Romanticising Aspergers

That title might strike the reader as insane or as odd as the stereotype English eccentric. It is a while since I have written anything about Aspergers or what modern specialists call high-functioning autism. The condition has been studied for a while from a scientific point of view, and I have the most esteem for Tony Attwood and Dr Laurent Mottron. Psychologists, psychiatrists and educators rightly turn most of their attention to helping young children. In most of the western world, adults can obtain a diagnosis as I did. It establishes a scientific basis of understanding why we often feel that we come from a “different planet” from most people.

I have been quite frustrated at finding little at a philosophical level. The autism centre in Rouen I consulted has a fine library, but nearly all the works available are scientific or dealing with special teaching methods for children. A philosophical examination would require a totally different methodology, and I am not sure I would ever be up to such a task. Perhaps we need an autistic person who is both a qualified psychiatrist and a philosopher. Does he or she exist? Laurent Mottron and Tony Attwood are the nearest to this ideal I know of.

We continue to be hampered by the usual stereotypes of being obsessed about things that just don’t matter to others and having no empathy or understanding about other people’s emotions and feelings. Some would call us extremely masculine (mentally and psychologically) or something like a computer devoid of empathy and emotion. The problem usually arises from our being studied in relation to what “neurotypical” people call “normal”.

In some ways, it is a disability and something that marginalises us from a “successful” life in society. We can also see it as a gift. In particular, it enhances originality and innovation and courage to resist fashions, conformity, the bandwagon. Aspergers / high-functioning autism affects our experience of life, our way of understanding other humans and life in general.

No two persons are alike, and this is why it is difficult to make a scientific diagnosis of Aspergers. This is not the place to go into Dr Mottron’s methodology, but I could give one or two key ideas. This Canadian psychiatrist is above all interested in the autistic person who is not inhibited intellectually, and who does express himself in language. He especially makes a break from comparisons with “normal” standards. There are many characteristics like sensorial hypersensitivity and extreme attention to detail and concentration, but which are not present to the same degree or proportion in any one person. Indeed, he calls this condition another intelligence, an alternative mode of being human. His flagship work is L’autisme: une autre intelligence, Sprimont 2006.

Without being able as yet to find a methodology to bring out the philosophical aspects, I can try a simpler approach: how I feel about it myself and what I have read from others, things we have in common from a human rather than a scientific point of view.

Why my odd title? I have been intuitively drawn to Romanticism in its essential characteristics rather than any particular historical period or cultural aspect. I was drawn to early German Romantics like Novalis because of his notion of truth being something that was dynamic, on the move, full of desire – rather than being the property of a “tribe” and something used to judge and condemn others. Just look at traditionalist Roman Catholic groups on Facebook, and some Continuing Anglican ones too. My immediate reaction is to think “What a wonderful apologia for atheism“! Sometimes, autistic people become obsessed about foundational truth and are quite fanatical. The exceptions would break the rule in scientific terms. In my mind, this new notion of truth has changed the way I think, and has enabled me to come to terms with myself at a mature age. Above all, whatever truth is (think of the Sceptics of ancient times – Pontius Pilate was one) it is what we seek rather than sham, appearance and kitsch. Autistic people are generally limpid, devoid of hidden agendas and are not slaves of fashions and groupthink.

We tend to see patterns and details, and it is often hard to see the big picture or the Universal Idea. Through studying philosophy, I have learned to abstract from the particular to the Universal Idea. We like to follow through on things, when “normal” people expect these “unimportant” things to be abandoned or unfinished in favour of what they think is important. I may not be always right, but I do like to finish a job.

In my life, I have always given high priority to loyalty. My broken relationship with the TAC and Archbishop Hepworth in 2012 caused me deep interior pain, because I had to face the fact that I was being loyal to a sham, a lie, an illusion. It is harder to break away, but it was the only thing to do. There are still bits and pieces of the TAC in the world, and I am sure they are doing God’s work, but I no longer related to them. This is just an example. The situation in England is horrifying by the depth of self-interest and lack of moral principle of those who are supposed to be leading. I have to limit my time looking at the news each day, because it is oppressive and causes anxiety. Many are worse off than I am and need medical and / or spiritual help.

