Apprehending the Transcendent

For this posting, I reproduce the title of the video to which I am linking. I myself was unaware of the work of Sir Roger Scruton who passed away only a few days ago. This dialogue reveals many of the themes that have attracted me to Platonism, Romanticism and the esoteric Christian tradition.

We are reminded of a theory of knowledge and truth that is entirely comparable to that of the German Romantics of the 1790’s and 1800’s – the truth being a transcendent object of desire, not only of the intellect but also of the imagination. I am very heartened to hear such talk today in criticism of the prevailing nihilistic and post-modern paradigms.

Sir Roger was also a strong supporter of English political conservatism. He was concerned for a sense of identity of our country against the backdrop of radical socialism, also for the rule of law and public order. He was apparently not very concerned for the individual person in the social contract, though he was not a collectivist. Critical of the modern feminist movement with its assumptions of “predatory” instincts in all men, he held to traditional values of modesty for women and chivalry for men. It is significant that he expressed sympathy for early feminism such as that of Mary Wollstonecraft. What is praiseworthy in Scruton is his philosophical perspective in questions of social doctrine and politics rather than the repeated slogans and hot buttons to which we are subjected in the social media. His observations on education remind me somewhat of the German concept of Bildung.

Listening attentively to the dialogue, I had the impression that many subjects were “bounced” over, but that is understandable since time was limited. I warmed to the essentially Romantic and Platonist philosophical root of the dialogue. I identify easily with the refusal of nihilism and “post-truth” post-modernism. I felt a certain sympathy for the Left in the polemics over Brexit over the course of last year, but I have seen that the failure of the Labour party was largely due to Corbyn’s “dinosaur” communism. Scruton’s conservatism rather reminds me of some ideas that circulated among some French traditionalist Catholic intellectuals in works like Eric Vatré, La Droite du Père, Paris 1994. That book contains interviews with a wide range of thinkers, and it was brought back to my mind as I listened to some of Scruton’s ideas.

I recommend watching this video and investigating the work of this distinguished philosopher and educator.

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Boniface X gone

The site http://romancatholicism.org (remove “public_html/” manually) shows a mass of Chinese characters and a contact address – which suggests the boutique is still open to paying customers but behind closed doors. The Twitter page has been taken down. I had suspected that the site and the Twitter page had run out of fuel long ago. It was an interesting episode in the world of “alternative popes”.

Perhaps we can pray for the poor anonymous soul, that he may find nobility of spirit and a real theological vision.

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The Saint Osmund Guild

Some correspondence by e-mail with a list of six persons has brought me to simplify this project and refine its objectives. In particular, I have laid aside the idea of a trust or an association along the lines of a registered charity. It will simply be a group of persons known to each other for a common purpose, though each would be doing his own work autonomously – no groupthink. We will also be financially independent as we are now. However, friends are there to encourage each other. Discouragement and “writer’s block” are always just around the corner.

The experience with dealing with a Facebook group of more than 1,200 members, mostly lurkers and dead wood, shows that the same issues come back again and again. I have had to remind the group that the germane topic is the Use of Sarum and secondarily about other related local rites like in northern France. The Use of Sarum evolved in a different way than the Tridentine codification of the Roman rite. It is not the Book of Common Prayer with high-church trappings. Again and again, I have had to upbraid posters for slurs against those who do not belong to their “one true church”. Sarum is not merely a variant of the Roman rite, however similar it may seem superficially, otherwise it is implied that Sarum (or Paris, Rouen, etc.) are superfluous, and that the real aim is to get everyone to (for example) the 1962 Roman rite or the Novus Ordo. It is only expected that dialogue will turn around these points because group members are generally traditionalist Roman Catholics and have not bothered to read basic introductions to the subject. We need to avoid denominational and “true church” issues as well as arguments based on ignorance and prejudice, canonical positivism, Donatist sacramental theology, etc. We have at the same time to be inter-denominational and non-denominational, even making abstraction of being a priest.

