Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Magnificent Monarch: Charles II and the Ceremonies of Power

By Anna Keay, approx. 290 pages, $ 27.95, Continuum Books, ISBN 978-1847-25225-8.

Royal ceremonial promotes the power of the monarch. Essential to Charles II's power, he also used it to set his policies and manage the royal household and government officials.

This fascinating book uses meticulous scholarship to portray the ceremony surrounding King Charles II, who reigned from 1660-85 and whose father was beheaded by Parliament in 1649 while he was in exile.

Keay's research has given her intimate knowledge of the king and the people close to him. When discussing the warmth that surrounded the ceremonies of welcoming the king back from exile in Europe, Keay notes that

“in the thick of this extraordinary scene, the king turned to one of his companions and remarked wryly that it must be his own fault he had been in exile for so long, since clearly there was no one in England who hadn't longed for his return.”

This sort of injection of the human, and personal side of things enriches The Magnificent Monarch and gives us a sense of the political importance of royal ceremony. Rather than a trifling or indulgent matter, royal ceremony established the king's relationships with his subjects and with other rulers.

The king often dined alone, unless his royal equal, such as members of his immediate family or visiting royalty, were present. It was out of the question that his nobles would dine with him, as this would indicate some level of equality.

When the king took communion (usually 3 times per year), he did so alone, after all others had gone, to show that he, as king, was not like other people. Who sat on his right hand – often his brother, the future King James II – and on his left at church also established relations in the realm.

Charles' church attendance demonstrated his Anglicanism, a central issue of the day, as the English opposed Catholicism and were suspicious of the king's years in exile, when he had spent so much of his time in Catholic France and Spain. When his brother, the future Catholic King James II stopped taking public communion in the Church of England, it was as good as declaring his allegiance to the papacy.

Keay doesn't jump right in to Charles' court in Britain, but spends considerable time on his life in exile from 1648 to 1660. He spent considerable money and effort on his wardrobe at this time, though he was financially dependent on the royalty of Europe, but again this had to do with the political meaning of ceremony. As king, he could not be outdressed by people of lesser stature.

Ceremony and power became more important once Charles was actually on British soil as king. After years of living it up as a bachelor king, Charles' Queen also played an important role at court. Queen Catherine's evening “circles” (so called because her ladies stood in a semi-circle behind her while she greeted the guests to her drawing room where the socializing occurred) held political importance.

Some government officials and politicians attended the circles just to keep abreast of the court and political news. Keay notes that

“Over and above providing a forum for social and political conversation, the occasion served useful ceremonial and symbolic purposes. The gathering was perfect for public demonstrations of loyalty, favour and inclusion.”

The king manipulated these evenings for political purposes quite deliberately. As a social affair, the circle was a way for him to engage in informal policymaking and negotiating; he could come and go as he pleased, and whisper off in the corner with an important visitor. In explaining these kinds of functions, Keay offers the reader concrete examples, such as the matter of the Great Fire of London in 1666, and how the king was informed of things.

The Magnificent Monarch weds politics, personal and financial matters, and international affairs into an interesting peak at life in the upper society in late Stuart Britain.

An Introduction to Christian Mysticism

By Thomas Merton, 390 pages, $39.95, Cistercian Publications, ISBN 978-0-87907-013-7.

An Introduction to Christian Mysticism opens up the treasures of Christian East and West, starting with the Greek Fathers, essential to any full understanding of Western spirituality. Merton's zealous use of Greek and Latin theological terms makes for a linguistic delight. We learn such terms as mystikos, “the hidden rites of the mystery religions”; apophatic mysticism, “mysticism of darkness, unknowing, or night”; and apatheia, “the freedom from passion,” which is not a bad thing, but rather “the summit of the active life” and necessary for deeper spiritual living.

He also plays around with “gnosis,” a much-abused term bandied about by New Agers, wayward academics, and other hippies.

When reading Merton's discussions of this linguistic heritage, one gets the sense that he really lived the life they describe, especially as the terms that he unearths pertain to the book's central themes. He focuses on the contemplative life, which he as a Cistercian was called to live, and the unity of theology and spirituality.

