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.
“Charles,” said Cordelia, “Modern Art is all bosh, isn’t it.”
“Oh, I’m so glad. I had an argument with one of our nuns and she said we shouldn’t try to criticize what we didn’t understand. Now I shall tell her I have had it straight from a real artist, and snubs to her.”
Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited
Robert Ohnigian’s studio table and works in progress.
Just because Waugh wrote it does not make it true. All the same, it is hard to blame him, writing as he was in the wake of Dada’s aggressive anti-art impulse. Dada delighted in sticking a finger in the eye of what it considered the rancid bourgeoisie. (Their delectations, Dadaists reasonably assumed, had been rendered sterile in the face of the butcheries of the Great War). Waugh held to the belief that art should please. Doubtless, we are all with him on that.
We just need to remember that the terms of pleasure have to be negotiated, recalibrated, from one age to the next. We are called to live into leaventhe age in which we find ourselves. Nostalgia is a dead end, associated with senescence for a reason. Modernity is not about to be rolled back. That it can be is a melancholy quixoticism that robs us of what is realizable in the times allotted to us. As Gregory Wolfe emphasized recently to the Catholic Artists Society, the Middle Ages are over. So is the Renaissance.
Keep in mind the price Orpheus paid for looking back. Lot’s wife, the same.
Hans Urs von Balthasar’s declaration“We no longer dare to believe in beauty and we make of it a mere appearance in order the more easily to dispose of it”is an imperious assertion blind to the spiritual quest that attended the birth of modernism. Beauty, like grace, is all around us; it has been all along. We need only the will to see it. In the visual arts, that often means looking past brand names and the trademark culture too often taken for culture itself.
Robert Ohnigian. Catalonia (2013); paper collage on antique book cover, 5 1/8 x 8 1/4 inches. Davis & Langdale Company, New York City.
Robert Ohnigian’s Lilliputian capriccioinvented landscapeis one of eighteen recent collages executed in the past year. They are up already at Davis & Langdale in New York City. Between now and November 9th, anyone in Manhattan or passing through owes it to Beautyas Platonic as it getsto stop in. This is transporting work. I do not know Ohnigian; have never met him. But the Blakeian quality of his work (“the world in a grain of sand”), together with the poignant loveliness of materials that carry their own historynineteenth century books with their steel engravingshas entranced me since I first saw it.
His pieces are so small, so intimate, that they do not reproduce well in jpg. format. The stains and mottling of aged papers, the subtle shift of tone from one book paper to another, the allure of paper quality and its historicity, the visual witlittle of this translates on the web. For that reason only one piece is soloed above. You really cannot see them except up close and in the flesh. All the grace notes of texture and tone disappear in reproduction.
In a culture dominated by celebrity, the scale and calm of Robert Ohnigian’s quiet collages is counter-cultural in the most gracious sense of the word.
Alexandra Athanassiades. Horse LVIII (2005).
Pleasure of another kind is on show at Kouros Gallery Sculpture Center, Ridgefield. Manhattan lost a major sculpture gallery when Kouros closed its doors in May, 2012, after thirty one years on 73rd and Madison. Exhibitions continue, however, at the Center and in the home of Kouros’ owners, Angelos Camillos and actress Charlotte Hampden. It is a delightful way to view art, the very best. Art is meant to be lived without on the grass, in your housenot worshipped.
The current exhibition, opening this Sunday, observes the range of styles and periods that has been Kouros’ hallmark. The work of internationally exhibited sculptors keeps company with historic pieces and contemporary paintings and drawings. Included are a ninth century Cypriot terracotta, an eighteenth century map of Thermopyle, abstract painting of the Greek landscape by the legendary Aristodimus Kaldis (d.1979), and so much more. Among my long-time favorites have been the horses and torsosvariations on the Trojan horse and warrior chest platesbuilt up from driftwood and metal scraps by Alexandra Athanassiades. These are haunting transfigurations of neglected and homely materials into objects of abiding beauty.
John Atkin. Sentinel (2013). Marble.
