The Supreme Beauty of Spiritual Things

Photo credits: Traditional Latin Mass Society of San Francisco at http://sanctatrinitasunusdeus.com/ and Roseanne T. Sullivan

On June 20, 1921, noted architect Ralph Adams Cram gave an address titled “The Test of Beauty” to the Phi Beta Kappa Society at Harvard University. During his address, Cram lavished extravagent praise on the Pontifical Mass (Missa Pontificalis in Latin), which is an elaborate form of the traditional Roman Catholic Mass that has seldom been celebrated during most of the past sixty years. A convert from Unitarianism to Episcopalianism, Cram is perhaps best known for his design for the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. He was also a prominent member of the Anglo-Catholic movement, and he wrote and spoke extensively as an ardent advocate for Gothic architecture. In spite of the fact that he never became a Roman Catholic, he was an equally ardent admirer of Catholic liturgy. Cram was so renowned in his field that he wrote the article on “Gothic Architecture ” in the 1909 edition of The Catholic Encyclopedia.

In his peroration at the end of his address at Harvard, Cram posed this rhetorical question, “What was the greatest synthesis of beauty, made operative through art, that man has ever achieved?” He went on to summarize the main premise of his talk in his answer, “The answer is very simple: it was a Gothic cathedral of the thirteenth century during a Pontifical High Mass. . . . Every art raised to its highest point was here brought into play in one place and associated in absolute union with the greatest beauty of thought, emotion, and action that have ever been the possession of fallen man. . . . And all were for the exposition and realization of the supreme beauty of spiritual things; the durable love of God for His children through the Sacrifice of Calvary, eternally renewed upon the altar, and the veritable presence of His Spirit through the miracle of the Mass.”

On Sunday September 14, 2014, on the Solemnity of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross according to the 1962 liturgical calendar, more than four hundred worshippers filled the pews of Star of the Sea Church in San Francisco for a historically resonant liturgical event, when San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone celebrated the first Pontifical Mass held in that city for close to sixty years.

The Pontifical Mass was celebrated on that balmy September evening in that beautiful church at the northwest tip of the San Francisco peninsula, very much the same way as Pontifical Masses have been celebrated around the world for centuries earlier. Star of the Sea Church is a parish church that was finished in 1917 using the best materials the working-class parish could buy, during Cram’s lifetime, and while it is not a cathedral, and its arches are Romanesque rather than Gothic, it was an appropriately lovely setting for this modern-day Pontifical Mass.

The Pontifical Mass was to celebrate the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross and the seventh anniversary of the implementation of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s motu proprio Summorum Pontificum, which affirmed that ceremonies and rituals like the Pontifical Mass are still valid and an important part of the Church’s rich heritage. Golden Gate Boys ChoirThe Mass, which was advertised as “one of the treasures of the faith,” was coordinated by the Traditional Latin Mass Society of San Francisco with music by the Golden Gate Boys Choir.

The elaborate gestures, the large number of ministers, the multitudinous details of the vesting of the celebrant and of the ministers, and the order of the ceremony, all were followed according to how they are spelled out in the Manual of Episcopal Ceremonies from 1916.

The Pontifical Mass is the Mass of a bishop, and all the highly regulated, complex details of this Mass are fraught with meaning. Taken together, the details are designed to make up a system of visible, material signs that point to the invisible, spiritual realities of a bishop’s office. As is true about how we come to understand many important things, we don’t grasp the importance of something as complex as a Pontifical Mass without having been taught what it means. The goal of this post is to explain some of the rich meaning of what occurred that night.

Why is it called a Pontifical Mass?

It is not commonly known, but the adjective “pontifical” does not refer exclusively to the pope. A cardinal, archbishop, bishop or abbot is also referred to as high priest, or “pontiff.” The celebrant of a Pontifical Mass is said to be “pontificating.” The related term “pontificals” refers to all the vestments and ornaments the bishop wears and uses when he pontificates at the Pontifical Mass.

A Pontifical Mass at the Throne represents the summit of the Roman liturgy. It is the paradigm for the Roman Rite. As Canon Olivier Meney of the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest (who assisted at the Mass) recently explained, “The Low Mass is a reduction of the Solemn High Mass, which in its turn is a reduction of the Pontifical Mass at the Throne.”

Elaborate vestments and liturgical items, such as those worn and used during the Pontifical Mass, are not, as some mistakenly think, a form of vain clerical dressing-up, but on the contrary, they are rich in symbolism. The truth is that in ceremonies like this, the individual is minimized, while the power of the priesthood is emphasized. If we understand and meditate on the symbols during ceremonies like this, they can lead us to think more deeply about the role of the priesthood as it was instituted by Jesus Christ.

Before being vested during the Pontifical Mass, the bishop takes off the vestments he usually wears as a prelate of the Church. He then is clothed ceremonially with vestments that stand for the full power of the priesthood, which belongs not to himself, but to his role as a bishop.

What does “at the Throne” mean?