Merton outlines the view that the Church Fathers, best represented by Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory of Nazianzus, were such orthodox, powerful theologians because they practiced a holistic spiritual theology. They had the intellectual tenets of the faith, yet ardently longed for a deep relationship with God. The theological truths they declared were alive in the persons of the Trinity. This was not mere academic theology, the theology of books and libraries. Merton describes a theology of the heart, a doctrine that came from practice. The theological tenets were personal issues for these early teachers.

According to Merton, some Greek writers, then, take over the term mystikos “and use it in reference to the spiritual (mystical or typological) sense of Scripture. For them the mystical sense is the real sense.” In other words, they change the word, but only as a way to articulate their lived experience of God and His Scripture. Merton describes their spiritual world as being quite rich because of the unity of theology and spirituality, summing up well this union: “One might say that for the Fathers the letter tended to be doctrine and law, the spirit tended to be reality and life.”

An Introduction to Christian Mysticism describes with precise examples and explanations where, when, and by whom the split between theology and spirituality took place in medieval Latin Christendom. Merton argues that Saints Bonaventure and Albert the Great were two of the few Latin medievals who managed to keep the unity.

By the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the split began to create real difficulties. Put rather simply, on the one side, the Church at its worst tended towards worldliness and abuse of Church office, but where its neoscholastic theology “was becoming more and more a speculative science and less and less a wisdom,” Merton notes. On the other side, many Rhineland mystics and Beguines tended to turn away from the institutional, sacramental Church, towards individualistic experiences (witness all the spiritual autobiographies of this time) and weird, non-orthodox teaching. Merton notes that while the mendicants, especially the Dominicans, were the spiritual directors of these often-female mystics, these clergy were often strongly influenced by the lay spirituality.

Moving ahead, during the early modern era, spiritual directors became a central part of Church life, for lay people, clergy, seminarians, and the cloistered. Again, from his own lived experience, Merton discusses the qualities of a good spiritual director, trying to pry his audience away from the belief that spiritual direction is simply a form of counseling. He returns to the earliest Christian examples, showing how the director must be someone who has lived the life, and can therefore share something of himself with his novice. Unlike the professional coldness of modern psychological counseling, the spiritual director is a spiritual father.

By wedding spirituality, theology, and philosophy with a great deal of Church history and a short discussion of modern psychology and counseling, Merton's study advances our woefully inadequate knowledge of centuries of Christian spiritual warriors, who formed the core of the Church that itself formed the core of Western civilization.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Marriage: The Dream That Refuses to Die

By Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, 191 pages hardcover, ISI, $25, ISBN 978-1-933859-62-0.

While the late Fox-Genovese spends most of her time discussing the history of marriage and why it's good for society, she also skillfully uncovers the philosophical roots and spiritual ramifications of the unraveling of marriage as a norm in society.

Fox-Genovese should know, with her career in the feminist, left-wing dominated academic world and a late convert to Catholicism after tiring of feminist hyper-individualism. In Marriage, she opposes the “complacency and self-satisfaction” which she sees at the root of the culture of death.

She does not advocate a simple return to the situation where fathers ruled the roost. She advocates authentic community based on true respect for others. The current context of rights-as-entitlements threatens human relations by reducing them to contractual obligations that individuals can leave at any moment. Such a view reduces the family to an ever-changing collection of individuals using the family for their own good.

No true family community or culture can thus develop, as family groupings are always changing and appearing and disappearing from existence as individuals come and go from these structures. Mirroring Margaret Thatcher's “there is no society,” Fox-Genovese warns that “Our unprecedented privileging of the individual has reduced the ties that bind us to society to a mere fiction – and a contested fiction at that.”

Fox-Genovese uncovers the roots to this problem in the feminist belief that all human relations subordinate women. Feminists therefore “end by attacking all binding ties as obstacles to women's liberation.”

Feminists have enjoyed short-term gains for their constituency in the form of almost non-existent sexual morality and the acceptance of careerism and gross individualism. Religion has also been changed, to where people now make demands of religion rather than the opposite. The churches have failed, for whatever reason, to stem or even try to stem the tide towards unencumbered individualism and the resulting social disintegration.”

More importantly, women's sexual freedom has come at tremendous cost to real relationship, and has benefited only a certain kind of man. First, abortion rights removes children from the concern of men. Second, “the sexual liberation of women has realized men's most predatory sexual fantasies.”

Most importantly, Marriage traces the close but unintentional relationship between the feminist movement and wild west capitalism. Making all human relations contractual, as feminists have aimed to do, plays in to the hands of big business by leading to the “commodification of personal relations.”

