A Time for Reading Kierkegaard

There come times in one’s life when one conceives a great desire to read Kierkegaard. There are certain moods that he captured better than any other writer. For example:

I got up one morning in unusually good humour. This positive mood actually expanded as the morning progressed, in a manner I had never before experienced. By one o’clock my mood had climaxed, and I sensed the dizzying heights of complete contentment, a level that appears on no scale designed to measure moods, not even on the poetic thermometer. My body no longer seemed weighed down by gravity. It was as if I had no body, in that every function hummed along perfectly, every nerve rejoiced, the harmony punctuated by each beat of my pulse which served in turn only to remind me of the delightfulness of the moment. I almost floated as I walked, not like the bird that cuts through the air as it leaves the earth, but like the wind over the fields, like the nostalgic rocking of waves, like the dreamy progress of clouds across the sky. My being was transparent as the clear depths of the ocean, as the night’s self-satisfied stillness, as the soft soliloquy of midday. Every mood resonated melodically in my soul. Every thought, from the most foolish to the most profound, offered itself, and offered itself with the same blissful festiveness. Every impression was anticipated before it came, and thus awoke from within me. It was as if all of existence were in love with me. Everything quivered in deep rapport with my being. Everything in me was portentous; all mysteries explained in my microcosmic bliss that transfigured everything, even the unpleasant, the most annoying remark, the most loathsome sight, the most fatal collision.

As I said, it was exactly at one o’clock that my mood reached its peak, where I sensed the heights of perfect contentment. But then suddenly I got something in my eye. I do not know whether it was an eyelash, an insect, or a piece of dust. I know this though, that my mood immediately plummeted almost into the abyss of despair. [Søren Kierkegaard, Repetition and Philosophical Crumbs, trans. M. G. Piety (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009) pp. 40-41].

Adrian Vermeule’s Brilliant Essay on Common Good Constitutionalism

The Havard jurist Adrian Vermeule has published a brilliant essay in The Atlantic arguing that American conservatives should move beyond the legal philosophies that dominated the rearguard of the long defeat to hard liberalism, and adopt a jurisprudence of the common good. Vermeule’s common good constitutionalism shows a deeply Augustinian and Thomist of the educative and directive function of law in helping human beings come to the common life of virtue in peace for which they all yearn (even if they don’t all know it):

unlike legal liberalism, common-good constitutionalism does not suffer from a horror of political domination and hierarchy, because it sees that law is parental, a wise teacher and an inculcator of good habits. Just authority in rulers can be exercised for the good of subjects, if necessary even against the subjects’ own perceptions of what is best for them—perceptions that may change over time anyway, as the law teaches, habituates, and re-forms them. Subjects will come to thank the ruler whose legal strictures, possibly experienced at first as coercive, encourage subjects to form more authentic desires for the individual and common goods, better habits, and beliefs that better track and promote communal well-being.

Michael Hanby, in a recent essay on contemporary integralists (including Vermeule, Gladden Pappin, and me) in First Things, warns that “today’s integralist thought risks degenerating into a conservative Catholic form of Hobbesian power politics.” But Vermeule’s essay shows him to be anything but Hobbesian. Hobbes had a purely subjective and private account of the good: “whatsoever is the object of any mans Appetite or Desire; that is it, which he for his part calleth Good.” Therefore, he thought that there could be no last end or highest good rendering human life intelligible: “Felicity is a continuall progresse of the desire, from one object to another; the attaining of the former, being still but the way to the later.” For all of Hobbes’s totalitarian conception of the commonwealth, then, the end of his political philosophy is deeply individualistic: the security of each individual in the pursuit of his private desires. Vermeule, by contrast, having an objective understanding of the good sees that the end of politics (and therefore ultimately of jurisprudence) is a common good:

Authority is held in trust for and exercised on behalf of the community and the subsidiary groups that make up a community, not for the benefit of individuals taken one by one.

It follows from this that Vermeule sees the state as being obligated to give subsidium to smaller communities in which true common goods are attained:

The state is to be entrusted with the authority to protect the populace from the vagaries and injustices of market forces, from employers who would exploit them as atomized individuals, and from corporate exploitation and destruction of the natural environment. Unions, guilds and crafts, cities and localities, and other solidaristic associations will benefit from the presumptive favor of the law, as will the traditional family; in virtue of subsidiarity, the aim of rule will be not to displace these associations, but to help them function well.

I could go on, but I would end by quoting every line of the essay, which I urge my readers to go read.

Pope Pius XII’s Benedict Option

All the classes of society, if they studiously and seriously examine the life, teaching and glorious achievements of St. Benedict, cannot but fall under the influence of his gentle but powerful inspiration; indeed they will spontaneously recognize that even our age troubled and anxious for the vast material and moral ruins, perils and losses that have been heaped up, can borrow from him the needed remedies. But before all, let them remember and consider that the sacred principles of religion and its norms of conduct are the safest and soundest foundations of human society; if they are disregarded and compromised, everything that promotes order, peace and prosperity among men and nations, as an almost necessary consequence, gradually collapses. 

