Friday, August 14, 2015

The Pugin brothers: Saint Mary's, Warrington


I'm jealous of a friend of mine, a seminarian of the Priestly Fraternity of Saint Peter, who lately had the opportunity to visit that Fraternity's latest acquisition: a splendid Gothic revival church in Cheshire (the archdiocese of Liverpool): the church of Saint Mary's, Warrington. The church was built by the Benedictine monks of Ampleforth Abbey beginning in 1875, which they managed to operate continuously all the way up to 2012! The church was designed by Edward Welby Pugin, Augustus's oldest son and successor to the business. Unfortunately, Edward died shortly after breaking ground (at 41, just one year longer than his father), but his younger brother, Peter Paul Pugin, assumed the project and took it to completion in 1877.

Here are some pictures my friend took. You'll see that Edward's style gradually diverged from Augustus's, particularly after 1859. Augustus's churches were usually of "country parish" proportions with very deep and narrow chancels, while Edward eventually addressed some of Cardinal Newman's criticisms against his father's work and brought the Gothic revival in line with "Tridentine" norms: smaller chancels, wider altars, and no rood screens to obscure the people's view of the high altar, to name a few. At the same time, Edward greatly enhanced the "vertical" aspect so that, in true Gothic style, even a common city parish was sure to make you feel like an ant inside it.










Wednesday, August 5, 2015

If you're not a gamer, you'll wish you were -- The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt review

“Lesser, greater, middling, it's all the same. Proportions are negotiated, boundaries blurred. I'm not a pious hermit, I haven't done only good in my life. But if I'm to choose between one evil and another, then I prefer not to choose at all.”
― Andrzej Sapkowski, The Last Wish (1993)

In May, I finally got my hands on a game I so eagerly anticipated that I had reserved the collector's boxset edition 11 months in advance of its release (see my post on unboxing that set here). At last, 200 logged hours and a small mountain of tin soda cans later, the credits rolled and I set down the final chapter of Geralt of Rivia's tale in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. There are two ways for me to recount my experience. The short version is where I tell you that, in the course of the story, I accidentally unleashed a bubonic plague upon the peasantry, purposefully threw a baby in an oven and locked the door, spent about 15 minutes leading a goat back to its owner with a handbell, helped a warrior get over his fear of his own father by wandering through a dark cavern with him under the influence of shrooms, and caved an ancient elf-lord's head into his torso with a mace the size of a small tree. I tell you it's one of the best games ever made, you dismiss me as a psychopath and never visit my page again. Or, if you have the patience for it, you can read the long version.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is the last installment in a series of open-world role-playing games based upon dark fantasy books by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski and a heap of Slavic folklore. Most people, including many hardcore gamers, have never heard of it. Those who have will think it's either "that game my PC will never be able to run", "the Skyrim knockoff", or perhaps "that racist, sexist game where everyone is white". I prefer to call it instead: "the game that will make non-gamers wish they were".

The hero 

 


 Introducing Geralt of Rivia

You play as Geralt of Rivia, a "witcher": a monster slayer who wanders the world in search of beasts and ghosts who haunt the realms of men, and villagers who are willing to pay hard coin for a professional to exterminate them. He is at once hunter, investigator of the paranormal, and (when the circumstances allow) a lifter of curses. As with the other members of his guild, Geralt has trained in the arts of swordsmanship from childhood and subjected to genetic mutation to enhance his reflexes and senses just enough to be regarded as a freak and outcast from the rest of society, but not enough to actually be superhuman. But, as much as common folk may revile them, the witchers are oft-enough the only ones standing between the people of a remote village and their total extinction at the hands of a werewolf prowling the woods at night, or worse. In short, imagine a medieval Batman meets John Constantine from Hellblazer.

Geralt is controlled from a third-person camera so you can admire his ugly mug and pirouettes during fights. The bread-and-butter of fighting will always be your two swords (a steel blade for humans, and a silver one for monsters), but Geralt's arsenal also includes a whole system of herb-gathering and alchemy to create potions, oils, and bombs. There are also five basic magical spells that won't win the battle for you, but can give you a slight edge such as blasting foes back with telekinetic force, launching a wave of fire, or muddling an enemy's mind to fight on your side for a time. That last one can also be used in some conversations as a sort of Jedi mind trick to get people to see your way; just be careful when using it among groups of people, or the guy's friends might catch on that you're using a hex on him and try to snap him out of it. New to The Witcher 3 is a mini-crossbow, especially helpful for bringing flying enemies such as harpies and griffins down to your level, though you do get chided by fellow witchers for such an anti-traditional armament.

Unlike most RPG's, you don't create your own character here. While you get to make moral choices galore throughout the adventure, this is definitely a "Geralt simulator": you spend the vast majority of the game controlling one pre-defined character whose history spans not only the past two games, but two short story collections and six novels. Just as you can't make Batman kill someone in the Arkham Asylum games, you can't make Geralt gay or adopt the persona of an aristocrat. Cosmetic changes are limited to armor pieces (which are actually quite diverse) and an array of hairstyles and beards. Within the reasonable confines of the character, though, The Witcher 3 gives the player a freedom to act and explore that has never before been seen in the history of the video game medium.

Cirilla Fiona Elen Riannon was as central a character as Geralt in the books, but The Witcher 3 marks her first game appearance. She's also playable in several sequences, and is just as fun.

