Georgetown in early autumn

It’s starting to feel like autumn in earnest at this point. Each morning becomes somewhat less inviting in terms of getting out of bed, but stepping out for the first time each morning also feels a bit better as the chillier air greets you and forces you more fully awake. A few of the scenes below are Saint Matthew the Apostle, and there’s one of two from my walk to/from work, but most are from Georgetown:

We might have our first snowfall within the next month or so.

Cemeteries and charnel houses

Allan Barton writes on an older Christian attitude toward burying and living with our ancestors:

As a historian I have long been perplexed by the modern notion that churchyards can be become ‘full’ and that we are running out of burial space for the dead. The idea that our historic churchyards with the marked graves of long-forgotten Victorians and Georgians, cannot be reused for the burial of modern people, is a bizarre notion and is at variance with the traditions and ideas of past generations, including the Victorians and Georgians who now dispossess our generation of the right to be buried in God’s acre. In the past the grave was not considered to be private, alienable property that could be occupied for perpetuity, the churchyard was considered a communal space that individuals borrowed to enable the clean and efficient decomposition of their shrouded corpses. Human remains would be kept within the confines of the church and churchyard for perpetuity, but the concept that an individual grave space was yours and yours alone, was unknown.

When I was Rector of a benefice in Norfolk, one pleasant September afternoon I went to conduct my first funeral in one if my four medieval churches. My first act as incumbent was to deal with a rather fine specific of a human jaw bone, complete with an excellent set of gnashers, which was presented to me by the churchwardens.  After I had conducted the funeral in the churchyard, the jaw bone was popped back into the ground as part of new grave’s infill. That was the way we operated in this church, one of my predecessors had the good sense to start to re-use part of the churchyard that had last been used in the eighteenth century. When new graves were cut the bones of the dead were quite often disturbed and were usually added to the infill of the new grave by the gravedigger to one side of the new coffin. In doing that we were to all intents and purposes following the pattern that persisted in past centuries. The defleshed bones of the long dead, made way for the freshly dead corpses of the current generation. This whole process was both pragmatic and sensible and a churchyard never came to be filled.

In many medieval images of the burial of the dead from illuminated manuscripts you can see such a process being undertaken, though with a bit less dignity and decorum than in my former parish churchyard. In the French images I share on here of that subject matter, the gravediggers manhandle shrouded corpses into their last resting place in a shallow grave, while around the graves, lying on the ground are the skulls and bones of those accidentally exhumed in the process.

Notice in the image above the little painted grave markers that mark the burial place. For both economical and for practical purposes, these were made of wood.  Intended to last a generation or two at the most, they lasted just long enough for the deceased pass out of mind. Unlike the stone headstones favoured in the recent past, they were designed to decay and to be temporary.

Rather than returning the bones to the ground as part of the grave infill, it was quite common in the later medieval period, for the bones disinterred during the digging of graves, to be added to a communal bone hole or a structure called a charnel house. …

The bones were originally arranged in heaps against three walls of the chamber. Long bones in stacks, skulls on the tops of each heap. In the Middle Ages the walls of the end wall of the chamber was painted and in the nineteenth century there were still faint traces of an image of the Resurrection of Christ, wonderful fitting for a chamber devoted to those awaiting the general resurrection.

There’s one of these old-style churches in Lewes, Delaware—with its little cemetery in what would be the well-manicured front lawn of a modern suburban church. The Lewes church I’m thinking of looks precisely like what it is—something from another time. I found the description of the burial and charnel house practices of the past shocking, frankly. But maybe some movement toward those practices might help shock us into remembering that it’s not a tidy gravesite that we should look forward to, but rather the resurrection itself. If we’re overly concerned with the former, we’re probably not concerned enough with the latter.

Newman the failure

At age 79, when John Henry Newman heard the news that Pope Leo XIII had made him a cardinal, he said: “The cloud is lifted from me forever.” John Henry Newman is now a saint, but for much of his life he felt like a failure. Fr. Ian Ker reflects on “the saint whose life was ‘a history of failures'”:

John Henry Newman’s life can well be described as one of continual failures, if only because that was how he saw it. “All through life things happen to me which do not happen to others – I am the scapegoat,” he wrote.

He was sad to think, as he looked back on his life, how his time had been “frittered away” and how much he might have done, had he “pursued one subject”. His life seemed to be just “a history of failures”. He had been “so often balked, – brought into undertakings – then left in the lurch”. Plan after plan had “crumbled [in his] hands and come to nought”. When he was 60 he wrote that, although not “true to the letter”, he felt that he could say he had “received no piece of (personal) good news for 30 years and more”, nothing but “sorrows” and “anxieties”; all his works had failed.

