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

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Lucinda Childs and Philip Glass

I'm not crazy about the choreography, but Dance no.3 is one of my favorite pieces that Philip Glass composed duing his "golden age".

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Rosary Fragments

Note: The following was written some weeks ago but abandoned. Since I am out of ideas, and the month of the rosary is almost over, I decided to publish it in its raw form. Please forgive its unpolished prose.

Por tu limpia Concepción, o soberana Princesa, una grande pureza te pido de corazón.

My battle with the rosary closely parallels my various destinations in a long and arduous process of procession and return to my Catholic Faith. As a youth, I used to love praying the rosary, and often would pray all fifteen decades (and for me, there will ALWAYS be fifteen!) at a time. My first rosaries were the cheapest ones you could possibly find: plastic and of not very good taste. (If you want to pray the rosary often, buy about a dozen cheap plastic ones so that you always have one in your pocket. If you lose one, it’s no big deal, and maybe someone else will pick it up who needs it more than you.)

As I have said before, I was very much formed by my time with the Legion of Mary, and I was an auxiliary member during my youth. (I would be again now if my prayer habits were more consistent, but I digress…) This was coupled with the folk uses of the rosary in the Latino community (here in California, many Mexican immigrants have rosaries dangling from their car mirrors. Since many here drive without a license, I have been given to calling this practice, “Mexican insurance”. Take that, Geico!). Growing up, the rosary was omnipresent. The rosary even governed our everyday lives. My family still prays it every night. Whenever someone dies, the whole extended family gets together for nine consecutive nights to pray the rosary. My family passes on old beat-up rosaries from generation to generation that have sentimental value.

Growing up Catholic in this country, especially in a specialized enclave, one can divide one’s religious life between religion as custom and religion as belief. I once knew a young man of Mexican ancestry who had never gone in a church since his baptism but still crossed himself whenever he passed a Catholic church. That is religion as custom, and that, for better or for worse, is what I was raised with. Catechism wasn’t necessarily emphasized; my mother only finished high school and I have to correct my grandparent’s spelling when they write IN SPANISH. Only later, as I have said, did I actually begin to study my Catholic Faith. At first, as I said above, I began to pray the rosary with some knowledge of what I was doing. Then the prayer books started…

Fast forward to the year before I entered seminary. Though I had instinctively loved the traditional Mass in Latin as a teenager, I really did not understand it. It was only during this year with the SSPX that I finally began to discover what one reader of this blog calls “Mass and Office Catholicism”. (I still am somewhat amazed by people who are so fundamentalist about the Latin Mass who do not have even a lick of Latin. Do you actually know what they’re saying up there?! You might be unpleasantly surprised.) I became more and more involved and enchanted by the liturgy itself, and devotionals began to move more and more into the background. One of the reasons why I became so enamored with Eastern Orthodoxy was because I thought the West was not liturgical enough. But that is whole other post entirely…

By the time I entered seminary in Argentina in 2001, I didn’t like praying the rosary at all. When we prayed it together, it seemed to drag on and on and on…. When I had to pray it by myself, I prayed it as quickly as possible (which is pretty darn fast). It is no wonder that when I finally left seminary, I ceased to pray the rosary by myself altogether. (I was living with my family at the time, so I prayed it with them.)

I took up praying the chotki/komboschini (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”). Now I still have these Byzantine prayer ropes around here somewhere, but praying them was never the same as praying the rosary. I have gotten a lot of flack from some Orthodox readers when I have said that Eastern Christian practices will never really embed themselves into the soul of the West. Perhaps this is imposing my own experiences on others, but I still stand by this position.

After the spectacular failure of my Byzantine experiment, I at first steered clear of the rosary. I was doing the Little Office of the Virgin Mary for a while, along with other things. But the longer I have been away from home, the more solace I have taken in the rosary. After I finally decided to give up on the whole Anglican experiment, one of the first things I began to do was pray the rosary again. Not in Latin. Not in English, the way the Anglos do it and the way I learned it in the Legion of Mary. But in Spanish, like my family has passed it on to me. The Spanish version is a little different from the English, but I won’t go into details about this.

Now, at least, recitation of the rosary is pretty much the bulk of my prayer life. Now, almost every morning, I walk to the bus stop and say my rosary. I don’t meditate on the mysteries, and I don’t always say it perfectly. But occasionally, I will realize, walking through the city streets with the cheap blue plastic beads in my hand, that I am summoning forth the events that have wrought salvation for all that I meet, that have renewed the world from its state of darkness. And then the rhythm of those fingers, those beads, sinks into some place deeper, through the steps that pound their way closer to the cares of the day before me, and they plant in the ground hope, a new life and a new beginning with each Ave

Dios te salve María Santísima, templo y sagrario de la Santísima Trinidad, Virgen concebida sin la culpa original... Dios te salve reina y madre de misericordia…

Friday, October 26, 2007

Lully and Molière: Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme

Good nostalgia.

