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.
Have you met Matt Talbot? I have just met him myself.
Rummaging through the book bins in my local
dump recycling center, I found a small red pamphlet Matt Talbot, Alcoholic. Subtitled The Story of a Slave to Alcohol Who Became a Comrade of Christ’s, it was written in 1947 by Albert H. Dolan, a Carmelite priest sympathetic to the labor movement of the era and to the newly formed Alcoholics Anonymous. The red pulp cover, the length of the title, the graphics, the old imprimatur by Chicago’s esteemed Cardinal Stritchhow could it be left for the shredder?
I am grateful to have found it. It introduced me to a mystic to believe in.
Statue of Matt Talbot on the Talbot Memorial Bridge over the River Liffey, Dublin
Born in Dublin in 1856, Matt Talbot was no one in particular. A man of little schooling, he was a common laborer, an all-too-common drunk from the age of twelve until his conversionmetanoia in a man on the skidsfrom alcohol when he was twenty-eight. There were no names to drop on his behalf. He had no noticeable achievements, no wealth, no followers, no claims to sanctity, no recorded visions. He wrote no autobiography, left nothing to draw attention to himself. Yet within fifty years of his death he reached the first stage of canonization and was named Venerable Matt Talbot.
No saint had appeared on the street to call him to sobriety. His radical change of heart happened in quite an ordinary way. Fr. Dolan explains:
For the first time  liquor had kept him from work. He devoted an entire week, day and night, to drinking. Saturday, pay day for all but him, found him thirsty but penniless. Believing that his drinking companions, fellow-laborers in the brick-yard, would sympathize with his thirst and offer to treat him, he took his stand between the yard and the tavern so that his friends with their pay in their pockets would see him. Several of them greeted him with a “Good day, Matt,” but not one stopped to ask if he would like a drink.
His drinking buddies had welcomed him when he had money for his drinks and theirs, but “for Matt penniless they had no use.” He was cut to the heart. It was, in its sad, unspectacular way, his Pauline moment.
. . . Matt surrendered. “I’ll go home,” he said. It was not his false friends who, as it were, slammed the door in his face; it was Divine Providence. Christ, the Good Shepherd, planned that day of desolation.
Dolan continues with a stanza from Francis Thompson’s Hound of Heaven. The stanza ends with what the writer calls “the theme song of Matt’s life:”
Rise, clasp My Hand and come!
Keeping sober was a battle. The temperance movement was strong but the habit of drink was stronger. Matt took the pledge of total abstinence in stages, uncertain he could make a lifetime commitment. He prayed for the will to conquer the craving. Prayer his only support, he threw himself into it like the strategist of a military campaign. Over time, as the craving for drink diminished, his craving for prayer increased. He lived another forty-one years intoxicated by the sacraments, captivated by the lives of the saints, quickened by love of the God he had ignored through his youth. He met Christ, the Great Healer, in the Eucharist and in visits to the Blessed Sacrament.
In recompense for the years of drunkenness, the injustice of so much hurt to his parents, he mortified himself. With the knowledge of no one but his confessor, he wore chainssimilar to tire chainsaround his body day and night. His asceticism was his secret. Toward the end of his life, when illness sent him to the hospital, he removed the chains ahead of time. Only after his release, did they go back on.
Were it not for those chains, the name Matt Talbot might never have been known. One morning in 1925, he collapsed on the street on his way to early Mass. Discovery of chains on his body led to inquiries into his life. It was, in many ways, a harrowing one, as excruciating to modern imagination as it is heart-rending.
He did not pronounce on love of neighbor. He simply loved:
For the greater part of his life, his pay was about five dollars a week. More than half . . . disappeared in charitable donations. He lived on $1.20 a week, including his rent, until, after World War I, his wages increased to $15.00. The only change which the increase of wages made was to increase his charitable gifts, for thereafter he lived on $2.00 a week and gave the rest to charity.
He was a union man, indignant on behalf of laborers, especially married ones with families to support. Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day might have regarded him as a model of the Christian worker, intent on imitating the Carpenter’s Son, and a man committed to justice to both laborer and employer. Dolan’s tribute reverberates with the language of the time:
If workers everywhere were to take Matt as their model, they would seek satisfaction for their just complaints through Christian channels, and reject the false promise of Communism which is both Godless and anti-Christian.
Matt’s single possession was his personal library, a small miracle in itself. A man with virtually no schooling, “read and digested some of the most advance and profound treatises of mystical theology.” He once mentioned reading Newman’s Apologia. But was that not over his head, objected a friend? Matt replied that he prayed for understanding and seemed to have been granted enough light to grasp most of what he read.
He read kneeling, so close did he come to prayer in the reading.
There is more to know. But a single thing movesand exhilaratesme more than anything I have read in a very long time. A friend who asked him what ever did he say to God in all his hours in church or in the little space he used on the job when things were slow:
I say nothing to Him. I look at Him and He looks at me.
The splendor of that! The ineffable comes in silence; and leaves silence behind.
