I just found out that my good friend Billy Borman has started a blog, Incudi Reddere. He is considerably better-read than I am, and his blog is ten times more scholarly than what you’ll find here. I have no doubt that it will be an immensely enlightening venture. Give it a view!
For the kingdom of heaven is as a man travelling into a far country, who called his own servants, and delivered unto them his goods. And unto one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one; to every man according to his several ability; and straightway took his journey. Then he that had received the five talents went and traded with the same, and made them other five talents. And likewise he that had received two, he also gained other two. But he that had received one went and digged in the earth, and hid his lord’s money. After a long time the lord of those servants cometh, and reckoneth with them. And so he that had received five talents came and brought other five talents, saying, Lord, thou deliveredst unto me five talents: behold, I have gained beside them five talents more. His lord said unto him, Well done, thou good and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord. He also that had received two talents came and said, Lord, thou deliveredst unto me two talents: behold, I have gained two other talents beside them. His lord said unto him, Well done, good and faithful servant; thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord. Then he which had received the one talent came and said, Lord, I knew thee that thou art an hard man, reaping where thou hast not sown, and gathering where thou hast not strawed: And I was afraid, and went and hid thy talent in the earth: lo, there thou hast that is thine. His lord answered and said unto him, Thou wicked and slothful servant, thou knewest that I reap where I sowed not, and gather where I have not strawed: Thou oughtest therefore to have put my money to the exchangers, and then at my coming I should have received mine own with usury. Take therefore the talent from him, and give it unto him which hath ten talents. For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath. And cast ye the unprofitable servant into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
(Matt. 25: 14-30 KJV).
“There are two sides to every issue: one side is right and the other is wrong, but the middle is always evil.” (Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged 1054).
In every age, the relationship of the Church and the world is a fraught issue. The particular vicissitudes of politics, society, and spirituality always bring up new challenges for the Body of Christ in hac lacrimarum valle. Rod Dreher’s new book, The Benedict Option, recently released by Sentinel, is a contribution to the question as we must face it in our own time. Dreher says in the book that he hopes to “sound the alarm for conservative Christians in the West,” so that they can survive “the greatest danger” of our age, “the liberal secular order itself” (The Benedict Option 236). He envisions Christians forming counter-cultural communities to sustain the life of the Faith through “modern repaganization” (197).
Insofar as Dreher wanted to start a conversation, the book is a smashing success. It has been praised and pilloried in the Christian blogosphere and beyond. Over the course of the last three and a half years, Dreher has even inspired rival “options” such as Chad Pecknold’s Dominican Option, Michael Martin’s Sophia Option, John Mark Reynolds’s Constantine Project, Dr. Carrie Gress’s Marian Option, and more. I may get into some of those reactions over the course of this essay. What I will not do is make much reference to Dreher’s authorial meddling, including his obsessive and often highly vindictive reactions to reviews he dislikes. It is enough to acknowledge that Dreher is partaking of the conversation he wanted to start. Considered solely as a social phenomenon, the Benedict Option has succeeded at beginning those important conversations about the Church’s place in the (post)modern west.
But books cannot be reduced to the conversations they inspire. They are texts, and eventually we need to evaluate them as texts. Under that demand, the record is much murkier. There are many good things about The Benedict Option, but also many bad things. Throughout, the book’s noble aspirations are frustrated by poor style, errors of content, and a palpable, hand-wringing fear.
In the interest of charity, however, I’ll begin with a few of the positives.
Dreher is concerned with the right problems: individualism, hedonism, consumerism, liberalism, secularism, relativism, etc. In short, the toxic cocktail of capitalist modernity. Of course, Dreher hardly bothers to point out that these issues are intimately bound up with the economic system as such. But I digress.
Dreher follows upon greater scholars like, inter alia, Alasdair MacIntyre and Charles Taylor. There has been some controversy over Dreher’s reading of MacIntyre, but ultimately, I’m not sure it matters. Dreher was inspired by a line in After Virtue and came up with his own project (sorta…Gabriel Sanchez, among others, rightly points out that Dreher’s vision isn’t all that original anyway). So be it. The fact remains that, insofar as the book is a polemic, Dreher is aiming at the right kinds of cultural forces. It also helps that Dreher specifically limits his scope to the West. Any attempt to integrate the cultural experience of Christians in, say, Sub-Saharan Africa or the Far East would no doubt lead to an extremely different set of conclusions than those which Dreher has offered. His command of social science and ethnographic work (if not historiography) about our own situation is impressive.
Moreover, Dreher is right to mine the wisdom of the monastic tradition. Monasticism, where rightly practiced, stands as a sign of contradiction to the world’s banality, vices, and distractions. He attempts to draw something like a social doctrine out of the Rule of St. Benedict, a project I’ve long thought might be worthwhile if attempted with more systematic rigor. Dreher writes, “Because it dictates how Benedictine virtues are to be lived by monastic communities, the Rule is political” even while he recognizes that “The telos…of a monastic life is not the same as the telos of life in a secular state” (The Benedict Option 88). His Third Chapter, describing the life and spirituality of the Monks of Norcia, is a loving testament to this inspiring young order. Dreher also advocates for Christian families to turn their homes into “domestic monaster[ies]” and attempt a genuine ascetic life (124-26). In fact, his overriding goal—to bring up the next generation as faithful Christians, and thereby preserve Christianity as such—is an indisputably admirable one.
I might add that some of his thoughts on education are sensible. While I’m more skeptical than Dreher is when it comes to Classical Education, and the canon of Great Books in particular, I think the model works best at the pre-collegiate levels he imagines. I also don’t think he’s right to totally write off secular academe, but I know from the experience of friends that the academy can be a sometimes unjustly punishing place for practicing Christians. My own view is that this places an even greater urgency on Christians to contribute to intellectual life in America inside the universities, wherever and whenever possible. Rowan Williams is right to point out that
The Benedict Option…confronts the prevailing consensus about how far the majority is willing to make room for principled dissent and public argument – yet at the same time shows a rather dispiriting lack of confidence in public argument.
I can understand why Dreher and his allies don’t have high hopes for America’s educational system, but I also think surrendering our place in the universities would be a disastrously bad idea. I’ll get into that in my follow-up to this review, when I hope to put forward some of my own suggestions.
Dreher also includes a really great, extended shout-out to the Center for Christian Study in Charlottesville. Having spent the better part of my Sunday afternoons at “the Stud” for meetings of the G.K. Chesterton Society, I can vouch for its excellence. I have friends who have lived there, and it’s done wonders for their personal faith lives. In fact, I first saw Dreher speak at the Stud, when he visited in February (or was it January?) of 2016. He wasn’t half bad, either. The room was packed, and he gave a pretty good pitch for what he was, even then, calling “the Benedict Option.”
But I also remember a niggling doubt about the whole thing, which I couldn’t quite identify, much less express, at that early stage. Now, having read the book, I feel more confident in my objections—but once again, I digress. I wanted to start off with the praiseworthy parts of the book.
Dreher’s “anti-politics” are timely and wise. He makes good use of the examples left to us by Czech dissidents during the Communist years. While I have a few qualms about some of his proposals—such as his insistence that Christians focus all of their energy on Religious Liberty activism and legislation—I share his disillusionment with the organized forces of both right and left.
I also commend him on his total disdain for Donald Trump. Dreher writes,
Though Donald Trump won the presidency in part with the strong support of Catholics and Evangelicals, the idea that someone as robustly vulgar, fiercely combative, and morally compromised as Trump will be an avatar for the restoration of Christian morality and social unity is beyond delusional. He is not a solution to the problem of America’s cultural decline, but a symptom of it. (The Benedict Option 79).
Amen. As someone who did not vote for Donald Trump and hopes never to do so, I acclaim Dreher for putting those words in print. Too many Conservatives who once thought much more clearly about the morals of their leaders have since bowed and done homage to the Golden-Coiffed Calf.
There were other positive moments. The whole idea of reinforcing Christian community in the face of cultural and political opposition is a worthy goal—and a surprisingly risky one at that. Any communitarian project is necessarily fraught with certain dangers, particularly in a world already defined by stark social divisions across race, class, and other categories. As I read, I was repeatedly and pleasantly surprised by objections Dreher headed off at the proverbial pass. He hopes that Benedict Option communities can come together across ethnic and racial divides, and he recognizes the dangerous tendencies of tight-knit communities to become closed, coercive, and cultish (81, 138-143). He also gives a few really great examples from the Mormon experience (132, 34-35). While Dreher doesn’t provide any practical advice for, say, Benedict Option parents whose children come out to them as gay or lesbian, one gets the sense that he’s not in favor of shunning, shaming, and disinheritence. Which is sensible.
(And yes, I realize that as an Amish Catholic, I ought to be in favor of shunning generally. Like Whitman, “I contain multitudes”).
I think his chapter on sexual ethics is probably one of the more sensible passages of the book. The very day that I finished the chapter, I came across this article on the possibility of a new liturgy to mark gender transitions (possibly even rebaptism) in the C of E. When Dreher says that sexual teaching is a lot closer to the heart of the faith than liberals might claim, he’s not wrong.
Finally, I’ll say that he’s right to pin his hopes on beauty. Building on Joseph Ratzinger and Matthew Crawford, Dreher writes,
…the most effective way to evangelize is by helping people experience beauty and goodness. From that starting point, we help them to grasp the truth that all goodness and beauty emerge from the eternal God, who loves us and wants to be in relationship with us. For Christians, this might mean witnessing to others through music, theater, or some other form of art [if only they could produce something that isn’t deeply, obnoxiously cringey, but that’s not a problem worth getting into here]. Mostly, though, it will mean showing love to others through building and sustaining genuine friendships and through the example of service to the poor, the weak, and the hungry. (The Benedict Option 119).
There are hardly any words in the book which earn my stronger approbation. Dreher is simply correct when he argues that we should “[do] activities that are pleasurable, not merely dutiful” (142). Indeed.
In spite of all these positives, I remain a BenOp skeptic. The book is rather flimsy, riddled with numerous problems. Dreher’s style never manages to break free of the chatty and occasionally shrill blogger’s voice that marks his online fare. Yet it lacks much of the humor that characterizes so much of what he writes at The American Conservative. I could overlook that sin, however, if his content were not similarly flawed. Dreher is dangerously allergic to the one thing that can save his text from its inner contradictions: nuance.
That failure colors every chapter in the book to a greater or lesser degree.
Religion is a famously thorny and multilayered subject. A religious writer aiming at the popular market can be forgiven for simplifying complex ideas to reach a broad audience. But Dreher’s approach veers away from educational simplicity and into outright reductionism.
For the sake of brevity, however, I will only get into the three very specific problems that I found most troubling to Dreher’s project and the quality of his text.
First, a somewhat pedantic point.
Dreher’s lack of nuance is most egregious in his historical narrative, given fully in chapter two and sporadically throughout other parts of the book. He argues that the Middle Ages were a time of order and devotion, in which European Christians believed in objective truths under the happy aegis of Scholastic Realism. Everyone had their place, and everyone knew the essential truths of salvation under God’s cosmic rule. Into this pastoral capriccio storms the wicked Nominalists, led by William of Ockham (1285-1347). By suggesting that universals were not real, but merely notional, the Nominalists inadvertently led to the centuries-long collapse of the sacramental worldview and all of Christendom with it.
Then came the Reformation, which is bad because it “destroyed…unity and stripped those under its sway of many symbols, rituals, and concepts that had structured the inner lives of Christians” (32). Admittedly, Dreher never mentions anything about the deficient theologies of the Reformers, nor the historical fact that Christendom had been divided since 1054 and, even before that, the Council of Chalcedon—but more on that point later.
Dreher then leads us along a whirlwind tour of Western intellectual history, leaping from one period to another with unsupported assumptions of causality. He cursorily mentions political developments such as the Wars of Religion, the American and French Revolutions, and the World Wars. Interestingly enough, he never discusses Imperialism, Colonialism, Anglo-American efforts to end slavery, or the Holocaust—yet surely all of these phenomena had a significant impact on the construction of Western religion and subjectivity.
Eventually, the reader lands in the desiccated and desecrated landscape of sociologist Zygmunt Bauman’s “liquid modernity,” our own godless world, still reeling from the Sexual Revolution.
Put another way, it’s Richard Weaver warmed over, history stripped of everything but ideas and spilled blood. There are a few problems with this approach.
First, it totally fails to account for the complexity of actual history. Even an intellectual historian doesn’t just deal with ideas as such. Ideas don’t float in the ether; they don’t make their way from one thinker to another by force of osmosis. They are transmitted via books, and through those books, to different communities of readers. Intellectual history is ultimately incomplete without its companion sciences: reception history, textual history, history of the book, economic history, political history, art history, and a tremendous dollop of cultural history. Not all of these need to be present in a given text—and certainly not in a book aimed at the popular market!
But we oughtn’t let Dreher off the hook so easily.
Dreher knows that “Ideas don’t occur in a vacuum,” but his slovenly method leads to dubious lineages of causality (28). Without providing a shred of evidence, Dreher boldly asserts that “Most leaders of the Scientific Revolution were professing Christians, but the revolution’s grounding lay undeniably in nominalism” (33). What were they reading? Was the consensus among scholastic metaphysicians noticeably more nominalist in the 17th century than in prior years? Does that consensus cover all of Europe, or just certain important cultural centers? And if so, why should we believe that said consensus applied to the work of natural philosophers?
Or take another example: “[The term ‘Renaissance’] contains within it the secular progressive belief that the religiously focused medieval period was a time of intellectual and artistic sterility—a ludicrous judgment but an influential one” (emphasis mine, 30). Dreher does nothing to justify this assertion. Almost none of what he has told us up to this point suggests that he’s right. We read nothing about Medieval art or literature. We’ve only learned about the disputes of the Scholastics on a very particular question (no pun intended) and heard how great most people’s worldview was at that time.