Reply to Concerns (Briefly)

Yesterday's post resulted in some questions that are tough to answer. Nevertheless, the fact that I am up particularily early gives me a chance to address them.

1. I realize that an absolute condemnation of torture could be considered relativist or "taking things out of historical context". In judging morality, however, one needs to make such judgements. Absolutely speaking, torture is NOT a good thing. The fact that it happened sometimes in a supposed "defense of the Faith" does not make it a positive good. In Christian morality, the ends can never justify the means. Perhaps it is this attitude that brought Christendom down. This society is a direct product of that intolerant one. If one would like to argue that the only reason things fell apart was because we didn't torture enough heretics and burn enough people at the stake, be my guest. The fact is, Franco's Spain was proceeded by La Movida Madrileña, in which people threw off the restrictive mores of "Catholic Spain". And all the laws in the world couldn't have prevented this.

2. Connected to this is the fact that coercion is not a means to convince someone of your point of view. The idea that their is a spiritual good that transcends the material good of some people is not Christian:

What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him? If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit? Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone. (James 2: 14-17)

To destroy the body of someone in order to save his soul is foolishness. Yes, I am passing judgement on the past. But if you want to argue the contrary opinion, be my guest. Just don't whine about it when you end up on the rack.

3. Yes, we live in a bad society. One absolute abomination is the ease by which women destroy their babies in their own wombs. One of these days, we are going to have to answer for this. Remember, every nation has an angel according to the Fathers of the Church. What must our angel think?

However, unless we are prepared to lynch homosexual couples in the street, ban artificial birth control, and force women to stay home to raise the kids, we are just going to have to deal with it. If we are to sow the Kingdom of God here and now, we have to do it by persuasion and example and not by force and counter-productive nostalgia. I am glad that our Church in this day and age does not have to use instruments of violence in order to get its way. There are many things that are wrong with this society, but also many things that right. Let us just be thankful that we are where we are.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

For AG

First Antiphon

...The labor of days.

You are the dew
That burns this longing,
Frightened blinks of
The sun through leaves-
Perilous depth
So fragrant and luminous-
The sweetness,
The scourge,
The beckoning of morning.

Opened up
Like a bitter bottle
Of wine,
The flow of grass
The drowsiness
Of the sky.

Certain notes I have
That conjure the fairness
Of your eyes,

Your hair spilling
Like dusk
Over the folds
Of the pillow;

That which spells, grows,
And dreams
The remnant of a kiss,
The shell of joyful
That fills this room
With bliss.

-Arturo Vasquez

Why I don't read many Catholic blogs

The Internet is not the best place to express one's indignation. The ability to self-publish your thoughts quickly and having perfect strangers read them is not a healthy thing. At least in older forms of publishing, the difficulty of printing something physically meant that "gate-keepers" were always present to calm the hottest heads, revise the most impertinent comments, or even just correct grammar and orthographical errors. This, however, is not the place to lament the loss of a mandatory imprimatur on whatever one writes. Nevertheless, one must at times speak one's mind about things, at the risk of perhaps alienating some people.

I found the above picture on this site which I will not give the dignity of naming. To think that someone could depict the torture of a human being and the Cross in the same painting is completely lost on me. Granted, Pius V was an Inquisitor before he was a Pope. And, granted, the individual who manages this site did not paint this image. If anything, it probably hangs in some august gallery, even a church, inspiring horror to all but the most sadistic minds. So why post it again in a public forum? Why celebrate it? Why this need by some circles to celebrate our bloody, intolerant past?

I will say this right now: I much prefer to raise my children in a society with "gay marriage", relativistic morals, and secularism than a society that threatens its citizens with torture. This image is not funny. It's not even cute. It is thoroughly disgusting, and if we celebrate it, we deserve every accusation that an atheist like a Marx or a Christopher Hitchens can throw at us about religion being "the oppium of the people" and "barbaric".

But there is a deeper issue involved, one that I think the Catholic hierarchy gets but not some more zealous Catholics. The argumentative and triumphalist tone that many Catholics take towards their Protestant and other non-Catholic neighbors is a direct result of this bloody discourse. It may have been cleaned externally of the blood, but it is still very much a product of the time of the rack, the stake, and the auto-da-fe's. Vatican II, in spite of its unwarranted capitulation to the modern world on many issues, aimed at the very least to heal this overly-militant discourse.

It is good to correct your neighbor, especially if one does it out of love. But to appoint oneself as a instrument of correction is something that someone should think twice about before embarking on a one-man crusade. Whatever happened to dialogue, real dialogue, which in spite of my thinking that it can be a four-letter word at times, is still very necessary?

