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.
The name of Hans Urs von Balthasar has become a kind of a code word among Catholics. Like the password to a speakeasy, it signals membership in a confidential circle on sequestered ground. Nonmembers have to tread carefully. Signs to “Keep Off the Grass” are everywhere. The lawn is beautifully kept.
At the risk of tripping over those staked warnings, I have to admit a high degree of nonplussment over the writings of Adrienne von Speyr and Balthasar’s drive to promote them. I spent the summer with Balthasar’s First Glance at Adrienne von Speyr , her Book of All Saints , her Confession , and The World of Prayer, each with an introduction by Balthasar. A curious phenomenon, von Speyr. Curiouser still is the aura of mimicry—Simone Weil speeds to mind—and nineteenth century spiritualism that accompanies her story. Equally nonplussing is the hagiographic obscurantism that marks Balthasar’s presentation of his protégée and alter ego.
What triggered interest in von Speyr was a passage from Balthasar’s own book on prayer which sets on a mantle shelf next to Thomas Merton’s Contemplative Prayer . Of the two, it is Merton I turn to with any frequency. Merton wrote for wayfarers on their knees; Balthasar, for the podium. Despite occasional passages of true loveliness (“All faith is resurrection faith.”), particularly welcome allusions to Martin Buber’s I and Thou , his Prayer is more lecture than companion. Merton’s lyrical acclamation—“Alleluia is the song of the desert”—finds faint echo in Balthasar’s prose.
After stating, rightly, that contemplation must not “get stuck in the intellect,” but instead should result in “a touching,” Balthasar adopts a marital analogy. A strange one:
Love for her husband means that the woman can put up with weeks of loneliness at home while he has to be away on business; it may be that, as the years go by, her love for him enables her to bear bodily contact with him without revealing the effort it costs her.
Bodily contact is a squeamish euphemism. A woman’s sexual embrace of her husband—the irreducible heart of marriage—is depicted as something costly that requires “stamina.” It is a form of “humble service.” In other words, male desire is tolerated, not welcomed, by a wife. The depiction is wondrously close to the popular trope (“Lie back . . . .”) spun from an entry in Lady Hillingdon’s 1912 journal entry:
“When I hear his steps outside my door I lie down on my bed, open my legs and think of England.”
Is this what the theologian learned about married love by living with von Speyr and her second husband Werner Kaegi? Apparently so. Judging from First Glance, it is possible to hazard a guess that the mystic’s sufferance, like that of Lady Hillingdon’s, might not have been tested often.
Von Speyrs’s first marriage was to Emile Dürr, a history professor and widower with two young sons. Balthasar’s depiction suggests a narrative by the Victorian Mrs. Gaskell. Adrienne entered medical school aware that a man a woman had something to do with making a baby. Still, “in some inexplicable way, she remained unenlightened until her clinical semester.” Von Speyr met Dürr while she was a medical student. He was attracted. Friends, aware of her nescience, conspired to make a match. Von Speyr gave in to friendly pressure, less out of reciprocal feeling than “sympathy” for a good man and his children.
The physical aspects of marriage proved “distressing” and “strange” to her. It could hardly have been otherwise for a woman convinced that she had been marked by Mary and that “physically, she belonged to God.” Nevertheless, Dürr was “kindness itself.” (Too kind to press himself on a disinclined wife?) We are told that as the years went by—there were not many of them—she came to love him. Undoubtedly, she did. But did they share a bed? Had the good man been cheated, perhaps, by the nature of his wife’s sympathy? We are told only that they lived “harmoniously,” spoke together of God and, on vacation in Italy, prayed together in local churches.
Dürr died suddenly in 1934, leaving her with two stepsons. Her motherhood disappears summarily from Balthasar’s précis of her life. The boys plummet from sight, unnamed. Only their grandfather—Professor Adolf Baumgartner—earns a name by virtue of his acquaintance with more prominent names: Nietzche and Burckhardt. In 1936, Von Speyr married Werner Kaegi, who replaced Dürr at the University of Basel. Although Balthasar spent over fifteen years living under the same roof with Kaegi, he dispatches the mystic’s husband, his own housemate, in two scant lines: “His multi-volume work about Jacob Burckhardt is famous. He died in 1979.”
Never erased is the initial impression of von Speyr’s sexual reluctance. That, in addition to a fervent, not to say morbid, religious sensibility escorted by a pietistic disposition toward submission (her “Marian” character), begets the image of a woman exquisitely poised to fill the role of medium to Balthasar’s dominant spellbinder. Balthasar quotes admiringly the statement of one of Adrienne’s friends: “You are made for obedience.” Obey she did, producing two autobiographies at his request plus a flood of additional works dictated to him while in a dazed reverie. (In his forward to the 1981 re-edition of First Glance , Balthasar cites thirty seven in print at the time; Ignatius Press sets a total at sixty.)
The first autobiography was written by herself in longhand. The second appears to have been orated. In Balthasar’s delicate obfuscation, it was “very different” and “entirely charismatic in character.” His comment on the circumstances of this second narration merits attention:
My command enabled her under obedience to recount her life from the level of consciousness of her childhood and youth. She writes then about some of the same events [as those in the first autobiography], but also about other matters which she herself had completely forgotten.
Completely forgotten until under command of an authority figure and in a somnolent state? This points us toward the territory of recovered memory syndrome. Readers are left standing at the permeable boundary between fantasy and reality. Were certain of von Speyr’s memories reconstructed or invented? Her visions inspired or induced?
The impression of something insalubrious, askew, hovers over what is proffered as mystical insight. It is impossible to close Book of All Saints— which includes Balthasar’s verbal prompts to Adrienne in her visionary state — without gratitude that the Church does not require assent to private visions. The sensus fidelium is granted latitude for good reason. Credulity does faith no service. And skepticism, too, can be a gift of the Spirit. An astringent grace.
