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 movie Calvary is a stunning meditation on the Christian story. If you have not already seen it, you might want to save this until later. Every review is a spoiler to some degree. But this is less review than reflection on a film, written and directed by John Michael McDonagh, that rises to the power of the 1951 Diary of a Country Priest. The earlier French film, adapted from Georges Bernanos’s novel by the towering Robert Bressson, has had no equal until now.
Like its predecessor, Calvary is the story of a good priest tending a hostile rural congregation. Narrative follows the diary structure, time condensed into the seven days Father James has left to live. His anguish is psychological. The attacking cancer is not within him; it festers in the maimed heart of a villager made desolate by the aftershock of sexual abuse in childhood.
The movie opens in the confessional. A man slips in to whisper the secret of his abuse: “I first tasted semen when I was seven.” Jolted, the priest responds: “That is certainly a startling opening line.” He gains his self-possession and proceeds with pastoral calm. A brief back-and-forth elicits intent from the murderer-in-waiting: “I am going to kill you because you are innocent.”
Conversations are terse, crackling with a bitter wit as hard and native to the Irish as the megaliths of Sligo. The economy and mettle of the dialogue have prompted reviews to call Calvary “a black comedy.” But it is nothing of the sort. It is mythic, not comedic. It is the primal story of innocence betrayed. Betrayal corrupts in countless ways. Here, innocence once defiled contorts in lust for vengeance. An offering must be made. The blood of a lamb must spill to atone for the wounds of a desecrated soul.
Something primeval drives this levied sacrifice. Its primordial character is underscored by a camera which keeps scanning Benbulbin (Binn Ghulbain), the mythic rock formation shaped hundreds of millions of years ago. Its high, imposing plateau rises over Sligo like a Neolithic altar, a slaying stone as old as time. As original as sin itself. This is Yeats country, the setting of Irish legends and home to “the dark folk who live in souls/ of passionate men, like bats in the dead trees.”
For all their contemporaneity, the cast of characters share resemblance with the old narrative device of personification: the Faithless Wife (aka Infidelity), the Man of Science (Atheism), the Cuckold, the Poor Rich Man, the Gay Bachelor. As types, they bind the contemporary narrative to ancient storytelling tropes. The bachelor’s rent boy is a slithering, elfin embodiment of malevolence, a deviant leprechaun. At the same time, he is totally believable as a victim-turned-predator.
Father James wears his cassock throughout. It serves as both a badge of office and a subtle gesture of defiance in the face of the scandal-induced disaffection that sundered the unity of the term Irish Catholic into two uneasy halves. Though the drama is steeped in the sour repercussions of scandal, the Church is treated with uncommon kindliness. Sympathy for this clear-eyed, stalwart priest stands bail for sympathy with the Church itself.
To short circuit any speculation, Father James’ heterosexuality is established at the outset by the arrival of his daughter. A widower and a recovering alcoholic, he entered the priesthood late. His daughter Fiona visits in the wake of a failed suicide triggered by too many failed relationships with men. She is an intelligent, winsome exemplar of the Magdalens secular culture creates and discards with casual cruelty.
The priest goes about his week ministering where he can, exploring options for escape, suffering the burning of his church and the slaughter of his cherished dog. Among the tormenters lining his Way of the Cross stands the man intent on killing him. Which one is he? Father James addresses the gauntlet of contenders with: “There is too much talk of sin and not enough about virtue.” Adapted to phrasing congenial to contemporary audiences, his words echo the merciful injunction that has followed us down the centuries: “Go, and sin no more.”
His Gethsemane is a barroom; Golgatha, a lonely stretch of beach along the wild Atlantic. Finally, the morning of his execution comes. Our priest kneels beneath a crucifix and prays silently. We do not need to hear his prayer. We know what it is. We have listened all our lives:
Abba, Father, all things are possible unto thee; take away this cup from me: nevertheless not my will but thine be done.
Walking to the beach to meet his killer, the priest flings into the sea a gun borrowed for protection. Some might call it suicide; others, obedience unto death. It is his final decisive act. In the doing of it, the man transforms into Him Whom he contemplates and serves. He calls his daughter from a public phone to leave her a last indelible word, an indirect mandate: “I think forgiveness has been highly underrated.”
Not until the final scene is the priest’s fatal decision grasped as an illumination, with nothing absurd about it. It is a moment of perfect clarity into the Christian meaning of atonement. The call to expiation is a terrible beckoning. But this priest answers it in full and bloodied trust in the works—unglimpsed behind the veil of the mystery of evil—of a forbearing God. All inklings of barren suicide dissolve in the glance exchanged between the grieving daughter and the killer—tentative now, shorn of bravado. The scene goes by in a blink. But the soundless purity of that instant holds a foretaste of redemption.
Bernanos was right: Grace is everywhere.
The single New Testament reference to anything that comes close to the arts is that messy episode with Herodias’ daughter. Was it dirty dancing? Or “natural” dance, precursor to Isadora Duncan, Martha Graham, and the pioneers of improvisational movement? Either way, we know how the program ended.
Adolph Gustav Mossa. Salomé (early 20th C.)