As an undergraduate at Oxford, Newman performed disastrously in his finals, failing mathematics and only attaining the lower division of the second class in Classics. Exactly seven years later, he suffered a nervous collapse while examining finals papers and had to withdraw. As a tutor at Oriel College, he wanted to stop the practice of undergraduates having to hire private tutors from among recent graduates and considered it preferable for college tutors to provide tuition as well as the usual lectures. However, the Provost disapproved of the change that Newman and his colleagues introduced in 1828, and Newman was effectively dismissed as a tutor.

Also in 1828 he was invited by the Bishop of London to become one of the Whitehall preachers, an acceptance he subsequently withdrew in 1832 when he discovered the bishop’s theological liberalism. In 1830 he was dismissed as secretary of the Church Missionary Society because of a pamphlet he had written. In 1834 he failed to be appointed to the chair of moral philosophy.

As leader of the Oxford or Tractarian Movement and the principal architect of its theology of the via media, or “middle way”, he began, six years after starting the movement, to have doubts. These culminated in 1841 with the publication of Tract 90, which sought to interpret the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England in a Catholic sense. This was condemned first by the vice-chancellor and heads of colleges and proctors, and then by successive bishops. Finally, in 1845, Newman renounced the via media and the Oxford Movement, convinced that the Catholic Church was the true Church.

The disappointments and failures of Newman’s Catholic years were at least as grim as those of the Anglican years.

I think it can be easy to think that striving for virtue should lead to worldly success, in material and professional and other senses. But it’s probably more often the case that striving for virtue and friendship with Christ fortifies us in facing the failures that will inevitably confront us, in major or minor ways. In so many ways, Newman is a saint of our time as much as he is a saint for every era.

Bishop Barron and others hope Newman will be named a Doctor of the Church. I hope he is.

Saint John Henry Newman

Pope Francis canonized John Henry Newman a saint today. Here is the banner hanging at the Vatican in Rome today:

2019-10 John Henry Newman Banner.jpg

Saint John Henry Newman writes in An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine on something I’ve thought about at different points—the seeming challenge to faith that is the presence of many Christian elements in other faiths, places, and periods:

Now, the phenomenon, admitted on all hands, is this:—that great portion of what is generally received as Christian truth is in its rudiments or in its separate parts to be found in heathen philosophies and religions. For instance, the doctrine of a Trinity is found both in the East and in the West; so is the ceremony of washing; so is the rite of sacrifice. The doctrine of the Divine Word is Platonic; the doctrine of the Incarnation is Indian; of a divine kingdom is Judaic; of Angels and demons is Magian; the connexion of sin with the body is Gnostic; celibacy is known to Bonze and Talapoin; a sacerdotal order is Egyptian; the idea of a new birth is Chinese and Eleusinian; belief in sacramental virtue is Pythagorean; and honors to the dead are a polytheism. Such is the general nature of the fact before us; Mr. Milman argues from it,—”These things are in heathenism, therefore they are not Christian:” we, on the contrary, prefer to say, “these things are in Christianity, therefore they are not heathen.” That is, we prefer to say, and we think that Scripture bears us out in saying, that from the beginning the Moral Governor of the world has scattered the seeds of truth far and wide over its extent; that these have variously taken root, and grown up as in the wilderness, wild plants indeed but living; and hence that, as the inferior animals have tokens of an immaterial principle in them, yet have not souls, so the philosophies and religions of men have their life in certain true ideas, though they are not directly divine. …

What man is amid the brute creation, such is the Church among the schools of the world; and as Adam gave names to the animals about him, so has the Church from the first looked round upon the earth, noting and visiting the doctrines she found there. She began in Chaldea, and then sojourned among the Canaanites, and went down into Egypt, and thence passed into Arabia, till she rested in her own land. Next she encountered the merchants of Tyre, and the wisdom of the East country, and the luxury of Sheba. Then she was carried away to Babylon, and wandered to the schools of Greece. And wherever she went, in trouble or in triumph, still she was a living spirit, the mind and voice of the Most High; “sitting in the midst of the doctors, both hearing them and asking them questions;” claiming to herself what they said rightly, correcting their errors, supplying their defects, completing their beginnings, expanding their surmises, and thus gradually by means of them enlarging the range and refining the sense of her own teaching. So far then from her creed being of doubtful credit because it resembles foreign theologies, we even hold that one special way in which Providence has imparted divine knowledge to us has been by enabling her to draw and collect it together out of the world…

John Garvey writes on Newman’s friendships:

Cardinal Newman never married, but warm, sincere, and lasting friendships—the kind that we so seldom form through digital interactions—gave his life richness. He cultivated them with his neighbors in Oxford and, after his conversion to Catholicism, at the Birmingham Oratory. He sustained them in his correspondence, some 20,000 letters filling 32 volumes.

