The Artist as Eyewitness

In the beginning of St. Luke’s Gospel, he writes,

Forasmuch as many have taken in hand to set forth in order a narration of the things that have been accomplished among us; according as they have delivered them unto us, who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word: It seemed good to me also, having diligently attained to all things from the beginning, to write to thee in order, most excellent Theophilus, that thou mayest know the verity of those words in which thou hast been instructed.

Eyewitness accounts guarantee the truth of the incredible story he is about to narrate.

Dante begins the Inferno thus,

In the midway of this our mortal life,

I found me in a gloomy wood, astray

Gone from the path direst: and e’en to tell

It were no easy task, how savage wild

That forest, how robust and rough its growth,

Which to remember only, my dismay

Renews, in bitterness not far from death.

Yet to discourse of what there good befell,

All else will I relate discover’d there.

Dante, too, has an incredible story to tell and is no less anxious than Luke to claim the truth of the events to follow. He himself saw these things with his own eyes. His experience is not limited to the underworld, and Paradiso begins with a similar statement,

His glory, by who might all things are mov’d,

Pierces the universe, and in one part

Sheds more resplendence, elsewhere less. In heav’n,

That largeliest of his light partakes, was I,

Witness of things, which to relate again

Surpasseth power of him who comes from thence…

If you ask me, what St. Luke and Dante are up to is different. The former is a conscientious historian, the other a poet. But the role of witness is equally important. It is taken for granted that eyewitness accounts establish the veracity of a historical thesis and, as anecdotal evidence, provide explanatory power as the witnesses are multiplied. Does the fact that over 30,000 people witnessed the miracle of the sun at Fatima give pause? Certainly it cannot be dismissed out of hand.

Eyewitness is no less important to the artist. Often, we consider art to be a purely imaginative, creative activity, as if a painting springs whole and entire from the genius of the artist’s mind. Perhaps we forget that the imagination requires raw material before it becomes fertile. In order to be creative, we must first encounter the real world, memorize our multiplication tables, study the lives of those who have gone before, you know, the sort of boring education stuff we now skip in our primary schools in favor of unrestrained creativity. However, if we never sit at the feet of history, master the facts, study our grammar, and witness the touchstones of culture, our imaginations will starve for lack of food. This is true for every pursuit in life and is no less so for the artist. Dante understood that his poetry was but a humble witness that revealed pre-existing metaphysical truth.

This was widely understood by most artists up until very recently and there is a tradition of including the portraits of patrons in the paintings they commission, thus placing them virtually into the very scene itself. The donors have somehow come to participate in the reality the artist expresses. So, too, is there a tradition of artists including their own portraits in their pictures. Often, this is misunderstood as vanity but I would suggest the underlying reason is to emphasize the importance of the eyewitness.

Michelangelo Caravaggio famously reacted against the late Mannerist style by creating realist depictions that were highly dependent on the use of models. For instance, in his paintings one often sees the same courtesan portraying different saints. The saints depicted are humble, barefoot, and there is often dirt under their fingernails. This caused quite a commotion at the time because it was viewed by some as crude and disrespectful. It was seen to minimize the transcendent.

In fact, Caravaggio seems to have been attempting to accomplish quite the opposite. As Andrew Graham-Dixon argues in his biography (Some of the criticism below is paraphrased from his work), Caravaggio’s paintings are the perfect visual representation of the Catholic Reformation as idealized by St. Charles Borromeo, who valued a presentation of the faith that had clarity, drama, and aroused personal devotion. Caravaggio presents us with canvases that minimize distraction and intellectual games in favor of striking images that communicate a single, highly developed insight. He is witness to a Biblical story and strives to bring what he has seen in his mind’s eye to life for the viewer. Through his personal witness, he is able to communicate powerfully the pathos and strangeness of a God who acts in history. As the incarnate Christ, God is both hidden in the natural world as a human being and, for those with eyes to see, the transformative figure in all of human history by which we are made like God.

Okay, I’m wandering a bit from my original intention with this post, which was to show a few paintings and comment on Caravaggio’s presence as eyewitness. By specifically seeing what he himself sees we gain the truth of the historical scene. Here is a portrait of him by a friend, see you if can find him in his own paintings:

Caravaggio

 Betrayal of Christ

 Betrayal of Christ

Here we see him at the edge of the see holding a lamp. He is straining to see the action, peering through the Gethsemane night. Our Lord is visibly flinching at the kiss of Judas. Notice, however, that the main light source is not coming from the lamp but from somewhere to the front left. Caravaggio sees but dimly. He knows a tragedy has occurred and strains to understand the manner in which the gentle Lamb of God gains victory as a pure sacrifice amongst brutish sinners.

Martyrdom of Matthew

Martyrdom of St Matthew

My favorite painting by Caravaggio. He depicts himself as a catechumen running away as fast as he can (the furthest back from the frame), pausing only for a moment to look back in horror. St. Matthew is vested in priestly garb and had been preparing for baptisms. In the early Church, catechumens were baptized nude in a pool of water. The pool was often directly in front of the altar. We can see St. Matthew’s left arm hanging down over the edge. He has already been injured and there is blood seeping through his vestments, perhaps dripping down and mingling with the baptismal water. The blood of the martyrs is equivalent to the drowning waters of baptism, much like the blood and water both spring from the side of Our Lord. St. Matthew himself seems to be bathed in heavenly light during the moment he is murdered by a false catechumen. It is the murderer who has become the baptizer. Perhaps Caravaggio feels as though his mortal sins (of which he claimed many, including trying to smash a man’s face in over artichokes) are keeping him at a distance from the communion of saints.

David with the Head of Goliath

 David with head of Goliath

Here is the ultimate eyewitness. It is Caravaggio himself who has been slain. The last sight his eyes beheld was God’s chosen avenger launching a stone his direction. The sadness that is now in David’s eyes was perhaps already present during the battle. Why must we sin and bind ourselves over to death? Why do we grieve God so? For the artist, this question is intensely personal and meditating on the theme brings the point home to me, too. Perhaps it ought to be my head in the hands of the boy king.