There are better reasons to be uneasy about the efficacy of the Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen Center for Art and Culture as the zenith of evangelization. History is full of mischief. The Center has already suffered two blows before the ribbons are cut.
Expensively architected and stage-designed, the state-of-the-art center lost its scheduled executive director. Msgr. Michael F. Hull—erstwhile pastor of the Church of the Guardian Angel in Chelsea, Professor of Sacred Scripture at St. Joseph’s Seminary, and ardent member of MoMA—has gone missing. The journalist who had interviewed him in March for The Wall Street Journal tells me that the monsignor “left the Church.”
To clarify, I phoned the rectory at Guardian Angel. The resident priest who answered said: “I know nothing of his whereabouts.” A call to Dunwoodie elicited only the comment that Msgr. Hull was no longer there. Was there anyone at the seminary who could answer a few questions about the Center itself? Who has taken on directorship in the monsignor’s absence? After a lengthy pause, the receptionist offered to connect me to the Center’s press office. Unable to put the call through, she told me to email. Next, I tried the phone number listed for the Center. It connects only to a ticketing service. (“Have your credit card ready. If you are calling about Ticket Mania’s Gold Club . . . .”)
Immersion in the arts can have unintended side effects. Conversion can go both ways.
Louis Boilly. The Effect of Melodrama (1830). Musée Lambinet, Versailles
Bishop Sheen, as he was known, was a great evangelist, perhaps the greatest of the twentieth century. His humanity, graceful wit, and scholarship—carried so nimbly—were matchless gifts to broad audiences. He was a captivating performer whose radio and television ministry instructed and enlivened generations. His own bearing no less than his words testified that peace of soul does not come from man himself. To this day, the Emmy award-winning priest has no equal.
Yet that is not necessarily why the Center was named after him. Other names are better known to the demographic most likely to frequent the downtown theater scene. But the archbishop, elevated to Venerable in 2012, was expected to be canonized soon, possibly as early as next year. With his remains buried beneath the main altar of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the new Center would serve as a fashionable annex to the shrine St. Patrick’s would become.
That could explain why the archdiocese initiated a colossal and costly cleaning project of St. Patrick’s. The interior is nearly invisible under miles of planks and scaffolding that will remain into 2015. The narthex has been outfitted with two crass dispensing machines that spit out souvenir medallions. Add a glitzy billboard for tourists too jet-lagged to recognize which attraction they are standing in. Insult follows with wee-bitsy votive candles that burn only for as long as it takes to deposit two dollars in the mite box.
It is a short walk from those vending machines to suspicion that the bazaar was triggered by anticipation of pilgrims to St. Fulton Sheen’s tomb. But there’s the rub: It was announced at the beginning of this month that the cause for Archbishop Sheen’s canonization has been suspended. It is a sad, unedifying story of clerical politics. Fr. Roger J. Landry, over at The National Catholic Register, covered the battle of the bones in detail. His commentary deserves to be read in full.
Achille Beltrone. Theatre on a TransAtlantic Liner (1919).
Bishop Sheen was a virtuoso in distinguishing between the anodyne of his era—psychoanalysis—and the true source of the soul’s freedom from unease. His essays, particularly “The Philosophy of Anxiety” and “Psychoanalysis and Confession,” have not aged. Were he writing and speaking today, it is tempting to think he would address that other false god of our time: art-and-culture, a compound word that tallies up to money and religion at the same time.
The Center expects to become self-supporting. Which means it expects to make a profit as an institution for rent. Described by its own in-house consultant Nick Leavens as simply “a new off-Broadway arts complex,” it will function as a hub for the circulation of tax exempt monies. Playbill quotes the press release:
Companies who have already signed on to use The Sheen Center include The New York International Fringe Festival, Strange Sun Theater, /the claque/, Terranova, Wingspan Arts, MorDance and Voyager Theater Company.
The Sheen Center will also house four spacious studios of varying sizes, which will be available for rehearsals, meetings and classes, among others. The Studios at The Sheen Center will be available for rent seven days a week. Art gallery space on the main floor will feature a full rotating schedule of exhibits. It will also be available as a space for intimate receptions.
The complex stands on the site of the defunct parish of Our Lady of Loretto which became a Catholic Charities shelter for homeless men more than seventy years ago. The name of the Center’s largest performance space, the 250-seat Loretto Auditorium, nods to the displacement of the Bowery homeless by the city’s expanding arts-and-culture scene. In gutting the old structure, rebuilding, and outfitting it to create an arts center, the archdiocese mimics the trajectory of the country’s declining manufacturing sector.
All across the country, old mills, factory buildings and processing plants have been repurposed as some combination of studio, exhibition, or museum space for contemporary art. Think of Mass MoCA, the converted factory complex in North Adams, Massachusetts; or DIA, once a thriving Nabisco plant that supported working class Newburgh. These and hundreds of lesser known arts-related renovations stamp the landscape of post-industrial America.
Following suit, Sheen Center is the archdiocese’s monument to post-Catholicism.
Max Oppenheimer. Salomé (1919). Private collection, Milan.
