Sunday, August 29, 2004

An American in Italy...

Check out another Rome-based 'blog...

Apologies for the death of posts recently, I'll try and rectify this with a post or two about my recent English adventures...

Friday, August 27, 2004


I am currently working my way through Johan Huzinga’s 1924 work ‘The Waning of the Middle Ages,’ an analysis of life and thought in 14th and 15th century France and Holland. I’m not sure that I can agree fully with his assessment of the philosophical and religious thought of the time, but overall he is quite astute and his tight focus with respect to time and geography allows him to introduce entertaining vignettes and references that would escape the scope of a more broadly focused study.
We read, for example, about the quasi-liturgical instructions for Charles the Bold’s meal-times. His master of ceremonies even compiled a kind of cathechism:
Q. Who is to take the Chief-Cook’s place in case he is absent: the ‘spit-master’ or the ‘soup-master’?
A. Neither; the substitute will be designated by election,
Q. Why do the ‘panetiers’ and cup-bearers form the first ranks, above the carvers and the cooks?
A. Because they are in charge of bread and wine, to which the sanctity of the sacrament gives a holy character.

Another interesting snippet can be found in the chapter ‘Religious Thought Crystallizing into Images
Even in the case of a sublime mystic, like Henry Suso, the craving for hallowing every action of daily life verges in our eyes on the ridiculous. He is sublime when, following the usages of profane love, he celebrates New Year’s Day and May Day by offering a wreath and a song to his betrothed, Eternal Wisdom, or when, out of reverence for the Holy Virgin, he renders homage to all womankind and walks in the mud to let a beggar woman pass. But what are we to think of what follows? At table Suso eats three-quarters of an apple in the name of the Trinity and the remaining quarter in commemoration of ‘the love with which the heavenly Mother gave her tender child Jesus an apple to eat’; and for this reason he eats the last quarter with the paring, as little boys do not peel their apples. After Christmas he does not eat it, for then the infant Jesus was too young to eat apples. He drinks in five draughts because of the five wounds of the Lord, but as blood and water flowed from the side of Christ, he takes his last draught twice.

Huzinga also sheds some light on the attitudes of the less devout:
A startling piece of impudence is recorded of he father of the Frisian humanist Rudolph Agricola, who received the news that his concubine had given birth to a son on the very day when he was elected abbot. ‘Today I have twice become a father. God’s blessing on it!’ said he.

Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Another Hiatus....

Blog-break for the next week or so while I battle the forces of darkness, reclaim the Holy City of Jerusalem for Christendom and go on retreat...

But before I go, congratulations to the Old Oligarch and Zorak who are expecting! (I'll refrain from the riddles about what one gets when one crosses a Mantis with a Stoic...)

Wednesday, August 11, 2004

On Newman's Anniversary...

I had the good fortune of acquiring a beautiful copy of the 1907 Longmans, Green and Co. edition of Newman’s Meditations and Devotions. These were gathered from Newman’s personal papers and published posthumously in 1893 by Fr William P Neville, then a young priest of the Birmingham Oratory. In later years, Neville would be notable as one of the last surviving persons with a personal recollection of Newman.
It being the 114th anniversary of Newman’s death, it seems apt to reproduce part of the last chapter (entitled ‘Conclusion’) which includes a note written by Newman in anticipation of his death in 1863(!); as it happened, Newman would survive until 1890, outliving most of his close friends. The decade or so prior to 1863 was particularly difficult for Newman, encompassing the difficulties with the establishment of the Catholic University in Dublin, the Achilli libel trial, the hostility of Cardinal Wiseman and the controversy surrounding ‘The Rambler’ magazine – it is therefore easy to understand why Newman, at the age of 53, might feel like his days were ending.

Written in Prospect of Death
March 13th, 1864, Passion Sunday, 7 o'clock a.m.
I WRITE in the direct view of death as in prospect. No one in the house, I suppose, suspects anything of the kind. Nor anyone anywhere, unless it be the medical men.
I write at once—because, on my own feelings of mind and body, it is as if nothing at all were the matter with me, just now; but because I do not know how long this perfect possession of my sensible and available health and strength may last.
I die in the faith of the One Holy Catholic Apostolic Church. I trust I shall die prepared and protected by her Sacraments, which our Lord Jesus Christ has committed to her, and in that communion of Saints which He inaugurated when He ascended on high, and which will have no end. I hope to die in that Church which our Lord founded on Peter, and which will continue till His second coming.
I commit my soul and body to the Most Holy Trinity, and to the merits and grace of our Lord Jesus, God Incarnate, to the intercession and compassion of our dear Mother Mary; to St. Joseph; and St. Philip Neri, my father, the father of an unworthy son; to St. John the Evangelist; St. John the Baptist; St. Henry; St. Athananius, and St. Gregory Nazianzen; to St. Chrysostom, and St. Ambrose.
Also to St. Peter, St. Gregory I., and St. Leo. Also to the great Apostle, St. Paul.
Also to my tender Guardian Angel, and to all Angels, and to all Saints.And I pray to God to bring us all together again in heaven, under the feet of the Saints. And, after the pattern of Him, who seeks so diligently for those who are astray, I would ask Him especially to have mercy on those who are external to the True Fold, and to bring them into it before they die.

