The Holy Grail of True Knighthood

True knighthood is the Holy Grail of manhood, a revelation attainable only by the pure.  The proud are ever barred from taking a draught from it.

Our very captivation with the Holy Grail consists in the fact that it has not been found and only few have even seen it.  And, of course, the reason that the mysterious cup remains ever out of reach for the ordinary man and is because its quest is fraught with danger:  fearful obstacles, inscrutable riddles, and deadly foes.

To those who possess true manliness, such obstacles are the reason why The Quest is so appealing.  By definition manliness is the penchant to overcome obstacles. The more hopeless the attainment, the bigger and better is the man who laughs in the face perils to be found there.  Those who are lesser men still aspire to the Grail, but fear leads them to experience the danger only vicariously by following along at a safe distance, through spectator sports, litrerature and movies.

And yet there is a temptation in that boldness to which those gallant men of the Round Table too easily succumb.  The bigger and better that a man thinks he is, the more likely he is to fail utterly in attaining the goal.  Gawain, for example, showed himself the fool for this very reason.  And Lancelot had to be taken down a few notches (many actually) before he was even granted a partial fulfillment of his desire.  Galahad attained the grail, not so much by his prowess, but more so, by his humility and purity.

There is a strange and wonderful coincidence of opposites in the embodiment of true chivalry:  courage, strength, boldness and skill, on the one hand; reverence, humility, meekness, and deference on the other.

In a sermon written during his Anglican Period, entitled, “The Weapons of the Saints,” Venerable John Henry Cardinal Newman couched the spiritual life in terms of a war in which the stratagem for victory demands an inversion of worldly values:

But in that kingdom which Christ has set up, all is contrariwise. “The weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strongholds.” What was before in honour, has been dishonoured; what before was in dishonour, has come to honour; what before was successful, fails; what before failed, succeeds.

It is this inversion that constitutes the real difficulty to the attainment of the Holy Grail of true knighthood.  It is the riddle of riddles.  The Black Knight, enemy of our souls, guards the bridge that leads to the hermit who is ensconced away from the manners of worldly men.  It is from him that we are to unlearn our pride and find the real weapons by which we are to succeed in our quest.

Cardinal Newman’s sermon is a commentary on Our Lord’s words: Many that are first shall be last, and the last shall be first (Mt 19:30).  And he supports his thesis from many other passages of the New Testament concerning, for example, strength made perfect in weakness (2 Cor 12:9), the of putting down the proud and the exalting of the humble (Lk 1:52), the blessedness of those who suffer and the woes of those who are satisfied (Mt 5:2-10; Lk 6:24-26), and God’s choice of the weak and despised to do his work (1 Cor 1:27).  It should be abundantly clear to anyone with a modicum of familiarity with scripture that God triumphs in and through those who have rejected worldly ambition and self-assuredness.

The invisible powers of the heavens, truth, meekness, and righteousness, are ever coming in upon the earth, ever pouring in, gathering, thronging, warring, triumphing, under the guidance of Him who “is alive and was dead, and is alive for evermore.”

Truth, meekness and righteousness, according to Venerable Newman, are the real weapons of the saints, the means by which they are victorious over Satan, sin and death.  The Holy Grail of Christian Knighthood is so hidden that in order to find it the knight must lose himself in the process.

This is that intangible, greater thing, after which young men aspire.  It is the stuff of true nobility.  It is strength without arrogance, command without self-interest.

Venerable Newman notes that “we like to hear marvellous tales, which throw us out of things as they are, and introduce us to things that are not.”  The paradox of the cross and of the victorious King who triumphs through His own death is the cosmic myth, the retelling of which is the incantation that opens the sealed doors of our hearts. He that openeth and no man shutteth, shutteth and no man openeth, is the only one with the key (Ap 3:7).

The beloved disciple saw Him mounted on a white horse, and going forth “conquering and to conquer.” “And the armies which were in heaven followed Him upon white horses, clothed in fine linen, white and clean. And out of His mouth goeth a sharp sword, that with it He should smite the nations, and He shall rule them with a rod of iron.” [Rev. xix. 14, 15.]

The Quest of the Holy Grail is a lesser myth, as are all other stories when compared to the gospel myth in which the most fantastic tale is merged with history, and where what Tolkien called eucatastrophe, a literary climax beyond our wildest hopes, is made the substance of all our hopes and the ground upon which we walk in the daylight of this world.

Indeed, the return of the king in Tolkien’s mythology is an ascendency by way of descent.  Aragorn and the Dúnedain are content to be despised if that will better equip them to protect and defend the peoples of Middle Earth.  Aragorn himself must choose the path leading downward, literally underground, through the Paths of the Dead under the White Mountains, like Christ in His harrowing of hell, if he is to triumph on behalf of those entrusted to his care.

