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The Mystery of the Holy Innocents: Reissued

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Its been a good year if you enjoy the poetry of Charles Péguy. In a recent post, I noted how The Mystery of the Charity of Joan of Arc had been adapted into a feature film.  I also just learned that an abridged English translation of the third book in Péguy’s great trilogy, The Mystery of the Holy Innocents, has been reissued for the first time since 1956, by the Wipf and Stock Company. I purchased my copy through Amazon.

The poem was translated by Lady Pansy Lamb, an English noblewoman who released it under her maiden name of Pansy Pakenham.  For whatever reason, she chose not to translate about a third of the poem, so we have yet to see a complete translation in English. Alexander Dru, who translated some of Péguy’s other works, provides a lengthy Introduction.  Lady Lamb also includes translation of four of Péguy’s shorter poems, as well as three excerpts from Péguy’s Eve, which may be the longest poem in the French language.

The Mystery of the Holy Innocents is very similar to The Portal of the Mystery of Hope, the second book in the trilogy. It is a long, free verse poem in which Madame Gervaise, who we meet in the first book, delivers a monologue to Joan of Arc in the voice of the Father.  A wide range of subjects are covered: the virtues, the Cross, prayer, justice, mercy,  the French people, etc. It concludes with a lengthy meditation on the Massacre of the Holy Innocents.

It begins:

I am, God says, Master of the Three Virtues.

 

Faith is a loyal wife.

Charity is a fervent mother.

But hope is a very little girl.

 

I am, God says, the Master of the Virtues.

 

It is Faith who holds fast through century upon century.

 

It is Charity who gives herself through centuries of centuries,

But it is my little hope

Who gets up every morning.

Lady Lamb states in a translator’s note that she cannot understand why Faith and Charity are capitalized, but hope is in lower case … My dear Lady, it because she is a little girl.  For Peguy, people could not help having Faith given the magnificence of creation, and Charity given our natural affections for one another. Having hope was the real surprise, and the greatest sign of something supernatural, given all the failure and misery in the world.  Why do the poor and oppressed have hope, given what they experience day in and day out? It is a sign of grace.

Now we just need for The Mystery of the Charity of Joan of Arc to be reissued, and all three books will be available to the general public. I would watch the Cluny Media website. They seem to be publishing a lot of out of print works of fiction and non-fiction by Catholic authors.

 

 

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Jeannette: Péguy goes to the movies

 

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Well, I never expected this.

Apparently the French director Bruno Dumont has adapted Charles Péguy’s The Mystery of the Charity of Joan of Arc into a feature film. It was released in France last fall, and has popped up at a few American film festivals.  Unless you live in a big city, you will probably have to get the DVD or stream it to see it.

 

… And he turned it into a musical with a rock score. Wow.  From viewing the trailer, I can tell that he is using the names of the characters and I do recognize a few lines of dialog from Péguy’s prose poem/play.

The Village Voice describes the film as “pious,” so it sounds like the director intends a faithful adaptation.  They do criticize the method, though acknowledging that Dumont has a “streak of madman genius about him.” So you may very well hate or love the film.

The Mystery of the Charity of Joan of Arc was the first piece in Péguy’s great trilogy of book length poems (followed by The Portal of the Mystery of Hope, and The Mystery of the Holy Innocents), published shortly before World War One.

If you are not familiar with the book, this will not be like other filmed versions of Joan’s life. It will not focus on the later military campaigns or her martyrdom. It is about the origin of Joan’s mission.

Péguy is a very important artist for some Catholic theologians, and Pope Francis has quoted from his works a few times.  If you were surprised by the Pope’s alleged comments about Hell a few weeks ago, Péguy may be relevant.  The concept of solidarity was very important to Péguy, and he wondered aloud whether solidarity extended to those in Hell. The ultimate fate of those souls who go to Hell was an element in some of Adrienne Von Speyr’s spiritual commentaries, which were edited and published by the Catholic theologian Hans Urs Von Balthasar.

I think that Hell exists, and that a soul can go to Hell by refusing God’s mercy at the end of their life and the particular judgment. One of many questions raised by Péguy in The Mystery,  and by Adrienne in some of her writings, involves the scope of Christ’s “descent into hell” after his crucifixion. Does Christ’s solidarity extend to those in Hell in any way, and if it does, what are the implications of that? Can the damned change their mind through some extraordinary grace? I suspect that the Italian atheist the Pope spoke to may have been attempting, in a very poor way, to recapture Francis’ speculation on similar questions. I acknowledge such speculation is very controversial, and would appear to conflict with Church tradition as expressed in the Catechism that Christ did not descend to save those who had already damned themselves by refusing God’s mercy. The issue is discussed with much greater detail in Balthasar’s book Dare we hope that all may be saved? and the many responses to it.

