Moderate Terrorists

putin-vs-daeshI jot this down with some trepidation having read the news about Russia doing more harm to ISIS / Daesh in one day than the Americans and British in a year. The latest whingeing and whining from Washington is that Putin is attacking “moderate” terrorists (supposedly the “good guys” trained by the CIA to fight against the Assad government) as well as Daesh.

Following these historical events, I am inclined to give more credence to the view that considers that the US have been fighting proxy wars in the Middle East, Afghanistan and elsewhere using terrorists and mercenaries trained and financed by the American taxpayer. If this is so, the mask is falling away and we face an entirely different world than what we have known since World War II. Europe will need to look to new leadership, and perhaps work to rediscover its Christian roots.

At any rate, Syria is something like much of Europe in 1945, and Daesh terrorists will soon be bits of pink flesh spattered against devastated walls, swinging from the gallows, or having French fits on scopolamine or sodium pentathol (or whatever they use these days) as they eagerly tell all they know about their mates. I hope and pray the refugees of Syria will be able to return home, rebuild the desolation of many generations – and obtain humanitarian help from as many of us who can give it.

In the meantime, the hype about CIA trained and financed “moderate terrorists” reminded me of this old story. Perhaps they go down to their underground bunkers to drink tea and have parish council meetings and cucumber sandwiches with the Vicar. The mind boggles. Here it is:

Anglican Extremists Attack Shopping Centre

A group of Anglican extremists have attacked Cackwater shopping centre in Gutborough. There are no casualties, although several people are reported to be “quite confused”.

The attack took place at midday outside the local branch of TK Maxx. A bomb, made from cake mixture and “hundreds and thousands” was left in front of the store and exploded, leaving two men splattered and one man needing counselling. Shoppers ran for cover, fearing that the cake-bomb was the first of many, but were disappointed.

Shortly after the attack, a video appeared on the Anglican fundamentalist website claiming that “all those who do not worship the Lord shall lead a rather average life” and that “if you do not follow the path of Jesus Christ, then I shall wag my finger at you”.

The alleged leader of the Anglican Fundamentalist group, Valerie Bin-Liner, said that the campaign was aimed at “all those who don’t attend church, i.e. everyone”. Police have been tracking Bin-Liner for the last two years, and have as yet been unsuccessful. Sightings have been frequent; latest reports say that she is hiding out in a box room in Cheltenham.

Anglican fundamentalism is growing in the UK. A group of women were arrested two months ago after putting excessive amounts of sugar in the tea of supposed “disbelievers”, while another woman was arrested after trying to ram her bicycle into the side of a nightclub.

An elderly man escaped the clutches of police officers after an attempt to hijack the number 51 bus to Gropple town centre. The driver, who has undergone counselling to recover from the harrowing experience, said “he approached me and said that he had a cake-bomb strapped to his waist and that I should divert the bus to Scrimpton. Naturally, I did as he asked – it was only the next village, and he appeared quite determined. The passengers were almost frightened – both of them. I kept my calm and drove the bus to Scrimpton, where he said ‘thank you’ in a menacing manner, and got off the bus. That’s when I called the police.”

Locals in Gutborough, however, are fearing another wave of Anglican attacks, and have been advised not to eat any cakes until the situation has eased.

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Long haired priests

I hesitated writing about this, as it concerns something so trifling as not to merit much attention. Some people do ask the question, as attested by my stats page – Are priests allowed to have long hair? I suppose I can say something as I am a priest and have long hair. Obviously, canon law makes no mention.

It is customary for monks to have shaved heads or tonsures, with or without a crown effect. Eastern Orthodox and Uniate monks following the Byzantine Rite have long hair and beards. But that is a question of custom and traditions.

Apart from that, it is simply a question of conventions and fashions in the western world. Fifty years ago, long hair on a man signified his anti-establishment position, and nowadays, it is quite common even among men working in companies and the world of politics. Short hair came in at around the end of the nineteenth century and became de rigueur from the first world war to the 1960’s. It has been revived in fashions over the past twenty years in the form of military style haircuts. There was a time in my life when I cut mine very short in a crew cut.

In France, long hair on a man tends to have associations with a left-wing ideology or alternative living whilst very short hair is often associated with political conservatism or authoritarian ideas. It seems to be more or less that over most of Europe. I don’t know about Eastern Europe. The USA has its conservative and democratic tendencies, though I am told that there are southern red-necks with long hair and beards. Distinctions do get quite blurred at times. On priests, there is a definite notion of short hair being associated with authoritarian and nationalistic ideas. American Evangelicals are generally insistent that men must show the conservative image of the family man in a suit and with short hair – something like the 1950’s fashion.

