Monday, 31 December 2012

Reflection in Ongoing Time

I wish you all a happy end of 2012 and a blessed 2013!

Ten days ago the world was supposed to have ended. On the assumption that today is not the end of the world, either (though the Jews tell us that we get a ten days’ reprieve to mend our ways before the ultimate Day of the Lord), here is a reflection on how to evaluate the past…while time goes on.

On reading Church history


This ragtag band of men, this feuding breed
that claims to be united by a name
but differs on its sound; that boasts a creed
but tones it down for wealth, or peace, or fame,
survived its persecutors’ deadly purge
one moment, then sought shelter in their power;
what blind and desperate survival urge
has brought them to, will bring them past this hour?
Lax discipline, grand dreams, unbending laws,
critics that judge and copycats that rob;
God! cannot history set wide its jaws
and swallow this exasperating mob?
Who can explain – for I am at a loss –
how these adore one Man upon one Cross?


This remnant people that has crossed the firth
beyond our nature’s furthest borderland,
linked by the secret bond of second birth
to God’s paternal and creative hand,
yet moves to all delights of eyes and touch
and blinks in mortal weariness of soul.
All christenable oddities and much
absurd attachment go to shape the whole;
to God’s last sentence history’s deferred,
rejoiced in, judged, confessed, reweighed for glory
under the mercy of the final word
who will discern the plots of every story.
One God inspires our way in desert’s dust,
us, pastored, pastured in one common trust.

Friday, 21 December 2012

Ecce Virgo Concipiet

Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Emmanuel.

Twice this Advent, this well-known text from the prophet Isaiah has been the Scripture reading during Lauds. Together with the immediately following verse which no one has ever heard: He shall eat curds and honey when he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. But that is only a triviality, to be casually dropped during a Christmas dinner or something of that sort; in any case, beside the point.

I am enamoured of Isaiah 7:14 because it challenges our insidious evolutionism, the reigning assumption (whose tyranny even rebels feel) that everything in this world is a product of natural forces, and every positive development a slow-paced unfolding of what one possesses within, flourishing under prosperous natural conditions. The way pregnancies usually develop. And there is nothing wrong with that.

But Mary shows us a higher alternative, the alternative of the People of God. For as Kierkegaard said, God is that all things are possible. A woman who becomes a mother without a man (proximate or remote – the latter possibility technology allows) is a miracle indeed. But if the natural conditions do not obtain, will the fruit survive? Will it be healthy? It stands in need of careful scrutiny, this Child; it might be born half-human, half-void (for God is nothing to nature): stunted, crippled. But no! Not only is the Child as healthy as any other, but He is already the Health-bringer of the world.

Similarly, God gives the Church a hundredfold of what She gives to Him in prayer, sacrifice and love. It sometimes seems that all these things are vain. But at other times it does not seem so, as at Christmas. We are Christ-bearers; that is enough. We are really and truly filled because – I speak as a fool – because the void overshadows us.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Division and All Saints

            …division stretched between
the queen’s identity and the queen.

So writes Charles Williams in his Arthurian poem The Coming of Palomides. Palomides, mathematician and minstrel, at court as a foreigner (in all possible ways) – this Palomides sings before the Queen Iseult, ‘defining’ the beauty of her body. As Iseult’s beauty shows something more than physical, so Palomides’ song is something more than words. It is called forth by his pierced heart, his exultant reason, and the reality of the Queen for which his heart and reason were made –

blessed the unity of all
authorities of blood and brain,
triply obedient, each to twain,
obedience in the mind, subdued
to fire of fact and fire of blood;
obedience in the blood, exact
to fire of mind and fire of fact;
to mind and blood the fact’s intense
incredible obedience,
in the true equilateral ease.

But alas, the vision does not last; while the Queen’s body remains as beautiful as ever, something disappears. Palomides’ eyes lose sight of the Queen’s true glory. He falls, because he keeps gazing nonetheless. That is the division, the dis-visio, seeing things apart from each other. How well we understand this division: it is not easy to see, in a single perception, both what the Queen is and what the Queen is. Especially when the Queen is adulterous Iseult. And who of us isn’t?

Those who remember the old interior of this blog-spot might recall my reaction at finding out some biographical details about the actress who gave flesh and face to the young heroine of Inception, Ariadne. Suffice it to say, I preferred Ariadne.

So when I recently saw the beautiful movie Joan of Arc, starring Leelee Sobieski, I knew better than to look up the actress. Through unfortunate circumstances, however, I caught glimpses of her on Google, from which it was immediately clear that she was not the devout, charismatic, young, feminine peasant general whose demeanour she had borrowed for a spell, and whose life in the movie began and ended with a great Eucharistic ‘Thank You’. Too bad; Leelee would have been truer to her name and herself if she had been consistently truer to Joan. (Sobieski, after all, was the ‘Lion of Lehistan’ who beat the Turks away from Vienna.)

That is why I cannot agree with the Reformed fringe that opposes acting because it is allegedly a lie. Acting is not a lie. Man is an actor, an imitator, and he finds his highest identity in imitation (just ask Thomas a Kempis). Acting shows that humans are not fixed in their habits, but that they have a potential to become better or worse than they are. It invites us to say ‘There but for the grace of God go I’ or ‘There for the grace of God could I go’. When division stretches between our visible lives and the true Image in the sepulchre of our soul, the parts we act can show more of the truth to others than the part we play through habit. (No doubt the Reformed fringe thinks that comparing life to a ‘play’ betrays an irreligious lack of gravity. Or calling mature piety a ‘habit’: such an external view of things belongs to the Romish monk and his shameful garments of false humility! I exaggerate.)

Incidentally, when I watched Joan of Arc, it struck me that St Joan’s ‘voices’ identified themselves as St Catherine (of Alexandria) and St Margaret. These virgin-martyrs from the late dawn of Christianity belonged to the Fourteen Holy Helpers popular in the Middle Ages. There is a certain fittingness to these two: St Margaret was put on trial and was miraculously saved from death by fire, whereas St Catherine was called to dispute with fifty learned pagans, who could not outwit her. Or so the legends go. For the lives and indeed the very existence of these saints is obstinately doubted in these soul-corroding times.

It is likely that the hagiographers have sought to illumine the true identity of these virgins by painting a halo of miracles around them. Sorting out truth from, let us say, embellishment is a hopeless task. Can one say, then, that St Catherine or St Margaret (or St Christopher, for that matter) existed, if their entire ‘lives’ (in the biographical sense) are doubtful? What do we remember, then – a lifeless name? But she whom the West calls Margaret is known in the East as Marina.

I expect a report from the CDF (any day now, surely!) on whether the infallibility of the ordinary Magisterium extends to unofficial canonisations. For now, I remain sturdily convinced that all the dubious saints existed and had a true identity, known to God alone (and who of us hasn’t?). Certainly St Catherine and St Margaret; the argumentum ad Ioannam proves that beyond a reasonable doubt.

Happy All Saints’ Day!

