Monday, May 31


DRUDGE REPORT FLASH 2003 -- Abortion Rising in Quest for Perfect Baby:

"'These figures are symptomatic of a eugenic trend of the consumerist society hell-bent on obliterating deformity - and at what cost to its own humanity? ' said ethicist Jacqueline Laing, of London Metropolitan University. 'We are obliterating the willingness of people to accept disability. Babies are required to fit a description of normality before they are allowed to be born.' "
The Chapel of Relics, Palermo Cathedral

The glacial white paint comes peeling away
From the monumental doorframe,
Peeling away in great strips like some fabulous
Undiagnosed disease:
And the columns all around are cold and mottled,
Pale and dead and grey.
I stand at the grate, the grille,
Stand looking in through holy prison-bars
Rich with swirling ironwork arabesques
Moorish Palermo turned baroque.

And I, John, saw underneath the altar the souls of the martyrs,
And I heard them cry out in a loud voice.

Within and above, beyond my reach,
Dingy coffered vaults rose,
Marked with complex leprous decay:
Chalky plaster walls harshly lit
By dim lavender electricity
That spilled forth
From two little bulbs
Screwed unceremoniously into
Two hanging lamps that seemed like armored flowers,
Two hanging lamps on hanging chains
With links like thorny spikes.

And I, John, saw underneath the altar the bodies of the martyrs,
And I heard them sing out in a loud voice.

The floor was marble,
A marble chessboard,
Like the gridded Roman Empire of Maxentius and Nero
And tyrant Diocletian,
Moving his legions round like polished-steel pawns
From Split to Mesopotamia and back again.
Moving his martyrs round like pawns
To back those huddling followers of Chrestus
Into a bloodied and obscure corner of the arena
Floored with sand and animal dung.

Like the round floor of the Pantheon,
The martyr’s temple with its mappamundi pavement,
The martyr’s temple which was once a cenotaph to
The martyr-slayers, that polycephalic beast whose heads
All bear the names
Of blasphemy: Augustus and Caesar and worse.
But the pavement bore instead, an emaciated lapidary text,
And I heard an innocent little voice, slain by Herod in Judaea,
Sing it, Custodet Dominus omnia ossa eorum.
Guard all our bones, O God,
That You once knit into a sacred frame,
That You brought to life from earth dry as dust,
That You once counted, one-by-one, on Calvary.
That place of Adam’s skull.
Not a bone of His will be broken.

And I, John, saw underneath the altar the bones of the prophets,
And I heard them sing out a macaronic prosody,
A sequence for the dead.

At noon, we remember, in fading, blurry days,
Days when sun and moon dark’d together,
And forsook ordained ways,
We saints came forth from our tomb:
Our whitened broke-open tomb,
Flowing forth as if vulned by a lance
A jagged stream of amniotic fluid, a Mosaic womb,
Not knowing why or how of this magic happenstance:

Or how, while prey to Satan’s windy powers
Suspended in the air
Between heaven and earth,
Our King gave birth to His Spouse,
Our Mother, birthed after our own birth,
Our new Mother, with the dark and beautiful face
Of old and sweet Synagoga, where ere long we had nursed.

And those tombs still stood,
Their dormitories and depositories until Judgment Day,
Gilded wooden arks, tents and houses
A hundred bristling reliquaries or more,
Atop sacristy consoles, rich with dust and holy decay,
Atop plinths and altars
Dark dappled green
And marbled orange like martyr blood.

And I stood and studied
And waited in the quiet,
With neither eclipse nor earthquake
To rend my mental veil.
They were silent now,
The silence of the living, not the dead,
Of bodies waiting to be glorified
And luminous souls above,
Silently resting in their
Dilapidated houses of gold and towers of ivory.
Silently resting
In six great chests on either hand, raised up on eagles,
On cloudy carven puff-faced cherubim, scarlet faces faded to coral.
Their homes were worked in oak, worked in tarnished silver
That threw off pink and gold like mother of pearl,
Faced with hexagon-wired glass or paneled gilt.
They were tinged with candelabra, once vibrant and beautiful
But acid-ate with dripping drying wax.

(Flames: pyre upon pyre, and crosses set alight, the cries of Yhesus, Yhesus:
Their screams could be heard on every hill in Rome).

The paint was faded, the gold winking and forgot,
The style was
Crude and thick, naïve, more Romanesque
Than Sicilian baroque.

This disused and sacred curio cabinet—
Here, higgledy-piggledy, three cloudy little tubes with splinters of bone
(Will these bones live?)
There a shriveled whole hand
That might have caressed a holy cheek,
That might have blessed a marriage and a death,
Hidden (gruesomely?) in a glass-sided gold-plate tin
Set nonchalantly on the shelf, as in a plastic supermart
Next to a pile of dusty pamphlets or a blackened skull or two.

A skull or two that caged miraculous thoughts.

And I, John, saw underneath the altar the bodies of the martyrs,
And I heard them sing out in a loud voice, and ask: How long?

This disused and sacred curio cabinet—
Cluttered with statues with star-ringed heads and arched baroque crowns
That stand stranded on the walls atop rococo brackets,
This disused cabinet,
Swarming with grace,
Swarming with dingy grace for the taking,
But rusty from neglect.
Their houses gone to seed,
Wild once-gleaming finials
Topped with tin saints and bronze trumpeter-angels
Reduced to impious gewgaws in tourist eyes.

(And I, John, saw underneath the altar the bones of the virgins,
And I heard them weep.)

On the low marble altar at the chapel’s head,
Lit with two cheap and inconstant electric flames,
Stood another grand reliquary, both cabinet and bed,
Ringed with frantic silver bishops
Throwing benedictions left and right
At the heap of ostensories below them piled upon the candle-rails
Fragile gilt-metal flowers of martyrdom
Or upright mirrors on stands,
For us to glimpse both heaven and memento mori
At once.
And behind
Stood stagnant glass-front armoires lined with still-rich red,
Looking like velvet hangings on the dying wall,
Full of scores of forgotten saints and holy dead, holy living,
Our friends and relatives above,
More real than we are.

Any flowers left here are dead and dried and unremembered,
A profane gift for these forgotten living souls.

(And I heard an infant’s voice ask: How long?)

Sunday, May 30


Loyal reader "Fran ^_^" has informed me that your very own Shrine of the Holy Whapping has been cited as a bonafide GoogleWhack.

The words? "Bandsman and Tenebrous"

In Fran's words, "Random or what?"

There is little doubt in my mind that Matt was the source of both.

For more information on what exactly a GoogleWhack is, should you not be in the know, go to

Saturday, May 29

There's a new liturgical architecture post thread over at Catholic Answers. I've already posted my five lire worth, under the user name of Borromini. (Well, who else would you have chosen? Plus, something straightforward and plain-vanilla like Matthew was taken.) Go forth and make some Catholic nerd liturgical noise, and en route, check out liturgical renewal central, Duncan Stroik's Institute for Sacred Architecture. It's like some sort of architectural-religious Justice League of America, all my favorite superheros in one convenient place. The board of directors boasts Stroik, Thomas Gordon Smith, Ralph McInerney and even Archbishop Chaput of Denver as members!

Random thought: drinking game based on how many times Matt can use the words ad orientem on a forum post.
Blessed Embertide!

"Ember days" are the Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays after S. Lucia Day (Winter), after Ash Wednesday (Spring), after Pentecost (or Whitsunday, Summer), and after the Exaltation of the Cross (Fall). They therefore correspond to the natural seasons of the year.

They are days of fasting and prayer which date to the ancient Church, and mark her official recognition of the changing of the seasons. They were surpressed by the New Missal, for reasons I cannot understand beyond the fact that they were extremely cool.

Proposition: There is certainly enough in the world to merit our offering of fasting: our personal sinfullness, the sins of the children of our Holy Church, the need for peace across the world, the conversion of so many nations, the fight for respect of life...

Perhaps the good parishioners of St. Blog's could offer Our Lord and Lady the gift of Ember Day fasts the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday after Pentecost this year? What say ye?

Perhaps it's good they are no longer obligatory, because so many people would simply ignore them in reality of today's situation. HOWEVER, that doesn't mean we can't celebrate them!

For more on Ember Days, follow this link from the Boston Indult Community.
(Ember Days post is located above; sorry for the messed-up permalinks.)

The Joy of a Shady Duke
CD Review: Music for the Duke of Lerma: First Vespers and the Salve Service as it was Celebrated in October 1617 in the presence of King Philip III and the Duke of Lerma. Gabrieli Consort and Players. Deutsche Grammophon, 2002.

On 7 October 1617, the spare, classical limestone church of San Pedro in Lerma, Spain, celebrated the anniversary of its dedication with a two-day festival honored by the presence of King Philip III and the local lord of the manor, Francisco Gómez de Sandoval y Riojas. Almost four hundred years later, Paul McCreesh and his Early Music ensemble the Gabrieli Consort vividly re-imagined the music of these courtly religious rites, in the same town, at the same church, using the same delightfully wheezy set of baroque organs, and even the same curling musical scores with their elaborate calligraphic notes.

Better known as the Duke of Lerma, Gómez de Sandoval's title at Philip's court in Valladolid was actually valido, literally "valet," but his power extended far beyond the king's wardrobe. He remains something of a shifty figure in the complex political whisperings that echoed in the stern halls of the Escorial in those fading years just after Spain's golden century drew to a close. Some even blame him in part for the somnolent waining of Spanish glory, and the verdict of history has been a harsh one, denouncing him for frivolous festivities, corrupt administration and indecision abroad. In fact, a recent novel, The Eternal Quest, places him as a villain in the midst of a re-telling of the Don Quixote saga.

