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Lincoln, Nebraska Shows Us the Way

Here is a blogpost from Liturgy Guy about Lincoln, Nebraska. The facts and figures seem to back up the argument he makes, that orthodoxy in liturgy and catechesis keeps the faithful in the Church and the seminaries full.

Even so, it is not as though Bishop Conley of the Diocese of Lincoln is resting on his laurels. I attended a weekend conference in Lincoln last August in which Adam Bartlett (of Illuminare Publications and Simple English Propers renown), Matthew Meloche and several other excellent speakers (apologies for not listing you all) gave several presentations about the music in the liturgy. Bishop Conley lead the way catechising his flock with talks and homilies on all aspects of beauty and the liturgy. This included, if I recall, an explanation of ad orientem celebration. I don’t know what the numbers were precisely but a large proportion of the parishes were represented and usually by more than one person; and many were choir directors and pastors.

Furthermore, this indicates that the battle is not about EF vs OF. Rather it is about liturgy done well vs liturgy done badly; and orthodoxy vs unorthodoxy in catechesis. I encourage you to read the article.

As a symbol of what’s going on, the picture that follows is of the old church at the Newman Center of the University of Nebraska, Lincoln;

and now here’s the new church, St Thomas Aquinas at the Newman Center of University of Nebraska.


What does this tell us? Modern is old and tired, traditional is radical and new! Here’s the movement for today – radical traditionalism. Are there any more radicals out there? Let’s hope so!

We at Pontifex University are proud to be at the cutting edge of Catholic tradicalism. Bishop Conley has endorsed our programs saying about us:

“Pontifex University offers formation in the ‘way of beauty’ for the whole person, giving students an intellectual, spiritual, and human sense of God’s revelation to the world through beauty.”

The Painted Word! No, We Don’t Write Holy Icons

Here’s a quiz: I am holding a paint brush, I am dipping it in paint, I am applying the paint to the surface so as to manifest a two dimensional picture of an image that is held as an ideal in my imagination. What am I doing?

Answer: painting, right?

Wrong. It’s writing. Or at least it is according to some people, if the object you are working on is a holy icon.

So, for example, those who think this would say that St Luke not only wrote inspired scripture, he also wrote an icon of Our Lady and Our Lord!

But is this right? Is painting really an inherently distinct and inferior activity to writing as an insistence on the use of the word write would seem to suggest? Also, why pick out a verb that relates to one particular aspect of Christ every single time, ie the Word? We say also that Christ is the image of the invisible God so why not make this aspect govern our verb use when creating holy images? If Christ is an image, then it seems that references to the ‘painting’ of an image seem reasonable. This after all is part of the justification for creating images worthy of veneration, according to the Seventh Ecumenical Council. And if we really do have to only think of Christ as the Word, then (reductio ad absurdum) why not be consistent and rather than talking of Our Lady giving birth to Our Lord, why not say she ‘wrote’ the Word made flesh?

Furthermore, why not use the principle of hierarchial vocabulary when we are talking of writing as…well writing – stringing words together to make sentences and paragraphs? We might say that the writer St Luke wrote his gospel, but hack David Clayton only hacked this blog piece, for example.

To my knowledge it is only in the English language and only since the 20th century that people have referred to the writing of icons in this particular way. It is true that in Greek and, I discovered recently, Russian that the verb, to paint a picture, is the same word as ‘to write’. However the same word is used for the painting of all pictures – not just icons but landscapes, portraits and so on also. The verb ‘to paint’ which does exist in Russian is used for a lesser form of painting – the painting of houses and fences and so on.

This doesn’t mean that those of us who speak English can’t decide to use the word ‘write’ for an icon if we want to. Perhaps it would be valuable to distinguish the creation of holy icons not only from the painting of the walls of a room, but also other lesser forms of art. However, as Catholics we do not necessarily acknowledge that the iconographic style is inherently superior to other all other styles of sacred art. If we follow the ideas of Benedict XVI then, I suggest, we woule refer to gothic and baroque art as works that are ‘written’ too. So Blessed Fra Angelico wrote the Annunciation:

Either that or, to be consistent, extend the use of the word write beyond just icons; or stop using it for paintings altogether and be happy with saying that just as Fra Anglico painted, so did St Luke.

Also, contrary to what some Catholic believe, it is not the case that all icon painters or Eastern Christians use the word write for what they do. My own teacher, who is Orthodox, always used to say that he thought that the use of the word ‘write’ was ‘a bit precious’. This did not mean that he didn’t think that the painting of icons wasn’t a noble activity.

