Some of my favorite Good Friday-appropriate art.
Have a happy, holy and blessed day.
The Price is Right
Some of my favorite Good Friday-appropriate art.
Have a happy, holy and blessed day.
Last summer, I had a conversation with a man who has both published a bunch of books and runs a small publishing house. After describing the book – what might be called a popular history of Catholic schooling in America – and asking him to talk me out of it, he instead said I should definitely write it and he wanted to see it when it was ready.
Oh, well. Gave it a shot.
He suggested that there were several publishers that would be interested and better fits for the subject matter, but added that, if none of them would take it, he would be interested in publishing it.
So, here I am. School ends May 20th. The next mandatory school event is the last full week of July. So I theoretically have two months in there to put together a draft. I’ve been rereading some of the source materials, and my blog posts on them, to get the information back fresh in mind.
I’d really like to stick to the original plan: write 2 books, one a short and popular history, footnoted and referenced and all that, but written to appeal to a non-academic reader. Then, the magnum opus, as long as it needs to be, with all the references and footnotes and rabbit holes spelled out. e.g., Dwight’s tour of Europe, at best a footnote in the popular history, would be spelled out in the context of Fichte’s reforms of the education system. (Dwight notes that speech in German social circles was very circumspect – there were plenty of topics it was not safe to discuss in public. Hmmm – the people implementing a system of schooling designed to destroy free will in the pupils and turn them into loyal patriotic Germans obedient without question to their superiors doesn’t favor free speech? Imagine my surprise.) Also, the details of Fichte’s insane philosophy and how it is expanded on by Hegel, the whole messianic schooling movement as a part of the intolerant Puritan obsession with control, the fundamental insanity of the Great Awakenings, how these movements formed Catholic converts Hecker and Brownson into wildly optimistic Pre-Millennialists; how this optimism persisted through the 1950s (at least) in the Church in America, leading to incredible blunders in the Church’s relationship to politics in general and the NEA in particular – these things will be touched upon in the popular book, but deserve a full treatment somewhere – thus, the second book. If I live long enough.
I got my work cut out for me. May God grant me the health, energy, and focus needed to get this project done!
He wished he could fly. The small waves licked the tide pools. He sat on a sea-carved rock, his crooked feet next to several anemones in a filling puddle.
He wished he could walk. He could barely move. Some memory, half-grasped and slippery, suggested he once could run like the wind and fly like no bird. He thought he remembered stars effortlessly approached, then vanishing in the distance. He would look at some twinkling light, then simply be there. Then, be gone.
Whatever that was, he wished he could do it.
The waves now lapped his feet. The water was cold. The sun reddened the thin clouds on the horizon as it sped to touch the sea. He tried to draw himself up, away from the water’s edge, but his twisted, broken form would not comply.
What had happened? He could not remember clearly. Shards of memory, jagged and fragmented, refused to be reassembled into anything clear. He realized that his mind mirrored the state of his body. Nothing worked. But he could not shake the vague idea that it should, that his mind and body once worked very well.
Something like a battle, in the same way that a bird’s flight was something like how he used to move among the stars. He was defending something….
A shaft of light from the setting sun broke through the red clouds and fell upon him. He found he could move a little and inched up the rocks. He could think a little better.
The light was warming against all expectation. With a start, some pieces fell into place. He had been defending a star – no, something small and fragile near the star. Something immeasurably huge and evil was trying to swallow it up, crush it, consume it. He simply could not let it.
He had thrown himself around the ship – for it was a ship – and the 3 passengers inside. He knew he could not defeat the evil, but he held on nonetheless.
Inside, a man and a woman held their dead son, a young man, a hero. He found himself swaddling the minds and souls of the passengers, protecting them, calming their fear. The immense evil had snuffed out the young man, not physically but spiritually, when he had dared stand up to it. Now, his soul was being drawn out, pulled, rent – by an invitation to despair.
He joined the parents in fighting back. He mingled with them, warmed them, comforted them in mind and body. He wasn’t sure how he did it, but it seemed both natural and demanded. He could not let them be destroyed, not so long as he had any strength.
The price was horrible. A cold dankness enveloped him, full of hate and fury.
He took it, blow after blow. He had the strange sensation that he was taking on the suffering of these human bodies, that the physical beating was not something he should feel.
