Collect for the Fourth Sunday after Trinity

O God, the protector of all that trust in thee, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy: increase and multiply upon us thy mercy; that, thou being our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal, that we finally lose not the things eternal; grant this, O heavenly Father, for the sake of Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Sisters Three

It is a comic novel about a Christian malgré lui, and as such, very serious, for all comic novels that are any good must be about matters of life and death. … That belief in Christ is to some a matter of life and death has been a stumbling block for readers who would prefer to think it a matter of no great consequence. For them Hazel Motes’ integrity lies in his trying with such vigor to get rid of the ragged figure who moves from tree to tree in the back of his mind. For the author Hazel’s integrity lies in his not being able to. Does one’s integrity ever lie in what he is not able to do? I think that usually it does, for free will does not mean one will, but many wills conflicting in one man. Freedom cannot be conceived simply.
—Flannery O’Connor, Author’s Note to the Second Edition of Wise Blood

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I’ve long had a special liking for music videos that tell a story that’s woven in with the song itself—I can’t see much point in making a music video without that, actually, or conveying an atmosphere of the same kind—and I am, accordingly, very keen on the videos of Lady Gaga and Florence + the Machine. Lately, I’ve been on something of a kick over Lana del Rey, and it so happens that the three of them, very divergent musical styles notwithstanding, have some striking thematic similarities. I want to take a look at songs of theirs that seem to me interestingly parallel: Lana del Rey’s Gods and Monsters

Lady Gaga’s Judas

and Florence + the Machine’s What Kind of Man.

I strongly recommend watching all three videos first, naturally.

The linkage between them lies in two places: first, that all three are singing about unhealthy relationships with men, and second, all three make extensive use of Catholic symbolism.1 Lady Gaga’s Judas is symbolic of an unfaithful man whom she cannot help loving, and Florence’s anonymous male connection is a man whose personal inconsistency and indecision make him a deeply frustrating partner; in Gods and Monsters, the primary manifested dysfunction is on the other end, with Lana del Rey presented as despairingly insecure and driven to numb her anguish by abusing drugs and sex.

Gods and Monsters begins with an ambiguous swirl of stars or fireflies, followed by near-silent shots of a gang with its women, including Lana, that strongly resembles MS13 (an international Latino crime syndicate that originated in Los Angeles). She herself is presented as a pole dancer and stripper, with a dark glamor of loss looming about her. The lines me and God, we don’t get along, so now I sing / No one’s gonna take my soul away and give to me / This is heaven, what I truly want / It’s innocence lost, sung with exquisite melancholy, are highlighted not only by shots of her dancing in the sea-green light of the club, but by a shot of her lover taking a bite from a richly oversaturated red apple—a faint allusion to the Garden of Eden, especially as she and this same lover are presented as Eve and Adam in the video for Body Electric on the same album. The apple, increasingly eaten, is shown twice more, as is a brief shot of Lana holding a snake, which perhaps serves both as a reference to Satan and as a phallic symbol.

This is followed by a scene of the two at home together, spliced with scenes of Lana dancing or else dressed as the Blessed Virgin Mary, and assorted violent actions and images of the male. He too appears gripped by some kind of anguish—we seem him screaming, or burying his face in his hands, sometimes even while holding his gun (which is tattooed on Lana’s abdomen below her heart). This transitions to a slightly more male-dominated series of images, mostly of gang members carousing and showing off; the coherence of the sequence falls apart slightly as the bridge progresses, as though the dissolution of the two lovers is becoming more extreme. In a way, this is accented by two more appearances of Lana as the Virgin, particularly since all three appearances accompany references to sex.

Judas begins a little more slowly (though, in an odd coincidence, this too starts with gang imagery, more along the lines of the Hell’s Angels than Mara Salvatrucha). Christ and the Apostles are represented as leather-vested bikers, each with their names blazoned on the back of their jackets, and Lady Gaga as an extravagant adaptation of St Mary Magdalene: the opening of the video is predominantly in black and white, with only the long yellow hair and purple cloak of the Magdalene in color.2 As we get a better view of Christ and the Magdalene, the black and white gives way to a rococo-like extravagance of gold and silver chains, pendants, and gemstones, including a golden version of the Crown of Thorns. (The complaints of the Catholic League notwithstanding, the Christ or Christ-analogue figure in this video is treated with complete respect throughout—a curious contrast to Madonna’s Like a Prayer, even if this is partly meant as an homage.) The group arrives at a Biblical-style village, what seems from a later shot to be the 'Electric Chapel' that gives its title to another song on the same album, explained by her (and suggested by its own lyrics) as a safe space for love—maybe symbolizing a gay bar, a church, or both. The sweeping reds and violets of Lady Gaga’s most flowing costumes here are striking, and both colors are associated in the Bible with decadent wealth and prostitution, probably an allusion to the traditional characterization of the Magdalene as a reformed prostitute, while most of her other costumes seem to be drawn from Spanish and Latin American depictions of the Magdalene and the Virgin. Judas himself, meanwhile, is shown throughout as drunk, violent, and a womanizer.