Pray for us, Matt.
Note: Matt Talbot’s cause for canonization was given the kibosh in 2002 on grounds that no discernible miracles could be attributed to his intercession. More on that next time.
An ornate chapel has been built on the peculiar alliance between Balthasar and Adrienne von Speyr. Among pockets of the elect it is judged doltish, possibly wayward, not to attend services there. Or so it seems from some of last week’s email.
Permit me to say it again: Credulity is no friend to the truths of our faith. On the contrary, it discredits the uncreated mystery we are called to witness. Rather than serving to renew the faith, it undermines it. The Church gains nothing from Catholics who circle the wagons against a mild tug on the swaddle around von Speyr. Anyone quick to damn skepticism as calumny, or confuse fair questions with “aspersions” or “an attack,” acquiesces in the popular canard that faith is an enthusiasm averse to rational reflection.
John Adams Whipple. Hypnotism (c. 1845 daguerrotype). Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Theologians are scholars. By making cult figures of them, we exempt them from the give-and-take at the heart of every scholarly or scientific pursuit. The truth of things is hard won. This is not Delphi. Balthasar was no oracle; Von Speyr, no sibyl. The mystic and her publicist are legitimate subjects for discussion. Audit is a necessary stay against gullibility, one of Screwtape’s most durable tools.
Some groused that Idolatry of Devout Ideas psychologized the dead. Come now, is that objection not a bit obtuse in the face of Balthasar’s own spotlight on von Speyr’s emotional/psychological state? His First Glance at Adrienne von Speyr baresquite unnecessarilyher sexual hesitancy. The detail is as suggestive as it is gratuitous, more appropriate for an analyst’s couch than the confessional. He reveals that, several times, he heard her call out “almost despairingly” for her mother while she was “dreaming.” A lapse of tact and of taste, the intimacy of the disclosure invites readers to wonder where Werner Kaegi kept himself during these mystic sessions.
Balthasar submits this oddment for our edification:
In grammar school and even in the higher grades, whenever someone had broken something, she had the habit of coming forward and taking the blame and the punishment for it herself so often that the teacher no longer believed her.
He chooses the anecdote as testimony that von Speyr’s foot was on the straight way to sanctity early on. Clinicians and alert parents might see it differently. Unripe messianic pretension is an unwholesome trait, all the more worrisome in a child. [Please do not email to remind me of Maximilian Kolbe’s self-sacrifice on behalf of a condemned man. A vast gulf separates unsurpassable charity from girlish play-acting at martyrdom.]
That aside, what is Book of All Saints but an obsessive, sometimes cattish, catalog of pronouncements on the motivations of the dead? The text is a clotted analysis of the character and intensity of their “inner attitude” in the privacy of their erstwhile prayer life. Von Speyr presumes to inhabit their prayers, giving a posy here, a dig there. And tattling all the while. It is a distasteful séance.
Greg Clarke. A.A. Milne’s Piglet on the analyst’s couch.
We can return to von Speyr’s post-mortem sessions in the by-and-by. Stay, for now, with the means Balthasar uses to usurp anticipated dissent, and to steer reception of her commentaries in a smiling direction. He adopts a style of argument common to art world apologias: criticism is equated with noncomprehension. It is a device that betrays the assumption that disagreement is, of necessity, baseless. Unsporting if not unscholarly, it gainsays the possibility that some demur precisely because they comprehend.
In his foreword to von Speyr’s The World of Prayer, the theologian ignores his own warning against a gnosis that “puffs up.” He pulls rank, patronizing those readers “who are less inclined to follow demanding theological trains of thought.” They are advised to read his introduction, then jump ahead to the “easier” chapters, standard-issue devotional writing. Herewith, an instance of the trinitarian thought that challenged readers are instructed to save until later:
. . . it is as if, in contemplating the Son, the Father always sees more and more what he, the Father, is; . . . he see thereby how the Son uninterruptedly accepts the gift of divinity, gratefully accepts everything from the Father, and in gratitude has become what the Father expected of him . . . . At first they have no other wish than to contemplate and know each other in worship.
Theologians can decide whether von Speyr’s language, laden with anthropomorphic projection onto the mystery of the Trinity, passes hermeneutical muster. Of interest to all readers, however, is that the trope of God worshipping God, God loving God, appeared years earlier in Simone Weil’s meditations. Dead at 36 years of age in 1943, Weil was not reading von Speyr. However, von Speyr, who could complete a French novel in one night (We have Balthasar’s word for it.) and, we are told, read her contemporariesincluding Sartre and Simone de Beauvoircould easily have been familiar with Weil. So could Balthasar. It is no stretch to think so; on the contrary, it would be surprising if at least one of them did not.
