Tuesday, October 31

By the way, what's with all the weird costumes today? Who knew New Yorkers were such devout Lutherans, or loved celebrating Reformation Day so much?

NPR Latin Mass Interview Update

I heard from Rachel Martin, the pleasant NPR reporter who is handling the Indult piece (incidentally, it looks like she specializes in religious stories) and she says it will probably air sometime this week, but she does not know exactly when. She should be able to provide more information sometime soon. You'll all be the first to know, trust me.

Happy Halloween!

Haloween... A time for celebration, a time for family...

...a time for BATTLE and HONOUR!

Even in the simple act of carving the holiday pumpkin, a true WARRIOR can hone his skills with the Bat'leth! Unfortunately, as human pumpkins are so small we will content ourselves with the more delicate klingon weapon - the daq tahg.

Halloween, Klingon-style

Monday, October 30


S. Gregory the Great and His Parents SS. Gordian the Senator and Silvia of Rome. Matthew Alderman. Ink on vellum, begun January 2006 and set aside; completed October 2006.

In my family, we were always aware of S. Silvia, my mother's apparent patroness, but it took us a very long time to figure out who she was. Random hagiographic trolling on my part during grade school turned up a S. Sylvia who turned out to be the famous pilgrim Egeria under another name, and whose principal claim to fame besides her journals was her habit of taking cold baths. However, the feast-days didn't match, and eventually, completely by accident, I stumbled on St. Silvia of Rome (November 3, or 5, depending on who's doing the talking), and my saintless mother discovered she'd hit the sanctoral jackpot. You see, Silvia of Rome was Gregory the Great's mom.

The Catholic Encyclopedia has this to say about the lady in question:
Mother of Pope St. Gregory the Great, born about 515 (525?); died about 592.

There is unfortunately no life of Silvia and a few scanty notices are all that is extant concerning her. Her native place is sometimes given as Sicily, sometimes as Rome. Apparently she was of as distinguished family as her husband, the Roman regionarius, Gordianus. She had, besides Gregory, a second son.

Silvia was noted for her great piety, and she gave her sons an excellent education. After the death of her husband she devoted herself entirely to religion in the "new cell by the gate of blessed Paul" (cella nova juxta portam beati Pauli). Gregory the Great had a mosaic portrait of his parents executed at the monastery of St. Andrew; it is minutely described by Johannes Diaconus (P.L., LXXV, 229-30). Silvia was portrayed sitting with the face, in which the wrinkles of age could not extinguish the beauty, in full view; the eyes were large and blue, and the expression was gracious and animated.

The veneration of St. Silvia is of early date. In the ninth century an oratory was erected over her former dwelling, near the Basilica of San Saba. Pope Clement VIII (1592-1605) inserted her name under 3 November in the Roman Martyrology. She is invoked by pregnant women for a safe delivery.
Gordianus and S. Gregory's two aunts Tarsilla and Emiliana are also venerated as saints, incidentally.

S. Silvia's cultus is sadly largely forgotten at present, but it does crop up in the oddest places--in a small chapel on the grounds of the the present-day San Gregorio Magno, now staffed by Missionaries of Charity, through two worn portraits of her and her husband in the little church of San Gregorio ai Muratori, and there is some evidence that a shingle-style church was built under her patronage at some point in the nineteenth century up in New England, though I don't know either the location or the details behind it.

Despite the comparative lack of data concerning the saint's life, there is nonetheless a very charming legend related of her, that proves that even the mother of a future pontiff is still a mother. At her hermitage, she used to tend a small plot of land; every day, perhaps to make sure her monastic son was getting his fill of healthy food, she'd send him a silver plate loaded with vegetables. One day, St. Gregory chanced upon a beggar, and having nothing to give, presented him with the platter. S. Silvia's reaction to this is not on record, but doubtlessly she kept on telling him to eat his broccoli.

This image was intended from the beginning as a gift for my mother, and is in a sense a set of variations on the same themes I explored in another portrait of S. Gregory.

S. Gregory the Great, Pope of Rome dealt with the Western Church's relationship with the East, while S. Gregory the Great and His Parents is about the emergence of an adult Christianity from the late antique world, and about the continuing Romanitas of that faith. S. Gordianus and S. Silvia had been Christians from birth, not converts, and like virtually everyone else in their day they came from families long familiar with Catholicism.

No more potent a symbol is that of Gordianus himself--the Roman senator who taught his son how to be a good Catholic. We see him here, dressed with conscious anachronism in the official toga of the high classical age when perhaps his robes might have been something more stiff and orientally Byzantine, and in him we behold the still-vibrant memory of that civilization carried cautiously, carefully, gratefully, like a flame shielded in a cupped hand against the wind by the Church who had essentially been a sign of contradiction to its pagan antecedents.

Gordianus and Silvia made sure their sons were provided with the best fragments of classical erudition that they had to give, and also taught them the Faith that took those scraps of knowledge and revivified them with the sense of meaning that had so eluded the drifting cultic seekers of the late pagan Empire as they floated from Eleusinian mystery to Mithraic rite, and finally to the strange liturgies of an Eastern religion that followed the teachings of someone they called Christ.

Gordianus and Silvia, as was sometimes the practice in those days, separated to become priest and nun after their children grew up, and while perhaps not advisable to present-day couples, this act has a certain symbolic potency in this image of transition and transmutation that reminds us of the Romanness of Catholicism that carries within it the baptized distillation of everything good that existed within the pagan, pre-Christian universe, and which, like the Sibyls, paved the way for Christ's coming into the world in the age of Augustus when the whole world was at peace. He is the corporeal father who gives life to a spiritual father, whose spiritual son he is, and who becomes one himself through his own priesthood as the hierarchy of civil pomp is supplanted by one of spiritual self-abasement and humility.

Silvia is shown here, as the accounts tell us, a beautiful matron, and imagined here in her bustling, industrious, maternal pre-anchorite phase, very much the woman of the house with her purse and keys at her belt, though perhaps they prefigure as well the keys that her son would bind and loose heaven and earth with, and the gold and silver of his charity that she instilled within him. She is both powerful and domestic, the mistress of six villas, a woman of means and intelligence in an age when the job description of aristocratic housewife meant being a businesswoman, schoolmistress, agriculturalist and, in the worst times, the local civil defense warden against the Huns.

Her costume is simple and beautiful, perhaps less self-consciously archaic than her husband's, and in a sense brings her more into the world of St. Gregory and the Middle Ages, the age of meditation and practical mysticism personified by her vegetable platter and her prayer-beads--also perhaps slightly anachronistic, and once again deliberately so. She becomes the image of Mother Church that her son protects and, to draw out a Trinitarian and Marian analogy, the Church from which is born from as Mother, and who he himself is father to through his reforms, writings and pastoral leadership.

This is an image about family, and the passage of leadership from one generation to the next, and the indelible impact of parenthood reaching backwards and forwards from history to the future. S. Gregory produced reams of scholarship, the ageless and undying repertoire of the Church's chant, and an example of heroic virtue that will never be forgotten. S. Silvia and S. Gordian, on the other hand, produced S. Gregory himself. Whose, one may rightly ask, was the greater achievement?

When I first saw this photo of my favorite parish in Rome, I thought to myself, wow, they finally got around to getting new candles. They were down to stumps two years ago. Dear, sweet little San Gregorio, what memories you stir up in me...

Sunday, October 29


St. WHO?

Observers of Eastern Orthodoxy frequently worry about how often Orthodoxy risks confounding nationalism with religion.

This article, about the alleged faith of the founder of the Soviet secret police, is not reassuring:

In recent years, some ultraconservative Russian Orthodox groups have suggested that Soviet dictator Josef Stalin should be declared a saint.

I didn't even know we were in the running

But apparently, we are considered an informative "Catholic Bumper Stickers related web site." Deeply honored, sticker people, deeply honored. From the heart.

More Preparation for All-Hallow's Eve

Be sure to check out Fr. Stephano's take on our last picture..!

Radio Days

Dave: You can't just pluck someone off the street and put him on the air.
Bill: Of course you can. How do you think Edward R. Murrow was discovered?
Dave: That is not how Edward R. Murrow was discovered.
Bill: Don't confuse me with the facts.


So I got interviewed by NPR today.

Really. It's about time I had a shot at it. The Shrine's Emily made the front page of the Chicago papers earlier this year, and I'm sure Drew would have gotten on TV by now if there wasn't that whole nasty Witness Protection Program thing he has to deal with--oh darn, now I blew his cover and they'll have to send him to Wichita now. Actually, he very seldom ventures out of the Drew Cave except when he comes forth on dark nights to fight heresy in his customized Drew Mobile.

Wait, I ought not have mentioned that either.

But seriously. What happened was NPR sent a little news team down to St. Agnes on 43rd Street to do a parishioner-in-the-street interview. And I was the parishioner. This is another bit of evidence that Indult Fever is verily and truly upon us, and it's not merely a wee rumor percolating within the blogosphere. Also, this actually is pretty old hat for me--the top of my head was in a crowd scene on a local Tampa news channel when I was 12.

So I know all about showbiz.

