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Acton University, June 20-23, 2017

Faith, freedom and a culture of beauty – all contribute to a superabundant society in which the human person flourishes.

There is a Pontifex University presence at the annual conference of the Acton Institute this coming year. Dr Carrie Gress and myself are both teaching classes connected with the idea that culture and especially a culture of beauty both reflects and promotes human flourishing. Acton University is always a wonderful event to be involved with, whether as a speaker or attendee and so I would be recommending it regardless. But this year, we would encourage Pontifex students to make it and give us a chance to meet you!

It was at Acton University 2016 that I met Carrie for the first time – she was giving a lecture on the Benedict Option. In it she suggested that in fact an alternative, and perhaps more powerful approach to cultural regenaration that those who promote the Benedict Option seek, was a focus on Our Lady and through her, Our Lord. She called this the Marian Option. It was an excellent lecture and it is not surprise to me that what was the germ of an idea last summer is soon to be a book of the same title.

I am delighted that her course, A History of Beauty, Truth and Goodness, will be offered through Pontifex later this Spring. It is an introductory philsophy course that focusses on the different understanding of these transcendentals from the ancient Greeks to the present day.

Check out the Acton University website, here.

Below, is a promotional placard for last year’s Acton U. I always argue that we invoke the principle of superabundance in the creation of wealth when our work is graceful and beautiful. So I say there should be a 5th word on this year’s placard – BEAUTY!



If There is an Antichrist, What About an Antimary?

No matter how strong the “spirit of antimary” may be, Mary still remains the most powerful woman in the world.


By Carrie Gress, Ph.D.

While writing my latest book, The Marian Option: God’s Solution to a Civilization in Crisis, (TAN Books, May 2017), I stumbled upon the idea of an antimary.

I kept running across the notion that Mary is the New Eve—an idea that goes back to the early Church Fathers. Mary as the New Eve is the female complement to Christ, the New Adam. In Scripture, St. John speaks of an antichrist as a man, but also as a movement that is present throughout history (1 John 4:3, 2 John 1:7). This got me thinking: if there is an antichrist, perhaps there is a female complement, an antimary? What, then, would an antimary movement look like, exactly?

It was not hard to come to some picture of what it an antimarian movement might look like, given that the examples in our culture today are legion.

While this article offers a basic blueprint for understanding the antimary, it scarcely scratches the surface about why Our Lady is the most powerful woman in the world. Nor does it get at the role she plays in culture, geopolitics, and even in the mundane details of our daily lives. For these and more, I’m afraid you will have to wait for the book. I  will let you know when it is available for purchase.

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Melkite Divine Liturgy Saturday 28th 5pm, Berkeley, CA – Chants Now Online

At 5pm this Saturday (1/28), there will be a celebration of the Divine Liturgy at Gesu Chapel of the Jesuit School of Theology, located at 1735 Le Roy Ave., Berkeley, CA. Dinner will provided following the liturgy.

This is an outreach of St Elias Melkite Catholic Church which is based at Los Gatos, CA. It will be celebrated by Fr Sebastian Carnazzo, the pastor of St Elias Melkite Catholic Church, and Fr Christopher Hadley who teaches at the Jesuit School of Theology.

Fr Sebastian has now uploaded recordings of the Melkite chants of the Divine Liturgy in both English and Arabic. This liturgy will predominantly be in English. I encourage you to look it up, here. All are encouraged to sing at the liturgy, even if you just sing the eison (drone) with me. So here’s you chance to prepare a bit, if only to get your ear attuned if you are new to it.

Mark your calendars and plan to attend both the liturgy and dinner if possible.

As a foretaste, here is their recording of the Great Doxology, which will be the opening hymn of the Liturgy on Saturday.

There Will Be Blood: Lessons on Introducing Chant to a Parish

After my recent article on music – Breaking Bad, Why Misalette Music is Destroying the Faith –  a number of readers who were choir directors contacted me asking for practical help on introducing chant to parishes that currently use praise and worship music.

So for those people I pass on a detailed account of the experiences of one anonymous choir director who is at a small church in rural Georgia, Our Lady of the Mountains, He describes how he and the pastor had worked together to win over the parish. This is not intended as a template that will be right for every parish, but I hope some will see how the principles he is using might be applied in their own situation.