In France, we have the hangovers from the 1960’s like Fr Guy Gilbert, who also wears biker clothes and whose vocation is specially towards the pastoral care of recovering drug addicts and wayward young men. There are a few others from that generation. I was born in the late “baby boomer” era and was less affected by the 1960’s “cultural revolution” than my brother. Nevertheless, I was a child throughout the 1960’s and was influenced to an extent, especially around 1971. I belong to a conservative Church, in which quite a few of our priests have beards (eg. Bishop Damien Mead, Fr Robert Hart, Canon Don Walker, etc.). One thing I find in the ACC is a spirit of tolerance in matters outside doctrine and morals that is more difficult to come by in the traditionalist RC world. It is very appropriate when on duty as a priest and in a cassock (clerical suit) to be tidily turned out – and so I tie my hair up in a simple ponytail like gentlemen did a couple of hundred years ago.

Those who are against priests or any men growing their hair from a Christian point of view generally go by I Corinthians xi.14:

Doth not even nature itself teach you, that, if a man have long hair, it is a shame unto him?

The context of this epistle seems to be more a question of men imitating women or going around in “drag” as we would say nowadays. Most long-haired men I know or correspond with are entirely masculine, and some are interested in motorcycles, sports and keeping fit. Most men on the homosexual scene have short hair, even those who are “camp”. Perhaps in first-century Greece, long hair on a man meant that he was being effeminate. Not in our time. I am certainly not interested in all the paraphernalia of feminine life I see in our bathroom (and my wife is much simpler than many other women) like hair dye, various styling and “brushing” devices, creams, cosmetics and oils and then their clothes and hygiene devices. It is a question of balance and being reasonable. St Paul simply meant that there should be a reasonable distinction and role play between men and women. We should not forget that the custom in the Eastern Orthodox Church is for priests to have long hair and beards, but they remain masculine.

There is a lot of rubbish going around about some people affirming their identity by clothing fashions, hair and being of one kind of “sexual orientation” or another. Some say they were “born longhairs”. We are only long-hairs if our hair is long. We have our sensitivities and temperaments. I am drawn to the Romantic world view and tend to see myself as transcending time and fashions. Perhaps I might be blamed for “playing God”, but such is not my intention. Other men are free to do what they want, even shave their heads if they want. We need to find our patria within ourselves and in what is real. That can be the secret garden that no one else can violate or it can be partly manifested by what we do in life. It is not easy in a world that is governed by fashion and conformity. Long hair on men, presently, is neither fashionable nor unfashionable. We live in a free world.

I have come to see my priestly vocation in a different way. I live in the wrong place to have a normal parish ministry as a priest of the ACC. I have been into these questions before. Life is life, and all I can do is to be ready for any good work, or to follow God’s will as, when and if it manifests itself in some recognisable way. One lesson I have learned is that a priest has to be himself and not seek to please others. Seek first the Kingdom of Heaven, and everything else will be added. How? It takes a lifetime to find out!

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Series on the Sarum Use

This is little more than a heads-up on a series of articles on the Sarum Use by Rad Trad, the first of which is The Sarum Rite I: A Brief History. The historical view is important, but I notice the possible reasons why Sarum disappeared from use.

The loss of the Sarum rite to the Catholic Church is one of the great liturgical tragedies of the Counter-Reformation that has nothing to do with Ultramontanism, positive law, or minimalism. The loss of Sarum was Henry and Elizabeth’s theft of England’s great treasure, a theft beyond any form of taxation.

Not quite accurate, because Henry VIII hardly touched the liturgy. English recusant Catholics adopted the Roman rite, brought in mostly by Jesuit missionaries having been trained in Rome. Following the Roman rite became a symbol of fidelity to the Pope rather than the Reformation. Ultramontanism as understood in its nineteenth-century and anti-liberal context was not an issue of the decades around the Council of Trent.

A historical assessment might be possible in comparison with the situation in France where (in spite of the wars of religion) the state Church remained in communion with Rome but with a strained relationship. Anglicanism turns out to be an extreme form of Gallicanism when separated from the Protestant influences and theology. Henry VIII broke with Rome; Louis XIV did not. Most French dioceses had their own uses until the mid nineteenth century, although many of these uses had undergone reforms in the early eighteenth century under the influence of Jansenism. The missals of Paris and Rouen were made to contain the Roman ordo missae, and many of the propers were modified as Dom Guéranger bewailed in Institutions Liturgiques. We can suppose that had Henry VIII maintained a line similar to that of the French Church, the same thing would have happened to the English uses.

The loss of the Sarum Use (as with York, Hereford, etc. too) was caused by the total break between England and Rome. In the wake of the French Revolution, French Catholics had to affirm their identity. The Liberal movement moved them away from aspirations to restore the Monarchy and the bishops in place in France. Ultramontanism was the result, and the movement spread and coincided with Pius IX’s rejection of Liberalism after his return to Rome from Gaëta in 1848. Also with Dom Guéranger’s influence, the Roman missal replaced most of the diocesan uses other than Lyons.

Rad Trad is partly right, but we do well to go into a comparative approach, which he has doubtlessly done on other occasions.