The story begins with the hero in search of his lover and his adoptive daughter, Ciri, from the books. While The Witcher 2's plot grew into the political like a spider web of schemes and double-deals in the council halls of kings, this game's quest remains entirely personal throughout. Yes, you'll run into King Radovid from the past two titles and Emperor Emhyr (voiced in the English version by Charles Dance and, as you can imagine, sounding more-or-less exactly like his character Tywin Lannister from Game of Thrones), and you can choose to embroil yourself neck-deep in their machinations; but the core always remains the search for Ciri, delivering her from the clutches of the spectral cavalcade known as the Wild Hunt. (I have an entire post on the folklore phenomenon of the Wild Hunt here.) You're not here to save the world: just to stitch some semblance of a family together and make a living, wandering from town to town along the way.


The world



The debut gameplay trailer

You start the tutorial in the ancient witchers' fortress of Kaer Morhen (a stunning recreation of the first area of the first Witcher game) via a flashback to Geralt and Ciri's past, but soon you wake up in the open world. In truth, the game starts you off in a village called White Orchard and its surrounding environs. It's big enough to think you're already in the open world, but White Orchard is actually just a primer region to help you get familiar with the game's mechanics until it ejects you into No Man's Land, a swampland fiefdom on the edges of Temeria, ravaged by war and famine. Unlike Skyrim's single map, The Witcher 3 spans across not only No Man's Land, but the two cities of Oxenfurt and Novigrad (on the same map), and the isles of Skellige on another map, which is accessible later in the story. Together, the two maps form a whopping 52 square miles of explorable territory; Skyrim was only 15. It's a good thing CD Projekt now gives us a horse to ride across the world in, or else we'd be walking forever.

Of course, size isn't everything, but The Witcher 3's world also matches quantity with quality through an inexhaustible number of fully-fleshed side quests strewn about every crook and nanny of the world. This is a world which doesn't revolve around the protagonist's existence. People have everyday problems as simple as an old lady asking you to find her frying pan, to deciding whether or not to intervene when you see a gang of peasants descending upon a lone enemy soldier lost on the road. Hayden Dingman's review on PC World described the last one as such:
Early on I was riding my horse down the road—flanked on both sides by hanged corpses—when I came across a group of angry peasants surrounding a lone soldier, part of an invading force. The peasants insisted the foreigner be lynched. I told them to back off. The peasants attacked. I killed them all.

“Thanks so much,” said the soldier. “So lucky you stopped by.”

“If I hadn’t stopped, only one man would’ve died here today,” said Geralt.

And I felt bad. So bad that I succumbed to the perennial video game advantage—I reloaded. This time I let the soldier die. When the peasants walked away, there was one more corpse hanging by the side of the road. I looted the soldier, only to find a letter from his wife desperately begging him to come home.

I reloaded again. I killed the peasants.

Hanged Man's Tree
Aside from the dozens upon dozens of such encounters (which, even after 200 hours of play, I still have over 10 left undone according to my strategy guide), there are something like 26 monster contracts, not counting DLC's, which all build upon a basic but nonetheless entirely satisfying formula:

1.) Learn about a monster terrorizing some locals via a notice board or talking to an NPC in person;
2.) (optional) Haggle with a contract giver for a higher reward
3.) Conduct an investigation to learn about the monster and its weaknesses by questioning any witnesses
4.) Explore the wilderness by using your heightened "witcher senses" (like Batman's detective vision in the Arkham games) to look for clues
5.) Prepare for, and kill the monster in a mini-boss battle
6.) Return to quest-giver to collect reward

Just a few examples of monsters: 

-wyverns
-rock trolls
-noonwraiths (the ghosts of women who die violently right before their weddings and only appear when the sun is at its zenith in the sky)
-hyms (vengeful specters who only haunt those guilty of grievous sins, slowly sapping their strength)
-leshens (woodland spirits who control the trees and animals, and often use their powers to demand gifts and worship from local villagers as gods) 

There's also a high chance that there's a "twist" to any contract if you look hard enough, such as that the monster was of the villager's own creation through cursing or wickedness. One of the recurring themes of the entire Witcher saga, after all, is that sometimes the worst monsters are the ones in human skin. Most importantly, even these contracts serve a greater purpose to the story of The Witcher. Here, Geralt is plying his trade, like a traveling cobbler, thatcher, or actor might for their daily bread. You need money to buy better armor, weaponry, or crafting supplies if you want to have a decent chance of taking on the Wild Hunt, and the game's economy is designed so that your hero mostly reflects Geralt in the books: always broke and on the road to find another monster to kill, and another paycheck. 

Geralt does battle with a griffin
Throw in the main quest for Ciri which spans three acts, treasure hunts, side activities like horse-racing and fistfighting tournaments, and the surprisingly entertaining trading card mini-game called Gwent (yes, strange as it sounds, The Witcher now has its own, more fun version of Pokemon or Yu-gi-Oh), and you could easily put one or two hundred hours into it yourself before the end. To top it all off, CD Projekt has been constantly releasing free DLC from release even up to now. While they're small additions, to be sure; a spiffy new armor set here, a monster contract there; CD Projekt has demonstrated their commitment to rewarding their customers with new content without nickel-and-diming them for each new thing, not to mention the constant updates to fix the bugs which are inevitable in any game of this scope. 


The visuals



NVIDIA Gameworks features
 
Oh, by the way, while the graphics are the least of The Witcher 3's achievements, it does happen to also be the best-looking RPG ever made. As with past titles, the flagship platform is the Windows PC version, which can take full advantage of a PC's superior hardware if your system specs are up to snuff: drawing distance that lets you spot trees from miles away, ambient occlusion draping interiors and objects shielded from the sun with lifelike shadows, dazzling flora and fauna populating every bit of wilderness, and, if you have an nVidia graphics card, you can turn on "HairWorks", which simulates realistic hair animation on both man and beast. The sun even rises earlier in the morning the further north you travel on the map!

