Ultramontanism and the Objectivity of the Liturgy

alcuin_reidDespite reading very little throughout the summer, I managed to finish Alcuin Reid’s Organic Development of the Liturgy, where he considers the history and principles of changes in the liturgy over the course of the millenia, eventually focusing on the Liturgical Movement in the decades leading up to the Second Vatican Council. (He wisely does not go beyond the year 1962.)

One of the more important concepts considered in the book is the objectivity of the liturgy, and consequently the “authenticity” of developments or changes to this objective liturgical tradition. On this point, he is thinking along the lines of Newman in his Development, where he looks at what constitutes an authentic or objective aspect of an idea. Just to quote an example from Newman, “Thus Judaism is an idea which once was objective, and Gnosticism is an idea which was never so. Both of them have various aspects: those of Judaism were such as monotheism, a certain ethical discipline, a ministration of divine vengeance, a preparation for Christianity: those of the Gnostic idea are such as the doctrine of two principles, that of emanation, the intrinsic malignity of matter, the inculpability of sensual indulgence, or the guilt of every pleasure of sense, of which last two one or other must be in the Gnostic a false aspect and subjective only.”

Much of Reid’s book highlights the tension between this objective character of the liturgical tradition and the tendency to change or “reform” the liturgy according to practical motives. What surprised me was the extent to which he contrasted ultramontanism and objective liturgical tradition. Ultramontanism (from ultra+montana, “over the mountain”) refers to positions which emphasize the authority of the Pope (the one “over the mountains”). Now since I first heard the word many years ago, I basically saw it as a synonym for Catholic, since the Pope does indeed possess universal and immediate jurisdiction over the entire Church as well as the charism of infallibility in defining matters of faith and morals. Without denying any of these prerogatives of the Pope, Reid characterizes as ultramontane those persons who would use papal authority to introduce innovation and refers to the actions of certain Popes as ultramontane to the extent that they do not (seem to) respect the objective character of the liturgy.


Pope Urban VIII

One of the examples Reid gives of an “error” in the exercise of papal authority over the liturgy are the changes made by Urban VIII (1623-1644). The late Christian Latin of these hymns was changed to a more classical Latin, removing late vocabulary and adjusting meters. Religious orders with their own Breviaries retained the original versions and (oddly enough) so did St. Peter’s Basilica. Although these revised hymns remained in force up until 1970, liturgical scholars in all times are nearly unanimous in rejecting these revisions as a deformation in the official prayer of the Church. Another major change to the Breviary that Reid considers is the redistribution of the Psalms by Pope Pius X in 1911. Despite how dramatic these changes were (e.g. no longer prescribing Psalms 148-150 for Lauds each day—a practice existing in every liturgical rite and that perhaps goes back to the synagogue in the time of Our Lord!), they were not widely criticized at a time when “the prevalent ultramontanism led to the assumption that even prudential judgments of popes were unquestionably correct” (p. 78). One typically does not hear of Pope Saint Pius X in connection with radical liturgical changes, but Reid seems to accurately state that “it was a singular moment in liturgical history. That a pope could discard ancient liturgical Tradition by sole virtue of his own authority is found nowhere in liturgical history before Saint Pius X” (p. 77).

Even with his insistence on the authority and reverence due to the objective liturgical tradition, Reid nowhere advocates turning against the decisions of the Roman Pontiffs in disobedience. The fact that he is a Catholic in full communion with the Church indicates that disobedience to the Holy See would be an even worse rupture with tradition than what may be “inauthentic” in the current Ordinary Form of the Liturgy. Though Reid says much more, his basic position can be summarized in paragraph 1125 of the current catechism, “Even the supreme authority in the Church may not change the liturgy arbitrarily, but only in the obedience of faith and with religious respect for the mystery of the liturgy.”

gregoria_chantsThe practical question now arises: What then? Although this book does not consider changes subsequent to 1962, the principles outlined by Reid would indicate that liturgy as currently practiced throughout most of the Church is not the result of an authentic development from the liturgy as handed on by tradition. And yet from its continuous use for over 40 years, does the more recent use have its own objective weigh beyond its papal approbation? I understand 40 is a much smaller number than the 1300 or so years in which the Roman Canon was virtually untouched. Nevertheless, many aspects of the more recent use as it is typically implemented (e.g. the recent Eucharistic Prayers, total vernacular, no chanting of propers) are so widespread, that nearly two generations have no experience of the liturgy being otherwise.

