Collect for the Immaculate Conception

O God, who in the foreknowledge of thy Son's most precious death didst consecrate for him a dwelling-place by the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary: Mercifully grant that she who was preserved from all defilement, may evermore pray for us until we attain unto thee in purity of heart; through the same Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

The Terrible Speed of Mercy

Anyone who begins with ‘hard cases make bad law’ needs to end with the corollary that therefore law alone cannot answer hard cases.

Melinda Selmys

He threw himself to the ground and with his face against the dirt of the grave, he heard the command. GO WARN THE CHILDREN OF GOD OF THE TERRIBLE SPEED OF MERCY.

—Flannery O’Connor, The Violent Bear It Away

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The latest sky to fall on us here in Rome has been the publication, and lack of reply to, the dubia sent to Pope Francis by four Cardinals (Brandmüller, Burke, Caffarra, and Meisner). These dubia, ‘doubts’ in Latin, are questions about the recent exhortation Amoris Lætitia, which discussed, among other things, relaxing the discipline of refusing Communion to those who have divorced and been remarried.1 Chapter VIII of the exhortation, ‘Accompanying, Discerning, and Integrating Weakness,’ is the chapter to which the Cardinals’ concerns are addressed.

I must admit I never finished reading Amoris Lætitia when it originally came out: Pope Benedict’s intense, contemplative style captivated me, but Francis’ casualness doesn’t suit my palate very well. However, I made a point of reading chapter VIII before writing this, and my immediate reaction was that it was not only right, but so unremarkable against the backdrop of Catholic and Scriptural tradition that I can hardly understand where the difficulties are coming from.

A great example of what I mean can be found in II Kings 5,2 in the story of Naaman the leper being healed by Elisha.

Then went he down, and dipped himself seven times in Jordan, according to the saying of the man of God: and his flesh came again like unto the flesh of a little child, and he was clean. And he returned to the man of God, he and all his company, and came, and stood before him: and said, ‘Behold, now I know that there is no God in all the earth, but in Israel … Thy servant will henceforth offer neither burnt offering nor sacrifice unto other gods, but unto the LORD. In this thing the LORD pardon thy servant, that when my master goeth into the house of Rimmon to worship there, and he leaneth on my hand, and I bow myself in the house of Rimmon: when I bow down myself in the house of Rimmon, the LORD pardon thy servant in this thing.’ And [Elisha] said unto him, ‘Go in peace.’3

Now, monotheism is kinda the lesson of the Tanakh. I am the LORD thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt; thou shalt have no other gods before me. It was, moreover, the lesson that Elisha’s master and predecessor, Elijah, had been most concerned to urge on King Ahab and his subjects, culminating in the massive showdown on Mount Carmel that concluded with the slaughter of four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal. And Naaman comes, receives a miracle, and says in so many words that there is no god but God.

And then he confidently requests forgiveness for a sin he hasn’t even committed yet, and that sin is pretending to worship another deity, a nice mixture of idolatry and dishonesty. And Elisha dismisses him with a blessing.4

There is absolutely no question that idolatry is wrong; and yet here, God makes a concession. The same thing happens with astonishing frequency to the (topically relevant) marriage bond in the Old Testament: not only did Jacob, the progenitor of the nation, have two wives, but he and his grandfather both fathered children on concubines (Bilhah and Zilpah in Jacob’s case, Hagar in Abraham’s), who weren’t even wives per se; David, the man after God’s own heart, had eight wives and an undisclosed number of concubines. But from the beginning it was not so; yet here we are, drawing water from the well in Sychar—and challenging this strange newcomer, who seems to think he’s even greater than our father Jacob who gave us this well, to produce his credentials.

The dubia themselves, with my translations into the vernacular, are as follows:

1. … [Has it] become possible to grant absolution in the sacrament of penance and thus to admit to holy Communion a person who, while bound by a valid marital bond, lives together with a different person more uxurio5 without fulfilling the conditions provided for by Familiaris Consortio … [?] Can the expression ‘in certain cases’ found in Note 351 (305) … be applied to divorced persons who are in a new union and who continue to live more uxurio?

Vernacular: Are you saying that people who divorce and remarry can be absolved and receive the Eucharist, even if they continue sleeping with their new ‘spouse’ and don’t even try to live otherwise?

2. … Does one still need to regard as valid the teaching of St John Paul II’s encyclical Veritatis Splendor, 79 … on the existence of absolute moral norms that prohibit intrinsically evil acts and are binding without exceptions?

