Wednesday, 26 October 2016


Magdalena is a book about a woman; more particularly, the author’s mother. The author is Maarten ’t Hart, a famous Dutch author, born in Maassluis in 1944. He was raised in a strongly religious Reformed environment, but lost his faith early in life and became an atheist. He is also a biologist and a lover of classical music.

Unlike Richard Dawkins, Maarten ’t Hart is not given to writing polemical treatises. Many of his works are fragments of memory. Yet he rarely mentioned his mother in other books, because she had asked him not to write about her until her death, which eventually came to pass in 2012.

The author is a subtle painter of portraits. One cannot help feeling a mixture of affection and dismay at many people who feature in Magdalena; most strongly towards the mother herself. Concerned about the well-being of her children (especially the spiritual well-being), but with limited knowledge and interests, and plagued by the recurring delusion that her husband is seeing other women (which leads to frequent bitter tears and recriminations), she is a cathartic character, inspiring pity and fear in equal measure.

The reader is as surprised as the author to discover, after many pages or many years, that young Magdalena shared her bed with one of her father’s servants for multiple years, in utter secrecy but also in complete chastity. Somehow it fits and is quite credible, but not less surprising for that.

The book contains polemical passages against the strict Biblical faith of the author’s youth, sometimes interwoven with the memories. I found it particularly fascinating to read how fourteen-year-old Maarten goes to the harbour to find out how long it takes to get an animal aboard a ship, and then calculates how much time it would have taken to get all two million animal species aboard Noah’s ark – not in order to disprove anything, but out of genuine teenage curiosity. He finds out that the time required amounts to almost three years, which does not correspond to Genesis 7:10, ‘And after seven days the waters of the flood came upon the earth.

His mother (who seems to have had no sense of humour and even less of the absurd – a defect compensated by her son) used to tell him that he should not trouble his head about the Bible, but simply believe like a child. ‘I am a child,’ Maarten would tell her, ‘but I don’t believe like a child.’ And his mother would reply, ‘It’ll come to you when you’re older, then it will be easier for you to believe like a child.’

That it is possible to interpret the Bible differently is not an idea that occurs anywhere in Magdalena; the ‘take it or leave it’ mentality is too strong. [Edit: except perhaps for a passing encounter with a female Protestant preacher, who however offers little of substance.] Catholics are briefly mentioned twice and associated with child abuse both times – for instance in this passage (clunky translation mine):

There I stood, on that deathly silent square next to the train station. The bell of the Great Church was tolling, the clock of the Immanuel Church was tolling, the clock of the Christian Reformed Church was tolling, and I also heard many other ways of tolling. I even seemed to perceive shrill, pedophiliac Papist tolling.

One can hardly deny the pleasantness of the style. It is strange that someone with so many literary gifts should really consider the following argument compelling (although it is not quite clear whether the author still believes in its force, or whether this was a teenage meditation):

Strange, really, that Jesus says that, if you do not accept Him as your Redeemer, you should count on it that after your death you will wail in the outer darkness and gnash your teeth. When you die, and end up in the coffin, your teeth will be there as well. Often those are more or less the last bits of a human that they find after years, so in the outer darkness you will not have any teeth available to gnash with, nor a set of false teeth either.

The book is still quite worth reading, because of the strange real people in it, much stranger than superficial ‘weirdness’. The ending, however, is an anticlimax: it describes the mother’s funeral. The strange circumstances of her death are described with attention and dignity, but the funeral is hardly anything more than a highly negative commentary on the Apostles’ Creed and the Lord’s Prayer. The body may be interred, but it seems that the author is still trying to drown out the sound of his mother’s teeth gnashing over his unchildlike unbelief.

Some of Maarten’s questions, in a modified form, are mine as well. Today I start reading for my studies in fundamental theology, about the theme of divine revelation. Two books have been suggested to me: Models of Revelation, by Avery (Cardinal) Dulles, and Divine Discourse, by Nicholas Wolterstorff. So now I am going to start reading the former, against a musical background of Johannes Ockeghem – the Missa ‘De Plus en Plus’ and the Credo ‘De Village’.

Thursday, 22 September 2016

To Cuiviénen ...

Cuiviénen is (or was) a lake, a ‘starlit mere’, in a forgotten corner of Middle-earth – forgotten because none of the action of The Lord of the Rings takes place there. Its name is derived from cuivië (‘awakening’ or occasionally ‘life’) and nen (‘water’).

It is the place where the Elves wake up. Consciousness stirs in them; they open their eyes and see the stars, the only light present in Middle-earth at that moment. And while they look on those lights, they hear ‘the sound of water flowing, and the sound of water falling over stone’.

