benedict XVI

“What seems to me to be white, I will believe to be black if the hierarchical Church thus determines it.”
- St Ignatius Loyola

Monday, March 12, 2007

Monet, Monet, Monet...


My modest collection of recordings includes almost none of the Romantics. I mention this gratuitously, to reassure those who detected a whiff of something incongruous and unsavoury about the Evil Denizen of the Undercroft weeping like a milkmaid under great waves of Richard Strauss as matter of routine. I make an exception for the Four Last Songs as a kind of sublime summing-up of something that ought to be kept mostly in quarantine, for all of the reasons ably presented by the visitors to my combox on the posting below. There. I'm glad I was able to clear that up. A pint of milk, please barman - in a dirty glass.

I mentioned similarly ambiguous feelings about Duruflé, organist and choirmaster of the great Cathedral of Rouen in the period just before the Council, whose characteristic ouevre, exemplified in his Requiem, is liturgical plainsong tastefully re-clothed in exquisitely respectful orchestration and subtle polyphonic variations. Duruflé himself provided two scores for the Requiem - one for choir and orchestra, another for choir and organ. It is therefore eminently useable liturgically, as its composer, a genuine lover of the liturgy, had intended.

So far so good. Like the high altar and canopied cathedra of Rouen Cathedral itself, reconstructed after war-damage in fine, minimal late-Liturgical Movement style (infinitely preferrable to the baroque monstrosity squatting in the chaste sanctuary of Chartres), but now a mere repository for the dust stirred by rarer visitors to that abandoned cul-de-sac east of the cuboid People's Altar under the crossing, it represents a kind of culmination, abandoned almost in the instant of its appearance; a sad, evocative glimpse of a discarded vision.

I loved - still love - the Duruflé Requiem; but along with related manifestations of the pre-Conciliar Liturgical Movement I have begun to regard it with a certain resentment. The feelings of longing and wistfulness it conjures are not, I fear, related to that holy fire kindled in the soul by the Gregorian originals; more a kind of fuzzy, naturalistic, emotional mirage or impression. And now, whenever I hear those Gregorian melodies in their proper liturgical context, my mind involuntarily fills them out with Duruflé. I can't quite get rid of him, and I'm not pleased. He's interfering with my prayers for the departed, and wafting me off somewhere quite remote, I suspect, from the Rex tremendae majestatis.

TTony wonders whether Duruflé has enhanced or merely adulterated the plainsong setting of the Requiem Mass, superimposing a dubious romantic sensibility on its gothic austerity. I don't think that's quite right. I think he's Monet-fied or Debussy-ficated it, which might be something even worse.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Letters to a Fundamentalist Friend - II

FATHER STEPHEN FREEMAN, whose blog I recommended to you last time, describes himself somewhere as an “ignorant person”. I must warn you that I am not only ignorant but retarded, partially as a consequence of having mistaken apologetics and arguments (of the type in which the internet abounds) for real theology - which is, as he reminds us, only ever about a Person. If you and I are shipmates, though, that's a privileged relationship: we've come aboard at quite different ports - on different continents, with utterly different cultures, I daresay. Meanwhile, our destination remains a possibility merely, a place of the imagination, until the moment when straining eyes glimpse through early morning haze the sunlight on that dome, these ramparts. Meanwhile with nothing between here and there but wide-open sea, we can be frank in a new way. So let me tell you what I think I see already:

Here is something that has tantalised and fascinated me for years: “orthodoxy” is not, in the first instance, “right belief” at all – but “right glory”. That’s what the Greek words mean. Of course a modern Greek will also understand “orthodoxy” in the sense more familiar to us; but when the choir chants Doxa Soi Kyrie, doxa Soi, he certainly doesn’t hear Doctrine to Thee, O Lord, doctrine to Thee.

Does this perhaps go to the heart of what has gone wrong with “modern” Christianity? This submerged sense of the word “orthodoxy” seems baffling to the western mind, habituated more and more, from the late Middle Ages on, to thinking almost exclusively in terms of “correct doctrine” as first in the order of precedence – to the point at which almost everything else is up for grabs. What has troubled me most of my adult life is a nagging sense of deepening divergence between the Catholicism of the Catechism and Catholicism as it actually presents itself to the believer today – as though, provided the “theory” continues to be asserted and officially upheld, it doesn’t much matter about anything else. If true, it's madness, as the most basic analogy will tell us:

How do we go about understanding our mother? Having first drawn life from her, do we begin to place the greatest emphasis subsequently on having a firm, correct theoretical understanding of the notion of maternity, childhood and the governing principles that ought to determine the interaction between them? Is the quality of our relationship with her a direct function of our having acquired a theoretically “correct” apparatus? Having done all that, do we then advance to “loving“ her – as defined essentially by approaching her in the way that seems most “correct” to ourselves (punctiliously formal or offhand and matey, according to taste), while crooning sentimental ditties at her? Would that make us good children?