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

The Father's Rod

Written on reading The Beginning and the End by G.M. Hopkins, particularly the last lines:

Of a bygone age

Ah! well more than a hundred years past might
that poet Gerard Manley Hopkins write
about a boy who, poring over verse,
finds his enjoyment soured, his pleasure worse;
his was an age in which good discipline
showed children’s minds a world to wonder in:
the gentle drawing of the shepherd’s crook
led hungry souls to pasture in the book.
Now in this age of trickery of lights,
endless pursuits, deaths, loves, powers, turns, and flights,
the Father’s rod unblossoming lies between
the dead twigs of our youth before the screen.
The words that stood as beacons, stirred our blood,
drift now like useless flotsam in a flood;
writs of the passions of an ordered age
have come untexted. Even on this page
I made my own irrelevance still worse
using an eighteenth-century mode of verse.
Where is the able poet who will write
in present words a hundred years’ past might?

Saturday, 13 October 2012


By the time I turned 16, I was suffering from a perplexed conscience in regard to Harry Potter. My literary palate was quite accommodated to this phantastic brew, and my heart was mixed in it, but the arguments of certain cautious Christians strongly urged discarding the potion and sifting my soul out of it.

They made some plausible arguments and appealed to some credible authorities. They also wrenched biblical prooftexts from their chapters to support their ascetic version of Christian aesthetic education, such as ‘The LORD saw … that every imagination of the thoughts of man’s heart was only evil continually’. This was my first practical lesson in Hermeneutics 101 (the theological equivalent of Defence Against the Dark Arts).

The years accomplished what my youthful self shuddered to consider. My taste has been modified, my passions less ready to drown themselves in fictional cauldrons. The question whether Harry corrupts the youth has therefore lost much of its urgency, yet it retains a passing interest.

Recently I came across a Dutch blogger, Anton de Wit, who argued that Rowling should be classed with Tolkien and Lewis, in a different category from the boring Gnostic fantasies that more frequently inundate our television screens. By contrast, the accomplished novelist Michael O’Brien sees Harry Potter as Gnostic, an agent in the ongoing paganisation of culture. Since they are both Catholic, adduce reasonable arguments, and have a healthy appreciation for the potential of imaginative literature, it may be worthwhile to summarize their arguments. Weigh, and weigh in if you please, carissime lector.

Anton de Wit offers three criteria for distinguishing between good and ‘Gnostic’ fantasy – Gnosticism being ‘something that looks like a healthy spiritual attitude but isn’t’.

Firstly, Gnostic fantasy is characterized by a strict separation of good and evil; good is the intrinsic and exclusive property of the ‘good guys’, while evil is what the ‘bad guys’ do. Good and evil are thus determined more by the group to which one belongs than by the choices one makes. In good fantasy, evil does not simply exist as an opposing force; it has a history, and its root is in the good which it rejected.

Secondly, Gnostic fantasy is characterized by a spiritual elite of the initiate, those ‘in the know’. The doctrines of the Christian faith, though not accepted by all, are still publicly preached and universally accessible. Gnosticism, on the other hand, works with conspiracies, ‘closed meetings and secret codes’, and believes that higher knowledge is reserved for those few who have been favoured by fate.

Thirdly, Gnostic fantasy is characterized by strict individualism: all knowledge and power is already present within the chosen one, and his friends can only lead him to a place where he can realise and actualise it; they constantly emphasise how helpless they are to contribute anything.

According to De Wit, Harry Potter is different from Gnostic fantasy on all three counts. Firstly, Harry and his friends sometimes make bad choices, but remain good by choosing virtue in decisive and difficult moments; evil characters can repent (Malfoy and perhaps Wormtail spring to mind) and even the greatest villain was once a gifted and agreeable student. (I would like to add that Voldemort ends up murdering the only part of him that still adheres to goodness: the part that inheres in Harry.)

Secondly, while Harry is indeed a member of a select group favoured by fate, wizards are ultimately not significantly different from Muggles; they have few spectacular powers. In many modern fantasy tales, ordinary people are entirely impotent, ‘passive observers of a cosmic game they can neither grasp nor control’. Muggles, on the other hand, have a role to play and are feared.

(While I agree that the power of magic mostly seems to be equivalent to human technology, I think the role of Muggles is overestimated here. Though Sirius Black is apprehended by Muggle police, no Death Eater is harmed by Muggles and they play no important part in the story, unless you count Harry’s bullying family. Guns do not seem to be a match for spells, and the Muggle Prime Minister is even more clueless than the Minister for Magic.)

Thirdly, Harry does not run the race on his own; Ron and Hermione ‘complement him in essential points’, and Dumbledore is an important counsellor to him. Their role is certainly not limited to telling Harry that he needs to find all the answers himself.

Thus far Anton de Wit. Michael O’Brien, as I said, is much more critical of the Harry Potter series (of which Part Four was the latest when the article was written). His article is not only a discussion of the ‘Potter phenomenon’, but also a more general reflection on the loss of discernment in our culture due to the constant stimuli with which we are bombarded. He points out (rightly, I think) the passive state in which television has left both our rational and our imaginative faculties: we find it increasingly difficult to attend to anything, whether it be an argument or an artwork. This makes us vulnerable to manipulation.

He then discusses the argument that Harry Potter promotes reading. He concedes the fact, but finds it inadequate, because a book is not always better than a movie. Much fantasy, he says, reads like a movie: overwhelming (‘fast-paced’ is an oft-used term of praise in reviews) and shallow. ‘In a word, thrills have swept aside wonder.’

Is this the case in Harry Potter? O’Brien does not say so explicitly. In fact he almost defends the opposite, by detailing the truly imaginative charms of the wizarding world. What he does find objectionable is the mixture of these delights with repulsive things: vomiting slugs, ghosts in toilets, habitual rudeness between students, and so on. These are arguably more prevalent in Rowling’s work than in Lewis’s or Tolkien’s. But let us stick to the points we’ve used so far and try to reconstruct O’Brien’s answers to De Wit.

Firstly, good is indeed presented as stronger than evil, and repentance is possible; nonetheless, there is no clear standard of good and evil. The Harry Potter series is marked by the philosophy that the end justifies the means. Harry blackmails his uncle, lies, takes revenge on enemies, and is disobedient, for which disobedience he is rewarded by the authorities. (I could add Dumbledore’s willing Snape to murder him: an intrinsically evil act, even in his illness.) Moreover, Rowling herself sneers at the physical ugliness of the ‘bad guys’ who torment Harry.

We might argue that these things happen in real life, after all. But the point is precisely that they shouldn’t happen in real life, and that literature should make this clear. A book in which injustice is rewarded with the sympathy of the author – in other words: a book in which some of Harry’s bad choices are presented as good – does not teach the difference between good and evil. It seems, after all, that the ‘good guys’ are ‘those who agree with what Harry does’, which would invalidate De Wit’s first point.