At Star of the Sea, Archbishop Cordileone celebrated a Pontifical Mass at the Throne. The term “at the Throne” is used when a Pontifical Mass is celebrated within the jurisdiction of a bishop or archbishop. During the Mass, the celebrant sits at a throne at the altar.

ThroneIf a bishop celebrates a Pontifical Mass at a cathedral or church outside of his own jurisdiction, he either celebrates “at the faldstool” (a faldstool being a portable folding chair) or “in choro” (in choir).

The privilege of “Pontificating” on the Throne is only allowed to all Cardinals outside of Rome, to the Pope’s Apostolic Nuncios and Legates in the territorial jurisdiction they are assigned, and to Bishops and Archbishops within their Ecclesiastical Jurisdictions.

Because the archbishop was visiting Star of the Sea and did not celebrate at his cathedral, it was necessary to construct a temporary throne on the gospel side of the altar. The archbishop’s shield was mounted behind the chair with a gold-embroidered baldachin (canopy) above it.

Why all that vesting at the Throne?

One unusual and elaborate aspect of the Pontifical Mass was the ceremony called “vesting at the throne.”

Before the start of the Mass, the pontificals were laid out on the altar. Servers ceremoniously removed each of the pontificals in turn from the altar, and waited in line to present them to the archbishop. Sacred ministers helped vest him.

The pontificals included buskins, an amice, an alb, a cincture, a stole, a tunic, a dalmatic, and a chasuble, along with the bishop’s pectoral cross, ring, and crosier, which bishops always use, plus two types of mitre worn by the archbishop at different points during the Pontifical Mass, along with a gremial and gloves. (Additional information about the official costumes of prelates is available online at Costume of Prelates of the Catholic Church: According to Roman Etiquette.)

When the celebrant is divested of the vestments he wore when entering the church, he is symbolically stripped of the trappings of the world and loses his personal identity. When he is then subsequently ceremoniously vested in the pontificals, one after another, the bishop is clothed in the new man of which St. Paul speaks in his letter to the Ephesians and is covered from head to foot in the High Priesthood of Jesus Christ.

If so be that you have heard him, and have been taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus: To put off, according to former conversation, the old man, who is corrupted according to the desire of error. And be renewed in the spirit of your mind: And put on the new man, who according to God is created in justice and holiness of truth.” – Ephesians 4:21-24.

Bishops at Pontifical Mass wear the vestments of a subdeacon (the tunic), deacon (the dalmatic), and priest (chasuble) because in the bishop, as medieval liturgist William Durandus wrote, “the degrees of all the Major Orders are most eminently present.”

Each pontifical has its own prescribed prayer. For example, as he was being vested in the buskins (liturgical stockings), the archbishop prayed the following prayer.
BuskinsPrayer

ABChost

What does it all mean?

Beauty existed, and was infinitely desired, and within certain limits was supremely achieved under paganism, but with Christianity it was given a new content and a new function. The passion for perfection remained, but it was how a new perfection revealed in Christ; the joy in labor and creation remained, but it was now a new joy, for it was irradiated by the motive of worship and of sacrifice. —Ralph Adams Cram, “The Test of Beauty.”

Ralph_Adams_Cram_on_TIME_Magazine,_December_13,_1926

If art is, indeed, as I have said, one of the really great agents of civilization, the Church is preeminently the place where its work may be made most effective. . . . Each art is fine in itself, but a great and beautiful church, living with pictorial and sculptured decoration, where the sublime, appalling mystery of the Christian Faith is solemnized through the assembling of all the other arts — music, poetry, drama, and ceremonial —- in one vast, organic work of art built up of every one of them raised to its highest level of possibility, and all fused in one consummate opus Dei, this is in simple fact and in plain speech, the greatest artistic achievement, the most perfect proof of man’s divine nature thus far recorded in the annals of humanity.” — Ralph Adams Cram,”The Artist in the World,” collected in The ministry of art.

For Cram then, the meaning of the Pontifical Mass on September 14, 2014 would be found in the synthesis of all of the beauties of the church, the ceremony, the vestments and the music, each of which contributed to the creation of an act of sublime worship expressing our love for God.

In his homily, Archbishop Cordileone reminded the Mass-goers to keep in mind that the beauty of the Pontifical Mass should not be an end in itself. Alongside of the love of God that is fostered during the celebration of the Eucharist in such a reverent ceremony in such a beautiful setting, our love of our neighbor must also be fostered:

Our spirituality and stewardship are the practical way we live our Christian faith in the world. Our faith is not to be left inside the walls of this beautiful church. We are all awed and inspired by the beauty of the ceremonies here in the celebration this evening. . . . We all love this liturgy, but if it doesn’t make a difference, it becomes nothing more than a neat hobby. A neat one. But a hobby. It is meant to transform us into a deeper love of Jesus Christ.