The pattern of Lady Gaga’s Magdalene with respect to Judas—sometimes eyeing him or touching him, more frequently thrusting him off or clinging to the Christ figure—is a complement to the lyrics, in which the singer is primarily lamenting her inability to forsake Judas despite his faithlessness: I’m just a holy fool / And baby it’s so cruel / But I’m still in love with Judas, baby … I wanna love you, / But something’s pulling me away from you / Jesus is my virtue / And Judas is the demon I cling to. Shots of Christ and the Magdalene blessing and consoling the habitués of the Electric Chapel, set beside her gesturing to Peter and then to herself over the line build a house or sink a dead body, remind the viewer of the accusation (so to call it) that Christ regularly socialized with hookers, cronies, and drunks. The crowd around increasingly reach out to Christ beseechingly, while the Gaga-Magdalene finds herself more and more unable to reject Judas. She seems, with Christ’s support, to come close, approaching him wearing a cross and holding a golden gun; but when she tries to shoot Judas, only lipstick emerges from the barrel, and she can do no more than smear his mouth. She falls to her knees between the two, and an interlude, in which she is presented bathing both figures’ feet, alternates with her standing on a rock in front of a breaking wave at night (in a pose that has drawn some comparisons to Botticelli’s Birth of Venus); the reference to the sinful woman of Luke 7 is obvious enough; her finally being overwhelmed by the seawater could represent her inability to withstand her passion for Judas, especially since she is more fully clothed and expressionless in that scene, as if bracing herself to resist; whereas whenever she is shown with the Christ figure, she is far more active and her clothes are more revealing, as if she is more free to be vulnerable. That some of the last shots in the video are of the lipstick-smeared Judas performing his infamous kiss, and Lady Gaga being stoned to death, would seem to reinforce this—she feels that she has let him die, by not ousting Judas. But almost the last shot of all is the Gaga-Magdalene, weeping, falling at Christ’s knees again, and him extending a hand in benediction and kissing her forehead.

The music video for What Kind of Man begins most subtly of the three, with a conversation on a country road between Florence Welch and a male driver, the most prominent male in the video, in whom the others are symbolically summed up—each represents a different strain of his wavering personality. It begins on the theme of the man’s inability, or refusal, to intervene in the pain she experiences: I was on a heavy trip / Trying to cross a canyon with a broken limb. / You were on the other side, like always, / Wondering what to do with life … You were on the other side, like always / You could never make your mind. This is spliced with shots of some of the other male figures, usually in a storm-oriented setting or in a bedroom or bathroom (the two places we are naked and therefore symbolically vulnerable), and with a few shots of Florence herself in the suffering the video deals in. Welch has stated in interviews that the video is meant to allude to parts of the Divine Comedy, and both the sufferings and the apparent cure contain a lot of suggestions of both baptism and exorcism. One of the most arresting images, though it is also among the most brief, is of Florence seated at a dinner table, alone, being abruptly enveloped from beneath by a multitude of human arms.

A full minute passes before the music begins, and it opens with a distant, distorted combination of choir and pipe organ. As this swells and leads into the first spare, haunting lyrics, we see a shot of her, again alone, making her way through a rainstorm to an open church, whose white altar we can see very dimly in the background through a darkened nave. The turning point of the song, in the video, is marked by a sudden car crash, in which we see from within the car that Florence and her lover are in flip over upside down. Here the music becomes bold and loud, changing from organ to electric guitars and sharp percussion. The story-aspect shifts to her in a living room, breathing and swaying; at first she seems to be alone, but she is suddenly surrounded by the group of men representing her lover, who circle around her and pass her between them, with varying imitations of eroticism or violence. This is cut with scenes of her in bed with a lover, and another scene with the group, inside the church, where she is carried to a mattress, apparently unconscious, and the men seat themselves around her, while she thrashes and screams as if being exorcized.

