Light from the East

Matthew Alderman

The claim that the altar of the early Church was always designed to celebrate facing the people, a claim made often and repeatedly, turns out to be nothing but a fairy tale.
—Josef Jungmann, S.J., a former advocate of Mass facing the congregation 1

When asked about the era before the liturgical changes of the mid-1960s, Catholics who lived through it often bring up exotic tales of Masses celebrated by a priest with “his back to the people,” sometimes wistfully, sometimes not. In these reveries, the Second Vatican Council inevitably becomes the event that turned the priest around and broke the altar away from the wall. Until then, the celebrant had typically faced the apse or rear wall of the church, ostensibly appearing to be “away from the people.” This practice was described for symbolic and historical reasons using the Latin phrase, ad orientem, “to the east,” sometimes also rendered in English as “the eastward position.” 2 Now he was turned to face the congregation, versus populum, an apparent fruit of post-Conciliar openness. However, a careful combing of the relevant Council document, Sacrosanctum Concilium, reveals that Vatican II did not mandate any such action. In light of the skepticism Pope Benedict has expressed throughout his career concerning the prudence of this change, it is imperative that the informed layman to be able to evaluate the true historical rationale behind this still-controversial decision. Any detailed examination of the matter will find the logic behind this shift deeply flawed. [Read more…]

The Road to Monserrat

Karl O’Hanlon

“Patience; listen to the world’s
Growth, resulting in fire and childlike water!”
– Denis Devlin, Encounter

Blood-orange haze; it flicked
the lazy tail.
Down the frantic Mistral,
down the flail
up of dust the Moor kicked

pert, dapper Man of Manresa
(Amadis the Gaul
comics under the donkey’s shawl)
could bloody maul
him for that slur on Santa María.

Holy pique, papelard strop. Flinch
of the ass’s left ear.
A moment snags an uncommon queer
thing (grace). Iggy’s steer
laxens, in love with mulish Providence.

Hyms to Our Lady of La Salette

Karl O’Hanlon


Yes, there is the harping Sidhe Queen
vested in green
spud-haulms, hailed by sham-rock bodhráns.
She puts the cream on our porter.
There is Arán
-zazu, too—sharp farouche of thorn,
Basque wolfling, gorsefire-eyed. Low-born,
Your souvenirs mantled the world, daughter
Of Israel, mother of France.

Mariolatry like lepidoptery:
symmetries key in its beauty.

O Dame of La Salette, hear us
as the protestant sussurus
of your fine wingbeats break
against the pressing tack.


High-boned hymns, whiff of Grünewald’s
piss-yellow. Scalds
tattooed on Christ by Roman flails
whipped up the businessman in Joe,
of Pleasant Dales,
Arimathaea (retired
Wiltshire), scanning the classified
ads for tombs. Mourning hammered you low,
Lady, as they wormed out the nails.

Tacks removed, the butterfly
deliquesces into powdered dye.

Wordless grief may yet find voice,
Ma’am, in Dixie funereal noise:
as Joe’s hired meat wagon groans
off, we bring out the tongs and bones.

Author’s note:

In 2013, Geoffrey Hill brought out Broken Hierarchies, effectively his collected poems over the last sixty years. Routinely described as the greatest living poet of the English language, Hill’s poetry is a challenging imbrication of theology and poetics, grammar and grace.

In the fashion of seventeenth-century treatise poems, Hill included as one aspect of ‘The Argument’ for his sequence ‘Hymns to our Lady of Chartres’ the following proposition: ‘That the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary is a late sentimental intrusion that infantilises faith.’