A hyper-suggestible female susceptible to the ascendent will of an authoritative male is the classic stuff of the literature of parapsychology. In this instance, it is also an invitation to consider the power of theology to seduce and the ways of an eminent theologian to mesmerize. At the same time, it beckons a glance at the corresponding fascination of a theologian with a living mirror of—and prod to—his own transformative ambitions.
To be clear: Balthasar’s theological project is the concern of theologians. It is not mine. My own interest—unease, really— is with the selling of Adrienne von Speyr. It will take a posting or two to explore why von Speyr’s “mission” to restore and renew the prayer life of the Church earns a certain suspension of confidence. For now, it is enough to heed Merton’s warning against “the idolatry of devout ideas and imaginings . . . the smug assurance of the devout ones who know all the answers in advance, and possess all the clichés of the inner life . . . .”
It is the middle of August. It is time to let be, call off words awhile. Time to close the computer, let scattered notes lie, and lift a glass to the sweetness of ordinary life. Time to be still.
See you in September.
Among Euan Uglow’s studio props was a female skull, minus the jaw bone and, possibly, two thousand years old. His friend and fellow painter Tony Eyton wrote that Uglow found it in an ancient burial ground and smuggled it out. It is a fit companion to Notes of an Anatomist
by Frank Gonzalez-Crussi, a practicing pathologist and Professor Emeritus of Pathology at Northwestern Medical School. He is also a witty, graceful scholar and essayist.
Notes opens with an urbane chapter on embalming with anecdotal references from ancient Egypt to Jacques Maritain in a dentist’s chair. But my favorite part is the author’s tribute to the miracle of the human body. After a tart glance at our contemporary funeral industry, comes this:
However, as a pathologist, too, I am not ready to condemn the practice of embalming as a shameless farce or to pass it up as nothing but a sordid hoax played by the greedy on the gullible. Rather, I see in it an impulse not without nobility, to prevent, or at least decelerate, the ruin of the human body.
Gonzalez-Crussi’s generosity continues:
Commercialism and dishonesty aside, the embalmer obeys that obscure dictate that would have us stave off, or at least retard, the decay of this marvel. It is our primeval vigor, our deepest creative prepotency, our basic fund of anti death energy, that infuses us with the wish, however irrational, to make the corruptible undecaying and the impermanent neutral. The ancients fancied that the soul did not abandon the body on a sudden; but even after death it lingered on for forty-two days, departing gradually and as if by stages.
Da Vinci reflected on this theme and thought that it was quite fitting that the soul should dally, for the body is so wondrous a habitation that the soul could not find it easy to part with; and finding it so painful to quit its mortal domicile, it hesitates.
Later, that delicately spiritual writer Paul Valéry, on reading the autobiographical passage of Leonard that contains these reflections, was greatly intrigued. This was for Valéry a metaphysical system of most peculiar originality: that the farewell scene between body and soul should be imagined as capable of “bringing tears to the eyes . . . of the soul!”
Gonalez-Crussi closes with the reminder that Leonardo had himself dissected scores of cadavers. While his metaphysical construct may struck the popular ear as odd, it sounds perfectly natural to pathologists and embalmers.
Conversation in 1979 beween Sophie, the fourteen year old daughter of Uglow’s friend, painter Bernard Cohen:
EU: “Will you pose for me?”
SOPHIE: “How long for?”
EU: “Might be five years.”
SOPHIE: “Do you talk to your models?”
SOPHIE: “What do you say?”
EU: “You’ve moved your leg. Put it back.”
SOPHIE: “Do you give your models lunch?”
SOPHIE: “What do you give them?”
EU: “Scrambled eggs and spinach.”
SOPHIE: “Every day?”
SOPHIE: “No thanks.”
A few postings back, Special Pleading/Christian Artists
, I mentioned the dependence of self-identified Christian artists on that curious genre, the Artist’s Statement. Without the crutch of expository prose, “Christian” art was largely indistinguishable from mainstream, non-Christian, come-as-you-are art. As an example of that reliance, I featured a work by Helen Zajkowski, a member of Christians in the Visual Arts.
I abbreviated Helen’s accompanying statement for reasons of economy. She wrote to tell me she would have preferred to see her testimony printed in full. I promised to make good. Herewith:
The core of my work is the Judeo-Christian philosophy calling for universal stewardship of our natural resources. My art deals with the biblical cycle of creation and destruction in ironic terms. By taking a well-known image from the Scripture and juxtaposing it with a current ecological issue, I aim to awaken the viewer to the new dimensions of the Old and New Testament, as well as to our current understanding of our environment.
You can view additional work by Helen here.
Decadence was brought about by the easy way of producing works and laziness in doing it, by the surfeit of fine art and the love of the bizarre.
Voltaire, The Princess of Babylon (1748)
Voltaire’s linkage of decadence to an overabundance of fine art earns consideration, perhaps now more than ever. Art stuffs pile up around us; and we live, increasingly, with an overemphasis oneven reverence foraesthetics that is less a sign of refinement than a malaise. It is an unhealthy condition, all the more precarious for exalting aesthetics, a strutting Enlightenment product, up, up into the embrace of theology.
Designated carrier of the True and the Beautiful, art has a baneful way of veiling history. It works to displace it or render it inconsequential beside the sweeter fruits of historical inquiry. Traditional history might as well be bunk. Only art history is redemptive. It is salvation history brought up to date for an over-ripe culture with no taste for the character and complexities of its own past .
