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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The Force of Scepticism Grows

I have already written on this subject, and I remind the reader that for me, scepticism means having an open mind because truth, which is transcendent, cannot always be perfectly known. You are most welcome to peruse my old articles of this subject as it has evolved in my mind.

There is a recent article by Freddie Sayers We need Scepticism more than ever.

Freddie Sayers is a journalist and interviewer who runs the UK-based alternative media platform UnHerd. He is critical of the policy of lockdowns in most countries that have implemented them and has been supportive of the Great Barrington Declaration and scientists like Dr Sunetra Gupta.

Without expertise in epidemiology and virology, I can only say that I find a great diversity of expert scientific opinion about what to do about the Covid epidemic. I was taught at school and university that science was supposed to be more objective than that – the deduction of certainty from repeatable experimental evidence. What I do find alarming is the association between some opinions and political positions. I am also frightened by the prospect of dystopian policies being promoted by extremely rich people and politicians who should be more responsible. Am I a conspiracy theorist? I don’t know, but Nazism in the 1920’s to 1940’s was a conspiracy, and was very real to those who died under that regime. It can happen again, and I fear that it will.

One thing that contributes to this fear is what the Dutch thinker Rob Riemen called mass humanity. Modern humanity is leaning increasingly towards an ideology of resentment, inciting anger and fear, the need for scapegoats and hatred of the free mind. In his book To Fight Against this Age (New York 2018), Riemen draws on the wealth of humanist thought of Thomas Mann and Albert Camus among other lights of the twentieth century.

It is important to question the prevailing status quo and “orthodoxy” of science (based on conjecture) and political ideology. It was only during the Enlightenment that scepticism became more mainstream. Can anything in the world really be known?

Sayers packs a lot into his article, which you can read from the above link. Perhaps scepticism of the open-minded and enquiring kind will prove to be a light in the darkness in these coming years.

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Post-Institutional Catholics

Update: this article of mine inspired another blog article Is the Pope Catholic? Who cares!?

I have already criticised Pius IX’s infallibilist ideology as something that is intellectually absurd, and which is in fact the basis of sedevacantism. I find this interesting:

Three dominant narratives have framed Vatican II : forced continuity (Conservatives); formally authorized secularization to religious institutions and theological propositions (Liberals); and demonstrable discontinuity, with a helping of latent apocalypticism (Traditionalists). There is an emerging movement. The Traditionalist narrative has a certain amount of momentum – there are, as De Mattei notes, more voices questioning the events of the 50s through the end result of the 70s.

Catholicism in the 1950’s, often seen as halcyon days, contained the seeds of its own destruction. Alan Watts was writing in 1947, in the heady days of Pius XII! Perhaps there may be a new tendency that combines liturgical traditionalism with a critical attitude in regard to the Papacy.  I encountered this when I was at Fribourg University, especially with a few German priests I knew.

* * *

I am thankful for the work Dr William Tighe does most days to provide a few interesting links to current events surrounding the Church. This link made my blood boil.

I don’t know which planet those people, including the Pope, live on – but most of us are worn down and alienated, or never had anything to do with this clerical organisation.

I was talking with a friend of mine a couple of days ago. We both know a brave parish priest in the area of Sens who came up with the most damning reality check. When I was a seminarian in the early 1990’s, we had a visit from a French archbishop looking for traditionalist priests. During a talk he gave us, he forecast that most French dioceses had about ten years’ life left in them. The statistics of French people going regularly to Sunday Mass in their parish churches was averaged out to about 5%. That was early 1992. This priest in France (for whom I have installed an organ in his church) talks of 0.06% in a particularly degraded diocese with two cathedrals and a large area. What do we conclude? It’s finished.

The Pope seems to be pandering to Mr. Biden and an American world, but American Christianity too is dying. As often, I return to the quotation from a man who was far from being a saint in his 1947 book, Behold the Spirit: A Study in the Necessity of Mystical Religion.

The present low ebb of Church religion consists in the fact that rarely, even for Church people, does it give the soul any knowledge of union with the reality that underlies the universe. To put it in another way, modern Church religion is little concerned with giving any consciousness of union with God. It is not mystical religion, and for that reason it is not fully and essentially religion.

If we are going to talk of institution, authority and magisterium, we have to remember the foundation of all that – Christ and an idea of life that contradicted that of the world of which the institutional church (and Old Testament Judaism) is a part. Pope Francis cites the example of the Old Catholics rejecting the definition of Papal infallibility at Vatican I, and uses the example to condemn dissident and even critical minds of our own time about Vatican II. The old cracked record goes on and on in a kind of infernal circle. Perhaps Francis the Jesuit sees himself as the new Pius IX who feels infallible *. Quite honestly, it is revolting and supremely cynical.

* I have mentioned this notion is several postings in this blog, and I really think I should give my source: August Bernhard Hasler, How the Pope Became Infallible, New York 1981, p. 113 “Many people claimed that Pius IX actually spoke of feeling infallible”. I must admit that Hasler was of a similar mind to Hans Küng, namely theological liberalism. At the same time, his historical work seems to be honest. Pius IX was on record as having shown signs of what might now be interpreted as mental illness and an inflated ego. Naturally, the notion of infallibility will be an insult to an evolved notion of truth and foundationalism.

In his criticism of post-institutionalism (if anyone would use such a label to identify themselves), Mattei makes a distinction between those who are keeping their heads below the parapet and those in “open revolt”. So post-institutionalism is a dead end… Fine by me, since I am neither pre, post or institutionalist. My own world is so far away from that polarised world in America that is now influencing the media and popular culture over here in Europe.

I belong to an institutional church as a priest, but one that is anchored in Anglicanism. Most of us ordinary folk are far from the authoritarian culture of Rome since the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries and the days of the three popes strutting around Europe like some caricature from Palmar de Troya! It is legitimate to aspire to a different form of Catholicism, something like the vision of Western Orthodoxy, a more spiritual than political Old Catholicism and Anglican Catholicism. We can unite body and soul without getting into the kind of cognitive dissonance associated with the modern Papacy, the Vatican Bank, paedophile clergy, big money and favours gained from American presidents. If that is the institution and spiritual life is not possible without it, it is time to read Nietzsche!

