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, July 31, 2006

A porta inferi....

...Facilis descensus Averno.
Noctes atque dies patet atri janua Ditis:
Sed revocare gradum, superasque evadere ad auras,
Hoc opus, hic labor est.


And Dryden's translation:

The gates of Hell are open night and day,
Smooth the descent, and easy is the way;
But to return, and view the cheerful skies,
In this, the mighty task and labor lies.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Charlemagne Palestine

One of the lesser known "minimalist" composers, former carillonist at St. Thomas' Church in New York, and a consummate eccentric who plays with teddy bears and cognac bottles stuck to his piano, Palestine is one of the most intense composers around. His works are literally sonic assaults on the listener, escorting him to a new level of listening and contemplation. His Strumming Music is a work I highly recommend.

Friday, July 28, 2006

De Montfort's True Devotion to Mary

(Note: Here begins a series that will further my own sense of megalomania and will give very bored individuals with nothing else better to do a way to get to know me better. In the following series, I will discuss, somewhat in chronological order, the ten books that have most formed me as a person. This is the first in the series.)

Part I: Because It's Okay to Play Don Quixote

My mother had to nag me into visiting a sick mutual friend of ours that I had not seen in over ten years. Yes, I know, with all this theological knowledge swishing around in my head, I should know all about the corporal works of mercy. But I am naturally a very shy person, so I had to be coaxed into doing it by myself.

I knew where the place was since I had been there so often before. As a teenager, I was an auxiliary member of the now defunct Legion of Mary here in Hollister, and I used to go with my mother and a blind saint named Genevieve to visit the people in this nursing home. There I learned much about suffering and compassion, and how our society likes to dispose of people who are old, useless, and unpleasant to look at. When I returned this time, it seemed a much more sanitary and brighter place. I would like to think that conditions had changed, but who knows? I came unwittingly when my friend was having her supper. It was rather awkward, since I don't think she recognized me, although her sister who was with her did. I didn't stay long because the whole situation was rather strange, and I wanted to leave my friend to eat her dinner in peace.

The whole experience took me back to my formative years as a teenager, and my part as the last young hold-out in my parish to cling to the "old ways". Not that I remembered them, but my mother to some extent and my Legion of Mary praesidium were the last great bastion of traditional Roman Catholicism left in that church, and we were a bit of a thorn in the side of the liberal priests, though I might be exaggerating this a bit. The foundation of the Legion of Mary, as you may know, is St. Louis de Montfort's True Devotion to Mary. This book, along with the writings of St. Alphonsus de Ligouri and St. Peter Eymard, gave me a strong sense of what the traditional spirituality of the Roman Catholic Church was. It also caused a whole lot of confusion in my life since I saw that times had changed and I couldn't explain why. To this day I can't.

When you are young, you are very impressionable. These books gave me a vision of what the Church had been: an incarnational religion that passed on traditions from one generation to the next. They gave me a sense of the inevitability of death, repentance, true love and eternal life. In a way, reflecting on these things at the age of fourteen "deformed" me as a person: I was far too serious far too young. These issues, however, cannot be avoided. I soon found myself, even in the context of the Church, as a fish out of water. During our confirmation "classes" the only thing we ever talked about were social issues: teen pregnancy, suicide, drug abuse, etc. Never once did we talk about doctrine or even Christ. It was a schizophernic world I inhabited as a pious youth, and eventually I fell away from the Faith completely.

It has taken me most of my thinking life to finally figure out that the Church I had envisioned as a teenager no longer exists and probably never did. I used to sit in our 130 year old church and try and imagine what it was like before they ripped down most of the statues, the communion rail, and the high altar. I used to marvel at how mysterious and beautiful it must have been. Now, having talked to people from that era and knowing what I know about theology and liturgy, I no longer entertain such childhood fantasies. These were the products of reading too many romanticist books. In that way, I was just like the man from La Mancha, who decided to start slaying imaginary beasts throughout the peaceful countryside. Life is not what happens in books. And it has never been that way.

Now I worship in the same church as an Anglican, and even though I am appreciative of my first years as a triumphalist Roman Catholic, I am glad that I have finally put away that over-the-top, hyper-pious sensibility for something more sober, more realistic, and more beautiful.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Against Apologetics

Father Amphilochios was known on Patmos as a man of great charity and compassion. But he had an inflexible core.

Soon after we met, I had a chance to talk to him about Orthodox Christianity.... Since he had experience as a missionary, spreading the Christian message among the tribal people of West Africa, it seemed fair to ask him about his techniques for enlightening unbelievers. I was one of them, and I was tackling him on behalf of liberal humanism.

I explained to him that I was a member of an enormous modern tribe that rejected the Christian message. This was not because we knew too little but because we knew too much..... For the past three hundred years leading intellectuals of our tribe had examined the philosophical proofs for the existence of God and found them wanting. Our scholars had looked at the linguistic and archeological evidence for biblical truths and pronounced them flawed. Our biologists accepted a version of the story of life on earth that needed no external directing hand. So, we had abandoned Christainity after long and careful consideration of its claims and with much regret.... "If you came, "I said, "as a missionary to my tribe today, what would you say to us?" I sat back, conscious that I had put him on the spot. He looked at me with a smile and said simply: "I would not say anything to you. I would simply live with you. And I would love you."