The Raising of Lazarus

 Caravaggio Lazarus

On the run from the Knights of Malta, moving from town to town, Caravaggio depicts himself in this altarpiece just above the outstretched hand of Our Lord. The hand is reminiscent of the hand of God on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. It reaches out and brings new life. Caravaggio, however, looks the opposite direction. The darkness is closing in on him and he strains to see the light at the entrance of the tomb.

Martyrdom of Saint Ursula

 Martyrdom of St Ursula

This is thought to be Caravaggio’s last picture and at the time he was in exile for having committed murder. In fact, his output at this time had been curtailed by severe facial injuries received in a revenge attack. He himself is convalescing at the same time he is depicting a holy saint who has been mortally wounded not out of revenge for her vice but for her purity. Saint Ursula has been shot with an arrow by her spurned lover, the King of the Huns. She looks mildly surprise and yet statuesque, beautiful, glowing with inner joy. Caravaggio peers over her shoulder and into the visage of the King. What is it that causes a man to murder?

Gardiner Against the Catholic Philistines

On one of my bedroom bookshelves sits a forgotten book by a forgotten writer: Norms for the Novel by Harold C. Gardiner, S.J. It is an interesting piece of literary criticism that was perhaps very much a product of its time (1953), but also a precursor of things to come. Fr. Gardiner was the literary editor of America magazine at the time, and had written positive reviews of novels many readers considered to be morally repugnant, including Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair. He wrote articles defending his broad reading habits, which were eventually collected into the booklet Tenets for Readers and Reviewers (1944, rev. 1952).

He is also possibly a bit infamous both for publishing Flannery O’Connor’s essay “The Church and the Fiction Writer” in 1957 and for botching the editing on one paragraph. Other than that minor gaff, I think that Gardiner and O’Connor have many critical affinities, but that would be a discussion better left for another time.

In his endless defense against what he called “the Catholic Philistines,” Gardiner expanded his ideas into the longer Norms for the Novel, thereby covering a broader range of subjects. He is especially interested in moral evaluations, and about not jumping too quickly to the conclusion that a novel is immoral simply because the novelist depicts immoral actions. This was, after all, an age when a Catholic’s decision about whether or not to read a book often went no further than a reference to the Index Librorum Prohibitorum. “Too much of the criticism of the novel in our recent past has been based on the assumption that a novel is simply a sociological tract dressed up in a bit of fictional trapping” (vii).

Fr. Gardiner

That is all fair enough, although in our present day these thoughts have become rather more commonplace than exceptional. It is more frequent today to read a Catholic reviewer nuancing or excusing questionable elements in a novel than chastising them. An interesting discussion could be had about whether Catholic criticism has leaned too far in this other direction, but Gardiner was surely offering a reasonable counterbalance to the excesses of his own time.

A small selection from the chapter “Fiction and the Art of Living” follows. Most of Fr. Gardiner’s books have been out of print for many years, and it would not be unwelcome to see them published again. His thoughts on the proper approach to Catholic criticism were seminal for what has followed.

The novelist, like any artist, is dealing with two basic but imponderable realities—truth and beauty. The adequacy or the excellence with which he blends these two elements will to a large extent determine his stature in the world of literature. For he must blend the two; if there is no basic truth in his work, its appeal to the reader’s heart and mind is spurious; if there is no perceptible beauty, there is no possible engagement of the emotions. It follows, moreover, that a proper realization of the respective function of these two elements will to a great extent determine the justice of the reader’s demands on the author.

What can the reader demand of the author? He can and must demand, as the present discussion has endeavored to show, that the author treat human beings as human beings and human life as human life—in other words that he never portray men as either angels or fiends incarnate. The reader can further demand and must demand that in treating human life humanly the author does not so glamorize the sinful element in his characters as to run the risk of making the reader’s life less human. (65-66)

Not By Banana Bread Alone

banana breadWhen do we cross the line from being called to being covetous? It’s a question I’ve been struggling with lately–a question I should have considered a long time ago–in my life as a writer. I confess that nearly every waking minute of my life, I dream about Having Time to Write. Uninterrupted time alone with my computer and my characters–Ahhh! When people ask me why I am a writer, I tell them it is because if I don’t write, the voices in my head will keep me awake at night. Fictional people literally scream to be let out of me. I remember being four or five years old, desperate to learn how to physically form letters on a page so I could finally start putting stories down on paper. If I am doing my real job, or driving, or cooking, or helping my children tie their shoes, odds are that I am also working through structural problems in a novel or composing dialogue in my head. The inability to escape these mundane tasks to transfer my thoughts onto paper (or microchips) leaves me distracted and on-edge. Writing is my calling, or so I have told myself for as long as I can remember. It’s not that I am writing Great Things that will change the world; but my writing time is a form of prayer, time spent exploring mysteries both human and divine. In recent years, I have also learned to view it as a ministry by which I convey a little of the love God has shown me to whoever reads my words. But if God has given me this calling, this gift, whatever it is, why doesn’t He give me time to fulfill it?

As a seemingly unrelated backdrop to this battle raging in my heart, my four-year-old son recently developed a love of baking. (It is not coincidence that he also has a deep, abiding love of sugar.) In particular, he embarked on a quest to bake banana bread. Insistently, continuously, he begged to make banana bread, even after I let him bake cookies (our house being empty of baking soda to make the bread rise at the time.) “Today, we will make banana bread!” he would declare, day after day, because asking politely is a skill he stubbornly refuses to learn.

Now, banana bread is not a necessary component of life. In a post-apocalyptic world, no one would trek across a bombed-out nuclear wasteland in search of it. Neither was I going to drop everything, put dinner on hold, make a special trip to the store for baking soda, just to indulge my son’s desire to bake it. But banana bread is one of the little joys that add beauty to life, and baking it together as Mom and Four-Year-Old is especially lovely. So, some days later–after we had made our regularly-scheduled trip to the grocery store and a rainy afternoon presented itself–we set about the business of measuring and mixing, teaching and learning and bonding. I let my son take credit for the finished product even though I did the lion’s share of the work.

…And I discovered a new way to think about my writing.