Monday, August 09, 2004

Nuns and Newman

First the nuns...
I read in my local paper that the Italian Daily Avvenire recently told the story of Italian former nightclub dancer Anna Nobili who left a life of degradation for the convent by entering the Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth.
A somewhat more conventional entrant to the convent is the excellent Theoscope, who is entering the Nashville Dominicans in just a few days time. Ad multos annos!

then the Newman...
August 11th sees the anniversary of Ven. John Henry Cardinal Newman's death in 1890. Quenta Narwenion has been holding a novena for his canonization. I hope to make it to Birmingham for the annual commemoration at some stage (not this year, alas...).

Let us pray...

God our Father, your servant John Henry Newman upheld the Faith by his
teaching and example.

May his loyalty to Christ and the Church, his love for the
Immaculate Mother of God, and his compassion for the perplexed give guidance to
the Christian people today.

We beg you to grant the favours we ask through his
intercession so that his holiness may be recognized by all and the Church may
proclaim him a Saint.

We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Saturday, August 07, 2004

Literary Puzzles and Newmanalia

Some of the more interesting volumes I’ve had the opportunity of reading recently are a series of books by John Sutherland, the Lord Northcliffe Professor of Modern English Literature at University College London. In addition to more academic works, Sutherland is somewhat of a literary detective and has managed to compile 5 books of literary teasers. Three deal with classic (mainly 19th century) fiction, (‘Is Heathcliff a Murderer?’, ‘Who Betrays Elizabeth Bennet?’ & ‘Can Jane Eyre be Happy?’) one looks at more modern fiction (‘Where was Rebecca Shot?’) and one (co-written with Professor Cedric Watts) tackles Shakespearean conundrums (‘Henry V, War Criminal? & Other Shakespeare Puzzles’). Sutherland has a keen eye for anachronisms, plot holes, temporal inconsistencies and absurdities. Investigating these, Sutherland draws in aspects of literary criticism and social history, sometimes concluding that the author had merely blundered, sometimes that the author was making a subtle point or was exercising a literary sleight-of-hand to make an objectively unsavoury type into a more sympathetic character. The books therefore are an engaging mix of literary criticism and trivia. In the same volume we find discussion of what Mansfield Park has to say about slavery, the use of mesmerism as a plot device in 19th century fiction and the practicalities of being ‘The Invisible Man’. In their look at Shakespeare, Sutherland and Watts take an equally eclectic approach. There’s the oft-discussed question of whether Lady Macbeth’s faint is genuine (to my surprise, Sutherland decides that it’s not feigned), the practicalities of an octogenarian Lear carrying the corpse of Cordelia (is Lear really ‘fourscore and upward’?), whether Elizabethan audiences have been as perturbed as we are at Juliet’s tender age of just 13 years (and as an aside notes that the text suggest that her nurse, normally played by a ‘mature’ actress, should actually be about 26 years old) and the temporal inconsistencies which dog so many of Shakespeare’s plays.
In addition to the trivia (I know more than I ever dreamt I would about signalling on Victorian railways), I find the insight provided into the author’s craft particularly interesting. Particularly in the works of Dickens and his contemporaries who wrote their novels as serials we see evidence of plot changes and vestigial traces of plot changes.

On a slightly related matter, whilst reading ‘Is Heathcliff a Murderer?’ I came across the following quotation (in the mouth of Arthur Pendennis) from Thackeray’s ‘Pendennis’:

I see it (truth) … in that man, who, driven by the remorseless logic of his
creed, gives up everything, friends, fame, dearest ties, closest vanities, the
respect of an army of Churchmen, the recognised position of a leader, and passes
over, truth-impelled, to the enemy, in whose ranks he is ready to serve
henceforth as a nameless private soldier: - I see the truth in that man, as I do
I his brother, whose logic drives him to quite a different conclusion, and who,
after having passed a life in vain endeavours to reconcile an irreconcilable
book, flings it at last down in despair and declares, with tearful eyes, and
hands up to heaven, his revolt and recantation.
The reference is of course to John Henry Newman and his brother Frank. It is one of those ironies, which caused Venerable Newman so much pain, that his assertion that logically one must chose either atheism or the Catholic faith and that any intermediate positions are ultimately inconsistent was played out in the life of these brothers. John Henry moved from the shadows of evangelical Protestantism to Catholicism, whilst Francis William’s religious opinions moved in the opposite direction, through a variety of Christian sects, to find their ultimate home in unbelief.

