Liturgical Wars

I have not commented on the recent reports about Pope Francis wanting to restrict the older Roman liturgy in opposition to the legislation of his predecessor Benedict XVI. It is not my war, but I am ready to listen to those who have a balanced and evidence-based judgement. One such person is Dom Alcuin Reid who has published some of my own work in the T&T Companion to Liturgy. He has just published an article On liturgical wars and rumors of wars.

Dom Alcuin begins by saying that a level of concern exists in the traditionalist Roman Catholic world. I am now very out of touch with this world, even in France where there was the most resistance to the liturgical reforms of the 1960’s and 70’s, especially that of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre and his Society of St Pius X. The Fraternity of St Peter and the Institute of Christ the King have been most successful is assembling people of a conservative mindset who bring up large families. Many of those people go on retreats to the various religious communities and monasteries of the same general tendency that often colludes with far right-wing political opinions.

Like in the political world, the traditionalists and the diocesan establishment have placed themselves in quite rigid ideologies. We are fifty years on from 1971 and the apologists for the liturgical reforms still talk of “renewal” and “return to pristine sources”. The situation in most parish churches outside the cities reminds me somewhat of the eighteenth century in England against which the first aspirations of Methodism and Anglo-Catholicism reacted. One big problem in the Roman Catholic Church is its rigid authority structure, something like Erastianism in England in the days when Ritualist vicars were sent to prison for non-compliance to the 1662 Prayer Book. The ideological parallels continue.

I appreciate Dom Alcuin’s reflection on sectarianism and the ghetto mentality among some traditionalists. At the same time, it is not easy to cultivate tolerance in the face of clerical intolerance of diocesan bishops and bureaucracies. There are problems with the way clergy are trained in some of the seminaries. The implications are quite clear, especially measured by my own experience, when I read the words self-serving narcissism in clergy and content to live in a gilt cage decorated according to the tastes of their preferred century in history. These strong indictments are not only targeted against priests celebrating the Pius V liturgy. I saw it in the faces and manners of some of the cassock-wearing clergy I saw in their little groups at Pontmain – closed to the world.

Dom Alcuin sees things as a monk – One of the first tests of a young man seeking to enter the monastic life is to see whether he is capable of hard manual work without complaint. Monastic life can also involve totalitarian control and breaking of persons. I very much agree, and it is why I appreciate the fact that my Church does not have the resources to pay stipends to the clergy, but that we must earn our own living through work unless we are retired and on a pension. Our clergy are not afraid to be in civil dress when “off-duty” or socialising with people for reasons other than church. There are situations when the cassock is appropriate and when it is not. I have expressed my ideas about clergy training, which is just about what we do in the Anglican Catholic Church – have men do serious studies and be involved in parish ministry for their “apprenticeship”. There are problems associated with married candidates, but this issue is beyond my ability to express myself with credibility.

I do think that were the Roman authorities to restore the status quo of the 1970’s, many would revolt as people kick back against what may be excessive Covid lockdown measures in the countries where we live. Such measures against the old liturgy would undermine their authority. Blind obedience is no longer a part of the Roman Catholic ethos.

The article is interesting but struck me by its irrelevance to my present life. I am no longer in that French traditionalist world, but I am isolated as an Anglican in a place where there is no interest in Anglicanism. One can’t have it both ways. Thus you will see our clergy as much in suits and ties or casual dress as cassocks, and celebrating ancient forms of liturgy and referring to other times in history when Christianity meant more in the world. We socialise in a world where “churchy” things put people off because of the negative associations. Should there arrive a real persecution of Christianity in the future, we need to be able to become scarlet pimpernels and live in the catacombs.

One day, things will become clear to us whichever institutional Church we belong to.

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Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi Christian University

We often read about drifts in the great Universities of Europe and the British Isles. Some are not true as official policy, but some professors have been influenced by Woke and its desire to “cancel culture”. We do have to be careful about what we believe and adopt a prudent attitude in the absence of real evidence.

Perhaps on the other hand, we should be aware of the influence of some fine philosophers in the task of education of school children and university students alike. As I discovered the German Romantic philosopher Novalis, I read about his notion of Bildung in German education. Novalis was not the only one to express such ideas, but I think this is a good mind to approach. Another was none other than Newman in his Idea of a University.

The Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi Christian University exists to teach us to think and be purposeful, not go along with some ideology of mass humanity. Novalis was very close to Fichte who was deeply influenced by Kant. Philosophy aims to bring us to know ourselves.

True idealism, Novalis claims, is not opposed to realism, but only to formalism.