Consider how beautiful the devil must be. A fallen angel is an angel still. Seeing him fall, Jesus likened the plunge to “lightning from heaven.” (Luke 10:18). Lucifer appears a pulsing field of light, a flash of pure spirit. All luminous intelligence, he is bright as the morning star, radiant as dawn. Were he not, temptation would be beggared. It would be too dull, too unsightly, to gain purchase on the human heart.
William Blake. Satan Arousing the Rebel Angels (c.1803-5). Victoria & Albert Museum, London.
Folded within the history of art is the history of the struggle to depict moral deformity. Master of disguise, demonic cunning cuckolds the eye. In default of better means, visual art personifies the prince of lies—or, in that marvelous phrase, prince of the power of the air—with grotesque physiognomy. It is a familiar convention that incarnates disproportion and hurls defiance at canons of beauty.
The Middle Ages had a genius for monstrous iconography. Its repertory developed in fear and dismay at the conditions the son of disobedience instigates. Claws, hooves, horns, bat wings, and loathsome grimaces illustrate a culture’s recoil from his works. But what of his own self?
William Blake came closer to the apparent truth of the Rebel Angel and his divisions than did painters of misshapen monsters rising out of hot pitch to ride herd on the damned. Contra centuries of depiction, and hellholes full of sharpened bidents, Lucifer is alluring.
William Blake. Mortal Sin (c. 1805). Huntington Library & Art Collection, San Marino, CA.
How radiant, lithesome, and well formed Blake presents him. All masculine beauty, Lucifer moves with athletic grace, more dancer than demon. From a figure so fair and commanding must come a voice low, melodic and seductive. He speaks with the tongue of angels. After all, he is one.
And Lucifer is accomplished—as we need our tempters to be. Accomplishment is a magnet for those who prefer to suffer the tragedy of existence in concert halls and theaters, away from the trenches of the lived life. Might our trickster even be pianist enough to scrap his sheet music and play Mozart by heart?
However he comports himself in other times and places, in our own the hellion keeps up with fashion. With an eye on all things current, he guards a natty wardrobe of ideas. Charming at table, polished at the lectern, he talks with passion about the good, the true, and the beautiful. Like John Walsh, director emeritus of the J. Paul Getty Museum, he professes belief that works of art make “an audience of happier, wiser, more complete people.” Without a doubt, Lucifer is a patron of the arts.
Blue state all the way.
William Blake. Moses Erecting the Brazen Serpent (c.1803). Museum of Fine Arts, Boston MA.
What brings on this end-of-summer reverie, you wonder? It is this: Next Monday, September 15, Cardinal Dolan cuts the ribbon on the Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen Center for Art and Culture, a non-profit initiative that views itself, in His Eminence’s words, as “America’s premier center for The New Evangelization.” It is an ambitious undertaking. The Cardinal continues:
Its goal is to bring practicing Catholics closer to the faith, attract and accompany “lapsed” Catholics in returning to the Church, and introduce non-Catholics to the person, message, and invitation of Christ.
Fine sentiments. But the swagger and the timing could hardly be worse. The archdiocese plays art patron on the downtown scene while parishes are shrinking, schools and churches closing under the juggernaut of an archdiocesan pastoral planning extravaganza with the Orwellian title “Making All Things New.” A more candid title would have been “Staving Off Bankruptcy.” But in our hope-and-change era, stirring, focus-grouped slogans deflect attention from somber realities.
While financial realism was turning parish pastors into corporate-style administrators, the archdiocese found means for a 25,000 square foot boost to the arts-and-entertainment economy of the Lower East Side. Sheen Center will house two theaters, four rehearsal spaces, exhibition and archival space. A chapel, too. Fully staffed, promoted, and board-of-directed by the great and the good, it will sponsor plays, opera, symposia, concerts, dance, and celebrate “momentous events and occasions in the life of the Church, the archdiocese, and community.” It promises to help us “uplift ourselves, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, intellectually, artistically, and spiritually.”
In short, a high-end clambake. Is it likely to enhance the credibility and cohesion of the Church’s teaching authority? Or will it dwindle into a white elephant like the John Paul II Cultural Center in D.C.? (Built in 2001, it was a financial disaster sold to the Knights of Columbus ten years later at a stunning multi-million dollar loss to the diocese —Detroit—that had funded it.)
I wish the Sheen Center well. But optimism is on hold. The project gives off the aroma of episcopal vanity and utopian swank. We can explore the reasons next time. For now, it is enough to hold close Vigo Demant’s caution against using a Christian idiom to capitulate to secular enthusiasms.
Canon Demant’s Our Culture: Its Christian Roots and Present Crisis is as trenchant now, for varying reasons, as it was in 1947. Thinking about the character of ambition implicit in the Sheen Center, I cannot dislodge from memory his comment on the men of antiquity “who went down under the barbarian darkness still professing their belief in deathless Rome.”
The last days of August. It is time to let be. Time to lie in a hammock and take bribes. Read. Doze. Plan the rest of my life. Anything except trawl for words at a computer.
Girl on a Swing in Central Park. New York Historical Society.
But first, let me post the last of the comments that came in on the declension of Extreme Unction into an all-purpose Anointing of the Sick. A thread that runs through them is recognition of what one respondent refers to as a lack of discernment—or faithful discharge—on the part of either priest or parishioner. Sometimes both. Let me leave you until September with someone else’s words. (Mine have packed a bag and are waiting at the station.) Each of these speaks for itself.