And let’s take a look at that alleged worldview. In a paragraph which (correctly!) begins, “Medieval Europe was no Christian utopia,” Dreher then goes on to write that, “despite the radical brokenness of their world, medievals carried within their imagination a powerful vision of integration. In the medieval consensus, men construed reality in a way that empowered them to harmonize everything conceptually and find meaning amid the chaos” (25). Who exactly are these “medievals?” Just the scholars who sparred in Paris and Oxford, or the nobility, or the knights, or the bishops, or the monastics, or the vast and often perverse majority of illiterate peasants? And which culture? Anglo-Saxons, Franks, Angevins, Normans, Iberians, or the denizens of any of the myriad German or Italian or Celtic fiefdoms? How far West is he spreading his view? Do the Slavs count? And what centuries does he want us to look at? He’s working with an almost thousand year span from St. Benedict to the dastardly Nominalists. If, in fact, the worldview of that Christian civilization was immutable and homogeneous throughout such a wide variety of time and societies, then doesn’t that feed the very criticism that Dreher so stridently rejects, that the Middle Ages were a “time of intellectual and artistic sterility?” (30).
This point matters, insofar as Dreher elevates (read, “romanticizes”) the Medieval Era as his cultural ideal. The Benedict Option is nothing if not a way of thinking about community. So, which community? What are its limits?
Case in point: what about the Jews? Certainly, they were thought to interrupt that “powerful vision of integration,” which emphatically never included them. Dreher periodically returns to Modern Orthodox Jews as a great example of community-building in the face of modernity (and is right to do so). He goes so far as to call them “our…elder brothers in the faith” (124).
But his praise sits uneasily with his historiography. Only twice does he come close to acknowledging that their survival—indeed, the survival of Judaism as a whole—happened not because of, but in spite of, the Age of Faith. It is not sufficient to recognize that the Jews “have faced horrifying attempts over millennia to destroy their families and communities” (124). We must be clear that, at least in the Medieval era, the chief persecutor was precisely the Christian order that Dreher takes as his model. The one time Dreher does, in fact, mention that it’s Christian persecution, he only does so to discuss how the Jews were forced into the moneylending business. Here then is another historical difficulty that Dreher fails to adequately acknowledge or reconcile with his greater narrative.
Of course, Dreher doesn’t need to answer all of these questions, since he’s not writing an academic history of how modernity—or more properly, modernities—emerged. My point is precisely that, due to the constraints of his form and audience, his historical narrative is naturally going to paper over important, substantive nuances. And those nuances are where the truth is to be found. A project so heavily predicated on a particular way of understanding our historical moment at least ought to get its history right.
As a side-note, I’ll add that Dreher also stakes his claim pretty heavily on readers accepting his comparison of our own age to the advent of the Dark Ages (hence the whole St. Benedict thing). That’s a comparison I’m not willing to make. If anything, our times more closely resemble early modernity—a point I hope to explain more fully in my follow-up to this article. Suffice to say, Sam Rocha is correct to point out that Dreher’s view of the Middle Ages is, at best, incoherent:
On the one hand, he sees the Middle Ages as the period that required a radical retreat in the face of the fall of Rome. On the other hand, he sees the Middle Ages as a period of enchantment and deep faith. These two stories are both vastly oversimplified, but they are quite off when they are both said to be true simultaneously. How can it be the case that when Rome fell the Benedictines endured the Middle Ages guided by their Rule and, also, that the fall of Christianity happened, like Rome, after the end of the Middle Ages? Anyone can see that this story makes no sense logically. Historically, it makes even less sense.
I’m not suggesting that Dreher is necessarily wrong in his various judgments. He may well be correct in accusing the nominalists of a kind of cultural deicide (although it overlooks the Christian nominalist tendency, closely tied to empiricism, that numbers Berkeley, Burke, Hamann, Newman, and Chesterton among its ranks). Greater thinkers than him have made a similar claim. But as written, I have no reason to believe Dreher’s intellectual history. He has made a defensible claim, and subsequently decided not to defend it. He has not shown his readers the courtesy of providing evidence.
Dreher’s citations are woefully inadequate. He makes some use of MacIntyre and Taylor, who are smart, respectable philosophers. But they are not historians. To his credit, he does draw upon C.S. Lewis’s The Discarded Image, David Bentley Hart (although it’s his religious philosophy and not his church historical work) and Brad Gregory, an honest-to-God historian working with an honest-to-God historical method. But he incorporates Gregory to make a point that’s barely substantive, that different ideas about Christianity led to different ways of living out Christianity. Did we really need the authority of an historian to make a point that is already so blindingly obvious? Moreover, all of these citations come in the first two parts of his history: the Middle Ages and the Renaissance/Reformation. But whither Eamon Duffy? Whither Richard Rex? Whither Alexandra Walsham?
If Dreher generally fetishizes the Middle Ages, he commits the opposite sin in his treatment of modernity. He sees only the negative. Dreher’s readers would be forgiven for forgetting that, in fact, the Church has endured and ameliorated the conditions of modern life for 500 years, and that it has given the world innumerable saints during that time. Leaving aside Church history, I’ve already mentioned that Dreher omits the various emancipatory struggles of the 19th and 20th centuries. Why? Perhaps because it troubles his claim that we have arrived at a uniquely bad moment for the Church, a time in which there is essentially nothing to be gained from the culture at large.
Here, too, he lacks nuance or evidence. See his description of Freud:
Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, found his true genius not as a scientist but as a quasi-religious figure who discerned and proclaimed the Self as a deity to replace the Christian religion. (41).
This is a huge interpretive move that Dreher never justifies. At all. He just asserts it as if it’s fact, not a highly contextual evaluation of a complicated historical figure whose legacy has been very mixed. None of the two paragraphs that follow even mention any of Freud’s writings.
Dreher’s view of modern technology is equally dim. Here, the problem is not that he’s overly negative, but that he’s misplaced that negativity. The book closes with an oddly stunted chapter that launches an hysterical criticism of smartphones, social media, and the Internet as such without ever bothering to mention transhumanism, AI, automation, or any of the other very possible threats looming on the horizon. Nor does he devote any space to environmental concerns. Here, too, Dreher’s failure to provide proper nuance or evidence leads to sentences like this: “The seed that was planted in the fourteenth century with the triumph of nominalism reaches its full ripeness in Technological Man” (223). Or, later, “The most radical, disruptive, and transformative technology ever created is the Internet” (224). Besides providing zero historical evidence to support either of these statements, Dreher couples his paragraphs of hysteria with passages like this:
And guess what? It’s wonderful. It has made my life better in more ways than I can count, including making it possible for me to live where I want to live because I can work from home. The Internet has given me a great deal and does every day. (224).
The effect achieved is stylistic and tonal whiplash, not thoughtful nuance.
I mentioned earlier that this criticism is somewhat pedantic. I own that. But I do think it matters. Dreher stakes his project on an historical claim about our own times. He wants to persuade us of his project’s urgency by telling a story about Christianity in the West. Failing to provide much evidence and ignoring the essential complexity of nuances means that his narrative just doesn’t come off as all that convincing.
Enough of the historical criticism. The book’s deeper problem lies in its spiritual and theological defects.
There are a few minor theological problems, such as his lamentable claim that the Rule of St. Benedict is “simply a training manual. Modern readers who turn to it looking for mystical teaching of fathomless spiritual depth will be disappointed” (15). While I would hate to presume, I think that statement would probably shock someone like Dom Mark Daniel Kirby, whose own commentaries on the Rule have brought out a rich mystical dimension in the text (see this example, in which he draws upon even more commentators who have done precisely what Dreher denies is possible for the “modern reader”). Ultimately, an error like this is forgivable. If it was the only one in the book, I’d be happy to overlook it.
Alas, there are more fatal problems.
Dreher takes a deeply ecumenical approach in The Benedict Option. By itself, this isn’t an issue. Insofar as his book can serve as an ethnography of American conservative Christianity, it’s probably a good idea. Practically, ecumenism can be helpful when it works towards the bridging of boundaries for strategic, intellectual, or conciliatory ends. Groups like my own aforementioned G.K. Chesterton Society or Dreher’s Eighth Day Books are doing small-scale, fellowship-based ecumenism well (136-37). Chuck Colson and Father Richard John Neuhaus modeled political ecumenism in Evangelicals and Catholics Together, much to the ire of fundamentalists. Similarly, intellectual fora for cross-traditional encounter can be especially productive. Journals like First Things do an excellent job facilitating that kind of positive ecumenism.
But ecumenism that ignores critical, substantive, or normative differences can be dangerous. The churches are separate for important reasons, and the stories and arguments they use to justify those differences are not to be taken lightly. For Dreher’s ostensible project, these differences ought to be of paramount importance. One cannot cooperate with someone to preserve a shared value when laboring under a false unity. Moreover, each ecclesial community will, of necessity, have a different response to the conditions of (post)modernity. They will have to draw upon their own unique resources and traditions. Their strategies will vary based on what they understand the Church to be. We can all agree that the Church—understood correctly—has its own paramount mission, the salvation and sanctification of souls. But our understandings of how the Church is meant to do that job could not be more different. Losing sight of the singularity and urgency of the Church’s salvific mission and character is the greatest danger of all ecumenical work.
I had hoped to find an ecumenism of encounter in Dreher’s book. Sometimes, I did. When he’s at his journalistic and sociological best, he provides some great anecdotes and insights across all types of American conservative Christianity. Unfortunately, the text is also riddled with a false ecumenism.
Dreher is very fond of speaking of “small-o orthodox,” as if such a thing could ever be anything more than a notional, or, at best, a situational construct. Sam Rocha, once again, puts the point well:
A second confusion is Dreher’s abstraction of Christianity. The book uses Roman Catholic sources and characters, but also includes a smattering of Protestants and a few Orthodox. By the end of the book, Dreher begins to sound like he’s written a manifesto, calling his new order “Benedict Option Christians.” Earlier he calls these “Benedict Option Churches” and “Benedict Option believers.” Just what are these churches? And what are the tenets of this belief? The book itself, with no ecclesiastical authority whatsoever and no scholarly credibility to speak of? This is tremendously abstract because there is obviously a real Benedictine Order that follows the real Rule of St. Benedict, which includes a lay apostolate for people like Dreher.
Rocha doesn’t explore the issue in all of its implications, but he’s on the money.
Dreher signals early on that his ecclesiology is, frankly, heretical. Dreher hopes to speak for and to “faithful orthodox Christians—that is, theological conservatives within the three main branches of historic Christianity” (18, emphasis mine). What revealing diction. Dreher’s working model is essentially branch theory, the heretical idea that Orthodoxy, Catholicism, and Anglicanism are all equally valid expressions of the “One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church” founded by Christ. In fact, Dreher seems perfectly content to go beyond the Anglo-Catholics who were and are Branch Theory’s most staunch defenders. He is happy to lump in a much wider net of Protestants, including figures like, inter alia, the pastor of “a small fundamentalist church in Minnesota” (112). No Catholic can sign on to this ecclesiology.
If Dreher had merely intended to use the theory as a shorthand for “Christians who are doctrinally and culturally conservative,” then “Dissident Christians” is a much better moniker, one that Dreher should have used throughout the book. It’s brief, it’s political, and it captures the posture towards contemporary culture that animates his entire project. It’s also ecumenical in the right way—something like the “Ecumenism of Blood” described by Pope Francis—and doesn’t lead to the confusion of important theological and ecclesiological distinctions.
True, Dreher says “Christianity,” not “Church,” but there’s other evidence of his branch theorizing throughout the book. He includes a quote by Leah Libresco Sargeant that sums up the Benedict Option as “just the church being what the church is supposed to be, but if you give it a name, that makes people care” (142). What is this small-c church? What is it “supposed to be?” In the context of Dreher’s ecumenical approach, we cannot say with any degree of certainty. Or consider Dreher’s defense of Evangelicals adopting “traditional liturgies” (what could that possibly mean in such a context?) on pages 112-13, where he seems to suggest that Protestants can have “communion with the Lord in Word and Sacrament” while remaining Protestant (I leave aside the question of the “Dutch Touch,” which is its own kettle of fish) (112-13).
Now we are confronted with a much deeper problem. Ecclesiology is always inseparable from sacramentology.
The Benedict Option is insufficiently sacramental. The trouble begins early on. Take this line from chapter one:
[Moralistic Therapeutic Deism] has little to do with the Christianity of Scripture and tradition, which teaches repentance, self-sacrificial love, and purity of heart, and commends suffering—the Way of the Cross—as the pathway to God. (10-11).
What’s absent from this list? The sacraments, and above all, the Eucharist. Indeed, the Blessed Sacrament does not enter the text until page 24, in the second chapter, when Dreher describes the worldview of the Middle Ages; Christ’s presence in the Eucharist, however, goes unmentioned (24). Nor does the Mass appear in Dreher’s chapter-long profile of the Monks of Norcia. These monks gained fame in the Catholic world first and foremost by their loving devotion to the solemn celebration of the traditional Mass. Why would Dreher omit the most important feature of their common life?
The Eucharist hardly plays any role in the entire book except for an extended section in chapter five, where Dreher argues that “contemporary Christians” should “Recover Liturgy” (105). No argument from me there. Insofar as Dreher is working against the “strange fire” of light shows, projection screens, and a whole range of modern instruments from guitars to tambourines, he has my undivided sympathy. He also makes a good point about the need for reverence at the liturgy, even going so far as to state that
Jesus is just as present in the Eucharist at Our Lady of Pizza Hut as at St. Patrick’s. Chances are, though, that you had to work harder to conjure a sense of the true holiness of the mass in the suburban church than in the cathedral. (106).
What a refreshing dose of sacramental realism! Finally, on page 106, we hear the sweet truth that Christ is really present among us in the Sacrament of the Altar. A few pages later, he adds this exquisite paragraph:
The contemporary Reformed theologian Hans Boersma identifies the loss of sacramentality as the key reason why the modern church is falling apart. If there is no real participation in the eternal—that is, if we do not regard matter, and even time itself, as rooted firmly in God’s being—then the life of the church can scarcely withstand the torrents of liquid modernity. (108).