Weil’s essential Platonism (“I came to feel that Plato was a mystic, and that all the Iliad is bathed in Christian light, and that Dionysus and Osiris are in a certain sense Christ himself . . . .”) and thoughts on beauty (“In the authentic feeling of beauty, God is.”) would have drawn the eye of the theologian. Weil’s political writing appeared in the 1930s. Subsequent writing, which took an increasingly mystical turn, were available in Europe from the late 1940s; obligatory in the Fifties and Sixties. She was a compelling figure in twentieth century intellectual life, a ready muse for von Speyr and her counseling stenographer.
Thematic and biographical correspondences between Weil and von Speyrnot least a precocious religiosity, fascination with conversion (unconsummated by Weil), and lust for afflictionpresent themselves for attention. The word impersonation indicates calculation and, so, should be discounted. But unconscious mimicrysusceptibility to bookish identities, and auto-suggestionis quite another matter. It bears consideration.
Wilhelm Busch. The teacher Lämpel in Max Und Moritz (1885).
Balthasar attributes bad faith to anyone who questions his account. It is a bullying tactic that intimidates without clarifying or confirming the matter under discussion. As of 1981, the earth still had not moved for von Speyr’s writings. They were in print but had been ignored or indifferently received. The theologian complains:
Up to now, no one has taken serious notice of her writing. . . . The few reviews of her book were mostly drab; no one was willing to compromise himself.
What did they say, those drab reviews? Did they glimpse the devil in the details that Balthasar advises us to ignore? Could they, perhaps, have noted that the writing was tedious, a repetitive blend of piety and bathos, the prose reading at timesbut for the punctuationmore like the flat, affectless work of Gertrude Stein than that of a woman in a noetic state? Or was the feckless press simply not up to the task of recognizing her genius? Just how the word compromise applies is ambiguous; but Balthasar’s disdain is not. That brief sentence manages to convey that neglect was somehow a cop-out; something disreputable clings to it.
Balthasar’s foreword to the Ignatius Press edition leads with a preemptive strike against skepticism:
I cannot prevent anyone from questioning the veracity of my statements. There will be people with a personal interest in finding them to be false, for whom “nothing can be which ought not to be.”
That quote from Herr Lehrer Lämpel, a cartoon Teufelsdröckh in the Max and Moritz stories, mocks dissent. Immediately recognizable, even endearing, to the German audience initially addressed, it deflects attention from the fact that no one, not even the dullest or most dishonorable skeptic, has a personal stake in von Speyr’s visionary status that is remotely equal to Balthasar’s. Everything we know of von Speyr, who wrote in obedience to Balthasar’s command, has his signature on it.
Whether Adrienne von Speyr was a saint or an unstable woman animated by an exaggerated religious ardor and “zeal for penance”Trilby with a rosaryremains to be determined. What is clear is that Balthasar was acutely invested as a professional theologian in the nature of public reception of von Speyr.
Anonymous. St. Diadochus of Photike (Photice).
Von Speyr’s posthumous surveillance of Diadochus of Photice, fourth century theologian, mystic, bishop, saint, is intriguing. It beckons readers to ask if she is speaking about herself, her own prolixity and the source of her own spiritualist communions. Balthasar’s cue to her divination appears in parentheses:
He prays, strangely, in batches. At one time with a great flood of words; then once again there are only individual words. . . . Then, once again, come effusions, many sentences uttered immediately one after the other, which press upon one another back and forth, because the words also form sentences, and the sentences can say so much.
(Visions?) Hard to say. Is it really a vision when prayer dominates so much that a person thinks he is having visions? When the word acquires such a fullness that it already contains the image and reveals itself thus as an image of eternity? He is a little like a small child to whom one tells stories and who from the start experiences and “sees” everything you tell him because it becomes so vivid for his imagination.
Note: One more thing needs to be repeated: My concern here is with the promotion of von Speyr, not with points of Balthasar’s theology. I am not in the business of determining heresy, who might, or might not, be in hell; who is orthodox, who is not. I am not interested in playing what Kierkegaard called “the game of Christianity.”
Any letters that insist on talking about B’s theology are off-topic and will be remaindered.
We will come back to idolatry next time. This is Friday, a good day for a small palate cleanser between courses. There a moral to this one. No one needs me to draw it. You will do it yourselves.
How many times have you read an Artist Statement that mentions—oh, so casually—that the artist listens to jazz while working? It has been more than half a century since Jackson Pollock wrapped himself around a tree in a drunken accident. Still, artists draw around themselves the mantle of inspiration-by-jazz—proxy for any number of awakening muses—that cloaks Pollock’s legacy. A wild, colonial lad brought up to date and living in the Hamptons.
Thing is, Pollock listened to just about everything. He was as promiscuous in music as in life. On canvas, however, he exerted exquisite control over the course and volume of paint that accumulated to create those celebrated drip paintings. He took great care to finesse the pools and drizzles, even to touching up the drips with a fine-haired brush. He is thought of as the Charlie Parker of painting. In truth, however, he was a Debussy. But exchange a title like “Full Fathom Five” for “Claire de Lune” and we out of the darkling, beckoning depths of artistic inspiration and into . . . well, the light.
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.