Jane Austen on Prayer with Sensible Consolations

The title of this post is slightly disingenuous; Jane Austen doesn’t actually write the stage of prayer in which God consoles the soul with “sweet feelings,” but this passage of Sense and Sensibility seems to me a excellent likeness of what seems to be meant by such expressions:

Edward was now fixed at the cottage at least for a week;—for whatever other claims might be made on him, it was impossible that less than a week should be given up to the enjoyment of Elinor’s company, or suffice to say half that was to be said of the past, the present, and the future;—for though a very few hours spent in the hard labor of incessant talking will despatch more subjects than can really be in common between any two rational creatures, yet with lovers it is different. Between THEM no subject is finished, no communication is even made, till it has been made at least twenty times over.

It is recounted of Msgr. Ronald Knox that immediately after his conversion he was receiving many sensible consolations, and that sometimes he would run on his way to Church in his impatience to pray before the Blessed Sacrament.

The Rule of Reason

In the letter embedded above Bl. Columba Marmion says exactly what I’ve tried to say to certain “enthusiastic” penitents in the confessional. It is dangerous to think that one is being guided by the Holy Spirit when one is in fact just being guided by one’s own fancy; man was meant to be ruled by reason enlightened by faith:

You must begin at the foundation of your soul, and try to accustom yourself to follow reason enlightened by faith, and no longer be the slave of your impressions. What distinguishes man from the animal is, that the animal, having no higher principle of action than sense, follows his impressions alone; whereas man has a spiritual principle which he should alone follow, using his senses, his impressions; but without being swept along by them.

Ronald Knox’s strange masterpiece Enthusiasm is a study of religious movements which give primacy to “impressions”.

Belloc and Class War

Recent posts (here and here) by Daniel Nichols of the excellent distributist blog Caelum et Terra have provoked a spirited and eloquent defense of the radical left by Owen (“the ochlophobist”). Owen begins by attacking distributism, and Catholic Social Teaching in general, for rejecting class-conflict, thus rejecting the only realistic means of bringing down the power of capital:

Distributism is a leftist movement, or rather would be, were it not for one major distinction between it and every other leftist movement – distributists are either quiet with regard to the necessity of class conflict, or they state they are against it (in keeping with the “plain” reading of C[atholic] S[social] T[eaching]). Leftists, whether anarcho-syndicalist, anarchist, communist, lib-communist, or socialist (here speaking of socialism proper), all believe that there cannot be an overcoming of capitalism without class conflict. […] Belloc […] never, so far as I have been able to find, preached, or even mentions positively, class war and the cultivation of class conflict as a socio-political aggressor which will bring this about. Without a belief in the role of class conflict, you are basically left with a political vision in which you really hope most people, including most rich people, will, without a serious fight, assent to the desires of a society that on the whole wants to be oriented towards distributism. How can a thinking person can look at the history of capitalism and rationally conclude that this is possible?

Belloc, as a faithful Catholic, never promoted class war, but there is definitely a case to be made that he was conflicted about this. His deep sense of the injustice of capitalism made him sympathetic with the vindictive anger of class-revolution. The clearest expression of this is the unrestrained violence of his early poem The Rebel:

There is a wall of which the stones
Are lies and bribes and dead men’s bones.
And wrongfully this evil wall
Denies what all men made for all,
And shamelessly this wall surrounds
Our homesteads and our native grounds.
But I will gather and I will ride,
And I will summon a countryside,
And many a man shall hear my halloa
Who never had thought the horn to follow;
And many a man shall ride with me
Who never had thought on earth to see
High Justice in her armoury.
When we find them where they stand,
A mile of men on either hand,
I mean to charge from right away
And force the flanks of their array,
And press them inward from the plains,
And drive them clamouring down the lanes,
And gallop and harry and have them down,
And carry the gates and hold the town.
Then shall I rest me from my ride
With my great anger satisfied.
Only, before I eat and drink,
When I have killed them all, I think
That I will batter their carven names,
And slit the pictures in their frames,
And burn for scent their cedar door,
And melt the gold their women wore,
And hack their horses at the knees,
And hew to death their timber trees,
And plough their gardens deep and through—
And all these things I mean to do
For fear perhaps my little son
Should break his hands, as I have done.