In my conversation with my friend, we talked about the traditionalist societies, fraternities and institutes we knew, and how everything has remained so static and sterile in the name of stability. Doubtless, those men have lived through their inner conflicts and Angst. Like a man stuck in a toxic and childless marriage, they are unable to see a different horizon. Am I able either? It is the question I keep asking.

Such a level of thought is probably going to bedevil every man who is considering the priesthood, whether in a diocese, a religious order or some traditionalist institute trapped in its pseudo-baroque rigidity. Many have fallen by the wayside as priests or seminarians. They would be dismissed as the chaff who were not part of the elected and chosen elite. These are human souls, and most of us have turned over the page and moved on. A part of the purpose of this blog, especially when I once called it New Goliards, is a testimony from the casualties of the anti-Christian ideology represented by Papal institutionalism.

In my thoughts, I keep returning to Oscar Wilde. He was not the wisest of men and got himself put in prison through his own appalling choices, but he took the consequences with courage.

You may realise it when I say that had I been released last May, as I tried to be, I would have left this place loathing it and every official in it with a bitterness of hatred that would have poisoned my life. I have had a year longer of imprisonment, but humanity has been in the prison along with us all, and now when I go out I shall always remember great kindnesses that I have received here from almost everybody, and on the day of my release I shall give many thanks to many people, and ask to be remembered by them in turn.

The prison style is absolutely and entirely wrong. I would give anything to be able to alter it when I go out. I intend to try. But there is nothing in the world so wrong but that the spirit of humanity, which is the spirit of love, the spirit of the Christ who is not in churches, may make it, if not right, at least possible to be borne without too much bitterness of heart.

I know also that much is waiting for me outside that is very delightful, from what St. Francis of Assisi calls ‘my brother the wind, and my sister the rain,’ lovely things both of them, down to the shop-windows and sunsets of great cities. If I made a list of all that still remains to me, I don’t know where I should stop: for, indeed, God made the world just as much for me as for any one else. Perhaps I may go out with something that I had not got before. I need not tell you that to me reformations in morals are as meaningless and vulgar as Reformations in theology. But while to propose to be a better man is a piece of unscientific cant, to have become a deeper man is the privilege of those who have suffered. And such I think I have become.

What has become of Roman Catholicism represents for some of us a spiritual prison, condemning us to circular ways of thinking and endless paradoxes. Wilde did not know the infallibility of Pope Francis, but of Pius IX, the bourgeoisie and the clerocracy. Christ was absent from all that. The body of the Church had to be elsewhere if the spirit could be recognised. The Victorian prison killed Oscar Wilde, not immediately but through the illness that would take him after his move to Paris and his inability to rebuild his broken life.

Some of us have been broken to a lesser extent by what proves simply to be unredeemed human nature, sadism, pride, cruelty, dominance, hypocrisy and every other sin of the spirit. If institutionalism is merely a cover for these sins in a corrupt state like many governments of countries have become, then the institution no longer means anything.

That, my friends, is the cause of empty parish churches and empty seminaries.

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Ceremonies of the Sarum Missal

A very kind friend bought and sent me a copy of R.J. Urquhart’s Ceremonies of the Sarum Missal. It is not a book I would have bought myself given its high price set by the publisher T&T Clark. I was grateful for this most generous gift.

On the back of the book are found three brief reviews including Fr John Hunwicke. I was rather surprised, since Fr Hunwicke had tended to be more “Roman” than “English”, favouring the English Missal as an Anglican and the Roman rite as a priest of the Ordinariate. He notes the influence of Fortescue and O’Connell, The Ceremonies of the Roman Rite Described in its various editions. Christopher Hodkinson of Wyoming Catholic College in America speaks of a “renaissance” of the Sarum liturgy. Because of this book?

Is there such an opposition between the approach of Anglican Romanticism as exemplified by the likes of Percy Dearmer and the actual available sources which could be re-interpreted into an over-regulated Roman Catholic rite? Reading the introduction, I certainly sense the stuffiness of Roman Catholic canonical regulation and the obstacles intended to keep the Use of Sarum in a museum rather than considered on a par with the Dominican and Ambrosian rites. Nevertheless, this book was written and published in order to facilitate the practical use of this rite in more than hypothetical and abstract terms.

When the Ordinariates were set up under Pope Benedict XVI, some were of the opinion that Sarum would be the most appropriate rite, either in Latin or “Prayer Book style” English. However, most of the former Anglicans who formed the Ordinariate, at least in England, had used the English Missal and the Pauline Roman rite. Their liturgical practice was exactly aligned with English Roman Catholicism. Sarum was never a part of their experience of Anglicanism or Roman Catholicism. Why was this book published as late as 2020? Perhaps it is an appeal for the liturgical status quo of the Ordinariate to be modified or diversified? Is there a “market” for such a thing?

This book is as meticulously researched as Dr William Renwick’s chant books for the Office and the Mass and Fr Sean Finnegan’s forthcoming missal. I understand that the missal will be edited in such a way as to allow any priest used to the Roman rite to “say the black and do the red”. These three men have been doing the brunt of the work. I was dreaming about Sarum as long ago as the early 1980’s and I approached it from a Romantic point of view, knowing that human culture is the vehicle and vector of the presence of Christianity in a population. I was less equipped intellectually and in terms of methodology.

Personally, I come somewhere between “authentic” research and Romantic reconstruction à la Dearmer. I think we need both approaches rather than introduce denominational red lines, at a time when Roman Catholicism continues in its crisis of identity between authoritarianism and over-regulation, on one hand, and the temptation also faced by reformed Christianity in the face of modern culture. Dearmer lived at a time when non-conformity to the Prayer Book was severely sanctioned in the Church of England. He did what he could, in the same way as the London Oratory makes the Pauline liturgy look like something from eighteenth-century Rome. Perhaps one should be in possession of both this book and the Parson’s Handbook!

