An Answer to the Call for the Radical Catholic Reimagination of Everything

David Russell Mosley

flammarion-woodcut

Eastertide
Octave of the Ascension
The Edge of Elfland
Hudson, New Hampshire

Dear Friends and Family,

A few days ago a new acquaintance (really a kindred spirit and therefore friend, though we’ve not yet met) of mine, Michael Martin, wrote an essay on the Angelico Press blog entitled, “The Radical Catholic Reimagination of Everything.” For those unfamiliar with Martin, he is the Assistant Professor of English and Philosophy at Marygrove College and has written several works, the only one of which I have read thus far is The Submerged Reality: Ophiology and the Turn to a Poetic Metaphysics. Martin is like me, a believer in faërie, a poet (though a far better one as I understand it). I think we both can sign off on this line from an interview with theologian John Milbank, “I mean, I believe in all this fantastic stuff. I’m really bitterly opposed to this kind of disenchantment in the modern churches.” So I was overjoyed when Martin decided to put tires to pavement in a new way (he’s been living this stuff for some time now) when he wrote this essay.

Martin’s essay is a clarion call to those who are like minded in this endeavor which he calls the radical Catholic (and I would add catholic) reimagination of everything, or one might it even call it the C/catholic unveiling of sacramental ontology, for, ultimately, this is what Martin is driving at. At the beginning, Martin, a proponent of sophiology (something on which I hope to write more as I understand more), notes the call to Wisdom (Sophia) that appears at key moments in the Byzantine Liturgy. He then turns to another part of the liturgy, a hymn called  Megalynarion, “The Magnification of Mary.” You can read those for yourself in Martin’s essay. What I want to draw your attention to is this line from Martin:

“My investigation here is not about the liturgy, however, but about the ways in which phenomenology and sophiology discover the same phenomenon: the shining that illuminates the cosmos. This shining speaks in the languages of poetry, languages that take on a myriad of forms and are sometimes mistaken for science, sometimes for theology.”

Martin is calling us to a different way of seeing, but also a different way of doing, of being, simply put of living in reality. Martin understands that certain strains of theology do not allow for this kind of sight. He notes, via Hans Urs von Balthasar, that Neoscholasticism denuded itself of attention to the Glory of the Lord and that this proper attention was passed through certain poets, philosophers, and scientists while it was lost by the theologians. Even were one to disagree with this genealogy, one need only look at trends in theology today to see that this attention the Glory, to Sophia, to sacramental ontology has been ignored by many (though it is making something of return as theologians find themselves once again desiring to return to the sources).

In the end of his essay Martin issues a call to “poets, artists, scientists, adventurers, teachers, communitarians, distributists, scholars, and visionaries who hanker for something more living in Catholic culture.” He does not desire mere theory, men and women sitting in a room talking about how great it would be if. However, it should be obvious that Martin is not against the study of these issues in order to better inhabit these ideas and live this reality. Rather, Martin wants us to act as we talk. Theoretike and Practike must be united. Some may be Marthas and others Marys, but we need both and we need most of all those who are willing to live the hard life being both at once.

And so this is, in my own small way, my answer to Martin’s call. I am a poet, an author, a theologian, a gardener, a distributist, a husband, and a father (and more besides); I am all of those things bound up together and suspended as one made according to the Image. I am ready not simply to think about a sacramental ontology but to live it. This will be hard, already have I been confronting ways in which my habits did not accord with my beliefs and my knowledge, but I will answer this call. I must answer this call, I can feel it in the very blood that flows through me that this is right, that this is how reality really is. Confronting my son’s cancer was the first step for me in coming not simply to believe that these fantastic elements of the faith are true (I already believed), but to experience them. Yet I have let the shadows overcome me and make me believe that those moments are rare and that real life is lived without experience of the Glory. Well I say no more. I say that that way of living is ultimately damned (though we can be saved from it). Root and branch, twig and bough, I am in. Join me, as I join Martin and others and we radically (which remember means to return to one’s roots) and catholicly reimagine everything.

Sincerely,
David

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Porous and Buffered: Reading A Secular Age

David Russell Mosley

taylor-cover-a-secular-age

Eastertide
31 March 2016
The Edge of Elfland
Hudson, New Hampshire

Dear Friends and Family,

So I’ve recently taken the plunge and started reading Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. For those unfamiliar with Taylor and/or this work, Taylor is a Canadian philosopher and is professor emeritus at McGill University. He has written numerous works on political philosophy, history of philosophy, intellectual history and more. A Secular Age is Taylor’s attempt at putting a narrative to the transition that happens between, essentially, pre- and post-Enlightenment thinking and living. Specifically, Taylor wants to answer, narratively, “why as it virtually impossible not to believe in God in, say, 1500 in our Western society, while in 2000 many of us find this not only easy, but even inescapable?”⁠1 This book fits, to a certain extent, within the same realm as John Milbank’s Theology and Social Theory or Catherine Pickstock’s After Writing, and other such intellectual histories that seek to describe how we arrived at our modern understandings of reality and society. Taylor’s book is massive and to help me engage more fully with it, I’ve decided to blog my way through it. I intend to take it a chapter at a time and so this first post will cover, to an extent, the Introduction and Chapter 1. However, I want to be clear, I am more giving my thoughts on this book as I work my way through it rather than reviewing or intentionally critiquing it. My plan is just to highlight what I found interesting or problematic about the book as I move through it, so take my opinions with a grain of salt. If you’ve read the book, feel free to correct me when I’m wrong. If you haven’t, feel free to take it up with me and comment as you read the sections on which I am commenting. Now, to the thing!