Why me? Or, since Dawn Eden got interviewed with me, and Andrew Cusack was there too, why us? I don't know if we stuck out, well, that much. The crowd at St. Agnes is a little bit older than I've seen at St. John Cantius in Chicago or the other St. Agnes, the one in St. Paul, but there's still enough young folks and families with kids to be worth commenting on. More interesting is the fairly sizable number of middle-aged Tridentinists; truly the lost generation when it comes to these circumstances. Dawn Eden, Andrew Cusack, my friend Joel, and our mutual friend Drusilla, and I were young and also conveniently in the closest clump to the reporter and her microphone-bearer. So I started pontificating into the recorder.

I'm not sure what bits they'll splice out as their soundbites, but I gave them, in capsule form, a little run-down on what the old rite means to me, and what I thought Benedict was trying to do with the indult. I explained that I alternate back and forth between a Novus Ordo parish that does a tradition-minded mass in mixed English and Latin, and the Tridentine Rite, and that I benefitted a lot spiritually from both forms of the mass.

The reporter was especially curious about what in particular I got out of it. The old Mass, I responded, was something which was most rewarding after continual rumination and meditation. Not everything was perceptible on the surface, and that while it might seem confusing or foreign at first glance, it was a ritual and a form of prayer you could come back to again and again to find fresh meaning within the same sets of words and gestures.

"So it's more meditative and thought-provoking?"

Yeah, pretty much. I said it was possible to participate in a very overt way by chanting the responses, and that Catholics had been encouraged to know basic chants both before and after the Council, and that an inner participation, one of listening, was another valid way of praying the Mass, and an essential component of our outward active participation no matter what we do.

Given the way media coverage has focused on the indult from the nostalgia angle, that it was important to not just chalk this up to schismatics and old people, but that it was a way of re-connecting with the past that would impact both those attached to the Traditional Rite and those in the mainstream. In other words, the spirit of reverence embodied in the Tridentine mass would, one hopes, trickle down into more ordinary forms of liturgy as well. I enlarged on this theme, commenting that the numerous young 'uns I know who would be likely to hang out at St. Agnes don't see the whole Old Rite/New Rite, Vatican II/Tridentine business as a matter of either/or. It's possible to be a "Vatican II Catholic" and still love the old rite; Benedict and all the popes before him have said time and time again that Vatican II did not wipe the slate of history clean, and that its decrees always had to be interpreted in light of tradition.

Dawn, as a neophyte newcomer to the Latin Mass, proved, as one would expect, very pleasantly articulate as she explained her experience to the reporter. The immediate genesis of her visit had to do with a run-in a few weeks earlier with a loosy-goosey Mass she'd run into at a church that had suffered a bad wreckovation some years back. Understandably, the solemnity and tradition are the ultimate antidote to liturgical purple shag carpeting, and she wanted to be reminded once again of the transcendent heavenly realities we so often miss amid our modern liturgical abuses.

Dawn also made the point we didn't know all this stuff by heart, that we had missals! And she pulled out the little red booklet she'd picked up earlier at the bookstore, the omnipresent and ever-handy Ecclesia Dei reprint that I've seen sitting on pews everywhere from South Bend to Rome. Which made me chuckle, not at the NPR crew, but at myself for assuming everyone knows everything I do. This explained the earlier question of the reporter, whether I knew Latin; I'd never thought to explain we Catholics have our time-honored tradition of book-length liturgical cheat sheets!

So we both survived our brush with the press--and a very polite and thoughtful press it proved to be. I admit I was a little skeptical at first. There's the question of how to make this stuff alive to the folks outside the wonderful world of Catholic Nerddom. And I'm always a little leery about getting put on tape. Maybe it's that I don't like the sound of my voice--everyone assumes in their head that they're James Earl Jones and are always shocked when it comes out on the Camcorder like Mickey Mouse--maybe it's the result of a bad experience with a rogue answering machine. But it all worked out well.

Anyway, check out NPR tomorrow afternoon and see what choice snippets they got out of my sidewalk pontification. I found the whole experience to be a remarkably pleasant one, with the reporter being very open and understanding to my remarks, and very happy to have stumbled across someone who knew, so to speak, the rest of the story. I'm grateful that NPR thought enough about what one might suppose would be a story buried on the figurative back page of the soundwaves to go out and find some folks to talk to and get the real deal about a matter of faith that isn't always well-received these days.

And I always love pontification, In a good cause, of course.

Famae Romae*

Blogger randomly ate my first attempt to post this, but...

Though we at the Shrine do not pretend to be even amatuer Vaticanistas, nonetheless a rumor from Rome has it that the indult will come out on Nov. 4.

Commentators on the my first attempt to post this news observed: (contra) that is a Saturday, but (pro) it is the feast of S. Borromeo. I add to this my observations that Rome approved a bishop this last Saturday, unusually. And, what is more, is not Nov 4th the day when the Vatican celebrates a requiem Mass for prelates departed? That would be an occasion to issue something, I suppose. We shall see.

*Locative, people, not Genitive.


Saturday, October 28


In Preparation for All Hallow's Eve...

Friday, October 27


Why I love Medieval Liturgy

I think this is proof enough.

Thursday, October 26


Thomism, Trent and the Baroque

"It's great, Matt, but why not go for Gothic next time?" is a favorite question among my friends, and one I'm certainly not bothered by. I'm no stranger to a whole raft of styles, Gothic included (and have done a reasonable number of hypothetical designs in that style, in fact), but certainly my most grandiose student projects are undeniably Baroque, so it's a valid question, with plenty of answers of my own. However, the question itself, rather than its answer, is also worth meditating on.

I stand by the Council in affirming that the Church has room for all manner of architectures, classical, Gothic, and things still yet dreamed of. The question, in its particular specificity--why Gothic? rather than why not a different style? however, presupposes a Gothic preeminence in things ecclesiastical. That being said, I find this notion of stylistic hierarchy, at least in terms of relative perfection between styles such as Romanesque, Gothic, and Baroque, difficult to support. While there may be styles more or less suitable to Christian art, these great styles differ less by degree of perfection than by a difference of approach or outlook that highlights equal and important facets of the holy Catholic religion.

It's not my intention here to take this whole debate to pieces right here and now, but rather focus on one particular argument. A good number of my Gothicist friends are also Thomists of some stripe, or have great sympathy for the great Dominican; Gothicism and Thomism would thus seem to go sensibly hand-in-hand, both products of medieval Christendom. Indeed, Erwin Panofsky, the great scholar, wrote a famous essay linking the scholastic method of articles and sub-articles to the structural and symbolic logic of the Gothic cathedral. However, for me, anyway, Panofsky's thesis strikes me as deeply problematic. If any theology can be said to be the mother of Europe's Gothic garment of churches, it appears to have been the light-mysticism of pseudo-Dionysius that so enthralled the Abbot Suger of St. Denis, who also appears to have been greatly indebted to St. Augustine's biblical commentaries.

Even then, to describe one style as the visual translation of pure theology would be a misstep, and certainly misses out on the surprisingly low-key transition between early Gothic and late Romanesque that the pre-Thomistic St. Denis marks. There is also, once scholasticism actually came on the scene, the problem of how it got from the school-rooms to the stone-yards; and assuming that it did get there, we must face that this interpretation of Gothic deals more with its structural organization, its division of greater members into smaller ones--thus reducing both Gothic and scholasticism to a filing system for knowledge and wholly neglecting the true ideas of God and His creation that would have galvanized both philosopher and mason alike. To see in Panofsky's thesis a link between Thomism and Gothic is, at best, awkward, as Panofsky is more interested in the medium than the message in both instances.

This logico-structural interpretation of Gothic, unthinkable until the nineteenth century and the theories of both the irreligious Viollet-le-Duc and the devout Catholic Pugin, would be wholly foreign to a medieval craftsman. The much-vaunted structural honesty and purity of Gothic is neither so straightforward nor as self-conscious as one might assume. The builders of the Gothic worked hard to produce buildings that defied gravity, that, to paraphase John Summerson's argument in Heavenly Mansions was a suspended architecture of fantasy flying in the face of earthbound supposition. Indeed, Vasari's most harsh criticism of the Gothic was that to him it looked, not structurally logical, but far too flimsy to his eyes!

We see, thus, in this interpretation of Gothic, an architecture hung from the floor of heaven so to speak, much of the same interest in boundary-stretching and illusionism that is so obvious in the Baroque, and which is often perceived in that style as a sort of theatrical decadence. Perhaps they are far more similar in spirit than one might think.

Now, getting back to Thomism. A good friend of mine once remarked he'd asked a historian friend of his if Thomism was as universal a theological system in the Middle Ages as is often portrayed. His friend's answer was that it was not, and back then things were still pretty wide open, with Scotists, Thomists, scholastics, followers of Bonaventure and all other manner of thinker running around. The debates between the Franciscans and the Dominicans over the likes of the Immaculate Conception, not to mention the amazingly messy world of the University of Paris, suggest that there's at least some truth to this depiction of the medieval philosophical world. I am, however, only an amateur historian, and am quite happy to be proven wrong on this point; however, it remains an indisputable fact that the real 'canonization' of Thomism within the Catholic Church came only at Trent, where the Summa rested on the altar next to the Bible.

Now, of course, the Church accepts no one philosophy as she accepts no one architecture, and there is room for von Balthasar, Augustine, the whole troupe of phenomenologists, ressourcement and Thomism's various sub-dialects, but certainly that was a great courtesy paid to the Angelic Doctor at Trent. And perhaps it is not a bad idea to consider that the style which took the best out of Trent, and also smoothed out its more severe bits, was the Baroque. Is Baroque, then, at least partially indebted to Thomism, or at the very least, compatible with it? I offer no answer, but history suggests that there may be a fair amount of truth to this notion.

