Sunday, April 01, 2018

Christos Voskrese!

Observing another 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, March 30, 2018

Es ist vollbracht.

This year I'm spending Holy Week at a Carmelite monastery in the region of Bourgogne about two hours southeast of Paris, celebrating the offices of the Triduum for the sisters who live there and for others who frequent the Carmel. My access to the Internet is limited, so this post was scheduled ahead of time. 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.

Saturday, March 24, 2018


As a followup to my recent post on Mepkin Abbey, a Trappist monastery that is struggling to attract vocations, I wanted to share a more hopeful story on a monastery that belongs to the same order. The Abbaye Notre-Dame de Sept-Fons in Auvergne was founded in 1132 by Cistercian monks from the Abbey of Fontenay in Bourgone, which had been founded by St. Bernard of Clairvaux fourteen years earlier. Dissolved after the French Revolution, the Abbey of Sept-Fons was reestablished in 1845 by Cistercians of the Strict Observance and has remained in the hands of the Trappists ever since.

While other Trappist monasteries face the challenges of aging and shrinking membership, Sept-Fons has remained remarkably successful in attracting new vocations: the community at Sept-Fons numbers over ninety monks, including over thirty in formation. (In terms of numbers, Sept-Fons is currently the largest Trappist monastery in the world.) One sign of Sept-Fons's robust good health in recent decades has been the community's foundation in 2002 of a daughter house in the Czech Republic, the Abbey of Nový Dvůr, which now has over twenty monks.

The above video offers a sense of monastic life at Sept-Fons. (For those who don't understand French, English subtitles are available if one clicks on the 'CC' icon.) In writing about Sept-Fons, I don't mean to imply that the success of this monastery can be easily duplicated or that there is a single formula that can be universally applied everywhere with the same results. Nevertheless, I would suggest that the success of Notre-Dame de Sept-Fons stands as a sign of hope for the Cistercians of the Strict Observance and for the wider Church. May their witness serve to stir the faith of many others beyond the walls of the monastery. AMDG.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Mepkin Abbey in the NYT.

Over the weekend, the New York Times ran a story on Mepkin Abbey, a Trappist monastery in South Carolina facing an uncertain future as the resident monks grow older and decline in number:
Mepkin Abbey — part of a global network of Trappist monasteries that for nearly 1,000 years have provided their communities with reliable sources of prayer, learning and hospitality — is edging toward a potential crisis. In keeping with broader declines in the ranks of priests, nuns and brothers, Mepkin's monastic community is dwindling. Only 13 monks remain, down from a peak of 55 in the mid-1950s. Over the same period, the monks' average age has steadily risen by nearly 50 years — up to 77, from around 30. The abbey is struggling to attract and retain younger novices.
The NYT story includes poignant details about Mepkin's decline, noting the community's increasing struggle to continue the agricultural work that supports the monastery and quoting a nonagenarian monk's assessment that Mepkin faces "a bleak situation" because "[w]e're all getting old." The article further explains that the monks have decided to respond to the apparent dearth of monastic vocations by reaching out to people who don't intend to become monks at all:
While many monks at Mepkin are concerned about the monastery’s future, they also see this moment as an opportunity to pioneer a new form of monasticism. In recent months, the abbey, in response to its aging population and its lack of young novices, formed a committee for its future development and drew up a set of programs aimed at attracting a younger and more spiritually diverse group of people.

The abbey's new affiliate program will offer two new short-term monastic options for people of any, or no, faith traditions: a monthlong monastic institute, open to men and women, and a yearlong residency. And in a departure from its otherwise passive approach, Mepkin created an ad campaign — albeit a small and highly targeted one — to publicize the program. (It featured copy that read: "BE A MONK. FOR A MONTH. FOR A YEAR.")


"What young people keep telling us," said Father Joe Tedesco, the chair of the committee for Mepkin's future development, "is that they're interested in the spiritual life journey, but not in institutional religion. So let's give them an experience of the place without a commitment, and see what happens."
Despite the NYT's suggestion that the Mepkin "affiliate program" represents "a new form of monasticism," the monks themselves realize that it does not. As NYT reporter Stephen Hiltner observes, "the monks at Mepkin are cleareyed about the likelihood that their new initiatives — which will probably attract young, interfaith and short-term visitors — will fail to attract Roman Catholics who are interested in a long-term commitment with the core monastic community." Mepkin's abbot also frankly admits that the monastery may not survive: "I'd rather be in a community that has a vital energy and a good community life. And if that means closing Mepkin, that means closing Mepkin."