Another thing I experience is how my senses relate to the world and how I find meanings in things. I notice things that most people pass by and ignore. I can’t imagine people who have a dull sense of smell, taste, touch, sight and sound. I always thought most people had the same sensations but didn’t talk about them! Now I wonder what they do experience. I suppose it is like my different experience of social relationships, non-verbal and body language and seemingly irrational emotions. Sometimes, my wife plays mind games that take a lot of working out.

Another thing is explaining something to someone, perhaps the way a machine works. For example, something is wrong with my van, and my wife asks “what?”. I then attempt to explain the functioning of a universal joint transmission – what comes between the engine / gearbox assembly and the front wheels. How else do I explain it to someone who freaks out when they hear technical explanations? That is another difference. I like to know the reason for everything. For most people, it is “just so”. At least I can help the mechanic in his diagnosis, and he saves a lot of time and money knowing which part to replace. However, it is not always easy to distinguish between what is relevant to a conversation or not. How do I organise my mind to say just what is necessary, whilst sparing the person a barrage of information that would cause more confusion than rational understanding? Frustration quickly enters the picture.

Most human relations are competitive. The first past the post wins, and the others “suck it up”. To succeed in life, we have to be assertive. I do better nowadays, but I have spent most of my life “fobbed off” by what other people think what might be appropriate. They don’t know our lives as we do! In the end, we have to learn to be “scarlet pimpernels” and keep under the radar.

Dislike of fashion, assumptions and narrow-mindedness is another characteristic among many “aspies”. We want to be able to use our minds and rational faculties, not systematically conform to orthodoxies and narrow agendas. These are some of the gifts an autistic person can have.

Many “aspies” eschew religion. I have learned to distinguish between the Christian spiritual life and the usually inadequate way of “parish religion” or the querelle des chapelles as it is expressed in French. I was still at seminary when I discovered the need to go beyond exoteric religion to find the esoteric. I no longer judged the “modernist” Fr George Tyrrell as a “heretic”, but as a seeker of a more profound and fulfilling faith in Christ and all he taught. Anglicanism, even its traditionalist and conservative version, is more conducive to the free spirit than some of the totalitarian Catholicism I have known in my life. We are more likely to be cosmopolitan than nationalist in our way of relating to our origins and loyalties. I have never felt revolted by humans of other races or cultures or religions. Diversity is essentially, if I expect to be respected in my own difference.

I found resonance in many of these questions in Romantic writers and thinkers, whether or not they were autistic. You can’t diagnose someone who has been dead for two hundred years! Perhaps a reader or two might have some ideas about developing these thoughts at a philosophical level rather than one of empirical science.

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J’Accuse…!” was an open letter published on 13th January 1898 in the newspaper L’Aurore by the writer Émile Zola. His issue was what came to be known in France as L’Affaire Dreyfus. Dreyfus was a Jewish artillery captain in the French army who was falsely convicted of passing military secrets to the Germans. He was degraded and sent to Devil’s Island, and his public humiliation was an expression of the ambient anti-Semitism of the time. This issue deeply divided France. It was not simply a matter of injustice to a man but also touched national identity, politics and religion in the anti-clerical era.

Two events are now widely known in the news surrounding the Brexit issue: the Supreme Court ruling that the PM didn’t have the right to prorogue Parliament in these circumstances (again, read the news) and the sickening rant of Geoffrey Cox (Attorney General) in today’s reassembly of the House of Commons. I have no idea what Mr Johnson is going to do, though I have been reading and watching commentaries by those who know a lot more about politics than I do.

The whole thing is a diabolical web with no way out. I will refrain from comparing it to Hitler’s Enabling Act of 1933 in Germany, even though I see a lot of parallels. There is no effective opposition by Corbyn’s party. It seems to be that the majority of English people still want Brexit and the hardest one possible, believing that there will be no adverse consequences. England now seems to be as divided as France was in the 1890’s.