I blogged about Péguy’s book last year. I will probably do a movie review after I have seen it.

 

 

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Song of Sorrow: A new hymn for Holy Week

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Ecce Homo by Mateo Cerezo

 

This post is especially for those who may be involved with music or divine worship at their church.

A few weeks ago, I heard a new hymn sung during the offertory at the Palm Sunday mass I attended. I am not sure I got chills, but I it was close.  As I was listening to the organ I could tell that the arrangement was based on the second movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony.  I tracked down the director of our music program and he told me the hymn was called “Song of Sorrow.”

I learned that it was composed by the American Patrick Liebergen, and apparently published in 2011. The sheet music can be obtained at:

https://www.sheetmusicplus.com/title/song-of-sorrow-sheet-music/19701678

It can be described as a dirge, and our director said its only appropriate for use during Holy Week, which I would agree with.  I found a few videos on Youtube I thought I would share.

I am not a musician or artist but, in all vanity, I think I have very good aesthetic judgment.  I think this is a great hymn to be added for Holy Week services, probably either for a Palm Sunday or Good Friday service.

The first clip is from a church that has a fairly large choir. I completely agree with all the comments of the music director, particularly when he described it as “unique” in some ways.

 

The second clip is from a church with a smaller choir. I am including it to show that I think the hymn can be effective whether you have a big or large church.

 

I do think it works better with male and female voices singing different parts, as suggested by the gentleman in the first clip.

I have never posted before on music, but I did for this one. Why? I believe that Beauty is an important element of our worship and adoration. Beauty is one of the three Transcendentals, and points to the other two: Truth and Goodness. I tried to express this in a poem I wrote a while back.

There is evidence, and even data, that beauty, particularly beautiful churches, attract people to explore the faith. If you are in a diocese or other region where your church is considering consolidating churches, maybe you need to think hard about keeping the more beautiful ones.

“Song of Sorrow” is unusual in that I think the lyrics and the power of Beethoven brings home the pathos of the Passion, which is sometimes overlooked in our Joy about the Resurrection.

In the above clips the choir is accompanied by piano. I think it works better with an organ (which is how I heard it at mass).

 

The lyrics, as best I can tell, are as follows:

 

Oh Lord of Sorrow, Jesus Have Mercy

Holy and Mighty, I pray to thee

 

(Refrain)

Lord of Creation, Bring Your Salvation,

Oh Lord of Sorrow, You died for Me.

Lord of Creation, Bring Your Salvation,

Oh Lord of Sorrow, You died for Me.

 

Oh Lord at Calvary,

Have mercy hear my plea,

My Savior set me free,

Hear my humble plea.

 

They crowned your head with thorns,

And mocked your name with scorn

(Nailed on the cross …)?

Hear my plea and set me free.

 

Refrain, etc.

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The Memoirs of Louis Bouyer

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Father Louis Bouyer

This is a review of The Memoirs of Louis Bouyer: From Youth to Conversion to Vatican II, the Liturgical Reform, and After.  Father Bouyer was a French Lutheran minister who converted to Catholicism in 1939, and then became respected priest and scholar who served as an advisor to the Second Vatican Council. He prepared these memoirs during his retirement in the 1990s, and died in 2004.   They were not published until 2014.

I have read the ebook version. The work is meticulously endnoted, with hypertext links that allow one to jump back and forth from notes and text with ease.

This book will be most enjoyed by those already familiar with his body of work, who are familiar with the history of Vatican II, and have an interest in the history and reform of Catholic liturgy. I do not fall into any of those categories, but I will share my thoughts for those who may be interested in reading it.

About half of Father Bouyer’s non-fiction bibliography is available in English, though you might have to buy used copies.  He also wrote four novels under pseudonyms. Those books have never been translated into English, and may even be out of print. He developed friendships with a number of other writers, including J.R.R. Tolkien.

Father Bouyer reminds me of another Catholic priest, writer and scholar:  Father Andrew Greeley. Both were scholars who wrote novels, though Greeley much more so. Bouyer’s career was more consumed by teaching duties than Greeley’s was.  Both men seemed to have a lot of energy, were inquisitive, and had a certain cheerfulness (at least in their writing), and had a tendency to speak their minds and thus get into scrapes with their peers in the Church.

The most charming part of the book is the first few chapters, regarding his family, youth and early crushes.  He had a great eye for detail and characterization. and I would have liked to read one of his novels. His mother died when he was 11.

The weakest part (though not bad) of the book is the middle part, covering his career during the 1940s and 1950s. Its a whirlwind of all the characters he knew and met, and the various places he worked and studied. Friends and historians will probably find this more useful.

The last part involves his role at Vatican II, and for a period of time in implementing it. Its good basis for a belief that the fewer the big conferences there are in Rome, probably the better.  He also covers some friendships and favorite places.