Unless you already play a lot of recent, high-end PC games, your computer is unlikely to run The Witcher 3 on settings that do the game justice (if at all), but the good news is that you can also get the game on Xbox One and Playstation 4. I haven't tried the console versions out myself, but I know that most players have, and according to all reviews I've read, both next-gen consoles run the game at a respectable level of graphic detail that still knocks just about every other game on the market out of the ballpark. Oh, and you can, in fact, use both Xbox (360 and One) and PS4 controllers with the PC version. Though the keyboard and mouse is stronger for navigating the interface and general exploration, the gamepad is a better match when it comes to actually swinging your sword and dodging about.

A panorama of the Free City of Novigrad, the largest, most densely populated and believable medievalesque city ever rendered in a game.

If making the most beautiful RPG in existence is the least of The Witcher 3's accomplishments, then what's the greatest?

 


 The game's outstanding, orchestral main theme

Quite simply this: that The Witcher 3 raises the entire gaming industry's bar to a new standard for content and storytelling that hasn't been seen since the original Deus Ex back in 2000. The only way I can explain is by way of a short spoiler. Early in the game, Ciri's trail leads you to a man called the Bloody Baron, the self-appointed warlord of No Man's Land. A common-born deserter from a defeated army and a brute whose beard, you can only imagine, is matted with bread crumbs and vodka, the Baron demands your help in finding his lost wife and daughter in exchange for information on Ciri's whereabouts. As you investigate his manor, you see all the signs of domestic abuse: broken furniture, poorly concealed holes in the wall, signs of a miscarriage, and in the basement, a written prayer from the Baron's daughter, Tamara, asking the Eternal Fire to strike her own father dead. It becomes clear that the Baron's family had enough of his drinking and left him of their own accord in the night.

The Bloody Baron: deserter, warlord, drunkard... and concerned father
Before you draw your sword and go full Punisher on the man, though, you learn the Baron's side of the story. You even get to play as Ciri (in the first of several sequences throughout the game) in a flashback where the Baron shows his fatherly side, taking her in to the manor as one of his own until she's restored to health. Where there was once a savage warlord, we now see a man with serious character flaws, yet stands as a gentleman compared to the motley rabble of plunderers and rapists he tenuously commands. A man who, in true Slavic spirit, was born on the wrong side of the bed... but yet, like Dmitri in Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, though his veins run with vodka, they sustain a heart beating with compassion in the darkest hours. I won't spoil the story any further; it suffices only to say that this questline was the single most gut-wrenching experience I've ever had in a game.

The Witcher 3 isn't perfect. There are still, at the time of this post, some annoying bugs that haven't been patched out. Combat on horseback is very frustrating and not really worth trying. For veteran players, you can import a save file from The Witcher 2, but most of your decisions in the end of the second game don't have any effect on the third's story. BioWare RPG's like Mass Effect and Dragon Age are pretty good about at least giving the illusion that your choices from past games affect the state of the world, but it seems that CD Projekt didn't try very hard here. And, there's one important quest toward the very end of the story whose conclusion makes no sense to me and smacks of "we ran out of time, so let's just end it like this". Other flaws ultimately reveal the shortcomings of the open world game in general. Yes, there's a washerwoman NPC who looks like six or seven other peasant wenches elsewhere in the game, but the only reason we notice is because The Witcher 3 achieves excellence in so many other aspects that the small things start to stand out. Those on the Internet who call CD Projekt "lazy copy-pasting devs" for recycling assets in a game this enormous are like people taking down Michelangelo because the sybils on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel are built a little too much like men.

For the rest of us who can take a few paces back and look at the whole canvas, we see a game that, as the Dark Knight trilogy did for the superhero movie, takes the player away from the fact that it's just a game. The Witcher 3, in transcending the limits of the medium, raises the bar for the next generation of games. It tells other developers: you can do better than throw in 85% filler and just a little bit of real content and call it an open world game. You don't have to insult your fanbase by charging $5 a pop for horse armor. You can have great gameplay, great story, and great visuals (and a little humor) all at the same time without having to budget for a thousand programmers.


Is this game for me?

 


An introduction to the Witcher's world

Does the sound of adventure as an itinerant monster slayer in a pulpy fantasy universe where elves and dwarves are persecuted minorities living in human cities, fairy tales can be true but are usually the darker version of the story, and where you'll rarely be able to save everyone in any given crisis situation sound appealing to you? If so, and you're not a kid or would be forced to play this game in the presence of children, then yes, this might be the one for you.

As I said earlier, The Witcher 3 is the game that non-gamers will want to start playing. Does it mean that you need to start with The Witcher 1 and 2 first? Although there's definitely a lot of payoff for doing so, at least half of everyone who bought The Witcher 3 came in with no prior exposure to the franchise. The first Witcher game, in particular, is extremely unforgiving to people who haven't grown up playing computer RPG's. My suggestion for newcomers is to go ahead and start The Witcher 3, but be sure to read all the material that comes with the game packaging and pay close attention to the dialogue and books you can pick up in-game. If you're at all a literary type (and you probably are if you're even reading my blog in the first place), do order a copy of Andrzej Sapkowski's The Last Wish, the first short story collection featuring Geralt of Rivia, and read it as you play.

