instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

The Dairy of a Country Priest

After the milking this morning, I noticed that Mme. Bessie had remained behind, standing quietly in the shadows by the side entrance. She is a Guernsey, a proud member of a breed my own people have been bred to treat with reverence. Only with great effort did I refrain from bowing my head respectfully as I addressed her, "Git along."

Mme. Bessie did not move. She may not have even heard me, or noticed. She appeared lost in thought, and from her flowed the gentle melancholy of her kind, a conditional resignation to the ways of the world, with yet a hint of resistance, folded upon itself like a creased but unsealed letter which might be read at any time.

As I watched her, I searched my own heart for such a note: the mere awareness of what was, not rising to indignation, but silently marking indignity, which itself points to the dignity overlooked by the world. I felt that I should offer Mme. Bessie some small gesture of comfort, which would redound to my own comfort, yet I feared to presume on her fellow-feeling. And so I merely said, "Ha, cow!," and waved my hand ineffectually.

After a long moment, as though to impress upon me that it was her choice and none of my doing -- which, were she but to understand, she would find is entirely how I would have all the cows treat me -- she turned slowly and lumbered at a stately pace through the double doors. A prayer of thanksgiving for this humiliation reached my lips, but I did not speak it, for I know well I am too worthless to deserve to be humbled.


Thursday, August 10, 2006

The forgotten virtue

Severity: the habit of being "inflexible in the infliction of punishment when right reason requires it."

In Sr. Kathleen, my elementary school principal, this virtue often expressed itself in the form of a stunning shoulder clamp from behind. In her humility, she allowed us to believe this wasn't a good thing.


Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Vestition Video



Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Last Will and Testament

St. Dominic's "last will and testament" was recorded in Peter of Ferrand's Legend, an adaptation of Bl. Jordan's Libellus with certain additional historical details.
"My very dear brothers," he said, "this is what I leave to you as a possession to be held by right of inheritance by you, my children. Have charity, preserve humility, and possess voluntary poverty." What a testament of peace, a testament never to be erased from the memory or modified by any later codicil.
There is a somewhat more expansive treatment of this theme here, which though treating of the same three bequests is of more doubtful provenance. (As the editor's note says, "Authorities have conflicting views on the authenticity, attribution, and utility of the document.")

In any case, charity, humility, and poverty were central to St. Dominic's own understanding of his Order. As J. B. O'Connor, OP, put it in his Saint Dominic and the Order of Preachers: is apparent that the founder of the Friars Preachers did not esteem poverty a whit less than his brother saint, the Seraphic Francis. But, unlike his saintly friend, he valued it principally as an effective means for the attainment of the ends of his apostolate. His attitude in this respect was based upon a twofold motive -- principle and expediency... As a matter of expediency, it was necessary that his followers be free from all incumbrances and the preoccupations which the possession of property entails, that they might enjoy a greater opportunity for study and possess the mobility necessary for the activities of their apostolate. Poverty, then, St. Dominic regarded as a means to an end; and if he expressed himself with the utmost vehemence in regard to those who should be unfaithful to its obligations, it was only because he foresaw that such infidelity meant the failure of their vocation as Friars Preachers. But he was farsighted enough to see that circumstances might arise which would render a rigorous observance of poverty a serious impediment to the work of saving souls, and he was broad-minded enough to meet this difficulty, as well as others of a similar nature, by placing in the hands of all superiors the constitutional power of dispensation.
It was said during his canonization process that, at the sight of some friars building on to a convent whose cells were so small they couldn't stand up straight in them, St. Dominic wept that they should so quickly abandon their vow of poverty:
At St. Nicholas, the cells of the brethren were quite plain and small. Therefore, Brother Ralph, the procurator, began to heighten some of them the length of an arm (Brother Dominic was away at the time). When Dominic returned and saw the higher cells, he began to weep; he rebuked Ralph and the other brethren many times, saying to them: "So soon you want to abandon poverty and build great palaces!" Hence, he ordered them to stop the work; it remained unfinished while he lived. As he himself loved poverty, so he loved to see it cherished by his brethren.
But that doesn't mean he would necessarily weep at the sight of the large, multi-story priories many of his sons and daughters now live in.

My guess is the first thing he'd ask is that his statues be moved out of sight.


