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

Friday, November 30, 2007

Now listening to...

A Handful of World by Lisa Bielawa

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Mi espejo

image credit


Qué vanidad imaginar
que puedo darte todo, el amor y la dicha,
itinerarios, música, juguetes.
Es cierto que es así:
todo lo mío te lo doy, es cierto,
pero todo lo mío no te basta
como a mí no me basta que me des
todo lo tuyo.

Por eso no seremos nunca
la pareja perfecta, la tarjeta postal,
si no somos capaces de aceptar
que sólo en la aritmética
el dos nace del uno más el uno.

Por ahí un papelito
que solamente dice:

Siempre fuiste mi espejo,
quiero decir que para verme tenía que mirarte.

-Julio Cortázar

What vanity it is to imagine
that I can give you all, love and hapiness
trips, music, toys.
That certainly is the case:
I give all that I have to you, it's true,
but all that I have is not enough for you
as it is the case that you giving me everything
is not enough for me.

That's the reason why we will never be
the perfect couple, the post card,
if we are not capable of accepting
that only in arithmetic
is two born from one plus one.

Over there somewhere is
a paper that says only:

You were always my mirror,
I want to say that in order to see myself
I had to look at you.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Fr. Maximos in America Magazine

Congratulations to Father Maximos of Holy Resurrection Monastery who had an article published in the current issue of America magazine. Though I am not a great fan of this magazine usually, it is found in churches and libraries all over the country. This article is well worth the read.

Pictured above: the monks of Holy Resurrection at a traditional Pontifical Requiem Mass in San Diego, found via the New Liturgical Movement site. As our deceased Pontiff would say, we see here the two lungs of the Church together.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Bhakti by Maurice Bejart

I hesitated as to whether or not I wanted to post this but Bejart died last week at the age of 80 and I found some aesthetic merit in this dance. It is interesting to compare it with the previous (more traditional) dance of Shiva that I posted earlier. As you can see this is very much a product of its time (1969). Hope you enjoy it.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Homo Desertus

With its transcendental orientation, however, the Phaedrus does not serve as the best starting point for examining the soul's links with the material world, or, collaterally, with the immanental aspects of the Godhead. The polarities of transcendence and immanence both exerted their fascination on Ficino, while, simultaneously, he refused to be polarized. Even when transcendental material comes to the fore, he picks up passing phrases to offset it, to restore the balance. The chariot's flight is not only a mystical ascent from darkness into light but a cosmic ride through the hierarchy of being, inpsired by love for the whole. The soul wishes not merely to flee to the One but to reach the One by way of a graduated ascent that takes her from one end of creation to the other and thus into all things.

- from Michael J.B. Allen's The Platonism of Marsilio Ficino

The main idea that has triumphed in modern thought is the absolute independence and subjectivity of every thinking subject. Knowledge, perception, and truth are deemed to be activities that we do and achieve on our own. No matter if you are a neo-scholastic, an existentialist, or a post-structuralist, all things must be proved from "the bottom up": from the lone subject, cut off from the world in some primordial epistemic cataclysm, to the illuminating reality outside of him. Following Cicero, the paradigm of man that determines our everyday lives is the "homo desertus": the man abandoned. This is the basis of our modern order: political, economic, philosophical, and theological.

Thus, the State never guides us on how to act, on what constitutes virtue and what vice, but rather lets us know what is permitted and what is not. The main protest of any citizen is always: "You can't tell me what to do". In the end, however, no one can. All decisions are, in the end, my decisions, without reference to cultural, political, or cosmic contexts. The subject is thus defined as being by himself, without external influences, and thus somehow inviolate.

In religion, this often manifests itself in the moment of the leap of Faith. One has to recapitulate the story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac in every single individual circumstance. In the Kierkegaardean moment, man confronts the abyss, the cold and uncaring universe, and affirms the existence of a personal god at all costs, come what may. The ultimate absurdity of this always remains, just as uncertainty continues in the Cartesian "de omnibus dubitandum" even after one has re-constructed the rational universe in one's head. The religious man thus tries to nurse himself with certain aspects of religiosity to dull this ennui, whether it be historical legitimacy, liturgical aestheticism, or merely a sense of greater belonging. This has ceased to be religiosity properly speaking. It is a life-style choice among life-style choices. And God is not at the beginning of this process, but rather at the end, or rather an adornment, the "icing on the cake" that is never quite achieved.

In case you haven't noticed, there is a methodology to all that I write and post here. Two years after I have begun, the same questions have consumed me in all of my avatars. Whether or not I have written as a Catholic, an Anglican, an aficionado of the Orthodox Church, or anything else, I have always had one concern at heart: is God real anymore? Can absolute truth survive in a pluralistic society? And is there a "natural" basis necessary for belief?

At this stage in the game, I am beginning to conclude that in Christianity itself lies the seed of its own destruction. This is not surprising, since it is a faith of human beings and fallen human beings are often repulsed by the truth. At the dawn of the Church, Christians had to contend with paganism and a world where gods and demons were omnipresent. After we had destroyed all of the idols, many posit that we began to make new ones, and thus we had the flowering of sanctoral cults and cathedrals, legends and hymns that began to fill the void that the death of the old gods left in the human psyche.