In the Introduction, Taylor is laying out what he intends to do in this book, specifically, to describe how we moved from a porous self in an enchanted cosmos to a buffered self in a secular age. I’ll tackle porous/enchanted and buffered in a moment, but first, I want to address Taylor’s understanding of secular. Taylor describes three different kinds of secularity but wants to focus on the third kind, “which [he] could perhaps encapsulate in this way: the change I want to define and trace is one which takes us from a society in which it was virtually impossible not to believe in God, to one in which faith, even for the staunchest believer, is one human possibility among others.”⁠2 This third sense of “secular” is in essence where religious belief becomes one option among others and no longer the guiding principle by which life is lived. Taylor, however, does make it clear that religion is tied to all three kinds of secularity, ” as that which is retreating in public space (1), or as a type of belief and practice which is or is not in regression (2), and as a certain kind of belief or commitment whose conditions in this age are being examined (3).”⁠3 This is interesting because Taylor is here arguing that secularity in general cannot cut its ties with religion, it cannot escape transcendence. It can only define itself in contradistinction from religion. Nevertheless, what Taylor wants to do is understand and narrate how we moved from what he will call the porous self to the buffered.

In Chapter 1, then, titled “The Bulwarks of Belief,” Taylor begins to define his terms, particularly porous/enchanted and buffered/disenchanted or secular. The enchanted world (which term Taylor takes up as the antonym to Weber’s disenchantment) is the world in which our pre-modern ancestors lived. For Taylor, “The enchanted world in this sense is the world of spirits, demons, and moral forces which our ancestors lived in.”⁠4 I’m really quite intrigued by Taylor’s use of enchantment and his understanding of the premodern self. For readers of these letters, you’ll know I have an intense interest in enchantment (which I often equate with sacramental and liturgical). It seems to me that Taylor means something similar, however, he is far less interested than I am, for instance, in developing a theology of enchantment or premodern understanding. This is largely because Taylor is offering a narrative and not explicitly arguing for one position over another (or at least not yet).

Taylor understands the person living in the enchanted cosmos as porous, that is open to these spirits, demons, and moral forces not as two minds (or more) that can work together or against one another, but as porous, capable of being internally affected by them. For the porous self, meaning is not primarily in the mind as they are for the buffered self. Taylor describes the buffered understanding of meaning this way,

“On the former view meanings are “in the mind” in the sense that things only the meaning they do in that they awaken a certain response in us, and this has to do with our nature as creatures who are thus capable of such responses, which means creatures with feelings, with desires, aversions, i.e. beings endowed with minds, in the broader sense.”⁠5

An object only has meaning insofar as I, as a being with intellect, imbue it with such. A tree is beautiful or menacing precisely because I feel it to be so, not because the tree itself has beauty or menace. But for our porous ancestors this was not the case. Meaning existed in things. Taylor describes this through the cult of the saints:

“But seeing things this way understates the strangeness of the enchanted world. Thus precisely in this cult of the saints, we can see how the forces here were not all agents, subjectivities, who could decide to confer a favour. But power also resided in things. For the curative actions of saints was often linked to centres where their relics resided; either some piece of their body (supposedly), or some object which had been connected with them in life, like (in the case of Christ) pieces of the true Cross, or the sweat-cloth which Saint Veronica had used to wipe his face, and which was on display on certain occasions in Rome. And we can add to this other objects which had been endowed with sacramental power, like the Host, or candles which had been blessed at Candlemas, and the like. These objects were loci of spiritual power; which is why they had to be treated with care, and if abused could wreak terrible damage.”⁠6

Taylor gets more precise and notes that these meaningful (in the true sense of that word) objects relate on a cosmic level, “So in the pre-modern world, meanings are not only in minds, but can reside in things, or in various kinds of extra-human but intra-cosmic subjects. We can bring out the contrast with today in to dimensions, by looking at two kinds of peers that these things/subjects posses.”⁠7 I am reminded here of John Milbank’s article “Fictioning Things” where writes that the objects in fairy-tales often function as the movers of the plot:

“Fairy-tale yields up a symmetrically opposite paradox: the circulation of objects in the basic plot is shadowed by the operations at a meta-narrative level of misty personages––senders and helpers, preternaturally “other” fairy figures and giants or else legendary human persons. Moreover, though the human heroes and heroines of the main plot are ciphers, who simply receive gifts as well as performing impossible tasks, etc. these ciphers, unlike the more strongly characterized gods or heroes, do in the end triumph, thanks to the mediations of the magical objects and a series of exchanges at the meta-narrative level with the “other” fairy realms.⁠”8

What Milbank describes, it seems to me, is the same kind of relationship between the saint and the relic as described by Taylor. These meaningful objects filled with power and thus cause an affect whether one intends them to or not (one might think of Uzzah and the ark, the One Ring in The Lord of the Rings, or other similar examples). Taylor describes the good objects as capable of good or ill depending on how one uses them, though he never describes whether or not an object imbued with evil power could be used for good if used inappropriately. What Taylor is missing here, so far as I can see, is an extra level of connectivity. The relic of a saint is imbued with power from the saint, but the saint herself is imbued with power from God. Thus the grace mediated through a physical object ultimately receives its power from God. So while meaning is not simply in the mind, that is in the human or even angelic mind, it is ultimately founded in the mind of God. Why Taylor does not, in this chapter at least, make this point, I cannot say.

