Thursday, November 30, 2017

Saint-Wandrille.



At the end of October, I took advantage of the generous fall break accorded to students in France to spend a few days at the Abbey of St. Wandrille in Normandy. Founded in 649 by the Frankish monk for whom the abbey is now named, St. Wandrille has been dissolved or pillaged numerous times; writing about the monastery in a slim volume called A Time to Keep Silence, Patrick Leigh Fermor observed that "St. Wandrille seems to have been spared by none of the disasters of French history," and indeed the community has been ravaged by foes as various as the Vikings, the Huguenots, and France's republican government, only to be reestablished and rebuilt by subsequent generations of resilient Benedictine monks. Once part of a powerful network of Carolingian monasteries spread across Normandy, since the nineteenth century St. Wandrille has belonged to the Congregation of Solesmes.



I was inspired to visit St. Wandrille by the testimony of two authors who wrote with great affection about the monastery and about the Benedictines who live there. One of these two authors was Fermor, who arrived at St. Wandrille in the early 1950s expecting "necropolitan gloom or bigotry" only to find that the monks' "company was like that of any civilised well-educated Frenchman, with all the balance, erudition and wit that one expected, the only difference being a gentleness, a lack of haste, and a calmness that is common to the whole community." The other author who led me here was the twentieth-century French theologian Louis Bouyer (1913-2004), who left behind his youthful Protestantism and entered the Catholic Church in the 1930s under the influence of the monks of St. Wandrille and retained an affinity for the community for the rest of his life.



The architecture of St. Wandrille vividly evokes the abbey's long and sometimes tortured history, with the ruins of the medieval abbey church (destroyed during the French Revolution) preserved alongside a complex of seventeenth-century buildings constructed when the abbey belonged to the Congregation of St. Maur. As Patrick Leigh Fermor writes in A Time to Keep Silence, a visit to St. Wandrille offers a poignant reminder that the Benedictines "were . . . for centuries the only guardians of literature, the classics, scholarship and the humanities in a world of which the confusion can best be compared to our own atomic era." Fermor notes with regret the destruction of once significant monastic centers like the abbeys of Cluny and St. Germain-des-Prés (writing in the 1950s, he colorfully describes the remains of the latter monastery in Paris as being "just visible between zazou suits and existentialist haircuts from the terrace of the Deux Magots"), but he finds reason for hope in the fact that "in scores of abbeys all over Europe, the same liberal traditions survive and prosper." Were he able to see St. Wandrille today, in an ever-more secular and postmodern Europe, Fermor would perhaps find all the more reason to insist upon the importance of monasteries like St. Wandrille, even as the "scores of abbeys" preserving venerable traditions are fewer than they were sixty years ago.



If Patrick Leigh Fermor appreciated St. Wandrille primarily as a place where a valuable cultural patrimony was preserved, Louis Bouyer knew the abbey first and foremost as the setting in which he became convinced of the truth of Catholicism. Having visited St. Wandrille for the first time in 1931 as an eighteen-year-old already studying for the Protestant ministry, Bouyer returned repeatedly to the monastery over the following decade before being received into the Church there on December 27, 1939, at the age of twenty-six. In the Memoirs that he wrote decades later, Bouyer recalled that it was at St. Wandrille "that I had been convinced by the Benedictine life that the Catholic Church, despite the possible inadequacies of many of her representatives, beginning with some of the most eminent (as Saint Paul says, ‘those who appear to be something’), was nevertheless the survival of the one Church founded by Christ on the apostles."



Despite his admiration for the Benedictines, Bouyer did not become a monk - he was ultimately ordained as a priest of the French Oratory, and spent most of his life as an academic theologian - but he was nevertheless bound to the monastery by ties of friendship that endured until his death in 2004. Bouyer spent most of his last two decades living at St. Wandrille as a permanent guest of the community, regarding the monastery as his home base even as he spent several months of each year teaching at the University of San Francisco (in his Memoirs, written in residence at St. Wandrille, Bouyer refers at one point to "my Norman masculine abbey where I usually live when I am not on the edge of the Pacific"). No matter how familiar St. Wandrille became to him, Bouyer seems to have always viewed the abbey with a sense of wonder. As he wrote, "There is a discreet charm, a serene beauty in this little wooded valley. The buildings that remain there, the best of the Maurists' construction, around a cloister from the last centuries of the Middle Ages, illumine and animate it without in any way eclipsing or overriding a nature that . . . [is] a witness to that implicit art with which the Benedictines have humanized it everywhere just as they themselves were being sanctified in it."