Throughout much of the book, Reid reiterates that the original purpose of the Liturgical Movement was not to advocate making changes to liturgical rites, but to ground the spiritual life of the faithful in the liturgical life of the Church. So also, whatever the current state of the liturgical discipline of the Church might be, nothing stands in the way of deepening the importance of the liturgy in the life of the faithful, starting with the faithful celebration of that same official liturgical discipline.

Fun note: After finishing this book, I remembered once reading Reform of the Roman Liturgy by Klaus Gamber, which historically picks up where this book leaves off. Gamber proposes that since the promulgation of the newer form of the Mass, there are now two distinct Roman rites. This proposal is basically rejected by Pope Benedict who said we should speak of a “twofold use of one and the same rite” rather than two rites, though Gamber gives an excellent analysis of what constitutes unity and continuity in a liturgical rite. Surprisingly enough, Alcuin Reid actually has an Amazon review for Gamber’s work.

(Alcuin Reid’s other Amazon reviews reveal that I was not wrong to notice his animus against ultramontanism on liturgical matter. Several other critical reviews are titled “Dated and ultramontane” or “Ultramontane and lacking historical depth”.)


Theology in Ovid’s Metamorphoses


The Metamorphoses of Ovid is a collection of Greco-Roman mythological stories, from Creation to Caesar, weaved into a continuous narrative of epic dactylic hexameter verses. (My sister once accused Virgil of being an author of fan-fiction, having based his writing on the events of the Iliad and the Odyssey. If that is so, then Ovid is doubly a fan-fiction author, even recounting the events of the Aeneid.) At the time of the Renaissance, this work of Ovid became popular all over, and is the likely inspiration for much of the art decorating palaces and piazzas all over Europe. Romola in Renaissance Florence makes frequent references to the work, and Dante places Ovid among the greatest poets who occupy the first circle. As a classic epic, there is no need to defend reading the Metamorphoses.

Unlike the epics of Homer and Virgil, which each possess a single “action” which unifies the whole, Ovid’s epic is more like a collection. He uses every scheme he can to tell more stories, whether it be telling a story within a story (sometimes already in another story) or giving a story with the same character, outcome, setting, or moral as the previous story. What is especially excellent about the composition of the work is the ease of retelling the stories to others. Over the couple weeks that I was reading Ovid, nearly every lunch or dinner conversation began with some brief story from the work. (Lunch probably isn’t the best time to talk about a Bulgarian king being fed his own son as an act of revenge…but what a story!)

IMG_0487To pick one thing from the Metamorphoses and consider in this post, I looked at some of the more interesting statements about the gods, and especially the limitations they seem to impose on them, making them appear creature-like, albeit of a higher order than men. The first thing I noticed was the apparent power of Cupid/Eros over the other gods. That the gods are frequently carried away by passion is basis for perhaps half of the stories in the book (not a great exaggeration). The power of passion over the gods is personified in Cupid, and this is explicitly mentioned twice. In the tale of Apollo and Daphne, Cupid says “Your arrow, Phoebus [Apollo], may strike everything; mine will strike you: as animals to gods, your glory is so much the less than mine!” Later on, in the Rape of Proserpina, Venus says to Cupid, “My son, my sword, my strong right arm and source of my power, take up that weapon by which all your victim are vanquished […] You govern the gods and their ruler; you rule the defeated gods of the ocean and govern the one who rules them, too.” Little theological history side-note: The first Christian theologian to attribute the name “eros” to the revealed God was the so-called Dionysius the Areopagite, likely a 5th century Syriac author, well-versed in Greek philosophy. Perhaps he was familiar with this power of Cupid/Eros over all, even over the gods, and so attributed this name to the one true God.

The tale of Baucis and Philemon begins in the context of an argument about the power of the gods. The freethinker Pirithous says, “The fables that you tell, Achelous, attribute too much power to the gods, if they can change the shapes of things like that.” The response he receives is that “omnipotent and limitless is heaven, and what the gods desire is accomplished.” Now the objections of Pirithous have little ground in his experience: his own father begot a race of centaurs and he is currently talking to a river-god while being served by river nymphs. Perhaps Pirithous is disinclined to believe on account of the eternal punishment suffered by his father, Ixion? On the other hand, based on the note above and below, it seems Achelous may be overestimating the capacity of the gods.