It isn’t until these scenes that we see that her lover, the primary male, has a black eye and a scar on his forehead, as if she struck him with her ringed hand. Around this same time, she picks up the theme of the chorus in the final verse: And with one kiss / You inspired a fire of devotion / That lasts for twenty years. / What kind of man loves like this? … But I can’t beat you / ‘Cause I’m still with you / Oh, mercy I implore / How do you do it? / I think I’m through it, / And I’m back against the wall. The similarity to Judas is obvious, though in my opinion even more powerfully expressed. The mutually unhealthy dynamic is highlighted more than in the other two—it is reminiscent of Florence + the Machine’s earlier song A Kiss With a Fist, about a reciprocally violent relationship. The video closes (almost) on Florence being lifted out of a sea or lake, as if baptized or rescued from drowning, and their maternal tenderness suggests retreat from the chaos introduced by males into a refuge among other women.

The motif shared by these artists is something more than unstable or morbid relationships with men; something more, too, than an interest in Catholic art and symbolism (Catholicism being almost the only religion in the West that is both familiar enough to be communicative, and sufficiently rich in art to have symbols an artist can communicate with). All three, in an ostensibly romantic or erotic context, express the duality of faith. Everyone finds some temptation or other attractive, and sexual desire is always a useful symbol of this, partly because it is near-universal, but mostly because it’s so easy to see how its potency can lead us past boundaries we acknowledge in principle. More than that—and here, though it’s probably coincidental, the fact that darkness and distorted light are used so much in all three videos is an interesting coincidence—we all experience doubt. Neither the atheist nor the priest is exempt from it: Pope Benedict XVI’s Introduction to Christianity, far from being the abstract recitation of brimstone-reeking dogmatica that one might expect from his reputation, opens with an exploration of whether faith is possible in the modern world, and finds in doubt a point of contact between the Christian and the nonbeliever.

Yet all three songs, especially Judas, carry with them the suggestion of an obsession with God, or a being haunted by him, that will never simply go away. At several points in What Kind of Man, we can see Florence and her lover fighting to hold on to one another or get back to one another, through the crowd of men that are at once allegories of his identity and obstacles to his integrity, and it is in the baptismal imagery that the song finds its softening closing. Nor is Lana del Rey’s video exempt. On the surface, it seems more wholly and specifically sacrilegious than the other two—but the persistence of its Christian imagery is in my view suggestive, particularly given her professed Catholicism. Her short film Tropico, which contains her in her Marian costume, as well as the figures of John Wayne, Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, and Jesus, suggest that she too has an inner multiplicity that cannot be simply dismissed, but that does include the ever-recurring call of holiness.

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1Stefani Germanotta and Lizzie Grant, better known by their state names Lady Gaga and Lana del Rey, are professing if irregular Catholics, and Florence Welch went to a Catholic school as a child.
2I say yellow advisedly. There is no blonde on God’s earth whose hair is that color.

Friday, February 19, 2016

God's Rose Garden: The Saints of England

This is a reproduction of a lecture I gave at Mount Calvary Catholic Church in Baltimore, on 19th February 2016, as part of the parish’s Lenten series on the Anglican patrimony.

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First, let’s look briefly at England before the Norman Conquest. We can start with one Etheldreda, also known as Æthelthrythe, Edeltrude, Edilthride, or most simply St Audrey. A seventh-century Anglo-Saxon princess, St Audrey successfully persuaded her first husband (one Tondberct of something unpronounceable in the southeast of England) to respect a vow of virginity that she had made before their marriage, and after his death, she retreated to live on the Isle of Ely. Five years later, in 660, she was married to King Ecgfrith of Northumbria for political reasons.

Unfortunately, you couldn’t do that to Audrey. Ten years after her second marriage had begun, having once again maintained her virginity, she formally became a nun. Her husband chose this moment to try to persuade her to be a more conventional wife; he even tried to persuade the Archbishop of York (‘persuade’ here means ‘bribe’) to convince his Queen to leave the cloister for normal married life. The good bishop would have none of this sass, and King Ecgfrith decided that, not being in enough trouble with God, he would try to pull Audrey out of the cloister by force.

This went quite smoothly, for the Queen. St Audrey and two of her fellow nuns, helped by the Archbishop of York, escaped the advances of the King and reached refuge at a promontory. Ecgfrith would have followed her, but when high tide came and made access to the promontory impassible, it then remained high for seven days straight. King Ecgfrith, recognizing a miracle when it happened right in front of him, and reflecting that there were other fish in the sea which had not taken vows of perpetual virginity, assented to an annulment of the marriage.

St Audrey remained a nun to the end of her days, founding a monastery at Ely. She was one of the earliest examples of the English tradition of founding shrines that get ransacked by the Vikings. Moreover, when she was exhumed in 1106 over four hundred years after her death to be re-buried in Ely Cathedral, her body was found to be incorrupt, so perhaps there is something to be said for stubbornness.