Describing the ruins of the medieval abbey church and its modern replacement, Bouyer noted "the felicitous contrast between the ruins of the ancient church, bursting up to the sky, and the at once rustic and cheerful destitution of that fifteenth-century barn with impeccable taste transformed into an oratory simply with an altar, a sanctuary arranged with a precise sobriety for which one can no longer hope today!" It is poignant to read these words knowing that Bouyer would be buried on a hillside overlooking the ruins and the new abbey church that he describes; it is perhaps the monks' greatest tribute to Louis Bouyer that he would be buried in their midst in the abbey cemetery.



The "precise sobriety" that Bouyer described is indeed a hallmark of the abbey church at St. Wandrille, though the austerity of the physical setting does nothing to diminish the beauty or solemnity of the monastic liturgy. Patrick Leigh Fermor took evident relish in quoting some lines of the hymn Te lucis ante terminum chanted each night by the monks at compline: Procul recédant sómnia / et nóctium phantásmata; / hostémque nostrum cómprime, / ne polluántur córpora. As Fermor glosses these lines, "The windows are barred against the lurking incubus, the pre-eighth-century iambic dimeters seal up any remaining loophole against the invasion of the hovering succubi." For my part, I am pleased to note that this text is still chanted in its integrity at St. Wandrille, even as many other monasteries have adopted a revised version of this hymn from the 1970s that disappointingly banishes any mention of the insidious phantasmata.



To bring this post to an end, here is a photo that I took one morning as I walked to the abbey church for the celebration of lauds at 7:30 am, just as the sun was rising over the Norman countryside. During his years of residence at St. Wandrille, Louis Bouyer often eschewed the celebration of lauds with the community, admitting candidly that "I do not attend the night office, and I go to Lauds in the morning only when they are fully sung (recited psalmody invariably puts me to sleep with its monotony)." Though I only spent a few days at St. Wandrille, I made a point of attending all of the offices in the church, whether sung or recited, and even though this meant having to rise at 5 o' clock for matins. It was, to be honest, a thrilling experience, and one that I hope very much to repeat someday soon. AMDG.

Thursday, November 02, 2017

Dies irae, dies illa.



In accordance with my annual custom, I am marking All Souls' Day by reposting a translation of the Latin sequence for All Souls that I made a few years ago. The translation below is the same one that I have provided in years past, though I have tweaked the commentary slightly; I still hope to eventually revise the translation, but for now I hope that my annual reposting of this text is helpful and edifying to some readers.

Typically attributed to the thirteenth-century Franciscan Thomas of Celano and long prescribed as part of the Latin Requiem Mass, the Dies Irae enjoys a special place in Western musical culture thanks to the memorable settings of the Requiem text by composers ranging from Mozart to Verdi to Britten, among many others. For All Souls, I typically avoid any 'classical' setting of the Dies Irae in favor of the traditional Gregorian setting, because some days when only chant will do - and for me this is one of those days.

Below you can find the Latin text of the Dies Irae followed by my own English translation. I decided to translate the text myself out of a sense of dissatisfaction with the various translations that I found online, as a spiritual exercise for All Souls' Day - and, finally, to practice my Latin. The translation was made in haste and could certainly be improved - indeed, I have sometimes thought of starting from scratch and doing a new one - and I welcome comments and criticism; my goal was to convey the meaning of the original faithfully without trying to reproduce the poetic meter of the original. So here goes:

Dies irae! Dies illa
Solvet saeclum in favilla:
Teste David cum Sibylla!

Quantus tremor est futurus,
Quando iudex est venturus,
Cuncta stricte discussurus!

Tuba mirum spargens sonum
Per sepulchra regionum,
Coget omnes ante thronum.

Mors stupebit, et natura,
Cum resurget creatura,
Iudicanti responsura.

Liber scriptus proferetur,
In quo totum continetur,
Unde mundus iudicetur.

Iudex ergo cum sedebit,
Quidquid latet, apparebit:
Nil inultum remanebit.