Feminism's rejection of community offers large corporations their dream of access to atomized, unconnected individuals who can move anywhere in the world. Unencumbered labor is a great achievement of big business, even if the corporations themselves didn't directly bring this about. This law of unintended consequences actually leads to a dramatic loss in personal power, as people become beholden to corporate behemoths. Previously, the family acted as insurance against the control of big business by offering people a safety net against joblessness and an alternative, more deeply-connected cultural world.

“Throughout the globe,” Fox-Genovese writes, “multinational corporations are drawing people out of traditional families and communities, binding some individuals to the prospects of new possibilities, while condemning their kin to the dustbins of the cities or the dustbowls of the villages.”

She then puts her finger on the new, awesome power of corporations, which have built an almost totalitarian capitalist society, aided by feminism's destruction of marriage and the family: “The greatest – and most awesome – power of the global economy lies in its ability to touch everything. In this respect, it acts as the ultimate solvent of the bonds that shape and guarantee our humanity – our intrinsic worth and dignity as persons.”

In other words, despite all the cultural and social destruction that feminists have done in the name of women's empowerment, feminism has actually lost to the corporations.

Fox-Genovese urges her reader again and again to realize that the family is the best hope humans have and the “last best ground for resistance” against oppression. Feminists, in other words, are dead wrong.

Marriage takes a large overview of the post 60's Kulturkampf, and echoes Pope John Paul II, who believed that communism and savage capitalism were two sides of the same materialist, individualist, culture of death coin. Feminism on the left and unrestrained capitalism on the right are different constellations of the same thinking. Feminists, Fox-Genovese believes, have completely missed this reality.

This excellent book digs into the roots and history of marriage and the troubles we are experiencing now, even as it discusses the unintended consequences of selfishness and an unloving ideology.

Jesus Shock

By Peter Kreeft, St. Augustine’s Press, 2008
168 pages, $17.00.

Peter Kreeft brings Christianity alive. He turns his rejection of churchiness into a direct, passionate invitation to a personal relationship with Christ. He doesn't sound like an evangelical, though he clearly sees the power of their preaching, and believes that people need this kind of energetic proclamation.

Jesus Shock argues that evangelical Protestants are right in talking to the world of the personal God and in particular about one's relationship with Christ. However, they are wrong, Kreeft claims, in their rejection of the Real Presence.

Kreeft makes the innovative and thought-provoking claim that the Reformation and resulting split between Catholics and Protestants has not been about Justification by Grace. He cites the fact that this has already been healed between the Lutherans and the Vatican.

The real division brought about by the Reformation has always been about the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. This has led to a whole series of secondary yet extremely important and telling differences between Protestants and Catholics that last to this day.

Kreeft invites evangelicals to fulfill their longing for the presence of Christ by accepting the Catholic Church and its teaching on the Real Presence. He even dreams of a powerhouse Catholic-Evangelical union.

“Most of institutional Christianity is a fireplace without much of a fire; and most of Pentecostal or charismatic Christianity is a fire without much of a fireplace. The first is a body without a soul; the other is a soul without a body... When the two are perfectly united, the Church will win the world again.”

The beauty and truth of the Eucharist find expression in the Church in its beautiful art, especially in the cathedrals. Only the Real Presence, he asserts, could have inspired such artistic beauty and the sacrifices that it took to build such beautiful worship houses that pushed poverty-stricken societies in medieval Europe to their limit.

Jesus Shock claims that the current lack of new artistic beauty in the Church – to the extent that the Middle Ages saw – comes from the lack of faith in the Real Presence among Catholics:

“I have often wondered at the cause of those dreary, faithless Modernist parishes and 'Catholic' colleges whose religion is all vague, abstract slogans and ideologies ('compassion,' 'peace and justice,' 'sharing and caring,' 'celebrating community,' etc.). They always focus on what we do, both in the liturgy and the world, instead of what God does. Their faith in the Real Presence is so missing that they don't even know what's missing.”

These words attest to the fact that Kreeft addresses the “sissiness” of many Catholics. Rather than follow the “mushy” politically-correct theologies of mainstream Catholic and Protestant theologians, we must once again realize that Jesus came to bring the sword, came to divide, came to fight. Christianity is a revolution -- and not a mushy one, but a revolution that fights the demonic forces of this world.