The ship crumpled about him. The human passengers were being crushed. He knew this violence was unimaginably beyond what the humans could have withstood for a second. He knew it was his duty to defend them.
Wrapped in his protection, their souls clung to hope. He was mixed with them, shielding them, taking a beating for them, until the ship and those within it were crushed to dust. The evil swelled, its hatred burned, all its force turned on him!
Somehow, in his pain, he knew that he wad won. The souls of the human passengers were free. He lost consciousness, knowing he had won – the three human souls were free! The evil raged, and flung what was left of him down…
A brilliant light shone on the shore just as the sunlight faded over the ocean. He opened his eyes. “Well done!”
No works were spoken. Ideas formed directly in his head. “A Guardian standing up to a Principality?” He felt his body dissolving. “You willingly took on suffering intended for others.”
“I could not let them suffer the Second Death!”
“So you took their place.”
“I took on their form, so that I could take on their pain.”
“And saved them. The Master is pleased. His mother will comfort you. For they, too, willingly accepted the suffering of others. Be made whole.”
All was light. His body gone, he rose, and flew.
(Getting all funky and experimental in my dotage…)
Been a while since I’ve written one of these.
Attended mass in one of the number of little town that grew up in the gold fields of California along State Highway 49 back in the mid 1800s. Some of these towns have lovely churches build a hundred years or more ago, but most have structures thrown up in the last 60 years or so.
The builders of this church evidently salvages some stained glass from a much earlier church – the tabernacle was flanked by some beautiful windows, including a lovely Madonna and their patron saint. The sanctuary itself was nice, simple but lovely woodwork everywhere. The body of the church was the by now traditional linoleum floored barn with unnecessarily ugly walls, ceilings, and fixtures.
An annoying and never ending susurrus greets one upon entering. Look like a barn, expect to sound like a barn, it seems. The ‘band’ was stationed to the left of the sanctuary – one guy might have been in his 50s, the other three, one woman and two men, had plenty of gray hair.
To be fair, while younger people were fairly represented, the congregation skewed older. (Two lovely young women in the pew behind us wore chapel veils, but that was certainly not the general vibe. )
I had just been discussing with (more like monologuing at) my long-suffering wife about how great music, upon a first hearing, at first sounds subtly surprising, but quickly becomes inevitable. Beethoven, to take the poster boy, will hit you with brisk, often startling, material and quick modulations – that, once played and heard, become impossible to imagine otherwise. Think the 2nd movement of the 7th Symphony – that is a surprising piece of music, but after a single listen, it’s hard to imagine changing a single note – it is that profoundly right.
Church music does rise to that level. Think ‘O Sacred Head Surrounded’ or the Jupiter hymn tune by Holst – any notes out of place? Any chance you’re forgetting those tunes? Not for me, at least. Some chant and polyphony are also that way.
Alas, we heard none of that today. Our aging quartet of folk guitarists and singers went to the usual shallow well people their age and skill level always draw from: St. Louis Jebbies, Toolan, and OCP stars. Nothing unexpected in that, but I guess my hope springs eternal.
Two of the pieces were familiar from decades of repetition: while hardly memorable on their merits, they perhaps rise to the level of least bad of their kind. Two pieces were especially unmemorable: the responsorial Psalm 23, and the completely forgettable closing hymn.
How many real composers have set Psalm 23 – “The Lord is my Shepherd”? Yet this band managed to find a setting so bland and forgettable that I had a little difficulty remembering the repetitious refrain between verses. Neither surprising nor inevitable.
The closing song was another completely forgettable ditty call (I asked my wife if she remembered, because I certainly didn’t) “Take up your cross”. Directionless, repetitive, random. Used a variation on the same set of four chords every praise and worship song has used for several decades now.
So, alas! Our Laetare Sunday was not brightened by beautiful music. On the plus side, we have several musicians working to add a little quality to local parishes. My son and I joined the local parish choir, because the director is trying, and having a couple of men who can carry parts has got to help. But I was out of town today.
Perhaps liturgical music, like science, advances one funeral at a time.
Somehow, I find myself the headmaster of a Chesterton Academy school in Sacramento. In one week, I went from wondering what had happened to my application to be a teacher at this new school, to getting hired, not as a teacher, but as the headmaster. My head is still spinning. Recap:
Months ago, my wife and I heard about an informational meeting being held near Sacramento by a group who wanted to found a Chesterton Academy – a Catholic Classics high school. We happened to be visiting our daughter and her husband nearby, and so we took a drive over to check it out.