Yet, for all his extravagances, Lerma introduced Pieter Paul Rubens to Spain through his startling and luminous equestrian portrait of the Duke, as well as encouraging Lope de Vega and collecting both music and musicians in his splendid household at Lerma. He transformed his hometown into a remarkable microcosm of the Christian state, with six new convents and monasteries and the newly-expanded collegiate church of San Pedro, his ducal chapel, well equipped with musical manuscripts and a staff of twelve canons, an organist, seven choristers and a wind band of minstriles to play during services. He also made one disastrous attempt to teach slaves to play musical instruments, abandoning the project after the scores returned back badly mangled, and then instead successfully patronized the brilliant musician-nuns of the new Dominican convent of San Blas, donating a viola di gamba that had belonged to his grandmother, the Hapsburg Empress Maria of Victoria Requiem fame.

By 1617, Lerma's star at court was fading fast, and he invited his royal master to visit on the occasion of the San Pedro festival in the hopes of charming his way back into courtly favor. The court visited for two weeks, entertained with spectacles, masques, comedies and processions, culminating in the two-day sequence of services at San Pedro. A Pontifical Mass was sung on Friday, October 6, followed by First Vespers of the Blessed Sacrament, which is where McCreesh's recording begins.

This two CD set is a joy to listen to: it's like the Escorial with its endless nooks and crannies and ranks of unexplored and forgotten cells, like the tiny royal bedroom with its door onto the vast sanctuary of the monastic church, grandeur stacked up next to intimacy. You can wander through stretches of it and discover some new twist of notes or melody you realize you've never heard before, for all the times you've listened to it.

The first CD is taken up entirely with the First Vespers, sung that grand October day under an intense Spanish blue sky in that pale limestone church. After beginning spectacularly with a Gabrielian four-choir motet Dixit Dominus, composed by the King's choirmaster, Mateo Romero. It has a distinctly Spanish energy that suffuses the Venetian style of the piece with a greater urgency than was ever achieved in San Marco, full of blasting cornets, sackbuts and the vast sound of the organ.

The psalm settings that follow--Miserator Dominus, Credidi, Beati Omnes, and Lauda, Jerusalem, as well as the Pange Linguam are more surprising and, after the bombast of Dixit Dominus, are surprisingly satisfying in their subtlety. They exemplify the forgotten Spanish practice of ad alternatim, where the chant choir would alternate with fabordones. These were polyphonic instrumental variations on the melody played by the minstriles on organ, harp, or the wonderful achingly bittersweet harmony of recorders and shawms. Indeed, this album probably marks the first time this method has ever been recorded. The single verses of chant seem to burst forth from the elaborate rings of strings and horns that swirl slowly around the ancient text.

The second CD, reproducing the elaborate procession which would have followed on Saturday to mark the translation of the Blessed Sacrament from the monastery of Santa Cecilia into the collegiate church, is equally beautiful in its slow sweetness. Rather than overblown pomp, McCreesh selects several meditative Renaissance cançiones for recorders, bajoncillos, violins, and, finally at the end as a punctuation of grandeur, several regal, slow-moving cornetts. It vividly recreates the courtly grace of the celebration: the route would have been hung with tapestries, while the cortége of the Sacrament would have been accompanied by prelates and nobles. Altars lined the way, where hymns, motets and dances would have been played to the Sacrament as It passed, while, more amusingly, the crowd would have been entertained en route by strolling dwarfs and giants.

Following the procession, we have another treat in the form of the Salve service, a peculiarly Spanish Saturday custom in honor of the Virgin Mary with a rather flexible form. Here, it consists of two motets to St. Peter and St. Sebastian, followed by a remarkable, grave Salve Regina written by Victoria, here sung by two choirs of vocalists, both organs, cornets, harps and a remarkable panoply of instruments. Here, as in the concluding Magnificat of the first CD, we can glimpse the true antique musical practice of the Renaissance, embroidering the splendor of vocal polyphony with instrumentation. For those of us used to the cold perfection of the Tallis Scholars, it may seem shocking, but here it's warm and magical. The famed Spanish harp is a surprisingly excellent compliment to the singing, pricking its way through the complex interlocking melodies of the polyphony.

It's clear that the Gabrieli Scholars are having a grand time playing in this historic venue; Paul McCreesh's amusing short essay in the liner notes talks both of the cantankerous organs and of firework displays over the church's slate steeple, of lechazo asado and the minutiae of their recording practices. This happiness is infectious, and from the first cançión to the splendid organ improvisations on Pange Lingua that ends the Vespers and the celebratory minstrile recessional at the end of the Salve. While Lerma came to a bad end, fleeing the Escorial under cover of night less than a year later, I'd like to think he would have enjoyed this reconstruction of his greatest festival. And, when you study Rubens's portrait of him, in his polished black armor and high stiff ruff, you can't help thinking that that handsome, melancholy Spanish face is about to break into a tearfully happy grin.

Friday, May 28


Zadok the Priest anoints Solomon King, from the Raphael Stanze in the Vatican.

Habemus Bloggam!

My reporting from the Eternal City seems to have started a (small) trend in the Catholic blogosphere, as the anonymous but erudite author of The Commonplace Book of Zadok the Roman begins his new Rome-based 'blog with musings on Cardinal Newman and St. Philip Neri. Prego, Zadok, and welcome to St. Blog's!
Urban Sprawl & Contraception

Two things so evil you KNEW they had to be connected, somehow.

Carol Kennedy : Housing Prices, Kevin Bacon and Contraception

Compliments of "S.", as referenced in Matt's Roman escapades.
Pope Worries About 'Soulless' U.S. Life

"The American church 'is called to respond to the profound religious needs and aspirations of a society increasingly in danger of forgetting its spiritual roots and yielding to a purely materialistic and soulless vision of the world,' John Paul said."
We Are the People Our Parents Warned Us About, Redux

(I walk in with my socks folded over my left arm, having just grabbed them out of the top drawer)

My Father: You're wearing them like a maniple!

Just another typical day around the Alderman household.

Thursday, May 27

The Ave Maria Windex Chapel Saga Continues

This week: Fr. Fessio, SJ., the school chancellor, responds to Michael Rose's criticisms, and Michael Rose in turn responds to Fr. Fessio's response. I haven't been able to review either of the two articles yet, but the bottom line remains: that thing's still ugly.
Concerning Future Posts

I have finally managed to gain gainful full-time summer employment--at a rather nice job in a local architecture firm--so posting will probably be somewhat sparser this summer until I establish an equilibrium between job, leisure time and sleep. That being said, knowing that the blog is both important to both my gentle readers and myself, you can bank on getting a bright, shiny and traditionally long Matt post on my Italian adventures, Tallahasseean summer amusements, Early Music, or none (or all) of the above at least once a week. So, keep your eyes peeled (is that not a truly grotesque expression?) and happy reading!

Notre Dame student Mike Ryan's vision of Our Lady of Clear Creek

Concerning the Oklahoma Escorial

The Notre Dame School of Architecture has updated its image gallery to include several gems of ecclesiastical design, such as several wonderful hyperbaroque proposals for the monastic complex of Our Lady of Clear Creek, Oklahoma, as well as the equally delightfully-named parish church of Our Lady, Spouse of the Holy Spirit and a proposal for the ubiquitously absent belltowers of St. Peter's Basilica.

In particular, the Clear Creek projects merit mention. Thomas Gordon Smith, the critic for the design exercise, is doing it for real, though without the enjoyable roccoco extravagance of some of the proposals. Considering the Clear Creek monks trace their heritage back to both ancient Benedictine and stern Carthusian roots, the stark Romanesque character of this sprawling "Oklahoma Escorial" is wholly appropriate. Even more intriguing is the fact that Clear Creek, a branch foundation of the abbey of Fontgombault in France, in turn a monastery which traces its origins back to Solesmes. Appropriately enough for a spiritual child of the abbey of Dom Guéranger, the new Oklahoma foundation preserves the old abbey's liturgical traditions (and Tridentine indult), with a sung High Mass every day at 10 AM. One can only hope that the sturdy, sober monks of Clear Creek will continue their order's chain of churches and add to their Oklahoma Escorial a Dakota Melk, a Chicago St. Denis, or even a Colorado Montecassino as the times and seasons move onward.

Wednesday, May 26


San Giovanni degli Eremiti. Image from

Mosaic Jungles of Siqilliya
Reminiscences of Moorish Palermo

Sicilian history is the Tour de France of raping, pillaging and looting. All the great world-class threats to law, order and expensive crockery have taken a crack at the island at one point or other, Carthaginians and Saracens, Garibaldi and Don Corleone. The curious thing is that more often than not, these erstwhile terrors, finding the Sicilian sun turning them either into romantics or Boy Scout campers, have often left the island much prettier than when they found it.

The whole place is littered with their glorious and alien remains, and after a while it becomes difficult to deduce who left what. This distinctly Italian cultural confusion is never more apparent than in the Saracenic and Norman churches of old Palermo’s narrow twisting streets.

Palermo was founded by the Phonicians as a settlement with the curious name of Ziz. Centuries later, as the Roman Empire crumbled, it was reduced to a Byzantine backwater after a period of Gothic occupation. Saracen armies conquered it in the ninth century and established the city as capital of an independent emirate that covered the whole of the island. The Normans under Robert de Hauteville extinguished the Arabic presence there, officially speaking, in 1072. However, Arab culture continued to reign supreme under a diaphanous and gilded veneer of Germano-Byzantine suzerainty.

One image, called to mind by H.V. Morton in the dog-eared copy of A Traveler in Southern Italy that I had devoured on the train down, illustrated this surreal world perfectly. Frederick II the Hohenstaufen Holy Roman Emperor and King of Sicily, the stupor mundi, had a trained elephant in his entourage. The thought of such a creature lumbering through the barren scrub of Apulia seems a perfect symbol for the Ali Baba-meets-Chaucer world that these monarchs inhabited.

