St Rafael Arnáiz Barón Walks through a Slum


The following passage was written by St Rafael Arnaiz Barón in 1934 when he had been forced to leave his monastery for the first time. Original: Apología del trapense, in: Obras Completas 267-269. Translated with the help of the German. When I first read this passage I thought of the distributist blogger Daniel Nochols, and especially of his would-be revolutionary commentator Owen White. I thought of it again when Pope Francis was elected, with his great emphasis on the question of poverty– from which we have much to learn.

When I left the church it was night. I did not direct my steps to the city center, but headed for the outlying neighborhoods … There one sees the usual: material and moral poverty… The dirty, black houses, occasionally gave a view of their badly lit interiors. The smell of dust and moisture, disheveled women screaming at the children, playing in the brook… Dirty, poorly lit streets,. The shops are sell nothing but the bare necessities … bread and sandals. Occasionally, a tavern which emits a smell of tobacco, wine and cheap food. All this under an overcast sky without stars…
These are the people, the poor people. Hunger is a commonplace, and the inhabitants of the city center, do not come here, lest they be disturbed by this misery. In the center there are luxury shops, the houses have a doorman and elevator, no neon signs in the theaters, and bright, clean cars glide across asphalt without without splattering themselves with mud or crashing into children playing in the brook.
And yet both the poor and the rich are children of God, all have the same miseries and the same sins… But one day, when God judges, how surprised we’ll be! The desperation of the hungry can be justified, but the selfishness of those who have money, and consider the poor a nuisance, that is unforgivable.
When those above forget God, what wonder that those below rebel?… Do not go to the poor to preach patience and resignation, but go rather to the rich and tell them that if they are not just and do not give of their possessions the wrath of God will fall upon them.
As I walked through these neighborhoods, I was overcome with indignation and shame. The God is banished from society, the more misery spreads. And if in a town which is called Christian creatures hate each other because of class interest, and are separated into rich and poor neighborhoods, what will happen on the day that God’s name is cursed by both?… If the poor are deprived of the idea of ​​God, they have nothing left. Their despair is justifiable, their hatred of the rich is natural, their desire for revolution and anarchy is logical.  And if the rich find the idea of God bothersome, if they  ignore the precepts of the Gospel and the teachings of Jesus … then they have no reason to complain. And if their selfishness prevents them from approaching the poor, then they should not be surprised that the poor intend to seize their possessions by force.
Seeing society as it is today, what Christian does not feel pain in the soul to see it thus? … When I think that all social conflicts, all differences could disappear if we payed a little attention to the God who was so abandoned in the church I had just visited… When I think of the tragedy presented by human life, and that all this hatred and jealousy, selfishness and falsehood could disappear if we looked to God… When I see how easy it would be for men to find the key to happiness, but that in there blindness or madness they do not want to see… then I can only exclaim: Lord … Lord, look on your suffering people… The people are not bad, Lord… but if you abandon them, who will, Lord, survive? … What can we do ourselves? Nothing, absolutely nothing … If you averted your eyes from the world for even a moment, the whole  world would sink back into chaos… Forgive us, Lord.

The Body as Deep Mud, a Donkey, and the Hinge of Salvation

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I am plunged into deep mire, and there is no standing. Ps 69(68):2

When Christ came into the world, he said, […] a body hast thou prepared for me. Heb 10:5

Caro salutis est cardo. (Salvation hinges on the flesh). Tertulian, De Resurrectione Carnis, VIII

For to what angel did God ever say, “Thou art my Son, today I have begotten thee”? Heb 1:5

The ox knows its owner, and the ass its master’s crib; but Israel does not know, my people does not understand. Is 1:3