As an aside, it is interesting to me that connected to process of improving the music in the liturgy is the development of a Catholic ethos in their worship; and strongly connected to this was the commissioning of many works of art that were connected to the liturgy. The question as to how a small parish can commission so many works of art is one that is dealt with in future article,

The title of my blogpost comes from phrase in a section at the end of this choir director’s piece. He makes it plain that however sensitively and diplomatically the director handles this, they are never going to convince everyone. Liturgical music is an emotive subject and some people are likely to object. Some of those will do so forcefully and do all they can to undermine the changes. So while we ought to do all we can to win people over, he says, we must accept that some won’t be and not be put off by that. Despite this, I should point out that the tone of the article is generally optimistic!

I suspect that there is no single formula for this task of change management. How you approach it will depend on so many variables that I suspect there is no single template. What is done will depend on how great the divide between the current situation and the ideal; on whether you have the support of your priest or, even if you have that, of your bishop when complaints are made, and so on. Also, the approach will be different depending on whether or not we are talking of the EF or the OF (in which the additional flexibility helps). Therefore, I encourage people to post their own experiences of doing this successfully in the comments below, for others to read.

I present one additional point of my own based upon my own experience. I suggested to one choir director who told me that his priest was not interested in seeing any changes in the Mass, that he might find a group that was committed to a weekly sung Lauds or Vespers in the church on Sunday. And although you would hope that the priest would want to be involved, he doesn’t have to be and if you’re not demanding that he is, he is less likely to object.

As an example, its a slightly different situation, but it is relevant. I was looking for a place to hold a series of weekly workshops explaining spiritual exercises directed toward discernment of personal vocation. We close each workshop by chanting Vespers. I approached the pastor of a local Catholic Church and explained what we planned to do, including the fact that we would chant Vespers. I don’t know his views on traditional chant but I’m guessing from his Sunday masses, that it’s probably not a big interest of his. However, this wasn’t an issue in our discussion because our group wasn’t looking to interfere at all in anything he did. On that basis he very happily allowed us to meet in the church hall and we are delighted to be there. (For any who are close to the East Bay in California and would like to come, here are the details of The Vision for You Group.)

The point I am making here is that if you find that you have have to change things gradually (which will be unavoidable in some situations), see if you can establish also some aspect of the liturgy in which you have full control and in which the ideal is presented in its fullest form. Then it is there for people to see right at the start and this will inspire to be involved in the main project. Again – I would welcome reader’s thoughts on this.

So here is the article it can be found online at the church website, here, too. :

When the pastor of Our Lady of the Mountains, Fr. Charles Byrd, first called me, he had a vision, and he needed my experience and training to help make that vision a reality. He didn’t have much to offer in the way of compensation, but what he did offer was his complete support and trust. I in turn was motivated by his love for the Church and Her Divine Worship. He sought to be obedient in word and deed, and he knew that sacred music was a part of that obedience. His attention to the details of our worship was enough to make me want to be part of the village, but I trusted him to be the chief.

Step One: A spirit of trust and cooperation between pastor and music director. It’s got to flow both ways.

The resources that Fr. Byrd had inherited when he came to Our Lady of the Mountains were dismal. The Third Edition of the Roman Missal gave us the opportunity we needed to cast aside some of the less-than-adequate books that were in the pews and look at some of the new hymnals and missals that were being published. A committee was formed to evaluate several hymnals based on a set of standards drawn up from a compilation of the various church documents pertaining to sacred music. Did the hymnal contain at least some of the Latin chant settings for Mass? Did it contain a chant-like or polyphonic English Mass setting? Were the hymns noble in form and in conformity with Catholic doctrine in text? Were the chants from Jubilate Deo included in the hymnal?

Since we couldn’t afford to replace the hymnals and the missalette at the same time, we chose a hymnal first. The St. Michael Hymnal offered us a bit of a carrot in that Richard Rice’s simple Entrance Antiphons were included, and we saw this as a first step in moving away from the hymn-dominated liturgies to which the congregation was accustomed. For the choir, we purchased The Choral Gradual, also by Richard Rice. These SATB settings of the Psalms are a perfect introduction to singing the propers, and since the choir members were accustomed to singing hymns in four parts, this was a good way of transitioning from melody-driven music to more chant-like antiphon and verse music. The Chabanel Psalms by Jeff Ostrowski made it possible for us to have a dignified Responsorial Psalm in place each week.