I remember as a child being fascinated by one of the most bizarre remnants of this glittering and faintly heterodox era. One scorchingly hot summer in Vienna, another polyglot capital who banks on her picturesquely decadent past, I spent one afternoon lingering in the darkened chambers and glass cases of the old crown jewel rooms of the Hofburg. The Imperial family’s regalia were divided into two treasuries, the Secular and Ecclesiastical, though the dividing line between the two was not so sharp as it might have seen. One of the two most prized treasures in the Secular Treasury, the so-called Inalienable Heirlooms of the House of Austria, was a large agate platter with faintly Chinese scroll-handles thought somewhat fancifully to be the Holy Grail. The other, even more peculiar, was a unicorn’s horn.

However, the object of my curiosity was another example of this odd mingling of secular and sacred, Muslim and Christian. It was the alba of one of Frederick’s forbearers, Wilhelm II of Sicily, a broad, Byzantine vestment in gleaming white silk, edges and yoke weighed down with heavy barbarian orphreys of gold-embroidered scarlet worked with an intricate and surprisingly subtle net of pearls, amethysts, spinels and emeralds. Around the hems were inscriptions in Latin and in Arabic Tulut script. The Arabic reads thus: [This belongs] to that which was commissioned by the magnificent King Gulyalm [Wilhelm] the Second, he who is highly esteemed by God, who is supported for his power, who is victorious through his strength, the ruler of Italy, Anukuburda [Apulia], Qalauria [Calabria], and of Siqilliya [Sicily], the mainstay of the Imam of Rumiya [the Pope of Rome!], the protector of the Christian faith, in his flourishing, eternally flowering chamber, at the time of Ulian [possibly July] the fourteenth, in the year one thousand, one hundred and eighty-one in the year of Our Lord Jesus the Messiah.

Considering other recently-discovered Tulut inscriptions sewn into the cuffs of the robe attribute the garment to three Arabs named Marzuq, Ali of Malta and Muhsin (working under two Christians named Damyan and Thomas), it seems a beguiling and strange snapshot of the mongrel politics of the Sicilian state at the time.

I would later see Wilhelm receiving his crown from the Messiah on the wall of Monreale Cathedral in Sicily: Christ’s face bore a diffident and guarded expression, like Pius VII, a later Imam of Rumiya (!), dragged to officiate at Napoleon’s coronation centuries later. Given the Hohenstaufen propensity for trying the patience of the Papacy, such a comparison seems singularly appropriate.

Palermo is now a baroque city, its German-Moorish maze overlaid by the razor-sharp grid of the Four Quarters or Quattro Canti that converge at a round and regal piazza that has since been turned into an overgrown traffic roundabout. Nonetheless, as our class’s tour bus pulled in from Cefalú, the first building we saw was an ex-mosque, and en route we walked passed a grand edifice that, for all the geopolitical shifts of the last millennium, is still called the Norman Palace.

San Giovanni degli Eremiti, the ex-mosque, is now an ex-church, a puzzlingly gutted ruin standing in a lush tropical garden. It proves that even before the cultural muddle of the Hohenstaufens, the weird alchemy of Sicily was at work: it was a church even before it was a mosque, but, like the tunic that clothed the boastful mainstay of the Imam of Rumiya, it had been raised by Muslim engineers.

We wandered through the thick panoply of green, trees and silvery padded cacti, that crowded round the crumbling stone walls of the old cloister, and I had the feeling of having stepped into some odd mix of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom and Raiders of the Lost Ark. There was a veritable little palm jungle surrounding the little church and its roofless monastery, deliciously cool and fresh in the shade. The church was a homely, cubical pile in pale dappled stone topped by a surprising number of swollen, copper-red stucco domes, looking like a forest of strange Ottoman turbans. Age had stained their crowns and faded their rims, forming a patina that seemed to dribble down the sides like a glazed Chinese pot.

The inside was equally stark, yet luminous and light for all the solid masonry and heavy pointed arches. Rather than a true nave, the church was divided into two cubical compartments, and a presbytery terminating in an apse, each crowned with an airy cupola raised on lancet-like squinches. All traces of its checkered past life as church and mosque had been stripped from its walls, and the lean apse window, Gothic before there was Gothic, shed light onto a bare sanctuary. The altar had gone the way of the mihrab before it.

Outside, a roofless cloister ringed a little garden, its age-eaten walls creeping with scarlet flowers enfolded in a thick garland of vines. Delicate doubled colonnettes supported bulky pointed arches. A palm tree with plumelike fronds rose against an intense blue sky. A turbaned church-tower rose like a stumpy minaret. We might as well have been in Morocco.

And we might as well have been in Constantinople or Venice at our next stop, at a church that had never been a mosque, and, from the sign with mass times for Holy Week affixed to the elaborate ironwork gate of the Norman Palace, had not yet been turned into an ex-church. It was the Palatine Chapel of the old, polyglot, weirdly cosmopolitan Sicilian kingdom of the Hohenstaufens.

At first glance, it’s difficult to see what makes the Norman Palace merit the name. A high, rambling façade wraps around a compact but confused tangle of courtyards, re-faced in the nineteenth century with crumbling sand-brown stucco in an idiosyncratic style that resembles nothing so much as the Alhambra built by New York slumlords. Inside, one finds cortiles ringed with spindly early-Renaissance columns and ranks of drainpipes like the mouths of cannon, ballrooms upholstered with yellow silk and full of end tables filled with branching gilt dingbats and the site of a former astronomical observatory where Padre Giorgio Piazza discovered the asteroid Ceres in 1801.

Further exploration only increases the chronological and cultural confusion. The Hall of Hercules is full of second-rate grisalles and a grubby ceiling fresco showing the apotheothized hero as a sort of nineteenth-century crossbreed of the Farnese Hercules and Arnold Schwarzenagger, looking soulfully up into the eyes of an approachable, pleasantly plain Artemis. Then, there is the White Room (closer to ecru), and the Hall of the Viceroys, where gold-laced Bourbon officials and ermine cardinals loom down from dark canvases. Some peculiar belle-epoque tromp-l’oeil ceiling decorations suggest Byzantine mosaic work, but nowhere is there any glimpse of the Germanic stupor mundi

And then there is the Hall of Roger. It’s a dead end on the tour, but it seems the gateway into another world. We could only look in across the velvet rope two-by-two and see a peculiar little nineteenth-century table with bronze goat legs and a slice of petrified wood as the top. However, it’s not this peculiar oversized bibelot which is the reason we crowded close, but the mosaics which span the vault overhead. An elaborate maze of geometric knots enclose a half-Moorish, half-Romanesque bestiary of lions, gryphons and eagles, while on the walls below, against the golden sky, sagittarii gallop at full tilt at one another amid curious Byzantine trees with boughs like wings.

The Hall of Roger is named after Roger II of Sicily, who cobbled together the feuding Norman conquests of southern Italy, survived having a crusade called down on his head by St. Bernard of Clairvaux, and had the somewhat dubious honor of having his title of King of Sicily confirmed by both a pope and his antipope, Innocent II and Anacletus II. Branded as “half-heathen,” he surrounded himself with cultured aliens such as the Muslim geographer Idrisi, the Englishman Thomas Brun, and the seagoing Antiochene amir George.

While keeping heathen company, Roger nonetheless ornamented his capital with one of the most splendid court chapels ever raised. It was built on the site of the mosque of Adelcamo, according to Gaspar Palermo’s Guida Istruttiva of 1816, beginning in 1129, the year of Roger’s antipapal coronation as King of a united Sicily. On the courtyard wall is a trilingual inscription in Latin, Greek and Arabic praising him, not for his warlike abilities, but for the construction of a water clock.

We stepped down into the darkness of a side-aisle, and, like in the Hall of Roger, entered a world of imagination, this time equal parts Omar Khayyam and The Golden Legend. Rows of spoliated columns, some smooth dark granite, others fluted and pale, line the side-aisles, topped with vigorously crude Romanesque Corinthian capitals. The Easter candle-stand is richly carved with semi-Cluniac grotesques, looking faintly like a Chinese chess-piece.

The chapel is dim, and summer light lazily penetrates the murky interior through the gilded clerestory. Mosaic bishops, some in pointed western mitres, others bareheaded and yoked about the shoulders with the broad pallium of Byzantium, stand between high pointed arches. Dozens of yards of golden tessera cover every inch of the church’s walls. Medallions of saints and angels with stiff upraised hands line the undersides of arches amid curling vegetal knotwork that looks more Persian than Greek, while elsewhere, a youthful God divides waters that resemble writhing masses of aquamarine-green sphaghetti. Nearby, life is breathed into a naked Adam with curious anatomy by means of a laser-like ray shooting from the lips of the Creator. Overhead, in the main dome, Christ looks down with an unassuming, almost amused gaze, surrounded by flat angels garbed like Byzantine procurators, including Uriel, who has a delightful, wry angelic smirk on his face.

However, it is the ceiling and the floor, and the wondrous marble inlay that curls around and below the mosaic Bible that is truly unique. The wooden false vaults drip with Moorish stalactites and eight-pointed coffers as fine as anything in the Alhambra, and decorated with equally appropriate Kufic script, disjointed words like “prosperity,” “affability,” “safety,” “protection;” more concerned with the wellbeing of Roger than the worship of God. The marble that runs around the walls is equally remarkable, resembling nothing so much as the Cosmati family on steroids.

The Cosmatesque style of marble inlay is spectacularly familiar in Rome; it’s a rare church that does not at least boast a pulpit or Paschal candlestick decorated with their handiwork. It’s hypnotically Romanesque, full of undulating serpentine symmetries swirling around a dizzying multiplicity of fat porphyry disks, sliced up like sausage from a hijacked classical column. The exotic Saracenic hothouse of Sicily produced an even more amazing variation, an intricate fractal marriage of Celtic knotwork and Arabic carpets. Stars enclose stars enclose stars, their points woven together with inlays of white marble and gold foil and every hue of semi-precious stone from malachite to lapis lazuli, looking all the world like an American country quilt re-imagined by Shaharazade. The gorgeous geometric inlay runs across the treads of steps, around the frames of the semi-precious rail of the inner sanctuary, around the Greek crosses that mark the porphyry-paneled ambo.