I suppose we have five more years until I can officially call it, but unless something truly phenomenal appears on the horizon, I'm betting The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt will not only be Game of the Year, it'll deserve the title Game of the Decade... and, despite all the time I've put into it, I can't help but want to play it all over again.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

The king of the jungle


The Internet outrage factory is once again in full swing. The unlucky lottery winner this week: Walter J. Palmer, a Minnesota dentist who paid a pretty penny to go on a lion-hunting safari in Zimbabwe and ended up killing the subject of a University of Oxford study by the name of Cecil. Two Zimbabweans, whose names only matter as much to us as Cecil's did to the Zimbabweans, led the lion out of Hwange National Park by loading a dead animal onto the back of a truck, whereupon Palmer shot the lion with a crossbow. Cecil escaped and limped on for another 40 hours until his hunters finally caught up with him and shot him dead. In typical white-guilt fashion, the Rhodesians are of no account, but Palmer has already had people here in the States swamp him with death threats, personal house calls, and have flooded his practice's Yelp page with bad reviews. 

Though these keyboard warriors' stirrings of rage are certainly misplaced, some conservatives and traditionalists have taken it upon themselves to play the caricature: if liberals are mad about something, it must be good. I came across the following comment by a fellow traditionalist earlier today, for instance:
"Funny how liberals and the population at large throw themselves into such a tizzy over THIS, a stupid irrational animal being killed by some guy. But the murder of 1.5 million human babies per year in this country, by their own friggon mothers, does not move them.

"I'm fairly certain that hunting for sport has been a hobby of the wealthy for centuries. Weren't there many kings who hunted for fun? And I seem to recall during the colonial era, privileged men paid big money then for the opportunity to hunt exotic big game.

"Another element of traditional life being deplored by libs I say!"

But a greater evil, such as rampant abortion in this country and elsewhere, doesn't make a lesser one, such as poaching exotic animals, now good. In any case, the Modern Medievalist points out that poaching was once punishable by death, or worse; Richard the Lionheart's Assize of 1198 threatened deer-hunters with blinding and castration. The Norman kings' draconian game laws were reviled by the commons because they reserved hunting in the royal forests to the king alone, or his tenants by permission. Deforestation, or even the cutting of individual tree-branches were also subject to harsh penalties. Though the bottom line, as with most other things in this world, was about the vast sums of money that the royal treasury could collect with these laws, there is nonetheless a conservationist streak to their logic. So the court said:
"The king's forest is a safe abode for wild animals, not of every sort, but of the kind that lives in woodland and not everywhere but only in suitable places... in the wooded counties, where wild beasts have their lairs and abundant feeding grounds. It makes no difference who owns the land, whether the king or the barons of the realm; the beasts have freedom and protection, and wander wherever they will."
The exploitative "hunts" of the colonial period in Africa and Asia bore little resemblance to those practiced by the kings and princes of medieval Europe. In one, all the real work is done by local bushmen until the man paying for the expedition steps in to take a last shot. In the other, the greatest honor was accorded to nobles who could kill boars with close-combat weapons during their mating season, when the males were like to be most vicious. There, the boar was both meat for the feast, and an opportunity for warriors to hone their martial skills; not only English kings, but even Byzantine emperors sometimes perished in the chase. Palmer's latest excursion, as with most hunts from the colonial period to the present, amounts to a $50,000 photo op... but we can credit him, at least, for his insistence on using bowed weapons in most of his past hunts.

There is one thing we can learn from westerners' passioned, if also manufactured, outburst at the unfortunate dentist: that we are still monarchists at heart. Why does one lion, who lived most of his life in a natural state in the wild, matter more than the millions of livestock we raise every day within our own borders, never to see the light of the sun, born only to die and be served up as fast food? Thousands of us are paid to kill animals all day long without the slightest need to worry about death threats or bad Yelp reviews.

The answer to this contradiction is simple: because Cecil was, in our hearts, the king of the jungle. The lion is the heraldic symbol of the kings of England, the tribe of Judah, and Christ Himself. The people of Zimbabwe have responded to all this hubbub with "what lion?" They're confused that we care more about Cecil than the fact that the vast majority of people in that country are unemployed and sometimes even suffer from wild animal attacks. They kill lions and other exotic animals all the time, but when a westerner does it, it's international news. What the Zimbabweans don't understand is that the lion, to us in the west, is a majestic beast, one we humans have seen fit to ascribe more value to than other animals. Like Adam, we have given all the beasts of the earth a name and place in the world. The Modern Medievalist is quite comfortable with this. But let's not also forget that our first parents were appointed stewards and guardians of creation, not just its masters.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Interview with Regina Magazine

For anyone who's stumbled upon my site thanks to the interview recently featured on Regina Magazine (here), welcome! Our daughter's first birthday is coming up this week, so I'm mostly occupied with that, but I hope to have another post whipped up by Friday. In the meantime, please feel free to sift through articles in the backlog, such as the ones I've highlighted on the right-hand column. See you soon!

Also, be sure to "like" Modern Medievalism's Facebook page. It's the easiest way to see when I've made a post and share it with your friends. I also sometimes make posts there that are too short or unworthy of writing full-fledged articles here.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

The Anglican Ordinariate and the gift of sacral English worship


Two weeks ago, I wrote my impressions of an Ordinariate community I visited for Sunday Mass. For some reason, that article ended up being one of the most widely shared pieces I've ever done; so much that when I came to see Blessed John Henry Newman's sister community in Mount Airy (a northwest section of Philadelphia) this past Sunday, at least three people there recognized me as the Modern Medievalist.

