The Use of Talking

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Behind the Mask: The Confessions of a Viator Vagans 2

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We, who remember, look back to the blossoming May-time
On ghosts of servers and thurifers after Mass,
The slapping of backs, the flapping of cassocks, the play-time,
A game of Grandmother’s Steps on the vicarage grass—
“Father, a little more sherry?—I’ll fill your glass”

                                            —John Betjeman, “Anglo-Catholic Congresses”

I loved being an Anglo-Catholic. I loved the music, the ritual movements, the smoke, the Cranmerian and Jacobean prose, the deep but undemonstrative piety of seventeenth-century saints like George Herbert; I still relish the beautiful story Isaak Walton tells about Herbert:

In another walk to Salisbury, he saw a poor man with a poorer horse, that was fallen under his load: they were both in distress, and needed present help; which Mr. Herbert perceiving, put off his canonical coat, and helped the poor man to unload, and after to load, his horse. The poor man blessed him for it, and he blessed the poor man; and was so like the Good Samaritan, that he gave him money to refresh both himself and his horse; and told him, “That if he loved himself he should be merciful to his beast.” Thus he left the poor man; and at his coming to his musical friends at Salisbury, they began to wonder that Mr. George Herbert, which used to be so trim and clean, came into that company so soiled and discomposed: but he told them the occasion. And when one of the company told him, “He had disparaged himself by so dirty an employment,” his answer was, “That the thought of what he had done would prove music to him at midnight; and that the omission of it would have upbraided and made discord in his conscience, whensoever he should pass by that place: for if I be bound to pray for all that be in distress, I am sure that I am bound, so far as it is in my power, to practice what I pray for. And though I do not wish for the like occasion every day, yet let me tell you, I wou1d not willingly pass one day of my life without comforting a sad soul, or shewing mercy; and I praise God for this occasion. And now let’s tune our instruments.”

And on a less exalted level, I enjoyed the sense of being a member of a party in the church, secretly envying the nineteenth-century vicars persecuted and imprisoned for wearing chasubles and reserving the Sacrament on the altar. There was still back then a feeling of daring, of tweaking the establishment with our Corpus Christi processions and our Solemn Benediction on Sunday evenings. We tittered over the RCs who didn’t realize that ours was an Episcopal parish; we feigned outrage over reports of a low-church bishop who presented his Masonic ring to be kissed by the faithful.

There were less attractive things as well: a rather camp sensibility that sometimes flirted with cynicism., and snobbery, aesthetic, intellectual, and social. People would refer to the Catholic church as “the place where the servants go” and yet take a certain satisfaction in any sign of recognition from the “Romans.” (“Did you hear that so-and-so didn’t have to repeat any sacraments when they received her?”) We thought we could take what we wanted from Rome (and perhaps a bit from the Orthodox), including the beautiful things she was in the process of discarding, and leave what we didn’t like.

And we took a lot: fiddleback chasubles (though we preferred Gothic—ours were silk, theirs were polyester); incense (we mixed our own); Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament; auricular confession; the Rosary; Tenebrae (what a feeling of awe mixed with sensory pleasure when, after what seemed hours of psalms and lessons, all chanted, the last altar candle was extinguished and the choir—ours was professional—sang Allegri’s “Miserere” from the Lady Chapel); St. Blaise’s Blessing (we had the special candle holder and candles); the feasts of the Conception (we dropped the Immaculate, though the choir sang of our Lady, “there is no spot of sin in thee”) and the Assumption; and on and on.

As for what we left . . . “the bishop of Rome and all his enormities.” Many of our parishioners were refugees from those enormities, because they were gay or divorced or had problems with Humanae Vitae or had an unsympathetic confessor or got mad at the pastor or the bishop, or missed the decorum and beauty of the Old Rite. So we left the bishop of Rome’s Jesuitical casuistry, his unreasonable expectations for human conduct, his déclassé clergy, and his (in ICEL English at least) banal liturgy.