Secondly, Harry is indeed part of a ‘gnostic cabal’, which may not be as extreme in its powers as some groups portrayed in other fantasy works, but nevertheless separates itself from society in the pursuit of power and esoteric knowledge. (They erase the memories of ordinary people who happen to stumble upon the magical world – hardly respectful of their integrity! I would say that one of the most terrible scenes in the seventh movie shows Hermione taking the decision to erase herself entirely from her parents’ lives.)

Yes, it is power, not wisdom, that is sought for in Rowling’s magic: power over oneself, over the environment, sometimes even over other people. It is upsetting that ‘supernatural powers are redefined as human faculties’; magic, which in the real world always involves contact with unclean spirits, is portrayed as a harmless gift which it is good to train. The Catechism says that magic or sorcery, the attempt ‘to tame occult powers, so as to place them at one’s service and have a supernatural power over others’, is diametrically opposed to the virtue of religion.

Of course, as mentioned, magic has been redefined as ‘natural power’, like electricity or other forces we use without full understanding. The question remains whether the books are not likely to excite a desire for esoteric power in children. Magic is portrayed otherwise in Tolkien’s and Lewis’s works, where it is either sparingly wielded by divine or angelic beings (Aslan, Gandalf) to protect others’ freedom, or it is manipulative and destructive. (Lucy’s magic on the Dufflepuds is not mentioned; still that chapter also chastens our desire for magical power and knowledge.)

In the last analysis, Rowling’s story is Gnostic where Tolkien’s isn’t. ‘Harry is the reverse image of Frodo. Rowling portrays his victory over evil as the fruit of esoteric knowledge and power. This is Gnosticism. Tolkien portrays Frodo’s victory over evil as the fruit of humility, obedience and courage in a state of radical suffering. This is Christianity.’ (To which I would like to add that Tolkien really does not portray Frodo’s victory, only his defeat and salvation through mercy!)

Thirdly, while Harry is not a lone ranger, he does not consider himself bound by any external law. All rules may be broken, as long as one’s own values do not suffer; this means that obedience is not one of Harry’s values. (St. Augustine called obedience ‘the mother of all the virtues’.) Dumbledore seems to approve of Harry’s trespassing tendencies; rule-enforcers are usually dubious characters. The young reader can only conclude that he himself is most capable of distinguishing between good and evil in any concrete situation, ‘guided only by the occasional intervention of a Dumbledore or some similar guru figure’, and that the law needs to be treated with a certain degree of contempt.

(In Rowling’s defence, traditional moral theology does allow law-breaking in exceptional circumstances for which the lawgiver did not intend the law. Also, some laws are not binding in conscience and may be broken, as long as one is willing to accept the punishment when caught. Yet it seems irresponsible to acquaint children too soon with these niceties of casuistry; besides, they are bound by the commandment to honour their parents, which also extends to those in loco parentis, such as teachers.)

In short, O’Brien would be in general agreement with De Wit on what constitutes a Gnostic and unhealthy fantasy, but disagree about the application to Harry Potter. I think that his arguments at least merit consideration, that there is a real danger of youths being confirmed in an anti-authoritarian attitude (at best) or sliding into occult activity and demonic oppression (at worst), and that O’Brien has a point when he says that our cultural discernment is damaged by our frequent exposure to violence, sexual promiscuity and inverted symbolism.

(If someone would have told me five years ago that I would write this article, I would have laughed in his face!)

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Year of Faith

Today the Year of Faith has started, as announced in His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI’s Apostolic Letter Porta Fidei. I went to the Basilica of St. Lidwina in Schiedam, where the Bishop of Rotterdam celebrated Mass with many of his priests. Afterwards they rang the bells for quite some time. It was a beautiful experience.
May this Year be a source of grace to the Church and all the world. Faith is a gift from God, and we cannot increase it by our own efforts, although we can and should do everything in our power to dispose ourselves to receive the gift. This Year offers a wonderful opportunity. The hymn chosen as its theme implores the Lord: Adauge nobis fidem, ‘Increase our faith’. I found one version here; I haven’t been able to find a Latin or English version yet.
As Porta Fidei says:
The “door of faith”  is always open for us, ushering us into the life of communion with God and offering entry into his Church. It is possible to cross that threshold when the word of God is proclaimed and the heart allows itself to be shaped by transforming grace. To enter through that door is to set out on a journey that lasts a lifetime.

Sunday, 30 September 2012


We have been in the Holy Land for ten days. It was a pilgrimage full of churches and impressions. Yet the most memorable moment for me was when we went sailing on the Sea of Galilee in a wooden boat. At some point, the engine was turned off and while we drifted on the lake, various passages from the Gospels were read: about Jesus walking on the water, Jesus calming the elements, and so on. Then the rector proposed to recite the Creed together. It was a very beautiful moment.

After the Holy Land, we went on a silent retreat for five full days. That too was a beautiful time; all sorts of earlier memories came up which I did not know I still had. My friend Christy has written about a similar experience.

From the guesthouse library I borrowed a book by Josef Pieper, called Musse und Kult (translated as Leisure: the Basis of Culture). Apparently old Aristotle had already recognized that it is not enough to have free time; the question is what to do with it. In order for true leisure to exist, there must be something that lifts us out of the world of passing means and ends, of production and use. According to Pieper, the highest expression of leisure is the cultic feast; it enables a whole culture to come together, to remember, contemplate and celebrate the things they have learned without effort.

There were many interesting thoughts in the book, including a criticism of the Kantian tendency to measure the value of an action or a truth by the effort it took to accomplish or acquire. In the last resort, we are made for the Sabbath.

Keep breathing, that’s the key! Breathe!

Saturday, 11 August 2012

A New Life

It seems that today I have entered on a new life, a span of days not given to someone else, but given to me; a life in which every day is a new grace. But so far it has appeared more ghostly than spiritual.

Sunday, 5 August 2012

Five Years

Sometimes we meet people who seem to us the bearers of an extraordinary value, unique and irresistible. I met someone like that five years ago, in a lagoon of life’s flow. From 1 to 5 August 2007, I had the pleasure of her company; afterwards I never saw her again, nor will, at least not on this earth. It is strange, and perhaps not entirely just, that we should be so permanently fascinated to people for whom our loving admiration remains untempered by knowledge and mild proximity. Yet these are windows onto a different aspect of our nature, one less easily glimpsed but more poignant.

Anyhow she has changed my life. I wrote a poem in her honour on the first of this month, but since it is still too young, I will share last year’s instead.

Goodbye to Diana

Four years ago, my new-sworn friend and I
Went separate ways; since we could not foretell
Our next rejoining, she had said ‘Farewell’
At last night’s hug and next-to-last goodbye.

I rose to sunder early in the day.
We drew together, had our photo taken,
When time drew us apart; and I, forsaken,
Called ‘See you’ as she turned and walked away.

Diana, friend, my thought has often leaned
Upon the slender column of our meeting,
And I recalled my ill-considered greeting
This year, on learning death had intervened.

Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Vive la France

For two weeks now, I have been on holiday in France with my family. We have made quite a tour of the country, dropping all the way down on the eastern side via Nancy, Mâcon, Le Puy-en-Velay and Narbonne, then going west within sight of the Pyrenees via Lourdes; now we have found a place in the woods of Les Landes, part of old Aquitaine. We have seen the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean in one holiday.