The Dreyfus Affair still has its effects here and there, even though anti-Semitism is no longer acceptable. The issues are similar, just what made the twentieth century and its political instability. England was the country of my birth, and now I mourn as for a deceased loved one. The coffin lid has to be closed and life must go on. My time of anxiety is over and yields place to grief.

I must think more about my life in France and turn the page as the UK either crashes out at the end of October (whether the PM is Johnson or someone else) or remains in the EU as a toxic and divisive thorn. The time is past, as far as I am concerned, for political activism or protest. I see nothing good or noble, only the beginnings of a revolution in the UK (or two opposing revolutions), the end of the Monarchy and very dark times.

We have to raise ourselves to God, what is good in humanity and the wisdom we seek and to which we aspire. Today we mourn, and tomorrow we will see destruction, and maybe a true sunlit upland will come in ways we cannot expect.

Teach us the strength that cannot seek,
By deed, or thought, to hurt the weak;
That, under thee, we may possess
Man’s strength to comfort man’s distress.
Teach us delight in simple things,
The mirth that has no bitter springs;
Forgiveness free of evil done,
And love to all men ‘neath the sun.
Land of our birth, our faith, our pride,
For whose dear sake our fathers died;
O Motherland, we pledge to thee,
Head, heart and hand through the years to be.
The Lord shall be thine everlasting light,
And the days of thy mourning shall be ended.

Rudyard Kipling

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Science and Faith, a Warning

I have been haunted all day by the article Darwinism Is Dead, Now What? Towards A Rational Spirituality. We seem to have a compare-and-contrast exercise between materialistic atheism – Dawkins style – and the kinds of Christianity we sometimes encounter that are reduced to the levels of ideology. Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI wrote considerable volumes on faith and reason, both in their books and official teachings as bishops. It is time for these questions to be tackled, and I am myself fascinated by them. They are one of the dimensions of human thought and experience that brought me to the same Romanticism that pops up again and again as the challenges come in its way.

The author of this article, Luke Baier, knocks materialism (everything is dead matter and at best some magically-produced kind of consciousness from biological machines) for six. This is very encouraging in light of my presently reading Dr Rupert Sheldrake. Science hasn’t to be built on ideology or unproven assumptions, but rather on repeatable evidence. You can’t have “science” built on belief-based assumptions and then attack belief!

Darwinism, one of the foundations of atheistic materialism, is crumbling.

If Darwinism is wrong, which it is without a shred of a doubt, should we all go back to the bible? Should we ‘accept the Lord Jesus’?

If materialism falls, do we have to return to irrational faith and doctrine? Baier goes much further than I would ever go (which is a good thing since I am a priest!), by dismissing that vital distinction I learned at university – between what is above reason and what is against reason. What can materialist science say about love or loyalty, which are metaphysical categories, not “material things”? Many Christians feel challenged by atheism to answer the criticism on its own terms. This is the art of apologetics and the approach of the “modernist” Fr George Tyrrell. Scholastic theology has little to say in response to Darwin and Dawkins. The modern apologist has to have knowledge, an unconventional knowledge, of disciplines like quantum mechanics and the theories of knowledge and truth that began to emerge from Idealist Germany in the 1790’s.

I will not enter into any polemics concerning the credibility of mysteries of faith. They come under the category of mystical experience and imagination rather than pure reason in the Kantian understanding of that word. Christianity remains fair game for atheists until it shifts to a higher ground than seemingly irrational beliefs both in terms of rationality and spirituality. The interesting thing about this article is that it hammers atheism and materialism, like Sheldrake is doing – but leaves the challenge to Christian teaching and belief. Atheism can only be attacked on account of its irrational and unscientific basis, its hypocrisy. But, beware, Christians can be hypocrites too!

