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Hermeneutics and Continuity

April 26, 2010 Leave a comment

If anyone spends long enough around the Catholic Church, he is bound to hear something concerning Vatican II and the changes that have stemmed from the decisions made at the council.  Some people are happy for these changes, some are still—forty-four years later—quite angry, and many, if not most, are almost entirely ignorant of what occurred at the council and how it has impacted the Church.  Regardless of where one stands, the divergence of opinions clearly demonstrates that there is a lack of consistent interpretation of Vatican II.  Though not something new to the Church, this contrariety of opinions is a very significant situation from which has come, and from which continues to come, much chaos and much damage in the form of liturgical and theological disunity.  How does such inconsistent and subsequently faulty interpretation occur?  Firstly, it comes from the frailty of the human authors of the documents.  As men, the theologians and clergy involved in the documents’ crafting were and are fallible and subject to error; more diabolically, and as a topic far beyond the scope of this essay, they are also subject to sinful behavior, including deliberate subversion of Church teaching and tradition.  Either sort of aberration from the requisite clarity of the exercise of the teaching authority entrusted to the Church’s bishops and pontiff results in harm—and such happened in the Second Vatican Council..  Due to this lack of clarity, not only is unintentional misinterpretation of the council’s teaching nigh unavoidable—the modern age having given the common man access to everything, all the time—but even more lamentably the door is opened wide for deliberate misinterpretation and consequent misapplication.  Thus, left in a state of confusion, it is to be asked: how may the Church and Her members reclaim clarity, unity, and all that has been woefully cast aside amidst the incoherence of radically divergent interpretations of the Second Vatican Council?  This question, which has been of growing importance as liturgical, theological, and catechetical abuse has continued to hold the reigns in far too many a diocese, has found an answer, in what His Holiness Benedict XVI termed “the hermeneutic of continuity.”

Before diving into the difficulties inevitable in the unpacking of this phrase, it should be prefaced by saying that Vatican II, though poorly worded, illumined much which had become obfuscated throughout time by a routine acceptance, rather than a willing embrace, of Catholic tradition.  As such, though many mistakenly or willfully took the documents of Vatican II as an impetus to rupture with the Church’s tradition, the council’s promulgations have given the members of the Church an opportunity to re-evaluate their understanding of the tradition to which they adhere and within which they are inexorably bound, as part of the Mystical Body of Christ.  In performing this re-evaluation, the concept of hermeneutics, particularly the hermeneutic of continuity, is invaluably helpful; not only so that Catholics, deprived of the traditions that misinterpretation of Vatican II stripped away, may reclaim their liturgical and theological heritage, but so that with such understanding they may better comprehend their present situation and advance further in the lifelong endeavor that is the pursuit of salvation.


So what is the hermeneutic of continuity?  First, what is a hermeneutic?  Simply put, it is a method of interpretation; consequently, hermeneutics is the study of the methods and means of interpretation.  This study is consequently applicable to all spheres and pursuits of human activity; traditionally it began with Sacred Scripture, but has expanded in time to literature, law, history, and gradually the entire human experience.  To present the history of the development of hermeneutics, as a study of the processes of interpretation, understanding, and application, would be a lengthy digression.  Summarily, the goal of the hermeneutical development has always been to provide a means by which someone may clearly understand what is being presented, what they are perceiving—in this way, it has always been, with varying degrees of accuracy, oriented by what could be considered the phenomenological perspective.

Unfortunately, however, many of those who study hermeneutics, in attempting to find a means to validly access, interpret, and understand the pastness of things—be they cultures, people, ideas, texts, or events—stray into advocating errors of two primary divergences: one, in attempting to displace the self, into the historical environment or spirit of that attempting to be understood; or two, in attempting to comprehend the events solely by how they relate to the individual, the subjective consciousness of the self.  For a clear example, consider an unspecified literary work of the Victorian era.  In either sort of error, each having many variations, there is a calcification of the object of understanding; the former being an attempt at rigid but inevitably impossible reconstruction—the self whom one attempts to displace into another’s experience being inexorable from its own sphere of experience—and the latter being a consistently fluctuating but invariably dominant projection of the self, by which the object of understanding is conformed to the truth given by the self.  The former error, in attempted interpretation of the Victorian literary piece, would consist in the interpreter trying to mentally reconstruct the historical situation in which the author wrote or in trying to reconstruct the psychological state of the author at the time of writing.  The latter error would be reading everything within the literary work only as it applies to the self and as the self can re-apply it: for instance, Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market, to the person who feels excluded because she is female, the treatment of Laura and Lizzie by the in which men exclude women.

Though one is far more likely to derive something useful from the historical displacement, and though one could see a valid application of the text’s meaning to a contemporary situation,  in neither method is there a full understanding of the text.  Furthermore, and what is part of the fundamental error that has skewed the hermeneutical process throughout the centuries, is that the application of that which is understood has been divorced, separated from the acts of understanding and interpretation; yet the end, the application of that which is derived, is always that which directs the interpretation and thus determines the understanding.  In other words, those who attempt to understanding anything must do so by studying the parts in terms of the whole and the whole by means of the parts for some end, with some goal that inevitably influences, guides, and determines the shape of one’s interpretation and understanding.

The effects of this divorce are quite obvious in many of the branches of literary interpretation and criticism popular in the 20th and 21st centuries: reader-response theory, deconstructionism, the new historical school, and feminist and gender studies are all exemplars of the sort of eisegetical imposition that can be made upon a text when the application of its meaning is unnaturally separated from the discovery of that meaning.  If the end in one’s interpretative process is simply to interpret, then what will direct one’s interpretation of it?  It can only be one’s personal interests, goals, and ambitions; thus, the result is what the present Holy Father also aptly termed a dictatorship of relativism, for the goal of interpretation, left subject to the whims of the individual agenda, is not the acquisition of truth, but a sophistry, the making of something lesser appear greater.  Without the goal of deriving the truth as something absolute and unchanging from a text, or an event, be it past or present, a critic may take a single part to determine the meaning of the whole of something; he may use his own situation, feelings, or experience to re-present the work of some author long dead in an entirely different light—as gender theorists love to do.  This sort of interpretation, this radically individualistic hermeneutic of rupture, is focused not on the thing itself, but on the individual’s own agenda or the external circumstances surrounding the thing.