-from Peter France's A Place of Healing for the Soul: Patmos pgs. 80-82

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

The Transformative Power of Love

Divine mechanism to
Preserve the beauty of our organism,
Either by accident or election.
From knowledge of you
Are born strange effects:
For darkness defects
And the dumb speak,
Crude intellects are strengthened
That once were weak.

Only two months ago
I was like the beasts of the wild,
The rational soul having been from me exiled.
As an animal only sense I knew,
Like a plant I was merely nourished and grew.
Eclipsed in me was reason, divine and holy,
Until in your rays this rising sun
Was shown me.

You untied and broke
The fool's dimness.
You were the divine genius
That instructed and gave me the light:
This new identity in which I dwell.
Hearty thanks, Love, I give you
For having taught me so well
That all men upon me seeing
Remark how different is my being.

Of desire's force
From an imagining so kind,
I see myself in the palaces
Of Reason Divine.

-Finea's Soliloquy, Act III, Scene I;
Lope de Vega's La Dama Boba (The Foolish Lady)
Read the original

Monday, July 24, 2006

A Blog to be Watched

The Ochlophobist

This blog is well-written, innovative, and has a very definite and unique aesthetic. Though Eastern Orthodox in persuasion, it tackles its Orthodoxy in a very sober and intelligent manner of critiquing what it loves. A highly commendable read.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

The Tainted Well

I finished reading Diarmaid MacCulloch's biography of Thomas Cranmer, and I was very enlightened by it. My main passion in my spiritual life has always been liturgy: to worship the Lord "in the beauty of holiness." As many of my better teachers have let me know, however, the history of liturgy is a lot like making sausage. You like the end result, but the process of making it is far from appetizing. This is how I feel about the Book of Common Prayer. It has such an elegant simplicity to it; it makes Scripture shine forth in a pure light, but sometimes I feel it can be too sparse, too ideological", and of course, "too Protestant".

Having had experience with the offices of the old Roman and Byzantine Churches, I can say that the Prayer Book easily rivals these and surpasses them in some respects. We have to remember that liturgy was once not that complicated: the monastic office at the time of St. John Cassian (fifth century) consisted of twelve psalms in the morning and twelve psalms in the evening. There was even a complaint by one of the early monks that in the city troparia and kontakia (metered Byzantine hymns) were taking the place of the psalter in worship. How dismayed he would be to participate in an all-night vigil of the monks of Mount Athos, the heirs to his tradition, where they sing these hymns primarily, the psalter proper forming only a small part of the service.

Having said this, however, we have to admit that the Book of Common Prayer is a compromise document. I was interested to read at the end of the book how the evangelicals still for the most part revered Cranmer, but they dismissed his Prayer Book as still having too much "popery" in it and he would have written a "purer" one if he had lived longer. MacCulloch I think is more sympathetic to this sentiment that to latter-day High Church and Anglo-Catholic voices who idolize the Prayer Book as a stable thing-in-itself.

In this sense, Cranmer was not "on my side": he wanted to revolutionize Christianity, but in phases. He wanted to weed out the "superstitious" practices of the past little by little, so as to maintain unity in the realm and not scandalize the people. The heart of MacCulloch's Cranmer, however, was definitely with the more radical reformers of the Continent. He was in this sense very much like Joseph Stalin viz. revolutionary Marxism: the revolution has to be made, but gradually. Only the character of the Elizabethan Settlement would somewhat congeal that revolutionary energy like it was congealed in the late USSR; it became institutionalized, stable, and "traditional".

Should this stop a person like me from using his Prayer Book? The past is important and has consequences, but those consequences are very much formed by how we view the events that took place. We have to admit that we see things with the sublime gift of hindsight, and we cannot see them in another manner. When we have a liturgical text in front of us, we can try to find out its objective history and meaning, but it will always be first and foremost what we bring to it, and that will always be different. Liturgical texts say nothing, they are not primarily sources of theology. A monk in the monastery I was in who had a doctorate in Byzantine liturgy used to always tell me: "Go through the Octoechos (the Byzantine cycle of eight tones that governs the "ordinary" liturgical year) and tell me what our Church thinks about the Resurrection. You will get a lot of nice images, but you are not going to get a theology out of it." Even now with my extended family I pray the rosary in Spanish like they used to do in Mexico. There are prayers in it that I think are theologically unappetizing, but the act of worship with my family in itself has a greater value than theological precision.