That passage contains the germ of what should have been the book’s central thesis, that a return to reverent sacramentality, and to the Eucharistic Christ in particular, will be our salvation. Even from a (very well respected) Reformed theologian, this insight is nearer to the truth than a good quarter of the book.
Similarly, Dreher hits the right note when he says:
All worship is in some sense liturgical, but liturgies that are sacramental both reflect Christ’s presence in the divine order and embody it in a concrete form accessible to worshipers. (108).
Bravo! If he had kept on sounding this note through to the end of the chapter, I would have applauded the whole way. Instead, he continues:
Liturgy is not magic, of course, but if it is intended and received sacramentally, it awakens the sense that worshipers are communing with the eternal, transcendent realm through the ritual and its elements. The liturgy feeds the sacramental imagination, reweaving the connection between body and spirit. (108).
The phrase “intended and received sacramentally” is a bit too vague for comfort. Who intends and receives the sacrament? By what authority do they intend and receive: the legitimate successors of the Apostles, or scripture alone? We see again the intimate connection between sacramentology and ecclesiology. Dreher’s words mean and imply very different things to Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant readers. His stylistic imprecision speaks to deeper theological vagaries.
What’s more, Dreher ought to know better. He has read Benedict XVI. He knows that “the Eucharist makes the Church.” One of the leading thinkers of his own communion, Metropolitan John Zizioulas, has built his entire career on the careful elucidation of a similarly Eucharistic ecclesiology. Theologians like the Armenian Orthodox Vigen Guroian and the Roman Catholic Bill Cavanaugh, though disagreeing in some important respects, nevertheless come together on this point. Their insights suggest that the very essence of the Church is bound up with the Eucharist. And if they are correct, it troubles Dreher’s entire approach to ecumenism and the liturgy.
Dreher includes unavoidably non-sacramental communities in his project in the name of ecumenism and (probably) book sales. After all, he goes so far as to state outright, “It is beyond the scope of this book to tell other Christians how they should celebrate their liturgies while still being faithful to their theological tradition,” even if that means omitting central dogmas of the Faith (112). So, what does Dreher do instead? He pivots to James K. A. Smith’s philosophy of “cultural liturgies,” an anthropologically useful concept. Dreher takes it up as his main way of selling liturgy to Evangelicals.
Unfortunately, in Dreher’s hands, the idea of “cultural liturgies” becomes a force for the very relativism he is attempting to combat (incidentally, Smith has since disavowed The Benedict Option). In Dreher’s telling, the liturgy is primarily a good thing because of what it does to us. While no serious Catholic or Orthodox theologian can deny that the liturgy is the preeminent means by which we are divinized, Dreher’s liturgical model is overly anthropocentric. It is—dare I say it?—strikingly emotivist and subjectivist. He places his emphasis on the way repetition and chanting and incense and community can orient our desires towards the life of transcendent order. Dreher instrumentalizes the Mass to an unhealthy degree. In a strikingly Maurassian note, he seems to think that “the form worship takes” matters primarily because it can “[build] a bulwark against” modernity (113). Once again, he writes that in a good liturgy, “worshipers are communing with the eternal, transcendent realm through the ritual and its elements” (108).
The reduction of the liturgy to quasi-Confucian social theurgy is a scandal. Nowhere do we read that, even if none but the priest were there, the Mass would still be the holiest and most important ceremony on earth. Nowhere do we read of Christ’s holy sacrifice made present in the Mass, nor of the way the liturgy opens up the eschaton to mere mortal worshipers. Nowhere do we even find the words “Real Presence,” itself originally a Lutheran formulation that has since gained ground among Catholics and Orthodox. There is no need to get overly academic with any of this. Much of it already fits well with the social science he is trying to use. But in failing to rise above his own anthropological method, Dreher likewise fails to do justice to his subject.
The result? Dreher protestantizes the Mass. But not in the way that Luther or Cranmer or even Calvin might, those men who thought well and hard about God’s work in our worship. Dreher aims lower. He writes, “liturgy is primarily, though not exclusively, about what God has to say to us” (108). To be precise, no, it is not. Liturgy is primarily about what God does to us through the Eucharist. We do not go to Mass just to learn, though that is one of its most important benefits. We go to Mass to offer the sacrifice of Christ and to receive God’s supernatural life in the Blessed Sacrament. Dreher’s pedagogical model is not wrong in itself, but without a robust sacramental realism, it devolves into Zwinglianism. Liturgy is a tool for preserving “cultural memory,” not a point of real contact with the Living and Ineffable God (109). Dreher writes, “Along with helping us remember Christ, liturgy also reminds us that Christianity isn’t just a philosophy but a way of life that demands everything” (109-10). Not wrong, just banal.
Dreher follows it up with, a few pages later, “We are supposed to feel that gathering in a church as a community to offer worship to our God is something set apart from ordinary life. This is what gives rich liturgies their power” (113). Did Dom Anthony Ruff ghost-write this passage? Christ the priest and victim is what—or rather, who—gives rich liturgies their power. The actions of the congregation are entirely secondary. That’s part of the reason that there are no rubrics for those hearing the Mass.
None of these problematic statements compare to a paragraph towards the end of his section on recovering liturgy:
Now, low-church Evangelicals are absolutely right to say that liturgy won’t save you. Only conversion of heart will. Liturgy is necessary for worship to do what it must do to fulfill its potential, but liturgy alone is not sufficient, for the same reason a Bach concerto performance means nothing to a deaf man. If a believer’s body is worshiping but his mind and body are elsewhere, what good does that do? The goal is to integrate all parts of the Christian person. It takes faith and reason to form and disciple a Christian. (113).
The first two sentences are perilously close to explicit heresy (specifically, Donatism). The Tradition of the undivided Church tells us that indeed we are saved by liturgy, because we are saved by the Eucharistic Christ’s cosmic and eternal liturgy. If Dreher meant that a mortal sinner cannot receive the sacrament without committing sacrilege, then he would be correct. But he doesn’t describe sin in the rest of the paragraph. He describes ordinary distraction—venially sinful at most. Dreher seems to suggest that our own disposition is more important than the objective work of the Trinity in the Sacrament. A great deal more precision would have been tremendously helpful.
I need not appeal to Catholic dogma to hold Dreher accountable for his shoddy sacramentology. Dreher, after all, is a convert to Eastern Orthodoxy. And by the standards of his own communion, Dreher’s book is very clearly heretical. It is impossible to imagine a serious Orthodox thinker endorsing any of the incoherent liturgical propositions that Dreher puts forward. We can also see the fissure between Dreher and his own tradition when it comes to his ecumenism.
The Orthodox are far more jealous of doctrinal purity than us Catholics. They are even canonically forbidden from praying with heretics. That protective tendency is one of their more admirable traits, although it has exerted a heavy price—the nearly 1000-year schism that has separated the Christian East and West. Consider the words of Mark of Ephesus, who scuppered a scheme of reunion at the Council of Florence (AD 1438-45) by his outspoken criticism. Here are just a few of his ecumenical gems:
“The Latins are not only schismatics but heretics…we did not separate from them for any other reason other than the fact that they are heretics. This is precisely why we must not unite with them unless they dismiss the addition from the Creed filioque and confess the Creed as we do.”
“It is impossible to recall peace without dissolving the cause of the schism—the primacy of the Pope exalting himself equal to God.”
“The Symbol of the Faith must be preserved inviolate, as at its origin. Since all the holy doctors of the Church, all the Councils and all the Scriptures put us on our guard against heterodoxy, how dare I, in spite of these authorities, follow those who urge us to unity in a deceitful semblance of union—those who have corrupted the holy and divine Symbol of Faith and brought in the Son as second cause of the Holy Spirit.”
A model of Dreher-style ecumenical engagement, he is not. Consider a more recent example, such as the widely revered monks of Mount Athos. The recently canonized Elder Paisios, one of the Holy Mountain’s more famous residents of the late twentieth century, once said,
There’s no need for us to tell Christians who aren’t Orthodox that they’re going to hell or that they’re antichrists; but we also mustn’t tell them that they’ll be saved, because that’s giving them false reassurances, and we’ll be judged for it. We have to give them a good kind of uneasiness – we have to tell them that they’re in error.
And, along with most of the other monks on Mount Athos, Elder Paisios stopped remembering the Patriarch at the Divine Liturgy due to the latter’s perceived “dangerous overtures” to Rome.
That’s not to say that I agree with Mark of Ephesus, Elder Paisios, or the Athonites. I think all of them are dead wrong. My point in bringing them up is merely to note that Dreher’s approach looks mighty strange through the lens of his own tradition. Perhaps that’s why there are so few references to Eastern Orthodoxy, both in the sub-chapter on the liturgy and in the text more widely.
Eastern Christian spirituality is full of riches. My own study of authors like Metropolitan John Zizioulas, Archpriest Sergius Bulgakov, Paul Evdokimov, and Vladimir Lossky was a major turning point in my theological and spiritual journey. I date the start of my conversion to my first encounter with iconography at an Orthodox monastery deep in Transylvania. I have repeatedly found the simple wisdom of the startsy a useful corrective to my own selfishness and pride. And the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom is a truly beautiful act of the Apostolic Church at prayer.
The thing is, I suspect that Dreher would probably say much the same, too. But he doesn’t. With the exception of one reference to Father Alexander Schmemann quite late in the book, Dreher mostly brings up Eastern Orthodoxy in anecdotes describing his own faith journey. I found the absence of Eastern Orthodoxy in the book more broadly to be a particular disappointment. If there are faith communities that have dealt with cultural hostility, surely they are the Eastern churches. Observe the Greeks and Armenians under Ottoman and Turkish rule, or the Russians suffering the yoke of Communism. Why doesn’t he mention these examples? They seem directly pertinent to his project.
Dreher also explicitly references another Orthodox figure, one who proves that, at the end of the day, his ecumenical vision is just as incoherent as his historical narrative and his liturgical theology. On page 136, in chapter six, we read the following passage:
Times have changed, and so have some of the issues conservative Evangelicals and Catholics face. But the need for an ecumenism of the trenches is stronger than ever…To be sure, the different churches should not compromise their distinct doctrines, but they should nevertheless seize every opportunity to form friendships and strategic alliances in defense of the faith and the faithful. (136).
So far, so good. Here, Dreher is at his ecumenical best. He recognizes the strategic nature of ecumenism, doesn’t try to confound sacramentally distinct boundaries, and orients the reader towards positive cooperation. What a welcome volte-face from chapter five.
The problem, however, lies in that ellipsis. Because in between these two passages, Dreher inserts a toxic little sentence:
Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, a senior bishop in the Russian Orthodox Church, has on several occasions appealed to traditionalists in the West to form a “common front” against atheism and secularism. (136).
The sheer audacity.
With one sentence, Dreher undermines the actual goodwill that his muddled and misbegotten ecumenical effort might have borne out among informed Catholics. Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev is one of the great persecutors of the Church today, a man who has repeatedly, mendaciously, and viciously attacked the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, even at the Vatican itself. His lies in the service of the Moscow Patriarchate’s power plays disqualify him as any kind of ecumenical model. Dreher knows this, has commented on it before, and yet still saw fit to include that sentence in the final draft of his book. I consider it the one truly unconscionable sentence in the entire text, and it makes all of his ecumenical platitudes ring hollow.
The Benedict Option inadvertently manages to present us with a model of ecumenism that, on the one hand, would be anathematized by the Hyperdox, and on the other, cites one of the most rhetorically violent Orthodox partisans in the official dialogue today. The result is an unsatisfactory and unsacramental chimera, a quasi-church, not the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Body of Christ.
My final criticism of Dreher is, I hope, both less pedantic and less denominational than my previous two points. I recognize that the issues I have brought up may not seem so terrible to those who a) aren’t Catholic or Orthodox, or b) don’t particularly know or care all that much about intellectual and church history. These are very specific criticisms that, I acknowledge, may run the risk of asking too much of a book written for the popular press.
But there is a third problem, and it lies with the book’s ethos.
Every volume of cultural criticism is, by its very nature, critical. It would be unreasonable to look at a book like The Benedict Option and expect to see all kittens and rosebuds, particularly in our polemical climate. But Christians who engage in cultural criticism bear special responsibilities. Particularly if they make it their business to preach and prophesy.
First and foremost, they must speak the truth. Leaving aside the nuance issues I’ve already identified, I think Dreher is pretty good about this. He constantly slips into the confessional mode, which insures the appearance of honesty. I don’t think anyone but the most suspicious reader could walk away from the book feeling hoodwinked. The Benedict Option is, if nothing else, a compendium of Rod Dreher’s honest assessments.
A Christian cultural critic, however, must also try his damnedest to persevere in charity. He fails, and fails scandalously, if he lapses into despair.
Now, there are two relevant kinds of despair. The first is a despair of one’s own cause, a kind of bleak, Spenglerian pessimism and bellyaching. Dreher has no problems with this attitude. At his most poetic moments, he is able to see the light at the end of the tunnel. His conclusion includes a few masterfully hopeful passages.
But then there’s a far more subtle and far more tempting despair, the despair over the salvation of one’s enemies. Our culture and our political system have gone mad on this kind of despair. It polarizes and dehumanizes. Why? Because ultimately, it is a despair of God’s mercy.
Dreher is guilty of precisely this kind of despair.
He paints a neo-noir landscape in black and white. Unlike the world that you and I inhabit, it is merely the stage for a Manichaean spiritual and cultural drama. The villains of Dreher’s narrative are not individuals with souls in need of salvation, but dark and impersonal forces closing in on a haggard band of True Believers. The most important of these demonic forces is the LGBT movement. Dreher returns to it ad nauseum. No other threat to mankind, the West, or the Church—not war, not Jihad, not environmental collapse, not racism, not economic downturn, not secularism as such, not consumerism, not Transhumanism, not euthanasia, not even abortion—occupies such a shadowy and potent throne in Dreher’s imagination. Everywhere looms the deadly threat of the Great Gay Menace.
