Archive for the ‘Fr. Aidan Nichols’ Category


Balthasar and the Beautiful 4 –Aidan Nichols, OP

February 6, 2014
The Trinity 1635, Jusepe de Ribera. Beauty…dances as an uncontained splendour around the double constellation of the true and the good and their inseparable relation to one another. Beauty is the disinterested one, without which the ancient world refused to understand itself, a word which both imperceptibly and yet unmistakably has bid farewell to our new world, a world of interests, leaving it to its own avarice and sadness. No longer loved or fostered by religion, beauty is lifted from its face like a mask, and its absence exposes features on that face which threaten to become incomprehensible to man. We no longer dare believe in beauty and we make of it a mere appearance in order to more easily dispose of it. Our situation today shows that beauty demands for itself at least as much courage and decision as do truth and goodness, and she will not allow herself to be separated and banned from her two sisters without taking them along with herself in an act of mysterious vengeance. We can be sure that whoever sneers at her name as if she were the ornament of a bourgeois past – whether he admits it or not – can no longer pray and soon will no longer be able to love.

The Trinity 1635, Jusepe de Ribera. Beauty…dances as an uncontained splendour around the double constellation of the true and the good and their inseparable relation to one another. Beauty is the disinterested one, without which the ancient world refused to understand itself, a word which both imperceptibly and yet unmistakably has bid farewell to our new world, a world of interests, leaving it to its own avarice and sadness. No longer loved or fostered by religion, beauty is lifted from its face like a mask, and its absence exposes features on that face which threaten to become incomprehensible to man. We no longer dare believe in beauty and we make of it a mere appearance in order to more easily dispose of it. Our situation today shows that beauty demands for itself at least as much courage and decision as do truth and goodness, and she will not allow herself to be separated and banned from her two sisters without taking them along with herself in an act of mysterious vengeance. We can be sure that whoever sneers at her name as if she were the ornament of a bourgeois past – whether he admits it or not – can no longer pray and soon will no longer be able to love.

We continue exploring the theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar with Fr. Aidan Nichols. See previous post, Balthasar and the Beautiful 1 for full intro.


The Relation Of Apologetics To Dogmatics
One important corollary of Balthasar’s estimate of the respective roles of the subjective and objective evidence for Christian revelation is a shift — for those inclined to accept his approach – in the relation of apologetics to dogmatic theology. These are two of the most important branches of Christian thought, so this is no bagatelle. Through his theological aesthetics, Balthasar seeks to modify the currently understood picture of apologetics by presenting apologetics as incipient dogmatics. For Balthasar, investigating the motives of credibility — the ways in which revelation commends itself to us on the ordinary rational level – is constantly on the point of trembling into loving prostration before the figure of the Word incarnate.

Here a bit of background may be useful. There were Christian apologists from the first generations of the Church after the apostles. But the first Catholic theologian to treat the issue of apologetics in a fully systematic fashion is usually reckoned to be the thirteenth-century German Dominican St Albert the Great. His `antecedents of the act of faith’, antecedentia fidei, include the most important theses of what we now call fundamental theology.

They concern especially the metaphysical presuppositions of divine revelation, the fact of such divine revelation in Christ, and the character of Scripture as the witness to that revelation. One question Albert did not settle clearly was the relation of these `antecedents’ to the certainty aspect of faith. The problem of the kind of certainty produced by apologetic argumentation and its relation to the free and supernatural character of the act of faith was one that long troubled the Schoolmen.

Some masters of the early High Scholastic period — such as William of Auxerre, William of Auvergne, and Philip the Chancellor — admitted two sorts of faith. The motives of credibility were said to produce `intellectual faith’ (other terms were also in use), which, said these thinkers, should be distinguished from faith in the full theological sense of the word.

Merely intellectual faith, precisely because it rested on the rational force of arguments, had neither the religious nor the moral value of the virtue of theological faith — properly Christian faith — in the strict sense. That virtue is virtuous precisely because it has the character of an unconditional response to God as the `First Truth’, Prima Veritas, made possible by sharing in a more than natural light — by sharing a light, in fact, that is the light of supernatural faith proper, called by the Scholastics the lumen fidei.

It is noteworthy that both Albert and Thomas are disinclined to give what the cathedral masters called `intellectual faith’ or some synonym thereof the title of `faith’ at all. The motives of credibility — such considerations as the Savior’s miracles and his fulfillment of prophecy, the sublimity of his teaching and his ethical perfection — may make people certain in some kind of adhering to the bearer of revelation (such adhering was sometimes known as certitude adhaesionis, `certainty of adhesion’). But this is not as yet the recognition of Jesus Christ as the very Word of the Father.

Over against, in particular, early Deist thinkers, Catholic writers from the sixteenth century onwards stressed the importance of the rational motives of credibility. Though in the later part of that century, owing to the challenge of Protestantism, a section `on the Church’, de Ecclesia, was customarily added to Catholic treatises on apologetics, the main content of Catholic apologetics for divine revelation did not differ greatly from that treated by their Protestant counterparts.

The classic Catholic representatives of this stream undertook to prove the principles of both natural and revealed religion, moving through an account of natural theology and natural law to treatment of the possibility, utility and necessity of supernatural revelation, and the features of miracle and fulfilled prophecy which (especially) enable one to recognize a divine mission in act, the whole thing ending up with a discussion of the claims of the Church and the principles of Catholic faith. From the mid-eighteenth century on, this structure remains largely constant up until the manuals in use in the 1920s and beyond.13

This was so even if in another way these treatises were always being modified, pouring into the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century mould discussions with such thinkers as Kant, Hegel, Schelling, Darwin, the history-of-religions school of empirical scholarship, Liberal Protestantism and Modernism. But by the time Balthasar was setting out to begin his lifelong study of Christian thought, in the 1920s and 1930s, some Catholic philosophers and theologians were declaring a degree of dissatisfaction with the entire approach.

Why might that be? The main criticism, and one Balthasar largely shared, was that such treatises claimed to establish the fact of divine revelation without ever envisaging the meaning of its content. Painting with broad brush-strokes: in these works the relation of supernatural truth to human realities was not manifest. And while that relation wholly exceeds what human beings could ever expect, so Balthasar would want to add, the wonderful character of that excess was not brought home.

Presumably the Gospel offers an intelligible message — something we are meant to understand, even if this `something’, by its grandeur, also stretches our powers to a point where only the gracious enhancement of our capacities can serve our turn. (Where the appropriate paradigm of knowledge is love, then understanding and mystery will develop together, in direct proportion to each other.)

But such was the emphasis on the proof of revelation by arguments external to itself that this intelligibility (even if it were an intelligibility with a depth of mystery to it) failed to make a proper appearance in justifying revelation’s claims. Hence the critical epithet ‘extrinsicist’ applied to these schemes: the supernatural order seemed to be externally added on to the natural as an autonomous supplement, rather than fully integrated with the natural and suitably interiorized there.

Where Catholic apologetics was concerned, the single most influential dissentient voice was the French philosopher and lay theologian Maurice Blondel.  Without disputing that some place should be given to the considerations adduced in early modern apologetics, Blondel proposed to give the lion’s share, in any commendation of revealed religion, to an account of how the internal logic of the act of faith corresponds to the `logic’ of the highest kind of human activity we know: namely, when we set out to discern meaning — and (especially) the fullness of meaning — in human life at large.

It is not enough to adduce arguments to show the fact of divine attestation to Jesus. The mystery of Christ must be presented as throwing light on the whole human condition. The question is not so much to prove by miraculous facts the rights of Jesus as divine legate (though this is certainly not illegitimate, and can even be called necessary), but, in Balthasarian terms, to discern in the `figure’ of Jesus, his acts and destiny, a divine-human presence penetrating and transforming our sense of relation with God, with the world, with other persons and indeed with ourselves. In so doing, the Revealer, so we discern, confers on human history the weight of eternity.

Naturally enough, this cannot be done without treating the content of revelation from within, rather than simply the fact of revelation from without. What Balthasar is attempting in the Theological aesthetics coheres with much of this Blondelian programme, though his manner of pursuing its agenda is entirely is own. Certainly, Balthasar had no desire to replace an extrinsicist apologetics with an apologetics of natural immanence. As he wrote:

[T]he tradition never set the criterion for the truth of revelation in the centre of the pious human subject, it never measured the abyss of grace by the abyss of need or sin, it never judged the content of dogma according to its beneficial effects on human beings. The Spirit does not reveal himself,- he reveals the Father in the Son, who has become man. And the Son never allows himself to become re-absorbed in the human spirit

How then does Balthasar proceed? His first step is to show that beauty is a possible vehicle for divine self-manifestation. As we have seen, considered ontologically, beauty is not just a property of all created things qua created. What appears in the beauty of created forms is the radiance of being, der Glanz des Seins. Beauty thus speaks of the meaning of that which transcends and yet inheres in all existents.

Secondly, Balthasar treats beauty as the vehicle of the actual revelation of God in Christ, a revelation made when the eternal manifests itself in a concrete, material form, breaking into this world, as beauty does, numinously (for beauty, in words Balthasar liked to quote from Rilke’s Duino Elegies, is the beginning of the terrible). In the case of revelation, this means the eternal breaking in with the glory that truly inheres in the form of Jesus Christ.

The epiphany of this form is not just sheerly overwhelming, however, for exploration of the career and fate of Jesus shows it is an intelligible history. This form is a narrative form, and the meaning of the story is divine love. Here the content and the form are one since both are wonderful. The content is as marvelously beautiful as is the form, and Balthasar’s explanation for this is that both content and form reflect love. Love shares the structure of beauty. It confronts us with the mystery of the otherness of some other and calls forth a corresponding wonder and admiration.

Thirdly and finally, Balthasar develops his theological aesthetics in two parts that are, however, strongly unified as well as distinct. And this two-in-one exposition spans the separate treatises of (early modern and modern) apologetics and dogmatics. This is so because Balthasar’s aesthetics is not only an epistemological investigation of the kind of `seeing’ involved in faith. It is also a doctrine of what he terms `ecstasy’. There is `ecstasy’, first, in the going out (in Greek, ek-stasis) of the Godhead in weakness into the world as the manifestation of the love that is interior to the divine glory.

There is `ecstasy’, secondly, in the way the believer is seized by the divine glory in this revelation in Jesus Christ and is taken up thereby into a share in the life of God himself. Ecstasy, so understood, contains in principle all the main themes of dogmatics — the Trinity, Christology, the doctrines of justification and sanctification, as well as of the sacraments, the Church and eschatology, the Last Things. Faith is a response to the radiance of what St Thomas calls the bonum promissum, the beautifully ordered whole of salvation that is offered to us, exceeding any such `whole’ that exists within the world.”

So what we have here is a tendency to elide, without however ever completely denying, the distinction between apologetics and dogmatics just because Balthasar wants to elide, without however ever completely denying, the distinction between what the Schoolmen called `certainty of adhesion’ and the virtue of theological faith properly so called — the faith that, corresponded to in loving conversion, justifies and saves.

Balthasar can proceed in this direction because he doesn’t think that what explains the act of faith is simply rationally available materials plus an elevation of human judgment by supernatural light. In his view, there is not only God’s gracious supplying of more light with which to judge materials accessible to any reasonable person supplied with appropriate historical data about Jesus and arguments to back up those data. There is also, he maintains, a `light’ that shines forth from those materials themselves in their beautiful ordering in Jesus’ person, life and work.

The act of faith needs both kinds of light: light from within where God can affect my powers of knowing and willing internally, since as my Creator he is closer to me than I am to myself, and light from without — light striking one from Jesus Christ himself as a figure in history who is made palpable to me in the preaching and Liturgy of the Church. On the one hand, the glory of the divine self-emptying in Jesus Christ can be seen only by `eyes of faith’ when God has prepared me interiorly to be receptive to Christ. On the other hand, the `eyes of faith’ can only see when the light of faith falls on them from the divine form that Jesus is. What the eyes of faith see when this interplay of light works as it should is the opening of the divine heart in love, the self-disclosure of the Trinity.

Conclusion On Aesthetics
It is in the lives of saints and mystics that the inspired seeing which animates the Christian life in general and theological aesthetics in particular is most fully in act.
Balthasar identifies its key as humility, which is the readiness to accept the gift of the divine love as it is, to appreciate the necessary and rightness of the form of the divine revelation as we are given it.

Much of Balthasar’s celebrated concern with the practice of holiness as precondition of fruitful theologizing belongs here; adoration and obedience follow from humility, and draw good theology in their train. Henri de Lubac once contrasted Balthasar’s theology with Hegel’s. Whereas Hegel called his own thought `speculative Good Friday’, de Lubac calls Balthasar’s a `contemplative Holy Saturday’.

Evidently, I note in passing, de Lubac was not `phased’ by Balthasar’s theology of the Descent into Hell which turns, of course, on the events of the first Holy Saturday: perhaps he realized that for Balthasar while the Descent is, unlike for most of Catholic tradition, the end-point of the mysteries of Christ’s humiliation, it is also, in keeping with Catholic tradition, the starting-point of the mysteries of hi exaltation.

The useful phrase `contemplative Holy Saturday’ in the wider meaning de Lubac intended for it, brings out the degree to which Balthasar’s material dogmatics are informed by his fundamental theological insight into the nature of faith a contemplative seeing, as well as the extent to which his theology  centers on the self-emptying of the Son of God which reached full term in the Descent into Hell.

It also reminds us that the final volumes of the theological aesthetics consist in a reading of the Old and New Testament. Balthasar at the close of this massive work turns again to the Bible in the hope that, now we grasp what is at stake in theological aesthetics, we can read the Scriptures with new eyes. If we do so, we shall see how though the New Testament’s amazing consummation of the Old, the mystery of all creation, man included, received its definitive interpretation as the hidden presence of Absolute Love, to which, in its luminous, bountiful and exuberant character, beauty’s qualities of clarity, integrity and proportion, by analogy, belong.

See too how the recipients of God’s self-revelation — ourselves — receive thereby the call to make the divine visible in charity, the specifically Christian love of God and neighbor, the intended moral outcome of Balthasar’s entire work. These statements are not only conclusions drawn from his theological aesthetics. They are also anticipations of the message of his theological dramatics and theological logic as well.


Balthasar and the Beautiful 3 –Aidan Nichols, OP

February 5, 2014
The life of Christ culminating in the Paschal mystery -- the totality of which constitutes the Christ-form -- has all the intelligible beauty of a drama. The more deeply we penetrate its meaning -- ultimately the task of a theological dramatics -- the more this beauty asserts itself. Theological dramatics, then, requires theological aesthetics. That is why the Church expresses the ugly physical facts of the Crucifixion not simply as an act of barbaric execution: the Church presents them as supremely beautiful.

The life of Christ culminating in the Paschal mystery — the totality of which constitutes the Christ-form — has all the intelligible beauty of a drama. The more deeply we penetrate its meaning — ultimately the task of a theological dramatics — the more this beauty asserts itself. Theological dramatics, then, requires theological aesthetics. That is why the Church expresses the ugly physical facts of the Crucifixion not simply as an act of barbaric execution: the Church presents them as supremely beautiful.

Objective And Subjective In Revelatory `Evidence’
We have said that the aesthetic act always has both an objective and a subjective side to it. It is a subject’s marveling appreciation of an object. The absolutely foundational opening volume of Balthasar’s theological aesthetics is governed by this pair of terms. Divine revelation in Jesus Christ has, in the first place, subjective evidence. What Balthasar means by `subjective evidence’ here is certainly not vague and conjectural evidence.

Rather, it is evidence from the side of the human subject. Divine revelation in Jesus Christ also has objective evidence. What Balthasar means by `objective evidence’ is not the only kind of evidence worth having but, more specifically, evidence from the side of the divine-human object.

Let us take the subjective evidence first. It may seem at first sight disconcerting that Balthasar identifies the subjective evidence for revelation as faith itself. Surely faith is a response to the evidence of revelation: can it be, in that case, itself part of the evidence? Balthasar holds that, in an important sense, God’s self-revelation is, and can only be, self-authenticating. Faith accepts its own object on the authority of that object which in this way becomes `subjective evidence’ for it.

The classical account of faith as an infused theological virtue — the account found in Thomas — already claimed that our recognition of God is God’s own act in us: it is the inchoatio gloriae, the `beginning of glory’. Crucial to the act of faith is a power of apperception experienced as a gift from a source beyond oneself. And yet no such gift — no such grace — is, in Catholic doctrine, irresistible. We have to co-operate. On our part, the grace of faith requires a readiness to receive the light God gives, and a self-surrender to that light.

