Sunday, January 2, 2011

Because of Fully Baked Thoughts Like These by Algar Thorold

I've been pretty quiet as the year 2010 wound down and the New Year approached. Here is one of the reasons why: I have been searching for treasures that I can share with you.

My final post of 2010 was on resolving to choose, or more accurately, resolving to being open to being chosen by, a patron saint for the New Year. I hope many of you took me up on that resolution because the witness of the saints is one of the reasons that continually answers the question of the title of this blog.

Because if you want to see what faith looks like, not just in theory but in actual practice, the lives of the saints are like vibrant, full motion, proof statements. Promising those who shared the name of their patron with me that I would go searching for source material on their benefactors, I went on a digital expedition to do just that. As a result, over just the last several days I have added over 100 books to the YIMCatholic Bookshelf's digital collection.

Sometimes a book is so rich, so full of truth, goodness, and beauty, that it leads me to many more volumes as well. That is what happened when I was led to an essay published in 1900 written by Algar Labouchere Thorold. The title, as ungainly as it may seem, hooked me, and the content therein reeled me in. In Aid of the Better Appreciation of Catholic Mysticism, Illustrated from the Writings Of Blessed Angela of Foligno. Whew! I warned you it was a mouthful. Let's just call it Catholic Mysticism for convenience sake.

And here is another warning: 3500 words are coming your way. Sound the claxon and prepare to dive folks because that is as short as I want to make this post. Ready? Dive! Dive! Dive!

It turns out that this slim volume is at minimum a two-for-the-price-of-one winner. The first 90 pages consist of Thorold's essay on Catholic Mysticism, while the remainder is a translation of the life of a Third Order Franciscan named Blessed Angela of Foligno. She is a stigmatic who, up until yesterday, I had never heard of. Her feast day is on January 7th and I'll post more on her then.

Who is this Algar Labouchere Thorold guy? He is a bit of a mystery, as a cursory search on him didn't come up with much. I kept digging though and found out that similar to Robert Hugh Benson, he is both an Englishman and the son of a prominent Anglican churchman. Algar's father (see portrait), Anthony Wilson Thorold, known as a member of the Evangelical wing (who knew!) of the Church of England, eventually became the Bishop of Winchester. Algar's mother, Emily Labouchere Thorold, was the daughter of a respected member of Parliament named Henry Labouchere.

Shortly after Algar went away to college, he became a Roman Catholic. Stop the presses! And this was before his father became the Bishop of Winchester and even predates Robert Hugh Benson's conversion as well. In an excerpt of an essay on the life of Algar's father, written by Jill Durey in 2004, it is interesting to see the response of Robert Benson's father (who happened to be the Archbishop of Canterbury) to this event in his subordinate's life:

If your son has made a fool of himself it is no reason why his father should do the same!

The elder Benson didn't seem to see his own son's conversion coming either.

Durey's essay mentions that Algar became "a postulant at the Grande Chartreuse monastery" and stayed there for 6 months in 1888 trying to sort out his vocation. Grande Chartreuse is the Carthusian monastery that is featured in the film Into Great Silence by Philip Gröning (released in 2005). My hat is off to anyone who ventures to become a Carthusian and hangs with them for any length of time, because in my mind, Carthusians are like the Navy Seals of Catholic Monastic orders. Can you say Hard Corps?

I'll keep following some leads for more information on Algar. Here is an important factoid on him though: he translated St. Catherine of Siena's Dialogues from Italian into English. So even if I find out nothing more about him, rest assured that he was a gifted linguist and writer.

Here then are a few of the nuggets that popped up in this essay which kept me reading it all the way to page 90. I really didn't want to read the whole thing, see, because there are no chapters or breaks, etc. Not that it needed them though, because I literally could not put it down once I started it. Maybe these excerpts will help to explain why.

from In Aid of the Better Appreciation of Catholic Mysticism

In these days, when the methods of democracy not only claim the outer court of a man's social environment, but also threaten the shrine of his thought, many words of ancient descent, accustomed in the past to rule, without question, the peoples of the soul, are fallen, veritable rots en exil, on evil times. Faith, for the most part, bereft of her palaces, must dwell in the hiding-holes of superstition, her deadliest foe: reason seems on the way to becoming indistinguishable from the trained use of developed senses. Mysticism, the sublime child of faith and reason, that once led the greatest of our race to heights of now scarcely imaginable intensity of living, hobnobs, in popular esteem, with the patter of the sorcerer and the tireuse de cartes (fortune teller).

