Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Quatember: The Forgotten Month

Once again the Church enters into her seasonal days of fast. The winter Ember Days are upon us.

Sort of.

In the Ember Days we discover one of the oddest ecclesiastical situations to have arisen since Vatican II, and more especially since 2007, when Benedict XVI’s Summorum Pontificum basically established an ordinary and an extraordinary calendar for the Latin church. Many Catholics with a preference for the extraordinary form of the liturgy still fast during these four sets of three days (Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday) placed regularly through the year. This custom persists due to a sense of tradition rather than any obligation or legal norm. Since Ash Wednesday of 1966, the only universally obligatory days of fast are Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Ecclesiastical laws that do not directly affect the celebration of the liturgy do not change depending on which form of the Mass one prefers.

Admittedly it seems appropriate to fast on these days if one is to observe them at all, for this is their basic focus as well as their origin. In the so-called Leonine so-called Sacramentary, a collection of early medieval Roman liturgical texts, three Ember times are known as the fasts of the sixth, ninth, and twelfth months. The fourth would presumably be the fast of the third month, except that that section of the manuscript is missing. (The word Ember is derived from the Latin phrase quattuor tempora, simply meaning four times.) The other main associations throughout history have been with agricultural produce and priestly ordination, which are in themselves not unrelated topics.

In any case, this is where the oddity arises. Since the Ember Days are still fully present in the 1962 Roman Missal, those who celebrate the extraordinary form are used to their presence and more or less take it for granted. Since there are no Ember Days in the 1969 calendar, people who only know the Church since that time (which is a fairly large proportion of the Church) likely do not even know that seasonal fasting times were a part of ecclesial practice until very recently. 1969, despite all appearances, is only 45 years ago, a minute portion of the Church’s existence.

The oddity is compounded by the fact that Ember Days are pretty much still supposed to exist, in the ordinary form no less than the extraordinary. Speaking of the Ember Days in a 1969 document outlining the way the calendar was supposed to work, the Congregation for Divine Worship instructed episcopal conferences to “arrange the time and plan for their celebration.” To my knowledge the USCCB has never done such a thing.

Thus, while they could put the Ember Days wherever they wanted, I think the best idea is for a re-introduction of the traditional seasonal fasts to the ordinary form of the liturgy, along with the obligation of fasting. Happily, this introduction could be done gradually, perhaps introducing one Ember period at first, and then increasing the number when such a course is deemed prudent. Part of this new iteration can be to pray for vocations, such an important intention especially today. The Church needs priests. She also needs fasting, structure, and an awareness of time, history, and the fruits of the earth, and the Ember tradition provides all these and more.

Note: The title of this post is drawn from the fact that the German word for Ember Days is Quatembertage, again derived from Quattuor Tempora. Clearly, Quatember is not and was never a month (it only has twelve days, after all), but it makes a catchy title.  

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Paene mortua

My father called me this morning in search of an answer to a question about the Latin language, an object of our common enthusiasm. His query concerned the pronunciation of a verb form known as the first person singular perfect active indicative of the verb moneo, I warn: namely, monui. (It is pronounced, by the way, with the accent on the first syllable because the u in the second-to-last syllable, or penult, is short.) I was only too glad to help, but it struck me as unfortunate that such a question had to be asked.
            Some say that Latin is a dead language; I would prefer to borrow a phrase from the cult classic film The Princess Bride and argue that it is mostly dead. It survives largely in the context of the Catholic Church, but even there when it does see use, its users view it for the most part as a largely technical system, both in how it works and how they employ it. The word “technical” means slightly different things in these two contexts. To learn Latin, people have to master a complicated mass of rules, distinctions, and exceptions. To make it work in the sphere of liturgy, priests (for the most part) have at the bare minimum to read certain texts aloud or quietly from designated books; it sometimes does not seem to matter much to what extent they understand what they are saying or how well a putative native Latin speaker could understand them. The first strikes me as exemplary of a technique, the second as rather more of a technicality.
            Now clearly this understanding of the Latin tongue shows marked contrast with the way in which the general population views and learns languages. Often a certain degree of immersion takes place, with apparently a fairly direct relation to the resulting fluency of the learners. While some study of the language as system takes place (a fact that I do find laudable), the teachers and students generally seem to view it as subordinate to learning that takes place by doing.
            In fact, however, a not too recent era witnessed a comparable situation in the Church, but one which is likely better suited to Latin as it exists in our time. Men who studied in seminaries, especially in the higher echelons of ecclesiastical learning such as, for example, the pontifical universities of Rome, were expected to learn to know Latin, more or less in the sense intended by the German phrase kennen lernen, namely to get to know or to become acquainted with someone as a person. In this sense, knowing a language was almost a personal relationship. Not only did these men learn to know the language, but they also cultivated, through theology and philosophy lectures conducted in Latin, their relationship with it. This relationship I would like to call, perhaps somewhat eccentrically, the techne of language.         
Moreover, this techne led to the establishment and edification of other personal relationships. Men who really knew Latin could converse with each other no matter what their respective origins. In fact in some ways, the Latin language was admirably suited to such use. For one thing, it lacked the specific cultural – one might almost say colonial – overtones of one today’s major linguae francae such as English, but retained the supracultural dimensions present in the Church.