Perhaps we will overcome “bad” (relying on ideology more than free enquiry and prayer) Christianity in the same way as giving the coup de grâce to atheism. “There are more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy” – as Shakespeare famously wrote in Hamlet. There are more things in existence that what meets the eyes of the materialist or the Christian. Many things, presently hypotheses and possibilities, surpass the canonical Scriptures or the teachings of churches. One is the multiverse, the alternative reality that might contain an exact duplicate of each of us living a life according to different combinations of possibilities. There might be an infinity of such universes existing like radio wavelengths to which a radio can tune one at a time. Something suggests this possibility, dismissed by materialist scientists – the existence of para-psychological phenomena like guardian angels, demons, near-death experiences, communication with the dead through mediums, telepathy, prophecy, visions and so much more. Quantum physics studies sub-atomic particles that seem to be made of pure energy. Some experiments have shown such quanta of energy to be conscious – not simply subject to some outside deterministic law from an unknown source.

The science of the future is one that postulates a big likelihood of conscious life beyond bodily death. I often wonder if I might be “absorbed” by my “other me” in another universe – a prisoner languishing in a dungeon, a monk in a community of prayer, a sailor circumnavigating the globe, a doctor healing the sick, a country priest, doing and being what I would never do here. Perhaps… We are our own heaven, hell and purgatory. Would I go at light speed down a “wormhole” as portrayed in films like Stargate? That film was certainly based on some of these ideas of parallel universes and the possibility of existence outside time and space – thus the possibility of going “places” too far away for our present NASA technology. The imagination runs wild and the reason follows, trying to understand and distinguish true possibility from nonsense.

Our author seems to reject orthodox Christianity. I don’t, but I see it as only a skeleton to which so much more is added as it is discovered. The Roman Catholic Church in the person of Pope Pius X made so much ado about Revelation being frozen by the death of the last Apostle, presumably replaced by the authority of those who set out to “correct” the work of Christ in that wonderful pact with the Roman Empire. If believing in the possibility of this Revelation continuing to evolve in our consciousness makes me a Modernist – so be it. Times have moved. The Modernism that was so shocking in the 1900’s has taken on a whole new meaning to those who see the dissolution of Christianity in the minds of those who need more than milk-sops in their journey of faith and spirit. We are called to discover for ourselves and to take risks.

One way to make our journey is to become “open” as opposed to “closed”, cosmopolitan rather than nationalist or parochial. These ideas obsessed me as a child, even though I did not understand all the philosophical implications. I do think we need to seek wisdom wherever it is found. We can find many things in the Jewish Kabbala, esoteric Christianity – Gnosticism in particular, Sufi Islam, the gurus of India, the light from the Buddhist east. I don’t mean that all that has to be mixed up to produce a new religion but rather that we should be enriched by so many colours, traditions, ways of life and thinking.

We need to learn about freedom and how it will enrich us, rather than destroy those who are not ready for it. Our author gives practical advice about how we can evolve into better human beings on something along the lines of Jesus’s teachings in the Gospel and a fuller understanding of the old law and commandments. Above all, we need to cultivate our freedom to think and feel. No knowledge must be forbidden.

Our author seems to advocate an approach to religion like in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, making reason trump everything. That seems to be his limit. Mysteries cannot be denied simply because we don’t understand them completely. However, they can be questioned when they become tools of the rich, powerful and authoritarian.

I find this idea fascinating:

Our material world is constructed in a certain way. We can’t just teleport somewhere if we wish, and we can’t walk through walls. Similarly, maybe there is a higher world, in which our material world is embedded, that is also constructed in a certain way, although we usually can’t see it. Part of its fabric is of an ethical nature. If you transgress its laws, you may not physically feel it, but the effects – subtle as they are – are very real and can accumulate rapidly. This leads to a spiritual abyss from which it is hard to recover. Just think about all those people you know, or have heard of, who have sunk into a sorry state of self-pity, resentment and constant blaming of others; those poor souls who seem forever unable to lift themselves out of their self-created misery. As Jordan Peterson would say: hell can be very real here on earth. Navigating this elusive, yet very real world of objective morality, while constantly learning more about it, seems to be a major goal of, or meaning for, our existence.

This is the moral order, Karma, the law of cause and effect. We are responsible beings in our freedom to think and ask questions. No, not anything goes! We will find it more morally and spiritually challenging to make our own way of discovery than to obey an authority or an ideology. As we read in Berdyaev, the way of the Spirit is harder, but more real and true.