God does not need me to tell stories. He has no need of my little talents any more than I need my four-year-old to help me make banana bread. I could do it perfectly well by myself. So, too, God already understands life’s mysteries, and if He wants to convey any insight about them to the world, He certainly has better tools at His disposal than my poor, gasping words. My stories are not essential nourishment; they are banana bread, a sweet something extra. Yet my Father allows me to create them because writing is time that He and I spend together, time that is cherished and filled with love. Just as I cannot let my son bake banana bread every day–because how would we eat it all? And when would we go to the park, or chase caterpillars in the yard, or pretend to be birds?–I must accept that my Father knows best, and He will give me no more than it is good for me to have. He knows that a little banana bread will cheer me, but too much will sicken my soul. And He has shown me that, no matter how I struggle with my stories, no matter how much of myself I invest in them, I will always be just the four-year-old helper who takes the credit while He does the actual work.

So, I am not going to covet writing time anymore. I will discipline myself the way I have been trying to discipline my son, and remember to ask politely. “God, is it time now, please? No? Okay then.” “Today, God? Please? Thank you, Father.” For I do not live by my own feeble words, but by the ones that come from Him.

Babette’s Feast

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We began the month with an homage to the grilled cheese sandwich, I would like to close it with Babette’s Feast. The grilled cheese is delightful, but (because some of us are irredeemable food snobs) perhaps a proper, French feast is in order?

I can recall no worse dining experience than the food that is from time to time served on airplanes. I was recently forced to board an airplane and ride it through the sky to New Jersey for a work-related purpose. Airplanes fill me with anxiety. Not fear of heights, mind you, no, it is delightful and awe-inspiring to relax in a chair that flies through the sky by some unexplainable magic. I mostly fear two types of encounters, those with germs and those with bad food. With this in mind, I basically cross my arms over my chest, sit in my chair, and refuse to touch anything, eat, or breathe too deeply for the duration of the flight. It is a sort of totemic ritual by which comfort is derived.

To soothe my overburdened soul, I brought along a copy of Babette’s Feast to watch. I had never seen it and wasn’t sure what to expect but was soon enraptured. So much so that it was somewhat of a disappointment when landing preparations began and the movie hadn’t quite finished. I wouldn’t have minded circling the runway a few times.

Babette’s Feast is almost 30 years old now, which is to me the definition of a cutting-edge new release (I’m making a habit of on-the-spot cultural commentary), but I imagine I may divulge the plot with no fear of reprisal. It’s rather simple, really. Two sisters are the daughters of a deceased fundamentalist preacher. Each in the past has turned away a suitor in order to remain at the time with her father. One of these suitors later sends a French refugee, Babette, to live with the sisters. She does so for many years, cooking and doing other housework until a windfall from the lottery gives her the funds to splurge on ingredients to cook a great feast. This feast she prepares and gives for the sisters and the remaining religious followers of their late father. That is the entire plot.

It doesn’t sound like much, right? It seems to me that there is a refreshing quality about a film that refuses high-concept plot and instead spends time with characters and atmosphere. The glacial northern air seeps through the screen and envelops the viewer. The pace is slow and time is given to express the interiority of the events. It all unfolds delicately and with great nuance, as a proper French feast ought.

There is beauty in the details. A stray remark by one of the religious adherents betrays hidden resentments underlying the proper, puritanical exterior of the sect. The cold sea wind brings with it spiritual depression. A typical meal is a form of gruel. All of this is set on edge by Babette, who causes the arrival of a giant tortoise destined to become one of the courses in a meal that is now suspected by the villagers to be a satanic feast. General Lorenz (one of the long ago-suitors returned for a visit) savors a spoonful of broth. Bright eyed, surprised glances light up the table. From course to course, the feast is found to be more enjoyable and distrust morphs into quiet happiness. Finally, we are left with a scene of the revelers dancing about the town square holding hands and singing a hymn. The feast has changed them. The stars seem closer. God has become more real.

Babettes-Feast-7943_7During the meal General Lorenz, who has spent time in France, reminisces about a similar meal he has had in Paris at the famous Café Anglais. The food there had the quality of bringing about reconciliation amongst those who partook. Babette’s Feast is not mere food, it is spiritual communion. The excellence of preparation bears with it the virtue of love itself. Many of us, I suspect, have had a meal with friends and family like this from time to time. Many of us, I pray, have been graced by this very meal in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the meal towards which all others aspire.

The feast costs Babette all of her money. She is not able, as had been assumed by everyone else, to use the money to return to France. Perhaps it is her sacrifice that makes this meal so special (it is no coincidence that she wears a cross necklace). We are changed into what we rbabette_2427002keceive and what is received is the total self-gift of the chef. Babette considers the exchange to be one in which she gains. She has given all she has, but she will never be poor.

In some mysterious way, artistic endeavor and love and beauty and goodness and truth are all bound up together, the one leading to all of the others. An artist suffers in the creating but becomes truly rich in the giving, by allowing others to participate in what has been created. Art binds mankind together. The mystical communion of saints knows no bounds. General Lorenz, speaking to his long lost love after the feast, gives an inspired benediction:

 I have been with you every day of my life. Tell me you know that…You must also know that I shall be with you every day that is granted to me from now on. Every evening I shall sit down to dine with you. Not with my body, which is of no importance, but with my soul. Because this evening I have learned, my dear, that in this beautiful world of ours, all things are possible.

A human being is more than a soul to be freed from the temptations of the physical world. A human being is a soul expressed in physical form. Because of this, we understand that there is beauty and joy and spiritual good to be had in something as simple as a feast, which is not merely food but rather a mediation of the communion of saints. It is not for nothing that Our Lord compares heaven to a feast. It is not for nothing that he chooses to come to us under the aspects of bread and wine.

