Review of Diary of a Country Priest

What was it about?

An unnamed curé [country priest] of Ambricourt keeps a journal to track his spiritual and pastoral progress. The curé’s responsibilities include teaching catechism classes, administering the sacraments, and paying visits to a wealthy family in the region. Unfortunately, the Great War shattered many people’s spiritual worldviews. The curé finds himself in a hostile parish community. Gossipers accuse him of being a drunk and a womanizer, and the curé has a knack for saying the wrong things at the wrong time. His friend and spiritual director, the curé of Norenfontes, tries to shatter our country priest’s naiveté. He tells him that injustice and poverty will always exist. The priest of today should have more modest expectations. He should fulfill his pastoral duties but not overwork himself. The curé of Norenfontes seems to take a flippant attitude to our country priest’s troubles. The curé of Ambricourt suffers from loneliness, poverty, and crippling stomach pains. Journal d’un Curé de Campagne [Diary of a Country Priest] by Georges Bernanos is about the joys and tribulations of an unnamed country priest living between the two world wars.

What did I think of it?

The curé of Ambricourt encounters one hardship after the other. He would like to do something wonderful for God, but he often feels like a failure. Paradoxically, the beauty and power of this work is found not in the curé’s successes but in his seeming failures. He is not a hero. Despite being a priest, he faces the same hardships as others. He experiences spiritual dryness to the point of agnosticism. Often in literature, priests are depicted as heroes or villains, but in Journal d’un Curé de Campagne, the curé of Ambricourt is an ordinary man. I have a journal filled with poignant passages from the book, but not all of them come from the curé. He doesn’t have all of the answers.

Georges Bernanos in Journal d’un Curé de Campagne challenges popular perceptions of sanctity. The curé doesn’t run a thriving parish. He is not always what Kierkegaard would call a “knight of faith”, but he is nonetheless a good priest. Though we would all like to be the authors of our own lives, Bernanos shows how so much of what happens in our lives is out of our hands. Sometimes what is planned is the most negligible while the unplanned ends up being the most significant because of events we could not foresee. I highly recommend Journal d’un Curé de Campagne both for its elegant prose and its quiet message. If you enjoyed Gilead by Marilynne Robinson or Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather you will most definitely enjoy the Diary of a Country Priest. If you can read French, I recommend reading the book in its original language because there is much in the French language that just cannot be translated.

Favorite Quotes

“A nous entendre on croirait trop souvent que nous prêchons le Dieu des spiritualistes, l’Etre suprême, je ne sais quoi, rien qui ressemble, en tout cas, à ce Seigneur que nous avons appris à connaître comme un merveilleux ami vivant, qui souffre de nos peines, s’émeut de nos joies, partagera notre agonie, nous recevra dans ses bras, sur son cœur.”

[My translation]: To hear us one would think that we preach the God of the spiritualists, a supreme Being or something, nothing that resembles in any case the Lord that we have learned to know as a marvelous living friend who suffers from our hurts, is touched by our joys, [who] will share our misery, will receive us in his arms, [and] in his heart.

“O merveille, qu’on puisse ainsi faire présent de ce qu’on ne possède pas soi- même, ô doux miracle de nos mains vides !”

[My translation]: What wonder that one can in this way make present what one does not possess oneself, o the sweet miracle of our empty hands!

Review of Murder in the Cathedral

What was it about?

Murder in the Cathedral by T.S. Eliot is a play in verse about the murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket in 1170 in Canterbury Cathedral. Caught up in one of the perennial conflicts between pope and emperor, Thomas Becket is exiled to France. Upon his return to England, four tempters try to prevent him from assuming his role as archbishop. They remind him of the power he had as Lord Chancellor to Henry II prior to his ordination. In view of more pleasant alternatives, why risk martyrdom?

What did I think of it?