But the right of words, unlike that of kings, is truly divine, and if the scheme of the world be guided by reason, some day, at length, must surely see these legitimate sovereigns restored to their thrones.

The divine right of words? Even a newby writer like me likes the sound of that. And in this brief introductory paragraph, Algar sums up the modernist mindset in the year 1900 and gives the lie to the idea that these ideas are something new. "Christian nutters-R-us." A paragraph further on he writes,

The Catholic mystic, apart from his individual vocation to real apprehension of Spirit, finds himself in relation to the Church, i.e. to humanity organised from the religious point of view, and it is, of course, in this relation and what comes of it, that his peculiar note consists. The Catholic or Universal Church is an organic unity of which the baptised individual is a member. It has its theoretical and practical conditions of membership; its dogmata of faith and morals. Like every organism its constitution is strictly hierarchical, its machinery of authority culminating in the law of Peter, irrevocable, infallible; infallibility being the sanction proper to a revealed system, such as the Church claims to be. The task of the Catholic mystic is so to adjust these social claims to his individual vocation, that not only neither be defrauded, but that each subserve the other.

Now the Church may be regarded from two points of view, that of faith, which is proper to the Catholic only, and that of observation, which is common to all men. Viewed in the latter way, in its purely phenomenal aspect, i.e. as an element of possible experience to every observer, Catholicism is seen to be nothing else than the world-society of souls.

Yes, that is my bold highlight. Because that is the world that Truth came to save. The same paragraph continues,

Other societies of-souls there are in plenty amongst men, but in them the religious organisation has not reached its goal of universalism, it is still tribal or national, as the very names of these societies indicate. Their organisation may also be said to be opinionative, in contradistinction to that of the Church, whose organisation rests upon faith, in that whereas Catholics believe certain doctrines because they are members of the Catholic Church, the members of a sect or of a denomination belong to this or that body because they believe particular doctrines.

Faith, the foundation of everything that Christianity rests on. Faith in God, faith in Christ, faith in the Holy Spirit, all lead towards faith in the Church. Blessed John Henry Newman sees this, and all of the saints too. Frankly, I'm not interested in "opinionative organizations." There are plenty of those already. Besides, as Algar explains, those types of institutions have a problem to contend with.

In this case, the church does not make the doctrine, but the doctrine the church. The motive of their belief to the individuals composing the society is anterior to the existence of the society, let alone its authoritative teaching, for the society, in this case, comes into existence, not to teach anybody anything, but purely as the social expression of a certain pre-determined unanimity of opinion among the individuals who compose it. Whatever claims on the human conscience such a society may afterwards come to make, it will be forever logically impossible to exercise the Catholic quality of faith in regard to its teaching.

Like joining your alma mater's alumni association, or some fraternal order? I think I get the gist of what Algar is saying here. Further on, he hits on another reason that led me to the Church,

For—and in this is to be found at once its crux and its only possible justification—Catholicism claims to be a supernatural religion. The claim made on his soul by Revealed Religion! Ah! here is the rub; in this lies the 'open secret of Christianity.' Let us try to consider what this claim amounts to.

Because if the Church isn't supernatural, why bother with it? If it isn't supernatural, why bother with religion at all? Then Algar brings up the point that I hit upon when I met the Marine in charge of Justice and Peace. The "whole person" concept,

Revealed Religion, directly or indirectly, claims the whole man. It directly claims his intellect, his belief, and the flowering of his emotional being, his love. It indirectly claims his will. I say indirectly, for the service of the will unprompted by love has nothing to do with Revealed Religion, but belongs to ethics, which, as such, is a conception wholly alien to a system which counts among its saints Thais, the penitent light o' love, and Moses, the converted negro bandit. This is of course a tremendous claim, and one may well be surprised at the lightness, the lé gèreté with which so many, both of those who admit and of those who deny, appear to treat it. In return for this complete service, Revealed Religion claims to heal, once and for ever, the wound of man. Moreover, given the Church's definition of that wound, there can be no doubt but that Catholicism does heal it.

Two new saints to meet, a Desert Mother and a Desert Father. And if Algar lost you there, just think of the Sacraments and keep them in mind as you roll on to his next thought.