Ted Nasmith has made a lovely illustration of the scene.

In a casual aside in the middle of the description, there is this – to me one of the most heart-wrenching passages in the Quenta Silmarillion:

In the changes of the world the shapes of lands and of seas have been broken and remade; rivers have not kept their courses, neither have mountains remained steadfast; and to Cuiviénen there is no returning.

Some of the best stories involve a return; the return to one’s place of birth or old school, or a meeting with an old friend; the comfort of seeing that some things stay the same, the discovery of how you yourself have changed, but also the sweetness of the memory that only the place itself can recall. (For Dutch readers: someone had this experience recently while visiting our house.)

All this is denied to the Elves. To Cuiviénen there is no returning.

I was invited recently to come to an open evening of the Navigators Student Union, a Christian movement that aims to train Christians ‘to know Christ and to make Him known’. It started its ministry to university students at the University of Nebraska, and opened its first Dutch chapter in Delft.

The person who had invited me was temporarily absent, so I knew no one there, but I was cordially invited to come over with one subgroup to the Bible study. A kind student lent me his bike and I accompanied the others through the city to a private room.

During the informal chatting prior to the Bible study, the two other new people asked me what I studied.
‘I just finished my Theology studies,’ I said.
‘How old are you?’ one of them asked.
‘Twenty-six,’ I said.
‘You’re old,’ he deduced.
‘How old are you?’ I said.
He turned out to be seventeen – younger than my brother who is already 7 years younger than I am.

In the course of the conversation, I became uncomfortably aware that I was indeed old. There was a time when I could simply go to meetings like these and present myself as an interested student. But I am no longer a student.
I remember Bible studies from my student years, when I would wait for questions, think about them seriously, and give the best answer I could give (with a strong readiness to debate opponents). Now, I was constantly aware of group dynamics, thinking about the intention behind the questions that were asked, and biting my tongue to refrain from giving all-too-complete answers that would kill thought rather than stimulate it.
The 17-year-old had a vaguely Christian background; he was intelligent and curious, but he did not know what theology was or where the book of Genesis could be found in the Bible. So I did my very best to come across as just another guest (which I was), not as a teacher, even if I was a bit grey around the temples.

It was a good and open conversation, a bit awkward at times, but Bible studies tend to be that.

Still, it was unsettling to sit there, feeling all the time that I was too old for a student group. When did that happen? Was I not irresponsible and free enough to pass for a student? Not filled with grand impractical thoughts, overconfidently expressed theories, shadowy dreams about the future, the urge to know everything about things that were interesting, a serious pretense of seriousness, and a strange docility?

On Saturday, I will go on retreat. One week later, I will be ordained. From that day I will walk around in Delft as a minister (Latin for diakonos) of the Church. It still seems light years away. But when it happens, nine centuries from today, what other things will I be too old for?

To Cuiviénen there is no returning.

But from Cuiviénen there is a road to walk.

Though the beauty of the Quendi in the days of their youth was beyond all other beauty that Ilúvatar has caused to be, it has not perished, but lives in the West, and sorrow and wisdom have enriched it. And Oromë loved the Quendi, and named them in their own tongue Eldar, the people of the stars; but that name was after borne only by those who followed him upon the westward road.

Saturday, 6 August 2016


With the diaconate ordination approaching, I have taken time to look at the liturgy, including the questions to which the candidate is expected to answer ‘I am’. I had always understood that this was the moment at which the candidate took vows of celibacy and obedience. This is true, in a way. Yet the wording of the questions surprised me.

To me a vow is a solemn promise to do something or abstain from something. No doubt this is the intention behind the questions (an intention which I take seriously!). But what is literally asked is, ‘Are you willing?’

That is all – the will in the moment which is expected to endure, and which the candidate is expected to protect.

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus’ long journey towards Jerusalem begins with the sentence, autos to prosōpon estērisen tou poreuesthai eis Hierousalēm – ‘He fixed his face to go to Jerusalem’.

Incidentally, prosōpon means not only ‘face’ but also ‘person’.

Monday, 27 June 2016

In Parenthesis

There are pitfalls in doing what I do. One of them is the tendency to prose. The religious illiteracy and malpractice of our days has made of the collared caste patient explainers – ‘now we do this’, ‘this symbolizes that’. We are caught in a decaying ritual system which we are feebly trying to reanimate with more words and yet more words. We do not push down deep; we are afraid of breaking ribs.

And so I took time for poetry this morning: In Parenthesis, by David Jones. Years ago I read another work of his, which my father bought for me second-hand from an online antiquarian – The Anathémata. Fragments from that poem shot through my head when I attended my first Mass on the feast of Christ the King.