This occurs to me whenever I am at the Frick. The complex gives no hint of Henry Clay Frick’s provocative, iron-fisted role in the bloody strike at the Carnegie Steel plant
in Homestead, Pennsylvania, in 1892. A consequential setback to workers in dangerous heavy industries in the early days of the labor movement, it cries for acknowledgment. Yet nothing disturbs the patrician calm of the Gilded Age mansion that houses the Frick Collection. If anyone had occasion to benefit from the presumed moral powers of art, it was Frick himself. But that is another matter. What counts here is that he left us the glittering yield of his purchasing power. He had intended his collection to be his monument. And so it is.
Duveen , S.N. Behrman’s 1955 biography of Frick’s dealer, includes comments on the entrepreneurial prodigy who had vowed to become a millionaire by the age of thirty. The paragraph extends to nearly all standard commentary on Robber Baron collectors and their wares:
The article on Frick in the Encyclopedia Britannica runs to twenty three lines. Ten are devoted to his career as an industrialist, and thirteen to his collecting of art. In these thirteen lines, he mingles freely with Titian and Vermeer, with El Greco and Goya, with Gainsborough and Velásquez. Steel strikes and armed Pinkerton guards [300 of them] vanish, and he basks in another, more felicitous aura.
That leads us to the Garden Court, a grand Roman atrium added to the Frick mansion a tad more than a decade after the owner’s death. In a seamless act of aesthetic genius, architect John Russell Pope linked the original mansion to the posthumous extension by means of an atrium that filled what had been an alley for cars and carriages between 70th and 71st Street. [You can take a virtual tour of the dazzling Garden Court here .]
I love the Garden Court. I love to sit on the stone benches and listen to the measured gurgle of water spilling from the mouths of two bronze frogs at either end of the pool. It is a sound out of time, a lovely, liquid undersong that calms, consoles, and in some untellable way, transports. It is a place to brood on the voice Tennyson gave to a bubbling brook: “For men may come and men may go,/But I go on forever.” Within listening distance of those steadfast frogs, I can cruise to altitudes unattainable at home.
Days after my last visit to the Frick, I heard the identical sound again. There was no mistaking it. Trust me. There was the same aqueous fluency, flowing at the same pace and babbling at the same modulated decibel level. This time, though, I was home.
The toilet was running. A mundane, repellant little noise, it stirred ugly visions of dollar bills swirling down the drain to Bell Plumbing. I hated it.
But wait. The connoisseurship of the listening ear has standing, yes? Then why not just close my eyes and take pleasure in the sound until it is fixed? Why not extract something agreeable out this of damned nuisance? While I waited for a new flapper, rubber gasket, or spud washer for a tank manufactured in the same decade as the Garden Court, I should relax and let the sound conjure up another spot of poetry.
I tried to. I failed. But that is beside the point. What matters is the identical character of the sound, the chatter of the Frick’s fountain interchangeable withindistinguishable fromthat of my treacherous toilet. Surely the equivalence and my disparate responses to it signify something about that cagey pretender, the aesthetic sense.
John of Damascus defined s ense as “a faculty of the soul by which material things are perceived, or distinguished.” My hearing is fine. Could my soul, then, be at fault for cherishing the sound in one place and loathing it in another? Or does the aesthetic sense share something with real estatea critical dependence on location, location, location?
To paraphrase Degas: There is blogging and there is life; and we have but one heart.
In a hurry yesterday, I neglected to say that Bouyer’s The Decomposition of Catholicism is not particularly representative of his writing. It is a brief, highly personal howl of dismay at the results of the Second Vatican Council, in which he himself played a significant role. The polemical energy of it appeals to me but polemics, I know, is not everyone’s cup of Twinings. So perhaps it is a book to meet later, after engaging the tenor of his mind and flavor of his scholarship in his many works on spirituality, the sacraments, the liturgy and Church history.
I keep beside me his stunning Cosmos: the World and the Glory of God (1982). Bouyer reflects on the questions asked by the ancients and the moderns of the mystery of the reality that surrounds us and in which we have our being. It is a dense, recondite, glorious synthesis that ends with characteristic loveliness:
We have now reached the end of this series of essays in which we have attempted to study the many facets of the Mystery of God and his creation. At best we have been able to do no more than suggest a way into the silence where all of us . . . shall await the moment when God himself will grant us the repose and peace of his eternal Sabbath.
As we await this outcome in the evening light of faith, may we recognize—in experiencing the love poured into our hearts by the spirit sent into us—the shadowless light of the eternal day, in order to prepare for the impending night to which we are drawn in joyful hope of our resurrection.
I can only recommend what else I choose to own and can read profitably: Rite & Man: Natural Sacredness and Christian Liturgy (1963); Liturgical Piety (1954); and Bouyer’s chapter “Asceticism in the Patristic Period in Christian Asceticism and Modern Man (1955). His classic Introduction to Spirituality (1961) pricey on the second hand market, is being reprinted in paperback as Introduction to the Spiritual Life this fall. His biography of Newman is still in print.
Ignatius Press’ blog Insight has a fine introduction to Bouyer
: “Fr. Louis Bouyer: A Theological Giant” by Keith Lemna.
Fr. Bouyer wrote of spirituality with modesty and grace. In both of those qualities, his writing exceeds that of currently more fashionable theologians. (Or so it seems to me, an imperfect consumer of theological reflection.) It is one thing to write about prayer and spirituality; it is something of a different order entirely to write prayerfully. The latter is a gift of the Spirit. And the Spirit breathes through his work.
Father Richard Neuhaus kept on his shelves several books by Louis Bouyer, a priest of the French Oratory. Like Fr. Neuhaus, Père Bouyer (1913-2004) had been a Lutheran minister before his conversion to Catholicism and ordination to the priesthood.
In the Vatican II era, Fr. Bouyer would have needed no introduction. Professor of Church History and Spiritual Theology at the Institut Catholique in Paris, he published books on liturgy and patristic theology that are classics in their field. Influential at the Second Vatican Council, he was quick to express dismay at post-conciliar interpretations of the Council’s statements on liturgy.