As a priest who celebrates daily Mass according to the Use of Sarum, this book will be of help in verifying the interpretation I have already made of the available rubrics and comparative approach with the French uses and the Dominican rite. I find it amusing that some make such ado about whether or not the altar has a post-Tridentine style tabernacle or altar cards. I have a small card with the Offertory prayers and the Placeat tibi lying flat on the altar. I can recite the Gloria and Credo by heart, but many priests have need to read them each time. Aesthetically, the altar without the clutter of altar cards and pots of flowers is a great improvement like in the monastic tradition. As a cradle Anglican, I was used to altars without tabernacles, and I use the hanging pyx to reserve the Blessed Sacrament.

One thing I discovered in France was the relative lack of regulation and a more flexible approach than in England. I speak of the country parishes with priests ordained in the 1940’s and 50’s, without the rubricist attitudes found among English conservative Catholics and Roman-style Anglicans. I am afraid that this book might encourage the introduction of a “post-Tridentine” rubricist mentality into the Sarum Use whose obsolescence has preserved it! Are we going to introduce the bobbing of genuflections and assimilation to the “extraordinary” Roman rite? I am a little guilty of such myself by wearing my old Roman vestments and using an early nineteenth-century French baroque chalice. Should we introduce Newman’s idea of organic development or Benedict XVI’s hermeneutic of continuity?

We could conjecture what might have happened had Sarum survived into the baroque era. The Roman genuflections would certainly have been introduced together with fiddleback vestments and altars with gradines and tabernacles. Should we introduce all that now, or Mass facing the people, microphones and pop culture? Should we go “Dearmer”? This is the danger of a self-conscious revival of a rite with all the necessary indults and permissions from Rome and the local Roman Catholic bishop. I feel easier with a simple blessing from my Archbishop and just getting on with it with what I have.

I suspect that something that was once the life of country parishes would be killed by over-regulation and its being “harnessed” in the Ordinariate and groups of people with special interests. I have encouraged this development, and almost found consolation in its not happening. I almost feel afraid, like when I see the first Christmas things appearing in a supermarket from October, more than a month before Advent. The big risk now is “artificial” Catholicism as what happened with the traditionalists – and the death of parish life in the country. It is a little like large numbers of Parisians buying holiday houses in Brittany!

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A Glimmer of Light

I have made a new discovery whilst looking through my notifications on Facebook. I found some comments mentioning my writings, but of a singular shallowness. The original poster of the thread gave a link to a page of a site that I had not yet seen.

I am still discovering this site and its keeper, who appears to be a man in his 60’s living the good life in Michigan with his family. He resonates with my own thought and intuitions through his interest in Romanticism, Jakob Böhme, Berdyaev and the general movement in reaction to modernism and technocracy. This site is worth discovering at the same time as I unearth articles of a rare lucidity.

Sometimes, Facebook, with the shallow ideas of some about what clothes they wear to Mass, can reveal treasures. Above all, I have the impression of being a dim light among others for a new movement of thought and art in a world that flattens humanity under the weight of viruses, lockdowns and prospects of “great resets”.

I will be looking through this website with great interest.

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Oscar Wilde

This is an extraordinary film from 1960 about the downfall of Oscar Wilde in the 1890’s. We are very lucky to have the whole film available on YouTube. I find it very well acted. I first saw it more than thirty years ago, but only now did I really appreciate the personalities of Wilde, his wife Constance, Bosie (Lord Alfred Douglas) and the pompous and angry Marquis of Queensberry.

On the YouTube page containing the film, you will find extracts from a review attesting the quality of the acting and authenticity of the screenplay. The one question remains: what was Wilde doing with cheap and vulgar “rent boys”?

As the film went on, I had the impression that Wilde was acting out the Greek tragedy Antigone by Sophocles – English translation and the moving German text which was set to music by Mendelssohn. Throughout the trials and consultations with his solicitor, Wilde seemed to be bent on destroying himself by trying to be too “clever” with the prosecution and defying the advice of his own counsel.

First of all, the vile Marquis of Queensberry had a visiting card delivered to Wilde with the words “posing as a sodomite”. In what way was that libel? The matter was private and did not involve anything said or written in public. The portrait of Queensberry showed an abusive and violent man who mistreated his wife and his children alike, a perfect picture of the pathological personality. I detected the same toxic traits in “Bosie” which showed through his manipulative arrogance. Wilde also lived far beyond his means and I had little sympathy for any of them other than Constance and the two children.

I often quote from Wilde’s De Profundis as he seemed to have an understanding of the noblest aspects of humanity, after two years of the hell of a Victorian prison. He was so badly destroyed that he was unable to rebuild his personality or spiritual life when he lived in Paris, and ended his life most tragically as meningitis ate his brain away. What was the nature of that love that dare not speak its name? The line was actually written by “Bosie”, not Wilde. The expression is conventionally taken to mean homosexuality, something that was severely repressed in the Victorian era. At his trial, Wilde attempted to give a more noble explanation on the basis of friendships between mature men and boys in the ancient Greek culture. St Paul was explicitly severe about homosexuality in the Epistles to the Romans and Corinthians in particular. Homosexuality in the New Testament is a particularly interesting article giving various exegetical approaches to the various Pauline and Old Testament texts. Some liberal scholars interpret the texts as a prohibition against paedophilia and prostitution, but more conservative exegetes hold a complete condemnation of all same-gender sexual acts and relationships. I would as a priest be more inclined to discourage physical sexual acts in favour of the kind of friendship described in De spirituali amicitia (Spiritual Friendship) of St Aelred of Rievaulx, a Christian counterpart of Cicero’s De amicitia. St Aelred, as Abbot of a large monastic community, would have been very severe on physical sexuality between monks. But the friendship he described is perhaps a love that forgot to speak its name over the centuries. I think we do well to read this work, which has been translated from Latin into English and other modern languages, and discern the spirit of this venerable idea of friendship, real friendship, between two human persons. Churches and priests need to develop a truly pastoral approach in helping men to transcend their sexual desires through profound friendship and spiritual life. It is easier said than done, but the feeling of “falling in love” can be a dangerous and catastrophic illusion.