Skipping forward about three hundred years, we find a figure one of whose relics we at Mount Calvary are privileged to house: St Edward the Confessor. (He is called Confessor as a traditional title for saints who are not martyred.) Many of the details of his life are sadly unclear. One of the ticklish problems is that, on the one hand, there was a tradition of English kings being revered as saints, and the Life of King Edward which his widow had commissioned was converted into an ordinary saint’s life by an abbot of Westminster in the early twelfth century; on the other hand, the fact that a person is regarded as saintly does not necessarily mean that they weren’t, something modern historians are apt to forget, and Edward was in fact canonized by the reformist Pope Alexander III.

St Edward’s early life was unhappy. When the magnificently named Danish king Sweyn Forkbeard invaded England in 1013, Edward’s family fled to Normandy, and he lived in exile for more than twenty years. He finally became King of England in 1042. Much of his reign was spent in tension with the powerful Earl Godwin, who had family ties to the Danish kings, and had also handed Edward’s brother over to be blinded with a red-hot poker, which seems to have inspired Edward’s dislike in some way. The king was well-loved by the people, not least for reducing a number of taxes. He is also conspicuous for having refrained almost entirely from war during his long reign, except his support of the deposition of Macbeth.

The revised Life of King Edward asserted that the saint devoted himself to celibacy even before his marriage, and it is a fact that he and his wife had no children. Whether his piety took that specific form or not, he was the patron of Westminster Abbey: its renovation was one of the major projects of his reign, and an influential instance of Romanesque. The Abbey professed to have the crown of St Edward, treated as a relic and used in the coronation of all English monarchs until 1649, when Oliver Cromwell had the regalia destroyed—though St Edward’s Sapphire, the gem from his ring, was preserved and ultimately incorporated into a later crown by Queen Victoria.

St Edward too was found to be incorrupt. Many miracles of healing had been reported at the king’s shrine in Westminster, and in 1102, after the Archbishop of Canterbury formally forbade cults of the dead without diocesan approval, the Abbot of Westminster had the king’s body exhumed for examination. The Confessor’s body was found to be entirely incorrupt and free of rigor mortis, and the Bishop of Winchester tugged on the saint’s beard—whether to secure a hair as a relic, or just to see if it would stay on—and was rebuked sharply by the Abbot. St Edward was again found incorrupt, more than a century after his death, when he was translated from his first tomb to his present-day resting place, under the ægis of St Thomas à Becket. There is no report of beard-related jiggery-pokery on this occasion.

Finally, we may consider the apparition of Our Lady of Walsingham, which took place in 1061 to a certain Lady Richeldis de Faverches. This woman had a vision of the house of the Holy Family in Nazareth, and was asked by the Mother of God to build a replica in Walsingham, a city in Norfolk in the east of England; Richeldis was told that Whoever seeks my help there will not go away empty-handed. The shrine at Walsingham—though it was a very simple, small place, originally made only of wood and measuring about 300 square feet—became one of the greatest pilgrimage sites in Europe, ranking not only with Canterbury, but even with sites like the grave of St James at Santiago.

The devotion of the English during the Mediæval period was such that the country was called the Dowry of Our Lady. The feasts of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption of the Virgin were celebrated earlier in England than in the rest of western Europe, perhaps thanks to the eastern influence of the Greek St Theodore of Tarsus, who served as the second Archbishop of Canterbury. Walsingham was no small part of the country’s special love for the Mother of God.

After the Norman Conquest, Catholicism in England continued to flourish. Contemplative life was particularly rich there, and a variety of orders, including the Augustinians, Benedictines, Carmelites, Franciscans, and Dominicans all prospered on English soil; the Brown Scapular is said to have first been promoted by an English Carmelite, and Blackfriars Hall at Oxford University was founded by the Dominicans. The selection of mystics in Mediæval England is so large that it’s difficult to choose among them, so I will confine myself to two: the author of the Cloude of Unknowyng, and Lady Julian of Norwich.

The Cloude’s anonymous author wrote it as a special guide for solitary contemplatives and concentrates on what is called the Via Negativa or Way of Renunciation, where the proficient tries to draw close to God by forsaking the images of created things. The author is one of the purest exponents of this Way, advising those called to it to abandon every image of God, every definition, every analogy, and strive simply to rest the mind in Himself. As I doubt I’m equipped to commentate on the Cloude of Unknowyng, I’ll quote a small part of a modernized version:

If we intentively pray for getting of good, let us cry, either with word or with thought or with desire, nothing else nor no more words, but this word ‘God.’ For why, in God be all good … Fill thy spirit with the spiritual meaning of it without any special beholding to any of His works—whether they be good, better, or best of all—bodily or spiritual, or to any virtue that may be wrought in man’s soul by any grace; not looking after whether it be meekness or charity, patience or abstinence, hope, faith, or soberness, chastity or willful poverty. What account is this in contemplatives? … They covet nothing with special beholding, but only good God. Do thou mean God all, and all God, so that nothing work in thy wit and in thy will, but only God.