Below is an excerpt from The Decomposition of Catholicism. First published in France in 1968, it is addressed to a French audience with its two camps: intégrisme , a strict, even extreme, conservative movement and progressisme , identified with progressive elements in the Church and left-wing politics. Despite possible unfamiliarity with Fr. Bouyer’s historical and political references, this stunning little text makes useful reading for American Catholics today.
Poverty is so important in Christianity that “religious” as they are called, have always had the acknowledged task of giving evidence of it by exemplary radicalism. But it is stating a truism to recall that their life-style in most cases . . . is in fact much less poor than that of the great majority of the so-called “secular” clergy, and reflects rather the average level of a free and easy middle class.
. . . The taste for gaudy and useless buildings (which, like Lisieux or Nazareth, are generally abominations), the life-style of high-ranking clergy, the charge-scale for acts of worship and especially for dispensations are but trifles when compared with more profound and hidden evils . . . . (for example, certain scandalous trafficking with Mass stipends).
Fr. Bouyer directs his acerbity full-throttle toward what he saw as the debasement of the liturgy in the name of a Church in solidarity with the poor:
To my knowledge, up till now this great crusade for the poor Church has accomplished little else but the impoverishment of worship. A certain bishop, whose cathedral possesses a treasury of wonderful old vestments, since his return from the Council now officiates . . . in a sack cloth. It is true that afterwards he returns home in a Citroën, while the most comfortable of his canons may not even have a tiny 2 CV.
I must confess . . . that I find these candle-stub economies particularly degrading. It is the poverty of Judas and not of Christ. Worship is a thing that belongs both to God and to the whole people of God. It is a celebration in which everyone from the poorest to the richest is at home in the house of the Father and is called to rejoice in His presence. Luxury and tawdry showiness are surely out of place, but real and even costly beauty could not find a better place in this world . . . .
Moreover, the idea that a hodgepodge worship will necessarily cost less that a splendid one is childish. Even if quality liturgical art is relatively costly (no more and often no less than the tawdriest), what would be stopping the building of churches or altars worthy of the name, or ceasing to make priestly vestments that are not niggardly or hideous, do for the poor? . . .
Beneath these stingy economies there remains the old confusion between charity and “do-gooding,” a confusion that has never been more deceptive than in our own day. It is even less true today than ever that helping the poor means melting down one’s gold, assuming one has any, in order to give them bread . . . . The horrible tragedy of Biafra ought to have opened their eyes since tons of food and medicine from the four corners of the earth went to rot on the doorstep of the needy because of a lack of elementary good will on the part of the local people . . . . The only effective aid to the underdeveloped countries that Christians can provide is to help them develop themselves.
I poured the wine into the chalice our church had given me. In the one-sixth gravity of the moon the wine curled slowly and gracefully up the side of the cup. It was interesting to think that the very first liquid ever poured on the moon, and the first food eaten there, were communion elements.
Astronaut Buzz Aldrin, describing the 1969 moon landing in Guidepost Magazine (October 1970)
The custom of elevating the Host did not become a general practice of the Church until the thirteenth century. The bishop of Paris’ decree on the elevation of the Hostbreast-high before the consecration; high enough to be seen by all the faithful only after the consecrationwas issued in 1210. While the custom had been gaining ascendency among diverse practices prior to that, 1210 provides a workable benchmark for codification. Consequently, this sovereign act of Christian worship appears rarely in early medieval art. Not until the religious controversies of the post-Tridentine era did it become one of the great themes of religious art, rampant on canvases and frescoes.
Émile Mâle was eloquent on the distance between popular eucharistic piety and its artistic expression in public works:
It is a remarkable phenomenon that the Middle Ages, which had created the feast of Corpus Domini, chanted the hymn to the Holy Sacrament [O Salutaris Hostia], and raised its towering cathedrals to heaven to make them a more worthy abode for the Real Presencethe mystical Middle Ages whose focal point was Holy Communionat the height of its development almost never visually represented this sacrament.
Almost never . The phrase is key. Throughout the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance, the sacrament was certainly depicted. But the images, rare on walls, emerged primarily in illustrated manuscriptsprayer books, psalters, choir books, devotional and liturgical textscommissioned for private use or by monasteries and cathedrals. On view now at the Morgan Library are sixty-five of these splendid manuscripts. All were prized possessions of prosperous owners. Each is a unique assertion of individual piety and a beguiling artifact of Gothic graphic inventiveness.
[You can view a selection from the exhibition here .]
Illuminating Faith: the Eucharist in Medieval Life and Art was lovingly assembled by Roger S. Wieck, Curator of Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts. It offers a rare opportunity to follow a neglected theme. On view are some of the Morgan’s finest works: the Hours of Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, one of the greatest of all Books of Hours (the bestsellers of their time); the exquisite Preparation for Mass of Pope Leo X, which remained at the Vatican until it was looted by Napoleon’s troops in 1798; a private prayer book commissioned by Anne of Brittanyqueen of France and, in her time, the richest woman in Europefor her son the dauphin. A number of rarely-exhibited missals are also on display. In art historical terms, the ensemble is a welcome and distinguished pleasure .
At the same time, however, box office concerns imprint themselves on the tenor of the way eucharistic culture is presented. Presentation tiltsnecessarily toward the interests of daytrippers who drag along with them the dry bones of secular culture. Curatorial delight in the imagery and the genres which held ite.g. the Book of Hours, a long-running bestseller in its timeis genuine. But museum-going, for the most part, is a kind of fortified recreation. Presentation to the general public has to take entertainment into account. And entertainment, by its nature, skims the colorful surface of its subject; and, in doing so, distorts it. As the press material states:
Illuminating Faith offers glimpses into medieval culture, and explores the ways in which artists of the period depicted the celebration of the sacrament and its powerful hold on society.