This exhibition “Warriors” has two opening dates: October 6 and October 13, 2 to 6 PM. If you want to attend, RSVP your preference! Exhibition will continue through November.
Kouros Sculpture Center, 150 Mopus Bridge Road, Ridgefield, CT 06877. Tel: 203.438.7636 or Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
What is beauty ? The question is better left to philosophers. It is a bootless one for artists to brood over. It does nothing to enhance the work of an artist’s hand. It is the experience of beautysensory, emotional, psychologicalnot any definition that makes an artist’s work intelligible to himself. Herself. Creators of the greatest beauty possess it by instinct. Yet, the question has become a species of branding device among Christian, particularly Catholic, artists. It is the asking that matters more than the answer.
Hand-colored illustration of a peach and its flower from a German garden magazine (1809). It appears online at www.kulterbe.niedersachsen.de.
The ultimate, if cloaked, purpose of the question is to indicate a well-stocked mind. It leads inescapably to referencescarried casually like a vintage purseto what the Scholastics understood as an attribute of God. Curtsying to beauty’s acquired status as a transcendental has become a credential, a certificate, in its way, of one’s Thomist pedigree. No small degree of intellectual vanity inhabits the inquiry. It offers itself as evidence that artists, too, can get past the goalie in the gray cell department.
But once there, what then? Sensuous beauty as a herald of moral beauty, followed by the equivalence of moral beauty with goodness, takes us past Augustine, past Cicero and the Stoics, back to Aristotle’s Rhetoric. (“The beautiful is that which is desirable for its own sake, and pleasant, or that which, being good, is pleasurable because it is good.”)
The Goodso pure, simple in upper case; messy and misleading in lower. Whose good? (Catch the golden showers scene in Stephen Frears’s My Beautiful Laundrette, a benchmark in the pantheon of queer cinema, before you answer.) The Ethical Fallacygood men build good buildings, et ceteralurks below the surface of much Christian discussion of beauty in the arts.
Paul Cézanne. The Card Players (1890-90). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
What is beauty? When I hear the question, my mind goes straight to Cézanne for two reasons. The first might sound silly but I do not mind: Imagine a card game where one of the players cannot make a move until he rises to reflectout loud, eyes off his cardson the meaning of chance.
Sit down, Jack. Keep quiet and play your hand.
My second reason is more sober. Though Cézanne was a believing Catholic, his greatness as a painter had nothing to do with his faith. Deduction can coax no hint of his Catholicism out of his painting. (John Rewald cites 1891 as the year Cézanne, in his early fifties, embraced his natal tradition and turned devout.) In his work, Cézanne built upon his precedents, not metaphysical musings. And despite his brilliance as a painter, his Catholicism put him on the wrongreactionaryside of the Dreyfus affair. (His allegiance to the largely Catholic anti-Dreyfusards cost him his life-long friendship with Émile Zola.)
Georges de la Tour. The Cheat with the Ace of Diamonds (1635). Musée de Louvre, Paris.
Gregory Wolfe, founder and publisher of Image Journal , recently gave the inaugural lecture to the newly formed Catholic Artists Society. He spoke eloquently on behalf of the freedom of the arts despite his own felt constraints in speaking under the auspices of the Thomistic Institute. The talk he gave was very good. The talk he really wanted to give would have been even better. The one he strained at the bit to deliver was epitomized in the anecdote he related about Flannery O’Connor. As Wolfe tells it, O’Connor, on the stump as a writer, suffered the usual question from a member of the audience: “Why do you write?” Without a second’s hesitation, O’Connor shot back: “Because I am good at it.”
Wonderful! O’Connor’s reply assents, in spirit, to Dorothy Sayers’ insistence that the only Christian art is good art. Both observations should be tacked to artists’ studio walls. Certainly, the particular awareness and challenges of novelists are different from those of visual artists. So, too, is the nature of their materialswords. Nevertheless, both O’Connor and Sayers grasped that at the heart of any artistic endeavor is talent and commitment to craft. For the Christian, that implies the humility to view clearly the character and dimensions of one’s own gift.