IMG_0486The next limit placed on the gods is Fate. Jove speaks before the gods in assembly, “Does anyone here imagine himself able to overcome the limits set by Fate? Iolaus was given back the years he was in need of […] by the will of Fate, which governs even us; I tell you this that you might put a better face on it—yes, you are ruled by Fate, and I am too.” This subjection to Fate puts the Greco-Roman pantheon in contrast with the God of revelation who stands above such an ordering. Early Christian writers (Origen and Bardaisan come to mind) spent quite some time, either showing that Fate did not exist, or at least that God was not subject to it. Thomas Aquinas, thinking along lines similar to Boethius, gives an orderly account which distinguishes Providence from Fate, identifies Providence with God himself (I.22), and then consider Fate as existing in creatures and being subject to God (I.116).

Two more affirmations about the gods appear in two stories of unnatural desire. In the story of Byblis and Caunus, a woman falls in love with her own brother and debates with herself about acting on this desire. “The gods took their own sisters, to be sure! […] the gods, though, are a law unto themselves! —Why should I try to use them as my models when their behavior is so unlike ours?” This is a very interesting point of contrast between the old gods and our one. Whereas one of the most important book in Christian literature is The Imitation of Christ, it does not seem any particular god serves as a model of moral behavior. The question is more complex than that: to what extent do we look to an omnipotent Creator as a model rather than simply a giver of moral norms? The Incarnation makes things a lot easier, but otherwise it is quite the task to translate divine action into moral precept.

IMG_0488The other deviant story involves a woman, brought up from her youth as if she were a boy, falling in love with a woman and desiring to be a man so that she could marry her. She calls out, “The gods have not denied me anything; agreeably they’ve given me what they could; […] but Nature, much more powerful than they are, wishes it not—sole source of all my woe!” In general, the gods seem to be much better at estimating their power than mere mortals are. The upshot of Iphis’ prayer is that she indeed receives what she asks for, thereby showing that even Nature does not impose any great limit on the gods.

Another subject to consider as well is the possibility of mortals to become gods, as happens with Hercules, Aeneas, Romulus and Julius Caesar. Indeed, there are many other major themes to consider, but that will have to wait for another time!

An anarchist in Soviet Russia


Dame Rebecca West

My Disillusionment in Russia by Emma Goldman is certainly one of the lesser know books on my list of classics to read, so it is worth explaining how it got there. The first reason is Rebecca West (and this is not the first time she prompted me to read a book). After reading Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, and loving it, I searched around the internet for short pieces of her writing, and one of the first things I found was her introduction to Goldman’s book. One line from it had stuck with me from reading this introduction a couple years ago: “We must let each people seek God in its own way.” (I had forgotten the less inspirational-sounding next line, “and refrain from persecuting it in its search by such indirect methods as interference with the natural flow of trade.”) Although the line sounds relativistic or indifferent, at the very least, West is making the bold claim that the Revolutionary project in Russia is a search for God. She sees the project as an attempt (albeit mistaken) to establish man’s final end, which must ultimately be God. This language is very different from Goldman’s use of religious vocabulary, which she only uses to mirror the corruption of the Bolsheviks. (Whereas Rebecca West is capable of seeing reality as sacramental, Emma Goldman is a thorough and vehement atheist.) And yet this difference in outlook does not prevent West from praising the integrity of Goldman in recounting the facts as she saw them, the facts concerning the injustice and brutality of the Bolshevik regime. Both Rebecca West and Emma Goldman, despite identifying with the Left, were both ostracized by their Leftist peers who uncritically accepted the Communist project. This connection with Rebecca West was my first encounter with Goldman, but was not yet enough to convince me to read her work.

My second encounter with Goldman, which eventually pushed me to read her work, came only a few months ago. Seeing the widespread uncritical acceptance of contraception and Planned Parenthood among so many young people led me to wonder where this was coming from, and led me me right to the beginning of the birth control movement in the United States. Among the leading figures in this movement was Emma Goldman. Despite obvious difference in views, I wanted to understand where she was coming from on this, what led her to these positions. I figured the easiest way to get into her thought would be to start with a work where I could sympathize with the views represented. Thus My Disillusionment with Russia entered my list of books to read. Although I had never yet seen her on a list of classics, it turns out her autobiography is among the Penguin Classics, and so it seems no great stretch to extend the title classic to her important account of the Bolshevik regime.