Like the court that Roger produced and Frederick, the chapel is truly a wonder of the world, and at a time of international strife, seems a pointed reminder of Sicily’s peculiar tolerance. Yet, as I left, walking southward under the hot Palermitan sun towards the old town’s massive Mannerist Porta Nuova, I suddenly raised my guard and wondered if perhaps I had missed another, more unsettling theme in this wondrous fable.

Sicily, the crossroads of rape that turned into a kingdom of tolerance, seems a model lesson to us today. Yet, the moral of the story is as muddled as the fragmentary Kufic tangle decorating the chapel ceiling. Sometimes compromise is not the glittering prize it seems.

There is blood spilled in that mosaic jungle. Frederick II’s fragile dream world of colored silks and trained elephants collapsed within a century or two into a tangle of internecine strife and anti-papal politics. Roger’s benevolence was born of an almost amoral pragmatism, and came at the price of selling his soul to a usurper in the papal chair, while the docile Muslims of his court could easily remember tales of days when their great-grandfathers had purged a Christian city by the sword. Within two hundred years, the Ottomans would sweep over the Bosphorus and swiftly devour Europe up to the Danube, leaving slavery and confusion in their wake.

There is, as a consequence, something faintly unsettled in the expression of the Christ they depict in so many of their chapels, yoked in unwillingly to set the crown on the head of some scented and boastful double-dealing monarch.

The Porta Nuova stands as a memory of this tumultuous epilogue. Built to commemorate Charles V’s conquest of Tunis, it is playfully rusticated with the wildest Sicilian innovation, looking more like the scales of some unknown seagoing beast than simple rough stone. However, on either side stand two pairs of exotic herms, half-length figures sprouting from banded inverted pilasters, supporting the cornice overhead with their turbaned heads. One of them, gruesomely, has had his arms sliced off, stumps of bone grotesquely visible.

They’re Moors, the former conquerors of Sicily and courtiers of Wilhelm, Frederick and Roger, now reduced to prisoners of war. Meanwhile, their masters in Constantinople, in turn, had equaled and surpassed the West in cruelty, their glittering civilization supported on the backs of an institutionalized helotry of kidnapped Christian boys, the infamous Janissary Corps.

The Norman and Moorish heritage still remains in Sicily, a splendid petrified flower of pophyry and gold, but one whose tumultuous and dubious beginning—and ending—hint that perhaps its smell might not have been quite as sweet as it seemed.
Who said...
... that reading the Bible without reference to Tradition could get you in trouble?

A man was looking for some guidance from God so he asked God to make his Bible open at the page He wanted him to read. So the man opened his bible randomly and the first verse that his eyes met was 2 Corinthians 13:12, "Greet one another with a holy kiss." A little discouraged he tried again and this time he found himself at 1 Corinthians 14:39 "Do not forbid the use of tongues."

Thank you, Spain

My Way News:

"There also is concern terrorists might try to mount an attack to coincide with the November election. The political fallout from the March 11 train bombings in Spain taught al-Qaida that an attack timed to an election can have a major impact. Spain's former ruling party was ousted in the voting that followed the bombing, which killed 191 and injured more than 2,000."

My question is this: Would an attack have similar effects on the American public, increasing anti-war sentiment? My gut reaction is that another attack would in fact have the opposite effect, but perhaps I underestimate the degree of our country's euro-weenie-ness...


Friday, May 21

Friday Facts

Have a gander at this little article by apologist extraordinaire James Akin on the canonical obligation of Catholics (still binding, actually) to abstain from meat or do some other sort of penance on Fridays outside of Lent. It's not impossible to work into your daily routine if you make a little effort. I can tell you from personal experience that a strawberry jam and parmesan cheese sandwich can actually be pretty tasty. Seriously, though, a little sacrifice like abstinence or saying a rosary or two is a great way to remember the events that took place on a certain Friday afternoon about 2,000 years ago.

A Lenten Magnificat

Reminiscences from Rome and Sicily

I began writing this entry while seated in the empty couchette compartment of a sleeper train speeding from Rome to one of the ancient cities of atavistic Sicily. Cefalú, a name that, when spoken, recalls all the primeval delights and terrors of the Stone Age. Something simple, chthonic, elemental.

There was something monkish about my little mobile cell, the regular hum of the tracks, the pale electric light, and my Carmelite-brown bathrobe hanging on a plastic excrescence later discovered to be a cup holder. And then there’s me, scribbling silently at a little fold-down table by the black window, glazed with the opaque iridescence of the night. Occasional sparks of distant cityscapes bob into view beyond the darkness. Orange light, white light, yellow-scarlet light. Perhaps, I thought, I’ll soon turn off the lights and watch them.

We would be in Sicily on a class trip that coincided with Holy Week, the eve of Palm Sunday to the night of Maundy Thursday, pulling into Rome on the tenebrous morning of Good Friday. The trip proved to be consumed with touring and watercoloring, but as the week passed, we would make close brushes again and again with the somber rites of the Passion. A minute here, a second there, little reminders like drops of blood falling from the Crown of Thorns. My notes from the trip are curiously stained with grey irregular gouttées of dried rain.

I was frustrated to be missing Palm Sunday in Rome. Still, as the train blazed further into the darkness, I consoled myself by remembering that the Old Rite set Passiontide’s beginning, not on Palm Sunday, but on the fifth Sunday of Lent, one week earlier. According to ancient custom, this is the day assigned to St. Peter’s among the Station Churches. There is one for each day in Lent, and when I visited it that morning, all the great reliquaries were heaped on the high altar beneath Bernini’s baldacchino, a blazing mound of jeweled caskets, ostensories, and golden papal busts.

Magnificat anima mea Dominum.
et exultavit spiritus meus in Deo salutari meo.

Customarily, a solemn mass is said by a Cardinal. I had once straggled into little San Nicola al Carciere, that tiny church that stands standing silently by the curve of the Theater of Marcellus, knowing I had missed the stational mass for that day but still choosing to linger and catch the thick scent of incense that hovered over the nave from the liturgy more than half-an-hour earlier. A poignant perfume.

My friend the Roman Seminarian, had been reminding me dutifully for weeks before that the ceremonies at St. Peter’s commemorating the occasion were once-in-a-life opportunities, gravely sinful—or at the very least, significantly venial—to miss. I listened in rapt excitement over pasta all’ arrabiata as he described the penitential procession around the church’s nave, and, most spectacularly, the display of the implements of Christ’s Passion, two of the four great relics in the pier-chapels of St. Peter’s. Bells would ring as Vespers concluded, and a purple-robed bishop would appear high above the congregation at the balcony, showing the miraculous Veil of Veronica amid swirling clouds of incense.

There was no way I could turn down an invitation like that.

So I barraged my friends Vera and Amelia about the upcoming rite and placarded the walls of the studio with grandiloquent notices in 48-point font about the VEIL OF VERONICA, all in caps, and other liturgical and pseudo-liturgical terminology about the SOLEMN VESPERS that everyone worth their study-abroad salt should attend.

Vera and Amelia, my long-time accomplices, of course rose to the challenge. I have yet to get either of them to a Tridentine Mass, or to completely stop singing We are called, we are chosen but relics are easier to get them interested in. Vera, of course, wanted to see this hallowed, mind-bogglingly hallowed, relic of her namesake. The Veronica. The True Image, the Greco-Latin vera ikon. Amelia, being her roommate and, as I like to think, her faithful, if sharp-tongued, squire, was perfectly happy to tag along. And so, loaded down with my notebook, a abbreviated Breviary I didn’t quite know how to use, and some spiritual reading to keep the girls occupied during the lengthy and Latin Vespers service, we set out for the Vatican that Sunday afternoon.

We weren’t quite late, but once we crossed the broad marble thresh-hold of St. Peter’s, we realized that we weren’t the first people to get there. The polished floor gleamed with the blazing, searing white klieg-lights that rimmed the gilded cornice far above, and the side aisles were packed solid with pilgrims. Threading our way through the thick crowds, we found ourselves at last by the glass-sided altar of John XXIII, craning our necks over the three-deep rank that stood between us and the main body of the church. I fumbled indecisively with the books cradled in my arms and tried to figure out what to do next. Vespers was minutes away, and we weren’t even close to the apse of the great Basilica.

Things, however, have a way of working out for my friends. Amelia and Vera (especially Vera) have a peculiar resourcefulness which flows from them, as I clearly saw a week later in Cefalú. We spent most of the morning wandering slowly through the pale, cool, half-deserted streets of the seaside town as I filled my sketchbook full of tangled black hatchings representing interlocking Norman-Moorish arches and aboriginal baroque doorframes. My memories are vague and peaceful, sun-drenched and shockingly cerulean blue.

The heraldic insignia of Sicily is a party per saltire quartering of her former overlords the Hohenstaufens and the Aragonese. However, there is nothing stronger and more symbolically colorful than the sharp-edged meeting of golden stone and startlingly blue sky you see everywhere across the island as summer begins to rise from the womb of spring.

The day had begun under a pale sky, viscous with mother-of-pearl clouds, but as we made our way closer to the long, low waterfront, it grew bluer and brighter. I have on my desk, as I continue this far away from the train, a stack of photographs from that day that tell the story with a staccato procession of light and stucco, wildflowers and smiling faces. I can see the blue sky above rows of cubical plastered houses with simple geometric iron balconies, the sun painting a cruciform shadow from the cross-topped church across the street. I can see the long, even, silver-blue sea stretching infinitely broad, the horizon narrow and fading blue between the ocean and the puffy, low-hanging clouds. And then there are Amelia and Vera, arm in arm. The mountains rise like green humps above the town’s enclosed harbor in the background, the sky bleached by the growing sunlight. Amy’s squinting, teeth bared in a self-depreciatory smile, pencil clutched at her side. Vera looks like she’s about to laugh, head tilted ever-so-slightly to one side, her small, blocky sketchbook clutched at waist-level. The scarlet page-marker tape flaps loosely in the wind.