I am informed that programs exist, at such places at Wyoming Catholic College, in which immersion forms a large portion of the pedagogy. However, it seems to me that this method still tends toward the technique side of the language. I do not get the sense that students in such programs really get to know the language holistically, or in such a way that it enables them to form and enrich relationships with others. Let me relate an anecdote to illustrate a point that will then lead to what I believe is a true – though at this point admitted rather vague – alternative.      
I recall once, while working at a seminary library, stumbling upon a book – published (I believe) in the Sixties – that contained an interview of a major twentieth-century theologian: I think it was Fr. Karl Rahner. The book’s editor noted that the interview had taken place in Latin. This discovery made quite an impression on me; it seemed to me to represent an ideal worth striving for. This ideal would combine the technique and the techne of Latin in such a way that people would be able both to understand how Latin works, and to be comfortable with using it in a wide variety of contexts, analogously to the situations pursuant upon one’s meeting an old friend at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden or at a cafĂ© in Paris that could only be described as charmant, at a chilly bus stop somewhere in West Milwaukee or in a hospitable hut somewhere in East Africa.
            I do not go quite so far as to wish for a return to full life for the Latin language, such as would ensue if, for example, we succeeded in procreating a generation of native speakers, for whom the very attractive surname of Grammaticus would undoubtedly not be amiss. Rather I would like to see it go from mostly dead to mostly living, preserving all the best things that have accrued to it throughout its long and storied career, in the realms of technique and of techne, so that people could really know it, and use that knowledge-rapport to interact with and augment their other relationships, with a view to building up the common of the Church and the world. 

Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Referendum

The day has arrived, friends. Millions of Scots are voting in an independence referendum, colloquially known as IndyRef. I imagine that, if a Yes victory occurs, in 2514 they will hold an event called Indy 500. But I digress.

I am pretty glad I don't get to or have to vote in this referendum. For that matter, it's probably a good thing that I don't have enough stake in a foreign vote to have a confirmed opinion. However, I think I can state with some certainty the high likelihood of the following statement's being true: This referendum is more important than any election that has occurred in the US in my lifetime, and probably since at least the Civil War.

The idea is to undo a union that has existed for 307 years, i.e. longer than the United States has been a nation. Indeed, 307 is a conservative (Tory?) estimate, since a personal union of the monarch (though not of the kingdoms) has existed since 1603, when James VI of Scotland, being in some way the closest non-Catholic relative of Elizabeth I, became James I of England. This state of affairs did not persist overlong, since the seventeenth century included such things as the English Civil War, and the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688 that saw the overthrow of James VII and II. It was only in 1707 under Queen Anne that the actual United Kingdom was formed (and even then it did not include Ireland till 1801). And then of course the Germans came, an event about which I will make no further comment. This history lesson is now completed.

I don't have many Answers about the Rightness of any given Side in the Referendum. I do, however, have a Number of Musings.

1. I believe the Referendum is seen as a victory for "21st-century democracy." I am not convinced that a) democracy in itself is of high importance or b) that the current century knows how to go about it better than any or every previous century. I understand the importance of freedom, but I think it comes from God and not from a freedom exchange inherent in humanity or any particular political system.

2. I wonder how this Referendum will affect other quests for independence, whether recognized as legitimate by the United States and its allies or not. The referendum in Crimea, which was widely condemned, comes to mind; so, too, do the aspirations of Catalonia. And Texas, I suppose, to use an example closer to the homes of most of my readers. Will the Union of the States endure much longer than the Union of the Kingdoms that once ruled them? (Assuming, of course, that a Yes victory occurs.)

