On the Coronation of the Coredemptrix

 

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Corredenzione, by Giovanni Gasparro. This painting convinced my heart of the doctrine of the Co-Redemption of Mary. (Source).

It is appropriate on this Feast of Our Lady’s Coronation and Everlasting Queenship that we contemplate the fleeting thrones of this lesser world. Let us commemorate the loss of two great English dynasties, fixed on this day by Providence.

On Aug. 22, 1485, His Majesty King Richard III was defeated on Bosworth Field by a usurper from the House of the Tudors. The Red Dragon of Wales eclipsed the White Rose of York; years later, T.S. Eliot would wear the flower every 22nd of August.

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The Personal Standard of Richard III. (Source).

On Aug. 22, 1642, His Majesty King Charles I raised the Royal Standard at Nottingham. This act has widely been considered the formal start of the English Civil War that would end in Puritan dictatorship, the slaughter of the Irish and Scots, and the martyrdom of the King himself for the doctrine of Episcopacy.

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The Royal Standard of the Stuarts, 1603-1649. (Source).

Consider the leaden weight of these crowns. They, worn by men alternately noble and feeble, loyal and inconstant, heroic and fearful, themselves rot away with the passage of time. The gilt of their craft and the earthly acclaim of their subjects have gone the way of all flesh. Those crowns are memories, but even in memory they do not earn the glory and affection they once inspired. Their reputations are occulted with cumbersome connotations. Richard has been much maligned ever since his death, in part by no less a personage than Shakespeare himself. Charles, a more complicated figure, has been swallowed up by his role as the symbolic center of Tory anxieties and Whig acrimony for the better part of four centuries. More bitterly, both kings “Accept the constitution of silence/And are folded in a single party.” They have become an unimportant datum of historical trivia for most people, even in England.

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The Coronation of the Virgin, by the Limbourg Brothers. (Source)

How unlike those crowns is that won by Mary! She who was immaculately conceived and preserved from every stain of sin never sullies her crown by any failure of virtue. Having borne the Son of God in her womb, no other glory could ever outstrip what she has already known in her perpetually virginal maternity. Assumed into heaven, she is preserved from the terrible corruption of the grave. And now, as the Church celebrates the Octave Day of the Assumption, we contemplate the eternal joy which her coronation engenders in all the ranks of the blessed. All generations have called her blessed, and all will forevermore. She will never be reduced in the eyes of the world, because no one is more perfect in the eyes of God.

Has there ever been so marvelous a creature as Mary? Can we name, in the orderly chaos of the creation, a being more closely united to the Trinity? Who else among mere mortals has been lauded as “More honorable than the Cherubim, and more glorious beyond compare than the Seraphim?” In her burns the fire of charity; in her grows the ground of humility; in her flows the water of purity; in her soars the mighty wind of patience. She is the New and Sophianic Eve, in which the Wisdom of God is most clearly manifest.

And why? Because she is the threefold Mother of the Redeemer. First, by her Fiat, she assents to a physical maternity of the Word Incarnate. Second, by the sorrows of her Immaculate Heart at the Cross, she wins a sacramental maternity of Christ in the Eucharist. And third, by her prayer in the Cenacle on Pentecost, she gains a mystical maternity of Christ in the whole Church. This threefold motherhood is but one theandric maternityand thus we see the Trinitarian character of Our Lady’s co-redemption. She and she alone of all mankind is so favored and so bound to the work of Christ.

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Coronation of the Virgin, Enguerrand Quarton. 1454. (Source). Mary crowned by the Trinity is surely an icon of the Eschaton.

A friend of mine passed on this passage from St. Amadeus of Lausanne, a Cistercian most famous for his eight homilies in praise of the Mother of God. He took it from Universalis, which gives the full liturgy of the hours online. Thus, the Church particularly commends these words to us on this holy day:

Observe how fitting it was that even before her assumption the name of Mary shone forth wondrously throughout the world. Her fame spread everywhere even before she was raised above the heavens in her magnificence. Because of the honour due her Son, it was indeed fitting for the Virgin Mother to have first ruled upon earth and then be raised up to heaven in glory. It was fitting that her fame be spread in this world below, so that she might enter the heights of heaven on overwhelming blessedness. Just as she was borne from virtue to virtue by the Spirit of the Lord, she was transported from earthly renown to heavenly brightness.

So it was that she began to taste the fruits of her future reign while still in the flesh. At one moment she withdrew to God in ecstasy; at the next she would bend down to her neighbours with indescribable love. In heaven angels served her, while here on earth she was venerated by the service of men. Gabriel and the angels waited upon her in heaven. The virgin John, rejoicing that the Virgin Mother was entrusted to him at the cross, cared for her with the other apostles here below. The angels rejoiced to see their queen; the apostles rejoiced to see their lady, and both obeyed her with loving devotion.

the-coronation-of-the-virginCimaThe Coronation of the Virgin, Cima da Conegliano. (Source).