In Parenthesis conveys the experiences of being a young soldier in the First World War. Well, one set of experiences, selected and stylized, but not necessarily polished. It comes with a recommendation from T.S. Eliot, who tells us, ‘As for the writer himself, he is a Londoner of Welsh and English descent. He is decidedly a Briton. He is also a Roman Catholic, and he is a painter who has painted some beautiful pictures and designed some beautiful lettering. All these facts about him are important.’

One of the fascinating things about Jones is that he does not seek to make himself intelligible. He writes free verse, often in paragraphs rather than lines, in various carefully controlled registers of sophistication. His vocabulary is phenomenal, and once in a while he will throw in a Welsh name or term. (I have looked up a table of Welsh pronunciation once or twice, but I keep forgetting.) But legato and staccato, with short military barks and with unfolding sentences containing compound adjectives, he conveys an atmosphere even if the meaning of the words is not always clear. At times distant, at times uncomfortably close, but never chatty and trivializing.

The brotherhood and camaraderie of the young men, not thinking of death, is unspoken, pervasive, and recognizable.

It is a book to be read slowly and out loud, not grasped but savoured.

Four fragments. First, an example of echo and reflection:

When you’re ready No. 7—sling those rifles—move them on sergeant, remain two-deep on the road—we join 5, 6 and 8 at the corner—don’t close up—keep your distance from No. 6—be careful not to close up—take heed those leading files—not to close on No. 6—you’re quite ready? —very good.
Move on . . . move ’em on.
Get on . . . we’re not too early.
Informal directness buttressed the static forms—ritual words made newly real.
The immediate, the nowness, the pressure of sudden, modifying circumstance—and retribution following swift on disregard; some certain, malignant opposing, brought intelligibility and effectiveness to the used formulae of command; the liturgy of their going-up assumed a primitive creativeness, an apostolic actuality, a correspondence with the object, a flexibility.

The mechanics and reveries of marching, with hints of Anglo-Saxon poetic forms:

So they would go a long while in solid dark, nor moon, nor battery, dispelled.
Feet plodding in each other’s unseen tread. They said no word but to direct their immediate next coming, so close behind to blunder, toe by heel tripping, file-mates; blind on-following, moving with a singular identity.
Half-minds, far away, divergent, own-thought thinking, tucked away unknown thoughts; feet following file friends, each his own thought-maze alone treading; intricate, twist about, own thoughts, all unknown thoughts, to the next so close following on.

With practice comes theory:

They were given lectures on very wet days in the barn, with its great roof, sprung, upreaching, humane, and redolent of a vanished order. Lectures on military tactics that would be more or less commonly understood. Lectures on hygiene by the medical officer, who was popular, who glossed his technical discourses with every lewdness, whose heroism and humanity reached toward sanctity.

And lastly, my hands-down favourite description of waking up:

Reveille at 4.30 with its sleepy stretching and heavy irksome return of consciousness – the letting in of the beginnings of morning, an icy filtering through, with the drawing back of bolts; creeping into frowsy dank recesses, a gusty-cool, wisping the littered surface of body-steaming hay. The gulped-down tea, the distribution of eked-out bacon, the wiping dry of mess-tins with straw—they must carry this day’s bread. The score of last-minute scamperings and searchings for things mislaid and the sudden heart thump at small things of importance remembered too late—no use now—leave the bloody thing.

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Too Old For This ...

Last week, I found something light to read during mealtimes – The Gospel according to Tolkien by Ralph C. Wood, an attempt to shed light on (Catholic) Christian themes in Tolkien’s work. It contains many glimpses of insight and interesting facts. On occasion it irritates. It is meant to be ‘not a scholarly study so much as a theological meditation’, and few meditations (my own emphatically included) entirely escape the self-indulgence of the pulpit.

For instance, the overuse of adverbs to mask tautology:

Tolkien’s providentially ordered cosmos is immensely varied and complex. Its unity is not dully monolithic but interestingly differentiated.

Dramatic eulogies to placate Heideggerians:

By giving special qualities and powers to each of these beings, Tolkien reveals the wondrous particularity and divine givenness of many things that we take for granted.

Confident references to Scripture with dubious use of the superlative and comparative:

Yet it is the voices of Job and Isaiah whose cadences and sentiments resound most clearly in Tolkien’s tragic sense of our human mortality. [two quotes]
More pertinent still for understanding Tolkien’s sense of the world’s melancholy is the book of Ecclesiastes.

