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.

Friday, December 30, 2016

2016 Review: Words Filmed, Written, and Sung

And Dimble, who had been sitting with his face drawn, and rather white, between the white faces of the two women, and his eyes on the table, raised his head, and great syllables of words that sounded like castles came out of his mouth. … The voice did not sound like Dimble’s own: it was as if the words spoke themselves through him from some strong place at a distance—or as if they were not words at all but present operations of God, the planets, and the Pendragon.

C. S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength

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I generally do an art-scene review as my final post of the year—so, without further ado, here are ten twenty-first century artists that I’m pretty psyched about.

10. Max Landis. I ran across Me Him Her on Netflix months ago. It’s the first film Landis has directed, and it’s wonderfully insane. The film opens with Brendan, a semi-famous actor, realizing that he’s gay and asking a friend from college to come help him process and start coming out to people; around the same time, a pair of girlfriends break up (because one of them is an unfaithful, manipulative egomaniac). The characters cross paths in the labyrinth of crazy that is downtown LA; hijinks, as the custom is, ensue. The cinematography has a delightful layer of surrealism, the acting is excellent, and Haley Joel Osment has a cameo playing a crazy-cat-lady version of himself. The film has its flaws, but it’s entertaining and clever enough to make me excited about what Landis does in the future.

9. Michael Barryte. One of my time-wasting habits is watching YouTube channels devoted to making fun of movies, which I view as a kind of pop-lit-crit; Cinema Sins, Honest Trailers, and How It Should Have Ended are perennial favorites. Somehow or other I wound up watching Belated Media’s reimagining of the Star Wars prequels, and I was floored. Barryte’s version of all three films did more than the obvious patching—get rid of Jar-Jar, settle on a protagonist, don’t kill Darth Maul yet. He recasts the whole prequel trilogy in light of what made the original trilogy work, and turns the plot and character echoes between the trilogies into actually interesting comparisons and contrasts, instead of mere rehashes. I wish he’d write films! But honestly, his imaginary versions of the prequels are so good, they’re fun to watch.

8. Kurt Sutter. Sutter created the show Sons of Anarchy, whose premise could be inadequately summarized as ‘Hamlet, but with bikers.’ The actors’ talent certainly helped make the show what it is (it features Charlie Hunnam, Katey Sagal, and Ron Perlman, among others). But Sutter’s artistic power is incredible, and he accomplishes an arresting union of a Hell’s Angels expy with classical literary and religious themes. It may be the best television I’ve ever seen.

7. Eve Tushnet. I already knew Eve from her blog, her book Gay and Catholic, and a few charming café meetings; this Christmas I got a copy of her debut novel, Amends. Within the first ten pages I was hooked. Appropriate, I suppose, given that the premise of the book is a reality show about alcoholics in rehab. Her drawing of characters and her stylistic flourish are supported by her satirical but never merely cynical wit. I really hope she keeps writing fiction. (Please keep writing fiction, Eve.)

6. Lauren Faust. Although I’m woefully behind on My Little Pony1, I am a brony. The animation is very taking—though the music is excessively over-sugared for my taste—and the characters display surprising depth and subtlety. The spin-off films Equestria Girls and Rainbow Rocks are pretty good too: they’ve got character arcs and logical plots and everything (the latter even has a clever decoy protagonist thing going on). But one of the things I like most about Faust’s work is that she, like Pendleton Ward of Adventure Time, understands the artistic power of innocence. Innocence, not naïveté: a deeply grounded wholesomeness that refuses and opposes evil without losing its own tenderness, good cheer, and simplicity in the process. Gritty goodness certainly has its place, and it’s what I’m most apt to write, but clean goodness reminds us of why we love the good in the first place.