Quid sum miser tunc dicturus?
Quem patronum rogaturus,
Cum vix iustus sit securus?

Rex tremendae maiestatis,
Qui salvandos salvas gratis,
Salva me, fons pietatis.

Recordare, Iesu pie,
Quod sum causa tuae viae:
Ne me perdas illa die.

Quaerens me, sedisti lassus:
Redemisti Crucem passus:
Tantus labor non sit cassus.

Iuste iudex ultionis,
Donum fac remissionis
Ante diem rationis.

Ingemisco, tamquam reus:
Culpa rubet vultus meus:
Supplicanti parce, Deus.

Qui Mariam absolvisti,
Et latronem exaudisti,
Mihi quoque spem dedisti.

Preces meae non sunt dignae:
Sed tu bonus fac benigne,
Ne perenni cremer igne.

Inter oves locum praesta,
Et ab haedis me sequestra,
Statuens in parte dextra.

Confutatis maledictis,
Flammis acribus addictis:
Voca me cum benedictis.

Oro supplex et acclinis,
Cor contritum quasi cinis:
Gere curam mei finis.

Lacrimosa dies illa,
qua resurget ex favilla
Judicandus homo reus.
Huic ergo parce, Deus:

Pie Iesu Domine,
dona eis requiem. Amen.

---

O day of wrath, that day
when the earth will be reduced to ashes,
as David and the Sibyl both testify!

What great fear there will be,
when the judge comes
to judge all things strictly.

A trumpet casts a wondrous sound
into the realm of the tombs,
calling all [to come] before the throne.

Death and nature will both marvel
as the [human] creature rises
to answer its judge.

A book will be brought forth
in which all things are recorded –
all that for which the world will be judged.

When, therefore, the judge appears,
all that is hidden will appear,
and no ills will remain unavenged.

As miserable as I am, what am I say?
whose protection may I invoke,
when even the just lack security?

O most majestic King,
who freely saves those to be saved,
save me, source of mercy!

Remember, merciful Jesus,
that I am the one for whom you came:
may I not be lost on that day!

Seeking me, you sat down tired:
to redeem me, you suffered the Cross –
may your toil not be in vain!

Just and avenging judge,
may you grant remission [of sins]
before the day of reckoning.

Guilty, now I sigh,
my face red with shame:
save thy petitioner, o God!

Having absolved Mary [Magdalene],
and heard the plea of the thief,
may you give me hope as well.

Though my prayers are not worthy,
be kind to me, o Good One,
that I may be spared the eternal fire!

Place me among the sheep,
and separate me from the goats,
setting me at your right hand.

When the wicked are confounded
and given over to bitter flames:
call me among the blessed.

Meek and humble, I pray,
with a heart contrite as ashes:
Help me reach my final end.

How tearful that day will be,
when from the ashes will arise
the guilty man for judgment.
Therefore spare him, O God!

Merciful Lord Jesus,
grant them rest. Amen.


To some modern ears, some of the above lines may seem a bit harsh; the familiarity of the Latin text and the beauty of its poetic form can easily distract us from the admonitory content of the Dies Irae. As stern as these words may be, though, they also remind us that God is merciful - indeed, the very source of mercy - and they call on us to pray: first for our beloved dead and for our own repentance, but also that we may offer to others the same mercy that we seek for ourselves. May all of us who celebrate this Feast of All Souls take these words in the right way, and take them to heart. AMDG.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Messiaen again.



I've written here before about Olivier Messiaen, the twentieth-century French composer whose musical output includes everything from mystical choral works on Catholic feasts to an opera on St. Francis of Assisi to the sprawling Turangalîla-Symphonie, a work that Messiaen's leading interpreter Pierre Boulez once described as "bordello music" and one that I once likened to "alien invasion music" suitable to a 1950s sci-fi flick. Messiaen is one of my favorite composers, and I hope that living in his home country for a few years will give me somewhat greater access to his music.



