Sunday, 22 September 2013

The Blind Man Who Fought the Nazis

I have just read a remarkable book, And There Was Light by Jacques Lusseyran. Lusseyran was blinded in a childhood accident but "every day since then," he wrote, "I have thanked heaven for making me blind while I was still a child not quite eight years old." Or, as he put it a little later, "I know that since the day I have been blind I never been unhappy", which is quite a statement coming from someone who only just survived the horrors of Buchenwald. 

One of the fascinations of the book is the way Lusseyran described his experience of seeing. It took him a while to adjust to his blindness but then, "I began to look more closely, not at things but at a world closer to myself, looking from an inner place to one further within, instead of clinging to the movement of sight towards the world outside. Immediately, the substance of the universe drew together, redefined and peopled itself anew. I was aware of a radiance emanating from a place I knew nothing about, a place which might as well have been outside me as within. But radiance was there, or, to put it more precisely, light. It was a fact, for light was there."

He describes going for walks in the mountains with his friend and teaching his friend to see. He describes the inner canvas of memory which expanded (in a way which reminds me of Matteo Ricci's memory palaceto whatever size was required by his extraordinary mind. He describes the importance of others:

"I hear blind people say this kind of dependence is their greatest affliction, turning them into poor relations or hangers-on ... But can these sad blind point to a single individual anywhere who has not been dependent, even with his eyes, not waiting for someone else, nor subservient to better or stronger men or ones far away; not bound in one way or another to every living creature? Whatever the bond, be it hate, love, desire, power, weakness or blindness - it is part of us, and love is the simplest way to cope with it."

Light and love are the book's main themes, with all else being a variation on their beautiful melodies: the war, the resistance, betrayal, even the concentration camp are caught up in the greater music that Lusseyran creates.

The book also has great narrative power, especially when Lusseyran describes his life during the war. As a 16-year old, he recruited 10 friends to a resistance group, only to find that 52 turned up to the initial meeting. Before long there were 600 in the group of which he was the head. 

"Being blind" he writes in another context, "seemed to give me nothing but advantages." But it was true during the war as well. He led his resistance group not despite his blindness but because of it. It was he who recruited and he who could tell, when others could not, who was unreliable, who a spy, who could bring death to them all.

His movement grew in size, merged with another larger group and then was betrayed from within. Along with thousands of others he was sent to Buchenwald. Of the 2000 men with whom he travelled only thirty survived.

But it is the reasons he gives for his survival that set this book apart from many others. Lusseyran is quite clear about what he and his group stood for: "Christian morality and its absolute demands for respect and love." 

After almost dying of disease at Buchenwald, Lusseyran "hardly needed to look out for myself, and such concern would have seemed to me ridiculous. I knew it was dangerous and it was forbidden. I was free now to help the others; not always, not much, but in my own way I could help. I could try to show other people how to go about holding on to life. I could turn towards them the flow of light and joy which had grown so abundant in me. ... Often my comrades would wake me up in the night and take me to comfort someone, sometimes a long way off in another block. ... Hundreds of men confided in me. ... I did my best to understand them all. That is how I lived, how I survived."

And, just in case, this seems too safe, too idealistic, Lusseyran reminds us that he knew full well what depth of evil had been plumbed by the Nazis: "The hardest thing was not the cold, not even that. It was the men themselves, our comrades and other prisoners, all the ones sharing our miseries. Suffering had turned some into beasts. ... For years the SS had so calculated the terror that either it killed or it bewitched. Hundreds of men at Buchenwald were bewitched. The harm done them was so great that it had entered into them body and soul. And now it possessed them. They were no longer victims. They were doing injury in their turn and doing it methodically. The man in charge of our quarantine barracks was a German, an anti-Nazi who had been there for six years. Rumour had it that he had been a hero. Now, every day, he killed two or three of us with his own hands, barehanded or with a knife. He struck out in the crowd at random. It was a satisfaction he could no longer live without."

It is a terrifying description because it is so plausible and yet it is not the only picture to emerge from this book. Lusseyran also describes criminals, even murderers, who become saints. He describes men who refused to bow down before the false gods of the Nazis. He lived on hope and describes it beautifully.