5. Karyn Kusama. I must admit I was a little torn over Kusama, not because I don’t enjoy her work, but because I wasn’t sure whether to give her this place or assign it to writers Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi. The film that garnered this spot is The Invitation, a psychological horror-thriller that came out last year, and on consideration it’s the directing that makes the movie so chillingly convincing, so Kusama it is. The Invitation horrified me more than any film except The Babadook, and it does so with a surprisingly simple, traditional premise: the weird dinner party that turns creepily bad. Kusama’s directing takes the conventional trope and makes it work, without falling back on stupid jump scares or stereotypical characters, and the symbolism of the film is articulated without being rubbed into your eyes. Outstanding stuff.

4. Dan Harmon. Harmon is a co-creator of Community and of Rick and Morty, the third season of which is supposed to come out in 2017, and I’m about ready to physically explode from anticipation. Rick and Morty has made me laugh, and brought me to the edge of tears, such as I hadn’t thought a cartoon for grown-ups would ever do: The Simpsons opened the door to the idea of a genuinely moving animated series, but the emotional depth of Rick and Morty—even in the midst of its crudest, most irreverent jokes—is a whole new level of craftsmanship.

3. Kit Williamson. I discovered Williamson by accident, rather like Landis, by idly looking through Netflix and trying things not-quite-at-random. Williamson created Eastsiders, which is like if Queer as Folk were stunning instead of merely pretty good. The characters are flawlessly drawn and outstandingly acted, the directing is perfect, the dialogue is sharp and quick without being merely flashy, it’s all great! Go watch it, like, now.

2. Jennifer Kent. Jennifer Kent is the director of The Babadook (another directorial debut), which may well be among the best horror films of all time. The movie centers on a single mother, whose husband died the day their son was born, and a mysterious children’s book about a strange monster that seems to begin haunting her and her son. Kent knows her background material—the film is full of allusions and homages to older horror works—but she created a story all her own, and, best of all, handled the nightmare children’s-book aspect of the story exactly right: never showing too much, never archly winking at the audience, and never just recycling prior parts of the film. The pacing is as exact as a ballet leap, and the mother’s alarming arc is conveyed magnificently.

1. Yoann Lemoine. I have no memory of how I came across Woodkid, of which Lemoine is the vocalist. I guess it was probably an iTunes or YouTube suggestion. Anyhow, I took a listen to a track, and Lemoine’s voice, and the orchestral magnificence of the ensemble, enchanted me. The recent trend of popular music being articulated in classical ways (Postmodern Jukebox and The Irrepressibles spring to mind) is rather a favorite of mine, but Woodkid is head and shoulders above the rest of the subgenre. The subtle warmth of his voice, and the precision of the compositions, whether with classical or modern instruments—I can’t do it justice. Just listen.

And last but not least, a very happy New Year to my readers around the world! This year I’ve tried for Russian, French, Ukrainian, German, Polish, Malay, Chinese (but not in the traditional script, because I cannot search through that many unfamiliar symbols and hope to recognize the right one), Spanish, and Maltese. Apologies and/or laugh as much as you like if I butcher the local tongue, but in case I manage not to:

Happy New Year
С Новым Годом
Bonne Année
Щасливого Нового Року
Frohes Neues Jahr
Szczęśliwego Nowego Roku
Selamat Tahun Baru
Xīnnián Kuàilè
Feliz Año Nuevo
Is-Sena It-Tajba

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1The Friendship Is Magic version, not the old ‘80s one. I haven’t seen that one but it looks insufferable.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Five Quick Takes


My longsuffering editor/publisher/factotum Ben Y. Faroe is finishing up my next book, a collection of poems titled Wells of Night. And on that subject, I have a new book about to come out! It’s called Wells of Night, and it’s a collection of poetry. (I don’t have a definite release date, because those are for commies.)

To whet your appetites, and since it’s seasonally appropriate, here is one of the poems from that collection, Crown Celestial.

The world was in its winter; in the lands
Burnt by sunrise, east of the inner sea,
The angel-haunted Holy City lay
Upon its starlit, olive-woven peaks.
There an unlikely forted palace housed
The heir of Solomon’s regalia:
Though of uncertain birth to bear the crown,
He came in golden clouds of frankincense;
He ruled his people with an iron rod,
And crafted a new Temple to the Lord,
For which he was reviled by Israel.
Weeping for loss, he cried, ‘I am your king,
I and no other’; but they did not heed,
Though many shed their blood on his account,
Purpling the streets of Zion, Bethlehem,
Yea, all Judæa and the lands about,
Massy with lilies dropping nectared tears
That coldly shone in the crescented night.
This royal shape, heir of the ancient glory,
Remembered yearly these two thousand years
By holy Church, was named Herod the Great.

