The Sarabite: Towards an Aesthetic Christianity

There is a continuous attraction, beginning with God, going to the world, and ending at last with God, an attraction which returns to the same place where it began as though in a kind of circle. -Marsilio Ficino

Monday, February 27, 2006

Securus iudicat orbis terrarum?

The reality of today seems to be that "Could it be that modern man is so starving for authentic and correct worship that his impulse is to unearth the church's earlier treasures?" is wishful thinking on our part. Most people today have not the slightest inclination to seek for liturgical treasures, and the "smouldering flax" is nearly extinguished. People go to churches as they go to supermarkets - looking for the "best deal" as suits them. It is no longer realistic to expect people to go to their own parish as in times past. These differences of spiritual awareness and life would indicate the need for parishes and other places of worship where people will find what they are looking for. It would be interesting to see the results of establishing a parish that does everything in a "medieval" way, using one of the archaic rites like Sarum, or even the Tridentine Rite in a Renaissance or Baroque setting, and see if it would attract people and what sort of people.

from Fr. Anthony's Ramblings February 27th

Funny I should hop on the computer and find this post from Fr. Anthony's fine blog. Last Saturday evening, I went to my first modern Roman Catholic Mass in almost two years. Before that, I had really only attended them very sparsely since I was fifteen. True, I grew up in the modern rite and going back was very familiar to me. Nevertheless, I could not get over the feeling that this is not the way I believe now. I have either grown out of it or forgotten it.

It used to be that all these liturgical modernizations made me sick to my stomach. Now, with so much experience in these things under my belt, my feelings about modern Latin rite liturgy range from amusement at such banality to a sympathetic understanding of why these things are done now. I have since become quite dispassionate about them.

My liturgical experiences in the last ten years have ranged from quasi-silent old rite Latin Masses to all-night monastic Coptic vigils, and everything imaginable in between. I have become accustomed to the people facing the same direction to pray, incense, chant, and other actions that can be deemed "unpastoral". Does that mean that I am a liturgical eccentric, an antiquarian, or an elitist aesthetic snob? I am resigned to accept this, but I am not resigned to go back to the church experience of my childhood. Nor am I resigned to say that it is I who am in the wrong on these things.

Related to these things is my recent study of Newman's Apologia pro Vita Sua. My whole feeling while reading it was seeing, perhaps very faintly but still distinctly, that the modern Roman Catholic Church is looking more and more like the non-entity that Newman perceived the Anglican Church to be in the 19th century. Is the Catholic Church of today still a bastion of certainty in a world rife with subjectivism, or has it made its peace with modern liberalism hoping to at least slow down the revolution a little? Is the Catholic Church still alive with rites and devotions that extend back to apostolic times, or is it rather a keen and servile follower of the signs of the times? For me, the answers are not clear, but at least I feel I know where all of this is headed and it is not towards tradition.

"Securus iudicat orbis terrarum": the judgement of the world is certain. Am I just swimming against the current of the modernized Christian masses, trying to put out the flames of the Spirit that are leading the Church and the world into a new springtime? Will we "traditionalists" be forgotten like the ancient church of North Africa destroyed by barbarian hordes? Is the majority right, and we stubborn dinosaurs wrong?

My answer, very stubbornly but still in all humility, is no.

Friday, February 24, 2006

On Devotion to the Mother of God

We know that the Christian message has to do with Christ, but is it essentially anything else? I would argue that our Faith is essentially bound up with the Church ("caput et corpus: Christus totus": head and body, the whole Christ). By extension, real Christianity is liturgical: you cannot have the Church without the assembly at worship (ekklesia) in an orderly, traditional manner. But is Christianity essentially Marian? Can one be a Christian without devotion to Christ's Mother?

Devotion to the Mother of God is essential to being a Christian. If Christianity is something that is not based on ideas but rather on people, or rather on the person Christ, the way our Faith is revealed is personal. There is no person Christ without the person Mary, there is no Incarnate God without a mother. Origen said in his commentary on the Gospel according to St. John that no one could understand this Gospel without having been born again of the Virgin Mary. Christ is not a distant divine figure that is far away from us; he is in us and is being born in us, always through the intercession of His Mother.