Here we experience the beauty of Jesus Christ in the beauty of the Church’s liturgy so that we might recognize the beauty in those in the world around us, in those who are poor. Sharing those gifts with them, in works of charity, works of justice. We have ample opportunity here in our community. Here in this parish, right across the street, is a very good and powerful ministry to women who find themselves in crisis situations*. Mothers with young children or expectant mothers. Sharing our gifts. Understanding their needs. [We need] to see the beauty of Jesus Christ in them and to lift them out of their moment of crisis, out of their own fear, so they might encounter the Jesus who we encounter here and who we share with them.

 

The poor wait just outside the church doors

The poor await just outside the church doors

 

Master, which is the greatest commandment in the law? Jesus said to him: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart, and with thy whole soul, and with thy whole mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. And the second is like to this: Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments dependeth the whole law and the prophets.” — Matthew 22:36-40


You can view the complete homily here and see many more photos of the Pontifical Mass here, thanks to the work of the Traditional Latin Mass Society of San Francisco.


* Star Community Home for women in crisis situations is a project of Catholic Charities CYO that is located in the former convent of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondolet at Star of the Sea. Archbishop Cordileone is the Director of the home’s Board of Directors.

The Little Prince and Good Books

The influence of The Little Prince in our culture runs deep, my friends. I recently happened across this little gem comparing the dancing style of Michael Jackson with that of the snake, choreographed and performed by stage legend Bob Fosse. Thank you, internet!

In addition to inspiring the King of Pop, The Little Prince happens to be a pretty good read. I have read it with my children probably one hundred times. We’ve slipped a bit recently because with four children bedtime has become a vortex of chaos and despair, but there was a time when every single night I would read a chapter of The Little Prince with them. We need to get back to it.

As a new father eight years ago, I gave a lot of thought to how to educate my then infant daughter. I thought about the books we would read together and the cool hipster music we would listen to together (I bought her a vinyl recording of William Byrd’s Mass for 4 Voices as her 1st communion gift). Perhaps I am odd. I am sure of it, actually. Not that this makes me any different than you. We are all a little odd. It’s the new insider claim to be an outsider. Anyways, one of my peculiarities is that I didn’t just dream about this stuff but I obsessed over it, the sorts of books to read to my children. I would not read random children’s literature from the library. Dr. Seuss? I think not! I ruminated and researched. I took notes from the Johnny Depp character in Neverland. I started using the word “trivium”. I considered the kind of literature that would create a lifelong fascination with fairy tales and myth, how to foster a love affair with reading for my daughter that would last her a lifetime. This is a tremendous responsibility for a parent and I felt it keenly.

John Senior in his book The Restoration of Christian Culture discusses the way in which one does not simply take up the Great Books. It is necessary to prepare by first reading the Good Books. In other words, it wouldn’t do for me to dramatically read to my 2 year old daughter about Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor. Children need a steady interaction with Good Books so that they may come to love imagination, fantasy, heroic sacrifice, good prose, and the virtues. I thought and thought about it and finally came up with the best, Good Book. The Little Prince is so good, in fact, that it is perfect.

I would not be able to engage a toddler in a critical discussion of Moby Dick (not that I would want to even discuss this with an adult, but my disapproval is a matter for another time). A young child quite obviously lacks the life experience and prudence to have any context whatsoever for appreciation. So, what is a parent to do? Many, it seems, are at a loss and end up giving young, impressionable minds over to television, children’s songs, and books written specifically for and catered to their supposedly limited abilities. Let us refer to these latter as Bad Books.

I have many flaws as a parent, but exposing my children to Bad Books I have thankfully been able to minimize.  These Bad Books ask irrelevant questions and attempt to be cleverly didactic. As Antoine de St. Exupery was quite right to say, most adults ask the wrong sorts of questions and cannot even tell what the simplest line drawings are meant to represent.

 Little Prince boa quick, what is this?*

 

This is because adults lack imagination. They have starved their ability to be fascinated by the inner life of the universe, the laughter of the stars, the well of water hidden in the desert that makes it all beautiful. They attempt to tame all things under their control. In short, the sophisticated adult is often not so clever, after all. In a world that is brimming with the eternal virtues of beauty and goodness, they often only see facts. That drawing up there? That is a hat and nothing more.

Pope Benedict XVI challenges us, “You were not made for comfort, you were made for greatness.” In other words, do not be content with a world of facts and numbers. You were made to be more. Often I am sadly unable to appreciate how marvelous all of creation is, completely missing the sign value, the slender thread that connects heaven and earth. For me, this is a world become small, in which sacraments and virtue are not really possible. I worry that many of us live as if this is the case. If so, we are lost.

Before we can achieve greatness we must first achieve goodness. In literature, this is where books such as The Little Prince find their place. It is a book that children can appreciate but it is not at all a book for children, and if it is, I hope to remain a child forever because I dearly love reading it. The Little Prince is a story about the good things: loving a single unique rose, the beauty and starkness of the world in which we find ourselves, death and resurrection. When I first read the book to my daughter, I was worried that the snake bite scene at the end would make her cry. My worry was entirely misplaced. She understood immediately that the Little Prince had not, in fact, come to an end. It was a death, yes, but she wasn’t afraid of that because she knew full well that he lived on back on his planet. No problem. God grant me the faith of a child in this regard!

