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A beautiful story and testament of love.

Blog of the Courtier

No matter how much you know about great art, there is always something new to discover. Recently I’ve become interested in the work of a Swedish painter, Alexander Roslin (1718-1793). During his lifetime he was arguably the most fashionable portrait painter in Paris, but today he is not as well-known as he ought to be. Today I want to draw your attention to a charming portrait of his wife, who was also a popular but now largely forgotten artist. The painting is not only a charming piece in its own right, but I think it captures something of the love which the two of them felt for each other, in a way which was very unusual for the time.

Roslin was born in Malmö, the city in Sweden now famous as a major international business and design center, but in 1718 not much more than a tiny provincial town of…

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Early in his pilgrimage through Hell, Dante (the character) is given a warning. It is a warning he does not heed and consequently a lesson he does not learn. If commentary on canto V of Inferno is any indication, it is also a lesson that we, the audience, have not learned and the consequences of this lesson-not-learned are reverberating throughout both the city of the world and of God.

Making his way from the first circle to the second, Dante and Virgil must pass by Minos, the infernal judge who determines which circle of Hell (and, consequently, which infernal punishment) the condemned will eternally suffer. He is Satan’s sorting hat.

 

Minos, infernal judge - Michelangelo

Michelangelo’s “Minos”

 

Minos gives a warning to Dante: “O thou! who to this residence of woe approachest!… Look how thou enter here; beware in whom thou place thy trust. Let not the entrance broad deceive thee to thy harm.” Being that the place is Hell, this warning of Minos seems rather obvious. But the road to Hell is very wide and turns where it will to our delight. It takes every advantage it may to play upon our mind and our heart, to sway our thoughts, our emotions, and our will. It blinds us so that we only see ourselves, and, in the swaying of our being to its infernal end, we justify ourselves.

Like all things, Minos’s warning has a context. That context is the canto in which he speaks, Canto V. After receiving this warning from Minos (and dismissing it), Dante and Virgil continue to the second circle of Hell: those who gave themselves to lust. Immediately, Dante is put to the test concerning the warning he received. Entering into Hell proper (as opposed to Limbo), he first meets Francesca and Paolo being swept in a perpetual tempest, never to have any rest. They are uncontrollably carried away in this evil storm just as they were carried away by their lust. Before meeting Francesca and Paolo, Dante describes what he saw and heard. Among what he heard were “blasphemies ‘gainst the good Power in Heaven” from the souls being endlessly tossed. He said that their reason was swayed by lust. They blasphemy the One who is Truth. As Virgil points out specific people, Dante becomes filled with pity. Heroes of old such as Achilles, Paris, and Tristan are identified as those “whom love bereaved of life”. These great men and women of old were undone by lust. It is telling though that Dante does not say that lust bereaved them of life, but rather love, and before he speaks to any of these poor souls he already pities them and is drawn in pity to them.

Dante now calls out in “strong affection” to a man and woman he sees clinging to one another in their hell. His strong affection moves them to break free temporarily from the tempest and speak with him. As they come, Dante describes them as doves with strong wings returning home to their “sweet nest”. He is swept up in the pathos of what he sees and portrays them as something they are not, innocent. When they come to him Francesca tells him their tale of woe, and he is so moved by what he hears and sees that “through compassion fainting… [he] fell to the ground.”

paolo-and-francesca 1

paolo and francesca 2

Francesca was married to Gianciotto and caught by him in an affair with his more handsome brother, Paolo. In his rage, Gianciotto killed them both. It is easy to sympathize with Francesca. She was young, her marriage was arranged, and she was married to a man who was not pleasing to look upon nor (one may infer) treated her well. With Paolo, she was able to form true affection through mutual interest and time spent together. Theirs is a sad and pitiable story. But sadness and pity do not change what is, and it is in this that Dante (the character) fell into the trap of which he had been warned.