Emma Goldman

The book starts around the end of the Great War, not long after the October Revolution in Russia. Authorities in the United States are rounding up and exiling anarchists, and Emma Goldman finds herself among their number. This exile means she will end up in Russia. Despite the difficulties involved in mandatory relocation, she is enthusiastic to see first-hand the effects of so large a social revolution. The rest of the book is her experience of the (almost completely terrible) effects of the Revolution. She comes in with the greatest of expectations, but steadily comes to separate in her mind the Revolution from the Bolshevik regime. “I knew that the Revolution and the Bolsheviki, proclaimed as one and the same, were opposites, antagonistic in aim and purpose. The Revolution had its roots deep down in the life of the people. The Communist State was based on a scheme forcibly applied by a political party. In the contest the Revolution was being slain, but the slayer also was gasping for breath.”

The question I kept asking as I read the book was: Why does she still cling to the Revolution as a good thing even though the effects are so obviously terrible? At several points, she even admits that things were better under the Tsar, “if the gendarmes of the Tsar would have had the power not only to arrest but also to shoot us, the situation would have been like the present one.” Besides the humanitarian work of a few anarchists, the only people who seem to be doing well are those that stand against the Revolution in some way. There is an example early on of a factory that seems more tidy and efficient than anything Goldman had seen at that point: shortly after, she finds out that the former owner of the factory had been given permission to continue running it, and so things worked well there, only because he still possessed a sense of ownership. On another occasion, she is surprised to find nuns in habits working at a government school, where the government official was more lax in enforcing the anti-religious policies. The nuns were better workers than any she had seen, and the school was one of the few that wasn’t simply putting on a good show for the American visitors. Goldman tries to attribute their joy and duty to some anarchist or revolutionary principle, but I was not convinced. As for putting on a show for Americans: In her travels throughout Russia, attempting to collect items for a museum, almost no one trusts her at first—it is only when she displays her American identity that many open up both their revolutionary artifacts as well as their real thoughts and feelings about the Bolshevik regime.


Emma Goldman

Although the book is primarily a journal of her travels and impressions, I was disappointed to find little theoretical treatment until the very end of the book. As far as anarchist morals go, I found myself sympathetic with Goldman much of the time: the things she found deplorable were usually things I found deplorable as well, but only vaguely did she indicate her reasons. She ends up emphatically rejecting the principle used by the Bolsheviks for their cause—that the end justifies the means. In my mind, this also means a rejection of violent revolution (in most cases), and in the Afterword, she makes some distinction between a revolution that takes place on merely the external level (which will be violent and have no lasting good effects) and a revolution that is a complete transformation of values. Much of the Afterword contrasts the authoritarian principle (which stands behind communism, socialism, and any statist scheme) and the libertarian principle (which sees at the base of her own anarchist ideology). There is plenty to think about there in her consideration of how freedom and order are related to each other.

One funny note: In nearly everyone of her first-time meetings, she is asked, “How close is America to the revolution?” And she, embarrassed by how little these comrades know, has to either let them down softly or give an account of the tiny groups of communists and anarchists in America. Even when she meets Vladimir Lenin, he leans over and eagerly asks, “When can the Social Revolution be expected in America?” And she just thinks, Wow, nobody here knows anything about what is going on in the world.

Unless someone is really interested in reading first-hand accounts of Russia at the time, I would recommend reading the Introduction and the Afterword as these contain the most thinking. Her encounters and conversations with important intellectuals and politicians, such as Gorky and Lenin, are also interesting, but she usually only gives snippets of what they talked about.

9E0FD20B-9B56-4760-8559-4D4F2ADD5EB3-2747-000002B917BF7E1AIt is now 100 years since 1917 when Russia had her revolutions, but these were not the only sweeping changes in that year. 1917 was the year that the Catholic Church promulgated for the first time a Code of Canon Law, reorganizing all ecclesiastical laws according to rational principles instead of relying on ever-increasing compilations of councils and papal decrees. It was not so violent a revolution, but it was the most sweeping change made in centuries, and it still shapes the Church in our own day and especially my own life, as I dedicate the next month to preparing for my canon law finals. I hope to pick up again this summer with Tolstoy and Undset. Until then, pray that all goes well!