Of course, Baroque is neither just Thomist nor Tridentine--and indeed, after my complaints of the (unintentional) loss of a good deal of pre-Reformation Catholic culture in the wake of Trent, in spite of much of the good that it did in terms of combatting Luther and jump-starting reform, it may be curious for me to be defending Baroque, which would appear to be the artistic mechanism that led to the loss of rood screens, winged altarpieces and so many other gorgeous medieval splendors. The truth is, the Baroque represents an attempt to re-assimilate these lost elements of liturgical mystery once some of the more misunderstood aspects of Trent had run their course.

After Trent, there was a reaction against elaborate ornamentation and a general move towards a simpler, almost palaeo-Christian aesthetic in church design, though one motivated by more sensible and even archaeological motives than that which caused so much sadness in our own time. We see the first moves to open up the sanctuary and make the ritual of the Mass visible to the people by the removal of rood screens, or their Italian equivalent, and the design of churches intended for preaching, like the Gesu with its massive open nave and minimized side-aisles. Christian art became more straightforward and didactic--and in fact, more than a little dull, if the gruesomely diagrammatic martyrdom cycle of San Stephano Rotondo is anything to go on. Much of the sparser art of this period remains unknown to us, as, in the case of the Gesu, its plain, whitewashed vaults eventually were covered over with the gilded coffers of the Baroque, or once it had come time to decorate churches like Sant' Andrea della Valle, tastes had shifted once again.

The Baroque does not represent a literal or even conscious effort to re-capture the mystery of the Middle Ages, but it certainly is an equal desire to re-enchant the Mass and seek out that mystery in some new, and equally organic form. While perhaps the means used to approach that heavenly illusion varied radically between both eras, they both speak, through art, to the same human needs, the same desire to balance awe and love, to praise the immense joyousness of God that moves the sun and other stars. Fifty years after Trent, and amid much soul-searching over how to best implement that council, the baroque arose and took the best of the Counter-Reformation and dialed it up a notch with joy and glory. Dare we hope the same may come of Vatican II? It is in your hands to do so.

Defined by Love

In the present moment, I think it is very easy to mistake the Catholic Church for an institution defined by purity of faith and tradition, and therefore to believe that the restoration of purity and tradition in the Church is precisely what the Church most needs. And, I believe, this is rather wrong: the Church is a communion of love; what the Church most needs is a restoration of love; and the essential characteristics of purity and tradition in the Church are only instrumental, not a means in themselves: purity and tradition are needed for one reason alone, the fact that they are necessary to love, radically. Tradition, particularly revealed tradition, is that which tells us about Who we love: Christ, in the Church and His sacraments. Purity, an integrity in Church teaching and practice, is nothing else but the degree of our love: absolute and complete.

I don't even mean simply what St. Paul writes, "if I have all faith so as to move mountains but do not have love, I am nothing." (1 Cor 13:2) What I mean to say is this: that tradition is the way to love (the Who) and purity or integrity is the how (the degree: absolute). The concept of purity and tradition cannot be divorced from love, because they are types of love: and if we begin to speak of them without being completely conscious that they are simply ways to "love the Lord your God with all your heart" and "love your neighbor as yourself," then we are no longer really speaking of tradition or purity at all. (Mark 12:30-31)

I think it is essential, then, to continue to remind ourselves that clarity of doctrine and fidelity to tradition and heroic morals are either a means of making us more loving people, towards each other and above all towards God, or they are nothing at all.

Wednesday, October 25


Ave Maria*

*Obviously, I'm posting this because I like it. Doubtless people will feel compelled to post just to say they don't. It's a fact of human nature I don't really understand, but, whatever.

Surely You Jest

Georgetown creates endowed chair for priestly proponent of abortion rights.

Tuesday, October 24


Halloween Costume Ideas, Courtesy of The Shrine

Strap two strategically-placed flashlights to your head and say you're Moses.

Alternately, take a bottle of aspirin with you to the party and keep talking about your tablets.

Festive Melodies of the Mechanical Organs

Daniel Mitsui posts about one of the weirder--but really, very plausible--theories out there explaining some of the discrepancies within the monumental polytyptich of Jan and Hubert van Eyck, The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb. It's been a while since I've done art history in a classroom, but if memory serves correctly, the various theories are that

a) the altarpiece was variously designed to fit in a much more monumental Gothic frame crowned with a filigree of spires a la Veit Stoss, which would mean much of the original context which would explain the apparent perspectival oddities in the composition as it stands today, considering panels have since been re-framed and perhaps moved around a bit. One version of this theory has Hubert doing the sculpting work, and reads pictor or "painter," on the frame as fictor, which works out roughly to be "sculptor." Gothic p's and f's tend to be easily confused. Even if you don't buy this particular bit of evidence, the idea that there's some missing crocketry that might have topped the panels is not so hard to believe given most medieval altarpieces were often extravagantly mixed in their media; the inmost layer of Grünewald's famous Isenheim Altarpiece is almost wholly carved woodwork. Also, a similar composition in the Prado clearly dependent on the van Eyck altarpiece includes a superstructure within the painting not unlike that which might have graced the painting in three-dimensional form.

Hubert van Eyck's always been a bit of a cypher in the art world--his tomb's empty, for instance, I think--and there's considerable debate as to who he was and what bits of the great altarpiece he did, despite the dedicatory inscription on the frame hailing him as even more great in skill than his famous brother Jan. In this version of the story, Jan's brother up and died on him and Jan cobbled the thing together out of some organ cases and other bits of work lying around the studio. This would explain some of the apparent iconographic discrepancies--such as depicting God the Father in the deesis where Christ would normally be; however, whether these discrepancies are that unusual for the period, or even exist in reality, is an open question.

c) A variation of the first theory, but which also includes a whole wealth of other bells and whistles, including clockwork devices to turn the panels round, and even a mechanical organ which played when the altarpiece opened. I was initially very skeptical to this wonderfully wild idea, until I remembered that this was the sort of sacred wackiness which the medievals rightly loved. Why shouldn't it be beautiful? It's only our refusal to really let go and enjoy this 'special effect' that taints it with a suggestion of the tawdry music box. I will allow myself to put a digressive plug here to once again highlight the similarities between my beloved baroque and the medieval epoch here in that I will remind you that it is the baroque that often condemned for its apparent theatricality and its symbiotic relationships with stage-sets, but it was the merry medievals that really did the most to mix theater and liturgy together (after all, modern theater grew out of medieval liturgy), often with results that would astonish and perhaps even scandalize people on both sides of the liturgico-political spectrum. (If Dan Mitsui would like to comment on some of the wonderful and odd stuff Trent threw out which I mentioned with some degree of sadness in a previous post, now is the time!) I, however, simply lean back and smile to think of most of them; I am unsure if they'd strike the right note today, but perhaps in a better world, we would greet them with the right wonder and charm.

A clockwork organ and rotating panels, by medieval standards, is pretty mild stuff, actually, though it'd explain the bafflingly breathless reports that often accompanied descriptions of this whiz-bang contraption, a Jules Vernean wonder of the sort we only associate with retrofitted clockwork-driven Victorian sci-fi novels. The medievals were actually very good at that sort of thing, and it exemplifies the earthy, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach they took to life. I have spoken before that I find Gothic architecture less satisfying than the Baroque, but when it comes to liturgical art and liturgy itself, the medievals knew how to have sacred fun, even to the point of skating dangerously close to liturgical abuse at times. Indeed, it is this celebratory liveliness and sense of interlaced symbol and practicality that appeals to me so much in both the worlds of the baroque and those of the Middle Ages. The descendent of the astronomical clock with its rows of dancing dolls is the symbolically dense and unabashedly baroque title page of an Athanasius Kircher book.

Hard scientific development and practical knowhow accompanied both the baroque--in the form of Kircher's gagetry and Galileo's science--and also that of the Middle Ages, whether it was the dull but indispensible staples such as the padded horse-collar, the mill-wheel, or eye-glasses, or the wondrously superfluous in the shape of complex astronomical clocks and other automata. (Indeed, I wonder if some will someday see the Renaissance as an essentially scientifically dead period between the medieval era and the Scientific Revolution--which may have ultimately had its pay-off in the chilly north, but had some very important roots in Jesuitical Rome). Bacon and Albertus Magnus are legendarily credited with building speaking robots of some sort (not impossible with a properly rigged-up keyboard and a bellows), and there are much more real reports of jangling contraptions designed to lower artificial angels into the sanctuary at the elevation of the Host, not to mention a set of clockwork statues of a monarch and his queen (it may have been Isabella the Catholic and Ferdinand) that once stood over their tombs that were designed to stand and kneel in time to the various movements of whatever mass was going on at the high altar of the church.

Distracting? Perhaps. Frivolous? Maybe. But certainly worthy of our wonder in an age oddly starved of it in the name of a sterile and inauthentic authenticity of expression.

Monday, October 23


More Ecumenical Dialog

"So, I provided my bean dip recipe to the potluck." - Baptist

"Huh? I mean, was it instantiated, or did you only provide the form?" - Catholic

Hurray, Catholic Heaven!