Q&A to chew on

Q: What's a Franciscan's favorite grace?
"Father, all good things are of your making.
As we share these gifts of creation,
make us aware of your constant presence in our lives.
We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen."

Q: What's a Jesuit's favorite grace?
"You do have an Eighty-Two Ch√Ęteau Latour left? Thank God!"

Q: What's a Dominican's favorite grace?


A hopeful death

Bl. Jordan of Saxony records the death of St. Dominic thusly:
Meanwhile, at Bologna, Master Dominic's pilgrimage on this earth was drawing to a close and he became seriously ill. On his deathbed he summoned twelve of the more prudent brethren and, after exhorting them to be zealous in promoting the Order and persevering in holiness, he warned them against any questionable association with women, especially the young, whose attractions can be a snare for souls not solidly rooted in purity. "Behold," he said, "up to this hour the grace of God has kept my flesh unsullied; yet I confess to not escaping the fault that talks with young women affected my heart more than conversations with those who were older."
[A Spaniard to the end. And a true Christian, appreciative of the physical order yet striving for perfect charity toward all.]
Before his death he also assured his brethren that he would be of more benefit to them after death than in life, for he knew the one to whom he had entrusted the treasure of his labors and fruitful life. As for the rest, he was certain that there was laid up for him a crown of justice which would increase his power to obtain requests the more firmly it rooted him in the Lord's power.
As a result of fever and dysentery, he grew weaker and weaker, until, at last, that pious soul departed from its body and returned to the Lord, Who had given it. In return for a mournful dwelling, he received the eternal consolation of a home in heaven.
His promise to be of more benefit after death than in life is recalled in the processional O Spem Miram:
V. O wonderful hope which you gave to those who wept for you at the hour of your death, promising after your departure to be helpful to your children.
R. Fulfill, father, what you have said and help us by your prayers.
V. You who shone by so many miracles worked on the bodies of the sick, bring us the help of Christ to heal our sick souls.
R. Fulfill, father, what you have said and help us by your prayers.
V. Glory be to the Father, and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit.
R. Fulfill, father, what you have said and help us by your prayers.
V. Blessed Father Dominic, pray for us.
R. That we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.
Let us pray. O God, who did enlighten your Church with the merits and teaching of blessed Dominic, your confessor and our father; grant at his intercession that we may not be wanting in temporal help, and may always increase in spiritual growth.
Through Jesus Christ our Lord.
R. Amen.
Go here to listen to the Dominican Nuns of Estavayer-le-Lac sing the Salve Regina and the O Spem Miram (starts about 3:50 in) as they process to Our Lady's altar after Compline.


Everything primitive is new again

I've glanced at the Primitive Constitutions of the Order of Friars Preachers before, and I've adopted the view (acquired from fr. Simon Tugwell, OP) that these constitutions represent St. Dominic's major lasting gift to the Church (insofar as they're the means by which his concept of an order of preachers would endure past his death).

There's a lot of interest in the document -- particularly if you're a Dominican, of course. I used substantially the same formula of profession friars were using back in the 1230s (though in my Lay Dominican Chapter we don't prostrate ourselves before asking for God's mercy and the prior's (who is for us a moderator)). Some of it is interesting for antiquarians, and some from the perspective of imagining it were in force today:
XVII -- Scandal
If anyone shall have scandalized his brother in any way, he shall lie prostrate at his feet until the one offended is pleased to raise him.
Since reporting faults -- one's own and those of others -- was a big part of community life under the old constitutions, a lot of attention is given to enumerating "lighter," "grave," and "more grave" faults. They range from "To deny or affirm anything with an oath, as some do in speaking" (light), through "To reproach a brother for a past fault for which he has made satisfaction" (grave), and "To strike anyone" (more grave), up to the "most grave fault":
The most grievous fault is the incorrigibility of one who does not fear to admit his guilt, but refuses the penalty.
Such a one was to be kicked out of the Order; not even apostasy carried that penalty.

Though read cold on an August morning, some faults may sound frivolous (e.g., "To sleep during the class lectures"), they all reflect deep wisdom about the discipline that must be preserved and the charity that must be manifested if an order of preachers is to flourish.


Open mic day

Dominicans don't think of St. Dominic primarily as a founder or exemplar, as a historical figure or icon. He is "our Holy Father Dominic."