Lourdes was wonderful, but a bit dismaying all the same. I seem to recall a story of St. Bernadette coming back after many years and feeling sadness at how her visions had changed her hometown. The place would have been unrecognizable; it now crawls with hotels and tourist shops selling religious articles, one after the other, bigger and more conspicuous than in Rome. They do have beautiful items, though; I especially appreciated the pale statues of Our Lady with a deep purple garment.

The sanctuary itself was busy, but not as overcrowded as, say, St. Peter’s Basilica. Passing the church, I saw a round structure with many normal-looking water taps, which I couldn’t believe was Lourdes water until a volunteer told me; people were just as noisy and careless as they are at any other bottle-filling place. But they were silent and respectful at the grotto where Our Lady appeared in 1858; people went in there and ran their hand across the stones. I went to the entrance to the pool without going in, and took pains to explain to my sceptical siblings why sick people went to bathe there if the water had no healing properties and healing was not guaranteed.

The church was awesome. There are mosaics everywhere, especially in the dome. It contains a large image of Mary as a young girl, as she appeared to St. Bernadette; on the walls are the fifteen mysteries of the Rosary. By staircases or ramps the top of the church can be accessed, where the visitor may find a great golden crown (Our Lady’s), St. Bernadette’s crypt and a chapel; and on top of all that another chapel. Thus it is a three-tiered church. On the roof one can cross a road and walk the Way of the Cross in the mountains of France.

At 9pm a movie about Bernadette was shown in cinema with Dutch subtitles (just goes to show), but we did not go for general lack of interest. However, my parents and I did attend the 11pm Mass at the grotto. There were five priests there and a sizable crowd of visitors. After Mass there was Eucharistic Adoration; most of the people stayed. After a short while, we went to look at the candles, where my parents put some of the candles upright, touchingly enough.

Le Puy was interesting too. It is a small city, built around a hill with the cathedral on top and two big rocks close by. One of them, close to our camping, is topped with a thousand-year-old chapel dedicated to St. Michael; two chapels to the other Biblical archangels were added later at various points on the way up. The other rock had a large statue of Our Lady (now entirely wrapped up for restoration purposes). The cathedral had a special feature: somewhere in the middle, between altar and entrance gate, a large staircase came up in the middle of the floor out of the city centre. Inside the cathedral, flanking the main aisle, were two statues of France’s two warrior-saints, St. Louis IX and an unusually masculine St. Joan of Arc. There was also a big statue of St. James, with his famous seashell, because this was a site on the way to Santiago de Compostela.

I went to Mass there at 7am, a pilgrims’ Mass. It was the memorial day of St. Lawrence of Brindisi, about whom my friends at Popin’ Ain’t Easy have written well. The priest present gave a weighty homily, mentioning St. Lawrence’s effort to send soldiers to the Battle of Vienna, and the opposition – ‘not only a difference’ – between Christianity and Islam. Islam, he said, rejected the two chief doctrines of Christianity, the Trinity and the Incarnation: the mystery of God-become-man, on which our whole redemption rests. He concluded on a note such as this: ‘The Church has thought long about what constitutes a just war, and the Battle of Vienna is an example of it; but to support this would require further reflection, which I cannot give today.’ At which he left the ambo.

At the end of Mass, a benediction was given to the pilgrims, who gathered around the statue of St. James.

The homily fits well with the book I have been reading. It is Joan of Arc, by the famous agnostic writer Mark Twain. He was fascinated by the little girl who became commander-in-chief of the French army at 17, and this awe is perceptible on every page of the book. Joan of Arc is shown as a staunch patriot, naturally bashful but completely convinced of her divine mission to save France; an unflinching leader of battles, but with truly human feelings for those who suffer in war.

I think St. Joan of Arc should be given as much attention as that other famous French girl, St. Therese of Lisieux. She gives a unique answer to the question where God is on the battlefield. We people of today, in love with the soft power of potential but full of sentiment about weakness, will be inclined to seek the face of God in the suffering wounded or the medical staff. That God could shine in the general in the brunt of the battle is a foreign idea to us. What does God care about petty human affairs? Why would God send Michael the Archangel (no less) to put a pathetic figure like Charles VII on the throne of France, honouring the ancient (but human) Salic law rather than the recent (but equally human) Treaty of Troyes? I’m not sure myself, but Sainte Jeanne’s generalship did not stem from human ambition. Let the doubters read doubting Twain.

Monday, 25 June 2012


During our Pentateuch oral exam, Dcn. Koet offered the opinion that the original Vulgate (St. Jerome’s translation) is much more interesting than the New Vulgate, a ‘compromise translation’ arrived at by voting. This Sunday, in the enjoyment of tranquillity, I read Genesis 1-3 in the Buber/Rosenzweig translation, and now I realize why Scripture translations should be made by one or two poets, not by committees.

This translation tries to be as faithful as possible to the oddities of the Hebrew original, which engenders turns of phrase like ‘From all the trees in the garden you shall eat, eat’ and ‘On that day you shall die, die’. For once, a Bible that reads like ancient poetry!

Grammar is stretched (the way Jesus did) in sentences like: ‘And God saw that it is good.’

The same goes for God’s and man’s naming activity. The word ‘call’ retains its strength through the skillful use of interpunction: ‘And God called the light: Day! And the darkness he called: Night!’

To me, the most striking thing (though I have not yet plumbed its full meaning) is that when God tells man, ‘Dust you are and to dust you shall return,’ he responds by calling his wife: ‘Chawwa (Eve), Life!’

Thursday, 31 May 2012

End of May

Today was the last class at seminary. One hour of singing and three hours of Fundamental Theology make for a good end. We’ll be here for a while yet, sharing prayers and meals during our exams, which will last until the end of June.

I find it hard to assess this year. On the one hand, it has been very restful. On the other hand, I feel I have not accomplished much, because I did not apply myself to anything in great depth. It is difficult to know when one is simply meant to receive and digest, observe and adapt, commune and enjoy, and when to make an effort. Dwelling on that, however, obscures gratitude by vague feelings of guilt, which can never be a good thing.

What I definitely did learn this year – without noticing it – was the depth, importance and richness of liturgy. That applies to the wide scope of the liturgical year, the changing moods of Advent and Christmas, Lent and Easter, and so forth, but also to its details. Learning about liturgical colours, hymns, antiphons, when and how to celebrate or remember what, has drawn me deeper into the life of the Church. Next year, hopefully I will learn to remember more frequently Who is the life of the Church. Having fixed times of prayer in each day may be a step on the road to incessant prayer, but it is not the road.
Today is the last day of May, the month of Mary. Since I have been lost for words throughout the month, I will borrow those of Chesterton in Book VII of The Ballad of the White Horse. Mary, Queen of Confessors, pray for us!
The King looked up, and what he saw
Was a great light like death,
For Our Lady stood on the standards rent,
As lonely and as innocent
As when between white walls she went
And the lilies of Nazareth.
One instant in a still light
He saw Our Lady then,
Her dress was soft as western sky,
And she was a queen most womanly –
But she was a queen of men.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Sovereign Hunger

Qualms mostly quelled, I went to see The Hunger Games with my brother and sister. Fr Barron in his commentary remarked on the connection with René Girard’s idea of the scapegoating mechanism, in which all the tensions within a society are discharged on a few selected victims. Blaming, ostracizing or even killing them gives a temporary peace: order is restored.