In contrast to these peripheral methods is that which is truly phenomenological, that which observes the thing itself.  To return to the example of Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market, what is the thing, the text?  On the surface, it is the words; but all words are signs; and signs are those things that point to something else.  To what do the signs of a literary work point?  That question can only be answered by analyzing and examining an individual work, for each is unique, and some point to nothing beyond their literal and obvious meanings.  In the case of Rossetti’s magnum opus, the signs point to a Christological story in which poorly-considered curiosity and the promise of pleasure brings a fall from grace that is redeemed by genuine love and an uncompromising willingness for self-sacrifice.  Arriving at this understanding, however, requires an interpretation by means of what is called the hermeneutical circle, with which one examines the parts of a text in reference to the whole, and examines the whole in reference to the parts.  By repeatedly working out this dual-referentiality, the understanding continually advances forwards; and when the interpreter goes out of the sphere of the text itself and into the tradition behind the text, as well as his own experience, so long as he is conscious of the significance of each and so long as he continually validates their application by reference to the text, he may further his understanding in an entirely more profound way.  Indeed, such an interpretation and understanding of Goblin Market could not be made otherwise, for it is only by an internal, personal recognition of the objective goodness of self-sacrifice and by knowledge of the tradition of Christological allusion in poetry that the inference can be made; but once made, it helps, as part of the multi-layered mutually referential hermeneutic, to make clearer the meaning of the text itself.

The Second Vatican Council

Of the 16 documents of the Second Vatican Council—four constitutions, three declarations, and nine decrees—none is without some ambiguity; most are riddled with it.  Such a lack of clarity has made it easy for those who would deliberately seek a break with the Church’s consistent teaching, particularly regarding such issues as contraception, homosexuality, abortion, the ordination of women, and the clear distinction between the clergy and the laity.  However, despite the lack of clarity in the documents themselves, it is blatantly clear that the method of interpretation employed by these individuals is radically flawed, falling principally into the aforementioned relativistic error.  Just as gender-studies critics would read Goblin Market as a tale of liberation from masculine oppression, so too do radical feminists, amongst others, interpret the documents of Vatican II.  Refutation of these interpretations is not the goal of this essay; indeed, such a refutation would be futile, for the error is not merely in the faulty interpretation itself, but in the very method of interpretation they use, in the willful discontinuity which they perceive and upon which they insist.  Just as someone can refuse to see the Christological allegory in Rossetti’s work and thereby deny the poem’s greater significance, so too can one refuse to see the documents of Vatican II as dependent upon and within the fold of antecedent Church teaching, thereby denying their genuine significance.

This is why the concept behind Pope Benedict’s phrase, the hermeneutic of continuity, is so important.  It reminds the alacritous but perhaps undereducated laity that, unlike some self-contained didactic document (the existence of which is highly dubious, any document necessarily being produced within some particular context), any promulgation of the Holy See is merely a part within a much greater whole.  For someone to read and interpret Unitatis Redintegratio, the Vatican II decree on ecumenism, for instance, as a stand-alone document, and as solely indicative of the Church’s teaching on non-Catholic Christian churches would be tantamount to reading one act of a single Shakespearean play and from thence explicating all of dramatic convention.  Tragedy cannot be fully explained by the third act of Othello and ecumenism cannot be understood through either Unitatis Redintegratio nor Mortalium Animos, nor any single Church document.  The relationship between the Church and Her dissidents, between orthodox theology and heretical theology, does not fall into a categorical system whereby absolute damnation or salvation are determined; the law is not the sole determinant of justification, for the “law is always imperfect, not because it is imperfect in itself, but because, in comparison with the ordered world of law, human reality is necessarily imperfect and hence does not allow of any simple application of the former.” Indeed, if one is to consider justice—the giving of what is due to whom it is due—then judgment must always consider the particular imperfection of he who is being judged.  Such is the case with the Church’s relationship to the heretical Protestant denominations; at a time of genuine education, near the error, and with obstinacy in the face of the Truth, they are fully, mortally culpable for their heretical behavior.  Contrariwise, in a time, such as now, when the majority of Protestants are enormously ignorant of Catholic teaching, as well as having been brought up within the folds of heresy, they are not very culpable for their faults—indeed, the Catholic is more at fault for Protestantism today than the average Protestant, for being negligent in his evangelical duty.

In a way, this might seem discontinuous; it may seem as a promotion, or at least an acceptance, of the eternal law in which the Church participates being consistently ruptured by vagarious and erring human behavior.  Were the function, the end for which the Church exists, merely to enforce the eternal and divine law upon the world, then indeed, such evident difference in Church teaching would constitute discontinuity; but that is not the end for which the Church exists.  Rather, She exists to provide to souls the means to salvation; She illumines and aids man in his formation to fully conform to that law.  As such, Her teaching is continuous: what was said fourteen-hundred years ago was said for people fourteen-hundred years ago, and so may seem unusual to people today; but stripped of its accidents of composition, its temporally relevant metaphors, and everything which makes it comprehensible and beneficial to its intended particular audience, the essence is the same as that which She says today: the essence is always that which enables man’s salvation.  That does not mean that liturgical dance is in itself good; that does not mean that confession is optional; that does not mean that reception of the Holy Eucharist in one’s hand is appropriate; that does not mean that rock instruments are fitting to the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass; but it does mean that these things are tolerable in cultures which have not had time to ingest the higher and better things, the things that are most fitting.  Likewise, it does not mean that abortion or contraception or active homosexuality or women’s ordination is acceptable, under any circumstances: for while the Church serves as a means to reconcile man’s imperfections with the eternal law, there are some crimes which are inexcusable, some imperfections which are more like cancers than cuts.

For this reason, one must never rush to make a judgment or a pronouncement concerning Church teaching.  Every single part, every single detail of the Church’s promulgated guidance is related and dependent upon the whole, which is dependent upon its end; each part must be read and interpreted in reference to the whole, and the whole can only be understood through its parts, and both can only be understood in relation to the function they serve: the salvation of man.  The Second Vatican Council and its apparent discontinuity cannot truly be understood without long, slow, patient learning, not only of the documents themselves but of the Church’s teaching from antiquity.  Furthermore, the Council should not, under any circumstances, be seen as a rupture, but instead an opportunity for regeneration, as an instigation which leads man into that learning.  Indeed, unprecedented opportunity for a truly educated laity has been given to the Church: the accessibility of Church teaching, of educational means, and the reduction of time spent in labor make it feasible for almost every Catholic to not only know his Church’s teachings, but the reasoning behind them.  Every apparent defeat of tradition, of the good, every step backwards from the truth is an opportunity to make that step again, and better.

Reason is a principle that operates in all men, whether or not they are conscious of it, and every man wants to be reasonable, regardless of how unreasonably he may act.  Against the tyranny of modernity, the dictatorship of relativism—the results of contemporary man’s irrational methods of interpretation—there must certainly be trust in faith, in the efficacious grace of God, but there must also be trust in the universality of reason.  Hermeneutics of rupture, of individuality, cannot simply be left alone, lest their irrational procedure become contumaciously ingrained into the moral and intellectual fiber of society.  In the words of Pope St. Pius X, from his encyclical Acerbo Nimis, “if faith languishes in our days, if among large numbers it has almost vanished, the reason is that the duty of catechetical teaching is either fulfilled very superficially or altogether neglected.”


