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

The Sacramental Imagination of Smith of Wooton Major

David Russell Mosley

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Ordinary Time
19 November 2014
The Edge of Elfland
Hudson, New Hampshire

Dear Friends and Family,

Today I venture into the books I didn’t read as a child. I think this is important because I came to many of these books both as a Christian and often as a theologian. This means that what I see in these books is in no way coloured by my childhood experiences of them. So, the first book I want to write to you about is one of my favourites, J. R. R. Tolkien’s Smith of Wooton Major.

The story behind Smith of Wooton Major is actually really funny. Tolkien had been asked to write an introduction for a new edition of George MacDonald’s ‘The Golden Key’, another excellent story that I will likely feature in this series. The problems are twofold, however. For starters, Tolkien was a perfectionist. The Hobbit first came out in 1937 and he was soon asked for a sequel. The Fellowship of the Ring came out in 1954, seventeen years later. The other problem is that Tolkien isn’t always very good at explaining things. Dr Corey Olsen, the Tolkien Professor himself, were discussing this aspect of Tolkien just last week. What Tolkien is rather much better at is telling stories. So, in the process of writing this introduction to ‘The Golden Key’, Tolkien decides to undertake to define what a fairy tale is. In order to do this, he decides to construct an example. This example became the story Smith of Wooton Major and the introduction was left unfinished.

The story, Smith of Wooton Major, tells us the story of a person called Smith who lives in a town called Wooton Major. Wooton Major has a rather prestigious position of Head Cook. The Cook is expected to cook various meals throughout the year, but every twenty-four years he is expected to cook for the Twenty-Four Feast. At this feast, twenty-four children are in attendance. The pièce de résistance at this feast is the cake. It is on this cake that the cook’s reputation is made or falls. One particularly year, when Smith is a child and in attendance something strange happens at the feast. The Head Cook, a man called Nokes, who had taken over from Smith’s grandfather, rather than the apprentice Alf decides to put treasures inside the cake for the children to find, including a star which Alf tells him comes from Faërie. Smith finds, or rather, doesn’t realise he finds this star in his piece. One day he coughs, the star pops out and he claps to it his head. From this day on Smith is transformed. He sings as he works. He works of ironmongery are beautiful, he makes no weapons, and best of all, he has gained access to Faërie.

Smith makes many adventures to Faërie, trying to scout out the whole of the land and experience everything he can. He eventually meets both the King and Queen of Faërie, as well as many of its inhabitants (all of whom are human in shape and size, though they are Fairies). He is frightened at times and goes places he shouldn’t. Perhaps what is most interesting, however, is that eventually, Smith must give up his star. Alf, the apprentice, had become Head Cook some time before and was preparing for his second Twenty-Four Feast and asks Smith for the star. With the star, Smith gives up some of the light it gave to his eyes and has, it would seem, lost his passport into Faërie. We feel the hardness of this for Smith for we are like him, most of us. We are ordinary people and yet we have gained access into Faërie as we have followed Smith into it. Yet it is not all bad, and I think this an important aspect.

When Smith returns from his final visit to Faërie, after he has returned the star, he meets with his son. His son, it would seem, has taken on the lion’s share of the work as of late, what with his father taking frequent trips into Faërie and all. His son tells him he hasn’t been able to go to a family party for all the work and wouldn’t go to the Feast the next day. Smith, however, tells him to make it a holiday, for there would now be four hands at the work. I have always argued that one of the key things fantasy does is render the world around us strange so we can see it for what it really is, so we can see it with fresh eyes. I think there is a relationship here to the function of the church (the building as well as the gatherings) and the celebration of the Eucharist. Smith still has work to do once his time in Faërie is done. Life isn’t over now that his time in Faërie. In fact, it almost seems that Faërie was a preparation for the rest of life. Similarly, our celebration of Eucharist is, in part, a preparation for the rest of life. Sunday is the first and eighth day of the week, both the beginning and the end and out from it flows the rest of the week. Now, unlike Smith and Faërie, Sunday sends out into Monday through Saturday only to return us to Sunday. Smith, it would seem, is not intended to return to Faërie, but we are intended to return to Sunday and one day to that Eternal Sunday that we practice in worship, the Son of God come down in glory. Faërie enabled Smith to be a better blacksmith, to be better in general. The Eucharist similarly enables us to go about our lives, taking Christ with us and reclaiming the rebellious and false kingdom of this world for the Kingdom of God.