With the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, however, we woke up and realized that such practices were contrary to "the Gospel", that we had slipped far from the monotheistic perspectives of ancient Judaism. So once again, in many places, we crushed the idols or at least regulated them, we expunged the legends from our collective consciousness, and we began to subjugate our "man-made" traditions to a higher scrutiny. For me, the ultimate triumph of this point of view came with the Document of the Second Vatican Council on Liturgy, where it reads:

To whatever extent may seem desirable, the hymns are to be restored to their original form, and whatever smacks of mythology or ill accords with Christian piety is to be removed or changed.

In this way, man becomes the supreme arbiter over all things divine. It is also very symptomatic of the idea that the visible ecclesiastical hierarchy is the only conduit of divine intervention in the world, the only thing that can be trusted. In the Roman Catholic Church at least, religion must be guaranteed by a legal authority in a universe devoid of the sacred.

Thus, in this age, the idea most corrosive to Christianity is not the old paganism (though it is still amusing to see Protestants accuse Catholics of idolatry), but rather a soft atheism, or even worse, an indifferent agnosticism. Man today likes a cold, insignificant universe since it will always allow him to behave according to his own devices. At the bottom of it all, such a world kills the imagination and ultimately the human spirit. Life becomes increasingly dis-integrated to the point that even the most sublime ideas and facets of our lives are compartmentalized and marginalized into the realm of fancy, hobby, and personal choice.

If we have forgotten one truth, then, it is that we are not alone in this universe, that the supernatural is very much all around us, and the sacred lies not at the end of knowledge, but rather at the beginning.

We can make an analogy to medicine, we can say that it would be akin to the effect antibiotics can have on the body. Many times, they can kill the dangerous viruses that harm us. But in the process of killing these dangerous organisms, it can also kill many of the organisms beneficial to us. Thus while having been saved from one particular form of illness, we are then afflicted with worse illnesses and our immune system is too weak to fight them. For our purposes here, what has been killed off is the imagination, religiosity and spirit of pagan polytheism and popular Roman Catholicism, and the anti-biotic was scientific and theological rationalism.

A similar phenomenon to the medical one conceived above is one which hits particularly close to home having grown up in rural California. When we would cut apricots as children, we noticed that the fruit would be covered with lady bugs. Normally, farmers don't want any critters crawling around their fruit. Lady bugs, however, ate aphids, and aphids ate apricots. It was better to have the fruit crawling with a benevolent parasite rather than a noxious one.

Renaissance Neoplatonists are often accused of being revivers of paganism in the West. The man who brought the works of Plato to the West was a Greek scholar by the name of Georgios Gemistos Plethon, a man who probably was a closet pagan in spite of being part of the emissaries sent by the Byzantine emperor for the Council of Florence. The indirect disciples of this mysterious Greek figure, such as Marsilio Ficino and Giovanni Pico della Mirandolla, often refer to Greek gods as if they were real. In truth, however, these gods were seen as paradigms that revealed the recesses of the human soul. They also revealed the interconnectedness of humanity with the cosmos, how we both influence and are influenced by the stars, earth, and spirits that we cannot see. The process by which we begin to know is thus the greatest ars memoriae, the remembering of Ideas and Forms that are present in all creation and yet transcends it.

Recently, I have written about some mischaracterizations that popular writers make about Platonic thought. Many think that Platonism is anti-corporeal and despises physical beauty as transitory. Nothing can be further from the truth. As Plato scholar Paul Friendlander puts it, in Plato, everyone taking the right path must first love one beautiful body and generate in it "beautiful words"; then recognize the one beauty in all beautiful bodies, becoming a lover of all. No one may omit these preliminary stages, beyond which leads the soul's path to beauty and upward. In the Platonists of the Renaissance, this concern for climbing the chain of being, from the smallest blade of grass to the apex of the divinity was both created and then left behind by a world seeking another form of control over the universe.

I am not recommending here a return to the astrology or use of amulets that the priest Ficino advocated during the Renaissance. As in all human endeavors, we have the gift of hindsight and we know now that even these things did not do much to fix the problem but rather made them worse. Nor am I advocating outright idolatry or an abandonment of orthodox theological practices. Perhaps what I am most advocating here is a particular attention to those parts of Catholicism that are being lost with the passing of the years. As we become more educated, as we become more theologically informed about the universe and history, we must never forget that we know very little in the great scheme of things, and perhaps our ancestors knew things that we have since forgotten. In my own mind, I am thinking that such things as posadas, bloody statues, strange family devotions and other aspects of Mexican folk Catholicism contain a wisdom that most theologians overlook. Catholicism may have an official "party line" theology on the surface, but at its roots and in its soil are beliefs and practices that seem almost "pagan" but in the end are necessary for the health of the Faith in the face of postmodernity.

But most of all, like the late Neoplatonists, I am perhaps asking all of us to consider that the perhaps the truth is not so much something that must be "understood" but rather re-enacted. In other words, our liturgy and doctrines are not so much catechetical tools in the modern sense, but rather re-capitulations of the Church as the transfigured cosmos. Our life in God resembles more a dance and less a lecture; our theology must be more like a hymn and less like an instruction manual. As in the philosophy of the pagan Iamblichus, these hymns and these dances are what call the graces of the Divine down to us, not our own cleverness or eloquent arguments.