The blame does not need to be placed on the individual. In the Hunger Games, the tributes expiate the past sins of their districts and, in doing so, atone for the nation (as Seneca remarks: it ‘knits us all together’, makes us at-one). Every time at the Reaping of the tributes, the President’s words are replayed:

This is how we remember our past. This is how we safeguard our future.

Scapegoating can take various forms. The victims are not necessarily depicted as repulsive; in fact, quite the opposite happens in the Hunger Games, where the tributes receive all kinds of goods, are dressed up to the best of their advantage and enjoy the admiring attention of all. They are the pride of their district: not only a sacrifice for expiation, but also a representative of the people.

This reminded me not so much of René Girard as of William Desmond, and his concept of the erotic sovereign. Eros, as Plato reminds us, is born of Plenty and Poverty, full and starved by turns; so there are erotic energies in man (including but not limited to the sexual) that strive to overcome all finite limits, all poverty in every sense of the word.

This can be seen in the hero, the self of infinite purpose, who strives without end to become more fully himself. (‘I want to still be me,’ as Peeta says; there must be an inner unity to the hero, a singleness of purpose, not mere good fortune.) The hero is isolated, like the scapegoat; just as the scapegoat is singled out to bear the blame of the community, the hero is singled out to bear the glory of the community. Singled out: single indeed, but always out of the whole and in relation to it. As Desmond says, the ‘unsatisfied longing for perfection is buoyed up in the vision of exemplars dedicated to ascend to the heights.’

The Hunger Games depict excellently what it means to be an erotic sovereign. It starts when Katniss and Peeta drive into the Capitol; Peeta looks out of the window and waves, awed by being the focus of so much attention. But the climax is yet to come. It comes at the Tribute Parade, where the team of each district wheels into a huge stadium in chariots. Katniss and Peeta are last in line, as usual, and we have already seen that their stylist has been planning something. We get a panoramic view of the whole stadium watching the chariots roll in to the triumphant anthem ‘Horn of Plenty’; the first verse’s last note is drawn out, something like a hush falls, and people lean forward in surprise, the commentator asking his buddy ‘What is that?’ As the swollen fermata bursts into an intenser hymnody, the entire cinema screen is at once filled by the living lit-up face of Katniss.

The Horn of Plenty for us all!

And I thought it was impressive on a laptop. Before we have recovered, we see Peeta and Katniss in tight black suits, flames billowing behind them.

Two young people, holding their hands up, saying, ‘I’m proud I come from District 12. We will not be overlooked!’ Now I love that!

Desmond says that erotic sovereigns are daimonic: powers between gods and ordinary mortals, marked by nobility but more intensely in danger of betraying the good. Daimons are lifted into the air; they do not yet dwell in heaven. Let anyone who thinks that he flies take heed lest he fall. Katniss falls. Because she is virtuous, because she has the makings of a sovereign, the whole nation of Panem focuses its hungry desires on her. Under such pressure, she cannot remain honest; she turns away from reality towards the show and the applause, from love of her neighbours to the subtle domination of the crowd. Human, all too human.

We might conclude that there should be no place for erotic sovereignty in our society, since it is too dangerous both for the rulers and the ruled. (As if we ultimately had a choice to exclude it!) Yet Desmond suggests that we need them, for if they remain open to true transcendence, they show us ‘the glory of the world’ and the realized promise of excellence here and now. Without them, we do not really grasp what it means to be human. One is reminded of Goethe saying: ‘Without having seen the Sistine Chapel, one can form no appreciable idea of what one man is capable of achieving.’ Erotic sovereigns not only channel desires; they excite them. Besides that, they are essential as ‘judges free of the tendency to say only what many will want to hear.’ No one can rob them of their standard of excellence. Without such exemplars, virtue in a society will erode. Less and less will knit us together. We will distrust all greatness and deny our own.

En tois epouraniois, in the heavenly things or the heavenly places, is where the daimons live. The Greek phrase, as Heinrich Schlier points out, is used frequently in the Letter to the Ephesians. Christ fills the epourania; the Church is blessed in the epourania; but all spiritual powers, for good or evil, also inhabit the epourania. The epourania is the realm of the ‘transcendent’ in the broadest sense of the word. It is a word that Desmond uses quite frequently. Schlier (being German) defines it: ‘that which opens up a ‘space’ for man on earth and the earth as such, through which he gains an ultimately infinite breadth and depth beyond the earthly … that which is open to him beyond himself, allows him possibilities and prospects.’ The epourania is ‘the manifold ‘presence’ of powers, namely of space and time and spirit, so of conceding and encompassing, urging and destining powers.’

Now Christ both is in the heavens and has ascended above all heavens. His sphere encompasses all, and we can choose either to live in his heaven or in another, ruled by different powers than Christ. We choose a space ‘into which and from out of which’ we live, and a lord to rule over us. We can live in the confusing, cramped, dark spaces of lower lords (the stadium, the arena), but we are called and enabled to dwell in the epourania in Christ Jesus. In all cases there will be strife. If we struggle for power in the stadium, the arena or any such ‘heaven’, we will find no rest; but if we live in Christ, other pretended masters will find it curious and irritating that we do not submit to their lordship and play by their rules. The heavens resound with the trumpets of war.

All this is frightening. We might try to stay at home (and succeed in various degrees), clear of the invisible pulling into the unknown, saying no to the spotlights and despising or pitying the people in them, secretly claiming for oneself the greatest of gifts: humility. But, as C.S. Lewis said, we might be mistaking the decrease of nature for the increase of grace. Pride is not starved by erotic anorexia. If we deny the goodness of greatness, can we be happy for others’ temporary (perhaps timely) sovereignty? Can we be grateful for our own moments of soaring? Can we aspire to the ‘riches of grace’ (another Ephesian phrase), grace, the all-encompassing expanse in which true Plenty meets Poverty and gives birth to beauty?

If we share in the mystery of Good Friday and even of Easter, perhaps we can share in the mystery of Palm Sunday as well; without forgetting that the King wept at the height, looking out on Jerusalem. We may be focal points, but the light comes from elsewhere; we are to be magnifying, not refractory. Thus we shall be able to walk boldly en tois epouraniois, in poverty and plenty, remembering the law of the Lord: not ‘Kill or be killed’, not ‘Live and let live’, but ‘Be killed and let live.’

