To Go A-Christianing

Throughout the first half of the seventeenth century, while the Barbary corsairs ranged freely around the Mediterranean, these pirates also sailed by the dozen up the [English] Channel and even into the Thames estuary, plundering local fishing and coastal towns. . . . The Algerians were said to have taken no fewer than 353 British ships between 1672 and 1682, which would mean that they were still picking up between 290 and 430 new British slaves every year.

—Robert C. Davis, Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters


Historical truths become casualties of preferred narratives in the present. Modern scholarship, preoccupied with the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, gives little more than a passing glance to the scope of corsair piracy. Yet, as historian Robert Davis reminds, the systematic enslavement of white, Christian Europeans by Muslim’s on North Africa’s Barbary Coast, is a crucial, if politically disfavored, aspect of modern slave studies. 


Moroccan Slave Market. Anonymous woodcut (17th C.).



Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters: White Slavery in the Mediterranean, the Barbary Coast, and Italy, 1500-1800 leaves no doubt that Islamic slaving was far from a minor phenomenon, not mere corsair hysteria as some would term it. In Davis’ densely documented account, white slavery in the Mahgreb was enormously consequential. In the three centuries of its flourishing, Muslim predation entrapped as many as a million victims from France and Italy to Spain, Holland, Great Britain, the Americas. Even Iceland suffered slave-hunting raids.

The diary of Thomas Baker, English consul in Tripoli from 1679 to 1685, took careful note of ship traffic in and out of the Libyan port. In addition to the usual run of European-bound merchant ships were many local vessels openly setting out “in corso.” Baker was blunt: they were “going out a-thieving,” stalking seas and coastlines for poorly defended Christian prizes. Davis notes that Libyans were particularly fond of what Baker’s contemporaries called “man-taking” or “Christian-stealing.” Their dedication prompted the consul to remark: “To steale Christians . . . is their Lawfull Vocation.”


Ransom of Catholic Slaves by a Monk in the Barbary State. (17th C.).


The Cambridge World History of Slavery estimates the attrition rate for white slaves at 20 percent a year in seventeenth century Maghreb:

Given the age of captives seized from European sailing ships, the hostile epidemiological environment of North Africa, and the harsh working and living conditions [Read Davis for these.] the crude mortality rate among whites was probably higher than among black in the Americas, even on sugar plantations.

Consequently, a steady resupply was needed to sustain existing slave populations. The seasoning of new captives could take several years, leaving half or fewer captives to survive the first five years. Read Davis for detailed descriptions of slave taking and breaking, slave life and labor, including the death-in-life of galley slaves. After examining various slave lists, he concludes that those captured by Muslim corsairs and taken off to Barbary stood a less than 50/50 chance of being ransomed: “They left their bones in unmarked plots, often in shallow graves where dogs or waves could unearth them. .  .   .  Or simply thrown into the sea.” 

Davis quotes Piero Ottoni’s 1997 essay in La Repubblica lamenting Italy’s turn inland, and inward, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: “We retired to the countryside. We lost [our] freedom and love of the sea.” In the face of corsair piracy, the people who had produced Columbus, John Cabot, and Amerigo Vespucci were no longer “a nation of navigators, although we did become a nation of bathers.”

Davis’ study offers a rein on the Church’s timorous, conciliating urge—in the wake of Nostra Aetate—to list toward accommodation with an ideology that has sought dominion over Christianity since it first burst out of the Arabian desert. Today’s Boko Haram is not an aberration. Rather, it is a portent of our likely future if we lull ourselves with a flawed understanding of Islam, one dangerously installed in the 1992 edition of the Catechism.

The Catechism refers readers back to Nostra Aetate. As the encyclical’s name suggests, the document is very much of its time. Unhappily, that time happened to be 1965, epicenter of a decade of jingle-jangle mornings and heady student rebellion against reality. “Be reasonable—think the impossible” was one of those utopian slogans that, migrating from the Sorbonne, seeped like gas into popular culture and under the door of the papal apartments as well.

The vapor of 1965 drained into the Catechism three decades later: “The Church regards with esteem also the Muslim.” Those words were not intended to apply simply to the human dignity of individuals. Forgetful of how much was owed Britain’s containment of the Ottomans, the Vatican miscast itself as Ophelia, strewing herbs a-Sunday over the dogma and mandates of Islam. Official dissolution of the Ottoman caliphate by Ataturk in 1923 gave the West forty-some years to forget centuries of brutal predation. Rosemary—for remembrance—shriveled in the sun of victory and wafted away. Only rue remains.

The Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, founded in 1964, still bears the marks of the decade of its birth. In its recent condemnation of Islamic barbarity toward the Yezidis (without whom Christians might have gone unnoticed), the Council sweetened its censure with this:

We cannot forget, however, that Christians and Muslims have lived together —it is true with ups and downs—over the centuries, building a culture of peaceful coexistence and civilization of which they are proud.

It was the Beatles all over again: “Yesterday, love was such an easy game to play.” Only that it was not. Those downs were severe and consequential. The Council, hobbled by bureaucratic courtesy, fell back on multicultural fantasy. That oblique reference to coexistence offered as history the prevailing myth of medieval convivencia, an illusion of harmony that has drawn fire from contemporary historians. David Nirenberg, Professor of Medieval History at the University of Chicago, put paid to that romance with his magisterial Communities of Violence (1996).

It is time to send members of the Pontifical Council a copy of Davis’ text—Nirenberg’s, too—before we strangle on our own good manners. Anbar province is not as far from Rome as we like to think.

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Columbus’ Day

Christopher Columbus is the patron saint of everyone who misses the turnoff and winds up in Cleveland.
                                                                —Anonymous

The finest way to spend Columbus Day weekend is to put down whatever else you are doing and sit awhile with Samuel Eliot Morison’s Christopher Columbus, Mariner. It is the popular version of his magisterial two-volume Admiral of the Ocean Sea, which won a 1942 Pulitzer. America’s pre-eminent naval historian, Morison was a commissioned officer in the Naval Reserves, a seaman himself. During World War II, he saw active duty aboard twelve battle ships, reaching the rank of Rear Admiral by the time he retired in 1951. In a lovely assessment by James Hornfischer, writing for the Smithsonian: “For Morison, fine writing required deep living.”




The man who called himself “a sea-going historiographer,” lived his subject by leaving the archives. To research the life of Columbus, Morison abandoned the safety of the stacks for five months on a three-masted sailing ship, retracing Columbus’ ten thousand mile odyssey across the Atlantic and around the Caribbean. That radical empiricism is the hearts’ blood of Morison’s narrative. No matter how many times I have read his opening salute to Columbus, it still stirs me:

At the age of twenty-four, by lucky chance he was thrown into Lisbon, center of European oceanic enterprise; and there .  .  .  he conceived the great enterprise that few but a sailor would have planned, and none but a sailor could have executed. That enterprise was simply to reach “The Indies”—Eastern Asia—by sailing west. It took him about ten years to obtain support for the idea, and he never did execute it because a vast continent stood in the way. America was discovered by Columbus purely by accident and was named for a man who had nothing to do with it; we now honor Columbus for something he never intended to do, and never knew that he had done. Yet we are right in so honoring him, because no other sailor had the persistence, the knowledge and sheer guts to sail thousands of miles into the unknown ocean until he found land.

.  .  .  Born at the crossroads between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, he showed the qualities of both eras. He had the firm religious faith, the a priori reasoning and the close communion with the Unseen typical of the early Christian centuries. Yet he also had the scientific curiosity, the zest for life, the feeling for beauty and the striving for novelty that we associate with the advancement of learning.


Artist Unknown. Columbus Showing His Crew Guanahani Island (17th C.) 

Son of a Genoese wool weaver and a weaver’s daughter, the boy took to heart the legend of his namesake, St. Christopher:

In his name, Christopher Columbus [Christoforo Columbo] saw a sign that he was destined to bring Christ across the sea to men who knew Him not. Indeed, the oldest known map of the New World, dated A.D. 1500, dedicated to Columbus by his shipmate Juan de la Cosa, is ornamented by a vignette of Saint Christopher carrying the Infant Jesus on his shoulders.

The Roman calendar has erased the great Discover’s namesake. Contemporary academicians have erased all honor due him. Entering the past from the poisonous ambitions of the present, historians such as Kirkpatrick Sale (The Conquest of Paradise) and David Stannard (American Holocaust: Columbus and the Conquest of the New World) reduce his life to an excuse for moral outrage: a symptom of European egocentrism and a genocidal calamity. They would have us repent one of the most significant achievements of human history. Christopher Columbus—an imperfect man of imperfect times—has been dissolved in the acid bath of the self-flagellating ideologies of our time. 