Dwelling in the loftiest citadel of virtue, like a sea of divine grace or an unfathomable source of love that has everywhere overflowed its banks, she poured forth her bountiful waters on trusting and thirsting souls. Able to preserve both flesh and spirit from death she bestowed health-giving salve on bodies and souls. Has anyone ever come away from her troubled or saddened or ignorant of the heavenly mysteries? Who has not returned to everyday life gladdened and joyful because his request had been granted by the Mother of God?

She is a bride, so gentle and affectionate, and the mother of the only true bridegroom. In her abundant goodness she has channelled the spring of reason’s garden, the well of living and life-giving waters that pour forth in a rushing stream from divine Lebanon and flow down from Mount Zion until they surround the shores of every far-flung nation. With divine assistance she has redirected these waters and made them into streams of peace and pools of grace. Therefore, when the Virgin of virgins was led forth by God and her Son, the King of kings, amid the company of exulting angels and rejoicing archangels, with the heavens ringing with praise, the prophecy of the psalmist was fulfilled, in which he said to the Lord: At your right hand stands the queen, clothed in gold of Ophir.

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An illustration of “The Woman Clothed With the Sun.” (Source)

St. Amadeus is right; “Has anyone ever come away from her troubled or saddened or ignorant of the heavenly mysteries? Who has not returned to everyday life gladdened and joyful because his request had been granted by the Mother of God?” We who still struggle with sin on the path to beatitude cannot hope to achieve our goal if we will not be with and like Mary. We, too, are promised crowns. The scriptures mention five: the imperishable crown (1 Cor. 5:24-25), the crown of rejoicing (1 Thess. 2:19), the crown of righteousness (2 Tim. 4:8), the crown of glory (1 Pet. 5:4), and the crown of life (Rev. 2:10). Our Lady wears all these and seven more, for she is the “woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars” (Rev. 12:1 KJV). Are these other seven stars the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, her spouse? Or the seven cardinal virtues? Or the seven sacraments that constitute the Church? Or the seven lesser ranks of the angels in praise of their queen? Impossible to say. Mary is not only the fountain of all holiness, but the mother of the Church’s deepest mysteries.

How might I end this praise of Our Lady that could properly continue ad infinitum? By returning to those lesser crowns with which I began.

Earthly splendor is no great thing. It can only be built on sufferingeither our own or that of others. Even when turned to good (as, I would argue, Charles I attempted to use his power), it reflects something of our fallen state. It is slippery, contingent, and as mortal as we are. But the glory of heaven is without end. Incorrupt and incorruptible, it abides in the gaze of the Father. Mary, above all creation, receives this kind of glory. She, the New Eve to the New Adam, mirrors Him in all things. Let us run after the course she trod before us, the course of Her Son’s redemption! Only by pursuing a life like Christ’s can we hope for a reward like Mary’s.

May she pray for us as we celebrate her feast today.

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“Coronation of the Virgin,” Fra Angelico. (Source). The Blessed Angelico returned to this subject throughout his career, but this version, hanging in the Uffizi Gallery, is my favorite.

Why I Am a Catholic

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The North Rose Window of Notre Dame de Paris. (Source).

Right around January of 2016, Mr. Owen White (formerly?) of The Ochlophobist, issued a challenge to the religious blogosphere asking writers why they adhered to their faiths. The challenge lay in the rules; if memory serves correctly, you could only answer with five or so selections of media by figures who, to the best of your knowledge, were outside that faith. I wrote up my own list, but as I wasn’t blogging at the time, I didn’t publish it anywhere. I just found it again, decided to add an extra two pieces, and thought I’d put it here for anyone who might care. 

The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharge from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre of pyre-
To be redeemed from fire by fire.

Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove.
We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire.

TS. Eliot, “Little Gidding”

 

O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.

W. B. Yeats, “Sailing to Byzantium”

 

Rest your cheek, for a moment, on this drunken cheek.
Let me forget the war and cruelty inside myself.
I hold these silver coins in my hand;
Give me your wine of golden light.
You have opened the seven doors of heaven;
Now lay your hand generously on my tightened heart.
All I have to offer is this illusion, my self.
Give it a nickname at least that is real.
Only you can restore what you have broken;
Help my broken head.
I’m not asking for some sweet pistachio candy,
But your everlasting love.
Fifty times I’ve said,
“Heart, stop hunting and step into this net.”

Rumi, “The War Inside,” trans. Kabir Helminski

 

Somehow it has all
added up to song
earth, air, rain and light,
the labor and the heat,
the mortality of the young.
I will go free of other
singing, I will go
into the silence
of my songs, to hear
this song clearly.