Two friends he singled out are a testimony to his generosity of spirit. One was Julian Green, an American, Catholic convert. He was a diarist, novelist and translator who lived most of his life in France. He also struggled with a homosexual orientation, and Bouyer seems to have been a good friend and confidante.  The other was an English writer, Elizabeth Boudge. Though she was not a Catholic, they struck up a deep and persistent correspondence that lasted many years.

Now, the themes:

The Mediocrity of the Church’s Institutions and its Leaders

It is suggested in the introduction that the long delay between the writing of the memoirs and their publication was deliberate, to perhaps protect Father Bouyer in his retirement, and to spare many of the targets of his criticism while they were still alive or holding high positions.

It is difficult, as with Greeley’s memoirs, to read about priests criticizing others under Holy Orders. However, Paul rebuked Peter once, so as long as it is done in Charity, it must be done when there is error or failure.  The Church, in its institutions and members, comes across in these memoirs as a sprawling university system. We meet “tenured” priests (e.g. isn’t Holy Orders the ultimate tenure?) who loaf and don’t do much work, administrators who have been promoted beyond their competence, or aging leaders who should have been retired and can’t keep up anymore. There is envy for other’s accomplishments, an unwillingness to consider new ideas, hiring decisions based on personal favoritism over merit, etc.

Bouyer sometimes names names, sometimes he doesn’t. He is not nasty about it, he offers his assessment, and moves on. I am reminded of an anecdote from Father Benedict Groeschel, where he relates a conversation he had with Mother Teresa. She asked him why God chose him to be a priest, and he replied with a joke. She answered “You were called by the humility of God.” He chooses very frail instruments to work with, so we should not be surprised when they fail.  Fortunately, we have great servants like Groeschel, Greeley or Bouyer to make up for the masses of mediocre Catholics (myself included among them).

Pre-Vatican II Church Dynamics

These memoirs confirm what I have read elsewhere about the pre-Vatican II dynamic.  The controversy and confusion that followed Vatican II didn’t just fall from the sky. It had been building for a few decades among silently warring camps.

On the one hand, we had the confident, established Church. It was orthodox and resistant to any change, perhaps more out of fear of modernity than willful close-mindedness.  And on the other hand, there was a large camp that fully subscribed to the modernist project, and wanted to conform the Church to the world.

In the middle it seems, were perhaps the smallest, least powerful group. Some reformers who wanted moderate change to the liturgy, Church organization, teaching methods, etc. This includes men like the future Pope Benedict, Bouyer, Henri De Lubac, and Hans Urs Von Balthasar.   They thought they had some good ideas for how the Church could respond to the problems of modernity

These reformers were criticized as dangerous radicals before Vatican II, and then criticized as out-of-touch conservatives in the decades after Vatican II. In fact, they never changed their position on anything.

What happened is that there was a rupture, and the modernist camp largely won, and imposed a lot of change very quickly. One of the stranger things I learned reading this was that during the Vatican II conferences there was a strong consensus at one point to abolish Ash Wednesday. It would have been moved to the first Sunday of Lent.  It narrowly survived. And it is one of the few times a lot of Catholics see the inside of a Church other than on weekends.  Many will skip Holy Days of obligation, but will go to Ash Wednesday services. This is an example of the kind of mentality that was at work at Vatican II.

One of the villains in this drama was Annibale Bugnini (may he rest in peace). He was a Catholic priest and important administrator given a position of great authority at Vatican II, and a staunch modernist.  When he ran into obstacles, he would pull out his trump card, “The Pope Wills It!” Bouyer and others later found out he was making it all up, the Pope did not will it. He was later punished by being named the Vatican’s delegate to Iran, where he finished his career.

Bridges between Catholics and Protestants

Though a convert, Bouyer retained his strong belief that Protestants had often outdone Catholics in both their study of scripture and their emphasis on a personal relationship with the Lord. I tend to agree, though I think the Church has made great strides in recent decades, particularly with emphasis on new devotional practices (e.g. the Divine Mercy), and Pope Benedict XVI’s great example in his series on the Gospels.  Bouyer felt these two areas should be ones the Church should focus on in its pursuit, perhaps vain, of reconciliation with our Anglican and Lutheran brethren (which were the focus of his ecumenism).

Based on my reading of his memoirs, I do have an interest in trying at least one of his books.  I am more focused on poetry now, so it may be a while before I read one. I will post a review if I do.

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What Follows Politics: De Lubac Responds to Charles Péguy

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(This is more a note to myself, connecting some dots as I work my way through Péguy.)

One of Charles Péguy’s famous quotes is: “Everything begins in mysticism and ends in politics.”

