August 14, 2016, Friday – More, Newman and Now

From Oxford to Canterbury….

“Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages…
And specially from every shires ende
Of Engelond, to Caunterbury they wende,
The hooly blisful martir for to seke
That hem hath holpen, whan that they were seeke.”
—Geoffrey Chaucer, late 1300s, The Canterbury Tales, General Prologue, where Chaucer introduces his pilgrims, who in some sense are all men and women; the lines are in Middle English and mean: “Then folk do long to go on pilgrimages… And especially from every shire’s end of England they to Canterbury do wend, the holy blessed martyr (St. Thomas a Becket, assassinated on December 29, 1170 in Canterbury cathedral) there to seek, who has helped them, when they were sick…”

“The many great gardens of the world, of literature and poetry, of painting and music, of religion and architecture, all make the point as clear as possible: The soul cannot thrive in the absence of a garden. If you don’t want paradise, you are not human; and if you are not human, you don’t have a soul.” ― Thomas More, Utopia (1515-1516)

“Why do you suppose they made you king in the first place?’ I ask him. ‘Not for your benefit, but for theirs. They meant you to devote your energies to making their lives more comfortable, and protecting them from injustice. So your job is to see that they’re all right, not that you are – just as a shepherd’s job, strictly speaking, is to feed his sheep, not himself.” ― Thomas More, also from Utopia

“With Christians, a poetical view of things is a duty. We are bid to color all things with hues of faith, to see a divine meaning in every event.”― John Henry Newman (1801-1890)

“You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.
And what the dead had no speech for, when living,
They can tell you, being dead: the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.
Here, the intersection of the timeless moment
Is England and nowhere. Never and always.” —T.S. Eliot, The Four Quartets, Little Gidding (1943)

“Tongued with Fire”

I write from England.

With a small group of pilgrims, we have been “wending our way” from Oxford down the Thames to London and on to the sea near Canterbury.

(Below, a view from the interior of the Church of St. Augustine of Canterbury in Ramsgate, Kent, out through a side door which opens onto a garden, with the sea beyond, which I visited today. It is not far from the spot where St. Augustine landed in England in 597, on the mission given to him by Pope Gregory the Great, who reigned from 590 to 604, to convert the English to Christianity. this church was built by the renowned architect Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin — most famous for his designs of the Houses of Parliament in Westminster — between 1845 and his death in 1852. It is the pinnacle and most personal of Pugin’s designs, “full of the character of its designer.” So this place may with some justice be called the place where the Christian faith arrived in England more than 1,400 years ago…)

After visiting the Bavaria of Emeritus Pope Benedict in late June and early July, then the Russia and Ukraine of the Slavic heirs of Byzantium in mid-July, then again Rome in late July, on an ongoing search for a way forward “in the cleft of the rock” between modernity and medievalism, a way forward for a civilization without real cities and a culture without real cultivation, I came here 10 days ago, to England — to Oxford, to London, to Canterbury.

We pilgrims are seeking that “communication of the dead, tongued with fire” that Eliot speaks of in Little Gidding.

That is, we seek to listen to what in this place, in this time, in an England post-Empire, post-Brexit, may offer insight into a possible way forward in our new sort of desert, our present cultural desert of the heart, in the “culture of death” that St. John Paul II so strongly warned us about…

Our present Bishop of Rome, likewise, Pope Francis, was not wrong when he warned us in his May 24, 2015 environmental encyclical Laudato Si’ that our planet does face an ecological tragedy, that we have poisoned things we should have kept pure, that we must be better stewards, lest all our children suffer…

Each of us is responsible for tending this garden which is in danger of becoming a desert.

We must find a way to renew this garden, make it bloom again, also spiritually — a way worthy of all those heroic men and women who have gone before us.

