St. Ambrose and hymnody

St. Ambrose of Milan is, unsurprisingly, best remembered for his role in the conversion of St. Augustine of Hippo.  Many also remember him for his humbling of the Emperor Theodosius.  At Orthodox Vespers the other night, this was a recurring theme in the hymns.  He is also well-remembered for the dispute surrounding the Altar of Victory.

But how many remember him as the writer of many a hymn (see the list at the CyberHymnal)?

Indeed, St. Ambrose was a hymnist.  And why not?  Who better to supply the people of Milan with hymns than their bishop?  Especially when we consider that they didn’t really have any Latin hymns before St. Ambrose.

What? No hymns?

It seems that congregational singing — ie. everyone singing a hymn together — was an innovation in the West on the part of St. Ambrose.

Furthermore, although we have a certain amount of pre-Ambrosian Christian Latin poetry, the only hymnist who predates dear St. Ambrose is Hilary of Poitiers (c. 300-368).  Not only this, but Christian Latin poetry doesn’t really start rolling until the fourth century, anyway.

Why?  Because poetry is pagan, of course!  No, seriously — poetry’s relationship to paganism, ribaldry, and myth gave it a certain stigma in Rome, thanks to such illustrious Romans as Plautus, Terence, Virgil, and Ovid.  Oh, and Catullus.  Dirty, dirty Catullus.  Anyway, poetry was not associated with the sorts of things Christians liked to be associated with.  Nevertheless, Christians did write poetry in the 300’s, like Juvencus’ harmony of the Gospels in epic meter.

Anyway, there weren’t very many Latin hymns to go around in St. Ambrose’s day, anyway.  So he wrote a bunch and encouraged the whole congregation to sing.  I imagine it must have been like Vespers the other night with Fr. Raphael singing everything alone.  So here’s a hymn of Ambrose for you today, translated by Carolinne M. White in Early Christian Latin Poets:

Splendor paternae gloriae

Radiance of the Father’s glory
Bringing forth light out of light,
Light of light and source of all light,
Daylight, illuminating days,

True sun, come down upon us,
Shining with brightness eternal,
And pour forth into our minds
The Holy Spirit’s brilliance.

Let us pray to the Father, too,
Father of eternal glory,
Father of all-powerful grace,
To rid us of seductive sin

And to fill us with energy,
Blunt the tooth of the envious,
Support us in times of hardship
And give us the grace to endure.

May he guide and control our minds
In bodies pure and full of faith;
May our faith be fervent, burning strong,
Far from the poisons of deceit.

Let our nourishment be Christ,
Let our refreshment be the faith,
Let us with joy drink in the Spirit
Who inebriates us soberly.*

May this day be spent joyfully;
May our purity be like the dawn,
May our faith be like the noontide,
May our minds never know the dusk.

As dawn moves steadily on her course
May the Dawn entire advance,
In the Father the Son entire,
In the Word the Father entire.

*Albert Blaise notes this as typical of Christian Latin’s love of anithesis (Manuel du Latin Chretien)

Happy Bible Sunday!

In the days of one united Prayer Book and lectionary, Anglican circles called this Sunday, the Second of Advent, “Bible Sunday” because of the Collect:

Blessed Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ.  Amen.

The epistle reading is similarly Bible-focussed: Romans 15:4-13.

We would do well to pray this collect over and over again, for, like many of Cranmer’s little masterpieces,* it is a sermon unto itself.  We learn first (regarding the Bible; no doubt an entire homily could be preached on “Blessed Lord”):

  • God caused all holy Scriptures to be written

This alone is to give us pause when we recall some of the things we hear, such as that the NT writers were choosy in their selection and not everything in them is historically true.  Like the Virgin Birth.  Or the Resurrection.  Or the very idea of Jesus being God-in-flesh.  If God caused all holy Scriptures to be written, then we should take these passages and doctrines very seriously before moving on to:

  • written for our learning

The purpose of this writing of Scripture was our learning.  The Bible is there to teach us.  We are to learn from it.  How?  Cranmer shows us next:

  • hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them

The Word of God is to be proclaimed and read aloud.  I believe this applies even to today when most of the population is literate.  The spoken word, as an action, has force and power different from the printed word.**  We are also to read it ourselves, though.  Sunday morning is not enough; our involvement with the Scriptures is to be personal.  As we read the words of life, we are also called to mark them, learn them, and inwardly digest them.

That last phrase, “inwardly digest them,” is among my favourite Prayer-Book phrases.  As we study the Scriptures, we aren’t just supposed to observe them critically as we would the Aeneid or the Tome of Leo.  We are to digest them.  They are to enter into our very being and become part of us.  This is a very dynamic, very physical image.  And what is the result of our intimate acquaintance with the Scriptures?