I suspect that Wilde lied to the court when he denied having “it” with rent boys. He is not the saint many would like to believe. How would a man of that level of culture and nobility of spirit get mixed up with such lowly persons? As for taking the Marquess of Queensberry to court, when setting out on vengeance, one must first dig two graves. Being blinded by love can lead a person to abdicate reason and common sense to a degree that self-destruction is the only issue. How else would Wilde have been so reckless in putting all his faith in his wit and sense of humour? A court of law is no place for such foolishness! His attitude was probably not far from contempt of court.

Constance could only do what she could for the good of her children, as a woman of her time. Today, the equivalent would be a case of a paedophile who abused children sexually, a priest or a teacher in particular. She showed her pain and sense of duty in forcing her husband after his release from prison to give up his parental rights. The couple never divorced. I saw in the portrayal of this woman a profound altruism, sense of duty and genuine care for her discredited husband.

I don’t think I can draw any absolute conclusions from this reconstruction of long-dead historical figures. I am very fond of Wilde’s work. I have several of his plays in videos that I can watch. The Picture of Dorian Grey is haunting, to say the least, and an incredibly fine understanding of the human soul. The little stories for children like the Happy Prince are just as profound in their tenderness. The two post-incarceration works De Profundis and The Ballad of Reading Gaol show Wilde in his pain after having suffered such a disproportionate and soul-killing punishment for his indiscretions. The Soul of Man under Socialism was a prophetic piece of writing for a century of which he saw only the first year.

What do I conclude? I can only observe the cruel division between a spirit of such nobility and sense of the transcendentals of truth, beauty and goodness, a Romantic to the last, on one hand, and someone who perhaps shared the narcissistic traits of Bosie and his violent and abusive father who was fanatically bent on Wilde’s destruction. I think I understand the spirit of contradiction in ideas like Work is the curse of the drinking classes and overcoming temptation by giving in to it. He waged war on conventional morality and the self-righteousness of the Philistines of his age. In his opposition to hypocritical moralism, he overstepped the fragile line into sin and suffering.

He died a hundred and twenty years ago, and his grave is found at the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris. The monument is of a singular ugliness in my opinion. Wilde left his mark, certainly on me.

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O for the Wings of a Dove

No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as any manner of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee (John Donne).

This quote is usually evoked to maintain the position of humanity being possible only in a social context or a relationship. In a nutshell, we will have to distinguish between the social nature of humanity and the transcendent spirit of a human person. Some people do not do well in the bustle of intensive social life. Psychologists talk of extroverts and introverts. It is simply the personality of an individual. There may be other technical terms like autism, but this posting is not about that.

I named this article after the famous anthem by Mendelssohn, Hear my Prayer with the latter section O for the wings of a dove.

The text is based on Psalm 55. This theme is a prayer and a desperate appeal to God for deliverance, and then launches into a description of the psalmist’s anguish and his desire for peace. It evokes the Sehnsucht of Romanticism and a very fundamental human need to be left alone for any number of reasons. Mendelssohn originally set the following German text to music before English adaptations came into being:

O könnt’ ich fliegen wie Tauben dahin,
weit hinweg vor dem Feinde zu flieh’n!
in die Wüste eilt’ ich dann fort,
fände Ruhe am schattigen Ort.

It struck me very strongly when I was a young choirboy singing this piece, for it seemed to be very “me-me-me” and “what I want”. Desire is often unattainable, as impossible an aspiration as flying like a bird. We do not escape our angst by simply moving from one place to another. We cannot evade the battle God has willed us to fight. This will be the most significant aspect to the solitary’s life, as in the famous Temptation of Saint Anthony of the Desert. Our only rest is in Jesus. The solitary life is illusory with only the idea of getting away from it all.

The Church and many non-Christian traditions have traditions of the solitary whose purpose is contemplation and self-awareness. There are canonically constituted hermits who are under the authority of a religious community. They wear a habit and live in a designated place. There are probably many others who live alone for various reasons and who do not depend on any religious organisation.

There are several websites I have found particularly interesting:

These seem to be sites of resources and possibilities for communication between hermits to support each other without living in community or being under a power or authority structure. You will find articles on Catholic and Christian hermits, but also those belonging to other world religious traditions, sometimes the eccentric who just lives alone in some remote place.

One of the first things to do is to get rid of the stereotypes of eremiticism. It is important also to get rid of the ideas of putting on the appearance of monastic life. L’habit ne fait pas le moine. Blaise Pascal is famously quoted as having said in regard to the Jansenist nuns of Port Royal, Qui veut faire l’ange fait la bête (The one who plays at being an angel descends to the level of the beasts). A literal translation is impossible for that one. In our days, discretion is of the essence, lest we encounter the self-styled abbot wearing a scapular and a cowl – and being found drunk and disorderly and unworthy of his apparent calling. I do have a particular person in mind when mentioning this. It is an error not to repeat. What is important is what is inside.

Earlier, I wrote a couple of articles on liminality. A person in this state comes to see the utter folly of society. Rob Riemen wrote of this question of “mass humanity” in his beautiful little books Nobility of Spirit and To fight against this age. The general tendency in society is to dumb down or bully the individual and plunge him into the comfort zone of the collective. Panem et circenses. Society and collective human nature have always been absurd, materialistic, status-seeking and self-justification.

Pope John Paul II wrote a book Sign of Contradiction in which he gave a profound analysis of the place of Christ and tension between sacred and secular. This sign of contradiction is one of the characteristics of liminality. Solitude does not come without difficulty, the first being accepting one’s own absurdity. The fool for Christ is strong in the Russian Orthodox tradition but also in the western Church. Think of St Philip Neri and St Benoît-Joseph Labre among many others. We have to accept this disintegration as attested by men like C.J. Jung and Kazimierz Dąbrowski (1902–1980), something that may have influenced Wojtyla during his time under the Nazis and almost immediately under the Communists.

We are brought to the brink of our own chaos, pointlessness and irrationality, in which only the light of the divine can give any sense. As Berdyaev said: No one who has left a Christianity based on authority can return to anything but a Christianity which is free (Freedom and the Spirit). However, this freedom depends on a genuine search for the spirit. Without the tarnish of superficiality and illusion the mystery of God appears  in all its depth. I find in authors like Thomas Merton and Alan Watts the profound thought that we all die alone, but it is in this aloneness that we discover our true self and unite with the solitude of all.