Small wonder that Belloc’s election to parliament was seen as a disaster by the upper class. Here is how Christopher Hollis describes it:

Conservative property-owners, terrified by the threats of the 1906 election, saw in his oratory the threat of the tumbrils which awaited them. ‘Belloc is in’ went the message round the rich houses of Maifair when the election results came through. They feared the worst. (The Seven Ages, p. 52)

In his magnificent panegyric on Belloc Msgr. Ronald Knox describes Belloc as a prophet who “saw what he took to be the evils of our time in a clear light, and with a steady hatred; [who] found, or thought he had found, a common root in them, and traced them back, with that light God gave him, to their origins.” That I think is just right, but then Knox interprets a famous passage from The Path to Rome in a way that I think is not quite right. Here is the Belloc passage itself, which I quote at length for the context:

I found my cigar and lit it again, and musing much more deeply than before, not without tears, I considered the nature of Belief. Of its nature it breeds a reaction and an indifference. Those who believe nothing but only think and judge cannot understand this. Of its nature it struggles with us. And we, we, when our youth is full on us, invariably reject it and set out in the sunlight content with natural things. Then for a long time we are like men who follow down the cleft of a mountain and the peaks are hidden from us and forgotten. It takes years to reach the dry plain, and then we look back and see our home. What is it, do you think, that causes the return? I think it is the problem of living; for every day, every experience of evil, demands a solution. That solution is provided by the memory of the great scheme which at last we remember. Our childhood pierces through again … But I will not attempt to explain it, for I have not the power; only I know that we who return suffer hard things; for there grows a gulf between us and many companions. We are perpetually thrust into minorities, and the world almost begins to talk a strange language; we are troubled by the human machinery of a perfect and superhuman revelation; we are over-anxious for its safety, alarmed, and in danger of violent decisions. And this is hard: that the Faith begins to make one abandon the old way of judging. Averages and movements and the rest grow uncertain. We see things from within and consider one mind or a little group as a salt or leaven. The very nature of social force seems changed to us. And this is hard when a man has loved common views and is happy only with his fellows. And this again is very hard, that we must once more take up that awful struggle to reconcile two truths and to keep civic freedom sacred in spite of the organization of religion, and not to deny what is certainly true. It is hard to accept mysteries, and to be humble. We are tost as the great schoolmen were tost, and we dare not neglect the duty of that wrestling.

Now, Knox interprets this in the light of Jeremiah as the prophet in mood to be rid of his burden of prophecy. But this I think is false, it is not that Belloc wanted to be free of the burden of condemning the evils of the age, it is rather that he wanted to condemn them with the full throated violence of the revolutionary, and found it difficult to submit to the gentle doctrine of the Church which prefers cooperation between classes to conflict, and can preach submission to slaves:

Slaves, be obedient to those who are your earthly masters, with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as to Christ; not in the way of eye-service, as men-pleasers, but as servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to men, knowing that whatever good any one does, he will receive the same again from the Lord, whether he is a slave or free.  (Eph 6:5-7)

Empire I: the Philosophical Poet

Virgil is a very philosophical poet. In his famous essay on the Aenead[1] Jacob Klein quotes the following note from an early life of Virgil:

Although [Virgil] seems to have put the opinions of diverse philosophers into his writings with most serious intent, he himself was a devotee of the Academy; for he preferred Plato’s views to all the others.

I am going try to show something of Virgil’s political philosophy, and how it responds to Plato, but before doing that I ought to do a post on Virgil as a poet. Let me begin with the famous lines that are supposed to sum up the whole spirit of Virgil: Continue reading

Kantian Ngrams

On a superficial level one can see the impact of […] Kantian ideas on the ethical discourse on the ethical discourse of modern Christians who now speak as much or more about “persons,” “dignity,” “rights,” and “respect” than about sin, redemption, compassion, Heaven, and hell. (Robert Kraynak, Christian Faith and Modern Democracy, p. 148)

I tried to see whether Kraynak’s “superficial level” could be graphed using the blunt instrument of Google Ngrams; this was the most interesting graph that I could come up with:

Kantian N-grams

Note how “sin” suddenly spikes up at the beginning of the 19th century, and then declines again. This has to do with early Evangelicalism, the final phase of what Msgr. Knox calls “Enthusiasm:"

For a hundred and fifty years [Enthusiasm] becomes the major preoccupation of religious minds, obscuring from contemporary view the rise of atheism. (Ronald Knox, Enthusiasm, p. 4).

Bl. John Henry Newman’s Apologia as a Spiritual Aeneid


Ronald Knox called the account of his conversion A Spiritual Aeneid. In an Aeneid you are coming home, but coming home to a place you have never been in before.  You must throw yourself upon the guidance of the gods. Nor are there the memories of home to spur you on when you are tempted to turn aside, Knox writes, “it is a mere sense of mission, imperiously insistent, that inflames your discontent: cunctus ob Italiam terrarum clauditur orbis.” And of course, the home to which you are returning is Rome. In a recent paper I have argued that everything about the relation of his book to the Aeneid could be applied to Bl. John Henry Newman’s Apologia. But the Apologia can be called a spiritual Aeneid for a deeper reason than those listed by Knox.