This was something he learned from the Dreyfus Affair, a political controversy that tore France apart for about a decade.  While Péguy was on the right side of the conflict, he felt that the winners wasted their victory through an unjust and unworthy political power grab.

He made this observation years later in his book, Notre Jeunesse (translated as “Memories of Youth”).  Péguy reflected that great movements often spring from a mysterious, almost spiritual, yearning to set things right. However, because of original sin, whatever victories or progress we win harden into a rather ordinary political party, program or bureaucracy. Many idealistic young people who vote for a politician wind up being somewhat disappointed within a few years. The lesson is that it is beyond our ability to permanently “set things right”, and therefore we must be very fluid, very pliant to where the Holy Spirit wants to take us next. Don’t rest on any worldly laurels.

Cardinal Henri De Lubac responded to Péguy, I think, years later.  In the essay titled “A Christian Explanation for Our Times”, published in 1942 (and collected by Ignatius in  Theology in History), he described what follows the politics that had succeeded mysticism:

It is then that substitute faiths inevitably present themselves to fill this tragic void. Such is the fourth and final period of the process. Man is not satisfied by ideologies cut off from any source of real efficacy: the hour must come when he is disenchanted with them. He lives still less from criticism and negations. He does not live by laicism and neutrality. Inevitably something like a great call for air is produced in his inner void, which opens him to the invasion of new positive forces, whatever they might be. The latter conquer him all the more quickly, the more coarse and virulent they are. Cut off from a higher life, he gives in to the brutal pressures that, at least, give him the feeling of a life. Having abused criticism to make truth itself vanish, he now dislikes using it to protect his mirages.

A troubled credulity succeeds his faith. Rationalism has expelled mystery: myth takes its place. We know great examples of this.

(emphasis added)

Writing in 1942, De Lubac was referring to the mythology of Nazi Germany: its Aryan race doctrine, its occult pageantry, etc.  Mysticism had been expelled, but politics and reason were soon banished as well.

I find De Lubac’s observation to be an excellent lens through which to view subsequent history.  Reason and science were too dry for our taste buds, and we have embraced a host of myth “isms” as a substitute. They are not a religion in name, but are so in practice. Daedalus, Sisyphus and Tiresias stride the earth once more. And their progeny follow: a new Talos,  a new Chimera, etc.

And if you oppose them, you are an enemy of that myth.  You cannot beat these new mythologies purely with reason or politics. You must return to faith, and the tools of faith, to respond. The ancient world was laid to rest by Jesus, but the de-Christianization of the world has allowed it to return as a revenant.

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Sinner and Poet: The Diamond Tears of Charles Péguy

 

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Charles Peguy by Jean-Pierre Laurens

“I am a sinner, but there is no sin in my work.” – Charles Péguy

This guy. But since he was French, he might have been this “Guy.” But rather, his name is Charles Péguy.

Be careful with this guy, cause if you read him, you might actually start writing poetry. I know nothing about poetry, but after reading him, I was inspired to write some of my own. As I said, I know nothing about poetry, but some people who do think he might be the best Catholic poet of the last few hundred years. Those who like Gerard Manley Hopkins would probably disagree. Hopkins was a genius, and smart people who truly understand poetry can explain why he was. I am not a genius or a poet, so don’t ask me to explain Hopkins.

Péguy perhaps was a peasant genius. He wrote in free verse, with little to no rhyme or consistent meter. His poems were long, used simple vocabulary, and much repetition. If this were Seinfeld, he would be Charles Festivus, the “Poet for the Rest of Us”, the 99%. His work is accessible.

But he is largely unknown right now.

Why? He had too much integrity. He came from very modest beginnings, and when he grew older became a socialist and agnostic. He was a very much a defender of Dreyfus, a famous French Jew wrongly accused of treason. However, he fell out with most of his friends on the Left over time due to what he perceived as their pursuit of political advantage over the truth. “Everything begins in mysticism and ends in politics” is a famous quote of his.

He came to occupy a lonely place, neither trusted nor wanted by the Left or the Right. He was a patriot, and a French nationalist, and his basic politics was one of solidarity with the common man. Unfortunately for his reputation, and despite his defense of Dreyfus, the fascists of the 30s and 40s later tried to claim him as a patron for their twisted politics. And when you put God first, you eventually realize that there is no ideology or political party that can really express what you want. So you hang there, suspended between two thieves, one on the right and another on the left.

But he had integrity, and so when the Great War came, he enlisted, even though he was 41 years old, married and his wife pregnant with their fourth child. He was a little guy too. Because while he was a French nationalist and a patriot, he was not going to let some 18 and 19-year-old kids do the dying for him. And so he died for them, leading from the front, shot through the forehead in 1914.