Another key to the porous self and the “charged” objects is that the effects of the charged object often function on multiple levels. When describing the healing that is given by such an object, Taylor notes that this healing is often not limited to the physical:

“That is, the same force that healed you could also make a better, or more holy person; and that in one act, so to speak. For the two disabilities were often seen as not really distinct. This shows that in, for instance, the healing at and by shrines, relics, sacred objects, etc., we are dealing with something different from modern medicine, even where the analogy seems closest.”⁠9

Without being explicit, Taylor recalls two, almost contrary ideas. On the one hand, I, at least, am reminded of the healings effected by Jesus. Often is the physical healing accompanied by a forgiveness of sin. However, and here is where either Taylor himself, or, possibly, our premodern ancestors, could  (or did) go wrong, which is to suggest that there is a direct connection between the physical ailment and particular unholiness. Christ himself denounces this when asked by his disciples who sinned in the case of the man born blind. However, it is clear that there is a connection (from Genesis 3 onward) between our physical ailments (that we die) and our sinfulness.

Taylor’s description of the enchanted cosmos is one that is inherently social. “But living in the enchanted, porous world of our ancestors was inherently living socially. It was not just that the spiritual forces which impinged on me often emanated from people around me, e.g., the spell cast by my enemy, or the protection afforded by a candle which has been blessed in the parish church. Much more fundamental, these forces often impinged on us as a society, and were defended against by us as a society.”⁠10

The buffered self, it would seem, though Taylor has not made this argument explicit as of yet, is one that not only puts up boundaries between me and creation (whether spiritual or physical) but also between me and other selves. If the porous self is inherently social, the buffered self is inherently individual.

Taylor is clearly not, at present, arguing for a return to the porous or enchanted. I’m not sure he believes this possible. Problematic for me is that Taylor does not seem even to be interested to ask whether or not it is true. I understand that his purpose is to narrate, to describe, and he is doing that. So I cannot fault him for doing what he set out to do; I just wish he were doing something a little different, but that’s my problem, not his.

Well thanks for enduring this long post, if you have. If you’ve read this book, let me know if I’m wrong (or right) and what I might have missed.

Sincerely,
David

anImage_21.tiff

1 Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2007), 25.

2 Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2007), 3.

3 Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2007), 15.

4 Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2007), 26.

5 Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2007), 31.

6 Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2007), 32.

7 Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2007), 33.

8 John Milbank,  ‘Fictioning Things: Gift and Narrative,’ Religion and Literature, 37:3 (Autumn 2005): 15.

9 Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2007), 39.

10 Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2007), 42.

The Unintentional and Unseen Godparents: The Light Princess’s Diabolical and Heavenly Godparents

David Russell Mosley

Old books

Epiphanytide
22 January 2015
The Edge of Elfland
Hudson, New Hampshire

Dear Friends and Family,

George MacDonald’s fairy tale, ‘The Light Princess’ is one of my favourites amongst his fairy tales. In many ways, it is a retelling of Sleeping Beauty. Let me explain. The story begins, very similarly with a king and queen who cannot have, but want, a baby. They are much sillier than the king and queen in sleeping beauty, but they are generally good people. So, eventually, a baby they have.

After the baby is born they begin planning the christening. Now, it’s true that there are no fairies invited to this christening, nor is anyone invited to be the little princesses godmother. I think, however, this is because MacDonald wants to provide her with two very different godparents: Princess Makemnoit, the little girl’s aunt who was not invited, by accident, to the christening; and God himself. Let me explain.

Like in Sleeping Beauty, Princess Makemnoit, who is a witch (and potentially a fairy as MacDonald writes, ‘she beat all the wicked fairies in wickedness, and all the clever ones in cleverness’), decides to revenge herself on the king for forgetting her. When she arrives, ‘she contrived to get next to [the baptismal font], and throw something into the water; after which she maintained a very respectful demeanour till the water was applied to the child’s face. But at that moment she turned round in her place three times, and muttered the following words, loud enough for those beside her to hear:—

“Light of spirit, by my charms,

Light of body, every part,

Never weary human arms—

Only crush thy parents’ heart!”‘

The witch deprives the little girl of all her gravity, in both senses. She is not directed downward and most all other creatures are and she has no gravitas, no sense of the grave or serious. It is telling that this is the only “gift” the princess receives on this day. And so the princess grows up, always laughing, never smiling. Even her levitas was incomplete, because it lacked gravitas.

Unlike Sleeping Beauty, this princess has had no godmother, fairy or otherwise to give her gift that will undo Princess Makemnoit’s curse. In Sleeping Beauty’s case, the final fairy godmother gives her the possibility of finding love. But in the Light Princess’s case it is the curse that leads her to love. In fact, first it leads her to water and then leads her to love. Princess Makemnoit is not only the cause of the undoing of the princess’s curse, by draining the water of the lake and causing the prince to give his life for the Light Princess, but she is also her own undoing. And so, Princess Makemnoit does good for the Light Princess. She teaches her gravitas, she gives her a reason to cry. She gives her, a bit delayed perhaps, a good gift, the gift of balance between gravitas and levitas that makes happiness and joy possible.

Up to this point, I have looked at Princess Makemnoit as an Unintentional Godmother, she is, after all, the only one who gives anything to the child on the day of her baptism. However, I think there is clearly another godparent. God is clearly present in this story, working like a godparent to the Light Princess from the first. It is he who makes it possible for the curse of Princess Makemnoit to ultimately lead to love. It is he who avenges himself and nature on Princess Makemnoit by the use of nature itself. What is more, Princess Makemnoit sins against the waters of baptism by defiling them before the princess is baptised. It is fitting then, that the mode of her destruction should be water itself. For further proof that God is the unseen godparent of the Light Princess, notice that it is in water itself that the Princess regains her right relationship with gravity. Water was the means of her curse, but it was also the means of her salvation and redemption, both in her baptism, and in the death of her love.