How Hollywood Built a Golden Age in Five Easy Steps

I have a date with Alexander Nevsky this coming week–if all goes well, with both the film and a symphonic performance of Prokfiev’s score. This has gotten the wheels in my head spinning about two of my favorite subjects: my inexplicable fascination with Soviet-era art (which I will spare you any further discussion of in this post), and the overwhelming number of amazing films produced in the 1930s. Almost any movie you decide to download from the second half of that decade will not disappoint. Here is the list of Best Picture nominees from the 1940 Oscars, honoring films released in 1939:

Winner: Gone With the Wind

Dark Victory

Goodbye, Mr. Chips

Love Affair

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Ninotchka

Of Mice and Men

Stagecoach

The Wizard of Oz

Wuthering Heights

That was all just in one year. They followed on the heels of earlier ‘30s films like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, A Star Is Born, and Mutiny on the Bounty. If you don’t mind extending the Golden Age into the early 1940s, you can throw in Citizen Kane, The Philadelphia Story, The Maltese Falcon, and many more. No other era of cinema comes close to producing the same number of classics per films released–but why? What made these films so great, and how did Hollywood manage to make so many of them at the same time?

We here at Dappled Things take the business of culture-building seriously, but thus far, the only model I have seen proposed for the modern development of Catholic art and literature to follow is the mid-twentieth century flourishing of writers like Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, et. al. A good place to start, certainly, but it need not be an end. The Golden Age of Hollywood inundated the collective American consciousness with stories–works of art–that continue to shape our national imagination three-quarters of a century after they were made. Isn’t that what our current renaissance seeks to do? The fact that these films did not usually feature religious elements is no reason we cannot learn from them.

There are plenty of differences between literature and film, but at their core, they are both ways of telling stories, and stories shape our culture in ways that are deeper and more profound than today’s “cultural arena” of politics. Did the financial crises of the ‘30s, the government’s many social programs, the battle over the Supreme Court, leave a lasting impact on American society? Absolutely. But let me ask: which of these iconic lines from the ‘30s is indelibly embedded in your mind?

Let’s Get Another Deck

or

There’s no place like home

Quite probably, you’ve never heard Alfred M. Landon’s slogan from his presidential campaign against Roosevelt in 1936. But I’m betting you have watched Dorothy click the heels of her ruby slippers.rubyslippers

So, to return to the question at hand: how did Hollywood create its Golden Age, and what can we learn from it? Here are some of the answers:

1. They did not try to reinvent the wheel.

Notice how many of those amazing movies are literary adaptations. The silent film era had already begun adapting classic novels and plays, but the advent of sound allowed the words of the originals to take on new life. Because sound film was a new medium, the entire canon of world literature was its oyster. To see Wuthering Heights on a screen was to experience the story in a whole new way. Filmmakers also incorporated existing traditions from theater, music, dance, and visual arts. To this day, the most widely-credited film score composer in the world is Richard Wagner, who died before the invention of the motion picture camera. Filmmakers understood that the elements of good storytelling never change, and they could cast a wider net if they stood on the shoulders of giants.

2. They helped people escape from reality.

MutinyontheBountyNo one wanted to spend his paltry paycheck from his WPA job to go see a film about miserable people standing in bread lines. Escape is a word that has been much maligned among “serious” artists, who often eschew it as the stuff of mere entertainment. But people crave it–so why not put it to good use? The actors were beautiful and romance abounded. And then, once the audience had left the gray Depression to arrive on the deck of a pirate ship or in the office of some gumshoe private-eye…

3. They tugged the audience’s heartstrings.

LoveAffairMr. Smith Goes to Washington allowed every “little guy” in America to go take a swing at Washington fat cats. Dark Victory and Love Affair both involve couples rent apart by illness or injury. Golden Age movies gave us genuinely sympathetic characters, and also celebrated the fact that those characters were flawed humans. Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler are very far from being saints, but no one can help rooting for their sheer determination.

4. Innovation was the norm.

SnowWhiteCoupled with an adherence to the time-honored rules of storytelling came an anything-goes race to experiment. What happens when you add singing to the plot of a novel? Can I make a fairy tale into a cartoon and then let the heroine sing English words over a Tchaikovsky ballet? Without computers to make the special effects, the art of filmmaking itself required constant creativity. How do you put a tornado on screen? Or film a burning plantation? At the same time that filmmakers remained true to many artistic traditions, they were also fearless in their desire to surprise because…

5. They wanted everyone to buy a ticket. 

ScarlettandRhettThe wonderful thing about the film market of the 1930s was that it was not fractured into the thousands of sub-markets we are accustomed to thinking about in 2015. Theaters typically only had one screen, and many towns only had one theater. If you wanted a return on your investment, you’d better make your film appeal to people in many different walks of life, often including children. Did this marginalize the stories of minority members of the population? Absolutely. That was the down side. The up side was that the stories had to appeal to what is most basically human in all of us, or else be financial failures. Our modern marketing “wisdom” likes to target every imaginable niche, selling us ways to further divide ourselves from the rest of humanity, but the fact is that the stories we cherish as a culture are the ones that speak to the greatest possible number people. No story will speak to everyone, but it is never wrong to try.

It is important to note that later Hollywood classics deviated widely from this this Golden Age formula. The Godfather has no sympathetic characters; the battle scenes in Braveheart are anything but an escape; The English Patient certainly did not have universal appeal–I could go on ad nauseam. It is impossible to peg down criteria that apply to all classics, especially since few people agree about which movies (books, plays, etc.) qualify for the title. My goal is not to define what makes a classic, nor to limit the scope of what ought to be included in our present cultural revival. Rather, I hope that by discussing the trends that made the movies of the Golden Age golden, the Catholic literary world can find a way to emulate its success. We might tell ourselves that the culture and the market have changed since the 1930s, but a 2014 nationwide poll still named Gone With the Wind as the most popular movie in America seventy-five years after its release. And in second place… Star Wars, which fits all of the above criteria for a Golden Age movie, even if it was not made during the Golden Age.

The Unsheathing of Dante

The invocation of the Muse has a long and storied history, dating back at least to the ocularly challenged Homer. In later times it would become a poetic tradition with Vergil and all his Medieval and Renaissance imitators. The poet would make a show of humility, acknowledging his debt to the divine bestowers of poetic genius. The nine daughters of Memory were the movers of the human mind, raising men up into greatness of science and song.

Dante Alighieri, writing in the Vergilian tradition and willing to use the pagan deities as poetic metaphors even in a Christian era, was aware that his Roman forerunner invoked the Muse to tell him “the reasons why / a wounded power divine, a queen of the gods” would condemn Aeneas to fruitless wandering. The Florentine poet similarly understood his debt to the celestial powers, and the figure of an inspirational heavenly woman—Muse or otherwise—resonated strongly with the maker of the Sweet New Style.