Wendell Berry, “A Song Sparrow Singing in the Fall”

 

Helplessness Blues” by Fleet Foxes

 

The Tree of Life, by Terrence Malick

 

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“Mother of the World,” Nicholas Roerich, 1924. (Source).

The Waste Land of Father John Misty

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Father John Misty. (Source).

A Christ in sunglasses is nailed to a papier-mâché cross. He is, in fact, not just Jesus, but also Macauley Culkin and Kurt Cobain at once, the triune victim of philistines and a squad of jackbooted, mocking Romans who are dressed as Ronald McDonald. A Xenomorphic version of the clown himself pops out of the hook-handed captain’s chest and fires a lazer at a bleeding-eyed Virgin in a red Wendy’s wig. The good thief is Bill Clinton on a confetti-colored cross. The titulus crucis has been replaced with a cardboard scroll that reads “King of the Cucks.” Before departing, the last fast-food fascist takes a selfie with the Cobain-Christ. And good old George Washington, Oculus Rift still clasped to his head, burns to a crisp in orgiastic entertainment as the virtual sacrifice concludes.

Was this an Ayahuasca trip, a mystic hallucination, or a rather heavy-handed SNL skit?

The answer, of course, is D, none of the above. It’s just another Father John Misty video. This one is entitled “Total Entertainment Forever,” and the track comes from his new release from Sub Pop, Pure Comedy. Father John Misty (alias Josh Tillman) has long produced a body of work at once blasphemous and baffling, though occasionally given to brief bursts of beauty. There is less of this latter quality in his newest album, and it’s sorely missed. Tillman has instead given us a project bloated with its own sense of self-importance and suffocating on its own shallow satirical spite.

Of course, it’s perfectly fine for an artist to mock, to rally, or to critique. Some of the greatest art does all three at once. Take, for instance, that modernist monolith, The Waste Land. T.S. Eliot may have contended for years that it was just “the relief of a personal and wholly insignificant grouse against life…just a piece of rhythmical grumbling,” but critics of every generation have recognized in the poem a powerful diagnosis of the sickness of Western civilization. Much of Eliot’s “grouse” remains relevant today, in part because, even as he pilloried all kinds of people, he grounded his art in the perennial images of human culture.

Father John Misty, alas, does not. He is content to complain without saying anything all that deep, and without investing his work with the kind of symbolic depth we recognize in Eliot.

The titular track, “Pure Comedy,” sets the mood for the rest of the album. We might as well spend some time looking at the lyrics. They reveal quite a lot about Father John Misty’s priorities and self-perception. Here are the first lines:

The comedy of man starts like this
Our brains are way too big for our mothers’ hips
And so Nature, she divines this alternative
We emerged half-formed and hope that whoever greets us on the other end
Is kind enough to fill us in
And, babies, that’s pretty much how it’s been ever since

The song goes on to announce that mankind’s lot is really just,

Comedy, now that’s what I call pure comedy.
Just waiting until the part where they start to believe
They’re at the center of everything
And some all-powerful being endowed this horror show with meaning

That right there is the little light in the plane that tells us to buckle up and get ready for the hackneyed atheist bits.

Oh, their religions are the best
They worship themselves yet they’re totally obsessed
With risen zombies, celestial virgins, magic tricks, these unbelievable outfits
And they get terribly upset
When you question their sacred texts
Written by woman-hating epileptics

For those of you who didn’t watch the video I linked above, let me save you some time. He’s not talking about Islam and Judaism. Tilman is mainly targeting Catholicism, even if he refrains from becoming explicit about it in the lyrics. Worse, he’s not even terribly original. The verse just distills the common, fedora-tipping New (c. 2006) Atheism of the Internet. Josh Tilman is no Ivan Karamazov.

Tillman has shown a longstanding interest in religious themes, as his previous two album covers demonstrate. He is known to sprinkle his songs with religious allusions. Pure Comedy features a track entitled “When the God of Love Returns There’ll Be Hell to Pay.” Tillman sings about what he would tell Jesus as the Apocalypse unfolds. He says that he would give Jesus a tour of the world, then says:

Barely got through the prisons and stores
And the pale horse looks a little sick
Says, “Jesus, you didn’t leave a whole lot for me
If this isn’t hell already then tell me what the hell is?”

Tillman, never wary of blasphemy, says to Christ, “And now you’ve got the gall to judge us.” One might point out the irony of Tillman posing as a holier-than-thou moral authority when, just a few lines earlier, he equates prisons and stores. If this fatuous and fundamentally unserious judgment doesn’t betray a warped moral sensibility, then I’m not sure what does.