3. I have realized that I am not such a medievalist that I automatically assume that if a state of affairs existed in the Middle Ages, it must be fitting in some way. Scotland was independent for much of the medieval period, but I have not found myself allied to the Yes campaign for this reason.

4. I still love Scottish traditional music.

5. My final Musing regards how people I know would vote and why they would do so. Feel free to share your own Musings on this topic.

Monday, September 15, 2014

A poem

The chances we take define us, my father used to say
As he sat in his old recliner, and watched his children play.
That ace was a keeper, Samuel; that deuce was a loss, Maureen;
His sense was a tad too knowing, and his eye was a mite too keen.

He played when he wasn’t watching, and he won when he wasn’t tired.
I wanted to see the time come round when his winning streak expired.
But when he found he was losing, he’d know it was time to quit;
He would win, and after that winning, he’d say he was tired of it.

I found as I grew in knowledge, that his skill was a way of life.
He kept things that wanted keeping, and his judgment cut like a knife.
He laid things that wanted laying, and gained what he wished to gain.
But he always insisted grimly that a cheater must end in pain.

The last night my father gambled was the night that he played with me.
He thought my hand held a seven; but it happened to harbor three.
When he saw my hand on the table, he knew he could win no more,
And he shot himself with a piece he’d won from a man that he’d rendered poor.

I buried my father early; the sun had an hour to sleep.
I dug till my palms were blistered; I dug till the grave was deep.
The things that he lost undid him in games he could clearly win.
His final opponent cheated; the sinner had met his sin. 

Friday, August 10, 2012

Stonewells, Part 4

November 26, ----
The Old House, Forehaven

My dear Mr. Hale,

I struggle to restrain myself from tearing up this paper and overturning the ink-bottle at each word I write, as the moment draws nearer, nearer, and ever more near when I must finally succumb to my separate though similar duties as a master historian and as a careful friend. I must in all conscience, though in no comfort, entrust to your eyes, and to yours alone for the moment at any rate, the continuing and chilling details that comprise the experiences of my kinsman Mr. Montgomery at Stonewells and in its grounds, outhouses, and neighbouring villages. Alas that the general course of things has put so romantic and desirable a stamp on the country life of the British Isles! Those who know better alone understand just how wrong such a stamp has proved and on how many occasions! The land of England is covered with mists and fogs and vapours for a reason that will be only too clear once I have finished my narrative. Let me merely say that -- I know not how to put it any more subtly -- things are better, I think I may say far better, this way.

I last wrote to you on October 19 of Mr. E. J. Montgomery's entrance into the Blue Room of his library at Stonewells, and of the seats that extended throughout the periphery of that heaven-hued chamber. I must continue at the point where Everlasting Jubilee -- oh, if only that name may hold true in the life to come, for it surely did not in this! -- was about to take his seat on one of the many cushioned sections of the more or less continuous bench. I wish to lessen the shock you will experience in reading this letter by saying that he felt a sense of foreboding in his heart. But as a truthful man, I cannot do so, for he never told of any such presentiment, either then or at any other time. As a recovering practical man, Mr. Montgomery took things at face-value, and was about to do so very literally within just a few moments of his entering the library -- how incongruously commonplace it seems to me that I must call it so! But enter he did, and prepare to seat himself he likewise -- dare I write the word in full? -- did.

As he took his seat the wooden top of the bench, along with the blue cushion that covered it, tipped up, and Mr. Montgomery found himself deposited by his own weight and the force of the seat's upward swing onto the softly carpeted floor. He knew that he had made a discovery of some kind, as he had expected he might do, his house having at one time been a Cisercian abbey, etc., but he had not anticipated the event's coming so soon upon his arrival and while he was -- that terrifying word to a man of some temperaments, though not, unfortunately for him, as the sequel would prove, his own -- alone. Such a word, I hope you will understand, deserves its own sentence, or rather fragment. Alone. In accordance with his practical habits, Mr. Montgomery did not choose at this moment to shout, cry, or scream for help. He merely made up his mind to investigate what, if anything, was contained in the compartment his simply action of sitting down had revealed in so nearly-eldritch a manner. He knew from his reading of books of a certain type that it was more than likely that at this point in his 'story' -- he has told me specifically that he thought of the word at that moment in inverted commas -- nothing would be present in the newly-uncovered space, except perhaps a few moth-balls, or a newspaper from a decade or two prior.