This beautiful but severe form of the Way is, obviously, not for everyone, although we can all learn from its single-minded focus upon God. Similarly, Lady Julian’s outlook is not for everyone; but she has, justly, been one of the most important figures in English religious history.

The details of her life, up to and including her name, are mostly unknown; she is called Julian because she resided as a recluse at a church dedicated to Saint Julian. In 1373, at the age of 30, while lying sick with an illness that was expected to take her life, Lady Julian experienced sixteen visions of Christ and the Virgin, and was told much of the fathomless love of God for creation and for sinners. Of special note is her discourse on hell; it is fundamentally the same as the famous felix peccatum of the Exsultet, the ‘happy fault that gained us so great a Redeemer.’ Lady Julian related that she saw no wrath in God, and saw no hell but sin—finding all the antagonism between God and man on our part. Perhaps her most famous passage, again in a modernized form, runs as follows:

Our Lord brought to my mind the longing that I had to Him before; and I saw nothing prevented me but sin. And so I beheld generally in us all; and methought, if sin had not been, we should all have been clean and like to our Lord as He made us. And thus in my folly, before this time, I often wondered why, by the great foresaid wisdom of God, the beginning of sin was not prevented … Mourning and sorrow I made therefore, without reason and discretion; but Jesus, that in this vision informed me of all that me needed, answered by this word, and said, Sin is behovely, but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well. In this naked word sin, our Lord brought to my mind generally all that is not good; and the shameful despite, and the uttermost tribulation that He bare for us in this life … And all this was showed in a touch and readily passed over into comfort; for our good Lord would not that the soul were afraid of this ugly sight. But I saw not sin; for I believe it had no manner of substance, nor no part of being … These words were showed full tenderly, showing no manner of blame to me, nor to none that shall be saved. Then were it great unkindness of me to blame or wonder on God of my sin, since that He blameth not me for sin. And in these same words I saw an high marvellous secret hid in God: which secret, He shall openly make, and shall be known to us in heaven. In which knowing we shall verily see the cause why He suffered sin to come. In which sight, we shall endlessly have joy.

Lady Julian lived into the beginning of the fifteenth century. About a hundred years after her death, the Reformations—both Catholic and Protestant—began. Last week we heard a good deal about the English Reformation, or the lack of it; both sadly and gloriously, a great host of saints was reaped in England by the headsman. As with English contemplatives, the list is long and difficult to choose from: time would fail to tell of saints like John Houghton, John Fisher, Robert Southwell, Philip Howard, Swithun Wells, and Richard Gwyn. I will content myself to touch briefly upon six.

The first, the most famous, and perhaps the greatest, is St Thomas More. More’s brilliant intellect, charm, wit, and devotion to his king had already made him a great favorite at the court, as well as one of the most prominent intellectuals of the Renaissance; and, especially since he had been involved as a lawyer in Wolsey’s attempt to get the king’s marriage to Queen Katharine annulled, there was no reason to foresee any trouble over him. But of course, not foreseeing things is the best way of causing them to happen, as we have all learnt from Moses, Oedipus, Balder, and leaving home early to avoid rush hour.

More’s tenacity in clinging to the Church is specially noteworthy because of all the plausible reasons he had not to do so. The Church of England had not renounced any doctrine except the Primacy: the Mass, the seven sacraments, apostolic succession, the veneration of the saints, the canon of Scripture, all were where they had been two years before when the Oath of Supremacy was first administered. Moreover, although the Pope was certainly acknowledged by Catholics as head of the Church, the dogmatic definition of his headship was still centuries in the future; and—perhaps because of the seamless transition between Catholicism and Anglicanism at the time—there had not yet been much popular resistance to the change: it would hardly have been recognizable except to a theologian or a canonist. St Thomas More was not fooled. He serves as an arresting example of clarity of mind and fidelity to conviction, each one supporting and magnifying the other.