It takes Dante until the second canto of his Inferno to invoke the Muse, however briefly: “O Muses, O high genius, help me now! / O memory that engraved the things I saw, / here shall your worth be manifest to all” (II.7-9). In Hell, he asks Vergil for help more than the divine ladies: “you who guide my steps, / see to my strength, make sure it will suffice” (II.10-11). Hell is a worldly place, full of obvious imagery and well known monstrosities, and the Muse is not much needed to inspire a description of the damned.

In the Purgatorio Dante wastes less time admitting his need for divine inspiration:

My little ship of ingenuity
   now hoists her sails to speed through better waters,
   leaving behind so pitiless a sea…
Here rise to life again, dead poetry!
   Let it, O holy Muses, for I am yours,
   and here, Calliope, strike a higher key. (I.1-3, 7-9)

The realm of Purgatory is one of greater stature and importance than Hell, and as such it requires a greater genius of poetry—a “higher key”—to properly sing of it. Calliope is the mother of the doomed poet Orpheus and is the Muse associated with epic poetry, also invoked by Vergil in book nine of the Aeneid. Her inspiration is required to sing of the quasi-celestial realm of the ascending dead.

When Dante begins writing the Paradiso he fully acknowledges his dependence on heavenly assistance, but now instead of the Muse he invokes the sun god himself, Apollo. As a symbol of Christ, the bright Apollo is needed to inspire “this last work of art” (I.13) that will win Dante the poetic laurel. He had few worries about doing justice to Hell and Purgatory, but Heaven is so far above the experience of our sinful, earthly lives that he is desperate to receive the god of music’s help. The Muses are daughters of Memory, but Heaven is a place where “memory cannot follow” (I.9). Dante’s memory of his time in Heaven is insufficient because that is a place of pure ideas and spirits, where the sensory phantasms of human memory are of little use.

Till this hour
   one peak of twin Parnassus has sufficed,
   but if I am to enter the lists now
I shall need both. (I.16-19)

The sacred Thessalian mountain of Parnassus was the home of the Muses and the stomping grounds of the winged horse Pegasus. One peak of Parnassus was sufficient to inspire a poetry of Hell and Purgatory, but not of Heaven. A more worldly poet would be obsessed with damnation and punishment, pouring all of his genius into a description of the vile and base, while finding the subject of a blissful paradise too dull and abstract to take seriously.

But the most vivid image Dante uses to request poetic inspiration comes just after Parnassus:

Then surge into my breast
   and breathe your song, as when you drew the vain
   Marsyas from the sheath of his own limbs. (I.19-21)

In classical mythology, Marsyas was the satyr who challenged Apollo to a musical contest, lost, and was rewarded for his hubris with a thorough skinning. For Marsyas this was a cruel punishment, but Dante uses it as an image of mystical ecstasy. In writing about his journeys, Dante is daring to challenge the inscrutability of Heaven with verse, and hopes thereby for a future release from worldly things, one much like the transport he already received when Beatrice toured him amongst the heavenly spheres. It is a grotesquely violent image, not unlike the alien figures Dante recently watched parade through the paradise at the top of Purgatory.

The satyric unsheathing is not for the sake of poetry itself. He does not want to be in ecstasy beholding the beauty of the art, but hopes that his fumbling art will be received as a request to allow him to behold Beauty itself in the highest Heaven. It is the antithesis of art for art’s sake. It is rather art for the sake of God as man’s final end.

Poetry thus becomes a kind of penance, a purification of the soul and preparation for death. Dante is challenging Christ to a singing contest, knowing that he will fall very short, and is prepared to lose his skin in exchange for a heavenly reward.

[The quotes are from Anthony Esolen’s recent translation published by The Modern Library.]

The Devil’s Truths

I should have destroyed them. Who needs them? What good are they going to do the world? I had painted them; wasn’t that enough? No, it wasn’t enough. They had to be moved into the public arena. You communicate in the public arena; everything else is puerile and cowardly.

-My Name is Asher Lev

Dante's Francesca and Paolo, falling for the same old story.

       Dante’s Francesca and Paolo, falling for the same old story, and ending just exactly where you imagine.

The devil’s best lies are almost entirely true.

God made sex, and it’s one of my favorite things. I was designed for it, among other things, and I’m good at it. At least, I’m pretty sure I will be. Because, I’ve gotten close to it, and I know how to move, and what sounds to make, and what to hold onto, and what to say to let him know he’s doing everything just how I want it. I know how to do all of that because God made me knowing it. No one had to tell me how; I knew it even when I didn’t know I knew it. I was built for it, built to give it all, to make it all, for the man I love, for the man who loves me, who, just by being what he is, opens up all the strange wildness I’ve kept tucked out of even my own sight. He has opened me to a part of me I didn’t know, helped me to be more who I am than I’ve ever been, and the most natural thing in the world is to give him my whole self—the core of myself— that I only know because of what he’s done for me, what he’s given to me.

God calls us to complete surrender, to a surrender of generous love, to a giving over of ourselves to something outside of ourselves. And in that surrender, that going out of ourselves, He tells us we’ll find more joy than we’ve known in anything in our whole lives. We’ll find ourselves—lose ourselves—in ecstasy. So now I’m going to go show this man, this man who is not my husband, how utterly I love him; I am going to surrender my innermost self to him and accept his outpouring of love for me. God designed us to give love, to make love, and now we will.

Right. Why wait, after all? We know we’re going to be married. It’s the one Sacrament that lovers give to one another, rather than receiving from God’s ordained. All of that grace is already here, surrounding us, flowing back and forth between us. This will make us whole, this will make us holy. So say the murmuring voices, and they’re absolutely right. It will make us truly ourselves. Ninety-nine percent exactly right. . . . And then, they add, there is no need to wait. Simeon didn’t wait—never put in decades of patience to earn the right to say, “Now lettest Thou Thy servant depart.” And even if he did, that waiting made sense; this doesn’t. Did Mary really keep her secret quiet, wait eighteen years to say, “Whatsoever He tells you, do.”? And Jesus didn’t wait, or work, or suffer, to smash the gates of Hell. It all came easily, void of sacrifice, just like sex.