After Gandalf  had “passed through fire and deep water,” and had completed his own christic transformation, he delivered a message to Aragorn from the Lady of Light, Galadriel:

Where now are the Dúnedain, Elessar, Elessar?
Why do thy kinsfolk wander afar?
Near is the hour when the Lost should come forth,
And the Grey Company ride from the North.
But dark is the path appointed for thee:
The Dead watch the road that leads to the Sea (Book III, Chapter V).

Aragorn chose the path of truth, meekness and righteousness.  He was prepared to face his fear, and he was not afraid to confront his own ego with the double-edged sword of God’s truth.  He chose to go down in order to go up, to be last in order to be first.  Yet the myth of Aragorn cannot be a vicarious substitute for our own humiliation.  We must really experience it.  Newman has it right:

We so love the idea of the invisible, that we even build fabrics in the air for ourselves, if heavenly truth be not vouchsafed us. We love to fancy ourselves involved in circumstances of danger or trial, and acquitting ourselves well under them. Or we imagine some perfection, such as earth has not, which we follow, and render it our homage and our heart. Such is the state more or less of young persons before the world alters them, before the world comes upon them, as it often does very soon, with its polluting, withering, debasing, deadening influence, before it breathes on them, and blights and parches, and strips off their green foliage, and leaves them, as dry and wintry trees without sap or sweetness.

We must not loose our idealism as we grow older, but “heavenly truth” should purify our tendency to experience knighthood vicariously through its trappings and shards.  Ours is to be the knighthood of the real Dúnedain, a hidden knighthood in search of the hidden, but very real Holy Grail.

As a Franciscan, I have had many opportunities to reflect upon the militant example of Saints Francis and Maximilian, and of the great tertiary St. Louis of France.  The Holy Patriarch of the Seraphic Order, Our Holy Father St. Francis, was well aware of the Arthurian legends and aspired to knighthood and the Holy Grail himself.  Later, after he too had chosen the path downward, he called the simple brothers who lived in seclusion and despised status and pomp, his “Knights of the Round Table.”

In this last week of ordinary time, during the “octave” of the Feast of Christ the King, we look for His return at the end of the world, when he will preside over the cosmic resolution to the perennial struggle of St. Michael and the dragon.  Then He will raise his wounded hands over the universe and all of us will be witnesses of the full revelation of His truth, a more powerful illumination than possession of the Grail itself.  Then we will all know what true chivalry is and whether we are worthy to drink from the cup filled by the hands of Him who carried the sword of truth and slayed the dragon by His humble acceptance of our condition and by His willing suffering and death.

The weapons of the true knight are those of the saints: truth, meekness and righteousness.  They are best fitted to help us along the way of our Quest, a path that leads up a narrow crag in a mountain.  But this path to the heights strangely leads us downward by many uneven steps, until we arrive in the sanctuary of the Holy Grail and find rest in the yoke of Christ on the Holy Mountain of His Passion, Death and Resurrection.

For All the Saints

English Martyrs

For all the saints, who from their labours rest,
Who Thee by faith before the world confessed,
Thy Name, O Jesus, be forever blessed.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

I am not sure why I never noticed how militant this hymn is, especially verses 7-10.  I guess it is because we never sing that many verses in America.  The words were written by Anglican Bishop William Walsham How in 1864:

Fight as the saints who nobly fought of old,
And win with them the victor’s crown of gold.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long,
Steals on the ear the distant triumph song,
And hearts are brave, again, and arms are strong.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

The golden evening brightens in the west;
Soon, soon to faithful warriors comes their rest;
Sweet is the calm of paradise the blessed.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

But lo! there breaks a yet more glorious day;
The saints triumphant rise in bright array;
The King of glory passes on His way.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

From earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast,
Through gates of pearl streams in the countless host,
And singing to Father, Son and Holy Ghost:
Alleluia, Alleluia!

When How released his work to the Church of England, I wonder how the English Catholics who had been singing the words of Father Frederick Faber already for 20 years thought about the irony:

Faith of our fathers, Mary’s prayers
Shall win our country back to Thee;
And through the truth that comes from God,
England shall then indeed be free.

Catholic Emancipation  and the Oxford Movement had led to many conversions, like that of Father Faber, and a spirit of Catholic militancy was in the air, perhaps the Anglicans wished to share in it.  It is a gift of the Blessed Mother for which we should all pray.

Virtually anything that can be said of the Church can be said of the Blessed Virgin.  England is Our Lady’s Dowry.  I pray that the Church of England finds its way.

All the Holy Martyrs of the England, pray for us.