Vernacular: Are you saying morality is relative?

3. After Amoris Lætitia (301) is it still possible to affirm that a person who habitually lives in contradiction to a commandment of God’s law … finds him or herself in an objective situation of grave habitual sin … ?

Vernacular: Are you saying that sin isn’t even still a thing?

4. After the affirmations of Amoris Lætitia (302) on ‘circumstances which mitigate moral responsibility,’ does one still need to regard as valid the teaching … [that] ‘circumstances or intentions can never transform an act intrinsically evil by virtue of its object into an act “subjectively” good or defensible as a choice’?

Vernacular: Are you saying that whether something is evil can depend on the circumstances?

5. … Does one still need to regard as valid the teaching … based on sacred Scripture and the Tradition of the Church … that conscience can never be authorized to legitimate exceptions to absolute moral norms … ?

Vernacular: Are you saying that, if you’re sincerely convinced that something that’s evil is okay this time, it really is?

My ‘translations’ are obviously ham-fisted, but, I hope, correct on the whole. From my reading of chapter VIII, the answers are ‘Yes’ to dubium 1 and ‘Of course not’ to dubia 2-5, largely because I don’t see what in Amoris Lætitia even prompts dubia 2-5. His Holiness stresses, repeatedly, that any relaxation of current disciplinary norms cannot be treated as a new norm, that it is not to be applied lightly nor without careful discernment and a deep devotion to the Church and her doctrine, and that the divine ideal remains exactly what it always was. The difference lies precisely in the pastoral application of the norm, not the nature of what is and isn’t norm-al. Given the precedents set by Scripture, and by the actual practice of Christendom,6 that all sounds extremely normal to me.

As to granting absolution and holy Communion to those who are, in the old-fashioned phrase, living in sin—well, for one thing, that’s already done all the time for people who are living in the sins of gossip, conceit, pettiness, uncharity, or self-righteousness. Those sins aren’t testable in quite the same way as adultery or fornication, but they are far more perilous to the soul. To insist on keeping a discipline with respect to ‘quantifiable’ sins, while ignoring sins that are just as public and just as scandalous but harder to ‘specify,’ I think we’re following a deeply misguided approach to Christian holiness.

After all, it isn’t as though our Lord’s approach to morality was free of scandal. He regularly ignored the detailed regulations that the Pharisees had laid down around the Sabbath, even while saying that the Pharisees ‘sit in Moses’ seat’ and ought to be obeyed; he advised us to make friends for ourselves by unrighteous mammon and compared God to an unjust judge, a thief, and a usurious tyrant; he told religious scholars and respectable pastors that the local hookers would get to heaven before they did. Flannery O’Connor’s Francis Tarwater, who puts so much energy into denying and desecrating his vocation as a prophet (and, even once he accepts it, is a heretical and schismatic prophet), is more like the Gospels than many even of the saints.

For another thing, it must be kept firmly in mind that when partaking of the Eucharist is discussed, we’re talking about discipline, not doctrine. The Christian East, both Orthodox and Catholic, has never had the rule that one must go to Confession after a mortal sin before receiving the Blessed Sacrament; indeed (if I’m rightly informed), they don’t even use the distinction the West makes between mortal and venial sins. Does that mean the discipline of the West has no value and should be changed? Not necessarily. But it does help to put it in its proper place: discipline, unlike doctrine, is indeed a relative thing, because discipline and all pastoral practice is the process of relating eternal truth to temporal, contingent situations. That’s always going to be messy. And while changes should never be made lightly or to suit our personal convenience, they can be legitimately made. The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. And the application of the law has to be done with sensitivity to both the spirit of the law (for the letter killeth, but the spirit bringeth life) and the needs and capacities of the person in question, neither denying the possibility of graces nor presuming upon them. Only then can the law actually help people—and apart from that, well, the strength of sin is the law.

And does all this mean that right and wrong are relative, or subjective, or conditional, or something? No. It means that people aren’t machines where you can type in moral data and expect a correct response to come out. For I delight in the law of God according to the inward man: but I see another law at work in my members. If you find that difficult to accept, just think of that one sin—you know the one—that you have to confess over and over and over and over. Where would you be, if God had withheld his grace from you until you defeated that?

And you needn’t worry: the people who really aren’t interested in God will be damned. You don’t have to be afraid that anything other than total, unconditional love will be found in the kingdom of heaven.

