Friday, July 4, 2014

Feast day for America

For the feast day of these United States, it's worth sharing some modern medievalisms I've encountered relating to the building of this country. Here's one from the visitor's center at George Washington's estate of Mount Vernon: "Reading the Declaration of Independence to Washington, 1776". Of course, having been appointed commander-in-chief of the Continental Army at this point, Washington was no longer a delegate in Philadelphia and not a signer. 

From Washington's general orders for July 9:

"The Hon. The Continental Congress, impelled by the dictates of duty, policy and necessity, having been pleased to dissolve the Connection which subsisted between this Country, and Great Britain, and to declare the United Colonies of North America, free and independent States: The several brigades are to be drawn up this evening on their respective Parades, at Six OClock, when the declaration of Congress, shewing the grounds and reasons of this measure, is to be read with an audible voice. 
"The General hopes this important Event will serve as a fresh incentive to every officer, and soldier, to act with Fidelity and Courage, as knowing that now the peace and safety of his Country depends (under God) solely on the success of our arms: And that he is now in the service of a State, possessed of sufficient power to reward his merit, and advance him to the highest Honors of a free Country."

My favorite specimen of Gothic revival architecture is perhaps the Washington Memorial Chapel in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, built over the Continental Army's winter encampment of 1777-1778 as a tribute to the general and those soldiers. Here's a view of the interior, courtesy of Louis Dallara.

On the epistle side, Washington solemnly looks on:

Monday, May 26, 2014

A touch of the Gothic on this Texas Decoration Day: Elisabet Ney's monument to A.S. Johnston

Dear friends, don't fear; I am actually 75% done on a more substantial article. But allow me to briefly tell you about my experience this Memorial Day, especially my encounter with a pleasantly surprising touch of the Gothic revival where I least expected it.
The tomb of General Albert Sidney Johnston
Not long ago, I applied to join the National Society of the Sons of the American Revolution by right of descent from eight ancestors who fought in the war of independence, both in the Continental Army and the militias. The first event I was invited to was a Memorial Day service (or Decoration Day, as it's known among old-fashioned southroners) at Texas State Cemetery in Austin, which is mere blocks from the state capitol building. Though it's a very short drive from where I live, I've never visited until today, and I must say, it actually rivals some of the great cemeteries I've visited in the northeast. Here rest Texas governors, U.S. senators, generals, Medal of Honor recipients, Texas Rangers, and fallen servicemen of many wars. Two that bear special mention are Lieutenant Robert Rankin and Sergeant Stephen Williams, who were both not only veterans of the Texan Revolution against Santa Anna, but also veterans of the American Revolutionary War! Both had descendants who were present to eulogize their ancestors today. Rankin was a Continental Army officer from Virginia, a friend of Sam Houston, and an original member of the Society of the Cincinnati. Williams fought at the 1781 Battle of Eutaw Springs, South Carolina (along with one of my own ancestors, Lieutenant Joseph Culpepper, who was wounded there), and later participated at the siege of Bexar with four of his grandsons at the ripe old age of 75!
Albert Sidney Johnston in U.S. Army uniform
One section of the cemetery is reserved for the Confederate war dead. Here stands the most splendid funerary monument of the entire grounds: the tomb of CSA General Albert Sidney Johnston. Before the Confederacy, Johnston served in the Texas Army during our little revolution here as a private, then an aide-de-camp to General Sam Houston. When the war was won, Houston named Johnston commander of the Texas Army, but another general, Felix Huston, felt slighted. Huston challenged Johnston to a duel, but Johnston refused to fire on him, and Huston shot his opponent in the hip and assumed command instead. Fortunately for Johnston, the following year, second President of Texas Mirabeau Lamar appointed him as Secretary of State.
By the time 1861 rolled around, Johnston had distinguished himself in the Mexican-American War and was commander of the Department of the Pacific. He opposed secession, but when Texas threw in with the Confederacy, resigned his commission and snuck from California back to Texas to assume a new command: the Western Department. At the Battle of Shiloh, Johnston was shot behind the right knee, probably (like Stonewall Jackson) by friendly fire. Perhaps due to his injury from the duel years before on the same leg, he didn't feel it or think it was a serious wound, and sent his personal physician to tend to some captured Union soldiers instead. Later in the day, he died from blood loss, making him, as a full four-star general, the highest-ranking officer on either side of the Civil War to die on the battlefield.
So, where does the Gothic monument come from? Johnston was reinterred from his original burial site in New Orleans to Austin in 1867, but the monument wasn't raised until many years later, in 1905. The work was executed by local legend Elisabet Ney, a German-born woman who became the first female sculptor at the Munich Academy of Art. When she was a child, she declared her life goal was "to know great persons". She got a head start in that her great-uncle was Michel Ney, Marshal of France during the Napoleonic Wars, who famously gave the orders to the firing squad at his own execution after the fall of the emperor.
Elisabet Ney with her bust of George V
After graduation, Elisabet moved to Berlin and became a very successful sculptress. She came to know many great persons, indeed, for her commissions at this era included busts of Jacob Grimm (yes, the mythologist), Italian revolutionary Giuseppe Garibaldi, composer Richard Wagner, his wife (and daughter of Franz Liszt) Cosima von Bulow, Otto von Bismarck, King George V of Hanover, and "Mad King" Ludwig of Bavaria, who had created Neuschwanstein Castle. For whatever reason, she and her husband left it behind for a life in America, eventually settling in Texas. Her sculpting career continued to prosper, with her statues of Sam Houston and Stephen F. Austin on display at both the Texas State Capitol and the U.S. Capitol today, as well as a bust of Lady Macbeth now held by the Smithsonian. But the most remarkable for me is the tomb of Albert Sidney Johnston, finished two years before her death. It is the only place I can think of where you can see the Lone Star figuring into a Gothic framework. And here, whether you believe in the Gone with the Wind version of the antebellum south or not, Johnston lays, draped in the Confederate battle flag, like a knight of yore, resting from a life of battle.
Johnston's tomb overlooks nearly 2,000 other Confederate war dead
Johnston was married to an Eliza Griffin, though I'm not sure if she's a distant relation of mine or not.
Elisabet Ney's bust of Lady Macbeth
At the end of my trip, the sky began pouring as though all the angels in heaven were weeping for the fallen. It was like being on the set of a movie. Too bad about my suit, though.
Obelisk for Edmund Davis, the governor of Texas during Reconstruction. It was built atop a hill to tower over and annoy the graves of the Confederate war dead below. The hatred between Davis and ex-Confederates was mutual.
The tomb of Stephen F. Austin, the father of Texas.
These two gentlemen were part of the Sons of the American Revolution's honor guard and rifle team, or musket team, in this case.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Stop canonizing popes!: an appeal for a moratorium on pope-saints