I realize that these arguments must be very strange to most of the people reading this. I am, however, at a loss on how to break the solipsistic obsessions that plague the fields of knowledge in our society. It is no wonder that the human being, so mortal, weak, material, and alone, cannot obtain real certainty about anything; only a god, to quote Heidegger, can save him. The Word became flesh, and we are saved only through sanctified matter which allows us to climb back to the Heaven from which our minds have figuratively fallen. Religious ritual and piety are not the result of a clear philosophy of reality. They are, rather, at its origin. Only then will man be rescued from his modern malaise: through beauty, ritual, culture, and Faith.

Friday, November 23, 2007


Contact with divinity is not knowledge. For knowledge is in a certain respect separated from its object by otherness. But prior to knowledge - as one things knows another - is the uniform connection with divinity, which is suspended from the gods, and is spontaneous and inseparable from them.

-Iamblichus, De Mysteriis

On the Virgin of St. John of the Lakes, a popular devotion in Mexico.

The First Miracle:

According to legend based on eye witness accounts, a family of circus performers was passing through the region of St. John of the Lakes on its way to the city of Guadalajara. They brought with them many circus acts, including one in which a girl leaped on a trapeze over a bed of daggers. She lost her balance and fell to her death. Right before the burial, an Indian woman by the name of Ana Lucia, wife of Peter Andrew, the man who was in charge of taking care of a small chapel, upon seeing the grief of the family, implored her husband to take to them a small image of the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception. She had given it the Nahuatl name, the Cihualpilli, or the Great Lady, since she claimed it was miraculous and would even get up and walk from the sacristy to the altar on various occasions during the night. The parents in their grief allowed Ana Lucia to place the image over the chest of the small girl, and her life was returned to her.

Below: a painting of this occurence

Thursday, November 22, 2007

The Philosopher's Stone and the Virgin Mary

I will propose you a similitude of gold. The ethereal heaven was shut from all men, so that all men should descend to the infernal seats, and be there perpetually detained. But Jesus Christ opened the gate of the ethereal Olympus, and has now unlocked the kingdoms of Pluto, that the souls may be taken out; when by the co-operation of the holy spirit in the virginal womb, the virgin Mary did by an ineffable mystery and most profound sacraments conceive what was the most excellent in the heavens and on the earth; and at length brought forth for us the saviour of the whole world, who out of his super abundant bounty shall save all who are able to sin, if the sinner turn himself to him. But she remained an untouched and undefiled virgin: whence mercury is not undeservedly compared to the most glorious saint the virgin Mary. For mercury is a virgin because it never propagated in the womb of the Earth and metallic body, and yet it generates the stone for us; by dissolving heaven, that is, gold, it opens it, and brings out the soul; which understand you to be the divinity, and carries it some little while in its womb, and at length in its own time transmits it into a cleansed body. From whence a child, that is, the stone, is born to us, by whose blood the inferior bodies being tinged are brought safe into the golden heaven, and mercury remains a virgin without a stain, such as is was ever before.

-from the treatise on the alchemical art attributed to Marsilio Ficino, found on this site.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Couperin- Leçons de ténèbres

Fr. Maximos on Recent Polemics

From the Anastasis Dialogue:

And there we come to the final, though probably the most long winded of the Ochlophobist’s post: his over-iterated apologia for Orthodoxy’s essential perfection. The central idea here is that Orthodoxy has no need of other Christians (can we call them that?) because she really has no need of anyone else. She has the Cross. She has Jesus. What more do you need?

Lurking behind this ecclesiology (and yes, that’s what it is—and not an “undefined” one, as is argued, but an ill-defined one) is, in my view, a kind of crypto-protestant “me and Jesus” attitude. Not everyone who cries, “Lord, Lord” will enter the Kingdom of Heaven. The Church does not exist solely in relation to Christ; it is also the means by which Christ extends Himself through the Spirit to all creation.

I was going to post something of my own about all of these things, but why bother? Fr. Maximos stated it much better than I ever could. Read the whole post here.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Beginning of Vespers of the Dormition

St. Elias Church, Brampton ON (Ukrainian, Greek-Catholic)

I admit it. Sometimes I regret not being Byzantine anymore.

I got this off of the Philadelphia Roamin' Catholic blog, now on my links list.

You can also read this, one of my old posts, if you haven't already.

Monday, November 19, 2007

De Vino

Onians informs us that in classical Rome it was believed that wine was the very sap of life; indeed, in the words of Petronius, "Vita vinum est" - Life is wine. Onians also observes that wine was believed to go to the head, literally, where the genius or daimon resides. Therefore, wine was not only the source of physical longevity, it was also the nourishment of the soul. The Romans had a curious custom of smearing wine on the temples, a practice Ficino recommends in The Planets. He also advises drinking wine twice a day and taking each day equal portions of wine and light, a mysterious prescription the meaning of which might be apparent when we have considered the Apollonian elements of the soul.

-Thomas Moore, The Planets Within: Marsilio Ficino's Astrological Psychology

Saturday, November 17, 2007

De Corpore

Part I- This Body of Death

Recently I have read some rather interesting articles on the supposed belittling of the body in the modern world. One article in particular, The Theology of the Bawdy by Richard & Elizabeth Gerbracht in the most recent issue of the New Oxford Review (you know, the magazine that is like, "we're so reactionary it's cute and hip") puts it in rather drastic and dare I say apocalyptic terms. There is a sense the the human body is being devalued, that we are on the verge of an anti-human age. I have heard this from many circles, Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox, and while I agree with many of their concerns, I cannot condone some of their errors in thinking and rhetorical exaggerations.