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1There are certain exceptions. To begin with, Catholics don’t simply believe that you shouldn’t get a divorce; they believe that, for a valid and sacramental marriage, divorce quite literally isn’t a real thing. That spiritual bond remains in place until one of the spouses dies, even if they get legally divorced (as a man who’s been enslaved has a moral right to autonomy even if he is legally considered property). Because of this, in certain desperate circumstances, like getting children away from an abusive parent, civil divorce can be tolerated by the Church; it just doesn’t end the marriage, sacramentally—neither party is free to remarry, and if they do, they’re committing adultery. Sometimes exceptions are also made if an invalidly married couple want to return to the Church, and are willing to attempt to live as brother and sister rather than as spouses, but cannot completely separate for some serious reason (such as having children to raise). Additionally, a marriage may be found to have been invalid in the first place (e.g. they discovered that they were too closely related to contract a marriage in the Church’s law), in which case it doesn’t bind the parties. A civil divorce will probably be needed for practical purpose, but what’s needed from the Church is an annulment, which certifies that this truly was an invalid marriage, and not just a royal pain in the ass that they don’t want to put up with anymore.
2Aww yeah, bringing out the Old Testament, gonna go evangelical all up in this bitch.
3II Kings 5.17-19. Rimmon was one of the baals, the various local gods of the Levant (El and Molech were others); this particular baal was an Assyrian deity, Ramanu, ‘the Thunderer.’
4Elisha, too, was a sinner, and could have blessed wrongly. But the Old Testament is keen on object lessons, the books of Kings particularly so, and we can reasonably suppose that God could have made his displeasure known if Elisha had given Naaman a bad blessing—we see that displeasure fall on the prophet’s servant Gehazi for his lying just a few verses later. I think the plain sense of the text is that Elisha blessed and God ratified.
5More uxurio: literally, ‘in the wifely style,’ i.e. boning.
6Louis XIV of France is a good example. His Most Christian Majesty kept a large number of mistresses, who were not only not married to him but generally married to some other noble to satisfy social expectations, thus making them even less appropriate objects of his … attention than concubines. And yet he was a famously pious monarch, never (to my knowledge) publicly reproached by the clergy for his continual and well-known unfaithfulness to his wife. Either this is some of the rankest hypocrisy ever practiced by French clerics, or they were exercising a certain disciplinary latitude. Or both.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

The Poems of Charles Williams, Part One: Substantial Instruments of Being

And the city had no need of the sun, neither of the moon, to shine in it: for the glory of God did lighten it, and the Lamb is the light thereof. And the nations of them which are saved shall walk in the light of it … For without are dogs, and sorcerers, and whoremongers, and murderers, and whosoever loveth and maketh a lie.

Revelation XXI.xxiii-xxiv, XXII.xv

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I’d like to return to Charles Williams and his poetry: specifically, his version of the Arthurian cycle, expressed in the collections Taliessin Through Logres and The Region of the Summer Stars. His thought is eclectically Platonic, charged with a brightness that dazzles the mind at first—especially since he knew a good deal more about magic1 than most people, and explains Christ and the faith and the world in magical terms quite as freely as St Thomas explained them in Aristotelian terms. His poems about Arthur’s realm of Logres2 are just that, poems about the kingdom and the people in it; but, precisely because of that, their meaning also ranges throughout creation, like the multiple levels on which Dante wrote the Divine Comedy.

First, in Williams’ conception, Logres is a province of the Roman Empire seated at Byzantium, and the Empire is an image of human nature both physical and spiritual. Man, in his thought, is a microcosm of the universe’s macrocosm, and the Empire itself is the medial world, the mesocosm. The Empire is drawn in the shape of a woman, half-reclining on the Mediterranean: her womb is in Jerusalem, her buttocks in Caucasia, her hands in Rome, her breasts in Gaul, and her brain in Logres; and the Emperor himself, residing in Byzantium, symbolizes God, expressing in his office the union of divinity and humanity in Christ.

Lynton Lamb's map of Williams' version of the Empire

The organic body sang together;
dialects of the world sprang in Byzantium;
back they rang to sing in Byzantium;
the streets repeat the sound of the Throne.