Notice that this blog does NOT have a maximalist Roman Catholic identity. I will sometimes slam Protestantism and agnosticism, but I don't want the people who hold these views to stop reading. The label "Roman Catholic" is a necessary one; it invokes the fact that I belong to the Church that the Apostles founded, and that I am far more certain of my own membership in the Body of Christ than of someone's who is not Roman Catholic. But it is a distinction that I still very much lament. For I would have it that all men were members of the Body of Christ in the fullest possible sense, but I cannot say that this is the case. It is the vocation of all humanity, indeed the entire cosmos, to be grafted into Christ. The necessary label, then, makes it an issue of "us" vs. "them", and that is an ethos that the Roman Catholic Church is trying to move AWAY from. This ethos is ineviatbly a result of sin, violence, and injustice. And I would a thousand times prefer to live in a society where the Truth was the minority than to have obtained hegemony by violent means that contradict that Truth.

It will always be the case that we Christians are apart from the world in a fundamental way, but, as in all of the dichotomies that we Christians must balance, this does not give us license to de-humanize the other. We are still engaged members of this pluralist, postmodern society, like it or lump it. To flaunt our differences without necessity is the ultimate form of counter-cultural navel gazing. And this is why I don't read many Catholic blogs. I am just not very fond of "rooting for my team" especially when that "team culture" is the result of a non-Christian attitude. I am a member of this all-too-human society. And you have to be a human being before you can be a Christian.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Viendo para arriba...

Sinfonía en el cielo del alma

¿Llegaré a tu montaña?

Se hirió la lágrima
por correr a tus ojos.

Sin vidas sauces y los pinos quejosos

No hay más voz que la sorda
Mudez de mis pupilas.
Traeré risa de un lis de noche verde.

Voy a prender los fuegos.
Mi tierra… mi estrella. En la sala del viento
Van a caer luceros.

Reiré, donde tu risa tiene
Un lecho de cristal.

-Aída Cartagena Portalatín

(Symphony in the Soul Sky

Will I reach your mountain?

The tear was wounded
By running to your eyes

Without sallow lives and complaining pines

There is no voice but the deaf
Muteness of my pupils.
I will bring the laughter of a green night iris.

I will ignite the fires.
My land... my star. In the room of wind
Stars will fall.

I shall laugh, where your laughter has
A crystal bed.)

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

On Writing

The problem with having a blog is that any random event can spark a reflection in your mind, and then people from many parts of the globe end up reading about it. (That is, if I haven't lost most of my readers yet through my eccentricities.) One such random event happened yesterday when I saw a particularly interesting truck on the street.

It seemed to be a perfectly normal truck shipping vegetables or some other product, but on the side it said in both Spanish and English, "Read the Most Glorious Koran!" First of all, I wish that we Roman Catholics had that much audacity, though some Christians do put exhortations to read the Bible on their commercial vehicles. And then I began to think how in Islam the Koran really should be read in Arabic since the actual message of God in Islam was written in that language. Ataturk in Turkey got into lots of trouble trying to make people read the Koran in Turkish, and Muslims throughout the world, from Paris to Djakarta to Miami, learn classical Arabic in order to read the Koran. So is our truck sign exhorting people to learn Arabic in order to truly read the Koran, or does it want us to read it in Spanish or English?

I have commented before on the pitfalls of phonetic writing. Since Plato, there has been a warning against the use of writing and its abilities to corrupt memory and truth. Jacques Derrida made a whole career out of inverting this dichotomy. But in what sense is writing iconic, and to what extent is that icon transmittable to other languages?

Origen believed that Hebrew was a sacred language, but not Latin or Greek. I have read that even the manner in which a Torah is made for a synagogue has to follow certain guidelines that transcend the mere transmission of information.

From all this it is quite clear that, in the view of our Plato, the divine cannot be discovered by us but is revealed to us from above; that the substance and nature of the divine cannot be understood by the mind or explained in words or writings. These things should therefore be discussed and described with the hope that we may give encouragement through our words and writings and prepare souls for things divine, rather than offer proof.

This is why Plato writes nothing about the definition of the divine substance and the divine nature. He does, however, write a great deal which, through negations and narratives, exhortation and instruction, will one day lead to that state of mind to which the halls of almighty Olympus will open their gates.

-Marsilio Ficino, found in the compilation, The Gardens of Philosophy, pgs. 157-158

Ficino then goes on to say that to write things down is to put the truth in danger of being cast to the dogs and that the real meaning of the text in the Hebrew and Greek traditions is transmitted non-discursively.

