Guest Post by Fra José Maria Barbin, FI: The Beautiful Struggle

I am pleased to post here an essay of one of our friars, Fra José Maria Barbin on the subject of the imagination and Marian Chivalry.  I am thoroughly in accord with his insights and am grateful for his contribution.

In conjunction with I can heartily recommend also the teaser videos of Kevin O’Brien and Joseph Pearce on Tolkien. The ETWN production, and the talents of Kevin and Mr. Pearce, make looks the $10 that they are asking look like robbery.

And now. . . 

The Beautiful Struggle: “Sanctifying the Imagination”

All things come from God; and above all, reason and imagination and the great gifts of the mind. They are good in themselves; and we must not altogether forget their origin even in their perversion.

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Guest Post from Kevin O’Brien on Don Quixote

My friend Kevin O’Brien over at Waiting for Godot to Leave, has kindly given me permission to cross-post his excellent essay “Approaching what is Real: Don Quixote, God, and the Rest of Us.”  I have covered the here the differences between true and ephemeral chivalry before.  But it is extraordinarily important and I very much appreciate Kevin’s perspective.  Reality is our friend as much as it hurts us to admit it.

For they had bartered the reality of God for what is unreal, and had offered divine honors and religious service to created things, rather than to the Creator–He who is for ever blessed. Amen. (Rom. 1:25)

As we drive around the country performing murder mystery dinner theater shows, my actress Maria Romine and I listen to audio books.  We’ve lately been listening to Don Quixote, the unabridged version, read very well by George Guidall.

It’s a 40 hour long production, and we’re only about five hours into it.  But we’re listening to parts that I’ve never read (my printed version is abridged).

We’ve come to the “pastoral interlude” where Don Quixote and Sancho Panza are spending time with some shepherds.  We are beginning to learn that Don Quixote is not the only madman who’s a bit too idealistic for his own good.  While Don Quixote has been inspired to become a knight errant, a group of well-fed suburban yuppies have been inspired to become shepherds and live out a kind of pastoral romance while not at the shopping mall.

In this interlude, we hear Don Quixote wax eloquently on the “golden age”, a mythical era of chivalry that sounds as if it is set in the Garden of Eden before the Fall.  Then we hear one of the yuppies who’s living as a shepherd wax eloquently on his “lady”, the disdainful woman he’s pursuing, whose scorning of him leads literally to his death.  We also hear from the pursued lady herself, and while Don Quixote bravely rushes to her defense, her own idealism – a kind of haughty virginity, a sort of smug isolationism – is as strained as the rather contrived love of the yuppie shepherds who dote on her.  Their romance is not quite love and her celibacy is not quite purity.

And that’s the way we often are, even when we’re at our best.  The reason this novel is brilliant is that it examines the complexities of idealism and cynicism.  Don Quixote, the yuppies, their lady – all are really quite mad in a way, and yet all are following ideals – ideals that they can’t quite seem to make work in the real world.  (Kind of like all of us!)  And somehow everyone around them gets sucked in to the yarns they’re spinning – and yet this is not entirely a bad thing.

What does this have to do with the Faith?

I write a lot on about Unreality.  This is my word for our proclivity to live a lie, a comfortable and apparently controllable lie, rather than living the truth.  We know what it means to “get real” with someone; getting “unreal” is just the opposite.  Unreality is marked by things that are contrived, artificial, and somehow dishonest or untrue.  Examples are Oregon Catholic Press music at Mass, bad art and architecture in the churches, the extremely artificial and contrived weirdness of “Christian Courtship“, the false camaraderie of certain groups, cheesy literature and drama (such as Hallmark movies and certain self-consciously Christian films) – and also so much of what we see in the secular culture, especially our favorite fantasy that sex and gender are whatever we choose to make of them, our insane insistence that sex has no correspondence with nature or with reality – and our illusion that meaning has no correspondence with life, that meaning is imposed on life, not discovered in life, etc.

This is all dreadful stuff.  And in a way, Unreality is simply a word for sin.  Indeed, the Laws of Morality and Faith that God has revealed to us are simply the roadmap to Reality (and Heaven) and the Commandments are the “Do Not Enter” signs to prevent us from taking the road to Unreality (and Hell).