I drove to wrong place, having gotten mixed up about where this particular meeting was. We figured it out, and came late to the correct location.
The caliber and size of the founding group was impressive, and they put on a very nice presentation. I signed the sign-in sheet, thus getting on their mailing list. In March, they started advertising for a headmaster, and I thought: no way, I’m going to be way WAY too busy moving and getting our dream hobby farm/homestead set up to do that. So I didn’t apply.
Teaching at a classical high school sounded like fun, especially after how much I enjoyed teaching history and literature to high school aged kids the last two years. So, a month later, when they advertised for teachers, I hesitated – super-busy packing up the house to sell – but, in the end, on the last day (April 30), I applied.
A month goes by, and I hear nothing. I send a follow-up email. Nothing. Then the truly odd stuff starts happening. Divine intervention, one might even imagine:
My son-in-law, who also applied to teach there – totally on his own, no concerted effort here – gets word that he needs to resubmit his application because his first was lost due to some technical issues. But I don’t hear anything, and am starting to get a little miffed. Now, my son in law’s Venn diagram of social circles overlaps mightily with the founders of this Chesterton Academy. Local Catholic boy, discerned out of the priesthood, family has lived here for many years. He knows many if not most of the people involved. I could have dropped in from Mars, comparatively, as far as these folks know me.
I determine with my son in law’s encouragement, to ask one of the founders I met at the info session out to lunch, to get to the bottom of this. This founder happens to have been his landlord for a while.
Son in law had evidently been talking me up, so much so that he sends me an email wherein a board member he was interviewing with suggested that I send in an application for the headmaster position. All this is happening at the same time, I’m not very clear in retrospect who caused what to happen and whose idea each action was. Son in law was a major driver here.
So I send in an application for a job for which I don’t even have a job description, mostly because I was intrigued, and because the situation had changed: we had not been able to sell the house, the market here for what we want is too hot for my blood. Sitting it out for a while was becoming more and more a decision that was not really mine to make. Maybe I should just rent for 6 months or a year and get a job?
I apply for headmaster with a rambling cover letter that is not addressing the actual listed job requirements, because the job description had vanished from the web. Seemed crazy. I have lovely lunch with the board member friend of my son in law, at which I learn that they’d had major, since resolved, issues with their website, during which my original application was lost – since I’d just dropped in from Mars, they had no way to know that they’d lost something.
I was not completely unmiffed by this explanation, nor, after the conversation, was I completely on board with the school. Long-time readers here know how much I dislike, to put it mildly, the classroom model. I needed to be convinced that in this case is was actually a good idea.
I heard back on the headmaster application the same day we went to lunch. A series of in-person and Zoom interviews followed. 3 days later, last Friday, I was offered and accepted the position of headmaster at the Chesterton Academy of Sacramento.
May God have mercy on our souls! Turns out my wacky, dabble in everything, fascinated by almost every shiny object that passes by personality comes off as Renaissance Man, under the proper lighting. As I said several times during the interviews, I’m not anybody’s ideal candidate, but if what it takes to get this project off the ground, to get this school opened in August, is for me to be headmaster, I will accept the adventure Aslan sends us.
The founders group is large and full of impressive people, who understand that in no way are they stepping back and handing this project off to me. They will remain very involved, and continue to do the same critical tasks they have been doing for a year. As in any start up, school or otherwise, the job to do will require more than what any one person can bring.
The funniest part about all this is that I’m more invigorated than terrified, given that I’ve never done anything very much like this job before. The personal and spiritual support of the board and the families is very comforting and inspiring, not to mention indispensable. Please pray for us all, if you’re the praying kind.
What is to become of this blog? I’m now in the position of, I think, Charles de Gaulle, who once said something like: that seems a reasonable course, but Charles de Gaulle would not take it. I have to reshape my writing and public behavior always with this attitude in mind: would the Headmaster of a Chesterton Academy do or say such a thing? And err on the side of caution.