But the politics are less interesting  than the faith. When he married he did not believe, but by 1908 he had come back to the Catholic faith of his baptism. But his wife was an atheist, and refused to allow their children to be baptized. And because he was not married in the Church, his conscience did not allow him to receive the Sacraments, ever. And out of solidarity with his family, he did not go to Mass.  But that did not stop him from making a forty mile pilgrimage on foot to the Cathedral of Chartres in thanks to Our Lady when his son recovered from an illness. Integrity.

A man in such a situation can get lonely. And you might find yourself falling in love with the young Jewish girl (and she with you) who works at your literary journal. But a man with integrity doesn’t have an affair. Instead, like Péguy , you play matchmaker and find her a husband.

All this pain and sadness generated great diamond tears of words, a series of poems and plays written during the five years before his death. Much of it is out of print, of course, because that’s the way things are right now. The real treasures of the past have to be unearthed.  I am going to copy a few excerpts of his poems in some future posts (My understanding of U.S law is that there is no copyright for the works of foreign authors who died before 1923).

Oh yes, his family … His wife converted after he died, and had their children baptized. As it will always be, a man and father will die for the sake of his people.

 

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Strangers in a Strange Land: Living the Catholic Faith in a Post-Christian World

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Where now the horse and the rider? Where is the horn that was blowing?
Where is the helm and the hauberk, and the bright hair flowing?
Where is the hand on the harpstring, and the red fire glowing?
Where is the spring and the harvest and the tall corn growing?
They have passed like rain on the mountain, like a wind in the meadow;
The days have gone down in the West behind the hills into shadow.
Who shall gather the smoke of the dead wood burning,
Or behold the flowing years from the Sea returning?

The Two Towers, J.R.R. Tolkien

In the movie adaptation of The Two Towers, Theoden chants a portion of the above poem  as the darkness closes in. He then asks aloud: “How did it come to this?” Archbishop Chaput, in this survey of contemporary America, proposes to answer this question, among some others, including, “What Comes Next?” While he is writing primarily for a Catholic audience, I think Christians of other faiths grappling with the current problems may find it very helpful.

The book’s title comes from Exodus 2:22, where Moses names his firstborn son, particularly the King James Version:

And she bare him a son, and he called his name Gershom: for he said, I have been a stranger in a strange land.

It is thought that this was a reference to Moses time in Egypt, a “strange land” for a Hebrew. Moses later leads the Hebrews out of Egypt after he accepts a mission from God. America is arguably the “strange land” now, where man has taken the place of God, and we build large monuments to ourselves.

Archbishop Chaput may be the closest thing to a “public intellectual” among the American Catholic Church’s leadership.  After reading the book, I can tell he is extremely well read, and conversant with the ideas and arguments of artists, scholars and activists from all corners: Alexis De Tocqueville, Saul Alinsky, Charles Peguy, C.S. Lewis, etc. He is also very conversant with all the more recent big thinkers in Catholic theology, as would be expected (De Lubac, Balthasar, etc.).

I am often interested in writers’ last names, specifically their origin. Chaput is a French name, and apparently means the “wearer of a distinctive cloak or hat”, and is derived from the French word for “chapel.” Certainly an appropriate last name for  a Catholic Bishop.  He should probably be made a Cardinal, but he is a little too forthright for that to happen anytime soon.

Chaput’s purpose is try to and help Catholics and other Christians (its not just for Catholics) understand how we got to this point. He argues that the roots go far back beyond the upheavals of the last fifty years. Essentially, he agrees with De Tocqueville’s observation that democracy is only as good as the people who live there.  Our ancestors, regardless of their party, accepted that they were sinners, were accountable to God for their actions, and accordingly went about governing this country with greater humility, caution and tolerance for those who disagreed with them.

That has changed. While the vast majority of people still believe in a higher power, more people than at any other time have substituted the worldly project of utopia for faith in God. When you don’t put God first, you make a God of other things.  Thus political candidates, parties and public policies have substituted for Jesus, Church and the Sacraments. God is a means to the worldly end, and not the End. The great joke about building utopias is that the word means “nowhere”, as St. Thomas More invented it in his semi-satirical exercise in imagining a perfect world.

I am not going to do a chapter by chapter summary. The first chapter is a particularly strong overview of the current situation. The next several get into “How did it come to this?”

The later part of the book is focused on “what to do”, and “what comes next?”.  Chaput may not agree with the ideas laid out in books like “Resident Aliens” (a chapter title), and is probably not a fan of what is known as the “Benedict Option”, referring to the monastic community of St. Benedict.   In those ideas, Christians sort of withdraw from the world and public sphere and focus on living prayerful, purpose filled lives. Sort of like islands in the storm of barbarism.Rather, I think Archbishop Chaput would prefer us to remain engaged, part of the world, even if we don’t expect solutions from the political process. He gives examples and encourages us to stand fast.