Equating ancient and modern worldviews under the heading of Latinate adjectives, possibly invented for the purpose:

Our Scandinavian and Teutonic forebears were thus mortalists: they believed that Ragnarok would mean the final destruction even of heaven and hell. So are most modern men and women mortalists also – except that the ancient Ragnarok has been replaced with the contemporary dread of terrorist attacks and nuclear strikes.

Conspiratorially restricting the intended audience:

Our Scandinavian and Teutonic forebears …

The strident denunciation, on one page, of two contemporary evils in apparent contradiction with each other:

The hobbits are unabashed lovers of food, enjoying six meals a day. Not for them our late-modern and quasi-gnostic obsession with slimness. …
The hobbits’ physique reveals this same paradox that greatness may be found in smallness. Tolkien makes them diminutive creatures in order to challenge our obsession with largeness.

Clumsy rationalizing explanations of characters’ natural actions:

Most often the hobbits sing for joy rather than consolation, for in their singing they break into a transcendent realm beyond their own small world.

Trying to clarify Tolkien’s views and making him sound like a nutcase in the process:

Tolkien believed that he had not devised his magnificent mythical world so much as he had found it – indeed, that it had been revealed to him by God.

You might think that this is a very negative review. So it is, but only because I have chosen to be mean and curmudgeonly. I could just as easily pick out a number of passages that taught me something new or helped me to make new connections. But I have had two thesis advisors (one agnostic, one Catholic) of a very analytical nature; they believed that if an argument was worth making, it was worth making soberly and with the caution that the subject required. Their love for literature did not suffer because of it; but their compassion was sharp as they bent over the enigma of the fever chart.

It was one particular passage in Wood’s work, at the very beginning, that got my particular attention. He tries to defend Tolkien against the charge of being a male chauvinist, on the grounds that there are hardly any women in his work and that these are depicted in an idealized way. Wood argues:

Tolkien’s women are not plaster figures. Galadriel the elven princess proves to be terrible in her beauty – not treacly sweet and falsely pure; in fact, she is an elf whose importance will diminish once the Ruling Ring is destroyed. So is Éowyn a woman of extraordinary courage and valor, a warrior who can hardly be called a shrinking violet or simpering coquette. Though we see but little of Arwen … there is nothing saccharine about her character.

This is a weak defence, because it assumes that there is only one way to idealize women, namely by making them weak-minded and naïve. But a woman ‘terrible in her beauty’ is just as much idealized. Have you ever met someone like that walking across the street or chatting with her friends? (Well, I have, but then again, I am an incorrigible idealist.)

Although Wood’s defence is unsatisfactory, I can let Tolkien get away with idealizing women because his men are also idealized. Middle-earth is an idyll, even if it is painted in chiaroscuro. It is a place where all vices are intellectual and spiritual; where great grief exists, but no awkwardness; where indignation is expressed without a stammer and desire without a hoarse voice. A woman in that rarefied atmosphere can be terrible in her beauty; in such a world it is possible that a man and a woman meet and find themselves unable to move a muscle for a long time, moved as they are by shared astonishment. And this clarifies something about our own world.

When idealization occurs in the real world, however, I find it rather chafes my patience. Another book I am reading is Reclaiming our Priestly Character by Fr. David Toups, who has merited the title of Doctor in Sacred Theology (S.T.D.). He argues that priests will lead more stable and happy lives if they are convinced that the priesthood, once received, can never be lost. So far, so good. But a passage like this, about the road leading there, makes me uneasy:

Through a searching discernment, the candidate has sifted out the misleading tugs of self-interest and the always corrosive distortions with which the spirit of evil infects the human heart. So purified, the seminarian places before the Trinity his heart’s desire clarified in the light of the Spirit, so that God may confirm the decision at hand.

This is a beautiful and highly stylized description of a decision-making process that tells me exactly nothing about what actually happens. At moments like these I think: I’m getting too old for this …

Saturday, 23 April 2016


Quite some time ago I happened to find a Conrad novel among the discarded books. It was a work I had never heard of, Nostromo, not nearly as famous as Heart of Darkness. An intriguing story, set in the fictional, dysfunctional South American republic of Costaguana.

One of the protagonists of the story, Charles Gould, comes from a British family which has been established in Costaguana for a while. Born in Costaguana, he has received his education and married in Britain, as is the custom in his family. During this period, he receives letters from his father, who is angry and desperate at having been granted ownership of an abandoned silver mine. The government expects revenues which Gould senior cannot deliver, so they demand the money from Gould himself, in the form of fines and other juridical measures. All he is capable of doing is writing frustrated epistles to his son Charles, exhorting him never to return.

Charles meets Emilia in Italy and the two become a couple. The narrator remarks:

Charles Gould did not open his heart to her in any set speeches. He simply went on acting and thinking in her sight. This is the true method of sincerity.