In the Information Age, this might make us uncomfortable. But this is the danger of some forms of catechetical and apologetic argument, as I have often said. It is not that most people have to be ignorant. It is rather that it is necessary to realize a very important point:

Information is about usefulness and power.

Truth is about surrender and love.

The role of written discourse in the latter case is to aide in the unfolding of the process by which the soul returns to herself and becomes united to the One, in the image of divine simplicity. Thus, how we write and learn are not just issues of "what", but also issues of "how" and "by whom". Going back into the pre-history of Greek philosophy, we return again to Socrates' crusade against the rhetoricians and the Sophists: real truth is about the surrender and purification of the intellect, in contrast to those who would make discourse another instrument in the arsenal in a struggle for power. If we recast the instruments of the Truth in the image of the aims of the latter, we may just as much be corrupting the truth as any heretic or non-believer.

In this way, we must consider discourse based on phonetic writing as a step to acquire something much higher:

Hermes attributes all else to the sacred silence of the mind; for God, he believes, is known by the mind by His silence rather than by His words.

-ibid, pg. 159

Let us be attentive, then, to these silences.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Untitled #4

I have come such a long way, but sometimes it feels like I am just chasing my tail.


If you decide to change your mind numerous times, try not to leave an electronic paper trail. It'll just jump up to bite you.


28 and still has a lot to learn.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

On Intoxication

At night we fall into each other with such grace.
When it's light, you throw me back
like you do your hair.
Your eyes now drunk with God,
mine with looking at you,
one drunkard takes care of another

-Rumi, as translated by Coleman Barks

Friday, October 19, 2007

Good Morning

The Sun Never Says

All this time
The sun never says to the earth

"You owe

What happens
With a love like that,
It lights the

translated by Daniel Ladinsky in The Gift

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Bishop Williamson Redux

I've had some close calls in my life. Like most young men, I have done some REALLY stupid things that I thankfully survived without a scratch. This is neither the place nor the manner to reveal them to you; none of you are my father-confessors, and I am not proud of them. Some of them are not that shameful, and some of them... well...

One close call that I really am thankful for is one of timing. I entered the Society of St. Pius X seminary in La Reja, Argentina, at the beginning of 2001, and left at the very end of 2002. During that time, our rector was still a stiff if eccentric Frenchman by the name of M. l'abbe Dominique Langeau. Like all religious orders, the SSPX liked to shake things up from time to time, and the good Padre Langeau had been at his post for more than ten years down in the Southern Cone. Last I heard, he is somewhere in his native France being shot-caller at an important priory. His successor, who was milling about the seminary at the time that I left, was the pugnacious and even more eccentric Englishman, Bishop Richard Williamson.

Even though we seminarians did not know at that point that Monsieur l'abbe was on the way out, I think most had a hunch. One such hunch was the last series of spiritual conferences given by the British prelate himself. Characteristic of all of his discourses, written or otherwise, is his knack for exponding conspiracy theories and other rather pessimistic visions of the Church and society. His heavily accented Castillian rang out with the words "Anti-Christ", "modernism", "Freemasonry" and the like. Maybe the real Pope is being kept in a broom-closet in the Vatican. Maybe a super-computer in Brussels is sending out invisible waves making our minds susceptible to the Judeo-Masonic plot to topple Western civilization. True, he never says or writes this publicly, but I wouldn't put it past him.

Anyway, as in the movies where one escapes in a helicopter from a bunch of bad guys shooting at you, I was whisked away from South America on Christmas Day, 2002, and I have not returned since. Eight months later, the good bishop was officially installed as rector of the rat-infested, mildew-wracked edifice in the Argentine countryside. Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if I had stayed. The only other person who spoke English in the whole seminary was a Filipino seminarian who is now a priest, and he didn't even speak Spanish when he came. (He probably still has my rather spiffy grammar book.) So would he have made me, the perfectly bilingual and somewhat cultured American, his personal secretary? Would I have often had tea with the only other native English speaker in the place, reminiscing about the joys of Anglo-Saxon culture and the First World? (Although friends have told me that he has adjusted well, he can't possibly be all that comfortable being that the Argentines are still rather attached to the whole idea that a few islands of disputed name off their coast are theirs.)

Some things I am glad I missed. One was the whole idea of a humanities year that tacked on one more year of formation to the six year seminary process. In principle, I think that this is a good idea. But the idea of me, a cultural snob, having to look at Western culture through the lens of a bunch of traditionalist dilettantes... the idea is just too much to bear! I am glad that I at least escaped that.

But most of all, I am glad I escaped the integrist reign of terror that must have ensued after my departure. Not that we weren't paranoid before, but the idea of some eccentric Brit running around and not being able to vent his controversial ideas in his monthly newsletters or to his cabal of followers here in the U.S. is quite a frightening prospect under which to live day in and day out. Part of me feels sorry for him because it must be really lonely down there. Part of me thinks that the SSPX exiled him to that place, though his sphere of influence still continues to be a force within the Lefebvrist movement. Then again, maybe that is just because I feel that they exiled me down there.