With this in mind, I’m afraid the days of the Wild West of this blog are past. There are simply things the headmaster should not write about, or should not say. I have long contemplated starting another blog under a pen name for my writings, when I finally get them together for publishing. That’s definitely on the backburner for now. Here, I’ll check in when possible, but the days of 20+ posts a month, unofficially gone for some time now, are now officially past.
I suppose it goes without saying that if you pack up from a place you lived in for 27 years, you are going find things you’ve forgotten or didn’t even know you had. We’ve had a number of those moments so far, but this one, well, here you go:
When our son died, we received condolences from many people, so much so that I only got back to maybe half of them before I just couldn’t do it any more. Further, people who didn’t know us, but heard about his death from his school – Thomas Aquinas College – sent their condolences to the school, who then forwarded them on to us. So we have a sheaf of lovely and kind letters via the school.
Pretty sure I read them when they first arrived, but they had since fled my memory. My wife found them. Bishops, abbots, priests, members of religious orders sent their condolences and prayers. The Papal Nuncio to the United States sent us condolences, and said he would pray for the repose of our son’s soul.
Back in 2012, that Papal Nuncio was Archbishop Vigano.
Being a little flippant on this, the day of the Great Silence, but that’s the truth. I’ve got 6 days to finish packing up and moving out of this house, and so hope to keep a prayer on my lips as I work like a dog to get it done. My beloved and our beloved son, as well as our daughters and son in law and one very dear friend have also put in some serious work, but we’ve run hard into the 80-20 (or is it 90-10?) Rule: packing up the last 20% is 80% of the work. This post will be brief, rushed, or both.
First up, Dante: in Canto IV of the Inferno, as they leave the Limbo of souls who earned no punishment but gained not Heaven, he asks Virgil one of the enduring questions of Christianity. Is there no hope for souls separated from Christ through no fault of their own? Unbaptized infants, virtuous pagans (like Virgil himself) and those to whom the Word has never been preached? Specifically, has no one from Limbo ever been saved?
Here there was no sound to be heard, except the sighing, that made the eternal air tremble, and it came from the sorrow of the vast and varied crowds of children, of women, and of men, free of torment. The good Master said to me: ‘You do not demand to know who these spirits are that you see. I want you to learn, before you go further, that they had no sin, yet, though they have worth, it is not sufficient, because they were not baptised, and baptism is the gateway to the faith that you believe in. Since they lived before Christianity, they did not worship God correctly, and I myself am one of them. For this defect, and for no other fault, we are lost, and we are only tormented, in that without hope we live in desire.’
When I heard this, great sadness gripped my heart, because I knew of people of great value, who must be suspended in that Limbo. Wishing to be certain in that faith that overcomes every error, I began: ‘Tell me my Master, tell me, sir, did anyone ever go from here, through his own merit or because of others’ merit, who afterwards was blessed?’Dante, Inferno, Canto IV, From Poetry in Translation, translated by A. S. Kline
Virgil answers straight out of medieval mystery plays:
And he, understanding my veiled question, replied: ‘I was new to this state, when I saw a great one come here crowned with the sign of victory. He took from us the shade of Adam, our first parent, of his son Abel, and that of Noah, of Moses the lawgiver, and Abraham, the obedient Patriarch, King David, Jacob with his father Isaac, and his children, and Rachel, for whom he laboured so long, and many others, and made them blessed, and I wish you to know that no human souls were saved before these.Ditto
Elsewhere in the Inferno, features of Hell are described as ruins: bridges over ditches, walls, the Gates of Hell itself has been blown off its hinges. This seems odd, given the inscription over the Gates:
THROUGH ME THE WAY TO THE INFERNAL CITY:
THROUGH ME THE WAY TO ETERNAL SADNESS:
THROUGH ME THE WAY TO THE LOST PEOPLE.
JUSTICE MOVED MY SUPREME MAKER:
I WAS SHAPED BY DIVINE POWER,
BY HIGHEST WISDOM, AND BY PRIMAL LOVE.
BEFORE ME, NOTHING WAS CREATED,
THAT IS NOT ETERNAL: AND ETERNAL I ENDURE.
FORSAKE ALL HOPE, ALL YOU THAT ENTER HERE.Ditto
“…and eternal I endure.” One might expect, after Plato, that eternal things are unchanging and unchangeable, pretty much by definition. But no – in an Incarnational universe, even the Eternal is shown to change – out of love. Virgil explains that a great earthquake shook Hell on the day One came to save some souls out of Limbo, and damaged even Hell. Even in the wreckage of Hell, or perhaps especially in the wreckage of Hell, the God Who so Loved the world is revealed. He has entered time for our sake.