In 1975, Tom Wolfe – the guy who wrote The Bonfire of the Vanities – wrote a brilliant essay about the absurdities of modern art called The Painted Word. He pointed to the fact that the whole art scene is a gallery-art driven business in which the sellers manipulate the market by appealing to the vanity of buyers and intellectuals.. They flatter them by making them think they must be very clever to understand the nonesensical art theory that was used to justify the art they were looking at and which mystifies all clear thinking people who have no pretences to being an aesthete.

The title of the book, the The Painted Word,  arises from the fact that the flattery of the clients was so important to sales that the ideas behind the theory was considered more important than physical manifestations of them, the art itself – to be an modern art officianado is be clever because you understand it, not necessarily because you like it. The artists, faithfully following the theorists in order to sell their work at inflated prices, gradually moved into greater and great abstraction, trying to show the pure non-physical idea through a physical medium. They struggled to do so because the ideas weren’t really coherent. In the end the connection between art and ethos was so obscure that they had to write a long explanation next to the exhibit in order for anyone to understand what was going on. The natural extention of this, Wolfe points out, is to abandon conventional art altogether and just paint the words that represent the idea. This is indeed what happened to modern art. It became an high stakes game of painted word association.

Wofe’s description of the inadequacies of modern art highlight by contrast the richness of traditional sacred art. Because the ethos of Christian sacred art is rooted in truth we can manifest those ideas well. So we not only have writers who write the Word in words, we have painters who paint the Word made flesh as an image, and can even do so in such a way, so the Catechism tells us, that they are able to communicate things that words alone cannot. Furthermore, the Christian tradition also has those who paint words beautifully when they write the Word – they are called calligraphers! The creator of the Lisfarne gospel, shown below, was simultaneously a painter of words, and writer of the Word I suggest.

Where do I stand on this issue? Personally, I am less worried about what you call the activity of painting/writing icons than I am about how well it is done. To insist on the use of the word ‘write’ in a way that is not common practice in the English language feels to me like a bit of unnecessary faux-theological political correctness. So I don’t mind if others do it, but I’m not moved to do it myself. As far as I am concerened, the word ‘paint’ describes more than adequately what the sacred artist does and we don’t need to play word games in order to raise the status of the artist’s vocation. Ultimately, it is artists themselves who will do that by raising the quality of the work that they produce.

Postscript: those who wish to know a range of views held by Orthodox Christians on this matter might be interested in these three thoughtful articles in the Orthodox Arts Journal, here: Is Write Wrong?, here: A Symptom of Modern Blindness; and here: From Logos to Graphos, Lost in Translation. (I love the headlines of the articles by the way. Congrats to the OAJ sub-editor who composed them – they’re so good I thought of stealing them for myself!)

Join a Benedictine Pilgrimage France to Scotland, Summer 2017

Here is a chance to join monks from the US and UK on a pilgrimage from Burgundy to Elgin in Scotland.

I just received an email from Fr Dunstan who is one of the monks at St Mary’s Monastery, Petersham, Mass. ( He asked me to publicise a pilgrimage that is taking place this coming summer organized by St Mary’s mother house, Pluscarden in Scotland which is over 1200 miles, broken up into week long, 100 mile stages.

The pilgrimage goes from the mother house of Pluscarden in Burgundy to Pluscarden which is just inland from the coastline in Scotland that runs from Inverness to Aberdeen.

More information: –

Pluscarden Pilgrimage

Pluscarden Abbey

St Mary’s Monastery

For those who can’t make the trip to France and Great Britain, you can join them spiritually with prayers for their mission, as explained in the website; or even go and visit St Mary’s in Massachussetts on a personal pilgrimage. Both Pluscarden and St Mary’s have full chanted liturgy in Latin according to the Vatican II reforms – seven Offices and Mass each day.

The pilgrimage is a fundraiser to complete the restoration of the buildings at Pluscarden Abbey which date back to 1230, when King Alexander ll built a monastery for a community of monks from Burgundy.

After the Reformation of Parliament in 1560, religious life at the monastery was discontinued and the property passed to a series of lay owners who allowed it to fall into ruin. In 1897, the monastery was bought by the third Marquis of Bute who hoped to restore the buildings to religious use, but died only three years later. The property passed to Butes youngest son, Lord Colum Crichton-Stuart, who lacked the means to continue the restoration work. Eventually, Lord Colum gave the property to the Benedictine monks of Prinkash Abbey, near Gloucester, for them to restore the monastery to its original use. In 1947 Ian Lindsay drew up plans for the complete restoration of the buildings.

