#ChoralMarch 11th: “De Angelis”, Moines de Santo Domingo de Silos

Holding the title of having recorded the best-selling Gregorian Chant album of all time, the Benedictine Monks Of Santo Domingo de Silos have been described as :

The ensemble is not always perfect, but if these are not professional singers, they are, and they sound like, truly professional monks.

I suppose this is one of the tensions of recorded choral religious music; do we value technical artistry or sincerity? Are they necessarily opposed? One of the compelling things about this music, for me, is that it has survived as a sung, even popular, genre not only out of some historically-minded, conservation-focused effort but as an expression of living, devoted faith.

 

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“Compassion can never coexist with judgment because judgment creates the distance, the distinction, which prevents us from really being with the other.” – Henri Nouwen on solitude and compassion

From Nouwen’s The Way of the Heart: The Spirituality of the Desert Fathers and Mothers

Here we reach the point where ministry and spirituality touch each other. It is compassion. Compassion is the fruit of solitude and the basis of all ministry. The purification and transformation that take place in solitude manifest themselves in compassion.

Let us not underestimate how hard it is to be compassionate. Compassion is hard because it requires the inner disposition to go with others to the place where they are weak, vulnerable, lonely, and broken. But this is not our spontaneous response to suffering. What we desire most is to do away with suffering by fleeing from it or finding a quick cure for it. As busy, active, relevant ministers, we want to earn our bread by making a real contribution. This means first and foremost doing something to show that our presence makes a difference. And so we ignore our greatest gift, which is our ability to enter into solidarity with those who suffer. It is in solitude that this compassionate solidarity grows.

In solitude we realize that nothing human is alien to us, that the roots of all conflict, war, injustice, cruelty, hatred, jealousy, and envy are deeply anchored in our own heart. In solitude our heart of stone can be turned into a heart of flesh, a rebellious heart into a contrite heart, and a closed heart into a heart that can open itself to all suffering people in a gesture of solidarity. If you would ask the Desert Fathers why solitude gives birth to compassion, they would say, “Because it makes us die to our neighbor.”

At first this answer seems quite disturbing to a modern mind. But when we give it a closer look we can see that in order to be of service to others we have to die to them; that is, we have to give up measuring our meaning and value with the yardstick of others. To die to our neighbors means to stop judging them, to stop evaluating them, and thus to become free to be compassionate. Compassion can never coexist with judgment because judgment creates the distance, the distinction, which prevents us from really being with the other

The many uses of St Columba

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From Richard Sharpe’s introduction to his translation of of Adomnan’s Life of St Columba, there are some fascinating passages on how Columba came to be used as a sort of proto-Protestant, a ultra Catholic, an emblem of the supposedly pure Celtic church, and even as a supporting witness by those opposed to Christian doctrine:

In 1857 the publication of Reeves’s remarkable edition of Adomnán’s Life of St Columba did a great service, placing a huge wealth of information at the disposal of the learned public. Reeves was an Irishman, an Anglican, and a man not misled by attitudes pretending that the ancient church was not as Roman as it was catholic. Although he was not entirely free from the desire to supplement early sources from later evidence, Reeves to a considerable degree succeeded in presenting a picture of the church in Iona founded on reliable information.

With these riches now available to him, a French Roman Catholic controversialist, the Comte de Montalembert, used Columba as the paradigm of an austere personal monastic devotion with a great Romantic appeal. In the same period, the protestant reading of the past derived a major boost from the increased attention to Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People. This came about through a Victorian interest in the history of the Anglican church.

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Bede’s great theme was how the English were converted to Christianity through different traditions, particularly the Roman and the Irish, with a smaller part played by Frankish influence. The diversity of Easter practice was abhorrent to the rigidly orthodox monk of Jarrow, and he made the debate between the Irish and the Roman practice the centrepiece of his history, giving this debate a dramatic setting at a synod at Whitby. Thereafter the trend of his history is towards orthodoxy and the expansion of the English church into the Low Countries and Germany. Bede does not disguise the fact that many of the Irish churches were as Roman and orthodox as he himself.