Therefore, this Guild will consist of a handful of five or six academics and thinkers who are prepared to put their religious convictions into second place. Some of us are Continuum Anglicans, some Roman Catholics and some Eastern Orthodox. We are aware of this problem and the need to make distinctions and compartmentalisations. In any case, we are aware of the shortcomings and human imperfections of the Churches to which we belong. We might be able to meet up from time to time, hold university-style seminars of prepared papers with questions and sing the Office together, spend time in silent prayer and contemplation.

The essential purposes are constant, and have been in my mind for many years. We need to use our books and computer equipment to collaborate with the extraordinary work of Dr William Renwick on The Sarum Rite. Work of the Office and the Antiphonary is well advanced and is continuing. Pdf files can be downloaded with three versions: Latin, liturgical English and a study edition. I have been slow with the English and Latin altar missals. I only have Holy Week to complete in my Word files, and then I’m sure that Dr Renwick could do a nice page layout with Gregorian chant for the prefaces, intonation of the Gloria and Credo, Ite missa est, etc. Books for use at the altar need to be properly bound by sewing in sections so that the book will last. A bound missal will be very expensive, unless it can be crowdfunded for those churches and communities wishing to use it. There also needs to be a Gradual.

In addition to actual liturgical books, which are becoming a reality, we live in a world in which traditional sacramental and liturgical Christianity is becoming less and less relevant. We have seen the far from convincing results of attempts to acculturate Christian worship to modern popular culture and entertainment. Therefore, we need also to study questions of philosophy and culture. The theme of Romanticism, for want of a better term less vulnerable to abuse, is strong in my mind – because it is the one force that made Catholic revival possible in continental Europe and the British Isles in the nineteenth century. Without a “plausibility structure”, our work on the liturgy will be absolutely pointless. You might be asking – What about faith and commitment to Christ? This question is also in our minds as believing Christians, but it is conditioned by our ecclesial attachments, which must remain secondary in our common work.

In addition to publishing work and writing books and articles, another service to the outside world is possible: expanding the work of making rare books available through scanning them into graphic pdf files and text in Word and text format. Such would not be possible for books still in copyright even when out of print, so solutions would need to be found. Most of what interests us is fortunately out of copyright. There are already links on As the Sun in its Orb to books on the Internet Archive. We only need to scan and post books not already available there.

As for my idea of wills and legacies requiring things like trusts and registered charities, we will need to give it a lot more thought after sifting through legal and financial questions. That is not something for the immediate, otherwise we would just get too bogged down.

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English Tradition

My attention has just been drawn to Charism of the Ordinariate published by the Australian Ordinariate. They offer seven points as what they consider most characteristic of the reason why the Ordinariates should not simply be absorbed into mainstream post-Vatican II Roman Catholicism. My stomach sank to my feet as I read another flurry on Facebook of polemics from those who think that the only way to unite Continuing Anglicanism is on the basis of English Protestantism and pre-Tractarianism.

The seven given points are

  • Call to community faith and devotion

  • Evangelical charity

  • Sacral English

  • Reverence and beauty in Worship

  • Music and Congregational hymn singing

  • Gospel preaching

  • English theological tradition

Apart from the final one, I hardly see what there cannot also be found in German, French and Italian Catholicism. There have always been spiritual and devotional movements, often associated with religious orders right the way through the history of the Church. The Oratory of St Philip Neri has attracted many Anglicans due to a high degree of compatibility, but the founder was an Italian and a Florentine.

I have to grant the notion of archaic English being just as good a sacred language as Church Slavonic in relation to Russian. Liturgical translations will remain a problem for a long time. The question of language is connected with reverence and beauty in worship. Unfortunately, bringing up such a point underlines the contrary in mainstream Roman Catholic worship. The question is essentially cultural and is marked by the difference between rationalist Classicism and Romanticism. This tendency of desacralising the liturgy entered the Roman Catholic world essentially from the Tridentine codification of 1568 and 1570 but also from the Synod of Pistoia of 1786. Cranmer’s reforms of 1549 and 1552 were motivated in exactly the same mindset – recover the Primitive Church and wipe away all the accretions even if they were not accretions but a part of the oldest traditions. Unfortunately, the way the liturgy has been treated by both Anglicanism and Roman Catholicism leaves little to desire in the former – other than the trappings of Choral Evensong in cathedrals. I too remember finding the long lessons boring and looking forward to the next sung bit.