Thomas Becket’s tomb was the site of a popular pilgrimage in the late Middle Ages. He was venerated as a holy archbishop who defended the Church against the encroachments of the State. Becket represented not only a good person but a man who defended a particular model of Church and State. Eliot rightly explores Becket’s murder from this latter perspective. Becket is not humble and peace-loving but arrogant and power-seeking. I really enjoyed this play. Despite its short length, the play packed a punch. It explored questions relating to Church and State that are debated still today in England. I also loved the style. I know that not everyone will enjoy a play in verse, but the repetition of imagery and language heightened the drama. The critics are right to compare this play to Saint Joan by George Bernard Shaw. They are both excellent!

Favorite Quote

“Peace. And let them be, in their exaltation.
They speak better than they know, and beyond your
understanding.
They know and do not know, what it is to act or suffer.
They know and do not know, that action is suffering
And suffering is action. Neither does the agent suffer
Nor the patient act. But both are fixed
In an eternal action, an eternal patience
To which all must consent that it may be willed
And which all must suffer that they may will it,
That the pattern may subsist, for the pattern is the
action
And the suffering, that the wheel may turn and still
Be forever still.”

Review of Pierre Abélard’s Historia Calamitatum

Abélard and Héloïse in the manuscript Roman de la Rose (14th century)

What was it about?

When you hear the word “scholasticism” what do you think of? I know that when I hear the word I generally think of Thomas Aquinas and his colossal (but unfinished) system Summa Theologica. Scholasticism was a way of doing theology that emerged in late 11th century Europe and was often considered the only acceptable way of doing Catholic theology well into the 20th. But not all scholastics were Thomists or even Catholic. Anselm of Canterbury, Pierre Abélard, Albert the Great, Peter Lombard, and John Duns Scotus (to name only a few) were all scholastics. Some of their followers were even rivals of the Thomists. There were also Protestant scholastics. Some of the early Lutheran and Reformed theologians were scholastics – adopting or redefining scholastic categories to teach the faith.

Pierre Abélard (1079-1142), along with Anselm of Canterbury, was one of the first scholastics. He was a brilliant logician, and one of the founding members of what came to be the University of Paris. He had a huge following and was well respected, until some started accusing him of being non-Trinitarian. In response to a request to prove the Trinity logically, Abélard wrote a book called Sic et Non (Yes and No). Unfortunately, the book was condemned by his rivals, and as a result he was forced to burn his own book at the Council of Sens.

Abélard, however, is not know today for his brilliant but tumultuous theological career. He is known instead for his love affair with a student he tutored named Héloïse d’Argenteuil. Abélard was invited by Héloïse’s uncle to teach his niece philosophy, but Abélard used his position of authority to get Héloïse to sleep with him. She had a son with him, and though they both tried to hide the child, the uncle took revenge by having Abélard castrated in the middle of the night. Héloïse spent the rest of her life as a nun, writing letters to Abélard for spiritual advice.

Historia Calamitatum is Pierre Abélard’s autobiography of his theological career and his affair with Héloïse.

What did I think of it?

How can you judge a person who lived over 800 years ago? While I was reading Historia Calamitatum, I felt like Abélard’s affair with Héloïse would be categorized today as statutory rape. He is an arrogant man who uses his position of authority to manipulate a young woman. But Héloïse is not weak; she is just as brilliant as Abélard. In her letters to Abélard (not included in the Historia Calamitatum), she demonstrates a surprising amount of agency. While I was disgusted by this philosopher’s personal life choices, I pitied him too because his writings were often misrepresented by his opponents. Historia Calamitatum reminded me of the politics that (for better or for worse) have shaped Christian teachings throughout the centuries. As one of the first scholastics, Abélard was strongly condemned by the more influential monastics who often considered reason at odds with faith. Historia Calamitatum bears witness to the tension that existed between the monastics and the scholastics at the start of the second millennium. I am glad to have been introduced to such a complicated figure as Pierre Abélard.

Who Am I? – Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) was executed 70 years ago today for his involvement in the Abwehr conspiracy against Hitler. He was a German Lutheran pastor, theologian, ecumenist, and member of the Confessing Church. His Letters and Papers from Prison and Ethics have been some of the most influential books in my life.