We all have to find a way to heal this “wasteland” which we all vaguely sense is spreading and seeping out around us, the shrunken aquifers, the polluted seas, the altered foods — this country of both body and soul where the king has grown increasingly pallid, and the Grail that might heal him has been hidden or lost…

What is the right medicine for our present malaise, where leaders speak of nuclear war as a part of a “tool-kit” of diplomacy, and aborted embryo parts are bought and sold and experimented on?

What medicine can heal us?

That is the question that has brought me to Oxford, on the banks of the Thames, several dozen miles west of London — there the Thames is called the Isis, a word that has taken on a new meaning in our time…

My purpose has been to take the pulse of our own Western culture, in a country dear to me because I owe my language to England…

Likewise, many of the deepest of my childhood’s formative myths come from here, from the tales of Arthur, his Round Table, his 12 knights, to the children in Narnia who spoke with animals, to the hobbits of the Shire who trekked to dusty and volcanic Mordor to destroy the ring of power and save their Shire, though, as Frodo said, not for him…

Also, some of my ancestors come from England — though my name is Irish. The Elder William Brewster, minister on the Mayflower, is my 17th-time grandfather.

Likewise Roger Williams, founder of Providence, who defended the American Indians and their equal humanity, the “ensoul-ed-ness” of their being.

These men came through sea-spray and bitter cold, and much discomfort and death, to the coasts of Massachusetts and Rhode Island some 400 years ago.

Their consciences were strong, and they lived in accordance with those consciences, trying to live coherent lives, sacrificing much to live the coherence they perceived.

After 400 years, I have come back to these shores to make a pilgrimage in the footsteps of St. Thomas More and Blessed John Henry Newman, two men who also wrestled with their consciences, and who paid a high price for their desire to be coherent with the exigent truth that they discerned after long intellectual and spiritual labor, and much anguished thought.

One, More, lost his life, but gained an eternal name for steadfast adherence, without rancor but unyielding as flint, to the doctrinal truth of the Christian Church as he had come to believe it, headed by the successor of Peter, and not the king, not any king. More was executed in 1535 by the king who had been his friend, Henry VIII.

The other, Newman, lost his position in society, the British Anglican society of the 1840s, the early Victorian period. After losing that, he lost his family (one sister never spoke to him again), his friends, his reputation for prudence and right thinking, and even his living, all because he had read his way, through the Church Fathers, into the Roman Catholic Church, and had decided he had to act on that conclusion. He entered the Catholic Church at Littlemore, outside of Oxford, in October of 1845, almost 175 years ago now…

I went to Littlemore, and stood in the room where Newman stood as he awaited the visit, in the pouring rain, of the Pope’s nuncio to England in the 1840s, on the evening of October 8, 1845, Blessed Dominic Barberi.

In the corner of the room at the Littlemore Oratory, there is a doorway to the outside. When Barberi entered the room, after traveling all day in the rain, Newman fell at his feet, and asked Barberi to hear his confession and receive him into the Church. Barberi, exhausted and shivering from the pouring rain which had soaked him, said it was all very well, but that they would do the confession and acceptance into the Church the next morning, if Newman would have the patience to agree to wait one more night…

And so this visit to England has been, once again, a journey in part into my own past, and into the mystery of the “now but not yet” which seems to mark all of our seeking in the continuing pilgrimage which is this life.

What the English contribute to this search, in particular, is that unexpected and rare balance between conscience and “good form,” between reason and intransigent conviction, between the willingness to risk all — life, liberty and sacred honor, everything — but always in good form… after tea, as it were, so that the “enthusiasm” (which Monsignor Ronald Knox unforgettably and importantly warned us about) that fills so many souls is tempered by the natural grace we call human kindness and common sense, a type of medicine for the madness of fixations perhaps best summed up in a simple word like courtesy.