On God’s part, faith entails the gift to us of fresh insights, motives, impulses, by which we are gradually shaped into the pattern of Christ as well as granted understanding of that pattern. Behind these statements lies Thomas’ account of understanding, and with it ancient Greek philosophy which, thanks chiefly to Aristotle, saw mind as both receptive or `patient’ (passive) and also spontaneous or `agent’ (active). To cite Chesterton’s wonderful little Thomas book one last time:

The mind is not merely receptive, in the sense that it absorbs sensations like so much blotting-paper; on that sort of softness has been based all that cowardly materialism, which conceives man as wholly servile to his environment. On the other hand, the mind is not purely creative, in the sense that it paints pictures on the windows and then mistakes them for a landscape outside. But the mind is active, and its activity consists in following, so far as the will chooses to follow, the light outside that does really shine upon real landscapes.
G.K. Chesterton, St. Thomas Aquinas, p.121

A light shines for the mind as well as for the senses when the intellect as agent judges aright the impressions, mental as well as sensuous, that the intellect as patient receives. In the case of faith, this light is a divinely enabled intensification of the intellectual light in which we make our natural judgments. For Thomas, the light of faith is indeed an anticipation of the light of glory, the beatific Vision.

In all this, Balthasar’s distinctive stress lies on how the light of faith makes possible, on our own more modest level as disciples, a certain alignment with the experience of Christ himself. Balthasar emphasizes how archetypal for us as Christians is the experience which Christ himself had in his human nature of his Father and himself in the Holy Spirit. We come to know of that uniquely formative experience through the apprehension of Christ found in the New Testament writers — who are not just a few more authors from the ancient world but inspired witnesses, or what Greek Christians call `hagiography’, the `sacred writers’. The variety of their witness — which for some scholars undermines the consistency of the figure of Jesus in the New Testament — Balthasar regards as, on the contrary, vital to their function. The varied appearances of an object to observers capable of communicating their experience is the only way something of the object’s fullness (if it has one) can be transmitted by the witnesses.

In our appreciation of those witnesses, when carried out by the light of faith, we are to let our own senses and imagination be disciplined and re-shaped pneumatically — by the action of the Holy Spirit. Some spiritual authors tell us not to stay on the level of images, of the imagination. But for Balthasar when, in personal prayer and devotion, we break through to another level where the sensuous seems to be stripped away, and we go beyond images, we should not understand that as a happy victory of the superbly intellectual side of us over the wretchedly sensuous.

Rather, we should understand it as a participation by precisely that sensuous side of us in the self-emptying of Christ. For Balthasar, the negative incomprehensibility of God to materially embodied creatures like ourselves is less interesting than the positive incomprehensibility that derives from the overwhelming greatness of God’s triune self-giving or self-humbling (‘kenotic’) love which the Incarnation and the Paschal Mystery display.

This brings us, then, to revelation’s objective evidence. There must also be objective evidence and not just subjective, or else Catholics would be fideists — people who think belief can and should proceed without any reference to external legitimating grounds. For Balthasar, the chief objective evidence in Christianity is: Christ Jesus as he is in himself, the Trinitarian Son disclosing in his humanity the hidden tri-unity of divine being.

That includes what conventional Catholic apologetics has treated as objective evidence for the truth of Jesus’ claims — such things as Christ’s miracles (above all, his Resurrection), his fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, the sublimity of his teaching, his moral perfection, and so on. But on Balthasar’s understanding of the matter, the Christological objective evidence also goes beyond that set of considerations since, after all, they are only signs of his Trinitarian identity, not that identity in and of itself.

Now to see Christ in this fuller way for who and what he really is, we must have an unlimited willingness to receive the impress of God’s greatness and glory. Here Balthasar’s position can be regarded as the exact antithesis to Bultmann’s. Bultmann’s work belongs to a long line of theological speculation which gradually debilitated the physical and metaphysical texture of its object.

For Bultmann, the visually graspable shapes of nature and salvation history do not mediate our approach to God because created being is not constituted from substantial self-transcending forms. Nature and history are not impressed with illustrative form, so God has to be approached in a way that abstracts from all human perceptibility.”

Balthasar says the contrary. The necessary willingness to receive the impress of God’s greatness and glory is mediated in the Church — not least through the variety of her approved theologies, a number of which Balthasar explores in the second and third volumes of The Glory of the Lord.

As Balthasar presents it in those volumes and in other essays, theology is a rich and complex activity which at one pole contains the careful logical analysis which explains the faith and answers heresy (‘controversial’ theology), and at the other pole – ultimately, the more important one — embraces the adoring contemplation of God. The adoring contemplation aspect of theology may seem something essentially mysteric — typically, apophatic and imageless, but Balthasar notes how in many of the great mystics it has gone hand in hand with a capacity for densely concrete, and in its own way precise, poetic expression.

It is as if the vision of that which is above-and-beyond-form, the vision of `Super-form’, by its very fascination prompts the human form-creating powers to move into action on their own level. The poems of St John of the Cross are a good example, and indeed Sanjuanist (vocab: of St. John of the Cross) thought is included by Balthasar as one of his examples of how all great theologies are `beautiful’ through pointing in some way to the initial vision without which there would be nothing worthwhile for theologians to analyze in the manner of a theological logic.

The two volumes of The Glory of the Lord devoted to such historic examples from the work of clerical or lay `doctors’ (scare-quotes since Balthasar does not confine himself to those canonically and liturgically so recognized) are not merely illustrative of Balthasar’s project or simply preparatory to it. Taken cumulatively, they are meant to suggest how it is that, without a theological aesthetics, no theological logic worth its salt can be written. Unless the content of theology is marvelous, why indeed should we spend so much time explaining its truth? This is one important way in which Balthasar’s trilogy — aesthetics, dramatics, logic — hangs together.

Another such way, which relates the aesthetics not to the logic so much as to the dramatics, is that, for Balthasar, the life of Christ culminating in the Paschal mystery — the totality of which constitutes the Christ-form — has all the intelligible beauty of a drama. The more deeply we penetrate its meaning — ultimately the task of a theological dramatics — the more this beauty asserts itself. Theological dramatics, then, requires theological aesthetics. That is why the Church expresses the ugly physical facts of the Crucifixion not simply as an act of barbaric execution: the Church presents them as supremely beautiful. Compare the witness of iconography and the exalted language of the Liturgies about the Cross.

The Religious `A Priori’ And The Theological `A Priori’
As the discussion earlier in this Chapter of the grace of faith will already (I hope) have suggested, the light in which we appreciate subjectively the objectivity of the divine epiphany in Jesus Christ is not the same as the intellectual light in which the mind makes natural judgments — even though both of these kinds of illumination are given by God. Despite his dislike of the bloodless abstractions of Transcendental Thomism, Balthasar uses a formula of the sort such Thomism borrowed from Kant so that he can underline the difference he sees here.

In his epistemological writings, Kant had used the Latin logical term `a priori’ to refer to the way human understanding is structured in advance as it comes to scan the materials of experience. Using this same terminology, it is of great importance to Balthasar to grasp the distinction between what he terms the `religious a priori’ in our ordinary human experience and the ‘theological a priori’ in our distinctively Christian experience.

Let us take the religious a priori first. The religious a priori is our natural participation in the light of God as Creator. That prior structure of human awareness is `transcendental’ in the sense of the word proper to Kant and the — in Kantian perspective, rightly so named — `Transcendental’ Thomists.

This sense of the word should be carefully distinguished, then, from the meaning given it by the high medievals (see Chapter One of this study, and especially note 2) in whose company Balthasar was more at home.) The religious a priori is the `transcendental’ presupposition of the objective vision we can entertain of the divine reality in, and on the occasion of, the natural forms of creation. It is the source of religious experience in general, and includes an intuition of the absence as well as the presence of God in all contingent being which, of course, as contingent, finite, imperfect feet, can never entirely mediate the God who is absolute, infinite, perfect. This is how human beings produce symbols and construct myths about the `What’ and the `Who’ lying beyond all creation. The religious a priori is the source of mytho-poetic thought in all cultures and periods.

How, then, does the theological a priori come in? By way of contrast, might be Balthasar’s best answer. By contrast with the religious a priori, the theological a priori, while taking the religious a priori for granted, differs from it in being distinctively Christological and Trinitarian in character. It is what enables our response to the new light of Christ granting human beings as this does a participation in the uncreated light of the Holy Trinity. The theological a priori is the `transcendental’ presupposition of our sharing in the inner life of the Trinity through Jesus Christ on the basis of a connaturality with the divine Persons given by the Mediator, the God-man, when he took what was ours (namely, humanity), so as to give us a share in what is his (namely, divinity). Amazingly, it becomes second nature to us (hence, `connaturality’) to be, through Christ, in tune with the triune God.

In sum: the religious a priori enables us to perceive the objective light of the Creator in the forms of the creation, whereas the theological a priori enables us to perceive the objective light of the Trinity in the historical form of Jesus Christ. This second `transcendental’ structure is not inbuilt at creation, it is a matter, rather, of God’s `second’ gift, in a new order of the divine generosity. Entirely gratuitous, it is a fresh gift of a connaturality with the divine that goes beyond our natural imagehood of God.

It brings about what Balthasar terms a new `proportionality’ between man and the divine Trinity – something that can in no way be inferred from the nature of the human spirit, not even in the dynamic orientation to God creation confers upon us. The theological a priori concerns itself with the distinctively Christian experience as irreducible to any other, no matter how religious.

The manner of expression shaped by the theological a priori may draw on genres known to `religious man’ at large — but what is done with them through the Gospel differs utterly. Myth is now actualized. In the bodily Resurrection of the incarnate humanity of the Word, the literal and particular are carried into the vertical transcendent realm in a final and eternal manner. The symbol takes root in the reality of ever-lasting being.

The images used in biblical revelation may have affinities with those the mythopoeic imagination uses in this or that extra-biblical culture to express its sense of the Eternal. The shapes of human imagining are not, indeed, to be expunged. Rather, the forms of natural, man-generated, aesthetic, if they admit the Christ-form, will be given a transcendent relation to the supernatural. In his study Science, Religion and Christianity, Balthasar praises Baroque literature and art for having so imaginatively played out the realization of the figures of Greek myth — Orpheus, Odysseus, Eros — in the person of the historic Christ.

As C. S. Lewis liked to remark, myth has become fact. Or, as Balthasar puts it, the truth of Jesus Christ is found at the point where what he calls, in the metaphysics volume of his Theo-aesthetics, the `two piers’ of myth and philosophy can finally be made to form an entire bridge. Myth tries to make sense of the world through concrete images. Philosophy tries to make sense of the world through articulating universal truth. They reach out towards each other, but never quite meet.

The ineluctable growth of the philosophic impulse pushed myth toward the periphery of the human imagination. Myth continued to exist but without philosophy it became increasingly enclosed in gnostic fantasy. Philosophy then became cut off from doxology and prayer which had been instinctive for myth, and its concept of human reason narrowed. When the religious a priori gives way to the theological a priori these ills can be healed, this rupture in humanity’s quest for a truth that would also be beauty repaired.

We have here one major source of Balthasar’s disagreement with the approach of his erstwhile fellow Jesuit, Karl Rahner. To Balthasar’s mind, Rahner made a great mistake in blocking together the theological a priori with its merely religious counterpart. Rahner’s vocabulary is partly the same and partly different, which could make comparison confusing. But the upshot is that Rahner tends to treat the Trinitarian and Christological revelation as simply the fullest (in Rahner’s word) ‘thematization’ or conscious, explicit articulation of a piety which is itself not yet `thematic’ — not consciously, explicitly articulated — but, at least in principle, pre-contains the content of the supreme revelation since our intellectual nature is turned towards the human-divine encounter, without our being aware of it, from the very start.

For Balthasar, this renders the given, historic revelation vulnerable to what some would frankly call ‘demythologizing’ and others, more politely, `resolution into its transcendental formality’. It seems to come down to much the same thing. (This is the argument of Balthasar’s little polemical work Cordula, translated into English as The Moment of Christian Witness) What Balthasar objects to in Rahner’s theology of faith is that it fails to derive faith from the form of Christ. Christ’s form does not verify itself (as it should) by virtue of the unique evidence contained in its amazing and unexpected beauty.

Instead, it commends itself by its ability to satisfy, especially on the level of the understanding, a drive towards transcendence already entirely operative in peoples’ lives (so no great surprise is involved). Balthasar sees Rahner as, so to speak, almost half way down the road to Rudolph Bultmann, for whom God cannot be known objectively in the image of Christ but only non-objectively as the condition of possibility for the human self-understanding that occurs on the occasion of hearing the Gospel of Christ.59

Balthasar shows his forthright commitment to the Christian revelation in its irreducibly specific pattern when he insists that, in collaboration with this inner grace, the form of Christ makes for a new revelation with its own evidence which no insight into the dynamism of the human spirit in its tendency towards God can either anticipate in advance or verify in retrospect. There is in fact no need at all in man that can explain or authenticate the words and deeds of Christ. Only Christ’s form makes those words and deeds lucidly plain. The `a posteriori’, historical, evidence of that form is what founds Christian faith, not some `a priori’, ahistorical state of affairs which has come into consciousness for this or that individual through prompting by the general a posteriori experience.

In any case, what human expectation could envisage a triune, totally self-sufficient Creator becoming man in a tiny speck of dust somewhere in the universe .end presenting his own extremity of humiliation, suffering — both physical and spiritual — and substitutionary death as the very form of life for all mankind? This rhetorical question identifies Balthasar’s most basic theological conviction. Nowhere else but in the historical form of Jesus could anyone find the evidence to verify so extravagantly wasteful a love on the side of divinity and so utterly devastating a burden on the side of humanity.

As Balthasar puts it in his theology of the Easter Triduum, no human evolution, hope or desire can unite the Hellish destruction of Good Friday with the splendid affirmation of Easter Sunday.6° Only Jesus’ form can verify a triune God who knows no need to subject himself to such horrors and yet in his total freedom does so. The evidence of the form of Christ is thus akin, Balthasar argues, to that of an artistic masterpiece. This form knows no external necessity in either divine or human reality, yet once we apprehend it we see that it `must’ be as it is.

Balthasar stresses the rupture and transformation that Christian conversion entails. Pace Rahner, it is not simply a matter of one who is already an anonymous Christian becoming so openly by name. For the Old Testament, as the Book of Exodus testifies, human beings were told by God, `Man shall not see me and live’. The New Testament fulfils this. We died to ourselves in God when we were converted to Christ and then we were brought to life again.

In Jesus, the believer has for the first time seen God. It follows that what is incomprehensible in God no longer proceeds from mere ignorance. Rather is it the daunting, stupefying incomprehensibility of the fact that God so loved the world as to give his only Son. The God of all plenitude lowered himself not only by entering his creation as a creature but by entering it in the conditions of an existence determined by sin, destined for death, removed from God. Such was his amazing grace.


Balthasar and the Beautiful 1 –Aidan Nichols, OP

February 3, 2014


Hans Urs von Balthasar was considered to be one of the most important Catholic writers and theologians of the twentieth century. His works include over one hundred books and articles. He was devoted to addressing spiritual and practical issues of his time and resisted reductionism and the human focus of modernity, wanting Christians to challenge modern and philosophical assumptions. Balthasar is most famously known for his sixteen-volume systematic theology which is divided into three parts: The Glory of the Lord, Theo-Drama, and Theo-Logic. The Glory of the Lord, the seven-volume work on theological aesthetics, introduces theology based on the contemplation of the good, beautiful, and true. The second part of the trilogy, the five-volume Theo-Drama, focuses on theodramatics, the actions of God and our human response. Balthasar particularly focuses on the events of Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday. His soteriology, Christology, and eschatology are also developed in this series. The trilogy is completed with the three-volume Theo-Logic. Here, Balthasar describes the relation of the nature of Jesus Christ (Christology) to reality itself (ontology). Finally, in Epilogue Balthasar brings together the three parts of his trilogy by providing an overview and analysis of the preceeding 15 volumes. The Hans Urs von Balthasar Collection is sure to bring you insight, whether you’re wanting to discover new theological ideas or are seeking a deeper understanding of Christology, eschatology, Mariology, soteriology, and ontology.

Hans Urs von Balthasar was considered to be one of the most important Catholic writers and theologians of the twentieth century. His works include over one hundred books and articles. He was devoted to addressing spiritual and practical issues of his time and resisted reductionism and the human focus of modernity, wanting Christians to challenge modern and philosophical assumptions. Balthasar is most famously known for his sixteen-volume systematic theology which is divided into three parts: The Glory of the Lord, Theo-Drama, and Theo-Logic. The Glory of the Lord, the seven-volume work on theological aesthetics, introduces theology based on the contemplation of the good, beautiful, and true. The second part of the trilogy, the five-volume Theo-Drama, focuses on theodramatics, the actions of God and our human response. Balthasar particularly focuses on the events of Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday. His soteriology, Christology, and eschatology are also developed in this series. The trilogy is completed with the three-volume Theo-Logic. Here, Balthasar describes the relation of the nature of Jesus Christ (Christology) to reality itself (ontology). Finally, in Epilogue Balthasar brings together the three parts of his trilogy by providing an overview and analysis of the preceeding 15 volumes. The Hans Urs von Balthasar Collection is sure to bring you insight, whether you’re wanting to discover new theological ideas or are seeking a deeper understanding of Christology, eschatology, Mariology, soteriology, and ontology.