The class tour finished much earlier than expected, and Professor Lessmann urged us to climb the verdant, craggy peak that loomed high over the town. It was forty-five minutes to the top. The sun was shining, the sky was clear, and I decided to join the two girls on the hike to the circle of crenellated ruins that clung to the little mountain’s green summit, flecked with spring wildflowers.

Both the girls were in their element on the switch-backed, steep path. Especially Vera, who had by this point taken off her shoes and was climbing the pebbly path barefood. She does things like that. It’s somewhat unnerving, but one learns not to stare. There’s something of a Charismatic Franciscan pure-child-of-nature streak in her genes which manifests itself at odd points. In Assisi, she’d gotten up in the cold pre-dawn and walked down to the church of the Porziuncola in the valley, sans shoes. At five AM. In the middle of a power failure.

Somehow, she survives these little adventures. Amelia has concluded she has some sort of blithely serene superpower immunity to danger.

She comes by it honestly, I discovered, as we made our way with exquisite slowness up the sunny slope. Down in the town far beneath us, by the coast that now looked as intensely blue-green as an aquamarine, there’s a little secluded courtyard walled in stained rose stucco where the townswomen used to wash. You approach it by curving, irregular steps, overhung by bracketed medieval stairways and the great black shape of a leafy tree. Low parabolic arches link it through a grate to the harbor beyond, a stone-lined channel flowing into shallow wash-pools. I was standing on one of the broad stepping-stones, wondering how cold the water was, when I heard Vera excitedly pipe up to Amy, “This is just the way my mother used to wash!”

Et exaltavit humiles.

As we climbed the mountain, amid the stiff, brown weed-grass and thick groves of green pine and olive, she told us more of the serene days of her childhood.

Her parents were of humble estate at that time (Quia respexit humilitatem ancillae suae?), choosing this simple cabin life out of a mixture of practicality and poverty. Paradoxically, her father was a mathematician and computer-expert, hard-wired into the twentieth-century by necessity rather than choice. But still, he and his wife and young daughter lived in a simple one-room house for the first few years of their life, surrounded by peaceful woods. Peaceful woods with no electrical hookups. While I’d often thought myself exceptional by remaining computer illiterate until seventh grade, one of my friends had grown up in a Laura Ingalls Wilder novel, quite literally. Little House in the Big Woods.

It was stunning, surprising, and yet strangely enthralling. It all seemed so uncontaminated, so simple. And yet I knew, as she spoke of her mother knee-deep in water with linens swirling around her as she fished them out and young Vera playing obliviously downstream, I knew that I would have been miserable in such a world for all the adventure it might have promised. And I thought about that for a long while as we walked up the mountain.

Dispersit superbos mente cordis sui.

A little more than a week earlier, we’d been at St. Peter’s, wondering what was going to happen next. I clutched and fumbled with my green leather-bound Breviary, anxiously craning my neck over the crowd of people, trying to grasp one insistent sliver of the great domed crossing of the Basilica. Faithful pressed close to the lamp-ringed confessio, while at the southwest pier, above the dramatic marble statue of a windswept St. Veronica, one of the chapel balconies was draped with rich scarlet velvet. Four candles were set upon the marble rail, while above them rose the twin vine-wreathed, spirally-twisted columns of the chapel’s aedicule. Within it, Bernini angels cavorted in heavenly play around a marble effigy of the veil that bore the face of God.

At the moment, however, the old legend that the columns might have come from Solomon’s Temple, or that they inspired the big bronze canopy over the high altar, did not give much consolation. Vera and Amelia were wading further and further into the crowd as my eyes clicked back and forth between the empty, gleaming nave and the north transept. Would it be so terrible if I hopped over the velvet rope that marked off the Confession chapel from the rest of the basilica? I couldn’t think of any other way to get round to the blazing bronze Cathedra Petri in time for Vespers.

Esurientes implevit bonis: et divites dimisit inanes.

Now the girls were chattering away with some woman, and I tried to bite down my frustration. The clock was ticking. It was less than five minutes to five. Vera waded back and I pushed my way forward. I could hear the grey-haired matron—maybe a nun—speaking. They’d let us through to the crossing after the procession finished. I stopped fumbling with my Breviary and breathed an easy breath. Maybe I was letting too much ride on this. I’d see what I was meant to see, and I had a whole book to read in the mean time.
However, as I soon discovered, there are few places better than St. Peter’s to spend five minutes—or even an hour—standing in eager anticipation. Soon, the organs sounded and the long Gregorian neumes of the Litany stretched solemnly across the inlaid pavement. Sancta Maria, ora pro nobis. I soon joined in, watching as the scarlet and purple of the penitential procession moved slowly down the edge of the nave, past the immense statues of mystics and founders stretching stony hands up to God. Sancte Petre, ora pro nobis.

Soon, Amelia and Vera had joined in, ora pro nobis. Before us, not a yard away, we saw clerks and priests move in profile, two-by-two, led by the thurifer, with a great silver crucifix and tapers just behind. Ora pro nobis. There must have been forty of them, in stark black and white, with only the numerous iterations of folds and trim and lace of their surplices to distinguish them. Ora pro nobis.

And I noticed, with a startled little laugh, my friend the Roman Seminarian move past in the procession, hands folded at his chest over his server’s cassock. He gets around.

Then came six or seven of the canons of St. Peter’s in their gleaming violet mantellete over their laced rochets, square purple-tufted black birettas carried at their breast. Bishops and even a scarlet Cardinal followed in choir dress. Ora pro nobis. Last came the hebdomary and his two assistants in penitential violet and priestly gold, heavy baroque copes armoring their backs. Omnes Sancti et Sanctae Dei, intercedite pro nobis.

And, as the chief priest and his attendants passed us by, all the crowd broke loose from their moorings and followed the procession into the apse, beneath the glowing gold alabaster window of the Holy Ghost. Up on the high altar, the great heap of reliquaries still gleamed magnificently, a sanctoral necropolis of gilt obelisks and sepulchres of happy, hallowed bone. (Et sanctum Nomen Ejus.)

The hebdomary ascended the steps of the sedilia beneath the billowing Cathedra Petri, his splendid coped figure dwarfed by the scale and history of the Basilica. We shuffled in somewhere to the back, a few ranks back from the last pew, and stood, watching as the priests and choir sung the Psalms back and forth across the chancel. Amelia and Vera listened to the Latin with me, sometimes understanding, sometimes not as I pointed to the scarlet and black of the rubrics and responsories outlined in my Breviary.

It is a world they have only begun to taste and scent in Rome, this elemental little universe of clouding incense and silver veins running in lightning tangles on black marble, a world more familiar to me, but only just. I carried such splendors in my head from reading books. Only in Rome did it become real to me as to them, as real and solid as the rough fabric of St. Veronica’s veil might have been long, long ago, before it was softened by the touch of holiness.

Quia fecit mihi magna qui potens est.

And up on that mountain hillside, we were in another unequally-shared world, me, the citified indoorsman and these two sturdy climbers. I’ve hiked before, felt the sun on my face, watched the light reflected bright as a mirror on a mountain lake, even carried relics to 10,000 feet in a surreal and somewhat exhibitionist Catholic Nerd stunt. But, it isn’t a world I can disappear into, not yet, and I know any tale of country comfort is just a fantasy. But it can be a pleasant escape, for an hour or two.

We sat on a small mound of broad, flat rocks amid the high, brittle grass, looking out at the cityscape far below as Vera fantasized excitedly and jokingly about fixing up the abandoned rocky hovel we’d passed on the way up here. It brought to mind thoughts of a simpler time, of candlelight and fireplaces, of families gathered close, of kerosene and farther back to Sicily’s ancestral memories of ancient Greek oil-lamps. And the thought that such a time had never existed outside of my fertile imagination.

She has left that world behind, too, as her family grew more prosperous, but she still dreams of it, I can be sure. Except hers was real, a real world of work, rather than something bred by one-too-many misreadings of The Hobbit.

The clouds were rising in a sky that was intensely blue at its zenith and faded slowly into a silver blue-grey along the sea-green horizon. The gnarled, knobby hills abruptly dropped below into a coastal plane, rich with green that soon broke suddenly into a maze of tiled roofs and church campaniles. The view grew more magnificent as we moved towards the summit, taking our time as we had hours until we had to reach the bus. Delightful, constructive indolence.

The hilltop was thick with green, with low-growing iridescent olive trees and sprouting silky-tufted weeds, with thick amorphous pines and ground studded with bright yellow wildflowers and bleached shards of boulder. Fragments of wall snaked along the edges, a few figures perched atop the ramparts in casual silhouette against the sky like characters from a Caspar David Friederich painting.

A clump of architecture students crouched relaxedly on a massive pile of rubble looking, I suppose, like the monkeys do on Gibraltar. Some of them started throwing rocks to see how far they could get, and another tried to see if he could get the shortest student in the class to climb into a rather deep well in the rock by offering him a bribe.

The mountaintop classicism of Sicily, windswept and blue and warm is a fine place to think of Rousseau and his natural man, bathing himself in sunlight as vividly-hued geckoes scurry amid the rock. But the fantasy never becomes reality, and the chthonic romance of these ancient places where archaic temples might have stood is soon clouded by the frightening memories of the darker turns of Greek myth, of bloodsoaked Hecate and the sacrifice of Ipheginia. Original sin crowds out our pastoral dream of some past pagan innocence.