I hope and pray that by exposing my children to these Good Books they will not only survive their childhood with me as a father but continue to grow in discernment and ability to eventually appreciate the Great Books and other great works of art. In this way, perhaps they will never grow old. Life will be a grand adventure and they will know that even in the sin-swept desert that is this world, there is always, always a spring of water hidden out there that makes all of creation sacred.

 

*It is a boa constrictor that has eaten an elephant

Little Prince boa answer

“Thank You for the Light” by F. Scott Fitzgerald, at the New Yorker.

While the New Yorker paywall is still down, you may want to check out “Thank You for the Light,” a previously unpublished short-short story of Fitzgerald’s. Though he wasn’t practicing for most of his career, the fiction of F. Scott Fitzgerald occasionally shows gleams and glimmers of his Catholic upbringing and early devotion. (The short story “Absolution” is one example, which has elements that are Catholic in sensibility if not in drift; there’s another about a young woman who faints during Eucharistic Adoration, though I can’t remember the title now. Daniel McInerny further unpacks the extent of Fitzgerald’s Catholicity here.)

While “Thank You for the Light” has a hint of the surreal and maybe of gentle miracle-story parody about it, it’s also strangely reverent. When Fitzgerald first submitted it to the New Yorker in 1936, the editors who rejected it are said to have called the story “absolutely out of the question . . . unlike the kind of thing we associate with him and really too fantastic.” For a certain type of reader, those words may function as a backhanded endorsement. I thought the piece would have been right at home in the pages of Dappled Things. If you read the story, do let us know what you think in the comments.

(photo: pre-Vatican II interior of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Kansas City, MO, the setting of the second half of “Thank You for the Light”)

Monsignor Knox’s Unrighteous Bible

Monsignor Ronald Knox

Monsignor Ronald Knox

Monsignor Ronald Knox (1888-1957)—convert from Anglicanism, Catholic chaplain at Oxford, etc.—spent a good portion of the 1930s and ‘40s producing a new English translation of the Bible—or, more specifically, producing a new English translation of the Vulgate, while checking the Vulgate’s Latin against the original Hebrew and Greek. Though Knox’s Bible enjoyed widespread use during only the 20-odd years between World War II and Vatican II, his work is stylistically excellent. Knox aimed to translate Scripture into fluent English, adjusting his style to suit the genre of each Biblical book, and paraphrasing Latin, Hebrew, and Greek idioms that jarred his fine-tuned Anglophone Sprachgefühl. Even where Knox’s own word-choices jar the reader—even where one disagrees with them—they are interesting. Knox’s translation recently replaced the Douay-Rheims as the New Advent website’s English Bible, and has been reprinted as a hefty hardback by Baronius Press. It is a great read.

I said Knox’s word-choices are interesting; the process by which he made those choices is both interesting and instructive. The Baronius edition of the Knox Bible ships with a booklet called On Englishing the Bible, a reprint of eight papers, articles, and texts of talks that Knox collected in 1949, and in which he explained the rationale behind his translations.

Whether despite, or because of, the fact that I am no scholar of Biblical languages, Knox’s comments on the word “righteousness” especially impressed me. The Bible, he says, is usually translated by a committee, and the committee members observe certain conventions to keep their work mutually consistent. Knox reasons that the compilers of the King James Version “evidently did something of that kind with a word like dikaiosune in the New Testament, or tsedeq in the Old”:

What they did was to resuscitate a more or less obsolete word, “right-wiseness,” recondition it as “righteousness,” and use that all through the Bible as the equivalent of the tsedeq-dikaiosune idea. It served well enough; but this wooden rendering, constantly recurring in all sorts of different contexts, has resulted all through the Authorized Version in a certain flatness, a certain want of grip. [1]

There is, Knox says, no possibility of exact word-for-word equivalence between any two languages; a word in one language inevitably has context-dependent shades of meaning that will not overlap perfectly with the shades of meaning of its nearest equivalent(s) in another language. “Tsedeq or dikaiosune can mean, when used of a man, innocence, or honesty, or uprightness, or charitableness, or dutifulness, or (very commonly) the fact of being in God’s good books,” he says (and the obsolescence of that last idiom—“being in [someone’s] good books”—a mere 65 years after he wrote it only strengthens his argument, highlighting what a subtle and slippery thing a language is). “Used of God, it [i.e., tsedeq or dikaiosune] can mean the justice which punishes the sinner, or, quite as often, the faithfulness which protects the good; it can mean, also, the approval with which God looks upon those who are in his good books.” Therefore,

Only a meaningless token-word, like righteousness, can pretend to cover all these meanings. To use such a token-word is to abrogate your duty as a translator. Your duty as a translator is to think up the right expression, though it may have to be a paraphrase, which will give the reader the exact shade of meaning here and here and here. [2]

So, (almost) as completely as certain filmmakers have ruined certain songs for me, Monsignor Knox has ruined that “meaningless token-word,” righteousness.

