Monday, December 16, 2019

Reminder: Chesterton, Dickens, and Christmas

Just a reminder that I'll be on the Son Rise Morning Show this morning at about 6:50 a.m. Central Time/7:50 a.m. Eastern Time. Matt Swaim and I will talk about G.K. Chesterton's great appreciation of Dickens and particularly of A Christmas Carol!

Listen live here; the podcast will be archived here

As Chesterton commented in his praise of A Christmas Carol, as much as it is a Christmas story, and as much as it is a ghost story, it is also a conversion story:

The Christmas Carol (sic) is a happy story first,
because it describes an abrupt and dramatic change. It is not only the story of a conversion, but of a sudden conversion; as sudden as the conversion of a man at a Salvation Army meeting. Popular religion is quite right in insisting on the fact of a crisis in most things. It is true that the man at the Salvation Army meeting would probably be converted from the punch bowl; whereas Scrooge was converted to it. That only means that Scrooge and Dickens represented a higher and more historic Christianity.

And everyone loves a conversion story, because it gives us hope that we can change, that we can be better, and do good all the year long!

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Alma Mater Redemptoris

I added this CD from The Sixteen and Harry Christophers to my Advent playlist earlier this week (joining Puer Natus Est from Stile Antico, Veni Domine from the Sistine Chapel, and Come, Thou Dayspring from on High from Wyoming Catholic College):

The long-established tradition of devotion to the Virgin Mary resulted in some superb settings from Spanish composers. Tomás Luis de Victoria was, quite possibly, the most outstanding composer of the Renaissance and this recording features a tantalizing selection of the sumptuous music he wrote in honour of the Virgin Mary, including some of his exquisite Marian motets and the glorious Missa Alma Redemptoris Mater:

1. Salve Regina a 5
2. Alma Redemptoris Mater a 5
3. Congratulamini mihi a 6
4. Sancta Maria
5. Gaude Maria

6. Kyrie
7. Gloria
8. Credo
9. Sanctus and Benedictus
10. Agnus Dei

11. Hymn: Ave maris stella
12. Magnificat octavi toni
13. Regina caeli a 5
14. Ne timeas Maria
15. Litaniae Beatae Mariae a 8


The cover of the CD features a detail from one of El Greco's paintings of the Annunciation. This version is held by the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid:

In the course of his life, El Greco painted numerous versions of the Annunciation, thus allowing his stylistic development to be traced through his changing treatment of this Biblical episode. This painting, dated around 1576, is thought to be one of the last versions executed in Italy, and is clearly influenced by the Venetian style. From her prayer-stool at the left of the painting, the Virgin listens attentively to the message of the Archangel, a figure rendered very much in the style of Veronese. The light and the colouring owe much to Titian, a painter EI Greco admired, while the arrangement of the figures and the treatment of the drapery strongly recall the work of Tintoretto. Here, EI Greco places the figures within a simple architectural setting, loosely framing them to make the scene more realistic.

Compare this version, another Venetian inspired painting. As the Prado website explains the influences of Titian and Tintoretto:

In keeping with iconographic tradition, the Virgin turns in surprise at the arrival of the Archangel Gabriel and the Holy Ghost. This work is very close, compositionally and stylistically, to the Annunciation of the Modena Triptych, but it is not known whether it is a sketch for that work, or an autograph reduction. Probably painted in Venice just before 1570, this piece seems to be inspired by the work of Titian, although the architecture in the background and the tile flooring in the room hearken to Tintoretto. These were the two painters who most influenced El Greco.

To see  a more "El Greco" El Greco (Doménikos Theotokópoulos), see this version, held by the Museum of Fine Art in Budapest:

In the picture of the Prado treating the same subject and painted in Venice, El Greco placed the Annunciation scene in a dynamic architectural setting and enlivened it with a group of cherubs. In this version, dating from the last years of the 16th century, the interior of the room is filled with clouds and flashing lights, in a way that the objects surrounding the Virgin – the simple prie-dieu, the book opening like a fan, the sewing-basket and the vase – are removed from real space and saturated with mystic significance. The wide, emphatic arc of the drapery covering the Virgin’s knees seems only to make her small head and narrow, transfigured face appear as distant from us and as close to the heavenly messenger as possible.

Mother of Christ, hear thou thy people's cry
Star of the deep and Portal of the sky!
Mother of Him who thee made from nothing made.
Sinking we strive and call to thee for aid:
Oh, by what joy which Gabriel brought to thee,
Thou Virgin first and last, let us thy mercy see.

V. The Angel of the Lord declared unto Mary.
R. And she conceived by the Holy Spirit.

Let us pray. Pour forth, we beseech Thee, O Lord, Thy grace into our hearts, that we, to whom the incarnation of Christ, Thy Son, was made known by the message of an angel, may by His passion and cross be brought to the glory of His resurrection, through the same Christ our Lord. Amen.

One light-hearted note about this recording: my dogs, Joey and Brandy, seem to enjoy this music. They slumber peacefully whenever I play the CD!

Saturday, December 14, 2019

In Case You're Asked: "Calculating Christmas"

Touchstone Magazine shared this post from its archives, an article by William J. Tighe, Professor of History at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania, exploring the efforts of the Early Church to establish the date of the birth of Christ. He confronts the usual explanation that early Christians "baptized" the pagan celebration of the birth of Sol Invictus, noting that view has it backwards: the Emperor Aurelian established that feast to compete with the birth of Christ in 274 A.D.