Alpine Hat Tip to the Curt Jester

Iceland Detonates Harpoon

Violates Whaling non-proliferation agreement

Whale-watchers threaten economic sanctions,
EU urges Iceland to reconsider.

... all of which reminds me of the infamous exploding whale...

Sunday, October 22


New Blog By Nuns

Canticle of Chiara points out a new blog by the Poor Clare Nuns in Barhamsville, Va: Clare-Light on the Mountain. According to the blog's mission statement, "
Although we are hidden in our cloister on Mt. St Francis, our light that comes from Christ shines out upon the world.
The blog, then, provides a unique opportunity to glean some wisdom from cloistered nuns; few of us get to talk to cloistered nuns very much at all, much less on a daily basis. Their insights should help us both to learn about their lives and to help us grow in holiness in our everyday lives.


Katherine of Aragon depicted as St. Catherine of Alexandria, another uppity Catholic gal

For your information, let it be officially recorded that I think Katherine of Aragon rocks. Like her mom, Ysabel, she was one of that long series of great and wonderful uppity medieval Spanish Catholic women that also includes the foundresses of the Order of the Hatchet and my legendary ancestress Varona, who ran off from her castle disguised as a man to fight against the Moors and got a knighthood out of it. (She was pretty, too, she just wore a helmet over her face all the time). Actually, we don't know if it was the Moors. It might have been them. Or possibly the Castillians, Aragonese, Asturians or whoever was the enemy of the month. Spanish women seem to have a thing for war, as Ysabel rode at the head of her army at Granada and Katherine appeared ready to personally command troops for a prospective invasion of Scotland when Henry was off on the continent doing some fighting of his own.

Someday, if there is any justice, there will be a great bronze effigy of her, mounted in full armor, standing outlined against the sunset of some urban park. Somewhere. Someday.

Scholarship tends to make Katherine out to be a naive martyr and a bit of a plaster saint, but recent work by the likes of David Starkey in his mammoth Six Wives makes her a rather more human, if wonderfully sympathetic and even truly heroically virtuous woman. She also appears, rather than the exotic Latin she sometimes is depicted as, to have taken up the ways of her adopted country quickly and with great sincerity to the point that one of the greatest horrors of her divorce proceeding was being sundered from the nation she now held so dear.

Being the daughter of the pious Ysabel of Castille and the scumball Machiavellian Ferdinand of Aragon, contemporary scholarship calls her been both devout and also extremely canny to the point of using a bit of espionage to keep an eye on her hubby's serpentine machinations. And that makes me like her even more. She had to have brains and street smarts like that. First to win English hearts as a foreign Spanish redhead, and secondly, to fight off the arguments and brow-beating that accompanied Henry's absurd claim for a divorce. Okay, okay, maybe Rome might have granted it had the Emperor not been breathing down the Pope's neck, but there was absolutely no reason to annul a marriage on shaky grounds from Leviticus that had already gotten a dispensation to be had in the first place.

Anyway, a terrific gal, our Kate, and I'd go as far as to call her a Catholic Nerd before her time--politically astute, devout, and definitely someone you don't want to mess with. Three cheers for our Kate and for uppity Catholic women everywhere!
Benton: ...Is there any insanity in our family?
His Father's Ghost: No, not that I'm aware of.
Benton: Good.
His Father's Ghost: Well, there was your Uncle Tiberius who died wrapped in cabbage leaves but we assumed that was a freak accident.

~Due South, Season 1

Saturday, October 21


Brief Remarks on the Indult, and Matt's Social Life

So, once again, I was treated to the weird, wonderfully self-referential smallness of the orthodox Catholic blogosphere and its attendant real-life equivalent. I was at a birthday party last night where not only did I meet a fellow who had helped organize a contingent of Opus Dei youth from Notre Dame to come down to the City and do kid-related service work in the Bronx, but also two Indiana natives, one of whom, a Saint Mary's girl, had interviewed my former boss Duncan Stroik while in fourth grade. When she was in fourth grade, not Duncan. The other had actually worked for him and even helped out when Duncan had built the Villa Indiana to house his family in suburban South Bend.

Then, another fellow mentioned an article--on the OpinionJournal website he'd read about the difficulties of getting a parish to do a Tridentine nuptual mass with all the trimmings in Manhattan. An archdiocesan bureacrat had suggested a real dump of a place, while other pastors couldn't find the time. Then someone had ridden in on a white horse and saved them from banality. Who could it be, we all thought? None other than our very own George William Rutler.

This, in itself, did not surprise me. That much. Except that I'd crashed--with the connivance of the maid of honor--a wedding at Our Saviour's back in July. And sure enough, Amy Welborn, posting a link to the article, mentioned July 22 as the date.

And there it was, right across the top of the article, the bride's and groom's names that I remembered well.

The increasing nuttiness of this all was the whole reason I was there to begin with was another tour-de-force of Catholic Nerd recursivity. Admitted, sometimes pious city folk wander in and out during weddings there, leaving flowers at the Mary altar, or other members of the Indult Community just pop in to enjoy the experience and pray, but I'd met the groom before, at the Anglican Use Conference earlier in June, where he'd dropped in for a couple of the lectures. That was because of an introduction through his sister, the bridesmaid in question, who I'd met through Lauren of Cnytr, as they'd both gone to U Dallas, and also through the coincidence that she'd also briefly been the spokesmodel for Fr. Bryce's shortlived Catholic tee-shirt concern. (Don't knock it--it's a good gig. If her Latin fails, she can be the girl who poses with the chapel veils in church supply catalogues...) People kept asking me how I knew the bride and groom, and I had to give them the equivalent of Oliver Twist.

But read the article. It's real good.


What this post started out as, before it turned into an excursion into my social calendar, was that despite all the press being given to The Indult right now is spectacularly failing to see Benedict's real point. Yes, it's A Concession (cough) To The Lefebrites and The Frustrated Traditionalists, but it's also meant to impact, through a trickle-down affect, all of those normal middle-of-the-road folks in the pews.

Benedict hopes that having the Tridentine Mass out there again will bring the Missa Normativa back to its roots, and plug it back into the mainstream of church history, to pave the way for the eventual reform of the reform, which will probably more likely than not look more like the old rite than the new, at least to casual eyes. It's a sensible strategy, and one that ties in back to the old question of organic development and the avoidance of making change--in whatever direction--a constant, as it did during the traumatic times of the ninteen-sixties that His Holiness no doubt remembers so well.

While more regulations from Rome may help, it's not the ultimate problem, which is the re-emergence of a vital and yet respectful spirit independent of legal technicalities, that which characterized the great liturgical traditions of the Middle Ages. Trent actually put a stop to a lot of that vitality with the suppression of some of the more entertaining medieval customs--though, in all fairness, that life had turned into a sort of absurd and frightneing decadence. But still, something was lost. Indeed, I'd say that what we're facing now in the problems of the liturgical reform are the long-term fall-out of choices made in the sixteenth century by the codifiers of the Tridentine Mass, choices that in many ways were going to have problems no matter which way they went.

Trent sacrificed some measure of vital spirit to the necessary experiediency of centralization, and the results were sometimes spectacular, as with Palestrina, and sometimes just a fifteen-minute low mass, a miracle, but a little one all the same. More recently, we seem to have succeeded in sacrificing both somehow to each other, with even more dire results. I become worried and frustrated when we--and I am no better sometimes--fight to the death over a second confiteor or the problem of what set of Holy Week services to use, when vast numbers of people have never heard the glory of the real Roman Canon, or seen the mass said facing God's east. The reform of the reform does not mean, as Benedict is showing, the denial of the old rite, but it also means we have to prioritize a bit in introducing bits of the old slowly into the new. Push to turn the altars round in the mainstream, push for a Latin Mass whether it's '62 or '70, and the rest may well follow as a matter of course when it becomes apparent that the Mass is no ordinary dialogue between man and man. We must be willing to go mainstream with these things.

What is needed is a sense of balance--a revitalization if not an exact restoration, though probably to the man in the pew, this distinction--and the outward form it may hopefully take--will be very hard to spot indeed. The payoff--and the difference--will be something only discernable in the decades, or even centuries, to come.

This, in the end, is what is needed, and what will, in the end, bring a strongly traditional mass back to the people in the middle, who need it the most and know it the least.

Thursday, October 19


Blessing of a Minivan

"Almighty, ever-living God, we beseech Thee bless thy creature mini-van..."

Or, not

In Honor of Reggie

All this talk of Fr. Reggie Foster's recent firing reminded me of my one brush with the man's peculiar sort of fame, commemorated in what must be one of my favorite essays from my Rome experience. Long may he reign, King of Latinists, wherever he hangs his Carmelite cowl--or rather, to be perfectly honest, his Maytag Man boiler-suit jacket...

God’s Maytag Man Takes Tram No. 8 to Caesar’s Assassination

Adventures around here inevitably begin with an email, just as the archetypal Sherlock Holmes story begins with Watson fussing with the gasogene and reading out loud part of the Great Detective’s correspondence from some troubled soul. However, rather than picking up a letter from Miss Violet Hunter or the Count von Kramm, my informant is an old and familiar one, always well-anticipated.

My gentle readers are familiar with him under the simple and anonymous meme of “The Roman Seminarian,” and when I see his name in my in-box, it means I’m in for something unusual. I don’t know how he keeps track of so much going on in the Eternal City from up there at the Irish College, but because of him, I’ve partied in the high Bohemian manner with Czech priests, visited the site of St. Catherine’s death, and even gotten Cardinal Ratzinger’s autograph with my clerical-groupie friends.