Children give “right glory” to their mothers because they first of all suckled them and lived with them and loved them before it ever occurred to them to think of the relationship in terms of what was correct and what wasn’t; when a child runs to his mother in love, or joy or distress; or tries to please her with some little gift; weeps when she weeps, laughs when she laughs; or, years later, carries her to the lavatory, cleans up her vomit, closes her eyes, lays her in the earth and weeps out his heart in gratitude to and for her – does he do this because he got it all out of a book? And having done it, could some other person who’d studied the book more assiduously claim to understand the whole mysterious business better, nevertheless?

How does this apply to the way we live our lives with the God we claim to love? Do we really live with Him - or are we content merely to study Him and scrupulously measure the quality of our continuing interaction with Him according to approved theoretical models?

Prosper of Aquitaine, a pupil of St Augustine, in the fifth century provided the West with a famous axiom - one it has all but forgotten- condensed in the phrase lex orandi, lex credendi : “the law of prayer establishes the law of belief”; or to put it more directly, “as you pray, so shall you believe”; or “if you habitually approach God in a way that really isn't consistent with what you believe in theory, your beliefs will gradually conform themselves to your behaviour”. It’s obvious really - we are not angels, but men.

Correct doctrine is fundamentally important – but the manner in which we aquire and maintain it is more important still. Just as we know and love our mother as a consequence of living intimacy with her, so our sensus fidei, our instinctive “feeling for the faith” develops as we meet and live with Our Lord in His Church, and especially as together we follow Him, fasting and feasting, from cradle to Cross and beyond, in the Liturgy. “The Church is Jesus extended in time and space in the souls of those united to him.” It is the Mystical Body visibly incarnated. Christianity is not, and never can be a “home alone” affair; neither can you do it “by the book” (Fr Freeman); nor is the Church, in contradiction to the Incarnation, a purely invisible entity without a tangible body or a distinctive, audible voice. Does it speak to us of “truths” that contradict Scripture? Impossible. Truth is Truth. On the contrary, in the Divine Liturgy, all Scripture finds its true and proper context as the very voice of the praying Christ.

The central, defining, foundational act of the faithful soul is prayer. "Correct doctrine" merely, will not "transform us in Christ". Worship which, whatever we assert about it, is in reality no more than "a dance around the Golden Calf that is ourselves" (Cardinal Ratzinger) will in any case degrade it. Instead of growing into fuller personalities, by participating in the life of the True Personality, we will become the brittle, neurotic, inhibited, fearful, spiritual hypochondriacs and hygiene fetishists you described. To paraphrase Father Freeman again: pray, go to Church, receive the Sacraments, forgive and ask forgiveness, give stuff away. Stop pretending we can ever know all the answers. Then we’ll begin to know Him. Everything else will follow.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Letters to a Fundamentalist Friend


Dear T.,

You will notice from my address* that I am presently at sea. The voyage is arduous and uncomfortable and there are no guarantees it will ever make port. I am, nevertheless, queasily embarked; twenty-five years of haunting the quayside are at an end.

The sea is a kind of desert, so the opportunity is presented to make a better Lent than usual. If the condition of orthodoxy in one's faith is "to think with the Church", the Christian must in addition learn to "think with the heart". Christianity is incorporation into the life of a Person – it isn’t an argument or an ideology. I am for the time being persuaded that the preoccupation with proofs and demonstrations of proofs, of controversies and their logical resolution, is radically prejudicial to “thinking with the heart”, in addition to being practically futile. "Internet religion" is, moreover, a very poor substitute for the real thing, and it's highly doubtful that the hours most of us spend strutting and fretting on this cold little stage are in any way pleasing to God, or helpful to our salvation. We could – therefore should, probably - have been praying, or just playing with our children instead. So, in addition to bodily fasting, a few weeks' retreat from cyberspace is probably all to the good. Kyrie eleison!

Another advantage of the desert, of course, is a certain enlargement of perspective one gains from being temporarily apart from the fray...