The Acts issue from the Throne.
Under it, translating the Greek minuscula
to minds of the tribes, the identities of creation
phenomenally abating to kinds and kindreds,
the household inscribes the Acts of the Emperor;
the logothetes run down the porphyry stair
bearing the missives through the area of empire. …

The morn rose on the Golden Horn.
I saw the identities imaged in a sapphire sea:
beyond Sinai Ararat, beyond Ararat Elburz—
light-sprinkling, flaked-snow-sparkling,
chastities of ranged peaks of Caucasus,
snow’s glow on the world’s brows
changed with deep vales of verdure.
… The Empire’s sun shone on each round mound,
double fortalices defending dales of fertility.
The bright blades shone in the craft of the dancing war;
the stripped maids laughed for joy of the province,
bearing in themselves the shape of the province
founded in the base of space,
in the rounded bottom of the Emperor’s glory.
… the lost name, the fool’s shame,
fame and frame of lovers in lowlands of Caucasia,
rang round snowy Elburz.
The organic body sang together.4

Each of these parts of the body is significant to Williams—that is, not just important, but signifying a reality. The buttocks, which he frequently refers to as the mounds or rondures of Caucasia, symbolize the body as a whole: their work seems merely grotesque to the airy spiritualizer, but (as Williams pointed out in an essay) the balance of any upright figure reposes on nothing else. Macrocosmically, the buttocks and Caucasia are reflected in Libra, the zodiacal sign of balance. The hands, which for Williams symbolize prayer and the sacraments, naturally rest in Rome, and the two hands correspond to the sign of Gemini3; the brain is in Britain, protected by the rocky Hebrides as a skull, and it is in the brain, the mind, that the quest of the Graal must take place, which is the quest of integrating the corporeal with the spiritual and the temporal with the celestial. That quest must pass through the watery wood of Broceliande in the southwest of Britain, which represents the unconscious mind; and in the macrocosm, the eyes in Logres are associated with Aquarius, whose waters (both murky and clear) metaphorically run all around the British Isles.

The word ‘sacramental’ has perhaps here served us a little less than well; it has, in popular usage, suggested rather the spiritual using the physical than a common—say, a single—operation. Eyes then are compacted power; they are an index of vision; they see and refer us to greater seeing. … So even with those poor despised things, the buttocks. There is no seated figure … which does not rely on them for its strength and balance. They are at the bottom of the sober dignity of judges; the grace of a throned woman; the hierarchical session of the Pope himself reposes on them … The Sacred Body is the plan upon which physical human creation was built, for it is the center of physical human creation. The great dreams of the human form containing the whole universe are in this less than the truth.5

But there are other powers in the world. Anachronistically, Williams makes the Islamic caliphate a contemporary force,6 using Islam as a stand-in for all the noble and restrained religion that draws back from the glorious vulgarity of the Incarnation—if you will, all that calls upon God but refuses the Mother of God. But this, though formally opposed to God-in-Byzantium, is not the primary evil of the world. There is an anti-Emperor: headless, muttering, a mockery of all human dignity and the divine image that that dignity is; he walks ceaselessly backward in undefined waters ‘beyond P’o-lu,’8 referred to as ‘antipodean Byzantium.’ And the waters of P’o-lu run right around the earth, mingling with the aquarian waters of Britain in the sea-forest of Broceliande, as darkness and the possibility of darkness mingle with the possibilities of light in the unconscious mind.

All this is a poetic expression of the doctrine (drawn from Patristic sources I think, though I don’t know which ones) that the Fall—the eating of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil—was a specific kind of intellectual corruption. God knows all things, and all being, which Williams loved to call substance,7 is good; evil is not only parasitic on good, it is literally nothing more than the dissolution of goodness into incoherence, and finally, if the evil is not corrected, into nonbeing. Evil, having no substantial existence, therefore cannot be known by the human mind; and so for us, the only way of being ‘like God, knowing good and evil,’ was to know substantial good as if it were evil—to try and imagine what the good would be like if a contradiction were introduced into it, what being would be like if it were mixed with nonbeing.

The Adam in the hollow of Jerusalem respired:
softly their thought twined to its end,
crying: O parent, O forkèd friend,
am I not too long meanly retired
in the poor space of joy’s single dimension?
Does not God vision the principles at war?
Let us grow to the height of God and the Emperor:
Let us gaze, son of man, on the Acts in contention.

The Adam climbed the tree; the boughs
rustled, withered, behind them; they saw
the secluded vision of battle in the law;
they found the terror in the Emperor’s house.

The tree about them died undying,
the good lusted against the good,
the Acts in conflict envenomed the blood,
on the twisted tree hung their body wrying.