In one of his sermons, delivered on the feast of St. John the Evangelist, Newman reflects on the Gospel’s observation that St. John was “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” It is a remarkable thing, Newman says, that the Son of God Most High should have loved one man more than another. It shows how entirely human Jesus was in his wants and his feelings, because friendship is a deep human desire. And it suggests a pattern we would do well to follow in our own lives if we would be happy: “to cultivate an intimate friendship and affection towards those who are immediately about us.”

On the other hand, Newman observes that “nothing is more likely to engender selfish habits” than independence. People “who can move about as they please, and indulge the love of variety” are unlikely to obtain that heavenly gift the liturgy describes as “the very bond of peace and of all virtues.”

And Dan Hitchens writes on Newman’s faith:

…if someone really has faith, they must believe that God is entirely good, and that he loves us. The submission to divine truth is the foundation of a love affair. Being a nineteenth-century Englishman, Newman didn’t like to go on about it, but there are moments when we glimpse what his life was all about:

[Saint John Henry Newman writes:] “I see the figure of a man, whether young or old I cannot tell. He may be fifty or he may be thirty. Sometimes He looks one, sometimes the other. There is something inexpressible about His face which I cannot solve. Perhaps, as He bears all burdens, He bears that of old age too. But so it is; His face is at once most venerable, yet most childlike, most calm, most sweet, most modest, beaming with sanctity and with loving kindness. His eyes rivet me and move my heart. His breath is all fragrant, and transports me out of myself. Oh, I will look upon that face forever, and will not cease.”

“There is something inexpressible” about the way in which the communion of saints draws us closer to the Author of life.

Georgetown Half Marathon

I ran the Georgetown Half Marathon this morning along the C&O Canal Towpath, the third and final C&O Canal Towpath race I’m doing this year.

I registered for the Georgetown Half back in March, after my poor performance in the Washington Rock ‘n Roll Marathon. It was after registering for the Georgetown Half that I learned about the September and October marathons I ran, so in a sense today felt like closing a chapter I had started in the spring.

It was a beautiful morning for a run along the towpath. We started at 9am, all 400+ runners at once, and that meant the first 2-3 miles were very crowded. As runners started to break out into different pace groups, I found another guy who was at an aggressive but steady pace and we ended up running together for essentially the entire 13.1 miles.

Georgetown Half Marathon was a record for me, both in terms of time for a half marathon and in terms of overall pace for a distance run. I finished at 1 hour, 40 minutes at a 7:36 pace.

Before this morning, I had only run one other half marathon—a trail half marathon eight years ago in Philadelphia’s Pennypack Park.

Trivialization of the erotic

Fr. Matt Fish shared this from Walker Percy’s Lost in the Cosmos earlier this month, describing Percy as addressing “the demoniac spirit of the erotic, and what happens when the sexual mode of transcendence becomes all used up and can no longer hide the self from itself:”

What is the relationship between the two? Are they merely, as one so often hears, the paired symptoms of a decaying society like the fifth-century Roman Empire? Or is there a reciprocal relationship? That is to say, is a thoroughly eroticized society less violent and a thoroughly violent society less erotic?

Or, the more ominous question: Suppose the erotic is the last and best recourse of the stranded self and suppose then that, through the sexual revolution, recreational sex becomes available to all ages and all classes. What if then even the erotic becomes devalued? What if it happens, as Paul Ricoeur put it, that, “at the same time that sexuality becomes insignificant, it becomes more imperative as a response to the disappointments experienced in other sectors of human life”?

What then? Does the self simply diminish, subside into apathy like laboratory animals deprived of sensory stimulation? Or does the demoniac spirit of the self, frustrated by the failure of Eros, turn in the end to the cold fury of Saturn? …

Will the ultimate liberation of the erotic from its dialectical relationship with Christianity result in

(a) The freeing of the erotic spirit so that man- and womankind will make love and not war?

or (b) The trivialization of the erotic by its demotion to yet another technique and need-satisfaction of the organism, toward the end that the demoniac spirit of the autonomous self, disappointed in all other sectors of life and in ordinary intercourse with others, is now disappointed even in the erotic, its last and best hope, and so erupts in violence—and in that very violence which is commensurate with the orgastic violence in the best days of the old erotic age—i.e., war?

Everybody was thinking about battles

In 1909, Frank W. Boreham wrote:

“A century ago, men were following, with bated breath, the march of Napoleon, and waiting with feverish impatience for the latest news of the wars. And all the while, in their own homes, babies were being born. But who could think about babies? Everybody was thinking about battles.

“In one year, lying midway between Trafalgar and Waterloo, there stole into the world a host of heroes! During that one year, 1809, Gladstone was born at Liverpool; Alfred Tennyson was born at the Somersby rectory, and Oliver Wendell Holmes made his first appearance at Massachusetts. On the very self-same day of that self same year Charles Darwin made his debut at Shrewsbury, and Abraham Lincoln drew his first breath at Old Kentucky. Music was enriched by the advent of Frederic Chopin at Warsaw, and of Felix Mendelssohn at Hamburg, Samuel Morley, Edwin Fitzgerald, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Francis Kemple. But nobody thought of babies. Everybody was thinking of battles. Yet viewing that age in the truer perspective which the distance of a hundred years enables us to command, we may well ask ourselves, ‘Which of the battles of 1809 mattered more than the babies of 1809?’