Yet read in the light of anti-Roman prejudice, his History was seen as justifying a stark difference between a Roman tradition, centralized, institutional and authoritarian, and a ‘Celtic’ tradition, personal, devotional, biblical and enlivened by saints such as Aidan and Columba. It has become a common misconception in Great Britain that the Synod of Whitby in 664 meant the end of ‘the Celtic church’, an idea which is meaningless to anyone better versed in the Irish sources. Columba, Iona and its Northumbrian offshoot at Lindisfarne were given special prominence in Bede’s work. The ‘Celtic’ bishop Colmán, who left Lindisfarne after the synod at Whitby, is hardly a household name, but this approach to Bede has completely ignored the fact that one of his principal opponents, Bishop Agilbert, had studied among the Irish and that his Roman successor at Lindisfarne was another bishop trained in Ireland, Tuda. There were many Irishmen who followed the Roman rather than the ‘Celtic’ practice, but this did not suit the protestant reading, which derived from Bede’s History a Celtic church characterized by its independence from Rome

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The contrast in terms of both churchmanship and Romanticism is succinctly expressed by Thomas M‘Lauchlan in his book, The Early Scottish Church (1865). He contrasts Columba with the Roman missionaries in England, St Augustine and his companions: ‘Thus did these men represent the ambitious, grasping spirit of their system, covetous of place and power; while the humble missionaries of Iona and Lindisfarne represented the spirit of their own system, covetous of exalting Christ, but crucifying self.’ M‘Lauchlan was a member of the Free Church, but his admiration of the early Celtic church was shared by Montalembert, whose writings on St Columba were translated into English and published at Edinburgh in 1866. Presbyterian Scots, Irish catholics, and Episcopalians in Scotland, Ireland and England all found their own roots in Celtic Christianity as they imagined it was lived out in the Iona of St Columba, and from 1860 onwards writers of each denomination produced edificatory books that presented Columba and his church in their own idealized image.

As one might expect, history guided by such nineteenth-century churchmanship misinterprets or misrepresents the past in many ways. Such common core as there is at times runs contrary to all expectations: the eighth duke of Argyll, whose words were quoted in the opening pages of this introduction, retained an admiration for Columba while rejecting almost every attribute that for Adomnán proved his holiness. What Adomnán wrote about his patron saint has a Christian appeal that clearly transcends sectarian divisions, though many modern accounts of the man and his religious foundations have been coloured by different modern views concerning the structure, discipline, and doctrine of the Christian church.

In recent years, as the Eastern Orthodox churches have won an increasing number of western adherents, they too have found a special interest in the early church of Iona as a western opponent to Roman ways. The appeal of St Columba goes beyond conventional Christianity.

It is almost paradoxical that a Christian saint should be treated as the hero of religious teaching that rejects Christian doctrine, but in the early twentieth century this happened to St Columba. The humanist V. V. Branford in 1908 used Columba and Iona to illustrate the importance of pilgrimage in personal development and in what he called ‘social inheritance’. Eleanor Merry, a Theosophist, made St Columba a central figure in a play, published in 1928, about spiritual forces older than Christianity. Odran too had an important significance for her, which she discussed in an unusual book on ‘the mission of the Celtic folk-soul by means of myths and legends’.”

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In this age of secularism and reaction against it, Gaelic folk tradition, largely as it was documented by Alexander Carmichael and others around the turn of the century, has been absorbed into the modern legend of ‘Celtic’ Christianity. From William Sharp, writing under the pseudonym ‘Fiona Macleod’ about the fairy spirituality of the Celts, to modern booklets on St Columba, which superimpose contemporary responses to nineteenth-century folk piety on to the historic saint, there is a timeless sentimentality about too much of the recent devotional writing about the saint of Iona. Even books founded on wide reading in the learned literature are liable to offer something far removed from what the early sources provide, for too few writers have recognized the influence of older churchmanship on the history widely accepted as the authorized version.