A proper account of the self, in its relation to itself, should consider the self’s development in and through history as well as its externalizing of itself in the encounter with other minds and nature. Novalis did not invent Bildung – education in and through culture, but developed it. It brings the student to become mature and self-understanding. It brings a capacity to make a reasoned judgement. Novalis’ Romanticism consisted of bringing ourselves to a state of critical self-understanding. We cannot do this work alone but in a spirit of commitment to the wider community in a tradition of history, science and art. There is a traditionalist dimension, but one that is tempered by critical reasoning and a desire to understand history. Another dimension of Bildung is the dialogue with the other’s point of view, not the usual way in our days of opinionated persons shouting others down in a narcissistic rage. It is designed as a remedy to prejudice and bigotry.

A real understanding of education is a challenge to authoritarianism, to dead letter and formalism. The Enlightenment is needed to challenge excesses of traditionalism and Romanticism is needed as a counterweight to dry and formal rationalism.

In the website of this recent academic foundation in America, the emphasis given by the Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi Christian University is on the notion of a community of scholars. This University is explicitly Christian, believing in human persons as spiritual beings and the profound dignity and worth of all human persons. The Christian humanism is plain. The love of beauty, truth, goodness and justice is Platonic. The thought of Fr Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi comes exactly from the era of German Romanticism and Idealism. As Novalis had said, Idealism is not opposed to Realism but formalism, the fixed and fossilised mind. I find here a philosophy of education than pleases me.

The existence of this University is real and it has shown its favour to the Anglican Catholic Church by awarding Bishop Damien Mead a Doctorate honoris causa. Fr Jonathan Munn, with his doctorate in mathematics,  is also a graduate in theology with his Masters degree. As a community, we build each others’ credibility and esteem for our talents in study and thought. This University was only founded recently but is not a “degree mill”. It is allowed by the State of Florida to award its own degrees in a certain range of studies, but it does not award secular degrees like medicine or law. It is honest about not having the same kind of accreditation as many of the older universities. Perhaps such a status might be obtained in the future, but what is important to me is the philosophical foundation of this educational institution.

Why study with this University? For me personally, I am 62 years of age and have no ambition to a career requiring a degree. I do believe that I do have some things to “prove” so that I can get the community interested in some of my own concerns, including my little Sarum group in England which has been put on hold because of the Covid pandemic. There needs to be a very different kind of liturgical science than nit-picking ancient fragments and using them to decorate make it up as you go along contemporary “expressions”.  That is the point on which my own tutor at Fribourg and I disagreed, even if I was too a priori and set in my traditionalist ideas. I do believe that academia needs new foundations and new philosophies to challenge the formalism and authoritarianism of the old universities.

I think I can help in a small way to put this University on the map. Another thing I like about it is its European ethos despite being an American foundation. There is a lot to build on.

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Notre Dame de Pontmain

It is a long time since I made a pilgrimage to a place of Marian apparitions. I had previously been to Lourdes and Fatima, and was struck by the intensity of people offering their prayers and asking for favours, especially healing from sickness.

Pontmain is less known, but is nearer my home in the direction of Brittany. Its history is set in 1871 during the Franco-Prussian War declared by Napoleon III in 1870. Pontmain was then a tiny village of some 500 inhabitants, typical of many places around here in the Mayenne. Two young boys were helping their parents do some work in their barn. When one, Eugène, looked out of the door towards the starry sky, he saw an apparition of a woman wearing a blue gown covered with golden stars, and a black veil under a golden crown. The full story can be seen here.

On the same evening, the Prussian army ceased to advance towards Laval under superior orders. This apparition marked the end of the war. The apparition was quickly approved by the Bishop of Laval and the parish priest of Pontmain. This place is associated with a sign of hope in the midst of war. Quite a few pilgrims from Germany visit the shrine as well as those of us living nearby. Indeed, I heard German spoken by some people around me as I found a place in the church to spend what I hoped would be a quiet moment.

It was Pentecost Sunday and there were about a hundred people on the square in front of the church. There were two bishops in copes and mitres. I noticed how conservatively they were vested. There were many young men in cassocks and religious habits and also a large number of nuns and sisters. There had been the Synod of the Diocese of Laval. There had been a ceremony in the church and they quickly moved to the hall where they would have their meeting and talk business.

My own impression was that there were many people engaged in their prayers for this or that intention, as I was. There were a few strangely dressed people with a behaviour that suggested some degree of fanaticism or crankiness. I was not in clerical dress for the reason of avoiding being noticed and asked the usual questions of what community I belonged to or what I was doing in France being an Anglican. At the same time, the young men in cassocks and religious habits talked in small groups seemingly impervious to any world around them. The cassocks seemed to indicate the Communauté Saint-Martin who are charged with a parish in Laval. These are not traditionalists but conservative mainstream Roman Catholics.