Indeed we are called to move ahead, to evolve

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“The old Anglican, patristic, literary, Oxford tone transplanted into the Church”

My attention was drawn to Fr Hunwicke’s article The Anglican Patrimony. I find most of what this priest writes as irrelevant to my life as mine would be to him, but there is something here that provokes me to comment. He is an Ordinariate priest. I am not, and as a result, my perspective is totally different.

Fr Hunwicke refers to a whole movement of scholars from the late nineteenth to early twentieth centuries. It is such a long time since I was at university (and a Swiss one) that I have no pretence at “scholarship sublime”, but rather the quest for a new paradigm in which Christianity might survive in the future. Some of the scholars Fr Hunwicke mentions were influenced by the Romantic movement, and therefore the need to uphold the heritage of the Enlightenment whilst promoting the whole human experience, including the spiritual life. He highlights the critical sense, including criticism of criticism. I am not surprised to find the expression Hermeneutic of Continuity, which is neither Anglican nor English, but from the pen of Benedict XVI with a thought for Newman’s theory of organic development.

It is significant that the ultra-ultramontanist Cardinal Manning criticised Newman in these terms:

“I see much danger of an English Catholicism of which Newman is the highest type. It is the old Anglican, patristic, literary, Oxford tone transplanted into the Church”.

Isn’ t that the so-called Anglican Patrimony of Ordinariate clergy? I couldn’t answer this question other than remembering that conference I attended at Pusey House in April 2018. I came away inspired by the talk given by Monsignor Burnham, but with the interior knowledge that I had very little Englishness left in me, but rather a feeling of utter rootlessness.

Fr Hunwicke and I are working from different angles, he from having been a teacher and an Anglican parish priest and now in the Ordinariate as a Roman Catholic, myself from having been virtually broken by my experiences and still limping to contribute a flickering light to Christianity in general, regardless of which institutional church it belongs to. My own thought is known by those who read this blog.

I was a cradle Anglican, but more involved with music than academia. I didn’t go to university until long after I left England. The Fathers need to be read through the eyes of a historical critic, in the knowledge that the harsh condemnations render their otherwise valuable work irrelevant for people of this age used to liberal humanism.

The ever-elusive Anglican Patrimony is also an issue in the Continuum, between the kind of Anglo-Catholicism that almost imitates post-Tridentine Roman Catholicism and those who refer to “Classical Anglicanism” or something like a romanticised version of the pre-Reformation status quo. Christianity itself is in question, and with it the basis of humanism and compassion for the weak and the poor.

I share Fr Hunwicke’s concern for the current situation under the pontificate of Pope Francis. Since 2013, I have largely banished Roman Catholicism from my mind and allowed bits and pieces of information to reach me. I have become more critical of right-wing and conservative populism as I am of the Tweedledee in the combat – identity politics and nihilism. Francis seems to be almost a “Jeremy Corbyn” of his Church and encouraging a return to an obsolete form of socialism and collectivism, but there is a spiritual foundation that doesn’t leave me indifferent.

Whether we become Roman Catholics or remain in the various Anglican churches that give us a canonical mission for our priesthood, an important antidote to sentimentalism, populism and being swept along by fashions and the masses is our study, reading and crystallising our thought into something both original and solid, the product of both mind and heart.

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“Catholicism made me Protestant”

I would like to draw your attention to an article that has appeared in First Things. I had better not reproduce it for copyright reasons, but there is no paywall. Catholicism made me Protestant. Read it there.

I should attempt a few comments. First of all, there is an American view of Catholicism and Protestantism, the authority of the Church being embodied in the secular authorities “to the punishment of wickedness and vice and the maintenance of thy true religion and virtue“. This English form of unity of Church and State has lapsed somewhat in England, but it has remained more meaningful in the USA, whether through the Episcopal Church, Roman Catholicism or various forms of Baptist and Presbyterian denominations. Protestantism is more or less dead in the UK and Europe, except where it has put on the gloves of populist religion like in the mega-churches. I have no contact with Protestants and barely any with Roman Catholics. None of the people with whom I socialise go to any form of church. Churchgoing is more motivated by cultural and social considerations than by belief and faith.