So, what does come next?  A lot of heavyweight Catholic philosophers and theologians have wrestled with a theology of history over the past century or so: Romano Guardini (The End of the Modern World), Josef Pieper (The End of Time), and Hans Urs Von Balthasar (A Theological Anthropology), for example. Pope Francis in particular seems to like Guardini, and is particularly fond of the novel Lord of the World, a fictional exercise in imagining the next phase.

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Guardini, writing after WW2, argued that the great Modern project had failed, and that something new must take its place. Guardini hoped that a new man, fully converted, would be able to:

… see through the illusions which reign in the midst of scientific and technological development: the deception behind the ‘liberal’s’ idolatry of culture, behind the totalitarian’s utopia, the tragecist’s pessimism; behind modern mythicism and the hermaphrodite world of psychoanalysis. He would see and know for himself [that] Reality is simply not like that!”

I don’t think that’s happened. Rather, the world seems to have tired of postmodernism’s irony, and are interested in rebooting Modernism 2.0. Thus the great interest in Artificial Intelligence, Robotics, Genetic Engineering, Virtual Reality, Life Extension, etc. Modernism failed because Man was not Modern, but now he can be remade through a trans-human ideology and technology. This helps explain in part why the transgender issue is so hot right now. Its just part of Modernism 2.0. Elon Musk seems a particularly prominent spokesman for Modernism 2.0, watch him to see how the new narrative continues to develop.

So, what we are left with is just plain old witness, and the readiness to stake everything on God. But as Chaput notes at several points, its not enough to ignore the world, or hope for a separate peace. You will not be allowed to disengage and retire to a monastic community.  You may not be interested in Modernism 2.0, but its interested in you. It wants your affirmation and approval, not acceptance. It will keep pushing on all fronts: public  education, workplace rules, health care, public expression, the role of parents over their children’s upbringing, etc. Chaput encourages us to continue our witness in the public square, and all that we do, even if we do not put our faith in political processes.

I will cite someone even more blunt than the good Archbishop. Writing on the same issues in the last chapter of his The Moment of Christian Witness, Hans Urs von Balthasar scripted an imaginary conversation between a commissar and an anonymous Christian under interrogation. The title of this chapter was Cordula, the name of a young girl allegedly martyred by the Huns. The catch is Cordula initially tried to hide, but after everyone else was killed, came out and gave her final witness and received the crown of martyrdom. Balthasar writes that in the end, all we have to offer is our defenseless exposure to the world, like Christ.

Hopefully it will not come to that.  And as Chaput writes, we must be hopeful, but not optimistic. Chaput likes the poet Peguy, and cites to his long poem on the second theological virtue. Hope is something we receive through God’s grace, optimism is a belief in Man and his sand castles.   I would bet on grace, not man.

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Andrew Greeley: Prophet of the Body

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For we are members of His body. “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, but I am speaking about Christ and the church.

Ephesians 5:30-32

Andrew Greeley, an American Catholic priest, scholar, and novelist, died four years ago this coming May. I was thinking about him last night, and decided to do a post. A far more erudite memorial can be found here. These comments are of course those of a layperson, and someone who had only the most fleeting encounter with him. So he is free to bonk me on the head for my misunderstandings and inaccuracies if we ever meet in Heaven.

Father Greeley drove up to my college campus outside Chicago one night in the early 1990s to give a talk. The subject was the portrayal of God in the movies. I had read a few of his novels, so I was excited by a rare opportunity to see a famous author. We gathered in the church at the campus Catholic center, and listened to him for about an hour. I can’t remember all the movies he discussed, but the one that stuck with me was Bob Fossie’s 1979 film, All That Jazz.  The movie was a thinly disguised self-portrayal of the famous dancer and director, and apparently inspired by Fossie’s own near death experience or dream when he had heart troubles a few years earlier.

At the end of the film, the protagonist dies. Greeley’s view was that the portrayal of the encounter of the soul with the character of Angelique, an angel of death, and a sign of God, was entirely in accord with Christianity. The Beatific Vision is the “wedding bed” he said, that great consummation of love we are all looking for, whether we know it or not.  I remember him saying that “God will be far sexier than Jessica Lange”, or words to that effect. A bit shocking to my relatively young ears, you might imagine. (Young man that I was, I watched it at first opportunity).

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Angelique, from All That Jazz

When we went to Q&A, I asked him about Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ”, which had been released a few years earlier.  He advised watching it with the volume turned off. He loved the visuals, but hated the script. Scorsese (who dropped out of a Catholic seminary) was a disappointment to him, and overly influenced by “Neo-Platonism” if I am remembering Greeley’s words correctly. Don’t ask me to explain that one, I am no philosopher.