John Christopher “Aidan” Nichols OP (born 17 September 1948) is an academic and Catholic priest. Nichols served as the first John Paul II Memorial Visiting Lecturer at the University of Oxford for 2006 to 2008, the first lectureship of Catholic theology at that university since the Reformation. He is a member of the Order of Preachers (Dominicans) and was formerly the Prior of St Michael and All Angels in Cambridge. Nichols began his academic work in the Russian theological tradition and has written on many figures including Sergei Bulgakov. However he is best known for his work on Hans Urs von Balthasar, publishing three analytic volumes on von Balthasar’s famous trilogy: The Word Has Been Abroad: A Guide Through Balthasar’s Aesthetics (1998) , No Bloodless Myth: A Guide Through Balthasar’s Dramatics (2000)   and Say It Is Pentecost: A Guide Through Balthasar’s Logic (2001).  He was also one of the contributors to the Cambridge Companion to Hans Urs von Balthasar (2004) . The following is taken from a chapter on a much shorter work concerning Beauty, Goodness and Truth in Balthazar’s thought.


The Place Of Beauty
Balthasar was deeply opposed to the separation of the beautiful from the true and the good. The idea of beauty, he lamented, has been reduced to that of a merely this-worldly aesthetics, with baleful consequences for Christian faith and morals. Beauty’s separation from the other transcendentals, and the consequent rise of what Balthasar terms the ‘aestheticisation’ of the beautiful, is at least partly responsible, he thinks, for the inability of people to pray and contemplate.

The notion of the sheer beauty of the divine Being has disappeared. The severance of beauty from goodness and truth also helps to explain the perceived reduction of the moral order to a self-centered relativism, and the retrenchment of the metaphysical order to a materialism placed at the service of either technology or psychology or both. The final upshot of all this, he predicts, will be incapacity for either faith or love.

Unfashionably, Balthasar holds that, in the modern Western epoch, the Church has become the guardian of metaphysics. We live in a period when `things are deprived of the splendor reflected from eternity’. In our time, only an orthodox Christian mind and heart can bridge the gap between, on the one hand, an acosmic spirituality — a religiosity concerned merely with salvation in some other realm, private, interior, extra-mundane, and, on the other hand, a present world consigned to domination by positivists for whom all that exists is only organized matter.

Revelation can be a therapy for a metaphysical malaise that has, at the moment, no other medicine available. Tutored by revelation, the orthodox believer can show people how once again to experience the cosmos as what Balthasar terms `the revelation of an infinity of grace and love’. In the course of the eighty or one hundred years before Balthasar was writing, imaginative writers like Gerard Manley Hopkins, in England, and, in France, Paul Claudel and Charles Peguy managed precisely this, as had in Austria, qua composer of music, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart a century before them. They showed it was possible.

And so they gave us marching orders for what we in our turn should be doing — `all proportions guarded’, as the French say, not all of us can be great creative artists — as Christians who reflect on the revelation given them and wish to apply its benefits to the surrounding culture.

More widely, in Balthasar’s analysis, there must be a reunion of philosophy and theology, and, within theology, a reunion of spirituality and dogmatic thought, if there is to be for Western man — who is now for many purposes global man — a recovery of the sense of the integrity of being, in its co-constitutive transcendent and immanent dimensions. Thus in the first part of his trilogy, which he called a `theological aesthetics’, Balthasar sets himself the task of trying to perceive the objective form of revelation, in creation and in Jesus Christ, in all its splendid, harmonious and symphonic fullness.

What Are `Theological Aesthetics’?
What, then, does Balthasar mean by `theological aesthetics’? It is important to get clear from the outset that he does not intend to confine himself to a consideration of the beauty of the created world — whether, with antiquity, we have in mind there the harmony of the cosmic order, or whether, in the spirit of European Romanticism, we are more struck by the terrible but wonderful power of nature. Without excluding such considerations, the defining question of theological aesthetics goes beyond them — as it must if it is to include in its purview not only creation but salvation. For Balthasar, that defining question runs: How can the revelation of God’s sovereign grace be perceived in the world?

In his use of the phrase `theological aesthetics’, Balthasar gives the `aesthetics’ component two co-essential meanings. The first of these is indebted to Immanuel Kant, who used the word frequently enough in his Critique of Judgment, which is itself an essay in philosophical aesthetics albeit of the limited sort that Kant, on his own presuppositions in epistemology and ontology, felt able to write. `Aesthetics’ considers the part played at the higher levels of our experience by the human senses, of which sight has often been singled out as the most noble. So `theological aesthetics’ will consider the part played by the senses — with their associated powers of memory and imagination — in the awareness of God.

Balthasar invokes this meaning of the phrase in relation to, above all, the series of revelatory events and processes which culminated in the appearance of Christ. In Christ, his eternal Word or Son now come on earth, God made himself — as the First Letter of St John insists — a sensuous Object, being seen, heard, touched. Indeed, thanks to the assumption of human nature by the Logos at the Incarnation, a woman (we call her, accordingly, the Theotokos, the ‘God-bearer’) felt him growing in her body.

In the opening volume of The Glory of the Lord, Balthasar stresses the way the divine ‘form’ that is made available to human perception in Jesus Christ is mediated by the historical record (the Gospels and other New Testament writings), but also by the Liturgy and Christian experience. In various ways, a number of which he explores, the human imagination has been seized by this central figure of revelation — this (in Latin) figura, this (in German) Gestalt, this (in both English and German) F/form, which is close enough to another Latin word for it: forma.

Still on the first meaning of the phrase ‘theological aesthetics’: when Balthasar embarked on this project, many readers seemed to have had difficulty in getting hold of what he was saying. But really, his concept of the aesthetic perception should not perplex a readership in any way familiar with the res Christiana, ‘the Christian thing’. Take, for example, what G. K. Chesterton has to say on the subject in his celebrated came to study St Thomas Aquinas. In the passage I have in mind, he is talking about the difference the Incarnation makes, or should make, to the way we evaluate the importance of the senses. In Christian theology, wrote Chesterton

[It]here really was a new reason for regarding the senses, and the sensations of the body, and the experiences of the common man, with a reverence at which great Aristotle would have stared, and no man in the ancient world could have begun to understand. The Body was no longer what it was when Plato and Porphyry and the old mystics had left it for dead. It had hung upon a gibbet. It had risen from a tomb. It was no longer possible for the soul to despise the senses, which had been the organs of something that was more than man. Plato might despise the flesh but God had not despised it. The senses had truly become sanctified; as they are blessed one by one at a Catholic baptism. ‘Seeing is believing’ was no longer the platitude of a mere idiot, or common individual, as in Plato’s world; it was mixed up with real conditions of real belief.
G.K. Chesterton, St. Thomas Aquinas27

So much, then, for the first meaning of `aesthetics’ in the term ‘theological aesthetics’: it signifies, quite simply, having to do with the senses.

The second way in which Balthasar uses the term `theological aesthetics’ is to denote a study of beauty — more especially an account of beauty as a transcendental determination of being, and most especially of all an exploration of the revealed cone-late of beauty which is, so Balthasar held, the glory of God.

Not all the Scholastics had treated pulchrum, `the beautiful’, explicitly as a transcendental, but the conviction gradually settled on the Thomist school that it is –just as much as truth and goodness or the remaining transcendental which Balthasar never used to structure a distinct theological treatise: unity. Thus for a mid-twentieth century Thomist, Jacques Maritain, beauty is the `splendor of being and of all the transcendentals re-united.’

On this presupposition, we might describe beautifully former objects as in-gatherings and out-pouring of that `splendor’. In Balthasar’s case, the most important of the key terms in the first use of `aesthetics’, namely `form’, recurs in the second way Balthasar uses the term. Form is just as important to an understanding of beauty as it is to an account of how reality is presented to us by the senses.

Again, some people confess themselves bemused by what Balthasar means by the word `form’, which owes something to Goethe but rather more to Aquinas. But here, once more, is what Chesterton had to say in his little book on St Thomas:

‘Formal’ in Thomist language means actual or possessing the real decisive quality that makes a thing itself Roughly, when [Thomas] describes a thing as made out of Form and Matter, he very rightly recognizes that Matter is the more mysterious and indefinite and featureless element; and that what stamps anything with its identity is its Form.

And Chesterton goes on to say in this same passage:

Every artist knows that the form is not superficial but fundamental; that the form is the foundation. Every sculptor knows that the form of the statue is not the outside of the statue, but rather the inside of the statue; even in the sense of the inside of the sculptor. Every poet knows that the sonnet form is not only the form of the poem, but the poem.

And Chesterton concludes, rather peremptorily perhaps:

No modern critic who does not understand what the mediaeval Schoolman meant by form can meet the mediaeval Schoolman as an intellectual equal.”

Like Chesterton and indeed Maritain, Balthasar is thinking of natural forms as well as humanly shaped ones. A relatively straightforward summary of what he has in mind might run something like this. The perceptible form of an object is the expression, under particular conditions, of its metaphysical form — its essence or nature. We are glad when a perceptual form is rich, clear, and expressive because we feel that it lays open the object to us, even though we may also feel there is more in the thing’s nature than appears in this or that single expression.

From here we can go one step further. Something’s nature, surely, is itself one expression of the inherent possibilities of being at large. So when, in appreciating the clear, rich, expressive sensuous form, we also look through it to the nature of the thing in question, through that again we look to what one student of Balthasar’s aesthetics has called `the vast ocean of formal fertility which is the mystery of being’. The form of a thing may tell us more than just about itself. It may also tell us something about the world in which it is situated, about the universe.

The clarity of form in Balthasar’s aesthetics can usefully be contrasted with Descartes’ equally strong emphasis on `clarity’ in his philosophy of mind. Descartes was in love with what he called `clear and distinct ideas’. Balthasar’s concept of clarity, however, is taken from Thomas, for whom clarity — radiance — is one of the essential traits of the beautiful, along with proportion and integrity.

This is a very different sort of `brightness’. The brightness of the beautiful is something that overwhelms us, impelling us and enabling us to enter further into the depths of being than the unaided intelligence can venture. And whereas the Cartesian `idea’ is, in Scholastic terms, an intuited potential essence — something that may or may not be the case about the world, the Thomistic `radiance’ is expressed by a form actually enacting its own existence, its being-in-act.

We could explain the meaning of the second component in ‘theological aesthetics’ as an intersection of two axes: `vertical’ and `horizontal’ (not exactly exhilarating language, but it is handy). For Balthasar, the dimensions of the beautiful are ‘vertically’, an infinite depth of splendor, which, `horizontally’, is expressed in a materially graspable extension of form. The beautiful unifies — on the one hand — the definitely shaped form of something present, something on which the mind can come to rest, with — on the other hand — an endless sea of radiant intelligibility in which the mind can move without limitation. The beautiful is, as he would put it, the meeting-place of finite form with infinite light.

Balthasar seems to expand the Scholastic teaching on pulchrum by marrying it with the notion of the `sublime’, an idea the late-eighteenth-century Romantic authors found, or thought they found, in the ancients. The sublime reminds people that ontological beauty is a mystery whose inner momentum can never fully be grasped.” Unlike the Romantics, however, Balthasar is always careful not to allow `sublimity’ to dissolve forms into a general sea of being, where objects lose their outlines and coalesce.


Hans Ur von Balthazar’s Objective Evidence 3 – Fr. Aidan Nichols O.P.

December 11, 2013
In 1600, soon after he had completed the first two canvases for the Contarelli Chapel, Caravaggio signed a contract to paint two pictures for the Cerasi Chapel in Santa Maria del Popolo. Caravaggio depicted key events in the lives of Sts Peter and Paul, the founders of the Roman See: The Crucifixion of St Peter and The Conversion on the Way to Damascus. The church has a special interest because of the works it contains by four of the finest artists ever to work in Rome: Raphael, Carracci, Caravaggio and Bernini.

In 1600, soon after he had completed the first two canvases for the Contarelli Chapel, Caravaggio signed a contract to paint two pictures for the Cerasi Chapel in Santa Maria del Popolo. Caravaggio depicted key events in the lives of Sts Peter and Paul, the founders of the Roman See: The Crucifixion of St Peter and The Conversion on the Way to Damascus. The church has a special interest because of the works it contains by four of the finest artists ever to work in Rome: Raphael, Carracci, Caravaggio and Bernini.

The third in a series from a chapter in Fr. Nichol’s introduction to the Hans Ur von Balthazar’s Aesthetics, The Word Has Been Abroad.


Despite all that has been said so far about the hiddenness which hangs about the revelatory form, the dialectic of revelation and concealment is basically resolved in favor of revelation, for the hiddenness is now not the non-appearing depth of the being revealed, but the overwhelmingness of its totally open disclosure.

God’s incomprehensibility is now no longer a mere deficiency in knowledge but the positive manner in which God determines the knowledge of faith: this is the overpowering and overwhelming inconceivability of the fact that God has loved us so much that he surrendered his only Son for us, the fact that the God of plenitude has poured himself out, not only into creation, but emptied himself into the modalities of an existence determined by sin, corrupted by death and alienated from God. This [alone] is the concealment that appears in his self-revelation.
[Glory of the Lord I, p. 461]

Jesus Christ Himself As Centre Of The Form
Which seems a good point at which to move onto Christ as the centre or mid-point of the revelatory form. Here Balthasar discusses such themes as the plausibility of the Christ-form, its measure and quality, power and uniqueness, and how its rejection or misapprehension can be explained theologically. Essentially, this section of the theological aesthetics is Balthasar’s engagement with other, conflicting Christologies; it contains some of his sharpest writing in this otherwise serene if passionate work, and notably his most acerbic remarks about the contemporary critical study of the Gospels.

For Balthasar Christ is the centre of the form of revelation: that is, he alone makes the total form of supernatural revelation coherent and comprehensible. The plausibility of Christianity stands or falls with Jesus Christ. To support such an edifice the foundation must be indestructibly solid: it cannot deal in mere probabilities, or in subjective evidence alone.

Despite the richness of his doctrine of the subjective evidence for revelation, here Balthazar is firm. The subjective conditions for the possibility of seeing an object for what it is must not be allowed to intrude on the description of that object’s intrinsic authority — in Balthazar’s terms the constitution of its ‘objective evidence’.

Even the scholastic axiom that ‘whatever is received is received according to the mode of the receiver’ is to be brushed aside in this context along with those of its modern variants which would have it that the object in question requires a categorical or existential prior understanding, some idea or some felt human need to which it can correspond. For, in a most important programmatic statement:

if Christ is what he claims to be, then he cannot be so dependent on subjective conditions as to be hindered by them from making himself wholly understandable to man nor, contrariwise, can man, without his grace, supply the sufficient conditions of receiving him with full understanding.”
[Glory of the Lord I, p. 465]

Here hermeneutics, whether cultural or philosophical, are sent packing, on the grounds that One who is both God and man cannot but draw what is universally valid in human life and thought to himself. Balthazar’s aesthetic Christology will consist in bringing out the form and content of Christ’s revelation as the New Testament presents it.

In the last analysis, Christ is the all-important form because he is the all-sufficient content, the only Son of the Father. The aim will be, first, to show the interior rightness and intrinsic power of this form — as we might ascribe that to a sovereign work of art or a mathematical formula of extraordinary precision as well is beauty, and secondly, to point up its power to transform all existence by its light.

Balthazar’s essential objection to much modern Gospel study is that by, for instance, bracketing the Trinitarian dimension of the unfolding form of the Redeemer, or its issue in the bodily resurrection, or by decomposing that form into, on the one hand, a Jesus of history and, on the other, a Christ of faith, it renders the rest of the New Testament – beyond the Gospels — unintelligible. As he remarks, each element is ‘plausible only within the wholeness of the image’. [Glory of the Lord I, p. 467]

And here, so as not to anticipate excessively the fuller Christological exposition of the final volume of Herrlichkeit, I shall simply sketch some of the aspects of the Christ-form which Balthasar regards as foundational. Under ‘measure and form’, for instance, he deals with the perfect concordance between Christ’s mission and his existence, something which is, he shows, not merely a Johannine theologoumenon but a given of the Synoptic tradition for which Jesus identified his existence with his divine mandate — which explains why without hesitation he could throw that existence onto the weighing-scales of history.

Moreover, as the identity between the divine demand and the human fulfillment he is the measure, the norm of right relations, first with God and then, since God wills it so, with neighbor: thus the Pauline identification of Jesus as the ‘righteousness of God’ is but the re-expression of the Synoptic testimony of how he claimed for himself an authoritative power, manifest according to his hearers in his words, and sovereignly communicated to his followers.