A weekend with the monks in Norcia

IMG_0441Between our train and our bus on the way to Norcia, we stopped for a coffee in Spoleto. The bartender was from Mexico and she thought we were German (I think because Americans typically only speak English), but she then asked where we were going. She was surprised when we said Norcia—since the earthquakes there have not been so many visitors. We received similar reactions from police who stopped to check our identification and from the bus driver who picked us up. As we neared the town, we could see buildings with pieces falling off and there was much less activity than I remembered from previous visits. The town itself was surrounded by scaffolding and the walls were damaged in many places, but looking through gates, one could see someone sitting at a café or a few firemen walking around another spot. After we got off, a monk in a car brought us up the hill to worksite where the Benedictines are constructing their new home: San Benedetto in monte.

IMG_0439After a brief tour to see our room, the facilities, the chapel and the refectory, we immediately went to work. While monks were driving machines around and mixing cement, I was assigned to carry tools to the workers installing a new gate and then to help another monk salvage the scaffolding from a construction project begun before the earthquake. About a year ago, I visited the monks, before the earthquake, when they were still situated in the city center. I went walking with one of the monks who was a friend in college, and we walked up the hill where the monks had property, but which contained little more than a completely ruined church. That monk remarked at the time how nice it would be to live up there, away from the noise in the center of town. Little did he know then that his prayer would be answered! And so I was there now, rescuing pieces of scaffolding in hope of a future building project. Most of the monks speak English, but there were a number of Italian workers, which meant a great opportunity to learn a new set of vocabulary! (One of these workers also thought I was German before I told him I’m from the United States. I always think this is a compliment—because of the language thing—but the same ones who think I am German always seem relieved when I say I’m American!)

IMG_0438At 5:45pm, the monks, the workers, and us all gathered for Vespers (evening prayer) in the small chapel, separated from the refectory only by a wooden partition. Given the circumstances, I thought the altar in the center was surprisingly beautiful, in a colorful neo-Gothic style, reminiscent of the St. Matthias Church in Budapest. Despite all of the changes, the monks still prayed the ancient Office in accord with the Rule of St. Benedict, gathering seven times each day to chant the psalms in Latin. We were able to follow along and fulfill our own obligation of prayer. During the prayer at the very end, I heard the name of St. Peter Celestine, whose feast they fell on that day in their calendar. Besides Pope Benedict XVI in our own day, St. Peter Celestine (i.e. Pope Celestine V) is famous for having resigned the papacy in a tumultuous time. This action, which made way for the ascent Pope Boniface VIII, was the reason Dante placed St. Celestine in one of the circles of hell, accusing him of cowardice. And yet, as holy man who found himself in difficult times, he is venerated by these monks as a special patron. Before the earthquakes, these monks were in the process of restoring a basilica built over the birth place of Sts. Benedict and Scholastica. One of the most recent steps in that process was the restoration of an altar dedicated to Pope St. Celestine V. This altar was completely demolished by the earthquakes—only the façade of the basilica remains. And yet this saintly pope remains honored by the monks in the hills.

IMG_0440It rained sometime between midnight and 2:30am—I discovered at the same time that our little dormitory has a metal roof. At 3:15am, my alarm went off, and then at 3:30 it was time for Vigils. A psalm, a hymn, six more psalms, a reading, six more psalms, and a closing prayer. Although I have joined the monks for Vigils on previous occasions, its length depends on the time of year, and so one is never quite sure until the end how much longer it will be. Of all the verses, this was the one that stood out: “fiant dies eius pauci et episcopatum eius accipiat alter” (Psalm 108). This is the verse recalled in Acts 1 when the apostles consider how to fill the spot left by Judas, “his office (episcopate, KJV: bishopric) let another take.” I paid more attention to the surrounding verses and noticed that this is one of the so-called “cursing psalms”. This psalm, along with a couple others, are never said in the newer Office, since some might find them disturbing (especially since the new Office is typically said in the vernacular). And yet here, in the early hours of the morning, these monks come before God and express in prayer the full range of human experience, from the exultation of delight to the desire for vengeance on those who commit injustice. We finish Vigils at 4:45 and then drink coffee in silence. The monks now pray lectio divina in private and we join again for Lauds (morning prayer) at 6am.

IMG_0442After working for a number of hours, the bell rings around 10am, and everyone gathers for Mass in the chapel. Again, everything is in Latin and all of the parts chanted. I wasn’t sure what the Italian workers would think of this—today we even had a number of volunteers from ages 10 to 18—and yet they all joined prayerfully. I did not have a Missal, but I heard the Salve sancta parens and knew it was a Mass in honor of Our Lady, as is common on Saturdays. After Mass, we continue working until the Midday prayer around 12:45pm. About halfway through our psalms, the smell of freshly chopped basil comes from the other side of the petition as a couple monks finish preparing lunch. At each meal, instead of conversation, there is a monk assigned to read for those who are eating. I will carry on in another post…

More photos and information on their website.