2017 marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of Messiaen's death, occasioning various commemorative events and concerts in Paris and throughout France. The anniversary also got me interested in trying to find a recorded interview with the composer, since I had never heard his voice even though I had heard a lot of his music. That search led me to this program produced in 1974 for a French TV series called Court Circuit, which takes the novel approach of staging an encounter between the composer and a twenty-year-old engineering student who also happens to be a talented amateur musician and a fan of Messiaen's music. At the end of their interview, the young student muses thoughtfully about the encounter and remarks on Messiaen's personal simplicity and accessibility. Messiaen comes across as humble and unassuming as well as a gifted pedagogue, and his willingness to discuss his Catholic faith in an encounter recorded for public television says something about the evangelical spirit that animated his life and work. If you understand French and you're interested in Messiaen, have a look. AMDG.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Farewell, Benny's.



Some bad news from Southern New England: it was announced last week that Rhode Island-based retail chain Benny's will close all 31 of its stores and cease operations by the end of the year. A family-owned company still run by the grandchildren of the man who started the business in 1924, Benny's has long been appreciated by many residents of Rhode Island, Southeastern Massachusetts, and Connecticut as a friendly, community-oriented alternative to large and impersonal corporate retailers. In recent years, Benny's advertised itself as "Your Favorite Store," a title that accurately reflected the sentiments of many customers. As New Bedford Standard-Times columnist Jack Spillane recently wrote, these warm feelings made the news of the chain's demise a particularly bitter blow:
It takes a lot in a cynical newsroom to send folks into shock. Even more to send us into dismay.

When we found out Benny's will soon be gone, a lot of us were in dismay.

Because there was a time when all stores were like Benny's. The old five-and-dimes, the Main Street hardware stores, the corner drug stores.

But they’re all long gone now. Except for Benny's.
In spite its undeniable place in the hearts of many Southern New England residents, Benny's can also be difficult to classify given the eclectic yet often highly specific nature of its inventory. Signs on the outside of the building tended to identify Benny's as a "home and auto store," but that isn't really an adequate description; for many loyal customers, Benny's was the sort of store that one would visit for slightly obscure items that were difficult to find elsewhere. Benny's was often the place where I would go to buy shoelaces and pocket combs, though when I was a kid I also went there with my dad to buy plastic models of cars, ships, and airplanes that we would assemble at home. Writing in the Standard-Times, Jack Spillane also picks up on the hard-to-classify quality of Benny's:
I'm not exactly sure what Benny's is. It isn’t exactly a hardware store but it has a lot of stuff that hardware stores do. It isn’t exactly a discount store but it has a lot of stuff that discount stores do.

Suffice to say it has a little of everything and it is cheap. Consistently inexpensive, not like the national chains that raise the prices just to lower them "on sale." Not like the big corporate boxes where they want all your personal data — name, rank and serial number — just so you can find out where the good buys are.

No, Benny’s seems genuinely inexpensive and intentionally full of good stuff that people wanted to buy and can't always find easily.

Need a good quality spigot for your hose? Benny’s has it. Need leaf bags because you’re half way through raking and out of them? Benny’s has them, and a quarter cheaper than everybody else.

How about a Keurig coffeemaker? Or patio furniture? Tennis balls? A corner table? Mulch for the garden? Yes, yes, yes, and yes.

The amazing thing is that Benny's has a wide variety of goods but the stores aren’t that big. Unlike a mega-store, you can easily see from one end to another. There are very rarely more than one or two cash registers (do they even call them that anymore?) running.
I think Spillane hits the nail on the head when he observes that Benny's was "full of good stuff that people wanted to buy and can't always find easily." Part of the appeal of Benny's was the sense in which it offered rare but important goods that weren't always easy to find elsewhere, particularly before the advent of the Internet. Where I grew up, Benny's also featured in a common rite of passage insofar as it was a place where many families went to buy bicycles for their children; I'm not sure that I ever rode a bicycle that came from Benny's, but I know a lot of other people who did.

Shopping at Benny's in recent years during visits home, I was also struck by the time-warped quality of the place: it always seemed to look exactly the way it had when I had visited as a child in the 1980s, with everything in the same place and the same signage, the same florescent lights, and the same floor tiles. The apparent timelessness of Benny's helped to evoke a sense of nostalgia that contributed to its appeal, and this nostalgia helps to explain why I'm sorry that I'll never have the opportunity to shop at Benny's again. The loss of Benny's also means the loss of a part of the distinctive identity of the region where I grew up, and that can only be a source of regret. AMDG.

Friday, September 08, 2017

Rocamadour.