What he did find -- I tremble to say it -- is unfortunately constrained to be the subject of my next letter, if I can gather my wits, my courage, and my writing equipment together for yet another time. The events of this narration shook me up quite badly at the time I heard them, and that terraemotus continues to have its effect on my nerves, and indeed on every portion of my person. Please take pity on me if I do not write you as soon as I might be expected to out of courtesy. Courtesy has its places, but I fear me that the telling of detailed horror-stories, every word of which is true, is not one of those places. I regret this, but so it must remain if I myself am to be and to remain

Yours sincerely,

R. O. Fox

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Citius, Altius, Fortius

Well, friends, the Olympics have been going on in London for some time now, and all those magnificent athletes -- also known as heroes -- have either become swifter, higher, stronger, or collapsed in tears and been carried away by their psychologists and coaches, unwilling to remain longer in the presence of some hateful person (often a Russian) who has stripped them of True Glory, i.e. the gold medal. Their silver or bronze medal, of course, is not actually a symbol of anything noble or athletic, but a depiction of their shame. Silver, unlike gold, tarnishes, you know.

Strangely, only the winners see things this way. We lesser mortals really dig it when our country's representatives win at all. And even when they don't. Miss Gabrielle Douglas came last on the uneven bars, and yet we (the USA) still love her. I have a sneaking suspicion that we would do so even if she hadn't won two gold medals, but she might not know that. This is an unfortunate situation, but then again there always seem to be a few of those at the Olympics. They're the best when they involve Bela Karolyi, however. He in himself a bit of a silver lining. Or, I suppose, a gold lining, since the other term might remind some poor Olympian of an inglorious prize I did not intend to reference.


The greatest Olympian of all time (since 1896, anyway), the nonchalant, noncommittal, non-much of anything besides swift, high, and strong (presumably in the comparative degree), the naturally swimmer-shaped Baltimorean known as Michael Phelps, has reached the medal count of a well-performing small country. He would be 14th in the table of these Games. Yorkshire, however, not being from Baltimore, but rather the Texas of the UK, (despite being in the North), would be 11th if counted separately from Team GB. I thought that various people might like to know these things for various reasons. Now I have done my duty on that score.


Royalty of both the US and the UK are involved in equestrian at the Games of the XXX Olympiad. Zara Philips, daughter of the Princess Royal, and thus 14th in succession to numerous Crowns, got a silver medal (oh, the dishonor!) in the team eventing. If she were not already married to Mr. Michael Tindall, she might want to consider teaming up with that other Mr. Michael who is also 14th in something, namely Phelps. But then again, he got -- I am loth even to name it -- a bronze medal, so he is probably out of contention for most Olympians' hands, whether we refer to marriage, applause, or even shaking.

Ann Romney's horse is also in the Olympics, and that is what I meant by American royalty being involved. Of course, since the horse's owner's husband is running for President of the United States, a big deal must be made. I am sure I will have more to say on these matters before the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November.


Wouldn't it be insane if the Marathon were not 26.2 miles, but rather a race from Marathon to wherever the Olympics were held? It would be like an extreme version of the triathlon. Bikes would, naturally, be allowed for a portion of the race, and it would generally involve a lot of swimming: for example, when the Games are in Rio de Janeiro, the competitors will have to swim across the Atlantic Ocean. Perhaps there can be a sailing component to it as well. Someone must alert Jacques Rogge to this idea. Now that "rugby sevens" (whatever that is) is being introduced to the Games, I'm pretty sure no idea is indefensible.


Occasionally the subject of doping comes up in the context of the Games of various Olympiads. Hey guys, I'm pretty sure that's not what the IOC means by "higher." Never mind.


I leave you with a brief note on Russians at the Games, particularly in gymnastics, and their habit of kissing people more than Americans typically do. That's it. See you in Sochi.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Lux in tenebris (John 1:5)

The moon, too far to touch, too close to seem
So far away, has risen in the night,
And by its crescent's soft and gentle light
The tower and courtyard share a certain gleam.
And more, they share the gift, expressed in beam,
That first the moon received from something bright,
The sun that made it; it is only right
That light should so be shared and form a team.
The other members of that nightly band
The stars, who sing within their twinkling round,
Do share the light, as is divinely planned,
Not borrowed, not picked up, like something found,
Given directly by that mighty hand,
Which in creation made their light resound.