To the people of Saint Michael's consternation, I won't do a full-fledged review because there's not too much I could add which hasn't already been said for Newman. This community, which is slightly larger than Newman, was formed a couple years earlier. The two groups share the same priest and organist. Most of the liturgical practices are the same, though I observed that Saint Michael's omits the sign of peace and adds the Last Gospel at the end of Mass. As at Newman, everyone uses their "The Hymnals" to full effect. I was a tad surprised when we used a recessional hymn set to the Old Hundredth (I believe it was "All People That on Earth Do Dwell"); I don't remember singing anything to that tune since I was in my mother's Seventh-day Adventist church. 



The community borrows the parish church of Holy Cross, a sturdy stone building in the Gothic revival style. I wasn't able to find anything online about its history, but it fits in surprisingly well with the Gothic churches of the old Protestant establishment. That is to say, there isn't any of that Continental/Baroque fru-fru when you step inside. Everything from the reredos, to the confessional booths, to the wonderful, wooden crossbeam ceiling falls in sync with the Gothic revival and Pugin's "true principles of Christian architecture". They even remembered to paint the doors red. The edifice is marred only by (as you could expect) an unsightly marble freestanding altar that must have been placed there following Vatican II.


Saint Michael's isn't the only community to borrow this church. As I later discovered, Holy Cross is now also home to two other nearby parishes whose churches have closed down. The Archdiocese of Philadelphia has been hemorrhaging since the Council, and paired with sexual abuse lawsuits, has been obliged to shut down scores (hundreds?) of churches over the past few years. This is a foretaste of what's in store for Catholic dioceses around the country, even the so-called healthy ones in the Midwest. I suspect even with all the consolidating, these churches are merely forestalling the inevitable. The institutional Church's lack of willpower to pass the faith on to the next generation will cause even Holy Cross, now home to three parishes and an Ordinariate community, to be shuttered or turned into apartment space before I bite the dust.

I chatted with virtually every member of the community in the basement after Mass, hearing their stories and struggles. As at Newman, nearly all were former Episcopals. I learned that the founding members originally came from an Episcopal church called Saint James the Less. That parish actually separated from the Episcopal Church over a decade ago and finally lost a bid against the Episcopal Diocese to keep their property in 2006. They had floated adrift for a time until 2012, when they were received into the Catholic Church and their leader was ordained as a Catholic priest. I hope the current pontiff hasn't been giving them too much buyer's remorse.


Looking back, the most valuable thing I learned about this entire visit was that people who drive long distances to church for a specific liturgy or community (and here, I mainly have some, though thankfully by no means all traditional Latin Mass groups in mind) have no excuse for being standoffish and disinterested in newcomers. The usual excuse is that Latin Massers are cranky because they drive a long way and spend most of their lives besieged by modernists or whatever other negative influences there might be out there. Which is true, but at Saint Michael's, I talked to an elderly woman who drives over a hundred miles each way to make it to this church, and she still made a point to say hello to us and personally pour us coffee. Quite a few members drive in from other states. These people had to endure the realization that something was horribly wrong with their previous church, leave that sect and all their property behind, and float in limbo for years until arriving home in the Catholic Church, still to be treated like second-class citizens among many parties in the hierarchy and elsewhere.... and despite all that, it's not too much of an obstacle to make a visitor feel welcome.

Confessional booths

At last, let's ask ourselves: why does the Ordinariate even matter to those of us non-Anglicans or Episcopals? And what does this have to do with your theme of Modern Medievalism?

The Personal Ordinariate and other Anglican Use communities are among the only people in the Catholic Church willing to give English-speaking people beautiful worship in a common, though sacralized, tongue. While I certainly prefer the traditional Latin Mass and maintaining the use of Latin in the western liturgy as far as possible, I need to make an uncomfortable reality check for fellow "traddies": no one else cares. We can't revive Latin the way that Jews were able to bring Hebrew back from the dead and make it the functional language of an entire country because, frankly, they just care about it more than we do. Hebrew in Israel comes from a culture which, since its beginning, insisted that all young men learn the rudiments of the ancient tongue as a rite of passage into adulthood. Could a man dare call himself a rabbi without having learned Hebrew? Could a Muslim call himself an imam or Islamic scholar without even bothering to read the Koran in Arabic?

But a Christian priest isn't really the equivalent of a rabbi or imam, is he? The latter two are scholars and interpreters of their holy books, but they're not priests. The Christian priest could be a scholar as well, but for most of Church history, the average parish priest presumed no such role. They trained to offer the sacrifice of the Mass and celebrate the sacraments. The priest's job is chiefly a sacramental one. And so, it sufficed for so many centuries for priests to be trained to fulfill their vocations by rote memorization or reading prayers from a book. This shouldn't imply that most medieval country priests could actually compose letters in Latin or freely translate verses from Scripture on demand. No, the priest needed to know his Latin only enough to "say the black, do the red". Most priests in these Middle Ages weren't even authorized to preach sermons or hear confessions. Those pastoral duties, which we now take for granted, were formerly assigned to specialists.