I once heard a Russian Orthodox abbot say that he who does not believe in the Mother of God does not really believe in God. These are harsh words, but for me they ring very true. If you do not believe that God made Himself so vulnerable that He put Himself in the hands of a young girl in first century Palestine, you simply do not believe in the Christian God. If you do not believe that Christ has a special relationship with His mother, you do not believe that Christ truly became man. Thus, you really do not believe in the Incarnation, and are no better than an atheist.

One of the bishops of the Society of St. Pius X once said in a sermon that the Virgin Mary is the greatest sign that God loves us. She is a sign of the heights toward which God wants to take us. Although this can be deemed as unscriptural and unecumenical, a tender love of the Mother of God is the best sign that your relationship with God is not just based on reading a book or your own reasoning. It is a sign that you deeply love Christ, to the point that you share His loves. This is indeed "folk religion" often beyond the bounds of theology. Anyone, however, who has a living Faith will appreciate God's sublime gift of His own Mother to believers.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Whither the American Left?

I read a very intersting article in the Nation Magazine by French writer Bernard-Henri Levy on the decline of the American left (read it here).

While this blog could be described as paleo-traditionalist in respect to Christianity (though not closed-minded), its politics lean very progressive. That is why I was impressed by these comments by a foreigner about our political scene.

To be blunt, the Left has become an elitist subculture within the broader society. Very faint are the days when progressive thought penetrated into all strata of society. Now, those who consider themselves left of center are seen as inhabitants of ivory towers who look on all of the peasants below with disdain. Trade unions are weak, student activism stagnant, and the masses are simply distracted by their cell-phones or other gadgets.

The orthodox Marxist will no doubt say that as the crisis in capitalism develops, so must the level of class consciousness. But are we in different circumstances? Have consumerism and individualism given people too much of a sense of autonomy when it comes to their personal interests? Isn't there some degree of altruism involved when it comes to "fighting for a cause" that is but a moral remnant of a Christian past now long forgotten?

I am at a loss to answer these questions.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Music in Twelve Parts

Philip Glass' magnum opus (IMHO).

Probably the greatest work of the 20th century (and probably for much more than that). This is a piece that can change the way you listen to music. Both a theoretical exercise and spiritual journey, its length of over three hours will transport you to a new level of sound and feeling.

Though Philip Glass' avant-garde works are not for the faint of heart, I truly pity those who cannot appreciate the genius of such a powerful work.

Find it here

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Ad orientem

Prayer is the highest form of human activity. So why is it that modern man, so advanced in so many things, simply cannot pray correctly? Why does modern man feel that he must face himself when he prays to God?

I have been involved with traditional Catholics, traditional Anglicans, and all sorts of Eastern Churches, and the one thing they have in common is that the priest "has his back to the people"? If, however, this is so wrong and insulting, why did Christians for most of the history of Christianity feel that this was the way in which God must be worshiped? Why is it that the only Christians in the world who continue to pray in this way are considered extremists, traditionalists, or just closed-minded? Why is it that most modern Christians (Protestants and Western Catholics) want to turn around and face each other when they pray? Is facing liturgical East for prayer a doomed practice, a remnant of a more backward time?

I grew up having to face Fr. Bob during Mass, but I feel strongly about facing (liturgical) East for prayer. Am I just a weirdo, trying to return to an outdated tradition that is destined to die the death? Or is most of the Christian world wrong?

Friday, February 17, 2006

On the power of reason

[W]e tend to conceive of largely political terms....we have come to doubt our psychological freedom, or freedom of mind. Consequently, we think of our actions as having causes outside the mind or buried deep in subconsciousness and beyond the reach of reasoned thought and dialogue.

From The Emperor's Handbook: a new translation of the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius by C. Scot Hicks and David V. Hicks p.9 of the introduction

This modern prejudice against reason affects Christians just as much as everyone else. Particularily in the Catholic Church, any real moral and pastoral theology has been replaced with the all-encompassing cosmic principle of "psychological health". Ancient thought, however, had confidence in reason and free will, not because they had more confidence in human nature, but probably because they knew that reasoned choices are all we have to get through life. Our life takes place only on the level of our full consciousness. Anything else we cannot be possibly aware of.

"Although others may at times hinder me from acting, they cannot control or impede my spirit and my will. Reserving its judgement and adapting to change, my mind bypasses or displaces any obstacles in its way. It uses whatever opposes it to acheive its own ends; it turns roadblocks into roads."

-Marcus Aurelius

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Aquinas and Inculturation

See this article:

Aquinas in Africa by Thomas O'Meara O.P. from a recent issue of America.