If the Catholic analysis of human nature (which is by no means only held by Catholics) be once admitted, it is impossible to resist the conclusion that the Catholic saint represents that nature perfectly restored. And to say as much as this is to say more than may at first sight appear. For it amounts to saying that the resources of the Catholic system are equal to meeting, to the full, all possible demands that can logically be made on it.

Because the Church keeps going and going, like the Energizer bunny, only better. MMXI years and counting. No big deal, you say? Well then, chew on this,

It will, no doubt, be said that the natural logic of things will account for this. But in human affairs, more particularly religious systems, is this natural logic so very apparent? Does not the arbitrary, the unexpected, constantly cut short the line of ideal development? Is not religious speculation, in particular, a byword for confusion of thought and tongue? We, at least, who come of Protestant heredity can hardly think otherwise. That there should then be just one system among warring theodicies both speculatively and practically complete is surely no slight thing, and must, one would think, arrest the inquirer's attention. I do not say that alone it can do more, but this, at least, it would seem it must do.

The arbitrary and the unexpected are the norm, at least in my short experience on the planet. Qohelth, my favorite friend from Ecclesiastes testifies to this too. And I have the heredity he refers to above and heartily concur with his thoughts here as well. Which is why the Church is concerned with all Christians, and everyone else too. She takes responsibility for the whole lot of us, just like the parent She is. Algar continues with,

The question remains of the value of the Catholic analysis of man; it is the view taken of this that probably in all cases determines the conscious attitude towards Revealed Religion. Now by the Catholic analysis of man I do not here mean the dogma of the Fall, which is a revealed mystery, and as such incapable of independent observation, but rather the state in which, according to Catholics and many others, man finds himself on this planet. This state may be summed up in one word—insufficiency.

Amen, brother Algar!

Man is not sufficient to himself. His nature forces him to create ideals which he is incapable of attaining; on no side, in no single one of his forms of activity, is it given to him to realise the equation of thought and being, of desire and fact. The floating rocks of metaphysical truth are for him enisled in the black waters of scepticism; his god-like reason can ultimately solve no concrete problem, for the condition of its inerrancy is to be confined to the abstract. His deepest craving is for happiness, adequate to infinite desire and permanent while the conditions and perhaps the inner nature of life make of such a demand a bitter mockery.

"His speech is a burning fire;
With his lips he travaileth;
In his heart is a blind desire,
In his eyes foreknowledge of death:
He weaves, and is clothed with derision;
Sows, and he shall not reap;
His life is a watch or a vision
Between a sleep and a sleep."

Oh, you don't have infinite desires? You can stop reading now then. As for the rest of us, Algar continues as follows,

Art is the greatest glory of man. Has the achievement ever once contented the artist's inmost desire? Towards the end of his life, one who achieved more than most, wrote these sad and beautiful words:

Now hath my life across a stormy sea
Like a frail bark reached that wide port where all
Are bidden ere the final judgment fall
Of good or evil deeds to pay the fee.

Now know I well how that fond phantasy
Which made my soul the worshipper and thrall
Of earthly art, is vain; how criminal
Is that which all men seek unwillingly.

Those amorous thoughts which were so lightly dressed,
What are they when the double death is nigh?
The one I know for sure, the other dread.

Painting nor sculpture now can lull to rest
My soul that turns to His great love on high
Whose arms to clasp us on the cross were spread.
Wow, that sounds like a poetic rendition of the story of my life. Who wrote this sonnet, pray tell?

Never perhaps did a man achieve so much in such varied ways as this child of the gods. Michaelangelo succeeded supremely as sculptor, painter, poet, lover; yet this is what he has to say of his success. And the mass of men who are not artists with their painted joys, their pale, imitative pleasures, their deliberate raptures, their borrowed wisdom, their swift-coming death, what of them?

Michaelangelo was a poet too?! On top of being a master sculptor, painter and architect? I had no idea either, but you better believe his poems are on the YIMCatholic Bookshelf now. And so is the rest of my latest pal Algar's essay. I've gotten you up to page 17, the rest is up to you.

Trust me, there is much more that you will want to read, like more thoughts on a post-Christian world, and when he compares and contrasts Martin Luther with St. Thomas More while busting the myth of any superiority of Catholic Religious folks over the Catholic laity.

While you're at it, browse all the other new selections added to the shelf too. Happy New Year!