Tuesday, June 26, 2007

A word of reassurance...

...to old comrades-in-arms, after that last post: I'm not planning to re-order the Undercroft. It will continue for the foreseeable future to smell funny down here. It's me, not you.

Those leaded windows? They don't open.

The Trad Archipelago

From every point by many a turning road,
Maimed, crippled, changed in body or in mind,
It was a sight to see the cripples come
Out on the fields. The land looked all awry,
The roads ran crooked and the light fell wrong.
Our fields were like a pack of cheating cards
Dealt out at random - all we had to play
In the bad game for the good stake, our life.
Edwin Muir - from The Good Town

A LITTLE while ago an aquaintance - a former Protestant, someone of far deeper theological learning than me (not my Fundamentalist Friend, to whom I'll return subsequently) - began expressing a serious interest in the traditional Liturgy of the Roman Rite (as I guessed he would, sooner or later). His questions were characteristically thoughtful and Christocentric; but living in a country with a tiny Catholic population, he had no present opportunity to assist at the traditional Liturgy and few sympathetic souls with whom to discuss it. He had provided himself with a Missal and a Breviary, for the purpose of investigating the differences between Old and New and, having done so, had drawn the same conclusions as so many of us - not from the romance of Latin nor the ravishing heaven-hungry beauty of the chant, nor the "silence", nor any vision of glamorous externals; no brocaded fiddlebacks nor incense-hazed high altars haunted his imagination (yet). The texts and the rubrics did it all on their own. A man after my own heart.

"Will the Old come back? Should I pray for its return?" - these were his immediate concerns, together with how best to assimilate the traditional liturgy into his devotional life, where no opportunity to live it fully and properly (in the Church and with the Church) existed. I told him right away - pray the Office anyway. Pray the Missal. Adopt both as the primary source and inspiration of your devotional life - but for the good of your soul, keep clear of TradWorld!
The spontaneity of this last advice surprised me as much as its vehemence. "Where did that come from?" I had a vision of myself as a hooded spectre, indicating with horrid warning the unseen pit, from which groans, muted screams and abandoned ullulations were suddenly audible. I am of course, a denizen of the pit, acclimatised to its acrid, sulphurous bowels, having spent most of my adult life there. I'm a Trad: one of those whom the abnormality of the times has compelled into a variety of absurd and unnatural postures; one of the mad, driven in my leisure hours to the digestion of turgid encyclicals in order to defend what ought to be self-evident; to contrive some kind of "systematic statement of the obvious" in the face of universal denial and purblind stupidity. Has it done me any good? Well has it?

"Perhaps the greatest damage done by Pope Paul VI's reform of the Mass (and by the ongoing process that has outstripped it), the greatest spiritual deficit, is this: we are now positively obliged to talk about the liturgy. Even those who want to preserve the liturgy or pray in the spirit of the liturgy, and even those who make great sacrifices to remain faithful to it - all have lost something priceless, namely, the innocence that accepts it as something God-given, something that comes down to man as gift from heaven.

Those of us who are defenders of the great and sacred liturgy, the classical Roman liturgy, have all become - whether in a small way or a big way - liturgical experts. In order to counter the arguments of the reform, which was padded with technical, archaeological, and historical scholarship, we had to delve into questions of worship and liturgy-something that is utterly foreign to the religious man. We have let ourselves be led into a kind of scholastic and juridical way of considering the liturgy. What is absolutely indispensable for genuine liturgy? When are the celebrant's whims tolerable, and when do they become unacceptable? We have got used to accepting liturgy on the basis of the minimum requirements, whereas the criteria ought to be maximal. And finally, we have started to evaluate liturgy - a monstrous act! We sit in the pews and ask ourselves, was that Holy Mass, or wasn't it? I go to church to see God and come away like a theatre critic. And if, now and again, we have the privilege of celebrating a Holy Mass that allows us to forget, for a while, the huge historical and religious catastrophe that has profoundly damaged the bridge between man and God, we cannot forget all the efforts that had to be made so that this Mass could take place, how many letters had to be written, how many sacrifices made this Holy Sacrifice possible, so that (among other things) we could pray for a bishop who does not want our prayers at all and would prefer not to have his name mentioned in the Canon.