I should have said at the beginning that the catalyst of this post was finally stumbling across his blog that someone else probably maintains for him. Vox clamantis in deserto... I am pretty sure at this point that all of his eccentric positions, from feeling that women should not wear pants, go to college, or have shoes (okay, I made that last one up), to thinking that watching the Sound of Music is the equivalent to listening to a Black Sabbath album or smoking crack, are just the flip side of postmodernity. In order to get his message across, he feels that he has to shock. His letters from Winona were often graphic and disturbing and caused much controversy in traditionalist circles when they were still monthly occurrences. (Since Father Peter Scott and the good bishop have left the States, SSPX publications just haven't been as much fun to read.) The Roman Catholicism of this British convert is the ultimate expression of who he is; he is just like the gutter-punks on Telegraph Avenue here in Berkeley with pins in their noses. Back in the 1960's, he decided to find something that expressed his personality, and not even the Vatican itself can change his mind about the Judeo-Masonic plot to destroy everything that's good.

It is hard sometimes to believe that he actually believes in all of that crap. He looks intelligent enough to actually have some form of dialogue with reality instead of just sticking to his conspiracy theories. Part of me hopes that at the end of the day, he is just joking. If not, he has reduced Roman Catholicism to a freak show. And anyone who has read Derrida, Foucault, Deleuze, or any other chique theorist, knows that this is exactly what postmodernism does.

(Incidentally, this is partially what I think Fr. Seraphim Rose has done to Orthodoxy in this country, but that is another post entirely...)

Still, I can't help but fantasize that his presence down there must be like something out of a Borges short story. I can see him drinking his four o'clock tea, watching a storm coming in over the pampa, with cows passing by in the lazy afternoon. It would have been nice to accompany him at least once during such a surreal moment.

But then again, I am glad I can spend time with my significant other, who has a doctorate, wears pants, and even some very nice pairs of shoes. (She can also sing all the songs from the Sound of Music.)

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

William Forsythe's In the Middle Somewhat Elevated

Pas de deux by Sylvie Guillem and Laurent Hilaire

William Forsythe's In the Middle Somewhat Elevated

Solo by Sylvie Guillem

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Cleaning Up the Cosmos

Or: How a woman, who is so big, penetrates the eyes, which are so small;

A Reading of Ioan Couliano's Eros and Magic in the Renaissance

Tu Desnudez

La rosa:
tu desnudez hecha gracia.

La fuente:
tu desnudez hecha agua.

La estrella:
tu desnudez hecha alma.

-Juan Ramon Jimenez

(Your Nakedness

The rose:
your nakedness made grace.

The fountain:
your nakedness made water.

The star:
your nakedness made soul.)

Souls descend into the bodies of the Milky Way through the constellation of Cancer enveloping themselves in a celestial and luminous veil which they put on to enter terrestrial bodies. For nature demands that the very pure soul be united with the very impure body only through the intermediary of a pure veil, which, being less pure than the soul and purer than the body, is considered by the Platonists to be a very convenient means of uniting the soul with the terrestrial body. It is due to that descent that the souls and bodies of the planets confirm and reinforce, in our souls and our bodies respectively, the seven original gifts bestowed upon us by God. The same function is performed by the seven categories of demons, intermediaries between the celestial gods and men. The gift of contemplation is strengthened by Saturn by means of the Saturnian Demons. The power of the government and empire is strengthened by Jupiter through the ministry of the Jovian Demons; similarly, Mars through the Martians fosters the soul's courage. The Sun, with the help of the Solar Demons, fosters the clarity of the senses and the opinions that make divination possible; Venus, through the Venereans, incites Love...

-Marsilio Ficino

There is great presumption amongst Catholic intellectuals that the Renaissance is the beginning of the end of "Christendom" and the beginning of all things nasty about the modern world. As it was put to me in seminary in a very curt and self-assured manner, Luther revolted against the secularization of the medieval mind by those lascivious Italians, but in the process, he began the long march to postmodern agnosticism. Luther wanted Christ without the Church. The Enlightenment wanted God without Christ. The nineteenth century wanted morality without God. And the postmodern world doesn't even want morality. But it all began with the deification of man by those decadent Italians. They began the whole historical process that has led to modern science, rationalism, and revolutionary humanism...