Punning on the German words for ‘to tune’ and ‘to be in tune’ as well as for a ‘pitch’ of music or of mood, and hence in the latter case, for ‘disposition’, as well as ‘harmony’ and ‘concordance’ — here Balthasar’s study of the Swiss Romantic theologian Gugler has stood him in good stead, he draws the theologically aesthetic conclusion that, by transference into the kingdom of the Word’s marvelous light ‘we already participate in the sphere where things are fundamentally right and attuned and where, therefore, if we so will it, things can be similarly right for us as well’. And, reverting to the language of measure, while addressing the issue of Jesus and his community, he writes:

With the appearance of Christ, the Church is already posited: that is to say, his appearance is the measure which God applies to the world, the measure God has already communicated to the world, bestowed on the world, as a measure of grace and not of judgment, as a freely conferred measure which no one can arrogate to himself but which is given in such a way that anyone so desiring can take it to himself.
[Glory of the Lord I, p. 478]

According to Balthasar anyone with an ‘eye for quality’ can see the difference in this phenomenon as it unfolds. He notes, with Pascal, how the evidential power of this form does no violence to personal freedom and decision: since love is its content, it cannot impose but only testify to its own authenticity – this is where Balthasar locates the Marcan messianic secret and the Johannine hidden glory. He records the inner harmony of the form: no mistake in its construction or proportions is discernible.

The interrelatedness of the different aspects is such that, while each aspect, taken in isolation, could be considered questionable, nonetheless the balance that dominates the whole does not allow the definitive elimination of any one aspect
[Glory of the Lord I, p. 486]

This interdependence of aspects of the Four Gospels as, in their convergent totality, they left the hands of their final redactors, though frequently denied by historical-critical exegesis, accounts for the fascination of the Christ-form not only to ecclesial contemplation but also to academic exegesis itself which — Balthasar cunningly remarks — cannot turn away from its object even as it fiercely disputes it.

The complexity of this form does not, however, overthrow its unity, though Christ’s particular kind of unity requires a glance that traces a course back into the very mystery of God’, since he is both himself and another — the divine being. In the mystery of divine freedom, as in that of art, a supreme freedom can coincide with a perfect obedience or necessity. An aria by Mozart could hardly be other than it is, yet it has all of Schiller’s definition of beauty as erscheinende Freiheit, ‘freedom appearing’.

Balthasar links such ‘necessary freedom’ to what he terms the effortlessness of Jesus’ self-representation, his simplicity. It is a simplicity sought for by all the religions of Asia but never found by them since — disastrously — they seek it in technique as well as — fatally — aiming at God through bypassing man. In contrast, Christ’s simplicity is a lived sharing in the divine simplicity, from a centre (Balthasar is referring to the hypostatic union) where the duality of God and man is bridged and God’s Word has become indistinguishable from its human expression.

All of this makes the form of Christ both inherently powerful and unique. We sometimes note of a great work of art its power to touch and even alter the lives of those who come into contact with it. Such power, duanamis, Paul ascribes to Christ not only in his resurrection but also — already — in his cross. Taken by itself, the image of Christ would remain merely two-dimensional.

Only the power which the New Testament goes on to identify as ‘Holy Spirit’ gives that image plasticity and vitality so that it can form, transform, the lives of believers. Even if it is only in the Spirit of the resurrection and Pentecost that Jesus becomes Lord, as the Spirit bestows on form and on the gospel an interior vitality — the intrinsic power these need if they are to impress themselves (whether on the individual disciple in justification or on the apostolic preaching itself), nonetheless this same Spirit proceeds from Christ.

He is the dynamism which Christ radiates. Included in the objective evidence for revelatory form is, therefore, the existence of the Christian saints, for their enthusiasm — and here Balthasar distances himself from Ronald Knox’s pejorative use of that term in the history of spirituality — constitutes a precise response to the precision of the image of Jesus drawn by the Spirit.

But this form is not only powerful. It is also unique. Jesus escapes classification by any typology known to comparative religion, religious phenomenology or cultural anthropology. He differs from other religious founders who proposed to reveal a way by declaring himself to be the way, identifying himself with the ‘myth’ of the sacrificed but fructifying grain which he preaches. Whereas they underwent experiences of conversion, enlightenment, rapture, his teaching is identified with his entire existence. He achieves no divine apotheosis through the successful crowning of a human drama, but the drama of his human dissolution becomes the revelation of divine love.

In contrast to the other schemes of salvation on offer, he neither negates the being of the world for the sake of divine being nor restores some divine primordial principle of worldly being now obscured; instead he negates the decadent mode of the world’s existence in its alienation from God, lifting it up through the exercise of his sacrificial charity — thus simultaneously recognizing both the foundational goodness of created being and its radical need of redemption.

In disclosing the mystery of the Trinity, and its indissoluble yet unconfused union with humanity in his own person, he also solves the central problem of religious metaphysics, that problem of the One and the Many which has defeated all other religions, constrained as they are to remain midway between the One and the Many, as with Islam, or to abolish the Many for the sake of One, as in Asiatic mysticism, or to incorporate the One into the Many as in polytheism and pantheism.

At the same time, the Christ-form is not unique in such a fashion that it appears as a bolt from the blue, unrelated to all about it. On the contrary, it is related, through the Old Testament, to the treasury of natural religious forms found it human experience, related, then, to an overall order of which, however, it does not itself form part. Its uniqueness is all the more striking for being set within a general historical determinateness, and as Balthasar points out:

By fulfilling in himself Israel’s message of promise, Christ at the same time makes historical contact, through Israel, with mankind’s religious forms, and in this way, too, he fulfills not only Israel’s expectation but the longing of all peoples.
[Glory of the Lord I, p. 498]

His form relates to itself ‘as the ultimate centre the comparative unique­ness of all other forms and images of the world’, whatever their source.

By now enough has been said to indicate how the misapprehension – the mistaking — of this form is feasible. As Balthasar puts it; ‘A whole symphony cannot be recorded on a tape that is too short.’ The ‘shortness’ may lie in our not making sufficient space for God’s almightiness, the range of his possibilities. It may lie in a premature decision not to attend to certain of the Christ-form’s interdependent parts (for Balthasar, heresy is the ‘selective disjoining of parts’). Or it may lie in erecting a screen which foreshortens the image cast by the divine Glory, owing to some prior methodological, conceptual or historic-religious commitment, or any combination thereof.

And behind all of these things there lies the mystery of iniquity, the ‘darkness which does not see, recognize or receive the Light’. The tone of the preacher, never wholly silent in Balthasar’s theology, returns with peculiar vigour at the close of his account of the objective revelatory form when he delineates, in conclusion, the figure of the apostate.

Through and through he remains branded by the image he rejects: with terrible power this image leaves its imprint on his whole existence, which blazes brilliantly in the fire of denial. Wherever the fugitive may turn his glance he is met by the ‘eyes like flames of fire’, he hears the ‘voice like the roar of mighty waters’, he feels the ‘sharp two-edged sword from his mouth’, and he hides in vain from the ‘face like the sun blazing with full strength’. (Apocalypse. I:14ff.)
[Glory of the Lord I, p. 4524-525]


Hans Ur von Balthazar’s Objective Evidence 2 – Fr. Aidan Nichols O.P.

December 10, 2013
The Triumph of Galatea is a fresco masterpiece completed about 1514 by the Italian painter Raphael for the Villa Farnesina in Rome. Raphael did not paint any of the main events of the story. He chose the scene of the nymph's apotheosis (Stanze, I, 118-119). Galatea appears surrounded by other sea creatures whose forms are somewhat inspired by Michelangelo, whereas the bright colors and decoration are supposed to be inspired by ancient Roman painting. At the left, a Triton (partly man, partly fish) abducts a sea nymph; behind them, another Triton uses a shell as a trumpet. Galatea rides a shell-chariot drawn by two dolphins. While some have seen in the model for Galatea the image of the courtesan, Imperia, Agostino Chigi's lover and Raphael's near-contemporary; Giorgio Vasari, wrote that Raphael did not mean for Galatea to resemble any one human person, but to represent ideal beauty. When asked where he had found a model of such beauty, Raphael reportedly said that he had used "a certain idea" he had formed in his mind.

The Triumph of Galatea is a fresco masterpiece completed about 1514 by the Italian painter Raphael for the Villa Farnesina in Rome. Raphael did not paint any of the main events of the story. He chose the scene of the nymph’s apotheosis (Stanze, I, 118-119). Galatea appears surrounded by other sea creatures whose forms are somewhat inspired by Michelangelo, whereas the bright colors and decoration are supposed to be inspired by ancient Roman painting. At the left, a Triton (partly man, partly fish) abducts a sea nymph; behind them, another Triton uses a shell as a trumpet. Galatea rides a shell-chariot drawn by two dolphins. While some have seen in the model for Galatea the image of the courtesan, Imperia, Agostino Chigi’s lover and Raphael’s near-contemporary; Giorgio Vasari, wrote that Raphael did not mean for Galatea to resemble any one human person, but to represent ideal beauty. When asked where he had found a model of such beauty, Raphael reportedly said that he had used “a certain idea” he had formed in his mind.

The second in a series from a chapter in Fr. Nichol’s introduction to the Hans Ur von Balthazar’s Aesthetics, The Word Has Been Abroad.


Yesterday’s post left off with the important corollary to Balthazar’s claim that revelation is necessarily revelation in hiddenness for the simple reason that it is a revelation in being. All knowledge, and not just the knowledge of salvation, begins with a kind of ‘natural faith’.

For the early apologist, Theophilus of Antioch, all human conduct depends on a certain trusting faith both in nature and in Providence. Similarly, against Eunomius, the Cappadocian Fathers argued that even the tiniest creature can be grasped only through its utterances, so hidden is even creaturely ousia. The conclusion is, in Balthasar’s words, that ‘a “supernatural” piety, ordered to God’s historical revelation, cannot be such unless it is mediated by a “natural” piety, which at this level presupposes and includes a “piety of nature” and a “piety of Being,” [Glory of the Lord I, p. 447] The critical history of metaphysics in volumes 4 and 5 of the theological aesthetics will bring this out.

But we still have to consider the second and third reasons why revelation is necessarily as much concealment as it is disclosure. The second is that revelation takes place in the Word, the free divine Word, which as such cannot be captured within the net of the created order. As Balthasar puts it: ‘Creaturely beings, thrown into existence, reveal themselves in obedience to a natural necessity; but God creates freely.’ [Glory of the Lord I, p 448] From which he draws the conclusion that while the contingency, the non-necessity, of the world has the positive effect of revealing God as the world’s free Creator, for nothing comes from nothing, by that self-same fact the world’s contingency conceals God more dramatically than it reveals him, since at no point can we make any firm deduction about the final meaning of his unique Essence.

What, then, one might object, becomes of the claim with which Balthasar opened the entire second part of Herrlichkeit I, with the help of Hebrews, that the form of creation is at all times radiant with God’s glory? His reply, along the lines of his earlier attempt to render the teaching of the First Vatican Council on the divine knowability more palatable to Karl Barth, is that

We will never be able to determine exactly the extent to which this splendor, given with creation itself, coincides objectively with what Christian theology calls ‘supernatural revelation’, which, at least for Adam, was not yet a specifically distinct revelation given in the form of words. A distinction is possible only from the standpoint of intention and in this sense the first word was directed to man as a creature that had come forth from God, and the second word addresses him personally as a child of God’s grace and calls him home to the heart of God.
[Glory of the Lord I, p. 449]

Because, then, no creaturely form as such transcribes in straightforward fashion the meaning of God’s sovereignly free Word, a revelation which takes place in that Word must always be to some degree riddling. The revelatory Form will not so much leap to the eye as require strenuous discernment. And because the Word in which it comes to be as form is sovereignly free, the human percipient will not be able to follow the archetype in the image without the willingness to practice obedience. The concept of obedience, drawn from Paul and Ignatius Loyola, [See 'Introduction to Balthasar', above, for the Ignatian dimension.] is crucial to Balthazar’s theology in various of its sectors – not least here where, as he writes:

before [infinite Freedom] created reason must persevere in an attitude of primary obedience that is beyond all demands, longings, enterprises. This is the manner in which God’s Word really touches the creature at the most intimate point of its self-transcending being.
[Glory of the Lord I, p. 456]

- what Paul calls the ‘obedience of faith’ (Romans 1:5).

The third and last reason why the revelatory form will necessarily be a form that hides as well as discloses is that it is a revelation in the human. If man is to become the language of God then the unique will have to appear in the ordinary, the super-significant in the insignificant. By and large, supernatural revelation, the revelation of grace in Old and New Testaments, is not so much the establishment of a new form in the world as it is a new manner of God’s presence in the form of the world.

In the Adamic state, Balthasar speculates, God’s speaking of this message – that man is now called to be the child of the Father – would have come purely through a locutio interna: God’s presence through grace would have resounded unmistakably in the voices of nature and of the heart. It is owing to the deafness of fallen humanity that the locutio Dei becomes a locutio externa, a word spoken from outside, for the Old Covenant in law and prophecy, for the New in the incarnate Word and its prolongation as the Word found in the Church.

There is then a penitential aspect to a revelation made through audible and visible human signs. That is so even though those signs are the outward expression of the interior inspiration of prophets and apostles and notwithstanding too the fact that by means of them God can lead human history, despite its self-inflicted chaos, to an even more wonderful fulfillment than that offered to Adam – by way of the glory that emanates from the sign of the cross.

God’s revelation takes place in man by in the first instance judging man. But that for Balthasar has not only a negative charge; it has a positive one as well. In judgment, God both manifests his sublime transcendence over against all that is worldly and at the same time makes known his immanence within the human which he sets out to fulfill by redirecting humanity to himself.

In conformity with the usual Balthasarian principle that, in divine matters, comparability and incomparability with the world develop in direct proportion to each other: the more God makes known his justice in the saints of Israel (the more, that is, he reveals himself), the more colossally unlike them he shows himself to be (and so the more he hides his face). As Balthasar puts it:

The whole ascending period of God’s revelation in Israel is also the time of an ever greater concealment of God, in spite of the ever greater evidence pointing to a revelation which is truly unique and different from all other religions.
[Glory of the Lord I, p. 452]

And, illustrating this claim from the post-exilic period:

The return which appears to fulfill the promises is everything but fulfillment, and, while interiorly the Holy Spirit is bringing the canon of the Scriptures to maturity, externally the kingdom is disintegrating even before Christ’s coming, so that Yahweh’s faithful ones can understand themselves only as the ‘remnant’ which survives what spiritually has already fallen into decay.
[Glory of the Lord I, p. 455]

The conclusion is that

while he is quite comprehensible in his revelation and even demands the understanding of faith, the God of Israel proves himself in history to be ever more incomprehensible and, as such, he exhibits himself ever more truly as who he is. And only the most living kind of faith, sustained by revelation, is capable of knowing him in precisely this form of revelation as the true and living God
[Glory of the Lord I, p. 456]

This is the pattern which is brought to perfection by the simultaneously consummate revelation-and-concealment of God in the man Jesus. Even without referring as yet to the passion of Christ, the incarnation of the Word – his embodiment as flesh – means the most extreme manifestness of God, for now God is explained to man not chiefly through words or instruction, but through his own being and life. In other words, he interprets himself to man by no other medium than himself.

And yet at the same time, the entry of the Godhead into its human creation is the most complete concealing imaginable. In language drawn, surely, from Kierkegaard’s treatise on The Difference Between a Genius and an Apostle, Balthasar speaks of the Flesh-taking as the ‘translation of God’s absolutely unique, absolute and infinite Being into the ever more dissimilar, almost arbitrary and hopelessly relativized reality of one individual man in the crowd’. [Glory of the Lord I, p. 457]  The hiddenness of this individual lost in history would not be so scandalous as an expression of the Word if it were meant to represent the silence of the Word, God’s sheer concealment from all that is not God. But no, this hiddenness is to be the speech in which God eloquently makes known in a definitive manner what he himself is really like.

For Balthasar none of this is intelligible unless we approach the figure of Christ in a way determined by one ecclesial doctrine – that of the Trinity – and one philosophical doctrine – that of God as, in the fifteenth-century cardinal theologian Nicholas of Cusa’s phrase, the Non-Aliud, the ‘Not Other’, which is the positive aspect of his Being as the ‘wholly Other’, the non-competitiveness implied in his unconditional transcendence.

Readers of the Gospels will soon discover that Jesus was in simultaneous fashion extraordinarily humble and amazingly self-certain, that he was incredibly unassuming yet overwhelmingly exigent in his demands, lamblike in meekness yet leonine in angry zeal. For Balthasar these tensions may reveal polar aspects of Christ’s humanity, but they can be understood, and above all, resolved, only when considered as functions of the Trinitarian dimensions of his being. ‘Although only the Son of God is man, his humanity necessarily becomes the expression of the total triune essence of God; only thus can he be the manifestness of absolute Being.” [Glory of the Lord I, p. 458]

But because the Holy Trinity, as the concrete form of absolute Being, is not in competition with any of the forms internal to its own creation, God in Christ can reveal himself as both God and man — not alternatingly but simultaneously.

These complications of the dialectic of revelation and concealment in the sensory form of the incarnation are intensified, yet also cut through and simplified, by the passion and death of the incarnate one. For now we have to discover in the deformity of Christ, his Ungestalt — the ‘he had no comeliness that we might desire him’ of the Suffering Servant (Isaiah 53:2) — a mystery of Uebergestalt, of transcendental form. His being made sin for us (2 Corinthians 5:21) is, in a key statement of Baltharian theology, ‘understandable only as a function of the glory of love’. Thus precisely in the cross and the descent into darkness we have before us pure glory; the concealment now becomes a function of its opposite, the revelation.