Francesca and Paolo may not have been malicious in what they did and they may be pitiable, but none of that rights the wrong they committed. It is not truly about the wrong committed though; it is that they died unrepentant. Remember, they, with all the other souls ceaselessly driven by that devilish wind, “blasphemy ‘gainst the good Power in Heaven.” They blasphemy against the Truth. They do not call God friend (line 90) and they do not pray for Dante’s peace (line 91). Thrice Francesca invokes love: “Love, that in a gentle heart is quickly learnt… Love, that denial takes from none beloved… Love brought us to one death.” (102-105; emphasis mine) Her thrice invocation of love is a blasphemy in and of itself. By “love” she really means lust and by it thrice insults the Holy Trinity, Who is Love. Their story is a lie, told with enough twisted truth as to elicit pity from their hearer. And Dante was ready to lend his heart before ever he heard their tale.

Michelangelo foreshadows this in his representation of Minos shown above. He depicts not only Minos but also points to Francesca and Paolo through the mutilation of Minos’s genitals, the organ of lust, by the serpent. In Francesca and Paolo, we see “the entrance broad.” We also see ones in whom Dante has placed his trust. He trusts them through the lending of his ear and the sympathy of his heart.

The sins of the flesh produce great heartache and elicit great sympathy from people. We often find pitiable (and rightly so) people who find themselves in difficult situations because of the swaying of their heart toward lust. One reason we find these circumstances so pitiable is because lust is not what truly underlies them; there is more that underlies the lust such as sadness, pain, and fear. Yet these do not excuse a pitiable situation. And people in those situations should be encouraged to rise heroically to the universal call of holiness, rather than given allowance out of pity.

G.K. Chesterton said, “The next great heresy is going to be simply an attack on morality; and especially on sexual morality.” When we look at the world and its progression now for generations, when we look at the issue currently sending shockwaves through the Roman Church – that being the possibility of Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried – can we really doubt that Chesterton was right? We need to learn what Dante did not and heed, better than he, Minos’s warning.

All Along the Watchtower

DSCN0800Morwenstowe Church.

In my possession there is a little book entitled “Donne’s Devotions.” He was Dean of St Paul’s  Cathedral, and was born in 1572 and died in 1631. One of his most important poems was “Batter my heart three person’d God.” It’s well known.

But it is his little book of devotions that has most influenced me. It’s been with me for years. I found it in a second hand bookshop in Canterbury. My copy was published in 1841, so it’s quite old and has had to have a little repair work done on it from time to time. The last renovation was two days ago on 6th March. The front cover had departed from the main body of the book. Naturally a few hours after gluing the cover to the rest I read a few pages.

One of the most familiar quotations in the book comes from…

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I’m not a big fan of laws. They’re necessary, but if we come to depend on them above all else for the right functioning of society and the relations of peoples in society then those laws will become blind, heartless, and tyrannical. This because laws are exterior to man. For a true right functioning of society, for man to be truly good it is the heart which must be focused on, not laws. We have an interior law, a law that does not come from without, but rather from within; it is the law of the heart. It is a law that is not imposed upon us. No, it is a law that springs forth from our heart’s deepest longings and points us to true happiness. For instance, we do not need laws to tell us that murder is wrong. We know that murder is wrong and that it will not bring us happiness. Only the fool deludes himself that something such as murder can make one fulfilled. The problem isn’t the fool, however; it is all of us, for we are all bear the weight of sin. All of our hearts are covered with the filth and vileness of sin. Laws do not change this; laws keep the consequences of such a reality in check. Only grace can change the condition of the human heart. Only grace can enable man to not only see and love the law written upon his heart, but to also act upon that law in freedom and joy. Imagine what such a society would be like! What would happen in our society if Christians truly lived and promoted the life of grace, instead of getting bogged down in the politics and laws of it all? What a thing that would be.