Last Sunday, the sun rose and set on another day given to enrolling the names of two more popes into the calendar of saints. For those of you privy to inter-Catholic debates on the legacy of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II (two "founding fathers" of the Second Vatican Council), you might know that they weren't received across the board. A few friends of mine were surely disappointed that no one was struck by lightning that day, or that the ground beneath Saint Peter's Square didn't split open and consume the whole lot of papolators assembled there to an agonizing death. Other friends in the opposing camp were upset that the rest of the world failed to share their schoolgirl-like enthusiasm for the new honors bestowed on the two newly sainted pontiffs; even John Paul II's own countrymen largely met the festivities with a shrug, or so the HuffPo reports. Regardless of whatever the media says, there's a deeper phenomenon that I've searched and searched for reference to, and it seems no one has ever thought to talk about: that, together with Saint Pius X, the Catholic Church has canonized more popes as saints from the 20th century than any other era in Christian history since the 800's AD. Further, with other modern popes Pius XII and Paul VI being "venerable" (the latter also getting beatified this October), and John Paul I being a "servant of God", over half of all the popes who ever reigned in the 20th century are either saints or are on their way to becoming one; this hasn't been seen since the 600's. What does this mean? There can only be one conclusion: that the hierarchy wants us to believe that they've given us a holier crop of popes than any other generation since the age of Gregory the Great. I don't know about you, but this stretches my inner medievalist's suspension of disbelief when it comes to the successors of Peter.
Let's step back and assess what this all means. The word "saint" has evolved in meaning over the ages; for example, in the earliest days it was sometimes a catch-all word for Christians in general (Acts 9:32 or Romans 15:25-26, for example); but for our purposes, a saint is someone whom the Church has recognized to be in heaven, and therefore actively interceding with God on behalf of believers on earth. How do we know someone's in heaven? In the ancient Church, the only way you knew for sure was if the person in question was outright martyred, or died explicitly for professing faith in Jesus Christ. Those who died for the sake of the kingdom would receive crowns in the heavenly city. But then Constantine brought an end to persecution in Rome, and over time, the Church, flush with victory, effectively ran out of new saints to canonize (with some notable exceptions). They had to expand the definition to include a new class of faithful: "confessors", those believers who hadn't died violently, but endured lifelong suffering in defense of the faith. Eventually, this too proved too restrictive, so now a saint can be any Christian who was known to live a life of heroic virtue.
The early Christians recognized saints mainly by popular acclaim. Given the Romans' love of a good show with gratuitous (unstaged) violence, this method was reliable enough for the stringent requirements of the age. ("Were you at the Circus Maximus last week?" "Yeah, I totally saw that rhino gore poor Lucius to death as he kept screaming 'Jesus!'" "Sounds like a saint to me.") The causes for confessors and heroically virtuous folk a few centuries later needed more substance, so local bishops took charge of the responsibility of examining their lives and alleged miracles, lest their flock would start praying to "Saint" Hilarius from down the street merely because he was such a nice guy that he had to be in heaven. The last crucial stage of development came around the turn of the second millennium. As the calendar of saints grew more and more cluttered, and more bishops turned to the popes in Rome for advice or authority to give a favored saint a universal, rather than merely a local or national cult of followers, the popes eventually reserved the right to all canonizations for themselves. Walter of Pontoise, a Benedictine abbot, was the last saint in western Christendom to be canonized by someone other than the pope (the Archbishop of Rouen canonized Walter in 1153; two decades later, Pope Alexander III censured bishops for canonizing an unworthy man, saying, "You shall not therefore presume to honour him in the future; for, even if miracles were worked through him, it is not lawful for you to venerate him as a saint without the authority of the Catholic Church.").
Saint Pius V, as painted by El Greco
Contrary to what we would expect from human nature, the popes didn't abuse the sole right to proclaim saints by stacking the calendar with the names of all their predecessors. In fact, the rate of pope-saints continued to decline until, by the end of the Middle Ages, seeing the "St." prefixed before a pope's name was a rare sight: only about 1 in 30 successive popes earned the distinction. This might be expected through the darkest days of the Papacy, such as the pornocracy or the Borgias, but even the firebrands of the Counter-Reformation only ever produced Saint Pius V (whose feast is today as of my writing this post, and which prompted the topic in my mind to begin with). Nearly four hundred years passed between Pius V's death and that of the next pope-saint in the line, Pius X.
From here onward, we see a pivotal change in the way popes are treated by the faithful. Before, popes were princes as much as the other crowned heads of Europe. They wielded true political power, but few ordinary Catholics wept when the French revolutionary invaded the Papal States and took Pius VI prisoner; he died in captivity, and to this day is seldom remarked by even the most zealous Catholic historians. Likewise, few Catholics in Rome itself felt sorry for Pius IX when, in 1870, the Italian army seized the city, permanently dissolved the Papal States, and the pope proclaimed himself "a prisoner of the Vatican". But perhaps the loss of the temporal state was what the popes needed in order to find a place in the hearts of believers. Freed from the need to worry about redrawing borders, signing off on trade policy, or collecting taxes, perhaps the popes suddenly found themselves with much more time in the day to celebrate Mass or write books. Where before the popes were an entity from beyond the Alps whose name most peasants didn't even know, the gifts of photography, radio, television, air travel, and instant communication allowed them to become subjects of conversation around the dinner table. Combine that with the fact that an entire generation of devout believers knew no pope other than the long-reigning John Paul II by the time of his death, and it's no wonder that the streets resounded with the cries of "santo subito!" at his funeral.
But is the ever-expanding cult of popes a good thing? Does the Church really need to set aside holy days for every pope of the modern era? What makes the recent popes so much holier than all their predecessors back to the 7th century? I listen to the new dynamic duo's fanclub and their stories about how one or the other once kissed them as a baby or such, and remain perplexed. Returning to the requirements of sainthood; being either a martyr, a confessor, or having lived with heroic virtue; I still don't see where John XXIII fits. Since Francis even waived the second miracle requirement, it seems like he was canonized for being a fat, jovial Italian guy. If that's all it takes, I move for canonizing everyone who's ever graced the label of a jar of spaghetti sauce. John Paul II is a more complex case. Surely, I recognize that he achieved many great things and positively changed the lives of countless more people than I could ever imagine, but I thought that the infamous Koran-kissing picture, not to mention John Paul's full knowledge of the scope of the sex abuse crisis that has ravaged the Church's credibility for over a full decade and seeming refusal to do anything about it, would be more than enough for Rome to put the brakes on canonization, at least until everyone could forget about them. Perhaps, thanks to media-master Francis, they did.
Yes, this exists....
Now, in October, Rome will subject us to the beatification of Paul VI, the pope responsible for the near-total annihilation of the Church's liturgy, the rites surrounding all the sacraments, and really, every way that Catholicism was expressed before he took the chair. This convinced me, at least, that populism isn't the driving force behind the trend to canonize every pope in living memory, since no one, neither traditional, conservative, or progressive, even likes Paul VI. I'm forced to conclude that these men have been, or will be canonized, primarily because they happen to be popes. Pious discourse throughout many Catholic blogosphere sites such as would have us believe that, rather than the result of carefully planned, high-stakes political bargaining as those who shrugged at the loss of the Papal States would have probably taken as a matter of course, each new pope is now the personal choice of the Holy Ghost. It stands to reason, then, that our modern popes are saints by default, for who else but a saint would the Holy Ghost ever allow to take the chair of Peter?
History, common sense, and probably even theology shows this to be ridiculous. We know that papal elections are subject to the folly of human ambition, or else the Protestant Reformers would never have been able to use such painfully and obviously fallen specimens as Alexander VI and Julius II as a beating stick in their tracts. It seems equally obvious to me that, with the Church hemorrhaging in record numbers due largely to the actions (or inaction) of the popes in question, the canonization process too has, at least at this time, been reduced to a political tool. Who, exactly, will be at Saint Peter's Square to celebrate the day Pope Saint Paul VI's cult is imposed upon the universal Church? The pope presiding that day will appear to be no more than one of the Roman emperors, deifying his predecessor to appease the Praetorian Guard (or in this case, cardinals) and shore up legitimacy for himself as an ideological successor.
Therefore, I motion for a moratorium on all papal canonizations; better yet, that all attempts to canonize popes in future, save perhaps for martyrs, be banned forever. Some of my trad friends may ask, "but what about Pius XII/Pius IX/Leo XIII/[insert favorite pre-Vatican II pope here]?" My answer: they are popes who frequently invoked the Church's authority to support their words. They'll be remembered by historians and theologians regardless of how many people pray to them or fashion statues in their likeness. Instead, save the honors of canonization for those great Catholics who would otherwise likely be forgotten in the passing of time. If I could make a first suggestion, allow me to propose a cause be started for that great architect of the Gothic revival, Augustus Welby Pugin. Unlike a pope, whom I could scarcely aspire to emulate in any tangible way whatsoever (even one with all the humble pretensions of a Francis), I know Pugin as a layman, not too unlike myself, a man full of passions and ambitions directed toward glorifying God. He was an architect, a builder in wood and stone, much like the carpenter Christ. He died young, a favorite trope among the saints. And his canonization would perhaps spark an interest among the people of England to look back to their pre-Reformation past.
Or that could be mostly wishful thinking from a Gothicist; but if it is, then the notion that canonizing yet more popes will pave the way for more lay Catholics to aspire sainthood is truly a pipe dream.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