Acknowledgment is ensnared in a thousand seductions. Humility is hard to acquire and rocky to sustain in any life. It becomes all the harder for artists when voices within the Church, the very guardian of that virtue, insist on flattering them as keepers of a special kind of metaphysics.
Note: I had identified My Beautiful Laundrette as a Wim Wenders film. Not so. It was directed by Stephen Frears. All fixed above.
I do not like thee, Doctor Fell,
The reason why I cannot tell;
But this I know, and know full well,
I do not like thee, Doctor Fell.
Nursery Rhyme, c. 1680
We are enjoined to love one another. Thankfully, we are not commanded to like each other. Loving and liking are quite different orders of response. One abides; the other shifts about, subject to the weather of our lives and changing as we change.
Georgiana Berkeley. Watercolor added to portraits of Louisa and Cecilia Cavendish (c. 1860-70). Musee d’Orsay, Paris
It is only romance that is blind; love, not all. It is clear-eyed; it has tooth. Love does not blush to admit that among those we are called to love are a thumping number of unlikeables. But we are called to love our neighbor according to his needs, not our own. To the extent that we can, we seek his good. We ready ourselves to override our druthers on his behalf. We greet him and wish him well, the old goat. No ill should befall him on our account. We lend a hand, offer kindnesses when needed, do what neighborliness demands.
These are acts of will and courtesy, behaviors that create and sustain a community. If the concept of Christian love is not to dissolvesoggy, Oprahfiedinto a sentimental ideology, we need reminders that our affections are as free as our imaginations. One of my favorites is “Commandments,” a late poem by D.H. Lawrence:
When Jesus commanded us to love our neighbour
he forced us either to live a great lie, or to disobey;
for we can’t love anybody, neighbour or no neighbour, to order,
and faked love has rotted our marrow.
Then there is my most cherished memorandum, the final lines of Ogden Nash’s “A Plea for Less Malice Toward None.” I keep it scotch-taped to a closet door where I can never miss it. After all, there are things worth hating:
. . . love is a drug on the mart.
Any kiddie in school can love like a fool,
But hating, my boy, is an art.
Theology geeksyou know who you arecan speculate over whether hell is filled or empty. The rest of us, if we are honest, keep a short list of names we think have earned a hot seat in Gehenna. For certain, charity forbids us from consigning any of our fellow creatures to the pit. But should we learn, by some mystic chance, that our chosen names are really and truly there . . . well, what to do but shrug?
Granted, it will never come to this for any reader of First Things. But, surely, you know the feeling:
Playing card from the British card game “I Commit” (c.1950)
Simply to close on a high art note, there is this by Pierre Bonnard:
Pierre Bonnard. Before Dinner (1924). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
We think of Bonnard as a celebrant supreme of domestic tranquility. This surprisingly tart image of familial alienationpassing or chronic?is rarely reproduced. Neither is it a favorite for exhibition. Seen in the flesh, the paint dances as joyfully as all else in his work. As an object, it is radiant. The interpersonal tension implicit in the postures of the women contradicts the smiling aspects of Bonnard’s work that carries his popularity. The women are family; they live together. Doubtless, there is love of some degree between them. But at this particular moment, disaffection reigns. The seated woman turns her back to the other who waits for her to come to table. Let her wait. Love, too, can wait its turn. The moment will pass.
VII. Tu belleza se llamará también misericordia, y consolará el corazón de los hombres.
Gabriela Mistral, Decálogo del Artista
The beauty that you create shall also be called compassion, and shall console the hearts of men. I painted that seventh commandment of Gabriela’s “Decalogue of the Artist” across the old built-in china cabinets that line one dining room wall. I sketched it first in pencil to get the spacing right, then brushed over the sketch with ivory black in a version of chancery hand. The quotation spans the wall in the original Spanish because the poetrythe musicof the words resides in her own language.
I seized that single commandment for myself but let drop the de los hombres. The phrase was too grand, too sweeping in its embrace. The consolation any one of us can offer is singular, individual. Even at that, it extends only to those few with the intuition to meet and greet it.