On a more philosophical note, let me say that it is the prerogative of the artist to explore the bounds of the possible, especially when crafting strange hypotheticals like the one that Tillman imagines. Tillman also works in a long tradition of artists who mediate their work through the careful deployment of personae. His stage-name, Father John Misty, is a good example of this tendency (and a religiously-tinged one at that). But even granting these stipulations about the nature of art, we should remember a third point. All art inherently crafts aesthetic experience and therefore “sets the stage” for a presentation and affective reception of beauty. Insofar as art is bound to beauty, it is necessarily tied to the good and the true as well. Art can deny, flatter, hide, contest, mask, or assail goodness and truth, but it can never be rid of them and their own proper criteria. The problems that arise when we try too hard to make art “good” or “true” are many and easy to identify. But we cannot totally separate the aesthetic world from the moral and scientific spheres of life. An artist whose work displays a perverse moral sensibility may produce great art, but it will be somewhat immoral, and it may not correspond to the way things really are.

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Fear Fun (2012). A much better album. Note the religious imagery underneath all the chaos.

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I Love You, Honeybear (2015). A not very good but still better album. Here, too, FJM appropriates Christian iconography.

But back to “Pure Comedy.”

Perhaps because his criticism of religion/Christianity is so stale, Tillman spices things up a bit in the next verse by trying to be Relevant© and Woke™. Even without watching the video, you can tell that it’s about a certain unsavory Head of State.

Their languages just serve to confuse them
Their confusion somehow makes them more sure
They build fortunes poisoning their offspring
And hand out prizes when someone patents the cure
Where did they find these goons they elected to rule them?
What makes these clowns they idolize so remarkable?
These mammals are hell-bent on fashioning new gods
So they can go on being godless animals

It’s not clear whether Tillman lost his faith in humanity because of Trump, or if the Donald’s ascent merely confirmed a longstanding pessimism. One could perhaps sympathize with the latter position, if only because it would be intellectually honest.

But I digress.

We come to the emotional climax of the song.

Oh comedy, their illusions they have no choice but to believe
Their horizons that just forever recede
And how’s this for irony, their idea of being free is a prison of beliefs
That they never ever have to leave

I would take his point more seriously if it were not a banal and adolescent bastardization of Camus or Rand or Nietzsche or [insert edgelord here]. “Pure Comedy” is not unique in this sense of immaturity. Listening and reading through all the songs, I was repeatedly reminded of angsty teenage poetry. Tillman’s unhappy tendency to be biographical, abstract, and preachy was not nearly as pronounced in his earlier work as Father John Misty (I can’t speak to his releases as J. Tillman).

Unfortunately, the song doesn’t get better from there. In the final verse, Tillman croons,

The only thing that seems to make them feel alive is the struggle to survive
But the only thing that they request is something to numb the pain with
Until there’s nothing human left
Just random matter suspended in the dark
I hate to say it, but each other’s all we got

The idea of our planet being nothing more than a rock in space comes up again and again throughout the album. At the beginning of one track, Tillman calls the earth “this bright blue marble orbited by trash.” It’s Eliot’s “Unreal City,” brought up to date for the space age. But in that last line, we hear the echoes of Auden’s famous poem about the beginning of World War II; “We must love one another or die.” It’s a maudlin sentiment that Auden repented for the rest of his life. One wonders if Tillman will someday look back on the shallow clichés of “Pure Comedy” with the same sense of regret.

The rest of the album continues these themes. Tillman gives us a tour of the imbecility of human nature, especially as manifested by the entertainment industry, pharmaceutical corporations, Republicans, fast food, the religious, Middle America, social media, public intellectuals, and ideologues of all sorts. By the end, the Holden Caulfield act gets old. In most of the songs, the music trundles along aimlessly, neither powerful nor novel enough to sustain Tilman’s puerile lyrics.

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Democritus laughs because he sees that the world is hopeless. (Source).

All of which is a serious disappointment to someone like me, who’s been a fan for years. You see, this ain’t Father John Misty’s first rodeo in the American Wasteland. His earlier work often treated these same themes, but in a more aesthetically and intellectually sophisticated way. Where in Pure Comedy do we find a song that matches the sultry and haunting sense of doom rippling through “Funtimes in Babylon?” Or the perky, quirky, frenzied mania of “I’m Writing a Novel?” Or the languid malaise of “Bored in The USA?” Or the soulfully earnest and operatically desperate madman’s litany, “Holy Shit,” perhaps Tilman’s finest piece yet? All of these songs work, not just because of their evocative lyrics, but because they are genuine musical accomplishments. Each is a gem of a song in its own way. In each, Tillman flexes the considerable powers of his unique voice. His sound manages to swing seamlessly between a controlled vigor and a vulnerability that shines without brittleness.

The album is not without its strengths. The satire does sometimes land pretty well, as in “Birdie” and “Things It Would Have Been Helpful To Know Before the Revolution” and “Ballad of the Dying Man.” In “The Memo,” Tillman wields his well-refined sense of shock value to drive home an unremittingly cynical take on the entertainment and advertising industries. But perhaps I’m just gravitating to songs that are pretty clearly meant to mock the left establishment or deflate the pretensions of neoliberals and transhumanists.