Just as an art redolent of the precarious and fragmentary character of earthly beauty can move us to tears because it awakens in us a kind of eschatological hope, a hope aroused by the promise of splendor it seems to contain, so the form of the Redeemer takes the ways of being of a fallen world onto itself so as by redemptive suffering to give them new and unheard of value. Here, despite all that has been said so far about the hiddenness which hangs about the revelatory form, the dialectic of revelation and concealment is basically resolved in favor of revelation, for the hiddenness is now not the non-appearing depth of the being revealed, but the overwhelmingness of its totally open disclosure.

God’s incomprehensibility is now no longer a mere deficiency in knowledge but the positive manner in which God determines the knowledge of faith: this is the overpowering and overwhelming inconceivability of the fact that God has loved us so much that he surrendered his only Son for us, the fact that the God of plenitude has poured himself out, not only into creation, but emptied himself into the modalities of an existence determined by sin, corrupted by death and alienated from God. This [alone] is the concealment that appears in his self-revelation.
[Glory of the Lord I, p. 461]


Hans Ur von Balthazar’s Objective Evidence 1 – Fr. Aidan Nichols O.P.

December 9, 2013
Balthasar maintains that nature is most fully grasped, not with the combination of observation and quantification of the exact sciences, but by expressly including the dimension of mystery within the act of observing. In such a reading of form the fragment points to the whole.

Balthasar maintains that nature is most fully grasped, not with the combination of observation and quantification of the exact sciences, but by expressly including the dimension of mystery within the act of observing. In such a reading of form the fragment points to the whole.

A chapter from Fr. Nichol’s introduction to the Hans Ur von Balthazar’s Aesthetics, The Word Has Been Abroad.


Revelation In Form
It might be thought entirely obvious that, if one is to have a religious world-view at all then some kind of objective revelatory form — some self-presentation of the divine in terms drawn from the world — is a necessity. And yet, as Balthasar points out, in principle a religious vision or system could dispense with objective revelatory form altogether. If for instance with advaita (non-dual) Hinduism, one considered that ultimately God and self are identical and only apparently separated by veils of illusion which account for the human experience of error, guilt and finitude, then the need for objective revelatory form disappears.

In point of fact, the call for an objective mediation of the divine Spirit, the requirement that revelation be concrete, though it may strike non-Christian or post-Christian readers as quite reasonable (whether they think such a form de facto available to perception or not), depends on presuppositions found within the body of the Church’s dogmata; and notably three which Balthazar now spells out. They are: creation, incarnation and Trinity.

1. The presuppositions of form
First, creation. A world which has been brought into existence gratuitously, as the act of an infinitely free subjectivity, namely God, is not a world where the human religious subject could ever be regarded as self-identical with the divine.
Moreover, because of God’s transcendence )f the world, and so of man, even were God to communicate purely interiorly with the human soul he could not dispense with some kind of spiritual form in which to communicate himself. A totally unmediated self-revelation of God to man is therefore unthinkable. Not that there is my need to think in terms of a purely interior contact between God and man anyway, for as the Creator, God has provided a general revelation of us glory in the creation — however much what Scripture says of him in his context, as, for instance, Paul in Romans, emphasizes the far greater dissimilarity between God and creatures. The glory of God is already seen, in general terms, in the form of the world.

Secondly, the incarnation is precisely the pouring out of God’s glory into the form of the world in one of its principal embodiments, humankind. kind. A form is thus taken up so that God may transfigure the whole of creation. This self-revelation of God in Christ is not a mere prolongation or intensification of the revelation given with the creation. The personal substance of the Father in his Word is now lavished on the world.

And yet, because the creation was from the beginning oriented towards its own supernatural elevation, and because too the incarnation, taken in the fullness of its unfolding, from the annunciation, through the resurrection 10 the parousia, entails the bringing together of everything in heaven and on earth under one divine — human Head, it follows that the self-manifestation of God in Jesus Christ brings the form of the world to its perfection, and in that way uncovers the fullness of its significance for the first time.

Thirdly, the Trinity: the form of the revelation in Christ is perceived as the unsurpassable perfecting of the form of the world only when it comes to be seen, by the eyes of faith, as the appearing of the triune God. What appears in Christ is, for Balthasar, the ‘becoming visible and experience-able’ of the divine Triunity. The glorious, transcendent quality which comes through in the figure of Jesus is not, as Balthasar puts it, the manifestation of a formless divine Infinite, but the ‘appearance of an infinitely determined super-form’.

The Trinity, as the ultimate source of Being, is infinite, yes, but not infinite in the negative Hellenic sense of to apeiron, that which has no boundaries and is therefore formless. God’s infinitude takes the form of the circling intercommunication of Father, Son and Spirit, the expression of which in the creation leads to the indefinite profusion of finite forms we find in the world. Of course what distinguishes the form of Jesus Christ from all other forms is that here, thanks to the hypostatic union, we are not dealing simply with an image produced by the Trinitarian super-form in impressing itself on created being.

For here in the God-man both image and the archetype of the image are available in one single being. The image does not stand over against the archetype, as with all other forms, but is of interest — that is, Jesus’ humanity is of interest — only inasmuch as in this image (and nowhere else) God really portrays himself in the fullness of his inter­personal, yet absolute being — making this form, Jesus Christ, what Balthasar calls

the crowning recapitulation of everything in heaven and on earth [and hence] the form of all forms and the measure of all measures, just as for this reason it is the glory of all glories in creation as well.
The Glory of the Lord, p.432

As the revelation of the free, creating and self-incarnating Triune God, then, revelation necessarily has an ‘objective form’.

Before going on to speak of Jesus Christ as the centre or midpoint of this form (and this is where Balthasar will make it most explicit that he is engaged in a Catholic version of Barth’s Christocentrizing revolu­tion of theology in the Church Dogmatics), a number of broader — and not only profound but also sometimes difficult — points remain to be made more widely on the topic of the Christological character of revelatory form at large.

2. The Christological Character Of Form
To begin with, under the rubric of the form ‘as fact’ Balthasar reminds us of the conclusions he has already reached, with the help of the philosophical concepts outlined in the first volume of his theological logic, on the way Jesus Christ originally strikes us with his revelatory claim. Here he recontextualizes those conclusions by reference to the incarnationalist and ultimately Trinitarian presuppositions which, whether they are adverted to or not, are the source of the insistence that revelation must have objective form, and give such insistence whatever validity it possesses.

Like any wonderful aesthetic form, Jesus is both the sparkling radiance of being, a light, and the imagistic representation of being’s non-apparent depth, a sign. This truth of theological aesthetics in its apologetic mood — that is, in its concern with subjective evidence — can now be re-expressed in dogmatic terms — that is, in terms of the objective revelatory form.

The ‘image and expression of God’ is the ‘indivisible God-man: man, insofar as God radiates from him; God insofar as he appears in the man Jesus.’ [Glory of the Lord I, p. 437] Balthasar offers an extended meditation on the opening text of the Letter to the Hebrews with its contrast of the ‘manifold and fragmentary ways in which God spoke of old to the fathers through the prophets’, and the fashion in which in these last days God has spoken to us by a son who is the ‘heir of all things’, ‘reflecting the glory of God’ and ‘bearing the very stamp of his nature’ (1:2-3).

Since he not only possesses historical facticity, as the human Jesus, linked to his forefathers by the biological and cultural continuum, but is at the same time God’s mighty Word, sustaining all creation, the Son can inherit both the words of the Old Testament and what the Greek Fathers called the logoi of creatures — the intelligibility bestowed on them with their concrete natures by the Creator and which Balthasar prefers to term the ‘individual words of Being’.

Creatures are such words of the Being that flows from God only because of the divine generativity or outgoingness whereby the Father from all eternity produced his essential Word, and similarly, they are a glorious manifestation of God in the creation only because the Word and Son is everlastingly the ‘radiant splendour of [the Father's] glory’ and the ‘im-pression and ex-pression’ of the Father’s reality as God — Balthasar’s paraphrase of a metaphor of sealing which deliberately accentuates the iconographic or at any rate aesthetic quality of the Hebrews formulation. And drawing on the conclusions of his study of St Maximus, Kosmische Liturgie, Jesus Christ could not be the ‘point of intersection of all partial words of history and of all individual words of Being if he were merely either the “factual” man Jesus or the supra-historical, all-sustaining Logos’.’

Taken in conjunction with the language of doxa, glory, in the opening affirmation of the letter, Hebrews, then, ascribes to Jesus Christ both flowing radiance and impressed form, the two complementing each other in giving expression to the primal Beauty, a primal Beauty which is identical with the man Jesus, who descends simultaneously from the prophets and fathers and from the Father whose Son he is.

For Balthasar the revelatory form is endangered whenever the unity of structure whereby the glory of God is seen in the face of Christ is tampered with, whether (as sometimes in Athanasius and Thomas Aquinas) by treating the humanity assumed as simply the ‘conjoined instrument’ of the Logos, or, Platonically or idealistically, by regarding the corporeality of Christ as at best a starting point for spiritual reflection, at worst a concealment which must be laid aside.

Picking up a concern of Karl Rahner’s in the early volume of his theological Schriften, Balthasar underlines the indispensability of the humanity of Christ even for the beatific vision.

The glory of God is nowhere, not for a single instant, separated from the Lamb, nor is the light of the Trinity divorced from the light of Christ, the Incarnate Son, in whom alone the cosmos is recapitulated and elevated to the rank of the bridal City.
[Glory of the Lord I, pp. 438-439; cf. K. Rahner, S.J., 'The Eternal Significance of the Humanity of Jesus for our Relationship with God', Theological Investigations I (E.t. London 1967), pp. 35-46]

Kierkegaard, taking up a theme of Luther’s Christology, had regarded the Son who was made not only man but ‘sin’ as being, in the humanity which was his in a fallen and guilty world, someone hidden sub contrario – beneath their own contrary. That entailed the ‘crucifixion’ of the senses of those who would have liked to perceive the glory of God in Jesus Christ in an appealing way.

But Balthasar takes just the opposite view. True, the sin of the world obliges God’s expressive image to adopt a particular modality — going down into the darkness of the passion, the death and Hades itself. But so far from abolishing the revelatory character of the sensuous image, the cross and its consequences intensify it, so that it becomes the supreme self-expression, to human perception, of God’s eternal life.

Anticipating not only the last chapters of the theological aesthetics but also the theological dramatics and its important extended footnote Mysterium Paschale, Balthasar finds in the final intensification of the form in the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ the reason why surprise at the more seemingly improbable of the Church’s doctrines, such as the Eucharistic presence and the resurrection of the flesh, is out of place. All of this is, as he puts it: ‘already included in the self-commitment of God who with divine freedom, but also with divine consistency, has fashioned for himself in his creation a body through which to reveal his glory.’ [Glory of the Lord I, p. 441]

This is not to say, however, that the revelation of God in Jesus Christ is something blindingly obvious. After all, not only in a Protestant setting Luther, but also in a Catholic one, the familiar and profound devotional lyric ascribed to St Thomas — the Adoro te — says of Calvary and the Eucharist, respectively: ‘on the cross thy godhead made no sign to men/ here thy very manhood steals from human ken’ (in Hopkins’ translation).

This is a revelation, certainly, but a revelation in hiddenness: nor is this concession anything to be wondered at, given the general ontology Balthasar regaled his readers with in the opening volume of his theological logic. For there we read that, though Being indeed appears, the worldly forms whose imagistic surfaces invite us to interpret the beings that are the words of Being, do not, for that very reason, make Being perfectly plain. Being appears in beings, and concretely, in the forms which we can read off from images in the world around us, but that is precisely to say that Being does not present itself to us in an immediate way.

Furthermore, the mediated self-presentation of Being is never done in such a manner that we can suck out from it Being’s exhaustive content. Part of the fascination of form lies in its pointing us towards depths that do not appear. What all this boils down to, therefore, is that in the very moment of its unveiling, its disclosure, Being also conceals itself.

Its self-revelation, just because it is the revelation of an inexpressible plenitude, necessarily comes over to us as a veiling, an enclosure. And if then there is some analogy between the revelation of Being in form, and the revelation of the glory of the Father in Jesus Christ, we are already prepared for Balthasar’s confession that Christian revelation is not only an all-illuminating fact but also, and equally, a revelation in hiddenness. ‘Truly, you are a hidden God, O God of Israel’ (Isaiah. 45:13).

In Herrlichkeit, three reasons are adduced by way of explanation of this cry of wonder from the Hebrew Bible. Only the first has so far been touched on — namely, that the revelation of God is a revelation in being. Balthasar takes the opportunity to deepen the analogy of disclosure and concealment in, respectively, revelation and the beauty found in nature and art. An artist will conceal himself in his work as well as reveal himself. Desiring to manifest the world as he has understood it, ‘his’ world or perspective on the world, Weltanschauung, he makes himself of little prominence.

Of course with God, every possible world that he may make will point to its author; and yet this thought is counterbalanced by another, that the distance in God between Creator and work is infinite. At this juncture we need an analogy with natural beauty in order to dispel any Deistic misunderstanding of the model of visual art: the world is not the canvas of a divine Rembrandt or the fugue of a divine Bach, a letter from God which once despatched becomes detached from him. Here it is better to think, rather, of the relation between the forms of nature, natura naturata, and the self-expressing life-principle, natura naturans, at work in those forms in a necessary, internal and living way.

And showing his debt to the dramatists, philosophers and poets of the age of Romanticism and Idealism in Germany, Balthasar remarks that ‘we are initiated into these mysteries [of cosmic forms] because we ourselves are spirit in nature, and because all the expressive laws of the macrocosm are at work in our­selves’. In the steps of Goethe’s morphology of nature, Balthasar maintains that nature is most fully grasped, not with the combination of observation and quantification of the exact sciences, but by expressly including the dimension of mystery within the act of observing. In such a reading of form the fragment points to the whole.

And this brings Balthasar to an important corollary of the claim that revelation is necessarily revelation in hiddenness for the simple reason that it is a revelation in being. All knowledge, and not just the knowledge of salvation, begins with a kind of ‘natural faith’.


The Importance Of Ritual Part III — Fr. Aidan Nichols O.P.

September 9, 2011

“Formal traditional forms of rite cannot be dismissed as being inherently culturally incredible. These rites only become incredible when they are deemed to be so…”

That is also very much the Gospel according to the English Catholic social anthropologists who have devoted thought to our issue: Professor Mary Douglas of London University and the late Professor Victor Turner, who at the end of his professional career crossed the Atlantic to a chair at the University of Chicago.

Mary Douglas opened her study Natural Symbols: Explorations in Cosmology with an essay entitled Away from Ritual, which had appeared in somewhat different form in the house journal of the English Dominicans as The Contempt of Ritual in the summer of 1968. [M. Douglas, The Contempt of Ritual, New Blackfriars 49, nos. 577-78 (1968)] She warns that contempt for ritual forms eventually leads people to take a purely private view of religious experience, from where it is only a short step to the frank avowal of humanism.

One feature distinguishing social anthropologists from sociologists is that the former have a much more formidable, not to say sometimes impenetrable, conceptual apparatus at their disposal. The most easily grasped aspect of Douglas’ essay is her critique of the abolition by the bishops of England and Wales of compulsory abstinence from fleshfoods on Fridays, and this contains at any rate some major clues helpful in unraveling her approach.

The Friday abstinence is the only ritual that brings Christian symbols into kitchen and larder. Taking away one symbol that means something in that domain is, she pointed out, no guarantee that the spirit of a generalized charity will reign (as the bishops piously hoped) in its stead. It would have been preferable to have built upon this weekly ritual rather than to have sought platitudinous substitutes for it. Her explanation, as an anthropologist, for the bishops’ decision to abandon Friday abstinence is not especially flattering.

Owing to the manner of their education — she refers to the embourgeoisement of those whose families were once working class — the bishops were predictably peculiarly insensitive to nonverbal signals. The decision symptomizes this age of the Church: “It is as if the liturgical signal boxes were manned by color blind signalmen.” [M. Douglas, Natural Symbols].

The issue of Friday abstinence raises for her the whole question of the contemporary Church’s approach to ritual — to symbolically intense bodily activity as used in the worship of God. Her deeper argument is that the cosmos — the fundamental order of reality, including social reality — is always seen through the medium of the body, and notably through the kinds and range of actions in which the body intersects with nature and other people. Appealing to the exploration of family structure made in the 196os by her secular colleague Basil Bernstein, [B. Bernstein, Social Class and Psychotherapy, British Journal of Sociology 15 (1964)]

Douglas proposes that children whose families are “personal” rather than “positional” — children, that is, who come from families where common life and hierarchy are minimized in favor of, at least ideally, a unique communication between parent, on the one hand, and, on the other, each individual child — are likely to grow up with ears unattuned to the unspoken messages of ritual codes. And yet, as there is in fact no human being whose life does not need to “unfold in a coherent symbolic system”, those who resist ritual are missing out on something essential to humanity as such.