The Psalm verse about being plunged into deep mud where there is no standing is usually applied to the Passion, but Charles De Koninck in Ego Sapientia (ch. 20) shows that it can also be applied to the Incarnation. The “deep mud” is the potentiality of matter into which the eternal Son, the pure act of Divinity, is sunk in becoming man. Fashionable theologians throw up their hands in horror at this sort of application. Not only on exegetical grounds, but above all because they are very sensitive to accusation that Christianity despises the body, and material reality. They hastily quote Tertulian’s famous pun, “Caro salutis est cardo.” (Salvation hinges on the flesh). But they seldom quote something else that Tertulian calls the flesh in the very same chapter of De Resurrectione Carnis: “huic substantiae frivolae ac sordidae” (this poor and worthless substance). Tertulian does indeed defend the body against Gnostics and Platonists – the body is neither evil nor pure privation, it is good and created by God – but neither does he have any illusions about its nobility, considered merely according to its nature. Indeed, it is the very lowliness of matter that enables the flesh to be the hinge of salvation. Continue reading

St Rafael Arnáiz Barón Among the Vegetables; or the Trappist as a Conquistador

rafael arnaiz baron

I have been reading a German translation of the writings of the 20th century Spanish Trappist, St Rafael Arnáiz Barón. There is no English translation of his writings, but here is a very rough translation of one wonderful passage.  (Original: Hno. Rafael Arnaiz Barón, tomado de su “Obras completas”, Mi cuaderno – San Isidro, 12 de diciembre de 1936, Sábado, 25 años.)

The Antics of the Turnips

Three o’clock in the afternoon on a rainy day in December. It’s time for work, and as it’s Saturday and very cold we don’t go out to the fields. We work in a room where lentils are washed, potatoes peeled, collards chopped etc … we call it the  “laboratorium.”

There is a long table here with benches, and a window with a crucifix above it.

It is a gloomy day. The clouds are dark. The wind blows with fitful indecision. A few drops of water fall reluctantly, licking the glass. And above all there is the cold – a cold worthy of the season and the country.

The truth is that apart from the cold, which I can feel in my frozen feet and chilled hands, I see these things mostly in my imagination, since I have hardly glanced at the window. The afternoon is dark and everything appears sad to me. I find the silence oppressive, and it appears that some little devils are determined to tease me with what I call “memories”… have patience and wait. Continue reading

Missa Latina: On the 50th Anniversary of Vatican II

The latest CD from my monastery’s record label ( is meant in part to promote a more faithful implementation of the Second Vatican Council’s document on the liturgy. The following is a translation of my confrere Pater Karl Wallner’s preface to the CD booklet.

The enthusiastic reception of our CDs shows the timeless fascination of Gregorian chant, which has been moving souls for over 1000 years. The calm melodies allow both singers and listeners to plunge into the sphere of the mystery of God. The texts are taken mostly from the Bible. We sing the Word that God has spoken to us back to Him. Chant is not simply song; it is divine worship. Therefore in the Cistercian Abbey of Heiligenkreuz we sing Gregorian chant only during the Liturgy, especially during the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

“Chant – Missa Latina” is meant not only as an “advertisement” for the beauty of God – we are certain that all who hear this chant, whatever their faith, will be moved by the Eternal Splendor – but this CD is also meant as an “advertisement” for the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, which, as the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) taught, is “source and summit of the Christian life” (Lumen Gentium 11).

Particularly we want to promote the celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass in Latin. The Mass can and should be celebrated in Latin. Not only in the so-called “Extraordinary Form of the Latin Rite,” which was usual before the Second Vatican Council, and whose celebration Pope Benedict XVI facilitated in 2007 (Summorum Pontificum, Art. 1), but also in the “Ordinary Form.” That is, Latin has its place in the “post-conciliar” Mass usual today. It was certainly good that the Council opened up the possibility of a limited use of the vernacular in the Liturgy. But it is entirely beside the intention of the Council that today the ancient and noble liturgical language of the Latin Church is almost unkown. The Second Vatican Council states explicitly: “Care must be taken to ensure that the faithful may also be able to say or sing together in Latin those parts of the Ordinary of the Mass which pertain to them.” (Sacrosanctum Concilium Nr. 54)

“Chant – Missa Latina” is meant to promote this forgotten mandate of the Second Vatican Council. Hence the golden cover which is meant to refer to the “golden jubilee” of the opening of the Council, 50 years ago. “Chant – Missa Latina” includes all the chants of the Mass of the Sacred Heart from the Introit to the “Ite Missa est.” The faithful can even use it as a kind of practice CD for learning the parts of the Mass in Latin. The Council also gave high praise to Gregorian chant (Sacrosanctum Concilium Nr. 116); it would be a great enrichment if it were to be sung more often during Mass…

But, dear listeners, one can of course simply listen to this CD and be moved by the beautiful music. The beauty of music of itself gives glory to God – as the Ensemble Vox Gotica shows so well with the “Missa Sine Nomine.” May God bless all who listen to this CD!