***

Incidentally, the word “righteousness” occurs 291 times in the King James Version, and 137 times in the New American Bible (Revised Edition).

And it occurs 263 times in the Revised Standard Version (Catholic Edition), my favorite translation, which I find more readable than Knox.


[1] Ronald Knox, “Thoughts on Bible Translation,” in On Englishing the Bible (London: Baronius Press Ltd., 2012), 6.

[2] Ibid., 7.

My 10 Favorite Books I’ve Never Read

Among book lovers, a never-ending source of simultaneous delight and despair is the awareness of how many books we haven’t yet read. Delight because there is always some wonderful new work to discover. Despair because no matter how much we read, there always seems to be glaring, inexcusable gaps in our reading lists–those books we are downright embarrassed to admit we haven’t yet read.

While these observations are fairly obvious, one thought did surprise me recently when I was considering the long line of books on my “to read” list. I realized that some of the books I haven’t read yet are actually some of my favorite books. Perhaps this sounds bizarre, but I think I’m not alone in this experience. There are some books I just haven’t gotten around to reading yet, but that not only do I know I will love, but I already love. Some of these titles merely fill me with a great sense of anticipation, but I would go so far as to say that some others have deeply influenced my thought and my outlook on life. That was my experience, for example, when I finally read Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics for the first time. Before reading the opening line, I already knew this was a book that was, in some sense, already in me–like a city I had seen in pictures, through whose streets I was finally walking in the flesh.

In the hope that other people can relate to this experience, here are my top 10 favorite books I’ve never read. To be fair, I should note that some of these are books I haven’t read in their entirety. That may seem like cheating, but I include them because they are books that demand to be read whole, and the knowledge that I haven’t done so frankly gnaws at me. Also, it’s worth noting that this isn’t a list of the best or more famous books I haven’t read, just a list of my personal favorites.

The Complete Poems, John Keats51ko68wFLyL

“Ode to a Nightingale,” “Endymion,” “Bright Star,”–heck, just the last two lines of “Ode to a Grecian Urn” are enough to make Keats one of my favorite poets ever. And yet, to my great chagrin, that’s about all I’ve read from him! Some other book always seems more pressing, and I’m left dreaming about the day when I’ll get to finally sit down with Keats and take in all his glorious verse.

Brothers KThe Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoyevsky

In graduate school, I signed up for a semester-long class on Dostoyevsky’s most important novel, but the space was full and I ended up in a seminar about War and Peace (which is just as well, as otherwise I’d probably be writing about that book here instead). The Brothers K explores big questions about God, morality, and free will. I love how the book forces us to come face to face with evil and whether “without God, everything is permitted.” Or rather I would, if I had ever read it.

 

violentThe Violent Bear it Away, Flannery O’Connor

Being that Flannery O’Connor’s writing was one of my main inspirations behind Dappled Things, it is really appalling that I haven’t read her second (and last) novel. By all accounts the book is a brilliant example of O’Connor’s probings into the collision of belief and secularism, shaped by her Catholic faith and Gothic sensibilities, combining at once, as the publisher’s description put it, “irony and compassion, humor and pathos.” I can’t wait to read this one (but for some reason, I keep waiting anyway).

Lost in the Cosmos, Walker Percycosmos

This unclassifiable book by Percy, with a title that pokes a bit of fun at Carl Sagan (or Neil Degrasse Tyson, as the case may be), bills itself as “the last self-help book.” By all accounts, it is a delightfully mordant parody of the self-help book craze of the 1980s that offers no easy answers for “achieving success” or “boosting your self-esteem,” but rather faces you with a series of questions that according to an Amazon reviewer, “will alter the way you watch the evening news . . . , cut your grass, shop for groceries, and generally manage to survive another Tuesday afternoon.” I absolutely love this book, though I haven’t read a page of it.

The Summa Theologiae, St. Thomas AquinasSumma

Philosophically, I would not hesitate to classify myself as an Aristotelian/Thomist, which is why it shames me to realize how little of the Summa I’ve actually read. While I’ve tackled Aristotle’s PoeticsNicomachean Ethics, Politics, Physics, Metaphysics, On the Soul, and even a more obscure work like his Parts of Animals, all I’ve read of the Summa (other than the odd question here and there) is the Treatise on Law and the Treatise on God. I justify this to myself with the dubious argument that as a properly catechized Catholic, I can anticipate what St. Thomas would have said on certain topics when reflecting on Aristotle, but reading just a bit of his actual writing is enough to convince anyone that in many cases this is wishful thinking. St. Thomas is often credited with “baptizing” Aristotle, but as writers like Etienne Gilson have made clear, he really did much more, clarifying, developing, and even correcting Aristotelian thought. The Summa is, without a doubt, one of the books that has most influenced how I think and how I live, and yet I’ve probably read less than 10% of it. So why haven’t I read it? Simply, it’s just so big. I keep putting it off to that glorious day when I’ll finally have time for it. In the meantime, I just seem to get busier and busier.