We simply stopped using the rhythmic and syncopated psalms that were in the paperback missal in the pews and starting singing the Chabanel settings. The congregation leaned to listen and sing back what they had heard. Fr. Byrd always joined in with their singing as a means of instructing by example

Step 2: Choose a permanent (non-disposable) hymnal and other resources that uphold the Church’s vision for renewal of the sacred liturgy as prescribed in the documents of the Second Vatican Council and that draw abundantly upon the Church’s treasury of chant.

With our new hymnal in place, we could begin introducing the concept of an Entrance Antiphon. Like most parishes in the United States, the congregation knew little to nothing about such things as propers. We had to start small, so the first few weeks all we did was sing the antiphon through twice — choir or cantor first and then the congregation, following then with a hymn.

Over time, we added verses along with the antiphon, with the people singing after each verse. Eventually, the “opening hymn” was replaced with the proper texts of the Mass and the congregation was singing the antiphon heartily. Concurrent to this, we were using the hymnal to learn a new English Mass setting for Ordinary Time and a Latin Mass setting for Advent and Lent.

Eventually, we learned yet another Latin setting, Missa de Angelis, for Eastertide and Christmastide. Fr. Byrd was instrumental in teaching the Latin Mass settings because he would sing them not only for Sunday Masses, but at the Masses he offered daily. Those daily Mass attendees learn the chants quickly and are very helpful when it comes to singing in the larger Sunday congregations. Chanting the dialogue prayers was also seen as an essential element and crucial to the overall vision. The pastor placed great emphasis on learning these chants as the General Instruction directs that these should take primacy in singing the Mass.

Step 3: Start small. We didn’t have all the resources that we needed at once, but we worked with what we had. Stay simple, but keep it noble. Introduce new things gradually.

Step 4: This is crucial: Start growing a children’s choir! Children take naturally to chant. They have no hang-ups about Latin. They do everything with enthusiasm and pure joy, and it is contagious. Purchase enough of the Liber Cantualis for each singer to have one. They are small and fit small hands perfectly. Children love singing from them! Teach solfege. Teach neumes. Teach easy polyphony. Teach proper vocal technique. Identify gifted young singers early and begin training them. The children in turn will become advocates for your sacred music program (part of the village), not to mention your future adult choir members.

With forward-looking folks on the Parish Finance Council (it helps to make a member of the choir the Finance Chairperson!), it took about a year to have the money in place to order permanent pew missals. We didn’t form a committee for selecting our pew missals, but Fr. Byrd and I did have a standard by which we would evaluate our options. At the time we were looking, the only viable option based on our standards was Adam Bartlett’s Lumen Christi Missal. Other fine missals were in the works, it seems, but the Lumen Christi Missal was already available and it had everything that we were looking for: the Lectionary Readings and Antiphons for Sundays and major Feasts and music for chanting the Proper of the Mass in the vernacular.

Remember, we were starting from scratch, so our choir members were also learning about sacred music along with the rest of the congregation. Most of the choir at the time consisted of untrained singers who gave generously of their time, but were nowhere near ready to sing the chants from the Graduale Romanum. We needed exactly what the Lumen Christi Missal offered: simple but dignified modal chant settings of the antiphons in English with organ accompaniment if needed. We knew that our choir and cantors would eventually progress to the point of singing from the G.R., so it was good that the Lumen Christi Missal provided the Latin text of the proper alongside its English translation for the congregation. No one will be able to complain that they don’t know what the choir is singing because they can’t understand Latin.

Step 5: Make the Finance Council part of your village. It doesn’t hurt to have a member of the choir (or two) on the Finance Council, the Pastoral Council, the Knights of Columbus…you get the point.

Step 6: Purchase a permanent pew missal that comes complete with music resources for your cantors, choirs, and organist.

And speaking of organists, Step 7 is, Get an organ and hire an organist (or make one, as we did – more about that in a minute). The only instrument in the church when Fr. Byrd arrived was an electronic piano. There was no money in the budget to purchase an organ, but about a year into our work of singing the Mass, an anonymous donor came forward with the money. They had been moved by the efforts of our village and convinced by the effect that sacred music was having on our parish. Read that again: convinced by the effect of sacred music. A transformation was occurring among the choir members and the congregation. A deeper spirituality was blossoming in the hearts and minds of those called to worship. The gift of the organ was a result of this new reality, but where does one find an organist willing to drive to this out-of-the-way place to work with a nascent sacred music program? As it would happen, the pianist we had hired to play the little Kawai was about to become an organist. Again, the Finance Council was instrumental in providing the funds we needed to pay for organ lessons, and the Cathedral organist agreed to work with our young and gifted pianist.