An Orthodox deacon treats the historicity of the Anointing of the Sick with a care that makes his letter valuable:
It seems to me that the post VCII rite, if discharged faithfully, might be more like it’s Orthodox counterpart, at least theologically. Orthodox unction has always been “healing unto salvation,” so has not had the “last rites” component, although it is nonetheless a common feature of end-of-life ministrations. Significantly, it can be done in conjunction with confession; it isn’t required nor expected, necessarily.
But it’s that “discharged faithfully” business that is the real tragedy for Catholics. I’m only a deacon and would not think of going to a hospital or nursing home in anything but a collar, and would also always have a cassock and an orarion in the trunk in case someone wants to commune.
Also, we have done our best to insulate ourselves from the solemn reality of death. We are just now, in Orthodoxy, starting to have families want cremations (nyet!), closed caskets (except due to extreme disfigurement, NYET!), and to avoid seeing the lowering of the coffin into the grave (only recently become optional). Avoiding that last one gives us, or so we think, a temporary reprieve from having to consider death in it’s entirety-but it’s only a hall pass, not an “excused.”
A priest of the Congregation of Holy Cross writes to confirm distinctions between the rite itself and way it is conducted:
A distinction certainly exists [between the sick and the dying] but it does not exist within rubrics or the rites. The distinction is in the actual praying/celebrating of the sacrament . . . as well as a detrimental lack in discernment.
Catholics have forgotten how to discern the sacraments. For example, am I properly disposed to receive the Eucharist? This question is complicated by the lamentable assumption that one’s Sunday obligation entails receiving the Eucharist rather than the truth of the matter that one’s obligation is merely in attending the Mass.
Is my illness dangerous and/or serious? From the very start, James 5:13-15 says, “He should summon the presbyters of the Church.” Implicit in that “should summon” is the discernment that a person is sick. So sick that s/he can’t go TO the presbyters but must summon them.
This lack of discernment—[thinking that] anyone goes up for communion and that a hangnail warrants anointing—is more lamentable than any sort of systematic liturgical destruction of the sacrament of anointing. There is a problem indeed. It’s not with the rite but with wise discernment and reverential prayer.
There was common agreement that the sacrament, while deservedly offered to someone facing surgery or risky treatments, has been diminished in practice. This respondent adds a rueful note that raises a question less about the rite itself than about the culture of priestly training:
It [the sacrament of Anointing] is made not so important because one can just go the sacristy after Mass and be anointed. And it is true that instead of a dignified sacrament which may also include confession and holy communion, I personally know of priests refusing to hear a confession saying it is not needed as the anointing covers everything.
Fr. E. writes to remind that the Anglican tradition recognized the gravity of the rites designed for death. He quotes the rubrics from “Communion of the Sick” in the Book of Common Prayer. Reading the passage, it is impossible not to note the gulf between the older ceremonial seriousness and today’s demotic expectations shaped, as they are, not by religious sensibility but by popular culture. As you read, notice the emphasis on the communal aspect of the sacrament (“two at the least”) and the implicit assumption that the home visited is familiar with the protocols of the rite (“all things necessary so prepared”):
Forasmuch as all mortal men be subject to many sudden perils, diseases, and sicknesses, and ever uncertain what time they shall depart out of this life; therefore, to the intent they may always be in a readiness to die, whensoever it shall please Almighty God to call them, the Curates shall diligently from time to tim . . . exhort their Parishioners to the often receiving of the holy Communion of the Body and Blood of our Saviour Christ, when it shall be publickly ministered in the Church . . . . But if the sick person be not able to come to the Church, and yet is desirous to receive the Communion in his house; then he must give timely notice to the Curate, signifying also how many there are to communicate with him, (which shall be three, or two at the least,) and having a convenient place in the sick man’s house, with all things necessary so prepared, that the Curate may reverently minister, he shall there celebrate the holy Communion, beginning with the Collect, Epistle, and Gospel, here following.
Lastly, a spirited letter from the pseudonymous Clay Potts. He has no patience with priests who permit themselves to be buffaloed out of their cassocks:
A soldier, especially during times of war, is required to always appear in his uniform, even in non-combat situations, primarily as to deter the soldier from desertion, from abandoning his post, from blending into the crowd; And, as to remain ever battle ready.
A soldier’s uniform also serves to instill in a military force, self-confidence and popular confidence, as well as to diminish the enemy’s popular and self-confidence. Even a soldier operating a military drone seated in at a desk a thousands of miles away from the battlefield wears the uniform. How much confidence would a soldier dressed in a Hawaiian shirt, khaki shorts and sandals and seated at the command center with his finger on the nuclear button, instill in the public? . . . Or, a surgeon entering the operating theatre dressed in a bright gold Steeler’s sweatshirt and sweatpants? . . .
Even an off-duty cop will spring into action when he or she sees a crime being committed! They know they have a moral and ethical duty to take charge of the situation regardless of the danger to themselves. They don’t even think about it, they just react, it’s second nature. And, yet a priest is prepared to walk onto the eternal battle field of the deathbed dressed in street clothes?! Or fail to take charge of the deathbed?