What have we lost? The opportunity to lead a hidden religious life, days begun with a quiet Mass in a modest little neighbourhood church; a life in which we learn, over decades, discreetly guided by priests, to mingle our own sacrifice with Christ's sacrifice; a Holy Mass in which we ponder our own sins and the graces given to us - and nothing else: rarely is this possible any more for a Catholic aware of liturgical tradition, once the liturgy's unquestioned status has been destroyed."
Martin Mosebach - from The Heresy of Formlessness
...We have seen
Good men made evil wrangling with the evil,
Straight minds grown crooked fighting crooked minds.
Our peace betrayed us; we betrayed our peace.
Look at it well. This was the good town once.’

These thoughts we have, walking among our ruins.
Edwin Muir
- from The Good Town

Will Pope Benedict break in upon the captives to harrow the Limbus Tradorum, the unfurled banner of the Motu Proprio streaming in his excommunication-banishing wake? Who knows? I shall in any case continue to sustain myself here on sweet messages from the pre-lapsarian, "separated" but unsullied East, among whose gentle ministers Father Stephen always seems so uncannily apropos.

Monday, June 25, 2007


As an ochlophobic Scot, two of the things I detest most in this world are weddings, and parting with money.

My five-year-old emerged into the school-yard on Friday, brandishing a piece of artwork. Festooned with love hearts, it indicated two stick-people with ear-splitting grins being bound in chains of matrimony.

"That's lovely, darling - did you do that?"

"No. Evan did it. That's me (the yellow-haired stick-person) and that's Evan."

Evan's BMW-driving mum just happened to be standing behind me. I engaged her winningly through her designer shades.

"More expense, huh?"

"Not my problem - you're the father of the bride. I'm very old fashioned about such things."

I'm very cynical about the kinds of things BMW drivers choose to get "very old-fashioned" about, but it doesn't do to be chippy.

If your daughters won't (in spite of everything) follow their patrons into Carmel, then start praying earnestly for their elopement; preferably in mum-in-law's BMW.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Symphony in white major

A VISITOR to the Undercroft has touched its Eeyoreish denizen on the raw, as a consequence of which I've promised to make a bit of an effort to post something uplifting, life-enhancing and beautiful beyond the normal run of sublunary experiences. Those who come here in the expectation of something other than that - for whom, perhaps, the prospect of one's lugubrious self cutting a caper is repellant and unsettling, like one of Arturo's lipsticked, cavorting skeletons, look away now:


Thursday, June 21, 2007

An Orwellian Moment

All right, yes – it’s a cliché. Clue to the True Nature of Catholicism’s Present Crisis, or Troubling Aspect of the Neo-Catholic Mentality Painfully Exposed don’t have the same snap, so I’m running with it nevertheless. Father Z has re-posted his guide to appropriate and edifying behaviour subsequent to the motu proprio's immanent arrival. I am not angling for one of Father’s Sour Grapes Awards, nor do I wish to gainsay any one of his prescriptions; I’m going to remain within the letter of the law by getting my retaliation in before, all at once, the quarrel sinks.

“My theory is good”, insists, smoothly, the sinister brain surgeon in Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes – “it’s the facts that are misleading”. Catholic commentators, pundits, bloggers of “conservative” stripe and a number of eminent clerics are today lining up to inform us solemnly that the Church’s traditional liturgy “was never abolished”. Well, I never; and more - some of these people are the very same people who, just a blinking of an eye since, were lining up to inform us solemnly that abolished it was, and that furthermore We Had Better Get Used To It. It’s a funny old world, as an eminent “conservative” famously observed. History is being prepared in its official version. That last forty years during which your family apostasised and you were pushed out of your parish? They never happened.

