Collect for the Solemnity of the Chair of Peter

O Almighty God, who by thy Son Jesus Christ didst give to thine Apostle Saint Peter many excellent gifts, and commandedst him earnestly to feed thy flock: make, we beseech thee, all bishops and pastors diligently to preach thy holy Word, and the people obediently to follow the same, that they may receive the crown of everlasting glory; through 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.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016


All metaphysical community depends on the ability of men to understand one another. At the beginning I should urge examining in all seriousness that ancient belief that a divine element is present in language. The feeling that to have power of language is to have control over things is deeply embedded in the human mind. … To discover what a thing is ‘called’ according to some system is the essential step in knowing, and to say that all education is learning to name rightly, as Adam named the animals, would assert an underlying truth.

—Richard Weaver, ‘The Power of the Word,’ Language Is Sermonic

Hieroglyphic figures shone from ancient papyrus—shone not with light but with an intense blackness that seemed about to suck out his soul through his eyes. And the meanings of the figures darted forcefully into his mind, as they would have done even to someone who couldn’t read the primeval Egyptian script, for they were written here in the world’s youth by the god Thoth, the father and spirit of language itself.

—Tim Powers, The Anubis Gates

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The beginning of the Gospel of Matthew in the Lindisfarne Gospels (composed ca. 700).

The language in which a liturgy is conducted is, I think, the chief determiner of its character. A language has its own rhythm and music—barbarous or classical, unadorned or lavish, clear or subtle—and the rite itself will inevitably be perceived as much as a vehicle of that language, or still more, than as an independent thing which makes use of the language. It is the principle of incarnation: not the conversion of the Godhead into flesh, but the taking of the manhood into God; that is, the essential reality that underlies the liturgy does not change, but every particular human context in which the liturgy can exist is made a fitting window into the substance of Deity.

The Roman Rite, whether we speak of the Novus Ordo or the Extraordinary Form,1 is perhaps most characterized by simplicity. It is, if you will, a very efficient Mass. This suits the character of Latin: a highly orderly language with a distinctive and fairly limited sound inventory, whose elegances come more from precision and clarity than those of English. Its inflections allow for more grammatically complex sentences than English, but even these seem to me to be terse rather than intricate. A Roman liturgy, whether celebrated in Latin or not, tends to retain this tendency toward simple, almost unadorned forms, as if to zero in on the fact of the rite. I think this is an extremely good quality in a Mass: it’s easier to recover from distraction in a simple, emphatically objective context, and it can help cut through some of the silly complications we humans are prone to, bringing us back to the fundamental instructions: Hear; look; receive; adore; love.

I do think, though, that this character makes it preferable that Roman Masses should be celebrated in Latin rather than the vernacular. The people should know what the words mean, of course; bulletins and missals were supplying that need before Vatican II, and can still do so. But I think part of the reason that the Novus Ordo often feels a little strange and awkward in English (apart from the tragic decision to use the New American Bible as the standard translation for the liturgy, instead of literally any other version) is that it’s a form of English that is liturgical in meaning, but does not make use of most of the ritual tropes that a native English speaker is expecting to hear. The new translation introduced in 2011 is an improvement, but I still think Latin would be more harmonious with the character of the rite.

Conversely, the more complicated, irregular Greek language lends itself to, and has probably shaped, the involved and variegated Byzantine liturgies of both Orthodox and Catholic Christians in the East. I’ve only attended one liturgy from the Byzantine tradition (an Orthros and Divine Liturgy2 at a Greek Orthodox cathedral), but the impression I get from my limited knowledge is that the accent for the Greek-speaking tradition is one of mysticism. The hiding of the sanctuary behind the iconostasis,3 the invocations of the invisible angels, the frequently non-linear floor plans, the hypnotic litanies: all direct the worshipper towards participation in a different plane of existence, the heavenly.4

The language of the Anglican Use is, of course, English, and specifically the ‘classical’ English of the seventeenth century. The King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer, along with the plays of Shakespeare, have defined English usage and elegance more than any other sources, before or since. It’s noteworthy that, although the language has changed markedly in pronunciation, vocabulary, and even grammar since the Stuart era, we not only continue to study and use these sources of our mother tongue, but continue to understand much that would otherwise be obsolete: phrases like till death do us part or Adam knew his wife Eve, the pronoun thou, and archaic meanings of still-current words like divide and comfort and pale.

