Ars moriendi

ars-moriendiThere are some fine autumn thoughts on Rad Trad‘s blog in I’m Going to Die. He reassures us that he hasn’t been diagnosed with cancer or anything like that. However, he is right, whether it is cancer, a heart attack, getting murdered, a car accident – the list is endless. The stygian gloom of November, All Souls Day, Remembrance Day, the terrorist atrocity in Paris, the deteriorating international situation – all seem to lead to the same point: the gravestones and family vaults of the well-off, the white wooden crosses of the forgotten and poor, that prospect of our earthly dissolution that calls us to the fear (filial respect of a Father) of the Lord and wisdom.

We live in a world full of people who are not always evil, but those who seem to be lost, “banging” their heads to the rhythms of “heavy metal” or “hard rock”, being addicted to whatever mechanically and chemically relieves their pain. We are all anxious to make a mark and contribute, make a difference, before we also join the ranks of the forgotten.

Rad Trad then turns to the theme of Romanticism:

I have always harbored a mild sympathy, but never an affinity, for romantics. Fr Chadwick spends considerable time promoting Romanticism, although I suspect his conception of it and my own differ. The Romantics were soul-searchers who felt that the old social trappings of art and religion had failed them, and who could not accept the modern paradigm of business and material success. Some of them seemingly yearned for a simpler, more adventurous past (considerable American literature in this mode) while others proactively repelled rationalism, all the while too influenced by modernity to embrace the mysticism of the Christian age. There were Christian Romantics; Newman may have been one of them, at least until he went through disillusionment and accepted the reality of the Church. Romanticism was not an explicitly Christian movement, but it may have been the last trend in the West that promoted implicitly Christian ideas about nature, art, literature, morality, and friendship. They were the last genuine soul-searchers before the middle class was born and dissuaded the lost sheep from searching for their Shepherd.

I can’t say he’s wrong. There are as many Romanticisms as there are persons who “tick” in this kind of way. In the same way as a doctor diagnoses a medical condition from typology and what some people have in common, people with certain sensibilities can be loosely described as Romantics. Academically, the term denotes a number of poets, musicians and artists who were born more or less around 1790 and died in the first half of the nineteenth century. The same tendency springs up in an analogical way whenever certain cultural and personal conditions prevail. History is both linear and cyclic, but the same thing never happens twice. I do not “promote” Romanticism, but rather identify with that generic kind of world view. Our friend describes the prevailing symptoms of the “condition”: a reaction away from materialism, blind social conformity and a view of science that deprives man of his humanity, a love of nature and the full use of the imagination and the “heart” in its biblical meaning. Another aspect is the struggle with the shadow, or “dark side” in the words of modern science fiction. The subject of this post is both dark and light-filled, since it is the reality of all flesh.

How would someone like Wordsworth or Shelley react to our present age? I hardly see them in corporate power suits at the gaming tables of the modern stock exchange, as military or political leaders. They might have gone the way of the Hippies or the various subcultures associated with modern popular “music” and drugs, or the poor souls who perished in the Bataclan concert hall a couple of weeks ago. Aldous Huxley was one of the early modern junkies who died from cancer whilst being on an LSD trip at his request. Some of this “stuff” is outrageous and far from Christian church conformity or the flights of mystics in and out of monasteries.

What about Newman? I have often read him without really understanding him. He found his niche in the Roman Catholic Church only with difficulty, via that most eccentric of orders of priests, the Oratory of St Philip Neri. He rode the new wave of Leo XIII’s more “liberal” way of running things than his nutty predecessor who “felt infallible”. The Roman Catholic Church is something else these days, and I’m not clear about its purpose as currently manifested in its corporate behaviour.

No, Romanticism was not a Christian movement, any more than its analogies in the Pre-Raphaelites, Arts & Crafts, the tortured poetry from the battlefields of 1916 and up to the 1960’s rebellion and our own times. It never really has been a movement as such, merely something isolated individual persons have or had in common. It was almost what modern computing would call a “cloud”. Ideas rubbed off onto Christians and non-Christians alike who sought the kind of human qualities they knew they would carry with them beyond the Veil.

Frankly, I could not verbally self-identify as a Romantic. Labels (this one and many others) are harmful and misleading. I do not play at someone who was born in the late eighteenth century, but yet use a computer and other applications of modern technology. That would be silly. I don’t think I have any “identity” problem against which I would feel compelled to compensate. I have my way of living between my priestly calling and frustrating “middle class” existence. I’m not sure I do all that well. I am a mediocre musician and like getting out and about, especially out in the boat when conditions allow.

Then I too will have my thirty years in a municipal cemetery in a marked grave, and then whatever remains would be thrown into the charnel house. Most people are totally forgotten within fifty years of their deaths. For my spirit and soul, I can only trust in God and the Angels to guide and lead me. November indeed!

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