After Virtue, Alasdair McIntyreafter-virtue

Speaking of Aristotelian/Thomists, Alasdair McIntyre is without a doubt one of the world’s most eminent living philosophers, and After Virtue is his magnum opus, one of the most important books of the twentieth century. In it, McIntyre offers a devastating critique of contemporary moral philosophy, tracing how and why our thinking devolved into a cacophony of competing and incommensurable moral assertions, and offering a tentative way out of the mess. I’ve read enough of the book–about a third–for it to deeply influence my thought about ethics and cure me once and for all of the temptation to think along utilitarian lines. Unfortunately, once I assured myself this was an amazing book, other matters distracted me from it and so far I’ve left it unfinished.

power gloryThe Power and the Glory, Graham Greene

This is one of the foremost classics of modern Catholic literature, a much celebrated work by one of the best writers of the last century. It introduced the iconic figure of the “whiskey priest,” exploring how grace can work in the midst of terrible conditions and flawed persons. It’s a must read. All the same, I haven’t read it.

 

wind willowsThe Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame

The publisher’s description bills this classic by Grahame as an “unforgettable ode to friendship and one of the most cherished children’s stories of all time.” I love children’s literature, and this book is no doubt one of my favorites. Too bad I haven’t read it. (I’m hoping to finally get a chance to do so when I read it out loud to my children in a year or two.)

miraclesMiracles, C.S. Lewis

During college, when I binge-read almost everything by Lewis, I was turned off from reading Miracles after hearing how Catholic philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe had trounced C.S. Lewis in a debate centered around the book’s argument that naturalism/materialism is self-refuting. The encounter apparently was deeply shocking to Lewis himself, and reportedly sent him into something of a crisis of faith. While I did hear that Anscombe herself had helped him revise the problematic chapter in order to strengthen his argument, it still sounded to me like the an attempt to make a limp horse win a race, so decided to pass on it. Since then, however, I’ve learned of Alvin Plantinga’s philosophically robust evolutionary argument against naturalism, which was apparently inspired by Lewis’s contentions in Miracles, and that has made me want to go back to read the book. I’d also love to tackle Plantinga’s Knowledge of God and Warrant and Proper Function, where the argument is developed in various forms.

The Bibleignatius bible

Obviously, as a Catholic the Bible has shaped me in more ways than I can know. I read it daily (or almost), whether at Mass, praying the Divine Office, or simply doing spiritual reading. I’ve also read my share of biblical commentary and criticism, and know a tolerable amount about the Bible’s history (at least enough to torment some Jehova’s Witnesses the last time they came knocking). But I’ve never read the Bible in its entirety, and I know there are books in it about which I know next to nothing. I tremble a bit when I remember St. Jerome’s saying that “ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.” Better get reading soon.

* * *

So there you go, my top 10. Some of them I plan to read soon, some I expect it may be years before I finally tackle them. Either way, they remain among my favorite books, ridiculous as that may seem. Are any of your favorites also books that you haven’t read? If so, leave us a comment below.

Taking the Word Into Our Flesh

2014-10-15 09.48.06A few months ago, I happened across this article, which discusses how great writers of the past learned their craft by hand-copying lengthy passages from other great writers. The idea coincided with some other reading I’ve done lately about how very physical our mental processes really are, and I decided the method was a definite must-try. But whose work should I copy? Whose words did I love enough to, in a sense, inscribe them on my brain?

I spent some time with the question, returning to it off and on for weeks, but as I thought back to all the wonderful books I have read that shaped not only my writing style but my world view, suddenly all I could see was their flaws. On and on, I considered and dismissed, until finally it hit me. There was only one Author I loved enough to imitate.

So I got out my Bible.

It took a quarter of a second or so to realize what I was proposing was no writing exercise; it was prayer. Half a second after that, I realized the idea could not possibly be new. In fact, it is so not-new, it’s even mentioned in the article. I was just too dense to pick up on it the first time through.

For a few months now, I have sat down almost every night with my Bible, my journal, and my pen, but the words in my journal are never my own. I think about what to pray for, and then I spend a few minutes flipping pages (not usually at random, but sometimes) until I find words that seem to “fit.” Sometimes I choose scriptures that speak directly to my intention, but not always. Sometimes I choose a passage I do not understand; sometimes I choose one that is well-beloved. It’s often no more than two or three verses, though occasionally I choose an entire canticle or parable. Whatever it is, I simply copy it several times until… until. There is no formula, no quota, no limit. It’s similar to lectio divina, only with a pen, and I find that the pen helps me keep my focus. I cannot lose my place when the words are there, in black and white, to mark it.