Instead, Tighe examines the common belief that the great prophets of God were conceived or born and died on the same date. Thus the date of the Annunciation, March 25 in the West, April 6 in the East, became the determining factor:

It is to this day, commemorated almost universally among Christians as the Feast of the Annunciation, when the Archangel Gabriel brought the good tidings of a savior to the Virgin Mary, upon whose acquiescence the Eternal Word of God (“Light of Light, True God of True God, begotten of the Father before all ages”) forthwith became incarnate in her womb. What is the length of pregnancy? Nine months. Add nine months to March 25th and you get December 25th; add it to April 6th and you get January 6th. December 25th is Christmas, and January 6th is Epiphany.

Christmas (December 25th) is a feast of Western Christian origin. In Constantinople it appears to have been introduced in 379 or 380. From a sermon of St. John Chrysostom, at the time a renowned ascetic and preacher in his native Antioch, it appears that the feast was first celebrated there on 25 December 386. From these centers it spread throughout the Christian East, being adopted in Alexandria around 432 and in Jerusalem a century or more later. The Armenians, alone among ancient Christian churches, have never adopted it, and to this day celebrate Christ’s birth, manifestation to the magi, and baptism on January 6th.

Western churches, in turn, gradually adopted the January 6th Epiphany feast from the East, Rome doing so sometime between 366 and 394. But in the West, the feast was generally presented as the commemoration of the visit of the magi to the infant Christ, and as such, it was an important feast, but not one of the most important ones—a striking contrast to its position in the East, where it remains the second most important festival of the church year, second only to Pascha (Easter).

In the East, Epiphany far outstrips Christmas. The reason is that the feast celebrates Christ’s baptism in the Jordan and the occasion on which the Voice of the Father and the Descent of the Spirit both manifested for the first time to mortal men the divinity of the Incarnate Christ and the Trinity of the Persons in the One Godhead.

Please read the rest there.

Image credit: Diptych with Scenes of the Annunciation, Nativity, Crucifixion, and Resurrection, 1300–1325 (German) Public Domain from THE MET. The image at the top is the interior of the diptych; the bottom image is the exterior.

Friday, December 13, 2019

Preview: Chesterton, Dickens, and Christmas

So on Monday, December 16, I'll continue the mini-series on the Son Rise Morning Show on Chesterton and Christmas, this time talking about Chesterton, Charles Dickens, and A Christmas Carol. Listen live here at about 7:50 a.m. Eastern/6:50 a.m. Central and then the segment will be repeated sometime during the EWTN hour (an hour earlier) and stored in the show's SoundCloud.

As we know, Chesterton wrote a lot; among all that he wrote, he wrote a lot about Dickens: a complete study in 1906; essays in the various journals he contributed to, and introductions to "cheap" editions of Dickens' novels and collections.

Of Chesterton's 1906 work on Charles Dickens, Dale Ahlquist comments:

T.S. Eliot said that Chesterton’s book on Dickens is the “best on that author that has ever been written.”

One of the most surprising things about the book is that at the time it was written, the novels of Dickens were experiencing something of an eclipse in England. But Chesterton’s book helped spark a wide revival of Dickens, prompting J.M. Dent to publish new editions of all his books for the Everyman’s Library – and to invite G.K. Chesterton to write an introduction for each of the twenty-four volumes.

In 1942, The Readers Club (with an editorial committee comprised of Clifton Fadiman, Sinclair Lewis, Carl Von Doren, and Alexander Woolcott) brought out a new edition of Chesterton’s book on Dickens with the subtitle,
The Last of the Great Men. In his introduction to this edition, Alexander Woolcott, says he feels qualified to describe the book as “readable” – since he himself has read it at least a dozen times.

It's when we turn to the introduction Chesterton wrote to the J.M. Dent edition of Dickens' Christmas Books, including The Christmas Carol that we see what Chesterton saw in Dickens' vision of Christmas: a man reviving a tradition--a Catholic and even Medieval tradition--in spite of himself:

The mystery of Christmas is in a manner identical with the mystery of Dickens. If ever we adequately explain the one we may adequately explain the other. And indeed, in the treatment of the two, the chronological or historical order must in some degree be remembered. Before we come to the question of what Dickens did for Christmas we must consider the question of what Christmas did for Dickens. How did it happen that this bustling, nineteenth-century man, full of the almost cock-sure common-sense of the utilitarian and liberal epoch, came to associate his name chiefly in literary history with the perpetuation of a half pagan and half Catholic festival which he would certainly have called an antiquity and might easily have called a superstition? Christmas has indeed been celebrated before in English literature; but it had, in the most noticeable cases, been celebrated in connection with that kind of feudalism with which Dickens would have severed his connection with an ignorant and even excessive scorn. Sir Roger de Coverley kept Christmas; but it was a feudal Christmas. Sir Walter Scott sang in praise of Christmas; but it was a feudal Christmas. And Dickens was not only indifferent to the dignity of the old country gentleman or to the genial archæology of Scott; [104]he was even harshly and insolently hostile to it. If Dickens had lived in the neighbourhood of Sir Roger de Coverley he would undoubtedly, like Tom Touchy, have been always “having the law of him.” If Dickens had stumbled in among the old armour and quaint folios of Scott’s study he would certainly have read his brother novelist a lesson in no measured terms about the futility of thus fumbling in the dust-bins of old oppression and error. So far from Dickens being one of those who like a thing because it is old, he was one of those cruder kind of reformers, in theory at least, who actually dislike a thing because it is old. He was not merely the more righteous kind of Radical who tries to uproot abuses; he was partly also that more suicidal kind of Radical who tries to uproot himself. In theory at any rate, he had no adequate conception of the importance of human tradition; in his time it had been twisted and falsified into the form of an opposition to democracy. In truth, of course, tradition is the most democratic of all things, for tradition is merely a democracy of the dead as well as the living. But Dickens and his special group or generation had no grasp of this permanent position; they had been called to a special war for the righting of special wrongs. In so far as such an institution as Christmas was old, Dickens would even have tended to despise it. He could never have put the matter to himself in the correct way—that while there are some things whose antiquity does prove that they are dying, there are some other things whose antiquity only proves that they cannot die.