That is how I pray the Prayer Book. But even then, I don't necessarily think that Cranmer and the theology behind what he did was totally wrong. One main theme in MacCulloch's book is the change in Cranmer's Eucharistic theology throughout his career. He started out in the Catholic position of the Real Presence and ended in the left-wing Reformer position of the Eucharist being purely a memorial, without any "real" presence of Christ at all in the Eucharistic species. (Hence his communion phrase, Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for thee, and feed on him in thy heart by faith with thanksgiving.) I was appalled by some of the reasons for this latter position, namely the idea that Christ's body was at the right hand of the Father alone, and could not be in two places at once ("He's God," I thought, "if He wants to be in two places at once, He can be.") When MacCulloch quotes St. Augustine on the true nature of the corpus verum, however, a lot of my Patristic readings hit me again like a ton of bricks. Henri de Lubac wrote a book called Corpus Mysticum, in which he catalogues how the term corpus mysticum Christi was originally used for the Eucharistic species. The Corpus Verum, the true Body of Christ IS THE CHURCH!!! That is the most sophisticated, theologically sound reasons for the theology behind Cranmer's radicalism, and it is one I agree with. At Holy Communion, this is most powerfully expressed in the prayer: And here we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, our selves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice unto thee... This in the end is the only sacrifice that really matters, it is why the Word of God descended into this world. This is the view of the early Church; Cranmer's only problem is that he was too consistent. This truth does not exclude, in my view, a real presence in the Eucharistic species.

Yes, the crown of Anglican worship may be a tainted well for someone as "Catholic" as me. But look deeper into that well and you might find something you were not expecting, a purity you might not have known existed, and an experience that both seals and challenges all the other truths of your spiritual journey. Love me, love my Prayer Book. It's only in praying it that you can penetrate its true wisdom.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Lessons Music Can Teach Theology

Uri Caine's talent [involves] seeing connections where others see distance.

-Jeremy Eichler, cited in Tango: the Art History of Love, by Robert F. Thompson, p. 204

This is how Thompson opens his chapter on Astor Piazzolla, the great Argentine composer who fused tango with everything from jazz to the music of Bela Bartok. Where tango traditionalists saw sacrilege to old venerable forms, Piazzolla saw the spirit behind those forms, which were themselves collisions between various musical sources that made criollo music. For Piazzolla, to quote Jaroslav Pelikan, traditionalism was the dead religion of the living, while tradition is the living religion of the dead. That is how he did tango. And that is why, on the corner of Nueve de Julio and Avenida de Mayo in Buenos Aires, his image towers over the those who pass by the heart of the Argentine Republic, playing his bandoneon standing, rather than seated (another innovation).

We can get so caught up in forms and labels that we miss the true principals of what we believe. I have seen it over and over again, from left-wing Marxists to semi-fascistic Roman Catholic traditionalists: traditonal form is everything, there has to be a continuous war against innovators who try and take us out of our militant stance. It is always about "us and them"; and in the end, who cares what "they" think since they think differently.

What I am now trying to do is to figure out, if someone thinks differently, WHY do they think that way? Again, as our music critic above says, it is about seeing bridges where others see only wide canyons.

Does this mean giving up what we think, becoming soft and mushy headed? Another anecdote from the Southern Cone: a former friend in seminary, now a musician, told me that the training of a tango musician involves learning to play perfectly with the metronome. And after years of doing this, and being sure that he has mastered this, he takes it, throws it out the window, and plays however he pleases. It is not enough to be caught up in formulas. The Baltimore Catechism is fine if you have mastered it. But if you truly have mastered it, at one point, you have to throw it out the window and realize that things may not be as simple as it says. You will, however, never get to the point that you say it's wrong: that would be simply becoming a heretic, and we have enough of those running around. You will, however, be humble enough to admit that what you know is not even a drop in the great bucket of Divine Truth. And that will make you humble, less quick to label, and in the end, more Christian.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Sanctum Sanctorum

Such experience is hardly a vision. It is a seeing of a different kind, a self-transcendence, a simplification, self-abandonment, a striving for union and a repose, an intentness upon conformation. This is the way one sees in the sanctuary. Anyone who tries to see in any other way will see nothing.


Monday, July 17, 2006

Huguenot Psalmody

Unlike the theology behind them, these settings of the Psalter are lush, emotionally moving, and very satisfying. Easily rivals the best music of the Catholic Counter-Reformation, though you should listen to that too!

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Psychology of Conversion

I realised that the liturgy I loved required for its appreciation a level of culture and education which was available to few. For every one like me, there were easily a thousand like that good soul who found the silent Latin Masses at Sacred Heart “just about the same” as the reverent and beautiful liturgies at Grace Church. Anglican worship of my sort, I had to acknowledge, was for the few, not for the many.

-tip to the Meam Commemorationem blog

The above is a quote from the Tablet from an Anglican priest who became a Roman Catholic in the 1960's. Having read Newman and known personally and anecdotally of similar stories of Anglicans who have become Catholics in a similar manner, I began reflecting on what is the basis for the conversions of those who swim the Tiber and those who do not.

The story of the priest mentioned above can be summarized (perhaps overly simplified) by the term: truth over beauty. Over and over again, this seems to come up. The premise is that it is no good to have beautiful ceremonies if the doctrine is not pure. It is better to eat manna in the desert every day rather than have the onions and meat of Egypt. Grinding your teeth in frustration at liturgical banality is thus seen as an act of obedience to the Divine Will. At least, however, you can sleep well at night knowing that you are in the true Church and you have all of the answers to the important questions of salvation. Being in the Ark of the Church is better than being outside, even if it is dank and smells like wild beasts.

