Blessed Are They That Mourn: Stratford Caldecott and Tradition

Hilaire Belloc calls the dons that taught him at Oxford «The horizon of my memories— / Like large and comfortable trees.» I can apply that expression to the friends of my parents whom I knew as a small child. Since we moved often when I was growing up, there are many who form the horizon of my childhood memories whom I have seen only rarely since. There is something wonderful about meeting those people now (or even just reading their writings), and being able to know them in quite a different way than I did as a child.

I thought of this recently when I read Stratford Caldecott’s last book Not as the World GivesI was born in Rome, but shortly after my birth we moved to Boston, and among the best friends of my parents in Boston were an English couple: Stratford and his wife Leonie. The Caldecott’s were the godparents of a little brother of mine, who was born and died just as they left Boston. Leonie later remembered him in “A Harvest Cycle”:

When we left Boston, another friend of mine, and a friend of Ruth’s, was in labour. The baby had only been in the womb for twenty-two weeks or so. They did everything they could to stop the mother from miscarrying, but at around midnight on the last day of the year, as we were suspended over the Atlantic, her child, our godson, was born, and died. Before he died his father baptised him, Markus Maria. His little lungs were not sufficiently formed to enable him to breathe the air of this earth. He was just too young to be ‘viable’. In the same hospital, babies older than him… I cannot say it. You know what I mean. They know not what they do. Farmers too are desperate to survive in an atmosphere which puts success, industrial standards, red-tape, before nature, before people. Everyone is desperate. Everyone is hurting. Everyone is slaughtering their own interests and feeding them to the mob. It doesn’t help to yell at anyone. But perhaps it helps to weep a little. What a beautiful thing is this womb, this earth, and how stricken is she. Are we. In the vale lacrymarum, the vale of tears.

Reading Not as the World Gives, I was moved to tears by Strat’s gloss on Blessed are they that mourn: «that is, those who remember the dead, and who remain faithful to tradition» (p. 13). He could have been writing about Leonie— or about himself.

After the Caldecott’s left Boston we saw them only seldom, but their gentleness and nobility helped form the horizon of my memories, and those of my brothers and sisters. They were also our paragons of Englishness. (Their daughters represented the comical side of Englishness to us; we found endless amusement in their accents, in which the oddity of Englishness was intensified by inarticulateness of childhood. Once we were eating hard-boiled eggs, and one of the Caldecott girls said, «tisn’t it funny that Sophie likes the lello, and I like the white?» The accents in which this was pronounced took on a legendary status in our imaginations).

Like all of Strat’s writings, Not as the World Gives is suffused with love for tradition. In the first place love of the Apostolic tradition in which the gift of Christ is transmitted. But also a love of the human traditions to which it gave rise or which it assimilated; a love of the civilization and culture of Christendom. «Civilization is faith transforming itself into culture, the living out of faith,» he wrote in one essay. He was deeply convinced that the primary relation that we should have toward God, and His creation, should be one of reception and contemplation. And all active work and art and culture should be ordered to contemplation and Sabbath-rest. The cultivation of the world ought to be at the service of contemplating the gift of God’s beauty in it, and offering it back to Him in liturgical worship. Not as the World Gives argues for a ‘slow Evangelization’ in which we convert ourselves and the world through such cultivation; and that was what Strat tried to do himself.

Strat saw that the roots of the secular order with which Evangelization has to contend is a denial of the primacy of contemplation, a subordination of knowledge to power. This leads to a form of anti-culture in which things are not made to serve man’s true end, but rather human desires are artificially stimulated in order to serve the growth of an economic ‘system’:

Technological consumerism threatens to become the perfect inversion of tradition [… Tradition] requires the initiation of persons into a living world that is received as gift and which calls for gratitude […] The purpose of tradition is to serve the personal growth and development of man. But the purpose of the mechanical order is for man to serve the growth and further evolution of the machine. (“The spirit of tradition and the anti-traditional spirit”)

Strat deeply felt the sadness of the destruction of culture through techno-commercial ‘progress’. In Not as the World Gives, he reflects on the fittingness of the important role of the dissolution of the English monasteries in the ‘primitive accumulation’ (to use Marx’s term) that helped bring about modern capitalism:

The destruction of the monasteries is particularly poignant as a symbol of what was taking place. It is as though our modern world was actually built on and presupposed the destruction of contemplation—or at least the destruction of that (largely Benedictine) ideal, the synthesis of contemplation and action that lay at the heart of Christendom. (p. 231)

It would be easy to dismiss Stratford’s vision as a sort of romantic Acardianism: a longing for a past that never really existed in which immortal elves and pipe-smoking hobbits inhabited England. This is the accusation that is always brought against the opponents of capitalism; Alfred Marshall gave what is perhaps its classic formulation:

the pessimist descriptions of our own age, combined with romantic exaggerations of the happiness of past ages, must tend to the setting aside of methods of progress, the work of which if slow is yet solid; and to the hasty adoption of others of greater promise, but which resemble the potent medicines of a charlatan, and while quickly effecting a little good, sow the seeds of widespread and lasting decay.

There was indeed a romantic strain in Strat, and he was deeply devoted to Tolkien. But it would be profoundly unfair to apply Marshall’s accusation him. Strat was far from exaggerating the happiness of past ages. He was acutely aware that human history has always been marked by the struggle between the City of God and the City of man. Indeed, I would argue that he sometimes went to the opposite extreme and exaggerated the evils of the past, as in his account of the crusades. Nor was he one to propose hasty and specious solutions. The whole point of ‘slow Evangelization’ was the patient cultivation of the virtues and practices needed to transform the world.