There also, in a cave beneath the earth,
Warmed by cows’ breath and rested in their trough,
Straw puncturing his foster-father’s hands
As his young Mother, white against the soil,
Lay back to catch her breath and loose her breast,
Lay God: the God who, by his pure command,
Brought forth those skies, burning with infant stars;
He who brought Jewry from Egyptian might
To this glade ‘twixt the River and the Sea;
Yea, he who roared from his myrrhed Temple’s seat.
For from this point, creation drew its breath:
He entered it, and, by his entering, made
The door-posts and the lintel, wet with blood,
The feast within, the broad desert without,
The cave, the cows, the donkeys, ewes, and lambs,
The kindly earth, the wild, singing heavens,
And all the ranks of minds invisible
That bear them all upon their glassy wings.
Here past and future flowed, from this bright point,
Being created by the birth of Meaning;
Now space threw forth fold after generous fold,
Given a center after centuries
Of aching void.

And God opened his eyes
And murmured to his Mother as he drank
Of that sweet milk. The heavens clustered close,
Transfigured into earthly charities,
And earth shone back, bright with divinity.

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I recently watched the film Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party. It was uncanny. I suspect anybody raised among evangelicals of the ‘90s and ‘00s would, on seeing the first twenty minutes or so, start having uncontrollable flashbacks of DC Talk albums and weird attempts at evangelizing secular friends and uncomfortably attractive youth pastors. I won’t say it was flawless—there’s a very oddly chosen song (sorry, but the Protestants who have that pool party don’t play Gregorian chant at it), one conversation where the protagonist’s mother’s lines feel unnecessarily preachy, and the handful of secular characters seem just a little too always-right—but it’s a magnificent film. (Warning: there is a pretty graphic scene of cutting, and a couple of briefer and more discreet sex scenes.) I want to watch it again, but it may be a little while before I do; it’s intense.

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Apparently NSA has a twitter. I have to assume that that’s some kind of brilliant reverse psychology maneuver.

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The need for rest, for Sabbath, has been much on my mind lately. We’re not good at it as a culture. We push ourselves, and each other, to keep up—as though life will get away from us if we aren’t quick enough; and by our thinking we make it so. If the need for rest were acknowledged, and taking steps to meet it were accepted, we’d have a very different society, and probably a different economy, too. When you can’t take off work on account of illness because you’ll get reprimanded if you do, that’s a deeply sick system. And even pagan societies had more guaranteed holidays than we do (if you work for an hourly wage, the idea of federal holidays is pretty much a bad joke).

I’m not totally sure what to do about this; but I do think it’s part of the clash between capitalism and Christianity. Any society in which work is valued primarily for the money it gets us, instead of the goods it produces, has put the cart before the horse about as emphatically as possible—it’s literally putting means above ends. The Sabbath, which refocuses both work and leisure toward the well-being of man as an image of God, radically contradicts the capitalist approach. And the orthodox Marxist approach, too, since Marxism simply takes over the economic reductionism of the capitalist and tries to restore equality by economic force.

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This coming Christmas may be the quietest I can remember. The putative war on Christmas has barely been talked about (I think everybody’s still tired from the election, which frankly I am fine with); shopping’s mostly been easy on me this year, and I actually got it all done sooner than usual; my parish will have one Solemn High Mass for Christmas Eve, and one Low Mass on Christmas morning, and then be done, and since Christmas is on a Sunday it’ll be a still simpler week; and I’ve studiously avoided most Christmas events. The bustle and harassment of so many Christmases seems to have been skipped this year, and the relaxation seems far better. I dig.