The power of St Columba still to excite the imagination of those who visit or read about his church at Iona has produced a remarkable literature. Too much of it takes its departure from misconceptions dating back to the nineteenth or even the eighteenth century, and too much of it fails to recognize the important difference between that which bears witness to the Columban church in Iona in its first centuries and that which derives from later Irish legends. Nothing, however, can detract from Adomnán’s vivid depiction of the abbot among his own monks, written on the spot by the saint’s successor, one hundred years after Columba’s death. Here, as in no other text, it is possible to see an early Irish monastery at work and prayer

“Of Smelly Monks and Annoying Neighbours” – Hannah LeGrand in Comment Magazine

Hannah LeGrand has a review of Kyle David Bennet’s Practices of Love in Comment Magazine which is worth reading. I’ve posted before on the romanticisation of monasticism. Both those who romanticise and criticise the monastic life tend to have a misconception of it being a retreat from community into isolation. As LeGrand writes:

There is a common misconception of the monastic life, that it was an escape from human society, a retreat into a solitary life and the personal cultivation of one’s relationship with God. The monk, we tend to think, was turned inward and upward, a strange and almost mystical figure—barely of this world.

The reality of the monastic life, however, was often quite different. Indeed, far from being plagued by an excess of solitude, the aspect of medieval monasticism that would most likely horrify modern sensibilities is the oppressive lack of privacy many cloisters afforded. Monks slept together in one open dormitory. They worshiped together, ate together, and worked together. The monk or nun who committed their life to God was rarely afforded the luxury of being alone with God.

As Bennett notes, “Monks and nuns make vows not to a cloister but to a community. And they do so not to escape the world but to enact a different one.” The monastery was not a rejection of community. Rather, it represented a commitment to enacting a new sort of community, one in which all members strove, with the help of the spiritual disciplines, to not only love the Lord their God with all their hearts, souls, and minds but also to truly love their neighbours as themselves in all the patterns of their working and resting, their sleeping and rising, their meals, chores, and worship. It is to this end that the spiritual disciplines were employed.

LeGrand discusses contemporary “self care”, into which this romanticised view of monasticism can be fitted. She is endearingly self-deprecating about her own attempts at “spiritual practice” and how this was a form of spiritual pride:

As a high school student, I went through a brief and rather misguided period of fascination with the spiritual disciplines. In practice, my discipline of choice was most often that of silence. Being naturally a quiet sort of student, holding my tongue was no great burden to me, and as I fancied myself following in the footsteps of ancient Christians, my shyness and tendency to retreat inside myself seemed to take on a weighty and pleasing spiritual significance.

Thinking back on this high school practice while reading Kyle Bennett’s Practices of Love: Spiritual Disciplines for the Life of the World, I realized with an embarrassed sort of horror that throughout all those stretches of pious silence I had never really paid any special attention to listening. If anything, the weightiness of my own discipline cultivated a disdain for the shallow conversation around me, and I’m sure I barely paid attention to the day’s petty lessons on differential equations and the Meech Lake Accord that had, no doubt, been carefully prepared. In this way, I think it is safe to say that I was doing the spiritual disciplines wrong.

Bennet’s book looks like it will join my ever-burgeoning to-read list – it sounds like a bracingly practical approach to what can often be an over romanticised practice.

Indeed, Bennett does not spend much time on grand ideas or theological arguments. Practices of Love reads—in some ways much like the original recommendations of Cassian himself—as a practical manual on the spiritual disciplines in modern life, full of concrete habits to incline every waking hour toward love of one’s neighbour. His suggestions are often unexciting, sometimes downright intrusive, and, in their own way, radical. He recommends inviting neighbours to join in our precious Sabbath rest even when all we want is a long nap and a movie. He recommends setting aside time to think positively about that co‐worker we really can’t stand, and using our own silence as an opportunity to listen very carefully to even shallow conversation.

