Maureen Mullarkey is a painter who writes on art and culture. Her essays have appeared in various publications, among them: The Nation, Crisis, Commonweal, Hudson Review, Arts, The New Criterion, First Things, The Weekly Standard, and The Magazine Antiques. She was a columnist for The New York Sun.
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.
Christopher Columbus is the patron saint of everyone who misses the turnoff and winds up in Cleveland.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Would Lena Marie and Walter still be together if they had been married by the pope?
Thomas Theodor Heine. Bride-to-be Admiring Herself in Mirror (1898). Simplicissimus. Munich.
Lena was the first of my old high school friends to marry. From wedding march to wedding cake, the nuptials were grand. Preliminaries, too, were imposing—the showers, the parties, the trousseau. Yes, a trousseau! A chest of linens with trim crocheted and tatted by Aunt Philomena, nightgowns hand-smocked and embroidered by Cousin Lucy back in La Spezia. Family silver. More.
The ceremony was moving, the homily inspirational; cast and setting were as dazzling as solemnity permitted. Bride and groom were Ave Maria-ed and Mendelssohned to kingdom come. (Though we would not have phrased it that way then.) At the reception, Uncle Anthony, a diocesan priest on Lena’s side, said elaborate grace and delivered a certificate of papal blessing—on parchment—to the new couple. With a prayerful flourish, Walter’s aunt followed with rosaries hallowed by the pope himself. Husband and wife left to honeymoon, their troth pledged in stone.
Anonymous. A Royal Marriage (c. 1850). Pictures of English History. Routledge & Sons, London.
Around the time of their first anniversary, the wedded pair invited friends over to their Fort Lee apartment. Dinner done, Lena suggested that Walter show guests the way back to the George Washington Bridge. And, while you are at it, please take out the garbage. A good-natured host, Walter obliged. While he was gone, Lena skipped out with the contractor who had installed a swimming pool on the roof of their condo complex. Their getaway had been cleverly plotted, laudably executed. The two decamped to his ancestral home in . . . Caracas or Costa Rica? I forget.
Walter never saw it coming. Last we heard, he eventually remarried. A quiet, civil ceremony in Borough Hall. He had had his fill of church weddings.
Solange Gautier. Bride Running from Toad Groom (early 20th C.).
I have not thought of Lena in years. Why do I remember her now? It is something to do with the three-ring wedding that ran for one performance at St. Peter’s last week. The press was euphoric. Here, finally, was a pope scraping cataracts off the blurry eyes of a sclerotic Church. In poetic terms: He hath abolished the old drought/ And rivers run where once was dry.
Yahoo News served the predictable headline: “Pope Breaks Taboo by Marrying Couples Living ‘In Sin.”” ABC News was giddy at witnessing a Catholic Spring sprung by a with-it, transformational pope:
In another signal that Pope Francis’ Catholic Church is not your mother’s Catholic Church, the transformative pontiff married 20 couples at the Vatican on Sunday, some of whom had lived together and one who had a child out of wedlock.
Yes, you read that right. Couples who had lived together, couples who had sex before marriage, even one with a grown child were married in the Vatican by the pope himself.
Yes, you read that right. Media Wunderkinder think something new and startling occurred at St. Peter’s. In reality, Francis did no more than is done every week in parishes around the world by nameless priests in charity toward their own parishioners. These twenty couples were each presumably shriven and eligible for marriage. No rules were broken; no protocols discarded or overruled as far as we know. What good priest would not take grateful joy in welcoming couples to marriage, most especially those who already have children?
Heinrich Aldegrever. The Wedding Musicians (16th C.) Staatliche Museen, Berlin.
Perhaps that is why this matrimonial extravaganza leaves me cold. However much the Catholic press purrs over yet another instance of beautiful symbolic action, this one falsifies existing reality. It was staged for media consumption in full understanding of how the media was likely to receive and report on it. The show encourages recognition for the generosity of working parish priests to accrue to Francis himself. It is an image-enhancing spectacle that creates a mirage of the Church by which consumers of “news” deceive themselves about pastoral clemency and concern pre-Francis.
In light of the easily anticipated press response, last Sunday’s spectacle was tantamount to theft. It was a moral theft that appropriated standing credit for compassion from legions of unrenowned, conscientious priests; and it laid the spoils at papal feet. Worse, given the way the press was ordained to recount it, the orchestrated expo can only further weaken already feeble inhibitions against cohabitation or child-bearing without marital commitment. (No big deal. The pope gets it.)