My set of pastorelles was idle and Virgilian, the natural man dreamed up by someone who wouldn’t survive in the woods alone for a week, much less the natural stretch of his life. Yet Vera still sat there, a little ways down the rampart, as a rebuke to my thoughts. She was still barefoot. (Charismatics can be so puzzling). But tune that marked the time of her rural memories was not the Rousseauian scream of “Man is born free and everywhere is in chains,” but the simple firebrand Franciscan hymn of “All praise be yours, my Lord, through all you have made.” Nature was fallen, is fallen, but still remains a reflection of her glorious Creator, lit by the lamp of the Sun, a reflection of the face of the Sun of Justice.

And while her smile was genuine, nobody said that it was easy, living by the sweat of your brow. Beatitude is not happiness. An idle jaunt in the mountains one day could just as easily become a Via Crucis on another.

But, for the moment, anyway, I perched myself on the edge of one of the crenellations, looking down into the valley far below, and enjoyed the moment and the sunshine. Perhaps I recalled, however fleetingly, taking another of the photographs in my roll, a relief of Christ meeting His Mother on the road to Calvary, enclosed within the pointed Gothic arch of a humble church door.

Suscepit Israel puerum suum recordatus misericordiae suae. Sicut locutus est ad patres nostros Abraham et semini ejus in saecula.

And, beyond the doors of another church, locked deep in my memory, Vespers was drawing to a close. One final antiphon was chanted, and the choir rose the notes of the great Magnificat. I rummaged through my Breviary and pulled out a manila insert with the text in English, and handed it back to the two girls.

My soul doth magnify the Lord
And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior
For He hath regarded the low estate of his handmaiden
For behold from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed
For He that is mighty hath done to me great things
And Holy is His Name
And His mercy is on them that fear Him from generation to generation.
He hath showed strength with His arm,
He hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts
He hath put down the mighty from their seats
And exalted them of low degree
He hath filled the hungry with good things
And the rich He hath sent Empty away.
He hath holpen his servant Israel in remembrance of His mercy,
As he promised to our fathers to Abraham and to his seed forever.

My friend the Seminarian, who was up there somewhere tells me that sometimes the acolytes, through Providence, humor or bad taste, end up incensing the Cardinal when the choir gets to He hath put down the mighty from their seats. I imagine it’s a liturgical urban legend. I turned around and I noticed Amelia was smiling to herself as she read it, utterly, unconsciously, lost in the wondrous text. The next day she asked me if she could photocopy the page.

Soon, the procession was making its way in the midst of the people again, in perfect ecclesiastical order, circling the altar and its great canopy, until it coiled around itself in the south transept, the cross rising like a black silhouette against the grey stone. Billows of incense rose high, transfixing slants of afternoon light. And suddenly, a thousand or so heads turned as bells rang high in the balcony above us. The moment had come.

I had, perhaps, completely forgotten it that sunny afternoon on the mountain, but there was one thing, one image of the face of the Sun of Justice I had not forgotten. That morning, we had visited the Cathedral at Cefalu, a massive, blocky Romanesque structure with two stumpy towers crowned by pyramidal stone roofs. Ornate Saracenic arches festooned the façade, more ornamental than structural.

Within, amid porphyry columns crowned by tesserated capitals that looked like the cushions of a Constantinopolitan Patriarch, was possibly one of the most memorable things I’d seen that year, a magnificent Norman-Byzantine mosaic of Christ the Pantocrator hovering high in the apse. God’s face. I scribbled notes in my sketchbook, frantically trying to get the emaciated Eastern countenance of Christ just right, and simply gave up. It was unbearably beautiful, vastly different from the fearsome faces of so many reigning Judges of the World that were enthroned in so many Greek and Russian cathedrals. Christ had personified God’s Justice, and rightly so, but here, His humanity was softened, merciful, even poignant. Incipient iconographic wrinkles swirled on His brow. His dark Phanariot hair was streaked with Viking blond in comparison to His dark curling Arabic beard, His eyes staring, almost as if on the verge of tears, His lips trembling on the verge of a smile. He seemed on the edge of a fathomless lament, or a fathomless sigh of contentment. Gilt shadows bloomed on His kingly tunic, His hooked fingers curling into a blessing.

Blessing. The bells were ringing. High above us in St. Peter’s, flanked by attendants with lights, stood a bishop in violet choir vesture. He raised his hands, a golden box in them held up before the crowd. I clutched at my Rosary, at the relics in my wallet, thinking that I was in the presence of something even older than the Church, an eyewitness to the day God had died. He lowered the box, and picked up a heavy reliquary cross. The true Cross, soaked with Christ’s blood, a sign of ignominy made into a mark of triumph. Exaltavit humiles. He raised and lowered it in a cruciform blessing, and then bells rang again and he withdrew beyond the ornate iron grill of the chapel door.

Gloria Patri, gloria Filio, gloria Spiritui Sancto. Sicut erat in principio et nunc et semper et in saecula saeculorum. Amen.

We had just seen two of the holiest relics in Christendom. Perhaps it was a momentary glimpse: and all I could see was a vague rectangle of gold with a face-shaped cut-out to show the imprint on the holy cloth. But I like to think that the Face on the cloth, faded by history and the candle-smut of veneration, was the sorrowing face I had seen in Cefalú, on the day I stood on top of a mountain.
What if Poe had written Sally, Dick and Jane?

Wednesday, May 19


A Swiss Guard from the early 1920s. From The Arador Armour Library.

Sacred Variations on the Theme of L’Homme Armé

L’homme, l’homme, l’homme armé, l’homme armé,
l’homme armé doibt on doubter, doibt on doubter.
On a fait par tout crier,
Que chascun se viegne armer, d’un haubregon de fer.
L’homme, l’homme, l’homme armé, l’homme armé,
l’homme armé doibt on doubter, doibt on doubter.

The fifteenth-century cantus firmus L’Homme Armé inspired numerous Mass settings in the liberal—and libertine—period that characterized the late Renaissance and the run-up to Trent. Desprez, Dufay, and even Palestrina wrote polyphonic settings of it, elaborately inverting and weaving the profane mode into more minor and appropriately ecclesial notes. One more bizarre-minded composer of the late ’60s, Maxwell Davies, re-wrote portions of an anonymous late-medieval Mass on the theme with instrumentation ranging from timpani, crotales, tabors, temple blocks and Swannee whistle and as well as something listed only as a “nightingale.” Another musical group from Britain, called Perfect Houseplants, wrote an equally idiosyncratic Mass for St. Michael’s Day on the same theme, with parts for countertenor and saxophone, among other things.

The original song is rather a surprising choice to serve as an inspiration for religious music. The text runs something like this:

The man, the man, the armed man, the armed man
The armed man must be feared.
Everywhere, all have cried,
That they should armor themselves in a mail shirt.
The man, the man, the armed man, the armed man
The armed man must be feared.

A song for uncertain and disconsolate times, about fear and violence. Yet, sometimes, the armed man can carry the fear of God rather than inspire merely earthly fear, like the mighty warrior St. George, like St. Michael, and like 147 warriors who died over five hundred years ago in an unfair fight, just steps away from where the first Pope was martyred. I met their spiritual descendents the other day. They’re called the Pontifical Swiss Guards.


Nightlife in Rome is something I scrupulously avoid, unless it’s partying late at L’Eau Vive. That’s the Pope’s favorite restaurant, just down the street from the studio in Via Monterone. One journalist described it cheekily as an “ecclesiastical Beni-Hana” with branches from Paris to Manila. It’s staffed by a group of Carmelite tertiaries dedicated to evangelization through French cooking. The only downside is sometimes they make you watch their pseudo-liturgical bouts of interpretive dance.

Most of my friends, however, tend to prefer something a bit more exciting than dancing nuns, and so they go to a bar nicknamed Donnie’s, somewhere in the tangle of streets between the Pantheon and the old temple that is now occupied by Rome’s stock exchange. I’m agnostic about the place; I went there twice. The first time, a five-minute wait for pasta turned into forty-five and, regarding the second time, I’m still waiting for them to take my order.

All that notwithstanding, I have to be grateful to Donnie himself. I’ve never met the fellow—I assume the name’s short for Donato—but he’s a legendary figure among the arkies. He tends to give us his surplus produce, and so there are usually large crates of bananas and lettuce lying inexplicably around the school kitchen. Fruit, while necessary for the oftentimes Vitamin-C deprived Roman student, is still fruit. You can wander over to the chaos of Campo dei Fiori and buy some yourself rather than relying on the good graces of an Italian restauranteur. However, there was one thing which Donnie managed to get for us which you can’t buy at Campo dei Fiori.

A chance to see the Swiss Guards up close and personal. In full armor, no less.

(…un haubregon de fer…doibt un doubter…)

In 1527, Charles V, a Holy Roman Emperor that was neither, swept down on the Eternal City with a vast force of disgruntled Lutheran Landsknecte and utterly trashed the place. It was the result of one of the Renaissance’s complicated religio-political power-plays that brought a man who was king of Spain, Europe’s most solidly Catholic nation, as well as the putative successor to the caesars, to lay waste to the spiritual center of all that he should have held dear, with the assistance of a crowd of beer-swilling heretics. It was one of the worst tragedies in western history.

Rome, of course, had been sacked before. Four centuries before Christ, the Gauls started the trend, while in the declining years of the Empire, the Visigoths, Goths, Vandals and even the Byzantines, who should have known better since they owned the place, contributed to progressively destroying the city. Then there were the Lombards, who merely scuffed up the place, and Saracen pirates, and finally the Normans, who, at the close of the eleventh century, had been invited by Pope Gregory VII as the medieval equivalent of rent-a-cops. They didn’t have much company loyalty.

Fast forward to 1523. Pope Clement VII, a Medici of somewhat dubious legitimacy, had been elected to succeed the ascetic Dutchman Adrian VI. As soon as he had ascended the Cathedra Petri he found himself completely out of his league, painted into a diplomatic corner in the middle of a complicated military-dynastic struggle between Charles V and the King of France, the crooked-nosed bon vivant Francis I. When, at Pavia in February of 1525, Francis found himself in captivity, he acceded to all of Charles’s demands and swore solemn oaths to keep them. Nonetheless, he seems to have been lying through his teeth and cast off the dictates of the Emperor’s treaty in short order.