Please note that this is the source of Chesterton's "democracy of the dead" quotation!

Chesterton ascribes three qualities to the celebration of Christmas in this tradition. There's an element of drama, that anyone making final preparations knows: we're trying to fit as much celebration and festivity as we can into a 24 hours or a weekend or even two weeks (when we observe the true Christmas Season). Then there's the weather, at least in our hemisphere: it's cold, snowy, and wintry. Finally, there's an element of the grotesque, of goblins and ghosts; of joy and ugliness (contrasted to sorrow and beauty). As Chesterton then concludes, Dickens brings all these elements to the fore in his Christmas books:

All Dickens’s books are Christmas books. But this is still truest of his two or three famous Yuletide tales—The Christmas Carol (sic) and The Chimes and The Cricket on the Hearth. Of these The Christmas Carol is beyond comparison the best as well as the most popular. Indeed, Dickens is in so profound and spiritual a sense a popular author that in his case, unlike most others, it can generally be said that the best work is the most popular. It is for Pickwick that he is best known; and upon the whole it is for Pickwick that he is best worth knowing. In any case this superiority of The Christmas Carol makes it convenient for us to take it as an example of the generalisations already made. If we study the very real atmosphere of rejoicing and of riotous charity in The Christmas Carol we shall find that all the three marks I have mentioned are unmistakably visible. The Christmas Carol is a happy story first, because it describes an abrupt and dramatic change. It is not only the story of a conversion, but of a sudden conversion; as sudden as the conversion of a man at a Salvation Army meeting. Popular religion is quite right in insisting on the fact of a crisis in most things. It is true that the man at the Salvation Army meeting would probably be converted from the punch bowl; whereas Scrooge was converted to it. That only means that Scrooge and Dickens represented a higher and more historic Christianity.

Again, The Christmas Carol owes much of its hilarity to our second source—the fact of its being a tale of winter and of a very wintry winter. There is much about comfort in the story; yet the comfort is never enervating: it is saved from that by a tingle of something bitter and bracing in the weather. Lastly, the story exemplifies throughout the power of the third principle—the kinship between gaiety and the grotesque. Everybody is happy because nobody is dignified. We have a feeling somehow that Scrooge looked even uglier when he was kind than he had looked when he was cruel. The turkey that Scrooge bought was so fat, says Dickens, that it could never have stood upright. That top-heavy and monstrous bird is a good symbol of the top-heavy happiness of the stories.

There are limitations even to Dickens' celebration of Christmas: while there are spirits aplenty, the religious and spiritual aspects of the solemnity aren't there: Dickens doesn't consider the doctrine of the Incarnation in any depth at all. A Christmas Carol both restricts Christmas to one day and then spreads its cheer throughout the year. Nevertheless, as Chesterton notes, it revived the celebration of Christmas in England after ages of neglect and ambivalence. As the title of book by Les Standiford avers, Charles Dickens is The Man Who Invented Christmas--at least our modern celebration of Christmas--and Chesterton admired him for that achievement.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Here Is the Little Door, Again

So yesterday I was on the Son Rise Morning Show talking with Matt Swaim about the Chestertons and Christmas. In my preview to the interview I mentioned that one of Frances Chesterton's poems, "Here is the Little Door" had been set to music by Herbert Howells.

Now he's not the only one. BBC Music commissions a new carol every year. This year, composer Owain Park chose to set Frances Chesterton's poem:

Here is the little door, lift up the latch, oh lift! 
We need not wander more but enter with our gift; 
Our gift of finest gold, 
Gold that was never bought nor sold; 
Myrrh to be strewn about his bed; 
Incense in clouds about his head; 
All for the child that stirs not in his sleep, 
But holy slumber holds with ass and sheep. 

Bend low about his bed, for each he has a gift; 
See how his eyes awake, lift up your hand, O lift! 
For gold, he gives a keen-edged sword 
(Defend with it thy little Lord!) 
For incense, smoke of battle red, 
Myrrh for the honoured happy dead; 
Gifts for his children, terrible and sweet, 
Touched by such tiny hands, and Oh such tiny feet.

Park comments:

One of my favourite carols [as a chorister at St Mary Redcliffe Church in Bristol] was Howells’s 1918 setting of Frances Chesterton’s poem Here is the little door. Howells’s music allows the words to resonate with both choir and congregation – at St Mary’s there was always an extra few seconds of quiet after we’d finished singing it. The poem consists of two stanzas: the first is reflective and subdued while the second is more colourful and lively.