Today is often referred to as the Great Silence, for here on earth we recall the lull in Incarnational activity: The world slept in darkness until Christ came, then was riled, enraged, and murderous until Christ had been entombed, then fell silent while Christ descended into Hell. Now, all the noise and insanity of the world is caused by the Prince of this world again fighting vainly against the New Heaven and the New Earth. The battle rages even though the outcome is known. We are the lowliest foot soldiers in this battle of Principalities and Powers, but we all have our parts to play. About as weak and small a person imaginable, a peasant Jewish teenage mother, in her holy humility has crushed the serpent’s head, after all. We also must do our parts.
Now, back to packing up.
Listen to this Mass here. Utterly beautiful music that plumbs the emotional depths of the Requiem Mass, this masterpiece deserves to become as much a part of the repertoire as Faure’s Requiem.
Background: The Benedict XVI Institute is part of Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone’s efforts to return a sense of the sacred to the Church and the world. We have reached a point where, of the holy triumvirate of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful, only the Beautiful can get a hearing, so to speak, in the modern world. The Beautiful can get around the defenses set up under the dictatorship of relativism to keep the Good and the True at bay, can catch people off guard, and surprise them.
So the Archbishop created an Institute to provide resources to parishes to help in the beautiful celebration of the Mass, and to promote sacred art. The Benedict XVI Choir, a sixteen member professional choir under the the direction of Richard Sparks, is among the very best choirs I’ve ever heard. Sparks has one of those impressive musical resumes, having directed choirs and orchestras and founded ensembles and taught and written for decades now.
Frank la Rocca is the Composer in Residence. I am reminded of reading about how, under one of his patrons, 16th century composer Orlando de Lasso had a top notch choir (plus copyists and assistant directors) at his disposal. He would roll out of bed, compose all morning, ring for a servant to take the draft to the copyists with orders that it be rehearsed by the choir that afternoon, and he’d be down to give it a listen later that day. Composer heaven, in other words.
While I don’t imagine la Rocca has it quite that good, he’s got the best part: a fine choir and orchestra to perform his works in appropriate and often beautiful settings with appreciative audiences.
On November 6, in St. Mary’s of the Assumption Cathedral in San Francisco, la Rocca’s Requiem Mass for the Homeless was premiered as part of a requiem mass celebrated by Archbishop Cordileone for the repose of the souls of the homeless who died over the last year. My family attended.
The mass was very beautiful. First and foremost, I was there to pray, so my attention to the music was not what it would have been at a concert. I wasn’t taking any notes. I have yet to give the recently posted YouTube videos the listen they deserve. So, mostly, I’m merely recording general impressions here.
That said, the music was wonderful, beautiful, sublime. I was hearing echoes of Faure, Barber, and a little Britten in there, on top of his obvious roots in chant and the polyphonic giants of the 16th, and, especially, the early 17th centuries – more of the expressive emotionalism of Victoria and Byrd, less the jewel-like but comparatively cool perfection of Palestrina.
Faure and la Rocca do things with dissonance I need to study more. Their voice leading results in what might be expected to sound like harsh passages (and definitely would have gotten them in trouble with the sacred musicians in the 16th century!) but is instead supremely beautiful and expressive. The Barber comparison comes from some of the sonorities la Rocca loves (and I love, too!), closely-spaced, luminous, and moving. Every once in a while, a hint of the sort of repetition and sequences Britten uses so well seemed to be peaking through as well.
Yet the overall texture of the melodies remain very chantlike for the most part – there are exceptions. And he shies not away from the grand chorale cadences of the 16th century masters, even if he’s getting there via the 20th century masters.
None of this detracts at all from the originality and vigor of the music. La Rocca can remind one of many things without ever sounding like anything other than himself. That’s the beauty of real creativity: you find yourself by forgetting yourself in trying to do the most beautiful job you can.
The only other la Rocca work I’m at all familiar with is his Mass for the Americas, which is also very beautiful and profound. This is a very preliminary judgement, but having just listened to that earlier mass and comparing it to the Requiem heard Saturday, the Requiem is the more profound work. There’s a depth to it, a plumbing of human sadness and redemption, that takes this newer work to a higher level – and that’s saying something, because the Mass of the Americas is a very wonderful piece. I hope a recording of this Requiem finds its way onto a CD, so that I can listen to it with more focus.