Christianity is not for the faint of heart because of these life and death spiritual battles, clashes that are nonetheless as real as any military conflict. Kreeft calls for the end of sissy Christianity, and a return of the Christian warrior and knight. His masculine imagery asserts that right is right and wrong is wrong, and no amount of psychologizing can lessen the evil nature of something. Evil exists, and Christians are called to respond.

Jesus-Shock is the work of someone who has a personal relationship with Jesus, and whose inner spiritual landscape revolves around the people in the Bible, especially in the New Testament. When he turns to Scripture, he does not comment on the passage. Like many evangelical preachers, he knows these people as if they are his family. Kreeft discusses Martha and Mary, or Mary Magdalene, as if he knows them personally.

Jesus-Shock is therefore less a theological or philosophical argument, and more a personal testament and witness to the personal God.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia – and How It Died

By Philip Jenkins, $32.95, HarperCollins Publishers, 2008, 314 pages hardcover.

“Our accepted chronology of the ancient church is wrong: ancient Semitic Christianity dies out not in the fourth century, but in the fourteenth century.” Thus Jenkins repeatedly challenges Anglo-American Christian Eurocentrism. He shows that Middle Eastern and Asian Christianity, largely Nestorian or Syriac, thrived culturally, theologically, and materially for centuries. The European believers were in the spiritual and intellectual backwater.

The Oriental Christians were much more orthodox than we have taken them to be. They rejected the gnosticism and apocryphal writings just as solidly as the Orthodox and Latins did, despite Elaine Pagels' claims to the contrary. The entire Christian family for centuries, in fact, was largely in sync.

The Middle Eastern and Asian landscape up to the fourteenth century in many areas was a spiritual landscape of monasteries, Christian shrines and pilgrimage routes, great learning centers, and ancient metropolitan sees. “Before Good King Wenceslas ruled a Christian Bohemia, Samarkand and Patna all achieved metropolitan status,” the author notes. One drawback to The Lost History of Christianity is the total lack of photos of once-Christian buildings, such as in Syria, and artwork from Cappadocia and other now-Muslim areas.

Oriental Christians used their spiritual wealth to spread the faith as far as China and perhaps even to Korea and Tibet. Throughout many lands, Christian and Buddhist monasteries stood side by side, while Christians read Buddhist scriptures and even helped translate some Buddhist writings into Chinese and other languages.

Countless such examples testify to a Christian culture much more advanced than the one in Europe until the Renaissance. Islam did not simply take over this deeply entrenched religious civilization. Instead, Jenkins points out that we have misread history by stressing difference and conflict over peace, tolerance, and influence.

The two religions theologically, spiritually, and culturally blended into each other to a surprising degree according to The Lost History of Christianity. Sufism was a way for Christian converts to more easily identify with the new religion, as this Islamic path emphasized saints and pilgrimage, and personal mystical spiritual experiences, much as Christianity did. In fact, many aspects of Islamic practice originated in Eastern Christianity, and Muslim converts from the older religion reinforced Christianity's influence on the new religion by continuing many of their previous practices.

As was also the case with Asian Christianity's relationship to Buddhism from time to time, religions were not as exclusionary as now. The old church buildings often became mosques, much as pre-Christian European pagan temples had become churches. Jenkins argues convincingly that Islam was in countless respects a continuation of previous, Christian practices; Syriac and Nestorian ghosts haunted the new religion for centuries.

Ironically, Oriental Christianity nourished Islam more than it did Greek or Latin Christianity. These latter two Christian groups all but ignored their brother Christian's existence. This has been a heavy loss to this day: “For a thousand years, Syriac Christians produced scholars and thinkers who could be set beside the best of their Greek and Latin contemporaries, and who shaped the emerging world of Islamic science and philosophy.”

Even now, who is aware of the eleventh-century “Syriac Renaissance,” and even what that means? In fact, Jenkins notes, “virtually all these works [from the period] are now lost,” sometimes due to Islamic belligerence, but also because of European and Byzantine indifference to aiding and learning from the Syriac Christians. This is doubly ironic because many Christian dissenters, persecuted in the Orthodox Byzantine Empire, had often left for the relative freedom of more eastern lands, including the various Islamic states.