While in prison, Bonhoeffer wrote a poem called Who Am I? Here it is:

Who am I? They often tell me
I stepped from my cell’s confinement
Calmly, cheerfully, firmly,
Like a Squire from his country house.

Who am I? They often tell me
I used to speak to my warders
Freely and friendly and clearly,
As thought it were mine to command.

Who am I? They also tell me
I bore the days of misfortune
Equably, smilingly, proudly,
like one accustomed to win.

Am I then really that which other men tell of?
Or am I only what I myself know of myself?
Restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,
Struggling for breath, as though hands were compressing my throat,
Yearning for colors, for flowers, for the voices of birds,
Thirsting for words of kindness, for neighborliness,
Tossing in expectations of great events,
Powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance,
Weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making,
Faint, and ready to say farewell to it all.

Who am I? This or the Other?
Am I one person today and tomorrow another?
Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,
And before myself a contemptible woebegone weakling?
Or is something within me still like a beaten army
Fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?

Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am thine!

Introduction to Kierkegaard

I know that  a few bloggers have recently been interested in reading the works of Søren Kierkegaard. I have been reading his books off and on for almost 4 years, and I find the experience very rewarding. Because he was such a prolific writer, it is hard to give a brief introduction to Kierkegaard’s opus, but I am going to try to do that now:

Who Was Kierkegaard?

Søren Kierkegaard (pronounced ‘Surn Kierkegore’) was born in Copenhagen, Denmark on May 5, 1813 (yes, last year was his 200th birthday), the son of the hosier Michael Pedersen Kierkegaard. Søren was the youngest of seven children, but five of his siblings passed away before reaching adulthood. Michael was a strict pietist; a “very stern man, to all appearances dry and prosaic, but under his ‘rustic cloak’ demeanor he concealed an active imagination which not even his great age could blunt.” There has been much speculation concerning the reason(s) for Michael’s temperament and the extent to which he influenced Søren’s personality and authorship. According to Søren’s journal entries, Michael spent his childhood as a shepherd on the moors of Jutland. His life was hard; he was constantly cold and hungry. One day, in a bout of desperation, Michael stood on a hill and cursed God. In later years, due to the death of his wife and children, Michael became convinced that God had cursed his whole family in punishment for his one great act of defiance. His father’s deathbed confessions caused Søren great anxiety.

Michael wished for his sons to become pastors in the National Church. Søren obeyed his father, studied philosophy at the University of Copenhagen, and eventually was ordained. However, Kierkegaard felt called to a different vocation: writing. He suffered from anxiety and depression principally caused by a knowledge of his own sinfulness. Kierkegaard ultimately felt that he could not fulfill the duties required of a husband and broke up his engagement to a woman named Regine Olsen (pronounced ‘Regina Elsen’ with a hard ‘g’). The breakup was painful for both people because Søren loved his fiancée and Regine never learned the real reason for the breakup.

Although Kierkegaard was ordained in the Danish National Church (full name: Evangelical Lutheran Church of Denmark), he only preached two sermons in his whole life. A profound conversion experience along with an increasing dissatisfaction with the state of Christianity in the National Church prompted Kierkegaard to write a series of books under a variety of pseudonyms. In this so-called first authorship, Kierkegaard employed the Socratic dialectic. The pseudonymous authors of these works do not fully share Kierkegaard’s life views. In fact, it seems to me that Kierkegaard vehemently disagrees with some of the authors. Although he would be upset with me for blowing his cover, I think it is important for you to know that Kierkegaard is trying to deceive the reader into Christianity. In Denmark, where everyone was Christian from birth, Christianity had become nothing more than a label. It was merely a cultural and national identity. He felt that established Christianity (what he called “Christendom”) had “abolished Christianity”. He hoped that people, through his pseudonymous works, would start asking themselves the tough questions about self, life, truth, special revelation, and authority. In addition to his dislike of cultural Protestantism, Kierkegaard was very critical of Hegelianism. Hegel had placed faith as one stage in world history, but it wasn’t the highest stage. The Hegelian system had influenced the Danish theologians and pastors to the detriment of Christian truth.

