The Artist’s Canvas

In the Parable of the Sower (Mark iv.3-20), the seed is the Word of God and the various places where it can fall represent the attitude of those listening or not listening. There seems to be another element, the types of ground not simply being individual persons, but also societies and collectivities.

Many of us are well-disposed to receiving the Word of Jesus and practising a Christian life, but when we are “turned off” by nearly all Christian communities, when we find that what some of us cherish most is for others trash to be discarded. A most interesting article was written in response to my recent musings on Western Orthodoxy. We find recurring themes between my own reflections and his. One doesn’t convert to the Roman Catholic Church, or the Orthodox Church or any denomination. One joins a community as a Christian, or at least as one who wants to become a Christian. I liken this accessible and tangible community to the artist’s canvas, without which no amount of artistic talent can produce a work of art. Music without harmony and counterpoint has been tried – it is random noise or at best like the sound of a machine if there is rhythm.

At various times in the history of the Church, there have been alternative communities for those who fled the world in search of God. Some went to the desert, others to sea, others in established communities at the time when Saint Benedict really started getting the concept of monastic life organised. How did ordinary lay people live their Christian life in those days? Chances are that they were born in a village, got married there and died there. Perhaps some went off to join the Crusades and become enthusiastic Christians, but most stayed put.

These days, when you live in a village, it is little more than a dormitory. Most people lock up their houses in the morning to take their kids to school and go to work. We don’t know each other. Yesterday in my village, we had a fête des voisins, an event for our part of the village. We were about fifteen, and my wife put a lot of effort into making pâté and cakes. Sophie and I know about three of four families in our village, and we met others, including a woman from the farm opposite us suspected of poisoning cats with strychnine. You know how it goes. Village gossip and real deeds can be really evil. The church opens about once a month for a Sunday morning Mass, attended by perhaps fifteen people, and for the occasional marriage or funeral. Normandy is a part of France where the Church is vibrant compared with other regions, where the game is truly over. At our fête des voisins, not a single person remotely spoke about or implied any question of God or religion. Apart from the suspected cat poisoner, true farmers who talk about money and hard realities, the others mostly seem to be retired civil servants. They are well off and jovial, but they seem to be completely materialist in their outlook – or just polite people who avoid starting religious and political polemics.

Traditional Catholicism (I don’t mean neo-Tridentinism or French right-wing politics, or American tea parties for that matter but something like the mainstream Church from the fifth to the fifteenth centuries) seems to have nowhere to go. It depended on the culture it found where people lived and worked. Alternatively, people could leave where they lived and join a monastery.

Nowadays, ordinary lay people have to shop around and commute to church as they commute to work. They have to go to church away from their cultural roots as does someone joining a monastery. This gives an interesting slant on things, because the ordinary person has to be an enthusiast, no longer the good earth where the Word could grow. A mature plant was expected before any seed was sown.

Just last Saturday, we went to a Mass of profession de foi for our 12-year old nephew. It was in the church of Saint Romain in Rouen, near the railway station. The service was straightforward Novus Ordo, quite 1980’s in style. The various bits and pieces to sing were accompanied on the organ and a very able lady directed the congregation and got everyone to sing. City religion is still doing quite well in France, among fairly well-to-do middle class people in the 4,000 € a month bracket, running new Peugeot, Renault and Volkswagen saloons, with an average of three to five children. Bourgeois religion in France is nothing new. With the Revolution, Liberalism, the industrial revolution and the massive move to the cities, traditional Catholicism was left behind and replaced with the “new” Catholicism of the nineteenth century. Great efforts were made in the twentieth century to stem the haemorrhage of the working folk, but they ultimately failed. All but a quiet narrow cross-section of society is alienated from the Church and indeed from their own roots.

There have been efforts to found alternative communities outside the cities, and some in cities. The charismatic communities are well known: the Lion de Juda, the Emmanuel, the Chemin Neuf. Sophie and I visited a charismatic community established in an old abbey last summer. I was not dressed in clericals but casual, and so looked very ordinary in my hoodie and bermuda shorts. I would hear conversations in the community shop and the part of the grounds near the old cloister. The conversation reflected a quite self-righteous and holier-than-thou mentality, quite surprising for people not expected to be “pure and hard” integralists. It was a lesson. It has been said that some of those communities were quite totalitarian and vulnerable people had been exploited like in the cults. Being “officially recognised” just means not having financial problems – it doesn’t take away human lust for money, sex and power.