In 1948, five monks took up residence, monastic life began again and restoration work on the buildings commenced. In the 66 years since then, about two thirds of the original buildings have been restored and an ivy-clad ruin has become a working Benedictine Abbey.

I have been to Pluscarden many times and love it there. The above picture is of the potato harvest at the abbey. I occasionally went on a retreat to Le Barroux in southern France and was struck by the contrast. In Scotland it’s cabbages and potatoes, in France it’s vinyards and rows of rosemary and lavendar. You can decide which represents an authentic example of labora!

I have a personal interest in that I am an oblate of Pluscarden and one my paintings a two-sided San Damiano crucifixion hangs over the altar in the abbey. It is 6ft long and is painted on both sides so that both congregation and the monks in the choir can see the image.

Wonderful New Icons by Maxim Sheshukov

Thanks to the Orthodox Arts Journal for bringing to my notice the icons of contemporary Russian icon painter, Maxim Sheshukov.

Here is a modern style that works within the icongraphic prototype. I notice that he does not feel compelled to follow one of the ‘rules’ of iconography. When I first started to paint icons was told that the background had to be gold, or painted gold (a mixture of white and yellow ochre) or cinnabar, a bright red that denotes the presence of the Holy Spirit. This rule seems to have fallen by the wayside now and as long as there is no illusion of depth created, it seems just about any background color will do.

Without further comment I’ll let you enjoy them…

Zacheus climbing the sycamore tree.

The stoning of St Stephen

Peter weeping

St Ephrosynos the Cook

The Sacrifice of Isaac

The betrayal of Christ

St Joseph the Betrothed Dreaming

The Martyrdom of St Ignatios the God-bearer

Our Lady of Guadalupe, the perfect icon and patroness for artists

This day of December 12 heralds in the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, a distinct time marker and life affirmer for years now in my life, and so on this particular day when snow has stilled much activity in the small Vermont town where I now live — with happy children afoot and home on a snow day — I embrace the opportunity to pause and quietly celebrate this gift of image and life.

For myself as an artist, a mother, and an iconographer, I feel it is especially important to pay special homage to Mary on this day.

Here in the fullness of Advent, we have a perfect opportunity to reflect on Mary as the ultimate image-bearer in this miraculous self-portrait image given through Our Lady of Guadalupe, herself pregnant and poised with the growing infant child Jesus in her womb.  The iconographic significance is most profound with the reality of the incarnation as she is, eventually, revealed as the Immaculate Conception.

Speaking into our lives as a powerful sign post to meditate on, the story of how Our Lady spoke to native Tepeyac Indian Juan Diego (now the first indigenous saint from the Americas) in December of 1521 is one to make sure to read: how she appeared on a hillside outside of Mexico City to this humble peasant man, and how she ultimately proved herself to the world when Juan Diego, as proof of the apparition to the doubting local Bishop, presented his cactus-cloth tilma filled with roses, which fell to the floor and revealed the beautiful image of Our Lady — both pure poetry and creative grandeur, and what ultimately pointed a whole country towards conversion.

The story continues to exist as a miraculous testament to the power of holy images, speaking into our souls and gracing us with understanding that supersedes both spoken or written language.  We could say that this gesture of image goes beyond teaching and allows us to enter into the way of virtue and transformation, witnessed in total simplicity (and yet utter complexity as scientific explanations fall short) by Mary being clothed in iridescent color and light and harmonious lines that dance around her miraculous image.

Icons made “without human hands” (called Arceiropoieta in medieval Greek), as this type demonstrates, are said to have manifested miraculously and were not of human creation. They are unusual, rare, beautiful, and important parts of our Christian history and heritage.  We have the Shroud of Turin, the Veil of Veronica, the Manoppello image, and this of Our Lady of Guadalupe which we know happened to directly contribute to over nine million conversions within just twenty years of the apparition. The Eastern Orthodox Church has others such as the Mandylion (the image of Edessa) and the Hodegetria (although they can be attributed to human painters, created during the time that Christ and Mary were alive).  I find that this tangible image of Guadalupe stands apart as a unique creative sign of love and purpose, a true icon.


She is the compass to my creative practice.