I felt quite alienated from this ecclesiastical world and found it best to have decided to dress casually and anonymously. Going into the shrine church, many people were chatting in groups like in the supermarket, completely oblivious to anyone who might want to pass through the group blocking the way. We were all wearing masks as required by the Covid crisis. What I felt around this community of diocesan Catholics was an invisible wall, them inside and the rest of us hardly even existing. That was just an impression. I talked with no one, recognised no one, and reminded myself that I was not there to meet people but to combine a pilgrimage with an afternoon away from home.

Is there a certain hollowness in this expression of Christianity? Who am I to judge? Am I any different from them? I doubt it, apart from my feeling of alienation from a Church I never really converted to. I surmised that I might feel the same way in Walsingham with a pilgrimage of Church of England people. Yet, Pontmain is much less crowded than Lourdes and Fatima. They are places that concentrate practising Catholics, the curious and those who are seeking help for particular problems, especially health. I went with the idea of sitting somewhere quietly to say Vespers, but there were too many people, too much bustling and too much noise. The breviary stayed in my pocket.

I returned home feeling quite unfulfilled, even though I had expected little. Again it is the question of those who need other people to find spiritual energy, and others who find it within themselves and their solitude with God. Is there any real difference between a place where something miraculous happened in the past and any other place? Historical events do leave their imprint in a place. I found the same thing in reverse with places associated with evil like Dachau concentration camp near Munich or Oradour sur Glane where the SS murdered the entire population of the village. However, here in Pontmain, the beauty and grace of Our Lady seemed to be elusive, almost as if it had “worn away”.

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Mendelssohn Flies Away…

I wrote the article O for the Wings of a Dove a few months ago at a time when my life was becoming increasingly conflictual. Finally the dove flew away and found its dovecote. In that little article, I reflected on the relationship between solitude and loneliness. I was not alone but lonely.

A part of my choice of a place to live in the Mayenne countryside was financial, another part was the calmness of an independent house as opposed to a flat in a block of identical flats. Mostly, it came from a conviction that I was a mess mentally and spiritually. I got into that mess in 2005 when my thought was much less mature and I believed that an intimate relationship was desirable.

As my dis-ease evolved over the years, I sought to understand a number of currents of thought like Romanticism. Emerson’s Self Reliance has also confirmed many of my own instincts. This essay has been translated into French under the title Confiance en Soi, Self Confidence. Where is the dividing line between such inner strength and sinful pride and selfishness? We are brainwashed in our corporate and collectivist world to eschew such individualism and seek relationships and social contact at all cost. After all, man is a social species like many others.

In Christian spirituality, there are alone-times that are recommended. The ultimate is the hermit, the contemplative solitary. On a more temporary basis, there is the retreat which is possible in a monastery guest house or alone in nature with a backpack and a tent. Most years since I learned to sail, I have been on a dinghy cruising journey both to enjoy nature the way very few people do and to live that jewel of solitude. When we are on our own, it is a test that can be painful or consoling – it depends on what state we are in. When we go into ourselves, what will we find? God? Evil spirits? Nothingness? If we find nothing within, from there comes the illusion of having to find what we are looking for in another person. That is the root of personality disorders.

If I were to prepare a couple for marriage, something I feel eminently unqualified to do, I would ask both of the persons whether they are ready to respect and uphold the solitude of the other. Few things are worse than one person who takes away the solitude and identity of the other. So many times, we see in a film the nagging woman wanting the attention of the man who is in his laboratory engaged in some inspired work. She is trying to drag the man into the “conformity mould”, get him to work as a civil servant or an accountant – but yet the result would be a destroyed individuality and a failure of that lust for the man’s soul. I won’t be “sexist”, because the possessiveness roles can easily be reversed.

If you are afraid of loneliness, don’t get married (Anton Chekhov)

We all experience the same paradox. I remember the words of my brother a few years ago in regard to my Aspergers autism diagnosis – “You have to come to terms with it”. I would add a layer of understanding to these words. Terms – terms are words with meanings. This is a concept I find in technical translating, where words are used in special meanings by different fields of knowledge and practice. As this reflection is written with words, it is good to give definitions. Isolation comes from the Latin insula, meaning an island, as in John Donne’s No man is an island unto himself. Loneliness more implies the lack of companionship. Solitude comes from the Latin solus. This is a word that is often used in the liturgy to underline the uniqueness of God. Thou alone art holy. It can mean not only the absence of relationship but also the existential integrity of the subject.