Most lines seem to end strongly after a more questioning start, and so I’ve tried to express this using tension and release in the harmony. A lot of my choral music has been in many parts and is quite difficult to sing, so I wanted to sustain a simple idea over two verses without any divided parts. My hope is that I have captured something of the wonder I felt as a young singer.

The words are key to my setting of Here is the little door. I would encourage singers to be as expressive as possible with the text, even when everyone moves together. I’ve kept one set of words throughout to keep the score as uncluttered as possible, which sometimes means that the words aren’t vertically aligned with your part. Always move with your note, and with confidence. It would be a good idea for everyone to read through the poem together, to develop a collective interpretation.

The score is available here. A preview the Christmas 2019 issue is here.

As David Faberberg said in his 2013 book's title: Chesterton is everywhere!! Both of them!

By the way: David Faberberg may not be everywhere, but he is scheduled to be here in Wichita for the 10th annual Eighth Day Institute Symposium!

Monday, December 9, 2019

Reminder: The Chestertons and Christmas

Just a reminder that I'll be on the Son Rise Morning Show this morning at about 6:50 a.m. Central Time/7:50 a.m. Eastern Time. Anna Mitchell and I will talk about how Gilbert and Frances Chesterton celebrated the Nativity of Jesus and the Christmas Season with songs, plays, poems, and essays!

Listen live here; the podcast will be archived here

Friday, December 6, 2019

The Chestertons and Christmas on the Son Rise Morning Show

Anna Mitchell of Sacred Heart Radio asked me to contribute some Christmas material to the Son Rise Morning Show during my usual Monday morning spot for the next couple of weeks. We talked about Newman and Christmas, but since I'm anticipating the annual Advent/Christmas for our local American Chesterton Society's group, I suggested Chesterton and Christmas. Actually, we'll start with the Chestertons and Christmas, to include G.K.'s wife Frances, who also wrote many Christmas-themed works. So on Monday, December 9, we'll start by discussing how G.K. and Frances celebrated Christmas in their creative works. I'll be on the Son Rise Morning Show about 6:50 a.m. Central Time/7:50 a.m. Eastern; listen live here. The segment will be included in an EWTN hour of the program later in the week.

At our annual Chesterton Advent/Christmas party at Eighth Day Books in Wichita, Kansas we read excerpts from G.K. and Frances' poems, stories, plays, and essays. One of our resources is an out of print collection, The Spirit of Christmas. As Dale Ahlquist of the American Chesterton Society explains:

Each year for over thirty years, G.K. Chesterton would write at least five or six articles on Christmas, along with one or two poems and some other odd piece, that would be spread among the journals for which he was a regular contributor and Yuletide issues of other journals for which he was not. His biographer Maisie Ward once expressed the desire to collect all of Chesterton’s writings on Christmas into one volume, not only because there was such a wonderful variety of material available, but especially because this was a subject in which Chesterton’s charity seemed to shine most brightly.

It was Marie Smith who finally carried out Maisie’s idea and created a book by Chesterton on Christmas. She would go on to put together five posthumous Chesterton collections, only one fewer than Dorothy Collins.
The Spirit of Christmas is probably the most successful and possibly the most satisfying.

This book could easily have been five times larger, but even though it represents only a fraction of Chesterton’s Christmas writings, it is an excellent selection, containing both familiar delights and unusual gems. Presented in mostly chronological order, Marie provides a pleasing layout of poems, essays, stories and even the very rare play, “The Turkey and the Turk.” When the book was published in 1984, most of its material was appearing between the covers of a book for the first time. The other rarity, in addition to the mummer’s play, was the previously uncollected poem Gloria in Profundis – the paradoxical “Glory to God in the Lowest.”

There is a paperback edition available on for $542.00!!

G.K.'s Christmas essays explore how we celebrate Christmas with feasting, caroling, giving gifts, debating about Santa Claus ("The child who doubts about Santa Claus has insomnia. The child who believes has a good night's rest"), etc. He often included Charles Dickens in his Christmas essays--but more about that in the second episode of our miniseries on December 16! His poems, like his wife Frances's, are most often focused on the Baby in the Manger:

The Christ-child lay on Mary's lap,
His hair was like a light.
(O weary, weary were the world,
But here is all aright.)

The Christ-child lay on Mary's breast
His hair was like a star.
(O stern and cunning are the kings,
But here the true hearts are.)

The Christ-child lay on Mary's heart,
His hair was like a fire.
(O weary, weary is the world,
But here the world's desire.)

The Christ-child stood on Mary's knee,
His hair was like a crown,
And all the flowers looked up at Him,
And all the stars looked down.