Monday, 16 April 2012

A Journey as Ointment

On Sunday 25 March, the March for Life was organized in Brussels for the third time. On Saturday, after spending some time with other pastoral students of the Rotterdam diocese in the ancient abbey of Egmond (where an 11th-century Duke of Holland lies entombed), I descended on Leuven: from Hillegom to Leiden (where, waiting for the train to move on, I happen to type these lines), from Leiden to Rotterdam, from Rotterdam to Mechelen, from Mechelen to Leuven.

Inner warmth and excitement grew as my latitudinal coordinate decreased. I was looking forward to be back, feeling stimulated to be on my own, out of the ordinary routine. Essays on various subjects were devoured (one by a Lovanian friend), and, putting pen to paper, I wrote two lines of effervescent sprung rhythm.

On arriving, I sent a location status update to Anke, who, like me, had once belonged to the American College’s inner peripheral circle. She, a second-year Theology student, walked with me to the Grote Markt, where we sat down at Notre Dame to have a Stella Artois (a product of Leuven antedating the university) and a good talk. We lamented the splintering of the College, and the realization soaked into me that last year had truly been a blessed time. At the time I may have had too much on my mind to see it clearly; distance and return had reconciled me.

We also found out that her speech was perceived as Dutch by the Flemings, while mine was perceived as Flemish by the Dutch. Evidently a native speaker is not honoured in his own country.

Then I proceeded to Arenberg, where I used to live and where I would spend the night. Pierre was just celebrating his fortieth birthday by watching Tintin with a large crowd of people. It was very nice to see so many happy familiar faces again, not to mention my old place of refuge, the small chapel with the painting of the Crowning of Mary by the Trinity.

Thankfully I was reminded of Daylight Saving Time going into effect that weekend, so I was in time for Mass and meditation. Mass was celebrated in the chapel at 9am, followed by a festive breakfast. After breakfast, I went to Mass at the American College; I arrived at the beginning of the homily, a beautiful one on prayer. At both Masses, my responses were off: the Flemish differ slightly from the Dutch and the Anglophones were using their new translation of the Missal.

O God beyond all praising was the recessional song, one that resonated in memory. I went to the Sunday gathering; the dining hall of the American College was unsettlingly empty with all the seminarians gone. Olivia and Joe were there, but they did not say much. Bosco seemed more pleased to see me. I also made the acquaintance of the main celebrant, a British Dominican.

I remained in conversation, inside the building and walking through town, until lunchtime. Lunch and coffee were at Arenberg, after which Pierre, Fr. Lasala (the new chaplain) and I set off for Brussels, praying the Rosary in the car. Some other residents had gone there on their own; they were part of security and I saw them in special attire. A Belgian seminarian was there as well; he said that things in his seminary were slowly getting better, because they were now allowed to kneel during consecration and receive Communion on the tongue.

The March was beautiful: the atmosphere, the weather, the buildings lining the road. We went from the King’s Square to the Palace of Justice, where we laid down our roses. It made more of an impression than last year and seemed shorter, but last year I was taking pictures of everything I saw; this year I was merely holding my rose on high.

On coming back, I used various media for signal emissions to Dan, Anke and Michaël. Dan received them by proxy, being at church with Anke. Michaël brought his girlfriend Geraldine, and so five of us converged at the Oude Markt. Since I was out of cash and the ATM had broken down, Dan paid for my Stella. We chatted amiably for a too short while. I told Michaël I had read his paper on the train. Also, I mentioned that I had not informed Tyler of my going to Leuven, but had I done so, he would surely have told me to say hi to all. Anke exclaimed, ‘I’ve never had a more contingent greeting!’

All good things end. Our party broke up at dinnertime; I went to Arenberg and had dinner there. It was a very full dinner. The joke was that Pierre had a Triduum this year: first his birthday, then Sunday, then the Solemnity of the Annunciation. Dinner at Arenberg meant that I had to catch the train an hour later and would arrive back at seminary at 0.30 rather than 11.30pm; the journey would take almost four hours. It was definitely worth it, though. On my way back to the station I ran into the last remaining ‘old crowd’ resident, a student of things Japanese who had just arrived in town. No face left unseen!

Apparently there is another Dutch resident at Arenberg now, a biomedical student from a place very close to my hometown. It was agreed that he was more Dutch than I, being tall and vocal.

On the journey back to Mechelen, Rotterdam, Heemstede and Vogelenzang, I prayed Vespers and finished my Lenten poem, which is posted in my thread as Ouai Megalopolis.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Dispersit Superbos

Friday evening I went to a concert with my father. Four Germans sang 16th-century polyphony. The first half passed breathlessly: mostly Passion music from the early Lutheran tradition (and some Bach). There was much laughter and applause during the caperings, mimicry and odd voices of the madrigals of the second half. John Dowland was introduced as the ‘master of melancholy’, but I suppose he was so in a Renaissance English sort of way, much subtler than German Romantics or other loud acolytes at the marriage of Eros and Thanatos.

As we filed out during the pause, I found myself shuffling forward next to a Muslim girl of presumably Dutch ancestry: glasses, white skin and a light blue headdress. Unlike most of the visitors, she wasn’t much older than I. Both of us seemed too shy to say anything, but I was struck by how natural and happy she looked: at ease without the mask of happy sociality, at peace without the defensive artillery of extroversion. Religion, discipline and decency do much to contribute to happiness.

A certain Rutger, who recently achieved notoriety, is a Dutchman without religion, without discipline and without decency; it is a lack he compensates by clutching a microphone with both hands like a scepter, and keeping the company of a camera. He is an insistent and often disrespectful interviewer. The majority of his prey feels forced either to play along or to ignore him. Being harassed is unpleasant, but better than creating a scene and appearing embarrassingly rude to the general public.

Recently Rutger singled out a woman with a partner who had no such qualms, vetted by years of political engagement, arduous physical training, and experience teaching philosophy of law: Prof. Kinneging. When Rutger rang, Kinneging opened. After it became clear that the annoying journalist was not going to leave, Kinneging decided to open the door, turn the camera away, and impress certain facts on the callers, such as:

- If they would return unannounced, he would throw them into the canal, camera and all.
- He might be the first to react this way, but not the last.
- No, he was not going to discuss or argue his point.

The entire exchange can be seen here.

I have to say, I admire the way Kinneging stood his ground. All the forgotten emotions from the playground (and the cinema) have come back to me now, in particular the surge of joy at finding a self-assured person confronting the dominators. It reminds me of the ‘Get off my lawn’ scene in Gran Torino. Sometimes the timorous sons and daughters of the polis need the old men with the anger management problem to teach the wheedling, malicious bullies the meaning of fear. Better to strike up an uneasy alliance with the wrathful God in the desert than to stay with Egypt’s fleshpots, helping the cruel Pharaoh fortify himself.

Some say that the oldest part of the Bible is the Song of Miriam, of God as fighting against the forces of a cocksure civilization: ‘Sing ye to the LORD, for he hath triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider hath he thrown into the sea.’ Or as her humbler namesake would put it, centuries later: ‘He hath shewed strength with his arm; he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He hath put down the mighty from their seats…’

Or, nineteen centuries later, Chesterton (since the Road goes ever on and on):

For riseth up against realm and rod
A thing forgotten, a thing downtrod,
The last lost giant, even God,
Is risen against the world.