Powerful hold . Wording matters. A hold suggest dominance, sway if not overt coercion. A hold grips. It is quite different from something that informs, enriches or enlivens. For all the loving care deservedly spent on the objects here, eucharistic faith is on show as a medieval superstition, a matter of feeling and folklore rather than the basis of a common morality. And, as emphasized in the Morgan’s decision to grant pride of place to the legend of the Bleeding Host of Dijon, it was a carrier of anti-semitism.
The final section of the exhibition is devoted to Eucharistic miracles. Popular faith in the phenomenon of bleeding Hosts accompanied formalization of the doctrine of Transubstantiation. Visions, bleeding Hosts and miracles attributed to them surged throughout Christendom. The Host was thought to bleed as a result of violent insult by Jews. One manuscript tells the tale: “A Jew of yore mutilated the Host . . . by hitting it more than ten times and caused abundant blood to flow.”
No catalog accompanies the exhibition but there is a video on the Sacred Bleeding Host of Dijon. The history of the legend, its spread from Dijon to Paris, the duration of its cult, is carefully outlined. Without a doubt, it earns a place here as a matter of history. But its centrality to the exhibition is a different matter. The fact that the frisson of anti-semitism should have been made the crown and summit of the exhibition is disappointing.
So, too, is curatorial use of the past tense in discussing the Eucharist:
For medieval Christians, the Eucharist (the sacrament of Communion) was not only at the heart of the Massbut its presence and symbolism also wielded enormous influence over cultural and civic life.
It was at the heart of the Mass and still is. The Morgan bypassed an opportunity to raise the issue of whether or not Western culture can be preserved and fostered in the absence of religion. T.S. Eliot raised the question in the late 1930s with his assertion that no culture can appear or develop except in relation to religion:
We may go further and ask whether what we call the culture, and what we call the religion, of a people are not different aspects of the same thing: the culture being, essentially, the incarnation (so to speak) of the religion of a people.
Perhaps I would have been less demanding of Illuminating Faith if its run had not coincided with the forty-fourth anniversary of Aldrin and Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon. The date passed with little notice on July 20th, little more than two weeks ago.
The men had only just landed the Lunar Module when Aldrin radioed a public request to everyone listening to “pause for a moment and contemplate the events of the past few hours and to give thanks in his or her own way.” Then he ended the broadcast and, in radio silence on the surface of the moon, he read a verse from St. John’s Gospel and administered communion. It pleased Aldrin to say, later, that “the words spoken on the moon were the words of Jesus Christ, Who made the earth and the moonand Who, in the immortal words of Dante, is Himself the ‘Love that moves the Sun and other stars.’”
Aldrin described his communion experience several times between a 1969 interview with Life Magazine to his 2009 book Magnificent Desolation . Four years ago Aldrin admitted that, perhaps, if he had to do it all over again, he would not celebrate communion. It was a Christian sacrament. As such, it did not accord with a mission conducted “in the name of all mankind.”
Eucharistic culture did not end with the High Middle Ages. I wonder if it has not suffered more in the last four decades than in all the centuries between the era of Dijon’s Bleeding Host and the Morgan’s recollection of it.
. . . a dreamer passes into another, system, another dimension, another measure wherein time is understood and experienced in ways completely unlike the ways of time in the visible world. In this new experience of time, the dreamer’s time, compared to time in the visible world, runs at infinite speed.
—Pavel Florensky, Iconostasis
I am one of those bitter clingers. Among things I cleave to are spelling rules and all that grammar stuff. Communications mavens and editors of Wired can chirp all they like about the glorious way new technologies liberate spelling from the oppressive dogma of fixed rules. Just give me that old-time ditty: “i” before “e” except after “c” or when sounded like “a” as in neighbor and weigh .
Imagine, then, my distress at waking up at 2:56 AM Tuesday morning with the realization I had misspelled a word on Monday’s post. I pulled myself out of bed and over to the computer to log on to Wordpress. I felt furtive, like a clumsy kid who had knocked something over and hoped no one had noticed. But there it was, the dreaded thing: Panza instead of Panzer .
It is all fixed now. But what shattered my sleep to begin with is what brings me to Pavel Florensky.
I had been dreaming about a panda. Gradually, the dream moved into that indeterminate state—we’ve all experienced it—in which we witness ourselves dreaming. Still asleep, I began to wonder how this panda got there. Of all things, why a panda? Then came what Florensky called the denouement of this dream event: the realization that panda was the mind’s half-rhyme for panza! It woke me up on the spot. Oh, good heaven! There was never any such thing as a Panza division. Worse than a misspelling, my panza was an offense against history.
In atonement, I stayed up with “The Spiritual Structure of Dreams,” the opening chapter of Florensky’s Iconostasis . His final theological work, written in 1922, it makes more challenging and exhilarating reading than Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams. Freud and Marx, men of their time, claimed the mantle of science for their nonscientific conceptual systems. Florensky was the real thing: a theoretical and applied scientist, mathematician, philosopher, and inventor, no less than a priest and martyr.
In Freudian mythology, dreams comprise the arsenal of a cunning Unconscious at war with its adversary, the conscious mind. Florensky bypasses that slippery old Joker, the unconscious, to approach dreams through the lens of physics. Florensky inquired into—what to call it?—the morphology of dreams with their ever-present, near-physical sense of time in a universe best described as timeless. He insisted that dreams are our first and easiest entry into the invisible; they have their own unique time “that cannot be measured in the terms of the visible world, a ‘transcendental’ time.”