So when last week I received an e-mail written largely in Latin from him, I was less surprised than most people would have been. It ran something along these lines, and was provided with a helpful translation below:



Conglobabuntur participes apud Templum Sancti Andrae de Valle hora 3:00
pomeridiana et ad horam usque 6:30 commemoratione illa occupabuntur...

In other words, the famous Father Reggie Foster Ides of March walking tour leaves from outside S. Andrea at 3 PM next Sunday.

Reggie Foster! Ides of March! Today was the fourteenth, and the famous tour was held the day before the actual assassination, March 15, 44 BC. I owed it to myself to check this out, not just because of the historical value—my hotel stands on the site of Pompey’s Theater, where the Senate was meeting and I had heard he had been killed—but because Father Foster, in certain strange and wonderful circles, is something of a celebrity. A weird celebrity, too. His name causes priests to spontaneously burst into laughter, and then sing the praises of his intellect. He’s the Pope’s official Latinist, has a show on Vatican Radio (appropriately misnamed “The Latin Lover”) and teaches at the Gregorianum, Jesuit intellect central. Beyond that, most everything about him is a large and delightfully elaborate question mark, even if that is a form of punctuation unknown to his beloved ancient Romans.

A sarcastic or hallucinatory journalist once referred to him as “fresh-faced Father Foster in his immaculate Carmelite habit.” Almost everything in that description is wrong. He’s a Carmelite all right, a discalced Carmelite who wears beat-up loafers and powder-blue Maytag man jumpsuits. The standard rumor is that if he wasn’t a genius, he would have gotten retired to a remote hermitage eons ago, though on what charge is a little unclear. I’ve heard him accused of everything from cynical crypto-Tridentinism to raving modernism and every heresy in between, though I wouldn’t have known unless I’d read it somewhere. He also, if the nickname “Wino Reggie” is to be believed, likes popping open a beer on occasion, which indicates he can’t be all bad.

So, at two-forty-five I found myself beneath the great travertine shadow of Sant’ Andrea, for once on time. My friend the Seminarian generally expects me to be late, considering the number of essays I’ve written that begin with me getting to mass in the middle of the Kyrie. Still, I was well-rewarded: the crowd that had gathered was just about as interesting as the tour itself.

The Seminarian later told me with a smile on his face that he thought “we were officially what is known as a motley crew.” And how. Students, Gregorian alums, even ordinary “Foster groupies,” as my friend put it. There were men in baseball caps; matched sets of pudgy children and pudgy mothers; priests; a black-robed Benedictine novice with a pale El Greco face and a vast shaven pate; an Anglican vicar with prim round-lensed gold-rimmed spectacles and a graying Rowan Atkinson bowl haircut; and several pleasantly pretty college girls. (People, I’m not made of stone, you know).

And then there was “fresh-faced” Father Reggie. He’s not fresh-faced; he’s far too interesting-looking to be handsome, his vast bald head, bull neck and florid face like an imagined Roman pugilist’s. Cracked veins stood out on his ruddy cheeks like an anatomical diagram. And I smiled, because I saw he was wearing his own habit—not immaculately Carmelite but distinctly and weirdly Fosterian. Yes, here he was, in powder-blue windbreaker and navy pants, looking all the world like God’s own Maytag man. I started scribbling down furiously, telling my Seminarian friend I was getting some local color.

The Seminarian continued to fill me in on the last few weeks since we’d seen each other. Like me a liturgical tourist, he filled me in on the Syrian subdiaconal ordination I’d missed last week, saying of the tonsuring rite, that “any liturgy involving scissors has to be good.” This is why I like hanging around this guy, if you hadn’t guessed already.

Meanwhile, Father Reggie had started pulling out thick bundles of photocopies from a plastic shopping-bag filled with row upon row of Latin and dozens of classical floor-plans. And then he started talking. I noticed a bemused Benedictine smile on the novice’s face.

“Everybody thinks Julius Caesar was assassinated down in the Forum at the Senate House,” he began in his big, gravelly, raspy voice. “WRONG!” he bellowed. I laughed to myself. I knew the truth well; they'd moved it because the Forum Senate House was under repairs, they were removing (or installing) asbestos or something or cleaning up the blood from the last knife-fight. We were just around the corner from the Albergo della Lunetta, General HQ for me and the other arkies, set in a curious curved city block whose shape derived from, as I said before, the theater of Pompey that was built there two millennia earlier.

That meant—surely—that Caesar, the great G. Julius Caesar with his stupid bronze-cast haircut and memorable last words, et tu, Brute? had gotten knifed to death somewhere in the basement of the place where I slept. Heck, there was even a restaurant around the corner built in the old theater’s vaulted basement, and if you’re going to murder a dictator, a vaulted basement seems like just the right spot to do it. In fact, maybe that had something to do with the ghost sightings I’d heard rumors of a few months earlier.

We moved along the great blank brick side of the church, standing along the vast stuccoed curve of Largo di Pallardo. Somewhere above us was the window of my hotel room, overlooking history. It was odd, frankly, to think about it; the greatest Latin scholar alive (as well as possibly the strangest) was standing amid the parked motorini on a spot where I’d once spent three incredibly dull hours trying to draw the dome of Sant’ Andrea using a laundry marking pen for an incredibly experimental assignment. Campo dei Fiori’s lazy backstreets were now full of death and sex and violence, or at least historic sex and violence as opposed to the usual stuff garnered from taking a Roman taxi ride.

The Carmelite was talking loudly again. “We’ve got some pictures, the kids always like pictures,” smirked the Carmelite as we flipped through our packets. I dug out my map, and my heart sank. “You see where I’ve written ‘Cur. Pomp’? That’s the site of Pompey’s senate house, where Caesar got murdered.” I did some mental calculations, checking the diagram of the old theater against the modern street map. It had been part of Pompey’s marble multiplex, but certainly not the bit I called home.

Oh yeah, and Foster further added salt to the wound by telling us gleefully that Caesar didn’t say “Et tu Brute?” but something “IN GREEK!!”

Et tu, Reggie? Can I have just one little inaccuracy to call my own?

This isn’t to say Pompey’s Theater is chopped liver; Foster reminded us that the dedication ceremonies had looked like something out of Aida with elephants parading across the stage and a thousand jackasses, according to my notes, though the context is such I’m unclear if he means animals or people. Pompey’s Theater was, in greatly magnified and bombastic form, in the great tradition of the Roman illegal structure. The flat roofs of so many palazetti around here teem with dubious terraces, elaborate makeshift timber structures hung with curtains and green plastic shades, wild with ivy and TV antennas. Anywhere else, they’d be ugly, but like everything the Romans touch, they are beautiful and quaint, no matter how jury-rigged.

Regarding Pompey’s theater, well, I’m getting to that. Some people find it hard to believe the ancient Romans are the same people today that sell cheap plaster Augustuses from carts around the Forum or drive with the recklessness of Judah ben-Hur in the Circus. Caesar’s heirs may have conquered most of the known world, but the modern Imperator, Mussolini, had only Abyssinia and Albania to his credit, and with Abyssinia, it bears to remember that modern, united, up-to-date Italy had been beaten by the Ethiopians less than fifty years earlier at Adowa. Nonetheless, Pompey’s Theater is governed by the same insane loopholes that make the Italian world go round, except in even more spectacular form. You see, instead of building the illegal structure on top of a roof, quiet and simple in easy-to-take-down plywood, he did it in marble, and plopped the only legal thing in the whole place on top of it.

Theaters, stone ones anyway, were highly illegal during the Republic. Perhaps because the Tiburtine sybil had looked into the cloudy future and seen Alec Baldwin and Martin Sheen, the Senate feared the possibility of infama actors dabbling in politics, especially when declaiming inflammatory lines from stone stages in stone theaters that would make very convenient fortresses should Zero Mostel feel like taking up arms against the S.P.Q.R. Pompey, of course, being a high-roller, would have none of that, and put up his very own grand theater with stone seats and stage—and, as a spectacular legal dodge, plopped a temple to Venus on top of the whole extravaganza and told the architecture police that the stone seats were just steps up to the temple.

It’s stories like these that suggest that ancient Rome was more Caesar’s Palace than Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations. That and those mysterious “thousand jackasses.”

But what about poor Caesar, lying on the floor of Pompey’s theater in a pool of blood? Reggie was reading his Latin again from the packet, as loud and vigorous as possible. He waved his free arm around, clenching and unclenching his fist with comic drama like a conductor keeping time for a student orchestra. It was church pronunciation, naturally, but the way he said it seemed centuries away from the sonorous, soporific Latin I was familiar with from daily Low Mass.

So. Caesar. Cicero seemed to be looming large here in G. Julius’s murder, even larger than the famous Brutus. After all, he was an ally of Pompey—and later a flatterer of Caesar. A very back-biting flatterer. “Cicero was a bum and a rat,” said Foster, his bright, idiosyncratically blue eyes crinkling with surprising humor. And what was his evidence for saying this? Two “abominable lines,” as he said grandiosely, quoting a letter from the orator to a certain Basilus. Tibi gratulo, mihi gaudeo; te amo, tua tueor; a te amari et quid agas quidque agatur certior fieri volo. Which means, “Congratulations, I am delighted! I am wholly at your service. I want you to be the same to me and to be informed of what you are doing and what is being done.” Written, most curiously, on the ides of March itself, it is said, at the first news of the assassination. “Good riddance to the old buzzard!” cried out Foster, mimicking Cicero on Caesar.