Over the next decade or so I dipped into and out of his fiction and non-fiction. He was an incredibly prolific writer, and I wonder if there is anyone who read everything he published. He had a Ph.D. in Sociology, and wrote many scholarly works about the Catholic Church and religion generally from the 1960s onwards.  They often involved broad surveys of American Catholic experience and opinions, and with a focus on current problems within the Church.

Among lay people, Greeley is far more famous for his works of fiction than his scholarly career or Church criticism. In the late 1970s, he decided to become a storyteller, and eventually wrote about sixty novels. His fiction can  be grouped into four broad categories:   There were about half a dozen stand alone science fiction and fantasy works.  The next group were the most controversial, probably twenty or so books set in contemporary America involving the lives of Catholics and their struggles. There was the long semi-humorous series about Father “Blackie” Ryan, a Father Brown like priest who solves mysteries. The last series, which all had the word “Irish” in their titles, and still ongoing at his death, followed the lives of an American Catholic couple from courtship through early middle age.

Father Greeley’s prose was very readable and he had a gift for characterization. I don’t believe he won any big awards, but he sold a lot of books that spoke to the hopes and fears of many Catholics, especially a certain subset who still went to Mass but otherwise felt alienated from the Church.

He was also a man of strong opinions and no small temper. He was a Democrat with a capital D, and not shy about his criticisms of those who had different points of view on political issues. He was also an unstinting critic of what he saw as the flaws of the leaders of the Church and how they led it. Many of his novels portrayed priests and high ranking members of the Church in a negative light. He likely paid a certain price for this professionally, and there were perhaps many who did not like him personally.

In many ways, I think his life encapsulates the stillborn “Catholic Moment” in America. If the last few centuries of the Church in France is like a long Indian summer that never ended (my next post I think), the experience of the Church in America is like a Spring that never ripened into Summer. The election of JFK was the high water mark of sorts, and things have kind of gone sideways since the 1960s. The reason for this, and the topic he had the most to say on, was human sexuality.

As the linked piece by Weigel discussed, the watershed moment for Greeley and the Church in America was Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae. The encyclical condemned artificial birth control as sinful, and it was perhaps the most negatively received encyclical in the modern period. Many Catholics, including theologians, disagreed with it, and later left the Church, in part, over this.  Greeley disagreed, but he stayed. He did let his fictional characters voice his opinion though, and I remember one of them referring to it as “that damned Encyclical” if memory serves.

This failure of many to trust the Pope, and it was a failure in my view, perhaps derived from an insecure Catholicism still looking to fit in with the modern world and America. A Catholic Church that couldn’t get with the times on sexuality would never be taken seriously by the news media, the universities, or the entertainment industry. Anti-Catholic prejudice was a stronger force back then, and we cannot completely dismiss that pressure to conform as a factor in this rupture.

But Greeley and other dissenter’s instincts were perhaps not completely off base.  Pope Benedict the XVI, in a recent book, Last Testament: In His Own Words, acknowledged that while he agreed with Pope Paul VI’s conclusions, he felt that the analysis in Humanae Vitae was lacking. Not enough of a theological foundation had been laid to support it.  This heavy lifting was later done by Pope John Paul II in what has come to be known as “The Theology of the Body.” This Pope expressly affirmed that the body was good, that human sexuality was good, and that human marriage was a great symbol of God’s love for the Church and its people. It affirmed traditional teaching but without any of the negative or suspicious treatment of sexuality that often clouded how Catholics were taught about sex.  Over time, many think that this will be Saint JPII’s most enduring legacy.

Greeley had great respect and admiration for Pope John Paul II, but for the rest of his life either disagreed with or was skeptical of traditional Church doctrine on subjects like artificial contraception, the ordination of married men, and a few related topics. It was unfortunate, because I don’t believe they were that far apart in many ways. He was otherwise very loyal to and protective of the Church, and was not shy about taking to task those he thought were unfairly critical of her.

The recurring theme in Greeley’s fiction was that human romantic love, or eros, was good, and a sign of God’s love for us. Usually the protagonists are a man and woman who find their way through various adventures and hardships to love each other. Love made the suffering of life bearable. Like an Old Testament prophet, he hammered away at this theme again and again in his fiction.  I think that Greeley had a genuine call from God to speak and write on this issue, and its unfortunate that (in my amateur opinion), his mission and that of many others in the Church was diverted, in part at least, by their disagreement with Humanae Vitae.

Greeley will probably never be promoted for Sainthood, but if he is, perhaps the Cubs finally winning the World Series a few years after his death can be chalked up as one of his miracles. Sláinte, Father Greeley!

P.S. One of the recurring irritations I have experienced in trying to learn more about my faith is that so much that has been written by famous and well respected Catholic writers and scholars is out of print.  Greeley is no exception, particularly when it comes to his non-fiction (another 50 books or so) and early fiction. If anyone from his estate were to ever read this, it would be great if more of his bibliography could be digitized and made available in ebook form. I recognize that the rights to his works may be held by many different interests, and perhaps it is much more expensive to do this than I realize. But it would be a shame to lose so much of it to time as all the university library copies eventually fall apart and are discarded.