I owe many things to my Anglo-Catholic days: a love of the liturgy and its music, a respect for sound learning, a spirituality grounded in the mass and the daily office, a preference for unspectacular piety, and friends who have been and still are very important to me. But along with all that was an undercurrent of disquiet. There was always a buzz, now louder, now softer, about who had “Roman fever” and who was poised to become Orthodox. There is a built-in instability to the Anglo-Catholic position, caught as it has usually been between the real religion of its church body and its own Catholic aspirations. (See, for example, Newman’s Anglican Difficulties.) At the time, before the gender and sexuality wars that have since rent the Episcopal church, with the more Catholic tendency (as I viewed it) of the 1979 Prayer Book and the spread of vestments, candles, and crosses and other Catholic externals throughout the church, that was not as evident as it is now, but it was there. What I did with that disquiet remains to be told.

To be continued.

Written by hans castorp

January 14, 2012 at 8:29 pm

Behind the Mask: The Confessions of a Viator Vagans 1

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I am a Catholic. I started my Christian life as an Anglo-Catholic; having come to believe all that the Catholic and Roman Church teaches, for nearly thirty years I have been an unhyphenated one. I came to faith late, from a rather smug and cynical atheism, and that is still my mind’s (or better, my imagination’s) default position. It was my reading in my late teens that pointed me in a different direction—Eliot and Auden, Dostoevsky and Dante, Tolkien and C. S. Lewis. At the same time I’d met a graduate student at the university I was attending, a learned, opinionated, witty, and extraordinarily generous young man. An observant Jew, he was “at home” every Friday night in his off-campus apartment to any of us who wanted conversation. From him I learned, inter alia, that it was still possible to be brilliant and a believer.

So I took to reading theology lite—in the Lewisian vein—and church history. There was a huge Episcopal cathedral down the street from my dorm, and I took to paying it Larkinesque visits and riffling through the Book of Common Prayer. I only attended a service there once, however, on Easter, when the ever-so-well-bred bishop knocked with his crozier on the great bronze doors while fanfares peeled from the state trumpet, reputed to be the most powerful organ stop in the world. I appreciated it as spectacle, but couldn’t connect to it as prayer.

Then one weekend my graduate student friend needed help with his exhibit table at a political youth conference at a midtown hotel. On Sunday morning, our friends wanted to go to church, and one of them suggested an Episcopal church a few crosstown blocks away. I had been intrigued by the church’s ads in the Saturday newspaper—”Catholic Worship, Liturgical Music, Gospel Preaching”—and even more by the fact that it was mentioned in a memoir about Eliot. The worship (High Mass, they called it) was unlike anything I had ever seen before: the large sanctuary area flooded with light; sacred ministers in beautifully embroidered silk vestments, attended by a flock of acolytes in cassock and cotta; chant and polyphony rendered by a professional choir; traditional hymns accompanied by a world-class organist (his improvisations were astonishing) on a wonderful instrument; the magnificent language of the Prayer Book and the Authorized Version; billows of incense nearly hiding the altar. And in the middle of all that beauty, there was a space where I found I could pray.

The Catholic churches in those first-fresh-winds-of-Vatican II times had nothing comparable to offer. Latin had vanished almost overnight, and the English, while not as Romper-Roomish as it was to become, was no match for Cranmer. Roman Rite church music had begun its slide into the morass of simpering cantors and pop banality. There, I couldn’t pray. Here, I could. So four months later I got up my courage to attend Sunday mass on my own; a few weeks after that, I summoned even more courage and spoke to the rector. By the time another four months had passed, I had been baptized and invited to serve at the altar. One year to the liturgical day after I first walked into high mass, I was confirmed in the Episcopal Church by the ever-so-well-bred bishop.

This, of course, is a very superficial look at my Anglo-Catholic conversion. Or maybe it was just a very superficial conversion. At any rate, it’s the beginning of the meandering path that’s got me to where I am as I start this blog. For more of the story, stay tuned.

To be continued . . .

Written by hans castorp

December 1, 2011 at 6:56 pm

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