So, in the end, George MacDonald’s ‘The Light Princess’ gives us a very interesting look at godparenthood in fairy tales. Rather than give his Princess a fairy godparent (or at least giving her a good one), she receives instead God himself as her godparent.

Sincerely yours,
David

Giving the Gifts of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness: Sleeping Beauty’s Gifts from Her Fairy Godmothers

David Russell Mosley

Christmastide
Twelfth Night
5 January 2015
The Edge of Elfland
Hudson, New Hampshire

Dear Friends and Family,

Today I want to look at the fairy tale we most commonly call Sleeping Beauty. In truth, this tale has several titles, or variations, anyway. In French it is ‘La belle au bois dormant’, the Grimm’s called it ‘Little Briar Rose’, and there is an Italian story very similar to it called Sun, Moon, and Talia. I will be focusing on the French version as written/collected by Charles Perrault and translated by Andrew Lang. It is once again interesting to note that in the Grimm version of this story, the fairies are not godparents.

La belle au bois dormant begins with a royal family longing to increase from two to three (at least). They eventually conceive and a little girl is born. They have a christening (which is really just another word for a baptism) and invite to it seven fairies to serve as her godmothers (for it is at baptisms that godparents become bound to their godchildren). Her mother and father choose fairies, ‘that every one of them might give her a gift, as was the custom of fairies in those days.’ After the baptism a feast is held (remembering that festivals and gift-giving are inherent to and the foundation of the godparent-godchild relationship), and an eighth fairy shows up. She was an old fairy and was not invited for the believed her ‘dead or enchanted.’ She is given a seat at the table, but does not receive as a nice a place setting as her elven companions. And so, ‘The old fairy fancied she was slighted, and muttered some threats between her teeth. One of the young fairies who sat by her overheard how she grumbled; and, judging that she might give the little princess some unlucky gift, went, as soon as they rose from table, and hid herself behind the hangings, that she might speak last, and repair, as much as she could, the evil which the old fairy might intend.’

After the feasting is done it is time to give gifts: ‘The youngest gave her for gift that she should be the most beautiful person in the world; the next, that she should have the wit of an angel; the third, that she should have a wonderful grace in everything she did; the fourth, that she should dance perfectly well; the fifth, that she should sing like a nightingale; and the sixth, that she should play all kinds of music to the utmost perfection.’ I find these gifts interesting and informative. Again, think back to Cinderella and what her fairy godmother does for her, she makes evident to all the truth, beauty, and goodness (which naturally belong together) that are coincident in her. Here, the first fairy makes her beautiful; the second intelligent for an angel’s wit is not in humour, but in knowledge and most specifically knowledge of God and this would be truth; I do not think it a stretch to say third gives her the gift of goodness, for what else can it mean to have grace in everything that we do; the fourth, fifth, and sixth seem to give her further gifts of beauty, goodness, and truth, specifically in the things she does. Sleeping beauty is not rendered strange by her godmothers, but is given the coincidence of truth, beauty, and goodness as gifts themselves.

The old fairy gives the gift of death and terrifies the whole court. But then out comes the original seventh fairy who does not undo the gift of death, but transforms it: ‘At this very instant the young fairy came out from behind the hangings, and spake these words aloud: “Assure yourselves, O King and Queen, that your daughter shall not die of this disaster. It is true, I have no power to undo entirely what my elder has done. The princess shall indeed pierce her hand with a spindle; but, instead of dying, she shall only fall into a profound sleep, which shall last a hundred years, at the expiration of which a king’s son shall come and awake her.”‘

This fairy godmother proceeds to put the whole kingdom to sleep, excepting the girl’s natural parents, and raises up thorns and brambles in order to protect the young girl from harm while she slept. She is awakened after 100 years by her handsome prince, is married and the story takes a strange turn involving the prince’s mother who is part ogress and desires to eat his wife and children. There are no more mentions of the fairies who had served as godmothers to Sleeping Beauty, nor do we learn whether any fairies served as godparents to her children Morning and Day. Yet we can see how they continue to be protected by the triple gift of goodness, beauty, and truth. The cook cannot bring himself to kill the children: Morning’s beauty and goodness overwhelm him as she, ‘came up to him jumping and laughing, to take him about the neck, and ask him for some sugar candy.’ Day overwhelms him with his bravery, a subset of goodness in so many ways, for the cook found ‘him with a little foil in his hand, with which he was fencing with a great monkey, the child being then only three years of age.’ The Queen, that is Sleeping Beauty, overwhelms him with her love for her children, whom she believed to be dead. Love is, in so many ways, the coming together of truth, beauty, and goodness.

So while her godparents don’t take much of a role in her life after she pricks her finger on a spindle, the spiritual gifts which they gave her protected from all future evil. A human godparent can help raise a child to be proficient in the gifts given to the young princess, but they cannot give them outright, only, it would, a fairy godparent can do so. And so again we see the coming together of the Kingdom of God, since God is the true source of truth, beauty, and goodness; and the realm of Faërie.