Such non-verbal symbols are capable of creating a structure of meaning, in which individuals can relate to one another and realise their own ultimate purposes…. Alas for the child from the personal home who longs for non-verbal forms of relationship but has only been equipped with words and a contempt for ritual forms. By rejecting ritualized speech he rejects his own faculty for pushing back the boundaries between inside and outside so as to incorporate in himself a patterned social world. At the same time, he thwarts his faculty for receiving immediate, condensed messages given obliquely along non-verbal channels.
M. Douglas, Natural Symbols

This statement, incidentally, tells us much about the new phenomenon of Catholic individualism understood as the systematic disparagement of common structure, hierarchical authority, and traditional liturgy alike.

Among the causes of anti-ritualism, then, Mary Douglas places first and foremost social change. But if social change naturally tends to prompt a new cosmology, a new set of spectacles for looking at the world, then those concerned for the health of Catholic Christianity, which has its own cosmology based on traditional ritual, on the sacraments, and ultimately on the Incarnation, must try to break this causal chain.

The slackening of group and grid whereby change in social patterns, especially in the family, brings about contempt for rite, the lack of strong social articulation in an increasingly amorphous, excessively personalized, individualized, and de-hierarchicalized world: these processes, left to themselves, will tend to produce a “religion of effervescence”, incompatible with a sacramental faith. Writing in the immediate aftermath of the appearance of a euphoric Western European and North American radicalism in the late 1960s, she comments:

This is the sector of society which we expect to be weak in its perception of condensed symbols, preferring diffuse, emotive symbols of mass effect. The religious style is spontaneity, enthusiasm and effervescence. Bodily disassociation in trance, induced by dance or drugs, is valued along with other symbols of non-differentiation. Distinguishing social categories are devalued, but the individual is exalted. The self is presented without inhibition or shyness. There is little or no self-consciousness about sexual or other bodily orifices and functions. As to intellectual style, there is little concern with differentiated units of time, respect for past or program for the future. The dead are forgotten. Intellectual discriminations are not useful or valued.
M. Douglas, Natural Symbols

And she concludes:

The general tone of this cosmological style is to express the current social experience. In the latter there is minimum differentiation and organization: symbolic behavior reflects this lack. In the field of intellect it is disastrous.
M. Douglas, Natural Symbols

Relating all this to the Church, Douglas maintains that anti-ritualism is of a piece with the “generous warmth” of the “doctrinal latitude” of “reforming bishops and radical theologians”, their “critical dissolving of categories and attack on intellectual and administrative distinctions”. [M. Douglas, Natural Symbols] In her view, all these developments are generated by a particular social experience, that of unrestricted personalism, but the cosmology they promote is manifestly deficient from the standpoint both of the life of the mind at large and more especially that of the Christian intelligence.

In her own idiom, “The value of particular social forms can only be judged objectively by the analytic power of the elaborated code”: in other words, to decode that remark (!), the mediocrity of the spiritual and theological life typically produced by an anti-ritualist Church is the best possible proof of the inadequacy of the form of life in civil society that such a Church presupposes and represents.

The implication of Douglas’ work would seem to be, then, that we shall not get back an authentic liturgical life until we recover a rightly ordered society on the level both of the family, the micro-society, and of macro-society, society at large. A “rightly ordered society” in this context is one that gives due place to common life, hierarchy, and shared authoritative public doctrine as well as to personal freedom and creativity.

Here we can recall how for David Martin it is the error of the ideology of spontaneity not to realize that the second set of these terms positively requires the first. If this thought, that liturgical malaise will not be fully rectified until a Christian society is reinstituted, seems somewhat daunting, we can turn for counterbalance to a last British anthropologist, Victor Turner, who appears to allow a greater autonomy or shaping power to what he calls in the title of a major book “the ritual process”. [V. Turner, The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure (Ithaca, 1969)]

In Turner’s view, traditional liturgy, precisely because of its archaic quality, has a power to modify and even reverse the assumptions made in secular living.

If ritual is not to be merely a reflection of secular social life, if its function is partly to protect and partly to express truths which make men free from the exigencies of their status-incumbencies, free to contemplate and pray as well as to speculate and invent, then its repertoire of liturgical actions should not be limited to a direct reflection of the contemporary scene.
[V. Turner, Passages, Margins and Poverty: Religious Symbols of Communitas, Worship 46(1972)]

Insisting that the archaic is not the obsolete, Turner maintains that, on the contrary, archaic patterns of action are necessary to protect what he calls “future free spaces”.

In this perspective he finds the de facto liturgical reform of the 1960s and 1970s somewhat incongruous. The reformers failed to appreciate the need of believers for repetition and archaism. He would not have appreciated the emphasis of Archbishop Annibale Bugnini, in his chronicle of the reform, on the “effort to make the rites speak the language of our own time”, [A. Bugnini, The Reform of the Liturgy, 1948-1995 (Collegeville, Minn., 1990)] even though Bugnini wrote his exhaustive account from a commanding height as Secretary Of The Commission For Liturgical Reform established by Pius XII in 1948; Secretary Of The Preparatory Commission On The Liturgy At The Second Vatican Council (1960-1962); Peritus of that Council and its Commission On The Liturgy; Secretary Of The Concilium For The Implementation Of The Constitution On The Liturgy (1964-1966); and Secretary Of The Congregation for Divine Worship (1969-1975).

Like Flanagan later, Turner held that pastoral liturgists were intimidated by the reigning “structural functionalism” in sociology. For that school, just as ritual structure reflects social structure, so ritual should change as society changes. Turner’s own anthropological scheme, by contrast, privileges significant intervals where we cross what he calls limina (thresholds) in our passage between social experiences. In so doing, we periodically find ourselves separated from our statistically normal experience of identification with some limited group and enter at least for a while a state of what he terms communitas, a form of sociability where our capacity for identification with others is unrestricted by space, time, and even their biological dying, and we enter the experiential continuum he names “flow”.

Typically, ritual stands out from mundane culture in its use of a high language that abounds in lexical and grammatical forms no longer current in everyday speech. Optimally, ritual is a symphony of expressive genres, rather as opera works simultaneously through a multiplicity of art forms in prose and poetry, music and acting. Unlike opera, however, ritual escapes theatricality by the seriousness of its ultimate concerns.

In principle, what Turner says could be applied to the ritual activity of any society, Christian or not, in its religious dimension, and indeed his ideas were in part formulated through fieldwork among the Ndembu in Zambia. But in his essay “Ritual, Tribal and Catholic”, Turner applies these notions more especially to the Western Mass.

The traditional liturgy displayed an essential concern for proper form in the representation of sacred mysteries and the performance of symbolic acts. This was the fruit of popular wisdom fertilized by developing doctrine, and shaped by esthetic as well as legalistic principle. Ritual traditions of any depth or complexity represent the consolidated understanding of many generations. They embody a deep knowledge of the nature of flow, and how and where to break it in order to instill truths about the nature of time, the human condition, and evil. They reveal an understanding of the religious benefit of flow as much for individuals in their interior meditations as for eliciting the spirit of communitas, or shared flow, in congregations at worship.
V. Turner, “Ritual, Tribal and Catholic”, Worship 50 (1976)

And he continues:

A complete liturgical system represents an organized system of spiritual and rational achievements. It is a work of ages, not a hackwork of contemporaneous improvisation. In its multiplicity and variety (controlled, nevertheless, by hard-won rules), it exemplifies the many-faceted yet single spirit of mankind at prayer, of homo religiosus. Although each nacreous [vocab: 1: consisting of or resembling mother-of-pearl;2: having a play of lustrous rainbow-like colors.] increment which composes this pearl has been laid down at a particular time, the total liturgy is liberated from historical determinations. When men and women enter the “liminality”, the tract of sacred space-time, which is made available to them by such a traditional liturgy, they cease to be bound by the secular structures of their own age, and confront eternity which is equidistant from all ages.
V. Turner, “Ritual, Tribal and Catholic”, Worship 50 (1976)

Whereas, so Turner pessimistically proposes, the “flow” elicited by the reformed Liturgy too often “bubbles on the surface” as a “transient communication”.

A motif running through all these authors is the claim that the theological strategy of cultural modernism is misconceived. Modernism — I use the word in the sense of an intellectual style, not that of a heresy in the doctrine of revelation — is too indebted to those features of the Enlightenment and Romanticism that set those movements at odds with the Catholic Church or at any rate presented obstacles (as well as, to some extent, opportunities) for an authentic ecclesial reform and renewal.

In the realm of liturgiology, if the eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century discussion of liturgical revision had been better known and its lessons more fully pondered, if the foundational principles suggested by Trapp and shared by such leaders of the interwar liturgical movement as Casel and Guardini had been consistently applied to contemporary sensibility in the 1960s and 1970s, much harm might have been avoided. As it was, and despite the wonderful erudition liturgical scholars brought to the remaking of the rites, liturgists, in Flanagan’s words, “managed to back modernity as a winning ticket, just at the point when it became converted into postmodernism”. [Flanagan, Sociology and Liturgy]

This statement at least makes the point that there is now nothing particularly modern about cultural modernism. It may also be interpreted as hinting that the postmodernist phase into which, in literary theory, philosophy, and a wider sensibility, a significant portion of the Western intelligentsia has now passed could have formed a happier context in which both to transmit and in various discreet and prudent ways to enhance a traditional rite.

Statements of what postmodernism is are generally both elliptic and obscure, so much so that questions of how precisely it differs from modernism, what intellectual virtues it recommends, and whether it contains, at least implicitly, any broad truth-claims about the nature of reality are, at least for the present writer, unanswered. But let me mention on the basis of recent research at Cambridge some ways in which one liturgist writing in a confessedly postmodernist manner would find neglected resources in a traditional rite. Catherine Pickstock, of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, in her analysis of the old Roman Eucharistic rite, stresses the mobile character of the liturgical “I”, the self that worships. In liturgical action, I am not simply and in straightforward fashion myself: hence the inappropriateness of attempting to fit the Liturgy to the needs of the extra-liturgical personality, to make liturgy “relevant” to the ordinary persona of the self. Commenting on the Fore-Mass of the 1962 Missal, from the prayers of preparation to the Gloria, Pickstock writes:

By means of its dispossessed and impersonating character, its taking on of the roles of other characters thereby unsettling the claim to a secure poetic voice, the worshipping I is designated by the act of forgetting itself, by the forgetting of ordinary identity.
[C. Pickstock, The Sacred Polis: Language, Death and Liturgy (Ph.D. thesis, Cambridge, 1996)]

And again:

This complex assuming of different voices leads to an interlacing of voices or polyphony at whose centre [here she refers to the opening of the Gloria] are the seraphic voices which are heard, alluded to, and intermingled with the human voices.
[C. Pickstock, The Sacred Polis]

Impersonation, she stresses, “precedes an authentic voice”: that is, our Christian persona is formed by the way an extra-liturgical sense of the “I” is modified and extended by the Liturgy itself. “This is a de-centered `I’ which constantly moves from one identity to another, from immanent to transcendent locations, breaking the quarantining of the two worlds, but without ever compromising their difference” [C. Pickstock, The Sacred Polis] In a pithy axiom: “In giving (doxologically) we become (ontologically).” In other words, by worship our Christian selves are forged; so worship is not to be judged by what our secular or non liturgical identity may desire or demand.

In her critique of the reform of the Roman rite, Pickstock argues that criticisms of the mediaeval Liturgy by conventional historians of the rite such as Theodor Klauser are misplaced. [T. Klauser, A Short History Of The Western Liturgy, 2d ed. (Oxford, 1979). One may add to Klauser's name that of the Italian liturgiologist influential in the drafting of the new anaphoras, Dom Cyprian Vagaggini, for whom the historic Roman Canon is disunified and illogical: "hardly a model of simplicity and clarity", The Canon of the Mass and Liturgical Reform (London, 1967), 96. But note the criticism of these criticisms by the Anglican liturgiologist Geoffrey Willis, who wrote that they may arise from a "failure to understand the processes by which the Roman Canon Missae reached its present form and even a failure to apprehend the basic principles of its structure": The New Eucharistic Prayers: Some Comments, in A Voice for All Time: Essays on the Liturgy of the Catholic Church since the Second Vatican Council, ed. C. Francis and M. Lynch (Bristol, 1994), 91]

For Klauser the repetitious and sometimes seemingly random structure of the pre-conciliar rite (one thinks especially of the often attacked Offertory prayers) bears witness to a debasement of pure Liturgy, as does the concomitant emphasis on purification and requests for mercy. Pickstock, on the other hand, treats a certain randomness and repetitiveness as reassuring signs of the oral provenance of the Roman Liturgy, intrinsic aspects of a flow typical of speech rather than a written structure whose meanings are “spatially” compartmentalized in discrete sections. In similar fashion, she takes the repeated requests for purification as signs of an underlying apophaticism [vocab: the belief that God can be known to humans only in terms of what He is not] that stresses our distance from God, not just our sinfulness, and emphasizes what she calls “the need for a constant re-beginning of liturgy because the true eschatological liturgy is in time endlessly postponed”. [Pickstock, The Sacred Polis]

That early fourth-century text so important for the makers of the reformed Roman rite, the Paradosis apostolike, or Apostolic Tradition, ascribed to Hippolytus, being as it is more of a treatise on Liturgy than a Liturgy itself, proved misleading, she thinks, for the program of liturgical recovery, not least in these respects.

Rather like Douglas, Pickstock holds that to reform an ancient Liturgy successfully in radical guise would ultimately entail remaking the entire social order, for earlier Liturgies formed part of a culture itself ritual in character. What the Church could have done, however, was to refrain from assimilating “linguistic and structural forms” from modernity, for these are precisely the elements most inimical to liturgical goals. The “clear and linear purpose” of modern Liturgy is, in her view, sadly of this age of the world and hence in its connotations immanent when compared with traditional rites she characterizes as “a liturgical stammer in the face of the sublime excess of God”.

For a Catholic Christian, in matters of the mind illumined by grace it is theology — sound and solid theology, drawn from Scripture and tradition under the guidance of the Magisterium — that is the queen of the sciences and not the cultural sciences that the writers whose ideas I have been rehearsing represent. That is not to say, however, that these benevolent warning voices can safely be disregarded.

On the basis of her bi-millennial experience, the Church has in the past been credited by sympathetic observers with a definite store of human wisdom. Like her divine Founder, she has known what is in man. The largely independent and convergent testimony of the men and women whose work I have described in this chapter suggests that of late the Church, which must mean here her members, has shown an uncharacteristic deficiency of such wisdom, in part in the conception of the liturgical reform, but even more in its execution. This is something the clergy and laity of the next century will eventually need to address.


The Importance Of Ritual Part II — Fr. Aidan Nichols O.P.

September 8, 2011

Hagia Sophia had been built during the reign of the Emperor Justinian between the years 532-537 AD and was the largest church in the world.

The first concept to be rendered questionable by both this definition [To repeat from the previous post: Liturgy [wrote I. H. Dalmais in Principles of the Liturgy] belongs in the order of doing (ergon) not of knowing (logos). Logical thought cannot get far with it; liturgical actions yield their intelligibility in their performance, and this performance takes place at the level of sensible realities, not as exclusively material, but as vehicles of overtones capable of awakening the mind and heart to acceptance of realities belonging to a different order.] and the sea change in sociological thinking charted by Flanagan is the notion of simplicity as a criterion for sound liturgical practice. To the sociologist, it is by no means self-evident that brief, clear rites have greater transformative potential than complex, abundant, lavish, rich, long rites, furnished with elaborate ceremonial. Noble simplicity of rite has been a theme of liturgical reforms since the Enlightenment, as the previous chapter noted. It had not commended itself, however, purely as an anthropological desideratum. It was also regarded as a hallmark of the primitive Church. Though falling outside the sociologist’s provenance, this too is now a matter of question.