I’ll admit, it would’ve been nice to have a white Christmas. But, living in Baltimore, the hysteria over any and every kind of weather makes me content to accept even a grey Christmas instead.

Monday, December 12, 2016

The Poems of Charles Williams, Part Two: A Fallacy of Rational Virtue

It is frequently asserted, by people who ought to know better, that according to Dante the natural perfection for which Virgil stands is sufficient in itself to guide the soul as far as the Earthly Paradise. On the contrary, Dante takes the utmost pains from the very start to make it plain to the reader that this is not so. Even in Hell, Virgil had to be commissioned by Beatrice; even there, he had to invoke powers greater than his own; even there, he could not force the gates of Dis without divine assistance; nevertheless, there he speaks with authority. Here, it is otherwise.

Dorothy L. Sayers, Introduction to ‘Purgatory’

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Logres, the realm of Arthur, does not achieve its goal; every version of the legend agrees on that, Williams’ own included. For instance, when the Holy Graal was introduced to the mythos,1 a favored few sometimes achieved it—Percival, Bors, Galahad—but most of the knights did not, in any telling, and at least one version even adds the terrible prophecy that When this rich thing goeth about, the Round Table shall be broken. There are literary reasons for this, of course; if all the knights, or even most of them, achieve the Graal, its value as a symbol is diminished. But for Williams there is a deeper significance to this failure, and one that he practically opens his own version of the cycle by suggesting.

In the season of midmost Sophia
the word of the Emperor established a kingdom in Britain …

Carbonek, Camelot, Caucasia,
were gates and containers, intermediations of light;
geography breathing geometry, the double-fledged Logos.

The blind rulers of Logres
nourished the land on a fallacy of rational virtue;
the seals of the saints were broken; the chairs of the Table reeled.

Galahad quickened in the Mercy;
but history began; the Moslem stormed Byzantium;
lost was the glory, lost the power and kingdom.

Call on the hills to hide us
lest, men said in the City, the lord of charity
ride in the starlight, sole flash of the Emperor’s glory.2

Rationality and virtue are of course naturally allied in a worldview like Williams’; and he makes a point of having Taliessin, the chief narrator, visit Byzantium, where the ancient line of imperial shapes / … the Throne of primal order, the zone / of visionary powers reside—the precise, if dazzling, exposition of the inner geometric exactitude of the glory—before he ever visits Broceliande, the great sea-wood of the southwest, which represents the unconscious reaches of man’s mind. What, then, can he mean by speaking of a fallacy of rational virtue?

Two interpretations are possible. One is that, fine Dantean scholar that he was, he was reproducing the doctrine Dante expresses in the persons3 of Beatrice and Virgil, and in the infernal circle of Limbo, in the Divine Comedy. No matter how good and exalted, reason is not the same thing as divine grace, and cannot earn it (that being part of what grace means: it is a gift; it can’t be claimed as a right by any creature). Rational virtue is a good thing, and grace urges us to practice rational virtue. But, because it’s a good thing, virtue is one of the most plausible idols in the world. C. S. Lewis touched on this theme in The Great Divorce when he had his guide say, ‘The false religion of lust is baser than the false religion of mother-love or patriotism or art: but lust is less likely to be made into a religion.’ And, we may add, lust and the other appetites are easier idols to smash, since (as a rule) they don’t claim the defense of the conscience, whereas the more dignified idols do.

And the Graal is not only a symbol of divine grace, but a peculiarly fitting symbol of that sacramental economy in which Williams so fervently believed. For a sacramentalist, the Incarnation is the central mystery, the beating heart, of Christianity; the Eucharist, accordingly, is the prime experience of the Incarnation, and the Graal is the supreme artistic symbol of the Eucharist.4 The Holy Graal and rational virtue are not opposed to each other, but the latter cannot achieve the former of its own powers; and apart from grace, rational virtue, maybe more than anything else, is apt to dismiss grace as an unnecessary addition to what it already possesses—not knowing its own tendency to be incurvatus, to decay and break apart into irrational virtue and rational vice,5 and finally into total incoherence. Nor is Williams unaware of the strength of idolatry; he goes almost out of his way to address it:

The Archbishop stayed, coming through the morning to the Mass,
Hast thou seen so soon, bright lass, the light of Christ’s glory?