 

Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not soe,
For, those, whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill mee;
From rest and sleepe, which but thy pictures bee,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee doe goe,
Rest of their bones, and soules deliverie.
Thou’art slave to Fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poyson, warre, and sicknesse dwell,
And poppie, or charmes can make us sleepe as well,                                                             And better then they stroake; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more, Death thou shalt die.

dark-journey

Ash Wednesday, 2017, Lent has begun. Some people have not yet decided what they are doing for Lent. To people in this situation, I heard someone say, “Don’t worry about preparing for Lent because Lent is a preparation.” The implication being that one does not prepare for preparing. This way of looking at Lent – a preparation – is rather common today. The thought is that as we progress through Lent we are preparing for Easter. So ingrained has this thought become that some are genuinely puzzled by the idea of preparing for Lent. This was once expressed to me by a priest when I had mentioned to him that Lent is preceded by weeks of preparation (both liturgical and practical) in the Byzantine churches. It sounded strange to the priest that there would be a preparation for the preparation.

Is Lent a preparation? Is being a preparation the best way to think about Lent?

It’s not wrong to think about Lent as a preparation, but it is important to recognize that there are different kinds of preparing. Context is everything. Lent is a preparatory movement. It is a journey, and it is this which gives the context and proper understanding for Lent being preparatory.

Rock climber on the edge.

The long arduous journey of Lent is not too dissimilar from the above picture. The women in this picture didn’t just begin her journey up the face of the mountain. No, her journey was preceded by a lot of preparation. She had to live a certain way, abstain from certain things. She does not become disciplined, strong, and persevering by climbing the mountain. She had to be all of that before she began her journey.

There is a significant difference between the journey of Lent and the journey of the woman above: she climbs the mountain because it is there to be climbed and she experiences a pleasure and satisfaction that she would not otherwise get, she takes the journey for its own sake. Not so with Lent. Let us imagine that this woman comes to the top of the mountain and takes in the grandeur and beauty of the view from the mountaintop. She then turns her back to the view and faces away from cliff’s edge. Before her lies a new country and new life, a country and life only accessible by climbing the mountain. The climb prepared and enabled her to live this new life well and to enter into it fully. But so did the preparation prior to the climb; in fact, the prior preparation was necessary.

So many people speak of Lent as being successful or unsuccessful. They express wanting a successful Lent, which is why it is typical for people to spend so much time weighing what they will or will not do. At the end of this season of Lent, there will be many people who will look back with dissatisfaction. Many will think they did not journey well, that they did not prepare well for new life in the Resurrection. Contra popular opinion, perhaps one of the reasons is because we no longer practice a preparation for the preparation in the Roman church.

It wasn’t always this way. Up until the new calendar of Bl. Paul VI was introduced, the Church celebrated pre-Lenten Sundays, the purpose of which was to prepare the faithful for the arduous journey of Lent. This is still done by those communities and orders who use the extraordinary calendar. The Byzantine churches also maintain their own particular tradition of pre-Lenten Sundays. One may reasonably ask, however, if the Church of Rome actually needs these pre-Lenten Sundays. After all, Lent isn’t exactly difficult in the Latin rite anymore. It doesn’t really seem like there is much to prepare for. Considering the current state of the practice of Lent in the West, could this point not only to our needing pre-Lenten Sundays again, but also to our needing a return to a more traditional practice of Lent? I am hopeful for the return of both in my lifetime.

A blessed Lent to you all. +

 

Last year for the beginning of Lent I wrote a post, “The Deconstruction of Lent”, on the need to have a greater awareness of the communal character of Lent in the life of the Church rather than making Lent an individualized affair: HERE. A couple of weeks after that I wrote another Lenten post, “Combatting Porn During Lent”, the main point of which was to draw attention to our need to allow ourselves to be formed by God rather than thinking of Lent as an opportunity to form ourselves: HERE.