In America, there is more discussion about doctrine, moral teaching, the role of authority, secondarily about prayer and spirituality, than over here in Europe. This is the first thing that strikes me about American conservative Christian writing. French Roman Catholics, other than the traditionalists, do not discuss questions of interest to conservative converts like Papal infallibility, questions of tradition and private judgement. They are indifferent to such considerations, at least over the past hundred years or so. Less than 5% of the baptised population ever go to church. American methods of “evangelisation” will be of no avail. Only some other way will do, usually by giving the person some kind of experience beyond the rational faculties.

My own experience with Roman Catholicism was consciously embraced through the traditionalists, firstly the “dissidents” of Archbishop Lefebvre and then the various groups admitted back into the fold by John Paul II in the 1980’s. Like many cradle Anglicans, I read Newman and spent many sleepless nights worrying about tradition and authority. Like many Europeans and rationalists disposed to scepticism, I saw the historical abuse of authority both in the Church and modern secular states. Where did the dictators of the 1920’s to 40’s get their infallibility? It is rather obvious, don’t you think? Protestants too have their authority – a book and the preachers with “fire in their belly”. It is all about base humanity and the “first past the post”.

At this stage in my life, I belong to a small church claiming the Anglican and Catholic tradition in the broadest meaning of the latter word. I am a priest and do what I can to keep going in my “exile”, self-imposed and very soon out of necessity. I can understand the person who has become alienated from the Church but yet has not become a materialist or an atheist. They often try to express slogans like spiritual but not religious – something that is anathema to American conservatives but understandable if one seeks to get behind the words and clichés. My contact with my Church is quite minimal, synod and bishop’s council meetings, made increasingly difficult by ever-toughening traffic regulations in London. Apart from that, little more remains other than Facebook.

What is the attraction of Protestantism for some people who find themselves in a state of cognitive dissonance as Roman Catholics? Protestantism comes in different shades, fundamentalist and liberal, Calvinist and Arminian, Methodists, Presbyterians, Quakers, Unitarians, literally hundreds of denominations. The Reformation was a highly complex movement based on a reaction against corrupt Roman Catholic clericalism, an appeal to the early Church and especially St Augustine of Hippo and a desire for political freedom from local two-bit princes. It tended to revert to some extent to an imitation of Judaism through emphasis on the Scriptures as the sole source of tradition and worship centred on the word rather than sacramental symbolism. Personally I am more attracted to the Christianity of the Gentiles, the way Christ was introduced to pagans and animists!

Christianity is at the same watershed as in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. What is the relationship between scientific reason and philosophical faith, the intellect and the heart? Listening to the average American preacher is about as boring as a lecture at the Angelicum on various Atonement theories in the thirteenth century or the treatise on merit and grace!

How do we live as Christians in a world where Christianity or even the teachings of Christ as recorded in the Gospels is totally irrelevant and lost in the noise of materialism, consumerism and political populism? Many have tried to give an answer, including myself through this blog. I have come to believe that the kind of Christianity taught in nearly all churches is inadequate and its apologetics have no credibility. I find myself quite close to the “Modernist” theologian George Tyrrell in the 1900’s. There needs to be an esoteric and mystical dimension by which a person acquires experience of the sacred and the profound truth of Christ. The Protestant world has the Pentecostal movement, like the old Convulsionnaires de Saint Médard in seventeenth-century Jansenist France,  and various phenomena which might not all be of God. Catholicism and Orthodoxy have monasticism and a deep contemplative tradition. The Lutheran and Pietist world has J.S. Bach, Jakob Böhme and Novalis to show in the mystical tradition from which German Romanticism grew. Rod Dreyer dreams of some form of lay monasticism called the Benedict Option, and shares many intuitions with mainly Americans in mind. I would add the need for mystery schools like in the ancient world where people can meet kindred spirits and learn about sacred symbolism and depth psychology.