With the lineage of iconographers and iconographic teaching primarily coming from the Eastern Church, we need more Catholic artist iconographers to depict the potent images of our Western Church orientation. There are myriads of saints, many of which have not yet been illumined through the practice of iconography.

I hope we can pause and pray today that others will pick up the brush and deepen faith through both miracle and icon. It is also a time to remember the unborn, the lost, and the forgotten, and to contemplate the perfect beauty that Mary radiates to us, her children.

Here is a prayer to Our Lady of Guadalupe that his Holiness John Paul II made during his first foreign trip as Pope to Mexico to the Basilica there (January 1979):  

O Immaculate Virgin, Mother of the true God and Mother of the Church!, who from this place reveal your clemency and your pity to all those who ask for your protection, hear the prayer that we address to you with filial trust, and present it to your Son Jesus, our sole Redeemer.
Mother of Mercy, Teacher of hidden and silent sacrifice, to you, who come to meet us sinners, we dedicate on this day all our being and all our love. We also dedicate to you our life, our work, our joys, our infirmities and our sorrows. Grant peace, justice and prosperity to our peoples; for we entrust to your care all that we have and all that we are, our Lady and Mother. We wish to be entirely yours and to walk with you along the way of complete faithfulness to Jesus Christ in His Church; hold us always with your loving hand.
Virgin of Guadalupe, Mother of the Americas, we pray to you for all the Bishops, that they may lead the faithful along paths of intense Christian life, of love and humble service of God and souls. Contemplate this immense harvest, and intercede with the Lord that He may instill a hunger for holiness in the whole people of God, and grant abundant vocations of priests and religious, strong in the faith and zealous dispensers of God’s mysteries.
Grant to our homes the grace of loving and respecting life in its beginnings, with the same love with which you conceived in your womb the life of the Son of God. Blessed Virgin Mary, protect our families, so that they may always be united, and bless the upbringing of our children.
Our hope, look upon us with compassion, teach us to go continually to Jesus and, if we fall, help us to rise again, to return to Him, by means of the confession of our faults and sins in the Sacrament of Penance, which gives peace to the soul.
We beg you to grant us a great love for all the holy Sacraments, which are, as it were, the signs that your Son left us on earth.
Thus, Most Holy Mother, with the peace of God in our conscience, with our hearts free from evil and hatred, we will be able to bring to all true joy and true peace, which come to us from your son, our Lord Jesus Christ, who with God the Father and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns for ever and ever.

+   +   +

After several years of taking a pause from pursuing a true-to-size icon of Our Lady of Guadalupe, I am dedicating this next year towards completing the project in my studio.  There is significance in the timing, and I look forward to sharing the process along its journey, in part within the Pontifex course in Beginning Iconography that will be available in early 2017.

May our hearts be lifted and supported on the wings of blessing and remembrance this day.

“Let not your heart be disturbed. 
Do not fear that sickness, nor any other sickness or anguish.
 Am I not here, who am your Mother?
 Are you not under my protection? 
Am I not your health?
 Are you not happily within my fold?
 What else do you wish? 
Do not grieve nor be disturbed by anything.” 

(Words of Our Lady to Juan Diego)

Close-up of the angel that hovers under Mary, said to possibly resemble the now saint Juan Diego



Breaking Bad! Why Misalette Music is Destroying the Faith

Why has church attendance dropped off so dramatically in the last 50 years? There are a whole range of reasons, I am sure, and nearly every article in this blog is addressing the issue in one form or another, but if you ask me one of the main contributory factors is the music that is generally heard at Mass. And, in my opinion it is the style of music that is offered by the most common pew misalettes that is contributing most powerfully to that decline.

I am talking about a style of music that seems to have started to develop around the late 1960s and sounds to me like a sort of fusion of American folk (vintage 1967), 19th century pop classics, Broadway musical and a hint of Victorian hymnody thrown in for good measure. However you describe the genre, it is responsible, I suggest for many to flee the pews.

Before anyone writes to me to say how much they like the music they hear each Sunday, or tell me how high quality the pianist or band that plays, and how heartily those in the congregation that do attend join in, I want to say one thing. My argument is not based upon the assertion that this is bad music. I do have strong opinions on that, but my personal taste has no bearing on the conclusion that I draw. My argument is that the whole philosophy that has contributed to the composition of such music is fataly flawed and causes the damage.