Roman Catholics too have hymns for parish use. It suffices to look at the Westminster Hymnal edited by Sir Richard R. Terry. The Americans too have good hymn books. It is not necessary to claim an Anglican heritage to sing hymns.

Gospel preaching makes me shudder. Few clergymen I knew in the Church of England or here on the Continent have the oratory skills to preach convincingly. The result is usually boring waffle. I have known some exceptions of men who sought to convince and awaken from sleep, or simply use the pulpit for adult catechesis and instruction. I do have to admit that I have practically no training in oratory and rhetoric, and struggled with preaching with any degree of confidence. I believe that the last time I preached was nearly two years ago when my Bishop invited me to preach in his church. I adopt the calm style of the university professor, quietness and respect for the intelligence of my listeners. Remarks after Mass were more positive than anything else, but one never really knows what goes on in people’s minds. I suppose that the expression “Gospel preaching” is concentrating on the essential of Christ’s message, the Kingdom of God and our salvation. Fine, if it is not to be boring waffle but something from the preacher’s personality and his own faith.

The English theological tradition needs to be taken apart and set into context at the same time. The greater context is what some coin as Northern Catholicism. At the most superficial level, we contrast English university intellectuals and busloads of noisy Spanish and Italian pilgrims in Fatima and Lourdes. The comparison is unfair, like apples and oranges. Josef Ratzinger is not English. He is German, and most of my university professors were not English either, but taught us the fruits of their research, writings and spiritual lives. England does not have a monopoly on theological learning, far from it. The Australian Ordinariate emphasises the mystical tradition of the later middle ages. Then we go forward to the Caroline Divines and fast-forward to Newman. Some of the Caroline Divines had their parallels in Germany, through they were more associated with the Restoration and Jacob Böhme was straddled over the end of the sixteenth century to the early seventeenth. Again, as I wrote in Little Renaissance, the lights from enlightened people transcended national boundaries and cultures. Nothing is mentioned here about that ray of light through Böhme, J.S. Bach, Göthe, Novalis, Schlegel and Louis-Claude de Saint-Martin, none of whom were English.

I now lay down my point. It is nothing to do with being English or from anywhere else. Bach was not the composer and poet he was by being German, but by being an illuminated person. It was the same with Newman, whose soul was noble and his aspirations high. He was formed by his time and the influences around him, but he was himself.

I am of the idea that being English or even Anglican is quite irrelevant. The words mean different things to different people. Americans and Australians talk about being “English”, but I was born and grew up in that country, nurtured by the beauty of the Lake District. It is a euphemism that means something that is extremely hard to define.

I think some are looking for ideas that describe feelings we have, but find hard to express in language. One such notion that distinguishes those of us who “feel northern” is Romanticism. Msgr Andrew Burnham scratched its surface during a talk he gave in Oxford in 2018: “What drove High Churchmen, at least from the nineteenth century on, at least in part, was the romantic movement. In that sense æsthetics led theology by the nose“. Romanticism involved the aesthetic sense in a big way, it is true, but its essential meaning was much more metaphysical and existential. Enlarging the meaning of the word Romanticism, I find its roots in absolutely everything that is mentioned as worth keeping, from sacred oratory to music and liturgy, to poetry and art, everything that brings the whole human being to his or her divine image through the senses and the imagination. Thus we will find it as much in Böhme as in the Little Renaissance and our own times.