As Terry Mattingly points out at GetReligion, the NYT article is very one-sided, focusing on monasteries that are dying without ever asking questions about monasteries that actually are drawing vocations. Most Trappist monasteries in the United States seem to be in straits similar to those of Mepkin, at least judging by yearly statistics published by the Trappist Order. On the other hand, it isn't difficult to find monasteries in the United States (albeit those of other orders) that continue to attract (and retain) young vocations: one thinks of the Benedictines at Our Lady of Clear Creek Abbey in Oklahoma or Saint Louis Abbey in Missouri, or of the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas (a monastery I've written about once or twice before). To extensively scrutinize a dying monastery's efforts to revitalize itself without considering how other monasteries have succeeded in drawing vocations is, to say the very least, a bit bizarre. To be fair, the author of the piece is not a religion reporter - a dying breed, it seems, as more and more media outlets cut staff in response to declining revenues - but even a journalist without those credentials could do a bit of Googling to flesh out the context of a story that touches on broader social trends.

Despite the evident sincerity of the monks at Mepkin Abbey, their sense of what young people want belies data about what young Catholics in particular are looking for. As the monks acknowledge, seeking to provide a haven for 'spiritual but not religious' types will not lead to an influx of new vocations. The monks may realize, too, that Millennial Catholics who take their faith seriously are also serious about commitment and likely to be unimpressed by a strategy that is specifically tailored to seekers who are "interested in the spiritual life journey, but not in institutional religion." In this sense, it's interesting to contrast the NYT story on Mepkin Abbey with a NBC News story from just last week that highlighted the rising number of American Millennials who are choosing to enter religious orders - and who enter looking for a solid sense of identity and commitment that is countercultural. They represent a generation of Catholics who find themselves, as Tracey Rowland writes, "in full rebellion from the social experiments of the contemporary era" as they seek "to piece together elements of a fragmented Christian culture." Some will find the resources they need to assemble those fragments in one or another of America's remaining monasteries - but not, it seems, at Mepkin Abbey. AMDG.

Friday, February 09, 2018

Eternal Rome.

I have never visited Rome, a fact that sometimes surprises my friends. This will change sometime in the next three months or so, as I need to go to the Eternal City to do some archival research for my doctoral dissertation. In the meantime, I was struck by this piece just published in First Things, in which German novelist Martin Mosebach reminisces about his long relationship with Rome:
I was fifteen when I first saw Rome. One of my mother's sisters had invited me to stay with her; we lived in a little hotel near the Via Nomentana and we were on our feet from morning till evening because I wanted to see "everything." I came home convinced that I had actually seen "everything." It took a few more years before I began to realize that I would never be able to see "everything" in Rome, and would have to spend the rest of my life exploring it.

Having grown up in the western part of Germany after the war, in cities that had been destroyed and then drearily rebuilt, I arrived in Rome in 1966 to find a city that, it seemed, had yet to undergo the heartless ravages of modernization. I saw Pope Paul VI carried through the streets on the gilded platform, the sedia gestatoria that once bore the consuls of the Roman Republic; it swayed past me, borne aloft by eight sediarii clothed in red damask. The accompanying cardinals wore ermine mozzettas about their shoulders, their long red satin trains buttoned high, clinging in folds on their backs. At that time, the radical decisions that would break with the liturgical tradition had already been taken, but the old forms were still being observed, just as, seen from Earth, certain stars still twinkle although their light has already been extinguished.
Mosebach acknowledges that the timelessness he perceived in Rome in 1966 was partly illusory, as the city had already suffered "a series of savage modernizations" in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Nevertheless, as a young man he "experienced the city as a place where, after immense and violent depredations in past centuries, time now stood still." This was ultimately expressed not so much in Rome's architecture as it was in the way that Romans inhabited their city. As Mosebach observes, "The city was not seen from the point of view of tourism, of how it could be made pleasing to visitors. The ancient view was that a city should be a place of liberty, often to the point of anarchy — a place where many conflicting forces should be allowed to clash without restraint, and thereby achieve a non-managed cooperation that is different from state regulation." Returning twenty years after his first visit, Mosebach was pleased to find that "the cats went about scavenging, the pigeons were messing up the pavements, and the narrow, echoing streets amplified the whining of the traffic into a thunderous din." For the author, "the city groaned under the weight of its history — and for me it was a liberation from a Germany that was devastated by both war and reconstruction. Dwelling among those Roman walls, I was able to bridge the grievous historical discontinuity."