There are other enterprises of this kind, seeking to bring in something new. There are many new ideas on New monastic fresh expressions and the New Monasticism Network. I am not recommending any of these communities, mostly attached to the Church of England, but my objective is to discover what ideas are being tried to make Christianity work in a world that has made it fail, to give it a new lease of life. I’m not sure I would want my life to be ruled by hyper-driven, extroverted and “rugby player” types!

The obvious has to be said: we have life in the cities and out in the country. In both, the emphasis is on community. If you go to a ball, you dance! It involves maturity and commitment, leading to the community making itself useful in humanitarian projects from helping unemployed youth to helping individuals out of mental problems and addictions. Like in traditional monasteries, the commitment is made in stages to be sure the person’s freedom is respected. In the new monasteries, married people and families can join a community.

Some communities are residential, like many of the French charismatic groups. Others involve a part-time commitment which would all the same be deeper than ordinary parish life. The old monasteries had oblate and third order programmes, to differentiate levels of commitment. The new communities try to be more accessible by getting rid of these “classes” or some of the old baggage like abbots and priors, notions that would put many people off, being associated with the old lust for control and power that we post-moderns eschew. However, these communities might draw on some aspects of the old communities of St Benedict, St Francis of Assisi or yet the old Celtic tradition.

I have no personal experience of these communities, most of which do not attract me, but there are characteristics that could be used in new ideas and inspirations. Some of the Anglican communities are officially recognised and supported, and have property and money. Others resemble the old third orders and guilds in their flexibility. The model of the Franciscan friars seems to be more suitable than strict contemplative traditions, because they can incorporate work with people and the social side.

The two sites I mentioned emphasise the aspect of distinctive identity and charisma, the idea of clarity from the outset. There need to be common values that hold the community together. There needs to be an acceptable method of government avoiding the dangers of autocracy and totalitarianism, and also the endless blather and hot-air meetings of a democratic system. The advice given sounds a surprising note of familiarity.

Like the mustard seed, don’t make it grow too quickly. There needs to be solidity and stability. Realism is essential, and there has to be provision for coping with difficulties, conflicts and disillusionment. Conflict management is often forgotten and conflicts lead to fragmentation and the destruction of the community if left unchecked. It is for each community to find the right methods.

The essential inspirations for these new communities are figures like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Jean Vanier among many others. However, is this model of religious life of interest to those who would like to revive old and traditional liturgical forms? Most of these communities are geared to working with people without any religious culture or church background. They try new methods of meditation, simplified and modern liturgies with a minimum of ritual and form. It is a very emerging church and liquid church concept.

What about those attracted to a different form of traditional Catholicism than what was form by the Reformation and Counter-Reformation conflicts in the sixteenth century. There is a fairly small minority of Anglicans who look more to the pre-Reformation Church than to Rome, Arminianism or pure and hard Reformation Protestantism. Without trying to turn back the clock, and knowing that our way is hardly mainstream, how do we live this kind of aspiration as a community? We don’t want to bring back indulgences for money and sappy devotions, yet parish life in the fifteenth century was not Dearmerish tidiness and good taste, nor exclusively about a well-done Sarum liturgy. From all accounts, medieval English church life was quite messy as it was this side of the Channel a hundred years ago! Fr Montgomery made the most of it! The more self-conscious we are about the liturgy, the more we will not succeed in doing anything other than dreaming and getting frustrated with our failures.

Our main enemy is our modernity or post-modernity. We cannot escape it, and it pushes us to become materialists and addicted to money. That is the essential message of Francis of Assisi. Our other enemy is the thinness on the ground of people with the kind of aspiration I have mentioned, that of reviving the kind of church life one had in a fifteenth-century village in terms of the liturgy and avoiding straight-laced attitudes as in “reformed” Christianity.

Should we home in to a notion of “unreformed” Christianity as a common identity or foundational myth? It is an interesting idea, as anarchical as appealing to past forms of authority in society that are no longer there. I noticed how the new communities emphasise the importance of a clear identity, and you cannot found a community merely on the basis of liturgical and aesthetic preferences. A house is built on solid foundations, otherwise it will fall down.