Something that might well have been more English than anything else is the individualism of the human person as opposed to the corporate mass of collectivism. Roman Catholicism has always been jealous of the purity of its orthodoxy, and the precautions it took to punish heretics or prevent them from having any influence were sometimes extreme. The post-Tridentine Church emphasises the collective and conformity, as in modern political totalitarianism. Rules of religious orders praise the extinction of the human person and individualism to be in conformity with what is taught as the will of God. This was new to me in 1981 when I converted to Roman Catholicism expecting to find the essentials of English medieval Catholicism. I have not known any of my old Anglican vicars and chaplains to be totalitarian leaders. They encouraged us boys to find our own personalities and ideals in life. All that was mixed up with the English public school ideology of stiff-upper-lip stoicism, competition and excellence. Yet we were driven to be ourselves and find strength in God and our own achievements. There, being oneself whilst being sanctified in God’s image is a unique view of Christian moral and spiritual life.

Last but not least, there is eccentricity, closely linked to being ourselves. We do not choose to be “fools for Christ”, but it is brought upon us by experience of life or certain neurological conditions like autism. It is something we need to come to terms with so that we can come to terms with “normal” people who expect certain standards of self restraint and behaviour. Some of those Romantic clergymen in Oxford in the 1820’s must have been very strange men, yet their condition enabled them to leave their legacy as they were “promoted to glory”. My own English background and experience of European life have brought me to care very little for social conformity and everything being in the appearance. I hate dressing formally, but I will do so when it is necessary. I am odd enough to have been noticed by anonymous hostiles and described in a caricature of my blog – I just don’t care. St Philip Neri was, in the words of my seminary superior, someone to be admired but not imitated! The problem with eccentrics is that they can be very unpredictable as priests, and bishops have to be prudent. Loose cannons and out-of-the-box minds are difficult to manage in a corporate setting. That will very much depend on the mindset behind the Church and the parish.

Presently, we live in a collectivist and corporate world – increasingly so – which will make the myth of Anglican identity even less relevant. Like Romanticism itself, we need different words and ideas. We also need to know what it is we want and believe in. The historical circumstances behind the foundation of the Ordinariates seem to pose the challenge of adequately insulating one’s own emigrating community from the ambient culture of the receiving Church. It is a little like the Amish in the USA, being American whilst conserving one’s own beliefs and culture, resisting consumerism, capitalism and the associated forms of collectivism. It is not a situation I envy. I was born in one country and live in another: a part of me makes me want to fit in and another part tries to associate my feeling of being an individual person with the idealised culture I left behind. We need to go much deeper, which is a part of why I write this blog in an educational perspective, a part of my ministry as a priest. I have every esteem for the Ordinariates of the UK, the USA and Australia, and I enjoyed the company of their clergy in Oxford nearly two years ago, but I don’t envy them in their quest for relevance.

Lest I should be suspected of being triumphalistic as a member of the clergy of a Continuing Church, we have our own circles to square and much to think about in terms of our relevance and our future. From whence comes my unconventional approach of seeking what human beings are most yearning for in terms of transcendence and spirit. I don’t claim to be “right”, but simply I believe that there is light at the end of the tunnel, even if that tunnel seems to be very long and dark.

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The Little Renaissance

It is quite tongue in cheek that I coin such a notion about a period of time that contained so much in the way of spiritual, musical and cultural activity, the last decade of the nineteenth century and the first fourteen years of the twentieth. These were the years of the Arts & Crafts movement at its most mature and the musical renaissance of Stanford, Parry, Elgar, Delius and their composition pupils like Herbert Howells (1893-1983) and Vaughan Williams (1872-1958). Then came World War I. Those who were not killed in action lost their minds, like Ivor Gurney (1890-1937) and Peter Warlock (Philip Heseltine 1894-1930), or who lost their faith in God, like Vaughan Williams, Delius and Elgar. It is almost as if the world died in the trenches under the shells and mustard gas. Howells was fortunate because he suffered from a health condition as a young man and was not drafted into the army.

One of his earliest works is his Mass in the Dorian Mode, which is absolutely beautiful.