Father Karl Wallner, O.Cist., October 11, 2012.

Everywhere That Mary Went


If you consider of whom she is the mother, how great will be your admiration of her exalted dignity! Do you feel as if you can never sufficiently praise it? Do you not judge, and rightly, that she who has the God-man for her Son is exalted in greatness above all the choirs of angels? Did not Mary confidently call the God and Lord of Angels her Son, saying: “Son, why hast thou done so to us” Which of the angels would have presumed thus to speak? It is sufficient for them and something great, that while by nature they are spirits by grace they are made and called angels, as David says: “Who maketh his angels spirits.” In confidently calling God her Son, Mary acknowledges herself mother of that Majesty Whom those angels serve with reverential awe. Neither does God disdain to be called what He vouchsafed to be. For the Evangelist adds shortly after, “And he was subject to them.” Who was subject? God, to man. God to Whom the angels are subject. God, Whom the powers and principalities obey, was subject to Mary. And not only to Mary, but to Joseph also for Mary s sake. Consider, then, and choose which you will most admire, the gracious condescension of the Son, or the surpassing dignity of the mother. Both are amazing; both are miraculous. That a God should obey a woman is humility without example; that a woman should command the Son of God is a dignity without parallel. In the praise of virgins we hear that wonderful verse: “They shall follow the Lamb whithersoever he goeth.” But what praise, think you, is worthy of her who leads the way before Him ? Continue reading

Sabbath Breaking

Tilman Riemenschneider, Last Supper - Detail

The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had healed him.  And this was why the Jews persecuted Jesus, because he did this on the sabbath.  But Jesus answered them, “My Father is working still, and I am working.” (John 5:15-17)

Charity alone is his changeless and eternal rest, his eternal and changeless tranquillity, his eternal and changeless Sabbath [. . .] For his charity is his very will and also his very goodness, and all this is nothing but his being. (St Aelred of Rievaulx, Speculum Caritatis I,19)

It is hard to fathom the enormity of accusing the Eternal Son of breaking the Sabbath. He IS the Sabbath. In Him the Father rests with infinite contentment, and together they breath that eternal sigh of love fulfilled that is the Holy Spirit. All of creation is ordered to entry into that seventh day of the Divine Life. The Son longs to give us a share of His eternal rest, but we have turned against that rest, through our sins we have banished ourselves to a world of toil and trouble. And so He is still at work He comes into the world to create us all over again, to liberate us from the task-masters of Egypt, and bring us into the promised land of the true and eternal Sabbath.

The healing of the cripple in John 5 is a sign of this new creation that God has already begun to make. And for this they accuse Him of breaking the Sabbath! But isn’t the accusation that the Pharisees make one that we make as well? I was thinking of this other day when I was complaining in my heart about some minor bureaucratic frustration; wasn’t I in fact telling Our Lord, ‘stop breaking my Sabbath’? He is at work in our lives; everything that His providence ordains for us is meant to help to create us anew, to destroy the old man and his works and bring the new man to life, so that we may enter ever more into that eternal rest which is the very life of the Triune God.

