August 28, 2010

In defense of the new Missal

The Roman Missal
And so the long-awaited new English translation of the Roman Missal was approved by the Vatican and will be implemented throughout the United States starting Advent 2011 (here is the new web site prepared to help the faithful prepare for the transition). However, while the order and structure of the Mass will not change, there will be some changes in the wording of prayers and responses. Of course, this new translation is not without controversy, but in my honest/humble opinion it is a welcome and much needed change. Here is what Father George W. Rutler, pastor of the Church of Our Saviour in New York City, has to say in defence of this “reform of the reform”:

Publicly owned corporations are more accountable to their shareholders than tenured bureaucracies, which may explain why it took the Ford Motor Company only two years to cancel its Edsel, and not much longer for Coca Cola to restore its “classic” brand, while the Catholic Church has taken more than a generation of unstopped attrition to try to correct the mistakes of overheated liturgists. The dawning of the Age of Aquarius is now in its sunset repose and the bright young things who seem to be cropping up now all over the place with new information from Fortescue and Ratzinger, may either be the professional mourners for a lost civilization, or the sparks of a looming golden age.

One thing is certain to a pastor: the only parishioners fighting the old battles are old themselves, their felt banners frayed and their guitar strings broken, while a young battalion is rising, with no animus against the atrophied adolescence of their parents, and only eager to engage a real spiritual combat in a culture of death. They usually are ignorant, but bright, for ignorance is not stupidity.

Our Lord warned enough about the experts of his day who loved long tassels, and who swore by the gold of the temple rather than the temple, to stay us from placing too much hope in ritual and texts to save lives. Neglect of the aesthetics of worship is not remedied by the worship of aesthetics. A pastor will sometimes observe an over-reaction to the corruption of the Liturgy, so that ritual becomes theatre and Andrei Rubleyev yields to Aubrey Beardsley. Any group or religious community that is too deliberate about external form sows in itself the seeds of decadence.

Liturgy should be chantable, reverent, and expressive of the highest culture we know, without self-consciousness. Ars est celare artem. In tandem with Ovid, for whom it is art to conceal art, Evelyn Waugh said that Anthony Eden was not a gentleman because he dressed too well. It is typical of some schismatic sects that the more they lapse into heresy, the more ritualistic they become. So one will see pictures of a woman claiming to be a bishop, vested like Pius X on his jubilee. [...]

Fr. Philip Neri Powell is right: go read the full post and give thanks to God!

August 22, 2010

The burning of charity, the cry of the heart

Let your desire be before Him; and the Father, who sees in secret, shall reward you. (Matthew 6:6) For it is your heart's desire that is your prayer; and if your desire continues uninterrupted, your prayer continues also. For not without a meaning did the Apostle say, Pray without ceasing. (1 Thessalonians 5:17) Are we to be without ceasing bending the knee, prostrating the body, or lifting up our hands, that he says, Pray without ceasing? Or if it is in this sense that we say that we pray, this, I believe, we cannot do without ceasing. There is another inward kind of prayer without ceasing, which is the desire of the heart. Whatever else you are doing, if you do but long for that Sabbath, you do not cease to pray. If you would never cease to pray, never cease to long after it. The continuance of your longing is the continuance of your prayer. You will be ceasing to speak, if you cease to long for it. Who are those who have ceased to speak? They of whom it is said, Because iniquity shall abound, the love of many shall wax cold. (Matthew 24:12) The freezing of charity is the silence of the heart; the burning of charity is the cry of the heart. If love continues still you are still lifting up your voice; if you are always lifting up your voice, you are always longing after something; if always longing for something absent, you are calling the Sabbath rest to remembrance.

~ Augustine of Hippo, Exposition on Psalm 38 (13).
Translated by J.E. Tweed. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 8. Edited by Philip Schaff. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1888.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight.

August 20, 2010

The last of the Romans

Time for another post about books. But this time the subject is more an author and his work in general than a specific book. And this just because I can’t think of one of this author’s books without thinking of the others too. Not that I have read them all …, actually only four : Empire of Dragons, Ides of March, Akropolis. La grande epopea di Atene (which is not translated in English), and The Last Legion, that was sold to a major film production in the US—the homonymous film, starring Colin Firth and Ben Kingsley, was released in 2007 (see Wikipedia). I’m talking about Valerio Massimo Manfredi (website).

Manfredi is an Italian historian and archaeologist who since 1978 has spent his time teaching in several European and American universities, digging ruins in the Mediterranean and in the Middle East, and writing novels, including the enormously successful Alexander trilogy, published in thirty-six languages in fifty-five countries. His wife, Christine Fedderson Manfredi, translates his published works from Italian to English. Manfredi was voted Man of the Year 1999 by the American Biographical Institute.

Of course, most of Manfredi’s novels are historical fiction, and that’s just the reason why I started reading them—I love history much more than literature (especially fiction) per se. The first novel I read by Manfredi, a couple of years ago, was The Last Legion. I thoroughly enjoyed it. It exceeded my (not so high) expectations in several ways: well written, fascinating, never boring, the kind of “books that give you emotions and enrich your soul with values and ideas,” as Manfredi himself said in an interview. The story is set in the 5th century, notably at the time of the collapse of the Western Roman Empire under its last Emperor, Romulus Augustus. This is coupled with other facts and legends from the history of Britain and fantastic elements from the legend of King Arthur. Enough to make me stop reading … in other circumstances, but not in this one.