At the beginning of the key chapter of the Apologia Newman refers to Aeneid and thereby shows what is his own intention in writing:

And now that I am about to trace, as far as I can, the course of that great revolution of mind, which led me to leave my own home, to which I was bound by so many strong and tender ties, I feel overcome with the difficulty of satisfying myself in my account of it, and have recoiled from the attempt, till the near approach of the day, on which these lines must be given to the world, forces me to set about the task. For who can know himself, and the multitude of subtle influences which act upon him? And who can recollect, at the distance of twenty-five years, all that he once knew about his thoughts and his deeds, and that, during a portion of his life, when, even at the time his observation, whether of himself or of the external world, was less than before or after, by very reason of the perplexity and dismay which weighed upon him,—when, in spite of the light given to him according to his need amid his darkness, yet a darkness it emphatically was? And who can suddenly gird himself to a new and anxious undertaking, which he might be able indeed to perform well, were full and calm leisure allowed him to look through every thing that he had written, whether in published works or private letters? yet again, granting that calm contemplation of the past, in itself so desirable, who can afford to be leisurely and deliberate, while he practises on himself a cruel operation, the ripping up of old griefs, and the venturing again upon the ‘infandum dolorem’ of years, in which the stars of this lower heaven were one by one going out? I could not in cool blood, nor except upon the imperious call of duty, attempt what I have set myself to do. It is both to head and heart an extreme trial, thus to analyze what has so long gone by, and to bring out the results of that examination. I have done various bold things in my life: this is the boldest: and, were I not sure I should after all succeed in my object, it would be madness to set about it. (Bl. John Henry Newman, Apologia pro Vita Sua)

“Infandum dolorem” is a quote from the oppening of Book II of the Aeneid:

Infandum, regina, iubes renovare dolorem,

Troianas ut opes et lamentabile regnum

eruerint Danai; quaeque ipse miserrima vidi,

et quorum pars magna fui. Quis talia fando

Myrmidonum Dolopumve aut duri miles Ulixi

temperet a lacrimis? Et iam nox umida caelo

praecipitat, suadentque cadentia sidera somnos.

Sed si tantus amor casus cognoscere nostros

et breviter Troiae supremum audire laborem,

quamquam animus meminisse horret, luctuque refugit,


Too deep for words, O queen, is the grief you bid me renew, how the Greeks overthrew Troy’s wealth and woeful realm – the sights most piteous that I saw myself and wherein I played no small role. What Myrmidon or Dolopian, or soldier of the stern Ulysses, could refrain from tears in telling such a tale? And now dewy night is speeding from the sky and the setting stars counsel sleep. Yet if such is your desire to learn of our disasters, and in few words to hear of Troy’s last agony, though my mind shudders to remember and has recoiled in pain, I will begin.

Newman mirrors Virgil’s passage closely even to chillingly transforming Virgil’s musical line “suadentque cadentia sidera somnos” into “years, in which the stars of this lower heaven were one by one going out.” But the echo in imagery points to what this passage most of all shows is that Newman was following Virgil at a deeper level; he was trying to convey the same vision of the deep sadness in greatness of mortal life in its relation to the divine.

Virgil’s sadness is deeper than that of the other great classical authors because of his hope. Compare the famous line which Aeneas speaks on seeing the images of Troy, “sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt,” (1.462) with Lucretius on the pain of birth, “cui tantum in vita restet transire malorum” (De Rerum Natura 5.227). Lucretius does not see any meaning in the pains of birth; his sadness is simply despair at the meaninglessness of life. Virgil sees great meaning in the fall of Troy – it is ordered to the rise of Rome – and this gives his sadness a different quality. There is a paradox here. Lucretius’s sadness is shallow, because he is hopeless, and thus lacks a sense of the nobility of mortal life. Virgil’s sadness is deep because he sees human life as playing out a meaningful and divinely guided destiny, his sadness sees the nobility of mortal existence in its very pain and weariness.

For Virgil mortal things touch the heart because of a nobility which comes from their being ordered to something greater than themselves. The Christian Middle Ages saw Virgil as a prophet because he is practically unique among the pagans in having a linear, teleological view of history. For Virgil the god’s have destined Rome to great things, and the role of the hero is to contribute to that destiny. It is this grand hope that makes Virgil so different from Homer. Homer has an essentially cyclical view of history; the endless quarrels of the gods go round and round. The role of the hero for Homer is simply to win great honor in a harsh world, to achieve lasting fame. There is no possibility of contributing toward some final goal.

