Thursday, May 30, 2019


For the Feast of the Ascension (which necessarily occurs on Thursday; none of this 'Ascension Sunday' business), here is some non-liturgical but undeniably sacred music: Olivier Messiaen's L'Ascension, an orchestral work in four movements written in 1932/33 and premiered in 1935. I am a fan of Messiaen, and perhaps I should post his music here more often. The performance heard here is taken from a concert of the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Hugo Wolff, recorded on January 15, 2016. For those of us who mark the Ascension today, may the music of Messiaen help us to enter more fully into the mystery that we celebrate.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Christos Voskrese!

Observing a longstanding tradition of this blog, I would like to mark the Feast of the Resurrection by sharing the Paschal Sermon of St. John Chrysostom:

Are there any who are devout and love God?
Let them enjoy this beautiful bright festival!

Are there any who are grateful servants?
Let them rejoice and enter into the joy of their Lord!

Are there any weary with fasting?
Let them now receive their wages!

If any have toiled from the first hour,
let them receive their due reward.

If any have come after the third hour,
let them with gratitude join in the Feast!

And those who arrived after the sixth hour,
let them not doubt; for they too shall sustain no loss.

And if any have delayed until the ninth hour,
let them not hesitate; but let them come too.

And those who arrived only at the eleventh hour,
let them not be afraid by reason of their delay.

For the Lord is gracious and receives the last even as the first.
He gives rest to those who came at the eleventh hour,
as well as to those who toiled from the first.

To this one He gives, and upon another He bestows.
He accepts the works as He greets the endeavor.
The deed He honors and the intention He commends.

Let us all enter into the joy of the Lord!
First and last alike receive your reward.

Rich and poor, rejoice together!
Sober and slothful, celebrate the day!

You that have kept the fast, and you that have not,
rejoice today for the Table is richly laden!

Feast royally, for the calf is a fatted one.
Let no one go away hungry.

Partake, all, of the cup of faith.
Enjoy all the riches of His goodness!

Let no one grieve at his poverty,
for the universal kingdom has been revealed.

Let no one mourn that he has fallen again and again;
for forgiveness has risen from the grave.

Let no one fear death, for the Death of our Savior has set us free.
He has destroyed death by enduring it.

He destroyed Hades when He descended into it.
He put it into an uproar even as it tasted of His flesh.

Isaiah foretold this when he said,
"You, O Hell, have been troubled by encountering Him below."

Hell was in an uproar because it was done away with.
It was in an uproar because it is mocked.

It was in an uproar, for it is destroyed.
It is in an uproar, for it is annihilated.

It is in an uproar, for it is now made captive.
Hell took a body, and discovered God.

It took earth, and encountered Heaven.
It took what it saw, and was overcome by what it did not see.

O death, where is thy sting?
O Hades, where is thy victory?

Christ is Risen, and you, o death, are annihilated!
Christ is Risen, and the evil ones are cast down!
Christ is Risen, and the angels rejoice!
Christ is Risen, and life is liberated!

Christ is Risen, and the tomb is emptied of its dead;
for Christ, having risen from the dead,
is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.

To Him be Glory and Power forever and ever. Amen!

Christ is Risen! AMDG.

Friday, April 19, 2019

Es ist vollbracht.

This year I'm spending the Paschal Triduum at the Abbaye Saint-Pierre de Solesmes, with very limited access to the Internet; this post and the one that will follow on Easter Sunday were accordingly scheduled ahead of time, before I left Paris. Repeating an established Good Friday tradition of this blog, here is the aria "Es ist vollbracht" ("It is accomplished") from J. S. Bach's Johannes-Passion, BWV 245. This video comes from a 1985 performance by Concentus Musicus Wien and the Tölzer Knabenchor, directed by Nikolaus Harnoncourt (RIP); the soloists are Panito Iconomou (alto) and Christophe Coin (playing the viola da gamba, a Baroque instrument).

In the Johannes-Passion, this aria comes immediately after Jesus' final words on the cross - "Es ist vollbracht" in the German text - and right before the Evangelist announces Jesus' death. Given below in the original German and in an English translation from the Bach Cantatas Website, the words of the aria move from mournful lament to sure yet somber faith in Christ's final victory:

Es ist vollbracht!
O Trost vor die gekränkten Seelen!
Die Trauernacht
Läßt nun die letzte Stunde zählen.
Der Held aus Juda siegt mit Macht
Und schließt den Kampf.
Es ist vollbracht!