Losing Neverland

Mary Martin1

Yesterday I happened upon a YouTube video of the inimitable Danny Kaye in the role of Captain Hook, singing of pirate philosophy in the TV production of Peter Pan with Mia Farrow in the title role and score by Anthony Newley (1975).  Hook, who personifies a kind of anti-chivalry, is the nemesis of Peter Pan, the perpetual boy who refuses to become a man.  Peter Pan, though he represents an opposite extreme from Hook, cannot be considered chivalrous either.  Neither Hook nor Pan are real men.  Captain Hook has indulged his brutality and Peter Pan his puerile fantasies.

I have been reflecting a great deal lately on the virtues of prowess and courtesy.  One of the classic summaries of chivalric virtues is a fivefold division:  fidelity, honesty, courtesy, prowess and largess.  In my opinion perhaps the most common extremes to which men go in terms of masculinity runs along the line that extends between prowess and courtesy.

Prowess is not only courage, but also the magnificence by which a man invests himself into a great work without counting the cost.  Prowess makes a man truly prepared for battle; however, where it is not balanced against courtesy, men simply become brutal and are committed to win “by hook or by crook,” as the pirate says:

Hit him with a hammer when his noggin is turned.
Kick his teeth in.
This is the philosophy I have learned.
And never be concerned about how you win.
Just delight that you’re winning at all.

Always fight somebody frail and small.
At first you charm or flatter him
And gently chitter-chatter him,
Then suddenly you batter him on the chin
And simply shatter him;
It doesn’t matter how you win.

On the other hand, courtesy is a high-minded regard for the person, no matter who he or she is.  It is the unbending standard of fair play, by which we rule every engagement of love or war, and everything in between.  It is not merely manners, but includes them, for it begins in the mind and heart and flows from there into a man’s every word and deed. However, if it is not balanced against prowess it becomes misguided compassion or self-serving suavité.

And it is precisely for this reason that, while Captain Hook personifies prowess gone awry, Peter Pan does not represent a kind of misplaced compassion.  No, the intransigent boy is too narcissistic to be guilty of maternal sentimentality.  On the contrary, when Wendy wants to take the boys of Neverland to her home in London, Peter obstinately refuses to go with them and gives everyone a self-justifying lecture:

I’ve got no time for growing up.
When you’ve got time don’t waste it.
Taste it, each and any way you chose.
Use each lovely moment.
Youth is too good to lose.
Raise your voice and make your choice.
If you’ve got youth, rejoice!

Peter Pan is a cocky adolescent with a self-serving idealism.  If there is misplaced compassion here, it is directed entirely inward, where Peter lives.  Neverland is a state of mind, where one indulges the fantasy of being the center of the universe.  Neverland is ever the land of our age.

Even the presence of evil in Neverland only serves to focus Pan’s ego on himself.  One wonders if Captain Hook is a dragon of Pan’s own making, the archetypical villain devised for the adventures of Neverland, much like the villains created by college-age zealots who since the sixties have prided themselves on being radical when, in fact, their rebellion is so much a pose, like the fashions that go along with “activism,” such as perennially in-style Che T-shirt.

Isn’t that the lie of so much activist pacifism?  In reality it’s just another form of fascism, where men are threatened—not with guns but with adjectives like “lowbrow” and “narrow-minded,” and are silenced—not by force but by public opinion.

The perennial teenager desires neither war nor peace.  He wants tolerance at all costs, especially of everything he believes in and desires.  He shouts down opposition in the name of tolerance as long as it is politically correct to do so.  Opponents of same-sex marriage, for instance, are said to be bigots and have to pay for answering honestly a direct question put to them.

Peter Pan adventures are controlled scenarios, where the only possible peril is a threat to the ego.  Hence, so many controversies today are conflated well beyond their concrete significance because of injured teenage sensibilities.

We live in an age of manufactured outrage. Teenage snottiness is often self-righteous anger against the curtailing of one’s narcissism in the name of personal rights, as when activists engage in civil disobedience, provoke law enforcement officers and then are outraged when they get arrested.

In our entertainment culture, where we are encouraged to indulge our puerile fantasies, danger is experienced vicariously through video game avatars and special effects enhanced movie characters.  People become dull to the real peril waiting for them at the dinner table and are incapable of addressing the threats to their families and future, and then shake their fists at the ethereal dragons of Neverland.

And this is the real difference between the misplaced compassion of a woman and the puerile self-absorption of the perpetual teenager.  A boy who refuses to become a man is neither an immature child nor a sentimental woman, but an androgynous, effete and undefined entity.  It is at least significant, then, that actresses have generally been employed to play the role of Peter Pan. The look is androgynous, but worse yet, so is the spirit.