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Just the sort of thing that makes religion nonsense

porcoReams have been written about the notions of truth and ideology, the latter word being extremely ambiguous and difficult to define with any accuracy. Many of us grew up in the latter half of the twentieth century, only a few years after the demise of Hitler and Stalin. The absolute nature of authority could only be subordinated to the use of critical reason. The tragedy of Germany could have been avoided had this highly cultured people been more critical of the lie that was constructed on Hitler’s conspiracy theory concerning the Jewish people and their purported role in the outcome of World War I in 1918. The whole tragedy hinged on a notion of infallibility of the one with authority: Der Führer hat immer Recht, Il Duce ha sempre raggione, Russian clocks are always right, and so forth. We are reminded of the absurd episode in 1870 when Pope Pius IX notoriously exclaimed “Tradizione! La tradizione son’ io!” in response to objections made by Cardinal Filippo Maria Guidi of Bologna. The idea in the Pope’s mind was perhaps inspired by Louis XIV as he in his turn affirmed L’Etat c’est moi. The idea returns again and again, even in a Don Camillo film in which the Communist major Peppone answers an objection by saying that the only authority he knew was the People, and he was the People. Surely, this was written as a satire to this constant claim to absolute authority.

It is in this context that I have readily read Döllinger’s famous book on the Pope and the Council and the English translation of August Bernard Hasler’s Wie der Papst unfelbar wurde (how the Pope became infallible). One of the greatest intuitions of the Modernists was historical criticism, using our reason in matters requiring such.

In the Roman Catholic Church, the ideology of infallibilism rears its ugly head from time to time. This morning, I found Fr Hunwicke’s article The pope and the Spirit. He as a Roman Catholic priest has to be careful what he says and is bound to assenting to the definition of Vatican I in the way Newman worked it out. We Anglicans are free to affirm that papal infallibility is abject nonsense and discredits the very notion of faith if allowed to stand. After the brief ray of light from 2005 until 2013, a period that paralleled the pontificate of Benedict XIV in the eighteenth century, we are back to the nonsense of the cult of the Pope, at least in the minds of some.

Looking at Fr Hunwicke’s article and his reference to one Monsignor Pinto, I would imagine that such buffoons are in the minority, even in the Roman Curia. Many simpler people can be brought to believe in the mumbo-jumbo of Wiccan witchcraft and in the most irrational. The cult of the Pope is a very real drift in popular religion leading to  absurdity and the caricature of itself. Infallibilism is a perfect apologia for atheists and most people who have concluded that it was all nonsense. Evelyn Waugh perfectly portrayed it in Brideshead Revisited and the contrast between Charles Ryder, Rex Mottram and Brideshead who was the sanctimonious git who had tried his vocation with the Jesuits.

The rational defence of faith is called apologetics, establishing the credibility of a proposition. Such a discipline is largely exhausted, and Modernism in the 1890’s and 1900’s was designed to try to clean up apologetics through the use of historical criticism and contemporary scientific knowledge. Both historical criticism and scientific knowledge has progressed since then. Faith and mystical experience are above such empirical criteria, but not the notion of the leader being infallible. It is always the drama of mysteries being beyond and not against reason. It is an insult to be asked to believe in something that is absurd and patently wrong.

We have certainly arrived at a historical watershed at which the whole notion of Church and faith will be rejected or understood in a way that can resist the criticism of materialism and religious fanaticism. Where is it all going to go? Good question…

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Secularism and Christianity

This is a fine article – The Offer You Can’t Refuse (the Secular World)

One thing that comes out of this is that for as long as churches try to ape the secular world (bureaucracy, steering committees, etc.) we know who will win. It’s just the same as when they put on “entertainment” liturgies and compete against modern professional television presenters, performers and choreographers. Churches lack intimate human relationships like in families and groups of friends. Intimacy and relationship are essential for the survival of a religion. This is an idea of which I have been convinced for a very long time.

Of course, religion is about our relationship with God and not only with each other. That being said, human love and friendship are icons of God, without which we cannot relate to God or any impersonal notion of a church. This is why some of the most “successful” churches have been built on expatriate and ethnic communities – that is until the bureaucracy moves in.

All this needs a considerable amount of thought, and we might be able to emphasise the positive advantage of small Churches in which people know each other over large ecclesiastical bureaucracies and impersonal structures. Yes, food for thought…

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Christian Romanticism

We don’t seem to see an end to the depressing binary dialectic between “cultural Christianity” and conservative Catholicism, Protestantism and Orthodoxy, especially in the American scene. This side of the Atlantic, outside imported American religion, Christianity is decaying like its empty churches. It appears strong in its mass popular expressions like pilgrimages and the cult of the Pope, weak when it has to depend on faith and devotion rather than cultural belonging.

I have written a few articles on Romanticism, or related to that theme, about which I claim no expertise. I have read but little of the poetry of Keats, Shelley and Coleridge, to say nothing of William Blake. I have only a fairly superficial knowledge of Wesley and the Methodist movement. To our friend Patrick Sheridan‘s disappointment, I have not yet got on to reading Tolkien. My sensitivity lies more with music than literature, but above all, the Romantic outlook on life is more philosophical than any particular fashion or artistic expression. Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance gets it down to the bare bones. Typically, the Romantic cannot relate to technology as a Classical person does. I am quite technically minded and have good perception of mechanical functioning, space, distance and speed. I drive a car and sail a boat and enjoy both. I have worked in organ building and understand how those instruments work. I can find out what is wrong and work out a way to repair the fault. The difference is that I stop at the boundary between the practical aspect of life and the understanding of the physics and mathematics of engineering. That is why my mind shuts down faced with pure mathematics or abstracts. It is a matter of the way we relate to purely rational matters on one hand and our imagination and feelings on the other. I am more drawn to art and beauty than to science. My curiosity is attracted by certain aspects of scientific knowledge, but I can only go so far.