Studio artists have to tread carefully through claims for the redemptive powers of beauty. Reading Gabriela’s “Decalogue,” it is critical to keep in mind what she meant by the work artist. She was addressing herself to other writers, to keepers of the word who grasped the tragic dimensions of life.
Antonio Frasconi. The Sheep. Illustration from Frasconi’s book “The World Upside Down” (1953). Here, a sheep herds a flock of humans.
Petrograd, 1919: From the villages in the north of Russia came several thousands of peasants, some hundreds of whom were housed in the Winter Palace of the Romanovs. When the congress was over, and these people had gone away, it appeared that not only all the baths of the palace, but also a great number of priceless Sevres, Saxon, and oriental vases had been befouled by them for lavatory use. It was not necessary to do this since the lavatories of the palace were in good order and the water system working. No, this vandalism was an expression of the desire to sully and debase things of beauty. Two revolutions and a war have supplied me with hundreds of cases of this lurking, vindictive tendency in people, to smash, deform, ridicule, and defame the beautiful .
Maxim Gorki, Days with Lenin
Gabriela Mistral (1889-1957) was the first Latin American writer to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. That was in 1945, thirty one years after a young, unknown Chilean schoolteacher, Lucila Godoy Alcayaga, won first prize in a national poetry contest with “Los Sonetos de la Muerte” (“Sonnets of Death”). She wrote under the pen name of Gabriela Mistral. An evocative pseudonym, it honored the archangel Gabriel together with the relentless mistral wind that blows over the south of France. Gabriela’s literary fame began with that prize, awarded in 1914. Sixteen-year-old Pablo Neruda lived in the town in which she served as principal of the local liceo . He was an early admirer, an avid reader of her poetry.
Announcement of the 1945 Nobel Prize to Gabriela Mistral surprised many literate Americans who had never heard her name despite great popularity in the Spanish-speaking world. She was recognized at home as not only a vital and original lyric force but also a moral force. Always a teacher first, only secondarily a poet, she considered teaching a spiritual maternity. In her verse portrait of a rural teacher, she stressed the virtue of purity: A teacher must be pure so that she can guard the purity of her charges, the children of Jesus.
Margaret Bates’ 1946 address to Trinity College undergraduates describes her this way:
She is profound, for the springs of her inspiration go deep. Her roots are nourished by the first waters of the Hispanic tradition, el pueblo , by the Bible, and by the classics of her language. Her patria is that great spiritual fatherland which speaks the language of Saint Teresa, [Luis de] Góngora, and Azorín.
Doris Dana, translator of Gabriela’s poetry into English, found among thousands of pages of manuscript left behind one small fragment: They shall not die. No, no one dies except he who has never lived.
Gabriela Mistral’s “Decalogue,” appears in Desolación ( Desolation ), published in 1922. It is readily available online but best read in a dual-language edition. The loveliest of these is Selected Poems of Gabriela Mistral , a 1971 edition by Johns Hopkins Press, illustrated with the woodcuts of Antonio Frasconi. Born in Argentina and raised in Uruguay, Frasconi lived and worked in the United States until his death earlier this year. A renowned practitioner of woodcut, he was given a last tribute in his obituary in the New York Times. It included this:
Mr. Frasconi did not reach this pinnacle by adhering to orthodoxies. . . . He decried art education, saying the average student does not learn the pertinent questions, much less the answers. He abhorred art that dwelt on aesthetics at the expense of social problems. He repeatedly addressed war, racism and poverty, and devoted a decade to completing a series of woodcut portraits of people who were tortured and killed under a rightist military dictatorship in his home country, Uruguay, from 1973 to 1985.
He was a fitting choice to illustrate Gabriela’s work. In his own, he observed her ninth commandment:
IX. Beauty shall not be an opiate that puts you to sleep but a strong wine that fires you to action, for if you fail to be a true man or a true woman, you will fail to be an artist
Antonio Frasconi. After the Rain (1969).