The devil is intimately acquainted with the truth. And he is a liar.

Contributing author: J.B. Toner

April is Grilled Cheese Poetry Month

Grilled cheese is, of course, the perfect food with which to celebrate Poetry Month, combining as it does those two ingredients both universal in their appeal and infinite in their variety. As poetry transforms and elevates language, so the grilled cheese sandwich transmutes the humble elements of bread and cheese into a golden unity. Indeed, in the realm of edible alchemy it would not be unfair to draw a comparison with the mythical Philosopher’s Scone.

It’s no surprise, then, that many poets have turned their hands to the subject of grilled cheese. Most famous, perhaps, was Robert Frost, who saw so clearly the transience of earthly things in “Nothing Grilled Can Stay”:

So curds go down to whey.
Nothing grilled can stay.

W.B. Yeats saw all too well the limitations of earthly food, but he also saw a promise of transcendence. These lines recall another famous verse about a grain of wheat.

A grain of wheat is but a paltry thing,
A tattered groat upon a stalk, unless
Mill turn its wheel and sing, and louder sing
For every kernel in its stone compress.

“Grilling to Byzantium” gives eloquent voice to his desire for immortality, for “monuments of melted magnificence” that stand beyond the natural world and its ceaseless cycle of death and rebirth.

O bread-loaves standing by the flour mill
As in an old prosaic pastoral,
Come from the flour mill, burn on a grill,
And be the sandwich-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dieting animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artistry of the panini.

For Wallace Stevens, though, there is nothing beyond the circle of the dinner plate.

Let catsup be finale of squeeze.
The only emperor is the emperor of grilled-cheese.

These lines place the grilled cheese squarely within the philosophical traditions and concerns of the twentieth century. But the concept of heated sandwiches long predates these poets, and has hardly been limited to poems in the English language. Grilled cheese may be a quintessentially modern and Western food, but scholars have traced the genre back as far as Bashō.

ホット鉄板 や
ブレッド飛び込む
バターの音

The hot grill–
Sandwich jumps on,
Sound of butter.

This too has found its twentieth-century adherents. It was from the quasi-Imagist manner of this haiku that Ezra Pound derived “In a Station of the Food Court”, with its arresting vision of

Cheeses on a hot, black grill.

And no one who has heard these lines of Octavio Paz can ever forget his idea of a midnight snack:

Si abres los ojos,
se abre la noche de tostado de queso,
se abre el reino secreto del sopa
que mana del centro de la noche.

Y si los cierras,
una sopa, una corriente dulce y silenciosa,
te inunda por dentro, avanza, te hace hambre,
la noche calienta emparedados en tu alma.

In nineteenth-century France, Baudelaire himself was not immune to the seductive lure of the cheese sandwich, but in “Fromages du Mal” his imagination, unsurprisingly, takes a surreal turn.

On dirait ton sandwich d’un fromage couvert;
Fromage mystérieux (est-il bleu, jaune ou vert?)
Alternativement tendre, crémeux, cruel,
Réfléchit le splendeur et l’éclat du ciel.

In the midst of these competing visions and interpretations, Archibald MacLeish pleaded for simplicity and a return to basics in “Ars Sabulovica”.

A sandwich should not go to waste
But taste.

But the last word, of course, must belong to Elizabeth Bishop who alone had the courage to transform grilled cheese into an imperative and a formula for living.

The art of grilling isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be grilled that their loss is no disaster.

Grill something every day. Accept the fluster
of melted cheese, the sandwich badly burnt.
The art of grilling isn’t hard to master.

Then practice grilling farther, grilling faster:
flatbread, pizza, and what it was you meant
to stir-fry. None of these will bring disaster.

I grilled my tuna melt. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three grilled reubens went.
The art of grilling isn’t hard to master.

I grilled two burgers, lovely ones. And, after,
some cheddar cheese, two pickles, a condiment.
I grilled them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

Even grilling this, (the turkey club, a sandwich
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
The art of grilling’s not too hard to master
Though it may look like (Grill it!) like disaster.

Domine, non Sub Deaconus

Good Friday reflections on my not being a priest.

Imagine it’s the World Cup final and Messi pulls you from the stands, throws a jersey on your back, and subs you in as Argentine goalie, when all you’ve ever done is watch from the stands, armchair coach, and read about soccer strategy.

Imagine being sent into an operating room as a surgical nurse for a heart transplant, when all you’ve ever done is watch from the operating theatre while perusing Gray’s Anatomy.

Imagine Virgil grabs you (instead of Dante) for a stroll through a divine comedy. Here’s some Italian history…read up!

Excitement grips you. Exhilaration enlivens you. Awe fills you. Fear shakes you. At once you realize your dream has come true yet perhaps you’d rather it hadn’t. Like a man at a wedding without a wedding garment, you are out of place. You are, in a word, incompetent.

Such was my experience this Holy Week while serving as “straw” sub deacon for the Palm Sunday and Holy Thursday masses in the extraordinary form at my parish. As if by an infusion of spiritual caffeine, when the procession from the sacristy began I awoke to a heightened awareness of my own proper place in liturgy as a lay person. I thought I’d have it pat. I’m a theology professor, after all! I’ve read the rubrics. I’ve practiced my chant. We even did a run-through the day before. Plus, I’ve seen this a hundred times (at least). In fact, I did not have it pat. In fact, I didn’t even deserve a pat on the back. Having messed up the epistle chant, moved where I should have stood still, stood where I should have sat, and doffed where I should have donned, I understood for the first time the enormous distinction between my normal full, conscious, active participation in the pew, and the priest’s ministry at the altar of the most holy Trinity.

I am not a priest.

Yes, I am baptized priest, prophet and king in Christ (as are all the baptized), but I have not the vocation, office, or sacramental ordination to holy orders. I do not enjoy that sacred consecration and share in the ministry of the sacraments handed on to the Apostles. On any given Sunday (and weekdays for that matter) I may be assisting at the mass, praying the mass, but the priest, in persona Christi, makes present again the one sacrifice of Calvary. This is no dramatic re-enactment. This is a solemn participation in the one and perfect sacrifice of Christ, who is at once both high priest and sacrifice.