It is accomplished!
What comfort for all suffering souls!
The night of sorrow
now reaches its final hours.
The hero from Judah triumphs in his might
and brings the strife to an end.
It is accomplished!

Prayers for those who are celebrating the Paschal Triduum, and good wishes to all. AMDG.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Notre-Dame de Paris.

At the center of Parisian and French national life for over 850 years, the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris narrowly escaped destruction last night in a devastating fire that began in the early evening and was brought under control after hours of labor by hundreds of heroic Paris firefighters. Though the structure suffered considerable damage, the fact that the worst was avoided has lent a sense of hope and optimism to the restoration efforts; a souscription nationale was immediately launched to attract donations to rebuild the cathedral, and billionaire businessman François-Henri Pinault quickly announced that his family would donate 100 million euros to the project. Another sign of hope is the news that many irreplacable relics and works of art in the cathedral were apparently saved, including the relic of the Crown of Thorns acquired by St. Louis IX in 1238, preserved nearby at the Sainte-Chapelle before the French Revolution and preserved at Notre-Dame de Paris since 1806.

Having heard the news of the fire earlier in the evening, late last night I walked to the Seine to observe what I could of the burning cathedral and to keep vigil with others who would be watching. Nestled among the expected gawkers, there was a large group singing the Je vous salue, Marie continuously in an elegant modern setting that is seemingly shared by almost all French Catholics. (I have featured it here before, in a post on my time in Lourdes last summer.) The damage from the fire will take time and effort to repair, but I nevertheless find signs of hope in the determined efforts of the firefighters who fought to save the cathedral and in the prayerful witness of those gathered nearby. I leave this morning to spend the Paschal Triduum at the Abbaye Saint-Pierre de Solesmes, and as I do so I shall think of what happened last night on the first day of Holy Week as a surprisingly hopeful anticipation of the Resurrection.

Sunday, March 31, 2019

On village churches.

Last year I celebrated the Paschal Triduum at the Monastère Saint-Élie, a Carmel of the Byzantine Rite located in a small village in Bourgogne called Saint-Rémy-les-Montbard. The Carmelites arrived in Saint-Rémy in 1974, but the buildings they inhabit date to the eighteenth century (the date '1741' is carved above a doorway in the refectory). The parish church near the monastery is older still, apparently dating to the twelfth century, even if later renovations have eradicated most visible traces of the medieval structure. Saint-Rémy is a tiny place – the most recent French census counted 713 inhabitants in the commune – but the presence of its venerable parish church and its surrounding cemetery offers a reminder of the village's long history.

The parish church of Saint-Rémy enjoys a somewhat paradoxical relationship with the village that shares its name. Located on the crest of a hill in the center of the village, the church enjoys a visual prominence that symbolizes its historically significant role in local life. Although the church bells still sound daily for the angelus, the church is usually empty: Saint-Rémy is clustered with fourteen other communes that share one priest, and Mass is celebrated in the village church only a handful of times each year. The Rémigeois seeking Sunday services could go to the monastery, though in practice they do not; the Carmel attracts some people from the surrounding region, but none from the village itself. Luckily, the parish church in the nearby town of Montbard still offers Mass every Sunday, and residents of Saint-Rémy and other nearby villages who wish to attend Mass presumably go there.

When I think of churches like the one in Saint-Rémy, I also think of Hilaire Belloc's 1902 book The Path to Rome, an account of a walking pilgrimage that Belloc made from Toul, a small city in Lorraine where he had performed his military service in the French Army, to St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. As Belloc put it, he had vowed "to go to Rome on Pilgrimage and see all Europe which the Christian Faith has saved," setting out a further set of conditions to govern the journey: "I will start from the place where I served in arms for my sins; I will walk all the way and take advantage of no wheeled thing; I will sleep rough and cover thirty miles a day, and I will hear Mass every morning; and I will be present at high Mass in St Peter's on the Feast of St Peter and St Paul." It is Belloc's emphasis on attending daily Mass that I think of particularly when I pass French village churches. "What is a pilgrimage," Belloc wrote, "in which a man cannot hear Mass every morning? ... Of course there is a grace and influence belonging to such a custom [of attending morning Mass], but it is not of that I am speaking but of the pleasing sensation of order and accomplishment which attaches to a day one has opened by Mass; a purely temporal, and, for all I know, what the monks back at the ironworks would have called a carnal feeling, but a source of continual comfort to me. Let them go their way and let me go mine."