There is another book we bring to our table at Eighth Day Books: A Chesterton Christmas: Essays, Excerpts, and Eggnog, edited by Brian G. Daigle. He includes a long excerpt from The Everlasting Man from Part II, Chapter One, "The God in the Cave", which someone has to read at least part of:

Bethlehem is emphatically a place where extremes meet. Here begins, it is needless to say, another mighty influence for the humanization of Christendom. If the world wanted what is called a non-controversial aspect of Christianity, it would probably select Christmas. Yet it is obviously bound up with what is supposed to be a controversial aspect (I could never at any stage of my opinions imagine why); the respect paid to the Blessed Virgin. When I was a boy a more Puritan generation objected to a statue upon my parish church representing the Virgin and Child. After much controversy, they compromised by taking away the Child. One would think that this was even more corrupted with Mariolatry, unless the mother was counted less dangerous when deprived of a sort of weapon. But the practical difficulty is also a parable. You cannot chip away the statue of a mother from all round that of a newborn child. You cannot suspend the new-born child in mid-air; indeed you cannot really have a statue of a newborn child at all. Similarly, you cannot suspend the idea of a newborn child in the void or think of him without thinking of his mother. You cannot visit the child without visiting the mother, you cannot in common human life approach the child except through the mother. If we are to think of Christ in this aspect at all, the other idea follows I as it is followed in history. We must either leave Christ out of Christmas, or Christmas out of Christ, or we must admit, if only as we admit it in an old picture, that those holy heads are too near together for the haloes not to mingle and cross.

Our other source is Nancy Charpentier Brown's collection of Frances Chesterton's works, How Far Is It to Bethlehem:

Frances Chesterton, wife of British journalist G.K. Chesterton, was a gentle poet and playwright. Her sweet works long lay in obscurity, except for a few Christmas lyrics, which have never gone out of print. Her plays for children were in demand when she wrote them; there is a demand for them again today. Her poems and plays reveal a woman of deep thought, a spiritual woman, a woman longing for Christ, and especially drawn to Him at the Nativity, when He was a small baby. To read these works is to understand better G.K. Chesterton’s wife and spiritual companion. And so, these works are offered back to a world that has almost forgotten them.

Included in
How Far Is It to Bethlehem are six plays for children and adults, an essay, numerous poems, and the collection of Christmas Card poems Frances wrote for the family Christmas Card each year.

Among the Christmas plays Frances wrote is The Christmas Gift, intended for very young children. On Christmas Eve, a family gathers for a meager supper; the father is off at war, and the mother reminds her children:

We won't forget to keep the holy night.
Though all is dark, here is a little light.

Their parish church has been destroyed, but some carolers come to sing around the family's manger:

Welcome, welcome, little Lord,
Out of the cold dark night.
We want to give Thee all we have
Of love and warmth and light.
We have no gold, incense or myrrh
To lay at Thy dear feet,
Only our little lips and hands
That offer service meet.

The simple rhymes, the slightly archaic language ("service meet"), and the surprise at the end create an atmosphere of love and simplicity. There's wonder in how strangers meet on Christmas Eve and share with each other the wonder of that Holy Night.

Frances' other plays and poems contain common themes of dark and light, night and eternity, the Baby in the manger, the gifts of the Magi, Mary and Joseph: all focused on the mystery of the Christ Child, God Made Man, as an infant, so tiny and helpless. Her last Christmas card poem was set to music by Herbert Howells:

Here is the little door, lift up the latch, oh lift! 
We need not wander more but enter with our gift; 
Our gift of finest gold, 
Gold that was never bought nor sold; 
Myrrh to be strewn about his bed; 
Incense in clouds about his head; 
All for the child that stirs not in his sleep, 
But holy slumber holds with ass and sheep. 

Bend low about his bed, for each he has a gift; 
See how his eyes awake, lift up your hand, O lift! 
For gold, he gives a keen-edged sword 
(Defend with it thy little Lord!) 
For incense, smoke of battle red, 
Myrrh for the honoured happy dead; 
Gifts for his children, terrible and sweet, 
Touched by such tiny hands, and Oh such tiny feet.

Monday, December 2, 2019

Being in Time with W.H. Auden

On Black Friday, the super shopping day after Thanksgiving, I did some online shopping and some real shopping (after Mass, at a Catholic gift/bookstore, with friends before lunch). But in the evening, I went to an event at the Eighth Day Institute's headquarters, The Ladder, and joined four good gentlemen in reading W.H. Auden's Christmas Oratorio, For the Time Being. Alan Jacobs edited and annotated the poem for Princeton University Press:

For the Time Being is a pivotal book in the career of one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century. W. H. Auden had recently moved to America, fallen in love with a young man to whom he considered himself married, rethought his entire poetic and intellectual equipment, and reclaimed the Christian faith of his childhood. Then, in short order, his relationship fell apart and his mother, to whom he was very close, died. In the midst of this period of personal crisis and intellectual remaking, he decided to write a poem about Christmas and to have it set to music by his friend Benjamin Britten. Applying for a Guggenheim grant, Auden explained that he understood the difficulty of writing something vivid and distinctive about that most clichéd of subjects, but welcomed the challenge. In the end, the poem proved too long and complex to be set by Britten, but in it we have a remarkably ambitious and poetically rich attempt to see Christmas in double focus: as a moment in the history of the Roman Empire and of Judaism, and as an ever-new and always contemporary event for the believer. For the Time Being is Auden’s only explicitly religious long poem, a technical tour de force, and a revelatory window into the poet’s personal and intellectual development. This edition provides the most accurate text of the poem, a detailed introduction by Alan Jacobs that explains its themes and sets the poem in its proper contexts, and thorough annotations of its references and allusions.

I was assigned the roles of Mary, Rachel, the Semi-Chorus, one of the Wise Men, the Chorus of Angels, and "Feeling"! The long soliloquy of King Herod, in prose, was hilariously Stoic!