It is essential to transcend society, not reject it. Humanity is embraced at its spiritual level. Non-conformity cannot be rebellion any more than an exaggerated social life. The experience of solitary life, whether for life or for a time, will certainly help us to guard against false religion or narcissistic illusions. The aim is not to rest but to become fully conscious and awake. Far from being a drunken phoney abbot, the solitary is called to live life as it is, eschewing the quest for attention or admiration and being effaced.

Merton seems to introduce a certain dualism between being a solitary and the Romantic individualist. He was called to the hard and austere life of the Cistercian hermit, as was Fr Charles de Foucauld. I am not sure that all solitary life must be modelled on this radical austerity on pain of being sent back into the social life of common mortals. There would seem to be room for diversity.

Monastic hermits renounce divisive values like nation, group, family, politics, etc. but so do many other souls too. We have also to renounce our own ego and perhaps undergo the disintegration of the personality as described by several modern psychiatrists. Such an experience with make us wary of our concern for the appearance of everything, the ritualised aspect of liturgical life, the social dimension of the parish and its secular teaching. Merton describes the call to solitude as “silence, poverty and emptiness“. It is a way of paradox and apparent contradiction. Like Alan Watts, Merton inclined towards the “nihilism” of Zen Buddhism. I am not sure that Jesus was of that mind, or not entirely.

Solitude should be a witness to the spiritual dimension of Christianity taking precedence over the political and social aspects. It is a ministry, not of preaching and proselytising, but of healing the wounds of the world within oneself. The solitary is not so much the “specialised” monk who takes on a tougher observance of the rule, but who are chosen for it by having been alienated by the world. Solitude is won by suffering and disillusionment with the world with which we cannot relate.

The golden rule for any solitary is that appearances are not enough. It has to be an utterly honest and sincere approach to self and God. The solitary embarks for a voyage to the unknown, something absolutely different, a desert of emptiness that Jakob Böhme called the Ungrund. It is the abyss, without foundation. It is dark and irrational. It has no being. Thus Böhme described the origin of the world and evil. The Ungrund is a primordial freedom containing the ability to transform into matter, indeterminate even by God. It is only by accepting our own nothingness and void that we can begin to perceive God. Few of us will ever do so because of the sin of pride. The hermit will have his own personality and character but he is alone in his confrontation of God. The solitary is not always a mystic, but he is entirely on his own. He cannot live in modern society because it leaves no space for compassion or contemplation. Only today I saw a video about the condition of boys being initiated into manhood having the object of – competition and dominance. Its message was entirely the Ubermensch idea of Nietzsche. It was a salutary lesson to see it, even if some of the psychoanalysis about boys and their mothers made a considerable amount of sense.

It is easy to understand the story of St Anthony’s temptations in the desert. A multitude of demons came and started beating him. His suffering was immense, but he exclaimed “Here is Anthony. I do not flee your beatings nor pain, nor torture; nothing can separate me from the love of God“.

The story becomes that much more frightening as St Athanasius related:

“The demons made ​​such a racket that the whole place was shaken, knocking over the four walls of the tomb; they came in droves, taking the form of all kinds of monstrous beasts and hideous reptiles. And the whole place was filled with lions, bears, leopards, bulls, wolves, asps, scorpions. The lions roared, ready to attack; bulls seemed to threaten him with their horns; snakes advanced, crawling on the ground, seeking a place of attack, and wolves prowled around him. They all were making a terrible noise. Groaning in pain, St. Anthony faced the demons, laughing: ‘If you had any power, only one of you would be enough to kill me; but the Lord has taken away your strength, so you want to frighten me by your number. The proof of your powerlessness is that you are reduced to taking the form of senseless animals. If you have any power against me, come on, attack me! But if you cannot do anything, why torment yourselves unnecessarily? My faith in God is my defence against you”.

I spent six months at the Abbey of Triors in 1996-97. I later wrote this reminiscence:

The monks in the distant choir were chanting the psalms of Matins in the gloom of the night. It was the day following the Feast of St. Joseph of 1997 as I sat alone in the empty nave of the Abbey church with my office book, not that I was as attentive to the words as I was on other mornings. They seemed no longer to matter. The candles on the altar gave a distant glimmer, and just enough light to read was given by carefully dimmed electric lamps high up in the coffered wooden vault.

The black shadows of the monastic cowls filled the plain wooden stalls, as the grey concrete pillars reached up to the high vault. Occasionally, one of the hooded figures would kneel and rise before returning to his misericorde, having presumably began to sing the wrong verse or confused one neume for another. Psalm after psalm, the monks continued in their chanting of the night office.

Unlike the monks, I had not slept for the whole night. It was the darkest day of my life, and under that shroud of profound hopelessness, I felt I had no further reason to live. Did God exist? My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? If He existed, I prayed that I might die, that He would relieve me of the agony within my being. This must have been what it is like for a man who has been convicted and sentenced to a long term in prison, the businessman who lost all his money or the orphaned child. Indeed, the Abbot had frequently called me an “orphan” of the Church.

It was not in me to consider suicide. It is one thing to think about it, but the idea of actually throwing a piece of rope over a roof beam or taking a knife to cut my arteries would fill me with revulsion and horror. Even in these low depths, I would think of my parents who would always love me. Also, he who commits suicide commits a mortal sin in doing so, and would die without God. But, I prayed to God that He would do the deed, and take me away from this earth that meant nothing more to me. I waited for my heart to stop beating, but it did not.

Though I was making no sound, nor was I disturbing the Office, there was an occasional concerned glance of the Abbot in my direction. The office continued as I quietly sobbed in my pew. I would look up towards the apse of the church, my eyes moving around the blackened windows, as the night still held its deathly grip over the world. So the cold and empty depths kept its hold over my soul that morning.