Yet there are aspects of his rhetoric that leave a deep unease. “The LGBT agenda” is a phrase that appears on the third page of the first chapter, and the prominence given to same-sex relations reinforces the common perception that the only ethical issues that interest traditional Christians are those involving sexual matters. In recent interviews, Dreher has been rather less vocally negative about same-sex relations in general than he seems to be in this book, but the phraseology (as in the derogatory use of “transgenderism”), here and elsewhere, sounds a note of angry anxiety and contempt typical of some voices prominent in conservative American religious circles, and somehow jarring with the commendation of Benedictine hospitality and equanimity.
Indeed, some of Dreher’s liberal interlocutors have written potent criticisms on just this point. Alan Levinovitz calls The Benedict Option, as well as Anthony Esolen’s Out of the Ashes, “spiritual pornography,” which he defines as literature that is
…designed to arouse climactic cries of Yes! Yes! in its readers, pleasing the soul’s darker parts by swapping a hollow fantasy of physical union for an equally hollow fantasy of moral warfare…a virtuous few battling mightily against everyone else…Calling spiritual pornography a fantasy helps to evoke its psychological appeal, but the world it conjures up is closer to that of the fairy tale. Both genres are built on two foundational features: dramatic arcs that proceed from Order to Disorder to Order, and clearly defined roles and rules that map neatly onto good and evil. It’s a world that trades humans for archetypes, nuance for simplicity, and the tangled skein of history for the orderly vectors of myth — but if you’re on the side of the angels, living in it feels really, really good.
I won’t go so far as Levinovitz, whose own polemical rhetoric has bordered on the illiberal in the past. What Levinovitz does capture, however, is Dreher’s sometimes hysterical distress over LGBT activism and liberal modernity generally. Levinovitz argues that “the soul of these books is not love of God; it is bitter loathing of those who do not share it.” He isn’t far off the mark.
But liberals who write off Dreher as nothing more than a cantankerous homophobe are doing him and the text a great injustice. To understand Dreher’s approach, we also need to look at one of his better moments. Late in the book, Dreher includes a profile of Spiritual Friendship, and specifically Ron Belgau. Some of what he writes about the experience of gay and lesbian Christians attempting to live a life of chastity is genuinely empathetic. Dreher wouldn’t have bothered to include their inspiring ascetic example if he had some lurking bigotry. Dreher isn’t a homophobe. By all accounts, he never advocates for any hatred or fear of individual LGBT people.
What he does fear—or, more precisely, what the book fears—is all LGBT people and all liberals in the abstract. This fear entails a convenient rhetorical move. It lets Dreher confound and occlude the individual personhood of his ideological opponents in such a way that it is easier to consign them to the outer darkness en masse. For if they are not out there, then it will be us, the few, the faithful. Here we can see the ripple of dread that runs through the text.
For instance, Dreher writes that “we in the modern West are living under barbarism, though we do not recognize it” (17). At one point in the book, Dreher calls the LGBT movement “the tip of the spear at our throats in the culture war” (alas, I could not find the page, so I offer you the quote via David Brooks’s review in the New York Times). Dreher suggests that
In the wake of Obergefell, Christian beliefs about the sexual complementarity of marriage are considered to be an abominable prejudice—and in a growing number of cases, punishable. The public square has been lost. (9).
He also writes,
…the day is coming when the kind of thing that happened to Christian bakers, florists, and wedding photographers will be much more widespread. And many of us are not prepared to suffer deprivation for our faith. (63).
Or this passage in his chapter on Christian labor:
We may not (yet) be at the point where Christians are forbidden to buy and sell in general without state approval [!!!], but we are on the brink of entire areas of commercial and professional life being off-limits to believers whose consciences will not allow them to burn incense to the gods of our age. (179).
Followed up shortly by the statement that “the only thing standing between an employer or employee and a court action is the imagination of LGBT plaintiffs and their lawyers”(181).
The reader can make his or her own judgment about these words. For my own part, I consider Dreher’s contempt a profound, if understandable, failure of Christian charity. At Easter, his own Church sings, “Let us call brothers even those who hate us and forgive all by the Resurrection.” That spirit never enters into The Benedict Option in any sustained way. Others have discerned in it a lack of Benedictine hospitality. Levinovitz finds in it a certain resemblance to Jack Chick’s tracts. That’s probably unfair. Dreher’s contempt isn’t sectarian or vicious enough.
The book shares far more important affinities with Atlas Shrugged.
In both, we read of a few stalwarts fending off the gathering darkness of cartoonish, straw-man villains. In both, we encounter a worldview that is increasingly binary, predicated not on the messiness of actual reality but on the black and white imperatives of abstraction. In both, the heroes must enter some kind of retreat (is there any literary analogy to your unfriendly local “Benedict Option community” so apropos as Galt’s Gulch?). In both, we get the sense that the author is entirely self-assured of their own rectitude. And in both, we find the same attitude of contempt for the world, an attitude that is, to borrow the words of Nostra aetate, “foreign to the mind of Christ.”
When Whittaker Chambers famously reviewed Atlas Shrugged for National Review, he wrote that,
Dissent from revelation so final (because, the author would say, so reasonable) can only be willfully wicked. There are ways of dealing with such wickedness, and, in fact, right reason itself enjoins them. From almost any page of Atlas Shrugged, a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding: “To a gas chamber–go!”
He wasn’t wrong. John Galt declares,
All the men who have vanished, the men you hated, yet dreaded to lose, it is I who have taken them away from you. Do not attempt to find us. We do not choose to be found. Do not cry that it is our duty to serve you. We do not recognize such duty. Do not cry that you need us. We do not consider need a claim. Do not cry that you own us. You don’t. Do not beg us to return. We are on strike, we, the men of the mind. (For the New Intellectual 131).
At its worst, this is what the Benedict Option becomes. If there are communities that seek to build on Dreher’s more positive and productive suggestions, I wish them well. But I also pray that they leave aside his own venom. It is the final, toxic fruit of forgetting the Eucharistic love of Christ.
I hope to explore my own propositions in my next post. The Church does furnish an excellent example of a saint who dealt with cultural conditions much like our own. I, too, have an “option” I’d like to offer for your consideration, one which is congruent with some parts of Dreher’s book. I’d also like to correct what I see as some of the problems of The Benedict Option.
But not without an important acknowledgement first.
In her review of The Benedict Option, Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig points out the fundamental cultural flaw in Dreher’s project; we have been irrevocably formed by modernity. She observes,
There never will be another Medieval subject. All of us in the Anglophone world see with liberal eyes and hear with liberal ears, and to some degree think with liberal minds: Indeed, the lament that we’re no longer Medieval is a comically typical liberal refrain (think of the Romantics, with their Gothic revivalism, or the pre-Raphaelites, with their knights in shining armor). The will to be Medieval subjects again is the desire to return to an age of faith, but this is not an option.
I think it is perhaps this quality that, to paraphrase the remark of a friend, makes The Benedict Option such a great call to conversation and such a poor call to conversion. But it was also, for me, a serious cause for introspection.
And I have to thank Rod Dreher for that.
Reading and reflecting on The Benedict Option made me confront several of the pretensions that I have carried around for a very long time: my ostensible anti-modernism, my belief in the fundamental importance of community, my traditionalism. It didn’t cause me to abandon them all, per se, but to see their limits, refracted and magnified through Dreher’s problematic project.
The Benedict Option helped me realize that I don’t really think the world was better before modernity. Every age has been full of tyrants and heretics, massacres and miracles, heroes and hysteria. No epoch is ever really better than any of the others, for what one may lose, another may gain in some unforeseen way. Human nature remains the same. Only the Incarnation of Christ marked a real departure, an intervention that radically transfigured the course of history.
But since then, God graciously allows us to live with our own cultural era’s particular troubles for reasons that remain cloaked in mystery. Perhaps we are meant to “Redeem the time.” The secret animating principle of history is the work of the Holy Spirit in the Church. Let us trust in Providence. If we are given this moment, with all of its challenges, then let us praise God for that gift.
I am a creature of modernity. If you are reading this, so are you. That is an unavoidable fact. As T.S. Eliot writes of the Christian relationship with history,
It is not to ring the bell backward
Nor is it an incantation
To summon the spectre of a Rose.
We cannot revive old factions
We cannot restore old policies
Or follow an antique drum.
(“Little Gidding” III).
It is for these reasons that I cannot go where Dreher goes. I’ll admit, finding “The point of intersection of the timeless/With time” is always difficult. But let us never fear! “This is the day which the Lord hath made: let us be glad and rejoice therein” (Psalm 118: 24 DRA). With the Eucharist in our midst, we can and must live “for the life of the world” (John 6:52 DRA). Only by cleaving to the Eucharistic Christ can we fulfill our duty to be “the Word within/The world and for the world,” in the words of T.S. Eliot. Let us learn to love the world—tragic, sinful, broken though it may be—at the foot of the Eucharistic God. We can never love it more than He does.
Flannery O’Connor’s name is synonymous with the American short story tradition. What sets her apart from her peers, besides her mastery of plot and her succinct, grotesque style, is the deep concern for issues of faith and grace that animates all of her stories. As O’Connor once put it, “All my stories are about the action of grace on a character who is not very willing to support it, but most people think of these stories as hard, hopeless, brutal, etc.” There is a certain delicious cruelty to her work. The nasty fates she metes out to children, let alone the adults who deserve what they get, rank her with the best of the gothic writers (and a humorous one at that—we can only imagine the hysterical laughter that something like Der Struwwelpeter would have provoked in her).
Yet O’Connor never show us violence for its own sake, nor for mere moralizing, nor as a ploy for cheap entertainment. Violence is the only outlet for grace in a fallen, “Christ-haunted” world. Her pages are choked and sodden with the precious blood that flows from the Cross.
It is a commonplace among critics that O’Connor’s writing is deeply sacramental. But to my knowledge, no author who has made that claim has also tried to find the fullness of the sacramental system present in her work.
I maintain that all seven sacraments appear in her fiction under different guises. Very often, we are given only implicit or twisted versions. It is common in O’Connor’s dark narratives to find flashes of grace in the inverse of sacraments; the truth emerges through its own negation—hence her heavy use of violence. But all seven are all there, for those who “hath ears to hear” (Matt. 13:9 KJV).
In giving short descriptions of the following stories, my effort is not to justify my choices so much as to provoke further reading. As such, I will keep my descriptions succinct and relatively spoiler-free. Those who have read them may be able to see where I’m coming from. Those who haven’t—here’s some summer reading for you.
This is one of O’Connor’s more overtly sacramental stories. The young son of irreligious parents accidentally gets himself baptized by a preacher in a Southern river—with lethal consequences.
Honorable mention: The Violent Bear It Away. O’Connor thought about baptism a lot, probably because, as a rite of initiation, it is so centrally connected with questions of faith.
Confirmation—“The Enduring Chill”
A sick and snobbish intellectual. A garrulous Jesuit. An overt reference to “A Simple Life” by Flaubert. Sometimes, the descent of the Holy Spirit doesn’t feel quite the way we expect.
Eucharist—“A Temple of the Holy Ghost”
The only short story I know by any author that quotes the Tantum Ergo at length. There’s a good example of the “Red, Eucharistic Sun” motif that O’Connor was so fond of using. And lovers of the weird O’Connor will find her incarnational vision at a particularly grotesque note in this story.
The thinkpiece that uses “Temple” to discuss contemporary gender identity issues, sadly, has yet to be written.
Confession—“The Lame Shall Enter First”
At one point, the liberal main character’s office is compared to a confessional. In confession, however, you hope that a good priest will comfort those who need comfort and afflict those who need affliction, for the edification and sanctification of all. Not so in Sheppard’s benevolently atheist bubble.
In this remarkable narrative, one of O’Connor’s most Catholic stories, we read the story of a marriage broken apart by a dramatically visible expression of extraordinary grace. Theological and moral Puritans won’t be pleased by the implications.
Holy Orders—Wise Blood
What happens when you really, really, really don’t want to accept your vocation? You end up like Hazel Motes, and chase after a “Holy Church of Christ Without Christ.” The last chapter can be read as a meditation on the Imago Dei.
Unction—“A Good Man is Hard to Find”
If only for that incredible, climactic line spoken by the Misfit, “She would of been a good woman…”
I may try to expand this list into a real academic work some day. For now, take this list for what it is—a few reading suggestions for those of you who, like me, enjoy O’Connor, Southern Lit generally, and Catholicism.
Lots of peacocks.
This week, we are about to enter a truly remarkable liturgical sequence.
Wednesday is Our Lady, Help of Christians, patroness of my parish here in South Carolina.
Thursday is the Ascension (sadly moved to Sunday in my province of Atlanta).
Friday is St. Philip Neri, and then on Saturday comes Our Lady of the Cenacle.
We could extend our reckoning to Sunday, but for now, I think it is appropriate for us to hesitate on the threshold of the Mystical Sabbath. Let us instead examine only these four days and their import.
We begin and end the progression with Mary. First, we see her in her relation to humanity. She is the help of Christians. Then, we see her in relation to God. She receives the Holy Spirit. Taking both feasts together, we see Our Lady participating in God-humanity; she becomes the perfect emblem of Divine Wisdom.
Studying Sophiology has made me appreciate Our Lady of the Cenacle even more. There is a deep connection, I think, between the manifestation of Divine Wisdom in the creation of the Cosmos, at the Baptism of Christ, and at the descent of the Spirit upon Our Lady at Pentecost. They are mutually illuminating events. I wonder if we can find that connection at the level of the propers for each liturgy, a project I may try to engage in before Saturday.