  • by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life

The Scriptures give us patience — endurance through suffering — and comfort — strength.  Through this endurance and this strength, we come to a place where we are able to embrace — again, a very personal verb — and hold fast — imagine someone holding onto a rope so as not to fall into a chasm — the blessed hope of everlasting life.

The Christian hope is not simply the hope of a better world, the hope of temporal joy, the hope of moral improvement but the hope of eternity for those who put their trust in Jesus, in God, Whose character is displayed to us on the pages of the Bible.

And whence does our hope come?

  • our Saviour Jesus Christ

The Christocentrism of Reformational thought (I acknowledge that there was/is much Christocentrism in Catholic thought; I am not speaking of Catholics, though) comes forth.  Our hope of eternity comes from Jesus.  Cling to him whom we have found in the pages of the Scriptures and we cling to our hope, we cling to eternity and escape from death.  This is a good thing.

So we should all read our Bibles, and read them carefully, so that we can come to know better the God who saves us through Jesus Christ and be transformed and cling to the hope of everlasting life.

*I hereby acknowledge Archbp. Thomas Cranmer’s debt to the Gelasian and Gregorian Sacramentaries.  Part of his genius was in selection and translation, part in adaptation of the tradition, part in original composition.

**My own adaptation of Walter J. Ong, Orality and Literacy.

The Katabasis of Father Brown: Descent in “The Sign of the Broken Sword”

SPOILER ALERT!  What follows is a sort of commentary/essay on G.K. Chesterton’s story “The Sign of the Broken Sword.”  If you wish a. not to have any of the story spoiled and b. to know what exactly I’m talking about, read it first.  It is not long.  Then, come, read this post!

A katabasis (Latinised as catabasis) is, according to Raymond J. Clark in Catabasis: Vergil and the Wisdom Tradition, is a descent to the Underworld by a living human being in the flesh — ie. not a divinity, not in a dream, not necromancy.  Many katabaseis involve the hero of the story going to Underworld to fetch back a person or gain knowledge, thus requiring a favour of the Queen or King of the Dead, such as dread Persephone, Lord Pluto, or Ereshkigal.  The most famous katabasis in all of western literature is that of Dante in his Inferno, vol. 1 of The Divine Comedy.  This descent was patterned on that of Aeneas in Virgil’s Aeneid, Book VI; other mythological heroes to descend include Herakles and Orpheus.

The katabasis has survived into modern literature as well.  Two recent examples, both of them framed on Classical myth, are found in Gods Behaving Badly by Marie Phillips and The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan.  Themes and images of descent make their appearance in less explicit places as well, however.  “The Sign of the Broken Sword” is one such place, beginning with a descent from the churchyard into the woods, and out again at the inn at the end.  Along the way, Father Brown and Flambeau wrestle with a mystery that itself is a descent into villainy, horror, and treason.

Our first clue that Chesterton has written us a katabasis comes in the first paragraph as he is setting the stage and setting the oppressive, heavy mood that persists throughout the story.  In describing the forest, he writes:

The black hollows between the trunks of the trees looked like bottomless, black caverns of that Scandinavian hell, a hell of incalculable cold.

First, Chesterton is not merely imagining that Hell would be a place of cold for northern peoples, an inverse of the Mediterranean Christian Hell of fire.  Hel in Norse mythology is the name of the goddess of the Underworld, one of the children of Loki (himself god of mischief), and she rules over an Underworld of cold ice — as Chesterton says, “a hell of incalculable cold.”  At first reading, I assumed Chesterton was merely making the hell reference to produce the weighty mood that he sought.  Such is not the case, as further evidence of katabasis, of descent, rears its head as our main characters walk away from the monument to General Arthur Saint Clare and make their way into the woods — into hell itself.

The first clue is merely incidental, but not to be missed — they are leaving an old graveyard, the earthly abode of the dead.  There is no more appropriate place to begin a descent to the Underworld than a graveyard, if you ask me.  Another piece of corroborating evidence is found as our protagonists pass “many hundreds of grey and ghostly trees” — strikingly reminiscent of the shades of the dead who abide in Hades, even described as “ghostly”.  And that this hell is Scandinavian is kept within the reader’s awareness by the description of the moon as being “like a lustrous snowball”.

At one point, Brown and Flambeau pass from one bit of forest to another.  As they are about to plunge into the depths of the next piece of wilderness, we read of Flambeau:

He stared firmly at the grey facade of forest in front of him, with the one black gap in it, like the mouth of the grave, into which their path plunged.