Actually, Cicero did not really have much to do with the dagger-wielding, but I get the impression he certainly liked the idea. “ ‘If I had been there,’ ” quoted the Carmelite, “ ‘there would have been no leftovers!’ ”

We trudged towards the site of the Senate House, worming our way down narrow grubby cobbled streets and dodging the occasion Kamikaze Roman driver. “The Latin is just out of this word,” said Foster, continuing. Caesar and Cicero were rival orators; indeed, Caesar’s prose “so lean and military—so mmmmmghrmpmpgh, wonderful!” obsessed Cicero. However, they hated each other, or at least Cicero did, especially when Caesar sent him a letter asking first about his work, ‘opes’ meus, which turned into a request for support from his bank account, ‘opem’ meus. That, coupled with the fact Caesar, as Reggie Foster put it, was plotting to take over the world in three weeks, didn’t improve things.

After all, he’d marched on Rome, conquered the city, and been hailed as everything from Consul-for-life to demigod. He’d also exiled Pompey, in whose senate house (which we had yet to find) and before the foot of whose statue he was to be knifed twenty-three times. postquam senatus idibus Martiis in Pompei curiam edictus est, etc. Stabbed twenty-three times in the curia . That’s a favorite magic number for Romans, and even Reggie Foster mentioned once being on tour when a man leaned out of a window and bellowed the sacred “ventitre!” Tell them he was stabbed twenty-three times! It’s important!

Caesar was obsessed by the title of King. He also liked cheese. He probably would have taken the crown proffered to him by Mark Anthony at a public ceremony if he hadn’t noticed the fact that the expressions on the crowd below resembled nothing so much as curdled milk, and I don’t mean parmigiano. But anyway, he had already been declared imperator (then more like Norman Schwarzkopf than Jean-Bedel Bokassa) and Pater Patriae, so what else could he do? The mess got worse when Caesar tried to have some tribunes arrested who destroyed a crowened statue of Caesar put up by Mark Anthony, and even worse when Caesar acted like a complete twit when the Senators arranged some ceremonial shindig in his honor. In all fairness, he was probably just a bit sleepy at the time.

Incidentally, the whole wreath of laurels thing had nothing to do with kingship: Caesar just put it on his coins because he didn’t want to look like he was losing his hair.

And so the situation continued to deteriorate. Caesar’s enemies, as they would later justify themselves, didn’t hate him because he was Caesar, but because he was going to ruin the Republic. “Not because he didn’t brush his teeth,” joked Foster, free-associating, “but because they didn’t like his politics.” Soon, Brutus was getting drawn into the fray, when he found someone had put a sticky-tab on the back of his chair in the senate saying Dormus Brutae! In other words, “Brutus is asleep,” since his family apparently had a tradition of stabbing tyrants with stupid haircuts. One of them had apparently done in the last Etruscan king, beginning the long Roman hatred of guys in crowns. Then things got even weirder, as Reggie informed us.

We were now standing overlooking the temples at Largo Argentina, the vast open archaeological wound that another would-be king, Mussolini, had opened in Rome’s fabric. It’s not the prettiest ruin around, overwhelmed by the clatter of the No. 8 tram and the enormous number of cats roaming around amid the broken columns and scattered beer bottles. A smell of urine predominates, as do cats.

The Largo Argentina temples are now a sanctuary for Rome’s cats. Somebody has taken to hosting a three-o-clock happy hour at a makeshift bar down in the archaeological pit, for reasons inscrutable even to the most sulfur-stoned sibyl. The Seminarian turned to me as we waited for the indefatigable Reggie to catch up. “You see, back after the Second World War, the Romans had to eat the cats to survive. And so, stricken by guilt, the commune passed a law forbidding anyone to hurt the cats of Rome afterwards.” Perhaps this explains the absence of meat in this city.

I was unable to continue this line of thought, probably fortunately, when Foster caught up with the group, craning over the metal guard-rail to look into the antique detritus. It seemed, he explained, that omens were everywhere that day. Brutus was ready to go, along with his fellow tyrannicides, while Cicero was gleefully standing on the sidelines writing incriminating notes even if it seems he wasn’t the brains of the outfit. The little sacrifice that morning—“to get things going, like daily mass,” he said, causing the Seminarian and I to burst out laughing—had gotten ahold of an animal with no heart, which, in addition to being anatomically impossible, really freaked out the augur. Pigeons had started attacking each other in mid-air near Pompey’s senate house, and then there was that weirdo soothsayer guy who approached Caesar en route on his meeting with destiny and twenty-three stab wounds.

Caesar wasn’t fazed by all this. “ ‘I don’t give a hooter-de-dee about religion,’ ” said Reggie Foster, translating the dictator’s thoughts imaginatively. “ ‘Poo on all that stuff.’ ” He ran into the soothsayer again and started taunting him. “The ides of March had already come! Everything’s okay! But,” said our guide, pausing dramatically, “ ‘They have come but have not gone…’ Oooooh!”

We were briefly interrupted by a motorino when the heavy slaughter began. Plutarch reported that the frenzy got so wild that Caesar’s assailants actually started stabbing themselves and running into stabs. They even got Caesar once in the groin when he finally fell down onto the marble pavement, the great dictator modestly covering his legs so he wouldn’t look unseemly as he crumpled, muttering “Kai sui tecnon?” to Brutus in Greek. “And you, child?” (Et tu, Reggie, must you repeat it?) And then one final little “Oooohhhpph,” according to Reggie’s version of Plutarch.

Like the old joke about Mussolini, with three hundred sharpshooters aiming at him and only getting three bullets, only one of the wounds was actually fatal. Unlike Mussolini, they didn’t put him on a meathook but left the corpse there for hours, running away and not knowing what to do.

Meanwhile, Cicero went into action, enjoying his moment in the sun even if he had had nothing really to do with it.

So where did they actually do the dirty deed? Where was this famous senate house (and who the heck builds a senate house in a theater, anyway?) Foster pointed down into the archaeological site and I whipped out my map. The far wall of the senate house was just visible, barely uncovered on the far edge of the vast crumbling pit, lost amid the reinforcing walls That meant…that meant that the site where one of the most pivotal figures in the history of the world went to his deserved or undeserved reward—was directly below the No. 8 Tram stop at Largo Argentina.

Next time I’m there, I’ll look for blood on the asphalt.

But the fun wasn’t over. Reggie turned to us and said we’d stop by the Forum for one final parting bit of fun, we’d go find Caesar’s statue and sing.

“Sing?” I said to the Seminarian.

An older woman, obviously a regular, overheard me and said “Sing, yes, and drink!” Now I couldn’t miss this, could I?


And so, with churchbells tolling the evening Angelus and evening settling over the sky, we found ourselves standing in front of G. Julius himself, the Via Fori Imperiali roaring at our backs. Foster finished up one final oration—the Seminarian jokingly called it “first Vespers of the Ides of March”—and the fun began.

Singing to Caesar’s statue is actually pretty mild stuff compared to the usual Roman reaction to the hallowed date of Caesar’s murder. If you drop by his statue on this secular and pagan dies natalis you often find piles of fruit at his feet as if a deputation of visiting Santería enthusiasts had hit the place during the night. Anyway, the offerings weren’t for G. Julius but for us. For, suddenly, backpacks miraculously disgorged bottles of fizzy cheap red wine and plastic cups were handed out. The Seminarian and I politely declined, almost simultaneously, but I admit it was bizarrely fun to watch. And then came the singing.

“Now, turn to the last sheet at the bottom, and we can sing the first couple of verses to the tune of the Ode to Joy and the last one to O My Darline Clementine.” Everybody now, together! Sing and raise your glasses! Ave Caesar!

Ecce Caesar nunc triumphat qui subegit Galliam,
Civiumque multitudo celebrat victoriam.

Gaius Iulius Caesar noster, imperator, pontifex,
Primus praetor, deinde consul, nunc dictator, moxque rex!

En victores procedentes, laeti floribus novis,
Magna praeda sunt potiti et camptivis plurimis.

Exsultantes magna voce io triumphe! concinunt,
Dum auratem ante currum victa oppida ferunt.

Legiones viam sacram toatm complent strepitu,
Capitolinumque collem scandit Caesar in curru.

O sol pulcher, o laudande, Caesarem recepimus
Et corona triumphali honoram vidimus!

And so we did, belting out überclichéd tunes to a dead, cheese-loving, crown-hating dictator whose name has adorned emperors from the Kaiser to the Czar as well as pizza boxes, Mexican labor agitators and casinos everywhere.

My friend the Seminarian had asked me earlier, with a jaunty tone in his voice, if I had gotten enough local color. It was the understatement of the month. This was the Eternal City, in all it sublime weirdness, incarnate. Our alcoholic salute to Gaius Julius seemed a wholly surreal, wholly Roman and wholly fitting way to end this afternoon of murder, mayhem and cats with this odd little clump of dead-language tourists and their impromptu chorale to the man murdered on Tram No. 8 two thousand years ago.