And how appropriate that St. Philip, who experienced his own Pentecost in the catacombs of St. Sebastian, should go forth as a herald for Our Lady of the Cenacle! It is a kind of liturgical proof of the hierarchical principle, that we are led by lower things to higher things. St. Philip received the Holy Spirit into his heart as a ball of fire in the catacombs— under the city of Rome, once a place of persecution, the mythical “Babylon” of Revelation. He guides us to Our Lady as she waits and prays in the Cenacle, the Upper Room in Jerusalem where the sacraments of the Eucharist and Orders were instituted and where the Holy Spirit descended upon the Church in tongues of fire on Pentecost. What a picture of the historical Church in pilgrimage! From the darkness of the Roman catacombs to the heights of the upper room in Zion. We could read an eschatology out of these mystical days.
Nevertheless, this week’s procession is easy to overlook, since its central diamond, the Ascension, has been misplaced by so many bishops. Celebrating the feast on Sunday robs it of its truly Eucharistic meaning, for the Ascension’s traditional place on a Thursday meant that it could only be read through the texts of Maundy Thursday. Ascension Day is to Maundy Thursday as Pentecost is to Easter, the initiator of a new liturgical season and a reminder of the Mystical Priesthood of Christ. All of this is admirably explained by Dom Mark Daniel Kirby OSB in his podcasted homilies and in his blog, Vultus Christi.
The Eucharistic and Priestly meaning of the Ascension matters for the rest of the four-day sequence insofar as the Eucharist represents, sustains, and completes every instantiation of Sophianic being. The Sophianic character of the four days can only be discerned in the light of Christ’s face as He ascends into his cosmic priesthood on Thursday. This would be true even if St. Philip were not there to complete the set. This is, after all, a fairly uniqueE situation. Ever spry, St. Philip moves around the sacred calendar with the bustling rhythms of profane time. But in this auspicious year, so full of historical resonances and providential patterns, let us rejoice in the days that the Lord has made (Psalm 118).
“This is how it always ends. With death. But first there was life. Hidden beneath the blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. It’s all settled beneath the chitter chatter and the noise. Silence and sentiment. Emotion and fear. The haggard, inconstant flashes of beauty. And then the wretched squalor and miserable humanity. All buried under the cover of the embarrassment of being in the world, blah, blah, blah, blah…Beyond there is what lies beyond. I don’t deal with what lies beyond. Therefore…let this novel begin. After all…it’s just a trick. Yes, it’s just a trick.”
– Jep Gambardella, La Grande Bellezza (2013)
Here are some of those “haggard, inconstant flashes of beauty.” All photos were taken by the author during the 2016-2017 Academic Year.
This won’t come as a surprise to those of you who know me personally, but in the interest of honesty, archiving, and my own historical interests, I thought I’d post here that I have decided to attend the University of Oxford next year in pursuit of an M.Phil. in Theology, with a concentration in Ecclesiastical History. I will be living at St. Stephen’s House.
I’m very happy to be at St. Stephen’s. It is the Anglo-Catholic seminary in Oxford. I am guaranteed to be around people who are seeking ordination in the Church of England. And very high Anglo-Catholics at that. I’m really looking forward to morning and evening prayer every day. While it may not be the prayer of the whole Church in the Divine Office, the Book of Common Prayer is nevertheless a fine, beautiful way to pray and meditate on Scripture in community. I also think that the liturgical rhythms of life at “Staggers,” as it’s called, will be salutary on the whole. It’s even motivated me to try to memorize a few of the old collects, as Peter Hitchens demonstrates in this debate.
While I realize it has changed a great deal over time, the history of St. Stephen’s House is one of the reasons I’m happy to be here. It may not be one of the well-known colleges (it doesn’t even seem to have very much merchandising in the way of scarves, ties, pins, cufflinks, etc., like all the other ones). But Staggers did play its part in the history of Anglo-Catholicism. Founded by Bishop Edward King of Lincoln in 1876, the house soon became a major center of Anglo-Catholicism. It started to produce Tractarian priests by the dozens, and eventually gained a reputation as a factory of bishops and deans of cathedrals. This prolific connection to the Church of England’s highest chambers has continued into its more recent years.
Its relationship with Oxford, on the other hand, has varied. It only attained Permanent Private Hall status in 2003. In moving to that arrangement, it joined other historically religious foundations at Oxford: Blackfriars for the Dominicans, St. Benet’s for the Benedictines of Ampleforth, Wycliffe Hall for Evangelicals, Campion Hall for the Jesuits, and Regent’s Park (nominally) for the Baptists. It was at that time that the House broadened its emphasis to include those who were not seeking ordination in the C of E.
Moreover, Staggers has moved around Oxford. It started as a small community near the heart of town, and only much later moved to its present location across the Cherwell. To wit:
For the House’s first years, it was situated near the centre of Oxford, where the New Bodleian Library now stands. From 1919, the House had a site in Norham Gardens, near to the University Parks. In 1980 it moved to the current site…(St. Stephen’s House Blog).
The accommodations that the House took up were built by the Society of St. John the Evangelist, named alongside the parish church they ran (although it is now largely a concert venue, the House clergy still conduct liturgies there each week). The Society priests were also known as the Cowley Fathers. T.S. Eliot conducted at least one retreat there, although he was generally closer to the Benedictines at Nashdom and the Society of the Sacred Mission at Kelham (see Spurr’s biography, Anglo-Catholic in Religion).
Although its ethos remains largely Anglican, the House has offered a few important alumni to the Church of Rome. Balthasar scholar and theologian Father John Saward graduated there, as did the one-time Bishop of Ebbsfleet and current priest of the English Ordinariate, Monsignor Andrew Burnham. Indeed, they’ve even produced the Primate of the Western Diocese of the Armenian Church of North America, Hovnan Derderian. He is the youngest Armenian archbishop.
Staggers also gave the Church of England Fr. Kenneth Leach, an important Christian Socialist priest. He was trained at St. Stephen’s when it had become a rather homoerotic place, and Leach would famously sum up his time there as “gin, lace, and backbiting.” The writer and Staggers alum A.N. Wilson composed a bitingly comedic satire of the House in those years, entitled Unguarded Hours—which, as Ignatius Press’s reviewer puts it, is decidedly “not a Catholic novel.” Alas. Wilson, who would eventually return to Christianity after years of very public atheism, would later recall the custom formerly in vogue at Staggers of taking “religious names” that were actually rather saucy nicknames, often of the opposite sex. If Father Couratin was “Noël Coward in a clerical collar,” it seems that by the 1970’s, you were more likely to find Julian and Sandy in soutanes.
I seriously doubt that any of that persists. Women’s ordination in the C of E means that, while many Anglo-Catholics have become more liberal, their seminaries no longer smack of the kinds of homoerotic associations that fueled so many stereotypes (see Cousin Jasper’s famous quip in Brideshead Revisited). Staggers seems to remain as a pillar of sensible, ornate, properly Anglo-Catholic liturgy at its best.
Of course, I could also emphasize the importance of Oxford in general as a center of Catholicism—Roman and otherwise. Here, the Subtle Doctor “fired France for Mary without spot.” Here, Cardinal Wolsey established a college named for his office and, later, all of Christ’s Body on earth. Here, Archbishop Laud attempted to bring back devotion to Our Lady through a little portico on her church in town. Here, Charles I took refuge while his queen heard the Mass of Ages in Merton Chapel. Here, Keble railed against a “National Apostasy.” Here, Newman battled the liberals, and in doing so, broke ground for the Second Spring. Here, Gerard Manley Hopkins served briefly as curate. Here, Oscar Wilde flirted with men and the Church for the first time. Here, Monsignor Ronald Knox cut his clerical teeth as the chaplain of Trinity College. Here, Montague Summers was first haunted by the Vampyre’s shadow. Here, Tolkien and Lewis and Williams and their friends spoke about God long into the stout-softened night. Here, T.S. Eliot studied briefly before going on to greatness in London. Here, Evelyn Waugh thought up a story about two men and a teddy bear. Here, Father Martin D’Arcy pondered the ways of divine and human love. Here, the Oratory finally arrived in 1990 to fulfill Newman’s dream. Here, the late Stratford Caldecott wrote of God’s undying beauty in all things.
I could name more ways in which Oxford has played a special role in the life of the Catholic Church. Perhaps I will do so in another post, or a series of posts. For now, I’m just happy to say that I’ll be in a place with a lot of Catholic history, learning about that history. And thank God for that.
As a student of the University of Virginia, I have been bombarded with official propaganda about the history of the Great Men (and, much later, Women) who “wore the honors of Honor.” Poe in particular is a favorite example, and certain elements of UVA culture such as the Jefferson and Raven Societies are suffused with the memory of his presence. We even commemorate him by setting apart a room on the West Range which we claim, without proper evidence, to be his. No matter. The great poet did live in the Academical Village before he dropped out, and he’s too important a figure not to use in a marketing ploy. The presence of William Faulkner is more understated, though an outstanding exhibition currently on offer at the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library is correcting that imbalance. So, too, members of the Jefferson Literary and Debating Society recall fondly that he accepted honorary membership of their esteemed organization, once delivering an address with John Dos Passos in attendance.
I might also add, for those who enjoy fine beverages, that Faulkner’s grandson owns and runs a superlative small winery on the outskirts of town. The resemblance is uncanny.
But one author who left his footprints on Mr. Jefferson’s Grounds has gone sadly unnoticed by the vast majority of students. That man is Julien Green. I imagine that, if I were to ask any passing student about Julien Green, they would have no idea who he was. Yet in his own day, he was a major player in the French literary scene, interacting with such characters as André Gide, Jacques Maritain, Lucien Daudet, Gertrude Stein, Georges Bernanos, and many more. He even reached the pinnacle of literary achievement in France, eventually becoming the first American ever elected to the Académie française.
This oversight becomes more egregious in that, unlike Poe and Faulkner, Green wrote prolifically about his time at UVA. Indeed, he even set one of his novels at the University—including a scene in front of a specific Lawn Room, 34 East. In the same book, he gives one of the most beautiful descriptions of the old Rotunda library that I have read; it still makes me proud to be a student at UVA, although the building has changed radically since that age. I am sure that in the years to come, I will return to that passage with no small dose of nostalgia.
The scion of two old Southern families—one from Georgia, one from Virginia—Green was born in Paris in 1900. He spent his youth hearing stories of the old Confederacy, which his mother romanticized incessantly. After World War I broke out, he served in both the American Red Cross and the French Army. When the fighting finished, he shipped off to college in the United States, a land he had never before seen.
Green was a student at the University from 1919-1921. By all accounts, he did not enjoy his time in Charlottesville. He was a remarkably proficient student, able to complete all of his academic duties by ten before spending the rest of the day with his books in the Rotunda. He was particularly fond of The Critique of Pure Reason. As a teenage convert to Catholicism, Green also felt alienated from his WASP peers. The University had no Catholic chaplaincy, so he had to trudge all the way down into the city to the rickety wooden mission parish (now Holy Comforter).
Anti-Catholicism wasn’t the only religious prejudice that infected the University’s culture. Green muddled through an independent study of Hebrew with a noticeably unpopular, albeit good-humored, Jewish student whom he calls “Drabkin.” Antisemitism must have been an entrenched, unquestioned part of student life then. Green was not an antisemite, and he would later return to the language after many years. In his later life, he relished the texts of the Old Testament (Diary 1928-1957 65-66).
Virginia students will recognize certain eternal experiences that Green records in the third volume of his Autobiography, entitled Love in America (the cover shows the Rotunda from University Avenue). He likely lived in the block where Boylan, Fig, and Mellow Mushroom stand now, though possibly as far as Wertland. He describes a scene in his boarding house, which gave him a view “over the main avenue which led to the University, as well as the bridge across which the express train would rumble four or five times a day” (Love in America 71). Later, he moved to a house at the end of Chancellor Street, owned by an old woman named Ms. Mildred Stewart (Love in America 172-73).
While in Charlottesville, he admired the University’s physical beauty, writing,
Life at University was slow to start again, for no one was ever in a hurry there, but by the end of the first week classes were full once more, and students yawned in the pleasant September weather. At Cabell Hall, the scent of honeysuckle hung over each window casement, and in the hall the plastercast of Hermes in all his majestic immodesty rose above the heads of the boys who walked past the level of his knees. (Love in America 131).
Evidently Old Cabell, before it was “Old,” had a few classical (nude) statues positioned around the staircases. One can only imagine what Green would think of the beautiful but controversial mural that now adorns its walls. He did go to attend convocation and other functions in its concert hall, where even then a large reproduction of “The School of Athens” graced the stage (Love in America 133).
And of course, he writes about the Rotunda. In 1937, Green was back in Charlottesville. In his Diary, we read that he would often ponder whether Poe studied at the same tables in the same “old library,” i.e. the Rotunda (72). As I mentioned earlier, Green would go on to compose one of the best literary depictions of the Rotunda in his 1950 novel, Moira:
A few minutes later he was mounting the library steps and pushing open the heavy door…The warmth of the large, round room was pleasant and he stood there for a few seconds, his face relaxing. Finally he took off his overcoat and looked for a table, but the best places were taken. Everywhere there were students reading, or snoozing, overcome by the warmth under the great dome. In the silence he heard the hissing of the radiators. Joseph walked almost right round the library on tiptoe before he found a place behind a great pile of overcoats and scarves on a table. With a sigh of weariness he sank into an armchair…How comfortable it was! A delicious warmth flowed into his hands, his legs, all through his body. With his elbows on his legs, he linked his fingers over his stomach and looked curiously out of the window. Everything was hidden in snow. The tips of the magnolia leaves near the library could just be seen like black tongues. The little brick path had been cleared. Joseph had often heard it said that nothing ever changed at the University, but this morning, for the first time, he felt a sort of gratitude for everything that did not alter. Generations of young men had sat there in that corner and, like him, looked out over the little brick path. In the spring and autumn the wistaria hung all over the arch on the right. This morning the snow allowed only a few black and twisted branches to be seen, but there would be wistaria again. The snow would melt, but under the snow were all those dead leaves…(Moira 221-22).