We have even coined terms to define the new hip infantilism:  twixters and parasite singles.  They are unable to decide whether or when they want to grow up, meanwhile they return home after college to live off mommy and daddy and entertain themselves while they contemplate whether they should get a job.  Once upon a time, only one in a million, like Hugh Hefner, could afford not to grow up.  Now with the hyper-management of everything by bureaucracy, we expect someone to always be coddling us.

In this moral climate, men who have never learned to fight in ordinary human conflicts have been so numbed by the artificiality of it all that they join fight clubs just to feel alive.  Feminine and effeminate culture is suffocating them, and getting punched is one of the only solid realities they experience.  Nevertheless, they would rather get a knee to the face than reclaim the even more solid and infinitely more dangerous realities of family life.

The opposite of wanton brutality, derailed prowess, is not always misplaced compassion.  Sometimes it’s just plain old comfy narcissism, and it seems more and more the standard fare.

As winsome as Peter Pan seems, he is really a dull conformist.  His philosophy is that of the world.  The religion of tolerance and the idolization of irresponsible youth is the mantra that several generations now have been taught to repeat.  It is custom, the tradition of our most recent fathers.  Anthony Esolen marks the commandments of this now codified let-down:

Thou shalt not adore. Thou shalt not celebrate with abandon. Thou shalt not honor. Thou shalt not fight. Thou shalt not live under the law of God, but within the parameters of thy keepers.

Neverland is a cage and Peter Pan is too self-absorbed to realize it. Let’s lose it fast.

All Is Not Fair in Love and War

Some time ago, I posted a poll about whether the proverb All is fair in love and war is true or not. At the time, I did not say that I was posting on the subject because it was part of my discussion in the paper I had been working on. In any case, most of you agreed with me.

That being said, I post below the introduction to the paper that I will be giving in about 20 minutes in Fatima.  I will be reading an abbreviated version due to time constraints.  More excerpts to follow.

*****

All is fair in love and war.

Traced back to the 16th century work, Euphues written by the Englishman John Lyly, this proverb expresses the rejection of the standard of fair play where matters of the greatest importance are concerned.  It also conveys the paradox, or coincidence of opposites, concerning love and war, viz. that while the one connotes a state of peace and the other conflict, the two are never really far apart.  In fact, the very Prince of Peace came not to bring peace, but to bring the sword.  In other words, the unity of love is never attained by man after the Fall without conflict.  On the cross, Christ is both Warrior and Bridegroom.

But the question is whether or not “all” is really fair in love and war.  It seems to me, in this respect Lyly’s proverb is more or less in accord with the present zeitgeist.  At least there is no universally accepted standard by which to determine what, in the main, the common good actually is, so we bump around in the dark until we arrive at some measure of tolerance for one another—a very utilitarian standard of fair play, indeed.  The very same feminists, for example, who in the 1960’s and 70’s wished to deliver themselves from the disparity of subjugation to men as sex objects and insisted on birth-control and abortion in order to accomplish this, now affirm their right to be sex objects as long as they are in control and have something to gain.  Birth-control and abortion have assured that everyone gets what they want, everyone, that is, except the victims of the silent holocaust.  In this way, without an objective measure of fair play, the battle of the sexes has reached a sort of precarious détente, which some of us might argue is more like the threat of “mutually assured destruction.”

Cervantes took up the proverb and put it on the lips of Don Quixote who finds himself breaking up a brawl caused by an absurd romantic trick.  The maiden Quiteria has consented to marry the rich Camacho solely for his wealth and in so doing jilts her true love Basilio.  At the wedding before the vows have been exchanged, Basilio shows up and throws himself upon his own rapier in front of the wedding couple.  As he lay dying, Basilio refuses to confess to the priest unless Quiteria agrees to marry him.  As soon as he has obtained her consent Basilio jumps to his feet and reveals his “suicide” to be a trick, and in spite of the deceit Quiteria remains firm in her intention to have him.  A brawl between the parties of Camacho and Basilio ensue and Quixote intervenes, crying:

“Hold, sirs, hold! . . . we have no right to take vengeance for wrongs that love may do to us: remember love and war are the same thing, and as in war it is allowable and common to make use of wiles and stratagems to overcome the enemy, so in the contests and rivalries of love the tricks and devices employed to attain the desired end are justifiable, provided they be not to the discredit or dishonour of the loved object.

Cervantes never tires in poking fun at the literature of chivalry, which often promulgated a code of ethics for love and war that mandated contradictory behavior; Don Quixote speaks of rights but in the same breath denies rules of fair play.  In fact, foolish, romantic sentimentalism by definition discredits and dishonors the loved object.

But it is not only the fictional literature of chivalry that reveals the contradiction.  The 12th century work In The Art of Courtly Love by Andreas Capellanus, written at the request of the Marie de Champagne, daughter of Eleanor of Aquitaine and followed by many of the courtiers of Europe, we are given an adulterous mandate as the first rule of love:  “Marriage is no real excuse for not loving.”  Then, having said this, Capellanus absurdly exhorts his readers that they should “be mindful to completely avoid falsehood.” So much for the Lancelots and Guineveres of the world.