Francis is keenly attuned to the way things play in the press. It was he, remember, who let others distribute the Eucharist at Mass to avoid all possibility of being photographed giving the sacrament to a public sinner. Marrying forty strangers chosen as if by a casting director for theatrical expedience—magnified by the pomp and panoply of St. Peter’s—extends the celebrity-life of the papacy on the illusory chance that showboating is a stay against cultural demoralization.
We are all dancing with the stars now. But ultimately, that dance ends like any other, in exhaustion.
Note: Just arrived in this morning’s email is the latest broadcast from Sandro Magister’s Chiesa. It details the clash between supporters of change and defenders of existing doctrine regarding the divorced and remarried. One proposed change is to permit recourse to the sacrament of reconciliation “even without absolution.”
My assumption, then, that all the couples married at St. Peter’s were “shriven” might not necessarily be warranted in each instance. In that case, media excitement would be more justified than it had seemed. What remains, though, is the circus atmosphere surrounding the use of these couples as symbolic pawns in a contest yet to be resolved. The publicity itself serves to weaken standing prohibition against cohabitation and extra-marital child-bearing. A rule so publicly at issue does not encourage observance. On the contrary, it assists the pressures toward nonobservance.
The movie Calvary is a stunning meditation on the Christian story. If you have not already seen it, you might want to save this until later. Every review is a spoiler to some degree. But this is less review than reflection on a film, written and directed by John Michael McDonagh, that rises to the power of the 1951 Diary of a Country Priest. The earlier French film, adapted from Georges Bernanos’s novel by the towering Robert Bressson, has had no equal until now.
Like its predecessor, Calvary is the story of a good priest tending a hostile rural congregation. Narrative follows the diary structure, time condensed into the seven days Father James has left to live. His anguish is psychological. The attacking cancer is not within him; it festers in the maimed heart of a villager made desolate by the aftershock of sexual abuse in childhood.
The movie opens in the confessional. A man slips in to whisper the secret of his abuse: “I first tasted semen when I was seven.” Jolted, the priest responds: “That is certainly a startling opening line.” He gains his self-possession and proceeds with pastoral calm. A brief back-and-forth elicits intent from the murderer-in-waiting: “I am going to kill you because you are innocent.”
Conversations are terse, crackling with a bitter wit as hard and native to the Irish as the megaliths of Sligo. The economy and mettle of the dialogue have prompted reviews to call Calvary “a black comedy.” But it is nothing of the sort. It is mythic, not comedic. It is the primal story of innocence betrayed. Betrayal corrupts in countless ways. Here, innocence once defiled contorts in lust for vengeance. An offering must be made. The blood of a lamb must spill to atone for the wounds of a desecrated soul.
Something primeval drives this levied sacrifice. Its primordial character is underscored by a camera which keeps scanning Benbulbin (Binn Ghulbain), the mythic rock formation shaped hundreds of millions of years ago. Its high, imposing plateau rises over Sligo like a Neolithic altar, a slaying stone as old as time. As original as sin itself. This is Yeats country, the setting of Irish legends and home to “the dark folk who live in souls/ of passionate men, like bats in the dead trees.”
For all their contemporaneity, the cast of characters share resemblance with the old narrative device of personification: the Faithless Wife (aka Infidelity), the Man of Science (Atheism), the Cuckold, the Poor Rich Man, the Gay Bachelor. As types, they bind the contemporary narrative to ancient storytelling tropes. The bachelor’s rent boy is a slithering, elfin embodiment of malevolence, a deviant leprechaun. At the same time, he is totally believable as a victim-turned-predator.
Father James wears his cassock throughout. It serves as both a badge of office and a subtle gesture of defiance in the face of the scandal-induced disaffection that sundered the unity of the term Irish Catholic into two uneasy halves. Though the drama is steeped in the sour repercussions of scandal, the Church is treated with uncommon kindliness. Sympathy for this clear-eyed, stalwart priest stands bail for sympathy with the Church itself.
To short circuit any speculation, Father James’ heterosexuality is established at the outset by the arrival of his daughter. A widower and a recovering alcoholic, he entered the priesthood late. His daughter Fiona visits in the wake of a failed suicide triggered by too many failed relationships with men. She is an intelligent, winsome exemplar of the Magdalens secular culture creates and discards with casual cruelty.