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

What Makes Catholic Education Catholic?

... is the title of an interesting article written recently by Mark Brumley, the president and CEO of Ignatius Press. To read it click here.

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Shakespeare and memories of Catholicism

I was in the happy position of attending a short lecture last week by Dr Gillian Woods from Birkbeck College, University of London, about whose new book I have written before.

In her lecture, Dr Woods pointed out that there is a surprising amount of Catholicism in Shakespeare's plays, given that the religion was proscribed. The Catholic references range from nuns and friars to pilgrims and pilgrimages, from swear words to "very Catholic metaphors" like the ones embedded in the famous sonnet constructed by Romeo and Juliet at their first meeting:

If I profane with my unworthiest hand
This holy shrine, the gentle sin is this:
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.

Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
Which mannerly devotion shows in this;
For saints have hands that pilgrims' hands do touch,
And palm to palm is holy palmers' kiss.

Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?

Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.

O, then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do;
They pray — grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.

Saints do not move, though grant for prayers' sake.

Then move not, while my prayer's effect I take.

What do we make then of what she called this "residue" or "memory of the faith that had been banned and rejected"? It seems clear that there were a range of options available to people in post-Reformation England, ranging from nostalgia to fear, from hatred to acceptance. Many of these responses appear in Shakespeare's plays. In fact, many of them appear within individual plays, creating a complex picture that needs to be read in a historically informed way.

Dr Woods used a helpful metaphor in her lecture, suggesting that the ways in which Catholicism is present in Shakespeare's plays are akin to the ways in which pre-Reformation wall paintings survived in the post-Reformation Church. Many were simply removed. Some were literally defaced (in order to make it clear that the Reformed Church in England was not just a new church but a rejection of the Old Church, that it was - in some sense - still in dialogue with it). And others were whitewashed, perhaps in the hope that they might one day be uncovered, though the images still seeped through. (The definitive work on all of this is Eamon Duffy's The Stripping of the Altars.)

I like this last metaphor in particular: we can see Catholicism seeping through the language and drama of Shakespeare's plays without having to get drawn into largely fruitless discussions about his own religious inclinations.

Dr Woods finished by discussing Helena in All's Well That Ends Well, a character whose pilgrimage raises all sorts of questions about faith within the play as well as among critics. The very complexity of her role seems to reflect the complexity of Shakespeare's response to the Old Faith, just as the play itself, in Dr Woods' fine phrase, reveals "the limitations of fiction and the inadequacies of real life."

Thursday, 12 September 2013

What happened to the Catholic Novel?

... is not my question but Toby Garfitt's in the journal, French Studies

Dr Garfitt is a very interesting writer. An academic at Oxford University, he is also an evangelical Anglican who has an interest in Catholic Literature.

In his article for French Studies (an article which is in theory available for free, though the link doesn't seem to work), he argues that: "The idea of a specifically Catholic novel arose during the 19th century". Now this raises all sorts of questions about what might be meant by a specifically Catholic novel but we'll put those questions to one side for the moment.

He goes on to suggest that "it was Chateaubriand’s Atala (1801) that inaugurated the new genre of the Catholic novel as a riposte to the dechristianization associated with the Revolution ... and as the novel rapidly established itself as the major literary genre, a number of Catholic sub-genres developed."

All this is very interesting, though I would have liked to have seen more about Balzac who, by any reckoning, was a major novelist and a committed Catholic. According to Garfitt, "The Avant-propos to Balzac’s Comédie humaine expresses nostalgia for the alliance of throne and altar, but only a handful of the novels, such as Le Curé de village, promote a Catholic sensibility."

Even so, the whole essay is fascinating in its overview of a hugely significant era in literary history (whatever our views might be of the phrase "a Catholic sensibility"). However, what I find particularly interesting is the question which gives the essay its title: the notion that the Catholic novel has disappeared, a notion I just don't accept, partly because I don't buy into many of the literary assumptions that emerged in the wake of Vatican II.  Here's Garfitt again, quoting Bernard Beronzi:

"The most significant date in the later history of the Catholic novel, both as an evolving genre and as an object of criticism, is no doubt 1962, when the Second Vatican Council began its deliberations. By 1980 Bernard Bergonzi could write that since the old Catholic world-view had collapsed and was now replaced by a new ‘humanistic Catholicism’ that was less clearly at odds with the surrounding culture, there was no room for the old-style Catholic novel, and the best that could be hoped for was the ‘Catholic anti-novel’ of such as David Lodge."