I guess this article in particular struck a nerve since it laid part of the blame on the divine Plato. And since Plato is the shot caller in my philosophical belief system, it is almost a knee-jerk reaction on my part to raise an objection. For according to this article, the genius of the Peripatetic system is the distinction between matter and form that Aristotle formulated supposedly against the Platonic idea that the material world is nothing but a shadow of the spiritual one. To put it bluntly, with some Christian corrections the Aristotilian system is seen as more incarnational and Platonists and we wannabe Platonists are seen as crypto-Gnostics(though Plotinus fought against the Gnostics in the Enneads)since we think that the body is all but dross.

To the extent that this intersects with that "theological time-bomb" set to go off any second now called the theology of the body, I don't know. Truth be told, I started reading John Paul II's talks on this, got about half way through, and all I could think before I finally stopped was, "where is he getting this from?" Granted, these were less than formal catechetical talks, but Patristic citations were few and far between, and I found the prose far too muddled to get any definitive answers out of it. I am willing to concede that I may just be a poor reader in this regard.

When I passed on the above article to someone much more intelligent, this is the response I got:

The author is missing a further explanation here - we are of course not united (at the final Resurrection) to our bodies as they are now, but to some "perfected" version of our bodies, whatever that may be. That again does suggest some separation (perhaps permanent) between our souls and bodies here on earth, even if after the Fall, we now have a bad copy of our bodies...

If I were him, this is not the way I would have argued for this point - there are two major problems. Problem 1): He contends "we will have these bodies after the resurrection, in order to perfectly see God, therefore we cannot separate mind from body" and yet we can safely say we do not have THESE bodies to do that. I'm probably not going to need to breathe oxygen, have sufficient amounts of vitamins and minerals, etc, to keep my resurrected body functioning properly. And if my body isn't going to be made up of cells as we know it, then what is it? Christ's resurrected body certainly seemed to have strange properties unknown to our earthly, human bodies. One can too easily argue the gnostic point with his statements. Problem 2): He is ignoring the multitude of choices that can be made about artificially extending the life of the body. E.g., Schiavo would have been dead a long time ago if not for modern medicine. What does it mean that the body can go on without conscious control/a soul?

So when the authors blame Platonism for somehow denigrating the body, I think it is an acceptable criticism precisely because the body is a less than pleasant thing in this fallen world. There is a theology when it comes to "flesh", but there is nothing theological about warts or mucus, other than the fact that they are results of a fallen world.

I guess my main problem is that of privileging one metaphor about union with God without greatly nuancing that metaphor. It is true that in the Patristic and medieval mind the Song of Songs, an erotic book, was the song of union with God par excellence. But notice how every classical Christian author is quick to allegorize everything in that book, from breasts, to hair, to eyes, etc. Marriage is and is not a symbol of our union with God, precisely because, in the Dionysian tradition, all things participate in God's glory but not in His Being. Everything is an imperfect symbol, and to think that the actual carnal act that we do in our bedrooms has a lot to do with the mystery of the Trinity is slightly off in my opinion. Even Aquinas in the Summa said that we would procreate and defecate in the same way we would not if there had been no Fall, but all of the unpleasantness would have been taken out of it.

What seems most unsettling to me about the theology of the body as advocated by some, however, is not any of its theoretical components, but rather its attitude on the necessity of "re-packaging" the Christian message for the postmodern man. Christianity does not need a "sexy makeover". In my opinion, what made Christianity triumph in the first place was the conquering of the body, that is, the witness of martyrdom. From my own experience with the texts of the Byzantine liturgy, the fact that women and children could stand up to torture and be triumphant, or that everyday men could live without sexual intercourse profoundly astounded many of the ancients. I remember an anecdote we were told about the life of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre as a missionary in Africa, where men and women of the villages would try to sneak up on the missionary priest's hut thinking that they were finally going to see the wife that he was hiding. They were astounded by the fact that she never materialized.

While it is important to point out that the sexuality of the twenty-first century is greatly disordered, I don't think it very believable for us Catholics to tell this society how to be "authentically sexual". I think what has worked in the past will work again. The problem is inherently supernatural: Christianity will not be proven right by rational or utilitarian arguments, but rather by the showing of its other-worldly nature. Christianity is neither useful, nor better, nor necessary for a society. True, if everyone behaved like Christians, things would be a lot better. At the core of our beliefs, however, is one which says that such a thing will never happen. Only the Parousia, the coming of Christ in glory, will solve all of our problems. This does not mean that we can have no social doctrine in the Catholic Church, but it does mean that we can't expect a whole lot from the application of that doctrine. The world is fallen, and it will continue to be so.

(I must say here that even the dreaded "same-sex marriage" is not a new thing. As another article in the New Oxford Review put it, such things occurred in Rome under Nero. Cabeza de Vaca witnessed it among American Indians during his years wandering through what is now the southern United States. And of course there is that rather odd ceremony in the Orthodox Church's liturgical books called the Adelphopoiia Rite, which Nicodemos the Hagiorite in the Pedalion implied was used as a rite of same-sex carnal union.)

But back to the real issue at hand: what then are we to think of the body? Is the Platonic tradition really that denigrating of the body? And what is the real meaning, the real symbolism behind our fallen carnality? That is the subject of Part II of this post.