So, for argument’s sake, let us assume that the music we hear in Mass is of the highest quality within its genre. I would say that it would still have the same effect, which is to tend to drive most people away from Mass. And I would say the same even when the standard of the musicianship is of the highest order, and the choir consists of the best trained professional singers.

The problem in my opinion lies in the whole ethos that underlies the creation of music for the missals. The goal, it seems, is to connect with people by giving them music that is derived from already popular forms. The problem with this approach is that it can only connect to those people who actually listen to enjoy that style of music out of church. Today’s westerm society is so fractured that tastes vary hugely and there is no style of secular music that has universal appeal. As a result, whichever style we choose, and however well it is done, it can only every hope to appeal to a small part of the population. The rest will be driven away because they do not like it. So if we create music that appeals to those who were young in the late 1960s it will be detested by those who were young in the 1970s (like me) and all people who are younger.

If we go for something that is actually cutting-edge today and takes its form from current youth culture, even if it connects with the 17-year-olds who listen to that style of music, it will drive away all the older generations and even most other youth, because youth culture is itself fractured and there is no single style that all seventeen year olds listen to. I just think of what was going on when I was seventeen. The sixth form in Birkenhead School in the 1970s (for Americans the sixth form is the upper two years of high school) was divided between punks, heavy metal fans and progressive rock fans, with a few who liked disco, funk and soul (this was northern England).

Just in case you’re interested, I liked obscure progressive rock and jazz fusion, such as Return to Forever, Frank Zappa and Be Bop Deluxe. I used to like being seen with the LP covers tucked under my arm to show people I had highly developed music taste.

There was a little crowd of Christians who were trying to be cool and had their own Christian rock music (After the Fire was the name of the group they all liked). To me they seemed to be a sad bunch who obviously ‘just didn’t have clue’ if they thought that stuff was any good. We all used to make fun of them.

I didn’t start to take the Faith seriously until many years lateer when I was 26 and met a Christian who was just as disparaging about ‘cool’ Christianity as I was and who, it was obvious to me, didn’t even care about trying to be cool, hip and trendy at all. He just wasn’t playing that game.

What appealed to me was a Faith, and an associated culture that I saw at the Brompton Oratory, that spoke of a world beyond the petty secular concerns that had absorbed me up to that point. I don’t think I’m the only one. I would refer you to the Tradition is for the Young articles by Gregory DiPippo on this blog to back up my case.

But before we get too smug, traditionalists aren’t totally exempt from bad music thing either. Much ‘traditional’ church music has the same fault. Holy God We Praise They Name or Immaculate Mary is really just the On Eagles Wings from you great-grandmother’s day. All of these hymns – even the vast majority of non-chant hymns in hymn books that are considered fairly traditional, such as the Adoremus hymnal or the St Michael hymnal, sound off-puttingly ‘churchy’ to most people outside church, and just like the misalette music, drives more people away from church than it attracts for the same reason. It is a genre that is not universal and so only appeals to a small part of the population.

I for one can’t bear any of these hymns – they sound just like what I grew up with going to Methodist church. I hated them when I was eight and I hate them now. It is one of the main reasons that I chose to escape from going to church when I was given the choice at 13 years old. But even if this weren’t the case and I had grown to love traditional Methodist hymns and so now loved 19th century Catholic hymns it would be no argument for their inclusion in the liturgy. The vast majority of the rest of the population would not like them and they are not instrinsically liturgical.

I would use the same argument about music that is derived from 19th century operatic styles (so strongly criticized by Pius X) is just the same. We may feel that it is a higher form of music than that provided by Christian rock band liturgy, but it will still only appeal to very narrow group of people and will drive all others away. This is true, even it was written for a Latin Mass.

If the argument about the music at Mass is raised, very often the counter argument is that we have to be ‘pastoral’. It will be said that most of those attending church like the music they are getting. There would be a revolt if we changed what is so familiar to them, so the argument runs, and so we can’t risk changing the music even if we wanted to.

In response, I say that it is almost certainly likely to be true that the people attending like the music they are getting, Those who attend do so because they like, or at least can tolerate the music. Most of those who can’t stand the music they hear at Mass just stay away. They find the experience so excruciatingly, embarrasingly banal, that they go jogging or decide to read the Sunday papers with a cup of coffee instead. This is why, I suggest, the majority of teenagers leave the moment their parents give them permission to make their own minds up. And, for the reasons already described, it will be true even if we try to find a form of music that some teenagers love – because there is no form of secular music that most teenagers love. It doesn’t exist.