Many of us have been scandalised by the failing of the clergy to set a moral example. I am a priest myself, and am far from impeccable. That said, I have stayed on the right side of the law and public decency all my life. Most priests have. I have always made a distinction between mortal humans and the high moral ideal of the Church. I studied theology mostly at Fribourg University, which gave me a neo-patristic approach with some measure of German Idealism rather than strict Thomism and Scholasticism. I was largely spared the nit-picking and pinpoint-splitting distinctions of traditionalist seminaries. Reading the Fathers of the Church can be quite shocking, since error would be attributed to wickedness rather than ignorance in good faith or human prejudice. A psychological view of a person only came in from the nineteenth century. Reformation and Counter-Reformation polemics leave the same impression of hardness and lack of compassion for persons. In Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose, Salvatore is referred to as the heretical hunchback rather than someone who is mentally retarded. The study of history does not admit anachronism. Human rights are something very recent and a fruit of the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason. This is why I advocate Romanticism: a union of the Enlightenment and the modern understanding of the human person with a revival of the emotions and the creative imagination. Such would change our way of expressing Christian teachings to a world that thirsts for the transcendent in a way of which it is unaware.

Newman wrote as an Anglican but also as one who cultivated an immense knowledge of the Fathers of the Church, both Greek and Latin. As we read his books, even when we see through the nineteenth-century cultural mask, we become aware of his obsession in trying to reconcile the irreconcilable. The theory of doctrinal development was a stroke of genius in describing the living consciousness, but its purpose is disappointing – an attempt to justify Papal infallibility even if it is limited. What must the nineteenth century Church have been like? It was certainly more diverse than after World War II and since Vatican II when the Piuspäpst tradition reached its paroxysm. There was a movement of revival and Romanticism, but also a progressive tightening leading to the purges of liberals and modernists by Pius X in the years leading up to World War I. Newman needs to be placed in his historical context. I like his thought, but he is not the be-all-and-end-all.

Since reverting to Anglican Catholicism from my fifteen-odd years with the Roman Catholics, I have been relieved of that problem of infallible authority, either religious or civil. We are all endowed with “private” judgement, though most of us are sceptical enough to recognise our fallibility and possibility of being mistaken. That is a part of our human condition and the learning curve. The problem with Newman is his opposition of authority and the use of reason. Perhaps he would have been enlightened by the reign of terror in the 1930’s and 40’s in Europe with a mind for comparison with some historical popes and bishops. There have always been evil men in positions of authority and there always will be. Infallibility is simply not possible. There must be a harmony of reason, faith / spiritual life and freedom of inquiry. Of course there is the element of sin, but you can’t stop sin by legislating against it. The way must be interior. Since World War II, mere authority has no credibility, and post-modernity rejects all institutions.

I don’t claim to have a universal answer. If I did not belong to a Church, I would not be attracted to Protestantism or any other institutional form, at least in the state in which I now find myself in late middle age. The Catholic Church (in its meaning as a Platonic universal idea) needs another kind of definition, one that is not institutional or political. It needs to consider modern discoveries of conscious energy and its relationship with matter. Science is beginning to vindicate the intuitions of Romanticism, even if Mary Shelley perverted it somewhat. We arrive at a new form of Tyrrell’s so-called “modernism” and perhaps a key to bringing our Christian life into our times without imitating mass culture and demagogy.

As a student at Fribourg, I was very impressed by the thought of Vladimir Soloviev and Nikolai Berdyaev. Firstly there was the idea of trying to pick out the positive intuitions of Orthodoxy, Catholicism and the Reformation and bringing about a convergence. The idea is sublime but naïve. I discovered orthodox Gnosticism through Berdyaev and some of the other Russian theologians of the time, many of whom were exiled to France by the 1917 revolution in Russia. These strands set me thinking, and I could only go on reading and discovering new insights, even if they brought me close to heresy and doubt about things that should be absolutely certain. I had to work through many of these things myself, in the same way as I worked to understand my own personality.