Categories: Print Edition Full

Sweeney at the Ambo

December 30, 2009 Leave a comment

It is part of human nature for men to want to be heard; and while not all men enact this innate possibility of being, many do, and many have longed to, but not had the means.  Thus, with the advent of modern democracy came the right to free speech, which has often been celebrated and in many cases sapiently exercised.  Yet freedom is in all cases a double-edged sword, for it is easy mutilated into the enemy of liberty, license: a man is just as free to pursue the bad, being whatever he wants for himself, as he is the good, whatever is best for himself.  In the case of free speech, undoubtedly more good would come of it were the majority of the populace rightly educated not merely in how to speak, but in how to think; as it is, free speech can only be as good as that which goes into those who speak, and the average person is, sadly, educated very poorly.  And yet, despite such poor education, the capability of the average individual to publish his opinions freely, in a way that is available to everyone, has never been as easy as it is today: enter the age of the internet.  Again, this freedom can be good—indeed, Veritatis Praeco humbly attempts usage of the medium—but it can also be quite bad.  On the internet, anyone can be a painter, a rock star, a minor celebrity; everyone has the chance to pretend that he is an artist.  But what happens when someone attempts to be an artist without having any artistic talent?  Quite simply, he produces a piece of bad art.

Thus, when someone tries to make a name for himself through the internet as a critic, without having a keen critical eye, he is apt to producing bad criticism.  Such is the case with Dan Schneider, proprietor of the website Cosmoetica, which offers essays, literary and film criticism, and poetry written by the proprietor and his associates.  Who Mr. Schneider is, how he was educated, and what compliment Roger Ebert once gave him is irrelevant to the focus of this essay: namely, showing how Mr. Schneider’s criticism is undermined by the arrogance with which he approaches his subject.  One of the features on Cosmoetica is a section, “This Old Poem,” in which Schneider “re-writes” and thereby “improves” certain poems—many by talented and highly reputed poets—that he considers overrated.  Whether or not such can still be considered to be the same poems at all, for the sound-structure of a poem’s words and the particular signification achieved by the specific ordering of words is the construct through which the poem itself exists, is an interesting debate which will, however, not be taken up here; for regardless of whether or not the poem may continue to exist in a different, revised version or format, Mr. Schneider falls far short of producing such replication—to do so would require something he is lacking.  The revisions Schneider offers are based upon his critical interpretations of the poems.  However, a valid interpretation of any poem requires an accurate perception of the poem itself and a comprehension of what is being said, a task at which Schneider habitually fails.  This is blatant in Schneider’s take on T.S. Eliot’s subtle work, “Mr. Eliot’s Sunday Morning Service.

A poem composed of eight stanzas typographically divided into two halves, containing sixteen lines each, Schneider reduces the tightly-woven work to a mere twelve lines in three stanzas, and effective eviscerates its meaning in the processes (the entirety of the “This Old Poem” entry can be seen here).  Looking at Schneider’s analysis piece by piece would be tedious and fruitless; he attempts to look at the poem line by line and construct some sort of meaning from an aggregation of the pieces.  The first stanza he claims is representing the delivery of a sermon to a distracted crowd, where the preacher is attempting to corral the wandering interests of the people.  He proceeds by stating that the second stanza postulates that the self-emasculated (literally) Origen was produced by “a lot of ecclesiastical nonsense.”  No analysis, but only a description of what is stated (the religious work of a painter), is offered for the third and fourth stanzas; similarly nothing more than a translation is given for the fifth and sixth stanzas.  The seventh stanza, which describes the hermaphroditic activity of bees, is taken as referencing the “layety.”  Another translation is offered of the eighth stanza, concerning the discomfort of Sweeney, Eliot’s “everyman” character, with the intellectual aloofness of the clergy.  The conclusion at which Schneider arrives is that the poem is claiming that “the Church is filled with effete foagies.”

Not only is this interpretation methodologically unsound (see “Hermeneutics and Continuity” in the forth-coming print issue of Veritatis Praeco, to be online in February 2010), but it, lacking any insight to the poem’s essence, fails to adequately discern even the particulars, and consequently fails to note the construction whereby the whole is achieved.  Criticism of such a poem, in which assertions concerning its meaning are made, can only be valid if first the poem itself is understood.  Contrary to Schneider’s flaccid interpretation of “Mr. Eliot’s Sunday Morning Service” as a critique of the clergy, the following interpretation will show that the poem is, in fact, better comprehended as an observation of the disconnect, the chasm of non-communication, between the metaphysical mind of the cleric and the sensuous mind of the common man.

T. S. Eliot

To deal with the first things first, let the initial four lines be examined.  Taking a hint from the poem’s title, the first half of the poem appears to be the content of a preacher’s sermon: the first quatrain his introduction.  Two questions should be asked by the inquiring critic: first, who could be considered the wise suppliers of prolific offspring of the Lord? and second, what is to be found on the windows of the place in which a sermon, namely a church, would be delivered?  The answer to both questions is the same: saints, so long as “polyphilogenitive” is taken in a spiritual, and not a physical sense.  The significance of the opening words of John’s Gospel, “In the beginning was the Word,” is not without ambiguity; in Greek, they read “En arche en o Logos;” in Latin, “In principium erat Verbum.”  Interestingly enough, in both ancient languages, the word translated into English as “beginning” (arche and principium) also means principle, as in that which makes other things to be as they are.  Eliot was well versed in both and, regardless of whether or not it was his intent, the linguistic roots of the Scripture reinforce the notion that the saints, whose spiritual fecundity the preacher is praising, have their roots, their inception, in Christ.

Moving on to the second stanza, one encounters again, the line “In the beginning was the Word,” (the beginning of a stanza, the end of a stanza; the alpha and the omega), followed by three lines which describe the mystery of the Incarnation and the Hypostatic Union—those things that are beyond even the deftest minds to fully comprehend, those things that sapped Origen, who willfully castrated himself, of his connectivity to this world and the things temporal.  Read literally, and by itself, it would seem that this stanza could be interpreted as indicating that Origen was driven crazy by the subtleties and nuances of the doctrines of faith and the questions of their reasonableness.  However, taken in the context of the poem as a whole, this seems out of place, and the interpretation proffered earlier in this paragraph is more fitting.

The third and fourth stanzas offer a description of a painter’s portrayal of the Baptism of Christ (of the Umbrian school—likely Raphael or Perugino); the work, the poet says, shows the wilderness surrounding the river as “cracked and browned,” doubly meaning that the painting itself is worn, fading.  In contrast, “through the water pale and thin / Still shine the unoffending feet.”  Christ, despite the ephemerality of this world and the failure of its attempts to create something permanent, continues unblemished, unending.  Christ, in the world is not of the world, a message corroborated by the painter setting above the other two persons of the Trinity.