But if he is our father, he isn't really ours, in an exclusive sense. His office speaks of God giving St. Dominic to the Church, which is not only what happened, but what has to continue to happen. The Order of Preachers was not founded and does not persist in order to extract from the general population everyone with a sufficiently Dominican spirituality. It exists to focus, to reinforce, and to strengthen the charism of holy preaching.

A charism has two essential parts: it is a gift from God; it is given for the good of the Church. Sometimes the second part gets forgotten, or at least downplayed.

But for Dominicans today to be good children of our Holy Father Dominic -- and to be a good child is to be a faithful image; just ask Our Lord -- we must be directed toward "preaching and the salvation of souls," in the words of the Primitive Constitutions of the Friars. It may be possible to be directed toward some kinds of preaching -- though not the "holy preaching" Dominicans speak of -- without being directed toward the good of others, but if your business is the salvation of souls then you're directed outwards.

And it's this direction that measures the quality of the Dominican's preaching -- which, again, is to be a "holy preaching," a preaching consecrated to God through prayer, study, and community. There are other ways to holiness, certainly, and there are other ways to holy preaching, but the Dominican way is this particular way, a balanced composite that, if each part is maintained, is sure to produce good fruit.


Being becoming

A couple of weeks ago, Fr. Greg proposed 1 Chronicles 16:29 as "God's dress code for Church":
Worship the Lord in holy attire.
It's an interesting verse. "Worship the Lord in holy attire," is, of course, the New American Bible translation. The Vulgate is, "Adorate Dominum in decore sancto," which Douay Rheims renders, "Adore the Lord in holy becomingness." Other translations have "holy array," "the splendor of holiness," "the beauty of holiness," and even "reverent grace."

"Holy attire" is good for making the point that how we dress for Mass matters. That expression could be rendered informally as "church clothes," since to be holy is to be dedicated to God. The idea that what we wear to Mass should be something set aside, not to be used for non-religious purposes, is ... well, okay, it's extreme, except for priests, deacons, and altar servers. But the idea that our participation at Mass is a liturgical act, and that therefore how we dress for Mass is also a liturgical matter, isn't so much extreme as unthought.

What I like about the Douay Rheims's "holy becomingness" is that it encompasses attire but extends much further. We speak of a becoming modesty, a becoming honesty, a becoming gratitude -- in short, becomingness encompasses both physical appearance and the appearance of virtue.

We should worship the Lord, then, not only in our good clothes, but in our good habits. (Of course, for some people, their clothes are habits, but you see what I mean.)


Tuesday, August 01, 2006

What not to wear

Talking about what people should wear to Mass can be a dicey undertaking. Too often, it winds up as talking about what other people shouldn't wear, and that soil doesn't easily yield good fruit.

It can also wind up as telling other people what they should wear, which is often more rock than soil. "Fellow parishioner" is not a role conferring great authority in personal matters.

My guess is the reason people really don't like to be told how to dress for Mass is related to the reason that how people dress for Mass really is important. In a congregation, my appearance is what individuates me from everyone else; it's what makes me, in the eyes of someone else, this person rather than some other person, or no particular person at all. To a certain extent, saying I am wearing the wrong clothes is saying I am not choosing to be the person I ought to choose to be.

That may well be true, of course, but "You are not choosing to be the person you ought to choose to be" is not something most people have the standing to tell most people.

Another thing about conversations on how people dress at Mass is that, when people do give generalized advice, it often comes out sounding something like this: "Men, don't wear shorts. Women, don't dress like whores." That is, the question is treated as a question of propriety (or even of merely following a checklist) for men, but for women it becomes a question of modesty.

I fully realize modesty is not a besetting virtue of our culture, and that for a variety of reasons it's more of an issue for women and girls than for men and boys. But immodesty is just one reason clothes can be inappropriate for Mass, and I suspect using it to distinguish between women (and girls) and men (and boys) just gives people another reason not to listen. When the criticism directed at men is objective -- "You're wearing shorts!" -- and the criticism directed at women is subjective -- "You look like a tramp!" -- people may wonder whether there's more going on than an unbiased application of sound principles of propriety.


Coming soon to a city near me

You, too, if there's a city near you with a chapter of Third Order Dominicans of the Eastern U.S. Province. Each chapter in the Province has started, or will soon start, what we call a Siena Circle, a bible-sharing program originally developed by Fr. John Burke, OP.