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States of Life

 

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John Everett Millais, The Vale of Rest

Poverty, chastity, obedience.

The life of the child is the way of the counsels.

Poverty, chastity, obedience.

The way of the counsels is the life of a child.

The brothers and sisters know the trick,

They stay young real quick.

 

Father, mother, sister, brother,

They exchange one set for another.

A nursery becomes a cell.

An alarm clock and then a Matin’s bell.

But the ordered rhymes must end.

For the time of the Spirit must begin.

 

The wind blows where it will,

it does not explain.

A child does not question the wind,

but holds his arms wide

to be blown along.

Children don’t take the day off,

buy life insurance or retire.

Children own nothing.

They receive their daily bread,

and their clothes are laid out.

Children are told what to do,

and where to go.

The wind blows where it will,

it expects consent.

But children do get bored,

their feelings are hurt,

they get lonely.

Theirs but to pray and die.

They grow old,

but never grow up.

Poverty, chastity, obedience.

The kingdom of God is theirs.

Unless you become like them,

you will never enter the Kingdom.

But you will.

The dead know the way of the counsels.

 

 

 

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Going to the Margins with Georges Bernanos in Mouchette

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This installment in my ongoing review of Georges Bernanos bibliography is about his novel Mouchette, published in 1937. In the French publication it is titled as Nouvelle Histoire de Mouchette. Bernanos decided to reuse the name of a female character from his first novel, Under the Sun of Satan, for the title of this book and its main character. Unlike much of the Bernanos bibliography, Mouchette is in print and available through bookstores.

I will introduce the review with following Bible passage:

If our hearts condemn us, we know that God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.

1 John 3:20

One of the expressions that Pope Francis is known for is “Going to the margins” of society. That is, we must reach out and help the poor, the mentally ill, the imprisoned as part of our love of neighbor. Those most difficult to reach should deserve special attention. Another popular expression of the Pope’s is that the Church must “accompany” those in particularly difficult situations.

The story begins with Mouchette at school, and her discomfort  with singing along with the rest of her class. They are singing the lines from a French poem, Three Days of Christopher Columbus. The first two lines, translated to English:

“Hope! … No more Hope!”

Three Days, Columbus told them, and I give you a world.

The lines apparently describe a conversation with Columbus and his despairing crew. I think Bernanos was alluding to the three days in the tomb and the Resurrection.

Mouchette has no such attention or accompaniment in her life. She is a fourteen year old girl in rural France. She is poor, and the daughter of an alcoholic father and terminally ill mother. She wears her older brother’s oversized wooden clogs everywhere, and the clopping sound they make might as well be the nails going into her very own Cross. She has no friends, and really, by the end of the novel, no hope. She can’t wait three more days. Again, deliberately, I think Bernanos chose to break up this novel of 127 pages into only three chapters.

Overall, it is a meditation on the pity of God for those on the margins, those whom God does not seem to help out of respect for our free will in ordering the affairs of the world.  Bernanos deliberately gives the reader a God’s eye view, and invites us to accompany this person on the margin of society.

A brief except to give you a flavor of Bernanos’ style in this book:

Her attention was so absorbed and so tender that it seems to be an extension of her own life. It did not occur to her to find Arsene’s face handsome. It was simply that it was made for her, and seemed as easy and natural in her gaze as the handle of her old knife in her hand, the old knife which she had found on the road one evening, and had shown to no one, and which was the only thing in the world which she possessed. She would have liked to touch his face, but its golden color, as warm as that of bread, was enough to make her happy.

 

This is a particularly good book if you are (like I hope I am not anymore) a little too quick to judge people based on the worst day of their life or after the biggest mistake they might ever make.  We don’t really know how they got there. Only God does. My local newspaper has gone mostly electronic, and its home page is steadily updated throughout the day with an endless list of crimes, deaths and various misadventures.  The people who comment on these stories are often rather cruel, criticizing the person or their family for what happened. It is far better to say a prayer for these strangers you never knew in this life … you might be the only one who does.

So you can accompany those on the margins through prayer, if nothing else is possible.

The novel was adapted into a film by the highly regarded French director Robert Bresson in 1967. The screenplay is largely faithful to the plot, though the story has been shifted forward a few decades to post-WW2 France. Bresson uses his familiar, minimalist style and relied on locals and unknowns to fill out the cast. Most of the bad stuff is not directly shown, but still, it’s not for children. It is available with subtitles. I don’t believe it won any major awards, but it was well regarded enough that the Critetion Collection decided to restore and reissue it in 2007.

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