The end of the poem offers the challenge of Advent and Christmas, to prepare and then be in that time being of anticipation and fulfillment that really only the liturgy and liturgical prayer provide: to be on the tip-toe of a great event and yet live in it in the midst of all the distractions and griefs and troubles. To keep Christmas--the Incarnation--in my heart everyday:

                                        . . .To those who have seen
The Child, however dimly, however incredulously,
The Time Being is, in a sense, the most trying time of all.
For the innocent children who whispered so excitedly
Outside the locked door where they knew the presents to be
Grew up when it opened. Now, recollecting that moment
We can repress the joy, but the guilt remains conscious;
Remembering the stable where for once in our lives
Everything became a You and nothing was an It.
And craving the sensation but ignoring the cause,
We look round for something, no matter what, to inhibit
Our self-reflection, and the obvious thing for that purpose
Would be some great suffering. So, once we have met the Son,
We are tempted ever after to pray to the Father;
"Lead us into temptation and evil for our sake."
They will come, all right, don't worry; probably in a form
That we do not expect, and certainly with a force
More dreadful than we can imagine. In the meantime
There are bills to be paid, machines to keep in repair,
Irregular verbs to learn, the Time Being to redeem
From insignificance. The happy morning is over,
The night of agony still to come; the time is noon:
When the Spirit must practice his scales of rejoicing
Without even a hostile audience, and the Soul endure
A silence that is neither for nor against her faith
That God's Will will be done, That, in spite of her prayers,
God will cheat no one, not even the world of its triumph.


He is the Way.
Follow Him through the Land of Unlikeness;
You will see rare beasts, and have unique adventures.

He is the Truth.
Seek Him in the Kingdom of Anxiety;
You will come to a great city that has expected your return for years.

He is the Life.
Love Him in the World of the Flesh;
And at your marriage all its occasions shall dance for joy.

I say that the liturgy and prayer--especially liturgical prayer--are the best ways to be in that time because the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass makes the great mysteries of the Incarnation and the Paschal Sacrifice present to us NOW. As Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger wrote in The Spirit of the Liturgy, summarizing his argument at the end of an article, "The Relationship of the Liturgy to Time and Space":

When we look back on our reflections hitherto in this essay, we see that we twice encountered—in different contexts—a three-step process. The liturgy, as we saw, is characterized by a tension that is inherent in the historical Pasch of Jesus (his Cross and Resurrection) as the foundation of its reality. The ever-abiding form of the liturgy has been shaped in what is once and for all; and what is everlasting—the second step—enters into our present moment in the liturgical action and—the third step— wants to take hold of the worshipper’s life. The immediate event—the liturgy—makes sense and has a meaning for our lives only because it contains the other two dimensions. Past, present, and future interpenetrate and touch upon eternity. Earlier we became acquainted with the three stages of salvation history, which progresses, as the Church Fathers say, from shadow to image to reality. We saw that in our own time, the time of the Church, we were in the middle stage of the movement of history. The curtain of the Temple has been torn. Heaven has been opened up by the union of the man Jesus, and thus of all human existence, with the living God. But this new openness is only mediated by the signs of salvation. We need mediation. As yet we do not see the Lord ‘‘as he is’’. Now if we put the two three-part processes together—the historical and the liturgical—it becomes clear that the liturgy gives precise expression to this historical situation. It expresses the ‘‘between-ness’’ of the time of images, in which we now find ourselves. The theology of the liturgy is in a special way ‘‘symbolic theology,’’ a theology of symbols, which connects us to what is present but hidden.

In so saying, we finally discover the answer to the question with which we started. After the tearing of the Temple curtain and the opening up of the heart of God in the pierced heart of the Crucified, do we still need sacred space, sacred time, mediating symbols? Yes, we do need them, precisely so that, through the ‘‘image,’’ through the sign, we learn to see the openness of heaven. We need them to give us the capacity to know the mystery of God in the pierced heart of the Crucified. Christian liturgy is no longer replacement worship but the coming of the representative Redeemer to us, an entry into his representation that is an entry into reality itself. We do indeed participate in the heavenly liturgy, but this participation is mediated to us through earthly signs, which the Redeemer has shown to us as the place where his reality is to be found. In liturgical celebration there is a kind of turning around of exitus to reditus, of departure to return, of God’s descent to our ascent. The liturgy is the means by which earthly time is inserted into the time of Jesus Christ and into its present. It is the turning point in the process of redemption. The Shepherd takes the lost sheep onto his shoulders and carries it home.

We can't be in the time being with Jesus on our own: we need His love and His grace. In the Holy Sacrifice of Mass in Roman Rite or the Divine Liturgy of the Eastern Rites "earthly time is inserted into the time of Jesus Christ and into its present". 

Blessed Advent to you all!

Saturday, November 30, 2019

Much Ado About the End of November

November 30th is an important day: it is the Feast of St. Andrew the Apostle, and thus the day to start the St. Andrew Christmas Novena, with this prayer said 15 (fifteen) times each day for 25 days:

Hail, and blessed be the hour and moment at which the Son of God was born of a most pure Virgin at a stable at midnight in Bethlehem in the piercing cold. At that hour vouchsafe, I beseech Thee, to hear my prayers and grant my desires. (Mention your intentions here) Through Jesus Christ and His most Blessed Mother. Amen.