For many years, I have grappled with the idea of otherness. Why are we all human, yet only have the experience of being ourselves? The other person seems to be alien (not from another planet, but simply other), yet we are a part of the same humanity. It reminds the theologian of the mystery of the Holy Trinity. Humanity and the person are just as mysterious and ineffable. The essential of our experience is to be alone, and this has to be accepted. Then comes the question of the limits of individualism and what can become selfishness and lack of respect and compassion for others. Whatever our moral obligations towards others, we are unique persons and respond to life differently. We cannot be another person, though we can and should experience a degree of empathy. Psychopathy is defined as the absence of empathy, which leads to inhumanity.

If our experience has diminished our belief in humanity, the work of reconstruction has to begin from oneself. The foundation is self-awareness, experience of God’s immanence as well as his transcendence. We live in a world of extraversion, of mass tourism, crowds and noise, “hanging out” with friends, the ideology of collectivism. Always being with others becomes overrated because of that notion that the object of desire is only in the ineffable other because we have nothing within ourselves.

Since childhood, I have been aware of the dangers of following the undifferentiated and unconscious herd, the mass, the current conformity fashion. Being capable of being alone, at least at times, enables us to live consciously, to develop that nobility of spirit of which we read in minds like Berdyaev and Thomas Mann. Solitude is the only thing that can heal our wounds and make our personalities mature.

Carl Gustav Jung describes this process as individuation, probably the one concept that was most understood by the Romantics. Each of us is alone to have our combination of skills, talents, personality and experience. I am frightened to be speaking with a stranger and find that this person is as alien to me as I am to him. What does this do to groupthink? I am amazed to see how corporate decisions can be so lacking in basic common sense and rationality. Collectivity brings stupidity, unless the group is made up of mature individuals. We can only become mature individuals by being ourselves, beginning with solitude.

Solitude brings strength and divine grace. We have to be strong to endure solitude and loneliness, to find our creative energies and sense of purpose. Others may be struggling with their meaning of life, certainly because they have looked for it in other people, who cannot give it to them except at best in a distorted form of an ideology.

The experience is painful. It leads many to serious errors like a poorly founded marriage, or “getting in with the wrong set”. No one else can do it for us, not for all the money in the world. We have to assume responsibility and rely on our own resources. No one else can understand what is within us any more than what is at the bottom of the ocean or on another planet. The only advice possible is in the form of general principles or platitudes at worst. This is how we grow up and acquire resilience and true stoicism.

The answers do not always come quickly. Our society is not given to waiting. Patience is a forgotten virtue. We often feel we are not getting anywhere, and often have to reculer pour bien sauter – the notion in the noble sport of fencing of taking a step back to make a better attack. I have learned many things about depression and differences between true clinical depression the falls under the competence of professionals and the results of binary and all-or-nothing thinking. We often have to go to those dark moments to find the light of our spark of divinity. Our only way is finding what lies within ourselves and facing it without the fog induced by seeking our “supply” from others, chemical substances or other extrinsic forms of stimulation.

This work is not navel-gazing but doing things that are both necessary (earning our living for example) and pleasurable (making things, reading and study, music, sports, whatever). The important thing is being ourselves. Of course, this will alienate us from the herd and the expectations of others. It is the work of heroes. I make no such claim, nor do I want to rely on human forces that will inevitably let me down. Why make the effort? We become less “in need” in our relationships with friends and family, more honest and aware. As the Americans say, we cut the crap.

As we grow, we become less dependent on that need for “supply” to compensate for our interior emptiness. Perhaps that mystery of “otherness” can be resolved in a new way, as unity of persons transcends nature – think of those old dogmatic lectures on the Trinity. Personhood exists at another level from crude individuality.

We become more authentic by being ourselves. Friendships become founded on higher principles. We develop a more ethical and moral sense of doing the right thing. If we are involved with other people, we like to do so on a basis of clarity of saying what we mean and meaning what we say. We stop looking elsewhere for authority and validation. This is particularly important in a world that seems to be sliding back to the 1920’s and a new era of ideologies and dictatorships.

Being creative will fill us with energy, doing the things we enjoy as well as things that can enable us to earn our living, at least to an extent. Our society is sick, to the extent that being sick is the “new normal”. We have to react against that ant colony and its bullshit. Solitude will bring us independence of mind, self-sufficiency and being able to resist the anthill and be ourselves.

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Settling in…

The settling-in process is coming on. It is the prerequisite for being able to take life in hand and return to writing and making videos. I built my bookshelves last week, and there are just as many in shelves the other side of the room, and in a bookcase above my bed head. This is my bedroom, but also the library and sewing room. This is a small house, so two of the three rooms are multi-purpose. Only the oratory is exclusively dedicated to worship and sacristy.