Many would agree [that dreamer’s time runs at infinite speed] even with knowing nothing whatever about the principle of relativity, that in different dimensions there is different time and it moves in different speeds and different measures . [Emphasis mine.] Few have sufficiently considered . . . the time that turns inside out, the time that flows backward. For, indeed, very long sequences of visible time can, in the dream, be wholly instantaneous—and can flow for future to past, from effects to causes. This happens in our dreams precisely when we are moving from the visible world to the invisible, between the actual and the imaginary.
“The sleep was brief but the dream was long.” So goes an old adage that Florensky illustrates with a series of different dreams all stemming from the same external stimulus: the ringing of an alarm clock. His first and simplest:
It’s a spring morning and I’m going for a walk through green meadows, and I come to a neighboring village. I see the villagers dressed in Sunday clothes, carrying their prayerbooks, a big crowd of them heading for the church. Today is Sunday and Divine Liturgy will soon begin. I decide to go to Liturgy but I’m a bit warm from walking, so I decide first to rest in the cemetery next to the church. I start to read the epitaphs, and then I notice the bell ringer start to go up the bell tower. The bell must be rung to start the service, but it still hangs unmoving. Then the bell begins to sway and suddenly it peals out in loud, piercing sounds—so piercing, in fact, that I awake to find that the piercing sound is my alarm clock ringing.
For Florensky, a dream is a coherent, self-contained truth in which denouement —that event toward which the logic of the dream proceeds and which wakes us—is pre-determined, and exhibits profound rationality. It is “pure meaning wrapped in the thinnest membrane of materiality; it almost wholly a phenomenon of the other world.”
That “other world” is the one proclaimed at the beginning of the Creed when we profess our faith in the Maker “of all things visible and invisible.” That word invisible is not a rhetorical trope, no mere stylistic antithesis to balance the pairing of “heaven and earth.” It is a description of reality, one that physicists are at home with. (Imagine what we would see if our eyes were sensitive to gamma rays or infrared radiation.)
We can let the string community discuss Florensky’s treatment of space-time applied to dreams in the 1920s, when Einstein was transforming physics and astronomy. For us, one of the most compelling aspects of this remarkable man is that he found in mathematics and science signals of sacrality, holy signs of the reign of the Spirit over time and matter.
In this, Florensky had certain things in common with Teilhard de Chardin—not the burlesque of Teilhard later channeled through Matthew Fox, but the man who grounded his faith in a scientific grasp of the physical world. For Florensky, as for Teilhard, nature is charged with the grandeur of God while it simultaneously possesses and preserves its own objective reality. (Even in a Siberian prison camp close to the Artic Circle, Florensky used his imprisonment to study permafrost and ways to extract iodine and agar-agar from seaweed.)
What Mircea Eliade said of Teilhard de Chardin can be said as well of Florensky: Not only did he offer a bridge between science and Christianity, he also testified to the ultimate sacrality of nature and of life.
Dreams, too, are part of the totality of our lives. That old bedtime phrase “sweet dreams” is more a blessing than we guess.
A pang of desolation runs through me during that spasm of glad-handing at Mass called the Kiss of Peace. The High-Five of Peace, as often as not. All the Rotarian hand-shaking, wigwagging, and waving toward every possible compass point makes me lonely. Congregants two generations removed from Woodstock have taken to raising that old two-fingered, tie-dyed peace sign. The sight of it dispirits me. (Who was it who said that the Sixties, like the poor, will be with us always?)
What the hubbub brings to mind is not the pax tecum , an eschatological promise to a community linked by the same faith and the same love. Not one bit. Any gravity intended to prepare receivers of the pax for the Eucharist has disappeared down the rabbit hole. Amid the surrounding bustle and compulsive camaraderie, my memory fills the void with the final lines of a short story by Stringfellow Barr.
“The Little Yellow Dog,” first published in the Virginia Quarterly Review, 1928 , was a staple in high school anthologies of American literature until the multi-culti ethos rolled like a Panzer division over curricula. The story unsettled me in girlhood; it unsettles me still, if for different reasons. Quite brief, it appears in its entirety below.
The images here are not specifically related to the text, though a case might be made for them. I simply delight in them. Maybe you will, too.
Little Yellow Dog
F. Stringfellow Barr
On the white road that leads out of Mirebeau toward Nantes, between slender wavering poplars, I met a very small yellow dog. He trotted slowly up to me, halted, and spoke.
“Of course,” he said, “I am only a dog, and a yellow one at that. But I am sure you will help me. I am looking for my master.”
“I will do what I can,” I answered. “I like your courage. Frankly, I never expected a dog to speak to me, least of all a yellow one. Where do you think your master is?”
The little dog wagged his tail gratefully; and it was not until he showed this sign of cheerfulness that I realized by contrast how very sad were his yellow eyes.
“I do not know where he is. I have gone South as far as Poitiers and northward to Tours and I could find him nowhere. I live in Mirebeau; but as it is certain he is not there, I am on my way to Nantes to see if he comes off the ships.”
“But did he put to sea?”
“I do not know. But I fancy he loved the straight masts against evening skies. They would remind him of the poplars along the road-side. He was restless and always liked roads and ships. He always smelt of travel, even in his best clothes. Yes, I think I had best try Nantes.”
“What does your master look like?”
The dog turned his head quickly, and a far look came into his melancholy eyes. I thought at first that he could not speak for pain; but suddenly his gaze softened and he seemed to be smiling serenely at some old recollection.
“Ah,” he said, “it is not so much how he looks, or even how he smells; but the things he does. He is always strong and calm and sure of himself. So that one aches to follow him and serve him. You don’t know how we little dogs do ache to serve and follow someone. You may think, because we are restless and keep running into the fields on either side of the road and back again, that we would gladly be independent and free to come and go as we please. Never believe it. We are indeed restless, but how we crave someone to come back to from our strayings. Every morning at dawn I want my master to lead me off. And I can scarcely sleep by day or night for seeking him.”