Like all myths, this one has its very romanticist appeal. It looks at the inexplicable past through the lens of its own presumptions on how people thought and acted centuries ago. And it can give its adherents the confidence that they themselves have been saved by their perfect faith in their absolute difference from the modern world. As long as they can stay in their mountain sanctuaries, listen to sacred polyphony, decry any type of painting after Fra Angelico, and read St. Thomas Aquinas like the Talmud, they are safe from the contemporary contagion. It is only with very meticulous scholarship such as Ioan Couliano's that we clearly see that this attitude is only the other side of the postmodern coin.

Couliano is not a Christian scholar. One could even call him "anti-Christian" in his perspective. A protege of Mircea Eliade, he is an observer of all traditions and an adherent of none. His aim, then, is neither to refute nor confirm Christianity directly. Of the three figures that loom the largest in his book, Marsilio Ficino, Giovanni Pico della Mirandolla, and Giordano Bruno, the first was a priest, the second a latter-day follower of Savonarola, and the third an unrepentant heretic. What we wish to address here is not whether Christianity was weakened or strengthened during the Renaissance. It is, rather, what version of Christianity won out, or in other words, how would Christians subsequently change how they believed and how they viewed the world.

Central to Couliano's book is the idea of phantasm. According to traditional ancient epistemologies, man perceives the world through the creation of phantasms in the imaginative faculty. To be very simplistic about it, man perceives the world like he falls in love: an image is engraved into his mind like the figure of a beautiful woman is engraved into the heart. One thus falls in love with the object, one becomes a slave to the phantasm.

The lover carves into his soul the model of the beloved. In that way, the soul of the lover becomes the mirror in which the image of the loved one is reflected.

-Marsilio Ficino, De Amore

Renaissance culture was a culture of the phantasmic. It lent tremendous weight to the phantasms evoked by inner sense and had developed to the utmost the human faculty of working actively upon and with phantasms. It had created a whole dialectic of Eros in which phantasms, which at first foisted themselves upon inner sense, ended by being manipulated at will. It had a firm belief in the power of phantasms, which were transmitted by the phantasmic apparatus of the transmitter to that of the receiver. It also believed that inner sense was preeminently the locale for manifestations of transnatural forcers - demons and the gods.

-Couliano, pg.193

Magic, then, is the manipulation of phantasms in order to acquire a certain end. Magic has more to do with love and less to do with any idea of magic we have nowadays. One of the greatest feats of magic for Giordano Bruno, for example, is what we would now call the manipulation of mass media. For Bruno, you can manipulate phantasms not just to do a party trick, but also to make entire societies do what you want. It is from here that we get ideas of white magic versus black magic present in the Renaissance. Love is a magician, according to Ficino since,

the whole power of Magic is founded on Eros. The way Magic works is to bring things together through their inherent similarity. The parts of this world, like the limbs of the same animal, all depend on Eros, which is one; they relate to each other because of their common nature. Similarly, in our body the brain, the lungs, the heart, the liver, and other organs interact, favor each other, intercommunicate, and feel reciprocal pain. From this relationship is born Eros, which is common to them all; from this Eros is born their mutual rapprochement, wherein resides true Magic.

-Marsilio Ficino, De Amore

Love, then, was the way to manipulate the universe. The magician performed certain rituals in a dispassionate manner in order to coax things into becoming a certain way, or rather, to reveal how things really were. One such manner was the famous Art of Memory. Another was hieroglyphics. As Couliano writes,

Ficino...conceived of philosophy as an initiation into mysteries, consisting of a gradual rise in intellectual loftiness receiving in response from the intelligential world a phantasmic revelation in the form of figurae.

Through the "performance" of these hieroglyphic figurae,the eye of the soul would open up and thus be able to see the reality not visible with the naked eye. Another gadget was the Iynx, a golden disk with various graphic symbols that such historical figures as Proclus claimed to use to produce rain and other phenomena. Even the abbot of Wurzburg, Trithemius, was rumored to have practiced magic, when he made appear the ghost of the wife of the Emperor Maximilian.

Now, dear reader, you must be thinking that I have totally gone off my rocker. "Does he give any credence to any of this rubbish?" is something that you might be asking. You might think this is all the work of the devil or simple superstition. There is, however, a very rigorous and comprehensive vision of the universe at play here, one that we have long since renounced. For many Renaissance Neoplatonists, the soul fell from the heights through the various spheres of the planets, and that is why the zodiac has any power to predict our tendencies and even our actions (without totally denying free will). We are, at least in our souls, consubstantial with the stars since we fell through them. In this sense, in the Renaissance cosmos, all things are connected and influence each other. That is why even important clerics watched the stars and believed in alchemy. They had a vision of the universe where the default presupposition was that everything meant something, whereas we think that all things are meaningless unless proven otherwise.

The innocence of the "magical" point view can be best described by the following quote from Henricus Cornelius Agrippa:

It is possible in a natural way, removed from superstition and without the intercession of any spirit, for a man to transmit his trend of thought to another man at no matter what distance and location, in a very short time. It is possible to estimate the exact time it takes, but all that takes place within twenty four hours. I knew how to do it myself, and I have often done it...