… The household kneeled; the Lord Balin the Savage moved
restless, through-thrust with a causeless vigil of anger;
the king in the elevation beheld and loved himself crowned;
Lancelot’s gaze at the Host found only a ghost of the Queen.6

That’s one interpretation. But another, which I find more convincing, runs a little differently, and digs deeper into Williams’ attachment to Dante.

Cryptically, as ever, Williams writes of the meeting of Arthur and Guinevere at his crowning as King of the Britons:

So, in Lancelot’s hand, she came through the glow,
into the king’s mind, who stood to look on his city:
the king made for the kingdom, or the kingdom for the king?
Thwart drove his current against the current of Merlin:
in beleaguered Sophia they sang of the dolorous blow.

… At the door of the gloom sparks die and revive;
the spark of Logres fades, glows, fades.
It is the first watch; the Pope says Matins in Lateran;
the hollow call is beaten on the board in Sophia;
the ledge of souls shudders, whether they die or live.7

The link to Dante lies in the line, the king made for the kingdom, or the kingdom for the king? For Dante answered this question very clearly in his treatise On Monarchy, where he says that the proper operation does not exist for the sake of the essence [the individual being], but vice versa—i.e., a person’s vocation doesn’t exist to give them something to do, but rather they exist to fulfill their vocation.8 And here, at Arthur’s coronation and his betrothal to Guinevere, we already see him thinking of his operation in terms of his own glory, instead of directing himself to the glory of his operation.

This is why there are, in the midst of the heraldic banners, the bright torches, and all the majesty of Camelot, two sudden signs of the final darkness that swallows up Logres in the end. One is referred to the household of the Emperor: In beleaguered Sophia they sang of the dolorous blow; in Byzantium, they are already mourning the decline and fall of Logres that the barbaric honor-code, pride, and intemperance of the knights will bring about. And those things are all rooted in the dreamy, secret egotism of the King—or rather, the King was the one who should have rooted those vices out by both precept and example, and his dreamy egotism is what will keep him from doing so.

The other is briefer and subtler. Mordred was Arthur’s son, but not the son of Guinevere. Before his marriage, Arthur fornicated with Queen Morgause of Orkney—a common enough vice in any age, a harmless one in some ways, but Morgause (unbeknownst to Arthur9) was his half-sister. The incestuous child, Mordred, became as twisted as his parentage; Morgause herself was eventually killed by her eldest son, for adultery with Sir Lamorack. In The Crowning of Arthur, as the procession leads Guinevere to Arthur and one heraldic banner replaces the next, Williams pans up to a window for a moment:

Driving back that azure a sea rose black;
on a fess of argent rode a red moon.
The Queen Morgause leaned from a casement;
her forehead’s moon swallowed the fires,
it was crimson on the bright-banded sable of Lamorack.10

As the King of Logres is crowned and betrothed, Mordred is forming in his mother’s womb. And that mother, the terrible Queen whom he later calls the schism and first strife / of primeval rock with itself, Morgause Lot’s wife (doubtless mindful of the wife of a more ancient Lot), sums up in herself all the vices that will destroy Logres: the pride of the knightly code of honor, the lust that courtly love is rarely quite free of even at its best, and the implacable wrath that drives many even of the heroes toward murder, betrayal, and sacrilege.

And all this because Arthur was considering the kingdom for the king, and not the king for the kingdom. Had he done the latter, he might still have fornicated with Morgause, in ignorance, out of ordinary human weakness; but his repentance might have had the quality of perfect contrition,11 rather than of the baptized yet egotistical soul seeking to avoid hell. But he did not master ‘the golden Ambiguity,’ the paradox that is the principle of the Incarnation—that to give up one’s life is to save it, that obedience is liberty, and that whoever would be great must be the servant of all. Which is understandable. It’s not an obvious lesson; though secretly logical, it isn’t common sense, and though secretly magnificent, it isn’t common decency.