As an example of this holy sharpness of intellect, I quote from the speech given to him near the close of the film version of A Man for All Seasons (much of which is lifted directly from his son-in-law’s biography of him):

Since the court has determined to condemn me—God knoweth how—I will now discharge my mind concerning the indictment and the king’s title. The indictment is grounded in an act of Parliament which is directly repugnant to the law of God and of His holy Church, the supreme government of which no temporal person may by any law presume to take upon him. This was granted by the mouth of our Savior, Christ Himself, to Saint Peter and the Bishops of Rome, whilst He lived and was personally present here on earth. It is therefore insufficient in law to charge any Christian to obey it. … I am the king’s true subject. I pray for him, and for all the realm. I do none harm; I say none harm; I think none harm. And if this be not enough to keep a man alive, then in good faith, I long not to live.

This fervent combination of loyalty to the pontiff and loyalty to the crown, which the monarchs refused to believe in and the Popes did less than nothing to encourage, was a persistent trend among English Catholics. St Edmund Campion, one among many Jesuits who were martyred, was of the same cast: barely ten years after St Pius V had issued a bull absolving the English of loyalty to Elizabeth Tudor, and at a time when the crown was actively persecuting Catholics as rebellious conspirators, we find Campion referring to Elizabeth as the Queen my Sovereign Lady and requesting an opportunity to argue for Catholicism before her, in his Bragge. Campion also struck a note of gentle mockery combined with such bold love as to take the breath away in the same document, telling the Privy Council to whom it was sent:

Touching our Society, be it known to you that we have made a league—all the Jesuits in the world, whose succession and multitude must overreach all the practice of England—cheerfully to carry the cross you lay upon us, and never to despair your recovery, while we have a man left to enjoy your Tyburn, or be wracked with your torments, or consumed with your prisons. The expense is reckoned, the enterprise is begun; it is of God; it cannot be withstood. So the faith was planted: so it must be restored.

Despite withstanding four months imprisonment in the Tower of London, confessing his loyalty to Queen Elizabeth under cross-examination, being racked at least twice, and, worst of all, being made four times to argue theology with Anglicans, St Edmund was found guilty of sedition and executed. His reply to the verdict is tragic in its simple truth: In condemning us, you condemn all your own ancestors, all our ancient bishops and kings, all that was once the glory of England—the island of saints, and the most devoted child of the See of Peter.


The martyrdoms went on, as executing heretics was quite chic in the sixteenth century. Three martyrs whom we celebrate together, St Margaret Clitherow (the ‘Pearl of York’), St Margaret Ward, and St Anne Line (the ‘Pearl of Tyburn’), may be noted in particular. Though they were executed at different times, they were all tried for their role in protecting priests. Ward helped one escape from prison, while Clitherow and Line were both convicted of harboring priests; St Anne Line was caught because the number of people she allowed to come to a Mass for Candlemas drew notice from the authorities. Her last words at the scaffold, repeating her non-defense at the trial, were: I am sentenced to die for harboring a Catholic priest, and so far I am from repenting for having done so, that I wish, with all my soul, that where I have entertained one, I could have entertained a thousand. Margaret Clitherow, in an equally holy yet opposite decision, refused to plead at all, for fear of a trial at which her children could have been forced to testify; she was pressed to death—pressing was a then a common procedure to compel the accused to plead, though this is now done only by the media.

During the Enlightenment, despite the official Christianity of nearly every state in Europe, a horror of religious bloodshed had crept over the continent, and the natural privacy of the recusant community in England did not produce conspicuously holy people, though we may be sure that saints—who are rare in every age—lived there even in the eighteenth century. But the nineteenth, after Catholics were emancipated in 1829, produced the great Anglo-Catholic movement. I will concentrate only on the prototypical example of Bl John Henry Newman.

Newman was guided by his studies in theology and church history to convert from High Church Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism in 1845. His Essay on the Development of Doctrine and Apologia Pro Vita Sua are his most famous works, along with such poems as Lead, Kindly Light. One of his most characteristic books, however, was his Grammar of Assent. Written against the background of Empiricism that had dominated Britain for centuries, Newman did not try—as some other Catholic philosophers had tried—to reject Empiricism in favor of some Idealist theory of knowing; instead, he sought a kind of practical harmony between Empiricism and faith. Here, I believe, we see the via media that the Anglican Communion attempted receiving a real expression. Mere vague compromise was a parody of the English spirit, but in Bl John, the clarity and courtesy of the English Catholic intellect was renewed.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Newman was also a reviver of the contemplative tradition in Britain, even within the Anglican community. Monasticism had been such a natural expression of devotion there that only the active suppression and persecution of the houses had been able to reduce its power, and even then, some had persisted, especially the Jesuits. Newman’s retreat house at Littlemore is the earliest example of this revival: several orders of sisters were founded among Anglo-Catholics before and after his conversion, and some orders of brothers as well, taking on the medical, academic, and prayerful life that had characterized friaries in England for centuries before the Reformation. Some of these have had an impact on our own history; the Graymoor Franciscans of New York were the first Anglican body to be accepted into the Catholic Church corporately, setting a precedent for the Ordinariates a full century before they were created.