The cold was piercing, as I wrapped myself in my black cloak and sat in my solitary place. The chanting continued, and the community came to the end of the second Nocturne and intoned Lauds. As they sung the Miserere, the verse Sacrificium Deo spiritus contribulatus : cor contritum et humiliatum Deus non despicies had a special meaning for me. I had no need to follow it in my book, since the monks sang this psalm every day. The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit, a broken and contrite heart wilt He not despise. This was my prayer, to a God I whose existence seemed more and more unsure, that He would accept my sacrifice.

Was my heart broken on account of my sins, something very wicked I had committed deserving of the heaviest canonical sanctions and punishments from God? He who hears you hears me. The ecclesiastical authority finds in these words a licence to take the place of God. Was it because of the words of my former superior the day before who had told me that my presence at the Abbey and following a canonical penance would make no difference?

Lauds came to a close as the bell tolled to summon the Brothers to serve the private Masses in the crypt and the monks sang the Benedictus. Beyond the east windows, the black was finally turning to a dark blue as the dawn began to herald a new day. My office book was still marked at the Venite, since I had not followed a word. As the office drew to a close, the silent and efficient sacristans began to prepare the numerous altars for the private Masses. It was time to go to the Abbot’s Mass in the crypt.

I rose from my pew as if I weighed several tons and slowly moved towards the glass doors between the narthex and the nave, as I had done every day. I noticed the slight smell in the neutral air carrying a hint of boot polish as I carried my little monastic breviary and the worn chant book in my hands. I also had my little Latin missal to follow the Mass, since the monks said their private Masses in complete silence. I made a bow to the altar and left the church through the glass doors and turned towards the little door leading to the crypt.

Going down the gloomy and dimly lit stairway between two high grey concrete walls, I arrived in the crypt. It felt like descending into the Führerbunker in Berlin, rather than into a place inhabited by God’s love. The first priest monks were vested and moving slowly towards to their altars accompanied by their servers wearing black cowls. Candles were still being lit as other monks were donning albs and the vestments for Mass. The altar under the apse of the church at the far end had four candles and the Pontifical Canon. It was the Abbot’s altar, and several people silently knelt in prayer as they waited for the Mass to begin. A strange silence reigned in this grey concrete bunker under the Abbey church. There were some twenty little chapels, each with a plain stone altar on which the priests of the community would celebrate Mass each morning. The cold grey polished concrete floor awaited its paving, perhaps a future low-priority item in the Cellarer’s budget.

At this point I felt as if I wished to vomit, as the boot polish smell grew stronger, mixed with the heavy smell of sweat, candles and damp concrete. I could no longer face this bleak sight that filled me with such sadness and despair. I turned around, climbed the stairs and went to my room in the guest house. I could take no more of it, and I felt repelled by the thought of doubting whether God even existed and receiving Communion as if this day was like any other.

What would bring someone to this degree of desolation? Was it the realisation that I had deceived myself for years in an illusory vocation, even to the point of having been ordained a deacon? All those years of hopes and dreams, broken almost on the point of priestly ordination, and now, nothing remained. What did the cassock I was wearing mean? Why was I in this house of prayer and monastic life?

The corridor leading to the guesthouse was totally deserted, and the air was thick with silence. I looked out of the window of the guest corridor overlooking the cloister to the countryside beyond. The new day was cloudy and dull. I returned to my room, undressed and returned to my bed, but sleep would not come to me. The words of the previous day were still echoing through my mind, gnawing at my soul like a demon out of hell. Sleep finally came until there was a knock on the door. It was the Abbot.

It was broad daylight, about nine in the morning, the time when the monks were in lectio divina. The Abbot understood everything before I said anything. There was little to say, only that I should make a pilgrimage to the little house where Marthe Robin had died some years before, and ask for the intercession of this humble servant of God who had suffered and expiated for her whole life. That morning, I drove the short distance to a small remote farmhouse in the Vercors hills where a few cars were parked. Again the same atmosphere of devotion oppressed me as a small number of pilgrims gathered in the humble bedroom where the servant of God had lived in agony for decades, finally relieved by death. They silently muttered the prayers of the Rosary. I joined them with my own rosary and made the effort to pray. The curtains were drawn in this darkened room, containing only a wardrobe, a small table and the neatly made bed. Pious images festooned the walls. Many people had come to this place during the life of Marthe Robin to ask her a pearl of her wisdom. She was now gone and present only in spirit.

What had brought me to this desolation? Why was the dice loaded against me from the very start, my vocation broken whilst still in the egg? Eight years later, the reason is painfully obvious. The notion of hope is a basic concept of existence, without which no one can live. If a man is deprived of hope, his spiritual and psychological life comes to an end. All psychologists know this. Hope determines human personality; it is connected with the basic instinct of self-preservation. A person who has no religion, or who is an atheist, depends entirely on himself and other persons, and understands the limits of the subject and object of his hope. For a believer, for a religious superior to willingly tamper with hope is a criminal act, a crime against humanity.

It would seem that living in the absence of hope is a part of monastic spirituality. It is also a technique of psychological torture that had been employed by the professional interrogators of the KGB and gurus of cults. If one maintains a person in controlled hopelessness for the right amount of time, the personality is broken and will comply with any requirement, like for example divulging secret information or giving unconditional obedience. A monk is trained to have hope only in God and to have no need of any earthly image or “icon” of that hope. It indeed takes a heroic and mystical soul to make a good monk – or a nihilist.

My own hope has been determined by my conditions and values in life. I always hoped for the love of God, reflected in that of other human beings. My vocation to the priesthood, my hope in which was nurtured up to the diaconate, is a vision of this love. The crucible that tested me that night between the 19th and 20th March 1997 was that of the whole crisis of modern humanity vacillating between faith, hope and love on one hand, and nothingness and despair on the other.

Why would this trial fall upon me? I believe that it was necessary to go through such an experience in order to bring hope to others, which is the spirit of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This is surely the essence of the priestly vocation. I am not so self-centred as to believe that this can happen only to myself. I have seen people die from hopelessness. The Church will bear a great weight of responsibility for this, and the fact she is now going through her own “dark night of the soul” is evidence of poetic justice. It may take the bankruptcy and dissolution of entire dioceses to bring the message home, perhaps even the of the Vatican itself. One day, the Church will learn the value of hope for each of her most humble members in all conditions of life, and return to the mission of Jesus and the Gospel.