The priest goes about his week ministering where he can, exploring options for escape, suffering the burning of his church and the slaughter of his cherished dog. Among the tormenters lining his Way of the Cross stands the man intent on killing him. Which one is he? Father James addresses the gauntlet of contenders with: “There is too much talk of sin and not enough about virtue.” Adapted to phrasing congenial to contemporary audiences, his words echo the merciful injunction that has followed us down the centuries: “Go, and sin no more.”
His Gethsemane is a barroom; Golgatha, a lonely stretch of beach along the wild Atlantic. Finally, the morning of his execution comes. Our priest kneels beneath a crucifix and prays silently. We do not need to hear his prayer. We know what it is. We have listened all our lives:
Abba, Father, all things are possible unto thee; take away this cup from me: nevertheless not my will but thine be done.
Walking to the beach to meet his killer, the priest flings into the sea a gun borrowed for protection. Some might call it suicide; others, obedience unto death. It is his final decisive act. In the doing of it, the man transforms into Him Whom he contemplates and serves. He calls his daughter from a public phone to leave her a last indelible word, an indirect mandate: “I think forgiveness has been highly underrated.”
Not until the final scene is the priest’s fatal decision grasped as an illumination, with nothing absurd about it. It is a moment of perfect clarity into the Christian meaning of atonement. The call to expiation is a terrible beckoning. But this priest answers it in full and bloodied trust in the works—unglimpsed behind the veil of the mystery of evil—of a forbearing God. All inklings of barren suicide dissolve in the glance exchanged between the grieving daughter and the killer—tentative now, shorn of bravado. The scene goes by in a blink. But the soundless purity of that instant holds a foretaste of redemption.
Bernanos was right: Grace is everywhere.
The single New Testament reference to anything that comes close to the arts is that messy episode with Herodias’ daughter. Was it dirty dancing? Or “natural” dance, precursor to Isadora Duncan, Martha Graham, and the pioneers of improvisational movement? Either way, we know how the program ended.
Adolph Gustav Mossa. Salomé (early 20th C.)
There are better reasons to be uneasy about the efficacy of the Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen Center for Art and Culture as the zenith of evangelization. History is full of mischief. The Center has already suffered two blows before the ribbons are cut.
Expensively architected and stage-designed, the state-of-the-art center lost its scheduled executive director. Msgr. Michael F. Hull—erstwhile pastor of the Church of the Guardian Angel in Chelsea, Professor of Sacred Scripture at St. Joseph’s Seminary, and ardent member of MoMA—has gone missing. The journalist who had interviewed him in March for The Wall Street Journal tells me that the monsignor “left the Church.”
To clarify, I phoned the rectory at Guardian Angel. The resident priest who answered said: “I know nothing of his whereabouts.” A call to Dunwoodie elicited only the comment that Msgr. Hull was no longer there. Was there anyone at the seminary who could answer a few questions about the Center itself? Who has taken on directorship in the monsignor’s absence? After a lengthy pause, the receptionist offered to connect me to the Center’s press office. Unable to put the call through, she told me to email. Next, I tried the phone number listed for the Center. It connects only to a ticketing service. (“Have your credit card ready. If you are calling about Ticket Mania’s Gold Club . . . .”)
Immersion in the arts can have unintended side effects. Conversion can go both ways.
Louis Boilly. The Effect of Melodrama (1830). Musée Lambinet, Versailles
Bishop Sheen, as he was known, was a great evangelist, perhaps the greatest of the twentieth century. His humanity, graceful wit, and scholarship—carried so nimbly—were matchless gifts to broad audiences. He was a captivating performer whose radio and television ministry instructed and enlivened generations. His own bearing no less than his words testified that peace of soul does not come from man himself. To this day, the Emmy award-winning priest has no equal.
Yet that is not necessarily why the Center was named after him. Other names are better known to the demographic most likely to frequent the downtown theater scene. But the archbishop, elevated to Venerable in 2012, was expected to be canonized soon, possibly as early as next year. With his remains buried beneath the main altar of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the new Center would serve as a fashionable annex to the shrine St. Patrick’s would become.
That could explain why the archdiocese initiated a colossal and costly cleaning project of St. Patrick’s. The interior is nearly invisible under miles of planks and scaffolding that will remain into 2015. The narthex has been outfitted with two crass dispensing machines that spit out souvenir medallions. Add a glitzy billboard for tourists too jet-lagged to recognize which attraction they are standing in. Insult follows with wee-bitsy votive candles that burn only for as long as it takes to deposit two dollars in the mite box.