Here Clement, poor Clement, made his mistake. Following the scorecard of history, Clement had been backing the French before Pavia: the Emperor, despite being in some sense the Pope’s other half, was generally no friend to the Holy See. That being said, his decision to continue his support after Francis’s betrayal of a lawful treaty was, at the very least, poor planning and seriously annoyed Charles V in the process. Clement, naturally, had his reasons, considering the one worse thing than having Francis I rummaging around in Italy was having the Emperor as a next-door neighbor.

Clement, meanwhile, had shut himself up in Castel Sant’ Angelo while the bandit Colonna family had, with Imperial backing, proceeded to steal everything in Rome except the kitchen sink, principally because it hadn’t yet been invented. To make matters worse, the German Protestant soldiers of Charles now positioned in northern Italy were starting to get uppity without food or money. A temporary truce with the Emperor, after he had disavowed his association with the Colonna mafia, meant that the Eternal City was defenseless.

L’homme, l’homme, l’homme armé, l’homme armé,
l’homme armé doibt on doubter, doibt on doubter.

So, on May 5, 1527, the Germans, under their weak-minded commander the Constable de Bourbon, showed up on the Pope’s doorstep. What followed was barbaric. The Landsknechte pillaged palaces, desecrated altars, kidnapped cardinals, defiled women both consecrated and lay, drank altar wine in drunken revels held amid the empty, shattered churches. The chaos lasted eight straight days, but the aftershocks didn’t die down for months afterwards. The more predatorial of Rome’s families joined the Protestant looters: though the violence proved too great even for the Colonna, who holed up in the Cancelleria and tried their best to ride out the storm. By the end of the summer, over 45,000 of Rome’s citizens had fled or been murdered. Nobody could say exactly how many had died.

The Sistine Chapel proved to be one of the survivors of the sack, because the dead Constable de Bourbon had been laid there in state after his death. The hoodlum goldsmith Benvenuto Cellini had been using him for target practice from the heights of Castel Sant’ Angelo and nailed him with a crossbow bolt. While history remembers Cellini as a honest rogue—or at the very least, a braggart—Bourbon was a true traitor. He had originally fought under Francis I, but finding the money running low, had switched sides and joined the Emperor, being made Governor of Milan for his trouble. He proved incapable of curbing his own soldiers, and had, on their own urging, led them to Rome after, ironically enough, being unable to pay their wages.

The practical Florentines had, incidentally, bribed him to stay out of their neighborhood en route to the Eternal City.

L’homme armé doibt on doubter, doibt on doubter.

Another survivor, besides the Sistine Chapel, was Clement VII himself. Seven months later, he was still in hiding in Castel Sant’ Angelo. The Emperor may not have been directly responsible for the sack, but he certainly was enjoying watching the Pope roast in the moldering fortress. There, he had fended off the invaders with Cellini’s assistance, dropping a hail of arrows, lead and occasionally marble statues onto the besiegers below.

However, how the Medici pontiff had gotten to Castel Sant’ Angelo, is one of the few moments of heroism in this horror. As May 6 dawned, the Pope was still in the Vatican. The enemy was swiftly advancing, and the only thing between Clement and the Germans were 200 Swiss mercenaries who had been brought in by one of his predecessors, Julius II. As the Landsknecte swarmed over St. Peter’s Square, the Swiss stood their ground, buying valuable minutes for Clement to escape down the narrow pasagetto atop the Leonine wall connecting the Vatican with the papal bolt hole of Castel Sant’ Angelo. 147 were cut down in their defense of the Holy See, slaughtered on the very steps of the greatest church in Christendom.

To this day, in their honor, the Swiss Guards bear the proud title of Defensores Ecclesiae Libertas, the defenders of the Church’s liberty. Today, May 6, four hundred and eighty-seven years later to the day, the Swiss Guards would remember their fallen countrymen and swear in 33 new recruits to pledge their life’s blood to defend the honor and safety of the Papacy.

It would be a day of pomp and martial ceremony. And, as of an hour and forty-five minutes before the celebration, Rome was engulfed in rain. The Swiss Guards were going to melt in their stuffy felt uniforms. Plus, for once they’d be in full armor-plated rig. It wouldn’t do for one of the finest fighting forces on earth to have to get hosed down with rustoleum on their official holiday.

(…d’un haubregon de fer?)

My friend, the Roman Seminarian, had appeared on time in the vestibule of the studio, and I ushered him upstairs as the rest of the group assembled to head down to the Vatican. He was impeccably turned out in a black cassock with a black umbrella in hand—a rather striking contrast against the faux gold and scarlet marble of the studio. He was also feeling somewhat overdressed as he considered the motley crowd of architecture students he would be joining. For my part, I was wishing I’d worn a tie, but the rest of the group was dressed in a ratty assemblage of jeans, tee-shirts, and at least someone had highlighted his hair with fuscia dye.

Neither of us were quite sure what to expect. The Seminarian studied the bright orange tickets with the Papal escutcheon atop them, translating the fustian and courtly Italian invitation on them. “ ‘Your Lordship’! ” he chuckled. “You have to admire the way they phrase things around here!”


La Signoria vostra. Your Lordship in Italian.”

I considered the ticket with a little laugh.


Il Commandante della Guardia Svizzera Pontificia ha l’onore di invitare la Signoria vostra al assistere al Giuramento della Guardia che avrà luogo nel Cortile di San Damaso il 6 Maggio alle ore 17.00, per commemorate l’eroica morte delle guardie in difesa del Sommo Pontefice Clemente VII nel Sacco di Roma, 1527.

Which means, rather grandiloquently:

The Commandant of the Pontifical Swiss Guard has the honor of inviting Your Lordship to assist at the Oath-taking of the Guard that will take place in the San Damaso Courtyard on May 6 at 5 o’clock, to commemorate the heroic death of the guards in defense of the Supreme Pontiff Clement VII in the Sack of Rome, 1527.

That’s a doozie of an invitation. First, cassocked seminarians, and now discovering that Colonel Mader thought I was something out of a Gilbert and Sullivan comedy. The local color was through the roof already.

“Of course,” reminded my Seminarian friend, “they tend to inflate titles over here. Go to university four years and you’re suddenly a Doctor.” All the invitations were written that way, after all. Nonetheless, I decided to enjoy my time being a Lordship.


If I thought that Rome’s talent for the unexpected had been satisfied by my brevet title of nobility and my friend turning up looking like one of the scale figures in a Letarouilly print of Napoleonic Rome, I thought wrongly. I’d already noticed a surprising number of cassocked priests in Largo Argentina, taking the opportunity to console the Seminarian by pointing out he wasn’t the only one overdressed. However, as we piled off the bus-stop and hurried over to the Paul VI Audience Hall, where the ceremony was scheduled to take place in case of rain, I saw the one thing which I never expected to see anywhere, much less Rome.

Marching up the curving south colonnade of Piazza San Pietro was a regiment of 18th century Franco-Swiss mercenaries. I was sure about it, I recognized the flame-patterned scarlet and blue colors they carried at their head, recognized the Viribus Unitis embroidered in gold on the white cross, recognized their splendid cocked hats with bobbing scarlet pompons, their powder-blue coatees. They passed by in an ear-splitting thunder of drums, bayonets fixed, chins uplifted. Jowly chins uplifted. As I looked closer, I saw florid arteries splitting their faces, disordered tangles of wig, growing veteran paunches. Definitely too old for active service. The Giuramento had been invaded by a bunch of re-enactors.

The Seminarian, my classmate friends, and myself soon found ourselves in the Paul VI Audience Hall, a vast, well-lit seventies-style cavern with a Charles de Gaulle Airport roof and two gigantic though mediocre imitation rose-windows piercing the clerestory. It’s on the whole, fairly unobtrusive stylistically, if unremarkable.

The crowd around us, however, was far from dull. Indeed, as the Seminarian pointed out, jokingly, it was swiftly turning into a military history pageant. Another historical enthusiast was heading to his seat resplendent in a beautifully-cut bright blue habit-veste that would have done an Old Guardsman proud. A couple of real-life Columbian generals sauntered up the aisle in extravagantly braided olive-green uniforms, trying to outshine the silver-laureled Carabineri pooh-bahs taking their privileged seats in the front row. A few of the over-the-hill re-enactors exchanged salutes with alarmingly tall and Germanic Swiss soldiers in green berets and grey jackets, while men with patrol windbreakers marked POLIZEI and POLIZIA mingled freely. The Seminarian almost thought he’d seen some Mounties out of the corner of his eye when he turned around to see it was just a tour-group in red tee-shirts piling into the seats on the south side of the hall.

Like most Vatican events, there was a certain amount of waiting involved, and plenty of false starts. A woman realized she was on the big TV screen showing images of the crowd, and started frantically waving. We tried to guess the orders of nuns around us and played “who’s that Cardinal?” a few times as we watched one Prince of the Church with tufted eyebrows play ostentatiously with his pectoral cross. Occasionally, a pilgrim group would get up to chat with some local personage, bishop, priest, monsignor, taking his seat and everyone would mistake it for the main event. Meanwhile, the Seminarian and I debated the possibility of starting the Wave while I wrote down further local color in my note-book.

And then there was the Pace Maria guy. He’d gotten a seat across the center aisle from us. He has a peculiar habit of appearing out of nowhere at these events; he’d sat across me at the St. Cyril’s Day festivities at San Clemente and scolded me on my casual posture. He’s a small, rather insect-like fellow, with a rainbow Pace peace-activist flag (l’homme armé doibt on doubter) worn scarf-fashion around his neck and hauling around a broken tape-recorder. Today he looked stern and rather distressed under a flapped sheepskin cap with sun-glasses and his usual fringe of beard.