In “Dying Man,” we hear:

TheHangedManTarot

“Consider Phlebas…” (Source)

So says the dying man once I’m in the box
Just think of all the overrated hacks running amok
And all of the pretentious, ignorant voices that will go unchecked
The homophobes, hipsters, and 1%
The false feminists he’d managed to detect
Oh, who will critique them once he’s left?

A nice bit of biting sarcasm there. But sadly, Tilman smothers his wit under clunky dictiona verbose, chatty mess apparently composed without any care for euphony. Paired with lackluster music, the song fails.

The only really superlative work in the entire album is Tillman’s flawless penultimate track, “So I’m Growing Old on Magic Mountain.” Here, too, he is commenting on the madness of our times. But he’s left aside the pose of the pontificating prophet. Gone are the grand and sweeping lines about “human nature” as in “When the God of Love Returns.” Gone, too, are the plastic, pop-culture in-jokes that masquerade as hot takes; gone, the pearl-clutching about the woes of consumerism and fast food and the stupid white people who vote Republican and believe in God.

Instead, Tillman tells a story. A New Year’s Eve party has just ended, and the revelry is fading away. One of the guests describes the scene.

That’s it. Observe:

The wine has all been emptied
And smoke has cleared
As people file back to the valley
On the last night of life’s party
These days the years thin till I can’t remember
Just what it feels like to be young forever

Tillman’s more symbolic and sensitive tack suits his message; our age echoes the cultural moment that led Thomas Mann to write The Magic Mountain, and coming to grips with that realization has aged us. His sonic scene-craft evokes universal images and elevates the song into a testament of the human condition. If Tilman intends to speak to our particular cultural moment in Pure Comedy, he succeeds with “Magic Mountain.”

The only real shame is that there weren’t more songs like it on the rest of the album.

Pure Comedy
Father John Misty, Sub Pop Records, 2017
5.5/10 stars.

Three Poems for Whitsunday

Fresco-Zica

The Dove Descending…(Source)

Inspired by and borrowing from Artur Rosman’s similar post, I offer you some Pentecostal poetry.

“Little Gidding” IV, by T.S. Eliot

The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharge from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre of pyre-
To be redeemed from fire by fire.

Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove.
We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire.

“God’s Grandeur,” by Gerard Manley Hopkins S.J.

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
    It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
    It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
    And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
    And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
    There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
    Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
    World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

 

“Epigrammata Sacra XIII” – The descent of the Holy Spirit – Richard Crashaw

Bear, o bosoms, bear ye what Heaven’s vintage showers,
Sacred clusters pouring from ethereal bowers.
Too happy, surely, ye who drink of wine so good;
It comes into your bosoms a sparkling, cooling flood.
Behold, with nectar’d star, each head is shining, shining;
Around your purpl’d locks a crown of life entwining.
O Spirit of all flesh, to drink who’d be denied,
Since Thou, lest they should falter, mak’st wine a torch to guide?

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Veni Sancte Spiritus! (Source)

Some Occasional Thoughts on the Holy Minimalists and the Light of Tabor

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Icon of the Transfiguration, by the hand of the great 15th century iconographer of Moscow, Theophanes the Greek.

Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them; his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light. And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, conversing with him. Then Peter said to Jesus in reply, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, behold, a bright cloud cast a shadow over them, then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” When the disciples heard this, they fell prostrate and were very much afraid. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and do not be afraid.” And when the disciples raised their eyes, they saw no one else but Jesus alone.

As they were coming down from the mountain, Jesus charged them,”Do not tell the vision to anyone until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

These words from St. Matthew were the Gospel reading at Mass last night. Yesterday was the second weekend of Lent, and the Church directs our eyes, alongside those of the holy apostles, to the face of Our Lord in His Transfiguration. And in the Eastern Churches, today is St. Gregory Palamas Sunday. Palamas is most famous for his articulation of the Essence-Energies distinction as part of a broader polemic against the Byzantine Scholastic attacks on Hesychasm carried out by Barlaam of Seminara. One of Palamas’ key Scriptural examples of God’s energies is the “uncreated light” of Christ’s glory in the Transfiguration. St. Gregory is celebrated to this day by the Eastern Orthodox and by Eastern Catholics on their Lenten calendars; yet in the post-Scholastic West, he still holds no place on the calendar. I must wonder whether or not the readings for the Second Sunday of Lent were chosen at the revision of the Lectionary in part as an ecumenical gesture to the Orthodox, though my knowledge of 20th century liturgical innovations is shallow at best. Regardless, those who, to adapt a phrase of Pope St. John Paul II, “breathe with both lungs” of the Church can recognize the Providential coincidence of these two celebrations.