The mark of the English spiritual tradition, I think, could be summed up in the word courtesy; i.e., the deportment proper to a royal court. This can be seen in how elaborate this tradition generally is in its ritual, and not only in the Anglican Use Mass, whose prayers and rites, though more fixed, are grander and more involved than those of the Novus Ordo or even the Tridentine; the Sarum Use, from which the Anglican Use is distantly descended (through the Book of Common Prayer), was one of the most complex liturgies in Europe in the Middle Ages,5 including a procession to cense every altar in the church before the beginning of the Mass and a long series of prayers and antiphons at the rood screen.6

But complexity of ritual just as such is meaningless, like the eerily repellent ceremonials of Gormenghast. The rich profusion of ritual in the Anglican Use is designed to help us feel what is in fact the case: that in the Mass, we are in the presence of the supreme Majesty, the dignity and beauty of which all other dignities and beauties are reflections, the light from behind the sun.7 And the language, more even than the vessels or the vestments or the gestures or the architecture, is the means of this.

The Anointing of Queen Alexandra, Laurits Tuxen, 1902.

English is, in a quasi-technical sense, a barbarous language; that is, one not derived from the Mediterranean families, especially Greek and Latin. (Barbarism in this sense has nothing to do with a lack of goodness or intelligence; it is the lack of a specific tradition, something like polish.) It has a rich array of possible sounds, particularly vowel sounds,8 and allows nearly all sounds in nearly all positions. Perhaps most importantly, its general sound and especially its poetry rely chiefly upon stress rather than upon syllable length, inevitably giving English a rougher, more ‘Gothic’ feel, as contrasted with the stateliness and (appropriately) ‘Romanesque’ atmosphere of Latin.

Hence, I think an English-language liturgy will always strive towards a certain kind of ornament and melody. Deliberate ambiguities, rhymes and chimes, and a greater profusion of poetic language (spurred in some ways by our more demanding grammar, which requires more words and more independent clauses to convey the same volume of information as Latin) are all in-keeping with the woven, almost labyrinthine character of English.

Further, I believe that ‘classical’ English, with its archaisms, its stylizations, its harking back to the sea-crashing sound of Anglo-Saxon through ten centuries of French and Latin overlay, helps tie the liturgy into our bodies. It digs at the deep roots of memory and entwines itself with unconscious passions, in a way that contemporary or Latinized English can’t. The virtue of the Anglican Use is that it works with the English language in this way, availing itself of the perennial tug toward the phraseology and atmosphere of the seventeenth century.

And despite the polish we associate with the elegant, if unpredictable, courts of the Tudors and the Stuarts, there is a sense in which the ‘barbarism’ of the language and the courtesy of the rite belong together. The Roman world was defined by the Republic, even when that definition only told you how far the Empire had strayed from the Republic; its manners were the manners of a society that at its rare best was, and at its worst pretended to be, egalitarian and constitutional. The English-speaking world has always been defined by kings,9 and the glory that can halo a monarch will always surpass the glory that tries to attach itself to an abstraction like the state. One can kneel gracefully to a king, but one can hardly kneel gracefully to a handbook of constitutional procedures. Thus ‘barbaric’ societies will always be more courteous than sophisticated ones; they perceive the beauty of the personal, the willful, even the whimsical. Correspondingly, I think, English will always be less a language of the forum than a language of the castle.