Of the various Mass commons and propers, the ones which stand out in my memory are the Sanctus, the Agnus, and the Meditation after communion. Typically, one thinks of the angels surrounding the heavenly throne singing in glory at the Sanctus. La Rocca makes even that glorious cry into a journey through pain to redemption. The Lamb of God being sung about in the Agnus is a sacrificial lamb, the supreme Sacrificial Lamb dying to take away the sins of the world. This setting managed to capture something of that, a recurring theme throughout this Mass setting. Finally, the Mediation on Lamentation 1:12 summed up, if possible, the emotional content of the mass. We were praying for the souls of the least of the least of our brethren, those who had nowhere to lay their heads, who it is difficult to even acknowledge or tolerate – yet, they are given to us to love.
I must mention the excellent performance of the Benedict XVI Choir under Richard Sparks. They gave this work the inspired, beautiful realization it deserved.
Ten years ago, I had not heard of Morten Lauridsen, Avro Part, or Frank la Rocca. These are by any measure among the greatest composers of our age. But they write religious music. Film scores get you noticed; religious music ignored. If by any chance you get the opportunity to hear this piece performed, do it. I will post here if I find any recordings.
Keeping with the pattern of switching back and forth between the Current Insanity and Anything Else, let’s discuss two books I just happen to have read at the same time.
The above definitions are somewhat useful. What one wants to be able to say is when something is not an allegory – the essence of a definition. With the broadest stroke of the definitions above, one can possibly say that the work under consideration is not symbolic, and, therefore, not an allegory.
(Sorry for the digression here. I thought I knew what allegory is, but then made the mistake of thinking about it, looking it up, and now have to sort through it. The interwebs are indeed fields of rabbit holes.)
Made the mistake – woe is me! – of visiting the Oracle Wikipedia, and thus fell into a cesspool of woke:
As a literary device or artistic form, an allegory is a narrative or visual representation in which a character, place, or event can be interpreted to represent a hidden meaning with moral or political significance. Authors have used allegory throughout history in all forms of art to illustrate or convey complex ideas and concepts in ways that are comprehensible or striking to its viewers, readers, or listeners.People way too big for their britches
One little phrase removes all usefulness from this thing: “…can be interpreted to represent…” Thus, any possibility of saying what is or is not allegory is banished, in favor of everything being an allegory if it merely can be interpreted to represent something else, a feat any college sophomore can perform with ease on absolutely anything. Cafeteria food in an allegory for control exerted on the masses by structural oppression. I’m oppressed by the paucity of avocado on my toast …. And so on. (1)
Then, since logical consistency is a social construct of an oppressive white patriarchy and thus must be violated, we shift the grounds back to the intentions of the author, by which we mean ‘artist’ – there I go with that consistency thing again! – thus contradicting the original ‘definition’, which is based on the interpretation of the consumer of art: “Authors have used allegory throughout history in all forms of art to illustrate or convey complex ideas and concepts in ways that are comprehensible or striking to its viewers, readers, or listeners.”
Now we possibly need a college junior to explain how this contradiction is suspended but not resolved in a synthesis, but I haven’t had breakfast yet, so we’ll stop. Suffice it to say: if allegory is something the reader or viewer reads into something, then there’s no definition possible – no one can say what is and is not allegory, or rather, everything is allegory.
Back in the real world, we’re not completely freed from this muddiness even if we look to the author’s intent. Often, authors don’t express their intent; often they will say that there’s more to their works than what they, themselves consciously put there – maybe the work is allegorical even if that’s not what they were thinking at the time. But at least in some cases, we can say: Pilgrim’s Progress and Animal Farm are allegories. Those two stories were intended by their authors as allegories, and are really not open to any other, contradictory, interpretation. The character of Christian IS any Christian pilgrim; the pigs ARE the Russian Communist leadership. There’s practically no story if they’re not.