The Light of Tabor is, in a Palamite reading, the eternal Glory of God made manifest in, with, and through Christ’s created humanity. The Transfiguration is therefore an archetypal moment for every mysticnot just the Hesychasts whom St. Gregory was defending. In view of all this, while I listened to the priest reading the Gospel this evening, a song came to mind: “My Heart’s in the Highlands,” by Arvo Pärt. The lyrics are taken from a poem by Robert Burns. Here’s the chorus:

My heart’s in the Highlands, my heart is not here,
My heart’s in the Highlands, a-chasing the deer;
Chasing the wild-deer, and following the roe,
My heart’s in the Highlands, wherever I go.

A few weeks ago, when I first listened to the song, it immediately struck me as a potent metaphor for the contemplative life. Is not the contemplative’s heart set in the “high lands” of the spirit, like St. John of the Cross’s Mount Carmel? And has the Divine not been associated with wild deer throughout history, from the panting hart of Psalm 42 to the vision of St. Hubert to the White Stag of Narnia? The Apostles, like the mystics, like the chanting voice in Pärt’s song, are “led…up a high mountain by themselves.” There, they find Christ’s true glory, the energy of His divinity totally interpenetrating all they can perceive of him. The created rises into the divine, and the uncreated bends towards the creaturely; the two meet in the transfigured Christ. The dual presence of the heavenly Elijah and the Sheol-bound Moses demonstrates the moment of radiant communion between God and His creation, manifested perfectly in Christ, the Word made flesh.

Pärt’s song describes the experience of the mystic, not because Burns’ words actually refer to contemplation, but because of the way he takes up the verse and stretches it against an agonizingly poignant organ composition. He sets secular words to sacred music. Thus he accomplishes in miniature the assumption of the creaturely by the divine that comes before our vision in the Transfiguration. Art at its finest is called to participate in this lesser Transfiguration, and Pärt is a consummate master of what Tolkien might call “sub-creation.”

But Pärt is not alone in this; one of his colleagues, John Tavener, arguably a finer and more mystically-oriented composer, also transfigured profane writings into sacred pieces of music. I can think of no better example of this than his brief and delightful motet, “The Lamb.” Tavener took the lyrics from William Blake’s poem of the same name. In full, it reads:

Little lamb, who made thee
 Dost thou know who made thee,
Gave thee life, and bid thee feed
By the stream and o’er the mead;
Gave thee clothing of delight,
Softest clothing, woolly, bright;
Gave thee such a tender voice,
Making all the vales rejoice?
 Little lamb, who made thee?
 Dost thou know who made thee?

 Little lamb, I’ll tell thee;
 Little lamb, I’ll tell thee:
He is callèd by thy name,
For He calls Himself a Lamb.
He is meek, and He is mild,
He became a little child.
I a child, and thou a lamb,
We are callèd by His name.
 Little lamb, God bless thee!
 Little lamb, God bless thee!

Here too, we might glimpse the transfigured Lamb of God between the lines of Blake’s verse. The lamb’s “clothing of delight/Softest clothing, woolly, bright” seems to echo the robe rendered “white as light” on Mt. Tabor. Blake speaks of “the vales” when Scripture instead would bring us up to the peaks. And the question that ends the first verse is fundamentally the same as that which must have run through the minds of the bewildered apostles; who is this man? The answer, of course, comes from the voice in the cloud: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” And Tavener’s eerily beautiful choral setting imbues the lyrics with a dimension hitherto unimagined. Many of his works remind one of candlelight on ritual gold, or the smell of incense flying forth with the rhythm of thurible bells, or the echo that thins out asymptotically under the glittering mosaic of a high dome. “The Lamb” is all of this, presented compactly. It stands as one of his finest works, and one of his most spiritually rich.

I recently wrote about the Holy Minimalists in a piece on the music of The Young Pope. They’ve been on my mind. But I didn’t connect their artistic project to the Transfiguration until tonight. We Christians are to become “little Christs,” imitating Jesus in all things by adoption and deification. Sometimes, that takes the form of contemplation. The apostles model that path for us in their behavior on Mt. Tabor. But at other times, and in other ways, we are called to live the life of Christ more directly. The Transfiguration provides a mystical glimpse of what happensand indeed, what will happenwhen the uncreated Light of God assumes, permeates, and glorifies the creation. Of course, the energies of God are not found in the artifices of men; but artists can practice their own, creaturely form of transfiguration. The pieces of music I have discussed are shot through with an awareness of the divine presence, and the words that began as profane poetry become something altogether different, something sacred, something nearly liturgical.

At the beginning of Lent, T.S. Eliot tells us to “Redeem/The time.” On this, the Second Sunday of the penitential season, Christ reveals in Himself how we might do soa transfiguration that Arvo Pärt and John Tavener have achieved, in some small way, through their own creative work.

 

“Although I Do Not Hope to Turn Again” : Two Poets for Ash Wednesday

t-s-_elliot_ash_wednesday_cover

T.S. Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday,” first edition cover. Source: Wikimedia.