I end with a quote from Berdyaev in Freedom and the Spirit:

“As Leon Bloy has well said in Le Pelerin de l’Absolu, “Souffrir passe, avoir souffert ne passe jamais”. This is a remarkable aphorism demanding the broadest possible interpretation. Victory may indeed be achieved over what has been experienced, and yet that experience is still in our possession as a permanent enhancement and extension of the reality of our spiritual life. What has once been lived through cannot possibly be effaced. That which has been continues to exist in a transfigured form. Man is by no means a completely finished product. Rather he moulds and creates himself in and through his experience of life, through spiritual conflict, and through those various trials which his destiny imposes him. Man is only what God is planning, a projected design”.

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I don’t speak Welsh, but I came across the word Hiraeth as I was doing my daily scan of Facebook. The posting gave a definition of this word:

Homesickness for a home to which you cannot return, a home which maybe never was. The nostalgia, the yearning, the grief for the lost places of your past.

I have often dwelt on this theme through the German word Sehnsucht, and this is one of my most significant pieces – Nostalgia and Hope. I am intrigued to find the concept expressed in Welsh. Homesickness is one idea that comes through, nostalgia for childhood, the past, the misty memories of the big Victorian house in Kendal and the leafy garden so beautifully tended by my father. Grief from losing my mother six years ago not only represented the passing of a person but also a part of my own life – since I came from her. Sehnsucht refers to more than our past and what is familiar, a world beyond our own that is of God.

The feeling of grief has hit me quite hard over the past few days. I see what is happening to my country. I won’t go back into the old polemics – but the parallels between what the Prime Minister is doing and Hitler’s Enabling Act of 1933 are striking and terrifying. The behaviour of a number of MP’s as Parliament was prorogued this week was also truly shocking. I am being deprived of my country, my origins, the origin of my own life and culture. I see my Patrie descending into the darkness. Something might yet happen to restore my faith in my country as a nation of law and justice. Whatever, I will spend the rest of my life in France, since I weighed anchor from England many years ago and long before the word Brexit was ever uttered.

A Welsh poet by the name of Tim Davis wrote a fine poem on Hiraeth. I quote the poem from this source. If you go to the link, you will find a recording of the poem set to music and sung by a male voice choir. The tone is melancholic but very beautiful.

Hiraeth beckons with wordless call,
Hear, my soul, with heart enthrall’d.
Hiraeth whispers while earth I roam;
Here I wait the call “come home.”

Like seagull cry, like sea borne wind,
That speak with words beyond my ken,
A heartfelt cry with words unsaid,
Calls a wanderer home instead.

I heed your call, Hiraeth, I come
On westward path to hearth and home.
My path leads on to western shore,
My heart tells me there is yet more.

Within my ears the sea air sighs;
The sunset glow, it fills my eyes.
I stand at edge of sea and earth,
My bare feet washed in gentle surf.

Hiraeth’s longing to call me on,
Here, on shore, in setting sun.
Hiraeth calls past sunset fire,
“Look beyond, come far higher!”

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Combat de la Mort et de la Vie

I went today to an organ recital at St Ouen in Rouen, where there is just about the finest Cavaillé-Coll organ ever built. The recital was played by Thomas Lacôte, titular organist of the Holy Trinity church in Paris where he succeeds Olivier Messiaen. He played music by Bach and Messiaen on the themes of life and death. The piece I found most moving was Messiaen’s Combat de la Mort et de la Vie from the organ cycle Les Corps Glorieux composed in 1939.

Though this piece describes the Paschal Mystery, the death and Resurrection of Christ, the year 1939 is significant. The aggressive toccata over a bass motive represents an extreme degree of anguish. The composer must have known about the looming war in the newspapers and on the wireless, and indeed I heard this emotion and my extreme empathy kicked in. The life part is quiet and meditative. Here is a recording of Messiaen himself playing the Combat de la Mort et de la Vie.

After a few chorale preludes of Bach, M. Lacôte played Les Ténèbres and La Résurrection du Christ from his last organ work (1984), Le Livre du Saint-Sacrement. Like the earlier piece Les Corps Glorieux, we find an extreme contrast between the darkness and the light of the Resurrection, a towering upward movement ending in a massive resolution into a major chord.

Messiaen is sometimes difficult to listen to, but his music is not atonal, but follows a system of harmony that is proper to this composer. He was a profoundly devout and even mystical Christian, as was Bach. Quite an experience!

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