Industrial vs. Cistercian Austerity: Dominikus Böhm’s Modernism


Domikus Böhm’s Heilig-Kreuz Kirche in Dülmen

Heiligenkreuz_Innenhof-Kirchenfassade 2005The Romanesque Facade of the Abbey Church in Heiligenkreuz

In a fascinating series Shawn Tribe and Matthew Alderman, have been examining what they call “The Other Modern” in sacred architecture: architecture which learns from the tradition rather than rejecting it, but which nevertheless has a peculiarly modernist flair. One of the questions which they have raised is whether it is possible to make use of elements of modernist minimalism and austerity in an authentically Catholic fashion. Even if the avante garde of modernism tended to use minimalism as an expression of nihilism, or the as a revolutionary demonstration of man’s self-alienation in his works, are there no other uses possible? Could one use a form of modernist austerity to achieve “noble simplicity”? There have certainly been architects who thought that it could, and the “Other Modern” series has brought some interesting examples to light. There have, after all, been examples of austere architecture in the Church’s past, Tribe and Alderman raise the example of Cistercian architecture.

The question of modernist vs. Cistercian austerity came to my mind last summer when I took a tour of the Heilig-Kreuz Kirche in Dülmen, built by the German architect, vestment designer, and composer Dominikus Böhm. Now, Böhm’s architecture is not an example of the “Other Modern”–it is simply modern–but I think a consideration of  it can help to show what it is about modern austerity that a successful Other Modern has to avoid. Böhm was an enthusiastic proponent of the twentieth century Liturgical Movement, and, while a convinced modernist, he included allusions to traditional architectural styles – especially the Romanesque – in his buildings for the sake of better expressing his theology. The tour guide, who lead some of my confreres and me through the Church, made a point of comparing Böhm’s architecture in general with Cistercian architecture, and Dülmen in particular with our Abbey Church in Heiligenkreuz, which has some striking coincidental similarities to Heilig-Kreuz Dülmen.

This has set me thinking on what exactly the meaning of austerity was for the Cistercian Fathers, and how it relates to the turn to austerity in the ecclesiastical architects of the industrial age, especially those associated with the Liturgical Movement. For S. Bernard austerity in architecture was part of monastic perfection. In the Apology to William S. Bernard writes the following:

Continue reading

All Times Are Bad Times

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Gloriosus apparuisti inter principes Austriae, sancte Leopolde, ideo diadema suscepisti de manu Domini; ora pro nobis ad Deum qui te elegit. (Magnificat Antiphon for the Feast of Saint Leopold)

Earlier this month the Austrian Bishop’s Conference met here in Heiligenkreuz. By some chance the first day of the Conference coincided with the Feast of Saint Leopold, the great Margrave of Austria and founder of Stift Heiligenkreuz (November 15th). These are, shall we say, challenging times for the Church of Austria, and one could not but be struck by the contrast between our times and those of Saint Leopold. But perhaps there is more illusion than reality in the contrast.

Certainly the impression that one gets from the liturgical texts etc. for Saint Leopold is of a kind of golden age in which everything went right for the Holy Prince. The antiphon for the Dixit Dominus at vespers goes, “Dominus confregit in die belli inimicos Leopoldi”! But this impression must be largely mistaken. Man is fallen from Paradise so it is natural to look back to a pre-lapsarian age, but one is inclined not to look back far enough and to project pre-lapsarian perfection on very lapsarian times. Saint Leopold’s greatest contemporary, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, thought that his own times were the worst times in the history of the world. To us they only seem great because the people we remember from them are the great exceptions: SS. Bernard, Leopold etc. The extreme example of this is of course the time of Our Lord, the fullness of time, but the generation which our Lord Himself says will be condemned on the Day of Judgment by Sodom and Gomorrah.

The opposite error is equally natural: to look forward to a coming generation which will set everything right. This is all very well if one looks forward to the Second Coming, but I’m afraid even Catholics have the tendency not to look forward far enough. How many times have we heard so-called “conservatives” say that soon the present unfortunate generation of “liberals” will die off and their places be taken by the rising generation of “traditionalist” churchmen who will reverse the excesses of the past decades? But every generation of churchmen is full of heresy, pride, cowardice, envy, and folly; all we can hope for is a occasional saint to keep our hopes up till the eschatological solution to all problems.