Obviously, as Professor of Classical Archaeology, Manfredi has extensive knowledge about the classical world, which helps him enormously when he writes about the age in which the story is set, but asked “how much research is still involved when he writes a new book,” he answered that

technical knowledge is just grammar, basic elements on which one recreates a credible environment from which also the story and the characters take credibility. Language, mentality, gestures, costumes, landscape, food, climate, everything must be impeccably authentic and has to be recreated in the most natural way. Yes, sometimes you have to check some detail in the sources because you can't remember everything by heart but the real task is to blow passion and feelings in the dramatis personae and in their actions. You have to recognize what part of those men and women survives in you as a modern man, how deep your roots go in the ground.

But then again, although in Manfredi’s own words, “It’s only a question of quality, intensity, visionary capacity,” his “technical knowledge”—or, better still, both his “technical knowledge” of and his genuine passion for the classical world (and the combination of the two)—is one of the reasons, if not the main reason, why I am tempted to say that he is a unique case in the recent history of world literature. Another reason is his sense of mystery. Again in Manfredi’s own words,

In an overpopulated world, in a swarm that loves the reflectors and kills the mystery, people need to dream. When I was a child and lived in the country, you could perceive the unknown just going out in the night. Trees’ branches like giants, the owl’s cry, everything was big, magic, frightening. Nowadays they’re WWF’s affairs...

However, in the case of The Last Legion, the mystery is intriguing—one of the main characters is a certain Ambrosinus, whose real (Druid) name is Merlin…—but not the main object of the novel, but rather it is the relations between Romans and barbarians: an extraordinarily well-crafted piece of European and Western history that should be read in schools.

In the case of Empire of Dragons, instead, the main object is not, despite the appearances to the contrary, the extraordinary Chinese adventures of Marcus Metellus Aquila—legate of the Second Augusta Legion, hero of the empire—but rather it is the ancient Roman concept of virtus, which included strength and courage, poverty and frugality (“so highly and continuously honored”). Fides, constantia, dignitas ... the virtues of Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, the famed farmer-soldier who saved the state of Rome from the Sabines …

What a great history lesson, and what a wave of nostalgia.

August 17, 2010

In Memoriam: Francesco Cossiga

Former Italian president Francesco Cossiga has died. A man with sharp intelligence and a biting sense of humor, he was a veteran politician and a leading figure in the Christian Democrat party that ruled Italy for most of the post-war period before collapsing in disgrace in the early 1990s. He was also a staunch backer of the US during the Cold War, and remained such until his death.

He once described himself as a “wildcat that it is better not to scratch,” and possibly he was right. But he was, first and foremost, a gentleman and an old-fashioned Christian. As president from 1985 to 1992, he used the largely ceremonial, head-of-state role to publicly lambaste—through legendary and fiery interviews and speeches that earned him the nickname of the “picconatore” (literally somebody wielding a pickaxe)—parliament and the judiciary in what the best part of public opinion saw as an effort to spur reform in an increasingly inefficient, moribund postwar system of revolving door coalition governments. Thus he paved the way for the new conservative governments of Italy, but he also became a point of reference for the Italian “riformisti” (the moderates of the Left, unfortunately a species threatened with extinction …).

Emblematic of both his sense of humor and his anti-leftism, commenting in 2007 on the September 11 attacks and on a video attributed to Osama Bin Laden, he wrote on the Corriere della Sera newspaper that “all of the democratic circles of America and of Europe, especially those of the Italian center-left, now know well that the disastrous attack was planned and realized by the American CIA and Mossad with the help of the Zionist world in order to place the blame on Arabic Countries and to persuade the Western powers to intervene in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Many will miss him, including myself, here in Italy. Rest in peace, Mr. President, and thank you for all you have done. We will never forget you.

August 11, 2010

The Seven Storey Mountain

A few notes on one of my summer reads, The Seven Storey Mountain, by Thomas Merton. I had read some other books by the same author in the past, i.e., New Seeds of Contemplation and The Silent Life, but had never taken the time to read Thomas Merton’s breakthrough autobiography. It has been an unexpected discovery under many points of view—both positive and negative, if I may say so. What is certain is that it has been an interesting, worthwhile read.

Who says, “My life is mine and mine alone” should have a read of The Seven Storey Mountain, a book which tells the story of a young man who, from no religion at all, became a Catholic and entered the Order of Cistercian of the Strict Observance—the Trappists—at Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky. A story that demonstrates, perhaps once and for all, that no one is the master of his own destiny, that “the way of man is not in himself: it is not in man that walketh to direct his steps.” (Jeremiah 10: 23). That we must have access to God and His nature if we will ever live the right way, the way He lives. That we must recognize God’s will as more important than our own desires. As the famous Prayer of Thomas Merton goes (Thoughts in Solitude),

My God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always, though I may seem to be lost in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

And as the closing words of the book read:

But you shall taste the true solitude of My anguish and My poverty and I shall lead you into the high places of My joy and you shall die in Me and find all things in My mercy which has created you for this end, and brought you from Prades to Bermuda to St. Antonin to Oakham to London to Cambridge to Rome to New York to Columbia to Corpus Christi and St Bonaventure to the Cistercian abbey of the poor men who labor in Gethsemani: that you may become the brother of God and learn to know the Christ of the burnt men. Sit finis libri, non finis quaerendi.