They are descending into “the mouth of the grave” — into Hell itself.  As they move through hell, at one point a tree branch curves against the white face of the moon — described as a “devil’s horn.”  As the evil of the narrative discussed by Father Brown and Flambeau unravels and becomes clear, they plunge through dark corridors and blackness.  The path grows steeper, more convoluted and twisted, the deeper into the tale of General Saint Clare they tread.  Ghostly language is used even to describe the spare light to be found in the wood at night, “a ghost of a net”.

We eventually reach a firmer reference to Hell once Father Brown has unravelled the clues and is about to relate to Flambeau the whole horrid, wretched story of evil:

“I mean that,” retorted the cleric, and suddenly pointed at a puddle sealed with ice that shone in the moon. “Do you remember whom Dante put in the last circle of ice?”

“The traitors,” said Flambeau, and shuddered. As he looked around at the inhuman landscape of trees, with taunting and almost obscene outlines, he could almost fancy he was Dante, and the priest with the rivulet of a voice was, indeed, a Virgil leading him through a land of eternal sins.

Thus, Father Brown is leading Flambeau through Hell.  Flambeau is like Dante, Father Brown like Virgil.  The Hell is one of coldest ice, a Scandinavian Hell as found in the wintry wood of Chesterton’s story.

And as Father Brown draws his story to a close, Flambeau sees the warmth of the light of the inn at which they shall rest come story’s end.  The katabasis will be soon over.  At the end, they emerge from the woods, from Hell, and come back to our world, to an inn, the Sign of the Broken Sword.

Saint of the Week: Dante Alighieri, Supreme Poet of Italy

The Salutation of Beatrice by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Throughout Christian history, two ways of living, praying, meditating have co-existed, generally peacefully.  One of these ways is the Way of Negation, the way of denial, of asceticism, of apophatic theology (to describe God only by what He isn’t).  The other is the Way of Affirmation (or something — apologies if I’m wrong; correct me in the comments!), the way of joyful living, of cataphatic theology (to describe God by the attributes revealed in Scripture & reasoned from the universe).  Both are needed, I believe, and most of us fall a little bit in each.

The latter type of believer includes such luminaries as C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton, the other has St. Antony and Dionysius the Areopagite.  In his masterful history of the Spirit at work in the Church, The Descent of the Dove, Charles Williams places Dante Alighieri (c. 1265-1321) amongst those who tread the Way of Affirmation.

Dante lived bountifully.  In La Vita Nuova we do see a little bit more swooning than would be appropriate in our culture or even in actual 13th-century Florence.  However, this swooning was because he was grasping life so fully, not denying what was there in Beatrice and thus living the earthly life given by Almighty God to its very fullest extent.

He is best known, however, not for swooning over Beatrice, but for La Divina Commedia, The Divine Comedy, a work in three volumes: Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso.*  The first volume is the only I have yet to read; we begin with Dante’s journeys in Hell, right to Satan’s belly, with Virgil as guide.  Thence Virgil takes him to Purgatory; my friend Andrew finds Purgatory quite amusing — it is rumoured to be the most original of the three.  And Beatrice leads him through Paradise.

I know people who are obsessed with being lame, so they say things like, “Dante’s Inferno is just a really long version of Book VI of Virgil’s Aeneid.“**  Yes, Dante reworks a lot of Virgil’s material.  But he does it in a thoroughly Christian, thoroughly Mediaeval way (since neither the Renaissance nor Florentine Renaissance actually happened [along with the “Dark Ages”], Dante is pure Mediaeval awesomeness).  Dante’s Hell is not simply the place where the wicked are punished in various curious ways.

It is you.

Yes, you are Dante’s Hell.  Don’t worry — you’re also Purgatory and Paradise.  A Christian story is not simply beautiful, but beauty that points to Truth.  And the Truth we see in Hell is the embodiment of all of our sins, from pettiness to treason.  The Inferno is an unveiling of the messy, unpleasant business we call “fallenness.”  Do what you will with Genesis 2-3 — there may be funnier, more “life-affirming” creation stories out there*** — but it relates a basic truth about our lives.  We are all screwed up.  We all have Hell within.

If all Dante did was moan about Hell and how to avoid it, then he would fall firmly in the category of “The Way of Negation.”  But he moves on from Hell, to Purgatory and, ultimately, Paradise.  We have these places in us as well.  Made in the Image of the Living God, there is glory and beauty in the human race.  We are not designed to wallow in the filth of our own sin.  We are designed for the glory and beauty of Paradise, accessed through the work of Purgatory.