Friday, November 16, 2007

A Blog You Should Read

With all the other crap on the Internet, more people should be reading Love and do what you will. After all, how many apologetics and "theology" pages can you read in a day anyway? Do you really want to spend your valuable time arguing with Protestants over justification (dialogue of the deaf... hello!?)

And how much do YOU know about Spanish poetry and literature? Well, here's a great place to learn. And the author's funny too.

Do yourself a favor. Read this blog.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Chance Encounter

by Lisa Bielawa

A taste of the contemporary avant-garde.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

On the Church and Language

Or: On Pizza, Beer, Machine Guns, Transliterated Greek Words, Argentine Sedevacantism, Taxi Cabs and Other Attractions of My Theological Freak Show

Sometimes I think that there is no such thing as Roman Catholicism. Rather, there are Roman Catholicisms. My religious experiences with Mexicans and Argentines seem so far removed from any conversations about religion that I have in this country among "non-Latins". There is an antiseptic, dry quality to everything that is said in the United States about the Roman Catholic Church. This quality even penetrates to the fringes and extremes of any Catholic phenomenon in this country.

When we were occasionally let out of seminary in Argentina, I would sometimes be able to go into the actual city of Buenos Aires to see the sights and take a break from the usual diet of gruel and water. A few times, I went out with my best friend Nico, another bohemian who had no business being an SSPX seminarian, to spread clerical terror in the land of the porteños. One of my favorite things to do was to go to San Telmo, the old part of the city, and have some beer and pizza. Now, Argentine pizza is different from the pizza we have here: it is much less greasy, the crust is thicker, and it has less of a sense of being a type of fast food. And it goes wonderfully with a nice Argentine beer.

During many of these conversations, Nico would fill me in on all of the ins and outs of Argentine Roman Catholic traditionalism. One thing you have to understand is that Argentines become traditionalists for an entirely different set of reasons than Americans do. For them, it is more an issue of political ideology than anything else. Nico would tell me about how his family had a friend who though always a civilian, still found a way to participate in all of the coup d'etats from Peron's first fall in 1955 onward. (I think he said that this man had a jeep with a mounted machine gun on the back in his private garage.) These were the type of people who became traditionalist: people who thought the Patria was going to hell in a handbasket and that the Masons and those hijos de p%#a leftist bishops were spreading Marxism in the pews.

Like all Catholic traditionalism, there were factions, and among those factions, there were many sedevacantists. (Indeed, the seminary at La Reja divided in two during the early 1990's, with the old rector and many seminarians who held the sedevacantist position leaving in order to form their own seminary. They are still kicking around somewhere at the foot of the Andes.) Nico told me once that there was a type of sedevacantists who often never went to Mass at all, sort of like the Old Believers in Russia:

"Son disandristas", he said.

Disandrists, he explained, are followers of the great Argentine classical philologist Carlos Alberto Disandro (pictured above), and unlike the vast majority of sedevacantists, his objections to the legitimacy of the Roman Church coming out of Vatican II centered not just on Thomistic arguments, but on his readings of the Greek Fathers of the Church. Admittedly, this was all just a cover-up for his pseudo-fascism and anti-Semitism, but some of the reasons he gave were rather fascinating. And, hey, even a stopped clock is right twice a day. And while I was there, I read the polemics of the SSPX against Disandro saying that his ideas bordered on Gnosticism and crypto-paganism.

Being a nosy inquirer into all things strange, recently Disandro has been on my mind. To my surprise, the library here in Berkeley has a few of his works, mostly on classical Greek poetry. But there is one book that I found in storage of Disandro, a compendium of three works he put together under the title, The Judeo-Christian Heresy. I have recently read through much of it, and I will comment here mostly on the second essay, "Saint Stephen, Protomartyr: A Reply to Cardinal Danielou".

The book begins with a bold statement in the introduction:

Firstly, the founding base of the Church is the Mysteric Cult, the Sacred Act, not the Bible. The Bible is the least significant level of the Mystery of the Incarnation of the Logos, and therefore cannot govern the life of the Church.

Thus, a Biblical philology that is of Jewish inspiration, or Judeo-Christian, such as the one that the Sacred Councils neutralized and unseated up until the eight century and beyond, as well as the Holy Fathers in the same vein, is a powerful poison against the life of the Church.

The central essay on St. Stephen was a response to a visit of Jean Cardinal Danielou, S.J. to Argentina. For Disandro, Danielou was one of the major representatives of a new Judaizing tendency that had taken over the Church. The compelling argument in the essay was that, unlike the ecumenical talk of the validity of the Old Convenant coming out of Vatican II, the recounting in the Book of Acts of the first martyrdom of St. Stephen represented a much more radical break from the Synagogue than many contemporary theologians care to admit: the interpretation of St. Gregory of Nyssa and St. Augustine the martyrdom of the Hellenic deacon Stephen posits itself as a theological paradigm and announces the profound mystery of the metanoia of all men, especially of the obsolete fate of Israel, whatever it might be. That announcement prefigures the attribute of katholike for the Ecclesia that has no need of an Israel, nor of a Zarathustra, a Socrates or a Gandhi, since it has another principle of historical growth that is not corrupted by a decadent priesthood, a ridiculous and abject eroticism, nor the cultic fornication with all the demons of the vast and awe-inspiring air.