But love and war have always been pretty much the same thing, at least since the Fall.  God created Man, male and female.  Marriage is the first sacrament established by God.  Theologians call it a sacrament of nature.  In America, where the battle over same-sex marriage rages (more love and war), the proponents of sodomy assert that it is solely the State, not the Church, that creates and has the right to define and regulate marriage.  In fact, marriage arises from neither the Church nor the State.  Marriage exists because man is male and female; it is a sacrament of nature.  Both the Church and the State take in interest in marriage because it is a fundamental good for both, but it pre-exists both the Church and the State.  (Relative to the Church, of course, the solemnization of the union is also Sacrament of the New Testament established by Christ, but that does not change the fact that neither the Church nor the State has created marriage).

Again, without universal standards we bump around in the dark unable to perceive any objective definition of our fundamental institutions and settle on dogmatizing a standard of tolerance which is intolerant of everything but tolerance.  Nothing has really changed since the garden of paradise.  Fallen man is still a usurper.  He reaches out for love, but by denying the source of love the result is war.

The temptation of the serpent is an act of consummate violence.  The sin of our first parents is an arrogant and petty assault on heaven.  The subsequent history of mankind is a family feud, whose body-count is virtually numberless.  The primordial prophecy and promise of our redemption reveals that human history will be the recounting of a nearly endless war, in which finally victory will only come at the end of the world, when the Immaculate foot of the Woman will have stamped out the last efforts of the serpent to win over souls to his lie.  The Father of Lies knows of no code of ethics in regard to either love or war.  And from his point of view, love and war are the same because lust and hatred are espoused in the darkling rites of the netherworld.  But, in some sense, they are the same also from God’s point of view because both courtesy and courage will be forever united by the bond of a brotherhood in arms against all that is godless.

Our first and fallen parents are types of the new man and woman, by which the rest of us are recreated—not only in the image of God, but also in the image of the new and true Adam and Eve.  Christ and Our Lady are the new couple, the heads of the new family that is the Church.  Their story is an adventure of the most epic proportions and it concerns entirely the working out of ultimate love and ultimate war.  If we are honest we will have to admit that our salvation is all about love, but it is also all about war.  There is no use in living in denial, by pretending that some fuzzy and warm concept of the universal brotherhood of man will save us, but neither will we get away with fighting our way out of the mess we are in without a code of warfare.  Love and war are close allies, but all is not fair in love and war.

Twain’s Joan III

TwainJoan1905-2

There’s an illustration, gentlemen – a real illustration,” he said. “I studied that girl, Joan of Arc, for twelve years, and it never seemed to me that the artists and the writers gave us a true picture of her. They drew a picture of a peasant. Her dress was that of a peasant. But they always missed the face – the divine soul, the pure character, the supreme woman, the wonderful girl. She was only 18 years old, but put into a breast like hers a heart like hers and I think, gentlemen, you would have a girl – like that.”

The humorist looked toward the door, and there was absolute silence – puzzled silence – for many did not know whether it was time to laugh, disrespectful to giggle, or discourteous to keep solemn. The humorist realized the situation. Turning to his audience he came out of the clouds and said solemnly:

“But the artists always paint her with a face – like a ham.”

This quote of Mark Twain is taken from an article published in the December 31, 1905 edition of The New York Times, Pictorial Section, which covered a dinner at the Aldine Association, sponsored  by the Society of Illustrators which Mark Twain had been the guest of honor. Knowing as they did, the great respect  which he bore toward the Maid of Orleans the men of the society had prearranged to have a model dressed in the garb of the saint, including armor to enter and approach Mark Twain at the head table.  The article says it looked as though he had seen a ghost; but I wonder if it would be more proper to say, especially given his remarks above, that he looked as though he had seen a vision.

The Times article is reprinted in a recent post at News for Growing Christians by Stephen K. Ryan, entitled “What the Atheists don’t want you to know about Mark Twain’s secret.” I have written on this subject before (see “Twain’s Joan” I & II); however, I was not aware of the incident recorded by the Times, nor of the 1904 essay Twain wrote, singing the St. Joan’s praises to the heavens in which he did not believe.  In the Maid, he was a believer:

Taking into account, as I have suggested before, all the circumstances — her origin, youth, sex, illiteracy, early environment, and the obstructing conditions under which she exploited her high gifts and made her conquests in the field and before the courts that tried her for her life, — she is easily and by far the most extraordinary person the human race has ever produced.