Tuesday, 28 February 2012


I received a new SIM card from my telephone company. Foreseeing that the data on the old one would be lost, I took some time entering all my contacts’ numbers into a separate document. In alphabetic but entirely random order, people and events rose up before me: those I knew from secondary school, from the trip to Russia, from my three years at Roosevelt Academy, from my one year at Leuven, from seminary… Some of the numbers I knew to be outdated. Others I had hardly ever used. Yet I kept them all, just so I would be able to stumble on them a few years hence and remember.

There was a time when I typed up the text messages I received, because I always had to delete them to make room for others. After more than one hundred messages, I stopped copying. Others I saved for a long time, like Anne’s offer to pick me up when I got stranded for a night at Roosendaal station. Then there were some that I never deleted: ‘These fragments I have shored against my ruins.’

Anne making arrangements to meet me before I left for America. Phoebe’s wish on New Year 2009: ‘Be thou blessed.’ The trip to Rome, the first meeting with Dr. Desmond, graduation. Appointments with Carel, Mary, and others. My friend’s wedding at which I was a witness. Getting lost at World Youth Day in Madrid. The last message I got from Bodi.

In the end it does not amount to much, like all the school stuff I saved for years and years, only to throw most of it away without regret. But that, too, is a function of memory: it reminds us that most of our life is ash and stubble. Straw, as one saint would have it – a judgment which the Church carefully preserved and admired, though often without assent.

Already we are returning to dust.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012


What is the distinction between dream and reality? This question, which goes back to far before Descartes, is brought to our attention by the movie Inception. In this movie, the first ‘reality’ we see turns out to be the deepest level of a dream, and the whole story revolves around the question how we can tell which is which.

Dreams are private, so one theory goes, and reality is common to all; moreover, dreams are irrational and outside of our control, unlike reality. I have tried to find adherents of this theory to engage them in dialogue, but they were in Yusuf’s basement, busy constructing a shared dream. Their custodian asked me, ‘Who are you to tell them what is real?’ And Eames said, ‘It’s all the flow of information, darling, just like the real world.’

Perhaps there is a flaw in the idea that dreams and reality are like two different houses, so that you are either in one or in the other. On the contrary: when I am in a dream, I am still in reality, or I would have to go out of existence. Moreover, not only the dreamer but also the dream is real (it’s a real dream). In a dream we may see places, people or events which we have seen or will see when awake. And even the more whimsical dreams can express real desires or traumas.

In reverse: people can live in a dream world while being thoroughly awake and caffeinated. Like the dictator who believes the people love him – or the people who believe they love the dictator, while actually loving a shadow and a dream, an image and idol of their own making. This occurs not only in dictatorships. We may have wide-eyed dreams of being respected, skilled, right, or even of being a no-nonsense, down-to-earth kind of person.

Yet there is a distinction between dream and reality; we know this through the experience of waking up. In waking up, we discover that our dreaming imagination was unconscious of that which enabled it: human brains in a sleeping body with senses made for the outside world, and all sorts of previous impressions.

The ancient Greeks called reality en-ergeia, ‘in-working’, that which determines what a being is and does. Energeia admits of degrees: one being is capable of more than another precisely because it is more, because it has a deeper reality. Thus, a human has a deeper energeia than his shadow or dream, which are completely dependent on him. These are unreal when compared to humans, but yet have their own reality. Their existence indicates the presence and activity of a higher or deeper existence. Think of people running away from a shadow, not because they fear the shadow but the presence it points to. Similarly, dreams can move armies (Iliad), create royal stewards (Genesis), confirm marriage plans (Gospel of St. Matthew), or cause conversion (Le prix à payer). Dreams can be at the basis of therapies, poems, philosophies and stories. And movies.

In all these cases, a single person’s dream impacts the lives of many. In Inception, however, the dream is consciously constructed by a team of people. It very carefully distorts reality to make the dreamer see it differently. Is such shared dreaming possible?

Let us first ask another question: how real are the makers of the dream, busy with planning, escaping and realizing their desires? According to Mal, they themselves are dream images; real reality, the energeia forming the dream, would be a higher plane of existence. In that case, the dreamers themselves would be the dreamed. But who could be their dreamer? I have come across a number of theories, suggesting Dom Cobb, Mal, Saito, Ariadne…but the possibility that immediately seemed obvious to me is that Inception is a ‘dream’ of Christopher Nolan, the director. He is using a screen as his dream machine to suck us in.

1) Dreams in Inception have been carefully constructed by one or multiple human minds.
2) People from outside the dream, who know the design, participate in it.
3) Dreams are not copies of reality, but neither are they detached from it.
4) Dreams can even cause actions in the real world, like splitting a business or suicide.
5) Dreams are not pure technology: even the most experienced dreamer cannot prevent his desires, doubts and guilt feelings from intruding, because his mind creates the dream.
1’) Inception has been carefully constructed by script writers, the makers of the set, etc.
2’) Actors who know the plot become characters in the movie.
3’) We can relate Inception to our own experience, despite the imaginary elements.
4’) Inception can cause blogposts. It really can.
5’) (I’ll leave this for Christopher Nolan.)

So the dreams within Inception tell us something about Inception itself as a work of art. The possibility of levels within a dream may alert us to the fact that characters like Arthur and Dom only sleep and wake within the dream Nolan has shared with us. Nolan is thus much more real than they are, for he is as real as all of us.

Which means what exactly?

If there are gradations in reality, who guarantees that the world in which Nolan lives and moves – our world – is not a dream world in comparison to a world on a higher plane of reality? Are we dreamed and dreaming, artists and artworks both? A pragmatist would consider this question unanswerable and irrelevant. Yet its irrelevance is not self-evident. As the discovery of various sources of energy has been highly conducive to human welfare, so the discovery of a higher energeia or reality at the basis of our world might be similarly beneficial. As for its unanswerability: well, here is an attempt to answer it reasonably.

Limbo City is dependent on Dom Cobb, yet Dom, in constructing it, depended on his own experiences and memories, things he had not invented; thus Dom cannot be the highest reality. Dom is dependent on Nolan, but Nolan himself depended on experiences, filming apparatus, actors, crewmen, things and people he had not thought up; thus Nolan is not the highest reality. Neither are we.

We have not invented the world, nor has the world invented us. Still we coexist in interaction with each other: let us say, on the same narrative level. Therefore, there must be a higher reality or energeia, a ‘greater realness’ which has invented our composite world as one story. The material components of our world could no more create the unity and coherence of our world than a DVD could produce a movie; matter, like a DVD, is a carrier of information. But who provides the information? Only a mind could do that. There must be a thinker more real than our world put together, because our whole world exists in his mind; that is to say, we are like a dream image of his. We may be real, but only with our own degree of reality, like the characters we invent.