Sincerely yours,
David

Truth, Beauty, and Goodness: Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother Renders Her Strange

David Russell Mosley

Christmastide
St Basil and St Gregory of Nazianzus
2 January 2015
The Edge of Elfland
Hudson, New Hampshire

Dear Friends and Family,

The first fairy godmother I want to look at is Cinderella’s. The first thing to note is that she does not appear in the Grimm’s version of the tale. I could speculate what that might say about early nineteenth century Germany and the nature of protestantism, or why it is in the more Catholic French version of the story where the godmother appears, but I won’t, not fully anyway. So, it is to the Charles Perrault version of the story I must turn. I must admit upfront, I am using an English translation (my French is so poor, poor is not an appropriate enough term for it), and it is from Andrew Lang’s Fairy Book editions. Now, to the fairy godmother.

She first appears after Cinderella watches her step-family go off to the king’s ball. At first all were told is that her godmother sees her crying and asks why. Cinderella tells her and then Perrault writes, ‘This godmother of hers, who was a fairy, said to her, “You wish that you could go to the ball; is it not so?”‘ Her being a fairy is presented in an incidental way. She’s her godmother, and she’s a fairy. But then another unexpected layer is added.

Not only is she a godmother and a fairy, but she apparently has a chamber either in the house or on the grounds, ‘Then she took her into her chamber, and said to her, “Run into the garden, and bring me a pumpkin.”‘ Now this need for Cinderella to go into her godmother’s chamber before going into the garden suggests to me that the godmother’s chamber serves as a kind of threshold into Faërie. It is from a garden accessible from her godmother’s chamber that she must go to to get the pumpkin which will become her chariot as well as the lizards who become her footmen.. It is from a mousetrap in her chamber that the mice who become horses are collected as well as the rat who becomes her coachman. Aside from the prohibition necessary to a fairy tale according to Tolkien (the midnight curfew), the only other role she plays in the story is to transform Cinderella’s clothes when the prince finds her showing to her step-family the true beauty she has always had.

Following on Pickstock’s discussion of godparenthood, we do see some fairly standard godparent duties being discharged. Pickstock writes of godparenthood, ‘It represented the creation of a formal ritual friendship, symbolized by gifts and festivals, to which natural kinship could only aspire.’ Cinderella’s godmother is most certainly a gift-giver and the gifts she gives are to allow Cinderella to attend a great festival. Now it is likely this is not the kind of festival Pickstock had in mind, but there is nevertheless an inherent relationship between giving gifts and festivals cementing Cinderella’s relationship to her godmother. Also, there is certainly a compaternitas here, as the godmother is a better kin/parent than those closest to her, her step-mother and step-sisters. And then there is the psuchic, or spiritual/soulish nature of the care that is meant to be provided by a godparent. It is easy to pass over, but when Cinderella tells her godmother that she does wish she could attend the ball, her godmother says, ‘”be but a good girl, and I will contrive that you shall go.”‘ Cinderella has already proved herself a good girl. We are told about Cinderella that she was ‘of unparalleled goodness and sweetness of temper, which she took from her mother, who was the best creature in the world.’ That her stepmother ‘could not bear the good qualities of this pretty girl, and the less because they made her own daughters appear the more odious.’ But what is more, Cinderella herself is more than beautiful, she is truly good and shows it in the way she handles her abuse, ‘The poor girl bore it all patiently, and dared not tell her father, who would have scolded her; for his wife governed him entirely.’ Also, the stepsisters, in their preparations for the ball, which Cinderella will not attend, ‘They also consulted Cinderella in all these matters, for she had excellent ideas, and her advice was always good. Indeed, she even offered her services to fix their hair, which they very willingly accepted.’ Even at the Ball where she might rub her newfound clothing and situation in her step-sisters faces, rather ‘She went and sat down by her sisters, showing them a thousand civilities, giving them part of the oranges and citrons which the prince had presented her with, which very much surprised them, for they did not know her.’ It seems clear that Perrault’s Cinderella is the unification of truth, goodness, and beauty and it is her godmother who helps bring this out and make it evident both to herself and to her step-family. And this leads to the spiritual uplifting of the step-sisters as much as it does to the change in station of Cinderella. Clearly, then we can say that the fairy godmother was not godmother only to Cinderella, but to her whole family, again as Pickstock suggests, ‘Its principle was that of compaternitas, which affirmed that a godparent was kin not only to the child, but to his natural family as well.’

This leads me finally to observe what role Faërie plays in all of this as well. Clearly, if all we see the godmother as doing is providing Cinderella with a ride and beautiful clothes, then a rich aunt or grandmother or human godmother [or a famous Renaissance painter as the demythologised version starring Drew Barrymore had it] might have served just as well. Yet it is a fairy godmother and the riches she provides are not initially lasting. As she returns from the second day of the ball she is dressed in rags having only one glass slipper left from her previous magnificence. So it is more than the finery, the ornamentation that she provides. It is, as I said above, the spiritual or psuchic parenting that she provides and in a way befitting Faërie, which isn’t simply to say the magic. Yes, the fairy godmother uses a wand and performs magic, but it is so much more than this. What she does is what, I have argued, Faërie/Fantasy in general do, she rendered Cinderella strange in order for others––the Prince, her step-family––to see her for who she truly is: beautiful, good, and true. This is why she must be a fairy godmother, for only in this way, in this marriage of the Kingdom of God and the realm of Faërie can we see the coincidence of truth, beauty, and goodness in a world that is often dressed in the rags of familiarity and even fallenness.