Better to leave the last word to Morison:

He had his flaws and his defects, but they were largely the defects of the qualities that made him great—his indomitable will, his superb faith in God and in his own mission as the Christ-bearer to lands beyond the seas, his stubborn persistence despite neglect, poverty, and discouragement. But there was no flaw, no dark side to the most outstanding and essential of all his qualities—his seamanship. As a master mariner and navigator, Columbus was supreme in his generation. Never was a title more justly bestowed than the one he most jealously guarded—Almirante del Mar Océano, Admiral of the Ocean Sea.

Could Morison’s sympathy for Columbus find a publisher today? I read him and tremble for a generation raised against itself, instilled with suicidal guilt, and poised to denounce protagonists of the civilization that sustains them. 


Anonymous Woodcut. Columbus Landing at Hispaniola. Historia Baetica (1494), Basel.

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John Walker at Alexandre Gallery

In Painting and Reality, Etienne Gilson argued that painting should be experienced on its own terms. That is to say, aesthetically. He insisted that audiences greet art without thinking of it as something to be understood, decoded, or interpreted. A painting is not an essay, not a set of propositions. Whatever literary, philosophical, or narrative content might be claimed for a work, the art of the thing lies elsewhere and exists to be welcomed for its own sake. To do otherwise, he wrote, is to turn a work of art into a book.

Painting, like music, requires no essential bond to either imitation of the real world nor readable content. The only ideas it is responsible for as art, are pictorial ones. British-born John Walker, an artist of singular power, echoes Gilson: “In all painting, it’s not about how many ideas you have; it’s about what you do with that idea.” Significant subjects have come down to us as great paintings. But it is not subject matter than makes painting memorable.


John Walker. Tidal Touch (2014). 84 x 66 inches. Alexandre Gallery, NYC.



Now into the fifth decade of an illustrious career, Walker is in full possession of his craft. This current exhibition, his first at New York’s Alexandre Gallery, illustrates the reasons his work has been collected by major American museums and is in public collections worldwide from London to South Africa.

It illustrates, too, why my long-standing admiration for his work coincides with a certain tension between attraction and resistance. The gravitational pull tugs both ways at the same time. His painting is at once beautiful and combative. Scale is one of the determinants of mood. The larger his work, the more assertive its innate aggression, even pugnacity. 

On exhibit are seven new monumental paintings, a selection of mid-sized ones, and a lively medley of small oils on board. The appeal of them lies in their unapologetic materiality: the patterning of invented forms, balance of color, and robust laying in of paint. Before anything, painting is an earthly thing. (“Colored mud,” Walker likes to say.) The source of delight in Walker’s work is the characteristic physical richness of the surface, that furious complexity of encrusted layers of color.




John Walker, Brush Fire on the Bay (2013). 20 x 16 inches. Alexandre Gallery, NYC.

Walker’s abiding pictorial idea draws from the light and landscape of Seal Island, Maine. Following the earlier American modernists Marsden Hartley and John Marin—both drawn to Maine settings—he abstracts from the landscape, fragmenting it to emphasize inherent rhythmic qualities over natural forms. The sea coast, with its outcroppings, mud flats, and swirling eddies is a resource mined for its wildness and movement, not scenic charm. Refusal of scenic clichés lends his painting a force appropriate to the advance of the sea. In the oversized canvases, Walker’s ambition to capture the assault of tidal currents on the shoreline can move you to back up, keep clear of the offensive.


John Walker. The Sea II (2011-14), 48 x 36 inches.  Alexandre Gallery, NYC.

Over decades, Walker has won his way through to an expressiveness capable of a broad diversity of performance. Here, his distillations of landscape shapes, mapped as if from an aerial view, owe their abstract patterning to the aboriginal bark paintings he fell in love with during his early years in Australia. In place of the linear refinement of Oceanic design, Walker substitutes a gestural bravado inherited from Abstract Expressionism.


Wandjuk Marika. The Sun Rising (1959). Art Gallery of New South Wales, AU.

The patterned rhythms and repetitions of Oceanic art anchor Walker’s exuberance of invention. The swagger of gesture is contained within an schematic architecture all his own. His appetite for the grand things of nature transmitted through the paint itself makes visible George Braque’s words: “A painting is completed when it has wiped out the idea.” In other words, when it exists for itself alone.