We live in an essentially Classical world, but one where the rational underpinning is eroding away. We encounter the thinking behind Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein – science breaking the bounds of reason and proportion. Only today, I read about the prospect of genetically modified human embryos intended to be implanted in women and brought to birth. Prometheus Unbound to be sure! In Pirsig’s summary, I identify classical elements in my own being – my aptitude with mechanics, spatial perception (necessary for driving a car and marine navigation) and ability to work with my hands. The problem of science that goes mad (like the Frankenstein archetype) is the lack of reason and decent proportion. Our genre of science fiction cinema is full of the same theme to this very day.

On the other hand, many aspects of modern life exasperate the Romantic: bureaucracy, administration, the corporate spirit, the increasing role of the machine, computers making decisions in the place of humans. Our concern is the dehumanisation of life. It is nothing new since the Industrial Revolution and the invention of the steam engine. Many things are best left to intuition and human judgement. One example that is current in my life is coastal navigation: using a sighting compass, portland plotter and chart (or GPS) or lining up landmarks by eye – for example if you want to know whether your boat is advancing against the tidal current in relation to the land. Sometimes, we have to use instruments and do it scientifically. It is more pleasing for the Romantic to do it with human spatial perception and visual observation.

Some things can only be done scientifically using the appropriate machinery, and many things can only be done by a human and in a normal human relationship. This is the drama of bureaucracy and administration, when what should be dealt with in terms of human relationships and decisions is done by machines or people behaving like machines. Such a system is oppressive, heavy and expensive – and deathly. I think of the way our churches operate. I prefer ones where humans are in the loop – behaving like humans. The Romantic stereotype is what men often associate with women – everything decided by whims and emotions, changing in a heartbeat. La donn’è mobile, as we hear in Verdi’s Rigoletto, sung to the immortal melody by a tenor. We indeed read of the many turpitudes of Lord Byron and Shelley’s reckless seafaring, which did him in. Imagination and emotion cannot stand without the use of reason and knowledge. We find that we are both Classical and Romantic, but with a penchant towards one end of the scale or the other in varying degrees.

This is the Romantic, ultimately the ability to be human rather than a machine. There are several Romantic movements in history, represented respectively by William Blake and Coleridge, then by Keats, Shelley and Lord Byron among others of the period roughly between 1790 and 1815. Another Romantic period came almost exactly a hundred years later reacting from the industrial nineteenth century and the arrogant belief in progress and ended in the blood-drenched trenches of the Somme and Verdun. There are lights in the twentieth century like Tolkien. What is significant is that Anglo-Catholicism was a direct consequence of Romanticism as was the modern revival of monasticism in France and other European countries. Some of us are plugging into the same socket as we become disillusioned with the system that destroys the planet, makes people poor and dependent and which delights in war and domination. We represent the period that is falling between about 1990 to the present day.

Romanticism in all its historical expressions tends to be in a state of tension with any classical “orthodoxy”. It tends to share many themes with the old Gnostic thread in Christian history. Every religion has its dogmatic and institutional aspects that represent suspicion of mysticism and the inner life. Christianity has its parallels with Shiite, Sunnite and Sufist Islam in Roman Catholicism, Protestantism and Gnosticism / Monasticism. We find the same thing in Judaism and probably also in Hinduism and Buddhism. Religions have to adapt to the human persons to whom the system of belief is offered, ostensibly for that person’s good. Religions have divided and split along these lines, because this is what humans are like. In a way, what this article is about is Christianity for Romantics or sufficient flexibility in the Churches for such a temperament. Actually, that is too much to hope for from a bureaucratic institution, but not from small Churches or groups or friends.

Not every aspect of a Romantic reaction is very orthodox in institutional and ecclesiastical terms. Many themes of Romanticism hinge on darkness, death and the mal du siècle I touched upon yesterday when dealing with acedia. Jung emphasised the “dark side” or the shadow in his psychoanalytic work. Some of the old Romantics got involved with occultist practices and Spiritualism. Much of nineteenth century German Romantic philosophy borders onto a more pagan than biblical notion of God and the universe. We have only to introduce ourselves to the works of Hegel, Schleiermacher and Schelling in particular. Biblical orthodoxy needs to be challenged and seen differently – and it is the way our fundamentally Jewish faith could be opened to the Gentiles and all peoples of the world. It suffices to read St Paul!