Fulgens radiatur, §25.

Nutt on Casel

As a teenager I was much taken by Casel’s theory the presence of the events of Christ’s life in the liturgy, which I heard at second hand, not knowing that it was Casel’s. But later, as a young monk in theological formation, I got into a lot of arguments with a Casel-enthusiast, who drew the most absurd consequences from the theory. At that point I rejected the theory, but wasn’t able to give a full account of why it was wrong.

I recently read Roger W. Nutt’ Excellent General Principles of Sacramental Theology, and I think he puts his finger on the problem:

An important variation of moral theory of sacramental causality is the influential “mystery-presence” (mysteriengegenwart) theory of twentieth-century Benedictine Dom Odo Casel. Casel was a monk of the famed Monastery of Maria Laach, which was an influential center of the liturgical movement. His most original contribution is his presentation of the Church’s liturgy and sacraments in light of his careful study of the ancient notion of “mystery” in biblical, patristic, and pagan sources. “The mystery,” according to Casel, “is a sacred ritual action in which a saving deed is made present through the rite; the congregation, by performing the rite, take part in the saving act, and thereby win salvation.” The name “mystery-presence” is derived from Casel’s unification of the rite or “ritual action” with the presence of the “saving deed” in the mystery.

Casel’s work contains many insights, but his theory of the efficacious presence of Christ’s saving deeds in the sacraments creates, perhaps, even more ambiguities about the nature of the sacraments and their mode of causation than the insights that it contains. In particular, Casel never clarifies how a completed historical event, a saving action, is made present to a recipient who is separated from the event in time and space. For Casel, it is not the power of Christ’s saving acts, or a mediation or participation in them through the signification of the signs, but the presence of the events themselves that constitutes the mystery of the sacraments.

Furthermore, as Edward Schillebeeckx points out, Casel’s view of Christ’s saving deeds in history fails to account for their “perennial character.” Given that “time itself is irreversible,” Schillebeeckx observes, “a contradiction is inherent” in Casel’s thesis. “As the realization in human form of the redeeming Trinity,” Schillebeeckx argues against Casel, “the historical mysteries of Christ’s life, which were the personal acts of the God-man, are a permanent, enduring reality in the mode of the Lord’s existence in glory. The mystery of saving worship, or Christ’s act of redemption is, in the mode of glory, an eternally actual reality, as the Epistle to the Hebrews repeatedly stresses.”

Leeming points out that Casel’s presentation constitutes, fundamentally, a redefinition of mystery as an event. “What is present is not some mysterious efficacy in the symbols, nor the life of God, nor the person of Christ, nor the effect produced,” Leeming notes, “but there is present the saving act itself as it existed in Christ’s human life and it is present to produce conformity to the ‘mystery’ of Christ in us.” This means, Leeming continues, that “it is not Christus passus who is present, but ipsa passio, as advocates of the opinion so often assert and insist. The presence is said to transcend space and time, and sometimes the ‘saving acts’ are said to be present per modum substantiae …”

Furthermore, the subject of Casel’s mystery-presence theory is the experience that the worshipping community has of the salvific deed. “Some scholars,” Reginald Lynch explains, “see the emphasis on mystery that appears during the modern period as an extension of the nominalist emphasis on the radical omnipotence and freedom of God and its accompanying reticence regarding causal connections.” As a result of this trend, “the rhetoric of mystery can appear as a supplement for metaphysical explanation.” Lynch observes that under the influence of Casel’s “methodological choices,” therefore, “there was a decided shift [in the twentieth century] toward liturgy-as-event using the category of symbol or sign.”

It is the sacraments, precisely as causes in the order of instrumental efficiency, which make the power of Christ’s saving action and his risen life present throughout time by their signification. There is no need to conflate sacrament and historical event—or to insinuate that the sacrament becomes the historical event in mystery. Christ instituted the signs precisely for the sake of actively using their signification as the causal (instrumental) means of applying the power of his Passion and risen life.

pp. 132-134

The Giovanni Giuliani Agony in the Garden in Gaaden

In the past few days, I have taken to walking to a hill just outside of Gaaden to pray for the parish at a  Mount of Olives scene made by Giovanni Giuliani, the Venetian sculptor and oblate of Heiligenkreuz.

In this valley of tears

Each evening, in all Cistercian monasteries in the world, we enter the night by singing the Salve Regina. We must do this also with a thought toward the darkness that often shrouds mankind, filling it with the fear of being lost in it. In the Salve Regina we ask that, over the whole “valley of tears” of the world, and over all the “exiled children of Eve,” there shine the sweet and consoling light of the “merciful eyes” of the Queen and Mother of Mercy, so that, in every circumstance, in every night and peril, the gaze of Mary show us Jesus, show us that Jesus is present, that he comforts us, that he heals us and saves us. Our whole vocation and mission is described in this prayer.  (Abbot General Mauro-Giuseppe Lepori, O.Cist.)