All gratitude to each of you who took time and thought to respond. Enjoy this summer’s end. We will meet again in September.
The freedom of a weblog comes with one high-voltage hazard: the absence of a proofreader. Unsung and half-resented, a proofreader is every writer’s guardian angel, a protector of literacy and the credibility that rests on it.
Keepers of blogs are home alone with their own prose. And their own slippages. Their copy is at the mercy of their mind’s eye, a treacherous thing that insists on seeing what it expects to see instead of what is really on the screen. There is no one nearby to signal a warning like this:
Hey, you cited the author of The Mass of the Roman Rite as Joseph Youngmann. Shouldn’t it be Jungmann?
Yes, it should. Mea maxima culpa. There is no excuse.
Manuscript of Pío Baroja, as famous for his grammatical errors as for his prose.
An eminent liturgical scholar, Joseph Jungmann, S.J., dedicated himself to writing a comprehensive history of the Mass in 1939. Beginning work on the text in earnest around 1942, he called the work “a child of war.” It was difficult during the war years to gain access to manuscripts and incunabula critical to periods under discussion. Fortunately, most of the necessary material on the primitive Church and up to the late Middle Ages, even into the sixteenth century, could be had in translation (which included Arabic, Coptic, Ethiopian, and Syrian) or in modern editions.
Collating a great mass of material and crowded with citations, the text grew from the stringencies of what Fr. Jungmann called “a sort of scientific conscience.” Technical and precise, his history of “the Mass-liturgy” remains a consummate work of loving scholarship:
This book is not meant to serve only for knowledge—even the knowledge of the most precious object in the Church’s accumulated treasure—but is intended for life, for a fuller grasp of that mystery of which Pope Pius XII says in his encyclical Mediator Dei: “The Mass is the chief act of divine worship; it should also be the source and center of Christian piety.”
His introduction closes with this caution against antiquarianism for its own sake:
It is not the fact of antiquity that makes liturgical customs valuable, but their fullness of content and their expressive value. Even newer ceremonies, like the priest’s blessing at the end of Mass, can possess a great beauty.
[That second sentence was written in innocence of today’s dismissals that, often as not, follow the blessing with: “Have a nice day.” It is a safe bet Fr. Jungmann would prefer the ancient command: “Go, catechumens!”]
At the time of its publication, in Vienna, 1949, the two-volume text was the single most authoritative study of the origins and development of the Roman Mass. It is still in print. It endures as a fascinating and enriching study of the springs of our transmitted culture.
My earlier essay on Extreme Unction generated a considerable volume of mail. All of it was thoughtful. There were simply too many to quote, or to include in a single blog post. So, herewith are two that represent the tenor of much of the correspondence. Others will appear in another post.
The first, by a Lutheran pastor, is a cry of the heart. Pastor B. opens a sad window onto the dilemmas and anxieties awaiting priests at the bedside of the dying:
Lutherans might not call it Extreme Unction, but Commendation of the Dying with confession, absolution and Eucharist was historically practiced. . . . . There are two things often going on around death beds, although we can’t call them that. The first is that the bastardizers have separated us from the ancient scripts and roles. I would love to show up in Cassock. But when you show up properly dressed you are told to leave and eventually the whispers start that “Pastor is stiff”. . . . Their life and practice has not prepared them to hear the words of comfort from the servant of the Word. So you go as a friend and say what you can. You know that isn’t good, right and salutary, but it is what they can hear. And then you go and pray.
The second point: For those further away from the church, by the time the minister is called there is usually nothing that can be said. For those closer, whom you have probably been visiting, you still have to confront the “white coats” and the [adult] children. White coats is my mental slang for the medical establishment which keeps the children on the drugs of false hope as if death were an option and keeps the dying on strong drugs. This is not an argument for no pain medication, just a recognition that a good confession requires one to be in their right mind. This would usually place you in confrontation with the white coats who are easing the way and the children who often have no belief what-so-ever. Either you confront and put the dying in the position of confrontation with their kids, or you mumble a few words about sharing a meal. And then you go and pray.
The church gets what she asks for. You will know the church has turned a corner when her people start asking for the Sacrament and the Servant.
The letter throws a sympathetic light on clerical reluctance to wear clerical garb to the bedside of the dying. And I am inclined to believe that, yes, a priest who comes dressed like the yard man or a lumber jack is likely following advice from the chancery to meet people “where they are,” in the illusory cant of the day. Nevertheless, a priest is not a technician, like the appliance repair man or meter reader. He embodies the Omega of our hopes; his presence asserts it even among those who have surrendered hope and trust. Those, most especially.
Is confrontation the sole means of bearing witness? That is not for me to answer. I can only believe that retreat in advance affirms the very loss of trust the pastor mourns. Maimonides said it well: “The beginning of all defeat is retreat.” Is not a cassock testimony in itself, a silent instrument that gives word of what we ourselves might be unable to say? It must not be put aside, mothballed for more congenial times.