Unfortunately, at least from a tidiness point of view, few books fall this neatly into or out of this category. Is Dante’s Inferno allegorical? Of course! Is is completely allegorical, like Pilgrims Progress or Animal Farm? No. There are real characters throughout who are meant primarily as themselves, and only secondarily as stand-ins for the sinners as a class. Paolo and Frencesca are two real people, not just illustrations or symbols. Christian and the pigs have little if any personality apart from their symbolism.
Then there is the concept of a natural symbol, where its symbolic content fundamentally rests in the nature of the thing. Sometimes, symbol versus sign is used, with symbol having a connection by nature to the thing symbolized, while signs are merely conventional. Unfortunately, English does not really support that distinction, in that people have long used both those terms for both those concepts without distinction. Too bad.
The classic example: red, the color of fire and blood, symbolizes those things and things related to them by nature; a stop sign is conventional – there’s nothing about red hexagon that means ‘stop’ by nature (we had to write ‘STOP’ on it to get the message across initially), but red is the right color (or among the right colors) for a sign that needs to grab people’s attention in order to function. A lovely sky-blue stop sign would seem wrong, and not just by convention.
Allegory will be stronger the more it employs natural symbols rather than signs whose meaning is not connected to the thing it is a sign of by anything other than convention. Paolo and Francesca are blown about against their wills, which wills they had surrendered to their passions. Leaves in the wind is a good natural symbol for that situation….
Sigh. All this wandering around just to talk about two short books.
I found myself reading Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan’s 1678 Christian allegory, because it was mentioned on John C. Wright’s blog and I realized I’d never read it. Wright stated that it is probably the only allegory out there that can be read on its artistic merits. We’re not talking about the use of real, flesh-and-blood characters (or, at least, characters written so that we might imagine them real) to represent, more or less consciously on the part of the author, ideas or social problems or what have you. Rather, Pilgrim’s Progress characters have names that ARE their characters: Christian, Faithful, Hopeful, Little-faith, Ignorance, Worldly Wiseman, and so on. There’s very little to even the main characters beyond what you might guess from their names.
Bunyan was a Puritan preacher who spent a good chunk of his adult life in jail for refusing to stop preaching Puritanism. 17th century England oscillated between the established church tolerating ‘heretics’ and throwing them in jail or worse. Bunyan’s life straddled a couple of these peaks and troughs. He is assumed to have began writing Pilgrim’s Progress during one his extended stays in prison. It became an instant classic, translated into over 200 languages and hardly being out of print since.
Buyan’s skill is in how he uses his various allegorical figures and places to illustrate his Puritan theology. He sees this story in a series of dreams: A Christian, a husband and father, is visited by Evangelist, who warns him to leave his home town, City of Destruction, and pilgrimage to the Celestial City carrying a heavy burden on his back. His family thinks him crazy, so he leaves them.
The rest of the story concerns Christian’s journey to the Celestial City, the places he visits or avoids, how he is tempted and aided, who he meets along the way, the fates of those whom he meets (spoiler: his companion Faithful is martyred – this is good, in context, the greatest good in fact; Hopeful completes the journey with Christian, while Little-faith, a character in a story within a story within a dream, eventually makes it. Ignorance fairs less well.)
Conclusion: it is a good story to read, both for a Christian and for anyone who wants insight into how Puritans think. In some ways, the person treated most harshly in the book is Ignorance. He comes off worse than many of the active sinners and tempters, with more pages spent having Hopeful and Christian harangue him than are spent on any other single topic. We look back to Bunyan to understand this: he is a Puritan preacher, hell fire and brimstone style. His enemy is Ignorance, meaning people who do not understand or who reject the central themes of Calvinism. The damned are the damned – you give converting them a shot, then move on. But the Ignorant, those who travel the same path you are travelling but are doing it WRONG – they are the real challenge.
In Bunyan’s dream, Ignorance shows up at the Pearly Gates all alone. He knocks, and – it is not opened unto him. Rather, the agents of the King ask to see his papers – scroll, certificate – proving he is among the elect. When he fails to produce them, he is bound by two angels and cast into Hell. So a guy who left everything, followed the path, rejected or escaped from temptation, and saw his journey to Heaven through, is damned because he DID IT WRONG!
Despite all its protestations to the contrary, Calvinist Puritanism remains as legalistic an expression of Christianity and anyone could hope to find.