The decision of the post-conciliar reformers to return to a pre-Carolingian Roman tradition as earlier and therefore simpler and so better was predictable given the influence on the tradition of liturgical scholarship of the “comparative liturgy” approach pioneered by the South German historian of liturgy Anton Baumstark. Baumstark’s book with that title was both liturgiologically pioneering and enormously successful; it was translated into various languages and enjoyed numerous reprintings. However, the work of F. S. West on Baumstark’s Comparative Liturgy [A. Baumstark, Liturgie comparee, 3d ed. (Chevetogne, 1953); the work's original is French, since it began life as lectures to Bauduin's monks at Amay.] in its intellectual setting has shown that his comparative method was itself drawn, somewhat strangely, from the biology of the German Naturphi!osophen (like Goethe) as well as from the comparative anatomy of such nineteenth-century natural scientists as Georges Cuvier and Charles Darwin. [F. S. West, Anton Baumstark's Comparative Liturgy in Its Intellectual Contex", doctoral thesis (Notre Dame, Ind. 1988), described in P. Bradshaw, The Search for the Origins of Christian Worship: Sources and Methods for the Origins of Early Liturgy (London, 1992)]

It assumed as a law, consequently, that liturgical evolution moved from simplicity and brevity to richness and prolixity, even though Baumstark had to admit that one could also see evidence of a contrary movement, a tendency later to abbreviate what earlier had been fuller. As the Anglican liturgiologist Paul Bradshaw, now professor of Liturgy at Notre Dame, Indiana, has pointed out:

This admission that liturgical development might in fact proceed in either direction robs [Baumstark's] classification of any predictive power. We cannot judge a liturgical phenomenon …..’late’ simply because it exhibits prolixity.
[Bradshaw, Search for the Origins]

Nor, a fortiori, can we make an adverse value judgment on some liturgical rite, text, or practice because it lacks that dubiously reliable hallmark of primitive authenticity. One member of the post-conciliar Consilium who found the eagerness to apply the criterion of simplicity quite excessive, the Premonstratensian liturgist and author of a standard study of the sources of the Roman Liturgy Dom Boniface Luykx, signified his displeasure rather strongly by transferring to the Byzantine ritual church where he is now abbot of the Byzantine-Ukrainian monastery of the Transfiguration in northern California. [18R Galadza, "Abbot Boniface Luykx as Liturgist and liturgisatel", in Following the Star from the East: Essays in Honor of Archimandrite Boniface Luykx, ed. A. Chirovsky (Ottawa, Chicago, Lviv, 1992)].

A second concept that Flanagan would see as treated by Churchmen with a marked degree of sociological naivete is that of intelligibility in rite. The notion that the more intelligible the sign, the more effectively it will enter the lives of the faithful is implausible to the sociological imagination. It cannot simply be assumed that people will naturally assent more deeply once they have comprehended.

As Flanagan explains, a certain opacity is essential to symbolic action in the sociologists’ account, so that to attempt to render symbols wholly transparent is, to their mind, a thoroughly misguided proceeding. “[Symbols] proclaim that which transcends the conditions under which clarity through intervention is possible. They embody that which is unavailable to rational manipulation. [Flanagan, Sociology and Liturgy] And if total vernacularization of liturgical language and the insistence on translation styles that win comprehension at the cost of banality were too frequently the result of the principle of immediate comprehensibility in the realm of the spoken word, an insistence on the complete visibility of every detail of what was happening at the altar (and hence not only the removal of rood screens but also the eventual victory of versus populum celebration) was its counterpart in the visual realm.

Here, as Flanagan remarks, it was not realized that, sociologically, “veiling”, “marking a distance”, and “tactful reticence” are necessary to reverence. But such terms as reverence, with its connotations of restraint, deference, and awe, soon became prominent by their absence in liturgical discussion.

A third key concept, community, has already been touched on apropos of Gueranger. To Flanagan, the concept of community as such — just like that, without any further qualification — is too vague to bear a specifically Christian meaning. Moreover, it can easily degenerate into the creation of a transiently benevolent atmosphere through (literal or metaphorical “glad-handing” (an eloquent Americanism). What liturgists needed but failed to find was a concept of community defined distinctively as the product of a ritual assembly itself keyed into a mystery exceeding that assembly’s limits.

As the English priest-sociologist Anthony Archer had pointed out in his study The Two Catholic Churches, the preconciliar Liturgy at least imposed a ritual authority on all classes and individuals, [A. Archer, The Two Catholic Churches: A Study in Oppression (London, 1986)] thus preventing the emergence of groups who would seize the Liturgy for their own purposes or of figures who would treat it as an opportunity for the display of their communications skills. It is not really clear whether clericalism, defined as the undue prominence, within an ecclesial community, of the sacramentally ordained, is less apparent or more apparent in a liturgical rite where the priest is constantly face to face with the congregation and encouraged to introduce some at least of the Liturgy’s salient parts, rather than being absorbed impersonally into a ritual role.

A fourth crucial idea, after simplicity, intelligibility, and community, an idea not so much this tune in the Council’s Liturgy Constitution or any official text as in the commentators who took it upon themselves to interpret the reformed rite to the clergy and others, was that of liturgical agency, in other words, the role, increasingly personalized and sometimes in a pejorative sense theatrical, to be played by the celebrant of the Liturgy and other liturgical ministers. Here Flanagan notes that, sociologically, a priest cannot as celebrant present himself at Mass in the same fashion as that in which he greets his parishioners afterward. The liturgical role must conceal or at least detract attention from the person, so as to focus it the more strongly elsewhere.

The liturgical actor wishes to cast glory onto God in acts of worship that somehow minimize or preclude these elements of worth falling onto himself. Like the self, the social has to be present to enable the act to appear, but it has to disappear if the end of reverence is to be realized.
[Flanagan. Sociology and Liturgy]

To the sociological eye, rites work best when they are repetitive and formalized, so that the liturgical actor can practice a certain forgetfulness of self, “playing into his role, as Flanagan puts it, “embodying the possibility of its existence”. In this he may need a certain distance, at least at points, from other worshippers. As Flanagan explains, too unilateral an emphasis on proximity is sociologically misplaced. Rites that do not allow a sense of distance deny to the people, paradoxically, a means of appropriating the act of worship, crippling them just at the point where they could be taking off Godward by a leap of religious imagination. For liturgical actors, though presented within a social frame, have to convey properties of what lies beyond that frame, a rumor of angels.

But where does this leave the notion of participation, which is so key not only to the Enlightenment and Catholic Revival discussions in their different ways but also to that modern movement begun in the years before the Great War as well as, and not least, in the papacy’s gradual acceptance of its proposals in the pontificates of the last three “Pian” popes, Pius X, Pius XI, and Pius XII? For Flanagan, active, outward participation is to be evaluated according to “the degree to which it generates inner appropriation, interior assent”. An English Benedictine liturgist, Dom Bernard McElligott of Ampleforth, founder of the Society of Saint Gregory, had commented on the philology as early as the year of the introduction of the Novus Ordo, 1970.

By using the word “active” for actuosa the Church’s intention has been misunderstood, and generally, if perhaps unconsciously, taken to mean bodily activity; whereas what the Church really asks for is full, sincere, mental activity, expressed externally by the body.
[B. McElligott, "Active Participation", in A Voice for All Time: Essays on the Liturgy of the Catholic Church since the Second Vatican Council, ed. C. Francis and M. Lynch (Bristol, 1994)]

As Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger has emphasized, the term actuosa participatio at the Council included silence as well as speaking and singing and hence disqualifies any activist misconstrual of “living participation” (as Trapp had called it — See his liturgical essays in The Feast of Faith (San Francisco, 1986). Flanagan’s interpretation is, evidently, not unwarranted.

The absence in the postconciliar Liturgy of the atmosphere of intense silence and devotion once so striking to observers raises the question as to whether actuosa participatio, assessed in terms of Flanagan’s criterion, is more advanced or less advanced than it was before the Council opened. Here of course tricks of memory and nostalgia, as well as wishful thinking based on ecclesiastical partisanship, may deceive us. Not every eucharistic worshipper at a celebration according to the Missale Pianum before 1962 was burning with fervor, just as not everyone at a celebration according to the Missale Paulinum after 1970 is manifestly bored. But a German sociologist’s investigation of a large suburban parish in 1960 provides an example of the relatively objective testing possible. As Flanagan comments,

Many of his subjects reported that they came to Mass to find a space in which to reestablish their spiritual equilibrium, the calmness of the rite — a re-iterated notion — giving a context in which they could adjust the proportions of an often confused existence.
[Flanagan, Sociology and Liturgy]

Nor could one accuse Msgr. J. D. Crichton, the doyen of living liturgists in England, of insouciance toward the new rites, yet he has spoken recently of a loss of reverence which ultimately leads to a loss of the sense of the transcendent God who is the supreme Object of all worship. In a way we are in danger of forgetting what worship is about. It is not just a heartwarming experience for those who like that sort of thing. [J. D. Crichton, Worshipping with Awe and Reverence, Priests and People]

Or, as Father Anthony Conlon, a London parish priest, has put it in a paper read to the International Eucharistic Congress at Seville in 1994:

The overemphasis on active participation, which only conceives of worship in terms of the community realizing its group dynamic through a bias in favor of “doing things”, is a serious hindrance to any understanding of the Mass as essentially a liturgical setting of an historic action of divine mercy and sacrifice.
[A. Conlon, The Participation of the Faithful in the Post-Conciliar Liturgy: A Critical Perspective on Contemporary Practice in XLV Convenlus Eucharisticus Internationalis, Sevilla 1-13. Vi .1993, Christus Lumen Gentiuci, Euchanstia el Evangelizatio (Vatican City, 1993)]‘

Here then it is not simply a question of failing to advert properly to the divine transcendence in general. More devastatingly, when the Mass is at issue, there is inadequate advertence to that supreme act whereby the divine transcendence engaged itself in Trinitarian fashion for our definitive salvation on Calvary, when the Son offered himself to the Father in the Spirit so that his Sacrifice could be fruitful in the renewed pouring out of himself in the propitiatory intercession of the Eucharist and its foundation in his High Priestly prayer in the heavens.

Too much can be centered on the contribution made by the participants as though that alone made for the efficacy of the Eucharist and less attention — if any — may be paid to the sacramental offering of the great High Priest.
[A. Conlon, The Participation of the Faithful in the Post-Conciliar Liturgy: A Critical Perspective on Contemporary Practice]

The fact that in many parish celebrations the church building is evidently regarded as simply an assembly point before Mass starts and a place of concourse when Mass ends, in sharp contrast to the former practice when many people made prayers of preparation before Mass and prayers of thanksgiving after it and certainly were not disabled in so doing by other worshippers, points toward the same conclusion. If active participation is rightly evaluated by the quality of inner participation it arouses, then, it would seem, it has not yet succeeded in its task.

What from the sociologist’s standpoint has been overlooked is that, as Flanagan remarks, liturgical forms operate in the manner of icons — opening up a sense of the presence of the divine, not of course by the painterly means of color and line, but through social actions believed to be endowed and intended to be endowed with “holy purpose”.

Flanagan’s overall conclusion is that the Roman Liturgy has fallen into the hands of “convivial Puritans”. For these, procedures for worship are to be kept as simple as possible so as to maximize social relationships in the production of the rite. A ritual minimalism serves to sustain a relaxed atmosphere where all may contribute informally. “Bind us together” is the theme song of a liturgical life where hierarchy and ceremony are treated as deleterious to happy togetherness.

To Flanagan, as to Martin, this is simply wrongheaded.

Informal or endlessly adaptable Liturgy may be beau mais ce nest pas la guerre. The shape of the rite takes on “unfruitful unpredictability”, impairing its claim to constitute, indeed, a public order of worship. As the phenomenologist of religion Rudolf Otto saw at the beginning of this century, an undisciplined rite clamantly [vocab: loudly]asserting direct links with the production of the numinous has little chance of representing the latter successfully when compared with one that humbly petitions the holy in solemn mode.

Such tacit, mysterious qualities of rite, Flanagan continues, are, moreover, what permit its endless replaying. He likens to this the way a literary classic (The Brothers Karamazov, Moby Dick) can be endlessly reread if it be in a positive sense “ambiguous”, namely, not increasing the reader’s uncertainty about meaning but rather maintaining openness to ultimate meaning (the sacred).

Repeated use, so Flanagan concludes: “generates a passage of growth into understanding the implications of what cannot be grasped, and at the same time fuels a wish to have more revealed from what is concealed.” [Flanagan, Sociology and Liturgy] The message is that the adhesive that holds rites together has become too diluted to stick, and Flanagan looks to older forms of the Latin Liturgy for assistance when he writes: “Formal traditional forms of rite cannot be dismissed as being inherently culturally incredible. These rites only become incredible when they are deemed to be so .” [Flanagan, Sociology and Liturgy]


The Importance Of Ritual Part I — Fr. Aidan Nichols O.P.

September 7, 2011

Fifty years earlier on the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, January 25, 1959, Pope John Paul XXIII had announced the convocation of a general council for the universal Church. And the Second Vatican Council was born.

Reporting on the world of British scholarship, it is a remarkable fact, which has not been as noticed as it deserves, that both Catholic and Anglican social anthropologists and sociologists have tended to take, from the standpoint of their own disciplines rather than simply from personal preference, a somewhat negative attitude toward the mid-twentieth-century liturgical reform that has had so marked an influence on both communions. They have a tendency to think that in the broader lines of its departures from the traditional Liturgy reform may, in certain of its characteristic emphases, rest on a mistake — not doctrinal mistake, but a failure in human prudence.

The idiom of the writers I shall be expounding is not easy, so perhaps we might begin relatively gently with a text written by an Anglican sociologist whose marks are, however, highly pertinent to the Catholic practice of Liturgy in the Western Church today. In Two Critiques of Spontaneity, Professor David Martin of the London School of Economics attacked what he called the “popular local heresy” of that “cult of choice” that wherever possible opts against an order of rules and roles in the name of spontaneity. [D. Martin, Two Critiques of Spontaneity (London, 1973)]

Though this “cult” has some respectable origins – he mentions religious notions of conscience and personal decision, and moral ideas of political liberty and existential authenticity, as well as the Romantic concept of genius and the psychoanalytical ideal of autonomy — the tree that grows from these roots has become stunted and deformed. Basically, one truth, or one collection of truths, has been stressed at the expense of the complementary truths that are their necessary counterpart. The result is a dangerous and destructive imbalance.

Libertarians stressing spontaneity — and Martin makes clear that such figures operate not only in civil society but also in ecclesial society and not least in its worship — ignore the preconditions of freedom in a determinate order of stable rules and defined roles that constitute, in Kantian language, the social a priori of personal identity, the latter’s necessary condition. In their anti-institutionalism, extreme personalists are sawing off the branch on which they are sitting.

“Institutions”, in the various senses of that word, are needful if persons with a definite sense of identity are to exist at all. When all is said and done, man, though he may not be as context-bound as an animal, is not as context-free as an angel. It is then the embedded character of freedom that is ignored by the partisans of spontaneity, and here we must include liturgical advocates of multiple choice, of endless adaptation and unscripted presidential intervention for the establishment of free rapport with others. For such libertarians, “the noumenal self [Martin means the underlying or essential `self'] is already full of experiential potency. Traditional modes are mere automatic transfers: everyman must start afresh.”[D. Martin, Two Critiques of Spontaneity (London, 1973)]

In the critique Martin is rejecting, traditional churches (that is, churches with traditional worship) are regarded as diverting the impulse to authenticity into “silted channels of alienated tradition and super-imposed forms”. Their “received rituals” and “automatic repetitions” are “frozen icons of freedom, stories from which the dynamism has been drained”. What the proponents of spontaneity would substitute for these Martin writes of scathingly as a “total and easy immersion in the All”. As he warns, “total immediacy produces total relativity.” Where each and every chosen experience is regarded as equally valuable, each by the same token may just as well be described as equally worthless.

Writing as a sociologist, Martin asserts the imperative need to defend discipline, habit, continuity, the located and familiar, the bounded and particularized, rules, roles, and relations. A rule, as he puts it, indicates the “existence of a regularity”: something that enables one to anticipate and so to act. Anticipating, acting, knowing where and who you are turn on the due existence of rules. The stability and definition of the latter are generative of psychological health, just as authority and hierarchy, rightly exercised, are necessary for the flourishing of that social health which Scripture calls “justice”. Without rules there would be only what Martin terms “unidimensional determination by peers”, the law of the jungle. [D. Martin, Two Critiques]

Martin regards the ideas of meaningful relationship and significant personal encounter as wholly impotent when considered as bases on which to found the life of groups or even individuals. Why? Because these concepts are virtually without content. “One seeks for the personally significant [but] nothing is signified.” The ideology of the experiencing self, in whose name traditional forms, including traditional liturgical rites, are rejected, is “literally self-defeating”, for beyond a certain point the emphasis on direct experience diminishes the very possibility of experience at all. How constricting, not least experientially, is a liturgy that insists on expressing the experience, the concrete self-understanding, of the immediate group that enacts it.

The experiential illumination of the Gospel depends, Martin considers, on rote and rite. As he puts it: “What is done by rote and performed in ritual provides the necessary substratum of habit on the basis of which experience becomes possible.” And invoking the literary critic George Steiner, [G. Steiner, Bluebeards Castle (London, 1971)] he asks what must it mean for a civilization to hear the Gospels repeated time and time again in the central rites of the Church. Not only, then, are repetition and ritual form not to be set over against authentic identity. More than this, they cannot be counterposed to creativity either. As Martin writes: “The shortest way to creativity is habituation to technical means of expression and steady soaking in an historical context.”[Martin, Two Critiques] And in a daring comparison with the Incarnation of the divine Word, he concludes: “Those who have accepted the conditions of confinement find they are present at a miraculous birth, limited by time and place, fully human, before which even angels cover their faces.” [Martin, Two Critiques]

A fuller account in the shape of a Catholic counterpart to Martin’s criticism is Kieran Flanagan’s Sociology and Liturgy, which marries an Anglo-American sociological tradition to the Germanophone theology of Joseph Ratzinger and Hans Urs von Balthasar. [K. Flanagan, Sociology and Liturgy: Representations of the Holy (London, 1991)] Flanagan, an Irishman who is a lecturer in sociology at the University of Bristol, rejects what he regards as a consensus of practical liturgists who favor the maximizing of active participation so as to confer a democratic quality on rite and would keep liturgical symbols and actions as simple and intelligible as possible.