I am presently working on my workshop which has been a real mess. The floor is beaten earth. Perhaps I will put planks in, but not yet on my budget. The building needs good ventilation, otherwise it will get damp and the tools will go rusty! Ora et labora – the workshop is just as important as the oratory.

The library will need radical sorting according to subject, and that is a job in itself. My office is downstairs and shares the space with the kitchen, refectory and music room (where the organ is going – more on that in the coming weeks). This is where I earn my living and do other writing work.

I have not yet fitted the curtains, but they are on the way. I need to cut them to length and sew the hems, then put up the curtain rails and rings. That will give a little less austerity to the rooms. The oratory will not have curtains on the window.

For music, the pipe organ is not yet reassembled. It also needs a modification to the case because of the lower ceiling. The 8ft stopped bass needs lowering and the conveyances lengthened. It will be quite a challenge. I have a MIDI keyboard which plugs into my computer which has the programme Grand Orgue which is similar to Hauptwerk. The principle is that the sound of each and every pipe of an organ is recorded in *.wav format. The result is as imperfect as a pipe organ and the result is impressive, and unlike most electronic organs, even digital ones. If I ever receive the visit of an organist friend, we could play Antonio Soler’s Seis Conciertos para dos órganos.

All this home-making is important, just like anyone else, for personal stability and a sense of belonging even in the quasi-absence of social life. I have yet to sail this year. Weather in April and May so far has been mediocre and my time has been taken up with removing my possessions from my home in Normandy to bring them to this lovely corner of the Mayenne. I started the process in about mid-March, buying large quantities of cardboard boxes and finding my rented lodgings and a removal firm with some help from my family. I have nearly all my things with me, which is a blessing in such a situation.

I feel more settled, though it will take time before this house is shipshape and Bristol and I can think about more books, articles and videos. Already, these blog articles of my new life are being posted, and they represent my social life as a human being and my ministry as a priest. One by one, the tasks are being done. I will be getting my second Covid shot in June from my old doctor in Yvetot. I hope and pray that this and millions of other vaccinations will bring the virus to become no more harmful than the common cold or the seasonal flu. The pandemic still impedes travel and many things I would like to do in England.

My little Sarum group will certainly organise a Zoom meeting, because we need to motivate each other and get more of an impression of working as a team, each with our particularities of publishing, academic work, the philosophical and cultural context and so much more to revive a notion of the liturgy in the wider Catholic world that has largely fallen into desuetude since the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. This is just one example of a true priestly ministry as a solitary.

The work goes on. I am about to go and say Mass for this fifth Sunday after Easter, the last before the Ascension and Whit Sunday. I will be doing more workshop this afternoon, the coarse work before the fine-tuning and making of more shelves for tools and materials. It is the same in the library and especially in the downstairs room. I am going for my “new” (second-hand) fridge this afternoon to replace the one I have just scrapped because it was freezing the contents and couldn’t be adjusted. Little by little. Every situation needs careful analysis and anticipation, something I learned during my harpsichord-making course back in the 1970’s.

Your prayers are appreciated as I rebuild my life and learn from the past.

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New Oratory

I have already posted these photos to Facebook to announce the “birth” of a new oratory in my little house near Ambrières les Vallées in the Mayenne. I have resumed the dedication to St Martin of Tours of my old chapel in the Vendée. Interestingly enough, the Vendée and the Mayenne are part of the Pays de la Loire. The fatherhood of the holy Bishop of Tours is a part of this area, though my present home is barely out of western Normandy.

I use the term oratory to mean a place of prayer as opposed to a mission or a parish church. I make no pretence to any relationship with the Oratory of St Philip Neri, though I have a great admiration for the Fathers and the spirituality mapped out by the extremely eccentric Apostle of Rome. This is the intimate heart of my life as a priest and a contemplative. I keep an image of St Philip Neri near my stall.

I made the altar when I was in my old home in the Vendée (until 2005). The sacristy  needs elements still in cardboard boxes somewhere in my workshop or in the two large tents I pitched in the garden for temporary storage. I made this altar when I was still under the influence (not of drugs) but my time at Gricigliano, though I went more for Renaissance simplicity than flamboyant baroque. I have had to forsake the “Dearmer” style for lack of space. I intend to make some altar frontals. I will offer the first Mass on Saturday, Feast of Saints Philip and James.

The chapel is installed in a tiny upstairs room with the altar to the side to avoid blocking the window. The single choir stall faces the altar, and the rest of the room is taken up by the sacristy. Without any physical barrier between the chapel and the sacristy, the room is divided into two.