My "diary" of four days at Clear Creek Abbey

Dear friends,

A few of you who know me "in real life" are aware of the various misgivings I've shared in recent weeks toward certain... attitudes and practices in the institutional Church, especially anything that contributes to the unhealthy sort of clericalism that frowns upon us questioning the bad decisions of bishops and popes. From the recent, seemingly arbitrary banning of the Latin Mass at Fisher-More College in Fort Worth to Catholic talking head Michael Voris's fatwa against anyone who criticizes Pope Francis's weekly shenanigans, and, of course, the Vatican City's refusal to extradite one of its resident archbishops to answer accusations of child molestation even after a full decade into the sexual abuse crisis, it's true that my faith in the men in red and white hats is at an all-time low. You may, then, find it strange that I still support the vocation and mission of the ancient monastic institutions. What do the men and women who take vows of poverty, chastity, and unflinching obedience to the rule of a religious order and its appointed superiors have to do with rebuilding the faith of a Church that has caused so much devastation in the name of "pray, pay, and obey"? Surely they are the problem and not the solution?

On the contrary, even though I've opined that mandatory priestly celibacy has perhaps outlived its usefulness for the Church at large (and been pilloried for such an opinion by fellow Catholics enough already), I have always been a steadfast believer in monasticism and all it stands for: foundations of prayer around the clock, oases of learning and the preservation of western civilization, and total submission of the soul to God in pursuit of one of the many hard sayings of Jesus we try to tone down and explain away in metaphors: "If thou wilt be perfect, go sell what thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come follow me." But until last weekend, monasticism was only an idea, as distant as the image of Saint Benedict on the right-hand column of this blog. So when one of my friends began organizing a retreat to the Benedictine Abbey of Our Lady of the Annunciation at Clear Creek, Oklahoma, I jumped at the opportunity to witness the monks' way of life firsthand. I had never been to an active monastery before, so for me, it promised to be on of those rare leaps from the stuff of a modern medievalist's obscure books, to reality.

What follows here is a diary-esque account of the days I spent at the abbey, followed by a brief reflection on what I learned.

The first day: Thursday

I, along with two companions from San Antonio, ventured north by car for some nine or ten hours with a mind to get to the abbey in time for Vespers (6:30pm). Save for gas and a brief but delicious stop at a Chik-fil-A somewhere in Whitesville, Texas, we blazed through one vast swathe of parched, casino-laden Indian territory after another until, at last, at the end of a bumpy dirt road in the middle of nowhere, the abbey's edifice came into view. The sun had nearly sunk into the horizon, but we made it for Vespers with a little time to spare. Before entering, we had a reunion of sorts with two of the founding members of our schola whom had since moved to greener pastures, and whom I hadn't seen in a few years. They were also part of our group but arrived in a separate car from Houston (where you will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy).

My first picture upon arriving. The sky grew progressively cloudier from this point on.

At the ringing of the bell, we filed into the church, a Romanesque fortress in stone. True to style, the windows were small and high upon the walls. The floor, ceiling, and the great portal at the western entrance were unfinished; there was still much work to be done. The altar rail gave only about half of the church's total length to the laity, almost like they were an afterthought. The rest of the sacred space was reserved for the brothers. About forty of them, all habited in solid black, entered at once from their cloister and filled the inward-facing choir stalls, two rows on each side, with the abbot holding a cathedra-like seat at the east end of the gospel side. The service began with a monk intoning the words from the 69th psalm, Deus in adjutorium meum intende; O God, come to my assistance. It proceeded according to the traditional Benedictine Office: entirely in Latin, entirely chanted (no words uttered in a normal spoken tone whatsoever), and in most respects the same as the standard Office according to the pre-Vatican II Roman Breviary. It wasn't long into Vespers when I mused that they all sang with the quality of any Gregorian chant CD you could think of.... and as they should, since Clear Creek, and its mother abbey at Fontgombault in France are heirs to the legacy of the Abbey of Solesmes, known best for their work in restoring the art of Gregorian chant in the 19th century after centuries of corruption or disuse. It also helps that the church itself, with its high ceiling and stone or brick surfaces all around, was perfectly constructed to receive and resonate with the sounds of the chant.