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1The Novus Ordo is the Mass promulgated by Pope Paul VI after the close of the Second Vatican Council. The Extraordinary Form, so called in contrast to the Novus Ordo or Ordinary Form, is what is often informally called the traditional Latin Mass or Tridentine Mass, which was the liturgy used by Roman Catholics from 1570 (after the conclusion of the Council of Trent) until 1969.
2The Orthros is roughly equivalent to Matins in the Roman tradition, while the Divine Liturgy basically equates with the Mass in importance and function (allowing for significant differences in the ritual).
3An iconostasis is a wall decorated with icons that separates the sanctuary (the site of the altar) from the rest of the church; they are a standard feature of Eastern church architecture. An iconostasis parallels the veil of the Temple, which separated the Ark of the Covenant from the remainder of the sanctuary, as the sanctuary was separated from the outer courts of the Temple.
4I am even less qualified to speak about any other traditions among the Church’s rites: the Coptic, Slavonic, Armenian, Syriac, and so forth. I expect each one of them has its own spiritual style—it’d be quite odd if they didn’t, really—but I know little more about most of them than their names.
5Although the Anglican service was influenced by the Sarum Use, it was an independent service and replaced its predecessor. Queen Mary I restored the Sarum Use in 1553, when she reunited the Church of England with the Catholic Church, but six years later, Mary was dead and Elizabeth abolished it in favor of the service outlined in the Book of Common Prayer.
6Rarely seen today even in Anglican churches, a rood screen was a partition, typically made of wood, that stood between the sanctuary and the nave of a church, surmounted by a rood (a crucifix with images of St John and the Mother of God flanking it). It usually featured open tracery, which allowed the congregation to see into the sanctuary (in contrast to an iconostasis); they often featured sculptures or woven depictions of the saints. Many beautiful rood screens were destroyed during the English Reformation, and the liturgical reforms of the Council of Trent resulted in many Catholic rood screens also being removed.
7I gather from a passing reference in Arthurian Torso that this phrase was coined by Charles Williams. It certainly sounds like him.
8The polite fiction that there are five or at most seven vowels in English (a, e, i, o, u, and w and y if the writer is in a generous mood), bears approximately no relationship to the actual sounds of English, and is really just a pretext to use the Roman alphabet, to which our language is in fact rather ill-adapted—one of the many reasons our spelling system is a famous nightmare. Any given dialect of English probably has at least ten vowels, and with diphthongs half a dozen more.
9The United States is only a partial exception. The Revolution was at first a rebellion against Parliament rather than against King George, and Alexander Hamilton believed we should set up our own king rather than adopt a purely democratic-republican government. The fact that we continue to be fascinated by the Royal Family suggests that our culture is, even now, strongly if subconsciously attached to monarchy in some way.

Friday, August 19, 2016


Con su mano serena
En mi cuello hería,
Y todos mis sentidos suspendía.

With his gentle hand
He wounded my neck,
And all my senses were suspended.

—St John of the Cross, En Una Noche Oscura (The Dark Night of the Soul)

I met the Bride of Christ, the bruised beauty:
Her eye had a purple halo, and along her cheek
There ran a scarlet cord.
She sat on the end of my kitchen table, smoking a cigarette,
And explained that she’d run into the door.
I poured her a scotch
And another for myself, and we talked.

She told me about the years and months with him
When they were young, and they sailed the Mediterranean together,
And she spent her nights eating apples and figs;
She talked about their Christmases on ragged western islands,
And the elusive spring together on Kyushu.
She said his palms were rough and beautiful.
Her hands trembled as she spoke;
The painted nails were chipped, and underneath
There were grains of some dry substance, glittering.

I asked her about that time in autumn
When their neighbors called in a noise complaint,
Because the yelling and the noise of breaking glass were waking up the street,
And she wouldn’t talk to me for a week;
I asked her about the evening after that, when we drank too much coffee,
And she wore a turtleneck in the heat
With the pearl pendant he had given her.
She stubbed out her cigarette, studying the ashes,
And lit another one and changed the subject.
Our drinks fell and rose.

She would not say the specious litany—
‘He just gets a little angry sometimes’ or
‘It’s my fault; I should have had things ready.’
Instead, clear and cool: ‘He’s jealous.’
And, ‘It always hurts like the first time;
I love that.’

I looked down into my cup
And said something about taking her in, if she needed it.
Her smile frightened me, a mouthful of glass;
‘I get my own back.
I’ve dug my finger right through his wrist.’

I thought back to the first time I had met him:
Heat dropping from a dark sky,
A scarlet loveliness running along his throat,
His strangely tilted head, the smell of sweat, the motionless mouth,
His eyes, like hands that reach inside you,
Caressing you—such a tender touch,
But you can feel the force they’re capable of:
Like running a fingertip gently against a knife.
I understand her.
I am in love too.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

The Index of Creation

The Beatrician experience1 may be defined as the recovery (in respect to one human being) of that vision of reality which would have been common to all men in respect to all things if Man had never fallen. The lover sees the Lady as the Adam saw all things before they foolishly chose to experience good as evil, to ‘gaze upon the acts in contention.’ Williams believes that this experience is what it professes to be. The ‘light’ in which the beloved appears to be clothed is true light; the intense significance which she appears to have is not an illusion … The great danger is lest he should mistake the vision which is really a starting point for a goal; lest he should mistake the vision of Paradise for the arrival there. … The immediate glory will dazzle him ‘unless he has a mind to examine the pattern of the glory’ …

—C. S. Lewis, Arthurian Torso: Williams and the Arthuriad2

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I’ve written before about the late Pope’s Theology of the Body, and my attempts to ‘digest’ it on my slow and uphill road toward chastity. I’ve recently hit upon a possible alternative, however, one that seems to be much more accessible to somebody with my temper and imagination, and I’d like to explore it.

