Fr. Slater’s book on Bernard of Clairvaux is precious to me not simply as a good friend’s fine accomplishment. It is, for me, preciously timely. That’s because I had just been puzzling once again why it is that Bernard plays such a climactic role in the unfolding of Dante’s The Divine Comedy.
I’ve begun re-reading the work of David Jones, the Anglo-Welsh poet and artist and champion of the sacred and the crafted (what he called the extra-utile). Jones was a proponent of sacramental poetics, among the few really able to behold art as efficacious sign—the symbol that is also what it symbolizes, or a window upon that other world that art allows to show forth.
Maybe one of the most Catholic things about Kirstin Valdez Quade’s novel The Five Wounds is the overall feeling you may have watching these characters stumbling through their lives that obtaining happiness is not the point of those lives. Loving is the point. And loving means self-sacrifice. One thing that is incredibly hard to sacrifice is the idol.
In some ways, Christian literature has for two millennia been seeking and finding new ways to tell the Gospel Story. You can see it in the Arthur Story and other fantasy fiction. Even a great modernist poet like David Jones has little else for material than the Mass, or the sacrifice it is understood to recreate.
I am describing Gene Wolfe’s magnum opus, the epic ‘science-fantasy’ known altogether as the Solar Cycle, for the series which comprise it are called The Book of the New Sun (with its sequel The Urth of the New Sun), The Book of the Long Sun, and The Book of the Short Sun. Of these, I have read only the first four novels (the top two volumes of my pile), the Book of the New Sun.
I can say, with joy and gratitude, that Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete was one of my mentors, and for a brief and very charmed time in my life, as I studied theology at the Pope John Paul II Institute in Washington DC in my early twenties, my way of seeing reality was permanently and dramatically changed by him. He gave me an infinite horizon.
He liked to be called El Santo (Spanish for “the Saint”). In almost anyone else on the planet it would be considered a sort of spiritual vanity or pretension. But in the case of Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete, it was both a joke and a piece of deep theological wisdom.
I think God’s miracles come in all shapes and sizes, and that many are mistaken for simple chance. We miss seeing them for what they are every day. The miracle at the heart of In Things Unseen is both big and small, in that it affects the entire world yet is only known by four people. In other words, it’s a personal miracle on a public stage.
In a suffering world, habits of mercy make strong medicine. The eighteenth-century Hasidic master, Rabbi Zusya of Hanipol, once said, “All God does is mercy. Only that the world cannot bear the naked fill of his mercy, and so he has sheathed it in garments.”
I’m after accomplished poets who can’t stay away from those classic Catholic themes – suffering, death, sex, the pattern of sin and redemption – and habits – self-examination, ritual, memory, the honoring of community over self. Above all, there’s the centrality of the body as contested locus of power and punishment, pleasure and pain.
For the past few months, I have made a practice of reading a portion of the Psalms daily. My goal has been to read—out loud if I can—one of the twenty kathisma, or traditional divisions of the Psalter that are observed in Eastern Orthodox monasticism.
Each Lent, my wife and I read Christ on Trial: How the Gospel Unsettles our Judgement, by former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams. This brilliant book is a close reading of the scenes in each of the four Gospels where Jesus is on trial before the authorities, as well as a close-reading of readers’ own hearts.