Obviously I have left out a great many saints and blesseds who were both famous and important: Augustine of Canterbury, Aidan of Lindisfarne, Thomas à Becket, Richard of Chichester, Margaret Pole. But I think those I’ve discussed give an impression of the peculiarly English flavor of sanctity, which could perhaps be summed up in the word courtesy. This isn’t simply politeness—anybody who’s seen coverage of Parliament knows better than to fall for that stereotype. It’s something more like courtesy in the sense of how one behaves at court, a good noble among other good nobles: stateliness without pride, love of splendor without greed, humor without flippancy, reverence without smugness, and charity without condescension.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Catholic Anarchy, Part IV: The Measure of All Things

I have called this book What Is Wrong With the World? and the upshot of the title can be easily and clearly stated. What is wrong is that we do not ask what is right. … Idealism is only considering everything in its practical essence. Idealism only means that we should consider a poker in reference to poking before we discuss its suitability for wife-beating; that we should ask if an egg is good enough for practical poultry-rearing before we decide that the egg is bad enough for practical politics. … As every normal man desires a woman, and children born of a woman, every normal man desires a house of his own to put them into. He does not merely want a roof above him and a chair below him; he wants an objective and visible kingdom; a fire at which he can cook what food he likes, a door he can open to what friends he chooses. This is the normal appetite of men; I do not say there are not exceptions. There may be saints above the need and philanthropists below it.
— G. K. Chesterton

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Anarchism is typically, but not always, a left-wing philosophy; i.e. (grossly oversimplifying), a philosophy that defines society in primarily economic terms and finds injustice and conflict primarily in terms of the wealthy oppressing the proletariat. There are also strands of anarchism that are right-wing, i.e. finding the woes of society primarily in the oppression of individuals by the state.1 My quarrel with both begins at their first premise.

In order to understand what human society is, we first have to understand what a human being is. And human beings do not exist in a vacuum. We exist, and come to be, in an environment, both material and personal; i.e., we are born into the world by our parents. From the start, this puts us in relationship to other human beings and to the world in general, whether we like it or not. Since nobody has yet succeeded in entering the world except by being born, and since nobody can live without food, drink, and shelter, there is no escaping from the web of coinherence: even suicide, which is (as a symbol) the most drastic refusal of the coinherence, cannot erase the past. And one of the tenets of Christian belief is that the coinherence persists, not only as a historical fact but as a present reality, between the living and the dead.

This seems to me of itself to render both ‘right’ and ‘left’ versions of anarchy more or less unacceptable to the orthodox Christian, especially the Catholic. Economics is not an adequate model for explaining humanity as a whole2; I don’t think people can be reduced to studies of how they behave—not even for practical purposes. How people behave is important: but it’s never the whole story; and since, as fellow human beings, we have inside information on what makes human beings tick, we can and should be willing to use it. Studying man with scientific rigor might be appropriate for an alien or an angel, but there’s something a little distasteful and a little silly about doing so as a man oneself. And similarly, trying to understand the state or society strictly in terms of class conflict or political conflict is an essential mistake. Those things are important; but, before human beings are rich or poor, before they are free or servile, before they are orderly or chaotic—first, they are human.

For a Catholic Christian, that which is specifically human is the image of God. Man shares bodily life with the animals and intelligence with the angelic orders, but the image of God, whatever exactly it is, is a peculiarly human quality. Genesis 1, where we first encounter the doctrine that mankind is made in God’s image, has the following to say:

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. … And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion … And God saw everything that he had made, and, behold, it was very good.

So some characteristics of the divine image emerge here. First, man is creative. The only thing we are told about God, before being told that we are made like Him, is that He is a maker. This is given an additional and special form, the creativity of procreation, in the dictum Be fruitful and multiply, which leads to the formation of the family, and thus into the second aspect of the image of God.

This is that people are communal, or, more poetically, that man is coinherent with his kind. As Genesis 2 recounts in a different form, men naturally need one another and by nature exist together. That God, who in Scripture normally says ‘I’ when acting, should here be represented as using ‘We,’ is pretty striking: it links the multiplicity of humanity into the image of the God that has just formed us. The family, from which we first receive our being, is the primordial community, and all mankind coinheres as a single family, being of one blood—as not only Biblical myth but modern biology attest.