I will not critique this position. It is indeed very admirable in many ways. Many of us who have fled or stayed outside of the Roman communion would do well to do an examination of conscience in these matters. Are we letting little things affect our decisions on what the true Church is? Are we obstinate in having a petite eglise of our own making? Are we, on the other hand, compromising too much, refusing to take firm stands on issues on which we disagree with the Roman Church? Are we intellectual cowards addicted to incense, or even worse, blinded by our passions so that we can get away with things that the Roman Catholic Church does not allow (birth control, a married priesthood, greater latitude in belief, etc.) ? These questions must be asked.

This is not an auto-da-fe. I am not personally having doubts on the path that my life has taken. At the risk of protesting too much, I feel I have to at least say something on why, in spite of what I have written above, I maintain my current position. The problem is knowing too much: about history, about the Church, about liturgy, and about life in general. I am not going to reveal too much here; I will avoid becoming a spiritual exhibitionist. Indeed, there are too many moments on this blog that I have come fairly close to commiting this crime. I have encountered on my journey everyone from crazy Roman Catholic women who believe in questionable apparitions to spiritual drifters who sleep in open air. I have learned from Russian Orthodox abbots, Coptic monks, traditionalist "schismatic" Catholic bishops, a clairvoyant Mormon, and Anglican vicars. And I have learned to appreciate every single one of them. Maybe not in the same way, and not with the same amount of credibility, I have learned from all of them.

So when someone says, "the true Church is over there, over here, down there, etc.," I cannot help but yawn, roll my eyes, and say, "here we go again!" But on a good day, I repress my lack of enthusiasm, pull up a chair, and begin to listen. Many times, I am suprised by what he or she says. Sometimes I think it must be the Holy Ghost speaking through a human mouth. And even if we part ways in disagreement, I thank God that I had a chance to speak with him or her.

So I am loathe to begin to draw the boundaries of Christ's Church, even a little bit. For me, to do such a thing would be to make the Church into my own little "comfort zone" where I can label people and be assured that I am not "one of them". Sure, I still have very strict standards: I stick to the Nicene Creed and the General Councils, and above all literal word of the Gospels. Do I know, however, what they mean? I think I am just finding out, little by little.

So I can have my cake and eat it too. I think I have demonstrated on this blog that I think a religion without a cult that leads us out of our everyday lives is practically no religion at all, and that people need to be taught to be brought up higher when they worship, rather than be left in the language and actions of their monotonous lives. So in this sense, I disagree with the priest cited above. On the other hand, to the questions of truth above beauty, at least I can say that in my own case, the issues involved are not that simple. And I say to that: THANK GOD!!! It wouldn't be Christ's Gospel if they were.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Iamblichus Confronts the Dark Ages

A Critique, a Concession, and a Conclusion

According to Iamblichus, all theurgical ritual, by defintion, was rooted in ancient tradition; it could not be concocted to suit one's mood or personal desires..... The cosmogonic myth of the Timeaus demanded great skill of its interpreters, yet for Iamblichus this Platonic myth sustained a vital connection to the most primitive myths and rituals.... If there was a mathematical model of Iamblichean theurgy it would have been a Pythagorean schema reflecting the creative tensions of the One and the Many. These tensions, Iamblichus believed, were portrayed in the traditions of ancient and holy people, in their art, dance, sacrifice, and prayers, and would have been discovered as mathematical only after the fact of their cultural embodiment. Mathematical proportions simply outlined the intensity and valences of ritual patterns already established in nature and cult.

-from Gregory Shaw's Theurgy and the Soul, pgs. 209-210

We here conclude our series of reflections on the Neoplatonic philosopher and hierophant, Iamblichus. We have seen how he defended the pagan cult from enemies from within, affirmed the complete incarnation of the soul in the body, developed a system by which man uses the material and noetic cosmos to ascend toward the Divine, and have contemplated what this means for Christian thinking. Now, however, we must address some criticisms that we have recieved from some very thoughtful people.

The first of course is that we may be giving too much emphasis to the role of liturgy in the Christian mystery. One particular point is the tension between the word of God purely recieved and the omnipresence of ritual in all human life, religious or not. I have been told that the Christian Church has always had a rather tense relationship with its liturgical life, it has always been wary that it would deflect from the message of the written Gospel. This of course is a common criticism, particularily of the Reformers and more avant-garde "liturgists", but it is one that we must take very seriously. Smells and bells can indeed degenerate into going through the motions, and an uneducated Church is a bad church, no matter how beautiful its ceremonial may be. Many of the people who attended liturgy in the Patristic Church were illiterate, but if they would have been able to read and own books, they would have read the Scripture assiduously. We are still very much people of the Book, though we can exaggerate this aspect to much.

The second criticism is that maybe I might be exaggerating the cosmological aspect of liturgy. The Christian liturgy is historical in character; it remember primarily events in salvation history, not cosmic symbols embedded in matter. This of course needs more study. I realize my arguments might be very weak in this regard.