In the convoluted prose of the Argentine scholar, an indictment shines forth of modern approaches to looking at the world. If one can only cut through his reactionary posturing, one sees a man who has profoundly thought about what it means to think, act, and believe. Although there are all sorts of problems with his arguments (he's a sedevacantist for crying out loud!) there are many passages that challenge our views of things in his rather pithy and polemical book. One such long passage I will translate here for the sake of my American readers:

Such as there exists the absolute Incarnation of the Logos or the Son of Man that cannot be substituted, nor completed, nor perfected, and even though it occurs in human history, it overflows, fulfills, and transfigures anothen(as St. John says), thus there exists a holy semantic model that cannot be substituted, or completed, or perfected, and even if it occurs in the heart of linguistic history, it assumes that meaning of the highest level of concrete sacredness. This Greek semantic model is congruent with the trinitarian mystery and is manifested in the cult... and since the New Testament is the light of the Old, Greek sacredness is superior to that of the Hebrew, insofar as the latter corresponds to the ministry of the angels and the former corresponds to the reality of the abyss of celestial Theantropia... No language can be of greater sigificative profundity than Greek and none can express better the trinitarian depth of Revelation.

So much for that, Origen! But our Argentine sedevacantist has a profoudly Neoplatonic view of what it means to know. Doctrine is not just a series of lessons to be learned, but an initiation into a series of transfigurative truths. So it is not just about what is said, but how it is said. And in that sense, some means of communication are much more privileged than others. You will have to excuse me, but I must include as well one final long quote:

...the Church as Sacramentum Trinitatis is not founded on the letter, nor does it need the Letter; but insofar as the Logos is the vicarial assumed event that incorporates the semantic breath of man, it assumes all of its concrete structural instances. The letter of the Gospel is thus a sacramental sign of the theandric breath, a sacred respiration from its divine bridge, a holy semantics from an inviolate Greek that reassumes according to the capacity of the letter the mysterious movements and shadows of the Trinitarian life. Before this text we fall in worship not to adore nor to Judaize the letter as the fount of Life, but rather to listen to the breath, to journey in its ways, live in its dwellings, and to recognize the celestial sound of the humanized Logos.

No wonder he's a traditionalist: he has just undermined the entire epistemological base for the Vatican liturgical reforms of the 1960's. The Word is not Letter. It is not something to be "read" and "understood", but rather it is something that must be heard and worshiped. Thus, why not chant the Word in Latin or Greek rather than try to understand "what it says"? The idea of a "Liturgy of the Word" as opposed to a "Liturgy of the Eucharist" is a reversion to the letter, to the simulacrum and to the shadow. For the letter: also to be transfigured, and for this reason the inviolate Church receives the inviolate letter, in expectation of that mysterious creature that contains in a perfect manner the abyss of divine-humanity.

(Of course, what I don't understand about his argument is why he would defend the Mass in Latin. While he praises the Hellenic mind, the "cult" he advocates is not in "theandric" Greek. Maybe, in another context, he would have become Orthodox, but that would have opened up another can of worms.)

What I find interesting is how these arguments could be applied to some of the Catholic blogs that I read. Most of them are involved in the rather Sisyphean exercise of trying to convince Protestants that Protestantism is not Scriptural. But, if we consider the premises of our sedevacantist philologist, the Christian Faith does not have its primary basis in Scripture: it resides rather in the "Mysteric Cult", the Eucharist, and the power of God. Indeed, it has been refered to me several times that primitive Christianity may have spread not primarily through the persuasive preaching of the first followers of Christ, but rather through all of the miracles of the early Church. Early Christianity may have been more shamanistic than we would like to concede. Indeed, as Disandro points out, the primary presence of God in Israel during its Golden Age was not the presence of God in the Torah or the word, but rather in the Shekinah of the Temple, the Light of Glory:

Quam dilecta sunt tabernacula tua, Domine virtutum...

Thus, trying to persuade people that Catholicism is the true "religion of the Book" is a bit like trying to make an atomic bomb out of gum wrappers and rubber bands. The real foundation of our religion is elsewhere. (And not, as I would say, in ecclesiastical authority either, as some would wish to believe, but that is the subject of another post entirely, and it is past my bedtime.)

It's funny to read a sedevacantist who sounds more like a porteño Alexander Schmemann than Cardinal Cajetan's mentally handicapped cousin. But those are just the people you meet. What do you expect from a country whose middle class intelligentsia has few ambitions to use their book learning for anything useful? As my friend Nico once told me when he left seminary at the same time I did:

I can either study something I like and end up driving a taxi, or I can study something useful and still end up driving a taxi.

Last time I heard, he was going to law school just to have something to do. I wonder if he's a good driver...

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Charpentier: Magnificat for 3 Voices

Monday, November 12, 2007

New Link

Nevermind reading what I write. Read something edifying.

Like this:

I’m afraid that for many of us “seasoned” Christians, beneath the masks of our concern about orthodoxy, erudite arguments about theology, zeal for traditionalism, criticisms of hierarchs and hostility toward “the godless world,” lies secrets and layers of selfishness, each to our own, that we are either unable or unwilling to acknowledge. What would happen if I finally owned up to God? What about my life might change? How might this affect the Church and the world for which I have been appointed a witness of truth?

Saturday, November 10, 2007

On Definitions

Sometimes your problems do not end by defining something. They only begin.