It is Virgil’s view, transformed of course by a far greater hope, that Newman is trying to express. Newman is trying to “touch the heart” by the portrayal of the nobility and sadness of mortal existence played out in the attempt to reach for the divine and strive for the eternal goal. That is where the greatest fascination of the Apologia comes from – the pathos and nobility of the relation to divine Providence.

Those whose hearts have been touched by the Apologia can say to Newman what Dante says to Virgil: “Tu se’ lo mio maestro e ’l mio autore:” “thou art my master, and my author thou!” (Inferno 1.87)

Per Evangelica Dicta

How are we to understand the silent prayer after the Gospel at Mass: “Per evangelica dicta, deleantur nostra delicta: By the words of the Gospel may our sins be blotted out”? How does the reading of the Gospel blot out our sins? The brilliant German novelist Martin Mosebach in one of the essays in his rather idiosyncratic book on the Liturgy uses this prayer as an argument for having the Gospel read in Latin: the reading of the Gospel is much more than proclamation; in it Christ becomes present, and it thus as the character of a sacramental an efficacious, sin-forgiving blessing. (Häresie der Formlosigkeit, 2nd. ed. 135) I have no problem with reading the Gospel in Latin, but I think that Mosebach’s argument tends to muddle the distinction between sacramental and sacrament a bit. We say a sacrament is efficacious “ex opere operato,” from the work done, but a sacramental “ex opere operantis,” from the work of the doer. Mosebach seems to be wanting the sacramental to work like a sacrament: as if it were irrelevant whether one understood the words of the Gospel for them to have their effect. In the case of a sacrament this is clear; Ronald Knox famously remarked, on being asked to use the vernacular for a Baptism, “the baby doesn’t understand English and the Devil knows Latin.” But in the case of a sacramental this is not at all clear.

Although the subtitle of Mosebach’s book is “On the Roman Liturgy and its Enemy” its spirit is rather Byzantine than Roman. I think this is manifest in many parts of the book, but perhaps nowhere so clearly as in the place just cited. For Byzantine theology does not distinguish between sacraments and sacramentals. There is an old Russian story which gives gives a kind of exaggerated version of what Mosebach seems to be thinking: A monk gives a drunkard a copy of the Gospel in Church Slavonic, and advises him to read it whenever he wants a drink, but the man assures the monk that he does not understand Church Slavonic and the book can be of no use to him.

But the monk went on to assure me that in the very words of the Gospel there lay a gracious power, for in them was written what God himself has spoken. ‘It does not matter very much if at first you do not understand. […] If you do not understand the Word of God, the devils understand what you are reading and tremble […] St. John Chrysostom writes that even a room in which a copy of the Gospels is kept holds the spirits of darkness at bay and becomes an unpromising field for their wiles.’

Now, I don’t want to deny that there might be something to all this, Chrysostom  is a strong authority, but it is hardly likely that this typically Byzantine enthusiasm is what the Roman Liturgy is referring to with “per evangelica dicta…” The Roman tradition places great emphasis on attention to the liturgically proclaimed word, “ut mens nostra concordet voci nostrae” (Regula Benedicti XIX,7). Even one of the most Byzantine-spirited Latin theologians, the “Origen of the 20th century,” H. U. von Balthasar, is very Roman when it comes to this question. Like Origen himself Balthasar occasionally makes a really good point:

It is essential to listen [to the word] obediently and with full attention, not least as a means of purification and preparation for holy communion (“You are made clean by the word which I have spoken to you” [Jn 15:3]; “Per evangelica dicta deleantur nostra delicta”). This attention is therefore necessary as a liturgical act, i.e., an act pertaining to the worship of the whole Church. Consequently it is wrong to isolate this act, which can only be a personal act, and as such makes ready for the sacramental act of holy communion, and to sacramentalize it, ascribing to it a kind of ex opere operato effect which is totally foreign.

The contact which we have with the Word in the Gospel is a preparation for the union which we will have with Him in through the Sacrament, which is itself a foretaste of the union which we will have with Him in the Beatific Vision.