The third is a self-criticism: these are very personal reflections, perhaps even too personal. I do not know if I have done a good job expressing my point of view in these posts in a coherent manner. Maybe there has been too much of what "I THINK" liturgy should be, and "de gustibus non fit argumentum" (you shouldn't argue about taste). Maybe a good modern Roman Catholic Mass or mainline Protestant service can embody the ancient Patristic ideal of liturgy. I just know that I have never seen one do this. I could be wrong, though.

What can we conclude, then? The initial problem stilll stands: the disconnect between worship, thought and life. I do not think it is arguable that as Christians we live in certain compartments throughout our daily life. When we are in church, we are in one compartment; when we are at work, we are in another; and with friends yet another. This cannot be helped, we are now a minority in this society. The problem arises when this situation sinks into our thought-patterns, our manner of seeing things and our being as children of God. I have argued that many Christian bodies are changing their worship in order to speak to modern man without questioning why he can no longer understand the traditional voices of Christian antiquity. We have chosen to play on postmodernity's turf without even questioning its rules, principals, or methods of action. If we continue to do this, we will lose. The Church will survive, but as a much smaller remnant of what it could be.

The key to this is an integrated life: a Christian life that sees, thinks, appreciates beauty, and acts in a traditionally human manner. This means respect for tradition, discipline in learning (for knowledge and not facts, in order to grow in wisdom and not just win an argument), recultivating a sense of humility and hierarchy, and learning to appreciate art, music and literature. The trick is we must do this in our present society and not in a Potempkin village. We must re-learn to be human in the society that God has put us in, and not in one of our own making.

What we will probably not get, pace Alasdair MacIntyre, is a new St. Benedict. God is very stingy about giving out saints in this day and age. Some of us have been fortunate enough to know some, but they are few and far between. Neither do we need a new Plotinus. Elmer O'Brien, in his introduction to The Essential Plotinus, says that, "[m]any a latter day mystic has revealed himself as apparently a Plotinus redivivus," (p. 14), citing St. Augustine, Meister Eckart, and Hugh of St. Victor. I would add to this list, however, those who have not been thought as "religious" thinkers: Rene Descartes, Immanuel Kant, Frederich Nietzsche, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Michel Foucault, among others, who have tried to devise a solitary view of the world unrelated to the traditions and cultures of their time. The goal is not to transcend everything and live in the clouds: that would be suicide for preaching the Gospel in this day and age. The goal is to integrate worship, philosophy, theology, science, art and culture into whole, undivided system. For this we do not need a man who was ashamed to be seen in a human body. What we need, either as a person or as a movement, is a new Iamblichus.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Contrary Movements

The rational soul acheives its proper end, wherever the limits of its life may be. It is not as in dance or the theatre or other such arts, in which, if something comes along to interrupt them, the entire action is incomplete. The action of the rational soul, by contrast - in all of its parts, and wherever it is considered- carries out its projects fully and without fail, so that it can say, ¨I have achieved my completion¨.

- Marcus Aurelius

We are like a chorus grouped about a conductor who allow their attention to be distracted by the audience. If, however, they were to turn towards the conductor, they would sing as they should and would really be with him. We are always around the One. If we were not, we would dissolve and cease to exist. Yet our gaze does not remain fixed upon the One. When we look at it, we then attain the end of our desires and find rest. Then it is that, all discord past, we dance an inspired dance around it.

- Plotinus

Tuesday, July 11, 2006


Procura desmentir los elogios que a un retrato de la Poetisa inscribió la verdad, que llama pasión

Este, que ves, engaño colorido,
que del arte ostentando los primores,
con falsos silogismos de coloreses
cauteloso engaño del sentido;
éste, en quien la lisonja ha pretendido

excusar de los años los horrores,
y venciendo del tiempo los rigores,
triunfar de la vejez y del olvido,
es un vano artificio del cuidado,

es una flor al viento delicada,
es un resguardo inútil para el hado;
es una necia diligencia errada,

es un afán caduco y, bien mirado,
es cadáver, es polvo, es sombra, es nada.

[She tries to refute the praises inscribed on her portrait by Truth, which she calls passion

This, that you see, this colored treachery,
which, by displaying all the charms of art,
with those false syllogisms of its hues
deceptively subverts the sense of sight;
this, in which false praise has vainly sought
to shun the horrors of the passing years,
and conquering of time the cruelty,
to overcome age and oblivion's might,
is a vain artifice cautiously wrought,
is a fragile bloom caught by the wind,
is, to ward off fate, pure uselessness;
is a foolish effort that's gone wrong,
is a weakened zeal, and, rightly seen,
is corpse, is dust, is gloom, is nothingness.]

-Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz (+ 1695)

Saturday, July 08, 2006

A Gem

There is a word that Fr. Sophrony once gave. He told a fellow monk, who had been at the edge of despair (in his prayers for the sins of the world - you have to read Sophrony to get all this). His word was, “Stand at the abyss and pray until you can stand no longer - then have a cup of tea.” This seems like a good word.