I never really understood the world that lay beyond the altar rail. I still don’t. But I now know that the sanctuary is the place where a person is at once closest to and farthest from home. It was a land at once alien and familiar. To see up close the mass, the source and summit of my life in Christ, was like staring a fire hose in the face. Who could dare to drink? It’d be like stealing a sip from Niagara Falls!

My failure as “straw” subdeacon was (after my matrimonial mass) among the most important liturgical moments of my life. A strange sense of joy overtook me in my incompetence. Praise be to God that he was able to play the symphony of that mass with broken instruments. Praise be to God for revealing to me how necessary is the grace of sacramental ordination for the priesthood, how uniquely consecrated priests are for the celebration of the holy sacrifice of the mass. The phrase “Domine, non sub dignus…” took on new meaning for me this week, as I discovered that whatever it is I do in the pews, it stands a far cry from the priest’s action at the altar. Standing behind the deacon, behind the priest, hearing the choir sing the credo just after the three of us spoke it, knowing that the laity sat praying the creed themselves, amidst squirming babies, aching knees, tittering toddlers, I saw and heard in my soul the polyphonic yet univocal prayer of the liturgy. The celebrant’s voice, the choir’s voice, the voice of the faithful always different yet the same. The incense, as our prayers arising to heaven, a sweet aroma before the Lord, finally made sense; for the first time I felt the swirling, rising presence of each of the many and varied participations in the miracle that was taking place before me without me. Amidst so many imperfect, broken efforts the perfect one deigned to make himself present to us.

Let me give you a brief tour of some of the subdeacon’s activity. Apart from the chanting of the Epistle, the subdeacon spends much of the mass as a living bookstand, and a blind man. For the Gospel, the subdeacon and deacon process to the nave, where the subdeacon stands between the acolytes (with candles), behind the MC and thurifer (incense on the rise), with the Evangelarium open and resting on his head at the service of the deacon. After the deacon sings the Gospel, the subdeacon immediately proceeds back to the altar where the celebrant reverences by kissing the divine name at the Gospel’s beginning. As for being a blind man: at the beginning of the liturgy of the Eucharist the subdeacon carries the chalice over to the high altar after donning the humeral veil. Having delivered the chalice, and participated in the offering of wine and water, the subdeacon awaits to receive the paten from the deacon. The subdeacon covers the paten in the humeral veil, returns to his place in line behind the deacon, and holds the paten up before his face for the majority of the liturgy of the Eucharist. So, here I am, standing behind the deacon, who’s behind the priest, able to see only the gold veil an inch in front of my face. Before I know it we’re kneeling. Before I know it, bells ring. Before I know it, the consecrated host rises above me, elevated to the heavens in the hands of the celebrant. Elevated above the paten that blocked my view, the host commands upward my eyes, lifts my heart, yet humbles my soul. My Lord and my God! My arm seemed a thousand pounds under the weight of the humeral veil and the paten (which should have been quite light). As I returned the paten to the deacon for use in the priest’s communion and the communion of the faithful, the weight of participation in a ministry alien to me was lifted.

Serving as servant to the deacon (who serves the celebrant) was, as I’ve said, both enobling and humbling. I would do it again any day. How about Easter Sunday? More than anything, though, the liturgical role revealed to me just how great a distinction exists between the laity’s and the celebrant’s role at the mass. Praise God for it. The peace, contemplation, and activity of the soul available to the laity during the mass are not the priesthood-lite; they are a gift and opportunity made available to us by the ministry of the ordained priesthood. Glory be to God for the gift of the priesthood.

I’ll end with this anecdote. Remember when you were a kid taking your first airplane ride? Remember when the pilot of the big airplane invited you to sit (for a moment) in the cockpit, then gave you the plastic wings to pin on your shirt? You were both frightened and exhilarated, and somewhat relieved when the cockpit tour had ended. Serving as subdeacon this week I’ve been that kid, and the sanctuary of my parish was that cockpit. As a child struck in awe at the hundreds of lighted buttons and dials, at the pilot’s mastery of the seeming mystery of flight, I stood in awe of the priest’s ministry before me–a ministry not only of a seeming mystery but the real, paschal mystery.

May God bless you on this Good Friday and bring you to the joy of Easter!

Come Rack! Come Rope!

[I promise, in spite of the, lets say, offbeat quality of my writing this essay is not an April Fool’s joke!]

Robert+Hugh+Benson

Robert Hugh Benson

All things being equal, would you prefer 1) to be set upon a torture rack until you lose all strength in your limbs and the pain radiates throughout your whole being, 2) immediately suffer death by hanging and subsequent disembowelment while thousands ogle, or 3) be sentenced to an indefinite prison sentence of solitary confinement in a dank, dark cell infested with rats and food of a quality such that your health slowly declines in a long, drawn out demise while your faith is snuffed out as a candle in the night? This is the question at hand for three priests in Robert Hugh Benson’s novel Come Rack! Come Rope! The men are resident in Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth’s kingdom and by virtue of the fact that they happen to also have souls permanently altered by the sacramental grace of Holy Orders, they are in her domains illegally. In Elizabethan England, a land of revolt by the Crown against the faith and of the pitiless social climbers who ascend by means of torturing the innocent, a priest is liable to a painful death simply by the fact of having been ordained a priest. Merry England has fallen under a shadow.

My own answer to the question, by the way? None of the above. I would swiftly collapse like the comfort-addicted aesthete that I am and make haste to the nearest Protestant prayer service to save my sorry neck. I would explain to myself that there is always confession and recusancy later when the stakes are not so high. A person’s entire body shivers at the situation in which these Catholic priests found themselves. I am in awe of the faith and strength of all of the martyrs and am being quite honest when I doubt that I would have similar courage. Soon after a torture session in the Tower of London, St. Edmund Campion assures his friends that he has not and will not reveal any secrets that would compromise the faith, “come rack, come rope.” His resolve is more powerful than a mighty monarch. God’s honest truth about the salvation of mankind will not be turned into a lie.