Today is Ash Wednesday, and once again my thoughts turn to T.S. Eliot. Later, I will listen, as I used to do after all my confessions, to the Pope of Russell Square intone “Ash Wednesday” (1930) in a vatic voice. Like Eliot, I am a convert. And for all converts, Ash Wednesday offers a reminder of the life we have left behind. Converts feel, perhaps more powerfully than those raised in the faith, the strange liminal state of the Christian life. We are dead to sin, but not yet fully alive. The ashes imposed on our foreheads are merely the outward sign of an ever-fragile conversion. Ash Wednesday is the reminder of our weakness, of our constant need for mercy, of the vast landscapes of heaven and hell that open for us beyond the febrile veil of our brief hours on earth. On Ash Wednesday, we remember our death. Reversing all natural order, the penitential season begins with death and ends with the triumph of life. Let it never be said that the liturgical calendar lacks paradox. “Although I do not hope to turn again,” the liturgy leads me to do so.

As much as I love Eliot’s work, I don’t think his fine poem is the only one worth reading today. I might also consider the work of another great Anglican writer, George Herbert.

 

georgeherbert

George Herbert (1593-1633). Source: New Statesman

In The Temple (1633), Herbert devotes one of his poems to Ash Wednesday. He writes, in a detached style that marks him as perhaps the preeminent pastor-poet of Anglicanism:

Welcome deare feast of Lent: who loves not thee,

He loves not Temperance, or Authoritie,

But is compos’d of passion.

The Scriptures bid us fast; the Church sayes, now:

Give to thy Mother, what thou wouldst allow

To ev’ry Corporation.

Herbert, like Eliot so many centuries later, is a writer of deeply ecclesial sensibilities. His poetic is shaped by the language of the Prayer Book and the Bible, at once homely and  hieratic. Yet his moral vision clearly grows from his practical experience as a vicar. One could be forgiven for mistaking the poem for a sermon in verse.

True Christians should be glad of an occasion

To use their temperance, seeking no evasion,

When good is seasonable;

Unlesse Authoritie, which should increase

The obligation in us, make it lesse,

And Power it self disable.

Besides the cleannesse of sweet abstinence,

Quick thoughts and motions at a small expense,

A face not fearing light:

Whereas in fulnesse there are sluttish fumes,

Sowre exhalations, and dishonest rheumes,

Revenging the delight.

Throughout, he tempers his characteristic calls for conversion with a profound humility before the perfection of Christ. To conclude:

Who goeth in the way which Christ hath gone,

Is much more sure to meet with him, than one

That travelleth by-ways:

Perhaps my God, though he be far before,

May turn, and take me by the hand, and more

May strengthen my decays.

Yet Lord instruct us to improve our fast

By starving sin and taking such repast

As may our faults control:

That ev’ry man may revel at his door,

Not in his parlor; banqueting the poor,

And among those his soul.

A Few Poems for St. Valentine’s Day

psyche_revived_by_cupids_kiss
Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss, Antonio Canova.

Out of Catullus

By Richard Crashaw (translating Catullus)

Come and let us live my Deare,
Let us love and never feare,
What the sowrest Fathers say:
Brightest Sol that dies to day
Lives againe as blithe to morrow,
But if we darke sons of sorrow
Set; o then, how long a Night
Shuts the Eyes of our short light!
Then let amorous kisses dwell
On our lips, begin and tell
A Thousand, and a Hundred, score
An Hundred, and a Thousand more,
Till another Thousand smother
That, and that wipe of another.
Thus at last when we have numbred
Many a Thousand, many a Hundred;
Wee’l confound the reckoning quite,
And lose our selves in wild delight:
While our joyes so multiply,

As shall mocke the envious eye.

 

Sonnet 29

 

By William Shakespeare

When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself, and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featur’d like him, like him with friends possess’d,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remember’d such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

 

The Flaming Heart

By Richard Crashaw (excerpted)

 

O heart, the equal poise of love’s both parts,

Big alike with wounds and darts,

Live in these conquering leaves; live all the same,

And walk through all tongues one triumphant flame;

Live here, great heart, and love and die and kill,

And bleed and wound, and yield and conquer still.

Let this immortal life, where’er it comes,

Walk in a crowd of loves and martyrdoms;

Let mystic deaths wait on ’t, and wise souls be

The love-slain witnesses of this life of thee.

O sweet incendiary! show here thy art,

Upon this carcass of a hard cold heart,

Let all thy scatter’d shafts of light, that play

Among the leaves of thy large books of day,

Combin’d against this breast, at once break in

And take away from me my self and sin;

This gracious robbery shall thy bounty be,

And my best fortunes such fair spoils of me.

O thou undaunted daughter of desires!