Green certainly based the scene on his own recollections. The Rotunda was one of the very few places where he could be happy, alone among the quiet genius of dead men. In his Autobiography, he calls it a “pink Pantheon” and tells us,
If I looked to the left, I could see the curves of Houdon’s bronze bust of Washington. To the right were the clumps of laurel trees, still green after the first snows. Like those who frequent certain cafes, I had my particular place, my preferred alcove. What dreams did I not drift into there? (Love in America 57-58).
He spent time on the Lawn, a place that would hold tremendous personal meaning for him, as we shall see. Green writes of the Lawnies and their rooms,
These privileged individuals did not live just anywhere. On either side of the long lawn, built into the brick walls, there were the dark green doors [they are red today] that I mentioned before, each with its brass number and frame that held a visiting card. Once one had gained access through one of these doors, you found yourself in a sort of cell. Daylight came in through a sash window and in cold weather the room was heated by lumps of coal which smoked in the fireplace, exactly as in English Universities…The obligatory rocking-chair could be seen in one corner, but when the weather was fine, one dragged it outside on the Lawn and studied beneath the trees [I and many others have continued this tradition]. These two galleries which faced each other were known as East Range and West Range [I have no explanation for why Green would write this, except that perhaps all the rooms in the Academical Village were once called by the title now only given to those that face away from the Lawn]. I never think of them without sadness after so many years. I little knew how much pain awaited me there. (Love in America 55).
There are other similarities between his time and ours. Green knew the irritation of construction, as he was there for the start of work on the Amphitheater (Love in America 194). He went to something very much like Foxfield: “One day, I was taken to the races at Warrenton in the north of Virginia. Everyone in the South knew Warrenton. Once a year, the races took place there and people came from all around” (Love in America 125). He published a story in one of the University magazines, Virginia Quarterly (Love in America 168). He even read The Yellow Journal, which he describes in the following terms:
…little more than a scandal sheet, designed to make people laugh. All sorts of personal insinuations were made, but in such a way that those who complained only did harm to themselves. The editors were diabolically cunning [still absolutely true]. People tolerated The Yellow Journal with good humor that occasionally turned to anger, for people were terrified of appearing in it. (Love in America 191).
He took History classes in the Rotunda under a Professor Dabney, very probably the Richard Heath Dabney who gave his name to one of the Old Dorms (Love in America 170). In one of the more humorous points of the Autobiography, Green tells us that the fervently Protestant Dabney, having heard that there was a devout Catholic student in his lecture, went out of his way to emphasize the depredations of Romanism. Many years later, when Dabney learned that Green had become a novelist and not a priest, he is reported to have said, “Anyway, it’s due to me that he remained a layman” (Love in America 170-71). There is also an extremely amusing episode in his Autobiography in which Green is hit up for donations to President Alderman’s funding drive.
One evening, as I was studying in my room by the light of the oil lamp…the door was pushed open and I saw two large boys whose build suggested they played football…
“Good evening,” said one of them. “Are you Green, Julian Green?”
“Yes, I am.”
“Do you love this University?”
“Of course he loves it,” said the other. “It’s his Alma Mater. So you’re going to give a nice present to your Alma Mater, a present of one dollar, and then you will sign there,” he added, placing a printed card before me.
I read it without knowing what it said. “I don’t understand,” I said.
“That doesn’t matter. Just give a dollar like a gentleman.”
I gave them a dollar.
“Good. The rest is merely a formality. You commit yourself to paying two dollars every year.”
“For how long?”
“Until the Lord calls you to him…There, do you see this dotted line? That’s where you sign, like a true Virginian gentleman. Otherwise…”
“Otherwise the University will realize it has been mistaken about you.”
“Good evening,” they said as they left. “It’s been a pleasure chatting to you.”
(Love in America 159-60).
Did someone mention the Class Giving Campaign? (I kid..I kid…)
Yet at the end of the day, Green’s experience at the University cannot be described as all that similar to our own. He records things as they once were, and are no more. On the occasion of a return trip in 1933, he writes,
At the University. She is the same as ever, cordial with that shade of disdain that gives her so much charm. Her vast lawns bordered by Greek Revival columns reflect a peaceful soul, perfectly satisfied with herself. You call on her, a hand is extended with a smile. If you turn away from her, if the whole of America forsook her at the foot of her hills, she would none the less pursue her quiet dream, adorned with classical literature, white frontages, black foliage. From North to South, what could there be for her to envy? Isn’t she Mr. Jefferson’s daughter? (Diary: 1928-1957 47).
This romantic depiction of the University overlooks several of the very real problems, particularly racial ones (“white frontages, black foliage”), that plagued the University and the South at that time. And certainly, no one living in Charlottesville today could seriously write about UVA like this. It’s too large and worldly, and we all have a much clearer sense of collective sin than Green did. There is a certain literary irony in this blind spot, as Green was deeply indebted to that bard of guilt, Nathaniel Hawthorne.
But Green saw enough changes to realize that the University he remembered at the cusp of the 1920’s no longer existed. When he returned in 1937, he was deeply displeased with President Newcomb’s expansions.
Visited the new buildings, none of which are fine. The old University is intact, but while it used to be surrounded by woods, meadows, and ponds, as in Mr. Jefferson’s time, it now suffocates within a belt of big, commonplace houses. Useless to tell me that the buildings were very expensive, that doesn’t give them any more merit in my eyes. No, what happens to cities and universities is what happens to men: wealth kills something in them that can never again be found or replaced. Now that the University has become one of the big American universities, with a gymnasium the size of a railroad station [Mem Gym], a dormitory as big as a barracks [Old Dorms], etc., it attracts an increasing number of Northern boys, and I find no fault in this, but note that it is hardly any longer a Southern university. Its professors come from all over the country…(Diary: 1928-1957 72-73).
We who have passed our time here in the 21st century, almost a hundred years after Green left, must stifle a chuckle at his somewhat provincial complaint. It’s not hard to imagine what he would make of the Engineering School, Ruffner, New Dorms, Runk, Scott Stadium, Nau-Gibson, or New Cabell…let alone the sprawling monstrosity that is the medical complex. And you will be happy to know that Green could honestly describe Fourteenth Street in the Year of Our Lord 1921 as “rather gloomy” (Love in America 172).
But in addition to religious pressures and the ordinary stresses of student life, Green’s time at the University was deeply unhappy for another reason. It was there that he discovered something about himself that would mark his writing for the rest of life. While studying Latin with Dr. Fitzhugh (almost certainly the namesake of the crummy dorm on Alderman Road), Green had an epiphany.
The day eventually came when Dr. Fitzhugh…coming to a passage of Virgil, made the following speech to us, not a syllable of which have I forgotten:
“Gentlemen, it seems pointless for me to disguise the meaning of this passage: we are dealing here with the shame of Antiquity, by which I mean boy-love.”
These words fell on an extraordinary silence, so much so that when I closed my eyes I believed I was alone in the room…The rapt attention with which everyone listened should have apprised me, had I been capable of reasoning, but I felt so dumbfounded it was as if someone had struck me a violent blow to the head. In a second, I understood a thousand things, except for one which was essential. I realized that the strange passion of which Virgil spoke resided also in me. A blinding flash had clarified my entire life. I was frightened by this revelation which identified me with the young men of Antiquity. So I bore the shame of Antiquity, I alone bore it. Between me and these generations that had disappeared over twenty centuries ago there was this extraordinary link. In the modern world, I was alone because of it. (Love in America 49-50).
Green realized that he was a homosexual. As fellow student Mr. Thaddeus Braxton Woody (“Mr. Woody, may he always be remembered”) would later note, Green was never a very happy student. His shame compounded his sense of isolation. And it would not be long before he fell in love for the first time. That winter, when walking back from Cabell Hall towards the Rotunda, Green spotted a boy who darted past him swiftly, without even a word. It was a coup de foudre. He was totally captivated. Green tells us that, after a spell of motionless awe in what was probably the East Lawn colonnade, he went back to his room and thought, “I love him…I shall have to die” (Love in America 79). Green was “enslaved” to a love that dare not speak its name (Love in America 79). When Green would later write the story of his life, he called the mysterious student “Mark S.,” but revealed that he lived in 34 East Lawn (Love in America 90). Two students lived in that room in the Spring of 1920, so if your curiosity gets the best of you, you are welcome to search the Lawn Resident database to discover their names. It is impossible to know which of the two won Green’s unrequited love.
And it was an entirely un-erotic love at that. Green was spiritually attracted to Mark. He could easily distinguish between the innocent tenderness he felt for Mark and the darker, carnal desires that characterized his thoughts about some of the other students—including Virginius Dabney, son of that zealously Protestant lecturer and later an important scholar and journalist in his own right (Love in America 91, 171-72). Only towards the end of his time at the University did Green ever pluck up the courage to speak to Mark, who welcomed him as a dear friend. He never did grasp the depth of Julien’s affections (Love in America 255-59).
Green never consummated his desires in Charlottesville, but by the time he left, his sexual awakening was more or less complete. He was aided in arriving at this “transformation” of awareness by a similarly-inclined student whom he calls “Nick” in his autobiography. Nick shared stories of his own encounters, introduced Green to the work of Havelock Ellis, and encouraged him to a sexual adventurism that Green was never to take up (inter alia, Love in America 202-04, 209-11, 214, 266).
Any reader of Green’s novels or diaries knows that homosexuality would go on to become one of his constant themes, even when it exists beside more conventional relationships. The memory of that first, innocent love with “Mark” would later fuel the novel he wrote about the University, Moira (1950). Mark appears in the story as “Bruce Praileau,” a handsome Lawnie who shares an unspoken sexual tension with the main character (Moira 15). In fact, most of the male characters in that book correspond to one or two of the figures in the Autobiography, including a Mephistophelean young professor of Classics who introduced Green to the sodomitical poetry of Petronius and Catullus at an evening party (Love in America 240-42). Even beyond Moira, Green’s fiction very often explores issues related to the homosexual experience in the middle of the 20th century.
The energy and complexity of that exploration lies not only in his own relationships, but in his intense spiritual vision. Even in Moira (1950), the main internal conflict takes place between the protagonist’s repressed sexual urges (both for women as well as, implicitly, men) and his zealous, Puritanical religion. His competing fanaticisms eventually erupt into an act of violent destruction, but I won’t spoil the plot for those of you who may wish to read it.
Green’s time at the University transpired at the latter end of his first conversion. He had been received into the Catholic Church as a teenager, during the War. He would later leave the Church after his return to Paris, and spent the better part of two decades in the bohemian lifestyle which so strongly characterized the French literati of that age.
Yet even in this period, he retained a constant belief in God and a devotion to the Bible. In the late 1930’s, he returned to his Catholic faith. He would persist in it, albeit at times imperfectly, for the rest of his life. He broke off sexual relations with men, including his long-time partner and biographer, Robert de Saint Jean (though their emotional and spiritual relationship continued). He hated to be called a Catholic writer, but Green did acknowledge that his works “allow glimpses of great dark stirrings…the deepest part of the soul…the secret regions where God is at work” (Diary: 1928-1957 190). Green went so far as to write a life of St. Francis of Assisi, a saint to whom he always felt a certain inexplicable attraction. One reporter notes that “When asked, tactlessly, how he would like to die, he replied with a curious malicious twinkle in his eyes: ‘In a state of grace.'”
So, why would I title this largely historical post “UVA’s Own Saint?” Because I shamelessly want page views, of course. But also because I believe that Green’s work exhibits a spiritual mastery which is rarely acknowledged. He has been overlooked, I think, in large part because of his homosexuality. Occasionally, even conservative Catholic activists will tip their hats to Green (see Deal Hudson’s “The 100 Best Catholic Novels I Know,” where no fewer than three of Green’s books make the list—or the 1996 Crisis Magazine article on Love in America, written in a tone that differs rather markedly from the journal’s more recent fare. Hudson has long admired Green, and even corresponded with him in the mid-90’s). On the other hand, Spiritual Friendship, a blog that has done so much to change the conversation about homosexuality in the Church while remaining faithful to Catholic orthodoxy, has never really given much thought to Green.
But it would be a colossal mistake to treat Green as a “gay” Catholic writer, as if his work can only speak to the narrow concerns of a minority within the Church. He must not be made a football subject to the ephemeral concerns of the culture warriors. Catholics should pay more attention to him because his spiritual insights speak to the depths of the human condition. What is unique in Green is the way he draws those universal ideas from his own very particular situation. Like St. Augustine in Antiquity, Green perfects the art of discerning the divine meaning of memory. Much of his spiritual vision is concentrated in his personal, autobiographical, and reflective writing. For example:
The Eternal is the most beautiful name that has been given to God. You can think it over until you lose all feeling of the exterior world, and I think that, in a certain manner, it is in in itself a way that leads to God. If we seek what is eternal in the sensuous world, all the manifestations of matter vanish from our sight, what is most solid together with what is most ancient, until we reach the limits of what is imaginable in all possible spheres. When I was still a child, I used to think over occasionally the term for ever and ever that Protestants add at the end of the Pater, and the words finally gave me a sort of mental dizziness, as though by continuing in that direction you would reach something inexpressible, an immense void into which you fell. (Diary: 1928-1957 76).
In this passage, he echoes sentiments that Newman felt and expressed nearly a hundred years earlier in the Apologia, and anticipates several of the key themes that would mark T.S. Eliot’s spiritual poetry. But perhaps more importantly, these words reveal Green’s basically Augustinian orientation, the legacy of both his Calvinist upbringing and his Catholic reading.