The next three stanzas of the poem, which come after a typographical division, are abstract, and difficult. Superficially, the first two seem a mockery of the sacrament of penance, the third an attack against the heterosexuality of the supposedly emasculated, effeminate clergy.  This seventh stanza of the poem, however, is actually the key to understanding the whole; for what is the “blest office of the epicene”?  One may interpret the epicene to be referencing a total emasculation or a hermaphroditic quality; in describing the activity of bees, which receive pollen from the male organs (stamens) of flowers and deliver them to the female organs (pistils), it would logically reference the hermaphroditic.  But what would the clergy be transporting?  What hermaphrodism is had by the clergy?  What do they bring to the Divine, but the sinner’s penance, his “piaculative pence”?  What else do they bring to the penitent but the mercy of God?  Is not the hermaphrodism of the cleric a dual functionality in this world and in the sphere of the transcendent?

Of course, the final stanza, in which Sweeney, who is T.S. Eliot’s everyman, his undereducated proletarian, shifts “from ham to ham,” can now be seen rather ironically.  Sweeney does not understand the sermon of Mr. Eliot at his Sunday morning service.  The masters are masters of subtle schools; they are controversial, they are widely learned and erudite in that which they know; Sweeney is not.  He is merely sitting in the pew, uncomfortable, bored, the sermon sailing over his head—much like Eliot’s poem eluded the interpretative capabilities of Mr. Dan Schneider.

Perhaps this interpretation is flawed, faulty, and colored by religious, spiritual bias; perhaps it is realized only in the consciousness of those who desire poetry to have meaning and who respect poets of true linguistic comprehension.  Yet re-reading each poem, in light of the final analysis, it seems only more reasonable: the preacher speaks of the “sutlers of the Lord,” who consider and attempt to represent the transcendent, the divine, who lose some of their vitality in this passing world by contemplating the mysteries of the immutable world; he speaks of the “blest office of the epicene,” the hermaphroditic preacher who stands both partly in this world and partly in the next, passing between one world and the next, delivering man’s penitential prayers to God and God’s mercy to man.  All this, Sweeney cannot comprehend; and yet, in Schneider, who is merely a representative of a pseudo-intelligentsia, can be seen not merely Sweeney, but Prufrock and a Hollow Man as well; uncomprehending, full of “high sentence, but a bit obtuse,” and—though he thinks himself shouting theatrically from a secular ambo set upon the world’s new stage—he is hidden behind the curtain, merely whispering “quiet and meaningless;” his is a voice that will not resonate in the eternal.

Categories: General

On Literature and the Aesthetic

August 23, 2009 Leave a comment

Of the traditional transcendentals—the true, the good, and the beautiful—the lattermost is the one most frequently and most easily tossed from its noble rank.  The popular sentiment that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is among the many dominant cultural and psychological influences acknowledged to exist and yet seldom subjected to examination.  It seems reasonable, on observation of the sundry opinions as to what is beautiful and what is not.  Yet such reasoning is superficial and characteristic of a lazy inquiry.  It is easy to be swept along by commonality and never realize it, to consciously recognize only the variances amongst the dominance of taste—which is not to say that all dominant taste is good; on the contrary, the more prevalent an aesthetic criterion, the more unlikely it is to adhere to an objective standard, being driven instead by the masses of untrained aestheticians who demand sensory pleasure rather than genuine objective quality.  Consider popular music: the innovators of a particular style are not always the best musicians, and the best musicians are certainly not always innovators.  Neither sort is guaranteed any true popularity; instead, those who perform the style with little regard to either talent or innovation and focus instead on making their music accessible are guaranteed a large following.  Yet amongst the performers who garner a significantly populated fan base, the styles vary drastically, from saccharine cooing to dark, heavy metal.  Though some would see this as even more evidence of the relativization of aesthetic preference, it is the truth that—even if the majority of followers of death metal would not readily accede to such—all music, and indeed all art, even if in the smallest degree, is recognized as communicating some transcendental and objective aspect of the beautiful.

Immanuel Kant, in his Critique of Judgment, wrote that “Fine art shows its superiority precisely in this, that it describes things beautifully that in nature we would dislike or find ugly.”1 While good art imitates nature, poor art imitates good art; and so in poor art, as opposed to the fine, which portrays the naturally distasteful there is found a diluted representation of this transformed beauty; and like all dilution, makes it easier to swallow, hence the popularity of the under-talented and accessible.  Of course, this raises the question, which regularly revisits civilization every few decades, “What is good art?”  When the societal norms dictate relativization of aesthetic judgment, the criteria are usually centered around the evocation of powerful emotion.  When objectively grounded in a transcendental conception, the criteria center around the portrayal and signification of truth or goodness, be it by a via negativa or by a positive relation.  This contrary standard of analysis indeed provides insight to the distinction between good and bad art; the latter being that which merely evokes emotion—sometimes quite powerfully—but passes away, while the former produces a lasting impression by connecting the perceiver with some eternal truth through means of the perceived.  This impression of truth is most powerfully achieved by the well-wrought literary work.

It is for this reason that William Shakespeare is a name known by almost everyone, whereas the Great Bard’s contemporaries Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson do not share such fame.  The latter two were excellent playwrights, make no mistake, but the brilliance of Shakespeare is universally recognizable, even by those who have great difficulty in articulating why he was so brilliant.  It could be said that Shakespeare’s brilliance resides in the fluidity of his language or the richness of his characters; but the same could be said for a thousand other deservedly lesser-known poets, playwrights, and novelists.  What Shakespeare constructed so well in almost all of his plays, on a level unparalleled, were symbols of essential and immutable human nature.  Were these constructs not immanently beautiful, they would retain their atemporal universality but lose the profundity of their atemporal accessibility.  The contemporary perception of Shakespeare as, to the common reader, impossibly recondite, shows not a lack of beauty in the writing, but a lack of comprehension in the undereducated reader; yet it shows the indomitable nature of Shakespeare’s symbolic constructs that the educated few persist in advocating for the bard, maintaining his status as the playwright par excellence.

But what is the significance of these symbolic constructs?  What is a symbol?  Man encounters symbols every day: in corporate logos, in ritual practices, and in all media of art and entertainment.  These symbols act as intermediaries between the perceiver and the signified.  As such they are signifiers, but not merely signs, for a sign, such as a word or a red octagon on which “STOP” is written have no substantial content in their functionality themselves; a word may be spoken or written or transmitted through sign-language, and a stop sign can be made of metal or wood or any number of materials.  A sign represents its signified by completely accidental means; that which they signify could be signified in a number of other ways, as both “rage” and “anger” connote a particular emotion (with nuanced differences) and both a stop sign and a red light signify that the driver must stop his car (with different rules for proceeding after stopping).  A sign does not share in the participation in being of the signified, of the signified’s substance.  The entire substance of a sign, as a sign, is to point to something else.  Contrariwise, a symbol shares in the participation of that which it ultimately signifies; which is why it is said that a good portrait “captures” an image of its subject.  Likewise a crucifix, though it ultimately signifies the Crucifixion of Christ, also makes present in its own being an aspect of the crucifixion, and is hence venerated.