From A Conservative Blog for Peace


Symbol- Cosmos -Liturgy

Whence indeed, the divine causes are not called into activity prompted by our thoughts. Rather our thoughts and all the noble dispositions of soul, as well as our purity, should be considered auxiliary causes, but the things that truly excite the divine will are the divine sunthemata themselves. And so the causes from the Gods are activated by the Gods themselves from their inferiors as cause of their own activity.

-Iamblichus, De Mysteriis

Sunthemata were the "wild cards" in Iamblichus' cosmological deck. They reveal the presence of the gods at any grade of reality since each was sustained directly by them. Yet the ascent of each soul was gradual, and its particular level of attachment only an encounter with a sunthema from that level allowed the soul to proceed.

-Gregory Shaw, Theurgy and the Soul, pg. 180

Continuing with our meditations on the Neoplatonism of Iamblichus, we come to yet another principal of mediation between the human and the divine. As we have seen, Iamblichus envisioned the ascent of the soul to the One as a process that involved greatly the gradual climbing of the soul through the cosmos. Man is not separated from his surroundings in the quest for eternal bliss, but is intimately connected to them. It is this aspect that we wish to investigate further.

The sunthemata, or symbols, were like clues in a giant cosmic mystery game placed by the gods to allow the fallen human soul to find itself truly. They too were not given to all at once, but rather according to the disposition of those who received them. The lowest grade of sunthema was of course material objects, such as rocks, trees, and other well known idols of paganism. Then came names, then numbers, and finally the greatest symbol of all, the Sun. According to the theurgist's level of integration with the divine, he could use any or all of these, and this system allowed any type of person, from the most educated philosopher to the most illiterate peasant, some involvement in the pagan cult. In devising this system, Iamblichus hoped to save late paganism from being too abstract and distant; in a word what he feared the Plotinian system was doing with its anti-cosmic prejudices.

I remember once being in a car, driving through the city of Cordoba in Argentina, and realizing that the liturgical problems of the Christian Church had a much more profound cause than I had first realized. I used to always enjoy my mother telling stories about growing up in her village in Mexico, particularity the ones she told about religious festivals: Easter, Christmas, May Crownings, and above all, the feast of St. Isidore the Farmer. On the latter feast, the children of the village would put chairs on their heads with the family picture of St. Isidore on it and process with the priest while he blessed the fields. Then I realized that it was the death of this culture after the Second World War that was greatly responsible for the liturgical and spiritual malaise that the Church finds itself in. The traditional Catholic principles that I so longed for and that were present as a remnant in my religious consciousness were the almost extinct attitudes of a rural, agrarian past tied to nature and the cycles of the seasons. A postmodern, egalitarian and urban culture could not sustain these for very long on a massive scale. Maybe the liturgical reformers of the past fifty years have a point.

The crisis, however, is not just religious strictly speaking. It is a crisis of being human. I remember being fascinated by one aspect of Byzantine Orthodox spirituality in which man, when he returns to his original state through the grace of God and asceticism, can also return to the harmonic existence with nature which he had in primeval Paradise. This was seen in that many Russian hermits, such as St. Seraphim of Sarov, were able to converse and be friends with all kinds of wild animals, including bears and other ferocious beasts. In this sense, there is a language of creation that man through sinfulness has forgotten, the language of "groaning and travail" that some very special souls, by a charism of God, have recovered partially. We moderns, however, in our ever growing pride and sinfulness, are moving further and further away from it.

This brings us to liturgy itself, as the most basic alphabet of our communion with God. The Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemman commented that it is the Eucharistic bread, the Body of Christ, that reveals to us the true meaning of common table bread. That is, it is the higher "symbol" (mysterion, sacramentum, sunthema) that reveals the lower one. In the end, it is liturgy that reveals to us the true meaning of creation, its origin, order and destiny. In this sense, the historical events of salvation history (birth, death, and resurrection of Christ) are primary, but they too reveal the birth, death, resurrection and final destiny of our fallen world. By changing the liturgy to suit our egalitarian, rationalistic principals, we are imposing our corrupted subjectivist views of the cosmos on the mysteria of Christ's Church..... Of these things we almost cannot write; if I am right, they are deeply embedded in the "subconscious" of who we are before we begin to "theologize" (I speak purely rational terms, of course). And it is this break with material creation that is causing the widespread functional atheism present in all Christian confessions, even amongst the most conservative.

What I am proposing is that maybe the ladder has been kicked out from under us in terms of traditional Christianity. Maybe our beliefs and practices no longer have a foundation in the ontological ground of postmodernity. God is almighty, and the Spirit will blow where He wills, but our cell-phones, Internet, and blogs (yikes!) may be making us less and less human, and in that sense, less and less Christian. We cannot even climb the first rung of the ladder in the cosmic ascent envisioned by Iamblichus. We are stuck in the mud, looking up, but blindly.....

(to be continued.....)

Friday, July 07, 2006

Glass' Symphony No. 6

....enrich this Plutonian Ode to explode its empty thunder through earthen thought-worlds

Magnetize this howl with heartless compassion, destroy this mountain of Plutonium with ordinary mind and body speech,

thus empower this Mind-guard spirit gone out, gone out, gone beyond, gone beyond me, Wake space, so Ah!