What appears below is not what I had planned for today’s posting. The press release came through email as I was pouring my second cup of Barry’s Irish tea. Broadcast by the San Francisco MOMA. it is worth a look for a specific purpose. Beauty has become a seductive catchword among Christian artists. But. like any seduction, it obscures as much as it displays. Beauty is truth? Not necessarily; not here on the ground where Platonic categories smother in the earthbound air. In our quotidian world, beauty can serve false promises, an enticement to ends with no good in them. Certainly not as Christian devotees of beauty define the good.
Zanele Muholi. Caitlin and I, Boston (2009). Collection of Christopher Meany. Promised gift to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
Born in South Africa, the photographer uses her work as a tool to promote acceptance of lesbianism. Wikipedia, the go-to site for the digital generation, explains with characteristic eloquence: “Her work is mostly about bringing visibility of queers in the black community.”
And she does it well. Viewed strictly from the standpoint of technique and composition, Caitlin and I, Boston, is a fine photograph. The figure of Caitlin is beautiful; she reclines with the same languid grace of Antonio Canova’s marble Naiad.
In concert with each other, the two figures convey less overt sexuality than Canova’s celebrated Cupid and Psyche. It is the insinuation of lesbianism into the composition that sets it apart from neoclassical prototypes. The controlled, lissome ease of the pair accomplishes its intention: to erase any suggestion of the grotesque from lesbian sexuality. Beauty is used here for social ends. For as long as there is contention over what those ends should be, beautylike art itselfcan serve any doctrine or ideology. It can sell any product or, as we like to say, lifestyle.
Hugh Hamilton. Canova in his studio with Henry Tresham viewing a plaster model for Canova’s “Cupid and Psyche” (1788-89)
Sidney Finkelstein, American Marxist and lover of the beautiful, understood the social function of art as something which brings to the fore of social consciousness “a changed view of reality that has already been prepared for by the collective operations of society.”
The nature of beauty is a problem for philosophers, not artists. Marx’s own comment has some bearing here:
The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.
We cannot assume that devotion to beauty will change it in a way consistent with Judeo-Christian expectations.
Within a year of Matt Talbot’s death, the first biography of his life appeared. Written so soon after death, the author, Sir Joseph Glynn, had access to people who knew him. Publication of that first brief version triggered immediate and wide-spread devotion. Matt’s pauper’s gravesince movedbecame an urgent pilgrimage site. As early as 1931 the Archbishop of Dublin initiated formal inquiries into his sanctity and asked that any “favors” received through his intercession be reported to him.
But how are such favors recognized? How are the rhythms of cure measured when the pathology is alcoholism or drug addiction? How do the Church’s saint-makers determine that any former alcoholic or addict owes sobriety to a particular Servant of God, or to none at all despite claims to prayer? How long does sobriety have to last? If relapse occurs, is that a strike against the saint’s performance?
Doctors cannot verify a cure when the affliction does not not reside in an organ or limb. Miracles of the moral life go undetected by PET scans. The will to stay sober is hidden from quantitative means, batteries of diagnostic tests, and imaging systems. In 2002 the Vatican’s Congregation for the Cause of Saints rejected Matt Talbot’s. The canonical demand for an incontrovertible miracle was deemed unmet. In the words of a respondent to the previous post:
He’s the perfect patron for alcoholics. . . . Yet, until he restores someone’s eyesight or heals the lame, the cause for which it seems he was made will go without its saint.
Class and politicscall it pastoral perspectiveinsinuate themselves into formal procedures sensitive to the diplomatic and communal dimensions of a candidacy. Viewed from the corridors of Vatican City, Matt Talbot was a man of no consequence whose demon was personal. Edith Stein, by contrast, was a well-placed scholar and an intellectual, at once a Carmelite nun and a German Jewish convert. Murdered in the demonic sweep of twentieth century history, Teresa Benedicta of the Cross could be situated in the ancient tradition of virgin martyrs. A candidacy such as hers brings with it opportunities for institutional distinctionat an historic momentabsent from Talbot’s. Drunks are an undistinguished constituency.