Literary Critic Allen Tate

Literary Critic Allen Tate

While the symbolic nature of the plastic arts, or even the well-designed corporate logo, is plain to see, perception of pervasive symbolism in good literature is more difficult.  After all, was it not said just above that words are merely signs, and is not literature composed of words?  Most certainly literature is; but despite its material building blocks being themselves signifiers, the words from which literature is made are accidental to literature itself, the whole instead being something greater.  This accidental nature of the parts is well demonstrated by translation, through which the same work, though homogenous in its original language, may be presented in great variety by multiple translations into another language.  The quality of a translation, it ought to be noted, is not determined strictly by the most precise terminology, but rather by the best connotation.  For example, it is debatable which description of Odysseus in Homer’s Iliad is better:

This one is Laertes’ son, resourceful Odysseus,
who grew up in the country, rough though it be, of Ithaka,
to know every manner of shiftiness and crafty counsels.2


That’s Laretes’ son, the great tactician Odysseus.
He was bred in the land of Ithaca.  Rocky ground
and he’s quick at every treachery under the sun—
the man of twists and turns.3

Each translation has its merits, but the latter carries the description awkwardly and with some vagueness and imprecision—“tactician” being of narrower meaning than “resourceful,” “twists and turns” being less indicative than “shiftiness and crafty counsels”—whereas the former has both linguistic fluidity and richer connotation of Odysseus’ character; the reader is given a better image of the man and of Helen’s perception of him.  But even this image, like all individual literary images, is not itself the symbolism of the work or even a symbolic particular, properly speaking, for it is a mere fragment of the work as a whole and may serve simply to frame some more significant action or individual.

Wherein, then, does the symbolism of a literary work as a whole reside?  First, let a particular symbol of a work be examined; in this case, a simile in Gerard Manley Hopkins’ sonnet, “God’s Grandeur.”  Though the poem is explicit in reference to its subject matter, it nonetheless corroborates its explication through the use of imagery.  The first two lines,

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;

say directly what is meant, and yet use a symbolic image in order better to convey meaning through to the corporeally enmeshed intellect; the world is full, energized, by the greatness and the glory of God, which will become visible through bursts of brilliance, which resemble the light which comes off a piece of foil when shaken.  The foil, as that which reflects light—which catches light so to speak—acts as an analogate for the world, and the light as an analogate for the divine grandeur.  The foil as a symbol participates in the same sort of being of the world, the receptivity of a greater and nobler beauty, and the world in turn serves as a symbol that participates in the grandeur of God.  This imagery of transitive significance is what Allen Tate once so succinctly and insightfully described: “The symbolic imagination conducts an action through analogy, of the human to the divine, of the nature to the supernatural, of the low to the high, of time to eternity.”4

Although actions are usually considered as individual elements, when the whole of a literary work is realized by the reader, there is a totality constructed by the various individual actions; as such the action of a Shakespearean tragedy (or any good tragedy) is complete when, through freely-willed human action and the unpredictable vacillations of fate, the life of an extraordinary man ends in calamity, death, or complete disintegration of harmonious existence.  In such a tragedy—Macbeth, for instance—the totality of action becomes symbolic by analogizing the particular to the universal, of showing in the actual fall of one man the potential fall of all; by showing how anyone may capitulate to lust for power and the consequences that may thereby be suffered, regardless of societal norms or provincial circumstances.  This whole signification is achieved by mediate significations, such as the Weird Sisters—the word “Weird” in Elizabethan English connoting that which has to do with fate—who symbolize the impersonal machinations of a world that acts in ways contrary to and independent of human will.  Such intermediaries, which stand between the perceiver and the signified, act as lenses by which, individually, aspects of the total significance are perceived, and together, as that which shows the whole while yet retaining the particulars.  Indeed, the well-wrought literary work is at once a telescope and a microscope to sempiternal truth and reality.

But this is not all that good literature and other successfully crafted works of art do; for it is not merely the communication of truth and goodness, but the communication of truth and goodness in a particular manner; namely, a beautiful manner.  Certainly, as any Catholic metaphysician worth his salt could attest, the true, the good, and the beautiful are fundamentally the same in their per se existence, much like the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.  And yet the manifestations of the good, the true, and the beautiful are as diversely realized as those of the Trinity.  The Father may stand for the Good, the Son for the True, and the Holy Ghost for the Beautiful; but there is goodness in beauty and beauty in truth and truth in goodness, each in the other and the other in each.  Nonetheless it is through the manner of being of the individual human person, tied to the immanent and particular world as he is, that man naturally perceives the Three in One as Three, as through particular symbols and analogates by which the universals of his experiences are known.  This is the task of the aesthetic, to perceive that which is portrayed by a symbol and thereby enable the recognition of the universals which indicate the supreme Universal; through grasping the signs of words, a symbol can be grasped; through grasping a symbol, that which it signifies can be grasped; through grasping the whole of a series of symbols, the greater symbol is realized, and with that realization comes the possibility of tasting eternal truth.

Google Books, p.180
2 Homer. The Iliad. Trans. Lattimore, Richard. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961) 105.
3 Homer. The Iliad. Trans. Fagles, Robert (New York: Penguin Books, 1998) 135.
4 Tate, Allen. Essays of Four Decades. “The Symbolic Imagination.” (Wilmington DE: ISI Books, 1999) 427.  For explication of the symbolic in literature, this essay is highly recommended, particularly when read in juxtaposition to “The Angelic Imagination.”

Categories: General

On Comforts and Crosses

August 17, 2009 Leave a comment

In The Everlasting Man, Chesterton, having moved on from the creature called man to the man called Christ, explains that in the first half of his book he “often treated man as merely an animal, to show that the effect was more impossible than if he were treated as an angel.”  The rationalist, the man who unreasonably believes in nothing but a domineering aprioristic reason, tries to account for the nature of man by construction from his lowest and most ignoble parts.  Such a man always has a disparaging conception of the human person, for abstracting any sort of universal from the majority of individuals based upon their worst actions is bound to produce a deformed and vulgar conception.  On the surface, that would be the conception possessed by Flannery O’Connor, whose writing is permeated with stupid and sinful characters who act viciously and selfishly.  Almost all of her stories end with some grotesque deprivation of happiness, a calamity in life or by death.  Yet what O’Connor most definitely saw in the sinful human person was the same thing Chesterton saw; namely, Christ, or at the very least, the effect of Christ.