Jerome K. Jerome and S. Bernard on Sleep


No Novel has made me laugh so much as Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat. The humor of Three Men in a Boat is remarkably universal. Comic writing is often the most time-bound and least universal sort of writing. The ridiculous has to do with the concrete; it is bound up with the fact that material. Man’s immortal soul is the form of an immortal body, and he is thus caught up in all the imperfections of matter. Much comic writing turns on the circumstances of embodied human life, the vagaries of culture; it tends to be full of references to particular events, politicians etc. This is what makes Aristophanes so obscure. There is a certain amount of such humor in Three Men in a Boat, but that is not its main mode of humor. What makes Three Men in a Boat so much funnier than its sequel, Three Men on the Bummel, is that the latter is so much more particular, fueled primarily by concrete contrasts between Victorian England and Wilhelmine Germany. Three Men in a Boat on the other hand is fueled by the absurdities of the human condition an sich. The contrasts that it thrives on are the contrasts inherent in human life itself, the contrasts between matter and spirit, between eternal destiny and dependence on the trivial.

There is something very Pascalian about Jerome K. Jerome’s sensitivity to the contrasts of the human condition. It is not just a sensitivity to the absurdity of embodied spirit; it is a sensitivity to the fallenness of the world, to original sin, or, as J.K.J. calls it, “the natural cussedness of things in general.”

Perhaps the most Pascalian scene in Three Men in a Boat is on the morning of the day that the three men set out. Jerome and Harris wake up late and snarl bad-temperedly at each other till they see that George is still asleep:

There he lay – the man who had wanted to know what time he should wake us – on his back, with his mouth wide open, and his knees stuck up.

I don’t know why it should be, I am sure; but the sight of another man asleep in bed when I am up, maddens me. It seems to me so shocking to see the precious hours of a man’s life – the priceless moments that will never come back to him again – being wasted in mere brutish sleep.

There was George, throwing away in hideous sloth the inestimable gift of time; his valuable life, every second of which he would have to account for hereafter, passing away from him, unused. He might have been up stuffing himself with eggs and bacon, irritating the dog, or flirting with the slavey, instead of sprawling there, sunk in soul-clogging oblivion.

It was a terrible thought. Harris and I appeared to be struck by it at the same instant. We determined to save him, and, in this noble resolve, our own dispute was forgotten. We flew across and slung the clothes off him, and Harris landed him one with a slipper, and I shouted in his ear, and he awoke.

The Pascalian element is of course the brilliant juxtaposition of eternal destiny with the habit of diversion. Jerome and Harris cannot propose any alternative to the soul-clogging oblivion of sleep except the waking sleep of diversion.

I have discovered [Pascal writes] that all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber. A man who has enough to live on, if he knew how to stay with pleasure at home, would not leave it to go to sea or to besiege a town. [… ] When, after finding the cause of all our ills, I have sought to discover the reason of it, I have found that there is one very real reason, namely, the natural poverty of our feeble and mortal condition, so miserable that nothing can comfort us when we think of it closely.

I have often thought that Pascal here gives us the key to understanding the monastic life. The monastic life consists in sitting still in one’s own chamber, in facing the misery of the human condition squarely, weeping over it, and watching and waiting eagerly for the coming of the master who frees us from it. Woe to the servant whom the master finds sleeping when he comes!

Bernard_of_Clairvaux_-_Gutenburg_-_13206In his part of the Vita Prima William of St. Thierry writes (n.21) about S. Bernard’s scorn for sleep (rough translation):

What should I say of sleep, which in other men is a restoration after labor, a recreation of sense and mind? From that time till now he was awake more than is humanly possible. For no time did he regard as so wasted as the time of sleep. He held the comparison of sleep and death for very fitting; for as the sleeping seem dead to men, so the dead are sleeping in the eyes of God. Hence he could scarce keep his patience when he saw a religious in sleep who either snored too loud, or sprawled indecently; he thought such a one a carnal or worldly sleeper. The meagerness of his sleep was proportionate to the meagerness of his food; in neither did he indulge his body to satiety, in both he was satisfied if he had any at all. As for night-watches, he considered a watch moderate if he did not spend the whole night sleepless.

At the rare times when he slept he could truly make the words of the bride his own, “I slept but my heart was awake.” (Sg 5:2)