I WILL BRING OUT those passages of scripture which speak to me with perfect clarity of Our Lord’s promises to His Church, and you will decline to accept that these passages ought to be understood as the Church has always understood them. So which perspective is, on a balance of probabilities, the authentic one? No-one ever came to Scripture without some sort of hermeneutical “key” – it’s impossible. The only question is, then – which “key”? The Fathers, to whose witness I defer, acclaimed by the Church within their own lifetimes for clarity of teaching, purity of doctrine, and – most importantly of all – manifest holiness of life, reveal an unbroken, continuing tradition of interpretation from the very birth of the Church. I will therefore always strive to understand Scripture in the same sense as them. This is vitally important for me. God does not change; no jot or tittle will pass away. There is no value or point whatsoever in Scripture admonishing us to hear something called “the Church” as the “house of God and ground and pillar of Truth” if this “Church” cannot be identified with any certainty. Where, then, is this Church? There is no point in appealing, circular fashion, to Scripture, because it’s precisely the interpretation of Scripture on which we disagree. Secondary sources then - witnesses to how the first Christians themselves understood the Church and the Gospel:

The true knowledge is the doctrine of the apostles, and the ancient organization of the Church throughout the whole world, and the manifestation of the body of Christ according to the succession of bishops, by which succession the bishops have handed down the Church which is found everywhere.
St Irenaeus

One quote, plucked from among innumerable others, by different authors, all in the same vein. Note that Irenaeus, writing in the second century, already speaks of the "ancient organisation of the Church".

This Church, then, was, and must remain, visibly constituted: go to any second century town, as the Fathers again bear witness, and ask “where is the Catholic Church?” You will - now, as then - be directed to a people gathered together with presbyters and deacons under a bishop in the Apostolic succession; who teaches, governs and sanctifies each local or particular church in communion with the Universal, “holding-all” Church whose unchanging, integral faith, order and sacramental life all of its members, united to its Head, maintain. The oft-asserted notion among the “reformed” communities, of the myriad modern “denominations” being equivalent to particular churches, the sum total of which constitute the “catholic church” despite the absence of any meaningful unity of faith, sacrament or constitution is, I’m sorry to say, a fanciful and anachronistic absurdity which can’t survive a moment’s honest encounter with the first few centuries, during which the Church asserted her catholicity precisely as the note distinguishing her from schismatic and heretical sects. Nothing has changed.

Where, then, is the record of holy souls in the first centuries, raising their voices and shedding their blood for the sufficiency and pre-eminence of scripture against the rise of usurping “Catholicism”? Where are their writings? Where are their witnesses? Where, for that matter, is any indication that Our Lord intended New Testament Scripture (which He never mentions) rather than, and apart from, the “teaching Church” (of which He speaks in the most exalted terms) to provide the sole, sufficient, infallible rule of faith? From my point of view this complete absence of any “parallel tradition” is itself sufficient to render incredible the Protestant account of Christianity, before even beginning to address the hopeless internal contradictions inherent in sola scriptura itself.

On the other hand, if catholic Christianity which alone can lay claim to a historically verifiable, continuing tradition from the Apostles to the present day is a human fabrication, then everything is rendered definitively uncertain – especially Scripture, the contents of which were discerned according to the tradition and by the authority of the Church. If what Christians took for fifteen hundred years to be the “House of God and ground and pillar of truth” was never anything of the sort, then Scripture has proved an unreliable guide throughout most of the Church’s history. What use is a scripture that insists I “hear the Church”, and then leaves me uncertain about what and where the Church is? How reliable is a scripture in which God promises to lead us “into all truth” and to be with us always, prior to abandoning us almost immediately to all sorts of ruinous, fundamental errors?

Perspective, again - mine versus yours - on the subject of false “triumphalism” and the gates of hell not prevailing: from the very beginning the Church has to struggle to distinguish herself from those errant and self appointed “pastors” - the wolves in sheeps’ clothing who “gather apart”; then the terrible Arian crisis when it really did seem for while tht all was lost; the constant threat of subjection to secular authority; the schism between East and West; the Great Western Schism; the administrative and juridical chaos of the late Middle Ages; the Protestant revolt; Jansenist rigorism versus Jesuit casuistry; the Deists and rationalists; religious nationalism; Revolution, ultramontanist reaction and the disorder and degradation following Vatican II’s ill-conceived and incredible attempt to synthesise them; the long martyrdom of the East under Islam and then atheistic Communism – well yes, I agree: it would seem as though “crisis” were indeed the “fifth mark” of the Church, and that Hell has come perilously close to prevailing throughout two millennia. There she still is, nevertheless – with the same unchanging faith, the same sacraments the same constitution, the same essential unity, miraculously preserved – unless the whole of what we call Revelation is a deep and disastrous delusion.

* i.e. "Sailing to Byzantium" - the beginnings of a serious and "heart-thinking" encounter with Orthodoxy.