Romanticism was the seed of Anglo-Catholicism and the desire to recover aspects of the pre-Reformation Church discarded by Protestantism as reactions to human corruption and sinfulness were extreme and intemperate. It created an aesthetic movement in England that was unknown to European counter-reformation Catholicism. It is this sensual element that would appeal to certain persons who would challenge traditional Christian moral teachings. However, it is a phenomenon that has contributed to so much that is good and wholesome.

Some of the more “totalitarian” Evangelical Christian tendencies identify a new strain of Romanticism as their enemy, opposing conservative or right-wing political ideology, fundamentalism, the dominant and predatory instincts of some human beings and the anti-humanist aspects of asceticism. Oddly enough, the “totalitarian” dimension is as opposed to rationalism and the classical spirit. It is almost a third “leg” in our thought about the different types of persons that exist. Like in a pack of dogs, you have the dominant alphas, the bullies and the psychopaths, and the rest of the animals who get a few scraps when the big boys are full and sleeping it off. I have always understood Christ as a Romantic, one who sought to bring man or the finer spirits out of that kind of spiritual slavery into a new existence founded on spiritual knowledge, love and beauty.

One of the books that has most marked me was one I bought as a student at Fribourg University – Bernard M.G. Reardon, Religion in the Age of Romanticism published by Cambridge University Press in 1985. We had a riveting course of lectures on nineteenth century Liberalism by Fr Guy Bedouelle OP, and the theme of Romanticism came out at every corner. A new world had to arise from the ashes of the French Revolution, as from the wars of the twentieth century and the spectre of that unholy alliance of secularism and Islam. This book deals essentially with the German Romantic philosophers, but also with French liberals like Lamennais, Ernest Renan and the scientific insights of Auguste Compte. The movement grew as the nineteenth century brought us progress and gigantic technological achievements. The human spirit gave us the Arts and Crafts and pre-Rapahelite art. It also brought us something to live and hope for.

Romanticism manifests itself in our own world, because the movement never entirely went away. There were the 1960’s and the Hippie world. It isn’t the kind of Romanticism that would attract me, but the philosophical lines run parallel with the reaction against the twentieth-century establishment – which in reality ran along the same lines as that of the previous age. The Hippies returned to nature, sang songs and wrote poetry. They took consciousness-altering drugs like LSD and acted not very differently from some of the excesses of Lord Byron or Coleridge. Some of those things they did were foolish and self-destructive, but they challenged an order that those people perceived as inhuman and threatening.

The discovery of texts of proven authenticity in the 1940’s at Nag Hammadi in Egypt was a milestone, giving us insight that proved to be so different from the polemics of the Church Fathers. They don’t overthrow the canonical Scriptures with which we Christians are familiar, but we are brought to be aware that there are many things in heaven and earth that are not dreamt of in our philosophy – to quote Shakespeare. Our “system” is incomplete, as is the classical system of human reason or the “prison warders” of fundamentalist religion. If there is more, then we want to know. We run the risk of growing out of our children’s clothes, but that is life. We aspire to higher things. I have often written on my fascination with the writings of Nicholas Berdyaev, the Russian philosopher who sought to harmonise the insights of Christian gnosticism with his Orthodox faith. He wrote of an “aristocracy” of the spirit. This is not a privilege of birth or money, but a vision that motivates a few of us away from collective human stupidity and ideology.

If I say I would like to encourage a Christian Romantic movement, I warn my readers that it could never be a church or even a common-interest group. It cannot work as an organisation, a system or an institution. If we wish to belong to a Church, we join one. I belong to a Church as a priest, and it represents the ordinary exoteric life of Christians who attend church services, read the Bible and other writings from the Fathers, Saints and other authors of value and do charitable works in the world. Esoteric religion concerns individuals and the mystical life. Every attempt to found an esoteric church has failed or is fraught with fault lines. Very few people have the maturity to go beyond the ordinary ways of life. What we can do is to share experience and knowledge, so that others can make of it what they can and wish. Like Christianity itself, it is a leaven of knowledge, love and beauty in a hostile world. We answer hatred with love, evil with good, war with peace. That is Christ’s way. That is our vocation.

As many of us as possible need to write literature and poetry, compose music, paint images on canvas, make statues and beautiful things from all natural materials like wood, stone and metal. We need to love nature and go to the sea in ships, go on long hikes in the woods and mountains, ride bicycles or motorcycles. There is still plenty of it left despite the greedy folk corrupting and polluting it with plastic, oil, chemicals and nuclear waste. We are often told to mortify our imagination to avoid sins of thought. That is folly! We might as well be put in prison at birth in case we should be tempted to commit a crime! Art and human beauty are the product of imagination – and they are not sinful. Beauty is an icon of love, and love is an icon of the invisible and transcendent God. It isn’t about copying and aping the styles of other historical periods, being pastiche. We will always be accused of such, like those musicians who hate music as they hate harmony and counterpoint. Everything we do is original and an expression of ourselves contributing to humanity even if we are following a sense of tradition and obedience to laws and rules.