I am also working my way through the Gracewing/University of Notre Dame published ‘Birmingham Oratory Millennium’ edition of Newman’s ‘The Church of the Fathers’ which has a preface by Marist Francis McGrath FMS. In it he notes that when Newman re-issued the work as a Catholic in 1857 he added a dedication to the recently deceased Robert Isaac Wilberforce (1802-57), one of the most significant converts who crossed the Tiber under Newman’s influence. He was the son of prominent Evangelical social reformer William Wilberforce. (It’s worth noting that three of his sons converted to Catholicism, whilst one became an Anglican bishop.) Having converted in 1854, Wilberforce moved to Rome to study for the priesthood as a Dominican, but died a few weeks before ordination. His funerary stone can be found set into the pavement of S.Maria Sopra Minerva, about three-quarters of the way up the right hand side of the church. Newman’s dedication reads:
TO A FRIEND,/WHO IS AS DEAR TO ME NOW,/AS WHEN HIS NAME STOOD HERE,/AND THREW LIGHT OVER THESE PAGES;/WHOSE HEART IS IN GOD’S HAND,/TO BRING INTO THAT SACRED HERITAGE,/WHICH IS BOTH THE CHURCH OF THE FATHERS,/AND THE HOME OF THE CHILDREN. Newman’s ‘Church of the Fathers’ was an attempt to introduce the Fathers of the Church to an Anglican audience and was later revised for a Catholic readership. Central to Newman’s argument is the assertion that whatever else the Early Church was, it was not Protestant. Consequently, in addition to character sketches of some of the Fathers, we also have Newman at his satirical best – (I have a decided weakness for Newman’s more polemical passages):
When we ask, ‘Where was your Church before Luther?’ Protestants answer, ‘Where
were you this morning before you washed your face?’ But, if Protestants
can clean themselves into the likeness of Cyprian and Iranaeus, they must scrub
very hard, and have well-nigh learned the art of washing the blackamoor white.
(p 403)

Friday, August 06, 2004

On Jesters...

According to Br. Matt of the Holy Whapping, it seems that the British Government are going to restore the office of Court Jester. Methinks, sirrah, that verily it speaketh volumes that this comes from the same administration that abolished the office of Lord Chancellor.
Matt also mentions several other bizzare offices. Personally, I've always been fascinated by the fact that British MPs are forbidden from resigning their seats, but should their vountary departure from parliament be neccesary, they can apply to take up a paid crown office which automatically leads to their exclusion from the House of Commons and a vacancy in their constituency. Two nominal offices are retained for the specific purpose of allowing MPs to effectively resign - the Stewardships of Chiltern Hundreds and Northstead Manor.

Thursday, August 05, 2004

We are not amused...

The prudishness of the late Queen Victoria is legendary. It is said that on her deathbed she was speculating as to which notable figures she might meet in the next life. An Anglican clergyman suggested that she might encounter Abraham. To this she haughtily replied, ‘We will NOT meet Abraham’. It is not clear as to whether she understood his patriarchal sexual morality to exclude him from Heaven, or whether it was just that case that she intended to refuse him an audience in the world to come.

The Curé of Ars and Our Lady of the Snow...

Yesterday, we celebrated the feast of St. John Mary Vianney, or the Curé of Ars. The following snippet of the breviary reading from one of his catechetical instructions is worth reflecting on:

…how often do we come to church without thinking what we are
going to do or for what we are going to ask.
And yet, when we go to call upon someone, we have
no difficulty in remembering why it was we came.
Some appear as if they were about to say to God: ‘I am just going to say a couple of words, so I can get away quickly.

Today we celebrate the Dedication of the Basilica of St Mary Majors.
It’s the custom in the church itself to sprinkle blossoms from the ceiling
during the Gloria to celebrate the legendary fall of snow which is said to have
indicated to Pope St. Liberius the divinely appointed site of the first Western
church dedicated to the Madonna.

Tuesday, August 03, 2004

Be advised that (ab)normal service is gradually being resumed

Cari amici, hopefully the immediate future will see a resumption of semi-frequent, quasi-regular ‘blogging. I’m still away from Rome, but hope that I’ll be able to rustle up some interesting morsels from my somewhat eclectic reading programme. Expect snippets on Newman, Kierkegaard, legal and commercial blunders and literary teasers.
However, keeping to the general theme of returning after a break, I’m reminded of an incident in the life of the late Fr Herbert McCabe, OP, one of the more eccentric theologians of the last century. He formed part of a Cambridge-based and Dominican-dominated group of theologians who disdained the various Kantian or Existential influenced schools of Thomism that arose on the Continent, preferring an approach to the Angelic Doctor coloured by the philosophy of Wittgenstein. (Incidentally, I understand there to be a persistent rumour that Wittgenstein died within the Church.) McCabe was by far the most readable and entertaining of these theologians. In 1967 McCabe was caught up in one of the ‘aftershocks’ of the post-conciliar period. Upset with the manner in which the council was being implemented, the English theologian Charles Davis left the Church on the grounds of the Church being corrupt. In his role as editor of the New Blackfriars periodical, McCabe argued (sensibly enough) that whilst the Church may well be manifestly corrupt, this was no reason to leave the Church. Unfortunately, the ecclesiastical powers-that-be found this line of argument to be unpalatable and McCabe was unceremoniously removed from the editor’s chair. Indeed, he even had his faculties suspended for several days. Things eventually settled down, and a few years later, he was editing New Blackfriars again. He resumed his work with an editorial that had one of the aptest openings ever to grace a theological journal:
As I was saying before I was so oddly interrupted, ecclesiastical authorities can behave in some fairly bizarre ways