Ignorance is an annoying character, so sure that if his heart doesn’t trouble him, he has not erred. He is confident that, since he left everything, went on the pilgrimage, and did the required good works along the way, that he is going to be admitted to Heaven. Hopeful and Christian go after him hammer and tongs, because he is not embracing his utter depravity and relying entirely on the completely unearned and undeserved Grace of God as expressed in Jesus. Ignorance repeatedly says he does not understand what they mean by that idea. He loves Jesus, and follows His commandments – isn’t that enough?
A Catholic Pilgrim’s Progress would be Dante’s Divine Comedy. But say a lesser Catholic poet tried his hand at doing the allegory Bunyan-style: first, Sacraments and Saints would be essential characters, accompanying the pilgrims on their way. Major time would be given to those church officials who have failed in their callings – you know, all the bad popes and clerics that populate Dante’s Hell – and the damage they do and their unpleasant eternal fates, how to identify and avoid them, how to honor the offices without succumbing to the evil of the office holders. There would be Good Pastor and Bad Pastor, Patron Saint and False Saint. The Cloud of Witnesses would include all those people by whom God, as secondary causes and in order to have His glory reflected by creatures made in His image, passed the Faith all the way down to Christian.
But mostly, there would be Purgatory. Ignorance would knock, and the doors would be opened, and he would finally SEE. In that moment of searing clarity, all the errors of his ignorance, all his pride and foolishness, would be clear to him – and he, himself, of his own will, would seek to hide from the Face of God. Yet God, in his infinite mercy and love, would not cast out one who had tried, who made the effort however badly, and who has endured the journey. Thus, to the singing of choirs of angels rejoicing that another soul had been saved, Ignorance would be carried to the foot of the mountain of Purgatory, to be purified of his pride.
I gave a one-paragraph review of John C. Wright’s Iron Chamber of Memory when I first read it back in 2016, and mentioned I’d do a full review of it later.
It seems now is later.
This review will be abstract, as spoilers would be a terrible thing. You just need to read this book. It begins as a tale of unrequited, and unrequitable, love: the girl our hero loves is engaged to marry his best friend, and his sense of honor makes doing anything to frustrate those plans unthinkable. Yet, the two of them keep bumping into each other alone, without her fiancé, even so far as meeting up at the manor house on the Isle of Sark, which said fiancé has recently inherited. Through a hundred little nudges and coincidences, they end up at the door of a particular room within the manor house, and…
Stuff happens. Increasingly insane stuff, stuff that starts out uncanny and moves on from there, until – really crazy stuff happens. A story that starts out as a tragic romance, a love triangle between two best friends and the woman they both love, ends up involving a number of saints and mythical creature.
And I’m afraid I must leave it at that. The setting for the story – the very real Isle of Sark – is, in real life, about as romantic and epic a place as exists on the planet. A little island off the coast of France, the last feudal fief in Europe, pirates, caves, foot paths with 300′ drops on either side, Nazi conquest and resistance, ancient farms, ancient families, the world’s only Dark Sky island – awesome.
As for the allegory bit that I started writing about – well, it spoils it pretty intensely. So, I recommend reading the book before reading this little bit, because the plot twists, if you can call them that, are epic, and this will ruin it.
You’ve been warned.
In the final chapters, it is revealed that the Rose or Red Room is only the first enchanted layer of memory, that there are several nested rooms. When deep enough in, enough memory is restored, that Hal Landfall, the main protagonist, is revealed to be Henwas Lanval, a Knight of the Round Table who had been seduced by the sea fairy Tryamour; Laurel du Lac is the fairy Lorelei, who aimed to seduce and destroy Hal, Manfred is a monk and magician named Mandragora. Depending on whether each character is in or out of a chamber of memory, and on which chamber of memory each is in, they “know” who they are very differently.
So the question naturally arises: What is real? What is really going on? The soul of Manfred, in the innermost chamber of all, speaks of dreams, of how everything we see in this life is shadows and confusion, we have forgotten who we are. Only the saved soul sees the long line of triumph back through to Adam, of souls that have done well and who still do well. Henry really is a great knight fighting a great battle. He just thinks, in his forgetfulness, that he is a student working on a Master’s thesis. He is part of a great army protecting what is really important.
Is something in there an allegory? Is the whole story? I tend to think it doesn’t matter. What is different: Wright’s characters are people first, warts and wings and all; Bunyan’s are allegories first, and only accidentally people, if they are people at all.