Another false start, this one unusually loud. The forty re-enactors suddenly marched down the aisle. More rolling of drums. Everyone scrambled to their feet for an excited view as the scarlet and blue banner bobbed down the center. They thumped towards the stage in perfect formation and took their places along the wall towards the front, leaning on their muskets as they awaited the moment we were all waiting for.

Then it was time. Three buglers in the full uniform of the Swiss Guards appeared on the left side of the empty platform at the far end of the hall. A solemn fanfare echoed sonorously across the hall. Then came a long, slow beating of drums somewhere far behind us. Several thousand heads turned to the rear of the hall at once, a great wave of people rising to their feet. People climbed atop chairs and crowded the aisle barricade.

First came the drummers in gleaming morions and piebald yellow-black plumes, followed by the great damask banner of the regiment in vivid—startlingly vivid—yellow and aquamarine blue and scarlet, the livery of the Medici and della Rovere pontiffs who founded the guard. The colors were flanked by fully-armored sergeants shouldering long two-handed flame-bladed swords, and then a vast expanse of polished steel. Forty guardsmen followed, their gleaming helmets marked with the della Rovere oak tree and crested with scarlet plumes like bloodied flamingos.

(L’homme, l’homme, l’homme armé, l’homme armé.)

It was a jaw-dropping sight. It wasn’t just the pageantry. We’re so familiar with mediaeval melodrama and historical pomp from overblown box-office smashes, we forget the sheer, shocking visual power of a forest of spiked halberds on the march, of light on polished steel armor. The mind fumbles with ridiculous comparisons to kitchenware, to clanks and clinks and clunks, to stage-plays and imagination. But the full weight of such a splendid sight defies the mind of modern man, and yet fills him, deep within him, with a subconscious call to arms. These were real soldiers here, not actors on parade: most could probably break bone with their karate skills and some might carry very real and very modern pistols tucked beneath the slashed folds of their Renaissance finery.

Their piebald Harlequin appearance was a crystallization and stylization of sixteenth-century tough-guy fashion, tunics ripped to shreds by blades and pikes. And they looked like they meant business.

Their weapons were raised high over their heads as they moved with slow, deliberate steps, not quite automatons and yet fearfully human. You could feel coiled concentration in their steps rather than coiled springs. Man the killer angel. They strode up to the front of the hall, stopped, and turned to face the crowd in one sweeping united gesture as quick as a piece of ballet. They dropped their halberds to their sides with one single deafening clank, steel paudrons and besagews snapping together in unison. Their drill, their dance, had a mesmerizing splendor to it, and it was easy to see how, on the battlefield, the dance could become a dance of death. Meanwhile, a subaltern gave a gracious salute with his slim cup-hilted rapier to the cardinals seated in the front row, another mingling of honor and ferocity.

Everyone was still standing, and some in the back rows began to squall. Cries of “Seduti!” as the front rows slumped into their seats. We may have been robbed of the Renaissance beauty of the San Damaso Courtyard, but the sloped seating of the Paul VI Audience Hall actually guaranteed us a better view than we would have gotten standing in the traditional venue for the Giuramento. Another lucky break for being a lordship.

And his Lordship continued to watch the guards as they went through their magnificent drill. It was sheer martial pleasure to study this strange composite organism, this body of bodies, watching them as they stood there, stock-still, as a quadrilingual speech in Italian, French, German and dialectal Romansch were read by the Commandant. He was resplendent in slashed violet velvet, a white plume bobbing on his morion. He was armored from neck to waist, from shoulder to wrist in elaborately etched plate, a scalloped chain mail fringe hanging beneath his sword-belt. He gave his fealty to a cassocked cardinal seated in the front row, and then the Prince of the Church took the lectern from him and gave another lengthy multi-language oration.

Amelia, Vera and S., who had come along with the group, passed the time debating which one they wanted to take home with them, but decided that the potential for excommunication and possible bodily harm with a halberd precluded any attempts to ask one out on a date. At least one person, overwhelmed by work, fell asleep. Meanwhile, I chatted quietly with the Seminarian about liturgical minutiae and reconsidered his offer about trying to start the Wave.

And then I heard the word Giuramento, oath, and my ears pricked up again.

The Commandant had returned to the podium, loudly declaiming the official text of the age-old Oath. The moment had come when they would pledge their life, their blood, their fortunes, their sacred honor, when they would bind their fate to Providence and Pontiff. Most of them couldn’t have been much older than I was. Probably most of them would have been mere freshmen back at Notre Dame. But there they stood, paladins of the Church, the Pope’s divisions, armored like centurions and trained like Green Berets. The entire regiment took one thunderous, precisely shifting step sideways, and the color guard moved forward. The sergeants swung their heavy swords around with the skill of a drum-major, bringing them to their shoulders again. Then, the ensign lowered the banner, attended by that gallant velvet subaltern with the drawn rapier.

Then a loud, startling clank and thud. The first Swiss guard to take the oath had handed—slammed is a better word for it—his halberd to the guard next to him with perfect precision and stepped out to take the oath. He moved towards the flag with a strutting, military walk, the unfamiliar strutting walk of the armored, armed man, that would have seemed splendidly swaggering if it had not been so clearly and deliberately been rehearsed. He strode up, placed his left hand on the banner and thrust his right hand sharply into the air, two fingers and a thumb crooked up in a traditional invocation of the Holy Trinity. He barked out the Oath with vigor, his face magnified a thousandfold on the enormous TV screens, turned and marched back to his post. 33 times we saw them come and 33 times we saw them return to their ranks, accompanied by the staccato click of halberds and the sharp shouts of the Oath in four different languages.

I swear to observe faithfully, legitimately and honorably all that has been read to me. May God and His Saints assist me!

“They’re not using inside voices,” I heard one of my friends joke. They weren’t, for sure. L’homme armé doesn’t have to.

I sat there and watched, racking my brain to put into words what I was seeing, what I was hearing. The sound—the harsh music—of armored men moving in unison simply defies description. My notebook is filled with complex scrawls trying to grasp those fleeting sensations. It was like rainfall, like the jingle of rings, like quiet thunder, like change clinking in your pockets. It was like all of these and none of these, a poetic, warlike sound.

The Giuramento finished, the Commandant inspected his troops, threading his way through the three ranks of armored soldiers. I was somehow reminded of the columns in St. Peter’s Square I’d seen earlier, staggered and shifting in perspective. Then there was a loud blast of drums and trumpets, of screeching police-whistles, a flourish of excitement and celebration. The color guard moved to the center with a swinging martial step, and the bandsmen moved down in cadenced silence. There was a polite fumbling with their sheet-music, and they played a long series of cheerful marches, each growing more and more exuberant.

So exuberant that the Seminarian and I exchanged incredulous glances as the band slid straight-faced into a trumpets-and-drums number that sounded more salsa than solemn. I’d go as far as to call it jazzy. Or spicy. Or Latin, and not in the usual liturgical sense. The big TV screens panned the scene, and I caught a glimpse of one meticulously martial Swiss bandsman shaking a lone maraca at one side. Neither the Seminarian nor I succeeded in keeping a straight face. “This would work so much better out in the sun,” he said. I smiled and agreed, and sat and listened. It may have been incongruously in a cavernous bland hall, but the splendid colors and eccentric martial jollity certainly put a carnival spirit in the air. The serious business of blood and oaths and history was over with. It was time to party with the best-dressed army on earth in their moment of glory.

Considering all the variations that L’Homme Armé had gone through in the last five hundred years, from polyphony to Perfect Houseplants, and from pikes and halberds to karate blackbelts and concealed machine-guns, somehow a maraca didn’t seem amiss. It just goes to show you that sometimes God’s warriors, les hommes armés, are still good at surprise attacks.

Tuesday, May 18


Yes, I know, you've seen this picture on The Shrine already. Tough noogies.

The Rector of the World Turns 84

Sto lat, sto lat,
Niech żyje, żyje nam.
Sto lat, sto lat,
Niech żyje, żyje nam.
Jeszcze raz, jeszcze raz,
niech żyje, żyje nam!
Niech żyje nam!

For those of you whose last name is not Klejeski (or Wojtyla, for that matter), that means:

Good luck, good cheer,
May you live one hundred years!
Good luck, good cheer,
May you live one hundred years!
Good luck, good cheer,
May you live one hundred years!
One hundred years!

His Holiness turns 84 today, marking the occasion by publishing a new book with the typically direct title of Get Up, Let us Go. Sounds like a great party to me! I bet, though, that he'll also probably indulge in his favorite dessert, which is vodka over ice-cream. Really.

May you live one hundred years! Definitely. Though, while wandering through St. Peter's the last day of my stay in Rome, I had the morbid though hopeful thought that when JP the Great is called to heaven, whenever God so wills, his Holiness is going to blow the doors off the place with his intercessions! The Church will have to brace Herself for all the cool stuff he'll be able to get done at celestial warp-speed.

Sunday, May 16

Eastern Orthodoxy discovers The Matrix: Reloaded

In all fairness, the Catholic Nerd community was making jokes about Neo's cassock months before The Onion Dome did. We Westerners are always on the cutting-edge of liturgical fashion...

(Matt pauses, considers ugly polyester chausibles he's seen in use lately)

...which isn't always necessarily a good thing. Never mind.

Saturday, May 15

Drool-worthy pre-Conciliar black vestments from the Notre Dame basilica sacristy, courtesy of fellow Domer Brian of In Pectore.
Ave Maria Update

Michael Rose showcases a spectacular Spanish Baroque alternative to Ave Maria University's impractical and futuristic chapel, as well as other proposals for the university and town. The stunning new chapel design was worked up by a friend of mine at Notre Dame who just graduated, Matthew Enquist. Message to anyone out there who's an architect: give this man a job, pronto. He's brilliant.

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