The prayer is all focused on the Nativity of Jesus (and doesn't even mention St. Andrew) and is named for the saint because we start praying it on his feast day!

As the Tudor Society explains, in 1554, the Feast of Saint Andrew was the date of the official reconciliation between England and the Catholic Church:

In Mary I's reign, 30th November became a day to celebrate the reconciliation of England and the papacy due to it being the anniversary of that reconciliation in 1554. On that day in 1554, Cardinal Reginald Pole, papal legate, announced to Parliament and the King and Queen:

“And we, by the apostolike authoritie given unto us by the most holie lord pope Julius the third […] do absolve and deliver you, and every of you, with the whole realm, and the dominions thereof, from all heresie and schism, and from all and every judgements, censures and pain for that cause incurred. And also wee do restore you againe to the unity of our mother the holie church [...]”

It was decreed that on 30th November every year “a solemn procession shall be held, in which not only the clergy of every place, but also the faithful members of Christ of the secular order, shall gather and renew the memory of so wonderful a blessing received from God... and that on the same day, in the church from which the procession shall set out, during the solemn rites of the mass, a sermon shall be preached to the people in which the reason for this solemnity shall be explained.”

In 1577, St. Cuthbert Mayne suffered martyrdom, found guilty of treason:

He was brought to trial in September; meanwhile his imprisonment was of the harshest order. His indictment under statutes of 1 and 13 Elizabeth was under five counts: first, that he had obtained from the Roman See a "faculty", containing absolution of the queen's subjects; second, that he had published the same at Golden; third, that he had taught the ecclesiastical authority of the pope in Launceston Gaol; fourth, that he had brought into the kingdom an Agnus Dei and had delivered the same to Mr. Tregian; fifth, that he had said Mass.

As to the first and second counts, the martyr showed that the supposed "faculty" was merely a copy printed at Douai of an announcement of the Jubilee of 1575, and that its application having expired with the end of the jubilee, he certainly had not published it either at Golden or elsewhere. As to the third count, he maintained that he had said nothing definite on the subject to the three illiterate witnesses who asserted the contrary. As to the fourth count, he urged that the fact that he was wearing an Agnus Dei at the time of his arrest was no evidence that he had brought it into the kingdom or delivered it to Mr. Tregian. As to the fifth count, he contended that the finding of a Missal, a chalice, and vestments in his room did not prove that he had said Mass.

Nevertheless the jury found him guilty of high treason on all counts, and he was sentenced accordingly. His execution was delayed because one of the judges, Jeffries, altered his mind after sentence and sent a report to the Privy Council. They submitted the case to the whole Bench of Judges, which was inclined to Jeffries's view. Nevertheless, for motives of policy, the Council ordered the execution to proceed. On the night of 27 November his cell was seen by the other prisoners to be full of a strange bright light. The details of his martyrdom must be sought in the works hereinafter cited. It is enough to say that all agree that he was insensible, or almost so, when he was disembowelled.

He is one of the 40 Martyrs of England and Wales.

In 1586/1587, Blessed Alexander Crow was hanged, drawn, and quartered in York. He was included among the 85 Martyrs of England and Wales beatified by Pope St. John Paul II in 1987.

In 1675, Cecilius Calvert, Second Lord Baltimore, "Absolute Lord of Maryland and Avalon" died in England. He had fulfilled his father's goal of establishing a colony in British America where Catholics could worship freely (and other Christians too!). The Catholic Encyclopedia entry for him emphasizes several difficulties in his endeavors:

It was Lord Baltimore's intention, at first to come to America with the colonists, but as there were many enemies of his colonial project at home, he concluded to send his brothers, Leonard and George, at the head of the expedition. The former was appointed governor. The enemies of the charter, chiefly members of the London Company, did everything in their power to defeat the objects of the proprietor. It was claimed that the charter interfered with the grant of land of the Virginia Company and that, owing to its liberality, it would attract people from other colonies and depopulate them. The arguments of the enemies of the charter were of no avail, and finally the colonists, numbering twenty gentlemen and about three hundred labourers, embarked on the Ark and the Dove, in the harbour of Cowes, Nov., 1633. Before sailing, Leonard received instructions for the government of the colonists. Religious toleration was the keynote of Baltimore's policy throughout his long career. In spite of the fact that the Catholics were persecuted when Calvert's government was overthrown, every time his authority was restored persecution ceased and every faith had equal rights. When the Puritans were persecuted in Massachusetts, Baltimore offered them a refuge in Maryland, with freedom of worship. . . .

His absence from the colony produced a peculiar condition, the absence of laws. The charter gave the proprietor the right to make laws with the advice and consent of the freemen. The latter met in 1634-35 and passed "wholesome laws and ordinances." Feeling that this act had infringed on his rights, in his commission to the governor, April, 1637, the proprietor expressed his disapproval of all laws passed by the colonists. For the endorsement of the assembly of 1637-38, he sent a body of laws with his secretary, John Lewger. These laws were rejected by the assembly, as they were considered unsuited to the colony. A few laws not differing materially from those sent by Baltimore were agreed to and sent to the proprietor for his consent. At first his approval was withheld, and the colony was without laws. Later, however, his sanction was given to the laws in a commission to the governor, authorizing him to give his assent to the laws made by the freemen, which would make the laws binding until they were either approved or rejected by the proprietor. With this commission the privilege of initiative in matters of legislation was conceded to the colonists, the proprietor retaining the right of absolute veto. As this power was never used by Baltimore except in extreme cases, the colonists practically enjoyed freedom in self-government. . . .