In the succeeding decades, Rome changed, following other European capitals in which "the priceless historical 'old city' is no longer the home of the indigenous folk who once inhabited it in their inimitable ways," but rather turned into a pedestrianized commercial district where "the shops no longer sell salad and potatoes but jeans and tourist paraphernalia," making the center of Rome "a single giant restaurant" catering to hordes of tourists. Mosebach mourns the loss of the idiosyncratic tokens of the Rome he once knew - "the confused old ladies who fed [cats] spaghetti and tomato sauce at street corners," and the Roman pigeons now "decimated by the seagulls who long ago colonized the city." Despite his disappointment at the changes that have taken place, Mosebach finds solace in the idea of 'eternal Rome':
Eternity is not merely a particularly long time but something qualitatively different from time; yet Rome was called "eternal" long before this genuinely incommensurable concept could have been put forward. In a poem (written during the reign of Augustus) that plumbs the deep recesses of the past, the elegiac Tibullus, a contemporary of Horace and Ovid, was the first to refer to Rome, the "urbs," as "eternal." He uses this appellation as a matter of course, as something universally acknowledged: "Not yet had Romulus formed the walls of the Eternal City." If we accept 753 b.c. as the year of the city’s legendary founding, when Tibullus called it "eternal," Rome was not even a thousand years old. When Romulus, in a land sparsely populated, circumscribed the first boundaries of his foundation, Babylon and Memphis had long existed without anyone thinking of calling them "eternal Babylon" and "eternal Memphis."


It would be pedantic to insist on a precise meaning for a word that has a certain intoxicating quality and seems to hint at the unimaginable. All the same, one might specify under what conditions the idea of eternity could meaningfully be linked with matters of transitory history. If human beings with their brief life span call something "eternal," they are setting their sights on something far beyond this span. We have not experienced the end of the world, but we have witnessed the collapse of particular worlds. Whenever a city or country is annihilated, whenever a civilization is extinguished — whether it is the Hittite Empire or a long-hidden Indian village in the Amazon jungle — when cultural continuity is violently broken, those who witness such catastrophes experience the end of a world. An impenetrable organism of religious, poetic, social, economic, and legal elements is torn apart — the world came to an end, in Carthage and Königsberg, Smyrna and Aquileia. Neither the western nor the eastern Roman Empire was spared this kind of annihilation of a world.

On the other hand, when a city has not only survived its own death — this does happen — but continues to exist, with values and aspirations intact, in the face of profound trauma, playing its recognizable role despite huge transformations, in a context that is markedly different from what it was, we can only be astonished at such a miracle, and call it "eternal." So we acknowledge it to be a great exception, a unique shattering of what, according to the laws of history, might be expected. In calling Rome "eternal," the Augustan poet may have been daring and presumptuous, but at the same time he may have been inspired. He said more, at that time, than he knew.
Mosebach goes on to consider how the understanding of Rome as the 'eternal city' remained even as the Roman Empire was collapsed and the Catholic Church rose in its place, with the erstwhile imperial capital becoming a universal symbol even as its political importance diminished:
It was the state's transformation into a civilized and religious ideal embracing entire nations that remained when the empire fell apart; it was this ideal that guaranteed the city’s global significance even as it lay in ruins. The ruler became the mother. The substance of the Roman Empire was trodden in a winepress, so to speak, and subjected to a process of fermentation — ultimately producing the priceless wine of the European nations. They all considered themselves to be Rome’s legitimate heirs; they jealously refused to acknowledge others' claims to this inheritance and so kept the idea of Rome alive. Rome lived on in its many daughters. First of all, of course, came the Roman Church with the pope, who took the place of the Roman emperor, claiming universal jurisdiction. Then, with the translatio imperii, came Germany, and France, the Church’s "eldest daughter" (whose king enjoyed imperial dignity), Spain with its worldwide Catholic realm, England with its empire, and the United States with its fragile Pax Americana. But the Orthodox Byzantines, too, regard themselves to this day as Romaioi, and the Russians speak of Moscow as the "Third Rome."