As the weeks progressed, I began to notice some strange things about this practice. The first is that I stuck with it. The discipline of private prayer has eluded me for most of my life because mine is not the kind of mind that takes kindly to things like repetition and silence. I need sound. I need light, which means I need to keep my eyes open. I need activity, and copying scripture provides all of these. It is a joy that makes me echo the words of St. Therèse:

…I take up Holy Scripture. Then all seems luminous to me; a single word uncovers for my soul infinite horizons; perfection seems simple; I see that it is enough to recognize one’s nothingness and to abandon oneself, like a child, into God’s arms.

Of course, it is a sign of my own spiritual immaturity that I should find the joy of prayer to be strange. However, I noticed something far stranger, a trend in the scripture passages I chose to copy–or rather, the ones I chose not to copy–that helped me understand what God is truly doing in my life, and it was this: I do not typically write the Psalms. This puzzled me to no end because the Psalms are the prayer book of the Church, the javelins of our holy arsenal, and when I began, I assumed this was the book where I would spend most of my time. Yet, night after night, I would sit down, open my Bible to see “The Lord is my shepherd” or “Taste and see the goodness of the Lord”… and I would turn the page. When I finally realized why, I knew I had to share the insight, for it is not mine to keep. It is the inheritance of all Christian people.

The reason I do not tend to write the Psalms is that many of them have already become not just part of my consciousness, but part of my body. I have been a cantor at Mass for fifteen years, and in that time, my relationship with the Psalms has become both intellectual and spiritual, but it is also physical. I have shaped them with breath and lips and tongue, felt their vibrations as they resonate through my bones, even choked upon them into a microphone. The Psalms have already become part of me. I do not mean they have nothing left to teach me (what hubris would that be!), only that a connection exists which I do not have with other books. I do not always live the message of the Psalms I have sung any more than I always live the glory of the Eucharist I have tasted, drunk, and chewed. But if we truly believe that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us–if we believe that, in the Eucharist, we become what we receive–then we also believe that our flesh is called to become the Word. Through my pen, God is shaping His words with my body, and my body with His Word, just as He has done through my voice for so long.

“In all circumstances, hold faith as a shield, to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. And take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”[i] There is no one right way to encounter the scriptures, and I certainly do not mean to present my own way as a standard. But however we encounter God’s Word, we must do it with our whole selves. Let us read it with our eyes and ponder it with our intellect, but do not let it end there. Let us listen to it when it is proclaimed, and then proclaim it. Let us sing it; let us taste and chew it. Let us smell it, whether in bread and wine or ink and paper. Let us touch the pages upon which it is inscribed, and then inscribe our own. God grant that we may never relegate the scriptures to the mind as if they were they were made of ordinary words, but rather take them into our flesh to dwell: “When I found your words, I devoured them; they became my joy and the happiness of my heart.”[ii]

 

[i] Ephesians 6:16-17

[ii] Jeremiah 6:16

Fatima: Altar of the World

XQ1A2164Today, we left Fatima after having spent two and a half days there filming for our next production, The Faithful Traveler in Portugal. We arrived on Wednesday evening after three days in Lisbon, and it rained pretty much every day since. Today, after finally getting some sun and filming at Aljustrel and Valinhos, we left to film at the Monastery at Batalha, with two nights in Tomar.

Fatima has always held a special place in my heart. As a child, I loved hearing the stories of the little pastorinhos, the three shepherd children—Lucia dos Santos and her cousins Francisco and Jacinta Marto—to whom the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared in 1917, here at Fatima.

XQ1A2157This is my first time ever in this amazing place, and to be quite honest, I still have to pinch myself to believe I’ve been there.

Fatima calls itself the “Altar of the World”, and I really believe that it is true. Here, Masses, Confessions, prayers and petitions go on for hours, seemingly nonstop. This often happens despite the hot sun or some rainy and windy weather, like we’ve encountered. I wouldn’t have had it any other way. For me, when I’m standing in the middle of the Cova da Iria in October, it had better be raining so I can feel a teeny bit of what the people experienced on October 13, 1917, when the sun danced in the sky on that miraculous day of Our Lady’s last appearance at the Cova.

Saturday night, I attended the candlelight procession, which is preceded by the praying of the Rosary in what seemed to be about 10 different languages. Afterward, I stayed for Mass, which started at around 10:00 pm and lasted until around 12:30 midnight. I had missed Mass earlier that day because I was filming, and I didn’t want to not go to Mass on a Sunday in Fatima! So I braved the cold and ignored my exhaustion. “When will I ever be in Fatima again?” I thought. “When will I ever get the chance to attend Mass at Fatima at night?”

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It rained most of the evening, and I had brought my camera with me to film some of the procession, so my rain slicker went on top of the camera to protect it from the rain. Earlier that day, the zipper on my jacket stopped working and I had to break it to get the jacket off, so I couldn’t zip up my jacket. Suffice it to say, I was very cold and very wet and very tired. I was fine staying until the end of a very long Mass. It occurred to me toward the end—no one seemed the least bit perturbed about how long Mass was lasting. The priests didn’t seem to be rushing; they just took their time, praying the prayers, singing the songs, giving God what He deserves. And the attendees were just taking it all in. Many were even kneeling on the hard, very wet, ground. People were sharing umbrellas and being really loving to one another. All of this, in the middle of the night, outside, in the rain, in the cold.