A strange alchemy, this synthetic British spirituality, rooted in stubborn adherence to principle, but blossoming into the eloquent paradoxes of G.K. Chesterton and the refined theological clarifications of C.S. Lewis in his Mere Christianity and also in his Tales of Narnia, and perhaps most movingly in the inventions of an entire world from the mind and pen of J.R.R. Tolkien, in his The Lord of the Rings, where the ringbearer-hero can no longer bear his burden, and would, in fact, fail, if in the end he would not be carried to the goal by his good friend Sam, until all their mission is unexpectedly accomplished.

We began in Oxford, and attended daily Mass at the Oratory where the Chesterton Library is now preserved.

The priest there, Father Jerome Bertram, delivered thoughtful homilies and took us into the library, and later, out to Newman’s Littlemore.

Bertram described how Chesterton’s library was about to be dispersed at the time of his death, until Aidan Mackey, a Catholic layman, began to gather up boxes of books to preserve them from diaspora and possible destruction. So the library was preserved, and one can see it today, including little drawings made by Chesterton in some of the pages of his books…

There is cataloging still to do, and new bookcases should be purchased, but the Oxford Oratory lacks the funds to care for Chesterton’s library in the way it should be cared for. I urge any reader who feels moved to support the library to do so. If you write to me, I will put you directly in touch with good Father Jerome.

Then off to dine at The Eagle and Child, the pub where Tolkien and C.S. Lewis and others of the “Inklings,” as their literary group was called, often dined. I saw photos of them there, their rumpled suits, their century-old pale faces, and thanked them for having gifted to me a share in their vision of a possible Christo-centric world, where men and women can live with logos, with this-worldly study and art and song, and yet with their mind’s eye turned toward eternity even in the midst of time.

(The Tower of London — the room where Thomas More was held prisoner for 15 months before his execution in July of 1535; the window looks out over the Thames)

Yesterday in London, I was privileged to enter the room in the Tower of London where St. Thomas More was held for the last 15 months of his life, from April 1534 until his execution in July of 1535.

Standing in that stony room, with a bit of light from the August sun slanting in from the side of the Tower that fronts the river, I sensed the presence of a man whose model of life would offer hope to our own country at this sad time, when both conviction and courtesy are out of fashion, and the rhetoric of leadership has little to distinguish it from the taunts of the muscular, long-haired wrestlers on the RAW channel which plays in our hotel late at night.

“The king’s good servant, but God’s first.”

These words of Thomas More summarize a hierarchy of action and conviction which Hillary and Donald and all of their various supporters and defenders would do well to remember.

Our country was not built purely by private business or banking interests.

We were intended to be a “city on a hill” because we were intended to pursue the common good in and through our business and science, not simply private wealth and pleasure.

The calculation was meant to be one of a hierarchy, in which the country would be protected and healed through the individual efforts and sacrifices of many citizens.

We were not meant to buy and sell our country for private profit, but to protect and preserve her for our descendants, who would thank us for our wisdom and restraint.

In the room where Thomas More awaited his execution, I reflected on the fortitude of a soul which can wake up each day knowing that in a few days or hours, the neck will be severed and life will end.

And despite this knowledge, More held fast.

He wrote his prayers, consoled his daughter, defended himself as best he could, and through his witness sent a message to our own time: if a society has such men in it, that society can endure into a future of hope and integrity.

Watered by their blood, the soil of such a country becomes sanctified, and brings forth new generations of thoughtful men and women, and the nation lives.

But if a society does not have such men, and women, in it, its soil is depleted, and the humus turns to dust, and the integrity of the nation is not nourished, and the future of the nation grows dark.

It is the triumph of a Sauran, of a Mordor, of a thick cloud of intellectual darkness, in the hearts and minds of the people.

These are among the thoughts that passed through my mind as I spent an hour yesterday morning in memory and prayer in the Tower of London, in the room where Thomas More awaited his death…

(to be continued)

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What is the glory of God?

“The glory of God is man alive; but the life of man is the vision of God.” —St. Irenaeus of Lyons, in the territory of France, in his great work Against All Heresies, written c. 180 A.D.

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