At the same time, perhaps paradoxically, the whole of Merton’s life is such an American story, in an Emersonian sense: “All life is an experiment. The more experiment you make the better” (“Experience”). By the way, this might also be, in my very humble opinion, the meaning of those Latin words, Sit finis libri, non finis quaerendi (Let this be the end of the book, but not of the search). As a matter of fact, Merton’s “complexities” manifested themselves in many ways previous and following Seven Storey Mountain’s publication, e.g. in his various attempts to leave the Trappist Order for the Carthusian and Camaldolese eremitical orders—in the mid-1950s he tried to obtain an authorized transfer from the Abbey of Gethsemani to the Sacro Eremo (the hermit village) of the Monastery of Camaldoli in Italy, a wonderful place that I know very well, si parva licet …. And above all, as author and Thomas Merton expert Mark Shaw discovered through seven volumes of Merton’s private journals, released in the mid-1990s, there existed a more human side to Merton causing one of the most important spiritual writers of the twentieth century to suffer and admit, “The depressions are deeper, more frequent. I am near fifty. People think I am happy.” After all, it has been said that the essence of Merton’s spirituality itself is the “humanity” of it. And at the beginning of 1966 he wrote in his journals that he yearned to love, but there was no woman to love, and obviously monastic rules forbade it. But later on, while recovering in a hospital from back surgery, a student nurse half his age named Margie Smith soothed his pain with a sponge bath and it was love at first sight ... but it was an unconsummated “love affair.” Eighteen months later, he had to choose between Margie, the woman he called, “a miracle in my life,” or the God who had saved his soul. When he finally chose, says Mark Shaw, Merton emerged renewed: stronger and surer than he would have been without being tested by such a shattering conflict.

Well, this may not be exactly what one could call an example of monastic discipline and conduct, but to be honest, after reading The Seven Storey Mountain, it would be inexact to say that I was surprised by that discovery … If ever, what surprises me most is that such a man as the young Thomas Merton could have become what he eventually became. And this is the real miracle, this is what I was talking about when I said, along with Jeremiah, that this story demonstrates that “the way of man is not in himself.” We are all in the hands of God.

What else? Well, I have loved his profound and insightful thoughts on a subject that is very dear to me, the Gregorian chant:

How mighty they are, those hymns and those antiphons of the Easter office! Gregorian chant that should, by rights, be monotonous, because it has absolutely none of the tricks and resources of modern music, is full of a variety infinitely rich because it is subtle and spiritual and deep, and lies rooted far beyond the shallow level of virtuosity and 'technique,' even in the abysses of the spirit, and of the human soul. Those Easter 'alleluias,' without leaving the narrow range prescribed by the eight Gregorian modes, have discovered color and warmth and meaning and gladness that no other music possesses. Like everything else Cistercian—like the monks themselves—these antiphons, by submitting to the rigor of a Rule that would seem to destroy individuality, have actually acquired a character that is unique, unparalleled.
But the cold stones of the Abbey church ring with a chant that glows with living flame, with a clean, profound desire. It is an austere warmth, the warmth of Gregorian chant. It is deep beyond ordinary emotion, and that is one reason why you never get tired of it. It never wears you out by making a lot of cheap demands on your sensibilities. Instead of drawing you out into the open field of feelings where your enemies, the devil and your own imagination and the inherent vulgarity of your own corrupted nature can get at you with their blades and cut you to pieces, it draws you within, where you are lulled in peace and recollection and where you find God.

Isn’t that absolutely amazing? It would be enough to make me a lifelong fan of Thomas Merton. But there is more. Much more. Take this, for instance:

Not all men are called to be hermits, but all men need enough silence and solitude in their lives to enable the deep inner voice of their own true self to be heard at least occasionally. When that inner voice is not heard, when man cannot attain to the spiritual peace that comes from being perfectly at one with his own true self, his life is always miserable and exhausting.” [The Silent Life]

August 8, 2010

No real news here...

A quick update on the recent developments in Italian politics. Well, nothing has really happened (so far), don’t let you fool by appearances. In fact, as the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung puts it, “Sie [Die Italiener] haben sich, Staatspräsident Napolitano vorneweg, in die Ferien verabschiedet” (The Italians have gone on holiday, with President Napolitano at the top of the list) … An excellent article indeed.

Sorry for the long silence

Sorry for the long silence from me. I‘m still on vacation—ah the long holidays of teachers …—and I had been having unexpected problems with accessing the Internet in the past two weeks, in the mountain valleys of Tuscany (as far as compensation I had been reading a lot). Where I am now it’s much better, and I plan to be more regular with posting. See you soon!