Sincerely yours,

David

The Sacramental Imagination of Harry Potter

David Russell Mosley

The Harry Potter Series: British Editions

The Harry Potter Series: British Editions

Ordinary Time
Pope St Leo the Great
10 11 2014
The Edge of Elfland
Hudson, New Hampshire

Dear Friends and Family,

The Harry Potter books by J. K. Rowling, are the last books from my childhood that I will be examining in this Sacramental Imagination series. I hope to turn my attention to a few books I read after my childhood, but which are still children’s books, like J. R. R. Tolkien’s Smith of Wooton Major; George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin and The Princess and Curdie, as well as some of his fairy tales; and perhaps others you might recommend.

I have written about the Christian nature of Rowling’s Potter books before, but today I want to spend a little time discussing how they might help children form a sacramental imagination. There are, however, some problems with Ms Rowling’s works that I would like to lay out at the forefront. First is something I have noted before, the almost Calvinistic system of how one becomes a witch or wizard. Following along relatively covenantal reformed lines, one primarily becomes a witch or wizard by being born from parents where at least one of them is a witch or wizard. This is a major plot point for the books commencing with earnest in book 6. However, whether one has wizard parents or not one still must be born a witch or wizard. It is not something one can claim for oneself. Muggles cannot learn magic, nor can squibs. This, therefore, suggests that the preferred way of living presented in the books, as a witch or wizard, is entirely outside of one’s control just as one’s salvation is outside of one’s control in a stringently Calvinist system. There are even those born of wizard ancestry who cannot do magic, who are not part of the community in the same way as everyone else, namely, squibs. This is, for me, a non-Calvinist, fairly problematic, though Rowling does back pedal a little in her The Tales of Beedle the Bard. In a footnote by Albus Dumbledore it is noted that research in the Department of Mysteries up to that point (likely somewhere around the mid-90s in the story’s chronology) that even those with Muggle parents who themselves can do magic likely have a witch or wizard somewhere in their ancestry.

The second problem I have is Rowling’s more or less Cartesian understanding of the human person. In The Prisoner of Azkaban, we learn that Dementors can suck out your soul. Your body would continue to function with your soul gone, but the person would no longer be there. Rowling’s books are based in an essentially Christian cosmos, but it is, in many ways, still a modernistic one, subject to post-Enlightenment thinking.

That being said, there is much that can be gained for children in Rowling’s Potter books. Perhaps the primary thing is how Rowling’s magical world gives us back our own world made strange. Wizards and witches do many of the same things we do: they shop, cook, throw parties, go to school, communicate with one another, and more, but each is rendered strange as we experience the magical world through Harry’s equally unaccustomed eyes. Harry’s first encounter with a magical being is Hagrid, a man too large to be allowed. As we later find out, not only is Hagrid big and a wizard, he’s even half-giant! Harry’s first shopping experience involves an apothecary, a wand shop, getting fitted for late-medieval/Renaissance style robes, and buying a pet owl.

What I find most interesting is how, even with magic, much of what the witches and wizards do would seem to us, slower. They don’t email one another or communicate by telephone, they write letters and send them by owls. It is almost astonishing how ultimately non-magical this is. The letters themselves, in fact nearly all the writing they do, with the exceptions of the newspaper, more recent books, and posters/cards, is done by hand, with a dip pen in the form of a quill. They actually dip a quill in a pot of ink and write, with their hands, on paper. The only magical element is when they send letters, the carriers are owls, but this is almost accidental to the whole process. They might just as well be carried by people. I think this is important. Rowling gives us a world with little technology and even less machining. Magic often takes the place of machines, but in the writing of letters or homework, neither magic nor sophisticated technology is used. Rather, the quill is a tool serving merely as an extension of the person holding it in order to effect a change in the world around them by the generation of something new, namely written words. It is interesting that wands serve the same basic function. They are tools, possessed of little magic themselves. Again, in the same footnote in The Tales of Beedle the Bard (footnote 4 in the notes after ‘Babbity Rabbity and the Cackling Stump), Dumbledore notes that a muggle picking up a magic wand might be able to do a random bit of magic, but only because there is a residual magic left in the wand by its owner. However, in the hand of a witch or wizard, it serves as a conduit for performing magic, magic which comes not from the wand nor any other external source, but from the wielder. Rowling, I think, is teaching children something about words, both that there is something magical, we might even say, sacramental about writing and the use of words (hence the magic spell). There is a relationship between the sign, the word or words, and the thing signified. In writing, the relationship is between the words and their author, with the quill/person as the conduit or sacrament and the letter the effect. In performing magic it is the word or words and their relationship to the change affected in the real world, with the wand/wizard as the sacrament and the magic performed the effect.