We can go further than this and raise another argument as to why the approach of the common misalette music composers of aping popular forms will inevitably cause a decline in attendance at Mass. Suppose we did have a society in which wider culture was more homogeneous and tastes were more consistent across the generations, it would still be a flawed approach.

I understand that many African cultures, for example, are more homogeneous and less fractured than western culture. This being the case, even if the music of the Mass reproduced the popular African style perfectly it would not be the right approach. This is because, although it might well appeal to a wider proportion of the population and you might find higher attendance at Mass, it would not facilitate a deeper and active participation in the liturgy.

This is because the liturgy is the wellspring of its own culture and an authentic liturgical culture must be at the heart of any Catholic culture of faith. It is separate world that appeals to what is universally human in us and draws us to God in a way that is impossible for secular culture. The music that draws us to it and directs to the Eucharist most powerfully is that which is derived from a liturgical culture, so the Church tells us is gregorian chant.

Secular forms might well draw us in but if then they are so far removed from the forms of an authentic liturgical culture, then even in the context of the liturgy they are inclined to leads us back to the secular values, not on to the Eucharist. Such music is less likely to draw us into a genuinely deep and active participation in the worship of God. In the long term therefore any secular music, even if it draws people to Mass, will inevitably lead to more people leaving the Church than staying because the music is distracting them from what is at the heart of the Mass. As a result there is less of a force that draws us into a supernatural transformation of Christ. There will be fewer Christians therefore with the capacity for transmitting an authentic Christian joy to those with whom they interact in their daily lives outside the Mass and the liturgy. With this reduced power for evangelzation, we will lose our lifeblood. This ultimately is how we get people back to Mass. The absolute priority is to make the encounter one in which there is the highest possibility of transformation of those present, however few they may be at this point. These people will in turn draw others to the Faith for the right reasons, and those they attract will find the source of what they seek when they get to the Mass.

This is why Cardinal Sarah said in his address at the Sacra Liturgia conference in London that even in Africa the liturgy is not the place to incorporate African culture. Rather, because the liturgy has its own culture, which is uniquely and universally Christain, it should seeps into the wider culture and transforms secular culture into something greater, one that is in some way derived from and points to the liturgy while simultaneously being distinctly African.

The only hope we have for the Mass to be a true long term draw capable of touching the many who currently have no interest in attending, is to focus on making chant the dominant form. We must even be prepared to lose a few of those who are currently at Masses with misalette music and who are there for the wrong reasons to drift away or even be prepared to carry on in the face of strong complaints from these people if it is changed.

While having chant at all Masses would help, even then it is not going to be enough, in my opinion.

We must chant in such a way that is going to connect with the ordinary person and this probably means singing at a pitch that is natural for men to join in. I have been told, for example, that men are less likely to join in if you have female cantors. This is not because of an inherent sexism, but because the female voice is a pure sound and men find it difficult to come in at a pitch an octave below what the cantor is singing because it is totally separate from what he is hearing. If there is a male cantor, on the other hand, the men can emulate what they hear and the women still find it relatively easy to join in because the male voice contains higher harmonics which allow for a connection with female voices. Even if men are chanting, there is a style of chant in which a thin, strained, high pitch voice is encouraged. This sounds effeminate to me and I suggest has the same problems for congregations – it is not only as difficult for most men to sing along to as a female voice, but it is also difficult also to listen to, as the hearer struggles to make a connection to a voice that is so alien to his own.

Were the approach to music correct and, dare one hope for more, our liturgies were celebrated in the way that the Church truly desires, would this then bring huge numbers back to churches? In the long run, I would say yes, but in the short run, almost certainly not. But it would bring to the church immediately those who are genuinely looking for what the chant directs their hearts to – God. In the long term this would have a knock-on effect. More people who attend Mass would be participating more deeply and become emissaries of the New Evangelization, shining with the light of Christ as they go about their daily business. This, in turn, would draw others to Christ. Because we have free will this is never going to be the whole population, but I do believe that it can be far more than we cuurently see in our churches today.

Has the throw-away misalette approach to church music had its day? Probably not yet, to judge from the support that so many bishops, priests and choir directors currently give to this style in the cause of a faux pastoralism that actually alienates most people. But because of this alienation, it does contain the seeds of its own distruction. Unless it is replaced by something else, under the influcence of brave pastors and choir directors who are prepared to take the truly pastoral approach – one that takes into consideration the majority who aren’t at church, then we are doomed to steadily declining congregations until the generation that currently listens to this style of music grows old and disappears.