Step 8: Invest in your people. Pay good cantors. Hire section leaders. Pay for workshops and education like the CMAA Colloquium and/or lessons for a singer or an organist. The money saved from not being vested in the Big Three church music conglomerates can go a long way when spread about the village. Since we are on the topic of education, I’ll mention here that it was and continues to be a big component of our sacred music program. Whether through the bulletin, a homily, classes, handouts, or our website,, we sought first to prepare good fertile soil into which we would be sowing seed.

All of this takes time and careful planning. Read that again: Time and Planning. When we would introduce the Missa de Angelis was as important as how and why. Why we sing an Entrance Antiphon instead of a “Gathering Song” was as important as how we did it. We prepared for months in advance of the new missal. At times, our bulletin was so packed with inserts that it more resembled a magazine than a pamphlet. Fr. Byrd developed a website with formation and education as its primary goals. Yes, the Mass time and directions to the parish are there, but so are articles expounding upon various saints or hymns or any number of topics that make for a better formed Catholic. Music training sound files are placed on the website so that folks can listen and learn the various chants at home. This takes time and a great deal of coordination and cooperation in the village, but the payoff is a firm foundation. And by the way, we copyright nothing, so feel free to copy and adapt anything on our website for use in your parishes.

Step 9: Education and formation are critical. Predispose and prepare people for changes. This takes time.

Step 10: Create a Catholic ethos. This may seem simplistic or perhaps vague, but I can’t express the importance of creating an environment where the truth and beauty of our Faith is evident in every nook and cranny of parish life. I began this article by describing the simple exterior of a small village church, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the nobility one encounters upon entering. Everywhere one can see signs of great devotion to Our Lord, Jesus Christ, and to his mother, Our Lady of the Mountains. Worshippers here are surrounded by saints and angels represented by works of art in paint, glass, wood, and stone. In the chancel where the choir sings are newly commissioned icons of St. Gregory, St. Ambrose, St. Cecelia, and St. Hildegard — their watchful gaze will bless various ensembles who have taken these saints as their patrons. In the not-too-distant future, magnificent stained glass windows honoring King David, the psalmist, and King Josiah, the great reformer, will look kindly onto the musicians who sing and play beneath their stoic visages.

The Liturgical rites are carried out with great dignity and solemnity, and those that have the responsibility of singing the rites are aware that their work is holy insofar as it is connected intimately to the liturgy. Sacred Music does not exist in a vacuum. It has no life of its own apart from the lex orandi and lex credendi of Holy Mother Church.

And finally: THERE WILL BE BLOOD. This is not a step towards creating a sacred music program in your parish. This is a reality. Not everyone will want to be part of the village. In fact, there will be those who would rather see the village burn than go along with any changes that aren’t in conformity with their way of doing things. There will be angry emails and copies of On Eagles’ Wings anonymously left under your office door. There will be outright rebellion by some, and when sensing that they aren’t going to get their way, there will be those who will leave the parish. You will explain over and over that Latin was not banned by Vatican II, and that learning a Latin Mass setting isn’t as bad as all that.

There will be letters written to the Chancery with any number of grievances spelled out in vivid detail: The chant! The incense! The Latin! The horror! But you will find, as we did, that the Diocese will back you up. (Thank you, Archdiocese of Atlanta!) It could get ugly, so begin praying for your parishioners and don’t stop! Slowly, slowly, the naysayers will either be gone or be quiet, and you will find your parish filling up with people in search of something that is missing in that parish in the big city or the town next door. And there will be peace…mostly.

In closing I would add that when we are obedient to God in the moral and spiritual life, things can become clearer. Our world may remain confused, but at the same time, we are less confused about right and wrong, and understand why things are the way they are. This does not mean that we are always perfect, but at least we can recognize our own mistakes. The same may be said of the liturgy. When we endeavor to live out the liturgical vision of the Church, we learn things. We learn that one doesn’t need banks of speakers and bongo drums to worship like Catholics. Neither must we have a choir full of Julliard graduates who may or may not believe in God. Bigger is not always better. Trust us when we say that authentic Catholic worship (as it is envisioned by the official liturgical documents of the Church) really is ideal for any sized choir or congregation, and when you get people singing antiphons and hearing and singing more and more sacred scripture throughout the Mass, it is a good thing! By living out the Church’s vision of the liturgy, our vision becomes clearer.