In this way, Bennett’s take on the spiritual disciplines offers us none of the seductive charm of a minimalist wardrobe. Rather, in true monastic spirit, there is only the strange and uncomfortable, day in and day out enactment of a new sort of community, one in which love for one’s neighbour is not just a beautiful idea or even a political position, but something sunk deep into muscle memory, something that fills even the in‐between moments of ordinary days.

One of the many things I have enjoyed about Peter Reason’s In Search of Grace is a certain honesty about the curmudgeonliness that can go with the pilgrim spirit (especially in the modern world, where pilgrimage is more of a Great Event than the norm of previous times)

“Ample food and sleep” : A thought on retrospective diagnosis, visions and full bellies

From Geoffrey Moorhouse’s fine bookSun Dancing

A clinical diagnosis of Aedh’s erotic and other visions would doubtless have concluded that , whatever shaped them in his psyche, they were triggered by his reckless fasting. Hallucination as a result of extreme exhaustion, including that which has resulted from semi-starvation, is a well-established condition, though many more centuries would pass after Aedh’s time before this was recognised. But visionaries of every father at all stages of history have tended to be people whose lives are marked by exceptional austerity, and it is difficult to think of a single instance in which a holy man or woman has reported tempting, fearsome or inspiring manifestations, on a regime of ample food and sleep.

On one level there is nothing objectionable about the above. Moorhouse, whose book I greatly admire, is careful not the ascribed the visions to starvation per se, but as a triggering factor. I I am suspicious of retrospective diagnosis and also of transporting the clinical worldview outside its natural habitat But reading this passage, a brief thought occurs. For the vast majority of the time homo sapiens has been in existence “ample food and sleep” have not been the common condition of humanity. Indeed, a regime of ample food and sleep could be said to be as anomalous as complex societies themselves- as Tainter points out

Birthplace of St Columba, Gartan, Donegal

Birthplace of St Columba, Gartan, Donegal

 

Traditionally, St Columba’s birthplace was near Lough Gartan, Church Hill, Co Donegal. Church Hill is a village near Glenveagh National Park, and is on the fringes of the Derryveagh Mountains – nearby, the rugged albeit farmed land of the eastern part of Donegal gives way to the wildness of the highlands.
According to the website Colmcille.org, there are two possible candidates for the birthplace in the Gartan area. The “official”, signposted one is Leac na Cumhaidh.

These photos are not very well taken but hopefully capture something of the place. The reputed birthsite itself is a flagstone which has been discoloured by coins, at the upper left of the rock arrangement seen below. A sign sternly warns visitors not to leave further coins:

 

The site is visually dominated by a massive cross erected by Cornelia Adair, amiable American widow of the notorious John George Adair. Cornelia was popular, relative to her husband who achieved lasting notoriety due to the evictions that led to the creation of the Glenveagh Estate.

Columba evidently was, like St Patrick also, seen as a figure who could unify Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter alike. The below inscription reads “Preserve With Each Other Sincere Charity and Peace”Finally, and most interestingly in many ways, this site is still evident attractive for contemporary would be prophets. The below image was attached to the railings around the site. img_2511

Kacou Phillipe’s page picks up the story:

Like the prophets of the Bible, In April 1993, a man who had never been in a church receives in a vision, the visitation of an Angel who commissions him for a Message destined to the entire earth in fulfillment of the ministry of Matthew 25:6 and Revelation 12:14..

For those who are a little rusty, Matthew 25:6 reads

And at midnight there was a cry made, Behold, the bridegroom comes; go out to meet him.

And Revelation 12:14:

And to the woman were given two wings of a great eagle, that she might fly into the wilderness, into her place, where she is nourished for a time, and times, and half a time, from the face of the serpent.

Kacou Phillipe’s page also informs us:

Prophet Kacou Philippe got out of prison on Tuesday night, August 16, 2016.