Thus ends Allen Ginsberg's poem set to music by the composer Philip Glass. I don't think I can recommend this recording to those who are not die-hard Glass fans. I adore Glass, for me he is a musical god, but I can see why people would despise him. He doesn't really break new ground with this recording, but those of us who appreciate his music will be able to enjoy it nonetheless.

The biggest problem, I think, is the text itself. It is sung by the soprano, Laura Flanigan, and like all music sung by a soprano, I have a real problem understanding the libretto (though if the music is good enough, the words really don't matter, as fans of French baroque opera well know.) So the Ginsberg's poem becomes a bit of an after-thought in this sense.

Overall, I thought the piece was enjoyable, suitable especially for more contemplative moods.


Could it be true that in jesting we are contemplating? As all who jest, in jesting we contemplate. One jests because one wants to contemplate.


Thank God for the remote control! I was watching music videos on VH1 this morning (most of them are crap, but there are some good ones). During a commercial, I channel-surfed to CNN, and I caught the larger part of a story about some South African preacher who uses "holy laughter" in his ministry. Nothing too offensive there. But when he tried to get into the "theology" (if you want to dignify it by calling it that) behind what he does, he went into the now obligatory rant against other organized Christian bodies. According to him, all we traditional Christians want to do is make people sad and make them feel guilty so they keep coming back Sunday after Sunday. We are sad people, according to this religious innovator, crying guilty tears into our Prayer Books, Catholic missals, or icon stands.

Guilty, I would say, but not totally. I for some reason remembered some anecdotes from the lives of St. Seraphim of Sarov and St. John Maximovitch. The former used to crack jokes at the kliros during services to lift up the brethren's spirits, the latter used to jest with his altar boys during Pontifical Liturgies (though never in the altar). Again, here we have the old question of balance. Our misguided preacher is applying a good principle, but as all postmoderns, he applies it badly, and does things for all the wrong reasons.

In church, we must have the spirit of children ("unless you become like this little child...."). But as the parents who read this blog will know, childhood is not all fun and games. Children have to behave, learn respect, and learn that life is sometimes painful and sad. I find liturgy fun; having served and sang in many venues, I always end up joking around with the priest and fellow singers. A smile in choir or at the altar goes a long way, I have found. But real fun is like real life, full of hardship and sorrow as well as joy and release. To suffer and find joy is the essence of humanity. It is also the essence of liturgy, and thus how we need to behave in church.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

On Ecstasy

There is a story in the life of Elder Paisios of Mount Athos (+ c. 1994) that a man came to him who demonstrated great spiritual pride. The Elder then told him a story. The Elder was some time back in his cell praying, and then an immense light consumed him for an unknown amount of time. It was, of course, the Uncreated Light of God that the Christian East often talks about. He was thus enraptured in this divine joy for a timeless amount of time, but then, as suddenly as it came to him, it left. He was thus alone in his dark cell, and he felt thirsty. Then hungry. So he drank and ate, but while he was doing this, he felt so ashamed that he was enjoying these earthly pleasures while he had lost the celestial gift. He was a human being, again, and that brought tears to his eyes.

Of course, the elder told the proud man this story in order to make him see that this ecstasy was not a source of pride, but almost a punishment since he was still a sinful human being through his own fault. People mouth how they want to be closer to God. But when God comes too close, we will get burnt since we are not, nor will we ever be, ready to receive him here below.

Be thankful, then, for the dark night.

Preach, Father, Preach!

From the Continuing Anglican Churchman blog:

I suppose it is hard for converts to the Catholic Church to accept how the theology and method of the church has changed so much in the 20th century. Usually converts read only the books on a particular faith that they wish to read, and they develop in their mind some Platonic ideal of the way the faith they're converting to is supposed to be. But then they get discourgaged and disillusioned when, after converting, they see it's not really the way they envisioned it in their minds. For example, if one limits himself to only reading books by Ignatius Press, watching EWTN, going to an Indult Mass (or some more tradtional Novus Ordo mass), he may very well have an unpleasant surprise when he sees how the church actually is in all of its breadth and diversity. Incidently, people do this when converting to any number of faith traditions. It happens with Anglicanism too, so I am not just picking on Roman's here. Zealous converts to another faith tradition, would do well to seek out the wackiest stuff that people of that tradition have to offer, and to familairize themselves with it, so they will not surprised by anything coming down the pike.

Great post, Father. I would only add that to pretend to have the theology of fifty years ago in today's Church is to just as much living in a Potempkin village as converting to ultra-traditional Greek Orthodoxy and getting baptized again on Mount Athos. It's an escape, and that's all.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Hercules in Hell

The Hercules of Hades is able to speak of his bravery. But he esteems it a small thing now that he has passed to a region more sacred and has arrived in the intelligible realm; he is now endowed with a strength more than Herculean for those battles which are the battles of the sages.

-Plotinus, The Enneads

virtus in astra tendit
praesens ab astris,
Alcides cano,
me iam decet subire
caelestem plagam;
inferna vici rursus
Alcides loca.