Catholicism, one might be forgiven for observing, only actually exists today on paper. What Bishop Fellay calls "normal Catholic life" is not possible anywhere - not in a "conservative" parish, and not in the SSPX, either. Whatever one's position, one requires an additional layer of theory (“hermeneutic of continuity” or “state of emergency”, according to inclination) to qualify it - to paper over the theological or ecclesiological gaps and fissures one has to live with in practice.

What to do about it it? I don't know. Telling the truth, though, has to be the indispensible condition of an integrated Christian life. A religious posture which requires to be shored up with ideological constructions and historical contingencies in order to preserve the appearance of coherence - of realisability - cannot be maintainted indefinitely. As Chesterton says somewhere, if you can't make a coloured picture of a thing, it's of no earthly use.

This is the basis of my impatience, on the one hand, with the "hermeneutic of continuity", that celebrated mot du jour. On a combox at the NLM recently, a Benedictine father invoked it in relation to the good effect of the Old Rite on the celebration of the New. This is fine as it relates to externals – but what about the texts, and that ominous shift in the lex orandi that it doesn’t require a Dr Lauren Pristas to detect? Asserted continuity is meaningless here. It springs from the same desperation that leads conservatives to insist, whenever an official statement includes something obviously at odds with reality, "Oh well, of course he has to say that..." - as though Our Lord could ever require us, like Soviet Communists, to falsify reality in order to preserve the credibility of some a priori ideological position or "foundational myth" - the Conciliar Renewal or the Glories of the Revolution.

On the other hand, although I am grateful to the SSPX on whom I have depended, on and off (and never exclusively) for twenty-five years, they remain committed, apparently, to a mere restoration of the status quo ante. I understand the reasons for their dogged immobility, and admire how they've managed to sustain it post-Lefebvre and in spite of the confident prognostications of their enemies of an inevitable slide into schism and heresy - but are they the future? I must confess my heart does not leap at the prospect. I think of them as being a bit like a seed, which gets through the winter - the frosts, the floods, the passage through the guts of animals - by being small, hard and not very attractive; but a seed must subsequently break out of its protective shell or it will die in the ground.

Why has Western Christianity shattered into pieces at least twice in the past 1000 years? Why does it seem so predominantly arid and legalistic? Is a restoration of all the appurtenances of the central-bureaucratic Papacy, and an officially asserted “continuity” the answer? My own attitude to the Papacy - notwithstanding a sincere admiration and affection for its present occupant - is, I confess, that of Cordelia to her father Lear - "I love thee according to my bond, neither more nor less". There’s the immoveable object of Tu es petrus. Beyond that…

It has been suggested by friends (who ought to know me better) that my "heart-thinking encounter" with Orthodoxy has to do with liturgical/aesthetical dreaming - a fascination with the glamorous externals of Byzantine worship. Not so. I am a Roman Catholic. My liturgical home is every bit as inspired, authentic, radical, Apostolic and Christ-bearing as any in the East. The challenge posed by the "pristine witness" of Orthodoxy is at another level altogether.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007


I am a man now.
Pass your hand over my brow.
You can feel the place where the brains grow.

I am like a tree,
From my top boughs I can see
The footprints that led up to me.

There is blood in my veins
That has run clear of the stain
Contracted in so many loins.

Why, then, are my hands red
With the blood of so many dead?
Is this where I was misled?

Why are my hands this way
That they will not do as I say?
Does no God hear when I pray?

I have no where to go
The swift satellites show
The clock of my whole being is slow,

It is too late to start
For destinations not of the heart.
I must stay here with my hurt.

R.S. Thomas

Monday, June 04, 2007

"...of no concern to the vast majority of Catholics..."

ABOUT SUFFERING they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Brueghel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

WH Auden - Musée des Beaux Arts