Daily Mass in the church at Saint-Rémy, and many others like it, is now a distant memory. This saddens me as much as it would have irritated Hilaire Belloc, who described himself as "justly annoyed" when he arrived at a particular church too late to attend Mass. The emptying of country churches makes me think of Philip Larkin's 1954 poem "Church Going," in which the poet visits such an empty church and poignantly wonders "who / Will be the last, the very last, to seek / This place for what it was..." Though I have found French Catholicism to be much more vibrant than people in the English-speaking world often take it to be, that sense of vibrancy is generally an urban phenomenon. Visiting places like the Monastère Saint-Élie or the Abbaye Saint-Wandrille, one is much more likely to rub shoulders with pilgrims and retreatants visiting from French cities than locals from the villages closest to the monastery. There is much more that I could say about this, and perhaps someday I will, but for now I record these impressions in an admittedly incomplete form, lest a calendar month go by with no posting on this blog.

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Schmemann in Paris.

It strikes me that it has been a while since I've written about Alexander Schmemann on this blog. Though it may be said that Schmemann's work no longer enjoys the same place in my intellectual universe that it once occupied, I still count his Journals as one of my favorite books. I will add, as I have probably not said it before in this space, that the French edition of Schmemann's journals is infinitely superior to the English translation; the French text contains a lot of material that was cut from the American edition prepared (and heavily censored) by his widow, and the added material offers a richer understanding of the man and his thought. So if you are interested in Schmemann and can read French, get a copy of the French edition.

Since I moved to Paris a couple of years ago, I have occasionally thought about writing something about Schmemann the Parisian. Though he was born in Estonia, Schmemann spent his formative years in Paris and was deeply marked by the experience. The Journals make it clear that Schmemann felt more at home in Paris than he did anywhere else, and the 'Parisian' dimension of Schmemann's self-understanding is a theme worth exploring. This post is not the comprehensive study of that theme, but rather a sort of teaser. To offer a sense of the place of Paris in Schmemann's life, I would like to share some lines from his Journals, taken from an entry dated December 10, 1973:
. . . During my school years in Paris, on my way to the Lycée Carnot, I would stop by the Church of St. Charles of Monceau for two or three minutes. And always, in this huge, dark church, at one of the altars, a silent Mass was being said. The Christian West: it is part of my childhood and youth, when I lived a double life. On the one hand it was a worldly and very Russian émigré life; on the other, a secret, religious life. Sometimes I think of the contrast: a noisy, proletarian rue Legendre (a small street in the 19th arrondissement, in Paris) and this never-changing Mass (. . . a spot of light on the dark wall . . .) – one step, and one is in a totally different world. This contrast somehow determined in my religious experience the intuition that has never left me: the coexistence of two heterogeneous worlds, the presence in this world of something absolutely and totally 'other.' This 'other' illumines everything, in one way or another. Everything is related to it – the Church as the Kingdom of God among and inside us. For me, rue Legendre never became unnecessary, or hostile, or nonexistent – hence my aversion to pure 'spiritualism.' On the contrary, the street, as it was, acquired a new charm that was understandable and obvious only to me, who knew at that moment the Presence, the feast revealed in the Mass nearby. Everything became alive, intriguing: every storefront window, the face of every person I met, the concrete, tangible feeling of that moment, the relationship between the street, the weather, the houses, the people.

This experience remains with me forever: a very strong sense of 'life' in its physical, bodily reality, in the uniqueness of every minute and of its correlation with life's reality. At the same time, this interest has always been rooted solely in the correlation of all of this with what the silent Mass was a witness to and a reminder of, the presence and the joy. . . . This correlation is a tie, not an idea; an experience. It is the experience of the world and life literally in the light of the Kingdom of God, revealed through everything that makes up the world: colors, sounds, movements, time, space – concrete, not abstract. When this light, which is only in the heart, only inside us, falls on the world and on life, then all is illumined, and the world becomes a joyful sign, symbol, expectancy. That's why I love Paris, why I need it! It is because it was in Paris, in my Parisian childhood that this experience was given to me, became my being. . . .
This post may or may not be one in a series; awaiting a possible sequel, may these lines remain suspended in air, as it were, as a kind of placeholder and a reminder of a theme that I find very interesting but have not yet found the time to write about as I would like.