One thing I have discovered about myself. I am not a leader – I am too introverted for that. I recognise my ideas and impetus in many things that have happened over the years. It is of no concern to me that my role goes unnoticed. Some good is done and I don’t matter. This is another aspect of Romanticism. We don’t fear death. We just go on with life in faith and hope, giving love and beauty to all who want them. It is the same thing with this blog. I just sow the seeds and others will reap long after my body is returned to the earth. That is the essence of Christianity and Romanticism. Let others bully and dominate! But that is not the way of Christ. If we stay faithful to our vocation, we will never fail or falter.

Pray for me that I may never fail…

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Daemonium Meridianum

Most of us are familiar with Psalm 90 (91) which is said every evening at Compline, that wonderful intimate Office that monks sing by heart in the darkness. As Christ was comforted and protected in the desert, despite the Devil using the words of this psalm to pervert its meaning, we find homeliness and protection.

Thou shalt not be afraid of the terror of the night, of the arrow that flieth in the day, of the business that walketh about in the dark: of invasion, or of the noonday devil.

In our Prayer Book, the translation reads:

Thou shalt not be afraid for any terror by night : nor for the arrow that flieth by day. For the pestilence that walketh in darkness : nor for the sickness that destroyeth in the noon-day.

There is the possibility, not only of considering the demon as a spiritual personality seeking to tempt us and deviate us from our relationship with God, but also of seeing the enemy as a sickness within ourselves. My subject today is that of acedia, ἀκηδία, the state into which many of us fall both through sinfulness and psychological reactions to the stresses of life. As we remember from our catechism, sin is committed when there is matter and intention, an element of deliberation and consent to temptation. The condition of those who have arrived at a point at which they care about nothing and life means nothing to them is not so obvious to condemn in moral terms. Illness can also play its part, reducing the moral guilt, at least to a point.

Much of French existentialism of the period following World War I hinges on this pitiful condition, and it is rooted in us all, especially in Europe. I see it in politics, in those I know, in my own wife and in myself. Why go on? What good is anything? It is a part of the mechanism of addiction on which I have already written. Christian moralists often seize upon the ills of our society. It’s all sex! they proclaim. I am not sure that this is true. It seems to me to be more of a consequence than a cause.

The Greek word ἀκηδία is usually translated as sloth or spiritual apathy. It is more than just seeking an easy and effort-free life. The scholastics class it among the capital sins. If this apathy continues unchecked, we fall all the way to the bottom of the abyss. We lose our sense of vocation and we cease to relate to God or even to ourselves. The only conclusion is suicide or at least an ardent desire for death. At a more intermediate stage, we seek to fill the void with pleasure and entertainment. Because such pleasures cannot bring satisfaction, the result is addiction to ever-stronger stimuli. Acedia removes the joy of living and burdens us with unending sadness and boredom. It is a sin insofar as we can prevent it with due care and diligence, and an illness insofar as our will is diminished and we need help.

The disease has infected most of our society, and is at the root of the consumer culture – buying and possessing for its own sake. We are bombarded with commercial advertising and pornography. God “dies” and humanity loses all sense of dignity. These are the bare bones of modern secularism. Some of the Church Fathers wrote about acedia in a context of monastic life, and the same teaching shines through in the Rule of Saint Benedict. So, now, are we going to cure it with the usual conservative moralist rhetoric? Medice, cura te teipsum?

One thing opened my eyes with these old patristic and scholastic notions in my mind, the modern psychological notion of burnout. I googled the word and came up with more or less useful sites in the vast market of therapy and self-help. It is something that can happen to us all. Understanding and consciousness are the elements that can help make a turnaround rather than the moralistic rhetoric that submerges our self-esteem ever more in guilt. If nothing else, it is an example of the harmony of faith and reason, of the transcendence of God and the dignity of humanity that is called to incarnate the former.

The cause of burnout is stress, whether at work, family life, vocation or anything to which we are or have been totally committed. Problems  then seem to be without any solution and everything looks bleak. The culture we live in reinforces that view: bad news, rumours of war and the end of everything we know, the destruction of the planet and human greed being largely its cause. It is piled on all the time. We are constantly harassed for our money, and we can never have enough of it. In the end, we stop caring, and down we go. We become cynical and lose any sense of wonder. Why am I writing this article? I have been going through a time of inertia and alienation from the things I love the most. The symptoms match!

Whether it is a moral fault on a part or an illness we suffer, we need to do something about it. I have noticed over the past week that something is happening on the internet and the blogs I regularly consult. The postings get more sparse. Of course, we are living through a premature end of the summer, and we have October’s weather in September. There is even an article somewhere that tells us that we are going to get a winter like 1963-64 or 1947-48. I remember the former one when the sea froze in Morecambe Bay. To be taken with an enormous pinch of salt!

I live in Europe. We don’t have the “therapist” culture that prevails in America. There are counsellors, psychologists and specialised members of the medical profession. Quacks abound in this country (France) of hypochondriacs. The one thing most of these have in common is that they want your money – lots of it. I have had to learn not to depend on other people, most of whom suffer the same malady – and care but little. We have to manage on our own, analyse and rebuild. I can’t give advice for everyone who suffers from acedia / burnout, because any two human beings have so little in common, but I can relate something of my own experience.

