An Allegorical Representation of Stift Heiligenkreuz

On the ceiling above the stairs leading to the abbot’s apartments in Heiligenkreuz there is an allegorical representation of the monastery. Stift Heiligenkreuz is represented by a lady in armor with shield and spear. Above the monastery are the three theological virtues: Faith, represented by a lady with the cross and chalice; hope with an anchor; and love, nursing a baby. A ray of light from the faith bounces off Heiligenkreuz’s shield, and drives away the powers of evil: demons, heretics, and deceitful women.

Sacred Music and Secular Culture

March 5th was the 50th anniversary of the promulgation of the instruction Musicam SacramTo mark the occasion, Pope Francis gave a speech to an international conference on sacred music. In his speech the Holy Father points out the central tension involved in debates about sacred music since the Council. On the one hand, sacred music should heighten the solemnity and glory of the liturgy, it should help manifest the “hierarchic and communal nature” of the liturgy, and raise minds  “to celestial things through the splendor of sacred things,” and help the liturgy prefigure “more clearly the liturgy, which is carried out in the heavenly Jerusalem.” But on the other hand, sacred music should be “fully ‘inculturated’ in the artistic and musical languages of the present.” The “rich and multi-form patrimony inherited from the past” must be preserved, but it must be preserved in a balanced way that avoids “the risk of a nostalgic or ‘archaeological’ vision.” The Holy Father is very forthright about the difficulties involved in such a balance: Continue reading

Ferdinand Rebay

The Austrian composer Ferdinand Rebay (1880-1953) had been a choir-boy here in Heiligenkreuz, and after his death a great many manuscripts of his compositions were entrusted to our music archive. My confrère, P. Roman, and the musicologist Dr. Maria Chervenlieva-Gelew have been bringing some of those compositions to light. A few of them, including the Ave Maria embedded above, were sung at conventual Mass here on November 15th, the Feast of St. Leopold, by the Wiener Schubertbund. Rebay’s music strikes me as being suffused by a deep sadness.

A Review of Die Taubenwirtin

On November 9th was the long-awaited premier of Eric Peters’s opera Die Taubenwirtin in the Kreuzherrenpalais in Vienna. It was so brilliant that I went again on the 11th. Eric Peters’s achievement is really astonishing— sparkling, inventive music, with a great range, from comic to tender to noble. It is in the style of Mozart, but listening to it I was reminded of something that Msgr. Ronald Knox remarks of the satyrical poems that Hilaire Belloc had written in the style of Alexander Pope:

… to be capable of such pastiche is to be capable of something beyond mere imitation. One who could so master the secret of Drydan and Pope could, given the opportunity, have written as they did. (Literary Distractionsp. 203).

I hope that Eric Peters will be many more opportunities to compose as Mozart did.

The performers entered into the spirit of the piece with great élan. Johanna Kräuter was charming as the titular innkeeper. Ágnes Jordanov gave great presence to the cook Ludmilla with her powerful sophrano. Ali Magomedov was tender and expressive in the role of the Spanish slave escaped from the Moroccan ambassadors, who eventually falls in love with the Taubenwirtin.

The élan of the singers was supported by Clemens Fuchs’s scenery and Leni Fuchs’s costumes, which were just right. And above all by Ralf Siebenbürger’s libretto, which not only caught the style of 18th German, but was also genuinely funny and clever. It had just enough arch references to “future” events to remind us that it was written in the 21st century. As an example of his style, consider Ludmilla’s portrait of the Viennese character in her aria Ach, liebe Herrin (no. 6):

Ach, Liebe Herrin, seyd doch froh,
Ihr wißt, die Wiener sind halt so.
Sie sind gern wichtig, nörgeln gern
Doch sonst gemütlich sind die Herr’n.

Sie schimpfen, machen alles schlecht,
Und kommen wieder — alles recht!
Drum thut Euch nur nicht ennuyirn.
Bey ihrem Grant thut nix passirn.

Against the Overrating of Ordinary Life; or C.S. Lewis’s Bourgeois Mind

He’s vulgar, Wormwood. He has a bourgeois mind. He has filled His world full of pleasures. There are things for humans to do all day long without His minding in the least—sleeping, washing, eating, drinking, making love, playing, praying, working. (The Screwtape Letters)

… What is a man
If his chief good and market of his time
Be but to sleep and feed? A beast, no more. (Hamlet)

Jake Meador has a thoughtful post up at Mere Orthodoxy distinguishing three models of how Christians should act toward the world: “radical Augustinianism” (a term that he explicates with quotes from my piece on Gelasian Dyarchy), “magisterial Protestantism,” and “illiberal Catholicism” (i.e. Catholic integralism). Meador himself is a magisterial Protestant. The magisterial Protestants resemble illiberal Catholics in that they too favor using temporal power (“the magistrate”— hence the term “magisterial”) to further the aims of the Kingdom of God. Meador distinguishes magisterial Protestantism from Catholics by two features: the Protestant doctrine of “vocation,” and the “priesthood of all believers.” I think that both of these doctrines are vulgar, bourgeois distortions of Pauline theology. In this post I want to attack only the first: the Protestant doctrine of vocation. Continue reading