It is a short walk from those vending machines to suspicion that the bazaar was triggered by anticipation of pilgrims to St. Fulton Sheen’s tomb. But there’s the rub: It was announced at the beginning of this month that the cause for Archbishop Sheen’s canonization has been suspended. It is a sad, unedifying story of clerical politics. Fr. Roger J. Landry, over at The National Catholic Register, covered the battle of the bones in detail. His commentary deserves to be read in full.
Achille Beltrone. Theatre on a TransAtlantic Liner (1919).
Bishop Sheen was a virtuoso in distinguishing between the anodyne of his era—psychoanalysis—and the true source of the soul’s freedom from unease. His essays, particularly “The Philosophy of Anxiety” and “Psychoanalysis and Confession,” have not aged. Were he writing and speaking today, it is tempting to think he would address that other false god of our time: art-and-culture, a compound word that tallies up to money and religion at the same time.
The Center expects to become self-supporting. Which means it expects to make a profit as an institution for rent. Described by its own in-house consultant Nick Leavens as simply “a new off-Broadway arts complex,” it will function as a hub for the circulation of tax exempt monies. Playbill quotes the press release:
Companies who have already signed on to use The Sheen Center include The New York International Fringe Festival, Strange Sun Theater, /the claque/, Terranova, Wingspan Arts, MorDance and Voyager Theater Company.
The Sheen Center will also house four spacious studios of varying sizes, which will be available for rehearsals, meetings and classes, among others. The Studios at The Sheen Center will be available for rent seven days a week. Art gallery space on the main floor will feature a full rotating schedule of exhibits. It will also be available as a space for intimate receptions.
The complex stands on the site of the defunct parish of Our Lady of Loretto which became a Catholic Charities shelter for homeless men more than seventy years ago. The name of the Center’s largest performance space, the 250-seat Loretto Auditorium, nods to the displacement of the Bowery homeless by the city’s expanding arts-and-culture scene. In gutting the old structure, rebuilding, and outfitting it to create an arts center, the archdiocese mimics the trajectory of the country’s declining manufacturing sector.
All across the country, old mills, factory buildings and processing plants have been repurposed as some combination of studio, exhibition, or museum space for contemporary art. Think of Mass MoCA, the converted factory complex in North Adams, Massachusetts; or DIA, once a thriving Nabisco plant that supported working class Newburgh. These and hundreds of lesser known arts-related renovations stamp the landscape of post-industrial America.
Following suit, Sheen Center is the archdiocese’s monument to post-Catholicism.
Max Oppenheimer. Salomé (1919). Private collection, Milan.
Consider how beautiful the devil must be. A fallen angel is an angel still. Seeing him fall, Jesus likened the plunge to “lightning from heaven.” (Luke 10:18). Lucifer appears a pulsing field of light, a flash of pure spirit. All luminous intelligence, he is bright as the morning star, radiant as dawn. Were he not, temptation would be beggared. It would be too dull, too unsightly, to gain purchase on the human heart.
William Blake. Satan Arousing the Rebel Angels (c.1803-5). Victoria & Albert Museum, London.
Folded within the history of art is the history of the struggle to depict moral deformity. Master of disguise, demonic cunning cuckolds the eye. In default of better means, visual art personifies the prince of lies—or, in that marvelous phrase, prince of the power of the air—with grotesque physiognomy. It is a familiar convention that incarnates disproportion and hurls defiance at canons of beauty.
The Middle Ages had a genius for monstrous iconography. Its repertory developed in fear and dismay at the conditions the son of disobedience instigates. Claws, hooves, horns, bat wings, and loathsome grimaces illustrate a culture’s recoil from his works. But what of his own self?
William Blake came closer to the apparent truth of the Rebel Angel and his divisions than did painters of misshapen monsters rising out of hot pitch to ride herd on the damned. Contra centuries of depiction, and hellholes full of sharpened bidents, Lucifer is alluring.
William Blake. Mortal Sin (c. 1805). Huntington Library & Art Collection, San Marino, CA.
How radiant, lithesome, and well formed Blake presents him. All masculine beauty, Lucifer moves with athletic grace, more dancer than demon. From a figure so fair and commanding must come a voice low, melodic and seductive. He speaks with the tongue of angels. After all, he is one.
And Lucifer is accomplished—as we need our tempters to be. Accomplishment is a magnet for those who prefer to suffer the tragedy of existence in concert halls and theaters, away from the trenches of the lived life. Might our trickster even be pianist enough to scrap his sheet music and play Mozart by heart?