“The Comforts of Home,” though not one of the more frequently-commented upon stories of O’Connor, does a magnificent job of showing this contrast.  In a strange sort of double-inversion, the story takes what is ostensibly an anecdote told of St. Thomas Aquinas, turns it inside-out, and then stands the world on its head; quite a feat in a mere 21 pages.  The story opens with the protagonist, Thomas, a thirty-five year old scholar of history, chasing a naked girl out of his room in the middle of the night with a chair, a story which parallels the popular legend that the great Saint of the 13th century did likewise, with a burning log, when his brothers attempted to induce him to forsake his vows of chastity.  But while the men, the real theologian and the fictional historian, share a distaste for strumpets, the similarities do not penetrate any deeper.  St. Thomas slammed his door, burned a cross into it, and fell to prayer; Historian Thomas chased the girl into the guest room and turned to berating his mother for bringing the young nymphomaniac into the house.  The fictional Thomas is not unlike what the real Thomas would have been if not for the gift of faith, if not for the transformative power of Christ; and thus they are radically different.

Flannery O'Connor

Flannery O'Connor

What changed in the world with the advent of Christ and His Church?  In a word: everything.  That which constituted perfect virtue in the eyes of the world became imperfect virtue, seen through the corrective lenses of Christianity.  When Christ died on the Cross, the veil in the temple was torn, and indeed, so too was a veil torn off of man, that which obfuscated his transcendent nature.  This vision of man, as created in the image and likeness of God, Who, by the Incarnation and Eucharist gave man an eternal and immanent channel to the transcendent, was made possible by incomparable suffering, and therein lies perhaps the most significant transfiguration affected by Christ; that what was most ignoble in man—physical torment, public humiliation, and ignominious death—becomes his greatest means to perfection.

This infused value of suffering is recognized everywhere by the fictional Thomas’ mother, who, as Thomas describes it, has a “daredevil charity.”1 Indeed, Thomas’ mother’s act of kindness, bringing home Sarah Ham, an obsessive compulsive liar and nymphomaniac who has seen no end of trouble, can be seen as daring the devil.  The girl abuses the elder woman’s charity and constantly taunts and tempts the uninterested Thomas.  Yet the mother finds herself either unable or unwilling—possibly both—to send away the girl, believing that she has been the victim of an unfortunate past and that she deserves an infinite number of chances to right her life.  Despite Thomas doing everything he can to oust the young girl, who turns to weakly-attempted suicides to further her appearance of being imperiled, the mother pictures the girl as being her own, and pities her lack of a good home.  Ultimately, in the story’s last moment of final suspense, Thomas’ mother sacrifices herself for the sake of the young harlot—and it is left open to interpretation whether or not such an action might also be salvific for her son.  Like most of O’Connor’s stories, it ends abruptly, leaving the reader a bit confused and a bit perturbed.  None of the characters are blatantly good, with the mother’s “daredevil charity” resulting in her own death, and no good having evidently come out of the story, one character ending up a murderer and another yet ensconced in a sinful life.  But despite this seemingly fruitless, seemingly vain story of grotesque hate and violence, the story’s sanguinity is not one-dimensional.

St. Thomas deprived of his faith becomes an ordinary Thomas, not only doubting but denying; Mary Magdalene without redemption a harlot remains, a debauched life unabated; and in the end, Christ dies for them both, sinners each beloved and unloving.  Though the end is abrupt, as with all of O’Connor’s fiction, the distinctly Christian element, the meaningful sacrifice, the purposeful suffering, instills the otherwise morbid story with a silver lining of hope.  The fates of Thomas and Sarah are not decided by the author, nor by the mother; but that thread is dangled not tauntingly but beckoningly before them, out of the blood-stained shroud of the unnamed mother; Magdalene may yet escape the stones, and Thomas may yet write his Summa.

1 O’Connor, Flannery. “The Comforts of Home,” The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor. (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1971) 383.

Categories: General

An Appeal for Authority

August 8, 2009 9 comments

Any just court of law operates on the premise that a man is innocent until proven guilty.  The reasoning behind this premise is that, in most cases, mere suspicion is not enough to warrant the sort of action that is to be taken upon the guilty.  If the powers-that-be in the legal system were to act upon mere unproven suspicions, many more people would be unjustly incarcerated.  It has also been proven that paranoid minds are subject to a very slippery slope, whether they belong to Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, or Senator McCarthy.  Provided leeway, a paranoid legal system would look much like, to be frank, the Obama administration if given its druthers.  A sane society is one in which men can trust one another and particularly trust the authorities on whom their civil rights and material well-being dependent.  Indeed, submission to an authority operates on a premise similar to that of the courts of law: that the authority is valid until proven illegitimate.  Yet in the contemporary perspective of the United States, growing numbers of people are operating conversely; that is, on the premise that until an authority validates itself, until the natural tendency to hold some actions of authority suspect is proven unfounded, that it should be treated as an instrument of one’s oppression.  This perspective, fostered by mediums of entertainment, is not only destructive of the individuals who capitulate to its prideful rhetoric, but of the institutions of Western civilization as a whole, for it is only by an authority that unity can be maintained, and it is only by unity that civilization persists and achieves any sort of genuine progress.

The general spirit of reactionary resentment of authority in the United States grew out of the blooming rock-and-roll culture of the 1950s and protest movements of the 1960s.  For several decades, the spirit had little political or economic effect—since the two are nigh indivisible in this country—beyond the nominally counter-cultural movements centralized largely around the various music scenes and progressive college campuses, and achieved little grounding in people over 30 who were not enlightened liberal college professors.  Yet the seeds sown by the counter-cultural movements and the deficiently educational and exceedingly propagandistic colleges, though abated in the lives of individuals who found that working for the man is not so bad since he pays so well, nonetheless took root in the larger social consciousness.

The germ of this spirit, which for brevity will be called the Puerile Spirit, which finds yielding soil in the drama that is adolescence, readily blooms when watered by the inundation of politically-driven entertainment media.  Anti-establishment movies such as Fight Club or V for Vendetta corroborate not only the rhetorically polished but insubstantial conjectures of authors such as Noam Chomsky, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Phil Lombardo, nor just government conspiracy television shows and “investigative” programs on channels such as Discovery or The Learning Channel, but also the average news broadcast.  The subtle use of background music, computer graphics, interviews and expert analysis, emotional testimonies, and a thousand other nuances of manipulation invigorate the dramatically-grounded Puerile Spirit.  This has become blatantly obvious over the past 6 years, as media disillusionment with the Bush administration, some of which was justified and some not, was played up to a frenzy of conspiracy and lies.

Are you going to trust this guy telling you to question authority?

Are you going to trust this guy telling you to question authority?