I noticed then that the little fellow was indeed gaunt and unkempt, with that haunted look in his eyes that some men get. One or two sleek tidy dogs, who came trotting by at the heels of their masters, never even stopped to make his acquaintance. He seemed, by his gentle manner, used to this treatment. But I reflected that his enthusiastic and, I confess, somewhat bombastic description of this marvellous master of his was really not of the least value in a search. So I turned to him sharply.
“I have never seen him,” said the little dog simply. “Maybe that is why he is so hard to find. No, if I had once found him, you may be sure I would not have lost him again. But I have never seen him.”
He was standing very rigidly before me, with his head on one side, and he seemed so confident of my understanding his trouble, that I could not laugh at the absurdity of his quest.
“But, my dear fellow,” I exclaimed as gently as I knew how, “how can you find a master you have never seen? And if he exists only as your ideal, you have but to keep hunting until you find him in the flesh.”
“I have,” said the little dog ruefully. “I have hunted ever since I knew what my ideal was like. Though, to tell the truth, it is not so much a question of what my master must be like, as of what he must not. There are no men that I have seen in Poitiers or Tours that I could follow.”
“But other dogs seem to find masters.”
“I know what you are thinking. You are thinking that better dogs than I find masters in these places. You are thinking that I am a most conceited pup, a most”
“No, no!” I cried. “I am thinking nothing of the sort. I understand what you mean.”
I sat down suddenly beside him on the dusty bank and drew his head against mine. A plump peasant who was driving by, looked amusedly at us while his cart covered us with white dust. The peasant’s great black dog paid us not even the attention of a glance.
“No, no,” I murmured again in his ear. “I understand how you feel. You cannot follow the fat butcher in Mirebeau, or the sleek pharmacist, or the inn-keeper with his well-kept dogs. They would take good care of you, but you cannot follow them. A pup must follow whom he can, not whomever he will. And none of these men in Mirebeau or Tours is the man you are searching for.Poor devil, I understand.”
The little pup’s body stiffened; he drew his head back; and a strange, troubled, joyful look came into his eyes.
“No, not that,” I cried, pushing him away and leaping to my feet in a panic, and starting down the road. “No, not me! Courage. Keep a good heart. You will surely find him at Nantes. Or at Rochelle. You did not think of Rochelle, did you? He will surely come off the ships there. But not me! No, no, not me! There is no strength or sureness in meno strength.”
Why does this story come to me, unbidden, at Sunday Mass? The search for a master does not apply, but something else does.
The handshake is a social gesture, not a liturgical one. Shalom drains out of it before it enters the pew. In context, it is convivial, a protocol of sociability; it signals ordinary neighborliness, not communion. Bereft of solemnity, it is crippled in its function as a seal and pledge of the prayers that went before it. Instead, it suggests a quotidian comity that stylized ritual is designed to mute.
Rarely am I within greeting distance of a familiar face with whom the neighborly gesture might resonate. My pew-mates and I are usually strangers to each other. After that brief, isolated burst of obligatory good cheer, we returngladly, I suspectto our anonymity. For that reason, the smiling handshake becomes a vacant gesture. Perhaps even a dishonest one.
Each week my fantasy is the same: After Mass, I approach one of the strangers who put their hand outand who listened reverently to that week’s canned intercession for whichever faceless victims of distant disaster made the evening news. Please, my brother, my sister, would you stay just five minutes more to pray with me? Recite the Last Gospel with me for a dying friend? For the suffering of a lost beloved? For the peace of heart that escapes me?
My fellow parishioner would bolt. A mental note would be made to steer clear of me next week. Embarrassed excuses would come in a rush: So sorry. If only I could but I am running late as it is. Another time, perhaps. But really, it is not necessary. God bless.
“No, not me! Courage! Keep a good heart . . . . No, no, not me.”
Somewhere within the chill Barr’s story induces lurks the fear that I might, myself, turn and flee if a wandering stray stopped me along my own road to Nantes.
Note: F. Stringfellow Barr was editor of Virginia Quarterly Review in the 1930s and co-founder, in the ’40s, of the Great Books Program at St. John’s College, Annapolis, Maryland.
Identity politics, a cancer on the body politic, is corrosive in the arts as well. All the more disconcerting, then, to find Christian artists recycling a self-indulgent pose similar to that used earlier by gay, black and women artists. Last week’s On the Square
column about Fuller Seminary’s Art Immersion project laments “the difficulty of being a theist in the art world.” No such difficulty exists; it is a manufactured complaint.
However appealing to a religious audience, the rhetoric of marginalization is, at best, an overstatement; at worst, dishonest. Special pleading for people of faith succeeds, like previous bandwagons in the arts, in lending lustre to mediocrity. The mélange of styles and no-styles that characterizes such groups as Christians in the Visual Arts is indistinguishable as art from mainstream production. For the most part (see above), you have to read the press releases and artists’ statements to tell the difference.
What kind of training do artists who are Christians need? Precisely the kind of training non-Christian artists need. They need immersion in skills and the procedures of their chosen craft. They need talent. They need to jettison the Renaissance-induced, romantic notion of themselves as special beings. They needas the best teaching artists insistto know who their betters are, and not be afraid to acknowledge it. They need to leave grievance-mongering at home.
What Christian artists do not need is to be encouraged in the false notion that the hard-won capacity to create beauty, to achieve it, can be taught. Or that religious intentions translate readily, without cunning and high competence, into pictorial language.