George Eliot is to Trollope as Anthony van Dyck is to Rubens


I read Middlemarch recently, and was struck by the evident influence of Trollope on Eliot. In some respects Eliot clearly surpassed Trollope, but I think there are other respects in which he remained superior. Their relation reminds me a bit of the relation between Rubens and van Dyck. Van Dyck certainly improves on Rubens— he is much more polished from a technical point of view. But not only from a technical point of view. There is an elegance and nobility in van Dyck that is not in Rubens. But it seems to be a general rule in human affairs that there is no progress without some concomitant regress. Van Dyck lacks the vivacity and good natured humanity of Rubens.

Hiking With the Studium Generale

The ITI in Trumau and the Phil.-theol.- Hochschule Benedikt XVI. in Heiligenkreuz recently began a one-year liberal arts program known as the Studium GeneraleIt has two tracks: an all English track, and a German-English track. The program is in its infancy, but I think it has a lot of potential. The University system in the German-speaking world (and throughout continental Europe) lacks the Anglo-American distinction between undergraduate and graduate studies, and students take a highly specialized program from the start of their studies. Perhaps in future the Studium Generale will develop into a liberal arts college along the lines of my alma mater, thus reviving something of the traditions of the medieval universities.

My confrère P. Kosmas, who is responsible for Heiligenkreuz’s contribution to the Studium Generale, organized a weekend in the Southern Austrian province of Styria for the Studium Generale students, and he invited me to come a long, and give a talk to the students. We drove out on Friday evening to Wasserbergschloss that belongs to Stift Heiligenkreuz, and I gave my talk (on freedom). We spent the night in Wasserberg, and on Saturday we took a beautiful hike in the mountains nearby.

A Commanding Rhythm

In an excerpt from an introduction to a forthcoming collection of David Foster Wallace’s writings on tennis, John Jeremiah Sullivan, points out an analogy between Wallace’s own achievements as a writer and the achievements of Roger Federer as a tennis-player that Wallace described in his most famous tennis article, “Federer Both Flesh and Not” (originally published with the title “Federer as Religious Experience”). Just as Federer had the genius to overcome the apparently “final” form of tennis in the “power baseline” style, and recover “an all-court style” and “art,” so Wallace “working in a form that is also (perpetually?) said to be at the end of its evolution […] when at his best, showed new ways forward.”

I think that Sullivan is right about that analogy, but I think he misses another, seemingly more obvious analogy between Wallace’s art and tennis. In discussing Wallace’s argument in “How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart” that the inability of great athletes to describe what it feels like to have such greatness follows immediately from the essence of their greatness, which is a lack of self-consciousness allowing them to be entirely present in the moment, Sullivan writes “The writer, existing only in reflection, is of all beings most excluded from the highest realms.” This seems to me wrong. The writer’s gift is much more analogous to the athlete’s than Sullivan lets on. Wallace describes Tracy Austin’s “technē” as, “that state in which Austin’s mastery of craft facilitated a communion with the gods themselves.” But this could just as well serve as a description of the achievement of a great writer such as Wallace himself. At first glance it seems true that Wallace’s technē does not have the same element of lack of self-consciousness that is essential to Austin’s, but even Wallace often remarked that when the writing was going well he could not feel his rear end in his chair.

Of Austin Wallace writes that on the court she shares “the particular divinity she’s given her life for” and allows her spectators a kind of transcendence, a view of “transient instantiations of a grace that for most of us remains abstract and immanent.” But Wallace is to my mind doing the very same thing— even in the Austin piece itself.

Sullivan is probably right to call the Federer essay is “possibly Wallace’s finest tennis piece,” but“How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart” is my favorite. It is an astonishingly great piece of prose. While it lacks some of the maximalist descriptions of the other pieces, the Austin piece has a crystal clarity and a sort of concentrated overall unity: it is a single, relentless movement from the first to the last syllable. To be fully appreciated one ought to read it aloud, or listen to Wallace’s own (highly impressive) reading:

Listening to Wallace read that piece reminds me of something Maurice Baring says about Sarah Bernhardt’s performance of Racine’s Phédre: “her movements and her gestures, her explosions of fury and her outbursts of passion, were subservient to a commanding rhythm.” The beauty of Wallace’s prose rhythm, like all great artistic beauty, is full of sadness, and it is the very sadness that he finds in Tracy Austin’s achievements: the sadness of the transient, mortal character of an aesthetic transcendence that seems to demand eternity and immortality. I am reminded of a passage of Hans Urs von Balthasar’s The Glory of the Lord:

In the experience of worldly beauty the moment is eternity. The form, containing eternity, of the beautiful object communicates something of its supratemporality to the condition of the person who experiences it in contemplation. Nevertheless, the ‘sorrow of the gods’ (Göttertrauer) wafts about the beautiful form, for it must die, and the state of being blissfully enraptured always includes a knowledge of its tragic contradiction: both the act and the object contain within themselves the death that contradicts their very content.