The most real reality lies higher (or deeper). More could be said: Inception shows us that lower levels depend on higher levels for their content. Limbo City contains many elements from Dom’s normal surroundings; these in turn are derived from Nolan’s world. Since our reality is a composite whole, we deduced that it must depend on yet another. Yet this chain of dependence cannot stretch back indefinitely: if there is no first provider of information, nothing will ever be given form. But this means that the first ‘informer’ cannot live in a world with other things, previously formed, which could shape his mind. He does not live on the highest level – the highest level is simply who he is. He does not live in a world; the worlds live in him. The most real being is a master of dreams.

No doubt these are abstract speculations – ‘abstract’ meaning ‘drawn out’ and a ‘speculation’ something seen in a specula, a mirror: that is, a coloured shadow. Yet the highest reality cannot be so thin and tenuous. After all, all the inspiration for all things in all worlds comes from him: all beauty in our world, all height, depth, power, profundity and worth will have to be present in this form-giver, this super-energeia, though in a more real and vivid way than we encounter them. Which makes the highest form-giver simultaneously the top model, delightful and lovable. A certain Aurelius (not the Stoic emperor) sought to put this into words:

‘Not material beauty or beauty of a temporal order; not the brilliance of earthly light, so welcome to our eyes; not the sweet melody of harmony and song; not the fragrance of flowers, perfumes, and spices; not manna or honey; not limbs such as the body delights to embrace … And yet, when I love him, it is true that I love a light of a certain kind, a voice, a perfume, a food, an embrace: but they are of the kind that I love in my inner self, when my soul is bathed in light that is not bound by space; when it listens to sound that never dies away; when it breathes fragrance that is not borne away by the wind; when it tastes food that is never consumed by the eating; when it clings to an embrace from which it is not severed by fulfilment of desire. This is what I love…’

Friday, 3 February 2012

A Brilliant Process

Late in following their Protestant counterparts, Catholic biblical scholars have now generally accepted the theory that the Pentateuch originates from four main sources, compiled centuries after Moses. Even those who are skeptical of the theory do not often argue for the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch, probably because it would be very difficult to do; it’s a bit like defending a young earth. Sure, you can punch holes in your opponents’ theories and answer their objections, but in the end, you accept a young earth or Mosaic authorship mostly because of an old tradition which you consider weightier than the complicated new theories. However, the reigning idea is that convictions should grow out of reason’s investigation, not float on the pool of Why Not.

I have to admit, Mosaic authorship appeals a lot more to my sensibility than the JEDP theory. The Christian story revolves around persons, individuals with a particular brilliance (in the sense of splendour and significance). Adam, for instance, as the first man. People have tried to make Adam disappear into a cloud of human ancestors, but as Pope Pius XII pointed out in Humani Generis, it is ‘in no way apparent’ how that could ever be reconciled with original sin. David, as the great king who unified Israel and was also a great poet – but of course his authorship of the Psalms is questioned. Solomon, traditionally considered the wisest person between Adam and Christ and also a great author of Wisdom literature – now frequently ascribed to anonymous court poets. Jesus himself, whose face people have sought to obscure by reducing him to a narrative created by the early Christian Church, of multiplex authorship and dubious credibility. At least Christian scholars have put up a successful defence against the last claim.

The tendency of recent centuries is clear: greatness is examined with a liberal dose of skepticism; an ancient genius is an aggregate of some noteworthy qualities and lots of borrowed clothes. As he has come down to us, he is more of a narrative than a person; he has absorbed others’ lesser glory into himself.

In a way this conflicts with the expectations of a Christian imagination. After all, our whole faith rests on a man in whom the fullness of divinity dwelt bodily. The cloud of witnesses does not obscure his historical reality, but rather illumines the greatness that shone in his life on earth, far beyond anything our minds can conceive. From there, it is natural to imagine that the first man was not simply something new, an animal creature endowed with reason and innocence, but that his newness was excessive. The first rational being among brutes, he did not have to use reason for laborious decisions and knowledge-gathering; no, he was free from irregular desire, from death, from suffering, from ignorance. In the creation of man, as in the conception of the Saviour, God brilliantly manifested himself by doing what is impossible for nature to unfold. Such things cannot be found by a reconstruction of the plausible. That makes it plausible that more implausible things have occurred. Formerly we looked to Scripture and Tradition to discover which these were. Now we usually can’t tell.

To the imagination that has been shaped by an evolutionary view (in a broad sense), Adam’s depiction above is an aesthetic affront. It is not illogical; it just clashes, in an unpleasant fashion, with our expectation of reality. It is like a painting of a modern-day park in which one random ambler exudes rainbow-coloured light: beauty in the wrong place, ugliness. Similarly, to suppose that a brute anthropoid creature (a now-common reading of ‘dust’) brought forth a man gifted with complete integrity, immortality and treasures of knowledge – that sounds too mythical to be true. Christ can still be made acceptable by being presented as the inevitable culmination of the history of Israel. And man as the simple searching rational animal, at the end of a chain of beings of growing complexity – having that picture hanging on one’s creedal wall exhibits a certain sophistication too. But the ‘old Adam’ of the Schoolmen? Quaint, but ultimately preposterous.

Well, we live in an age of committees, in which great things are done by systematic processes involving many small men. We find our brilliance there, in small men doing great things by using each other as leverage and inspiration. The development of Christian doctrine has doubtlessly owed much to the Spirit’s hidden work in forgotten people and communities, all very gradual and acceptable.

(Yet Augustine and Aquinas, the two pillars and powerhouses of Western theology, have both done and written more than any human being could plausibly do and write in his lifetime. So why not Moses and Solomon?)

Thursday, 26 January 2012

Intro and Comeback

In many things we all offend. If any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man.

Not being perfect, offending and indeed by myself offended, I shut the door on Blogger last year. I had written quite freely, and as surfeit is the father of much fast, so every scope by the immoderate use turns to restraint.

Meanwhile in the external forum (offline), fair and foul went about double-crossing under various pseudonyms. Astonished, I abdicated, renounced my imperium, became a mere nominal ruler of my soul’s country, which was whelmed, field and fen, to the chaos of the sea. Now, however, I lie in a patch of peace as a dog in a patch of sun.

Anyhow I am back. After a period of reconvalescence, during which my desire to write English slowly recovered (despite the contrary evidence of the above mishmash, which admittedly sounds more like a lament at Finnegan’s wake), old pastimes now sidle back into my schedule. Perhaps briefly. Perhaps for keeps. Hopefully more chastely than previously.

I dedicate this blog to a threshold love, to the white horse, and to Love at the end of the world.


Words about words

How little I respected words! I flung
Whole treatises to friend and foe, debated,
Piled up my points and statements, never sated –
Unknown the Silence that has ever rung

Bell-like within the small subcardiac cave
Deep-buried. Still I grow, and I dispense
Prodigal words, forthcasting sound and sense.
Save me, fleshed Word, O Lord of meaning, save

From symbol fighting symbol, from the dim
Battle of ghosts, from flighty wingless words,
From bulls that whet their horns in warlike herds,
From harsh dogmatics and semantics grim,

From all the clever folly of my kind,
For the great stillness’ sake within my mind.