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New Evangelism?

Christian mission is not to preach Christ, but to be Christians in life.
—Fr. Alexander Schmemann

The new evangelization is hardly different from the old. It resides, as it has from the first century, in the lived witness of individuals to a risen Lord—to the sacramental character of the world, of time itself, and of each other’s place in it. It inhabits right relations between persons. And it endures in confession of inexhaustible sorrow over failure in those relations.


Mathias Gruenwald. Head of a Crying Angel (c. 1520). Staatliche Museen, Berlin.

For generations in New York, the calling of the Church took up residence in its schools. The Sheen Center is a monumental white flag signaling defeat in the Church’s ordained mission to the young. In its place is a misnamed “mission to the arts.” By offering itself as a trendy landlord to the arts, the Archdiocese is furthering the momentum of its own displacement. Inflated reverence for the arts is something to be countered, not accommodated.

Louis Bouyer, writing thirty years ago, looked on the dilation of culture—our art-and-culture syndrome—as a symptom of deep degeneration, the herald of a “monstruous civilization” emptied of meaning. More recently, Louis Dupré expanded on the theme: “Culture itself has become the real religion of our time, absorbing traditional religion as a subordinate part of itself.” That subordination, sweetened by the word mission, is the very basis of the Sheen Center.




The pathos of prelates bent on becoming players in the art scene is disheartening. The New York Archdiocese is no reincarnation of  the Hapsburg courts of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Philip II is long dead. So is the character of the patronage he represented. Threatened orthodoxy will not be buttressed by an estimated $177 million renovation of St. Patrick’s Cathedral nor the undisclosed millions of the state-of-the-art Sheen Center.

St. Pat’s is no more “America’s parish church,” as Cardinal Dolan calls it, than New York is the “capital of the world.” The cathedral is a tourist attraction at the fag end of New York’s Museum Mile. And it is dressing up for the role at the expense of less glamorous, more humane undertakings.

Remember the 2011 closing of Rice High School. Run by the Christian Brothers, it served the city’s young black males with notable grace and efficacy. Bankrupted by lawsuits in the wake of the sex scandal—none having anything to do with Rice—the order was forced to close the school. A fraction of what the archdiocese has spent polishing St. Pat’s or creating the Sheen Center could have been gifted to sustain the work of Rice. The building is now a YMCA.


Vincent Van Gogh. Sorrow (1882). Museum of Modern Art, New York.


The ambiguously named Sheen Center—“Martin? Charlie? Michael? Who’s this Fulton dude?”—is anxious to be agreeable to all comers. It is on record as being progressively open to performances that might raise eyebrows among those stick-up-the-spine traditionalists. It only shakes a finger at “anything that is hateful about one group of people.” (We People of the Book can trust, then, that cordiality toward the Religion of Peace will be never be shaken.)

Its own supine, politically correct courtesy puts the Church at odds with itself. It is caught, like Buridan’s ass, between two bales of hay: outreach to the religiously minded and edgey downtown appeal to the secular, liberal theatre scene. Who will ultimately evangelize whom remains to be seen.


Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, past production of the Voyager Theatre Company, a client of Sheen.

The Sheen’s plush performance space for dance and theatre troops is rationalized as a decoy to lure the faithless to the fold. We are to greet the scheme as a spare-no-expense preface to the Kingdom where heating and lighting systems come from God.

Earthier enticements, though, have already run the other way. In March, Msgr. Michael Hull was pastor of Guardian Angel and executive director of the Sheen. At the end of April, on Divine Mercy Sunday, he announced from the pulpit that he was leaving his flock to get married. According to a priest familiar with Hull, he and his young bride—formerly an intern at the Sheen—are living now in Venice.

Well, the heart wants what the heart wants. By Woody Allen’s reckoning, Hull’s sentimental truancy is just another New York story. Less neighborly, however, is the incongruity of his lavish renovation of the fourth floor rectory of Guardian Angel within the last year. The parish is small, hardly prosperous. Yet the renovation was designed by an associate at Richard Perry Architect, an upscale firm that serves deep-pocket clients. A visitor to the rectory called it “mind-bogglingly beautiful.” Did Hull acquire a taste for living large as Cardinal Egan’s protégé? All that can be said is that the renovation raises questions about funding.

Max Beckmann. The Disillusioned (1922). Staatliche Museen, Berlin.