This oratory is not intended to receive churchgoers, but is a my private place of prayer and liturgy. Should a ministry be needed in the future, it would be possible to look into an outside place for a mission and I could provide the altar (presently dismantled) from the chapel in Normandy. A chaque jour suffit sa peine…

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Oratoire Saint-Martin

Here is a brief posting to replace an earlier one which expressed a lack of prudence on my part. The most I will say is that I am now separated and many things remain in the air. In the meantime, I have a new rented home in the Mayenne and will make the best I can of life.

This experience has brought home to me the idea of self-reliance and taking responsibility. There is no place for “quietism”! My life will be centred around the little oratory (place of prayer) where I have an altar to celebrate Mass, the workshop and my office and library all over the house.

I hope to continue my ministry of study and writing, promoting the practical revival of the use / rite of Sarum and an authentic contemplative life without delusion or pretension. St Martin’s Oratory will also be a kind of “sanatorium” to recover from many things I fail to understand fully myself. The essential is to take everything day by day, baby steps in this kind of “re-birth”.

These little limbs,
These eyes and hands which here I find,
These rosy cheeks wherewith my life begins,
Where have ye been? behind
What curtain were ye from me hid so long?
Where was, in what abyss, my speaking tongue?

When silent I
So many thousand, thousand years
Beneath the dust did in a chaos lie,
How could I smiles or tears,
Or lips or hands or eyes or ears perceive?
Welcome ye treasures which I now receive.

I that so long
Was nothing from eternity,
Did little think such joys as ear or tongue
To celebrate or see:
Such sounds to hear, such hands to feel, such feet,
Beneath the skies on such a ground to meet.

New burnished joys,
Which yellow gold and pearls excel!
Such sacred treasures are the limbs in boys,
In which a soul doth dwell;
Their organizèd joints and azure veins
More wealth include than all the world contains.

From dust I rise,
And out of nothing now awake;
These brighter regions which salute mine eyes,
A gift from God I take.
The earth, the seas, the light, the day, the skies,
The sun and stars are mine if those I prize.

Long time before
I in my mother’s womb was born,
A God, preparing, did this glorious store,
The world, for me adorn.
Into this Eden so divine and fair,
So wide and bright, I come His son and heir.

A stranger here
Strange things doth meet, strange glories see;
Strange treasures lodged in this fair world appear,
Strange all and new to me;
But that they mine should be, who nothing was,
That strangest is of all, yet brought to pass. – Thomas Traherne

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Sarabande for the Morning of Easter

One of the glories of Herbert Howells to wish all my readers a happy Easter. I will shortly be going to my chapel to restore the Blessed Sacrament to its place in the hanging pyx above the altar from where it has lain in the Sepulchre since Good Friday (Use of Sarum). That little ceremony will be followed by Mass.

May this Easter bring us all increased faith and hope in these times of uncertainty and the continued scourge of the coronavirus.

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Catholics, the Paradox

Most of my readers are probably familiar with this film giving a caricature of the Vatican II reforms in the 1960’s and the following decade, and of the traditionalist reaction. The drama is centred in a monastery on the remote coast of western Ireland.

As the film progresses, we gradually move from a rough bog-Irish traditionalist rebellion to a battle for faith. I see in this film a very interior conflict between a certain form of exterior religion and its inadequacy in dealing with the great existential questions of humanity in the face of God and his own inner consciousness.

Indeed, I always return to the same thought: as religion became more exterior and concerned for very little other than morality, it lost its essential meaning. I see this both with the “modernism” coming from the clerical bureaucrats in Rome and this kind of rough and mechanical Deus ex machina. The rough and untidy appearances of the lay faithful and the monks show a resemblance to our conventional notion of the medieval era shortly before the Reformation, something Romantics tend to idealise. Having studied the period a little, I am ready to believe that medieval Catholicism was very healthy in most places as attested in Duffy’s The Stripping of the Altars, but compromised by superstition and externalist “pharisaism” in other contexts. Several commissions of prelates at the Council of Trent reported some quite serious liturgical abuses as they recommended that the Roman liturgy should be standardised and codified. Here is not the place to go into the details. I touched on this subject in my university work Missa Tridentina, which you can download and read.

The film and its leading actor Trevor Howard playing the part of the Abbot bring us the audience to some fundamental questions about the nature of prayer, whether it is truly a way of communicating with the Divine, the raw existential questions. How do we deal with the challenge of it all coming to an end and being replaced with someone else’s piety and ideology?

Seest thou these great buildings? there shall not be left one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down – Mark xiii. 2.