A Personal Canon

IMG_0422As I begin to explore different literary blogs, I have found that many of them have recently put together a “personal canon” of sorts. (Some examples: here, here, and here.) For many years, I looked to this list as something of a “canon” for myself, but I’ve found myself going back to a shorter list of books over and over. Below is a rough list of the books that come to mind as some of the most important to me. I attempted to divide them by genre at first, but I couldn’t make a clean divide between theology and philosophy, or even between theology and biography, and Rebecca West’s masterpiece does not sit easily in any genre. So I simply divided into “older” and “newer”, with a few added to the end.

Older books:

  • The Holy Bible.
  • The works of Plato and Aristotle.
  • The Iliad and the Odyssey by Homer.
  • On Christian Doctrine and the Confessions by Augustine.
  • The Philokalia (vol. 1) by Evagrius, John Cassian, et alia.
  • The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius.
  • The Little Flowers of Saint Francis.
  • The works of Thomas Aquinas.
  • The Cloud of Unknowing.
  • The Autobiography of St Teresa of Avila.
  • Don Quixote by Cervantes.
  • The Introduction to the Devout Life by St Francis de Sales.

Newer books:

  • Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West.
  • Middlemarch by George Eliot.
  • The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky.
  • The stories and novels of Flannery O’Connor.
  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain.
  • The Glass Bead Game by Hermann Hesse.
  • The Story of a Soul by St Therese of Lisieux.
  • After Virtue by Alasdair MacIntyre.
  • Development of Christian Doctrine by John Henry Newman.
  • The Russian Church and the Papacy by Vladimir Soloviev.
  • Miscellaneous writings of St Maximilian Kolbe.
  • Saint Thomas Aquinas by G.K. Chesterton.

Books that got me started:

  • Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut.
  • Animal Farm by George Orwell.
  • My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk.
  • On Writing by Stephen King.

I could have added many more books to the list (Jane Austen, Sigrid Undset, Manzoni, more George Eliot), but then it would end up being a list of all the books I have enjoyed at some point or another! Some of the titles also require some more explanation (like Soloviev), but all in good time. I’m sure this list is not yet finished.

Helena, and what makes Christianity different

IMG_0412This novel is a fictional account of the life of St. Helena, the mother of Constantine. And what a delightful book! I feared it would be cheesy, but Evelyn Waugh draws on a wide range of sources, and where he fills in the gaps, he does so in a way that is plausible and entertaining. (Sometimes he is certainly making things up, but this is usually obvious and with great comic effect.) Coming from Evelyn Waugh, it has a humor similar in tone to Brideshead Revisited, but usually more obviously funny and without such long periods of melancholy in between.

Waugh does a beautiful job depicting both the time and all the various places that appears throughout the book. The novel starts with Helena as young princess in Britain, which he portrays as both primitive and exotic, much like Till We Have Faces. From Britain, we then follow Helena all over the Empire: through Germany, out to the lonely Balkans, then to Rome, and finally through Asia Minor down to the province of Palestine. And each of these has their distinctive character, especially Rome. “To a Roman there can only be one City and that a very imperfect place indeed.” Waugh does not hold back from making Rome appear as unattractive as possible, everything from the court intrigue and treachery to the fashions and popular superstitions. Then there is the awkwardness of the newly legalized Christianity, personified in Pope Sylvester. This simple Pope is caught between gratitude for the new freedoms and yet the impossibility of compromising with  paganism, and so the risk of offending so great an ally as Constantine, who is at once planning to be baptized someday and yet also the Pontifex Maximus of the Roman pagan religion.

“All my life I have caused offense to religious people by asking questions.”

One of the most beautiful aspects of the book is that Helena is portrayed as a skeptic from beginning to end, always asking questions and rarely satisfied with answers (or a lack of answers). Her searching attitude allows Waugh to demonstrate how Christianity does not fall within the lines of myth and philosophy. Helena, after a particularly disappointing lecture on myth, turns to her Christian servants and asks, “Tell me, Lactantius, this god of yours. If I asked you when and where he could be seen, what would you say?” “I should say that as a man he died two hundred and seventy-eight years ago in the town now called Aelia Capitolina in Palestine.” “Well, that’s a straight answer anyway. How do you know?” And so the seeds are planted for the faith that will blossom in the soil of Helena’s desire for something tangible and historical, and ultimately lead her to seek out the True Cross of Christ. (Speaking of tangible and historical: I visited the tomb of St. Helena at the Ara Coeli Basilica in Rome this very day. The picture I took is just below.)