In my last post, I promised to write more about my recent visit to the Sanctuaire Notre-Dame de Rocamadour in southwestern France. Today's Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary seems an apt occasion for a post on a Marian shrine so ancient that its origins are shrouded in mystery; the founding of Rocamadour is usually attributed to St. Amadour, a figure sometimes identified with the publican Zacchaeus mentioned in Luke’s Gospel but more likely a hermit who lived in the early Middle Ages. Tradition maintains that Roland of Brittany (later celebrated as a model of chivalry and valor in the eleventh-century Chanson de Roland) visited Rocamadour in 778, when it was apparently already a place of pilgrimage. Rocamadour became a major pilgrimage site in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, with figures as varied as St. Bernard of Clairvaux, St. Dominic, St. Louis of France, and King Henry II of England all coming to pray before the enigmatic figure of the Vierge Noire (a statue that is also the subject of various legends, with varying accounts given of its age and origin). Just as it did centuries ago, this complex of chapels carved into the side of a cliff continues to captivate Christian pilgrims as well as more casual visitors.



The appeal of Rocamadour even to the irreligious is seen in Michel Houellebecq’s provocative 2015 novel Submission, whose protagonist, a jaded atheist academic named François, makes an unlikely pilgrimage to the Black Virgin. Seeking a temporary respite from ennui and personal frustration as well as political turmoil in Paris, François visits the shrine on the advice of a friend who insists that "at Rocamadour you’ll see what a great civilization medieval Christendom really was." Sitting in the small chapel at the heart of the shrine, François muses on the figure of Our Lady of Rocamadour:
Every day I went and sat for a few minutes before the Black Virgin – the same one who for a thousand years inspired so many pilgrimages, before whom so many saints and kings had knelt. It was a strange statue. It bore witness to a vanished universe. The Virgin sat rigidly erect; her head, with its closed eyes, so distant that it seemed extraterrestrial, was crowned by a diadem. The baby Jesus – who looked nothing like a baby, more like an adult or even an old man – sat on her lap, equally erect; his eyes were closed, too, his face sharp, wise and powerful, and he wore a crown of his own. There was no tenderness, no maternal abandon in their postures. This was not the baby Jesus; this was already the king of the world. His serenity and the impression he gave of spiritual power – of intangible energy – were almost terrifying.
As François comments later, the Black Virgin expressed something beyond human efforts to interpret the devotion that inspired countless pilgrims to visit the shrine: "What this severe statue expressed was not attachment to a homeland, to a country; not some celebration of the soldier's manly courage; not even a child's desire for his mother. It was something mysterious, priestly, and royal ... The Virgin waited in the shadows, calm and timeless. She had sovereignty, she had power..."



Considering the words of Submission's protagonist and reflecting on my own experience at Rocamadour, I found myself thinking of something Martin Mosebach once wrote about how the Colombian aphorist Nicolás Gómez Dávila saw Catholicism not merely as "one of several Christian confessions, but as the great collecting tank of all religions, as the heiress of all paganism, as the still living original religion." It's easy to regard Rocamadour as emblematic of the "collecting tank" character of Catholicism: a Christian shrine so ancient that its origins have been lost in the haze of history, a place centered on the veneration of "a strange statue" that "seem[s] extraterrestrial" and emits a mysterious "spiritual power." In contrast with a place like Lourdes, which bears witness to the unexpected manifestation of the divine before unsuspecting and even skeptical moderns, Rocamadour speaks to a natural and primordial faith. And yet, like Lourdes, Rocamadour is also a place touched by miraculous associations: reports of miracles that came about after prayers before the Black Virgin helped account for the shrine's popularity in the Middle Ages, and the many modern ex votos that can be seen at Rocamadour today are a reminder of favors more recently received.