Sincerely yours,

David

Why Have a ‘Fairy’ Godparent: Faërie and Godparenthood

David Russell Mosley

Christmastide
30 December 2014
The Edge of Elfland
Hudson, New Hampshire

Dear Friends and Family,

I’ve been thinking about godparenthood lately. My own boys don’t yet have godparents, the Restoration Movement having no real place for this in its liturgical or ecclesiological practices. Nevertheless, I am drawn to this practice. There is a beauty to it, this notion that your children have other parents, not merely to raise them should something happen to their natural parents, but to help raise them in the faith. Which leads me to the purpose of this letter, to consider, what is the role of the fairy Godmother (it is nearly, so far as I know, always a woman). I will write a series of letters discussing the way fairy godmothers function in their stories. To begin, then, we must try to understand what a godparent is.

Catherine Pickstock in her excellent book After Writing has this to say about Godparenthood:

‘Godparenthood, in the high Middle Ages, was more than a metaphor; it was one of the most immediate forms of kinship. Although the parenting was spiritual, it was no less a real parenting, so real, in fact, that marriage between godparent and godchild was forbidden by the barrier of incest. Its principle was that of compaternitas, which affirmed that a godparent was kin not only to the child, but to his natural family as well. It represented the creation of a formal ritual friendship, symbolized by gifts and festivals, to which natural kinship could only aspire. And such psuchic parenting, or care for the soul, was the very thing which mediated between blood relations and the wider community. The principle of compaternitas, or development of a society structure based upon contractual “bonds”‘⁠1 (143).

A godparent, argues Pickstock, is now in a real relationship with their godchild. There is, through the rites and rituals––and, note well, the gifts––, a bond created, not unlike that of the bond of marriage between the godparent and the godchild’s family. There are many elements both from the passage in Pickstock and in godparenthood’s history that are worth studying. However, there are three key aspects I want to focus on: first is the gift-giving aspect that solidifies the relationship between godparent and child, and this plays out in fairy tales; the second is the kinship that is forged between godparent and child; and the final is the ‘psuchic parenting’ this care for the soul aspect of godparenthood.

I will look at these aspects in a few key stories: Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty as instances in more ‘traditional’ fairy tales; and The Light Princess and the Curdie stories by George MacDonald. So join me as we examine fairy godparenthood and what role Faërie plays in raising us in the faith.

Sincerely yours,
David

1 Pickstock, After Writing, 140.

Creativity as Deifying: On Fairy Stories, Part II

David Russell Mosley

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Lent
4 April 2014
On the Edge of Elfland Beeston, Nottinghamshire

Dear Friends and Family,
Here is the lengthier part 2 of yesterday’s thesis extract. This section is, in essence, a commentary on J. R. R. Tolkien’s essay ‘On Fairy-Stories’. Let me know what you think.

On Fairy Stories

‘Fantasy remains a human right: we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.’1 One could easily replace fantasy with poetry, make with create or poetise, made with created or a poem, and Maker with Creator or Poet. What Tolkien says about Fantasy and fairy-tales is equally true of poetry. As Tolkien writes, ‘Fairy- stories were plainly not primarily concerned with possibility, but with desirability. If they awakened desire, satisfying it while often whetting it unbearably, they succeeded.’2 In On Fairy Stories, Tolkien is laying out what he thinks fairy-tales are and what they are meant to do. Tolkien, as noted above, tells us that the purpose is to elicit desire. This desire is simultaneously a desire for what is past, namely a nostalgia for Eden. Equally, however, the desire is for what is to come, namely the new Heavens and new Earth, or deification, though Tolkien is not so explicit.

Nevertheless, Tolkien’s own work here bears out that fairy-tales are for more than the awakening of this desire, we might even call it a natural desire for the supernatural, but that it also serves as a kind of corrective lens. In chapter 2 I argued that the Fall incurs and includes an obfuscation of our sight, that humans can no longer see correctly. This is something Faerie can help us overcome. He writes:

Recovery (which includes return and renewal of health) is a re- gaining––regaining of a clear view. I do not say “seeing things as they are” and involve myself with the philosophers, though I might venture to say “see- ing things as we are (or were) meant to see them”––as things apart from our- selves. We need, in any case, to clean our windows; so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness of familiarity––from possessiveness.3

In Faerie we can see things for what they really are or could be or at least for how we are meant to see them. In any event, the fairy-tale helps us see more clearly. However, Tolkien also makes it clear that fairy-tales are not the only way to do this. ‘Of course, fairy-stories are not the only means of recovering, or, prophylactic against loss. Humility is enough.’4 Nevertheless, fairy-tales mixed with humility will help serve as a corrective lens so that the world may be glimpsed in a the light we were meant to see it. This passage from Tolkien is particularly provocative on this point:

Faërie includes many things besides elves and fays, and besides dwarfs, witches, trolls, giants, or dragons: it holds the seas, the sun, the moon, the sky; and the earth, and all things that are in it: tree and bird, water and stone, wine and bread, and ourselves, mortal men, when we are enchanted.5

Tolkien begins by showing us the things we expect to see in Faerie, or Elfland as Chesterton called it in Orthodoxy: fantastical beasts, mythological creatures, wicked and benign. Then, however, Tolkien shifts to things we see in the mortal world, the first four perhaps have a commonplace in our modern imaginings of Faerie (see Disney’s preference for his heroines to be accompanied by birds and other woodland creatures). Then, Tolkien makes a very deliberate shift that helps knit this chapter together, bread and wine, which is meant to incite images of the Eucharist. Indeed, even the inclusion of water, which may at first had us thinking of Bombur’s en- chanted sleep after falling in the river of Mirkwood, but after seeing bread and wine listed, baptism ought now to be in our minds, perhaps even the stone can evoke images of medieval fonts. Even humanity, when enchanted is encompassed by Faerie.