Ironically and amusingly, the backlash of sensationalistic reporting by the mainstream media is being felt in the pullulating distrust of the socialist policies of Barack Obama.  Granted that FoxNews employs spectacle more than any other major news outlet, the trend was viciously employed and to great effect by the liberal news media over the past several years.  Though Hussein started with a high approval rating, his acceptance as an authority was based entirely on the thin ice of his substantially deficient hortatory mantras.  The Puerile Spirit, though hypocritical in its fostering of an inquisitional attitude without simultaneously encouraging an intellect sufficiently developed enough to pursue truth, despite its pursuit of naught but self-affirmation, can nonetheless instigate the downfall of an authority proven illegitimate on the grounds of incompetence and injustice.  It is to be hoped that the distrust of an illegitimate authority can mature into an objective evaluation of authority itself; that the goodness of authority can be seen for what it is.  A distortion of the perception of authority, as something that mandates incessant inquisition, breeds a society of distrust; a society of insanity.  Government, rightly exercised, is a good thing, which provides for man’s material well-being, by enabling him to pursue it and by preventing his wrongful deprivation.  To preserve the United States, the emerging weeds of the Puerile Spirit’s tendency to reject civil authority need to be plucked before long.

Where the Puerile Spirit has not long lain dormant, however, is in the realm of religion, most notably the Catholic Church in America.  Intellectual dissent, such as that of Hans Kung and Karl Rahner, dissolved into the emotional coddling of the insecurities of feminists and homosexuals, and brought about what has been termed the hermeneutic of rupture; the interpretation of the documents of Vatican II according to this very same Puerile Spirit, which innately rejects authority on its merit as authority and collaborates with it only when its goals match those of the individual.  This intellectual and emotional juvenility also has its fostering in cheap entertainment spectacle: Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons, both in written and cinematic forms, John Cornwell’s minimally researched Hitler’s Pope, countless inaccurate portrayals of the Church as it truly is (though depressingly accurate of how many see it), and the prominent liberal cafeteria Catholics and politicians throughout the media limelight, such as Sean Hannity, Maria Shriver, Nancy Pelosi, Joe Biden, John Kerry, James Carville, Ted Kennedy, and Rudy Giuliani.  Dissent is everywhere glorified.  Whereas interaction with the authority of government constitutes only one part of a person’s life, however, faith is involved with the totality of a person’s existence, for it is or is supposed to be the pinnacle towards which all of a person’s actions aspire; thus a rupture in accepting the authority of any faith, but especially the Faith, by operating on the premise that the authority needs first to prove itself in order to be accepted, nourishes the noxious growth of the Puerile Spirit on a gigantic scale.  If inherent rejection of civil authority produces political weeds, then the inherent rejection of ecclesiastical authority sprouts moral, intellectual, and spiritual kudzu.  Where the former is a political pride, a fallacious principled intractability against the idea of men having authority over one another, the latter is a spiritual pride, the damnable obduracy of Satan.

In conclusion, it is not only acceptable to question authority, but right.  Yet questioning it from the premise that it is invalid to begin with, questioning it as the Pharisees and Herodians did Christ: “Tell us therefore what dost thou think?  Is it lawful to give tribute to Caesar, or not?  But Jesus knowing their wickedness, said: Why do you tempt me, ye hypocrites? Show me the coin of the tribute. And they offered him a penny.  And Jesus saith to them: Whose image and inscription is this?  They say to him: Caesar’s.  Then he saith to them: Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God, the things that are God’s” (Mt. 22:17-22) 1.

1 For any Protestants reading this, who would insist that the authority of Christ was not transferred to his Apostles, answer this: Why did Christ come in human form at all?  Why did He act as He did in human form?  Why teach with authority as a man?  As an addendum, watch Stephen Colbert intellectually trounce Dr. Zimbardo; as a caveat, Colbert does swear at the end.

Categories: General

On Culture and Reactions

In 1930, twelve men of letters published a book entitled I’ll Take My Stand, which defended man’s right to his land, his quiet, his leisure, and his right to say “no.”  It was and still is largely seen as a reactionary work stemming from Southern regressives against modern progress and the inevitability of cultural change.  Oftentimes, a reactionary production is indeed something to be scrutinized and rejected as the unthinking instinctual reflex of an closed mind.  Yet the mere fact that an action is reflexive does not necessitate that it is poorly chosen.  Thus the writings of the Southern Agrarians, who authored I’ll Take My Stand, may have been consonant with their initial reactions, but investigation of their writings shows that, while their cultural outlook may have been somewhat too rigid in some areas, their principles were both grounded in a virtuous disposition and thoroughly reasoned.

When the Southern Agrarians produced their manifesto, the damage which they foresaw being done to the culture of the South seemed little more than the paranoia of a few backwater hicks who had somehow managed to garner a fine literary education.  Yet what shines through in the eloquent writings of men such as Richard M. Weaver, Robert Penn Warren, and Allen Tate is not a backwards rhetorical sophism, but a systematic defense of that which they found good.  Their taste in cultural preference was not chosen on a whim or by attraction to the superficial, but was deeply ingrained in both their personal lives and in their intellectual endeavors.  Most of the better-known Agrarians were poets or literary critics, many of whom were connected with Vanderbilt University, as either matriculants or professors.  In this life of relaxed academia and in the world of professional letters, what they discovered was not the competitive hustle and bustle that dominated the north-eastern universities which were ensconced by an industrial lifestyle, but the goodness of independent living.  Their intellectual peers who lived and worked in the centers of industry, such as H.L. Mencken, had no recourse to success but to trample down others; being good meant being better, and staying good meant being the best.  For the Southerners, good was good, and to stay good it did not need to become any better.

Southern Agrarian, Robert Penn Warren

Southern Agrarian, Robert Penn Warren

In contrast to the modern progressives who saw it as their divinely-appointed duty to ridicule southern culture, the Agrarians had a fundamental humility which, though at times obscured by the strength with which they promoted their opinions and denounced the cultural wrecking-ball of ill-defined progress, acknowledged man’s sovereignty simultaneously with and in no way separable from his ecological dependence.  Though man may conquer the soil, though he may cut down the forests, he cannot survive without either.  Thus, in order for men to have a proper sense of himself, he must have a proper sense of that upon which he is dependent.  A society which provides man with his every immediate need by the exchange of currency is a society which dehumanizes man, by the very fact that it denies to him the necessity of his connection with land, and thus deprives him of its joy.  When a man owns no land, and is in no way responsible for either the expanse of terrain upon which he lives or the production of that which sustains him, he loses some of his masculinity.  He becomes daily dependent on others for not only those things which every man needs every day and cannot give himself, such as community and conversation, but for the material sustenance which maintains his corporeal existence.