An interesting article, but again the author falls in the more "optimistic" wing of theologians when it comes to the ability of Christianity to adapt to local cultures. While I would agree, along with scholastic theology, that the thing is received according to the mode of the receiver, is it possible that many advocates of inculturation overlook the drastic effects of man's fallen nature when it comes to culture? Is an African drum circle just as sacred as a Bach cantata? It is not as easy to answer as we would like to think.

Monday, February 13, 2006

On Love

In the first place he is always poor, and anything but tender and fair, as the many imagine him; and he is rough and squalid, and has no shoes, nor a house to dwell in; on the bare earth exposed he lies under the open heaven, in the streets, or at the doors of houses, taking his rest; and like his mother he is always in distress. Like his father too, whom he also partly resembles, he is always plotting against the fair and good; he is bold, enterprising, strong, a mighty hunter, always weaving some intrigue or other, keen in the pursuit of wisdom, fertile in resources; a philosopher at all times, terrible as an enchanter, sorcerer, sophist. He is by nature neither mortal nor immortal, but alive and flourishing at one moment when he is in plenty, and dead at another moment, and again alive by reason of his father’s nature. But that which is always flowing in is always flowing out, and so he is never in want and never in wealth; and, further, he is in a mean between ignorance and knowledge. The truth of the matter is this: No god is a philosopher or seeker after wisdom, for he is wise already; nor does any man who is wise seek after wisdom. Neither do the ignorant seek after wisdom. For herein is the evil of ignorance, that he who is neither good nor wise is nevertheless satisfied with himself: he has no desire for that of which he feels no want.’ ‘But who then, Diotima,’ I said, ‘are the lovers of wisdom, if they are neither the wise nor the foolish?’ ‘A child may answer that question,’ she replied; ‘they are those who are in a mean between the two; Love is one of them. For wisdom is a most beautiful thing, and Love is of the beautiful; and therefore Love is also a philosopher or lover of wisdom, and being a lover of wisdom is in a mean between the wise and the ignorant. And of this too his birth is the cause; for his father is wealthy and wise, and his mother poor and foolish. Such, my dear Socrates, is the nature of the spirit Love.

From Plato's Symposium

Friday, February 10, 2006

Also listening to...

Fado: the Portuguese "blues", appropriate for a brooding evening!

Tears of Lisbon by the Huelgas Ensemble, among others : An interesting contrast between popular Portuguese music of the distant and recent past.

Mariza: Fado en Mim

What I'm listening to...

Guillaume de Machaut (+1377)

Unrequited: performed by Liber unUsualis

A delightful recording that is to be highly recommended!

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

On the Muslim riots

The Christian response to the worldwide violence over the cartoons criticizing the "prophet" Mohammed could range from outrage at such backward medieval thinking to a secret envy that some could be so firm in their beliefs as to strike out so severely. I think that I would have the temptation to the latter, though I think I am beginning to know better.
While indifference toward the most fundamental ideas of our Faith and the potential future hegemony of Islam in Europe are grave problems, we Christians cannot repond by turning our beliefs into a system of hostile polemic. For one thing, this simply could not work; the balance of forces within the ruins of Christendom simply cannot pose a threat to any ideology opposing us. On the other hand, such a polarization cannot help but weaken the Christian message itself. Sacrificing repentance and mercy on the altar of a Christendom that must rise again can only lead to a trial run of the time of the anti-Christ.
One of the Beatitudes is NOT:"Persecute those who persecute you." That is why such cowardly defenses of the Church by such institutions as the Catholic League and the National Conference of Bishops in the U.S. often lead me to a loss of words. We are supposed to be the light of the world, which means that we should know better. If those in darkness point out the darkness that has invaded this beakon of light, they are only doing us a favor. The Church in the end has no need of defenders. True, great polemicists have arisen in the past to defend the truths of the Church. The greatest defense of the Church, however, is to bear persecution with rejoicing, just as Our Lord said.
So when the "liberal" press criticizes Christianity even to the point of blasphemy, our first thought should be that Christ not only died for them, but that Christ died especially for them. Our response should be to manifest this love of our enemies in the world. Anything else would be a fatal compromise.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

What I am reading

Aristotle's Children : How Christians, Muslims, and Jews Rediscovered Ancient Wisdom and Illuminated the Middle Ages by Richard E. Rubenstein

In the vein of returning to basics, I saw this book at a local library and checked it out. It is highly readable and not overly academic, so I recommend it for all people who have at least a rudimentary understanding of Western thought.