The Protestant Reformation, of course, challenged the old expectations of a priest's duty to his flock and found them wanting. Guildsmen in Germany, for instance, took to suing their chaplains for not providing them with "evangelical" sermons; the priests cited their contractual obligations, which only ever expected them to offer Masses and prayers at the appointed times (the Office). Yet the people of northern Europe decided it was no longer good enough. Entire nations revolted against the Latin Mass and all it stood for. In those kingdoms which remained faithful, seminaries were established to reform the clergy into a body of scholarly professionals that could go toe-to-toe against the likes of "Dr. Luther" and his followers. Latin was taught in these institutions to bolster their defenses. And yet, it never really left seminary grounds. There was never a concerted effort to make the study of Latin a universal precept for all young men; even for altar servers and choristers, their parts were learned by rote or reading, but without much emphasis on understanding or translating. Meanwhile, the common people grew further and further apart from the liturgy and the culture that built it until, finally, in the 1960's, Pope Paul VI and nearly all the bishops in the world said goodbye to the Latin Mass with nary a peep of protest from either clergy or congregation; not even in Italy itself! It was almost as though a few non-Catholic intellectuals, writers, and classical musicians were more perturbed by the jettisoning of nearly two thousand years of tradition than the faithful themselves.

We can walk away from Vatican II with one of three conclusions: either,

a.) the gates of hell prevailed against the Church after all;
b.) Paul VI wasn't a true pope, and the real Church is actually in hiding, or;
c.) Latin was never really that important to begin with.

A sounds flippant, but I know of, and have personally spoken to more than a handful of old-timers who gave up being Catholic altogether because they believed all of the liturgical and social changes that followed the Council proved that the Church was no longer the infallible institution it had spent so long cultivating itself as. B is, of course, the "sedevacantist" option. But for the rest of us, we have to concede with C to some degree or another. Therefore, if Latin was never absolutely integral to Catholic worship, then traditional Catholics are doing outsiders a disservice by insisting such things as "only the Latin Mass matters", "Mass in the vernacular is displeasing to God", or "if you want to pray in the vernacular, go to the Novus Ordo". These dichotomies make the great the enemy of the good, and when the dust has settled, no one wins except the devil.

Latin isn't analogous to Hebrew for Jews and Arabic for Muslims because traditional Christians aren't "people of the book". Scripture is just one, not the sole source of revelation. The Latin liturgy is worth preserving because it represents a nearly two-thousand year tradition in the West... but it's not worth making an idol of, and certainly not posing as an obstacle to conversion or a barrier to entry. This is where the Anglican tradition comes in. Whereas the Catholic Church went directly from Latin to the most plebeian, uninspiring form of English it could concoct (and I understand the Church's translations of the Mass to nearly all other languages are just as bad, if not worse), as though it held back from total mediocrity solely by the pains of canon law rather than any real sense of reverence, the Church of England, at least, had a real interest in using its native language to uplift its flock as far as possible. Cranmer was, if a heretic, still also one of the greatest wordsmiths in the history of English; his version of the Lord's Prayer persisted even in English-speaking Catholics' private prayers and survived in the Novus Ordo Mass as a sole anachronism of sacral prose in a sea of contemporized banality. The King James Bible sounded antiquated even in 1611, for it was composed not for absolute fidelity to the text, but to sound beautiful when read from the pulpit or during the liturgy.

Holy Cross is one of the only western churches I've seen with Greek, rather than Latin lettering over the entrance.
Today, the Catholic Church has a crisis of ugliness and irreverence in her worship. The traditional Latin Mass, despite its resurgence in recent years, will unfortunately never be restored as the normative rite because Pope Paul VI already drove the last nail in the coffin by forever breaching us from the continuity of earlier Christian civilization. It's like that butler in the PBS documentary on Highclere Castle who prides himself on setting the Earl of Carnarvon's table exactly as his predecessors had done for so many generations: because he knows that as soon as he lets standards slip, the tradition will be gone forever. Now, in 2015, we have a generation of younger people who can see past the foolishness of the hippie Masses, clown Masses, and other "experimentations" of the later 20th century and yearn for a serious approach to God, but most will never get past the hurdle of a Mass entirely in Latin. We would have better luck rebuilding the Roman Empire first.

Fortunately, the Ordinariate can show us another way. It shows that we can have God-centered worship facing the altar together. We can take the Gospel seriously, adore the Blessed Sacrament, and sing to the Lord all in a sacral English that commands awe and respect, yet is accessible enough for the seeker or long-lapsed Catholic unexpectedly walking through the door one Sunday. By the time our prelates figure out how sensible (how English!) a model this is, it'll be too late for all but a sliver of what the Church once was; but at least the Ordinariate communities, who by then will boast some of the largest and most faithful congregations around, will be able to say, "we knew we were on to something good all along. Now, would you like to join us for some coffee after Mass?"

A view of the neighborhood around the church

Friday, July 17, 2015

The Latin Mass in Pennsylvania's capital


Last weekend, we sojourned out to central Pennsylvania to visit my grandmother-in-law, so while we were out there, we thought it would be a good idea to visit the Priestly Fraternity of Saint Peter's (FSSP's) chapel in Harrisburg for Sunday Mass.

The chapel of Saint Lawrence is situated beside the muddy--err, mighty Susquehanna River, as well as the foot of a grand avenue leading up to the steps of the Pennsylvania State Capitol building. The Capitol looks quite magnificent from the outside (when President Teddy Roosevelt dedicated it in 1906, he called it "the handsomest building I ever saw"), and I intend to visit it the next time we're in the city. It bewilders me that Madame, a lifelong Pennsylvanian, hasn't yet done her duty as a loyal citizen of the Commonwealth and toured the place. (A native Texan wouldn't dare dream of reaching their 20's without visiting the State Capitol building in Austin.)