The contact with him in the Gospel is the contact of faith. Blessed Columba Marmion’s Christ the Life of the Soul is largely concerned with how the contact that we have with Christ through faith is the foundation of the spiritual life and our adoption as sons. Thus when the Gospel is proclaimed in we come into real contact with the Light of the world, who reveals to us our sin and blots it out on condition that we believe:

For God so loved the world, as to give his only begotten Son; that whosoever believeth in him, may not perish, but may have life everlasting. For God sent not his Son into the world, to judge the world, but that the world may be saved by him. He that believeth in him is not judged. But he that doth not believe, is already judged: because he believeth not in the name of the only begotten Son of God. And this is the judgment: because the light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than the light: for their works were evil. For every one that doth evil hateth the light, and cometh not to the light, that his works may not be reproved. But he that doth truth, cometh to the light, that his works may be made manifest, because they are done in God. (Jn 3:16-21)

Victorian Optimism

I have been working on a chapter on “historical context” in my paper on Newman’s Apologia. Victorian England was not an easy audience for Newman. The Baconian project of domination over nature reached a high-point of confidence in the Victorians.  The tremendous technological and commercial achievements of the time had not yet been clouded by the shock to the faith in progress that WWI was to give – nor by the ideological critique of capitalism and imperialism through Marxism etc. The religion that appealed most to the Victorian Zeitgeist was the liberal Christianity of Newman’s opponent Charles Kingsley, which substituted the optimism of progress for Christian hope, to the point of practically identifying the scientific, technological and commercial success of British society with the coming of the kingdom of God. Kingsley is (no surprise) a huge fan of Bacon:

Remember that while England is, and ever will be, behindhand in metaphysical and scholastic science, she is the nation which above all others has conquered nature by obeying her; that as it pleased God that the author of that proverb, the father of inductive science, Bacon Lord Verulam, should have been an Englishman, so it has pleased Him that we, Lord Bacon’s countrymen, should improve that precious heirloom of science, inventing, producing, exporting, importing, till it seems as if the whole human race, and every land from the equator to the pole must henceforth bear the indelible impress and sign-manual of English science. And bear in mind, as I said just now, that this study of natural history is the grammar of that very physical science which has enabled England thus to replenish the earth and subdue it. Do you not see, then, that by following these studies you are walking in the very path to which England owes her wealth ; that you are training in yourself that habit of mind which God has approved as the one which He has ordained for Englishmen, and are doing what in you lies toward carrying out, in after life, the glorious work which God seems to have laid on the English race, to replenish the earth and subdue it? (“On the Study of Natural History,” available through the magic of google books)

The incredible English chauvinism that he shows here is wholly typical of his age. Ronald Knox thinking back about his Victorian childhood expresses it like this:

Only those of us, I think, who were born under Queen Victoria know what it feels like to assume, without questioning, that England is permanently top nation; that foreigners do not matter, and if the worst comes to the worst, Lord Salisbury will send a gun-boat. (Ronald Knox, God and the Atom (London: Sheed and Ward, 1945) 53-54.)

Victorian Liberal Christianity was impatient of what it saw as the irrelevant subtlety of speculative doctrine; it was a very practical religion. For Newman to make a history of the theological investigations that lead him to abandon the religion of England for the “superstitions of Rome” palatable to Victorian England was a challenge indeed.

The Window in the Wall

And now he is standing on the other side of this very wall; now he is looking through each window in turn, peering through every chink. I can hear my true love calling to me, Rise up, rise up quickly, dear heart, so gentle, so beautiful, rise up and come with me. (Sg. 2:9-10; Knox Translation)

Ronald Knox takes a rather curious literal interpretation of the Song of Songs, but one that solves a number of difficulties. Joe Zepeda’s brilliant TAC thesis argues for it rather persuasively. The interpretation is roughly this: the bride has been taken to Solomon’s court, but she is still faithful to her beloved from the country. Her beloved follows her to the city, and (in the above text) he is standing outside the wall of Solomon’s palace calling her. In his sermon “The Window in the Wall” Knox gives a figurative interpretation of the passage: Solomon’s court is the world of sensible, the beloved is of course our Lord, and the ‘window in the wall’ is the Blessed Sacrament.

It’s the irony of fallen existence that the sensible world, which should be a mirror of God’s glory, ends up being an ersatz for it. Just as Solomon (the ‘son of David’) is supposed to be the representative of God and the type of His Son, but ends up being His rival. In the Blessed Sacrament the Beloved comes to us without any sensible glory, calling us to leave the ‘gilded cage’ of our enslavement to creatures, and come out into the fresh air the Divine Life.

References: R. Knox, The Window in the Wall and Other Sermons on the Holy Eucharist (London: Burns and Oates, 1956) pp. 1-6. Joseph Raphael Zepeda, Fruits New and Old in the Song of Solomon; God’s Covenants symbolized (Senior Thesis; Santa Paula: Thomas Aquinas College, 2004).