My cell.
Afterward, we met one of the priests assigned to watch over us, dubbed "Father Guestmaster". He greeted us, asked our names, and showed us to our rooms. The guesthouse was effectively a wing of the cloister sectioned off for (male) visitors. All rooms had windows facing out to the wilderness in the west. The cells themselves were plain and a bit on the small side, but hardly prison-like. I slept comfortably, with the exception that each night grew progressively colder until, by Sunday, I was consistently chilled to the bone. I was convinced that all the thermostat in my room did was make the room even colder if I turned it on.

Around the same time we brought our bags to our cells, the final group of three tore into the parking lot, and the fellowship of the ring, or of past and present altar servers and chanters from the Latin Mass community in San Antonio, was complete. It soon became time for dinner, so we were ushered in to a long, poorly lit hallway to await entry to the refectory (literally, "place of restoration", and much cooler-sounding than "dining hall" or "cafeteria"). The nervous waiting, coupled with the low sound of monks chanting a litany of saints seeping through the crack under the door was like waiting outside the vice principal's office in middle school when you got in trouble. But when the door opened, the expected response was quite the contrary. Attended by one the younger brothers carrying a silver ewer and dish, the abbot himself was there to welcome us and ceremonially wash our hands. I later learned that such a reception is prescribed in the Rule of Saint Benedict, the ancient governing rule of all Benedictine monasteries and their offshoots: "Let the Abbot give the guests water for their hands" (chapter 53).

Dinner was a regimented affair, not unlike my recollection of basic training in the US Army. The refectory was arranged with four rows of long tables, with one on a raised platform laid perpendicular to the others for the abbot; really, positioned like the judge's bench in a courthouse, except with the cross of Christ suspended behind him rather than the seal of the state. The guests were directed to sit at the inner tables. Not only did we have nicer chairs and dinnerware than the monks, we were also served richer food, especially since the monks were fasting through Lent. The first night's courses were soup and bread, followed by a beef pasta dish (though the monks were forbidden meat themselves), and a dessert. I've heard that they would have served us wine were our visit not during Lent, but we had to make do with either water or fruit punch. The cook was trained in France and every fare was of high quality without being decadent. Best of all, where the monks had to serve themselves, they provided us with waiters, or perhaps you could call them footmen. We apportioned our own food from serving trays laid in the middle of the table, but a monk would remove your dish within ten seconds of your finishing it and replace it with the next; always taking from your right, replacing from your left. Soup spoon, then knife and fork, then dessert spoon. By now you may wonder why I found something as mundane as dinner to be worthy of so much detail, but keep in mind that I don't even have a dinner table to eat from at home in the first place, so like a modern savage, my meals are generally consumed on a couch positioned before my television screen. In truth, I ate better at the abbey, even during Lent, than I do at home.

It's important to mention the centrality of reading at meals. The Rule of Saint Benedict orders that a lector must be appointed every week: "The meals of the brothers should not be without reading." And, "let absolute silence be kept at table, so that no whispering may be heard nor any voice except the reader's." At Clear Creek that evening, after grace but before we broke bread, the lector read a portion of the Rule regarding the duties of the kitcheners (I assume they read from the Rule at every dinner of the year, on repeat, forever). That ended, we began eating while the lector switched to another book, this one being Saint Dominic and His Times, specifically a chapter from it entitled "The Lateran Council". It also bears mentioning that whatever the lector reads, he does so by chanting it in recto tono (on one note). Let's say for now that this practice sometimes leads to unintentional hilarity.

When the abbot struck his gavel, the lector ceased and all rose for a prayer of thanksgiving (chanted in Latin, like everything else). Guests could resume eating if they needed afterward, but for a monk, when the abbot says you're done, you're done. We withdrew to a parlor and temporarily broke silence to chat with Father Guestmaster. Then night was upon us, and therefore, Compline. We and the monks reconvened in the crypt chapel directly under the main church to pray the final office of the day. Unlike Vespers, this was sung mostly in recto tono, and was over before you knew it. Following along in one of their booklets, I was reminded of my favorite part of Compline: Psalm 90 (Qui habitat).
He that dwelleth in the secret place of the most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty.
I will say of the Lord, He is my refuge and my fortress: my God; in him will I trust.
Surely he shall deliver thee from the snare of the fowler, and from the noisome pestilence.
He shall cover thee with his feathers, and under his wings shalt thou trust: his truth shall be thy shield and buckler.
Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night; nor for the arrow that flieth by day;
Nor for the pestilence that walketh in darkness; nor for the destruction that wasteth at noonday.
A thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand; but it shall not come nigh thee.
Only with thine eyes shalt thou behold and see the reward of the wicked.
Because thou hast made the Lord, which is my refuge, even the most High, thy habitation;
There shall no evil befall thee, neither shall any plague come nigh thy dwelling.
For he shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways.
They shall bear thee up in their hands, lest thou dash thy foot against a stone.
Thou shalt tread upon the lion and adder: the young lion and the dragon shalt thou trample under feet.
Because he hath set his love upon me, therefore will I deliver him: I will set him on high, because he hath known my name.
He shall call upon me, and I will answer him: I will be with him in trouble; I will deliver him, and honour him.
With long life will I satisfy him, and shew him my salvation.
The biggest variation I noticed from the standard Roman Office is that the abbot ended Compline by sprinkling us with holy water while the monks chanted Asperges Me (like before sung or solemn Mass on Sundays). With that done and the monks retiring for the night, we entered "great silence": no speaking until after breakfast the next morning. I hit the sack and slept like rock for the next eleven hours.

The second day: Friday

By the time I awoke, around 8am, the monks had been at continuous prayer for the past three hours: Matins, Lauds, and low Mass. I made my way down in time for Prime: the most important office of the morning, Father Guestmaster said, because after Prime comes breakfast! In truth, breakfast was a self-served affair and attended only by the guests and a handful of the brothers; in my observation, typically the younger ones or the ones most likely to do a lot of manual labor. The monks ate standing, and there was no lector, perhaps because the Rule only envisions lunch and dinner. I recall us only having cereal and bread with jam or peanut butter to eat.

To pass the time until the next office, we took a walk up a hill west of the monastery, called "Weathertop" by someone in our group at some point. Some of our less athletic companions felt winded on the way up, but I was more worried about sliding face-forward on the way back down for lack of proper footwear. The view of the surrounding countryside from the top of said hill was excellent.