Kierkegaard’s second authorship was written under his own name and included a series of unspoken sermons which he refers to as “upbuilding discourses”. These are my favorite of Kierkegaard’s works. There is so much more that I could say about his books, but Kierkegaard writes for “that singular individual”. He doesn’t deny objective truth, but truth must become subjective (must be truth for me) otherwise knowing the truth is pointless. I plan on re-reading (or reading for the first time, as the case may be) all of his pseudonymous works this year. Some of his books are reasonably priced on Amazon. Others are quite expensive. Not everyone has access to a research library so I will propose a few lists to get you started. There is no correct reading order. Any order will do; however, always take into account the author. If it is a pseudonymous work remember that Kierkegaard may not completely agree with the author. That work may only explore one side of a debate.

 

What I Will be Reading in 2015

Either/Or Vol. I and II – edited by Victor Eremita (in Latin: “Victorius Hermit”)

Fear and Trembling – Johannes de Silentio (in Latin: Silent John)

Repetition – Constantin Constantius

Prefaces – Nicolaus Notabene

Concept of Anxiety – Vigilius Haufniensis (in Latin: The Watchman)

Philosophical Fragments – Johannes Climacus (in Latin: John of the Ladder)

Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments – Johannes Climacus (5x longer than Philosophical Fragments!)

Sickness Unto Death – Anti-Climacus (the only Christian pseudonym; also the author of Practice in Christianity which I reviewed here)

The Book on Adler by Petrus Minor (Lesser Peter)

 

Recommended Pseudonymous Works 

If you do not have access to a research library, these are the pseudonymous works I recommend:

Either/Or – an abridged version translated by Alastair Hannay (Note: I do not recommend you begin with this work as you can become easily discouraged. He is really deceiving you here.)

Concept of Anxiety – translated by Alastair Hannay or Howard & Edna Hong (arguably his most difficult work; you are introduced to Angst)

Fear and Trembling – translated by Alastair Hannay (I recommend you start with this one. It is an exploration of the story of Abraham and Isaac.)

Practice in Christianity and/or Sickness Unto Death – translated by the Hongs

 

Favorite Upbuilding Discourses

If you are interested in his overtly Christian works (the upbuilding discourses), I recommend:

Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing

Works of Love (this work and Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing are, in my opinion, some of the greatest Christian devotionals of all time)

For Self-Examination/Judge For Yourselves (reminds me so much of Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer)

Provocations: Spiritual Writings of Kierkegaard (an anthology of quotes from Kierkegaard’s works. I warn you that some may come from his pseudonymous works, but it is still a fantastic collection, comparable to Pascal’s Pensées. Incidentally, it is available online here.)

 

Miscellaneous 

A work that doesn’t fit in either authorship is The Present Age: The Death of Rebellion. If you only read one work by Kierkegaard, read this one. It is very prescient.

 

The Translations

And finally, a note on the available translations.

Walter Lowrie was instrumental in introducing Kierkegaard to the English-speaking world in the 1940s. Kierkegaard has influenced so many movements: the Neo-Orthodox and Liberal theological schools, Phenomenology, Christian existentialism, and (to a lesser degree) atheistic existentialism. Lowrie’s contribution to Kierkegaard scholarship is great, but his translations are clumsy and archaic. Kierkegaard is hard to read even in the original language. I don’t want to deceive you. His writing is repetitive and adjective-rich. You need patience, but like I said before, reading his works is rewarding. Many of Lowrie’s translations will make you pull your hair out so avoid him if you can.

David and Lilian Swenson have translated many of Kierkegaard’s upbuilding discourses but almost all of them are out of print. They are a bit easier to read than Lowrie’s translations, so if you are forced to choose between Lowrie and the Swensons, take the Swensons. Walter Lowrie did work with David Swenson for years.