Theology of the Body looks at our bodies from the perspective of creation, drawing together the Roman scholastic tradition, German idealist philosophy, and the wisdom tradition of the Scriptures themselves and the methods of the Church Fathers. I love it, but I’m not completely satisfied with it and don’t feel totally at home in it—not because I’m gay (though I would have liked to see St John Paul addressing homosexuality directly in TOB), but because of … call it the work’s atmosphere. It’s a mountainous sort of book: huge, cold, airy, with a dappled mixture of clarity and clouds. It’s beautiful, but, for me at least, it isn’t home.

But I think I may have found this other way of approach to the mystery of the body. Not one that’s more doctrinally correct, any more than the Roman or Byzantine or Antiochene liturgies could be ranked by correctness, but one that my mind and heart can grasp more firmly: an approach that illuminates the mystery, answers the questions and intuitions that I have about the body, and hints at solutions to difficulties that TOB rarely if ever addresses. This way of approach can be gleaned from Charles Williams’ work on poetry, particularly on Dante, the Arthurian cycle, and the Romantics.

The difference between St John Paul II’s tome and Williams’ thought could be expressed by saying that, where the pastor considered the body primarily in terms of a created thing with a proper pattern and function, the poet considered the body primarily in terms of a medium of revelation.3 (Each view is capable of including the other; the distinction is one of accent, not of content.) He states his fundamental attitude in the essay The Index of the Body, where, quoting Wordsworth’s lines the human form To me became an index of delight, Of grace and honor, power and worthiness, he reflects on them as follows:

The word index is the beginning. The question proposed is whether we shall take that word seriously as a statement of the relation of the human form to ‘grace and honor, power and worthiness.’ … An index is a list of various subjects, with reference to those places where, in the text of the volume, they are treated at greater length. But, at least, the words naming the subjects are the same; and a really good index will give some idea of the particular kind of treatment offered on the separate pages. Some such idea, Wordsworth’s lines suggest, the body and even the members of the body may give … The Sacred Body [of Christ] 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 as including the whole universe are in this less than the truth. As His, so ours; the body, in this sense of an index, is also a pattern. We carry about with us an operative synthesis of the Virtues … ‘Grace was in all her steps, heaven in her eye; / In every gesture dignity and love’ is much more a definite statement of fact than we had supposed; footsteps are astonishing movements of grace.4

After reading or quoting Williams, I generally feel that nothing I can say could exalt the hearer’s thoughts more than what’s just been said: yet, our beloved brother Charles also according to the wisdom given unto him hath written, in which are some things hard to be understood. I haven’t finished searching out the great wealth of meaning that he conveys, but what I do understand so far is, roughly, as follows.

First, in contradistinction to the great saint’s return to the chronological beginning to understand the body, Williams looks to Jesus as the point of origin for the body. He followed the tradition of Bl Duns Scotus, asserting that God would still have become man if we had never fallen; from the beginning, independently of our sinfulness, He meant to become a man, to be born of a Mother, and that that Mother should herself have ancestors and companions. So the body of Jesus, though not the physical progenitor of the human race, is the center of the human race—our final cause, as the body of Adam was our efficient cause.

Second, it explains something of why we find physical beauty (especially erotic beauty) so powerful, and have so hard a time practicing chastity. For anyone who’s attempted chastity for any appreciable length of time knows that it isn’t just a matter of controlling your libido—it includes that, but there’s a sense of enchantment about sex that is something more and other than satisfying a biological impulse. A man who is enamored of a woman or man will probably want to sleep with the object of their desire at some point (though at times, more mysteriously, erotic love produces the impulse to perpetual continence), but the first impulse is something much more like adoration. The impulse to possess the beloved, though it often follows, is at the very beginning felt to be far less important than the impulse to revere the beloved.

This suggests that the magic of erotic love (however transitory) is not illusion, but a kind of transfiguration: a vision of what the actual person was meant to be, in their unfallen or archetypal identity. In the world as we know it, there will always be the risk of confusing the archetype with its earthly ectype, pretending that the beloved has no flaws or that the beloved’s flaws are virtues; or, alternately, being disobedient to the heavenly vision and sinking into a contented vulgarity.5 But all of these things are human imperfections; the vision is, in fact, a vision of a fact. And man was made for truth, and the senses are one of our means of receiving it, however surprising that may be to the adept who was expecting one of Yoda’s dismissive lectures about ‘crude matter.’ That the truth should reach us through our eyes, our hands, our tongues, our chests, our legs, is not really any stranger than that the truth should reach us in the first place.