I see in this brief period something like what blossomed a hundred years before in the hearts and souls of the Romantics, which was nothing less than a shift of consciousness from the end of a century to the beginning of the next. That being said, I don’t think this happened every century or the 1990 to 2014 I lived through a short time ago.

That brief period from about 1890 to 1914 was not only musical but also the Arts & Crafts movement. There was also a considerable amount of literature and poetry.

The house shown in this photo is Blackwell above the shores of Windermere. It meant a lot to me as a child, because Blackwell was a girls’ school where my mother taught dance, sport and physical education. When I was not myself at school just up the road in Ambleside, I would be with my mother and operate the tape recorder for the girls’ dancing lessons. My eyes were particularly attracted to the peacock frieze of which you can see a part on the right of the photo. This house exudes this moment of consciousness with which I so closely identify.

The 1900’s were also a time of reaction against the Church, bishops and priests, a period of fierce anti-clericalism and hatred in countries like France, Italy and Germany. Science was still too hyper-rational, materialist and positivist, and atheism began to become the religion of the day. Many men of music and art were taken in as they are today. Instead of seeing Nietzsche as a force for a new kind of belief and search for the transcendent, we often see those men as infidels and big bad atheists. On the contrary, I see the Church’s failure to see grace in these mystics of modern times who found God in the mountains, forests and the sea rather than in churches. If we want to be Christian priests, then we have to look beyond our own prison bars!

What is this consciousness of which I speak? Jung wrote of it extensively. It illuminated each moment of renaissance between the times of humanity at its worst (wars, revolutions, reformations and religious fanaticism). I see this consciousness as a mark of God’s image in humanity, both collectively and individually. Enhanced states of consciousness exist in persons. One such phenomenon is a person in a state of advanced Alzheimers shortly before death waking up and becoming lucid. Doctors and nurses in nursing homes will each have their stories to tell. I believe that this happened at a collective level before civilisation died in the trenches and descended into the darkness in the 1920’s and 30’s.

All the same, something survived or was re-born like the Pheonix. In myself, I feel a part of this new “incarnation” of something that by far transcends any conventional label like Romanticism. Jakob Böhme sheds a ray of light:

There is a certain Greatness and Latitude of Heart in Love, which is inexpressible; for it enlarges the Soul as wide as the whole Creation of God. And this shall be truly experienced by thee, beyond all Words, when the Throne of Love shall be set up in thy Heart.

I think these things of which we talk and to which we yearn cannot be described by mere words. I have tried with Romanticism, but the word is usually misunderstood and even cheapened. In the end, all labels and words are vastly inadequate to describe these things that can happen to humanity as a whole and to individual persons.

In these dark winter days, I recommend lifting our hearts with Delius’ Mass of Life.

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Christmas Greetings 2019

I would like to take a moment to wish all my readers a happy Christmas in its deepest Christian meaning. I also want to wish you a happy and peaceful New Year, even mit brennende Sorge as we pray for our (at least those of us who are British) country and its continued stability. May the infant Jesus be a source of peace in our families and parishes.

Gloria in excelsis Deo et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis.

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Open and Closed

As we are now in the days of the great O antiphons leading up to Christmas in its most Christian meaning, I have intentionally looked away from politics and its incessant contradictions, smoke and mirrors. Apart from my translation work, which has picked up again after a worrying lull, I have returned to revising my book on the esoteric dimension of Christianity with the title of A Cry in the Night. My intention is to avoid resuming everything strictly in the light of Romanticism but rather to reflect also on that long tradition characterised by Jakob Böhme, Nikolai Berdyaev, Louis-Claude de Saint-Martin and Novalis among others. Like these thinkers, I have been concerned with the eternal problem of evil which is so inadequately explained by exoteric Christianity.

I came across an article contrasting the idea of Open against Order, the first representing tolerance, fair debate, diversity, etc. and the second representing authority, the collective, etc. When I decided to write this little piece, I had discarded the link to this article and I could not find it in my history tab on Firefox. I found almost the same ideas and better in Open Society in Wikipedia. Another article Is open/closed the new left/right? Paradigm shift and Europe’s centre right brought some things home for me. For example, why are people like Philippe Mélenchon and Jeremy Corbyn such dinosaurs in their attempts to get into power? Simply, the ideas of right wing and left wing are no longer valid categories. The paradigm has shifted into open and closed.