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Preserve this holy house until the end of the world.

Barring a last-minute reprieve, this weekend St. Michael's Russian Catholic Church in Manhattan will be forced to leave the historic chapel that has been home to the community since its founding in 1936. As reported recently by the Society of St. Hugh of Cluny, St. Michael's faces "eviction" at the behest of its neighbor and de facto landlord, St. Patrick's Old Cathedral, which demands that the tiny community pay a cripplingly high monthly rent in order to remain in the only home that it has ever known. The people of St. Michael's plan to stay together, likely by continuing to gather to worship in another location, but the move still represents the end of an era.

St. Michael's has a special place in my heart, having been an important part of my life when I lived in New York from 2006 to 2009. Twice every weekend (Saturday evening for vespers, Sunday morning for the Divine Liturgy), I would take a forty-five-minute ride on the D train from Fordham Road to Broadway-Lafayette to attend services at St. Michael's. It was there that I learned how to serve the Byzantine liturgy, preparing myself for later ministry at St. Elias in Brampton and elsewhere. St. Michael's also offered a precious sense of community; a friend I made there opined that New York is a city of villages, and that to be happy in the metropolis each resident needs to find the village where he feels at home. St. Michael's was my "village," a spiritual refuge and a place of fellowship. It was also a place that seemed to be sustained by the direct action of the Holy Spirit: attendance was always small, with anywhere from twenty to forty people attending the Sunday liturgy, and the survival of the community often appeared precarious, yet the people of St. Michael's faithfully gathered week after week and year after year, strong in faith despite what always seemed an uncertain future.

St. Michael's was always sui generis, a unique community made up of original characters. One longtime parishioner dubbed the people of St. Michael's "the Mulberry Street Irregulars," a moniker that referenced the Manhattan thoroughfare where the chapel is located as well as Sherlock Holmes's band of street urchins. Founded to minister to Russian émigrés, the chapel always drew a greater number of Westerners attracted to the Byzantine liturgy and to Slavic spirituality than it did ethnic Russians. Andrew Krivak, a sometime Jesuit scholastic who frequented St. Michael's a few years before I did, captured something of the spirit of the place in a passage in his memoir A Long Retreat: "Founded for the Russians who never arrived, [St. Michael's] has become a way station for searchers, a deeper window of tradition within Catholic tradition, small, on the fringe, and holy. It's a place for people who fit and don't quite fit." Reading Krivak's description, I can't help but think of the sign on the front of the chapel advertising the service times; the 't' in 'Great Vespers' had fallen off at some point, but was never replaced. A fellow parishioner once said to me, as we stood on the sidewalk in front of the chapel after the liturgy: "If they ever replace the 't,' I'll leave the parish." (He ended up leaving anyway, for different reasons.)

When I think of St. Michael's, I think of the many people I got to know there, unforgettable individuals whose faith and fidelity continues to inspire me. As noted above, few of them were actually Russian - in my time, I think there were only two 'real' Russians there - but they all had unique stories about how they ended up at St. Michael's, and about what they had done before. I think, for example, of the late Joe Roth (seen in the above photo), a longtime acolyte at St. Michael's who had spent some time as a Trappist novice at the Abbey of Gethsemani and would occasionally tell stories about his novice master, 'Father Louie,' better known to the world as Thomas Merton. (Merton, it bears mentioning, had occasionally attended St. Michael's himself during the years that he lived in New York, as did Dorothy Day and Catherine de Hueck Doherty.)

Another person I'll always associate with St. Michael's is Agustín 'Augie' Loureiro, pictured here and also deceased. Augie was often the first person that newcomers would encounter at St. Michael's, as he typically stood by the door and acted as a sort of usher. Though he liked to play the curmudgeon, Augie was a very kind and gracious man, generous and loyal to his friends and always eager to extend hospitality to first-time visitors to St. Michael's. Basque on his mother's side and Galician on his father's, Augie remained true to his roots; every Sunday after church, he would go directly from St. Michael's to Sancho's, a Spanish restaurant on Third Avenue in Bay Ridge, where he would stay until evening enjoying a leisurely multi-course meal and taking time to chat with the staff and with fellow regulars. Augie would often invite some people from St. Michael's to join him at Sancho's, and I was happy to do so on numerous occasions. (Sancho's closed late in 2018, having outlived its most loyal customer by a couple of years. Sic transit gloria mundi.)