Ancient and mysterious, Rocamadour is also a living place of pilgrimage. In contrast with the millions who visit Lourdes annually, pilgrims to Rocamadour can be counted in the tens of thousands (supplemented, I must note, by many more tourists drawn by the village's history and its medieval architecture). The pilgrims I saw at Rocamadour were mainly French, in contrast with the mix of nationalities one finds at Lourdes; the sense of the Black Virgin of Rocamadour as a national rather than universal figure remains palpable. Though the shrine is very old, it has a young heart: a striking aspect of the place is the presence of the bénévoles, French Catholic volunteers in their teens and twenties who spend the summer at Rocamadour welcoming pilgrims and helping to maintain the site. In this video, you can hear some bénévoles leading the daily rosary in the small chapel at the heart of the sanctuary. For me, it was inspiring to see enthusiastic young Catholics praying and working at one of the oldest shrines of an ostensibly secular and post-Christian nation. The blue polo shirts worn by the bénévoles bear this slogan: L’Espérance ferme comme le roc – "Hope solid as a rock." This is the message I took away from Rocamadour, and I suspect that the same message will lead me to return during my sojourn in France. AMDG.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Litanies à la Vierge noire.



Earlier this month, I made a pilgrimage to the Sanctuaire Notre-Dame de Rocamadour two hours northeast of Toulouse. Reputedly visited in 778 by Charlemagne's nephew Roland of Brittany shortly before he was killed in the Battle of Roncevaux Pass (an event immortalized in the medieval French epic poem Le Chanson de Roland), the village of Rocamadour is home to an ancient Marian shrine that has welcomed untold numbers of pilgrims over the centuries, including several French kings as well as Saints Dominic, Bernard of Clairvaux, and Anthony of Padua. I have been meaning to write something here about my visit to Rocamadour and still hope to do so. In the meantime, though, I would like to share something about a notable twentieth-century visitor to Rocamadour, the French composer Francis Poulenc.

Poulenc visited Rocamadour at the age of thirty-seven, two decades after he had abandoned his Catholic faith as an adolescent. When he arrived at the shrine on August 22, 1936, Poulenc was badly shaken by the recent death of his friend and fellow composer Pierre-Octave Ferroud in an auto accident. As Poulenc later recounted, "Thinking about the frailty of the human condition, I was once again attracted to the spiritual life. Rocamadour served to lead me back to the faith of my youth." Enchanted by the antiquity of the shrine as well as by its rustic beauty, Poulenc underwent an apparently spontaneous conversion. "Alone, facing the sinless Virgin," he would later say, "I suddenly received the indisputable sign, the stab of grace right in the heart."

As an act of thanksgiving for his conversion and as the artistic fruit of a profound spiritual experience, Poulenc produced the Litanies à la Vierge noire, a work that can be heard in the above video. Poulenc would place several later works under the patronage of Our Lady of Rocamadour, notably including the opera Dialogues des carmélites, but Litanies à la Vierge noire nevertheless stands as the indispensable monument to the experience that brought Poulenc back to the Catholic faith.

I hope to produce another post on Rocamadour in the next few days. Until then, peace and good wishes to those who read these lines. AMDG.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Ours on St. Ignatius' Day.



As I've noted here before, I have been fortunate to celebrate the Feast of St. Ignatius in various circumstances in Jesuit communities on three different continents. Some of these celebrations have been very grand: I think especially of the experience of spending St. Ignatius' Day in Innsbruck and in Santiago de Chile, where the feast was observed with solemn Masses in Jesuit churches followed by sumptuous banquets. In other years, I've marked the feast in quieter ways. One year, for example, I spent St. Ignatius' Day in Toronto with two other Jesuits; the three of us were busy working on theses and dissertations and didn't have the energy to trek out to the regional Jesuit celebration of the feast day, so instead we celebrated a quiet Mass in our community chapel and had dinner in a nearby restaurant. No matter where I've celebrated St. Ignatius' Day, I always look forward to the opportunity to celebrate the bonds of brotherhood that I enjoy with my fellow Jesuits and to give thanks for the gift of our shared vocation.

This year's celebration of St. Ignatius' Day was a quiet one. I'm currently in Toulouse for the summer to brush up on my French before beginning doctoral studies in Paris in the fall, so I celebrated the feast day with the small local Jesuit community. The eight of us gathered for Mass and dinner and once again honored the memory of our founder and the legacy that he left us, a legacy that we all try to continue in admittedly imperfect ways. As always, I pray today not only for the gift of my own vocation but for that of my brother Jesuits, that the Society of Jesus may be for all of us a help to salvation and a means of doing God's will. Borrowing from the words of the formula that we all recited at the time of our First Vows, I pray that God who freely gave us the desire to make this complete offering of ourselves may also give us the abundant grace that we need to fulfill it. AMDG.