We returned to the crypt for the office of Terce around 10am, followed immediately by the conventual Mass (or "community Mass" attended by all the choirmonks, as opposed to the many private low Masses each attended by only one server earlier that morning). It was celebrated in the form of what you might call a "sung low Mass": one priest and one server, though with everything chanted. A schola formed a circle in the middle of the chancel, between the stalls, to sing all the propers, but I noticed that all the monks present joined in the singing at certain parts of each chant as well. There were a handful of small divergences I noticed from your standard Latin Mass according to the 1962 books, but that deserves its own section, which I've written at the very end of this article. For now, I'll remark that there was no sermon, and that a few local laity came to attend and receive Communion, though if I recall correctly, Communion was not distributed to any of the monks themselves. I assume any monk who wanted to receive had already done so at one of the earlier low Masses.

I don't recall what I did after Mass, but as with breakfast, lunch was to immediately follow the office of Sext. By this point, I was drawn back to the church yet again more to present myself to lunch on time, rather than strictly out of devotion to God at regular intervals. Sext, like the other little hours, was mercifully brief, for all this prayer was working up an unusually monstrous appetite. Filing back into the refectory, we took our seats with all the other monks after grace, but held off on digging in until after the lector had read an appointed reading from Scripture, Genesis, I think. Then a great cacophony of metal against metal ensued as the abbot signaled his permission to commence with the eating. Being a Friday, we were served tuna pizza. By this time, I started to notice the occasional monk genuflecting before the abbot, seemingly at random points throughout the meal. I was later informed that a monk does this when he makes a mistake. In the context of meals, this may involve something like dropping a spoon or making a mess. 
"When anyone is engaged in any sort of work, whether in the kitchen, in the cellar, in a shop, in the bakery, in the garden, while working at some craft, or in any other place, and he commits some fault, or breaks something, or loses something, or transgresses in any other way whatsoever, if he does not come immediately before the Abbot and the community of his own accord to make satisfaction and confess his fault, then when it becomes known through another, let him be subjected to a more severe correction." --The Rule, chapter 46
But then I later noticed the same random genuflecting going on at divine services, too (though there, they would usually stay in their places in the stalls rather than approach the abbot). There, they humble themselves by genuflecting whenever they make a mistake in praying, such as by mispronouncing a Latin word, hitting a wrong note in the chant, perhaps even when nodding off. The Rule says: 
"When anyone has made a mistake while reciting a Psalm, a responsory, an antiphon or a lesson, if he does not humble himself there before all by making a satisfaction, let him undergo a greater punishment because he would not correct by humility what he did wrong through carelessness." --chapter 45
Let's just say that if the priest at the local Latin Mass where I now live had to observe this rule, Mass would run six hours, minimum. I'm not joking.

One last word on lunch, though: after the Scripture reading, the lector began, where he presumably left off the previous afternoon, with a reading from something unexpected: not a saint's life or a work of theology, but a secular history book, specifically Great River: The Rio Grande in American History by Paul Horgan ("Volume 2: Mexico and the United States, Book 4: The United States Rio Grande, Chapter 5: The Cannonade, continued", as the lector would preface it). For a good while, Brother Lector regaled us with a detailed account of General Zachary Taylor and his men's misadventures during the Mexican-American War. Let me remind you that the lector chants everything in recto tono, without exception. More than one of us grinned when the book said of General Pedro de Ampudia: "he was a great generaaaal, he was a brave maaaan, he was a bloodthirsty fiiiend who in marching to the river just nooow had refused to be encumbered by sick and straggling soldiers and had ordered such wretches to be shot". I asked Father Guestmaster about the book later that evening, and he said they had been working on it more or less every lunch since January, and that we would hear about what happened at Port Isabel tomorrow afternoon unless they would get a new issue of l'Osservatore Romano (the Vatican City's daily newspaper). Elation abounded through the camp.

After the office of None, around 3pm, was the appointed time for guests to engage in manual labor if they so wished. I was tasked, along with my good friend of several years, now a diocesan seminarian, of picking up rocks off of a field and dumping them into a wheelbarrow, then to be dumped in turn in a nearby ditch. At the rate we were going, the job would be done perhaps after Pope Francis retires. To pass the time, we talked about unmonkish things such as the Total War game series and conspiracy theories, all while hunched over like the anarchist peasants in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. A few wheelbarrows full of rocks later, one of the brothers announced an end to our toils. I decided it was a good time to lounge in the guest library after my exertions and actually get some reading done, as I had imagined I would have ample time to do. Under the afternoon sun's warming rays on a chair positioned comfortably below a west-facing window, I started on Saint John Fisher's Exposition of the Seven Penitential Psalms. The book is a compilation of sermons, one for each of the psalms of David relating to the confession of sins. Praying the seven penitential psalms as a group was a standard practice throughout the Middle Ages until modern times. Fisher, the only bishop in the entire English church to defy King Henry VIII's separation from his wife and the Roman church, was beheaded for treason. But before that, he was renowned as a prolific writer and leading thinker of the northern Renaissance. These sermons was preached and published in 1508, a year before Henry VIII became king, and reprinted seven times in the course of Fisher's life. Reading them was a trip into the mind of an extremely learned man, yet accessible enough to a common spiritual rube like myself. There was no need to build an elevator to ascend the ivory tower of scholastic wisdom, for which I was most grateful. One point that struck me was how, early in the very first sermon, Fisher spoke of the adultery of King David and Bathsheba: "David immediately forgot the goodness of almighty God and again fell into the sin of pride, being proud of the great number and multitude of his people against the commandment of the law of God." It seemed prophetic in light of Henry VIII's great matter with Katherine of Aragon many years later.

The library in the guesthouse is filled with books rebound in handsome hardcovers by the monks themselves.
The rest of the evening from Vespers to bedtime proceeded exactly as it did the previous night, except that this time, several hours of tossing and turning had passed before I could fall asleep. This usually happens when I sleep a lot the prior night and then try to go to bed early the following evening.

The third day: Saturday

By the time I could pry myself out from the covers and withstand the chill air of my cell, Prime had already commenced in the crypt. It was almost over when I stumbled in, but not to fear: I had ample opportunity to catch up on missed prayer a couple hours later when I attended the day's conventual Mass, opened a hand missal I grabbed from the table outside, opened it to the day's readings and realized it was an Ember Saturday. For those who meet the phrase "ember day" with a blank stare, these days mark the beginning of one of the four seasons with intense prayer and fasting. In ancient times, the Senate and people of Rome implored their gods for a successful seeding or harvesting, depending on the time of year. After the ascendancy of the Christian faith, the Church saw fit to keep the days of prayer, and for many centuries, they were observed as part of western Europe's agricultural cycle. Unfortunately, our path to industrialism has taken away this sense of unity with the land, so the Ember days declined in observance until at last, with the issuing of the new Mass in 1970, the Church effectively abolished them entirely. For the monks of Clear Creek, this last point is irrelevant since they happily use the 1962 order. But what all this means in the context of my account here is that Mass was going to take a lot longer than I thought. See, on an Ember Saturday in the old Mass, the Scripture readings appointed for that day number not only the usual Epistle and Gospel, but five readings from the Old Testament.