That deep longing for happiness, that longing I have in me, as we all have, so much so, for instance, that I can’t listen without melancholy to a bird singing on a too fine summer day in Paris, where does it come from? It is not merely the longing to possess everything, formerly so strong in me; it is a painful and sometimes pleasant nostalgic longing for a happiness too far away in time for our brief memory to retrace it, something like a recollection of the Garden of Eden, but a memory adapted to our weakness. Too much joy would kill us. (Diary: 1928-1957 81)
All the dead are our elders. When a child of ten dies, he is my elder because he knows. (Diary: 1928-1957 124).
As might be expected, he had a particular concern for questions of the human body and the importance of chastity. In his Diary, he often ponders the body’s potential and limits in the spiritual life:
Vice begins where beauty ends. If one analyzed the impression produced by a beautiful body, something approaching religious emotion would be found in it. The work of the Creator is so beautiful that the wish to turn it into an instrument of pleasure comes only after a confused feeling of adoration and wonder. (Diary: 1928-1957 93).
Chastity is the body’s nightmare. The soul is certain of its vocation, but the body’s vocation is physical love. That is its mode of expression, the way it fulfills its part; that is all it thinks, that is all it thinks about. How can you expect it to understand the soul’s care? That body and soul are forcibly wedded is a mystery. The body hates the soul and wants it to die…To remain chaste does not necessarily make a saint of you, but chastity is one of the hallmarks of holiness, and if you wish to be chaste, you also wish to be holy, without daring to admit it, perhaps. (Diary: 1928-1957 203).
Sin occupies a major portion of his attention:
One loses all in losing grace. Many a time have I heard this said, but it is curious to observe that a single sin disenchants the whole of the spiritual world and restores all its power to the carnal world. The atrocious chaos immediately reorganizes itself…A veil stretches over the page. The book is the same, the reader’s soul has grown dark…a single act of contrition is enough for this wretched phantasmagoria to vanish and for the marvelous presence of the invisible to return. A man who has not felt such things does not know one of the greatest happinesses to be had on earth. (Diary: 1928-1957 300).
He had an exceptionally strong sense of the ineffable mystery at the heart of Christianity, drawn in large part from his reading of Scripture:
Faith means walking on waters. Peter himself had begun to sink when Jesus stretched out His hand, reproaching him for doubting. Now, we must believe. In an atheistic world, we have received this exceptional gift. In wind and in darkness, if the ground gives way under our feet like water—and who has not felt this at some time or other?—we must go straight ahead, in spite of all, and grasp the hand that is stretched out to us. (Diary: 1928-1957 273).
It is useless to attempt to get ahead of divine action. Our soul is an abyss into which we vainly peer. We scarcely see anything, but something is happening there—a great drama, surely; the drama of Adam’s salvation. The Church puts these things to us as best it can, but in a necessarily imperfect tongue, that is, the human tongue. It makes us familiar with extraordinary ideas that lose much of their strength with time. Happy the man who, in growing older, can feel the mystery increasing beyond all expression…(Diary: 1928-1957 284).
How I loved the word firmament when I was still a child! To me, it seemed filled with light. My first purely religious emotion, so far as I can remember, goes back to my fifth or sixth year…The room was dark, but through a window-pane I saw thousands of stars shining in the sky. This was the first time, to my knowledge, that God spoke directly to me, in that vast, confused tongue which words have never been able to render. (Diary: 1928-1957 296).
Yet, in spite of himself, he could also sum up the most profound mysteries in brief and simple words:
What then did this book [Faith of Our Fathers, by Cardinal Gibbons] tell me? It revealed to me that even if I were alone in the world, Christ would come to save me. And it was the same for each of us. Why? For what reason? For love. God is love. When one has said that, one has said everything. (Letter to Deal Hudson, 1995)
The contours of his spirituality were shaped by a number of writers. Among many others, we find the lingering presence of St. Augustine, Pascal, Fénelon, Newman, Bossuet, St. Francis of Assisi, the Carmelite doctors, the Jesuits, Jacques Maritain, Bloy, Claudel, Bernanos, and one rather important nun who is often overlooked: Mère Yvonne-Aimée de Jésus, of the Augustinian Monastery of Malestroit in Brittany. Dom Mark Daniel Kirby has an excellent post over at Vultus Christi outlining the connection between the nun and the writer.
Green maintained relationships with many communities over the course of his life. For instance, on October 25, 1947, he visited the famous Solesmes Abbey. He was impressed with the solemn chant and hymnody he heard there. Green had only the highest praise for the monastic vocation:
The monks in their black robes seem to glide over the surface of the floor like ghosts. On their faces, pax, as everywhere in this place. Peace and joy…It seems to me that Benedictine life is one hymn of happiness and love, in a rather slow mode, true enough, but what charm in this slowness and how precious it seems to me in a world that a passion for speed has made almost idiotic! A hymn, that’s what it is…It occurs to me at times that these monks live in a sort of great liturgical dream, whereas, in reality, they are the ones who see things as they are, and we are the ones who live in a dream always on the verge of turning into a nightmare. (Diary: 1928-1957 190).
No doubt, he wrote these words with a degree of wistful melancholy. In Green’s first flush of religious zeal, he had been received into the Church by one Father Crété, a Jesuit who also encouraged him to pursue a vocation as a Benedictine at Quarr Abbey, on the Isle of Wight (Kirby). That was the life he left behind when he came to America, stepped into Fitzhugh’s Latin class one day, and discovered that he bore “the Shame of Antiquity.”
Julien Green would be worth remembering here at UVA if only because of his accomplishments as a writer. In the words of his obituary,
Green’s earlier novels – Mont-Cinere (1926), Adrienne Mesurat (1927), Leviathan (1929), L’Autre Sommeil (1931), Epaves (1932), Le Visionnaire (1934), Minuit (1936), Varouna (1940) – with their brooding melancholy and troubling sexual undertones, are masterpieces of psychological subtlety and crystal-clear but evocatively poetic style…But undoubtedly Green will chiefly be remembered for his extraordinary journals, the longest in French literature; those so far published cover 70 years (1926-96) while Gide’s cover 62 (1889-1951). There are more to follow…His prizes and honours are innumerable. (Kirkup).
But he offers so much more than a literary legacy. Julien Green’s star is fixed in the celestial canon of the greatest Christian artists the modern world has seen. He deserves a place alongside those other artists who share his temperament and spirituality: Flannery O’Connor, Graham Greene, Shusaku Endo, Paul Verlaine, Joris-Karl Huysmans, Georges Rouault, T.S. Eliot, and Fyodor Dostoevsky. His life story sits uneasily in the restrictive and politicized categories we draw to understand the sometimes dizzying diversity within the communion of saints. He and his work challenge us. Catholics—particularly Catholics at the University of Virginia—should embrace that challenge.
But perhaps the most basic plea I can make is that Julien Green is one of us. He was a student at the University of Virginia. His experience in Charlottesville profoundly marked his soul and his art. It may not have been a happy time in his life, but it changed him forever and left him with a profound gratitude for Mr. Jefferson’s University. How many of us can say the same?
Green’s diary reveals that, years after he left UVA, he came to appreciate it in a much deeper way. On December 6, 1933, in anticipation of a return trip, he writes,
It has been eleven years since I left [the University], and I wonder if I will be sad or happy to see it once more. No doubt I did not know how to benefit from all it offered me; I did not quite understand the University, and it did not condescend to explain itself. It was only once I left that I realized how deeply I loved it and was unknowingly immensely indebted to it. But in 1920 I missed France too much. At twenty, in one of the most beautiful landscapes in the world, without a worry for the future, I contrived every day to think myself unhappy. Ah! if everything had to be lived over again, with the experience that I have acquired since! How many friendships were offered me and discouraged by my lack of sociability! (Diary 1928-1957 45).
For an undergraduate about to walk the Lawn at graduation, I can’t help but relate to Green’s introspection. The words he wrote on what was, I believe, his last visit, June 12, 1941, are particularly poignant. He composed that entry while in exile during World War II, but the questions he poses loom before all of us who are soon to move on. I would like to offer them for your consideration.
At the University, toward the close of the same day. All the students have gone; everything is given up to solitude and to memory. We strolled on the big lawn that spreads before the Rotunda: great trees whispered above our heads, rows of white columns glimmered in the twilight, and I had never been struck as now by the simple beauty of the “ranges.” I would have liked to linger there for years, but we had to leave, one always has to leave, no matter what or where. And then, what would I have done at the University? Where is my place? Where am I going to live? Where am I going to die? (Diary: 1928-1957 113).
In my time at the University of Virginia, I’m grateful to have received an unofficial aesthetic education parallel to (and sometimes part of) what I was learning in class. As part of a series of somewhat nostalgic posts, I’d like to revisit some of these and perhaps leave you with a few recommendations.
Some of this will be review. A great deal will be personal narrative. “Important” here is not an absolute quality, but rather a relative one. These films have been the most important to me over my four years. Moreover, there will be occasional spoilers—though, as with No. 5 and No. 4 on my list, I don’t spoil very much.
Keeping those disclaimers in mind, let’s begin.
15. What We Do in the Shadows
I watched this New Zealand horror comedy with a friend (whom I will call here and throughout by the name “Sherman Pine”). And I’m glad I did. What We Do in the Shadows is one of the best depictions of male friendship I have ever seen. Not only is the film by turns hilarious and macabre, it also manages to evoke the unique social pressures facing (post)modern man. It deals with issues of difference, acceptance, competition, and more.
And for anyone with a taste for blood – or at the very least, a good vampire story – the number of playfully subverted classic genre tropes in the film will certainly please.
14. Doctor Strange
Before I came to UVA, I wasn’t a fan of the Marvel universe. While I wasn’t exactly a DC partisan, I never paid much attention to the Avengers. I disliked the only Iron Man movie I had seen, and I had never bothered to watch any of the Thor or Captain America films.
But then came Guardians of the Galaxy, The Avengers: Age of Ultron, and Captain America: Civil War. Those three films and the conversations with friends that they engendered drastically changed my perspective on Marvel.
None of those, however, reached the artistic or philosophical heights of Doctor Strange. The beautifully kaleidoscopic special effects never drown out the excellent performances by Benedict Cumberbatch, Tilda Swinton, Mads Mikkelsen, and Chiwetel Ejiofor. And the plot contains a number of religious themes. It’s one of the few superhero movies I’ve seen that embraces a quasi-Christian worldview (the climax involves a kind of harrowing of hell).
In short, I guess I can now say that I’m a fan of the Marvel universe. Doctor Strange is just the best reason why.
Wrenching, problematic, and beautiful, Silence is the only Martin Scorsese film on this list. I saw it with friends from one of my oratorical societies. We all went in with different perspectives, and came out with different reactions. Mostly, I just felt numb. I couldn’t find any words at all, but like Job, felt it necessary to “lay mine hand upon my mouth” in awe (Job 40:4 KJV).
I could probably write at length about the various theological issues, cultural questions, and cinematic gems that the film poses. I won’t. I’ll merely say that, while I found it emotionally crushing, I appreciate that art doesn’t abide by the rules we try to set it. Good Christian art – even Sophianic art – never loses sight of the essential brokenness of our fallen world. If anything, perhaps the great take-away from Silence is something like the advice I was once given by a very holy priest: “Never despair of the mercy of God.”
I’ll add briefly that, as someone who wants to focus on early modern Catholicism, I found the film a helpful occasion to raise awareness about the history of Christian persecution in Japan. The reconstructed world of 17th century Japan is sumptuously simple. Every aesthetic note is perfectly put. It will almost certainly be remembered as Scorsese’s masterpiece.
12. Mulholland Drive
We move from Silence to “Silencio.”
Last Fall, I decided to watch Twin Peaks. That process entailed a general inquiry into the works of David Lynch, whom I had long admired. I told Sherman Pine, who shares my appreciation of Lynch, that I had yet to see the director’s famous neo-noir Mulholland Drive, and he was kind enough to watch it with me.
I still don’t understand this movie. I won’t pretend to. But boy, is it a ride.
I’ll add that Lynch really smartly contrasts different musical styles, which mirrors the doubling in the plot (but I won’t spoil those details). I know of no other director who is so committed to staged performance as a portrayal of themes. Particularly as they relate to the underlying tensions of sex and gender present in much of his work.
11. Days of Heaven
My first Terrence Malick movie, but not the only one on this list. Watching Days of Heaven was like stepping into an Edward Hopper or Andrew Wyeth painting. Like a few other films – say, August: Osage County or Nebraska – Days of Heaven stands as one of the quietly towering cinematic monuments of Midwestern life.
I also happened to watch the film with a friend (the aforementioned Sherman Pine) wile I was enrolled in an Anthropology class called “Language and Cinema,” which meant that I was particularly attuned to the way Malick crafts his story through sound. No other film that I know of uses such a wide range of realistic sounds so artfully. You can’t hear all the dialogue, and what you can hear, you can’t always understand. The voice-over narration is spoken by a child in the working-class accent of 1916 Chicago.
Of course, being a Malick film, the visuals are also gorgeous. A swarm of locusts is an inherently mythic phenomenon, but I think that only Malick could make them as beautiful as the sunlight they block and the fields they devour.
10. Do the Right Thing
Because I was in that “Language and Cinema” class, I had the opportunity to watch several films I had never seen before. A few worth mentioning include Zoot Suit, the 1939 edition of Stagecoach, and Smoke Signals. Of all of the films we watched, one that really stood out to me as an exceptional piece of art was Spike Lee’s famous 1989 movie, Do the Right Thing.
The script offers a remarkable variety of linguistic turns that make it a rich field of social analysis. The film also impressed me as a bitingly relevant commentary on racism and policing. As someone with no prior awareness of the issues surrounding police brutality in 1980’s New York City, the movie made me want to learn more about a dark and overlooked chapter of our history. Given the recent spate of police brutality incidents over the last few years, it seems to me that more people should return to this film, a movie that carefully treads the line between the two social values on Radio Raheem’s fists: love and hate.