If Balthasar’s words can be applied to Wallace’s non-fiction, they apply even more to his fiction— especially in the darkest parts. Even the darkest and superficially ugliest parts of Oblivion or Brief Interviews with Hideous Men are beautiful, and it is a beauty that intentionally heightens the contradiction to which Balthasar alludes. To quote Balthasar again:

even worldly aesthetics cannot exclude the element of the ugly, of the tragically fragmented, of the demonic, but must come to terms with these. Every aesthetic which simply seeks to ignore these nocturnal sides of existence can itself from the outset be ignored as a sort of aestheticism. It is not only the limitation and precariousness of all beautiful form which intimately belongs to the phenomenon of beauty, but also fragmentation itself, because it is only through being fragmented that the beautiful really reveals the meaning of the eschatological promise it contains.

In Wallace the “eschatological promise” is only ever faintly and hesitatingly suggested, never unequivocally affirmed, but it is always there.

The Pseudo-Distinction Between Rose and Pink

After Gaudete Sunday I noticed a number of priests on social media posting on the supposed difference between rose and pink. I claim that this distinction has very little foundation in reality; it has more to do with contingent cultural associations with the word “pink” than with a fair reading of the rubrics of the Roman Missal, or of the actual tradition of vestment making in the Roman Rite. The rubrics indeed speak of rose, but this could just as well be translated pink, since Latin does not have a separate term for pink. Indeed many languages (eg. German) make no distinction between the two colors.

Both of the English words are derived from flowers, but roses and pinks come in myriads of overlapping shades.

Indeed, as soon as one begins to think about the naming of colors, one’s native Platonism begins to give way, and one begins to suspect that there is something to the structuralist argument for the division of reality by naming as being a bit arbitrary. One doesn’t have to swallow de Saussure’s theories whole to see that the imposition of color names involves a certain amount of arbitrary choice. To Homer, after all, the sea was the color of wine.

Father Edward McNamara gives a sort of Newtonian-objectivist account of the supposed distinction between rose and pink:

Rose (“rosaceo“) is defined by the dictionary as “a moderate purplish-red color; purplish pink.” The liturgical color is thus a lightened violet and is darker than the pale hue usually associated with pink. It is rather a tincture closer to that of a pale incarnadine or the reddish “Naples yellow” used by artists. Pink, “any of a group of colors with a reddish hue that are of low to moderate saturation and can usually reflect or transmit a large amount of light; a pale reddish tint,” is not counted among the liturgical colors.

If one takes a less Newtonian and more Goethian approach (surely more applicable in aesthetic matters), or simply the approach that one took as a child learning to mix paint, then one could say that on Fr. McNamara’s account rose is mixture of red, white, and a little blue, whereas pink is a mixture of only white and red. But persons who have made a study of Latin color names are by no means unanimous in confirming such a view. The Calabrian Renaissance poet Antonia Telesio, has the following to say about rose:

Iucundissimus omnium est color roseus, atque humano corpori, si id formosum est quam simillimus. Itaque os, cervicem, papillas, digitos roseos poetae dicunt: id est candidos, rubore sanguinis penitus diffuso cum venustate: isque color proprie est, quem communis sermo incarnatum vocat. Refert enim maxime omnium pueri nitorem ac virginis: rosam non Milesiam intelligo quae nimis purpurea ardere quodammodo videtur, nec rursus albam: sed quae utrinque decorem accepit, et quia corpus hominis imitatur, quod lingua vernacula carnem appellat, eadem id genus rosarum incarnatum nominavit. Cicero colorem hunc suavem dixit.

That is to say, rose according to Telesio, is the color of human flesh— resulting from the red blood shining through the white skin.

Learned bloggers have indeed argued that the history of dye making argues for an admixture of blue in liturgical rose, but if one looks at actual historical examples, one can find all manner of shades of rose from almost red to almost violet to the palest of pastel pink:

And such diversity is quite normal. Usually liturgical colors allow for a wide variety of shades; just consider the different shades of liturgical green that one can find often from the same place and time. So whence comes the pseudo-distinction of rose and pink? We can get a clue from a post from the early days of the excellent New Liturgical Movement blog:

I’ve often found too many “rose” vestments to be far less rose coloured than they are pink. It seems to me a deeper, almost purplish hue of rose (sometimes referred to as “dusty rose”) would be more befitting the sacred rites, and also the masculine nature of the priesthood, and that the other can be quite distracting and not as befitting the former.

The reference to “the masculine nature of the priesthood” is I think the key to the problem. In many parts of the world pink is considered a sort of effeminate, missish color unbefitting to men. This seems a rather arbitrary convention, but perhaps not entirely arbitrary, since the flesh that Telesio describes as candidos, rubore sanguinis penitus diffuso is found maxime in virginibus (though also, I note, in pueris).