William Branham was also new to me. His Wikipedia page begins:

William Marrion Branham (April 6, 1909 – December 24, 1965) was an American Christian minister, generally acknowledged as initiating the post World War II healing revival.[1][2] Branham’s most controversial revelation was his claim to be the end-time “Elijah” prophet of the Laodicean Church age.[3][4][5] His theology seemed complicated and bizarre to many people who admired him personally.[6] In his last days, Branham’s followers had placed him at the center of a Pentecostal personality cult. Other than those that still follow him as their prophet, Branham has faded into obscurity.

There are indeed those that still follow him as their prophet, and this is their webpage. From the Wikipedia page again, Branham had a range of prophecies:

Branham claimed to have had a prophetic revelation in June 1933 that comprised seven major events that would occur before the Second Coming of Christ.[70] He believed that five of the seven predictions, relating to world politics, science and the moral condition of the world, had been fulfilled. The final two visions, one related to the Roman Catholic Church gaining power in the United States and the second detailing the destruction of the USA, would be fulfilled by 1977, subsequent to which Christ would return.[71] A comparison of Branham’s descriptions of the prophecies reveals his tendency to exaggerate and embellish his actual predictions.[72]

In December 1964, Branham also prophesied that the city of Los Angeles would sink into the Pacific Ocean. This was subsequently embellished to a prediction that a chunk of land fifteen hundred miles long, three or four hundred miles wide and forty miles deep would break loose causing waves that would “shoot plumb out to Kentucky.”[48][73]

The line “his theology seemed complicated and bizarre to many people who admired him personally” reminded me of a passage in Anthony Storr’s book on gurus, Feet of Clay. Storr has a chapter on Rudolf Steiner, and writes on how Steiner’s work in education, especially for those who we would now describe as “special needs” children, was entirely admirable, and his personal life unimpeachable (I paraphrase), and yet his cosmology and theology were unintelligible and, for Storr, close to the delusional systems seen in schizophrenia.

When I walked with my family down a country lane in Donegal to the (supposed) birthplace of St Columba, I did not think I would end up learning about Kacou Philippe or William Branham.

 

 

Adam deVille on the romanticisation of monasticism

Adam deVille on the romanticisation of monasticism

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From a lengthy review of Rod Dreher’s new book “The Benedict Option.” I used to occasionally read Dreher’s blog, and tried his “The Little Way of Ruthie Leming”, but drifted away for reasons I probably could not articulate nearly as well as deVille. In particular the sweeping, dogmatic, pseudo-eagles-eye-of-the-history-of-Christianity is offputting. I found “The Little Way” a strange book, a exercise in trying too hard at transcendence. More positive takes on “The Benedict Option” are out there. For me, it is one of those books that if I had world enough and time I would read but to be honest an awful lot of books (by Alasdair McIntyre, for one, and other authors Adam de Ville cites) stand ahead of it.

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Dreher is not content to stand still and see the salvation of God. His busybody guruism seeking to safeguard “orthodox Christianity” is, as MacIntyre suggested decades ago, a typical reaction of the leisure class that often has the greatest tendency to fixate (as Kate Daloz has recently shown in fascinating detail) on simplicity, intentional community, and various forms of voluntary self-denial–whether in monasteries or pseudo-monastic communities. It is the leisure class especially among converts to Orthodoxy (in what Amy Slagle has aptly called the The Eastern Church in the Spiritual Marketplace: American Conversions to Orthodox Christianity) who most often seem to fetishize monasteries, who have the time and money to obsess over “monasticism” and “tradition” in psychologically suspect ways, running after their “spiritual fathers” for permission to pee or clip their toenails on Fridays in Lent.