I had intended in any case to write to Hill to express something approaching an acolyte’s reverence for Broken Hierarchies, but the terse surety and (as I saw it) polemic of that ‘Argument’ stung me into writing my bewildered dissent regarding his theological position on the Immaculate Conception (with a young poet’s arrogance, I suggested he meant ‘dogma’ where he had written doctrine). As I drafted my letter to Hill, I also found I was writing a poem. The title, metre and stanzaic form were derived from an early baroque poem of Robert Lowell, ‘On the Eve of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception (1942)’. I sent the poem along with my letter, and Hill duly responded. I was giddy to find that he had singled out the phrase ‘eldritch stained glass’ for comment (‘it is the controlled release of a good deal of semantic energy’). His reply conceded the point of my correction, adding with shrewd fairness that it would have been doctrine around the time of Duns Scotus. He explained that he found something oddly Calvinist in the proclamation of the dogma: ‘her mind, flesh, and will already consecrated by pre-election to the purpose; reserved’ (his emphasis).

The card has become a talisman, and the poems began their slow painful proliferation as I attempted to work out my bafflement. Soon, a sequence was forming, which I titled ‘On the Eve of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception (2012)’—the date no more significant that it was roughly contemporary, and an anniversary of the date in the title of Lowell’s poem.

‘The Road to Montserrat’ is the poem in the sequence most mimetic of that initial shock on reading Hill’s ‘Argument’. Belonging to that unhappy tribe that Graham Greene dubbed agnostic Catholics, I was confronted with strange feelings, sculptural in their intensity, of the intuitive truth of the dogma, a truth equivalent to the eye’s register of the integrity of colour (she was the Immaculate as blue is blue). There was something like affront, too, and then also a sense of inadequacy as to how to ground the intuition given my desolation of learning.

These might well have been the emotions of St. Ignatius of Loyola as he made pilgrimage to Montserrat, confronted with a Moor who denied the virgin birth. Loyola had served as a soldier, and during convalescence had taken up the lives of the saints and laid down his romances of Amadis of Gaul (the poem puns on the similarity of the name to the popular Asterix comics I read as a child). The old martial instinct still there, Loyola was of a mind to kill the man, but instead dropped the reins of his mule: if it took the road the Moor was continuing on, he would kill him; if it took the high road, he wouldn’t. The mule proved more charitable than Ignatius’s impulse. The phrase ‘mulish providence’ is one I again purloin from Lowell, one of his “imitations” of Pasternak: ‘I love the mulishness of Providence’—how providential to find that phrase in drafting the Montserrat poem! The epigraph is from the Irish modernist poet Denis Devlin, in a poem about being condescended to by an Englishman for his Catholicism (Devlin is one of the major Marian poets of the twentieth century). I hasten to add that I felt in no-wise condescended to by Hill, whose theological scruples regarding the dogma are no less foreign to me than the same scruples of Aquinas or Bonaventure.

The ‘Hymns to our Lady of La Salette’, as I understand them, are freakish and humane burlesques of Mariology. As a direct response to Hill’s ‘Hymns to our Lady of Chartres’, I take up that more formidable Marian apparition in nineteenth century France, of whom the writer Léon Bloy wrote approvingly, ‘I do not sense any attraction to an Immaculate Conception crowned with roses, white and blue, in sweet-smelling music and perfume… [I am] too soiled, too far from innocence, too much the neighbour of stinking goats, too needy of pardon…’ (Léon Bloy, ‘She Who Weeps’, 1908). I imagine that part of Hill’s distress at the dogma is that he has unwittingly linked it to ‘sweet-smelling music’ and this is just not so… La Salette shows us something at once more human yet unsentimental, and simultaneously unfathomable, I daresay terrifying.