The great strength of The Lost History of Christianity is Jenkin's refusal to whitewash the Islamic persecutions of the Oriental Christians, which reached high points in the globally miserable fourteenth and the European-expansionist nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

In the first instance, climate change led to crop failures throughout the known world. Coupled with the conversion to Islam of the warrior Mongols, the Christian communities stood little chance of surviving the pogroms despite being so deeply-entrenched. Jenkins could have offered more information on this sad piece of history.

While the Christian powers France, Britain, and Russia spent the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries carving out the Ottoman Empire, Muslim Turks and Arabs in that empire committed genocide against Armenian, Greek, and Assyrian Christians, leaving very little of a once far-reaching culture.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Parallel Empires: The Vatican and the United States – Two Centuries of Alliance and Conflict

By Massimo Franco, 240 pages, Doubleday, $26.00, ISBN: 978-0-385-51893-2.

America and the Vatican are like 2 cousins who have gone in very different directions, but, having common roots and overlapping agendas, keep running into each other. The relationship at its various political, cultural, and social levels swings between estrangement and familiarity.

In looking at the institutions of governance, and also at important individuals involved in this complicated relationship, Franco never loses sight of the fundamental difference between the 2 powers. America in its heart is a Protestant country, and the Vatican is the heart of Roman Catholicism.

Anti-Catholicism has often been alive and well in the United States, refreshed by new arrivals from Europe who brought negative experiences and views with them: “[T]hese settlers brought with them a heavy burden of bitter memories of a Europe divided by a pitiless and bloody religious conflict,” with alienation between, for instance, Catholics and German Lutherans in nineteenth-century Cincinnati.

Franco ties together particularly well the social, cultural context of mainly-Protestant America with higher-level relations between Washington and the Vatican. He tells the fascinating story of a Vatican diplomat, the apostolic nuncio to Brazil, Cardinal Gaetano Bedini, and his visit to America in 1853. Since Bedini was nuncio to Brazil, Washington did not have to follow diplomatic niceties, so it didn't.

Americans, even Catholic Americans and some of their bishops, were concerned about the separation of church and state. Bedini spent weeks traveling through the country, and faced hostile reactions from anti-Catholics who feared that American Catholics could never give their whole hearts to their country because of the influence of the papacy.

The diplomat's “nightmare visit,” which he recorded and sent to Rome, “betrays the fear and dismay of someone who has come face-to-face with an alien, baffling, and even menacing world,” a place with “a passionate, anti-papist sentiment he had never before experienced.”

Franco gives a fascinating account of the contrast between egalitarian, democratic, even skeptical America, and the heavily traditional, hierarchical Catholic Church. That contrast, as well as the deep American desire to separate church and state, heavily complicated Vatican-American relations until Ronald Reagan.

Yet a visit to the 1892 Chicago Exposition by Archbishop Francesco Satolli, to oversee a loan of ancient and renaissance artifacts, was an unexpected success. Satolli toured around the U.S. much as Bedini had years earlier, trying to convince people that Rome did indeed respect America's political system. “He showed no fear of American liberty; rather he embraced it and declared that the Roman papacy now shared the same principles.”

Ironically enough, when Satolli's status changed during his stay “from distinguished visitor to the Chicago exposition to apostolic delegate to the Catholic episcopate of the United States,” it was the American bishops who were unenthusiastic, “fearful that the assignment of an Italian would strengthen the image of Catholicism in some quarters as the religion of foreigners.”

Franco's fascinating tale continues until about midway through the book, including the important details of American-Vatican relations during the Second World War and during Pope John Paul II and Ronald Reagan's battle to open up the Iron Curtain, during which the “normalization” of relations between the 2 states is discussed.

After this point, Parallel Empires gets bogged down in the politics and spin surrounding George W. Bush's wars in the Middle East, and the Vatican's responses.

Do we really need to know all about Bush's hard drinking days and a lengthy discussion on those pesky neo-cons in the White House? How is the minutiae of Vatican diplomacy to Iraq in the weeks preceding the beginning of the Second Gulf War more important than much of the early history between the Vatican and Washington over which Franco skims or ignores. This early foundation will have a much greater bearing on future relations than an unpopular president's unpopular wars will have.

While Parallel Empires is an interesting and good read at this time, its imbalance means that it will become dated and boring very quickly, given the rate of political change.