There is much more that could be said, particularly about human/animal relationships with the magical animals (like owls), and cosmic/terrestrial relationships (astrology as taught by Firenze the centaur). However, I have waffled on long enough. In the end, despite the flaws, Rowling’s Potter stories can help children see something magical in words, something sacramental in the relationship between words and what they represent, something that isn’t simply accidental. This makes her books immensely helpful in growing a sacramental imagination in children.

Sincerely yours,
David

The Sacramental Imagination of Narnia

David Russell Mosley

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Ordinary Time
05 11 2014
The Edge of Elfland
Hudson, New Hampshire

Dear Friends and Family,

Today I want to continue our discussion of the formation of Sacramental Imagination in children. The world I want to look at today is C. S. Lewis’s Narnia. I thought about how I wanted to do this, and there may come a day soon where I’ll look at each book in turn, but today I want to focus on Narnia as a whole, dipping in and out of the various books as I see fit.

Narnia is world I didn’t come to right away. Unlike The Hobbit, The Chronicles of Narnia were never read to me as a child. I still remember having them recommended to me by a classmate as we sat, not paying attention, during choir when I was in about the fourth or fifth grade. I can’t remember what my first reading of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe was like, but I remember sitting at my desk in my bedroom, pouring over The Silver Chair with my desk lamp on. I loved Puddleglum. I’m not sure why. I’m not of a sour disposition myself, but I loved him all the same.

One of the key things Narnia taught as a child was a love for animals, not in a zoological way, but as friends. Every squirrel I met, every bird, cat, dog, toad, snake, whatever, was my friend, someone to whom I could talk and be understood. In fact, I used to believe I had a special way with animals. Even at university, when there was a mouse in my dorm room, I could have sworn I had nearly talked it into coming to me so I could rescue it from the mouse traps all over the place. Sadly, it didn’t listen to me. What Narnia taught me about animals extended the rest of creation (granted Tolkien was also helpful here, but I’m not discussing The Lord of the Rings). Every tree, every field, every flower became special, even while I longed for my own doorway into Narnia.

Narnia did more than simply give me an appreciation for creation, though that is an excellent starting place if one is going to have a high view of baptism, the Eucharist, or chrismation (all Sacraments involving physical objects often used for other daily purposes as well). It also began to form my imagination about the universe as a whole. One of my favourite scenes in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is when the company of the Dawn Treader land on Ramandu’s island and meet the retired Star and his daughter. Eustace, who’s total transformation hasn’t been fully effected yet, blurts out when he’s told what Ramandu and Coriakin are, “In our world…a star is a huge ball of flaming gas.” Ramandu repsonds, “Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is but only what it is made of.” There is a hint, that stars in our world might be similar to stars in Narnia, especially since we’re not told what Ramandu is made of, only what he looks like (one could, of course, delve deeper since Caspian later weds and sires an offspring with Ramandu’s daughter, therefore she, nor her father, can be made of huge balls of flaming gas, but that is not the point Lewis or I are trying to make). Not only does Narnia teach us to view the Earth differently, but the whole cosmos. Stars might be persons, animals might be able to talk, and the death of a creature who is also God by nature might be able to undo all the evil, slowly, of fallen world. If this is possible, then why might not bread become a body, wine, blood, or oil a seal from God.

There is, of course, much more one could point to: the liquid light at the edge of the world, the way this world connects to the next, etc. At heart, however, what Narnia does, what all good fantasy does, is show us that things may be more than they appear and this because there is one who created them and they show forth their creator and participate in him. In short, that the cosmos is enchanted.