What Couliano is formulating is that what occurred at the time of the Renaissance was not the birth of the modern scientific mind, but the flourishing of ancient, other-worldly arts. And these were not necessarily demonic or hostile to the Christian view of the universe. They were, rather, a different way of doing things and seeing the world than what we have now. What was prevalent was a belief that the universe was a very enchanted and interconnected place.

For Couliano, then, we did not inherit the world that the Renaissance made, but rather actively broke with the frame of mind that the Renaissance and the time before it had. The Romanian scholar gives the analogy of a wingless fly that only survives in the Galapogos Islands. Genetically, wings of flies aide in their being able to survive and thrive, except in the windy conditions of some South American islands where having wings would make mobility a lethal disadvantage. Thus Couliano characterizes in this way the point of view of modern science where,

people had lost the habit of using their imagination and thinking in terms of "qualities", for it was no longer permitted. Loss of the faculty of active imagination naturally entailed strict observation of the material world revealed by an attitude of respect for all quantitative data and suspicion of every "qualitative" statement.


Because modern science was deemed more innocuous to what was perceived as a Faith in the process of reformation, it was allowed to flourish, while the other arts were suppressed as overly sensuous and even demonic. Of the Protestant Reformation, the massive iconoclasm and rejection of "medieval superstition" speak volumes for the case of the censorship of phantasms and the imagination. But even in Catholic countries, the rationalization and codification started at the Council of Trent of the liturgy and clerical discipline were also indicative of the same reformation. After all, one of the things the Council of Trent did was ban all books on astrology. Couliano also points out how even women's style of dress changed. Women tried to hide their more sensual features, to the point that the style of dress in Catholic Spain was just as repressive as in Calvinist Geneva. As Couliano put it,

The Catholic faith and the Protestant denominations have drawn as close together as possible without being aware of it. Henceforth it is no longer a question of Reformation or Counterreformation... Side by side, they build a common edifice: modern Western culture.


"What is the big deal,then?" you might be asking yourself. To be brief, I would say that the ultimate danger of this modern Western culture is that in warring against eroticism, phantasms, and superstition, it made the universe a dead and vacuous place. From a perhaps overly imaginative vision of the cosmos that was full of angels, demons, and other spirits, we obtain a perspective of the universe as a bunch of randomly floating dead rocks. This has little to do with science and more to do with "scientism": a refusal to look past quantities and the idea that the world is a giant cold grid of numbers. And this effects how we philosophize, theologize, and contemplate our world. Couliano expresses this by the following:

To read in the "book of Nature" had been the fundamental experience in the Renaissance. The Reformation was tireless in seeking ways to close that book. Why? Because the Reformation thought of Nature not as a factor for rapprochement but as the main thing responsible for the alienation of God from mankind.


Citing the Catholic figure of Blaise Pascal, Couliano puts it all quite succinctly that in the Reformed universe there was only "the silence of God exiled from nature".

We, then, are not children of the Renaissance, but rather children of the Reformation, regardless of our creedal affiliations. What has led to our much decried modernity according to Couliano is not the victory of one form of Christianity over the other, but an attempt to purify the cosmos of wonder and magic. It is this destroying of the power of imagination and enthroning of the quantified, dead cosmos, that has given birth to secular society, not the victory of "subjectivism". We killed God because we killed nature. This has meant not the enthroning of man in God's place, but rather the dissection of man to the point where he is nothing, an accidental speck in the meaningless universe. Renaissance humanism, on the other hand, viewed man as the microcosm and image of God, a king in a wondrous and vibrant Creation. This of course is a provocative thesis, but one worthy of much consideration.

I do not expect you, the reader, to buy into what I am saying without further consideration. That is not the point of this essay. What I am saying with Couliano is that our idea of the world is also based on many flawed assumptions and to people in the Renaissance it may have appeared as absurd as alchemy and astrology do to us. Our vision of the world is just as much a product of evolution and historical accident as any other, and it inevitably will change. What I would like you to take away is that maybe our vision of the world is even more toxic to the Christian Faith than the pagan "superstitions" that were being revived in fifteenth century Italy. Maybe in our cleaning up of the cosmos, we threw out the baby of the noble imagination with the "pagan" bathwater.

Monday, October 15, 2007

One Correction

In Saturday's rant, I made it seem that I like the Pauline Missal or the Mass in vernacular. That is not entirely accurate. I am glad that people now have the option to attend the Mass in our vulgar tongues if they so chose, and I am not one to complain about this. I sometimes wish that the hierarchy would translate the liturgy into elegant language, but I am unapologetic snob, and even I do not have the audacity to pretend that this is a good thing.