In particular, we need to ask ourselves what it all means to us, whether it is just tradition and “what we do”, or whether there is truly a spiritual transfiguration in the liturgical symbolism through initiation and liminality. The questions being asked here are the meaning of the old liturgical rites and the notion of miracles, especially the pilgrimages made to Lourdes by quite materialistic-minded people for the sole purpose of their physical health. The film is remarkably well acted with this understanding in mind.

Whilst I have no sympathy with the 1960’s construction intended to construct a “new orthodoxy” and a religion for modernity, as if we were all as “modern” culturally, I can understand how it all happened in the late 1960’s and the early 70’s. At the time, I claimed not to believe in God though I was a little boy. I was attracted to my native Anglicanism and later to Roman Catholicism through beauty and the notion of a culture that stood away from modern brutalism. My scepticism, or rather my mind to suspend judgement until I would be convinced by the evidence, stayed with me. I could not fit into the mechanism of the well-honed machine or the political ideology of l’intégrisme.

I recently wrote on Facebook:

What we call fundamentalism is above all a literalist interpretation of the written word, where an allegorical, analogical or symbolic interpretation would be more appropriate. We tend to use the word “fundamentalism” like “intégrisme” in French. It is a radicalised attitude admitting no dialogue or healthy doubt or scepticism of the lower “degrees” of truth. Like political fascism, it has to define itself in opposition to its “enemy”. It also reveals a particular personality profile assimilated to “cluster B” disorders.

“Fear prophets, Adso, and those prepared to die for the truth, for as a rule they make many others die with them, often before them, at times instead of them.” ― Umberto Eco, “The Name of the Rose”.

Much of Christ’s teaching against the leaven of the Pharisees needs to be meditated upon to grasp its inner meaning.

But woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye shut up the kingdom of heaven against men: for ye neither go in yourselves, neither suffer ye them that are entering to go in. (…) Ye compass sea and land to make one proselyte, and when he is made, ye make him twofold more the child of hell than yourselves.Matthew xxiii.

In the end of the film, the Abbot loses the ability to pray the Our Father. The monks behind him are waiting for the firm and fatherly leadership they were used to. But that is now gone. The Abbot reacted as many did in those days and now. What was the use of it all in the face of the challenge from Rome, the collapse of any coherent underpinning of what they believed they stood for? What is the alternative?

There is another meaning which I sense with the current pandemic and the destruction of social life in most of the world. The “progressive Catholic” agenda largely came from a reaction against the totalitarian regimes that caused World War II. We lived a time of individualism, humanism and liberalism. We now arrive at the dystopian spectre of Orwell and Huxley, which they could see in the 1940’s long after the death of Hitler and the defeat of Nazism. That spectre is something typified by the Chinese-style lockdowns to contain the spread of Covid 19. Humanism can and must be sacrificed by those intégristes of medical science.

Our love of tradition and beauty are a double-edged sword, holding us suspended between our aspirations and loyalty to tradition, our love of freedom and our fetish for bondage. I fear much more than insipid ideas of uniting Christian churches and Buddhism. I see the harshness of Russian and Chinese authoritarianism bearing down on the world as our democracy buckles and collapses under the weight of populism. As it happens in exoteric religion, it happens in politics.

The only way is inwards, the quest for God and our own consciousness of the spirit. If liturgy can arise from that vision, then we will have something that nothing could ever break. The producer of that film was remarkably lucid in his time (1973).

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Le Mieux est l’Ennemi du Bien

I am quite impressed by the way academics, politicians, lawyers and others are reflecting about our society and the unhealthy trends that need to be challenged. The French lawyer Mireille Delmas-Marty summed it up as “The dream of perfection is transforming our constitutional state based on the rule of law into a police state”.

This observation immediately refers to the present pandemic and the various degrees of lockdowns and other restrictions designed to relieve the hospitals of excessive numbers of sick people needing intensive care. Then, in came an insidious ideology that determined the way things were done in New Zealand and Australia together with a few oriental countries – Zero Covid, meaning maintaining lockdowns regardless of the human and economic cost until the disease is totally eliminated. On the surface, it seems a very good idea, but is it realistic?

Recently the media ran a story about a young man who was sanctioned during the first lockdown by the police even though his attestation of being outside for exercise was in order. The police decided that his wearing flip-flops instead of proper running shoes was proof that he was not out for exercise. He appealed and it seems that he has good grounds for winning. A woman was also sanctioned for buying sanitary protection in the supermarket with her “essential” foodstuffs, because the police saw the hygienic product as “non essential”. I think she also got her fine quashed on appeal. Zero Covid, zero risk, etc. The powers being given to the police, or simply being assumed arbitrarily, are quite alarming. France is quite particular in that the ideology of the Jacobins has never really gone away. They don’t chop off heads any longer, but France is Paris and Paris is France! In other countries, England has always been a country of fairness, dialogue and reasoned debate, but it is drifting. Ireland has the strictest lockdown of all.