Is unreformed Christianity possible or desirable? Does it exist? Can it be revived, even selectively? This question has to be asked at a time when Roman Catholicism is reformed or partially reformed and in need of further reformation. I have often quoted Oscar Wilde about the soul-deadening effects of reformations in religion and morals!

Homing in onto this notion, Orthodoxy is unreformed – but on condition that it remains uninfluenced by the west. I knew a German student of Roman Catholic origin who converted to Orthodoxy in the 1980’s. He wanted the “unreformed” Church, so he went to live in Greece – and probably adapted to Greek life as I have adapted to French life. I can only suppose. The “unreformed” notion was one thing that drew me to France, the idea of where the red wine flows and religion being characterised by joy. I found it in a few RC parishes, but those priests are all dead now. The Anglican Catholic Church in England seems to have avoided the “reformed spirit”, and we are quite a relaxed bunch. We are spread out very thinly, but the heart seems to be in the right place even if some find us to be “pastiche”.

The dream is finding Christianity in some kind of a “natural state”. Did that ever exist? I increasingly have my doubts, yet each reform of Christianity has brought the seeds of destruction and removed this religion further and further away from its origins in revelation and tradition. We always get excited about the idea of “time capsules”: Greek islands, Old Believers, Old Calendarists, Petite Eglise, Sedevacantists, Non-juring Anglicans, just about everything that has resisted the movement of history. The big problem is not knowing where history is going…

Yet if we let go, Christianity can only go in a direction of notions that revise the message of Christ, whether in the direction of secular humanism or some degree of totalitarianism. I find a frightening collusion between Protestant fundamentalism, the far-right in French traditionalist Catholicism and the equivalent in Islam.

I am still driven to believe that there is a need for the old Catholicism, and I know I am not the only one. It is the Goliard aspect of my blog. In their day, the Goliards were wandering clerics who didn’t take anything seriously – yet they found holiness in their own way of shedding the bourgeois conventions and external orthodoxies. As I see possibilities for its survival narrow and closing. On the other hand, the bane of medieval Catholicism was clericalism like in France in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Unreformed Catholicism, like Reformed “whatever”, is a victim of human nature. The Protestants got rid of the Sacraments to be rid of clerics, and then replaced the old clerocracy with a new form of clericalism – such is the way of any revolution!

There is a criterion for judging the soundness of such a dream, the existence of a stable community seeking this ideal. In England, it was the Romantic movement – like in other countries – that set in motion the idea of reviving the old Catholic tradition. I ascribe this movement more to culture than religious ideology, because exactly the same thing was happening in France as in England, and France in the 1830’s was not Protestant. There were the early Liberals like Fr Félicité de Lamennais and Montalembert, Lacordaire and Guéranger. They sought to revive the medieval liturgy and a society built of faith and tradition. It was a reaction against eighteenth century latitudinarianism and secular humanism. There was a inner aspiration and thirst for the transcendent.

After the horrors and faithlessness of the twentieth century and this beginning of the twenty-first, could we revive Romanticism? It would be a great step forward, though beyond the capacities of any of us. It would have to start in art and culture, unafraid of using modern media like cinema and the internet. It has to be a forthright spirit and world view. Through Romanticism, we would seek the spiritual roots of the romantic eras of history between the other eras that brought revolution, bloodshed and war. Such a movement can only remain marginal, but it would have the means to establish itself with a clear identity and purpose. We need composers who have returned to melody, harmony and counterpoint. I know a man living in South London, a sedevacantist Roman Catholic, who writes romantic music – but yet the style is personal and the music original. There are painters who have returned to the old realism. Prince Charles advocates the return of classical architecture in our towns and cities. Culture that searches for the transcendent will seek out a transcendent version of Christianity.

There are manifestations of contemporary neo-Romanticism in some of the stranger sub-cultures like the the Goths,and every movement had its parodies and offshoots. We should not be discouraged in our quest. I have written about some quite dotty people in Retro-futurism and The Invisible Empire of Romantia. I don’t light joss sticks in front of the Union Jack and meditate about the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857! I find the Romantic Ladies’ discipline school quite kinky and discrediting. It may be possible through art, culture and cinema – and I know of independent priests in Paris bringing a discreet leaven of faith over with art and beauty in the more bohemian aspects of Parisian society. That is something I find interesting.

These little bits and pieces of Romantic culture need to be found and identified. Perhaps there, there is hope.

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