However he comports himself in other times and places, in our own the hellion keeps up with fashion. With an eye on all things current, he guards a natty wardrobe of ideas. Charming at table, polished at the lectern, he talks with passion about the good, the true, and the beautiful. Like John Walsh, director emeritus of the J. Paul Getty Museum, he professes belief that works of art make “an audience of happier, wiser, more complete people.” Without a doubt, Lucifer is a patron of the arts.
Blue state all the way.
William Blake. Moses Erecting the Brazen Serpent (c.1803). Museum of Fine Arts, Boston MA.
What brings on this end-of-summer reverie, you wonder? It is this: Next Monday, September 15, Cardinal Dolan cuts the ribbon on the Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen Center for Art and Culture, a non-profit initiative that views itself, in His Eminence’s words, as “America’s premier center for The New Evangelization.” It is an ambitious undertaking. The Cardinal continues:
Its goal is to bring practicing Catholics closer to the faith, attract and accompany “lapsed” Catholics in returning to the Church, and introduce non-Catholics to the person, message, and invitation of Christ.
Fine sentiments. But the swagger and the timing could hardly be worse. The archdiocese plays art patron on the downtown scene while parishes are shrinking, schools and churches closing under the juggernaut of an archdiocesan pastoral planning extravaganza with the Orwellian title “Making All Things New.” A more candid title would have been “Staving Off Bankruptcy.” But in our hope-and-change era, stirring, focus-grouped slogans deflect attention from somber realities.
While financial realism was turning parish pastors into corporate-style administrators, the archdiocese found means for a 25,000 square foot boost to the arts-and-entertainment economy of the Lower East Side. Sheen Center will house two theaters, four rehearsal spaces, exhibition and archival space. A chapel, too. Fully staffed, promoted, and board-of-directed by the great and the good, it will sponsor plays, opera, symposia, concerts, dance, and celebrate “momentous events and occasions in the life of the Church, the archdiocese, and community.” It promises to help us “uplift ourselves, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, intellectually, artistically, and spiritually.”
In short, a high-end clambake. Is it likely to enhance the credibility and cohesion of the Church’s teaching authority? Or will it dwindle into a white elephant like the John Paul II Cultural Center in D.C.? (Built in 2001, it was a financial disaster sold to the Knights of Columbus ten years later at a stunning multi-million dollar loss to the diocese —Detroit—that had funded it.)
I wish the Sheen Center well. But optimism is on hold. The project gives off the aroma of episcopal vanity and utopian swank. We can explore the reasons next time. For now, it is enough to hold close Vigo Demant’s caution against using a Christian idiom to capitulate to secular enthusiasms.
Canon Demant’s Our Culture: Its Christian Roots and Present Crisis is as trenchant now, for varying reasons, as it was in 1947. Thinking about the character of ambition implicit in the Sheen Center, I cannot dislodge from memory his comment on the men of antiquity “who went down under the barbarian darkness still professing their belief in deathless Rome.”
The last days of August. It is time to let be. Time to lie in a hammock and take bribes. Read. Doze. Plan the rest of my life. Anything except trawl for words at a computer.
Girl on a Swing in Central Park. New York Historical Society.
But first, let me post the last of the comments that came in on the declension of Extreme Unction into an all-purpose Anointing of the Sick. A thread that runs through them is recognition of what one respondent refers to as a lack of discernment—or faithful discharge—on the part of either priest or parishioner. Sometimes both. Let me leave you until September with someone else’s words. (Mine have packed a bag and are waiting at the station.) Each of these speaks for itself.
An Orthodox deacon treats the historicity of the Anointing of the Sick with a care that makes his letter valuable:
It seems to me that the post VCII rite, if discharged faithfully, might be more like it’s Orthodox counterpart, at least theologically. Orthodox unction has always been “healing unto salvation,” so has not had the “last rites” component, although it is nonetheless a common feature of end-of-life ministrations. Significantly, it can be done in conjunction with confession; it isn’t required nor expected, necessarily.
But it’s that “discharged faithfully” business that is the real tragedy for Catholics. I’m only a deacon and would not think of going to a hospital or nursing home in anything but a collar, and would also always have a cassock and an orarion in the trunk in case someone wants to commune.