Br. Bruno Shah, OP, a student brother at the Dominican House of Studies, has been assigned to work with the lay chapters on this program for the summer. I attended a workshop he gave last weekend on the theology of Bible sharing -- principally the theology of Scripture, but there's also theology involved in sharing Scripture -- and was very impressed by his learning and passion. Br. Bruno describes his assignment in a brief post on the Province's vocations blog.


A temperamental distinction

Peter Nixon, blogging at dotCommonweal, proposes a capital formula on the ever-vexing question of labeling Catholics:
If there is a single question that underlies what we might term the "liberal" tendency within the Church, it would be "Is the Gospel being heard?"
If there is a single question that underlies what we might term the "conservative" tendency within the Church, it would be "Is the Gospel being heard?"
As he illustrates with examples from Apostolic and Patristic times, these are two tendencies that have always existed in the Church. He goes on to suggest that individuals with one tendency ought to check their positions against the other:
Those whose instincts lead them to intone "Fidelity! Fidelity! Fidelty!" need to ask Paul's question about whether certain beliefs and practices are as inextricably linked to the Gospel as they believe. Those sympathetic to the "Pauline" question might do well to ask whether they are presenting the fullness of Christ or a pallid imitation that merely reflects culture rather than challenging it.
Let me just add that those with one tendency ought also to check their positions against their own tendency. Concern that the Gospel be heard can devolve into concern that the position statement be approved by consensus. Concern that the Gospel be heard can devolve into concern that the latest interview of a favored bishop be heard.

Oh, and this: Even if a particular temperament is properly associated with a particular group of people -- as above, or as in Chesterton's "progressives want to make new mistakes, conservatives want to keep making old ones" -- that doesn't mean everyone associated with the group has that temperament. "Non serviam" temperaments, for example, can make a home just about anywhere.


Monday, July 31, 2006

Summing up

Over the past couple of weeks, a lot of arguments have been offered for why an original work of art should never be altered by anyone but the artist. I think the arguments can be generally categorized as being based on justice (e.g., altering misrepresents what the artist said, or offends against his dignity, or interferes with his right to participate in the cultural conversation), on prudence (e.g., altering results in a loss to culture, altering is an act of hubris), and on art (e.g., altering interferes with sub-creation and the mediation of a particular insight into truth and beauty).

I answer that, an artist is an artist insofar as he actually makes things (either things generally, if you're defining "art" broadly, or specific kinds of things like paintings and plays, if you're defining "art" narrowly). Justice is the virtue of giving to another his due. We can only talk about justice toward artists, then, in terms of the things they actually make.

And since the things they actually make are particular things, we can only speak of justice towards artists-as-artists in particular terms -- which is to say, in regard to works of art that have particular qualities. Since, given any set of particular qualities, an artists could make a work of art that lacks this set, it follows that there are no completely general principles of justice toward artists-as-artists.

That said, the artist's vocation to reveal beauty and truth in his work must be taken into account in making prudential decisions involving works of art, be they decisions to apprehend, to display, to conceal, to engage, to alter, or to destroy. The value of a work of art is to be judged according to different standards than those used to judge the value of, say, a bridge or a financial statement.

Given all this, I think the arguments against alteration can be reclassified into these three groups: romanticized but specious claims of special rights for artists; asserting various implications that follow from a work of art possessing certain qualities, which necessarily presupposes some artistic and prudential judgment of whether a particular work possesses the qualities; and insisting that the implication following from a work of art possessing certain qualities be applied to all works of art, for fear that an improper judgment might be made in a particular case. Note that none of these groups contain a valid, general prohibition on altering an original work of art.


Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Obligatory blogging warning

Expect blogging to occur the next few weeks...


Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Trial principles

I've had a couple of suggestions in response to the request in the last post for "general principles that might be proposed for thinking Michelangelo was right" -- by which, now that I think about it, I really meant that the subsequent drapers were wrong.