Lent is fast approaching – Wednesday, March 1. I don’t know about you, but I can often drive myself crazy trying to figure out what I should give up for Lent or what additional practices I should take on. But what if the answer is nothing? Lent and its disciplines are not something we put on ourselves. It is part of the Life in which we live. What if God simply calls us to live that life: to be faithful in our participation at Sunday Mass, our fasting, and our Friday abstentions. What if He simply wants us to be formed by Lent by participating in the various Lenten traditions of our parish: Stations of the Cross, Lenten missions, soup dinners and fish fries. God doesn’t wait until Lent to call us nearer to Him. Lent is strengthening for that journey already begun. Perhaps there are disciplines He has called you to and Lent is simply a time to persevere in those disciplines, disciplines which may fall away if we cover them with others. If you are still considering what it is God is calling you to do in the coming week, remember, Lent isn’t meant to be complicated; it just needs to be lived. May God bestow His grace upon you abundantly and may you have a blessed and holy Lent.

Recent conversation has brought to mind the question of knowledge, particularly of knowing with certainty. There are a lot of people who fall under agnosticism because they hold that one cannot have any real certainty that there is a God, or, if there is, that we cannot have any certain knowledge about this God. There is such an intense focus on whether or not one can be certain that it has become an all-or-nothing question. This is because the question of certainty is directly connected to the question of reasonability. The question of having certain knowledge has become equivalent in the minds of many (unconsciously so) with the question of said knowledge being reasonable.

Among the pop-philosophy intelligentsia, it is no more or less reasonable to believe in God than to believe in magical unicorns or that we are all brains in vats. We cannot disprove that we are brains in vats, that there are magical unicorns, and we cannot disprove the existence of God. The argument for God is seen as a self-enclosed argument. But this is not actually the case. If we ask if it is reasonable to believe that there are magical unicorns or that we are brains in vats, we must emphatically answer “no”. If we ask if it is reasonable to believe that God exists, we must emphatically answer “yes”. Why? To hold to either of the former beliefs is to hold to something for which we have no evidence. To hold to the latter is to hold to something for which there is evidence. It is reasonable to believe that God exists because there is evidence that God exists. It is unreasonable to believe that we are brains in vats because there is no evidence that we are. One should be able to easily distinguish this.

However, the problem here is not simply of intelligence. There is also the problem of virtue. There are many who can see the difference between these questions if they listen. But then they will still hold that they cannot be certain, and, in their uncertainty, they will freeze in cowardice. It takes courage to follow the evidence. To how many in modern society can the words of the psalmist be applied: “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God'”?

Coheirs

DarylMadden

Word so incredulous
Which my soul did hear
That along with Christ
We are co-heirs

Unbelievable
That we of sinners great
Heavens treasure offered
So much to contemplate

Only possible
By sacrifice of One
An unblemished Lamb
God’s begotten Son

Let not us take for granted
This great gift He imparts
To be our source of joy!
To radiate from heart

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Fr. Aidan Kimel has a good post on the vice of acedia over at Eclectic Orthodoxy. I first learned of this particular vice about 1 1/2 years ago. My attention had been directed to a book from Ignatius Press: The Noonday Devil: Acedia, the Unnamed Evil of Our Times.

the-noonday-devil

This is an excellent book which outlines the development of thought and approaches to acedia. It is very readable and quite interesting. The author, Jean-Charles Nault, O.S.B., begins by stating how he had somewhat taken knowledge of acedia for granted. This was due to it being part of his formation as a Benedictine via St. John Cassian and others. He wrote the above book as a response to no one outside of religious formation knowing anything about it, as well as seeing how prevalent it is in our day.

Recently, I have been starting to see more material being promoted on this subject. Last month my attention was brought to Acedia and Its Discontents: Metaphysical Boredom in an Empire of Desire.

acedia-and-its-discontents

Now Fr. Aidan introduces yet another book on this vice: Despondency: The Spiritual Teaching of Evagrius of Pontus.

despondency

It is good to see an increase in books and articles concerning acedia. It truly is one of the greatest plagues of modern man, as well as a subtle, potent, and tenacious destructive force in society. In addition to the Noonday Devil, which I have already had the pleasure of reading, I will be reading the other two books. It is something I encourage everyone to learn more about and to use these tools for serious self-examination.