I find that sailing has done me a considerable amount of good, not just taking the boat out for an afternoon – but a real retreat for several days alone, camping in the boat and living an absolutely minimalist life. Those who don’t sail can do the same thing as hikers, with a friend or two, or alone. Some like to go to monasteries and immerse themselves in the regular routine. It’s not a bad idea, but not very practical when they and I don’t belong to the same institutional Church. But, that’s not enough…

The first thing is be conscious of what is burning out our souls and eating away the inside. The first reaction is to run – but we can’t. We have to face the enemy and fight. We are up against emptiness and boredom, two little beasts that feed on each other – and you. We can cease to care and fall all the way, or decide to take back what we have left, pick up the pieces. It doesn’t seem to be the kind of depression psychiatrists treat by means of drugs and psychoanalysis. It is something we can deal with ourselves.

I think I have been through this several times, more or less badly. I recollect the time when the TAC was in turmoil and there was the ordinariate euphoria. I had a bad time with the predecessor of this blog and The Anglo-Catholic which has been in mothballs for a long time now. I take a much more detached view of trolls and religious fanatics, but I have to be careful not to make them a justification for an “I don’t care” life view.

A healthier way of life is essential. We can do that by several means: physical exercise, just getting outdoors, getting out of town and into the country or out to sea. The Fathers and scholastics often tell us to repress the imagination and senses. I can think of nothing more unhealthy. There are ways we can use the imagination and enjoy things without sinning against the laws of God. Getting a rest from technology and reading books made of paper is something we need to do. When was the last time we wrote something by hand other than signing cheques and documents? We also need to learn to say “no” to people who would suck us dry with their own disordered minds also plagued by acedia and boredom, yes – including nagging wives.

There is also our creative side, which tends to be brushed aside when we have to work and “do our duty”. If we have talents, putting them to good use is as much of duty as our religious observances and family life. I am trying to push ahead with composing music, which is just hard work most of the time – using the imagination to put a good melody together, using the rules of harmony and counterpoint to put something together that is both music and original. I have a project going at the moment, using some verses from a piece of Walt Whitman’s poetry, for a vocal quartet. I have been on the slow 3/4 section for a while, but I have some ideas for a haunting introduction and a fugue for the final section. Much of it is still unclear, and it is dragging. Blasted sloth again! It’s got to be done, and it is a part of healing.

This malady can be a sign that something fundamental has to change in life. There is our attitude in regard to the past and our hopes for the future. Are our goals unrealistic? They probably are, and we need to know more about the virtue of humility. Also, at a certain age, ambition is complete folly. We can get one or two little bits and pieces. I learned to sail a boat in my 50’s, but I wouldn’t like to start learning the piano or the organ at this age! There are some new bits and pieces. We need to set small and realistic goals. I was pleased with myself when I successfully rowed my heavy and beamy cruising boat ten miles. That’s a nice little achievement. How about a few more? Write a symphony? That’s a no-no, but some nice little pieces for a choir or quartet with or without accompaniment – that’s more like it.

Around 2012 when my part of the TAC fell and when we had to take stock of realities, it really set in with me. I still feel scarred. When I was interviewed by the Board of Ministry of the English ACC diocese, I did quite poorly trying to explain my vocational motivations! I know all the standard answers, but I just wanted to be myself. All I could really give was a notion of a duty in regard to a priesthood I had already received, however tainted it was with “vagante-ism” or whatever barbarism you want to use to call it. Put it a different way – what good comes out of ceasing to exercise the priesthood? Perhaps, if a higher good can come of it like leaving home to look after Syrian refugees in a camp in Turkey… Only something incredibly heroic could bring about a greater good than the priesthood. Or could it? I was accepted, and try to get along as best I can in a place where the ACC means absolutely nothing – even to my own wife.

We also have to know when to write off losses. I have my memories of Gricigliano and the hopes of being a “professional” priest. When you’re in the “official Church”, people are interested in your priesthood and will support you so that you can take care of their pastoral needs. You get real pastoral responsibilities. It would seem to make sense to be a priest where the flock is. To get there, you have to jump through hoops, negotiate with or submit to bureaucracy – and compromise your very conscience for the sake of expediency. Is it right to sell your own soul to save others? We launch ourselves into the maelstrom of cognitive dissonance and suck up or give up. The loss is painful, but a tiny segment of the vocation is saved, and perhaps it will mean more to God than we imagine. In the heady days of Archbishop Hepworth, it all seemed so tempting to start jumping through the hoops again. But, I knew the result before starting, and quietly pulled out. I deprived the Roman bureaucrat the pleasure of writing the trite and condescending letter of refusal. I have much to be thankful for, but the pain is still there.

Grief is something very real, and it is added to each time the blows come. My mother died two and a half years ago, and that loss is now expressed in a quiet prayer for her each day at Mass and an occasional glance at her photo. There are other blows too, but about which I should keep quiet and discreet. Many threats loom on the horizon, like questions of retirement. The Church I belong to is not designed for the present, but only for the future – perhaps fifty years down the line. I’m not in it for money – just as well.