Stranger yet is the fact that what we might presume to be the case, given his well known dispositions, is in fact not true,  namely, that his interest  in the girl was purely due to the fact that she did not fit his determinist ideology and that somehow nature had been kinder to her than to the rest of us.  There is not even a hint of the secularist sneer in the following words of praise:

She was deeply religious, and believed that she had daily speech with angels; that she saw them face to face, and that they counselled her, comforted and heartened her, and brought commands to her direct from God. She had a childlike faith in the heavenly origin of her apparitions and her Voices, and not any threat of any form of death was able to frighten it out of her loyal heart. She was a beautiful and simple and lovable character. In the records of the Trials this comes out in clear and shining detail. She was gentle and winning and affectionate, she loved her home and friends and her village life; she was miserable in the presence of pain and suffering; she was full of compassion: on the field of her most splendid victory she forgot her triumphs to hold in her lap the head of a dying enemy and comfort his passing spirit with pitying words; in an age when it was common to slaughter prisoners she stood dauntless between hers and harm, and saved them alive; she was forgiving, generous, unselfish, magnanimous; she was pure from all spot or stain of baseness. And always she was a girl; and dear and worshipful, as is meet for that estate: when she fell wounded, the first time, she was frightened, and cried when she saw her blood gushing from her breast; but she was Joan of Arc! and when presently she found that her generals were sounding the retreat, she staggered to her feet and led the assault again and took that place by storm.

Twain is a good example of the skeptical age.  It’s full of contradictions.  I would have to believe that the Maid came to his defense as she did even to the enemies of France:  “on the field of her most splendid victory she forgot her triumphs to hold in her lap the head of a dying enemy and comfort his passing spirit with pitying words.” One may hope.

But no man can afford these kind of contradictions.  The Maid could not abide them.  France was not England.  She would have none of the hand-wringing vascilation or refined duplicity of her age, and I am sure she would have none of the cynicism of ours. We shouldn’t either.

Seven in the Heart, One in the Hand

king_alfred

One commenter pointed out that in my exposition of the Blessed Mother’s courage (“Damsels in Distress“), that my distinction between the masculine courage of action and the feminine courage of suffering, according to St. Bonaventure, did not sufficiently take account of the many biblical images, nor of the great Chesterton’s “The Ballad of the White Horse.”  She is right, of course, that discussion about passive courage does not do enough to account for the Blessed Virgin’s active role in the redemption of mankind, or of women in general throughout history.  I have no disagreement with the commenter.

In fact, I have have written on the subject Our Lady’s presence in “The Ballad of the White Horse” in a paper I delivered at our international symposium on the Coredemption in England, 2001, entitled “Seven in the Heart, One in the Hand:  The Mediation of the Immaculate in the Poetry of Hopkins and Chesterton” (Mary at the Foot of the Cross II:  Acts of the International Symposium on Marian Coredemption, New Bedford:  Academy of the Immaculate.  395-439).  I am attaching here a pdf of the complete paper for those who are interested.  Also, FYI, there is an excellent reprint of the 1928 illustrated edition of “The Ballad of the White Horse,” published by Ignatius Press, that also includes a very helpful introduction and endnotes by Sister Bernadette Sheridan.

Since I have been studying the Theology of the Body lately, I would like to suggest that one of John Paul II’s insights–one that is thoroughly traditional–would be helpful here.  There is no question that man is characteristically the “giver” (“the one who loves”) and woman the “receiver” (“the one who is loved”; cf. TOB 92.6); however, the Holy Father also  says:

The two functions of the mutual exchange are deeply connected in the whold process of “gift of self”: giving and accepting the gift interpenetrate in such a way that the very act of giving becomes acceptance, and acceptance transforms itself into giving (TOB 17.4).

By way of analogy, I think we can say that the “giver” is also the “defender,” and the “receiver” is also the “defended,” but this does not preclude a mutuality, though the courage of action in a woman, such as in the case of Judith or St. Joan of Arc is particularly marked by empathy and uniquely maternal characteristics.

I think of St. Joan, in particular, who received the ability to ride a horse, to formulate military strategy, especially the placement of artillery, as an extraordinary grace.  She was not merely a figure head of the French army; nevertheless, she never raised her sword against a man.  It was merely enough for her to get to the enemy castle and touch it with her banner.  I also recall how she nursed the dying, including the English, and shed tears over them.

I include below an apropos excerpt from my paper.  Without burdening this post with too much back story, one should at least know that at the beginning of the ballad, King Alfred, who is leading the Saxons against the invasion of England by the Danes, receives a vision of Our Blessed Lady in an hour when he has all but lost hope.  In desperation he asks Her:

“When our last bow is broken, Queen,
And our last javelin cast,
Under some sad, green evening sky,
Holding a ruined cross on high,
Under warm westland grass to lie,
Shall we come home at last?”