This was an eye-opener for me, since I saw things in these terms in my childhood. I also understood why words no longer have the meaning they had. As someone who has always been rather pedantic with things like words and language, I like to analyse words and their etymology. Then sometimes I amuse myself with puns and rhymes as children often do with words when they haven’t yet entirely learned the conventional meanings. I quite enjoy spelling howlers like “The Gestapo needed to make the prisoner talk, so they torchered him“. I suppose they used the excruciating method of shining a torch beam onto the victim’s body! I suppose all this word play is a part of Aspergers autism and my quirky ways.

A critical way of reading words is essential to filter out the bullshit of euphemisms and the implicit. My Old Testament professor, Fr Barthélemy OP, insisted on the various ways of reading a text, largely developed by Origen, literal, moral, allegorical and  anagogical. Likewise, modern communications can be understood in different ways, even when they are expressed in good faith and honestly. Language can be distorted by the use of euphemisms, equivocation and lies. When words mean nothing, we are truly in trouble! We have to learn to be critical.

There are lots of ways to acquire a critical mindset, but there are some guidelines I would suggest. Who is saying this? Who benefits? Who gets harmed or deceived? Has this thing been debated and reasoned out? Has the person come up with something original or is he just repeating a fixed line? Does it stand up to examination? There are plenty of other questions to be asked.

Having a critical mind is encouraged in an open society, but in something like North Korea or under the Nazis, the secret police would have you for breakfast, and doing something more painful than shining a torch beam! The Wikipedia article talks of the philosopher Karl Popper, of whom I had never heard, but who seems most interesting.

The contrary of open is closed. Various words describe the closed paradigm like static, exclusive, tribal, tradition, authority. Open is associated with tolerant, transparent, flexible, innovative. An open society depends less on authority and constraint, but rather on a sense of ethics, morality and personal responsibility. It is the very distinction between the Old Law and the law of the Spirit introduced by Christ to the scandalised Pharisees.

Popper’s paradigm obviously exists as a reaction against the Nazism that drove him from his native Austria to seek refuge in England. The essential characteristic is the freedom of the individual / person from the tribal or collectivist society. The key to democracy is education and the ability to think critically. In a collectivist society, truth is subservient to the party’s ideology and praxis. Society must be open to different points of view and perceptions of truth. Knowledge is never complete but is an ongoing process of discovery. This is one bone of contention I had with Roman Catholic anti-Modernism with the idea that divine Revelation was closed with the death of the last Apostle – and that everything else is passed-on Tradition.

Popper said “If we wish to remain human, then there is only one way, the way into the open society… into the unknown, the uncertain and insecure”. It reminds me of Walt Whitman’s Passage to India as he describes the spirit of great explorers and navigators:

O my brave soul!
O farther farther sail!
O daring joy, but safe! are they not all the seas of God?
O farther, farther, farther sail!

We English will judge our new “people’s government” by how open it is to new ideas or whether it will be gradually imposing a single “groupthink” or “orthodoxy”. It is absolutely necessary to maintain the separation of powers between Parliament, Government and the Law Courts. If this is eroded, it is time to resist or move to another country!

A last warning by George Orwell before his death in 1950:

Does such an open society exist anywhere? In the capitalist world, people are manipulated by commercial advertising and political deception. If the electorate is victim to such propaganda, altering the very perception of reality, democracy will mean very little. The Wikipedia article leaves me with a much more favourable impression to George Soros, who was horribly demonised in the run-up to Trump’s election as President.

We come back to the eternal notion of democracy being dependent on truly philosophical education and the nobility of spirit, without which democracy becomes tyranny and mob rule. The ideal of open society must remain in spite of the fallen or corrupted moral state of humanity.

Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid. Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven. – Matthew 5, 14-16

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