Wednesday, October 18


Very Disturbing

1/3 of the world embraces evil means in fighting terror...

Though, impressively, Italy does Church morality proud.

Tuesday, October 17


Extreme Fruit!

The lemon set the challenge - trying to make himself look like a punk by sticking screws in him...

I never really understood the subculture of piercings and mutilation. It seems self-destructive. And indeed, it proves to be for fruit, anyway.

Veggie tales of a more sordid sort..

A Neo-Baroque gem: The Chapel of the Hospital of St. John and St. Elizabeth, Sovereign Military Order of Malta, London. More at The Society of St. Barbara.

Dropping Pennies in Water, Holy or Otherwise

I recently came across a book on a British island, little more than a rock. The island lost 1/2 its population in the 1740's, owing to small pox, and the population had dwindled to about 90 people by the 1750's. The last natives requested evacuation from the island around World War I.

The island in question was a fascinating outpost of Gaelic culture, shaped by the Romans, the Celtic monastics, and the course of Scottish history.

I was reading an account of the visit a kill-joy Protestant minister who was visiting the island to further the protestantization of its inhabitants. In his account of the visit, published in the mid-1700's, he recounts, with displeasure, the practice of dropping coins in holy wells, which remained popular even amongst the Protestant:

It was once a fundamental article of faith in this isle, that the water here [at the holy well] was a sovereign cure for a great variety of distempers, deafness particularly, and every nervous disease. Near the fountain stood an altar, on which the distressed votaries laid down their oblations. Before they could touch the sacred water, with any prospect of success, it was their constant practice to address the Genius of the place with supplication and prayer. No one approached him with empty hands. But the devotees were abundantly frugal: The offers presented by them, were the poorest acknowledgements that could be made to a superior Being, from whom they had either hopes or fears. Shells and pebbles, rags of linen or stuffs worn out, pins, needles, or rusty nails, were generally all the tribute that was paid; and sometimes, though rarely enough, copper coins of the smallest value. Very frequently the whole expence of the sacrifices was no more than some one of the little common stones that happened to be in the Pilgrim’s way. In te memory of our fathers some injudicious Protestants, who retained more or less of the old leaven, made a practice of leaving such trifling donations near the fountains in the other western isles, I mean those which were in every one of them dedicated to some Saint, Angel, or Divinity, to the Lord, to Christ, to the Virgin Mary, to St. Columba, St. Cuthbert, &c. or Michael. But we have great reason to doubt, that the donations made in the days of Priest-craft and credulity, by those well meaning believers, who had recourse to such miraculous waters, were equally insignificant.

So, my question: Everyone drops small coins in ponds and fountains and wells, almost out of habit.

Is this where that habit came from?

Monday, October 16



Sacred Heart Church in downtown Peoria will be rededicated this October 29, having undergone an extensive restoration. And not just a restoration, they actually put in side altars, a high altar, and some railing on the sides. It's a pretty major overhaul. They've added onto the church, making room for new confessionals, among other things; new mosaics and stained glass are being installed, as well as a new organ.

The ceiling has been redone in red and gold, presumably in honor of the Sacred Heart. Don't worry; that's the old stained glass.

This is a piece of what will be replacing it.

Lift high the cross.

Photo gallery 1 is mostly before pictures, but galleries 2 and 3
have some lovely details of the interior work and facade, and Gallery 4 shows some of the exterior additions, the garden, as well as some finishing details.

Downtown Peoria is home to an impressive share of beautiful Catholic architecture, including St. Martin de Porres, St. Mark's which is the Diocesan Shrine of the Blessed Fra Angelico, and, of course, the Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Immaculate Conception, which R.A. Cram had a hand in. This is quickly becoming a hot spot for Midwest liturgical tourists (well, most of my friends have stopped by, at any rate).

If you're curious who is responsible for such projects, aside from this guy, these people seem to have their hands in most of the good stuff going on architecturally around here.



Two Art Deco Church Facades

Recent Speculative Work by Matthew G. Alderman

A Design for a New Facade for Visitation Church, Miami, Florida, in the Art Deco Manner. Elevation with Plan. September 2006.

Over the next few decades I imagine the most important task facing the next generation of church architects will not be the construction of new churches--though that will certainly will continue to occur, and with increasing frequency--but the renewal of existing structures in order to restore them to liturgical and artistic orthodoxy. This trend is already beginning to make an appearance in some quarters--Duncan Stroik, H.H. Menzies and Stephen Schloeder have all tried their hand at this problem in various projects, and I imagine they won't be the only ones in the near future.

The harmonious renovation of existing buildings is an issue which has fascinated architects for ages. One long-standing debate during the Renaissance concerned whether some of Italy's Gothic cathedrals at Milan and Bologna should be completed in the classical style then prevalent, in some form of Gothic, or some common denominator between the two. Indeed, those defending Gothic continuity often cited the reigning orthodoxy of Vitruvius, saying that ideally a structure should be a harmonious whole than a collage of disparate elements.

There's some grain of truth to either approach; design unity is a luxury that has largely been only possible in recent centuries, and, as a consequence, many of Europe's churches are an appealing organic mish-mash of times and fashions. Still, my own preference is for stylistic continuity when it can be managed. Of course, presently we also face the problem that a good many of the churches we may renovate are essentially stylistically bankrupt, which suggests any renovation of their design would be, in the best of all possible worlds, essentially using the existing interior and exterior as a framework on which to overlay new plasterwork, vaults and other details. Some may cry at the apparent structural dishonesty, but despite what the modernists may tell you, very few buildings done in recent years have truly been structurally honest--a slippery term at best--and anything built today by necessity will require some sleight-of-hand to cope with the viscera of wiring, air ducts and other miscellanea that modern comfort requires.

Still, in some cases, the church may be too outre to be able to stand such a renovation--Los Angeles Cathedral comes to mind; trying to straighten out its crooked angles would be an exercise in futility, and the outside is beyond hope. Short of turning the whole thing into a parking garage, subtler changes, such as flattening the sloped floor and putting in place a more traditional chancel arrangement in a style that, while not outright copying Calatrava's oddball choices, at least tried to find some middle point between it and tradition, would probably be the best that could be done under the circumstances. Or you could turn it into a yarn factory like Sixtus V planned to do with the Colosseum, which is much prettier.

Fortunately, the church I worked with had a lot going for it already.

On the opposite extreme, you see, there are some humbler modern designs, of an astylar simplicity and liturgical orthodoxy, that require a similarly discrete intervention--not because they're beyond hope, but because they already are quietly pleasing in their own way. A more invasive reworking might be both budgetarily prohibitive and liturgically unnecessary. I recently was invited by the pastor of Visitation Parish Church in Miami to propose, hypothetically, a narthex extension to his church building, which required such a discrete intervention.

The church's design is fairly simple, essentially lacking a canonical style but with hints of Art Deco, one of several virtually identical structures put up in the late fifties by the Archdiocese of Miami. While simple, it nonetheles possesses an appropriate longitudinal arrangement, and the good father had already begun on some sensitive and discrete additions to the sanctuary in good materials--including marble--that would harmonize with the existing design without necessarily being limited by its comparative humility. The church's most notable attribute, actually, is a splendid shiny terazzo floor which the priest had recently added a series of inlaid symbols up the main aisle; however, it also possessed a very low ceiling, which, while less distracting than one might think in the interior, resulted in a fairly unremarkable silhouette from the outside.

Visitation Parish Church's status quo.

These additions, which were intended in a speculative way to brainstorm ideas for the longterm expansion of the parish, consisted of a program set out by the priest: a narthex flanked by a bookshop and a small kitchen for distributing after-Mass coffee. The arrangement I proposed required the extension of two small storage spaces on either side of the church's open porch forward by a bay, and dividing the interstitial space into a glassed-in narthex occupying the same space as the existing exterior gallery, and a new open-air porch to take its place. The style was to be an art deco that harmonized with the existing church, though slightly higher in style as with the altar modifications.

The choice of deco proved to be an interesting challenge. Miami's native style is, in some sense, art deco, though Miami deco has a certain neon extravagance that suggests the grand hotel and the cinema than God; however, the sort of deco the we proposed would be discrete enough to allow reference, in an abstracted way, to the simplicity of Romanesque and other more conventional ecclesiastical styles.

Originally, we'd thought to make the two separate volumes on either side of the narthex into low towers, but it struck me that lifting one single tower or false-front bell-wall of sorts in the center would provide a sufficient lift to the low outline of the church, while also cutting down on the costs that two smaller towers might entail. The bell-wall is a feature of Spanish colonial and Sicilian baroque architecture, and one very suitable for American ecclesiastical architecture in this age of privation as it eliminates the very expensive proposition of a separate campanile while increasing the height and prominence the front elevation. Here, the bell-wall is somewhat abstract, as I've not drawn bells in its three arches; however, if the parish had an interest in using them to house a small ring of bells, the arches could be increased slightly in height to avoid the bells crowing the large Crucifixion scene that occupies the center of the composition.

In terms of color and materials, I imagined the addition to be predominantly of pale yellow stucco. The faux-adobe white that this architecture might suggest, and which is not unknown in South Florida, seems rather silly. While the area was Spanish in name at one time, the swampy ground and humidity would have precluded the use of the mud bricks of California and the Southwest there; indeed, Spanish architecture in Cuba is mostly stone or non-adobe based, and in the few places where Spain gained a colonial foothold in Florida, is more about wood, coquina rock, and perhaps more ordinary sorts of stucco over brick. The lower half of the wall is painted a blue to recall the waters of St. Elizabeth's child, John the Baptist, while statues of St. Elizabeth and the Virgin stand in shallow niches on either side.