Third, this also seems to me to reposition our understanding of chastity. The teleological perspective taken by St John Paul II in particular, and Roman Catholics in general, makes sense to me, but I’ve always found it vaguely unsatisfying.6 To adapt Chesterton, I always felt that it explained something, but in a way that made the explanation seem far less important than the fact; and thus unworthy of the fact. The perspective taken by Williams—call it the esoteric view7—hints at significances and mysteries inhering in the body which would transfigure chastity, from the vegetarian-sounding fulfillment of the good of a rational and embodied creature, to the virile, pregnant, magical idea of a ritual invocation of spiritual energies through the visible body that is charged with them.

I don’t fully understand this third part. But it makes me a lot more optimistic that there is something worth understanding here, and that feels a lot better than the law-centered concept of chastity I’ve always had up to now. Most aspects of chastity have always seemed very arbitrary to me (of course, since God made the body, He kind of has a right to be arbitrary if He likes, but it’s easy to resent and hard to accept, and also doesn’t really sound like Him). Williams’ esoteric conception of the body seems like the sort of thing that would be worth slowly penetrating, until the fullness was found.

Of course, there’s much more to this way of looking at the body. It isn’t just that this explains chastity, or sexuality in general for that matter. That the human form should be an index of delight, Of grace and honor, power and worthiness implies (and Williams certainly thought) that the body indexes creation as a whole, not just its fecundity or its orderliness; the doctrine that man is made in the image of God, if it means anything at all for the body, implies the same. But this is what I have understood up to now. I hope I will have more to say about this as time goes on!

Henry Holiday, Dante and Beatrice, 1883

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1I.e., the kind of experience of love that Dante had when he met Beatrice. Not all loves have this quality, though many do, with or without an erotic element.
2I just got a copy of this during my trip to Portland, and I am still over the moon about it. Arthurian Torso is tough to find—Lewis’ career as a professor of literature is largely and unjustly forgotten today, and Williams is tragically obscure. Unfortunately it’s a frustrating book to cite as well, because the two halves of it (an incomplete work of Williams’ which was meant to be published as The Figure of Arthur, parallel to his earlier work The Figure of Beatrice, but which he was prevented from finishing by an abrupt death; and Lewis’ own commentary on both this work and Williams’ volumes of Arthurian poetry) are by different authors, but the book is not really a collaboration.
3Another way of putting it would be that St John Paul II tended to the Aristotelian where Williams tended to the Platonic. The Pope considered the body’s nature in itself, so to speak, where Williams treated it (and everything else) first and foremost as an icon of the divine glory, a means to adoration. This brings out the contrast in their approaches very clearly, since treating the body as a means is almost exactly how St John Paul defined lust, though obviously he was not thinking in terms of adoration; while conversely, for Williams, the body was a means first of all because everything is a means, everything refers to God, and only exists by so referring.
4The Image of the City, pp. 81, 86. This collection is a posthumous anthology of Williams’ essays (mostly published in periodicals) on literary and theological subjects.
5I don’t mean by this that the vision in which Williams thought romantic love consisted is the only way of rising above vulgarity. The human soul can be exalted by virtually any good, if it follows that good diligently and disinterestedly. But, if a person has this kind of vision—whether they fall in love with a person or are enchanted by a piece of art or anything else—and then decides, for whatever reason, to cynically dismiss what it had to tell them (‘I was young then,’ ‘puppy love,’ ‘it was a phase’: the maxims of the lie are many), they will at least be merely vulgar toward the object of the vision. A great many marriages, whether they conclude in divorce or not, show this unhappy progression.
6The word unsatisfying means no more than itself. I accept the Church’s teaching on homosexuality, contraception, monogamy, etc.; when I say I find the explanation unsatisfying, it means I am left hungry for more explanation.
7The word esoteric is not a quite happy one, first and foremost because it is horribly vague. It is also a very artificial category: there is a shared atmosphere among many of the things labelled today as esoterica (the Rosicrucian tradition, Kabbalah, certain forms of neopaganism, astrology), but for the most part these things were simply part of the common heritage of wisdom in the West until after the Protestant Reformation. Unfortunately I haven’t been able to come up with an alternative to esoteric that isn’t even more unsatisfying.