To tell you true, one of the few "reforms" I appreciate about the new Mass is how it restored lessons from the Old Testament to common use (in the traditional rite, they had been mostly phased out during the High Middle Ages with a handful of exceptions, this day being among them). Nonetheless, five lessons at once made today feel like a marathon of prayer. For each lesson, a different monk emerged from his place in the stalls to chant the full reading in the traditional tone. Between each lesson, the schola formed a circle to chant the full gradual. After that followed a genuflection and collect prayed by the priest-celebrant. Oh, and don't forget the canticle of the three children. It was beautiful, but brutal for a man of the world. And imagine, in the Church's young days, this Mass would actually begin on Saturday evening as a vigil and run all the way to Sunday morning. With seven readings, each would be punctuated by men being ordained to one of the seven orders (porter, then exorcist, then lector, and so on up to the order of priest after the gospel, which was read by one of the newly ordained deacons), for ordinations were once restricted to one of the four Ember Saturdays of the year. (On that note, though it seems even traditionalist seminaries today seldom hold ordinations on the Ember days, I did learn later that the Priestly Fraternity of Saint Peter had diaconal ordinations at their seminary in Lincoln, Nebraska that same day. I can only imagine that their Mass took forever.) As for us in the pews at Clear Creek, I almost felt a bit sorry for the old church ladies who had come out to the abbey, thinking they were just attending another daily Mass as usual.... almost, but not quite.

After the liturgy, we were most eager to get outside and take a walk. One group returned to Weathertop to seek out either transfiguration or a good cell phone signal; another split off in the opposite direction, downhill toward a stream. I was in this latter group, where we chased a badger to his hiding hole for no reason whatsoever, then held an impromptu stone-skipping contest at the stream by a bridge. At three good skips, I was about to win until, with one last "okay, this is really the last one" parting shot, J.S. made a miraculous five and took home the nonexistent trophy.

From here, I can only hazily recall a smoke break, feelings of famishment, and anticipation for the next exciting episode of Great River: The Rio Grande in American History as told by Brother Anonymous. The endless collecting of rocks resumed after None, though several more guests were assigned this time around. After our penance/peon roleplaying session ended, I went to the gift shop to continue another medieval tradition: "buying" a Mass, or more properly speaking, making a donation to the abbey for one of the priests to offer Mass for a specific intention of mine. Some of the priests were hearing confession for the guests, but as irrational as it is, I was too intimidated to go myself.

Our rock-picking adventures took place in the clearing in the upper portion of this photo.

The rest of the evening proceeded as before. I resolved to go to bed as early as possible so that, on the last day of my visit, I could catch at least the latter part of Matins.

The fourth day: Sunday

I arose at around 6am, feeling the coldest yet. It was still completely dark outside, and raining to boot. Matins had proceeded for about an hour already. I bundled up with several layers, a scarf, and gloves, and power-walked to the crypt. Only a handful of laity were present this early. Given Matins's length, there was no simple booklet to follow along with. I used a hardbound breviary left on the table outside, but without an English translation on the opposite column, my understanding was sketchy at best. I endured the tail end of Matins and Lauds, after which it was time for the low Masses. 

What took place at this moment is hard to put in words and almost certainly alien to any Catholic born after 1962, if not even earlier. Ten of the abbey priests retreated briefly to the vestry, then emerged in vestments and fanned out to each of the ten altars positioned around the crypt: four four positioned against the wall within alcoves on either side, the main freestanding altar, and another final one behind it against the wall of the apse, where the tabernacle rested. Each began celebrating their own private Mass all at the same time. By now, even though it was still only about 7am, the crypt was teeming with locals coming in to fulfill their Sunday Mass obligation. Old church ladies, families with ten children (all of whom inexplicably are boys and all sporting the exact same haircut), and marriageable young women sent by the devil to tempt novices from their vocation. I decided to break away from the pews and beelined to the priest saying Mass in the alcove on the far right and back of the crypt: first, because he was wearing a chasuble clearly based on a Pugin design and pattern, and second, because he seemed lonely, his Mass only attended by B.R., my seminarian friend. When I knelt beside him, the alcove was at capacity. This entire experience was truly the epitome of a missa privata: imagine being so close, you could reach out and touch the priest's chasuble at any given moment of the whole Mass. Unlike your standard low Mass, all the priests in the crypt whispered the entire liturgy, not just the Canon and so on. My priest in particular, I noticed, beat his chest with a resounding thud at mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. Altogether, "my" Mass took about 20 or 25 minutes. I then mused about why the locals didn't mind coming so early in the morning: their Sunday obligation was fulfilled in record time, with no sermon to worry about and no pesky hymns. I can understand why this sort of Sunday experience could have been abused in the preconciliar era by Catholics with a punchcard mentality, but in its proper place, as I experienced it this day, that was by far the most edifying low Mass I have ever attended. After it was over, I inadvertently broke the great silence before Prime to remark to my companions just how surreal it all was, being so intimately close to the action on the altar as a mere layman in the pew, as well as witnessing all the other Masses being offered at the same time, in the same place, for undoubtedly a wide variety of intentions.

We resolved to depart the abbey immediately after high Mass, so we packed up our bags and cleaned up our rooms after breakfast. I thought nothing could top what I had already seen in the three and a half days I had spent at the abbey; I was wrong. The monks chose to hold high Mass in the upper church, despite its cavernous nave being unbearably cold. Just after Terce, Father Guestmaster approached the altar rail and invited the men and boys in the pews to join the monks in a procession around the cloister, in the area normally forbidden to visitors. We stood behind the monks, who formed two columns. I was fortunate to be only a few paces behind the abbot. We processed very slowly around the square, with the wind blowing rain under the walkway and causing the monks' cloaks to flap in dramatic fashion behind them. Combined with the somber, unfamiliar chants they were singing, and the fact that my knuckles were turning purple as I tightly gripped my hand missal, I actually found myself thoroughly relishing how miserable and "English" the weather was; the atmosphere wouldn't have been the same if the day had been sunny. In a moment frozen in time, I united my prayer with the brothers, and with those of all the monks of the past two thousand years that had implored God with those very same chants to help raise up a sturdy foundation in the face of Viking invasions, plagues, famines, rapacious kings, bloodthirsty revolutions, and all other manner of terrors and tribulations more frightening than our own. I was at once a small speck in the great march of time from the cross to the final judgement.... and yet larger than life, speaking with one voice in an army larger than any empire's or proletariat's in the history of man. For a moment, I shed a tear for the beauty of what I had witnessed, for all we had lost, and for what these monks could build for themselves and future generations in the new world.