Sincerely yours,
David

The Sacramental Imagination of The Hobbit

David Russell Mosley


Ordinary Time
Richard Hooker
03 11 2014
The Edge of Elfland
Hudson, New Hampshire

Dear Friends and Family,

Today I want to continue our conversation about forming a sacramental imagination in children. As I said before, I want to focus on the works the helped form my imagination as a child. The first book on the list, therefore, is J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. I am limiting myself to The Hobbit because attempting a brief overview of the sacramental imagination in this book will be hard enough without also delving into The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion, or what’s more, the History of Middle Earth series. Therefore, if you read this post and see that I’ve left out Ents, Galadriel’s Mirror and phial, silmarils, etc., you will understand why.

As I’ve said on multiple occasions, there has never been a particularly long period of my life where The Hobbit has not featured in it. It is one of the earliest books that was read to me in the cradle and his been my closest companion these many years. The book, for those who haven’t read it or seen the first two films of the trilogy based on it, is about a hobbit, a creature of about three and half to four feet tall called Bilbo Baggins. Bilbo lives a rather bourgeois life. He’s a bachelor, has a well stocked larder (pantry), doesn’t seem to need to work any longer at the middle age of fifty (hobbits living to 100 as like as not). He doesn’t have much use for anything he can’t see with his own two eyes and anything fantastic he believes in, say dragons or goblins or even wolves, merely frightens him at the possibility of their existence. He is, for all intents and purposes, a rather standard, post-enlightenment, upper middle class gentleman. Then all of a sudden he encounters a wizard and not long after thirteen dwarves who convince him to go on an adventure.

Bilbo is meant to represent us in the story in many ways. Even in height he rather matches many of the children who would about his stories. Of course most of them, and us, would not be quite so stolid as Bilbo, bemoaning missing handkerchiefs, desiring pipe tobacco (from experience anyway), etc. But still, like Bilbo, most of us have never seen dwarves or wizards or elves or goblins or dragons or great kingdoms carved out of mountains. If we knew the dangers, I dare say most of us would rather stay home and eat bacon than go attempt to steal treasure from a sleeping dragon. And yet, like Bilbo, we don’t know the danger and so, as he goes on his adventure, we join him, and we, like him, gain something in the end.

It is obvious, when you reach the end of the book, that Bilbo has changed. He has encountered goblins, Gollum, a dragon, dangerous elves, rock giants, and more. And yet, he does not leave behind his old self completely. He still loves good food and drink more than treasure; he still dreams of bacon and enjoys throughout his adventures smoking his pipe (the very scene with which the book ends). Yet as he sings his song, ‘Roads Go Ever, Ever On’, as Gandalf notices, he is not the same hobbit he was at the beginning. He has been transformed. The narrator casts this transformation in two different sets of terms. The first is prose versus poetry; the second, Took versus Baggins. In the Took and Baggins dichotomy, nothing is lost. Bilbo is as much a Baggins at the end as at the beginning, but he is a Tookish Baggins or a Bagginsish Took. He still, as I’ve said, loves good food and pipes by the fire, but now his guests are not simply other hobbits, but dwarves, wizards, and even elves. From prose to poetry, however, there is truer transformation. Bilbo takes no part in the songs sung throughout the book, though he is at times moved by them. I think it striking that Bilbo does not, so far as we know, sing until the very end of the book where he not only sings, but sings a song of his own creation and what’s more, his own creation on the spot! Bilbo, the narrator tells us, was never so prosy as he imagined, but at the end he no longer even imagines himself prosy, he is now a poet.

I think it is this that helps us form a sacramental imagination, the dual recognition that we need not leave this life behind in commitment to a sacramental cosmos, just as Bilbo must not leave behind Baggins to become a Took. We can still love food and comfort, but now because we know the depth of these things, because now we know with whom we dine for Christ is present at every meal, though much more so and in a different way at one in particular. Nevertheless, the more we give in to the sacramental cosmos, the more we become poets, leaving behind pure prose. Thus, not only how we see the world has been changed, but how we talk about it has been changed as well. This is, in part, what we, like Bilbo, gain at the end of the story, a wider context in which to live our lives and new language in which to describe it.

Sincerely yours,
David