Stressing by contrast the ceremonious, formal, and allegorical qualities of ritual as well as what he terms ritual’s “ambiguity”, Flanagan describes the pastoral-liturgical consensus in bald terms as “sociologically misconceived”. It ignores the question of “how the cultural is domesticated and harnessed in a ritual performance that proclaims a distinctive witness.” [K. Flanagan, Sociology and Liturgy] Emphasizing the functions of ceremony, the opacity of symbols, the complexity of actions, and the qualities of beauty and holiness that give the social form of rite a distinctive coloration, Flanagan echoes Martin in deploring

the rise of consumer-friendly rites and a demand for loose and lax “happy clappy” events full of meet and greet transactions. These trivialize the social, preclude deeper meanings being read into the action, and skate along the surface of some very thin ice where all attention to danger, awe and reverence is bracketed. These are rites of the immediate that demand instantaneous theological results.”
[K. Flanagan, Sociology and Liturgy]

“Liberal” liturgists are in fact dismantling the entire sacred superstructure that rites exist to serve.

The apparent theological strong point of such pastoral liturgical approaches lies, Flanagan remarks, in the notion of the missionary significance of duly adapted rites. A century and more earlier, Dom Gueranger had also spoken of the evangelical power of the Liturgy, but he had seen this as expressed indirectly in its spiritual beauty. Now, however, it is to be expressed directly in a conscious opening of the Church to the world.

Unfortunately, so Flanagan explains, this “delivers Christianity to a school of sociological thought that regards rituals as social constructions shaped to express and to mirror the ideological sensitivities of the age”. [K. Flanagan, Sociology and Liturgy] The result is that the rite comes to be seen as the projection of the dispositions of the actors involved in the act of worship rather than as first and foremost the work of grace, a bestowal of transcendence that (to be sure) makes use of human agents for its enactment but does not, Pelagius-like, consist of such agency. In favor of traditional ritual, by contrast, is the fact that the quality of habit (one of Martin’s favorite words) endows liturgical action with “an impunity, an absence of worry about the credibility of what is represented”.

As Flanagan would see things, the Second Vatican Council simply took place too early so far as the history of sociology is concerned. In a retrospective view of the revisionist phase of the liturgical movement in the period from the Second World War to the Council and the subsequent reform, he writes:

Theology inserted the notion of cultural praxis into its approach to liturgy, but failed to secure the sociological instruments through which this could be monitored and understood. The relationship of rite to the cultural was far more ambiguous and complex than had been understood at the time of the Council. The question of the significance of the social came from within theological efforts to renew liturgical form — not from sociology. Only recently has a form of sociology emerged that could offer a means of understanding liturgical operations in a way that is compatible with their theological basis.’
[K. Flanagan, Sociology and Liturgy]

The principal schools of sociology “available” when the Council opened were positivist, empiricist, or functionalist. Only in the course of the 1960s and 1970s did the stress of the late-nineteenth-century German philosopher of method Wilhelm Dilthey on the distinctive nature of the cultural sciences (Geisteswissenschaften) have its impact on sociology, as sociologists began to realize the need for a sociological imagination if they were to grasp the meaning of social forms for those human subjects who live in and with them. At last they started to ask themselves how belief systems, now taken seriously even or especially if they were religious, succeed in having cultural expression. Alas, it was then too late for such sociologists to be of use to the actual liturgical reformers. The postconciliar Consilium ad exsequendam Constitutionem de Sacra Liturgia was wound up in 1975 through absorption into the Congregation for Divine Worship, that year coinciding more or less with a real turning point in the anthropology of religion as new schools of thought began to emphasize meaning, not explanation, the non-rational as well as the rational, and ritual’s transformative power: all of which led to a new respect for the formal, ceremonious ordering of rite, the very thing that avant-garde liturgists most abhorred and the liturgical reform itself preserved only in severely truncated guise.

Yeats’ rhetorical question “How but in custom and in ceremony are innocence and beauty born?” was suddenly grasped in the academy as it ceased to be understood in the Church. And Flanagan suggests (albeit cautiously) that the consequent mishandling of the modernization of rite accelerated the decline of such traditional churches as his own.

He contrasts the impoverished concepts used to “deliver rite to the cultural” — simplicity, intelligibility, adaptation to “modern man” — with the subtle description of the Liturgy given by the Dominican liturgiologist Irenee-Henri Dalmais in his contribution to Canon Aime Martimort’s four-volume study The Church at Prayer.

Liturgy [wrote Dalmais] belongs in the order of doing (ergon) not of knowing (logos). Logical thought cannot get far with it; liturgical actions yield their intelligibility in their performance, and this performance takes place at the level of sensible realities, not as exclusively material, but as vehicles of overtones capable of awakening the mind and heart to acceptance of realities belonging to a different order. [I. H. Dalmais, "The Liturgy as Celebration of the Mystery of Salvation", in Principles of the Liturgy, vol. 1 of The Church at Prayer, ed. A. G. Martimort (London, 1967)]



The Blessed Virgin Compared To The Air We Breathe – Fr. Aidan Nichols on Gerard Manley Hopkins II

August 31, 2011


The Blessed Virgin Compared To The Air We Breathe
                Gerard Manley Hopkins

                Wild air, world-mothering air,
Nestling me everywhere,
That each eyelash or hair
Girdles; goes home betwixt
The fleeciest, frailest-flixed
Snowflake; that’s fairly mixed
With, riddles, and is rife
In every least thing’s life;
This needful, never spent,
And nursing element;
My more than meat and drink,
My meal at every wink;
This air, which, by life’s law,
My lung must draw and draw
Now but to breathe its praise,
Minds me in many ways
Of her who not only
Gave God’s infinity
Dwindled to infancy
Welcome in womb and breast,
Birth, milk, and all the rest
But mothers each new grace
That does now reach our race—
Mary Immaculate,
Merely a woman, yet
Whose presence, power is
Great as no goddess’s
Was deemèd, dreamèd; who
This one work has to do—
Let all God’s glory through,
God’s glory which would go
Through her and from her flow
Off, and no way but so.

                 I say that we are wound
With mercy round and round
As if with air: the same
Is Mary, more by name. 
She, wild web, wondrous robe,
Mantles the guilty globe,
Since God has let dispense
Her prayers his providence:
Nay, more than almoner,
The sweet alms’ self is her
And men are meant to share
Her life as life does air. 

                If I have understood,
She holds high motherhood
Towards all our ghostly good
And plays in grace her part
About man’s beating heart,
Laying, like air’s fine flood,
The deathdance in his blood;
Yet no part but what will
Be Christ our Saviour still.
Of her flesh he took flesh:
He does take fresh and fresh,
Though much the mystery how,
Not flesh but spirit now
And makes, O marvellous!
New Nazareths in us,
Where she shall yet conceive
Him, morning, noon, and eve;
New Bethlems, and he born
There, evening, noon, and morn—
Bethlem or Nazareth,
Men here may draw like breath
More Christ and baffle death;
Who, born so, comes to be
New self and nobler me
In each one and each one
More makes, when all is done,
Both God’s and Mary’s Son.

                  Again, look overhead
How air is azurèd;
O how! nay do but stand
Where you can lift your hand
Skywards: rich, rich it laps
Round the four fingergaps.
Yet such a sapphire-shot,
Charged, steepèd sky will not
Stain light. Yea, mark you this:
It does no prejudice.
The glass-blue days are those
When every colour glows,
Each shape and shadow shows.
Blue be it: this blue heaven
The seven or seven times seven
Hued sunbeam will transmit
Perfect, not alter it.
Or if there does some soft,
On things aloof, aloft,
Bloom breathe, that one breath more
Earth is the fairer for.
Whereas did air not make
This bath of blue and slake
His fire, the sun would shake,
A blear and blinding ball
With blackness bound, and all
The thick stars round him roll
Flashing like flecks of coal,
Quartz-fret, or sparks of salt,
In grimy vasty vault.

                So God was god of old:
A mother came to mould
Those limbs like ours which are
What must make our daystar
Much dearer to mankind;
Whose glory bare would blind
Or less would win man’s mind.
Through her we may see him
Made sweeter, not made dim,
And her hand leaves his light
Sifted to suit our sight.

                Be thou then, O thou dear
Mother, my atmosphere;
My happier world, wherein
To wend and meet no sin;
Above me, round me lie
Fronting my froward eye
With sweet and scarless sky;
Stir in my ears, speak there
Of God’s love, O live air,
Of patience, penance, prayer:
World-mothering air, air wild,
Wound with thee, in thee isled,
Fold home, fast fold thy child.

Just the point at which to introduce the comparison with Mary: Hopkins characterizes this other mother by two features of her role as Catholic Christianity sees it. The first is her divine motherhood, by which she became the Theotokos or God-bearer, giving welcome in “womb and breast” to the “infinity” of the person of God the Word, now become what the medievals called Verbum abbreviatum, the “abbreviated Word”, inasmuch as his divine hypostasis, from the moment of the Annunciation onward, acts as the personalizing subject of an instance of human nature.

Thus is the Godhead of the Son “dwindled to infancy” in the Christ-child — without, for all that, suffering the loss of those divine attributes which make him the foundation of the universe and of the moral law. The role of our Lady at the Annunciation is so essential to Incarnation robustly conceived that it already justifies, in classical Christian vocabulary, the exalted language of channel of divine grace, which, in point of theological fact, Hopkins will use for her under a second distinct heading.

Drawing on a doctrinal tradition, which has never (yet) attained dogmatic status, he affirms that she “mothers each new grace / That now does reach our race”. The inclusion of the words “each new” here goes beyond what Mary’s divine motherhood by itself could lead us to say; it is a confession of Mary’s “sub-mediation” of the grace of Christ to individuals here and now. Were we in any doubt on the matter, Hopkins himself dispels it for us in a sermon:

Now holiness God promotes by giving grace; the grace he gives not direct but as if stooping and drawing it from her vessel, taking it down from her storehouse and cupboard. It is in some way laid up in her.
The Sermons and Devotional Writings of Gerard Manley Hopkins, ed. C. Devlin, SJ (Oxford 1959)

So “Mary Immaculate” — a title which had surged in popularity through the ex cathedra definition of the all-holiness of the Mother of God in 1854, delighting those who followed the via Scoti, “Scotus’ way” — is “Merely a woman” and yet her “presence” and “power” is “great as no goddess’s / Was deemed, dreamed”.

This is a deliberately uncomfortable paradox, and Hopkins is positively willing us to ask whether he has not mired himself in contradiction. Can Mary of Nazareth, someone whose being is altogether finite (as the being of the Word incarnate is not), have so divine a role without calling into question her finitude or God’s infinitude or both? Hopkins resolves the issue by reimagining this role as that of a pane of glass which has no more — and no less — to do that letting the Light shine through it. She “This one work has to do —  / Let all God’s glory through”, and even this is feasible only by the divine antecedent will and covenant: “God’s glory which would go / Through her and from her flow / Off, and no way but so”. St Bernard, a major articulator of this tradition, remarks simply in his sermons: “It is God’s will that we should receive all graces through Mary”. Bernard of Clairvaux, Sermo VII de Aguaeductu.

The following lines (35 to 45) develop one of the loveliest titles for Mary in Latin devotion: Mater misericordiae, the “Mother of mercy”. Hopkins finds a functional identification between Mary and mercy: We are “wound / With mercy round and round” just as we are by air, and that is because we are also so wound by the “wild web, wondrous robe” of Mary as it “Mantles the guilty globe”.

There are two implications. First, the mercy which is first and foremost an attribute of God, both in Himself and in the saving economy whereby the Holy Trinity reaches out to us, is more palpably itself — that is, so far as human experience is concerned — when God wills that mercy to be mediated by Mary.

Human beings respond more fully to the mercy of God when they receive it from the hands of a mother. Hopkins as believer experiences the Mother of the Lord not merely as an occasional dispenser of divine mercy but as that very mercy: “more than almoner, / The sweet alms’ self is her”. (Of course that must be understood in terms of the interrelation of finite and infinite discussed above.) The second implication can be stated more shortly, as Hopkins himself states it: “men are meant to share / Her life”. It is an appeal to Christians who benefit from Mary’s attention to make some effort consciously to reciprocate.

In lines 46 to 72 Hopkins restates the problem of a confession of the Blessed Virgin’s universal mediation and develops, this time at more length, an explicitly Christological attempt to solve it. First, he reiterates the omnicompetence of Mary’s gracious sub-mediation: “She holds high motherhood / Towards all our ghostly good” (emphasis added). It is her “part” to “lay” — allay, or lay low — concupiscence, man’s potentially fatal trend, even after baptismal regeneration, toward evil, the “deathdance in his blood”. This is the heart of what the ascetic tradition calls holy warfare, and nothing could be more pertinent to our final salvation. So, once again, how can a mere creature receive this role? Hopkins proposes an answer in terms of the mystery of Jesus Christ, the one and only (non-subordinated) “Mediator between God and men” (1 Timothy 2:5).

Any “part” Mary has consists, in one or another way, in disposing us to be the “place” where Jesus Christ comes to be in us. She has no part that will not be “Christ our Savior still”. He continues to take on — mysterically — substantial life in the faithful, as once he did biologically in the womb of her who is, in the words of ancient litany, the “Faith of all the faithful”, the mother of all believers. Hopkins cries out with wonder — “O marvelous!” — at this truth of mystical theology, namely that Christ makes of his members “New Nazareths”, “New Bethlems”.

And he finds here the key to the puzzle of Mary’s universal task in our regard. Her role is precisely to “conceive / Him, morning, noon and eve” in us. And this explains how her mediation is both utterly comprehensive and yet altogether without derogation from the mediation of Christ. Hopkins emphasizes that this is no abstruse theory, since it concerns the ultimate issue in practical reason: my personal raising to nobility of stature. What is at stake is “New self and nobler me”. In his essay “On Personality, Grace and Freewill”, Hopkins called the divine action in sanctifying a person and bringing him to the condition of deification “a lifting him from one self to another self, which is a most marvelous display of divine power”.[The Sermons and Devotional Writings of Gerard Manley Hopkins, ed. C. Devlin, SJ (Oxford 1959)] God appropriately does this through Christ by way of Mary, since the unique Mediator is “Both God’s and Mary’s Son”.

Hopkins would hardly be Hopkins if, thinking about air and its translucence, he did not look up at the sky. And so he bids the reader, “look overhead / How air is azured”. On a fine day, the air above us is shot through with blue, “sapphire-shot”, but that can hardly be said to “stain” light, to detract from its purity. Well, so it is with the grace of God when it comes to men through the hands of our blessed Lady. So far from distorting the real relations of God, man, and the redeemed creation, this Marian impregnation enables them to stand out with greater distinctness. “The glass-blue days are those / When every color glows”. And he adds that “this blue heaven / The seven or seven times seven / Hued sunbeam will transmit / Perfect, not alter it”. Hopkins had worked out this aspect of the controlling analogy of the poem in a sermon given at Leigh in 1879:

St Bernard’s saying, All grace given through Mary: this is a mystery. Like blue sky, which for all its richness of color does not stain the sunlight, though smoke and red clouds do, so God’s graces come to us unchanged but all through her. Moreover she gladdens the Catholic’s heaven and when she is brightest so is the sun her Son.
Sermons and Devotional Writings of Gerard Manley Hopkins, ed. C. Devlin, SJ (Oxford 1959)

As Hopkins declares in the poetic version of this claim, if some change in the light conditions on earth does have an effect in terms of “Bloom breathe” — encouraging the opening of buds into blossom, then that “one breath more / Earth is the fairer for”.

Without that translucent yet protecting atmosphere, by contrast, our earth would be unlivable, such as we can assume planets of thin atmosphere too close to their own suns to be. In an extraordinary disruption of tone, producing an infernal effect worthy of Milton (lines 94 to 102), Hopkins imagines how, if air did not “slake” the sun’s “fire”, the heavens would be transmogrified into a “grimy vasty vault”, the centre of the solar system a “blear and blinding ball / With blackness bound”.

And lest we miss the point he rubs it in. That is how men would look at deity were it not for the Incarnation: “So God was god of old”. The “limbs like ours”, which the humanized Word developed from the body of the Virgin, are what endear the dreadful God of the cosmic spaces to us. Were his glory — his majestic radiance — shown us “bare”, either it would “blind” our minds or at least “less would win” them. The interposing hand of Mary, through which the glory shown in Christ is showered down on us “leaves his light / Sifted to suit our sight”.

The poem ends with a personal appeal from the poet to the Mother of Christ to be with effect for him what he by his words has declared her to be in principle for everyone.




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