What Tolkien does here is show forth the notions of a sacramental universe as I described above. All things are or can be more than what they are because all things exist in Faerie. All that is needed is eyes to see them. This is one of the roles fantasy plays, that poetry plays. For Chesterton, this rendering strange is an essential aspect of fantasy. He writes, ‘The only words that ever satisfy me as describing Nature are the terms used in fairy books ‘charm’, ‘spell’, ‘enchantment’. They express the arbitrariness of the fact and its mystery. A tree grows fruit because it is a magic tree. Water runs downhill because it is bewitched. The sun shines because it is bewitched.’6 Perhaps one of the first things fantasy can do for us (particularly when written from a Christian perspective) is to show us that the God of Christianity and the Creation of Christianity are not the ones of deism. Rather God is, as I have argued throughout, Poet, Creator, intimately connected with his Creation/Poem.

This alone perhaps shows the purpose of including a long discourse on the purpose of fantasy/poetry in a chapter on redemption in an essay on deification. There is, however, more. Following on what Milbank has said above, the writing of poetry and fantasy, and particularly the act of world-creating, at least according to Tolkien, is a gift and therefore graced and also an aspect of our deification. Alison Milbank provides a perhaps even more crucial link between the writing of fiction (specifically fantasy, but all fiction ultimately) and deification. She writes, ‘And it is in the ability to create––fiction is linked to the Latin verb facere, to make––that the artist comes closest to God. For us to recognize the world as God’s creation, we have to see it as a work of art; for us to recognize the creative power of the artist, we similarly have both to experience his or her fiction as a world but also be aware of its constructed nature.’7 First note that our word fiction is related to facare which provides the latter portion of the word deification. This is the same as noting that the latter half of the Greek theopoiesis, namely poiesis, is the source of our word for poetry. Even more so, however, Milbank, alongside Tolkien, notes that this act of creativity, this act of artistic creation renders the artist as an imitator of God. What is more it reminds us that just as we need to immerse ourselves in an artists creation without forgetting its constructed nature, so too should we not forget the created nature of the cosmos around us because it has a Creator.

George MacDonald writes in an essay on imagination, ‘man may, if he pleases, invent a little world of his own, with its own laws; for there is that in him which delights in calling up new forms–which is the closest, perhaps, he can come to creation.’8 Again, connecting this to Milbank’s notions of our own creativity as a participation in the divine creativity––and indeed noting our creativity as an aspect of humanity being made in the image and likeness of God––, allows us to see this closeness to acts of creation (that is creation ex nihilo) already implies the deificatory and deifying significance of fantasy writing, of world creation. However, as MacDonald, Chesterton, Tolkien, and the Milbanks all make clear, this is a participatory creation. However real it is, however much it can be termed an addition to the Poem, it is still participatory and a gift. MacDonald writes:

In the moral world it is different [from the physical]: there a man may clothe in new forms, and for this employ his imagination freely, but he must invent nothing. He may not, for any purpose, turn its laws upside down. He must not meddle with the relations of live souls. The laws of the spirit of man must hold, alike in this world and in any world he may invent.9

MacDonald while noting that human creators can rework our physical world, as he does when he has a bedroom transmute into a forest glad right on the edge of Faerie, believes that the moral world cannot be changed. We can imagine a world in which humans are kept in cages and apes perform studies on them, but we are not to imagine a world where morality can become amorality, where falsity is given the place of prominence of truth, or evil the place of goodness, or ugliness/disorder the place of beauty.

What MacDonald writes of as almost a kind of suggestion, Chesterton sees as the only true laws of our universe. For Chesterton there are immutable facts even in world-creation:

But as I put my head over the hedge of the elves and began to take notice of the natural world, I observed an extraordinary thing. I observed that learned men in spectacles were talking of the actual things that happened––dawn and death and so on––as if they were rational and inevitable. They talked as if the fact that trees bear fruit were just as necessary as the fact that two and one make three. But it is not. There is an enormous difference by the test of fairyland; which is the test of imagination. You cannot imagine two and one not making three. But you can easily imagine trees not growing fruit; you can imagine them growing golden candlesticks or tigers hanging on by their tales.10

Chesterton is here criticising the sciences which seek to suggest that the things they have observed and can predict with an amount of certainty are laws. The only laws, according to Chesterton, are those things we cannot imagine differently without unmaking them or redefining them. Two and one cannot not make three unless we change the meanings of two, one, and/or three. Similarly good cannot be evil without changing what the word good means. Alison Milbank writes that this view of the world is sourced in Chesterton’s consumption of fairy-tales, ‘Fairy-tales, however, are not natural but cultural productions and it is by means of these fictions that Chesterton comes to view the world itself as magical: utterly real and enchanted at one and the same time.’11 Thus, for Chesterton, the world is real, but it is also enchanted and this affects the way fantasy is written. While Chesterton, in the passage above, is not specifically writing about writing, that is, he is not directly speaking of the act and art of human creativity, it is implicit in what he writes. When we create worlds, whether in poetry, fantasy, science-fiction, etc., we may unhinge the ‘laws’ of nature:

break them open and make them stand on their heads. What we cannot do, however, is break the laws of mathematics or goodness/morality. It is not that the author is not allowed to do these things, but that they are not possible, or at least not possible consistently.