Faith tells us that the parasite will die before it has killed its host. The Church will remain; and so one has to conclude that at some point the music will change before it brings the whole edifice collapses. I pray that it is soon.

New Book: Art Commentaries and Essay on the Blessed Virgin by Fr Michael Morris

I am delighted to hear of book containing essays and art commentaries by the late Fr Michael Morris will be released on December 8th. It is published by Magnificat, for whom he wrote for many years.

I haven’t read the book, but will review it for this column as soon as I get hold of copy. For those who can make it, the launch will be at the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology in Berkeley, CA, at 4.30pm on December 8th. Speakers will be art historian Dr Kathryn Barush, and Fr Christ Renz, the Academic Dean of the DSPT.

It is especially timely for me. I attended a lecture at the Acton Institute last summer about the crisis of the culture by Dr Carrie Gress, who is on the faculty of Pontifex University. She was commenting on the ‘Benedict Option’ movement which has grown up out of this angst arising from the confliect between Christian and secular culture. In the course of this lecture she suggested that history and theology seem to suggest that a better response might be one of looking to Mary as a crucial guide in our desire to evangelize the culture. I felt that she was on to something and have heard a rumor since that she is in the process of writing a ‘Marian Option’ book. If that is so, I can’t wait to read it (I will keep you posted),

Dr Gress’s idea seemed to me to be coming out of the same place that gave rise to the re-establishment of the the Men’s Holy League recently under the patronage of Cardinal Burke. I am anticipating the Fr Michael’s book will have much material to connect with this theme.

In the Mail: Dietrich von Hildebrand’s “Aesthetics Vol. I”


By Carrie Gress, Ph.D.

I just got my copy of Dietrich von Hildebrand’s Aesthetics Vol I, released this fall by the Hildebrand Project.

I’ve been waiting to read this book for 20 years. I was never courageous enough (nor had the time) to tackle it in the original German.

Much of the book’s appeal is that Hildebrand defends an objective understanding of beauty against relativism. Additionally, his life, which reads like a novel, was a testimony to the power of beauty in transforming a soul and leading one, via pulchritudinis, to the heart of the Church. Hildebrand’s Aesthetics is reputed to be one of his finest works.

Hildebrand is best known for his social and political philosophy, particularly his Ethics, wherein he gives careful attention to the movements of the human heart.


The son of a renown German sculptor, Adolf von Hildebrand, Dietrich was born and raised in Florence, Italy. The renaissance city, family manor, and his father’s artistic eye made a deep impression on the young man raised without religion. He converted to Catholicism at the age of 24 and led countless others to Roman Catholicism. His repudiation of Nazism and Communism made him a target high on Adolph Hitler’s list of enemies, which eventually forced him to immigrate to the United States.

Hildebrand wrote his Aesthetics near the end of his life. His widow, Alice von Hildebrand, has said, “Aesthetics [is] best understood as an explosion of insights. He knew he was running out of time, and so he tried to capture the Niagara Falls of ideas that flowed out of him.”

Alice von Hildebrand also tells a story indicative of her husband’s character. There was concern he had cancer and so he had a colonoscopy. Alice, terrified of what the results might be, prayed the rosary ceaselessly during the procedure. The doctor finally emerged to tell her that her husband would be fine, but just needed a change in diet. Much relieved, Alice waited for her husband to emerge from the procedure. She recounts, “Some moments later my husband came out. Looking at me with a radiant smile, and without even alluding to the good news, he said to me “while the doctor was examining me, I had such deep insights into beauty! Let us rush home so that I can immediately incorporate these into the text!” Clearly, this was an intellectual, an artisan of words and ideas, awash in the wonder of beauty and love, even under the most dire of circumstances.

The ever-thoughtful Dana Gioia, former Chairman for the National Endowment for the Arts, wrote the book’s foreword, and philosopher Dr. Robert Wood, and Dr. John Crosby, one of Hildebrand’s students, have also made contributions.

I look forward to writing more once I finish the book.


This stone in Vienna, Austria, at Hildebrand’s 1930s apartment building commemorates his witness to the truth of the Catholic Church and his outspokenness against National Socialism (Nazism).


The Scandal of the Missing Halo. Is This A Case of Chronic Halo-tosis?

Observant readers will noticed that in a recent blog posting I showed an icon of the Transfiguration in which the figures of the three apostles do not have haloes. We can see the apostles being led up to and away from the mountain as well, and again no halos.