The keyword is safety and security, the two words being the same in French, sécurité. In past years, the political authorities vowed to eliminate terrorism after the atrocities committed by Daesh and other religious groups. The beginning is appealing, but then what is the cost of such safety and security? It is a dream of a world without risk, without crime and without sickness and death. No one must be allowed to die of anything! The price of such a dream is the nightmare of fear.

Many of us remember our childhood in the 1960’s or 70’s, or earlier. We took more risks riding bicycles around town, climbing trees and buildings. I once rode my bicycle into the side of a car. One second earlier and I would not be writing this article now. The driver took me home to my parents, and I told them the truth that the accident was my fault. I still have a photo from about 1970 of our school recreation at Millan Park in Ambleside and boys jumping off rocks about six to ten feet high.

Such a feat can result in a broken leg or a sprained ankle, but I never knew such a misfortune to happen. We learned the parachutist’s fall as he makes his legs give, and he rolls over on the ground to absorb the final shock of landing. Then we climbed up and did it again! I suppose it was no more dangerous than skateboarding.

O felix culpa! is an exclamation sung by the deacon at the Paschal Vigil. It is an understanding of the Fall and sin as having a positive outcome. It is a paradoxical idea. The Redemption would never have happened without the fault of Adam. This is a notion we will find more profoundly expressed in Jakob Böhme’s theology of the Ungrund. Similarly, to deprive mankind of any risk or danger in a prudent balance between risk and the desired result is to deprive us of our humanity. Many things we do are potentially dangerous, from getting out of bed in the morning to driving a car, repairing an electrical device (of course we are going to switch it off and pull the plug out!), crossing a road, going sailing, anything. We measure the risk and decide for ourselves to what extent that risk is acceptable.

Much has been said about the Nanny State and citizens being treated like children. In the case of the Covid pandemic, most of us follow the rules, wear masks, sanitise hands, greet people by an elbow touch. Some couldn’t care less and crowd into limited places without barrier gestures, and we all pay the price through the next lockdown. Perhaps the law courts should bring back the pillory and the stocks for those flouting the rules without care for anyone else! Another Latin expression came into my mind, Falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus. In law, it means that if a witness tells a lie, he has no credibility in anything else he says. Here I have the impression that the ZeroCovid people would find a case of the virus in one place and everywhere has to be quarantined. Not everywhere has the same density of infections.

I think there is progress at the level of the French government. It looked like a general national lockdown at the end of January. At the beginning of March, Dunkerque and Nice are in local lockdown for a few weekends and on the same curfew as the rest of us during the week. Decisions are currently being made for other places according to the levels of infection by variant strains. Already, President Macron is talking about loosening some of the restrictions in four to six weeks. It sounds just like Boris Johnson in England. Political points? Certainly, but maybe a break in the monolith of the ZeroCovid ideology which is more far-left than anything else.

It is still not easy to anticipate where things will go. Hopefully, most of us in the riskier age groups will be vaccinated by this summer. Here in France, I don’t expect to get my jab before mid May 2021, but maybe the Johnson & Johnson will make a big difference to the slowness of the operation here in France. My sisters in England are already vaccinated. I surmise that what is in the heads of presidents and prime ministers is that as many as possible will be protected and natural “herd” immunity will hit the younger age groups with few or no symptoms. Some scientists are more optimistic about longer-lasting immunity. Then of course, there will be other strain mutations and it will end up as just another version of the common cold. The question now is finding an acceptable level of risk against the needs of human beings to live normally and the state of the economy. A more pragmatic approach is prevailing, and this seems to be to be wise.

We still have many things to watch out for in the way as a gradual slide into totalitarianism and a post-human future of “perfect” technology. The reality is that our technology is far from perfect and banal faults and outside interference can stop something from working properly. I was brought up in a time when you gave a faulty machine a good bash with a hammer or a fist – and that would overcome the bad electrical contact and the machine would work again without an expensive repair job! Humanity trumps the machine.

Again, I bring up the notion of Romanticism, of rational humanism, the triumph of man over the machine. Here, the machine can mean a car or a computer, but also an ultra-rational system that replaces intuition and the kind of thought that includes risk in the paradigm. It is the abiding theme of Frankenstein and nearly all science fiction books and films throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, up to our own time. They are prophecies.

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