Howard and Edna Hong are the greatest translators. Their translations include extensive endnotes as well as entries from Kierekegaard’s journals. They can be very expensive, but you can sometimes find relatively cheap used copies on Amazon. They are the best.

Alastair Hannay has not translated most of Kierkegaard’s works, but his books are the least expensive. The translations are good although not as excellent as the Hongs’ translations. Last March he published a new translation of Concept of Anxiety. I haven’t read it yet though.

 

A Great Online Resource

This is an extremely long post, but I hope what I wrote is helpful. There is an amazing blog on Kierkegaard that you should reference when you have questions. The blogger made very thorough posts about each and every one of Kierkegaard’s works. Unfortunately, he passed away some years ago.

 

In the Bleak Midwinter

 In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.

 

Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him, nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away when He comes to reign.
In the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.

 

Enough for Him, whom cherubim, worship night and day,
Breastful of milk, and a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, whom angels fall before,
The ox and ass and camel which adore.

 

Angels and archangels may have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim thronged the air;
But His mother only, in her maiden bliss,
Worshipped the beloved with a kiss.
What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.

 

—Christina Rossetti

Review of L’Annonce Faite A Marie (The Annunciation of Mary)

2253660What was it about?

L’Annonce Faite A Marie (The Annunciation of Mary) is a 1912 play in four acts by Paul Claudel. The drama is centered around a young woman named Violaine who contracts leprosy from a friend (Pierre de Craon) and is banished from her family by her jealous sister Mara. At the start of the play, Violaine learns that Pierre, who is a stonemason and a builder of cathedrals, is suffering from leprosy. As a show of compassion, Violaine kisses Pierre. But Violaine is engaged to be married to Jacques Hury, the same man whom Mara loves. Mara conspires with her mother to break up the relationship between Violaine and Jacques. Mara approaches Violaine and informs her sister that she knows the truth about her condition. Without a warning, Violaine leaves home to live alone in a cave outside of the village. Shortly afterward, Anne Vercors, the father of the household, sets off on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Everything seems to be going in Mara’s favor, but her luck soon runs dry. She is not as “in control” of her life as she thinks. Written in the style of a medieval mystery play, L’Annonce Faite A Marie has more than just an earthly dimension; it has a pronounced cosmic dimension. There are miracles in the play of Biblical magnitude. Violaine is not merely a pitiful character. Her suffering has a spiritual significance, one that the characters discover over the course of this lengthy play.

What did I think of it?

Although the play is a little over three hundred pages long, I got through it in the space of two days. This is a play unlike any other written in the last century. As I mentioned above, it is written in the tradition of the medieval mystery plays. Therefore, the audience is expected to know something about the Christian faith. The Mass and the Angelus feature prominently as well as a few earth-shattering miracles. Like much of Claudel’s works, there is no real frontier between the earthly and the spiritual. God’s hand guides the action. L’Annonce Faite A Marie really caught my attention as I have a great interest in medieval French hagiography particularly in the context of performance. I welcomed the blending of the sacred and the profane, and (for the most part) appreciated what Claudel was trying to accomplish through his play. However, I was shocked by the ending. The whole play was an emotional roller coaster ride. There was one life-changing event after another. And I enjoyed it. I raced toward the end hoping that there would be a neat conclusion, but there wasn’t one. Mara’s character continues to baffle me. I wanted her to develop as a person, and evidently she does, but her development is so subtile that I missed it the first time I read Act IV. I have since reread the last act along with the alternative ending. Although I understand the endings more than the first time I read them, I can’t honestly say that I’m satisfied. L’Annonce Faite A Marie definitely challenged my expectations. I have a tendency to expect a certain kind of ending from stories. I hope to reread the play sometime soon because I was so emotionally involved throughout most of it. In fact, I have never experienced such emotions whilst reading a play. If you like reading plays, I highly recommend this one despite my reservations about the ending because it is different than anything you’ve probably ever encountered.