Reader Jack writes in what reads like sectarian pique. Nevertheless, his point deserves note:
All of the Eastern Churches, both in union with Rome or not, have ALWAYS called it Anointing of the Sick, and it’s never been reserved for those in danger of death. Changing it to “Extreme Unction” is one of the many ways the local Roman Church fell away from the original Apostolic practices preserved by the Eastern Apostolic Churches. . .
The Roman Church has NEVER been the standard of the Church Catholic, but merely one part of it. . . . So many of the things that “traditional Catholics” complain about being innovations are standard, old, and established among Eastern Christians, Catholic or not.
Antiquarian correctness is a false issue. What Jack considers a falling away from apostolic practice could as easily be welcomed as an advance on it. It helps to remember that the sacraments were made for man, not man for the sacraments. As man’s condition changes down the centuries, the formal qualities of the sacraments—their manners, if you like—alter with it. The choreography of the Mass itself has changed in relation to the temporal facets of our existence. [Browse Joseph Jungmann’s The Mass of the Roman Rite.]
Each generation begets its own obstacles; each seeks its own way to renewing inherited trusts. Christian freedom remains open to liturgical change. Our concern is with the character and symbolic import of altered protocols, not with the crude fact of historical adjustment. What matters is whether changed decorums achieve refinement or degradation of sacramental purpose.
I can only repeat what I wrote earlier: The chasm between sickness, which seeks treatment, and the final stage of terminal illness is vast. The hour of death is a time unto itself, unlike any other. The conceptual framework of Extreme Unction bowed to the profundity of that distinction. Anointing of the Sick—most certainly in contemporary practice—erases the harrowing particularity of death.
This weblog began as First Things’ art page, so to speak. Yet I have a hazy suspicion that you are not all that interested in art. Certainly not art in the lower case. Upper case Art, yes; ART in ten point caps, yes. Art as a cover for theological and philosophical reflection, or flights of creative writing, yes, yes. Then there is art as Exhibit A in the case against contemporary culture. That is always fun. But art as the work of a hand and an eye? Not so much.
It is a great loss.
But one thing cannot wait any longer. Before it is too late, let me satisfy a nagging ache to post John James Audubon’s glorious study for his print of a Great Blue Heron. It is on view until September 7th at the Morgan Library in A Dialogue with Nature: Romantic Landscapes from Britain and Germany.
John James Audubon. Study for Great Blue Heron. New York Historical Society, NY.
In the main, Romantic landscapes tire me. My foot worries the accelerator going past idylls, sententious ruins, and visionary sunsets. The pastoral mood is as alien to me as obligatory appreciation. This exhibition drew me in simply to see what was on show by Samuel Palmer, a British painter and etcher highly admired in the Victorian era but neglected since.
My heart stopped in front of the Audubon. I had not expected to see it. In the instant of meeting it, everything else—Palmer, too—fell away. Here is the genius of Audubon fully realized in this stunning composition. It is an exquisite conversation between meticulous observation and pure invention. In abstract terms, the image is a masterpiece—no other word will do—of graphic beauty and virtuosic design.
The Italian word disegno, common in Renaissance texts, makes no distinction between drawing and composition. The character of line itself and the rhythmic patterning of its placement on the page is understood as a unit, the single yield of a seeing hand. Audubon, largely self-taught, was gifted with such a hand.
Any standing figure—bird or man, no matter—carries the burden of stasis. But Audubon’s heron is infused with a dynamic sense of movement and immediacy. The scene gives the illusion of having been captured in the moment. Look at the tilt of the bird’s body and the arc of those wings. The bird is standing solidly on the ground poised to make a lethal strike at food. Yet the lift and billow of the wings suggests flight, as if the feet had descended to grab rock while the body was still partially alight.
That double-winged congruence, so suggestive of the bird’s aerodynamic fluency, is an imaginative device that Audubon used in other compositions. He understood that verisimilitude, untransfigured by a fertilizing intelligence, is not enough to breathe life into a subject.
The crisp silhouette of the heron’s upraised left wing echoes the curvature of its neck. The straight line of the avian leg angles in harmony with the double lines of the open beak. Marsh grass bends gently in the direction of the leg’s medial joint. Throughout, crescents and lines sing in counterpoint with each other. So much calculation; such superb illusion of spontaneous nature.
Field naturalist that he was, Audubon puts the viewer on eye level with the heron. We are there in the mire, witness to a predator intent on prey. Alert with energy, the down on the bird’s neck signals the excitement of the hunt. It would be unwise to get closer. The marsh is his, not ours.
Running through the world’s long history of bird painting is use of a bird as symbol of the soul, the Holy Ghost of things. Audubon’s birds, kissed with life, have souls of their own.
Note: The Morgan bills the image, accurately, as a study. But the word study is misleading here. This is a fully realized painting in an arresting range of techniques: pastel, watercolor, pencil, oil paint, and gouache. Even a bit of collage appears in an effort to correct the tip of a single feather. It is a study only in the sense that it was created to be rendered ultimately as a hand-colored print, sent to press in collaboration with Robert Havell, a master of acquatint.
The Havell Edition of Audubon’s The Birds of America is among the most beautiful books ever published.