In a certain way, I must have been through such an experience, an episode of severe depression in reaction to being gaslit (I wish I had known about this term then!) the previous day by my old superior whom I had asked for reconciliation. It is easy to banalise or dramatise, but the scars from those days remain. Then would it be not be presumptuous to consider the life of a hermit? I am already one in my own mind. It is not the life of the shipwrecked Robinson Crusoe on his island of paradise, but the arid and dry desert of one’s own inadequacies in the sight of God.

The only peace the hermit will find is in God alone. It is a lifelong wrestle that is ours alone without any help, as it is in marriage to a person who doesn’t care.

I have found the journey of Thomas Merton, like that of Alan Watts, very interesting. In a way, his and mine seem to resonate. I was a young Anglican church musician before converting to Roman Catholicism with a romantic view of liturgy and spirituality, but I was confronted with populist political ideology. I too was influenced by Thomism in Rome, Fribourg and the seminary of Gricigliano. By the end of 1997 I was expendable and expended, and still convinced of a vocation to the priesthood. It was not until 2017 that I would understand what was alienating me from everything to cause superiors and others to see me as unstable. That is indeed so for one who subscribed to the notion of an absolutely immovable and immutable God and the virtue of a person who has never changed in his whole life. To one Roman prelate I met, the very act of converting from Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism is a sign of instability. It is change.

I have been brought to relinquish any resistance to that change. I ended up back in the Anglican Continuum and my priesthood has been accepted in something that can be objectively recognised as a Catholic Church. I was still seeking that stability that I believed was necessary to be acceptable as a priest.

What kind of hermit should I be? What would Dom Coureau of Triors say? It is not something to be attempted until one has been for years in a community and ready to live in a hovel provided by the community. Above all, that monk should have a particularly advanced experience of monastic life. That is not my way. I only spent six months in the guest house and was pretty miserable much of the time. I hung on in an attitude of pride: I would prove the superior who was gaslighting me wrong. I stayed two extra weeks as I checked over and tuned the organ I had brought from the UK and installed in the transept of the abbey church.

The French abbeys of the Solesmes Congregation are no exceptions to the rule of institutionalisation and convention. In his book Alan Watts wrote way back in 1947, Behold the Spirit: A Study in the Necessity of Mystical Religion. I quote a paragraph from his introduction:

The present low ebb of Church religion consists in the fact that rarely, even for Church people, does it give the soul any knowledge of union with the reality that underlies the universe. To put it in another way, modern Church religion is little concerned with giving any consciousness of union with God. It is not mystical religion, and for that reason it is not fully and essentially religion.

That can apply also to monasteries when formalism trumps the individual spiritual aspirations of the men who occupy the choir stalls. I make no accusation against the community that kindly welcomed me and taught me my lesson. I am no more mystical than they and I live in the same dryness and agnosticism (etymological meaning of the word) as them. One thing that did not enter the equation was my “Aspergers” autism and my need to kick out against the walls of the cloister. We are brought up to believe that we must be a part of corporate humanity, a cog in the machine, in a relationship – whatever the cost. If solitary life is discouraged or even forbidden, then there seems to be little to expect from community life or marriage or anything else.

We need a notion of solitary life that goes beyond monastic rules and collective conventions. Anyone who has that degree of humanity and spiritual aspiration can live somewhere, appear to be someone very ordinary, and be a hidden treasure, a secret leaven in the loaf of bread. He can live in town and work in an ordinary job, but perhaps it is better to own a small house and a few outbuildings in the country and earn one’s loving by self-employment. Bernard Moitessier was such a man, more interested in eastern philosophies than in western religion. His hermitage was a sailing yacht. He was also capable of handling that boat in the most severe seas.

We have lessons to learn from Existentialist philosophers, men like Rob Riemen and the psychoanalysis of Jung and others in more or less a similar school. An autistic (high functioning) person is all too aware of the hollowness of collective life. He is alienated, not because he thinks himself better than anyone else, but because he cannot understand their unspoken language. An autist can “mask” and “play the game”, but inwardly remains elsewhere. He aspired to something other than the collectivist illusion.

The Orthodox theological tradition makes a stronger distinction between person and individual. Merton made a similar distinction as he criticised collectivism and considering solitude as selfishness and indulgence. Coming to terms with oneself is perhaps one of the most severe ascetic disciplines there are, no whipping, no hair-shirts, just honesty to God and oneself. Solitude has to be discovered and lived. It is not reserved to “trained” monks. We have to recognise our uniqueness and personhood outside of any institutional context. I am very encouraged to find the three websites early on this posting, as written by lay hermits as well as priests and former members of religious communities.

What does one do all day? Probably, it is not a very different life from that of many people who have a stable routine of getting up in the morning, going to work, eating meals at regular times and having time for leisure and hobbies. Add to that a daily Mass and Office, time spent in nature in forests, up mountains and on the sea. Then add the person’s ability to study and write, contributing to the heritage of philosophy, theology and other subjects.

I found a lot of interest in Buddhism and Hinduism in Merton, Watts, Dom Bede Griffiths and others. Personally I have not had the occasion to attend worship, even though it is available in western Europe. Their culture is so different from ours that simply attending their worship would leave me confused. That said, I understand why many in the 1960’s sought inspiration from India, Mongolia, China and Japan. Conventional Christianity has become too stale, perhaps irretrievably so. Whilst I resist the temptation of syncretism – mixing religions to produce a kind of artificial cocktail, I think we do have much to learn from Zen meditation and Hindu non-dualism. I am also a fan of the Perennialist René Guénon who converted to Islam in Egypt via Sufism.

I do believe that all experience in life can bring us to self-awareness, and therefore to God who is immanent within us as well as transcendent and infinite. Merton wrote:

This dynamic of emptying and of transcendence accurately defines the transformation of the Christian consciousness in Christ. It is a kenotic transformation, an emptying of all the contents of the ego-consciousness in order to become a void in which the light of God or the glory of God, the full radiation of the infinite reality of His Being and Love are manifested.