Strat had no illusions about the difficulty of the task of ‘slow Evangelization’ he saw much more clearly than most theologians how the culture of bourgeois capitalism had penetrated into the Church. One of the things that distressed him most was the way the sacred liturgy had become infected by it after Vatican II:

Intimations of transcendence—indeed, references to the soul—were minimized. Within the churches, walls were whitewashed and relics dumped in the name of ‘noble simplicity’. Unlike the much earlier Cistercian rebellion against the artistic extravagances at Cluny, this modern campaign for simplicity was not coupled with the asceticism and devotion that might alone have rendered it spiritually ‘noble.’ It fell easy victim to the prevailing culture of comfort and prosperity. (Not as the World Gives, p. 180)

Strat’s mourning over the destruction of beauty always had an undercurrent of joy, because he could really hope for the restoration of all things in Christ. His rejection of the modern ideology of progress allowed him to see that redemption comes not through the triumph of the Baconian domination of nature, but through the gift of redemption (cf. Spe Salvi, § 17)

There are a few points in Not as the World Gives with which I would disagree. Strat was too gentle, and had too great an abhorrence of violence, to be as much of an integralist as I. Nevertheless, he was too sensible to be convinced by a naive pluralism. In criticizing Jacques Maritain’s Integral Humanism, he admitted that some sort of integralism was necessary:

Though I am sympathetic to Maritain’s approach, I can’t help wondering if the hope of social unity based on the practical tasks pertaining to the common good, rather than on shared philosophical and theological premises (including that of the common good itself), is so unrealistic that it doesn’t even work as an ideal. We seem today to be witnessing a kind of intellectual implosion in the culture, due precisely to the lack of a common philosophy or creed. The ideology of rights, divorced from responsibilities and certainly from any Thomistic understanding of the virtues, has grown out of control. Our diversity of aspirations may soon be such that no ordered common life is possible except one imposed by economic necessity and backed by the use of technological force: a prospect that fills many of us with alarm. (p. 144)

Similarly, while Strat accepted Henri de Lubac’s somewhat muddled account of the problem of pure nature, his good sense prevented him from drawing the absurd conclusions that others have drawn from it.

Two years ago I saw Strat at a conference in Oxford. He was visibly suffering from the cancer that would end his life a little later. And he gave a speech on death in Tolkien. It was a theme on which he had often reflected before. He had a deep affinity to Tolkien’s way of looking at the world. In an earlier essay, which is eminently worthy of being quoted at length, he wrote:

Through the power of his mythic imagination, Tolkien evoked the tragedy and the mystery of death against the backdrop of an even greater mystery: that of existence itself. The sense of loss, of a world passing away, fills his books like the sound of the sea and the glimmer of starlight [… The] successive falls of Menegroth, Nargothrond, Gondolin and Numenor, leading to the removal or “hiding” of Valinor […] add layer upon layer to the mood of nostalgia for a vanished Golden Age. As in all the great mythological systems of the world, each cycle of restoration ends with a fall. The Elves are immortal nature spirits bound to the world through reincarnation, and so their existence is permeated by this sense of tragedy. ‘For now the Kindler, Varda, the Queen of the Stars, from Mount Everwhite has uplifted her hands like clouds, and all paths are drowned deep in shadow; and out of a grey country darkness lies on the foaming waves between us, and mist covers the jewels of Calacirya for ever.’ The Elves can hope for nothing higher than memory: a frozen image of perfect beauty in the Far West.

If Tolkien had not been a Christian, perhaps this would have been something like his final word. But Men are not Elves, and the hope of Men transcends time. ‘In sorrow we must go, but not in despair. Behold! we are not bound for ever to the circles of the world, and beyond them is more than memory.’ […] The death of man involves a definitive departure from this world into an unknown future. When it becomes a choice — as it is for Arwen, who, like Luthien before her, chooses not to be counted among the Elves but to grow old and die — it is an act of faith in the Maker of all things, and in the love he has placed within the human heart.

Speaking on this theme in his final illness, with the prospect of imminent death before him, he seemed transfigured. We all had tears in our eyes. Death, he told us, is not only a curse, but also a gift because in it we come face to face with the source of all beauty and goodness.

After the talk I went to supper at his house. It was the last time that I saw him. About a year later he died.  Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.


7 thoughts on “Blessed Are They That Mourn: Stratford Caldecott and Tradition

  1. Reblogged this on Letters from the Edge of Elfland and commented:
    Stratford Caldecott, a man I never had the pleasure of meeting in this life, has had a profound effect on my life, devotion, theology, understanding of education, and more. This excellent post on his final book, Not as the World Gives, written by someone who knew him personally, is a source of both joy and sadness for me. I can only join the ranks of those who mourn, as Stratford himself understood them, Blessed are they that mourn: “that is, those who remember the dead, and who remain faithful to tradition” (Not as the World Gives, 13).

    Read this, and be moved, read more Stratford Caldecott, and let him move you to greater devotion for our Holy Lord.


  2. Pingback: A Magnificent, a Wonderful Encyclical | Sancrucensis

  3. Pingback: Second Spring | Sancrucensis

  4. Reblogged this on Our Lady's Dowry and commented:
    Much food for thought here. Strat sowed many seeds, and Second Spring are still cultivating them – I hope to write more soon on some of his legacy


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.