Thus, the Divine Comedy.  If this were all Dante Alighieri had written, he would deserve an account in every Church History textbook.  However, he was also a great scholar and populariser of the vernacular, as in De Vulgari Eloquentia (in Latin here).  He also got entangled in local politics, getting himself exiled.  Finally, he was a Third Order Franciscan (and we all know my love for St. Francis) — indeed, if we count Dante among the Great Franciscans, St. Francis died in 1226, St. Bonaventure lived from 1221 to 1274, and Dante was born in 1265.  They all overlapped and all have had a powerful impact upon the thoughtlife of the Christian world.

So read a little Dante today, for there you will find a man plugged into the Fountain of Life.  There you will find a man thoroughly engrossed in the world of his day — political, intellectual, poetic — yet who did not lose sight of the one God worthy of praise.

*In Dorothy L. Sayers’ translations for Penguin, that would be Hell, Purgatory, Paradise.

**This is the lame sort of person who can see nothing but political propaganda in the Aeneid.

***The Blackfoot one related by Tomson Highway in “Why Cree is the Funniest of All Languages,” (in Me Funny ed. Drew Hayden Taylor) is certainly funnier.


I’m thinking of changing the title of this blog to “irrelevant”, maybe even “irrelevant magazine” as a bit of a jibe at Relevant Magazine (“God, Life, and Progressive Culture — Classicists, stay out, you are not “progressive”, nor are you “relevant”!!).*  This thought was brought on by one of the most heart-seizing paragraphs I have read as I observe the cultural illiteracy of the world around me.  In the Afterword to her fantastic and beautiful novel Lavinia, Ursula K. LeGuin pens the following:

For a long time anybody in Europe and the Americas who had much education at all knew Aeneas’ story: his travels from Troy, his love affair with the African queen Dido, his visit to the underworld were shared, familiar references and story sources for poets, painters, opera composers.  From the Middle Ages on, the so-called dead language Latin was, through its literature, intensely alive, active, and influential.  That’s no longer true.  During the last century, the teaching and learning of Latin began to wither away into a scholarly specialty.  So, with the true death of his language, Vergil’s voice will be silenced at last.  This is an awful pity, because he is one of the great poets of the world. (p. 273)

This is a paragraph of soul-wrenching sorrow.  I am a Classicist, a lover of the Latin language, who fell for Publius Vergilius Maro at first sight.  That first sight was not Arma virumque cano of Aeneid I but Book II:

Conticuere omnes intentique ora tenebant
inde toro pater Aeneas sic orsus ab alto:

Infandum, regina, iubes renouare dolorem . . .

They all fell silent and held their mouths, intent.  Then father Aeneas thus rose from his high couch, “Queen, you command me to renew unspeakable sorrow . . .”

Book II recounts the fall of Troy, Trojan Horse and all (“I fear Greeks, even bearing gifts!”).  How appropriate that I would fall for a poet through this tragic destruction and choose to immerse myself in a field that has been called “elitist” by scholarship committees, a field that has been swept aside into the dusty corner of irrelevancy, a field that is the very foundation of the ground upon which we stand, a field that a mere century ago (!!) people were at least moderately acquainted with.

But my Troy has fallen to the oh-so-relevant modernists and postmodernists.  It is aflame as the gods of the age stand tall and proud over it, provoking the “elitist” comments and the comments of, “You know, if you were Chinese, classics would mean . . .”  Well I’m not Chinese!  So leave it alone!  I am a Scots-Canadian, and these are my Classics, overproud PC fool!

Google “Canadian coat of arms”.  What do you see in the top four quadrants?  England, Scotland, Ireland, France.  These are those who founded this nation.  We are a Western nation.  Our laws find their roots in the Forum Romanum (the Roman Forum, for all you non-elitist berks).  Our democratic ideals find their roots in the ἀγορὰ Ἀθηνῶν (OK, so Greek text is wankerish of me — that’s the Athenian Agora).  Our poetry, drama, art, stories, and so much more find their road, one way or another, back to the ancient poets, to Homer, Virgil, Hesiod, Ovid, Sophocles, Seneca, Euripides, Horace.  And I think it’s overstating the case, but I saw a book once that claimed that all of philosophy is a footnote to Plato.  And, though it be different today, the writing of history sprang forth from Herodotus, Livy, Thucydides, Tacitus.

All of this — beauty, wonder, grandeur, excellence, cleverness, the very foundations of what we think, what we say, what we do, what we write — has been swept aside to be the specialty of scholars in favour of “relevance”, in favour of . . .  I don’t even know why the Classics were cast rudely aside.  But they were.

And with that sounded the first death toll of Western culture.