Cecilius Calvert ruled over the colony for nearly forty years. Although he never interfered with the administration of details, he ruled at every turn with an iron hand.

Saint Andrew the Apostle, pray for us!
Saint Cuthbert Mayne, pray for us!
Blessed Alexander Crow, pray for us!
And may Cecilius Calvert rest in peace!

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Poland Is Well Worth a Mass, Too--One by Bach!

My brother and sister and I went to a free concert at Friends University Monday night (our late parents' wedding anniversary): the Flute Choir were performing works arranged or composed for the flute family: piccolo, c flute, alto and bass flute. Among the works performed was an aria from a secular cantata by J.S. Bach, BWV 206 Schleicht, spielende Wellen, und murmelt gelinde! (Glide, O sparkling waves and murmur softly!) Bach wrote it for the birthday of Augustus III, the Elector of Saxony and King of Poland. 

It's an allegorical representation of four rivers, the Vistula, Danube, Elbe, and Pleisse praising Augustus III for the peace and harmony his reign has brought. We heard an aria sung a soprano representing the Pleisse, with a very appropriate opening line for a flute choir concert:

Hört doch! der sanften Flöten Chor
Erfreut die Brust, ergötzt das Ohr.
    Der unzertrennten Eintracht Stärke
    Macht diese nette Harmonie
    Und tut noch größre Wunderwerke,
    Dies merkt und stimmt doch auch wie sie!

Hark now! The gentle flutes in choir
Make glad the breast and please the ear.
The undivided union's power
Creates this lovely harmony
And even greater works of wonder;
This mark and with their tune agree.

The soprano, who also played the piccolo and the c flute, sang the aria in German.

J.S. Bach hoped to be named a court composer to Frederick Augustus II of Saxony and in 1733 had sent the new Elector a Kyrie-Gloria Mass (which he would later incorporate into the Mass in B Minor)--and he had succeeded: Bach composed this secular cantata for performance on Augustus III's birthday in 1736. 

The Mad Monarchist blog gives some background on King Augustus III and his conversion from Lutheranism to Catholicism to succeed to the throne of Poland in 1534:

Augustus III was born on October 17, 1696 in Dresden in the Electorate of Saxony, a member of the House of Wettin which once reigned over many countries and still reigns today over Belgium, the United Kingdom and British Commonwealth Realms. His father was Augustus II, nicknamed “Augustus the Strong” who is today most remembered for his huge number of illegitimate children, some putting the number of his offspring in the hundreds. Augustus III, however, was his only legitimate son and would, like his father, one day become Prince-Elector of Saxony, Vicar of the Holy Roman Empire, King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania. He was brought up for this purpose and, as his father had done earlier, this required his conversion to Catholicism in 1712. The Electors of Saxony had been Protestants all the way back to the days of Martin Luther and this caused considerable outrage among the Saxon aristocracy as well as an effort by Prussia and Hanover (whose Elector was also the British monarch [George I]) to deprive Saxony of its leadership of the Protestant caucus in the Reichstag (the princely upper house of the Imperial Diet or parliament of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation) but the Prussians and Hanoverians were unsuccessful.

In 1733 King Augustus II died and Augustus III succeeded his father as Prince-Elector of Saxony (as Friedrich Augustus II). His election as King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania was expected but not a forgone conclusion. For that, he would require foreign support. The Russians backed Augustus III as King of Poland, which was not too surprising but the Austrians did as well. Of course, the German Reich (HRE) as a whole did as well, which was also not surprising, favoring a German monarch on the Polish throne but the specific backing of the Austrians, which is to say the House of Habsburg, was a matter of political bargaining. The Habsburgs were anxious to secure their own position which was endangered by the fact that the last Emperor had only a daughter, Maria Theresa, to succeed him and tried everything from backroom deals to outright bribery to gain support for his “Pragmatic Sanction” by which the German princes pledged to support Maria Theresa.

The danger, of course, was that the German lands would fall into the same pattern of civil war and dynastic infighting which later befell Spain during the Carlist Wars in a similar situation. Augustus III agreed to support the Pragmatic Sanction and thus won the support of Emperor Charles VI for his election to the Polish throne. Likewise, his promise to support the Russian claim to Courland by the Empress Anna, ensured that he had Russian support for his election as well. It also helped that he had, in 1719, married Archduchess Maria Josepha of Austria, daughter of Emperor Joseph I which also helped win over the Habsburgs. On October 5, 1733 the Polish electors gathered and Augustus III was elected King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania. However, he was still faced with a problem as there was already a King of Poland to deal with and a Polish one at that in the person of Stanislaw Leszczynski (King Stanislaus I). He had widespread support in Poland and had fought Augustus II for control of the country. When Augustus II died, he returned with French support to reassert his rule. The Russians and Austrians feared an alliance between the French, Poles and Swedes and so backed Augustus III against him.

Please read the rest there.

A performance of Bach's BWV 206 is available here.

Image credit: King Augustus III by Pietro Rotari.

You just never know what attending a concert may inspire: an exploration of history, music, and conversion in this case!