Pennsylvania's Capitol complex is so big, in fact, that the Commonwealth bought up the old Saint Lawrence, a parish church built by a German Catholic community, and demolished it for expansions. The current Saint Lawrence was finished in 1918 in the same Gothic style as its predecessor, but as far as I can tell, was never returned to parish status. It became a chapel for the nearby cathedral of the Harrisburg diocese. Over the years, that old German community fizzled out and the chapel collected dust until 2005, when the bishop that year gave the building to the FSSP. Unofficially, I've read that the primary motive was mostly to allow the diocese to compete with an independent priest in York rather than for altruism, but I can't confirm it. Whatever the reasons were, the Fraternity has made good use of the property and placed the old Latin Mass right in the middle of a busy metropolis; a refreshing change from the usual state of affairs, where bishops or the laws of economics sentence Latin Mass communities to death by suburbia.

Wonderful iconography around the Mary altar.
We arrived early enough for me to take a look around the building. The church appeared to be a sturdy Gothic edifice of plaster and stone, and filled with stained-glass, altarpieces, and all the other usual furnishings that we've apparently forgotten how to make over the last century. My only gripes were with the floor tiling which looked like those you'd find in an old Pizza Hut, and the small sanctuary; though, to be fair, even ugly tiling is better than the carpeting I got used to at so many Latin Masses in Texas, and virtually no Catholic parish in America has a properly sized sanctuary with a chancel. As I studied the architecture, the congregation was praying the Rosary, and a few were in line for confessions. It wasn't packed to standing room only, but all the pews were respectably filled out with few gaps in between. Throw in a bunch of lace veils, and it was like stepping back into a Catholicism that virtually no longer exists, even though these sights and sounds were still the norm within my mother-in-law's memory.

Yes, these signs are here for a reason!
At 10, sung Mass begun with the priest and servers processing from the front door of the church to a processional hymn from the Collegeville Hymnal. As with most other Catholic churches in our country, hymnody wasn't one of the more cherished traditions here, so only a few people actually sang. With that done, the celebrating priest began the Asperges and Mass flawlessly. The choir, an all-male schola of five or six guys, made all the responses alone. Though I knew they existed, this was the first time I actually attended Mass with an entirely silent congregation (save for the ones at Clear Creek Abbey, an unusual circumstance). Even at the diocesan TLM where I lived previously, where the vast majority of people weren't much interested in singing the Ordinary of the Mass as a congregation, you could still squeeze some et cum spiritu tuo's out of them. Even the basic responses at Saint Lawrence, though, were sung by the schola alone, albeit done well. They also sang the complete Missa Orbis Factor, even the Gloria, and all the minor propers according to the full melodies in the Liber Usualis.

To be honest, I spent the greater part of Mass in the narthex holding our daughter, who was by far the noisiest person there. From what I could tell going in and out, though, Mass proceeded just as you would expect from a society of priests dedicated to preserving the traditional liturgy; no funny business whatsoever. Another priest, not the celebrant, preached the homily. The substance was a solid, hold-no-punches tour of the errors of religious liberty and the French Revolution, probably timed to precede France's annual celebration of that jailbreak in 1789; perhaps so punchy and replete with quotes going back to Pope Pius VII that one who wasn't already well-formed in the Church's traditional teachings would lose a tooth. I didn't have the heart to ask my mother-in-law, who Madame dragged out with us (and hadn't even attended a TLM since Vatican II), what she thought of the homily afterward. In fact, if such homilies are a normal occurrence at this chapel, I'm surprised the bishop still allows them to operate at all.

The beautiful, but small, sanctuary.
After the last Gospel, the priest and servers exited the church to another English hymn. This time, I made sure to grab a hymnal and turn to the right page, even with baby in tow, but again, not too many other singers. There was, however, still a fundamental difference between how the recessional hymn was treated here versus my old diocesan TLM community back home. In San Antonio, everyone starts filing out as soon as the priest passes the last pew while the choir alone sings two verses of the hymn. There's not even a pretense of trying. But in Harrisburg, although only a few people bothered singing, everyone still stayed standing in their places until all four verses were done. There was, at least, a respect for the hymn's place.

Servers putting the sanctuary in order after Mass.
Following the thanksgiving prayers and so on, I took a few pictures of the church and followed the congregation to the basement, where a farewell reception was being held for their outgoing chaplain, the same one who celebrated Mass. Other than the priests themselves, the people weren't very chatty with newcomers, so I only got to ask two laypeople about the church's history. The schola director actually looked about the same age as me, and I learned he started singing chant around the same time I did. We talked a bit about music, I had a dessert or two, then headed out.

Look at this excellent wooden ceiling!
In leaving, I realized the most unusual thing of all about this community, compared to other TLM venues: there were no female choir members. Usually, the music for sung Masses is provided by a mixed choir of adult men and women (more women than not), or a choir mostly of women augmented by a small men's schola for the proper chants. Although I'm a big proponent of congregational singing, I thought on my way out that perhaps the reason this church was content to leave all the singing to the schola was because the all-male responses, combined with the reverberation from the stone walls and non-carpeted floor, gave the sacred music a strong air of the monastic. I can't say I blame them for not wanting to "ruin" it, at least.


It's not every day that you see even the organ's pipes adorned in Gothic at an American Catholic church.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Who made the first résumé?

Settling into a wholly new area, as I have, presents a host of challenges, such as figuring out what a "hoagie" is (a northeastern term for a sub sandwich), remembering that it's not always legal to turn right on a red light, and being careful not to run over Amish buggies. (I just looked up why you never see Amish people ride on horseback. It's apparently considered immodest; I actually see the rationale behind that.) Fortunately, I can at last dispense with the southern pretense of asking of how your day is, because as you and I both know, no one actually cares.