The sections are named ‘Hammer’ and ‘Tongs’ after the implements of the Passion and of the Deposition from the Cross respectively, which have become the symbols of the Missionaries of Our Lady of La Salette. Imagine the Immaculate Conception as a butterfly – something beautiful whose inner nature is shaped in secret. The structure of my poem attempts something like the symmetry of the butterfly’s wings, each line of each section corresponding in syllabic length to its opposite number. The ‘Hammer’ section concerns itself with how various Marian apparitions are humanly comprehended and co-opted—in terms of scholastic dry-as-dust Mariology, nationalism, profit, and so on. We hammer the mystery of the dogma into human terms. This is necessary but also violent—is the butterfly’s beauty best apprehended by the lepidopterist, pinning it to his mount? The ‘Tongs’ sections are about human grief, the pietas of Mary as the Passion becomes ever more real as the wounding nails are removed from her child’s hands and feet. There is violence, here, too, in formless emotion: nothing can be apprehended for too long by the intelligence (‘blood, imagination, intellect running together’—W.B. Yeats) without a formal principle. The butterfly deliquesces into dye. Proclaimed dogma is an utterance giving symbolic form to the raging colourful depth of the mystery. The grief remains nevertheless unstinting.

In the final section, ‘the tongs and bones’ are an allusion to Bottom’s saturnalia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, concluding that the crude music of poetry, especially “religious burlesque” (to coin a term), is one way of coming to terms with this unstinting grief.

Other sections of this sequence published or forthcoming include: ‘Ultra Montane’ (Blackbox Manifold), ‘The Statues’ (Agenda), ‘IIIa. Q.27’ (the Junket).

On the Necessity of Hussar Armor

Gabriel Olearnik


Duelist, Andrzej Wiktor Gabriel Olearnik is depicted wearing his hussar armour whilst drawing the sabre or szabla, the traditional side arm of Polish nobility.

“A chicken in every pot, and a battle-harness in every home.” Words to ponder, words to live by. So what do I mean? Well, no half measures, dilution or counterfeits. An articulated set of gleaming steel, with a breastplate, backplate, oriental style bracers, a lobster-tail helmet and a gorget to protect the neck. (The neck always needs protection, it’s one of those things you learn quickly when people are trying to kill you). You need one, I need one, we all need one and, should it assist, I can point you in the direction of some armourers who will furnish you with appropriate wares. You should anticipate a wait of about a year as the parts emerge rough from the forge and slowly take on a complete shape. And yes, it is advisable to have a spare set, to deal with those occasions when your best suit is out being polished and you have some guests to entertain or perhaps a would-be-burglar to terrify. I suspect that when someone goes out to burgle a house, they are really looking for light and marketable luxury goods to sell on or fence. They were probably not expecting you in six feet of burnished steel as part of the bargain. Well, surprise!

Hussar, Andrzej Wiktor

Hussar, Andrzej Wiktor

Of course, in this world of frenetic intemperance, we will have the scoffers. This does not apply to you, of course, reader. I could detect your impeccable culture immediately. But they will say—pointless! Exorbitant! Childish! A fantasy! And—pointless! (This will not prevent them from asking for pictures, however, so that they can display them in whichever medium garners the most attention). Nevertheless, a decent respect for the opinions of mankind requires a justification for certain actions, and I can defend this one on the grounds of the beautiful, the good, and the true. Those are indeed worthy defences, which I intend to rely on, the basis of art and surest ground of an artist. But you want more, don’t you? So you’ll get more. The very nature of the thing, those three fundamentals working their way out in particular cuts and edges. So, in three words: arrest, invincibility, and hiddenness.

Beauty, especially extreme beauty, has on occasion elements of violence and paralysis. It strikes you as a blow, the shudder you have in a car as it stops suddenly, throwing you against the safety belt. And yes, the word stunning has been overused and it now appears as a description of everything from apartments to Tinder profiles. But this armour is stunning, is arresting, drawing in the light and your attention, demanding both. Which is what you would expect. When hussar knights appeared on the battlefield, this quality was supposed to intimidate—the usual stuff—riders, pale horses, and all Hell breaking loose.

Lancer - The success of a hussar charge was based on their hollow lance, the kopia. Up to 20 feet long, it proved its worth in countless engagements.

Lancer – The success of a hussar charge was based on their hollow lance, the kopia. Up to 20 feet long, it proved its worth in countless engagements.