“We fancy that God can only manage His world by big battalions abroad, when all the while He is doing it by beautiful babies. When a wrong wants righting, or a work wants doing, or a truth wants preaching, or a continent wants opening, God sends a baby into the world to do it. That is why, long, long ago, a babe was born at Bethlehem.”

“In one year, lying midway between Trafalgar and Waterloo, there stole into the world a host of heroes! … But nobody thought of babies.”

Excerpted from Boreham’s Mountains in the Mist.

Keeping the faith in demoralizing times

I got back into Washington this afternoon, cleaned up, and headed to Georgetown University’s downtown location for “Keeping Faith in Demoralizing Times,” a panel discussion hosted by the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life:

This Salt and Light Gathering for young Catholic leaders in public life will explore how to live with faith, hope, and charity at a time of division in the United States, crisis in the Catholic Church, and paralysis in Washington, DC. Four remarkable leaders will share their experiences and the lessons they have learned regarding how to work with integrity and maintain your principles in the midst of growing public hostility, polarization, and disengagement. The gathering will ask how young people of faith with a shared commitment to human dignity and the common good can live out that faith in both their professional and personal lives.

This wide-ranging conversation will reflect the diverse perspectives and experiences of its participants: two Washington Post columnists and two young leaders at the intersection of faith and public life.

Michael Gerson is a Washington Post columnist and a policy fellow with the ONE Campaign. He was a speechwriter for President George W. Bush and a former senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Elizabeth Bruenig is a Washington Post columnist and editor who focuses on religion, politics, and culture. She was a 2019 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her series on teen sexual assault victims in her hometown of Arlington, Texas.

Jeanné Lewis is the vice president and chief engagement officer at the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy. She also serves as a board member for Faith in Public Life and is a member of St. Augustine Catholic Church in Washington, D.C.

Montse Alvarado is vice president and executive director at Becket Law. She is a consultor to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Committee for Religious Liberty and a member of the Fellowship of Catholic University Students’ President’s Advisory Council.

John Carr, director of the Initiative, will open the gathering. Kim Daniels, associate director of the Initiative, will moderate the conversation.

It was a good conversation and a chance to see new and old friends.

The marvel of an ordinary life

I caught a 5pm Amtrak to Philadelphia earlier and am visiting for 12 hours or so. It’s good to be here, even briefly. I’m short on time; sharing something I saw recently:

“Do not ask your children
to strive for extraordinary lives.
Such striving may seem admirable,
but it is the way of foolishness.
Help them instead to find the wonder
and the marvel of an ordinary life.
Show them the joy of tasting
tomatoes, apples and pears.
Show them how to cry
when pets and people die.
Show them the infinite pleasure
in the touch of a hand.
And make the ordinary come alive for them.
The extraordinary will take care of itself.”

—William Martin

Abortion before the court

The U.S. Supreme Court will consider the issue of abortion for the first time in three years:

The U.S. Supreme announced today that it will hear the petition filed by June Medical Services, a Louisiana abortion business, and the cross-petition filed by the State of Louisiana. The cases provide the Court with the first opportunity to speak to the abortion issue since the Hellerstedt decision three years ago, and potentially the continued viability of the constitutional right to abortion announced in Roe v. Wade (1973) and affirmed in Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992).

“Americans United for Life welcomes the Supreme Court’s decision to review both the commonsense Louisiana admitting privileges law and the legal question whether an abortionist should be able to stand in the shoes of his patients to challenge a medical requirement that is designed to protect them from him,” said AUL’s President, Catherine Glenn Foster. “Louisiana’s long and sordid history of dirty and dangerous abortion businesses being shuttered one by one in order to protect women from fly-by-night and dangerous abortionists should tell the Court all it needs to know, both about the legal benefits of this law and the dubious right of abortionists to sue to overturn laws designed to protect their own patients.”

June Medical’s petition seeks review of the constitutionality of a Louisiana law requiring all abortion doctors to have admitting privileges – the ability to directly admit a patient from the abortion clinic into a nearby hospital when emergencies arise – within thirty miles of their abortion facility. The U.S. Supreme Court held a similar Texas provision unconstitutional in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt in 2016, but did not rule on the overall validity of such provisions. Louisiana now argues that since its admitting privileges law would leave abortion centers open in both population centers in the state, it does not create an “undue burden” on abortion access in Louisiana in violation of Casey.

Abortion law has been a mess for decades. We’ll see how things look in 6-9 months.