By all thy dow’r of lights and fires,

By all the eagle in thee, all the dove,

By all thy lives and deaths of love,

By thy large draughts of intellectual day,

And by thy thirsts of love more large than they,

By all thy brim-fill’d bowls of fierce desire,

By thy last morning’s draught of liquid fire,

By the full kingdom of that final kiss

That seiz’d thy parting soul and seal’d thee his,

By all the heav’ns thou hast in him,

Fair sister of the seraphim!

By all of him we have in thee,

Leave nothing of my self in me:

Let me so read thy life that I

Unto all life of mine may die.

 

The Canonization

By John Donne

For God’s sake hold your tongue, and let me love,
         Or chide my palsy, or my gout,
My five gray hairs, or ruined fortune flout,
         With wealth your state, your mind with arts improve,
                Take you a course, get you a place,
                Observe his honor, or his grace,
Or the king’s real, or his stampèd face
         Contemplate; what you will, approve,
         So you will let me love.
Alas, alas, who’s injured by my love?
         What merchant’s ships have my sighs drowned?
Who says my tears have overflowed his ground?
         When did my colds a forward spring remove?
                When did the heats which my veins fill
                Add one more to the plaguy bill?
Soldiers find wars, and lawyers find out still
         Litigious men, which quarrels move,
         Though she and I do love.
Call us what you will, we are made such by love;
         Call her one, me another fly,
We’re tapers too, and at our own cost die,
         And we in us find the eagle and the dove.
                The phœnix riddle hath more wit
                By us; we two being one, are it.
So, to one neutral thing both sexes fit.
         We die and rise the same, and prove
         Mysterious by this love.
We can die by it, if not live by love,
         And if unfit for tombs and hearse
Our legend be, it will be fit for verse;
         And if no piece of chronicle we prove,
                We’ll build in sonnets pretty rooms;
                As well a well-wrought urn becomes
The greatest ashes, as half-acre tombs,
         And by these hymns, all shall approve
         Us canonized for Love.
And thus invoke us: “You, whom reverend love
         Made one another’s hermitage;
You, to whom love was peace, that now is rage;
         Who did the whole world’s soul contract, and drove
                Into the glasses of your eyes
                (So made such mirrors, and such spies,
That they did all to you epitomize)
         Countries, towns, courts: beg from above
         A pattern of your love!”

 

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

 

By T.S. Eliot
S’io credesse che mia risposta fosse
A persona che mai tornasse al mondo,
Questa fiamma staria senza piu scosse.
Ma percioche giammai di questo fondo
Non torno vivo alcun, s’i’odo il vero,
Senza tema d’infamia ti rispondo.
Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question …
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.
In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.
The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes,
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.
And indeed there will be time
For the yellow smoke that slides along the street,
Rubbing its back upon the window-panes;
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.
In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.
And indeed there will be time
To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”
Time to turn back and descend the stair,
With a bald spot in the middle of my hair —
(They will say: “How his hair is growing thin!”)
My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,
My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin —
(They will say: “But how his arms and legs are thin!”)
Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.
For I have known them all already, known them all:
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
I know the voices dying with a dying fall
Beneath the music from a farther room.
               So how should I presume?
And I have known the eyes already, known them all—
The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,
And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?
               And how should I presume?
And I have known the arms already, known them all—
Arms that are braceleted and white and bare
(But in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair!)
Is it perfume from a dress
That makes me so digress?
Arms that lie along a table, or wrap about a shawl.
               And should I then presume?
               And how should I begin?
Shall I say, I have gone at dusk through narrow streets
And watched the smoke that rises from the pipes
Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows? …
I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.
And the afternoon, the evening, sleeps so peacefully!
Smoothed by long fingers,
Asleep … tired … or it malingers,
Stretched on the floor, here beside you and me.
Should I, after tea and cakes and ices,
Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?
But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed,
Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in upon a platter,
I am no prophet — and here’s no great matter;
I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,
And in short, I was afraid.
And would it have been worth it, after all,
After the cups, the marmalade, the tea,
Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me,
Would it have been worth while,
To have bitten off the matter with a smile,
To have squeezed the universe into a ball
To roll it towards some overwhelming question,
To say: “I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all”—
If one, settling a pillow by her head
               Should say: “That is not what I meant at all;
               That is not it, at all.”
And would it have been worth it, after all,
Would it have been worth while,
After the sunsets and the dooryards and the sprinkled streets,
After the novels, after the teacups, after the skirts that trail along the floor—
And this, and so much more?—
It is impossible to say just what I mean!
But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen:
Would it have been worth while
If one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl,
And turning toward the window, should say:
               “That is not it at all,
               That is not what I meant, at all.”
No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
Almost, at times, the Fool.
I grow old … I grow old …
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.
Shall I part my hair behind?   Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
I do not think that they will sing to me.
I have seen them riding seaward on the waves
Combing the white hair of the waves blown back
When the wind blows the water white and black.
We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.