The procession returned to to the upper church and everyone filed back into their places for the conventual Mass, a solemn high Mass with the priest assisted by a deacon and subdeacon. The wind and rain battered the sides of the church and caused a great noise, as though we were riding deep the hull of Noah's ark, or but the monks paid it no heed and kept chanting the propers of Mass as though nothing were disturbing them at all. The Gospel reading was the same as yesterday's: the account of Christ transfigured before His closest disciples, with Moses and Elijah appearing beside Him. In some small way, I had climbed Mount Tabor as well; like Peter, stirred from some strange slumber. I was able to pray the Nicene Creed with a renewed belief in its words. During the offertory, I stepped aside from my pew to a shrine of the Virgin Mary and left a blessed candle, which had been gifted to me by a companion, in a candelabrium by her feet. The candle, which has probably run its course by now, was burned to offer the sacrifice of that solemn high Mass for my deceased stepfather, whose fifth anniversary of death was to pass three days hence.

There was still no sermon, despite it being the main Sunday Mass. It was just as well; oratory was unnecessary. I was content to leave that procession and high Mass as the summit of my weekend. I received a blessing from one of the priests in the gift shop, and we started the drive back to normalcy.

I had hoped to post this article in time for the feast of Saint Benedict last Friday, but it took longer than I expected to gather my thoughts. I don't have a great story of Damascus-like enlightenment to wrap up this account of my visit with, other than what I already wrote above. But I came away with a greater appreciation of the monk's role in civilization and the work they contribute to the society of Christians. It would be better to end this entry not with anything I could say, as a mere observer, but with the words of the abbot himself, Dom Philip Anderson, who was interviewed shortly before we ventured forth to the abbey. (Just ignore Father Mitchell's hokey intro before the interview itself.)

Also, some photos from Clear Creek's website....

Detailwork of a sculpture in progress.
One monk's solemn profession, in the crypt church.
The monks in procession around the cloister.
The Easter fire during the Vigil.
A view of the upper church during Cardinal Burke's visit.
Cardinal Burke again, celebrating Mass in the upper church.
One of the tiny alcoves where low Mass is celebrated.
And best of all, sheepdogs in winter.

Appendix for the liturgy nerds

Early on in the article, I mentioned some divergences in the way the monks observe the 1962 Missal compared to what you might usually see in Latin Mass communities. My friends and I talked about them at various points during the trip, so I endeavored to do some research to find out more. This last section, then, is for those of you who are armchair liturgists and find minor differences in the way Mass is celebrated from place to place genuinely interesting, rather than tedious.

The following differences I noticed, by the way, all apply only to the conventual Masses (sung or solemn Masses after Terce). As far as I could tell, their low Masses were celebrated "as usual", with the exception of them being entirely whispered.

-The priest and ministers omitted the prayers at the foot of the altar (when Mass immediately follows Terce. It's possible that they pray it privately in the sacristy beforehand, but I can't say for sure).

-The priest led the entire Mass of the Catechumens from the sedilia (similar to the Novus Ordo, or in the old rite when a bishop celebrates from the throne), not the altar. The acolyte or MC held the missal open against his chest for the priest to read from. This had the interesting effect of effectively not being able to see the priest for most of the first half of the Mass, since at Clear Creek, the sedilia is tucked in an area obscured by the choir stalls.

-The priest didn't appear to privately recite anything sung by the choir, such as the Kyrie, Gloria, or Credo; he chanted them in unison with the choir instead.

-The Scripture readings were proclaimed versus populum (facing the people). 

-The priest chanted the "secret" prayer at the end of the Offertory rite aloud.

-The priest chanted the doxology of the Canon (from per ipsum, et cum ipso, et in ipso...), as a lot of priests do in the Novus Ordo.

-The Pater noster was chanted by all the monks in unison with the priest.

-The kiss of peace was exchanged between all the monks in attendance, even at "sung low Mass".

-The priest chanted even the words which are normally said in a spoken tone at high Mass (ecce Agnus Dei and the blessing after Mass).

-And finally, the priest omitted the Last Gospel.

After doing some reading, I learned that, in the early years of Vatican II, the Benedictines of Fontgombault had adopted some of the early reforms given in the 1965 Missal, even though they may have had the 1962 book on the altar. A letter from the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei in 1997 had confirmed that these were legitimate and licit uses within the 1962 Missal still; some for all Masses in general, others specifically for conventual Masses in Benedictine communities. There were further permissions granted to the Benedictines for using bidding prayers before the Offertory (after Oremus), and even for using prefaces from the 1970 Missal, though I didn't see them used at Clear Creek during my visit. For more information, you can see scans of the letter I mentioned on this entry in the Saint Bede Studio's blog.

Monday, February 10, 2014

An Unlikely Saint: summary/review of John Guy's "Thomas Becket: Warrior, Priest, Rebel", part IV

Part IV: Primate of England

The news of Theobald's death turned the gears in Henry's mind toward new plots. His idea to nominate Thomas as successor to Canterbury was not a sudden stroke of genius, but the natural conclusion of a master plan to consolidate all power in the Angevin empire under royal rule. Thomas wasn't a bishop, true, but he had knowledge of every aspect of the job from his years in Theobald's service. Furthermore, he had gained the king's trust over seven years as his right hand; Henry went so far as to have his eldest son and heir, also named Henry, fostered at Thomas's house. It took a year for Henry to formally announce the nomination, during which time Canterbury's revenues were sent to the royal coffers. Thomas did not object this time because he knew the see of Canterbury, as well as the chancery, would both be in his hands regardless. He did, however, have his reservations about assuming the office at first. John of Salisbury: "He had by now learned to understand the king's character and the wickedness and rapacity of his officials." We know that Thomas hesitated because his delay caused one of Henry's early schemes to derail. Ever anxious about the fate of his empire after his death, Henry intended for Thomas to quickly assume the primacy and use its ancient privileges to crown his son within his lifetime, thereby guaranteeing a succession without the threat of rival sons rising up to stake their own claims. But, as the bishops would not accept any substitute for the right to crown and anoint a king of England, the entire affair was downgraded into a mere investiture ceremony, with Thomas presiding as the lords and bishops made their oaths. It was a far cry from what Henry had planned, but for now, he had to live with disappointment.