However, I do think that vernacular liturgy has its own dangers and pitfalls. The idea that liturgy only exists to transmit information is a sad yet prevalent idea. That is why the Pauline Missal tries to put more actual Scripture reading into the rite thinking that this gives more importance to the "Word". But the transmission of this "Word" is not primarily through reading, but rather through preaching. One can read the prophet Habakkuk out loud until one is blue in the face and still understand nothing. Scripture, for the vast majority of people, is only understood through mediation and hierarchy; only those who are commissioned by the Church are reliable interpreters of what the Word is. The rest is just opinion, even if it is pious and even well-founded opinion. That is why perhaps all Apostolic liturgies reduced the readings in the Eucharistic synaxis to two rather than three.

A more personal reason for loving the old liturgy is perhaps selfish and very much in the eye of the beholder. When I go to church, I want to be inspired and awed. I have said before that to like the old liturgy without knowing Latin or without knowing its real roots is a bit disingenuous, and I stand by that assertion in one sense. Hence, I can understand the relief of my grandparents at not having to attend the old rite anymore. On the other hand, the sense of awe at entering a church building, of viewing a silent or sung rite in an unchanging language, with all the trappings that accompanied it, was something that even illiterate peasants could understand. That is why the vestments were so ornate, the churches so decorated, and the ethos a bit mysterious.

When I go to church, I want to step out of the world of Oprah, supermarket check-out lines, and city hall meetings, just as the peasant wanted to step out of the world of muddy roads, stubborn oxes, and hard days in the fields. The idea of stepping out of our everyday language and actions to dance with the angels is something that the ethos of the Pauline Missal does not seem to appreciate. It is the ultimate idea of otium, "make-believe", or play that is invoked here. This is why I think Pope Benedict XVI is pushing the old Mass so much. Maybe by having the old rite always in mind, the new can be brought up to a greater level of transcendence (though I am skeptical about this).

Of course, this is my opinion, so feel free to hit me with your best shot.

(P.S. I am working on a very looooooooooooong post, that will probably be up by tomorrow. Please be prepared.)

Saturday, October 13, 2007

An Overture in the Form of a Small Rant

I read very few blogs on the Internet. I just don't have the time, and people seem to always say the same thing over and over and over (and over) again. But even amongst people I admire, or used to admire, there is some sort of bizarre sense that to be a real Christian one has to be nostalgic for an earlier, holier time. So as a prelude to my next more "theoretical" post (which I hope to finish in the next few days), I would like to go on record by saying the following:

I am glad that I can get on a bus and not have to worry about where I sit due to my or anyone else's skin color.

I am glad that my significant other could get her doctorate in the hard sciences and is now able to pursue a career path that will lead her as far as her talent will take her.

I am glad that my grandparents do not have to sit through a ceremony they do not understand, even if I do understand Latin.

I am glad that any children I might have will probably not die in the first three years of life, nor is it likely that my wife will die in childbirth,.

I am glad that people in this society are not forced into insincere belief and can worship as Protestants, Hare Krishnas, worshipers of the Grand Poomba, or of no one at all.

I am glad that I live in an age where people have enough time and energy to bitch about the modern world from the comfort of a soft chair, in a warm house, in front of a glowing screen.

I am glad that the world is the way it is, since I think to be otherwise would be an immense demonstration of ingratitude towards God. Even if we may decry certain aspects of our society, there are other aspects that make this a really cool time to live. Like YouTube. And running water. And convenience stores. And Netflix. Deo gratias.

And for those people who insist on an "o tempora, o mores!" attitude, careful what you wish for.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Shiva Dance

The Nataraja, or the dance by which the world is created and destroyed in Hindu mythology.

Monday, October 08, 2007


...until at least Friday. Please don't bother stopping by here. Thank you for your readership.


Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Piazzolla Caldera - Paul Taylor Dance Company

Monday, October 01, 2007

Just Thought This Was Interesting

Religion has very little to do with “belief”; it is an indivisible package of aesthetics, ethics, social-emotional commitments, and transmission of κηρύγμα, a set of customs and rituals inherited from the elders. Indeed the complication of “belief” is mostly a Western Christianity type of constructed problems, and a modern one at that: ask an Eastern Orthodox monk “what he believes”, and he will be puzzled: he would tell you what he practices. [I discussed the “amin” in an earlier note]. Orthodoxy is principally liturgy, fasting, practices, and tradition; it is an ornate religion that focuses on aesthetics and requires a very strong commitment. “Belief” is meaningless; practice is real. What we now translate by “veneration”, προσκυνει is literally bowing down to the ground a very physical act...

-Nassim Nicholas Taleb

tip to Visibilum