Another St. Michael's stalwart who remains etched in my memory is Protodeacon Christoper LiGreci, seen here receiving the honorific title of protodeacon from Cardinal Edward Egan in June 2009. (Because there is no Russian Catholic hierarchy, St. Michael's has always been under the care of the Roman Catholic Archbishop of New York; the letter making Chris a protodeacon came from the Oriental Congregation in Rome, but Cardinal Egan came to confer the title.) Chris first visited St. Michael's as a teenager in the 1950s, brought there by one of his teachers from Brooklyn Prep, the legendary Charlie Winans. An active parishioner from that point onward, Chris was later ordained a deacon and continues to play a key role in the parish, editing the bulletin, maintaining parish records and archives, serving at the liturgy, and representing, in some sense, the institutional memory of the community. As the deacon at St. Michael's, Chris was the one who first invited me to serve as an acolyte and taught me the liturgical ropes.

This photo was taken almost seven years after the previous one, in April 2016, when I returned to St. Michael's for the first time as a priest to celebrate the Divine Liturgy. Here, Protodeacon Christopher LiGreci and I offer the prayers before the royal doors that precede the celebration of the liturgy. (Thanks are due to Stuart Chessman, of the Society of St. Hugh of Cluny, for having been on hand that morning to take this photo and the one found immediately below.) That Sunday represented a kind of homecoming for me, as through my years of study for the priesthood I had often hoped that I would have the chance to return to St. Michael's to celebrate the liturgy as a priest. Ultimately, I would only do so twice - that Sunday in 2016, and once again in 2017 - but I am grateful to have had the opportunity.

Here I am on that same Sunday in April 2016, at the Great Entrance, accompanied by Economos Romanos V. Russo, who was then the rector of St. Michael's Chapel. Father Romanos was also an important part of my experience at St. Michael's, having arrived as rector just before I made my first visit to the chapel on Mulberry Street. At that point, the memory of his predecessor still loomed large: Father Joan Soles, a Catalan priest and an alumnus of the Russicum, had been the much-loved pastor of the community for nearly two decades before being called back to Spain by his bishop. Father Romanos, however, would leave his own mark on St. Michael's: like Chris LiGreci, he had known the community for decades, and his natural charisma and deep knowledge of the Byzantine and Slavic traditions made him a perfect fit for the chapel. He sometimes told me - at least half-jokingly, I think - that he would have been happy to see me succeed him someday as rector of the chapel. That was always unlikely, even though St. Michael's has had longstanding links with the Society of Jesus, but I can't deny that part of me would have appreciated such an assignment.

When I think now of St. Michael's, I think also of the 'hidden' spiritual aspects of the experience. I have long thought that the most beautiful prayers of the Byzantine liturgy are those that are meant to be prayed silently by the priest, and I accordingly reject the didacticism of some liturgists who would prefer that every prayer be pronounced aloud so as to be heard by the people. I think of St. Michael's as a place where I was initiated into a spiritual tradition that is in some ways hidden, not only on account of the relative obscurity of Eastern Christianity in the West but also because, notwithstanding the external pomp of the Byzantine liturgy, that which is most essential occurs in the intimate space of the altar and is expressed only in whispered tones. The key point here is one that I still struggle to articulate well, but I think that I at least hint at it in this post from a few years ago.

As I recall those Sunday mornings at St. Michael's, a decade and longer ago, remembering all the times that I stood by and listened as Father Romanos and Deacon Christopher recited the prayers of the proskomedia ("And the star came and stood over the place where the child was." "Let us pray to the Lord." "The Lord has reigned; he is clothed with beauty. The Lord is clothed with strength and his girded himself; for he has established the world which shall not be shaken..."), I think, too, of one of the petitions contained in the Anaphora of St. Basil the Great, in which the priest implores the Almighty to "give peace to her [i.e., the Church] whom you have obtained with the Precious Blood of your Christ, and preserve this holy house until the end of the world." I've often been struck by these final lines, Preserve this holy house until the end of the world, words that recognize the importance of place and a sense of maintaining one's physical roots. I prayed these words often at St. Elias, even after the fire and all the more so after the church was rebuilt. I make the same prayer now for St. Michael's, even though it may remain unanswered: Preserve this holy house until the end of the world.