Today's Roman church is led by bishops appointed directly by the pope. In medieval England, the final say over the successor to Saint Augustine was in the monks of Christ Church. Henry sent a number of commissioners to campaign on Thomas's behalf, including Richard de Lucy, Abbot Walter of Battle, and Bishop Hilary of Chichester. The monks' case against: that Thomas was not a monk (all but two of the previous archbishops had been from religious orders) nor even a priest, had sullied his hands in warfare, and, of course, was feared to be a mere puppet of an avaricious king. The commissioners brought them around, however, and at a council in Westminster Abbey, the Christ Church monks unanimously gave their assent to Thomas. Only one man voiced his opposition during the entire proceedings: Gilbert Foliot, bishop of Hereford. At the time, Foliot must have appeared to have the perfect résumé for the primacy: a son of the Norman aristocracy, a prior of Cluny (which he held at only 25 years of age), an abbot of Gloucester, a supporter of the Angevin dynasty since the Anarchy, an orator, even a "strict vegetarian". Foliot probably sought the primacy for himself; he certainly resented seeing it fall into the hands of an extravagant, baseborn whelp ten years his junior. As his character in the film says, in the end, he bowed before the royal will. Thomas Becket would become the next archbishop of Canterbury.

Thomas and his followers set out for their new home, as Guy says, "following the same road that he had first taken as a young man of twenty-four on his way to join Theobald's household." Though he was greeted by crowds along the streets to great ceremony and fanfare, he dismounted and proceeded on foot once he entered the walls. Guy writes, "first impressions matter, and he was eager to create the right one." One June 2, Thomas was ordained a priest by an old patron, Walter of Rochester, but the privilege of consecrating him as archbishop was hotly contested by him, Roger of Pont l'Évêque, and other senior bishops. The honor eventually settled on King Stephen's brother, Henry of Winchester. The following day, Trinity Sunday, the rite of consecration took place.

The director of the 1964 film purposefully shot the consecration scene with, if not reverence, then respect in accurately portraying ancient Catholic rites. Every word pronounced by Donald Wolfit's Foliot is uttered with the utmost seriousness, despite his jealousy and loathing of the man he's consecrating. Of course, in history, the prayers were said by Henry of Winchester, as Foliot was given the bishopric of London as a "consolation prize" by Thomas after the election, but not in time to properly assume that see and claim any seniority. The rite may have actually gone more smoothly on the silver screen than in real life, if Foliot is to be believed. In those days, the rite of consecration was spiced with a dash of bibliomancy; after the consecrator prayed over the new bishop with a book of the Gospels laid open upon his head and neck, it would be flipped to a random page and the consecrator would utter aloud whatever he first set his eyes upon. According to Foliot in a later attack, Thomas was initiated into the hierarchy of the Church with an ill omen: "Never shall fruit be born of thee throughout eternity; and it was forthwith cast into the fire." Whether it was a lie born from Foliot's envy, a warning from heaven, or just bad luck, the new archbishop would not let a bad prognostic keep him from turning the king's machinations asunder, for as Guy says of the day Thomas received his pallium from the pope two months hence, "he can only felt he stared God directly in the face." What events transpired that summer of 1162 that transformed Thomas Becket into the man we know today? Was it an outpouring of divine grace given to him by the conferral of holy orders? Or the sudden realization that, with no one directly above him save a distant pontiff, he had become a truly powerful man in his own right? Whatever was the true cause of his conversion, it was sudden and slighting. A few months following the consecration, Thomas resigned the chancellorship. Even though such an office was routinely held by bishops elsewhere in Christendom, Thomas saw a conflict of time and interest. This would have earned Henry's wrath regardless, but especially because Thomas did so without speaking to him about it first; indeed, while Henry wasn't even in England at the time. When he learned the news, the king exclaimed "by God's eyes!" From that day forward, the battle of royal and ecclesiastical wills was on.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

A grimdark Christmas -- Batman: Noël

Yesterday, I took a break from more serious reading material during my work breaks to enjoy a comic book. The lady got me Batman: Noël, a one-off short story of my favorite superhero in a handsome hardcover edition. What's it about, you ask? The unseen narrator has a working-class voice, telling the tale of a Scrooge who has everything but appreciates none of it; who begrudges one of his workers for taking Christmas Day off to spend time with his son "as though he were getting away with a crime". 

The stand-in for Dickens' classic character needs no introduction: he is, of course, billionaire Bruce Wayne, who moonlights as self-appointed lord and protector of Gotham dressed as a flying rodent. Batman is on patrol for the night of Christmas Eve as though it were any other. His prey for the evening is a certain Bob, a low-level Wayne Enterprises employee down on his luck, a single father struggling to support a disabled child. The sunken economy has pushed Bob to desperation; namely, he's agreed to play the bagman and deliver a package for his new employer, the clown prince of crime. Bob, of course, is really just an ordinary working stiff, and is no match for the Bat. The caped crusader allows our part-time crook to escape solely to use him as bait later on: for Batman can rely on the Joker's retribution to swiftly bring him out into the open when he comes to collect. The pieces are in place to put two criminals behind bars, though at great risk to Bob's son at home, to which the embittered, heartless Batman nary gives a second thought... that is, until three "ghosts" come to him through the course of the night to bring him out of the shadows he's too long dwelt.

Observe, in the display case, Batman's "first appearance" costume from DC Comics #27, existing alongside an Adam West-style suit, and finally, a modern armored suit.

Lee Bermejo superbly illustrates the Dark Knight as we know and love him today: bulky, weathered, with a permanent grimace at all the injustice he wades through from night to night. The years of scrapes, bruises, near-death encounters, and seeming futility of all his efforts have taken their toll on Bruce; most of all, the death of Jason Todd. The artist plays with the motif of newer vs. older interpretations of Batman in memory panels, especially the rendering of vintage costumes in the same realist style as the rest of the comic. "We used to play, remember?", says Catwoman in the midst of their latest altercation. It was a risky move, given A Christmas Carol's descent into the realm of cliché in recent decades, but Bermejo, as both writer and illustrator for this piece, puts it all together in such a way that, at the end, old and new visions of the Dark Knight are reconciled, and even the most ardent fan of broody, Frank-Millerized Batman can appreciate why he's been cast as Scrooge for this story.

I have to admit that my own exposure to retellings of A Christmas Carol have been minimal, so I treated the book as mostly an original story; in fact, I think I nearly shed a tear toward the flip of the final page. Altogether, for masterful artwork, decent writing, and clever application of themes all in one hardcover edition that feels "just right" without breaking the bank, I give Noël 9 out of 10 batarangs.

As an aside, I liked Jim Lee's description in the forward of the book as a "neo-Gothic work". That is all.