Writing in 1956, Romano Guardini reflected on man’s place in a world hurtling toward what we call today postmodernism. The End of the Modern World is a bleak reflection but a necessary one. Guardini, professor of philosophy and theology that he was, leaped beyond abstractions here to enter the battle for souls that theoretical formulas deflect.
Nicolas Bataille. Dragons Vomiting Frogs (14th C). Apocalypse of Angers, Tapestry Museum, Angers, F.
One stark passage alone is worth volumes of academic theology written by court theologians for fellow courtiers. He is speaking of the eschatological conditions under which modern man lives and the religious temper of his self-created future:
With these words I proclaim no facile apocalyptic. No man has the right to say that the End is here, for Christ Himself has declared that only the Father knows the day and the hour. (Matthew xxiv, 36). If we speak here of the nearness of the End, we do not mean nearness in the sense of time, but nearness as it pertains to the essence of the End, for in essence man’s existence is now nearing an absolute decision. Each and every consequence of that decision bears within it the greatest potentiality and the most extreme danger.
Nearness as it pertains to the essence of the End.
The Triumph of Death (15th C). Catalan fresco. National Gallery of Sicily, Palermo.
Without an ever-present sense of death life is insipid. You might as well live on the whites of eggs.
—Inspector Mortimer, in Muriel Spark’s Memento Mori
What does our mania for bottled water have to do with memento mori? More than a little, I think. Stay with me, please, while I work this out.
Tomb in Arcadia. Illustration for manuscript by René d’Anjou (1457).
A bottle of one’s own is a token of our times. We are all hydrophiliacs now. It used to be that bottled water was the sensible alternative to tap in tourist meccas with precarious hygiene. Today, no one walks out the door to the library or the corner newsstand without their personal water bottle. Clothing, carry-alls, bikes, and belts come with loops, slings, pockets, or clips for your PBA-free, twenty-ounce promise of eternal life.
Gear junkies can even order a bottle for the terrier. Dogs need their ions charged, too. The trumpet call of perpetual hydration sounds for us all.
Nicolas Poussin, Et in Arcadia ego (1638). Louvre, Paris.
On the subway not long ago, I sat catti-corner to a woman holding one of those ergonomically contoured, insulated, spill-proof bottles made for runners and jostled commuters. It was a Amphipod Hydraform Handheld Therma Lite, a full-service gizmo equipped with an expandable zipper pouch for an iPod, phone, energy bar, keys, and MetroCard. Essential whatnots.
This one had a lime green nipple. Its owner took a sip every so often. I could not take my eyes off her. Here was a grown woman with a nipple in her mouth. She was nursing her electrolytes, protecting the circuitry from drying out on the local between 86th Street and Grand Central. Analogies to infancy, regression, and enfeeblement rushed to mind. Self-absorption, too, raised its hand to be counted. So did consumerism.
But those commonplaces are ready-made for so many things nowadays that the words are almost as banal as their applications. None were up to the job of capturing just what it was about this particular grotesquerie that set it apart from its cousins. There must be something else.
Egon Schiele, Death and Man (1911). Leopold Museum, Vienna.
And there was. The analogy I was groping for leapfrogged over facile correspondences and headed straight to the heart of what Jean Mouroux termed “the miseries of matter.” It was this: Our obsession with methodical hydration is sign and symbol of a sidling, furtive apprehension that mortality is a peril.
If our toted water bottles can be said to reveal one hidden thing, one disguised tension, it is anxiety over the terrible truth that each of us is a frail cluster of cells poised for dispersion. The sorrow of our condition is felt in the carnal pull of mortality. The new mysticism of hydration keeps open the sphincters of denial.
What better badge, however cloaked, of our wayfaring state than bottled water, a thing we are accustomed to associating with travel. We are all earth-bound, all en route to a Final End that we know we must enter too soon. Always, too soon. And with no foretaste of the accounting required of us. In the instant I grasped that, the woman across from me with her hi-tech bottle transformed. Suddenly, she was no longer absurd, the bottle no longer grotesque. Something lifted. I saw only a fellow sojourner staving off the dark.
Note: Poussin’s painting, above, might be difficult to see in a small jpg. Three shepherds and a shepherdess examine a tombstone with the legend: Et in Arcadia, ego. Death announces itself even here, in the Arcadian paradise (no less than on the Lexington Avenue line). It is the pictorial equivalent, centuries earlier, of the words of Muriel Spark’s anonymous caller: Remember you must die.
Among the many thoughtful letters that came in response to the previous post, one in particular articulated thoughts that you yourselves might have. The one below comes from a man familiar with the founding of an Anglican Mission for Aborigines in North Queensland. Herewith:
Animal Sacrifice. Tomb of Iti-Ibi-Iger (2190-1976 BC), Egypt. Museo Egizo, Turin.
I have often wanted to reply to your articles, but until I read the one on why you do not allow comments at the bottom of your articles on First Things, I had never noticed your email address . . . . When I read your explanation - that you welcomed responses, but that you wanted any response to be to what you said rather than to third party interpretations of what you said - I was impressed!
So, to the topic of this week’s edition of First Things: “Lessons from Haiti”.