Adultery, for instance, is an example of an act that’s dripping with Unreality and that always, somehow, leaves a bit of Hell in its wake.  Love and sex between a man and a woman are designed in such a way that sacramental fidelity and self-sacrifice over the long haul bring untold contentment as well as new life.  Fidelity leads to Reality (and, in a way, to Heaven) because God has made Fidelity at the heart of what is Real.  Therefore cheating, though fun, will end up in shipwreck and misery (in other words, Hell) – for someone, at least, is bound to suffer the consequences of the Unreal – even if it’s the innocent children who are caught up in it all.  In other words, something like adultery is our way of denying the way things are actually made (Reality) and asserting our own fantasy against it (Unreality), and the pain we suffer (the Consequential) is simply the symptom that we’ve been doing things wrong, going the wrong way down a one-way street.  God’s “judgment” is simply the consequence of denying the Truth and Living a Lie.  Unreality is always, then, a form of sin; and sin is always an assertion of a kind of Unreality.

But, as the book Don Quixote shows us, we are made to spin yarns and to imagine great things that never were, like the golden age of chivalry.  If we were all “realists” or cynics, we would all be materialists and atheists, for it takes a kind of poetic vision to see the reality of God and of His Kingdom.  Our capacity for Unreality may be the misuse of our creative and imaginative function – but without that capacity, we would not be able to apprehend the image of God: not because God is Unreal (He is, on the contrary, the source of all that is most Real), but because our imaginative function is our spiritual “nose” as it were, our ability to sense that which is beyond the immediate.

Fiction is made to lead us to Fact.  But as fallen men, we often misuse our fictive function, for we’d rather become gods than serve one.

Indeed, we often misuse the three major gifts that God has given us that separate us from the beasts – Will, Reason and Imagination.  This trinity of gifts – Will, Reason and Imagination (by the term “Imagination” I mean to include what Tolkien calls “sub-creation”) – this trinity of gifts corresponds with the trinity of reality: the Good, the True and the Beautiful.  It is the business of our Will to conform what we do to what is Good; it is the business of our Reason to conform what we think and understand to what is True; and it is the business of our Imagination to conform what we dream and desire and make to what is Beautiful.  All three functions support each other, since the objects toward which they are designed are inextricably interconnected.  What is True is always Good, what is Good is always Beautiful, what is Beautiful is always an aspect of what is True, etc.  We are not ourselves designed to negate this design.  We are not made to use our Will to assert ourselves against the nature of morality, nor are we made to use our Reason to misunderstand the truth that surrounds us, nor are we made to use our imaginations to invent things to fulfill the desires of our hearts that are merely shortcuts or sops, things that give us passing pleasure but that are untrue, unreal.  God gives us these gifts – Free Will, Reason and Imagination – to be ordered to Him – for even though we may misuse them, without them we cannot truly serve Him.

So let me sum this up by speaking in a quixotic manner – and I think, perhaps, I am speaking for many of you.

Sometimes in pursuing my most ardent ideals, I find that I am merely tilting at windmills – or worse, I am hurting others by holding them to the impossible standards that I myself cherish, but that I myself fall shy of, too.  In addition, I waver between cynicism and idealism.  I am often tempted to see my steed as a broken down nag, my lady as the more or less compromised streetwalker that she is, my daily devotion to theater as the rather sordid performances in wineries for drunks and rednecks that these performances often are; or vice-versa, I see in my broken down nag the steed she really is; I see within the streetwalker a hidden lady of dignity and glory, and I see in my drunken audiences immortal souls being lifted up in laughter, being raised for a moment a slight bit closer to the One who made them.  And somehow all of this is true – the dreary reality on the surface and the stunning Reality behind and within it.

And so we pray

Dear God, may we always long for You as the hart longs for water (Ps. 42:1), seeing in You the source of the living water for which we truly thirst (John 4:10).  Do not let us fill ourselves with that which is unreal and which will not sustain us.  Show us our sins that we may repent of them and turn toward You.  Give us the grace “to turn from these unreal things, to worship the ever-living God” (Acts 14:15) – for thy Kingdom is always more real than the false and haughty man-made towers we build (Gen. 11:1-9).  Purify our Will to do what is Good, our Reason to see what is True, and our Imagination to desire what is Beautiful and holy.  And always remind us that the world we are tempted to love too much is also a bit less than fully real, that all of creation is but a “shadow of the things that are to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ” (Col. 2:17).