However, as Garfitt points out there were still plenty of novelists who did not follow where David Lodge led, including Roger Bichelberger, one of whose novels he (Garfitt) has translated into English. 

The article finishes with these interesting thoughts: "In his most recent study The Pen and the Cross: Catholicism and English Literature 1850-2000 (London: Continuum, 2010), Richard Griffiths correctly emphasizes the importance of the French experience of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to the writing of Graham Greene and many others on this side of the Channel, but does not see more recent French writers and thinkers as offering any pointers to a possible reinvention of the Catholic novel. One of his central questions is whether Catholic literature can survive as theology moves on, and it will be interesting to see whether the theologically informed reflections of an influential philosopher like Jean-Luc Marion on love, idolatry and transcendence provide something for the next generation of novelists (in whatever language) to get their teeth into."

There are all sorts of assumptions built into Griffiths' question that we might want to question, especially in the light of Benedict XVI's writing: what theology 'moving on' actually means for a start. But this post is long enough as it is, so I'll return to this and related questions in later posts.

Thursday, 5 September 2013

New School, New Blog to follow

A new school opened in London yesterday, The Cedars School in Croydon. I am not an unbiased observer as I work there but I have to say that it seems to me to be a thoroughly good thing.

The school's blog can be found here and I have posts on Latin here, on History here and on the Liberal Arts here. We have also been able to think afresh about the nature of English in the curriculum: for a quick summary, have a look here

If you would like to come and see for yourself, our next Open Day is on Saturday 28th September between 10am and 1pm. You would be very welcome. 

Monday, 2 September 2013

Catholic or Roman Catholic?

A reader wrote this in the combox the other day: "You ought you know to refer to your self as Roman Catholic, as there are other churches, notably the Orthodox, which also call themselves Catholic."

It's an interesting point which deserves a fuller reply. Why do I refer to myself as a Catholic rather than as a Roman Catholic? I certainly grew up (as a non-Catholic) referring to my neighbours, the only Catholics I then knew, as "Roman Catholics", and I remember being rather surprised to be told by an Irish priest that the first time he ever came across the phrase "Roman Catholic" was when he came to England.

So, perhaps it would help - as it so often does - if we look at the history of the phrase. The first recorded use of "Roman Catholic" in the Oxford English Dictionary comes from as late as 1581: P. Wiburn Checke or Reproofe M. Howlets Shreeching f. 27, "The profession of ye Gospel followeth not your Romaine Catholikes." 

In other words, as the other examples in OED make abundantly clear, the term "Roman Catholic" is one that was used about Catholics rather than by them. It was, at the very least, a term of disparagement.

So, the simple reason why I call myself a Catholic is because this is what we Catholics call ourselves. And the reason we call ourselves Catholics is because the Church of which we are members is universal, it is Catholic. It is not limited to one city in Italy. It is not, we Catholics believe, just one church among many.

However, there is a sense in which our Church is very much "Roman" Catholic, as Rémi Brague makes clear in his wonderful book, Eccentric Culture: A Theory of Western Civilization (or Europe, la voie romaine, to give it its original French title). 

Brague demonstrates not only that Christianity is essentially Roman but that Europe is too. In fact, he goes so far as to argue that: "'Catholicism' does not exist. In any event, not in the sense that it would be an '-ism' as one speaks of Marxism, of liberalism, or of fulanismo ('any-such-ism') dear to Unamuno. Catholicism is not a system of thought, a school, yet less an ideology. 'Catholic' is first of all a characteristic of the Church, one of its 'notes.' It is not a man, me for example, that is Catholic; it is the Church to which he belongs - and which his sin forbids him from identifying with perfectly." To get the full scope of his argument, you really need to read his book. It's well worth it.

So, to summarise, I am proud to be a (Roman) European and a (Roman) Catholic. But I don't think I need to change the name of my blog just yet.