Funding of the Sheen Center remains another mystery. Neither the Sheen personnel nor the office of the chancellor, Msgr. Gregory Mustaciuolo, will disclose the cost of the project. How much was covered by private donation? What percentage was Archdiocesan monies? What is the combined cost of the salaries of the senior staff? Will an annual report become available? The chancellor’s office, which oversees budgetary matters, refers questions to the communications division. The spokeswoman at that end stonewalls: “We have no information at this moment.”

How can that be? Surely the chancellor’s office has records from Cost+Plus, the cost management firm hired to vet proposals from the chosen team (the award-winning Acheson Doyle Partners, architects, and Harvey Marshall Berling Associates, theatre design and acoustics)? Again: “We have no information at this moment.”

The Sheen Center owes existence to the assumption that our predicament results from bad art and a failure of education. A fashionable, art-conscious version of continuing ed is the cure. (Hull had a phrase for it: “dynamic dialogue between artist and audiences.”) Pére Bouyer had a clearer eye. He understood our descent into post-Christian culture in terms of the old adage: Corruption of the best is the worst of all. He wrote:

It is not ignorance of Christianity among those who were never evangelized, nor its negation by those who were never able to accept it, but rather by the betrayal of Christianity by those who received the Gospel and were brought up as Christians.

Recognition of the mote in our own eye precedes evangelism, new or old. And it helps to stay mindful that every genuflection by the Church to secular idols—under the pretext of promoting the gospel—ends as Vigo Demant foresaw: a proclamation of secularism in a Christian idiom.

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Letters from Ireland

Among letters responding to recent posts are two from Dublin. One is from a parish priest uneasy with Rome’s Disneyfied wedding fest and its predictable press response. One of the uncountable shepherds of a stumbling contemporary flock, he writes to say:

The last two weddings I had were of couples with a child - and the vast majority now cohabit before their nuptials. The apparent attempt to spin this with details released to the press was puerile and offensive —not to mind a breach of confidentiality of those concerned.


Jan Bulhak. Evening Light. From series on Vilnius in the 1930s).



Previous reflection on the movie Calvary, prompted words from a teacher at the Scoil Talbot National School, Condalkin, Dublin. His summary of the religious temper of contemporary Ireland is bleak. And his final sentence is an unspoken indictment of the sensitivity-saturation that cripples adults in transmitting stories of a suffering redeemer:

Just to say from an Irish reader in Ireland of your reflection on ‘Calvary’ that yours is the first review I’ve seen that has noticed the obvious links with the story of Calvary!

The film came out here much earlier in the year and the mainstream film critics I read and heard and saw did not see what it was about. My guess is it’s because the vast majority of the population nowadays do not know the story of the Passion in any detail at all. I thought it was an amazing film, one that challenges everyone. . . .

I know it sounds dramatic, and I’m not a fan of making dramatic comments, but it is true. Most people in Ireland no longer go to Mass. It’s been many years since most have; and even on Christmas these days the churches aren’t packed out like they used to be. Attendance is still plummeting — older people dying, not being replaced by younger people. I’d say most people are of course aware of the [Passion] story, but definitely do not ‘know’ it.

Post-primary religious education had been wishy-washy for many years . . . . And so most adults in Ireland have relied on their memories of primary school classes and their understandings as children of the story. And since the Passion is obviously quite violent, primary school teachers may not really engage as deeply with it as they might with other stories with Jesus.


Amico Aspertini. Teacher with Students (early 16th C). Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan.

The writer included a link to Help With the Tough Questions, an online resource created and maintained by primary school teachers for their own use in the classroom and for as many other Christian parents and educators who might find it helpful. It is rich trove of quotations on a broad range of topics from the nature of Jesus, the saints, and suffering, to prayer, animals, and the necessity of gratitude. Much more. 

This from Fr. Eamon Devlin, CM, suggests the sensibility that informs the site’s approach to religious education in lower school:

Children do no need explanations so much as they need someone to open up their gift of wonder. All you have to do is bring God into their sense of wonder.


Jean Baptiste Greuze. Idle Boy (18th C).Musée Fabre, Montpelier.



Note: It was Fr. Devlin, Provincial of the Vincentians in Ireland and England, who intervened earlier this year to stop the proposed auction of letters between Jackie Kennedy and Vincentian Fr. Joseph Leonard. The letters, considered Mrs. Kennedy’s unwritten autobiography, have been returned to the Kennedy family.

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