Then death intrudes. Charles receives the news that his father has died, and draws the conclusion that the anxiety over the silver mine has killed him. (I am summarizing; the scene in the book, told in a long flashback, is brooding, foreboding, all silences and eruptions.) At once he comes to the conviction that his vocation consists of turning the dead, lethal silver mine into a life-giving thing – an improvement on his father’s helpless attitude.

Action is consolatory. It is the enemy of thought and the friend of flattering illusions. Only in the conduct of our action can we find the sense of mastery over the Fates.

So Charles Gould returns to Costaguana with his wife Emilia. And they succeed: the San Tomé silver mine blooms beyond belief, with financial backing from the US and a British working ethos among the employees. Several times it is referred to as an imperium in imperio, a state within a state; its economic strength gives it a measure of independence from the government. The narrator remarks about the Goulds:

It was as if they had been morally bound to make good their vigorous view of life against the unnatural error of weariness and despair.

Charles Gould hopes that the mine will bring prosperity to Costaguana and thus establish the conditions necessary for law and order to arise. At one point he explains this to his wife, and ends with the remark:

‘What should be perfectly clear to us, is the fact that there is no going back. Where could we begin life afresh? We are in now for all that there is in us.’

However, because he is such a power in the land, he has to deal with all sorts of political figures. With corruption being prevalent everywhere, from the established government to the bandits roaming the wild, it is difficult to do this without being implicated in the messy affairs of Costaguana. Charles chooses to go his own way and observe a scornful silence as much as possible.

At the beginning of Chapter II.6 we see the couple again. Charles has just started voicing the threat of blowing up the entire mine, thus sending the country back into certain chaos. Doña Emilia complains that there is an sense of unreality about everything:

‘My dear Charley, it is impossible for me to close my eyes to our position, to this awful…’
She raised her eyes and looked at her husband’s face, from which all sign of sympathy or any other feeling had disappeared. ‘Why don’t you tell me something?’ she almost wailed.
‘I thought you had understood me perfectly from the first,’ Charles Gould said, slowly. ‘I thought we had said all there was to say a long time ago. There is nothing to say now. There were things to be done. We have done them, we have gone on doing them. There is no going back now. I don’t suppose that, even from the first, there was really any possible way back. And, what’s more, we can’t even afford to stand still.’

This is how corruption has done its work: eroding the passions, whittling away at the sincerity of the determination, leaving hollow the decision once taken. Charles has stopped thinking and acting in Emilia’s sight, which is the true method of sincerity. Thought is blinkered; it has become instrumental. Action has ceased to be spontaneous; it follows a predetermined pattern. The mine has succeeded – but has Charles?

Monday, 28 March 2016

Light in Darkness

For the past two-and-a-half years, I have been reading Light in Darkness by Alyssa Lyra Pitstick, intermittently, picking it up and putting it down, probably forgetting ninety percent of it in the meantime. Anyhow it’s a recommended read for anyone interested in the 20th-century theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar. I read his Verbum Caro and enjoyed it; he undoubtedly has many good insights and writes beautifully.

Pitstick, however, argues that Balthasar is inconsistent at certain points with himself and with the Catholic tradition. She does so very lucidly; few of her many words are superfluous. With analytical rigour, she indicates where she thinks Balthasar goes too far in his poetical theology. In particular, her critique concentrates itself on his theology of the Descent into Hell, and the implications it has for our understanding of God as Trinity.

Balthasar understands the Descent as the Son’s being forsaken by the Father and thus sharing the destiny of sinners, rather than the glorious proclamation of the Gospel and the liberation of the holy dead. This interpretation (which is at least questionable) seems to be rather central to his theology and introduces divergences everywhere. Pitstick is strict in her evaluation, but probably not unjust.

One of Balthasar’s contentions is that the Persons of the Trinity continue to surprise each other for eternity. Given that the divine life is active and desirable beyond all things, and that one of the most beautiful human experiences is the discovery of a new aspect in a friend’s character or history, this is prima facie plausible. Pitstick, however, offers this razor-sharp and somewhat sarcastic critique:

A real distinction between the divine Persons and the divine nature seems latent when he says they are “identical at every point ‘except where the distinct relationships [between the Persons] require otherwise.’” The distinction of Persons actually requires quite a large area in which they would not be identical, since “the divine hypostases know and interpenetrate each other to the very same degree that each of them opens up to the other in absolute freedom.” Given the unpredictability of what one will reveal to the other, and given that such surprise continues for all eternity, the realm in which the Persons do not “interpenetrate” each other must be quite large.

I look forward to reading the third and last part.

Blessed Easter!