I recently crossed off another item on the to-do list: I finally gave in to corporate America and created a profile on LinkedIn. I'll be honest, even to those prospective employers out there who are, even now, scanning my blog for reasons not to hire me, that I find the entire site's philosophy irksome, not least because of all the articles I had to read in order to "maximize my hireability". Add a picture to increase your chances of being clicked on by 14 times. Make sure you're smiling, but don't look too happy. A slight scrinching of the eyes is best. See that your chosen photo features you alone; this isn't Facebook, and we wouldn't want to think you have anything to live for beyond the company. 


Perhaps I'm too skeptical of my fellow man to be a hiring manager, because I don't understand why they wouldn't see right past all the corporate jargon, e.g. résumé fluff:
-Whenever I look at someone's page, if their job title has the word "engineer" but isn't preceded by "electrical", "mechanical", or "petroleum", my mind instantly replaces it with "lackey". 

-I mentally cross out all instances of the word "professional" (for instance, LinkedIn's default headline for me was "education management professional"), no matter the context. No one would sign up for a LinkedIn account in the first place if they didn't imagine themselves to be a "professional" of some sort or another. Would you rather describe yourself as amateur?

-If you "think outside the box", you're actually well within the box and just don't know it.

-Everyone's likelihood of getting a job is directly proportional to how many obfuscating words with Greek or Latin roots they can use to make their past jobs positions and deeds accomplishments look more important than they really were. All these "innovative" thinkers with their "solutions" for "managing multiple projects" makes me want to take up Anglo-Saxon to cast these foreign loan words out of our tongue and speak in full barbarian from here on out. But in the meantime, at least it looks like there is some use for all the fancy book-learnin' in that classical liberal arts degree, after all.
Anyway, feel free to email me if you want to add me to LinkedIn. Or, if you find me on the site directly, be sure to say it's because you read my blog.


And now, to where I meant to start: as I off-handedly mention somewhere on my LinkedIn profile, "Did you know, for instance, that the first person to use something akin to a résumé as we know it was Leonardo da Vinci?" It was more a cross between a résumé and a cover letter, but it's true nonetheless. When our favorite ninja turtle was but 30 years of age, he wrote to Ludovico Sforza, Regent (and later, Duke) of Milan in the hope of getting a job. What's interesting is that, although he had already accomplished more in many disciplines in 1482 than most of us get around to in our whole lifetimes, Leonardo's letter only references his artistic acumen in passing, at the end:

"I can carry out sculpture in marble, bronze, or clay, and also I can do in painting whatever may be done, as well as any other, be he who he may."

The rest of the letter focuses on what Leonardo could do for the Sforzas as a military engineer and inventor of weapons of moderate destruction. Here's the full piece in translation:

    Most Illustrious Lord, Having now sufficiently considered the specimens of all those who proclaim themselves skilled contrivers of instruments of war, and that the invention and operation of the said instruments are nothing different from those in common use: I shall endeavor, without prejudice to any one else, to explain myself to your Excellency, showing your Lordship my secret, and then offering them to your best pleasure and approbation to work with effect at opportune moments on all those things which, in part, shall be briefly noted below.

    1. I have a sort of extremely light and strong bridges, adapted to be most easily carried, and with them you may pursue, and at any time flee from the enemy; and others, secure and indestructible by fire and battle, easy and convenient to lift and place. Also methods of burning and destroying those of the enemy.

    2. I know how, when a place is besieged, to take the water out of the trenches, and make endless variety of bridges, and covered ways and ladders, and other machines pertaining to such expeditions.

    3. If, by reason of the height of the banks, or the strength of the place and its position, it is impossible, when besieging a place, to avail oneself of the plan of bombardment, I have methods for destroying every rock or other fortress, even if it were founded on a rock, etc.

    4. Again, I have kinds of mortars; most convenient and easy to carry; and with these I can fling small stones almost resembling a storm; and with the smoke of these cause great terror to the enemy, to his great detriment and confusion.

    5. And if the fight should be at sea I have kinds of many machines most efficient for offense and defense; and vessels which will resist the attack of the largest guns and powder and fumes.

    6. I have means by secret and tortuous mines and ways, made without noise, to reach a designated spot, even if it were needed to pass under a trench or a river.

    7. I will make covered chariots, safe and unattackable, which, entering among the enemy with their artillery, there is no body of men so great but they would break them. And behind these, infantry could follow quite unhurt and without any hindrance.

    8. In case of need I will make big guns, mortars, and light ordnance of fine and useful forms, out of the common type.

    9. Where the operation of bombardment might fail, I would contrive catapults, mangonels, trabocchi, and other machines of marvellous efficacy and not in common use. And in short, according to the variety of cases, I can contrive various and endless means of offense and defense.

    10. In times of peace I believe I can give perfect satisfaction and to the equal of any other in architecture and the composition of buildings public and private; and in guiding water from one place to another.

    11. I can carry out sculpture in marble, bronze, or clay, and also I can do in painting whatever may be done, as well as any other, be he who he may.

    Again, the bronze horse may be taken in hand, which is to be to the immortal glory and eternal honor of the prince your father of happy memory, and of the illustrious house of Sforza.

    And if any of the above-named things seem to anyone to be impossible or not feasible, I am most ready to make the experiment in your park, or in whatever place may please your Excellency - to whom I comment myself with the utmost humility, etc.