. . . I have a reasonable grasp of the historical dilemma faced by the church as it pushed into East Asia, and the war between the Jesuits and the Franciscans over adapting Christianity to Chinese culture. It might be argued that the Franciscan victory in this matter saved the church from “a syncretic, creole Christianity more congenial to animism than Thomism.” On the other hand it might have set the church on a trajectory that could only yield its eventual eclipse in Europe. Unfaithful in Asia to the spirit which enabled it to absorb pagan practices in Europe, it lost its resilience and failed to adapt in its own heartland to the challenge of (what would become known as) modernism from the twelfth century onwards.
I hear the concern expressed in your article. To it I reply, if you believe that the church is guided by the Holy Spirit, can you not trust the outcome of its ongoing metamorphosis? Originating as a form of Judaism, it was transformed through Hellenisation, and diverged into its Eastern and Western manifestations of Orthodoxy and Catholicism, survived Protestantism, and now we are witness to, in Walbert Buhlmann’s words, The Coming of the Third Church. Are the words of Gamaliel relevant here: “If this endeavour is of human origin it will destroy itself. But if it comes from God you will not be able to destroy it. You may even find yourself fighting against God.” Perhaps. But I expect that you might say that we cannot presume that anything in which we are engaged is guaranteed to be from God. Your scathing criticism of the changes within in the church since the Second Vatican Council would suggest that you see that particular trajectory as not merely flawed but something akin to apostasy. As someone who was a novice in a religious order that responded vigorously to the documents of the Second Vatican Council I have dwelt ever since in the experience of what we understood at the time to be a New Pentecost.
I make these points not to argue against your concern, but to absorb it into my sense of what it means to be church. Though I don’t flinch for a moment at the suggestion of the Archbishop of Johannesburg I hear your question: “where this ritual blood was to come from, where to be drawn.” But I do not let that question suggest that people embedded in that situation cannot answer that question. I am glad the question has been asked. It enlarges my sense of the task of being church in a diverse world.
Antonio de Bellis. Sacrifice of Noah (17th C.). Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
Your observation about the Church’s history in Asia raises a valuable point in evaluating the wisdom or recklessness in adapting certain African practices to the liturgy of the Mass. Did Franciscan victory set the Church on a trajectory toward eventual eclipse in Europe? Possibly. Still, that is a very big might-have. Several tentative thoughts come to mind.
Straightaway, history offers us no way to know if Jesuit accommodation would have resulted in a regnant or enduring Christianity among Asians. Nor any guidance on whether a stronger presence in Asia would have provided a stay against decline in Europe. Retrospective conjecture remains just that: conjecture. Better to stay with what we can say with some degree of assurance.
Is it fair to say that in China and Japan, the Church faced more developed religious systems—a more sophisticated paganism, so to speak—than that of the Gauls, Franks, Visigoths, Celts, Norsemen, and other cultures than were subsumed under the aegis of Christendom? That shelter was reinforced by Christian powers not extant in Asia. The post-Constantinian Church was militant in Europe; the Counter Reformation Church was supplicant in East Asia.
That the Church lost resilience against the challenges of Modernism in its own heartland is undeniable. Unhappily, any exploration of paralysis is inseparable from dissection of the politics of Vatican I, the personality of Pius IX, the consequences of the declaration of papal infallibility on the papacy itself, and its etherizing effect on Catholic clergy and laity alike. That, Paul, is beyond the scope—if not the sympathies—of an artist’s weblog.
I very much like your quote from Gamaliel. Quotations are wonderful devices. The most useful—and endearing—are ones that can support either side of an argument, depending on the situation. In this context, let me offer in exchange Jeremiah 10:2-3 “Thus saith the Lord, Learn not the way of the heathen...For the customs of the people are vain.”
Please know that apostasy-spotting is not a pastime of mine. I simply have a serviceable eye for gall and wormwood. And an ear for cant. Nothing more.
Like you, I am not opposed to incorporating another culture’s sacred gestures into the liturgy. But which ones? So many of our rituals, from Christmas trees to cherished “smells and bells,” had their origins in non-Christian practices. Let African liturgies choreograph an offertory procession in dance if the people “embedded” in that tradition choose. Play drums, rattles, mbiras, and maracas. But an impassable line needs to to fall somewhere. If that border admits creaturely blood into the liturgy, is not the meaning of the Mass up for grabs? On every Catholic altar is sacrificed, for all peoples in all ages, the Lamb slain from the beginning of time. Adding goats and chickens waffles the tidings. The Third Church must not obscure the First.
Anonymous. Christ Crucified (16th C.). Museu Nacional Soares dos Reis, Porto, Portugal.
You are right: I would say that we cannot presume our choices come with a guarantee from the mountain top. Yes, we trust that the Spirit guides. But we are bound to speak and act on behalf of that trust with the deepest humility. The Spirit is not a magician, not a fixer. And we are wondrously inventive in discerning His breath on our own druthers. Every generation detects Him descending—with, ah, bright wings!—on its own fine programs, ambitions, and understandings.
We have been cautioned that the Spirit breathes where He will, even in places we would rather He did not. Transcending our chronologies—guiding all the while—the eternal Spirit grants us, in our freedom, the time to hang ourselves.