I have just received a project of an explanatory leaflet from our priest in Wales. He is concerned for the Christian people living around him. Here are reasons for joining the ACC. Certainly, in Wales, this is a part of Fr Maylor’s duty as a parish priest. The idea would be absolutely absurd where I live where people are either committed Roman Catholics (they become fewer and fewer) or people plainly not interested in religion for whatever reason. I have come to believe that the very notion of priestly ministry and vocation have changed. I may have absorbed some of the ideas going around in France in the post World War II era – priests maintaining a simple benevolent presence where people are found. The worker priests sought to do this through working in factories and getting involved in trade unions and workers’ rights to decent and safe working conditions and a living wage. Other associations were founded to inject a leaven of Christianity into farming, schools, hospitals, humanitarian work and culture. I met a “vagante” priest some ten years ago here in France. He set up an association in memory of Max Jacob, an artist and poet of Jewish origins and converted to Catholicism, who died in the hands of the Nazis. The priest in question believed ardently in the value of a small group of artists and musicians around a priest, an artist among artists. I haven’t had any contact for years, but I think the little group continues in some way. The idea has remained with me, but I am not a leader. I since married, and that has put many limitations on my life. However, I spend time with musicians, but who are all atheists or non-religious – but who recognise the cultural contribution of Christianity over the centuries. It is a beginning, but I feel very much like Fr Charles de Foucault among the Muslims of Algeria. The ministry can only be purely human and through extreme discretion. I have differentiated myself totally from the conservative and traditionalist RC elements in France – notably by growing my hair long in the manner of men of the early nineteenth century and before. It is important to stand out from stereotypes and provoke original thought.

It is not altogether satisfactory in terms of a priestly vocation. I live in probably the most spiritually barren country in the world outside the Muslim countries. Some have suggested that I move. It’s simply a question of money. Housing is still affordable in France (outside Paris). So I have to manage with what I’ve got.

Burnout doesn’t always happen because we are overloaded and stressed, but because something is in the wrong place or our sense of self worth is challenged by the apathy of others also suffering from the same boredom and flat batteries. I do believe we can always recover enthusiasm and a sense of awe, and import them back into our vocation in some way. Getting back into music and going sailing did me a lot of good. They are radically separated from my priesthood. That’s the rub.

Acedia and burnout seem to be two ways of explaining an illness from which many of us suffer, especially when we are at odds in our vocation, what seems to give meaning to our lives. The same thing happens to doctors, nurses and lawyers, to social workers and anyone whose work means more than simply earning one’s living. In the light of modern insight, it seems unfair to moralise a priest or lay Christian in “preachy” terms. The whole notion of priesthood needs to be re-thought and related to what the person in question is doing in life. The shepherd and the flock no longer seem to mean anything. Perhaps the man as one of the people, but with insight and knowledge from education and experience, might fit the bill a little better. What about the liturgical life? So few people are remotely interested, so the church of the future is the priest’s private chapel where he says Mass and Office regardless of the absence of anyone other than perhaps his pet cat.

There are things we priests can do to help ourselves. I have already mentioned some. My own case is radically different from that of the overworked Roman Catholic or Church of England parish priest. This is one of the reasons I diversify what I write in this blog, especially my articles on sailing and dinghy cruising. Many priests go and play golf with each other on Mondays. I can’t think of anything more ominous! Our Church (the ACC) is conservative and traditionalist in its liturgical and doctrinal orientations, but we are not afraid to be seen out of cassocks. My Bishop often likes to be dressed as a gentleman in suit, tie and hat when not actually engaged in Church business. When at Synod or at Council of Advice meetings, I wear my cassock (or clerical suit as appropriate) with my ponytail. Elsewhere, I tend to wear modern casual dress like most of the young people and let people figure out the things that don’t seem to tie up in neat little packages. This is very healthy in our Church, and highly conducive to our perennity and stability as a human community in God’s service. That is much more healthy than the perpetual cassock, collar and sash at the seminary of Gricigliano and the unrealistic expectations.

When these things happen to us, it is a sure sign that something is wrong and needs putting right. It doesn’t necessarily mean discarding what we have treasured for much of our lives. We have to be less reliant on others whose priorities and belief systems are totally different from ours. I believe it is possible to get the mechanism back into kilter, but it takes work and dedication.

The mainstream news (and the conspiracy blogs too) leave us with foreboding. I tend to consider that we came to being within an inch of nuclear Armageddon several times in my lifetime. I think of the Cuban missiles crisis when I was very little and we were on holiday in Devonshire. I remember the ashen expression on my father’s face as we heard a loud boom in the sky, a plane breaking the sound barrier, but we feared the worst – a nuke going off. I had nightmares throughout the 1960’s of nuclear war. We are still here. In spite of our sins, God has protected us. Many things tell us that something is about to shift and humanity will know about the spiritual dimension (quantum mechanics as the scientists call it) that will finish off crass materialism and greed. I can only hope so.

We have to have hope, even if only our prayers bring it about.

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