The parable of the lost sheep (Luke 15), radiant with promise of redemption, took on flesh in the life of this inconspicuous man. In his modesty and simplicity of heart, honed by austerities modeled on the ascetic practices of Irish monasticism, he achieved a holiness that has moved countless others. Halfway houses, hostels, and residences for homeless men are named in his honor from Dublin and Glasgow to San Francisco, and beyond to Australia and Tasmania. A hospital for recovering alcoholics opened in Krakow in 2000. The Matt Talbot retreat movement has spread through Canada, the United States and Mexico. There is even a Yahoo group, the Matt Talbot Way of Recovery, for Catholics struggling with addiction of one kind or another. The group claims him as a model who lived the Twelve Steps before they were even formulated.
The life of an ordinary laborer, who slept in a narrow tenement room after a ten-hour day in a dockside lumber yard, is luminous with meaning for untold lives in a racked world. Rejection of Talbot’s cause for lack of a definitive miracle reminds mehard to explain just whyof John XXIII’s lament that Vatican City is the hardest place on earth to remain a Christian.
If your Uncle Marty achieves sobriety, will it be because Aunt Mary implored Matt Talbot? Or because Marty’s mother went straight to a long-standing heavy hitter like St. Jude? How to write up the score?
I understand why miracles are sought by the credentialing folk. Still, are proofs of sanctity truly essential? Open to wonderment, we are called to trust. Reliance on stamped, counter-signed affidavits of what remains, ultimately, beyond the realm of verification seems discourteous to the absolute mystery at the heart of things. After the careful, prayerful work of designating a venerable, why not let be? Matt’s heroic virtue had already been affirmed outside the theater of certified marvels.
Written in expectation of canonization, Fr. Dolan’s 1947 pamphlet was directed toward alcoholics and with express generosity toward Alcoholics Anonymous (“that splendid organization”):
The recommendations of Alcoholics Anonymous, in turn, are modern adaptations of the rules for temperance taught for centuries by the Church . . . sympathetic assistance to other inebriates . . . is a form of Christian charity practiced by the St. Vincent de Paul Society but not so successfully or universally as by A.A.
And the ground of that success? It was already shifting when Fr. Dolan was writing:
What is the motive that will establish the will not to drink? The conviction that intemperance is a sin, an offense against God, a sin that . . . also injures the alcoholic and his family, a sin that involves injustice and uncharitableness to all concerned.
Talbot’s hard road to recovery began with guilt, a sense forged in the Catholic culture of Ireland in his day. Dolan reflects on the more recent understanding of alcoholism as an illness. He grants it limited creditand lists those creditsbut also warns against the danger of exaggerating it:
To summarize, it does not matter whether the alcoholic needs or does not need to begin with hospitalization and medication, for once this treatment has been given, the campaign against relapse must be planned as Matt Talbot planned, and for the same motives and by the same means.
Prayer. And fellowship.
What, precisely, are we doing when we call upon the saints? He Whose eye is on the sparrow knew our needs and undisclosed desires before we felt them. And we stand warned against hunger for signs and wonders. To seek them seems . . . how to put it? . . . impertinent, even ungrateful. The miraculous is all around us. We are bound by miracle; we inhabit it. Our very being is a miracle to set the cosmos aflame. How much spectacle, then, do we need? It takes cheek, I think, to requisition temporal feats from the holy dead.
Matt Talbot battled to sanctify his ordinariness. He made of it a gift to the self-giving God. That is miracle enough. Perhaps the mostand the bestwe can ask of any saint is to breathe a hint of divine warmth into the heart of an anguished beloved. And into our own.
All praise to you, Matt Talbot.//
Note: Those interested in Talbot’s life should look for the expanded 1942 edition of Joseph Glynn’s The Life of Matt Talbot (the basis of all subsequent bios) and two by Mary Purcell: Matt Talbot and His Times (1977, American Edition) and her Remembering Matt Talbot (1990). Purcell’s biographies, first published in 1954, benefited from the two official enquiries into Matt Talbot’s holiness, first in 1931 and again in 1948.
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 . . . .”