Simply put, we are not entertainers. Instead, we are called to fulfill a time-honored role within the liturgical life of the Church, by intoning and chanting specific texts given to us by the saints of old. That is the vocation of the chorister: to allow the Spirit to teach us to pray, so that the Body of Christ can offer up fitting and worthy praise to the Father. We’re not making this up. It really is that clear. And we’re trying to be obedient to that vision. Thus, we believe our choirs can grow in holiness, and likewise, others around us. And if what we have learned here in our little parish can help others, then praise God.

Culture is Key in Evangelization

By Carrie Gress, Ph.D.


Long before I learned about Pontifex University, I was thinking about culture and beauty, and their relationship to God.

One of the struggles most Catholics face is that members of their family are away from the Church. The reasons for this are legion, but the solutions aren’t as complicated as most people think. My book, Nudging Conversions: A Practical Guide for Bringing Those You Love Back to the Church, looks at what is actually effective in when it comes to helping our loved ones come back to the faith. One chapter in particular emphasizes the role of culture, and how it can be a much easier route to starting a conversation about faith than apologetics. While apologetics has its place, starting with culture reaches deeper into a soul because it goes beyond shallow day-to-day realities, and stirs that interior place where we all thirst for meaning, happiness, and wonder. Authentic culture, pointing beyond itself to God, opens the door to all of these.


Here’s more from Chapter Seven:

Culture is an abstract word that can often be hard to wrap one’s head around. During the two years I spent researching it for a doctoral dissertation, I heard a wise priest articulate it very succinctly: “Culture is God’s love made visible.” After I let it sink in for a while, it occurred to me that what most consider historically the heights of culture in music, poetry, literature, clothing, architecture, and art are all beautiful. They are not tawdry; they do not denigrate the human person; and they aren’t simply useful. They reflect God’s love for us.

Culture, like all good gifts from God, is meant to be shared. No architect expects his work to merely be seen by just one person. No symphony practices tirelessly just for itself. Talents are gifts that God gives us to enjoy, but we enjoy them even more once shared. Every gift we have been given is meant not just for ourselves, but to passed along to others. Culture is simply the manifestation of these gifts being passed along.

Somehow, over the last several centuries, the centrality of beauty, truth, and goodness to the Catholic faith – all elements that make up culture – have been lost from a collective consciousness about the Church and its history. It is an odd reality, if one thinks about it for very long, considering the churches, architecture, paintings, music, poetry, literature, and other important elements of material culture and style that have been crafted by Catholics living out their faith over the centuries. Think of Michelangelo, Fra Angelico, (Fr.) Vivaldi, Dante, Bernini, Brunelleschi, to name a few.

Like a blank canvas, culture is a neutral expression that takes on the characteristics of those who live in a given society. It can become something beautiful and compelling, or something ugly and horrifying. I am convinced this is one of the reasons why people love Europe so much, because of the remnants of Catholic culture that remain. Much of Europe was build long ago when people still had faith in God and it is reflected certainly in the continent’s churches, but also in its roadside Grottoes one still sees in Poland and Greece, or the ornately fashioned Madonnas nestled in the second-story corners of buildings, the medieval Latin phrases still inscribed on stone arcades, or the sometimes capricious, but always enthralling fountains in Paris or Rome. The list continues with the imagination, architectural feats and breath taking beauty of European churches, including the awe-inspiring soaring ceilings of Chartres Cathedral, the embrace of St. Peter’s Square, or the radiance of the stained glass at Sainte-Chapelle in Paris. (Nudging Conversions, excerpt from Chapter Seven)

img_2704        It can be easy to overlook the role culture plays in our lives and our faith. Finding ways to “breath in authentic culture” isn’t always easy, but like most things in the Catholic faith, even the very smallest things – a beautiful card, a simple piece of well-made jewelry, a striking icon, an elegantly arranged bouquet of flowers – can be enough to spark wonder and awe in a soul suffering from despair, angst, or boredom.

Get a free copy (+shipping and handling) of Nudging Conversions at Dynamic Catholic.


Bethlehem Icon Centre Featured in British National Secular Press

Ian Knowles, the British icon painter and Director of the Bethlehem Icon Centre (whom some readers will remeber from a article posted last year, here about his work in Jordan commissioned by the Argentinian order, IVE) has been featured in a recent issue of The Daily Telegraph, the British national daily.