There is also the distinct experience of wearing the armour. Normally, a strike to your chest would hurt. With a stick, you might take some bruises, perhaps crack a rib. With a sword or a hammer, it’s game over. In armour, though, you feel the impact but are utterly unharmed. The shape of the breastplate encourages blows to skitter off to the left or right. Perhaps you recall the old Norse myths about the god Balder, where everything in the universe apart from mistletoe swore not to harm him? Then the other gods played a game where they threw weapons and rocks and him—and found him invulnerable. This made them happy. It is one thing to read about it, another to feel confidence and euphoria, adult and child within you gloriously radiant. You are not just impassable. You have become impassibility, and nothing can hurt you.

And finally, hiddenness. In Terry Pratchett’s Hogfather, the character of Death has a conversation with his granddaughter. (Don’t ask.) Here’s how it goes, with Death speaking first:

“Yes. Justice. Mercy. Duty. That sort of thing.”

“They’re not the same at all!”

Captain, Andrzej Wiktor - The characteristic half plate armour of the hussars is shown on a regimental officer here. He wears a delia coat and carries a horsemen’s hammer as a mark of office.

Captain, Andrzej Wiktor – The characteristic half plate armour of the hussars is shown on a regimental officer here. He wears a delia coat and carries a horsemen’s hammer as a mark of office.

“You think so? Then take the universe and grind it down to the finest powder and sieve it through the finest sieve and then show me one atom of justice, one molecule of mercy.”

“And yet”—Death waved a hand.

“And yet you act as if there is some ideal order in the world, as if there is some . . . some rightness in the universe by which it may be judged.”


Death always gets the last word, and here he’s right again. There isn’t a single atom of courage in the universe, not an ounce of nobility. There isn’t any measure of bravery, and as for identity, you can’t, for instance, show yourself being Polish or American or French in any other way than making it physically manifest. Art is a type of sacramental. It is the means by which the conversation of the living and the dead is prolonged. It is a proof for who we are and what we value. We have to become the winged horsemen, the angel knights, to show the angels inside us.

And here, dearest reader, you should imagine me smiling, and it is a real smile, with humour, but also hard, a grin which shows the edge of teeth, and because certain things are both funny and true—there is something wild in my eyes, something untameable, which speaks of the pride of a tribe that was long ago and far away, of the very deepest woods and campfires in the Old Country, of dark forests and tangled, where, if you pause and listen, you can still hear the griffins calling to each other and, ever so faintly, the wings of eagles.

The Winged Horsemen

Andrzej Wiktor


This series depicts a particular type of cavalry unit unique to Poland: the hussars. The hussars were active in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and were characterized by their singular appearance and fortitude. They were largely undefeated during their period of operation, often taking on opponents when outnumbered three to one or more. Their most famous engagement was the relief of the siege of Vienna in 1683.

The photographs depict contemporary Poles dressed in historical reproductions of hussar armor. The participants are associated with an re-enactment society based in the castle of Gniew (g-nyeah-fff) in North Poland.

Andrzej Wiktor and Gabriel Olearnik are personal friends. When Gabriel saw Andrzej’s series of “Knighthood” pictures a few years ago, he suggested that they work on something in the future. A few months ago, they met and agreed to produce a revised series of photographs to accompany Gabriel’s new essay.

“Coming Awake in Love”: A Discussion on the Struggle for Holiness and the Writing of Shirt of Flame: My Year with St. Therese of Lisieux

Heather King

How did the book come about? Why St. Thérèse?