With increased dependence upon others come increased arrogance and a decreased appreciation for the value of things.  A man who has struggled to build his own rocking chair will not, because of his own experience, smash one out of carelessness; whereas a man who can afford a thousand rocking chairs on a whim will have likely little regard for the value of the craftsmanship which was poured into their making.  Consequently, such a society which idolizes the wealthy man who has no respect for the non-monetary value of property will care only for the here and now, the immediate good; which is to say that their only pleasure is the thrill, and their only thrills are those which are cheap.  Flitting desultorily from one distraction to another, the society which is dominated by a mentality of modern progressivism is a society which denies itself a true culture.  Inexpensive pleasures take little time to produce and sustain the person for just as long; and when the media of cultural transmission – art, philosophy, literature, architecture, music, and other such forms of societal consciousness – plant no deep roots in the soil of the past, then from their indolence, masked as artistic originality, no fruit is borne.

A society without direct ownership of real property is a society without responsibility; a society without responsibility is a society without care; a society without care is a society without a culture.  Southern Agrarianism was not without its problems.  Most of its chief proponents were terrible farmers; and the movement eventually fell apart through internal discord and the irreconcilable conflicts which permeated the consciousnesses of the individuals who were its leaders.  Yet despite its ultimate failure and its reactionary inception, it was a justified defense of what was a genuine culture, a culture built from man’s intimacy with his land.  In the words of literary critic and professor Dr. Cicero Bruce, “Yes, Tate was a reactionary. But he believed that one could animate Western culture only by reacting violently to the enervating forces within it.”1

Recommended Reading:

Allen Tate – Essays of Four Decades
Richard M. Weaver – Ideas Have Consequences
Various – I’ll Take My Stand
Cicero Bruce – The Stand of Allen Tate
Rev. Vincent McNabb – The Church and the Land

1 The Stand of Allen Tate – Dr. Cicero Bruce (links to page 8)

Categories: General

Man and the Mass

July 14, 2009 9 comments

The return to the Traditional liturgy has revitalized true manliness.  For decades, not-so-subtle abuse has been made of the provisional allowances for female participation in the celebration of the Mass, as lectors, altar servers, and extraordinary ministers (which are all-too-frequently abused regardless of sex).  This sad state of affairs is beginning to disappear in more traditionally-leaning parishes, even where only the Novus Ordo is present, and is altogether vanquished in what can only be described, in the most positive connotations of the word, as truly extraordinary parishes.  While this being accepted by men and women alike throughout the world, there is a stronger tendency towards traditionalism amongst men than women.  It is not as though all women view the movement with hostility, but there are nonetheless two ways in which their enthusiasm for the structures of traditionalism which are built both up from and up towards the Traditional Mass are mitigated; one is a good thing, as a sort of docile and understanding acceptance that some things rightly belong to men alone (just as some belong rightly to women alone), and the other is harmful, as a sort of reluctance in resignation to exclusion based on sex.

Fulton Sheen once wrote that woman is “most reasonable when man is most irrational.”1 Man finds the most complete privations of his rationality in the heights of his awe, his rapture, his love.  When a man is consumed with love, with a burning passion for some thing or some one, he cannot sit still; as the expression goes, he cannot contain himself, as though his whole person is ready to leap out of his body in a state of purest ecstasy, euphoria.  When a man becomes conscious of the potentiality of love realized, he wants to rush towards it and disregard everything else, even his own future; to give the entirety of his being in one intense thrust.  Propriety tends to go flying out the window for the man in love.  He throws it out in the depths of his irrationality.  As such does woman become most reasonable; she sees that he, in his burning love for her, cannot rightly disregard everything else, and reminds him of the value of propriety.  Out of love, he pays attention to those little and seemingly insignificant things that are pale lights beside her; the deeper his love, the more scrupulously he attends to them, and he loves propriety for the sake of loving her.

Curiously, this phenomenon manifests itself in the English language, as well.  When someone desires to communicate something of the most urgency, the most importance, he uses the fewest words possible; it is intense, but simply a burst of energy.  Oftentimes, indiscernible sounds screamed without any consonant formation, serve just as well as words; sometimes better.  An urgent cry of “marshmallows!” does not convey the sense of danger as well as “ahhh!”  But when man wants to convey something particular, definite, and intelligible, he relies on syntax; on rigidity, on rules, on structure.  Grammar and syntax allow for the nigh infinite possibilities of individual words to be placed into a meaningful utterance while retaining and even focusing the connotations each the individual word.  Thus when male pronouns are used in the singular to denote the entirety of the human race, that raging potentiality of the male is present, but restrained; the combination of the potentiality of the word with the definitive signification intended by a syntactical structure parallels the coupling of man and wife.  To use the feminine in the sexually undesignated singular would not necessarily be incorrect, but the connotation is one of particular actuality being further contained, rather than universal potentiality being made actual and meaningful (admittedly something of a paradox, if one is to consider the outlines of Chesterton’s perspective on man and woman – perhaps that is a topic to be reviewed later).  The word must be restrained by its sentence in order to be good, to be truly significant, to convey to the minds of men some definite meaning.

A man cannot take his eyes off his beloved.

Rigidly enraptured

It is no different, and indeed much more profoundly related to the human experience, within the Holy Mass.  To eyes accustomed to seeing love as wild, burning, as passion unrestrained, the Traditional liturgy is cold, dispassionate, a seminar in death-like rigidity, devoid of meaning and fecundity.  Indeed, the rigidity of the Mass is very death-like, but in no way is it cold or dispassionate; the reverence of the priest, the deacon, the subdeacon, and the acolytes is the most meaningful strictly human part of the Mass.

In Elizabethan English, the words “death” and “die” carried the connotation of sexual climax.  Though this meaning may have come from any one of a dozen significations, there is nonetheless a certain fittingness to it.  A seed must die in order to create new life.  A lover dies to his beloved; in the realization of one potential love, every other dies.  The greatest act of love in all history was death: Christ on the Cross, a posture of notable rigidity.  Just as Christ was willingly, is willingly, nailed into place, so too does the priest willingly nail into a rigid posture his earnest and inflamed desire to celebrate the Mass: Christ conformed Himself to the Cross for the sake of His Church; the priest conforms himself to the Church for the sake of the Mass.  To again quote Sheen, “Man is the raging torrent of the cascading river; woman is the bank which keeps it within limits.”2 So too is the priest, alter Christus, lovingly bound in the strict arms of his bride, the Church, for whom he willingly dies, to himself and to the world.

When a woman enters the sanctuary, she is trespassing into the “bedroom” of a priest and his Bride; with what intent does she enter?  The closer one draws to the sacrifice of the Mass, the deeper, the more burning, the more intense must one’s passion be; the more one must be fitting to the situation, to the role, not only in virtue but also in nature.  The sanctuary, the sacristy, and most especially the altar are places for men to be men, to be manly, to love so deeply that they hold themselves erect, that they walk only in straight lines, and that precision guides their every move; like a young man courting a young woman.

1 Sheen, Fulton J., The World’s First Love. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1952, 121
2 Sheen, 158

Categories: General