One thing that suprised me, though, is that Rubenstein does not cite the work of M.D. Chenu,who was one of the greatest scholars in terms of the transition from a neo-Platonist to a more Aristotlian mode of thought in the twelfth century.

I suppose one thing that is going through my mind as I read this book is my own philosophical pilgrimage. It has been very easy for me to fall into the rather simplisitic Platonist/Aristotilian dichotomy. That is one of the appeals of Eastern Orthodoxy for Western Christians: the accusation that the West fell away from the Fathers of the Church to seek after syllogisms and logical hair-splitting. A very appealing argument, but one that is simply not true. You cannot wish that the Western mind be different , nor can you wish away the 800 year old march of reason that has taken place since Aquinas and the scholastics. To try and do so would be utopian and foolish.

Is it not possible to say, along with Chenu, that the opening up to nature as it happened with the rediscovery of Aristotle in the West led to a real "incarnational" approach to the world that was lacking in the more Augustinian model?

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Taking a break.....

From theology, that is. After six years of theology and the Church being my life, I am going "back to basics". I think the problem in studying theology now is that the world that the great theologians worked in has detiriorated beyond recognition. And this goes for me as well: I simply do not think I can think straight vis a vis the Faith and the Church. I am a post-modern person who has been "over-exposed" to the teachings of the Church, but without having really known their "soul". So for the time being, I am trying to stick to philosophy, history, politics and the arts. Maybe then I can break out of the non-Christian polemical mind that so characterizes the Church today.

So look for more posts on philosophy, politics, literature, and music. Although I will probably still be a huge blabber-mouth when it comes to Church subjects that I know little about, I will try to keep the proper focus.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

"Dios no se compra"

On the life and death of a vocation

Why we do things in life is often not something we can know too much about. Often, even the most altruistic goals can have very base and selfish motives. We would like to think that we are always in control, that we are fully aware of what we are doing and why we are doing it. We would like to think.....

There are excuses: modern life is centered in selfishness. No one wants to give themselves over unconditionally to Christ. So someone has to do it. And if not me, then who?

I have been through it all. You name it, I did it. I like to brag that in religious life, I did everything from bake a cake to dig a grave. Vigils? Did that. Exile? Try South America for two years. Hunger? Yep. Loneliness. All of the time. I jumped through the hoops. I endured the insults. I slept on the ground. But it availed me nothing, because I did not do it out of love. This I say to my own shame.

Many in the Church would like to think that if we just returned to the "ancient ways", the Church would be rejuvenated. They speak of returning to tradition, of reviving practices that have long since been forgotten. If only we suffered more, if only we fasted more, if only our services were longer. If only..... If only......

I am beginning to think, however, that we have lost the language that was at the center of this ascetical literature. We have lost the language of unconditional surrender to God. Maybe this language was never really mastered by man; more often than not, we have wanted to restrict the actions of the Holy Spirit to formulas, in order to control where He blows and where He doesn't. But this is doomed to failure. Traditionalism will turn to atrophy, and in its worse form, become a totalitarianism that is merely a mimicry of real Christianity.

As I have said, there is no more "golden chain" of elders than can teach us these things but God has not abandoned us. A friend of mine once said that it can be a bit disappointing to realize that the only reason you have lived is to be a cautionary tale to others. Well, let this be mine to you: as a person I met told me: "Dios no se compra" - God is not bought off. There is no running from yourself, and religious life can be a great place to hide from God. By this, I do not mean to discourage vocations, only to help them to approach the way of perfection with eyes wide open.

I now go forth in my own Christian life without the shield of a monastic habit. I have no regrets: I am a much stronger person for having five years of my youth serving the Lord. I feel that I needed to do that just to believe the way "normal" people do. However, never again, I pray, may I try to bargain with God. I now accept His will whatever it may be, even if it means being "normal".


Dear readers,

I apologize for the lack of posts during the last week. Truth be told, I finally left my monastery and am in the process of returning to the "real world". So all my energy is going to getting a job and all sorts of other good, "normal" stuff. Also, computer access has become a bit of a problem. I commend myself to your prayers for me in order to get spiritually and emotionally settled to my new situation. I hope to at least be able to blog at least once or twice a week. Thank you for your readership.

God bless,