IMG_0410This tension between the abstract and the concrete appears not just between pagans and Christians, but even among Christians themselves. Eventually Constantine, tired of everything wrong with Rome (and it truly is wretched), decides to go and start a New Rome in the East which will be cleaner, and there he will make basilicas dedicated to “Wisdom” and to “Peace”. “You can have your old Rome, Holy Father, with its Peter and Paul and its tunnels full of martyrs. We start with no unpleasant associations.” After Constantine leaves, Pope Sylvester responds to this comment, “Unpleasant associations are the seed of the Church.” How often this desire for a tidier faith recurs throughout the centuries! I am reminded of when the German Emperor Joseph II attempted to make Catholicism “tidier” by cutting the Stations of the Cross from 14 to 7, trying to reduce all the many religious orders to a single form of religious life, and many other so-called reforms. But faith is not just a bunch of ideas; true religion is not just a social program.

As intriguing as the description of Rome is, Jerusalem is the most significant place in the book, as the place where it happened. Having been to Holy Land a couple times, I had images to go with the ekphrases of the various sites, and I appreciated the accounts of how the places came to have their current shape. Waugh even makes one feel some horror at all that might have been lost in the effort to preserve the holy places. Helena’s devotion to the evidence of Christ makes me feel as though I never made a proper pilgrimage to those places, and I am eager to go back and follow in her footsteps, indeed, in the footsteps of the Master.

I heartily recommend Helena for anyone planning to visit Rome or Jerusalem, or even anyone who wants a glimpse at what makes Christianity different. I will probably end up adding more Evelyn Waugh to my list.

Waugh gibes a gibbon

IMG_0405I am now reading Helena by Evelyn Waugh. In one place, Lactantius is speaking to Helena about why he dedicates himself to writing about Christianity:

“You see it is equally possible to give the right form to the wrong thing, and the wrong form to the right thing. Suppose that in years to come, when the Church’s troubles seem to be over, there should come an apostate of my own trade, a false historian, with the mind of Cicero or Tacitus and the soul of an animal,” and he nodded toward the gibbon who fretted his golden chain and chattered for fruit. “A man like that might make it his business to write down the martyrs and excuse the persecutors. He might be refuted again and again but what he wrote would remain in people’s minds when the refutations were quite forgotten. That is what style does–it has the Egyptian secret of the embalmers. It is not to be despised.”

Now I had never heard of a gibbon before, but the context indicated that it was some sort of primate. Two seconds of research indicated that there is a primate called a gibbon, depicted just above. But I imagine that Waugh was hoping the word would also call to mind the English gentleman pictured just below.
That is, he is almost surely referring to Edward Gibbon, the author of the many-volumed History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Looking around only briefly to see if Waugh ever engaged the work of Gibbon more directly, I discovered that Waugh’s first novel was actually titled Decline and Fall, a clear borrowing from Gibbon’s major work. In Lactantius’ observation, there is a passing reference to both the excellence of Gibbon’s style and the error of his content.

Newman shared similar thoughts, lavishing the highest praise on Gibbon’s style, “With all his faults, his want of simplicity, his affection, and his monotony, few can be put in comparison with him; and sometimes, when I reflect on his happy choice of expressions, his vigorous compression of ideas, and the life and significance of his every work, I am prompted indignantly to exclaim that no style is left for historians of an after day. O who is worthy to succeed our Gibbon!” And for all of the philosophical disagreements he may have had, he still admits Gibbon’s superiority as a historian with respect to others, “It is melancholy to say it, but the chief, perhaps the only English writer who has any claim to be considered an ecclesiastical historian, is the unbeliever Gibbon.”

This is all to say that I am quite eager to arrive at reading Gibbon, whose work is perhaps the longest on my list. I only read excerpts of it for college, but I doubt I grasped the extent of his importance for our modern biases about history and Christianity in particular. To conclude: “[T]he ecclesiastical historian could not ignore the issue of the miraculous, a question which was to make Gibbon a sceptic and Newman a Roman Catholic.”