Further additions or developments to the design might include modifying the kitchen plan to include an open distribution window facing the parking-lot and a small open-air arcade running along the side of the church connected with the window for parishioners to enjoy their post-mass coffees.

A Design for a New Facade for Visitation Church, Miami, Florida, in the Art Deco Manner. Early design. Elevation with Plan. September 2006.

This was actually the second design I did for the project, the first getting out of my system the more flamboyant aspects of the style. I realized, after stepping back from the project, the bell-wall was probably too tall and would have to become a real tower, and the whole thing looked a bit too much like a movie theater. However, such studies are very useful to explore both the good and bad impulses that may cluster together at the onset of a project, and also to give a context to later evolutions of the design. While unsuitable, this earlier version nonetheless employed a decorative language which would not have been probibitive in cost, while the scalloped top of the spire produced a silhouette that the good father found intruiguing and might be worth incorporating, in a less etxreme form, into the current bell-wall design should this project become a reality. At the very least, given the ubiquity of this church design in Miami, such architectural experimentations provide food for thought beyond the confines of a single parish.

Sunday, October 15


Great Reporting...

So, is the purpose of reporting to tell the news clearly, or bury it awkwardly?

Religious clash in Ethiopian town

Gee, what religions, I wonder? hmmmmm

It is the latest in a series of religious clashes near the town of Jimma, around 450 km (280 miles) from the capital, Addis Ababa.


Last month 10 people were killed and more injured in four days of fighting between rival religious groups.


Hundreds of homes were destroyed in the violence, as well as three religious centres.

...waiting... ("religious centers"? Have I EVER heard that phrase before?

Federal Police spokesman Demsashe Hailu confirmed the five deaths over the weekend.


"The crisis was touched off by [a] few individuals who were attempting to create discord between the people of Jimma by using religion for their cheap political ends," Reuters news agency quoted him as saying.

Huh, maybe it's not any religious group I've ever heard of before, and that's why they're not telling me who...

Police had made several arrests and were searching for more suspects, Mr Demsashe said.

Aid workers said trouble had been brewing in the area for some time, the BBC's Amber Henshaw reports.


Reports suggest the situation got out of control when Christians wanted to celebrate a religious holiday and local Muslims tried to stop them.

AH HA! CHRISTIANS! I KNEW IT WAS CHRISTIANS! Freaking Christians. Always wanting to celebrate their own freaking holidays, any time of the freaking year they feel like it. Christians. Geez. Poor Muslims.

The violence between Christians and Muslims will come as a shock to many Ethiopians, our correspondent adds.

After having waited until now to finally find out who it actually was, how couldn't they?

The two faiths normally live harmoniously side by side, but local analysts believe this could now be changing as a result of the war in Iraq and the conflict in Somalia.

That war in Iraq caused by CHRISTIANS! Man, those Christians are really asking for it.

Isn't it always the Christians?

Poor Muslims.

Friday, October 13


When will I learn?

"So, you study religion?"

Me: "Yeah, actually, I do."


STUPID, STUPID ME. Why did just admit that?? I hope this won't be TOO ba--

"...my husband and I were just looking up Limbo in the encyclopedia..."

I want to run away...

"...so what do you think about that???"

Me: "Limbo, huh? Yeah, actually it was a theory of theologians more than an official teaching."

"I know! That's what it said. But that wasn't what the nuns told--"


Me: "Well, you could see what the theologians were thinking. I mean, what theologian would really want to say that God condemns little babies to hell, afterall."

"Well, that's true. But, I think it's all a little silly, because I don't believe in that whole original sin thing, anyway."

I'm outta here.

Me: "Ok, well, it was nice to meet you!"

< rant>
I don't know why the doctrine of original sin is problematic to people. The opportunity, the beauty of sin--the promise of saying that we are sinful--is the conviction that we can all, with the help of God, become better than, in our most honest moments of self-awareness, we know ourselves to be.

The doctrine of sin is a beautiful thing. It tells us that God has intended us to be so much more than we are now!


The Nietzsche Family Circus

We must be physicists in order
to be creative since so far codes
of values and ideals have been
constructed in ignorance of physics
or even in contradiction to physics.

Click for more!


During the Shrine's Apostolic pilgrimmage to Rome, at the papal audience, a whole group of men wearing purle-trimmed cassocks walked in, and the crowd, assuming these to be African bishops, rose in applause.

In fact, they were visiting Pentecostal "bishops" or "overseers" from New Jersey.

The phenomenon of Pentecostal "bishops" is an amazing thing. First, it shows Pentecostalism's eager embrace of many things Catholic, for which I have hope, even though at the same time they are often quite anti-Catholic. While giving tours at a Catholic church one day, a Pentecostal women, who was helping to design a new church, took copious notes on each item I discussed, what it was called, what it did, what it symbolized, etc. The intent was rather clear.

Exquisite Vestments is an amazing example of the meeting of the cultures of inner-city Pentecostals with the broader Catholic tradition.

Sometimes the result is.. stunning, like this episcopal bling.

Sometimes, the result is kind of cool, like this cathedra.

Others, it's just bizzare--like brocade cassocks.

Finally, at times, it becomes a simple insult to an artform, like the "heraldry"... (Go to "Crests & Seals," and look at Bp. Larry Trotter's).

But, that people from completely outside the Catholic cultural tradition should be naturally drawn to these cultural institutions is a monumental testimony to their worth, I should think.

Thursday, October 12


CL in NY

A reader asked me to advertise for an event going on in New York, and since they used one of my favorite quotes on their poster, I couldn't very well say no, now could I?



Diocese of Bridgeport kicks-off a promising evangelization effort, rooted in the encyclical Deus Caritas Est


As of the time I voted, 54% of 16,000+ individuals were in favor of Benedict XVI's restoration of the Tridentine Mass, much rumored until today but, in illo tempore, almost certainly confirmed.

The AP news article...

Wednesday, October 11



"Barth, in his theory of Scripture as the Word of God, refuses the concept of an closed Canon. He does this because he insists that the Church cannot know for sure that it has heard the entirity of Christ's message: for example, Revelation is "itself a divine and therefore an infallible and definitive answer. But the human hearing this answer, whether that of the Church or in our own day, is a human hearing, and therefore not outside the possibility of error, or incacpable of being improved." (CD 1/2 Sect. 19) Barth is adverse to the Catholic conviction that the action of Divine Revelation includes the grace that the Church, the object of that revelation, will infallibly understand that revelation and recieve the completed message.

Wherefore, a thesis: Barth's theory of revelation laid the intellectual foundations, if such do in fact exist, for the common and nausiating exclamation, "God is doing something new in the Church!", which exclamation is oft tied to the re-ordering of Christian sexual ethics.



Who dresses this man??
"While I wouldn't be willing to affirm the same thing about myself, I agree: you're totally depraved."

Tuesday, October 10


"Sin Makes You Stupid"

It's a common maxim in St. Blog's that "sin makes you stupid," and I suppose that the post immediately below might be offered as evidence.

But sometimes religion does, too. Or at least, religion does when it itself becomes a structure of sin, a means of perpetuating ignorant hatred.

I've often wondered when the lidless eye of wacky Fundamentalism would wake-up, and realize that Eastern Orthodoxy is much like the Roman Catholicism they usually attack, but much more attractive to their own confreres in religion.

Ah.. exhibit"A": Orthodox Catholic Idolatry, a fascinating collection of really cool photographs juxtaposed with barely-relevant Scriptural quotations.

For example, this picture is awesome!

And this quote is completely superfluous:
"Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as it is fit in the Lord." -Colossians 3:18

..unless they think the deacons are women??

The commentary says, "More idolatrous kissing!"
...aside from the fact that an idol is a graven image, and not a person...
...and aside from the fact that kissing isn't intrinsically an act of worship...

"Idolatrous" here basically means "something I don't really like."

But it gets better!

Veronica's Veil is misidentified as "the Queen of Heaven"...
"Mystics" are "Satan-possessed people" Sergei Radonevzhski...
Priests holding crosses with "the Illuminati skull and bones..."

..because the Illuminati actually weren't just a bunch of Enlightment frat-boys playing "history," they actually invented this symbol which predates them by a thousand years!! Who knew?

Look, especially, for the picture of the crazy "Patriarch" and his two dragons!
(And, even though you think his crown has the typical two-headed Imperial Eagle, you find out that it is actual... not one bird, but two phoenixes!!)

This picture was the most awesome:

And the commentary: "Czechoslovakian Catholics worship the skull of St. Vaclav"

Right. Friends, St. Vaclav lived centuries before your contrived version of Christianity began, and will be honored centuries after it has at last, like this saint, bit the dust--precisely because the Church to which he belonged can honor the past, with all the intellectual rigor and self-assured honesty that entails. No need for shocking captions; no need for blatantly false tag-lines.

Amazingly, people really think that this vitriol is attractive--that someone, reading it, will say, "Goodness! I want to be like them!"

How can anything appropriately end such a wonderful display of nuttiness?

"The Orthodox church is 100% ecumenical - just like Catholic!"

Ah. That'd be it.

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