Bloody Pirates on the Bark of Peter

I wrote about ninety percent of the following essay more than half a year ago and then left it unfinished for some reason, which I don’t remember.  I thought it worthwhile to finish and publish at this time.

The age of chivalry was characterized—at least according to its ideals—by courtesy in warfare, that is, by a standard of fair play. Prowess was not pure aggression, and courtesy was not mere manners. Both were informed by fidelity and honesty, that is, by religious faith, human justice and sincerity. That was the Christian ideal anyway, not always realized, but as an ideal it created positive peer pressure that served to both perfect the arts of the warrior and check his ferocity.

Anyone who has heard or read anything I have to say on chivalry knows I say this often. It is fundamental.

In the last decade or so there has been a very happy resurgence of interest in that character of the Church we call “militant.” However, the peculiar keynote of Christian militancy is not the violent death of our earthly enemy, but the violent death and resurrection of our King, which puts death itself to death, and conquers our real enemy, the Prince of this World. Thus, the methods of alinskian secularism or of jihadist religion cannot be our methods. To put it another way, the belligerence of the pirate cannot be reconciled with the chivalry of the knight. Continue reading

Homily for the Memorial of St. Pius X

Today we celebrate the memorial of St. Pius X, one of the great popes of the 20th century. He was born in 1835, Giuseppe Melchiorre Sarto, and he grew up in poverty. His father was the village postman and little Giuseppe walked six kilometers to school everyday. This poverty characterized his whole life, and it was not just a matter of physical poverty. St. Pius X was a man who was truly poor in spirit. Our Lord said: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Throughout his life as simple priest and Franciscan tertiary, then as bishop of Mantua, later as cardinal archbishop of Milan and finally as supreme pontiff of the universal Church, Giuseppe Sarto, remained a simple man and a lover of poverty. His last will and testament gives witness to this with the words: “I was born poor, I have lived in poverty, and I wish to die poor.”

Thus, this great man was single minded throughout his life and placed himself at the dispositions of Christ and His Church, without consideration for himself. This was his poverty in spirit. His whole life was to serve Christ and the Church.

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Tolkien on Modernity, Part I

Recently it was announced that an old reel-to-reel audio recording of a talk by J.R.R. Tolkien will be restored and released after having been kept from the public for many years. In 1958 Tolkien gave a speech at a dinner given in his honor in Rotterdam, which was attended by about two hundred enthusiasts of his mythology. The entire event was recorded and then forgotten about. Subsequently, the recording was found and then hoarded like part of Smaug’s treasure. Now it has been rescued from the clutches of the dragon and all are about to share in the fortune. It is a wonderful find, especially since it promises to reveal a few new insights about The Lord of the Rings.

It has long been known that a recording was made, but it was lost until 1993 when a collector named René van Rossenberg discovered it in a basement. Only now has he agreed to partner with several Tolkien fan sites to restore and release the recording.

What is extraordinary about the tape is that it contains the entire twenty-minute speech and gives an insightful look at the personality and character of the author. In the speech, Tolkien deals with the serious issues that he is passionate about, but in a playful manner. Tolkien speaks to his listeners as though he were Bilbo giving his farewell speech to the Hobbits of the Shire, though he shows much more insight about the evil of the Ring than Bilbo ever possessed. Indeed, Tolkien has much to say about the evils of modernity. Continue reading

Enchantment vs. Magic in Tolkien’s Myth

The following is a reply to David Llewellyn Dodds who has been very generous in his comments on my previous Tolkien post.  This reply fits here and if you are interested you can follow the flow of thought in comment section of the previous post.

In Letter 155 Tolkien takes the traditional distinction between magia (wisdom) and goeteia (sorcery) and for the purposes of his tale distinguishes between magia that has actual effect (machine, technology) and geoteia that is artistic (enchantment).  Both forms can be used for good or ill depending on intention.  Tolkien is more suspicious of the machine, though he in no way discounts that art can be used to deceive. Continue reading

Truth

This is an old post that I have revised for today’s feast of St. Maximilian Kolbe.