When the sages had reassembled in Yavneh after the destruction of Jerusalem they said: "The hour will come when someone will seek a word from the Torah or tradition and will not find it." They decided to collect all the discussions and preserve them, together with the names of those who handed them down. Binding decisions should then be made by the majority. But why, they asked, are the minority voices preserved, even if it be the voice of a single sage? One thought that it was in order to deprive them of their influence by recalling and refuting them. But Rabbi Yehuda said: "they are preserved so that one may be able to rely on them when their hour has come."

-quoted in Klaus Schatz's Papal Primacy, p. 175

Due to our fragile condition as rational animals, the process of obtaining the truth cannot be conceived of simplistically as the Triumph of the Right crushing the Wrong. Our own limitations as mortal and sinful creatures should make us wary of making absolute statements that bind all people to belief in this generation and for generations to come. In every error on this side of death there is a seed of truth. And in every truth there is the seed of its own destruction. To want to consider something as absolutely right and another as absolutely wrong can thus cause all sorts of problems.

I am not saying that we must not have firm convictions. I am saying that we should be aware of ourselves as bearers of these convictions and of our own place in history and in the world.

Editorial Note

If anyone would like to post frivolous comments on this blog, I now reserve the right for myself to delete them. Some have used my leniency in this regard to turn this blog into a place to vent their own strange tastes in music and culture. That will now cease. You are all welcome to post whatever you want, but I am now the sole arbiter as to whether it will stay posted or not.

And that's why we can't have nice things.

Friday, November 09, 2007


But the soul's immortality- the eternity, that is, of the Phaedrean charioteer- is not merely a consequence of arguing that Soul is the principle of motion: it is absolutely necessary to the sustaining of the world. Without the perpetuity, without the immortality of every soul... the motion and therefore the life of the world would cease...

-Michael J.B. Allen, The Platonism of Marsilio Ficino

Is is funny how we, so weak and so passing, can uphold an entire universe...

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Morphoses/The Wheeldon Company

Don't just say, "everything is theological".

Show that it is.

To say it means absolutely nothing.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Pulcinella - Igor Stravinsky

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

In Thanksgiving to St. Joseph

Ben over at the Undercroft prayed to St. Joseph for his own employment woes, and apparently his prayers were granted. I thought that this was a great idea in my own job search, so I did the same. And I got a job! Hooray! So I am offering the Foster-father of Jesus this humble poem:

To you, O blessed Joseph
Such praises I will proclaim,
That are worthy of both
Your tenderness and might,
That are worthy of your name.

To you, O blessed Joseph,
Whose shoulder was tired and strong,
Who defended Jesus and Mary so sweetly
Through nights so dark and trails so long.

For this day you have shown me
Your power and grace
And you have looked upon me
With those eyes
That comforted Jesus' infant tears
And silenced with love His mournful sighs.

For now, like you, I will earn my bread
And for a family too I will provide,
Into the Kingdom may I be kindly led
To eat the supper by the Lamb's side.

Sancte Joseph, ora pro nobis.

(And no, you may NOT know what job it is...)

Monday, November 05, 2007

On the Periphery of Roman Catholicism

At the Margins of Theology

In the process of codifying a certain system, the silences can be deafening. That which is considered imperfect, neither here nor there, nor worthy of belief can be discarded in the quest for purity, sobriety, and reason. It is always those who have the power of expression who silence those who have very little of that power. And before we know it, the many colorful things that we had we end up losing, and we substitute them with supposedly ancient visions of the world that are in reality very new creations. That which was in the margins no longer remains in the margins. It is merely erased.

In my own particular family, I have found that my own approach to religion has changed from how my parents and grandparents conceived it. Just I am much more literate and cultured than my parents, so is my faith much more "formed" in a matter of speaking. I have assimilated into the Anglo-Saxon First World culture of the United States, and this fact is not to be lamented. It is inevitable, and to pretend the contrary is at best a patronizing romanticism. The real hubris would be to somehow think that the way I believe is superior to that of my ancestors. In many ways, I think that it is far worse.

One of the ways that I tried to revive this more primordial religious sentiment was to search East, to Byzantine Christianity. Somehow I thought that this pilgrimage East would inspire me with its strangeness and primitive beauty. However, I soon learned that it was just as "Western", just as "modern", just as "rationalist" as modern forms of Western Christianity. The real primitive Christianity, the real "Church of the Fathers" is the Church of my fathers: it is a church of imperfect sinners, always in crisis, and always struggling.

Juan Soldado

Above is pictured the "saint" that my deceased grandmother used to venerate that I spoke of in this post. His name was Juan Castillo Morales, a Mexican soldier from the state of Jalisco convicted and executed for a brutal child rape and murder in Tijuana in 1938. He is known to Mexicans in the borderlands as "Juan Soldado", John the Soldier, and his cult used to be quite prominent all over northern Mexico. After his swift execution three days after the murder under the Fugitive Law in which he was told to run for his life while a firing squad shot him to death, blood began to emerge from his grave and signs began to emerge to ask for prayers for his soul. Some protested that he was framed for the crime by a commanding officer in spite of his confession, and some said that he was an "anima sola" which in Spanish Catholicism is a soul in Purgatory most in need of prayers. Nevertheless, in spite of warning from the official Church, people began to pray for his intercession and these prayers worked, as the below photo testifies:

Above: The chapel of Juan Soldado in Tijuana

Also: This is a rather interesting segment on this subject on YouTube.