Rob writes:
... when you consider the Pope's characterization of an artist as a kind of "sub-creator", and when you consider how poorly designed Man is in many ways from an "engineering" point of view, and yet that we are as we *should be* because that's the way God put us together, then perhaps the output of an artist should be left unchanged by others for similar reasons.
The thing that I think follows is that the artist (I think) has the right to say (like God), "The thing is as I made it." That doesn't, in the case of the artist mean that it's good. But it does mean (I think) that the artist has a the same kind of right to insist that his work not be modified without his permission as any father has to say, "Don't dare hit my kid." It doesn't mean that the kid doesn't need to be hit, but that the father reserves the right to do the hitting.
It's an interesting notion, I think, but it seems to be based on a faulty analogy. It draws attention to how sub-creation is to creation, when what counts is how sub-creator is to Creator.

Maybe the only thing the Manichees got right is that our attitude toward creation follows from our attitude toward the Creator. If the cosmos had been created by an evil demiurge, then hatred for matter would be right doctrine.

As it is, creation is good not because that's the way God put it together, but because the God who put it together is good. When "God looked at everything He had made," He didn't declare it very good, as though establishing a sort of divine positive law; "He found it very good."

But if it's the goodness (in fact, the perfection) of the Creator that determines how we ought to respond to creation, it's by no means incidental to how we ought to respond to sub-creation that the sub-creators are imperfectly good. The very step required by the analogy is where nothing analogous exists.

Along a somewhat different tack, Anonny proposes:
Art bears the mark of the artist(s), serves as an expression of some glimpse of beauty and truth in God's creation by a human person or persons, and enriches the culture and the common good. Art comes in the form of discrete, crafted works, the nature of which involves internal coherence even in fine details. Thus, out of respect for the artist, the nature of art and the importance of art to the common good, artwork ought to be received as the artist created it, to the extent such is compatible with the common good. At the same time, no artist has a right to have artwork be received at all by any particular group or individual, and on this basis, artwork may be rejected if failure to do so would objectively harm the good.
I think I can basically sign on to the spirit of this, but only because of the phrase "to the extent such is compatible with the common good." And once you've included that in your principle, it becomes a question of particulars: to what extent is this work of art compatible with the common good?

I would also want some caveats around the first two sentences. I would say the place of art is to enrich the culture and the common good by expressing beauty and truth, which as you see isn't the same as saying that art does these things. And the "internal coherence even in fine details" may be required of art (though I'm not sure how far I'd push the point), but I understand Anonny to be mentioning this with an eye toward arguing from an artistic perspective against even minor changes, and in that context I don't think "internal coherence" carries much prescriptive weight.

Still, there is something about the dignity of the artistic vocation to mediate beauty (if we can oversimplify) that calls upon a somewhat different set of common or general laws when we're considering a product of human reason from an aesthetic perspective rather than a practical one.

And just to be clear: By "the dignity of the artistic vocation to mediate beauty," I mean a distinct dignity of a distinct vocation. Whether or in what sense that dignity can be said to be higher than those of other human activities is a separate question.


Monday, July 24, 2006

A case in point

One of the best-known examples of a work of art being modified against the wishes of the artist is Michelangelo's "The Last Judgment." From the moment it was first seen, the nudity of the figures was controversial, and after the Council of Trent decreed (twenty-some years later) that "nothing that is profane, nothing indecorous," was to be placed in a church, various draperies were added to cover the more indecorous elements.

Nowadays, Michelangelo is generally held to have been right, and efforts have been made to restore the work to its original form. We snicker at the prudishness of those sixteenth century philistines (one of whom wound up immortalized in the lower part of the painting).

But, really, why do we think Michelangelo was right? On what do we base our judgment? My guess is that everyone's reasons can be looked at as based in part on particulars, in part on principles, and in part on prejudices.

A particular reason would hold that, in this case, the nudity happens to be better than the drapery, that for this fresco on this wall in this chapel, Michelangelo's version is superior. It may be "better" or "superior" because it's a better work of art, or even simply because Michelangelo was a better artist than those who followed him, and the more we can experience his vision the better.

The prejudices are obvious and can be expressed in either particular (e.g., "Michelangelo knows best") or general ("Prudes are losers") terms.

What I'm really interested in are the general principles that might be proposed for thinking Michelangelo was right. This is, I think, something of a stressing situation: it's a commissioned work, so the artist isn't free to do absolutely anything, nor does he own it afterwards; it's a fresco, so it can't be moved; it's for a chapel, so it can't be profane or indecorous; it's for a pope, which raises unique concerns for scandal.