In 1940 during the Nazi occupation of Poland, St. Maximilian Kolbe was negotiating with the occupying commanders for permission to publish an edition of his magazine, The Knight of the Immaculate.  The Nazis had taken control of Niepokalanow, the City of the Immaculate, located outside of Warsaw, where St. Maximilian had one of the largest printing operations in the world.  The Nazis had sealed the printing presses with lead so that they could not be used.

They were well aware of the influence the saint had on the Polish populace and had endeavored to win him over to their cause.  The Nazis had even offered to register him as a Volksdeutsche, because of his German sounding surname, so eager were they to have him as a collaborator and propagandist.  St. Maximilian had boldly refused the offer, but kept on filling out applications for permission to publish his magazine, though in retaliation, the Nazis continued to reject them. Continue reading

The Dishonored Patrimony of the Boy Scouts

Nobility is a patrimony of excellence handed on from one generation to the next.  Fathers consider it their responsibility provide their sons with a better and more honorable life than they themselves have had.  In turn, sons consider it their responsibility to treasure what they have received, to respect it and preserve it, and again, to augment it for the next generation.  This is the ideal.  The tradition of chivalry is one of the means by which it is strived for.

One can rightly say that the leaders of the Boy Scouts of America have had the same noble responsibility, and tragically have failed to preserve and hand on the excellent patrimony of scouting in America to the next generation.  Instead, through their capitulation to the homosexual agenda, they have created a profound contradiction between the broadbased ideals of scouting and the natural law.  Worse, they make it impossible for Catholics to clarify and lift-up the scouting ideal in the light of the full revelation of Christ. Continue reading

St. George and the Damsel

Here is an excerpt from an old post “Damsels in Distress,” in which I mention St. George whose feast we celebrate today:

That brings me more directly to the question of the “damsel in distress.”  It is a chivalric image of vulnerability and innocence.  Of course, such an image is not complete without the “knight in shining armor,” who conveys the sense of courage and heroism.  The image, completed with the damsel in distress being saved by the knight in shining armor, is the picture of courtesy and contains as happy an ending as anyone could hope for.  Perhaps the word that best describes it is one coined by Tolkien: eucatastrophe, meaning the complete reversal of catastrophe, idealized as the triumph of the Cross made available to all of us in the Eucharist.

Historically one of the earliest and most important examples of the image as it entered the West is the legend of St. George and the Dragon.  The story is by no means an exclusively Western treasure (I think of Russia and Lebanon, for example), but it is particularly important for an understanding of Western chivalry (especially in England).

As the legend goes, or at least one version of it, a dragon took up its abode at the spring from which the locals drew their water.  The dragon thus took custody of the spring and demanded a price for its use.  The only way the townsfolk could draw their water was by the offering of someone to the dragon as a human sacrifice.  Each day a new victim was selected by common agreement through the drawing of lots.  One fateful day, the lot fell to the princess of the kingdom, and even the intervention of her father, the king, was not enough to save her from the dragon; the people insisted that the arrangement be respected.  At this point, St. George providentially ride up on his steed and volunteered his services to face the dragon, which he did to great effect, the dragon being slain and the damsel rescued.  The awestruck townspeople as a result abandoned the ways of paganism and became Christians.

Crusaders, it is said, brought the story back from the East, and retold it as a courtly romance.  In a way typical of the Middle Ages, Christian tradition and hagiography was transformed into quasi-secular romance.  Certainly, for courtiers who heard this story the “art of courtly love,” could easily serve as the hermeneutic for the understanding of the story, in which case, it would not be any different from the story of the rescue of a damsel in the Arthurian cycle.  However, the Christian symbolism, even in the most embellished version of the legend, is unmistakable: the Christ figure enters into combat with the Demon and rescues the Virgin Church from his clutches.  This is paradise regained.  In some versions of the legend, there is even a tree (Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil) to which the maiden is tied and from which she is rescued.

The damsel in distress is the bride of Ephesians 5.  This passage of St. Paul on marriage is a holy incantation and exorcism that scatters the feminist demons to their dark and gloomy pits.  St. Paul, the “misogynist,” is actually the guardian of feminine weakness and the promoter of chivalry.  He admonishes the coward Adam and kneels at the feet of the hero Christ.  Both men and women are better for it, if by casting off the modern prejudice they can just for a moment wave away the wafting mist of the Ms. Rambo deception and see the Bridegroom and Bride for who they truly are.