Her answer is paradoxical:

“I tell you naught for your comfort,
Yea, naught for your desire,
Save that the sky grows darker yet
And the sea rises higher.

“Night shall be thrice night over you,
And heaven an iron cope.
Do you have joy without a cause,
Yea, faith without a hope?”

Alfred then goes onto gather his chiefs and army in order to enter into a battle and quest in which he is offered no promise of victory.  Here is the excerpt from my paper:

King Alfred, after an initial victory in battle (Book V), and then the eventual slaying of all three of his chiefs (Book VI), was left in a predicament very much like the one he had been in when he had seen Our Lady, although his later doom and England’s was far more imminent.  The Battle of Ethandune was all but lost.  In a long speech Alfred convinced what was left of his army that “death is a better ale to drink” (bk. 7, 119) than to drain the cup of surrender to heathendom.  Convinced by their captain, the soldiers “stood firm” and “feeble” (153).  Alfred blew his horn calling his men to the hunt, and “The people of the peace of God/ Went roaring down to die” (184).  But in the desperation of the situation the Immaculate was present in Her causeless joy and hopeless faith:

And when the last arrow,
Was fitted and was flown,
When the broken shield hung on the breast,
And the hopeless lance was laid at rest,
And the hopeless horn was blown,

The King looked up, and what he saw
Was a great light like death,
For our Lady stood on the standards rent
As lonely and as innocent
As When between white walls she went
In the lilies of Nazareth.

One instant in a still light,
He saw Our Lady then,
Her dress was soft as western sky,
And she was queen most womanly–
But she was queen of men.

Over the iron forest
He saw Our Lady stand;
Her eyes were sad withouten art,
And seven swords were in her heart–
But one was in her hand. (185-205).

In the moment of supreme sacrifice, the Mother of God interceded on behalf of Her children.  The seven swords of Her own heartfelt sorrow, became one which She wielded in hand on behalf of those for whom She suffered:  In the first vision of King Alfred Mary had said to him:

“But you and all the kind of Christ
Are ignorant and brave,
And you have wars you hardly win
And souls you hardly save” (bk. 1, 250-53).

Thus we are shown how this intercession of the Immaculate in temporal war is also connected to a greater war for the salvation of souls.  These wars hardly won and souls hardly saved are remarkably juxtaposed in another of Chesterton’s poems whose theme is along the same lines, viz., “The Queen of the Seven Swords.”  That poem is actually the introduction to seven monologues delivered by seven saints of Western Europe, who, as Chesterton notes, “have no connection with the historical saints” that “bore their names,” but rather are types of the different nations, viz., St. James of Spain, St. Denys of France, St. Anthony of Italy, St. Patrick of Ireland, St. Andrew of Scotland, St. David of Wales and St. George of England.  There, in “The Queen of the Seven Swords,” Chesterton records a dream in which he saw Europe as a waste land, and after surveying the panorama of desolation said:  “There is none to save.” It is obvious from his descriptions that the wasteland is typical of moral desolation.  In the gloom, however, he saw a source of hope:

I saw on their breaking terraces, cracking and sinking for ever,
One shrine rise blackened and broken; like a last cry to God.

Old gold on the roof hung ragged as scales of a dragon dropping,
The gross green weeds of the desert had spawned on the painted wood:
But erect in the earth’s despair and arisen against heaven interceding,
Whose name is Cause of Our Joy, in the doorway of death she stood.

The Woman who had asked of Alfred “Do you have joy without a cause?” is in fact the Cause of His Joy, and this as She stands in the “doorway of death.”  Thus we begin to understand that the doom of Alfred is not a joy strictly without cause, but one without any natural explanation, for his joy has its source in the Heart of the Queen of the Seven Swords.  Chesterton goes on in “The Queen of the Seven Swords:

The Seven Swords of her Sorrow held out their hilts like a challenge,
The blast of that stunning silence as a sevenfold trumpet blew
Majestic in more than gold, girt round with a glory or iron,
The hub of her wheel of weapons; with a truth beyond torture true.

That truth which is beyond torture true is that faith which saves, not in spite of suffering, but because of suffering.  Hence we understand what the Lady meant when She asked Alfred “Do you have faith without a hope?”  Not a natural hope, or a conviction that things will get better, but a conviction that God is faithful to His promises.  In “The Towers of Time,” Chesterton says that “the heart of the swords, seven times wounded,/ Was never wearied as our hearts are.” And in the poem “In October,” honor is due to Mary, because Hers was “The broken Heart and the unbroken word.” Is this not why in his Encyclical, Redemptoris Mater, the Holy Father compares the Blessed Virgin to Abraham, saying with St. Paul that in hope believed against hope, She is blessed for Her unwavering faith?