Solitude begins by being aware of a need to pull out of collective humanity and its materialism. Then one can live in a boat, or in a little house in the country, anything that “floats one’s boat” and ensure conditions for life. Some hermits were homeless like St Benoît Joseph Labre. Whatever, the most important thing is within, to transcend the world in order to seek wisdom and enlightenment.

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Limits and Change

I begin this year in earnest with some reflections on my own experience of life. For quite some time, I have sought a philosophical way of discussing the autism spectrum or what used to be called Asperger’s syndrome. Most of what is written on the subject is scientific and clinical, written by distinguished men like the Canadian psychiatrist Dr Laurent Mottron and the Australian psychologist Tony Attwood. I have until now failed to find a way to proceed with this subject, at least until I came across the notion of liminality.

This word, like any other, is quite ambiguous in its meaning. It can describe a transitional state between one norm and another, but also a situation of being at the limit or edge or what most people experience as life. It can also describe the agonising situation of being divided between two incompatible or mutually-exclusive positions. Someone who is on the autism spectrum, and I am thinking particularly of those who are not intellectually impaired, will also experience profound alienation from a life that most take for granted.

I have debated with myself to what extent I would expose myself on a blog that is accessible to all, and I still feel I have to be discreet about some things currently going on in my life. However, I was aware of the instability that some remarked along my journey. What was this instability? I interpret it most as being unable to relate to the social games many play, and I have experienced this both in the Church and in marriage. By 2016, I became so concerned with this alienation that I sought a psychological / psychiatric explanation. I cast my mind back to childhood and school, my family, to seek an explanation. Eventually, I found sites and online tests concerning autism and Aspergers syndrome. Discovering a positive diagnosis (provisional) by quite a large margin, I consulted a psychiatrist and asked him to refer me to the right people for a proper diagnosis. That diagnosis was positive. It gave me a certain explanation, but at the cost of becoming a subject of clinical interest, condescension and gaslighting. This is why it is not a good idea to use a label for self-identification or self-justification. It is merely a piece of information, an explanation in conventional and (pseudo) scientific terms.

In the light of this experience, I saw the term liminality in the same light. Who would go into a pub and say “Hey, mates, I’m liminal“? They might say that I have had a few too many or that I should go home and get some rest. Childhood memories are revived with feelings about in-between places, fear, doubt and confusion. Liminality is a state where we wait for knowing how we will emerge on the other side of the frontier. However, finding closure and certainty is largely an illusion in this twilight world. My present matrimonial situation (having announced my intention to divorce and waiting for the first hearing at the divorce court), leaves me in a state of suspended reality, in which no plans can be made for the future. Uncertainty is a part of life that we have to accept. This is union with God through the apophatic way, the cloud of unknowing. “Aspies” are used to being alienated from the things of this world – terrena despicere et amare coelestia. Clarity will come in one form or another. We have no children, and our personalities are utterly incompatible.

Being uncertain made me seek some kind of light from a scientific perspective to clarify the rational side. There are more unknowns in the universe than there are knowns. There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy (Hamlet, I.5).

Returning to the concept of stability, everything in life is change. This idea is reminiscent of the Greek philosopher Heraclitus who in many ways inspired German Idealism and Hegelian dialectics. I identify more with such ideas than the static stability of Parmenides and his influence of Aristotelian and scholastic philosophy. This change is felt through anxiety and Sturm und Drang. We navigate in troubled waters, and there is only one to admonish us O men of little faith! Then Jesus rose in the boat and rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was a great calm.

It is in this in-between and seeking some kind of “normal” that we have to come to terms with ourselves, to accept ourselves. I read an article about positive disintegration in the ideas of the Polish psychiatrist Kazimierz Dąbrowski (1902–1980) who was influenced by C.J. Jung. The theory is quite difficult to understand, but essentially, the growth of the person comes through suffering and the renunciation of the super-ego or the false self. Liminality can bring us to a closer realism about ourselves, and there are many quotes from the Gospel that illustrate this. For example: Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit (John xii.24). This notion of death to the world, resumed by St Paul, is not actual death but the shedding of the false person to make a transition into a state of salvation. This is an analogical notion of death, as when a monk makes his vows. Dąbrowski draws up a theory of individuation describing how a small number of individual persons will go through disintegration and reintegration leading to the flowering of an autonomous personality. This happened to many of the mystics who are saints of the Church, but also to others who have to accept being torn apart so that they can reconstruct as a new person. But, the theory is much more complex and clinical.

We don’t have the right to give up the search for what is deepest and most authentic in us, the spark of divinity in our souls, our spirits. I certainly don’t think that any religion other than Christianity has understood this strength in our weakness.

One thing I have noticed about my current experience is how everything just slows down. I often forget words and search for them, sometimes finding them on Google via synonyms or just waiting until they return to my consciousness. I find it more difficult to read, and my writing is much less frequent. My priestly vocation causes me pain, not that I want to leave it, but that it is a constant reproach to my unworthiness without indulging the guilt ego-trip too much. Even playing the organ is an act of will, and the boats are laid up for the winter. I am waiting for my strength to return with a new life. I think that it is important not to force myself but to be patient in these most nerve-wracking moments of the transition from marriage back to celibacy and authenticity. Much of this is burnout, which would regenerate with a new set of circumstances.

Autism is not a thing that can be treated or cured with a few pills and an electric shock like in the comics featuring psychiatrists who tell their patients – Just relax and I’ll make you normal! It is an answer, or the beginning of an answer, that absolves us from an impossible search into ourselves which leads to depression and the feeling of being a “failed human being”. The important thing is not going into the desert and fasting for forty days and forty nights, feats of heroism we would not be able to observe, but baby steps in the recovery of our spirit and interests in reading, music or whatever.

I would like to contribute towards a philosophical view of this aspect of humanity, though found only in a small percentage of individuals. I am not a scientist or a mental health professional. They have their job to do. I have mine as a priest with a badly injured vocation, and as a person with an interest in helping other persons who have been through a similar experience.

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