The fallacy of rational virtue is the attempt, not only to cultivate virtue apart from grace, but to cultivate one’s own vocation as if it were one’s own property. Which, logically, makes a nonsense of vocation: Let us rise to the height of God and the Emperor, / let us gaze, son of man, on the Acts in contention. As a gift, vocation cannot be demanded; as a command, vocation cannot be controlled; our joy and peace consists in accepting and pursuing it—better to say, our vocation is our individual joy and peace.

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1The earlier versions of the Arthurian cycle feature no Graal, only of Arthur fighting the Saxons for the preservation of a Romano-British, Christian kingdom, and Mordred’s subsequent attempt at usurping the throne. The Graal is first known to feature in the matter of Britain in the late twelfth century, in the work of Chrétien de Troyes; its role was expanded in the thirteenth century, which provided the source material for Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur, arguably the definitive version of the mythos. (The spelling graal instead of grail is an archaism I’m fond of. Williams usually prefers this spelling but is not quite consistent.)
2Prelude I.4-5, 7-9, II.1-9, from Taliessin Through Logres. The name Carbonek refers to that castle from which the journey to the secret resting-place of the Graal departs; Sir Lancelot made it as far as Carbonek, but he was detained there (spiritually, because he put Guinevere before God; literally, because, under a spell, he mistook another woman for Guinevere and slept with her, thus fathering Galahad, and was driven mad when he discovered what he had done), and hence never achieved the Graal.
3I almost wrote characters here, but that isn’t quite right. Dante’s masterpiece was precisely to find actual people who served as ideal symbols for psychological and spiritual facts, without ceasing to be fully themselves. This is part of what makes his poetry so convincing. It may be from St Paul that he drew this, since the Apostle’s allegorization of Sarah and Hagar in Galatians 4 does exactly the same thing.
4As far as I know, anyway. My knowledge of Christian literature has been confined almost entirely to the West.
5Gawaine and Mordred, in general and especially in Williams, serve as good icons of irrational virtue and rational vice respectively. Gawaine is driven entirely by the honor code, to the point of killing his mother Morgause to preserve his family’s reputation, and of revealing the love of Lancelot and Guinevere to Arthur despite the catastrophic consequences for the Round Table and all of Logres; he is prompted to do the latter by Mordred, who is driven only by revenge and ambition, and is willing to manipulate everyone and violate every principle (even marrying his stepmother Guinevere) to get what he wants. This serves as a very neat depiction of the power that rational vice has to control, and eventually destroy, irrational virtue.
6The Star of Percivale ll. 19-20, 33-36, in Taliessin Through Logres. Balin the Savage was the knight who, in a rage, struck the infamous Dolorous Blow, which wounded the Fisher King who served as a guardian of the Graal; because of the mystical connection between the Fisher King and the land, the realm became a wasteland because of the Dolorous Blow, and only the achievement of the Graal could revive it. C. S. Lewis uses the Fisher King as an important motif in That Hideous Strength, though his version of the Dolorous Blow in that context is quite different.
7The Crowning of Arthur, ll. 61-65, 71-75, in Taliessin Through Logres.
8In fact, Williams set the original Latin of this very line as the epigraph to his first Arthurian volume: Unde est, quod non operatio propria propter essentiam, sed hæc propter illam habet ut sit.
9In some tellings, Morgause did know it. Malory has them both ignorant; I don’t know what Williams’ take on the matter was.
10Argent, azure, fess, and sable are technical terms in heraldry: argent is white (which is treated as equivalent to silver), azure is blue, and sable is black, while a fess is a horizontal band across the center of a coat of arms.
11Perfect contrition is contrasted in Catholic theology with imperfect contrition. Perfect contrition mourns sins because they deprive us of communion with God; imperfect contrition repents because of the ugliness of sin, or even out of the bare fear of damnation. Of course, perfect and imperfect contrition mix in our hearts all the time, though most of us probably experience imperfect contrition more often and to a greater degree.