Damsels in Distress

kill-bill

I started on this post more than a year ago and have come back to it from time to time.  While I am up at Mount St. Francis, hiding in my cave and working on my paper for our Coredemption conference in July, I thought I would finally knock it out.  I shot a video on the same topic  a while back.

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As one interested in helping to bring about a revival of Christian Chivalry, I have thought fondly of the image of the “damsel in distress” as being both iconic and inspiring of the chivalric ideals. I was horrified, then, to see such an honorable term being disparaged by those otherwise promoting the ideals of chivalry. Call me naive or nostalgic (or worse), but I cannot for the life of me see anything wrong with it.

I will admit, if we understand “damsel in distress” as it is caricatured, for example, by the film image of the pretty woman being tied screaming to the train tracks by Dastardly Dan and then being rescued by Agent Jim West, then there is much to be disparaged. The poor helpless thing is abused by one womanizer only to be rescued by another, and all the while is oblivious to everything but the attention she is getting. The ideals of chivalry have always been partially obscured by the cult of “courtly love.” There is nothing new under the sun.

Television and film have that curious ability of turning unalloyed gold into lead, and contrariwise, of cultivating a fondness for the most obvious absurdities. We have learned to despise feminine vulnerability and celebrate the wonders of the Bionic Woman.

So what is the “damsel in distress,” and why should her place in the venerable history of womanhood be preserved and honored? To answer this question we must first examine the contemporary feminist trend to idolize the Amazon.

Continue reading

All is Fair in Love and War

Cervantes takes up this proverb in Part II, chapter 21 of Don Quixote.  The context for the chapter 21 is given in chapter 19 where Don Quixote and Sancho meet a group of students who are on the way to the wedding of the beautiful Quiteria to the rich Camacho.  The maiden is marrying entirely for money, leaving her jilted and faithful suitor, Basilio behind.  Read chapter 21 with a particular note for the following:

“Hold, sirs, hold!” cried Don Quixote in a loud voice; “we have no right to take vengeance for wrongs that love may do to us: remember love and war are the same thing, and as in war it is allowable and common to make use of wiles and stratagems to overcome the enemy, so in the contests and rivalries of love the tricks and devices employed to attain the desired end are justifiable, provided they be not to the discredit or dishonour of the loved object.

Now please take the poll and give your reason in the comment section.  (There’s a method to my madness.  It’s all about chivalry).

London Calling

foggylondon_towerbridge_23dec2007_6

No, not a commentary on the Clash song. Hardly.

I am off to London and Cornwall for two weeks. I will be preaching at Westminster Cathedral on Saturday for a Day with Mary and again several other times around town.

I will also be giving a retreat to our contemplative nuns in Lanherne and will be relieving our Father George while I am there.

lanherne-carmanton

Lanherne has a very interesting history. The convent is the old estate from the Arundell family, a very ancient Catholic family that maintained the faith through the English Reformation. It is said that the sanctuary light for the Blessed Sacrament in the chapel has not been extinguished since before the Reformation.  The countryside is absolutely beautiful.  The sisters have the singular grace of having a precious relic in their midst, the cranium of St. Cuthbert Mayne.

I will not be far from the central points of interest of the history of King Arthur.  Tintagel, the alleged birthplace of the One and Future King is about 25 miles north of Lannerne.  Glastonbury in Somerset–about a hundred miles north east of  Lanhern–is thought to be the actual location for Avalon and the burial place of Arthur.  The famous Thorn of Glastonbury is there, and it is the location for the oldest Marian shrine in England.

I had hoped to say the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass in the cell of St. Thomas More in the tower of London, but I hear that that is no longer possible.  Bummer.

I will try to get video and pictures.

Ave Maria!

Masculinity, Mary and the Church

priest_collar

I am reading Leon Podles’ The Church Impotent:  The Feminization of Christianity and am reflecting much on the mission of the Knights of Lepanto and of MaryVictrix.  The book is now out of print, but can be found online for free here.  Podles identifies some real problems in the Western Church, in the light of which it is not hard to understand why we have a crisis of homosexuality within the ranks of the Catholic clergy–the white elephant no one wants to talk about.

Podles investigates the causes of male absenteeism from Church and religious practices.  He relates, for example, that studies have been done that show the more masculine a man is (how ever that is defined in the studies) the less likely he is to have any religious inclination.  He notes in particular that the absence of males is a problem in Western Christianity and he traces the origins of this problem.  In any case, I don’t think many would argue that in milieu of Western Christianity that men tend to be less religious, or religious mostly by way of the influence of women (mothers, girlfriends, wives).

I think his analysis is compelling in many respects.  Here I would like to focus on the aspects of Marian devotion, celibacy and bridal spirituality and their relation to male identity. Continue reading