Having abandoned our roots, we are rootless, drifting, dying.  A plant with no roots has no nutrients.  We shall wither and die.  We just don’t realise it yet, because we are revelling in our decadence.

*That’s a lot of punctuation.

You Should Read the Iliad

Jennifer and I had a couple of friends over for dinner a few weeks ago, both of them well-educated readers of poetry and interested in the arts, one a playwright with an MA in English, the other working on a Masters of Theology with a BFA.  When telling them about what I was up to at the moment, I said, “Do you know the basic plot of the Iliad?”

The answer was no.

These friends are not alone, not just in the reading of the Iliad but in the reading of the Odyssey, the Aeneid, the Greek tragedies, and all sorts of other really cool poetry.  This is a sorry state of affairs that needs to be rectified.  But why?  Why read the Iliad, you may ask?

Outside of the fact that it is the first piece of literature in the Western world and the foundational text for Greek literature and culture, and then also for the Romans to a degree, and thus for all subsequent literature and, and outside of the fact that not reading the Iliad means you are missing out on an integral part of your own cultural heritage and thus not leading a full life, the reasons for reading the Iliad are many.  I’ll give you twoish.

The  Iliad fulfils my first requirement of any narrative, be it epic poem or modern novel.  It has a good story.  The story moves along, with clever crafting of the narration, from the rage of Achilles to the battlefield, to the affairs of the gods, to the battlefield, to the rage of Achilles, to the walls of Troy.  There is love, battle, hatred, rage, honour, death, life.  There are husbands and wives sharing tender moments.  There are rapacious warriors snatching, clawing, catching at each other — both physically on the battlefield and metaphorically in the councils of the kings.  There are stories within this story, as of Meleager’s tale in Book IX, Western literature’s first mise en abyme.

I could read the Iliad over and over again.  In my third year of university, as I read the story of Odysseus’ and Diomedes’ night raid on Rhesus, I was conscious for the first time in my life of a book that I knew I would want to read again and again.  The same is true for the Odyssey, which I read first, as with the Aeneid, which I read later, and The Chronicles of Narnia, The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings.  These are my favourite books, full of danger, adventure, and Truth.  Stories worth reading.

The Iliad is one of the world’s great war stories; Roy Thomas, in the foreword to his adaptation for Marvel Comics, says it is the greatest war story.  In The Hinge Factor, Erik Durschmied writes, “I cannot tell if war is really indispensable to the advance of humanity, I only know it is man’s favourite occupation, and that it has dominated all other human activities.”  That is a sadly accurate statement, when we take a look at the centuries of war that stretch out behind us and, inevitably, before us.  Although the Iliad is populated by a warrior aristocracy, it does not glorify war.  Nor is it anti-war, despite what some read into the Hector-Andromache scene in Book VI.  It is simply a poem about war.  There is battle, with all its vicissitudes, brutalities, heroics, nobility, destruction, death, force, rage.  Ever since Cain killed Abel, humanity has been at war.  The Iliad illustrates this reality very well.

The theme of the Iliad is rage.  Thus it begins, “Μῆνιν ἄειδε, θεά, Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος,” — “The Rage of Achilles, son of Peleus — sing it, goddess.” This rage propels all of the action of the story, and through its depiction of war and life surrounding war, the Iliad shows us Truth.  It shows us Truth about humans, about rage, about the uncertainty of life, about honour, about how to treat a guest-friend, about so much.

So read it, this great story of war that’s worth reading over, that tells us about Truth.  Read Fagles’ translation (published by Penguin) or Rieu’s (Penguin Classics).  And revel in the glory of Homer’s poetry.

Pocket Scroll?

First of all, a pocket scroll is not a thing that ever existed. I mean, I imagine someone could have easily taken a piece of papyrus or parchment, written something on it (Tityre, tu patulae recubans sub tegmine fagi), rolled it up, and shoved it in the sinus of his toga.  But as something at large that many people carried with them, as something that had lots of real content, the pocket scroll never existed.

The fact that a scroll is much harder to produce in a useful, small size is, I understand, one of the reasons people developed the codex, the book as we know it, with the pages all bound along one edge.  You can take a selection of sayings of your favourite prophet, or a few epigrams, or what have you, copy them out into a codex, and then take the codex with you, with the materials close at hand and easy to access.

When I was telling this to a friend, she informed me that “Pocket Scroll” would be a good name for a blog.

So, now that I have a new blog, why not?

However, “pocket” implies easily portable and readable and, I reckon, brief.  So, unlike on my previous blog, where some posts were quite long, I shall endeavour to write posts that are of a more manageable size, little nuggets of things out of my brain for you take with you once you tear yourself away from your computer and get on with life.