As I said in a previous post, when I was growing up, I remember that in my grandmother's shrine in her bedroom, aside from Jesus and the Virgin of Guadalupe, there was also a small altar to a picture of a soldier. A freak encounter with Paul Vanderwood's book on Juan Soldado in a completely random place in the university library sparked again the memory of that mysterious portrait. When I asked my mother about it, she said that my grandmother had small rooms in her backyard she used to rent mostly to men who had come straight from Mexico. When my father went off to Vietnam, these men told my frightened grandmother to pray to Juan Soldado that my father would come back alive. And he did, barely. But from then on, it would appear, my grandmother felt that she had an obligation to the soul of Juan Soldado. And for her, if it weren't for this questionable devotion, I wouldn't be here typing this.

As James S. Griffith puts it in his book, Folk Saints of the Borderlands:

The Catholicism of the upper and professional classes of Mexico probably comes closest to the international norms of the Catholic Church. As we move downwards on the Mexican socioeconomic scale, we also move farther and farther from the formal teachings of the contemporary Church, and we enter a system that, though fully Catholic in its basic values and narratives, seems to have as a primary purpose survival in a hostile world. Another world, however, occupied by potential helpers and potential enemies, is also close at hand. Supernatural help is freely called upon, and dangers such as witchcraft are real and can be dealt with. Much of this emphasis would not seems so strange to mainstream Catholics of the seventeenth and eighteenth century...

It isn't that people are against the Church and its official teachings. Rather, traditional folk or popular Catholicism, with its daily and seasonal rituals, its multitude of saints upon whom one may call, and its means of coping with the results of human nastiness, provides many working-class people with what they feel they need.
(pg. 11)

Letting Silences Speak

Whether or not one agrees with my deceased grandmother's devotion to this questionable figure, one cannot dispute the orthodoxy of it. One can pray to a soul who one thinks is in purgatory and even ask it for favors, supposedly once she reaches Heaven. Perhaps it appears superstitious, perhaps it gives us Catholics "a bad name". Part of me is starting to dispute the wisdom of automatically assuming that the best way to practice Roman Catholicism is to make it conform as closely as possible to the tastes of Protestantism. While perhaps this is a matter of aesthetics and not theology, I would ask why in the back of our minds "real Christianity" conforms more to the tastes of Calvinist Geneva than it does pagan pre-Columbian Mexico. Why is it that the fantastic, the superstitious, and the grotesque are automatically silenced to be replaced with something much more defined, safe, and sterile? This is all the more pressing since the life of most people on this planet does not conform to these values, and I would even say that perhaps it falls under the strong assumption by many European Christians that people of color will never really be able to accept the Gospel fully.

As I have written in another post:

My professor in the history of Brazil class that I am taking has done a great amount of field work in the Brazilian Northeast, and she has lived there for extended periods of time since the 1970’s. She has befriended all sorts of people there from all walks of life, including the clergy.

Many of you are aware of the inroads Pentecostalism is making in Latin America. In a discussion of this phenomenon, my professor contributed something that many members of the Roman Catholic clergy in the Northeast told her. These priests said that much of the pull of this new Protestant phenomenon came from the vacuum caused by the rationalization of Roman Catholicism since the 1960’s. That is to say, the fact that Vatican II wanted to make Catholicism into a religion of “grown-ups” (getting rid of certain devotions, “questionable” saints, etc.) has made people leave the Catholic Church, and it is many of the members of the clergy on the ground who are saying this, not just crazy traditionalists.

The greatest threats to Roman Catholicism, in my opinion, are not any arguments that an agnostic society can throw at it. It is the lack of belief in the miraculous, the wondrous, and the "strange". The Divine must be present not just as a detached watch-maker, but truly as a participant, and sometimes an odd participant, in our day to day lives. If we cannot see it, we are no better than atheists. For this is truly the eye of Faith; it is Faith that works miracles. This does not mean that we need a "name it, claim it" attitude towards our Faith. It does mean that we must conceive of the universe as a much more fascinating and unpredictable place than our unbelieving neighbors.

True, these things will never be defined or even approved of by the Magisterium or any other authority. They do not need to be nor would it be appropriate if they were. But the sum of what we believe is not simply what we have to believe; it encompasses much more than that. In the end, one of my intellectual ambitions is to let the silences of Catholicism sing, the silences of the everyday life of Faith as lived by people like my grandmother. It is about not just reading what is in the letters, but also what is in the margins.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

On Forgetting

Poema LXXI

Hasta en tu modo
de olvidar hay
algo bello.

Creía yo que todo
olvido era sombra;
pero tu olvido es
luz, se siente
como una viva luz…

¡Tu olvido es
la alborada borrando
las estrellas!...

-Dulce María Loynaz

(Even in your way
of forgetting there is
something beautiful.

I used to believe that all
forgetting was shadow;
but your forgetting is
light, it feels
like a living light…

Your forgetting is
the dawn erasing
the stars!...)

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Fr. Maximos on War

"You came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the first." Echoing St. Paul (1 Timothy 1:15), we remember this truth at every Divine Liturgy in the prayer before Communion. Petru Rares did not show his people the fall of Constantinople to remind them of the sins of the Greeks more than a century earlier. He did it to remind them of their own sins in their own time.

There is a great mystery here. It is too simplistic to think that divine justice functions according to the laws of Newtonian physics. Every action does not have an equal and opposite reaction. The guilty are not always punished in proportion to their wrongdoing, and the innocent are certainly not spared according to the measure of their purity.

Read the rest here.