This puzzled me. Just when you think you might have a consistent picture of what went on you always find an anomaly. I was under the impression that saints are always shown with a halo, even in scenes which portray a moment in history before they are fully united with God in heaven. This is the heavenly reality, which touches all of time bursting through on the historical reality.

But there is something else to be taken into consideration. We become saints – sons and daughters of God who partake of the divine nature – on baptism. It is the action of the Holy Spirit that affects this, and for the apostles this did not occur until Pentecost. So it makes sense for images of pre-Pentecost to be without haloes.

The icon above is 15th century Russian, the one below is a 12th century icon from Mt Sinai:

So I started to look at more icons of the transfiguration and found that this was not unusual. Although sometimes they are portrayed with haloes, more often they were not. Then I noticed that the same was true for icons of the last supper. Although some do, many do not:

The same is true for the Apostles Communion

So This would be consistent with the fact that in this calling of the apostles from the 6th century mosaic at St Appollinare in Rome, the two apostles do not have halos either.

So what should we do today? I am considering this in the context of the new School of St Albans style, which is gothic. To my knowledge there is no contemporary account to explain precisely why the artists omitted the haloes. Also, it was not a universal rule there are exceptions. We can only surmise why some might have done it, and then decide what we think is best for artists today. It is perhaps this latter point that is the most important.

I go with Ouspensky et al who set out the principle, as articulated by Aidan Hart, the English iconographer, when I asked him about this:

As a rule the apostles don’t have haloes for events before Pentecost, although there are sometimes exceptions. The three disciples saw the uncreated light at the transfiguration, but as the liturgical texts say, only “inasmuch as they could bear it”.
Most icons make a point of how unprepared they were for this event by showing them falling over backwards. They were not capable before the Lord’s death and resurrection and Pentocost of receiving the light o:f the Holy Spirit into themselves.
They were not yet sons of God since they had not yet received the Spirit of adoption: “…you have received the spirit of sonship. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” 16 it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God…” (Romans 8:15,16)
This is to be contrasted with icons of Pentectost, where the apostles are arranged peacefullly, and have haloes: now they not only see the glory of God, but receive the Holy Spirit into themselves.

A Talk that Cuts Right to Heart of What Education is About – Do Go If You Can

Jennifer Donelson is giving the next Catholic Artists Society lecture in New York City on December 10th.

I want to encourage anyone who is interested in the general formation of Catholics, not just Catholic artists, to go to this talk. The title is Sacred Liturgy as Primary Source for the Artist’s Imagination. I cannot get there myself so hope to have a transcript if I can.

This is a topic that is close to my heart and if the title is anything to go by, gets right the meet of what artistic formation and even Catholic education are about.

A lot of painters come to me asking about how they can get a formation as a painter. I always say that the most important thing is the worship of God in the sacred liturgy. That is not to rule out other aspects of an artist’s training of course, but without a connection to the primary source, the artist is cutting himself off from the primary source of inspiration that is available to him to direct his brush on the canvas; and to the wisdom that will guide him in the choices he makes in his own formation.

It is a topic that comes up as well in discussions about education in general. Some people who favor a ‘great books’ education seem to forget, it often seems to me, that the worthy books that are studied are the result of inspiration. Therefore in that regard they are secondary sources in themselves. The goal, of the study of them is, as much as an appreciation of their content, is to give the student an understanding that such wonderful works eminate from a source of inspiration that as Catholics is available to them in way that sometimes wasn’t even available to the authors of the books themselves (who weren’t Catholic) in the same way. This should, in my opinion, inspire us to look at these works and think that we could be not just equalling, but even surpassing them. The person who is satisfied in the study of such works of the past, and does not see them as pointing to something greater, the worship of God in the liturgy, is like the one who savors the smell of the meal but never actually eats. A Catholic inculturation therefore, does not necessarily require a student to be immersed in the full range of the canon of great books, rather, just enough to grasp the point that the liturgy is the wellspring of creativity that is the place of the universal Christian culture.

(That is not to mention the other point that arises from this discussion on a great books education, which is the prejudice of most academics, who have a book based education, against art and music as an essential element of education. There is a feeling that the study of these ‘lesser’ disciplines is more recreational than transformational. But as an artist, I suppose I would think that wouldn’t I!)

I know no more about what Jennifer is going to say than the title, but these are the thoughts that cross my mind as I ponder over this extremely important topic. Please go if you can.