A few years ago, I was approached by an editor at Paraclete Press—an editor with whom I had a long-standing relationship—with the idea of writing a book about “walking” with a saint for a year. Not a biography, or a hagiography, but a sort of lived reflection on the saint’s work, thought, prayer, path. So I thought for a bit and chose Thérèse of Lisieux because there is something kind of irresistible about a beautiful young French girl who wanted to be the Bride of Christ so badly that at the age of fourteen she traveled to Rome, knelt at the feet of Pope Leo XIII, and begged for permission to enter the freezing cold, crawlingwith-neurotic-nuns, cloistered convent at Carmel. Who spent the rest of her short life in obscurity but on spiritual fire, going so far at one point as to offer herself as a “Holocaust Victim” to love. [Read more…]

Nearer My Dogs to Thee

John Zmirak

“Don’t like the weather?” they say here in New Hampshire. “Wait five minutes.” As summer comes, our polar clime becomes instead bi-polar. Four times this week, the day has turned almost instantly from brightness and balm to lightning and sheets of rain–then back again–several times. The sky is alternately black and blue, as if the weather had been punching it in the face. The lightning knocked out my circuits today, while the crackling of the thunderclouds sent the wimpier of my two beagles into a full-bore panic attack. Little Franzi cowered against my leg, buzzing like those massagers they use at old-fashioned barber shops, until I scooped up all 40 lbs. of quivering hound and laid him next to me in the bed. I actually had to cradle him like a child–albeit a bow-legged, pigeon-toed, stinky, fur-covered child with an IQ of under 25 whom you have trained to defecate outdoors. (It’s best not to admit this when Social Services comes knocking, FYI.) [Read more…]

The Light of Christ’s Face: Redemption in Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians

Br. Joseph Van House, O. Cist.

“It was not our strength that saved us, but your hand, and the light of your face” (Ps. 44:3).

In the Biblical imagination, light is a privileged representation of God’s grace. Of all the earthly realities the inspired authors use to represent divine blessing (bread from heaven, life-giving water, consuming fire, etc.), perhaps only “life” and “word” are more significant than “light.” Stretching from the prophetic anticipation “Come, house of Jacob, let us walk in the light of the Lord!” (cf. Is 2:2-5), to Christ’s revelation, “I am the light of the world” (Jn 8:12, cf. Lk 2:32 & OT precedents), to his commission to his disciples, “You are the light of the world” (Mt 5:14-16), the Bible’s references to “light from God” are numerous and richly variegated. [Read more…]

Out, Out, Brief Candle

Lauren Brannon

But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed,
Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in upon a platter,
I am no prophet – and here’s no great matter;
I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,
And in short, I was afraid.
—T.S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”

I worshipped a teacher, and I almost failed his class.

For straight-A Lauren in junior high, this was the most utterly unthinkable thing in the world. Now, for jaded, trying-to-keep-her-grades-decent college Lauren, it’s one of those “it figures” ironies of life. [Read more…]

What Is Art?

Eileen Cunis


In his 1999 Letter to Artists, Pope John Paul II recognized and honored the unique place the artist holds in the Church and in the human community. The artist, writes the Pope, is given by God “a spark of his own surpassing wisdom, calling him to share in his creative power.” Despite the insurmountable difference between the infinite and eternal God and finite man, “the human craftsman mirrors the image of God as Creator.” It is through his contemplation of the wonder of his gift that the artist apprehends its meaning: [Read more…]

The Letters of Magdalen Montague: Prologue

Eleanor Bourg Donlon

Prologue *

On 4 April 1947, a house on the Rue des Trois Frères, raided by the Nazis and left untenanted since the liberation of Paris, was sold. Records of past ownership had been destroyed during the occupation, and since memory is short in that district, little was known of the man who had most recently lived there. No stories were known to explain his departure. How could there be at a time when so many were dead or disappeared without a trace? He might have evacuated the city with so many others; he might have been imprisoned; he might have been dead.

In the far corner of a dark and cluttered attic, a large, flat-topped trunk of soiled gray Trianon canvas was found. A label inside the lid boldly proclaimed the craftsmanship of Louis Vuitton—Malletier à Paris. Collaborator. [Read more…]

Inthe Darkest Hours, Joy

Tonita M. Helton

Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church.

Colossians 1:24

During a Mass I recently attended, Archbishop Chaput preached in his Homily of those stricken by painful disease and illness and said of them, that those who suffer so, and suffer well, “do more good for the kingdom than any words a Bishop like myself could ever offer.” [Read more…]