Joints cramped: a double entity
spewed and struggled, good against good;
they saw the mind of the Emperor as they could,
his imagination of the wars of identity. …

Phosphorescent on the stagnant level
a headless figure walks in a crimson cope,
volcanic dust blown under the moon.

A brainless form, as of the Emperor,
walks, indecent hands hidden under the cope,
dishallowing in that crimson the flush on the mounds of Caucasia.

His guard heaves round him; heaven-sweeping tentacles
stretch, dragging octopus bodies over the level;
his cope is lifted by two from his body,
where it walks on the sinking floor of antipodean Byzantium.
Let us gaze, son of man, on the Acts in contention.

Phosphorescent gleams the point of the penis:
rudiments or relics, disappearing, appearing,
live in the forlorn focus of the intellect,
eyes and and ears, turmoil of the mind of sensation.

Inarticulate always on an inarticulate sea
beyond P’o-lu the headless Emperor moves,
the octopuses round him; lost are the Roman hands;
lost are the substantial instruments of being.9

And by summoning the lie, we lent it as much insubstantial existence as it could possess. They had their will; they saw; they were torn in the terror. The significance of the Headless Emperor is not merely moral corruption. It is there that headlessness begins: but in him, evil has reached the last perfection of corruption, the final stage before dissolution—the only thing that is still there to decay further is the plain fact of being. That is why his body is so disgustingly distorted, with the acuity of the brain, the fertility of the sexual organs, the purposive activity of the hands, and the foundational dignity of the buttocks, all destroyed.

Hands Up by Stephane Benedett

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1When I say magic here, I mean the term quite seriously and simply: I’m not paying his verse a flowery compliment. Magic, i.e. the belief that the human will—either directly, or by commanding or entreating spiritual entities—can effect paranormal results, has existed since antiquity and continues to exist, in both noble and debased forms. Note that nobility and baseness here have nothing to do with virtue; the crudest cunning woman may at least mean well, while the gracious and sophisticated lady may be a murderess. Nor have either vulgarity or virtue anything to do with whether magic works, which is again irrelevant to its usefulness as a language by which to express truth; e.g., you could say that somebody’s ‘a textbook Virgo’ to describe their personality without assenting to, or even understanding, astrology as a discipline.
I believe there are innocent forms of the acceptance of magic (perhaps this was what let the Magi interpret the star correctly?), and that Williams was an exponent of that tradition; nonetheless, power corrupts, spiritual power corrupts more terribly than any other, and nearly every technique associated with the history of magic is perilous at best—often profoundly evil. The temptation to spiritual pride, the worst of all possible vices, is more aggressively present in the study of magic, I think, than in any other study except mystical theology.
2Logres (pronounced log-ress), related to the Welsh Lloegyr for England, is the name used by Williams, among others, for Arthurian Britain.
3The Twins evoke Romulus and Remus of imperial Rome and Peter and Paul of pontifical Rome. Sometimes Williams’ cosmos seems to exploit itself, as if eager to shower meaning on any attending mind.
4The Vision of the Empire α.1-11, β.1-7, 11-17, 20-23.
5From The Index of the Body, originally published in the Dublin Review and later anthologized in The Image of the City.
6If there was a historical Arthur, he probably lived in the late fifth or early sixth century, and it is certainly in this period that the tradition places him. The Prophet did not arise until the early seventh.
7I believe he drew this habit from Lady Julian, who, in her famous Revelation of Divine Love, frequently speaks of sensuality and substance, terms which partly correspond to the corporeal and the spiritual elements of human nature (though her usage is more complicated, and often obscure). It’s also likely he had the Scholastic use of substance in mind. Lady Julian herself may well have drawn her own wording, directly or indirectly, from the Schoolmen.
8The name P’o-lu (which Williams spelled several different ways) seems to be taken from a historical city in China, Po-lu-pao; that the Headless Emperor lives beyond P’o-lu is almost certainly significant, since Williams was very exact in his imagery. The description of the antipodes, in this poem and elsewhere, is also reminiscent of Chesterton’s words in The Everlasting Man about ‘Where Asia trails away into the southern archipelagoes of the savages … it is all the same story; sometimes perhaps later chapters of the same story. It is men entangled in the forest of their own mythology; it is men drowned in the sea of their own metaphysics.’
9The Vision of the Empire η.1-20, θ.17-35.