Also, we have done our best to insulate ourselves from the solemn reality of death. We are just now, in Orthodoxy, starting to have families want cremations (nyet!), closed caskets (except due to extreme disfigurement, NYET!), and to avoid seeing the lowering of the coffin into the grave (only recently become optional). Avoiding that last one gives us, or so we think, a temporary reprieve from having to consider death in it’s entirety-but it’s only a hall pass, not an “excused.”
A priest of the Congregation of Holy Cross writes to confirm distinctions between the rite itself and way it is conducted:
A distinction certainly exists [between the sick and the dying] but it does not exist within rubrics or the rites. The distinction is in the actual praying/celebrating of the sacrament . . . as well as a detrimental lack in discernment.
Catholics have forgotten how to discern the sacraments. For example, am I properly disposed to receive the Eucharist? This question is complicated by the lamentable assumption that one’s Sunday obligation entails receiving the Eucharist rather than the truth of the matter that one’s obligation is merely in attending the Mass.
Is my illness dangerous and/or serious? From the very start, James 5:13-15 says, “He should summon the presbyters of the Church.” Implicit in that “should summon” is the discernment that a person is sick. So sick that s/he can’t go TO the presbyters but must summon them.
This lack of discernment—[thinking that] anyone goes up for communion and that a hangnail warrants anointing—is more lamentable than any sort of systematic liturgical destruction of the sacrament of anointing. There is a problem indeed. It’s not with the rite but with wise discernment and reverential prayer.
There was common agreement that the sacrament, while deservedly offered to someone facing surgery or risky treatments, has been diminished in practice. This respondent adds a rueful note that raises a question less about the rite itself than about the culture of priestly training:
It [the sacrament of Anointing] is made not so important because one can just go the sacristy after Mass and be anointed. And it is true that instead of a dignified sacrament which may also include confession and holy communion, I personally know of priests refusing to hear a confession saying it is not needed as the anointing covers everything.
Fr. E. writes to remind that the Anglican tradition recognized the gravity of the rites designed for death. He quotes the rubrics from “Communion of the Sick” in the Book of Common Prayer. Reading the passage, it is impossible not to note the gulf between the older ceremonial seriousness and today’s demotic expectations shaped, as they are, not by religious sensibility but by popular culture. As you read, notice the emphasis on the communal aspect of the sacrament (“two at the least”) and the implicit assumption that the home visited is familiar with the protocols of the rite (“all things necessary so prepared”):
Forasmuch as all mortal men be subject to many sudden perils, diseases, and sicknesses, and ever uncertain what time they shall depart out of this life; therefore, to the intent they may always be in a readiness to die, whensoever it shall please Almighty God to call them, the Curates shall diligently from time to tim . . . exhort their Parishioners to the often receiving of the holy Communion of the Body and Blood of our Saviour Christ, when it shall be publickly ministered in the Church . . . . But if the sick person be not able to come to the Church, and yet is desirous to receive the Communion in his house; then he must give timely notice to the Curate, signifying also how many there are to communicate with him, (which shall be three, or two at the least,) and having a convenient place in the sick man’s house, with all things necessary so prepared, that the Curate may reverently minister, he shall there celebrate the holy Communion, beginning with the Collect, Epistle, and Gospel, here following.
Lastly, a spirited letter from the pseudonymous Clay Potts. He has no patience with priests who permit themselves to be buffaloed out of their cassocks:
A soldier, especially during times of war, is required to always appear in his uniform, even in non-combat situations, primarily as to deter the soldier from desertion, from abandoning his post, from blending into the crowd; And, as to remain ever battle ready.
A soldier’s uniform also serves to instill in a military force, self-confidence and popular confidence, as well as to diminish the enemy’s popular and self-confidence. Even a soldier operating a military drone seated in at a desk a thousands of miles away from the battlefield wears the uniform. How much confidence would a soldier dressed in a Hawaiian shirt, khaki shorts and sandals and seated at the command center with his finger on the nuclear button, instill in the public? . . . Or, a surgeon entering the operating theatre dressed in a bright gold Steeler’s sweatshirt and sweatpants? . . .
Even an off-duty cop will spring into action when he or she sees a crime being committed! They know they have a moral and ethical duty to take charge of the situation regardless of the danger to themselves. They don’t even think about it, they just react, it’s second nature. And, yet a priest is prepared to walk onto the eternal battle field of the deathbed dressed in street clothes?! Or fail to take charge of the deathbed?
All gratitude to each of you who took time and thought to respond. Enjoy this summer’s end. We will meet again in September.