Dreher, of course, is not made of such stern fanaticism, and, curiously but revealingly, his gaze falls primarily upon Catholic and Protestant communities in preference to, e.g., Mt. Athos (which is to his credit given some of the hysterical nonsense that sometimes issues from the so-called holy mountain). Nevertheless, one must challenge this desire to play at being a monk or a quasi-monastic, and one must regard any and all calls for “new forms of community” with a great deal of skepticism until and unless they engage in–as MacIntyre says–“rethinking even further some well-established notions of freedom of expression and of toleration. But about how to do this constructively in defence of the rational politics of local community no one has yet known what to say. Nor do I.”

Absent such serious rational thought, and attendant safeguards, one can only be cautious and reluctant to pursue such a life, much as would-be monks rightly were before their tonsure. I am told by a liturgist of impeccable scholarship that some recensions of the Byzantine rite of monastic tonsure saw the hegumen or abbot toss the scissors away three times when presented with them by the would-be monk, who would then have to scramble across the floor to retrieve them repeatedly, each time being reminded of the seriousness of the state of life he was about to enter and the real risks he would run thereby.

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Because of those risks, it is imperative, then, that one must repeatedly and ruthlessly interrogate any romanticism about monastic or community life in any form, for they are fraught with conflicts and problems, not the least of which is a tendency toward escapism and subtle forms of self-promotion–and not-so-subtle forms of control and manipulation or outright sexual abuse. Returning once again to Dreher’s fellow Orthodox Alexander Schmemann (the relative neglect of serious engagement with Orthodox sources in this book must be read as a marketing strategy to appeal to the vastly more numerous Catholics and Protestants in this country), we see that Schmemann has already offered us severe warnings about these temptations in a bracing and acid passage from January 1981:

More and more often it seems to me that revising the monasticism that everybody so ecstatically talks about–or at least trying to revive it–can be done only by liquidating first of all the monastic institution itself, i.e. the whole vaudeville of klobuks, cowls, stylization, etc. If I were a staretz–an elder–I would tell a candidate for monasticism roughly the following:

–get a job, if possible the simplest one, without creativity (for example as a cashier in a bank);

–while working, pray and seek inner peace; do not get angry; do not think of yourself (rights, fairness, etc.). Accept everyone (coworkers, clients) as someone sent to you; pray for them;

–after paying for a modest apartment and groceries, give your money to the poor; to individuals rather than foundations;

–always go to the same church and there try to be a real helper, not by lecturing about spiritual life or icons, not by teaching but with a “dust rag” (cf. St Seraphim of Sarov)….

–do not thrust yourself and your service on anyone; do not be sad that your talents are not being used; be helpful; serve where needed and not where you think you are needed;

–read and learn as much as you can; do not read only monastic literature, but broadly…;

–be always simple, light, joyous. Do not teach. Avoid like the plague any “spiritual” conversations and any religious or churchly idle talk. 

wp-image-1166588415jpg.jpgReal monastics, whether Benedictine or otherwise, know that the course of wisdom is to be found not in talking “church talk” or promoting “options” but in listening and serving everyone without drawing attention to oneself. Real monastics who have done that include another of Dreher’s fellow Orthodox nowhere in evidence in his book: Mother Maria Skobtsova, who made wartime Paris her “monastery” without walls, serving the suffering she encountered there, including the Jews service to whom and protection of whom cost Maria her life in the gas chamber of Ravensbrück. She would later be canonized by the Orthodox church not just for this sacrifice of her life but also for her monastic service in and for the city of Paris–not atop some mountain somewhere or in an inaccessible cloister.
The description of Dreher’s approach reminds me of Aedh, the Culdee in “Sun Dancing: A Medieval Vision – Seven Centuries on Skellig Michael” by Geoffrey Moorhouse whose need to spiritually outdo the other monks (on what was already surely the most extreme monastic site going) led to a literal and metaphorical downfall.
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It is easy, too, to romanticise monasticism, and indeed I have posted fragments here that, in isolation, could be accused of such romanticisation. The risk of a form of spiritual pride and arrogance is apparent, and Adam deVille’s piece is a corrective to this risk.