There is enduring power in the history of the saints. The martyrs linger under our altars yet and their prayers continue to mingle with our own. The Scriptures assure us that there is no death for those who are gathered into the unity of the Body of Christ, the setting of the story simply shifts heavenward. The story of Campion becomes the story of Christ and this one, limited man sees the expansion of his singular witness into the vastness of the eternal Word. Campion has forever altered the shape of history.

St. Edmund Campion

St. Edmund Campion

 

Earlier, as a young student, it was said to be a fine celebration and an honor when he was chosen to deliver a debate before Her Majesty at Oxford. Campion was a rising academic star and it is said that the keys to the kingdom were offered if he would only remain an Anglican cleric. His rhetoric rang off the stone of the colleges and all men stopped to soak in his eloquence. Oxford was at his feet.

 

It is not enough, and in this Campion judges rightly. Few of us today remember that he gave a lauded speech at Oxford as a young man, fewer of us are aware of the actual content of it, but his choice for faith continues to preach. For the sake of faith he leaves England to join the Society of Jesus. He is not content to remain abroad as an exile but returns home to the Catholic land of his birth where he will either convert the Queen to the Gospel or die trying. If his speech as a young student at Oxford brought the whole of the upper classes to admiration, his masterpiece is his death at Tyburn. As his half-dead body swings from a rope, Our Lord himself is on full display, lifted above the crowds by a slender thread,  and the sacrificial nature of God’s love is preached not only in word but with the whole of the man, body and soul. All that is in Campion proclaims a loving Father’s desire for his children, that God never gives up on a land or a people. Perhaps England was in the grip of madness; counterfeit religion was afield and seemingly victorious, but Campion’s triumph at Tyburn says otherwise. His death, along with those of so many other martyrs, is on their own terms and for their own purposes. No one is able to take that away from them.

Actor Brian Wilde portrays chief torturer Richard Topcliffe applying the rack

Actor Brian Wilde portrays Elizabeth’s chief torturer Richard Topcliffe applying the rack

In the weeks leading up to his hanging, Campion may, at any moment, consent to walk to the nearest Protestant Church and kneel down in submission. Doing so will spare him. His life, however, contains a meaning beyond the physical heart that keeps it tumbling along, or the creature comforts that many of us mistake for success.

Perhaps this is what frightens me so much about the fortitude of such men. It is not so much the courage they show as it is the content of their communication. Here is Gospel truth stripped down of all the niceties. The faith is about love and kindness and little lambs, yes, but it is at heart based upon blood, and sacrifice, and a headlong, maniacal taunt of death. Are we able to embrace the darkness of the faith? Welcome death itself into the soul so that Christ might enter in and completely overcome, not only death but also the soul itself? I quaver at the thought, and yet, I am assured that baptism has accomplished precisely this and that I carry about the sufferings of God himself within me. Further, I am assured that each day at Mass, I eat and drink Our Lord’s death and resurrection and am ever more conformed to his likeness. If this is the case, and I do believe it to be so, it sounds like Good News indeed but there is certainly no accompanying consolation.

Benson’s novel is historical fiction and Campion makes an appearance, but the protagonist, Robin Audrey, who is both priest and impending martyr, feels no consolation, either, at the approach of death. Earlier, it is said that a fellow priest, Mr. Ludlam, died differently. He,

 stood by smiling while all was done; and smiling still when his turn came. His last words were “Venite benedicti Dei”; and this he said, seeming to see a vision of angels come to tear his soul away.

But it is different for Robin. No choirs of saints beaming down from the clouds for him, no angels holding out their hands to grasp him, only gaping crowds and the silent pain of his Passion.

Really, all that any of us can do is struggle along and give our best. There is dignity in a slow, daily martyrdom in the little things. If I am not destined to be a great martyr like Campion, all the better, for Our Lord knows of what sort of stuff I am made. Thank God, though, that such men and women exist, whose word is an unanswerable argument that we can, indeed, become like Our Lord in every aspect. I suspect that they do not simply gather the strength to become martyrs out of nowhere, but that their steadfastness is on a continuous line with the way they lived their lives up to that point. They were already in training to become martyrs well before the fact.

Benson relates Robin’s reaction to the murder of three priests who were friends of his:

 …and there came on him in that hour one of those vast experiences that can never be told, when a flood rises in earth and air that turns them all to wine, that wells up through tired limbs, and puzzled brain and beating heart, and soothes and enkindles, all in one; when it is not a mere vision of peace that draws the eyes up in an ecstasy of sight, but a bathing in it, and an envelopment in it, of every fibre of life; when the lungs draw deep breaths of it; and the heart beats in it, and the eyes are enlightened by it; when the things of earth become at once eternal and fixed and of infinite value, and at the same instant of less value than the dust that floats in space; when there no longer appears any distinction between the finite and the eternal, between time and infinity; when the soul for that moment at least finds that rest that is the magnet and the end of all human striving; and that comfort which wipes away all tears.

Benson considers each of his fictional priests in turn, how these men have been utterly changed by the Mass, the one is all sporting gentleman outside the chapel but is tamed and humbled at the altar; the other a timid, sensitive soul who is as sharp as a knife in his sacrificial duties. In the Mass, we pull on Christ more closely than the clothes we wear; his identity overlays our own, not destroying it but refining it like a blazing fire reveals a precious metal. As we take Our Lord’s death into our very being, we are ennobled.

As Benson puts so eloquently, the virtue of peace goes well beyond a feeling of well-being, or a state in which conflict is absent. God desires to draw us out through a single moment wherein we experience peace and into the vast heavenly plains, to pour into us not external gifts but to become the very gift inside of us. Not a “mere vision of peace…but a bathing in it.” The gift, like the waters of baptism, overwhelms us. It destroys us. This is the truth for which the martyrs give their lives. In their opinion, they have become forfeit long before the rack and the rope finish the work.

 

Robert Hugh Benson’s classic novel Come Rack! Come Rope! is in the public domain and a quick internet search will find many copies online for free. I cannot recommend it enough, but prepare to shed a tear or two while reading.