By way of illustration, stay for a moment with the work of Sandra Bowden, a distinctive member of CVA and my personal favorite. Above is a gold leafed and encaustic arrangement of four panels intended to represent the four gospels; the interstices are meant to suggest the Cross. It is a beautiful piece, flawlessly crafted. But its religious symbolism depends on Bowden’s own statement or the setting in which it is seen (e.g. the Museum of Biblical Art or Evangel College). It is not apparent on its own. In strict visual terms, intentions dissolve into the idiom of geometric abstraction.
I am deeply drawn to Bowden’s work for its formal beauty. However, its expressive contentits religiosityis largely dependent on words, not pictorial means. That dependence is characteristic of a mannered subculture that wants to pronounce its contemporaneity and its creed at the same time. If we care about the condition of the arts, we have to hold close Maritain’s injunction:
Art by itself tends to the good of the work, not to the good of man. The first responsibility of the artist is toward his work . . . . [The artist must] be intent, in his very operation, on the good of the work alone, without being deflected or disturbed by the weight of the human or divine riches which fill his heart.
Those words are sufficiently known. Later in The Responsibility of the Artist , Maritain adds a less familiar comment:
I spoke some moments ago of the distinction to be made between the creative self and the self-centered Ego, and of the manner in which self-awareness risks making the artist shift from one to the other . . . . In the order of formal causalitymoral virtues . . . belong to another sphere than the sphere of art, and are of no use to it.
Faith remains a virtue of the individual as a man or woman , not as an artist. It is fair to suspect ego is the driving forcedisguised by sanctimonybehind efforts to promote a specifically Christian identity in the arts whether or not one’s art warrants it. The primary beneficiaries of such initiatives are professors, client-seeking institutions, arts entrepreneursartists among themand non-profits. What benefit accrues to the larger culture is uncertain.
Dorothy Sayers phrased it more succinctly than Maritain: “The only Christian work is good work, well done.”
Two ancient media, encaustic and gold leaf, have experienced a renaissance over the last forty years. Gilding, popularized by the pattern-and-decoration movement begun in the Seventies and still going, is no longer a signal of sacrality. It is simply one of the rich variety of materials available to contemporary artists. Traditional methods and materials have been revivified for their indwelling loveliness by those artists who love the sensible qualities of the stuff in their hands. Christian artists have no corner on concern for tradition.
This return to traditional materials was initiated by artists themselves at work in their own studios. If we want to lay blame for inattention to tradition, place it on the professoriate’s mania for theory and ideological postures. Plus its aptitude for the discursive over the visual.
The art world has what can be called theists no less than Madison Avenue, Foggy Bottom, Goldman Sachs, or the Vatican bank. They are just not necessarily practicing Christians. Or practicing anythings. Most often, they are of the decaffeinated, gluten-free variety known as Nones. Religionless theists but theists nonetheless. Free range.
The art world precludes no one from love of neighbor. It denies no one a prayer life, keeps no one from church. It blacklists no artists for belief in God. Nothing inhibits artists from dedicating their talents and their studio time to the glory of God. Nobody cares. Theism, in and of itself, is a non-issue in the arts. It is a red-herring. Its market value issues, in the main, to enterprising arts impresarios. Lack of exposure for contemporary religious art owes more to the quality of the general run of it than to any presumed antagonism to theism.
What is an issue, however, is politics. If God is your thing, no matter; just so long as you are a liberal. Attend any gathering, social or professional, and the clubby assumption is that everyone is like-minded. How could it be otherwise? We are in the arts, dammit. It follows, as night the day, that we are all pro-abortion, favor gay marriage, oppose fracking, and vote Democrat. Any hint to the contrary is a stumbling block along the trade routes.
Yes, I know. Political conservatism and religious belief tend to run in tandem. Nevertheless, they are not identical. Recognition of the difference between them can be measured by Bill Viola’s preeminence in the contemporary art world. An exquisite technician, he has created videos that are increasingly sympathetic to that gauzy, undemanding sensation called spirituality . (If I were a betting woman, I’d lay odds on Viola appearing in the Vatican pavilion at the Biennale.) His work, lovely to watch in motion, corresponds to that soothing otherworldliness that raises no hackles and goes nicely with yoga lessons. Proto-theism is a user-friendly prelude to the real thing.
The art of the Church is theology for the masses. The masses . Des Volkes . An unpleasant, class conscious phrase. My antipathy for it leaves me wary of anyone who uses it. Addressed here to artists, it abets the supposition that artists are among the Better Sort. They bathe and listen to Vivaldi; their prayers are sweeter, rise higher, than those of the great unwashed. The lure of self-regard behind programs tailored to artists anxious to admire “the theological implications of their trade” ought to leave us uneasy. (Is there no theological substrate in the conscience of the grocer who gives full measure? In the beauty carpenters create with chisels and rasps?)
The masses . That phrase echoes Gregory the Great’s memorable comment that “what writing presents to readers, a picture presents to the unlearned who view it, since in the image even the ignorant see what they ought to follow; in the picture the illiterate read.”
Gregory’s having said it does not redeem its condescension nor alter its implicit suggestion that the printed wordthe treatises, arguments and apologias of the scholarly classis a superior mode of theological expression. Images are second-string offerings to simple minds: scripture for the unlettered.
How much of the high religious art we take as our patrimony was created for “the masses”? How much of it was commissioned for private use by princes, kings and cardinals, never seen by the rag tag multitudes until the advent of mass travel in the twentieth century?
Books of hours and illustrated prayer books were created for the privileged few who could read. All those glorious Giottos decorated the Scroveni family’s personal chapel. Da Vinci’s Last Supper was frescoed above a door in a monastery refectory. Piero’s Resurrection, among other great Renaissance frescoes , was made for the edification of monks . When Goethe venerated Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel he was alone in it. His era’s Grand Tour was a luxury denied “the masses.”
Theology for the masses the concept is embarrassed by hauteur. The arts need less of it, not more.