Rome, in comparison, seemed to be nothing more than a piece of history, turned to stone. The city never sank so low as at the end of the Papal States, when it became the capital of a newly united Italy. But just when it seemed doomed to be the capital of a mere province, the pope renewed his claim to worldwide authority and, when his European state was lost, created the basis for his influence in Asia, Africa, and the two Americas. The title "the eternal city" justified itself. Or do we really think that millions visit Rome every year just to view a corpse? No doubt many of them do not have much idea what they are looking for, but this only makes the incessant, ant-like flow of visitors even more mysterious. No place on earth, surely, could avoid being ruined by such an invasion, but we are inclined to believe that Rome is indestructible because it has such a dire history behind it.
Mosebach finds evidence of this varied history in the omnipresent spolia, fragments of ancient Roman masonry repurposed in the building of new structures over several millennia. "Shards, fragments, and split stones determine Rome's atmosphere," Mosebach writes. "To be really Roman, the nave of a church must have ten different kinds of pillars from long-forgotten pagan temples. Its altar, which is also the sarcophagus of a martyr, was once a bathtub of red porphyry that stood in the thermal baths of a palace." The same is true in all manner of Roman buildings, such that someone "who has become vividly aware of this unreflective incorporation of ancient ruins into the creation of later architecture can no longer take seriously any house that does not have such stone fragments in its walls, or any church that lacks a pillar or two from a pagan temple." In spite of all these changes and adaptations, Mosebach finds remarkable signs of continuity beyond the control of any architect or engineer:
In Rome, in the autumn, a miracle of nature can be observed, as beautiful as a sunset or a mighty waterfall: Clouds of starlings with their little black bodies take off in a daring attempt to darken the skies. They are a particularly impressive testimony to Roman continuity — even Pliny the Elder described them... They put on a kind of firework display, compacting together in thousands to make a dark sun, and then exploding in all directions like sky-borne chrysanthemums; they change into a swarm that wafts this way and that like waving flags; they form huge hearts, vast ellipses, as if their common aim is to present the world with an astonishing, perfect show of figure-flying. Then they change plan and allow themselves, from great height, to drop like rain onto the city roofs. A winged vanguard aims directly toward me and then, just in front of my window, shoots into the air again, only to return and repeat the game. They do this only to let me hear the most beautiful and delicate sound of all: the rustling of the tiny wings, like — what? Like the rustling of a taffeta petticoat or the gentle chatter of a stream over multicolored pebbles, or the bursting of soap bubbles. No, it is indescribable, and awakens in me a yearning to hear it anew, again and again.
To read the rest, click here. AMDG.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Schall at Ninety.

My former teacher Father James V. Schall, S.J. celebrates his ninetieth birthday today, an occasion that has led a group of his friends, fans, and former students to offer birthday tributes on The Catholic Thing, published together with a new essay by Father Schall written to mark the start of his tenth decade. Looking back on his many years of teaching and writing, Schall has this to say:
In retrospect, much of my life consisted in recommending things to read. I discovered Plato at a relatively advanced age. At Georgetown, every so often, I would spend a semester with a class in which we would read as much of Plato as we could.

To read Plato, however, it helps to be well-grounded in Aristotle and Aquinas. Few are more helpful in putting all these together than Charles N. R. McCoy, Josef Pieper, Joseph Ratzinger, and Robert Sokolowski. I had been fortunate in my early studies to have had as teachers Clifford Kossel, S. J. and Heinrich Rommen.

When asked what "field" I was in, I usually said "political philosophy." But lest that sound hopelessly narrow, I argued that from this beginning one could and should go in many directions. If there is any "distinct" Schall contribution to political philosophy, it is basically distilled in my Political Philosophy & Revelation: A Catholic View.

The essential point is that reason and revelation belong together in a non-contradictory way. But we see this only after acknowledging what questions that philosophy can ask but not answer by itself. At this point, we become aware that an intelligence is found in revelation. The mind of revelation and the mind of reason have the same origin.


Ultimately, "teaching" consists in two things: 1) the teacher and the student together read the same books that bring both to the truth, to the heart of things (Plato is the quickest way); 2) A professor, to recall Frederick Wilhelmsen, must state, over the years, what he has learned in his teaching.
To read the rest, click here. To Jim Schall, ad multos annos! AMDG.

Monday, December 25, 2017

A new and wondrous mystery.

Repeating the annual tradition of this blog, I would like to extend my prayerful best wishes to all readers who celebrate Christmas today. As always, I wish to mark the occasion by sharing part of a Nativity sermon preached by St. John Chrysostom:

I behold a new and wondrous mystery.

My ears resound to the Shepherd's song, piping no soft melody but chanting full forth a heavenly hymn.

The Angels sing. The Archangels blend their voice in harmony. The Cherubim hymn their joyful praise. The Seraphim exalt His glory.

All join to praise this holy feast, beholding the Godhead here on earth, and man in heaven. He Who is above, now, for our redemption, dwells here below; and he that was lowly is raised up by divine mercy.

Bethlehem this day resembles heaven: she hears from the stars the singing of angelic voices; in place of the sun, she enfolds within herself on every side the Sun of Justice.

Ask not how - where God wills, the order of nature yields. He willed, He had the power, He descended, He redeemed, and all things move in obedience to God.

This day He Who Is is born, and He Who Is becomes what He was not.

Christ is born! Glorify him! AMDG.