Milbank gives this its most theological voice when he writes:

Of course, in human beings other than Christ there is no absolute coincidence of the human will with the divine creative will; but nevertheless one can logically speak of a ‘participating’ in this creative will, where human action brings about something that is generally now, as in the case of a new sort of legal convention or a new sort of artistic idiom. But because the creative human being is ‘inspired’, and because she does not fully grasp or command the new thing she has brought about, there is no absolute creation here: the new thing invented is also ‘discovered’, given to the creator herself as a mysterious new potency.12

Milbank reminds us that humans cannot create in the same way as God. Not even divine creativity rests in us in the exact same way it does in the Godhead, despite the fact that (or perhaps precisely because) we are made in the image of God. Milbank couches our creativity in terms of gift and participation. It is our participation in divine creativity that allows us to create, yet that participation is a gift. What is more, the very things we create, insofar as they are good, are gifts from God. We receive them just as much as we create them. This is why, for MacDonald, ‘A genuine work of art must mean many things; the truer the art, the more things it will mean.’13

MacDonald takes this notion of true art having multiple meanings and applies it to the differences between creations of humans and God: ‘One difference between God’s work and man’s is, that, while God’s work cannot mean more than he meant, man’s work must mean more than he meant.’14 Here, MacDonald is not denying a multiplicity of meaning within the works of God, but that the number of meanings cannot exceed God’s intention. This is not the case with human creation. The numerous interpretations of works by human beings stand as testimony to this. Yet this multifariousness can be a good thing when applied to meaning in human works. In this way Tolkien’s work can be considered both an indictment on capitalism15 through his depictions of the Shire and yet also as providing commentary on the necessity of war but without the love of it particularly in the words of Faramir.

In the end, for Tolkien, the fairy-story serves an even larger purpose, which is the introduction into our minds of eucatastrophe and participation in the Evangelium. A fairy-tale is almost not a fairy tale, for Tolkien, if it lacks a happy ending.16 This is precisely what makes it different from tragedy. Rather than a sudden turn that causes all events to go awry (Hamlet’s mother drinking the wine meant to kill Hamlet, Laertes being stabbed by his own poisoned sword, etc.) there is a sudden turn of events that causes all to go right. Tolkien called this the eucatastrophe. For Tolkien, ‘The eucatastrophic tale is the true form of the fairy-tale, and its highest function.’17 This is so because the happy ending participates in an even greater story. ‘But in the “eucatastrophe” we see in a brief vision that the answer may be greater––it may be a far-off gleam or echo of evangelium in the real world.’18

The Gospel is, for Tolkien, the greatest fairy-tale, and is the source for all fairy-tales, even those that come before it. He writes in words similar to those I have used in the previous chapters, ‘But the story has entered History and the primary world; the desires and aspirations of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfillment of Creation. The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy.’19 The Poet enters the Poem, but it is more than this. The entrance of the Poet into the Poem hallows (deifies, theo-poetises) the work going on within the Poem by us. For Tolkien:

But in God’s Kingdom the presence of the greatest does not depress the small. Redeemed Man is still man. Story, fantasy, still go on, and should go on. The Evangelium has not abrogated legends; it has hallowed them, especially the “happy ending.” The Christian has still work, with mind as well as body, to suffer, to hope, and die; but he may now perceive that all his bents and faculties have a purpose, which can be redeemed. So great is the bounty with which he has been treated that he may now, perhaps, fairly dare to guess that in Fantasy he may actually assist in the effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation.20

Our creative faculties, that aspect of our being made in the image of God, are redeemed and pulled up to the level of creation. In writing fantasy and poetry we imitate and participate in God as Creator, as Poet. What’s more, we participate in God as storyteller through salvation history, particularly through the story of the Incarnation which serves as the source for our storytelling.

All of this discussion of human creativity in fantasy and poetry, however, needs now to also be connected more directly to deification. Having looked at the foundations and purposes to which poetry and fantasy are put, I want to turn now to two stories about creation to show, in part, how they relate to deification, how they relate to the whole Poem and the process of Poem becoming Theo-Poem.

Sincerely yours,
David Russell Mosley

1 J. R. R. Tolkien, ‘Tree and Leaf,’ in The Tolkien Reader (New York: The Ballantine Publishing Company, 1966), 75.

2 Ibid., 63.

3 Ibid., 77.

4 Ibid., 77.

5 Ibid., 38.

6 G. K. Chesterton, ‘Orthodoxy,’ in Everyman Chesterton (London: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011), 302.

7 Alison Milbank, Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians: The Fantasy of the Real (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 2009), 64-5.

8 George MacDonald, ‘The Fantastic Imagination,’ in The Complete Fairy Tales, ed. by U. C. Knoepflmacher (New York: Penguin Books, 1999), 5-6.

9 Ibid., 6.

10 G. K. Chesterton, ‘Orthodoxy,’ 121.

12 John Milbank, Beyond Secular Order: The Representation of Being and the Representation of the People (Chichester: Wiley Blackwell, 2013), 196.

13 George MacDonald, ‘The Fantastic Imagination,’ 7.

14 Ibid., 9.

15 See the chapter entitled ‘Fairy Economics: Gift Exchange’ in Alison Milbank, Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians: The Fantasy of the Real (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 2009), 117-141.

16 J. R. R. Tolkien, ‘Tree and Leaf,’ 85.

17 Ibid.

18 Ibid., 88.

19 Ibid., 88-9.

20 Ibid., 89.