[valour fares starward;
in living presence
Hercules speaks.
'tis meet that I pass
to the realm above;
Hercules once again
has conquered hell.]

-Seneca, Hercules Oetaeus

Saturday, July 01, 2006

That Old Time Religion

Enter not into a temple negligently, nor in short adore carelessly, not even though you should stand at the very doors themselves.

-Iamblichus, De Vita Pythagorica

I grew up living in a religious confrontation between two worlds. One was modern Anglo-Saxon postmodern culture that regarded equality and information as the highest desirable goods. The other was the remnant of rural Mexican Catholicism that was brought to this country by my family. In this system, cycles of the Church year, respect, and duty to God and neighbor were ingrained in me from a young age. Even greeting elders was a quasi-religious ritual: we would go up as children, ask for their hand and touch it to our foreheads as if we were kissing them. Later I learned that this was also the traditional manner of greeting a priest.

When I came of age, I began to notice all around me the rituals and piety of my community. The rosary as my grandparents pray it is a catechism in rhyme concerning the most triumphalist of Catholic doctrines: purgatory, the Immaculate Conception, hell, sin, the Sacred Heart, etc. Mexican women in devotional settings have a haunting polyphony of their own that that sends shivers up your spine and tears down your face. It is a religion of the heart, one that suffers and gives all to God knowing that more often than not, they have absolutely nothing to lose.

The most bizarre of rituals, though, was done by young men, often just fresh over the border from Michoacan or Oaxaca: they would enter the church from the back and crawl towards the cross on their knees. When they got to the crucifix, they said a quick prayer, kissed the corpus' feet, and left. This impressed me so much that I started doing it, much to the dismay of the parish priest.

There was always a schizophrenia there. On the one hand, these things would be done, but on the other, the most wacky liturgical things would also be done without batting an eyelash. It isn't a Spanish Mass without a guitar, altar girls were encouraged, and at my grandparents' golden anniversary Mass, the priest thought it would be a swell idea if my grandparents would give out communion. (They did, I slipped out of the church quietly at that point.) This is the conflict that I lived growing up, and to a certain extent, I am still living it. Perhaps my readers think I am crazy, pharasaical, or any number of other things, but I could never square these two worlds in my head. For the longest time, I had no idea what was going on, and I am still trying to figure it out.


It was a tree-lined dirt road about seventy miles north of the Argentine city of Cordoba. A family had cordially invited me and some other clerics to stay in a country house they had nearby. We were touring the country side around it. Unlike most of Argentina, the province of Cordoba has mountains, trees, and more to look at than just cows and grass. It reminded me much of home here on the central coast of California.

We came to a herd of goats blocking the road. Their owner, surprised to see the car, tried to get his charges out of the way, but more often than not the goats just gave him that clueless stares that only a goat can give. Finally, we were on our way, and our host said that one of our destinations was not far away.

We pulled up in front of a small cemetery with a building at the rear. Apparently, this was a site of pilgrimage once a year of gauchos from hundreds of miles around who come on horseback to honor Our Lady of..... (take your pick, there are about a thousand of them). We began to peruse the gravestones of the rather archaic and humble cemetery. Finally, we met the caretaker of the place, a woman in her early fifties and her rather bored granddaughter. Having cassocks on and a priest with us, we were honored guests in a church that seldom had clerical visitors.

The walls were all white, and I do not remember the altar. All I remember was being trapped in a religious doll house. Lace and pink hues were everywhere, spilling off the bodies of plaster saints, clashing with the dirty white walls, making the whole place rather spiritually asphixiating. It was a shrine to Hispano-Catholic kitsch, and it was so not working for me. It felt more like an old attic, a sepulcher of a doomed religion. I don't think I even tried to say a prayer in it. I just got up and left as soon as feasible.

Was this a Protestant moment for me? No. I would like to think that it was that at that point I realized that the heart had been ripped out of that church (or rather the Church in general). This did not change my daily life; I was a Lefebvrist seminarian trying to keep the flame burning. That was just it: the liturgy was the heart that was missing, the soul that animated these popular devotions and made them more than some sort of baptized paganism. Without the traditional Mass, the traditional office, and traditional cycles of the Christian seasons, this religion was just a corpse. Witness, for example, the "Marian charasmaticism" of the Steubenville folk and others: they worship apparitions and spew weird heresies because they are not grounded in the traditional ethos of the Christian Church.

That, I suppose, is why I am an Anglican now in the same town I mentioned in the first part of this essay. The most profound embodiments of the religion of the Incarnation in this small town are not the statues of the Sacred Heart or the Holy Infant of Atocha, they are the genuflections, signs of the Cross, kneeling, and lifting up of hands of my Protestant, Anglican vicar, who believes whole-heartedly that he is truly communing with the Trinity. We still have a liturgy, we are not just making it up as we go along. Even if our religion is sparse in many ways, those rituals, that humble attitude we have before God and the historical witness of the Church means that we are not letting the flame die, even if my aged congregation is. That is the soul, that is what is most important. And without that, we would have absolutely nothing.

That, in the end, is my real old time religion.

(to be continued.....)