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I’ll be honest, it both impressed me and depressed me. I want Mass to be celebrated with such reverence everywhere, instead of it being rushed—gotta get home for football!—and dismissed as an imposition on our busy schedules. I want people at home to feel God’s presence at Mass so much so that they can’t keep from crying when the bread and wine becomes the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ.

 

I am so very blessed to be here, where such an important message went out to the world, and from whence it continues to go out like rays of light from the candles of all of the processions that have ever taken place here.

PRAY.

REPENT.

MAKE REPARATIONS.

AND pray some more. Don’t ever stop praying. Ever.

Is the world looking scary? Pray.

Are you worried about the Synod? Pray.

Worried about Ebola? Pray.

Christians in the Middle East? Pray.

Lost your keys? PRAY.

Pray for everything and anything. Pray at all times. Carry a rosary. Talk to your Guardian Angel. Talk to God. Talk to His Blessed Mother.

Don’t stop praying.

What else is so important?

(This might sound a tad preachy. Let me just say that I often write my blogs to remind myself of all the things I know to be true–trust in God, be patient, pray at all times. I forget these things, too, as I get caught up in the world, and I need reminding all the time. So please don’t think I’m preaching at you. I just figure you might need reminding, too.)

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Fatima is such an amazing place of peace and love, I am spectacularly jealous of the people who live here, or who live nearby. I’ll admit it! It’s a holy jealousy. I met some awesome pilgrims—Julie and her parents Dominique and Tony—who came from Belgium, which is about 2 hours away by plane. They’ve been here three times this year alone! How amazing is that?!

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Then I remember—I have holy places near me, too. The Miraculous Medal Shrine is all of 10 minutes from my house, thanks be to God, and Philadelphia has four other amazing shrines. What shrines and holy places are near you?

And let’s not forget that Jesus is in our local church every minute of every day, waiting for us to come by and say hi.

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I would like to use this post, however, to encourage you all to consider coming to Fatima sometime soon. In 2017, they will be celebrating the 100th anniversary of the apparitions at Fatima, back in 1917! How awesome is that?! And I’m sure everyone here is gearing up for the festivities. Start planning your own trip!

We’ve been staying at the Hotel Cruz Alta, one of the hotels in the Fatima Hotels group, which is about as close to the Cova as… well, it’s across a little street. We can hear the singing from the Masses all day and we can walk 5 minutes or less to the Basilicas. The buffets are awesome, the people are SO NICE, and the beds are cozy. What more could a pilgrim want?!

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I’d also like to ask that you spread the word and tell people to pray to Blessed Jacinta and Francisco for miracles! They’re ONE AWAY from being canonized! Wouldn’t a canonization and a Papal visit in 2017 just be icing on the cake of everything here? Wow, that would be awesome.

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There is so much to say about Fatima, I could talk about it forever, and I’m sure I will be. Just ask me. Or watch The Faithful Traveler in Portugal, when it comes out—hopefully—next Spring. I’ll be asking Blessed Jacinta and Francisco and Sister Lucia for their prayers for that, too. And Our Blessed Mother, of course.

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The George W. Hunt Prize

At the Washington Post today, emerging Catholic writers take note: the George W. Hunt Prize announced today will be offering $25,000 to “the finest literary work of Roman Catholic intelligence and imagination.” The prize is co-sponsored by America magazine and the Saint Thomas More Chapel at Yale University. To be eligible, writers must be working in the English language and be under 45 years of age. There’s no word on the Post article about when submissions will be accepted or how to submit, so watch for an update with details.

How to View Art

Over at the Washington Post, Philip Kennicott has some advice on how to visit an art museum. Or so it seems. It’s good advice, to be sure, both practical and insightful: take time, seek silence, study up, engage memory, accept contradiction.  But one quickly realizes that the art museum here is not just an art museum. It’s also a metaphor for life. These are rules on how to live. That’s the thing about museums: they make us realize that we are in the presence of something great, but also far beyond our understanding, and that our time is limited. How we spend that time makes all the difference.

Attention DC-area readers!

Fans of Dappled Things in the Washington, DC area may like to check out this art exhibition — “Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea” — at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. It features pieces from the Vatican Museum and Uffizi Gallery, among other collections. From the NMWA website:

Divided into six thematic sections, the exhibition presents images of Mary as a daughter, cousin, and wife; the mother of an infant; a bereaved parent; the protagonist in a rich life story developed through the centuries; a link between heaven and earth; and an active participant in the lives of those who revere her.

Mark your calendars: the exhibit will open Dec. 5, 2014, and run through April 12, 2015. Whether you’re in the area or out, check out the “online exhibition exploring global traditions in Marian imagery, further contextualizing the artworks on view in the galleries” that will be offered on the museum’s website.