Becket is not the greatest Catholic film ever made, but it comes close. Gorgeously fabricated costumes, historically-conscious sets, a richly Romanesque liturgical sensibility, copious use of Gregorian Chant, and an excommunication scene that thrills the cockles of every cold Traditionalist heart—what’s there not to love?
Beyond these largely aesthetic factors, Becket has two unique strengths. First, the movie lacks any of the problematic theology or complicated nuances that has marked more artistically impressive Catholic films (such as Silence and Calvary). Of course, there’s nothing wrong with art engaging in these questions, but occasionally a more affirming film can be helpful. Becket, like A Man for All Seasons, manages to unite faithfulness to the Church’s teachings with genuine artistry. The titular bishop often defends “the Honor of God” against a rapacious monarch. And that brings us to the movie’s second great strength: its depiction of a friendship gone awry. This is a theme that isn’t treated as often as it should be in movies.
Of course, I may be mistaking my own reading of the film and its objective strengths. I first saw Becket when I was in a similar situation. A friend had quickly and completely become an enemy, and I could relate to St. Thomas’s exasperated struggle against a corrupt king.
And on top of that, it’s about St. Thomas Becket, who is one of the coolest British saints.
8. The Witch
If you know me personally, you know that I adore The Witch (aka The VVitch). It may well be one of the finest horror movies ever made. It features all the tropes of early modern witch lore, a soundtrack that evokes the terrors of the Puritan frontier, and dialogue in 17th century dialect (my jam). Its understated visual style allows the actors’ performances to shine through. And the goat! The goat! Just look at it!
This film rekindled my interest in the tradition of horror in New England, which I’ve blogged about before in relation to Lovecraft. It was also the first horror movie I had ever seen in a cinema. The Witch also established A24 in my mind as one of the leaders of the new horror, a genre trend that I hope it continues with the upcoming It Comes at Night.
I consider The Witch to be the greatest Protestant film ever made. Yes, the Satanic Temple really liked it. Yes, A24 consciously hyped the film’s satanic themes as part of its publicity efforts. Fine. But the movie’s horror works by letting us into the world of Puritan New England, a world where the devil is real, witches kill babies, and the livestock aren’t always what they seem. And we are meant to sympathize with these people. They’re not the dupes of McCarthyesque hysteria. They’re the victims of supernatural evil.
I also read The Witch as a cinematic meditation on original sin in its Calvinist interpretation. Everything in the movie happens because of the father’s pride. He’s unwilling to repent and submit to the colonial community, and as a result, the whole family is expelled into the wilderness. The subsequent deterioration and damnation mirrors our own condition under Adam.
Also, if you like Goya’s Black Paintings, you’ll really like The Witch.
7. Herz aus Glas
I saw Herz aus Glas (Heart of Glass) while on a Nietzsche kick in my second year. It messed with my head and made me want to read obscure Continental writers. I’ve always seen it as somehow quintessentially German. At the very least, Herz aus Glas introduced me to the remarkable oeuvre of Werner Herzog, who is my favorite European nihilist director. Not quite as grim as Béla Tarr, not quite as operatically depraved as Lars von Trier.
The film itself tells the story of a glass-producing village in Bavaria that descends into madness after the death of its chief glassblower. A highland prophet delivers cryptic messages throughout. The conclusion comes out of nowhere. At the end of the day, it’s probably a commentary on the German experience of capitalism and fascism, but who knows? Don’t question it.
6. Curse of the Golden Flower
I first saw Curse of the Golden Flower with fourth-year friends when I was a lowly first-year. For me, it will always be a symbol of the similarly golden days between Spring finals and graduation.
The film struck me then as one of the most visually striking movies I had ever seen. The highly stylized recreation of Tang Dynasty China probably speaks to that part of me that also takes a guilty pleasure in the orientalist paintings of Gérôme and Delacroix. Each shot is saturated with a carefully chosen array of colors. The costumes and set design work together to fashion a stunning aesthetic experience. Think Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremony, but with more swords and cloth-of-gold.
Everyone to whom I have showed it since has agreed with my own assessment. The action thrills, and all the actors put in excellent performances. I’d also highly recommend Curse of the Golden Flower to fans of Game of Thrones. The palace intrigue that makes up the bulk of the plot resonates with much of what goes on in Westeros.
5. The Great Beauty
When I started composing this list, The Great Beauty was down several places. But the longer I’ve thought about it, the higher I’ve ranked this film by Paolo Sorrentino. Readers of this blog will know that I kinda have a thing for his recent HBO limited series, The Young Pope. That show prompted me to look at Sorrentino’s cinematic work. The Great Beauty was the first of his movies that I watched. I’ve had the chance to watch it twice, and I may go back for round three in the next few weeks.
The film depicts the life of Jep Gambardella, a fictional Italian author who moves through the boozy and hedonistic world of the Roman intelligentsia. We see his interactions with other writers, strippers, a floundering performance artist, the wreck of the Costa Concordia, and more. He searches for the titular “grande bellezza,” only to find it after encountering love, suffering, and simplicity.
There isn’t much plot, but there is a whole lot of character development. Ensconced in a party lifestyle, Jep can’t produce any more books; he feels stuck. When he receives word that his first love has died, he goes through a period of intense introspection. As he looks back upon his life, he realizes that he’s lost any meaningful sense of joy. He’s caught in a malaise of memory. Only the wise words of a Mother Theresa-like nun whom everyone refers to as “the Saint” unlocks his situation.
She asks, “Do you know why I only eat roots?” Jep replies that he doesn’t know. She turns back, and without even a smile, says to him, “Because roots are important.” The terse, spiritual one-liners of The Great Beauty are typical Sorrentino fare. Similar lines appear throughout The Young Pope.
I first saw the film in February. I’ve been ruminating on it ever since. It has stayed with me and fermented in my soul like few other films. I can’t help but relate to the protagonist—and not just because we share a similar sleep cycle. Jep Gambardella, played masterfully by Tony Servillo, strikes me as a character who could relate to the strange feelings of nostalgia and loss that I’ve had in the Spring of my fourth year. So much so, that along with the next two films, I consider it one of the triad of movies that has defined my final year at the University.
Also, the music in this film is totally gorgeous, and has given me a renewed appreciation of the Holy Minimalists. The soundtrack features both of the songs I described in a recent post on the Light of Tabor and Lent.
So go see it, because it really is too great a beauty to pass up.
4. The Mission
Although I had heard of The Mission years ago, I only became really determined to watch it as the result of a class I took last fall, “Reformation Europe.” I’m glad I did. It also had a profound impact on me. I don’t think I know of a Catholic film that more perfectly depicts the difficult realities of balancing missionary work and the demands of Christian peace. The tension between the Jesuits played by Robert de Niro and Jeremy Irons is only undone through the reconciliation implicit in the climactic scene. It is the Eucharist, and the Eucharist alone, which can effect true peace – especially in the face of martyrdom.
A few ancillary personal notes. First, as an aspiring early modernist, I found that the film disposed me to take a much deeper interest in colonial South America. It also made me take a much more serious look into Christian pacifism. The best art should do that. It captures the imagination and lead us on from the beautiful to the true or the good. Secondly, “Gabriel’s Oboe” is also, for my money, the most uplifting music from any of the films I have listed in this post. Finally, it confirmed Jeremy Irons in my mind as the Most Catholic Non-Catholic currently acting in Hollywood (see Brideshead Revisited, The Borgias).
3. The Tree of Life
For years, friends told me that I had to watch The Tree of Life. That it was an incredible piece of art. That it could never be adequately described. That it might just induce a religious experience.
Having watched it recently, I concur. The film is too vast to try and capture in any depth here. I’ll simply say that it is the most sophianic piece of cinema I have ever seen, and that if I have any time in the future, I may try to analyze it from a sophiological perspective. But not without one more viewing.
2. Into Great Silence
For a while, I made it a practice to watch Into Great Silence at least once per semester. I believe I first saw the film in the Fall of my First Year, and in that sense, it was my first real introduction to monastic spirituality. The simplicity and manifest holiness of the Carthusians in the movie captured my imagination. Their silence spoke to me.
Nothing happens. Insofar as there is a narrative—and I must emphasize, there really isn’t one—it’s the first year in the monastery of a newly-professed novice. But we don’t focus on him. Instead, we watch many of the monks as they go about life. We are brought into the rhythms of their own silence, the particular ways they fill it with prayer and work. When the monks do speak, they often drop deep little lines. The only interview in the documentary is conducted with an ancient, blind monk. At one point, he says,
The past, the present, these are human. In God there is no past. Solely the present prevails. And when God sees us, He always sees our entire life. And because He is an infinitely good being, He eternally seeks our well-being. Therefore there is no cause for worry in any of the things which happen to us.
These words are good theology, spoken by a saint, given for our practical sanctification. Or consider an even better, briefer quip spoken by a monk at recreation:
The symbols are not to be questioned—we are.
Words to live by.
If you are Catholic, the hauntingly beautiful scene that depicts the Carthusian night office will make you want to go to adoration at midnight. If you are not religious, the film will make you take the ascetic life more seriously. And if you are pondering the Catholic life, I can’t think of a better cinematic introduction to the Church’s spirituality.
Well, I suppose there’s Bishop Barron’s Catholicism series. But that’s a show, not a film.
Without a doubt, this film has defined my time at UVA. I discovered Baraka by accident, and it stirred something in me that has never quite settled.
One part nature documentary, one part travelogue, one part blistering social criticism, Baraka can be summed up in one word: transcendent. Everything in the film points towards what is beyond it, towards what it dare not express in words. There is no dialogue. The central theme is that ritual and nature connect mankind with the mystery of his existence, and it proceeds to show how the way we break, deform, and reconstruct ritual in modernity has led to untold suffering. The film suggests that a return to the ancient wisdom of religion can restore the meaning we have lost in the 20th century.
Whether you buy into that traditionalist interpretation—or its postmodernist, ecofeminist, anti-colonialist, or anti-capitalist variants—the film will stun you. Director Ron Fricke cut his teeth as director of photography for Koyaanisqatsi (1982) and director of Chronos (1985), the film’s spiritual antecedents. He would later go on to direct a sequel to Baraka, another beautiful film called Samsara (the featured image at the top of this article is a still from that movie). While all are worth seeing, Baraka is the best of the lot. It has the most coherent spiritual vision, the best music, and the most striking visuals.
I encountered Baraka my third year, at a time in my life when I was under tremendous personal stress, as I alluded to in my discussion of Becket. Maybe that slight desperation opened me to a film of Baraka‘s sensibilities. I don’t know. But I don’t think I watched a film while at UVA that more profoundly shaped my worldview and aesthetic. I’d say that everyone who studies or practices religion should see it, but that would be a lie. Everyone should see it—period.
This was the eulogy I delivered at the funeral of Arline Grace Bence (29 Oct. 1929 – 5 Apr. 2017), my beloved Grandmother. The Requiem Mass was celebrated by the Rev. Fr. Gregory Wilson of St. Mary, Help of Christians, Aiken, SC. I also sang the Salve Regina during the Offertory. I’d like to thank everyone who has been so kind to express their concern and commiseration during this difficult time. I decided to put this rather personal document on my blog for those family and friends who could not attend the funeral, as well as to honor my grandmother’s memory.
I confess, when I learned last Wednesday that my Grandma Arline had finally passed away, I did not immediately feel the sorrow or grief I was expecting. Instead, I felt a twofold relief. First, I was relieved that after years of battling dementia and various other painful disorders, my grandmother was finally at peace. And secondly, I was glad that, having been consoled and fortified by the last rites of the Church, she would soon plunge through the cleansing fires of Purgatory and arrive safely in, as our Psalm today so beautifully puts it, “the land of the living” (Psalm 27:13).
And when the sadness came, it was mingled with tremendous gratitude. For when I remember my grandmother—when I see her coffin here—I am reminded of a woman who was one of the greatest blessings in my life. Few people more profoundly molded my character and dispositions. I’m sure that so many of us here can say much the same.
Arline Grace Bence, born the day the stock market crashed, a proud New Yorker and Italian to the end, was known to all as a simple and generous soul. In my own life, she expressed these virtues in different ways. She gave unstintingly of her time. For many years, we would both look forward to Friday nights. After the school week had concluded, I would mount the short staircase to her apartment above our garage, and the two of us would share a meal together. This was a precious time for both of us – if only there were more such time now! But in the years we passed in each other’s company, my Grandmother also fed my desire for learning. We spent many a weekend or summer’s day going out to lunch—usually pizza—followed by an outing to Barnes and Noble. She would let me roam the stacks for what seemed like hours, never complaining as she sat and read a magazine or two.
But this pattern of happy memories fails to capture the most important gift she gave me – the gift of faith. My grandmother was the first person to take me to Mass. She was the first person to buy me a book of saints. She was the first person to teach me the blessed words of the Ave Maria. And when I began my conversion in the last years of high school, she was the first to accompany me to weekly services. Although we were no longer spending Friday nights together, we both started to look forward to Sunday mornings instead. And we found a new closeness in doing so.
These gifts—her steadfast love, the time we shared, the faith that sustained us in different ways – these happy memories are what will bring me something of her presence in her absence.
For now, she is gone. Though—perhaps not in all ways.
The faithful departed are not really gone. They are, instead, much closer to us than they ever were before, for they have loosed the petty chains of time and space. In God, they are near to us – nearer than we can imagine. All those who have died in Christ and gone before us are waiting to help us as we, too, seek Heaven. And I can say with confidence that Arline Bence, our dear grandmother, aunt, cousin, in-law, friend, and mother, will very soon be interceding for us. Let us intercede for her now.
Everyone here loved her so very much. Perhaps even in ways that you could never quite express. I believe that I speak for us all when I say that my grandmother loved us deeply, if imperfectly. In this, she always proved her essential humanity. But now, as she enters her eternal life, she can love us all more perfectly, at last.
Eternal rest grant unto her, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon her. May she rest in peace.