Third, we may note that the text places mankind in dominion over the rest of creation.3 This dominion, judging from God’s behavior—He gratuitously gives being to what had not existed, with no further aim than to enjoy its beauty—is not a mere right to use, still less to abuse, created things. Taken together with Genesis 24, which recounts humanity being put in the Garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it, we can see it like the role of a gardener: tending creation so that it flourishes, as only someone who loves its beauty can do, learning to bring out its inner qualities, as opposed to forcing alien patterns (however beautiful) upon it.5 Note, too, that this is dominion over the earth—not dominion over one another.

The individualist theory of classical Liberalism, and the class-conflict theory of orthodox Marxism, are both inconsistent with this picture of man. The individualist theory treats the coinherence as though it were accidental, when it is how we come to be and is one of the strongest desires of the human heart; the classist theory, while rightly objecting to the domination of one man over another, fails to do justice to the human need for creativity and not merely for sustenance (‘Work, not wages,’ as the Wobblies’ slogan goes); and both have contributed to the decay of the family—that is, the cradle of the coinherence—by their attempt to limit human nature to human behavior. Relationship, which is what the coinherence is, is a different thing from activity.

Any society that is going to flourish has to be specially oriented toward the family. For better or worse, who we are as people takes shape in that context, and every society, statist or anarchist, is made up of people. No amount of economic liberty or economic equality is a substitute for a society in which husbands are loyal to their wives, wives to their husbands, and both to their children.6

Hence, I can’t really call myself a left-wing or a right-wing anarchist, because I don’t regard either individual liberty or the well-being of the proletariat as the paramount good of politics or economics. That economic system is best which encourages the family to flourish. And that is, inevitably perhaps, going to vary from place to place and from generation to generation. However, I do think that it demands some things that are odious to the right and the left, both in their rigorously philosophic and popular American forms: first, that the family be independent and self-governing, not overruled by the collective (still less the state); and second, that the family be propertied—not merely legally allowed to own property, but actually in possession of a homestead such as makes for a self-ruling home.

Can these two things be combined? I think they can, if we are willing to go down to the anarchist microscale, the society that is really small enough to be self-governing. I will write more about this in my next.

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1The terms right-wing and left-wing descend originally from the French Revolution, and referred quite literally to the arrangement of the Legislative Assembly formed in 1791: the conservative Feuillants, who supported the preservation of a reformed and constitutional monarchy, sat on the right-hand side of the house, while their radical opponents the Jacobins sat opposite. The application of these terms to American politics, which formed and developed in such markedly different ways from those of France, is both silly and customary, and the second quality takes precedence for the sake of efficient communication.
2Unpopular though this may make me among some of my politically-minded friends, I think this holds true whether we use economics in the vernacular sense of ‘the science of human commerce,’ or in the broader sense of ‘the science of human activity.’ (The Austrian school of economics—a classically Liberal movement, so named because it first formed in Vienna and has been largely dominated by Austrians such as Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek—uses the word economics in this sense, and sometimes uses praxeology as a synonym.)
3I.e., not necessarily all created material things, but the earth.
4The contrast between the creation accounts of Genesis 1.1-2.3 and Genesis 2.4-25 is a fascinating subject in its own right. It’d be quite a rabbit trail to go into it here, but the opening addresses of St John Paul II’s Theology of the Body examine them at some length.
5No one, perhaps, understood the right manner of tending creation as clearly as J. R. R. Tolkien. Describing his crafting of Middle-earth in a letter to a friend, he wrote:
All this stuff is mainly concerned with Fall, Mortality, and the Machine. With Fall inevitably, and that motive occurs in several modes. With Mortality, especially as it affects art and the creative (or as I should say, sub-creative) desire which seems to have no biological function … This desire is at once wedded to a passionate love of the real primary world, and hence filled with a sense of mortality, and yet unsatisfied by it. It has various opportunities of ‘Fall.’ … Both of these [examples] … will lead to the desire for Power, for making the will more quickly effective,—and so to the Machine (or Magic). By the last I intend all use of external plans or devices (apparatus) instead of developments of the inherent inner powers or talents—or even the use of these talents with the corrupted motive of dominating: bulldozing the real world, or coercing other wills. … The Elves are there (in my tales) to demonstrate the difference. Their ‘magic’ is Art, delivered from many of its human limitations: more effortless, more quick, more complete (product and vision in unflawed correspondence). And its objection is Art not Power, sub-creation not domination and tyrannous re-forming of Creation.
6This does not, of itself, preclude the possibility of things like gay marriage. A family-centered society would definitely value fertile couples highly, even uniquely, but this hardly means refusing to admit that other kinds of bond exist. It’s partly for this reason that, although I don’t support gay marriage as such, I do support civil unions (and not only for LGBT people).