Romanticism and Christianity

At the risk of repeating myself, one is always intrigued by the coincidence between the Oxford Movement and the foundation of Solesmes by Dom Guéranger or the Dominicans in France by Fr Lacordaire. These two extremely significant aspirations were part of a wider movement, not necessarily shared by people who knew each other or were part of the same group. This is the context of Romanticism which spread across Europe, in France as well as England and Germany. The movement’s ideas were shared by the Italian founder of a congregation of priests, Antonio Rosmini.

Romanticism took faith and Sehnsucht out of the limits of Churches and institutional Christianity, spreading far and wide a kind of “leaven”. Expressions were often quite rebellious like early Liberalism and Modernism. It brought Christianity out of its marginalised position back into the salons of society. The Church in France was very badly affected by the Revolution, devastated and left for dead. It was a “second Reformation”, but anti-religious and atheistic.

Only this morning, I was listening to a You Tube video about the clash of the ideologies in America. The Left has found itself too criticised by atheism and “free thought”, and finds its best ally in “liberal” establishment religion. Likewise, in the 1790’s, philosophical rationalism was as much a victim of the Revolution as faith. Romanticism grew against the backdrop of a chaotic world and the downfall of both the institutional Church and the Rationalism that came from a more peaceful era.

Those who lived in that bloody era from the day the French guillotined their King to the defeat of Napoleon had to abandon their illusions, like Wordsworth who returned to England. It was in giving up these illusions, after having had so much hope in the Revolution, that a new worldview was born. It coincided with William Blake’s revolt against the worst of the Industrial Revolution in England and the first aspirations to a German nation.

Newman and Guéranger were Romantics who sought to transcend the limits of consciousness. We do find the grain of the old Gnostic understanding of the spark of divinity in each of us, our longing for the unattainable and our alienation from the sophistries of this world. The Romantic refuses to be a prisoner of materialism. We can penetrate that veil and discover “in a glass darkly” the wonders that lie beyond. There were Romantics and Romantics – the dissolute young English men and women writing horror stories as they overlooked the stygian gloom over Lake Geneva. There were also William Blake and Novalis, the latter of whom has attracted my interest more recently. I am presently reading the novel The Blue Fower by Penelope Fitzgerald which portrays the youth of  Friedrich (Fritz) von Hardenberg in the 1790’s. The style is quite fragmented but the themes come through, notably the blue flower symbolism of the desired, whether it be the beloved other person or something much greater and beyond. Novalis was in his own way a mystic, and in my mind one of those beautiful souls that can be compared with the saints of the Church.

Throughout the Oxford Movement and the generation of priests who founded parishes and introduced a Catholic ethos in devotional life and the liturgy, we find poetry and love of things medieval. This too was a sign of Sehnsucht as has figured in my own life.

It is said that the Gospel has always made itself accepted in various cultures and ways of life. Some of these cultures are conditioned by love, kindness, beauty and many of the qualities that characterise Romanticism. Others are ruthless, competitive, rationalistic to the point of chasing out all traces of humanity – and these cannot accept the Gospel without transforming its meaning.

There are signs of Romanticism in our present-day world, as we are brought to experience upheavals that can compare with the 1790’s. We are the sons and daughters of the European and world wars of the twentieth century. Even if we were not yet born then, the bitterness is felt everywhere to this day. We see ultra-rationalism in politics and science, and the reaction is already there in the form of those who research into quantum physics and the notion of consciousness as being above and beyond the physical organism. Some forms of Romanticism are merely fads of fashion and popular music, the so-called “steam punk”, but there are also aspirations to alternative societies including the so-called Benedict Option.

I would like to keep putting ideas out there to encourage such a movement or plurality of movements and individual persons. If this becomes a fashion or a trend, it will of that fact be destroyed, perverted and waylaid. I think of that little Gregorian Club of Ray Winch that held a few talks in Oxford and published a few pamphlets. It crossed denominational barriers with a vision of a mystical Church, a greater Blue Flower than any of us could imagine. I have tried to do this in my blog, since I am not in a community and my lifestyle is far from ideal – as many people’s are. It won’t be in a single and coherent group, but as nebulous as the first Romantic movement was. That is the nature of it. Its unity is transcendent.

Perhaps this will bring a new understanding of the Church in our time when the mainstream institutional Churches are dying. England has once again fallen into crass materialism, just like France and everywhere else. We need to detach ourselves from the nostalgia we feel for times and places, because the Desired is within ourselves as well as transcendent and beyond. You don’t go and live in Germany because you like Bach or Schumann – because you will be disappointed. Those two composers were persons with their unique link with the divine, and they just happened to be Germans. I was born and brought up in England. The fortunes of my country have not left me indifferent, nor do I falter in my love of my origins and what our English values mean (or used to mean) – but my patriotism extends elsewhere. It isn’t France! I feel quite alienated and foreign here, even with the good things of this country. No, it isn’t a place or a time, whether it be the 1950’s, the early nineteenth century, or any-when else.

I have made serious errors in my life through the pain of nostalgia. I read an article about a working man of 52 who left his wife and children to live as a “girl” of 6 years with a couple of friends willing to assume the role of “Mummy” and “Daddy”. It wasn’t a joke! Childhood can be an emotion of nostalgia that brings people to very serious mistakes and perversions like pedophilia. Nostalgia for childhood is very powerful, and it isn’t without accident that Jesus exhorted us to “suffer the little children to come to him, for such is the kingdom of heaven”. Again, we are told that being like a child will bring us to God’s kingdom – not through the face of the above-mentioned man – but through imagination, spontaneity and fervent desire. Our inconsolable longing for what we have is nostalgia, but there is a higher desire, for God, for the Universal, for that which lies beyond the Veil.

I do believe that this yearning is one of the most important aspects of Romanticism (whether or not we use the word, because labels are only of relative value). It is not something that will regenerate the dead parish churches and cathedrals of institutional Churches but may found a new Christian movement. There is no use speculating.

Just sow the seeds. That’s all we can do.

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