What seems to have piqued the interest of the writer, Raf Sanchez, is the fact that this school has a clientele of largely Palestian Christians. Indeed one of the patrons is the Melkite Bishop of Jerusalem. The Melkite Greek Catholic Church originates in the Middle East and can trace its roots right back to the Apostolic era. Middle Eastern Christians are in the news at the moment for all the wrong reasons – the great persecution they are experiencing, especially in Syria – but Ian’s work with Palestinian Christians is seen by Sanchez as sign of hope in difficult time.

At the request of the Mother Superior of a local convent, Ian painted the Mother of God – dubbed Our Lady Who Brings Down Walls – on the wall that separates Jerusalem from Bethlehem.

You can read the article, entitled British Painter Revives Christian Ancient Art Form in Occupied West Bank, here.

I met Ian first several years ago when we both took a class from the British icon painter, Aidan Hart.


Next Melkite Liturgy on Berkeley Campus, January 29th

Another Melkite liturgy has been scheduled for later this month, on January 28th at 5pm at the Gesu Chapel of at the Jesuit School of Theology, in Berkeley, California, located at 1735 Le Roy Avenue.

The last liturgy was deemed a great success (over 60 people attended). Many came, we were told, because they read about it on this site, so thank you NLM!

The liturgy on the Berkeley campus is celebrated by Fr Sebastian Carnazzo. Fr Carnazzo is pastor of St Elias Melkite Church, in Los Gatos, CA. He is seen in the video which is taken from the St Elias website.

The liturgy in Berkeley will be celebrated by Fr Carnazzo and Fr Christopher Hadley. I will be present, singing the “eison,” or drone, as part of the choir, so we hope to see some of you there.  Here is a clip of him at St Elias.

Fr Carnazzo, incidentally, is also teaching a series of classes for www.Pontifex.University, in which he explains content of the canon of holy icons of Church and connects it to Scripture and to the feast days of the liturgical year, both West and East. As such, they are courses simultaneously in theology, in which the imagery deepens understanding of mysteries and doctrine described, and courses in the art of the Church by which students understand its roots in Scripture and Catholic doctrine.

My Own Meeting With Fr Joe – the Man Who Saved Tony Hendra’s Soul

My last posting was about a monastic chant forum at Quarr Abbey on the Isle of Wight. This reminded my of my own visits to Quarr in the years just after my conversion. On my first visit I spent an afternoon with Fr Joe, who was made famous after his death in 1998 because of the book written about him by Tony Hendra. Hendra is a British comedy producer and actor known on both sides of the Atlantic for his work on, for example, British TV’s Spitting Image, American TV’s Saturday Night Live and for the part that I knew him for: playing rock-band manager Ian Faith in one of my favorite movies ever, This is Spinal Tap.

With Quarr on my mind, I thought I would relate my experience of meeting Fr Joe – he made an such an impact on me that I would often tell the story of meeting ‘a monk a Quarr’ even before Tony Hendra wrote about him.


Hendra, left, in This is Spinal Tap

When I lived in London in the 1990s, a priest at the Brompton Oratory encouraged me to go on a retreat at Quarr Abbey. I think he suggested it so as to develop the contemplative side of my spiritual life and because he thought that perhaps I might have vocation to the religious life. So I duly went down to the Isle of Wight to experience a Benedictine monastery for the first time. Fr Ronald, the Oratorian, asked me to, ‘Say hello to Fr Joe for me,’ when I was there.


I found my first visit to a monastic community strange – it was so other worldly that I didn’t particularly take to it on the first occasion. It was only later that I started to love the chanting of the psalms. One thing that I found strange was the way that as a guest, I didn’t seem to have any contact with the residents. I saw the monks at meals, but we weren’t allowed to talk and were at separate tables anyway. When I did see any walking around the grounds they would put their heads down and avoid eye contact. It wasn’t until I read the Rule of St Benedict that I understood that to promote humility, they generally do not initiate conversations with guests and will only speak to them if spoken to first.

Eventually in frustration, I just approached one of them and said I had a message for Fr Joe: ‘Fr Ronald says “Hello”‘. The monk I approached came to life and thanked me for the message and asked if I would like to meet Fr Joe myself and give it to him personally? Hesitantly I said yes, I wasn’t sure what I would say to him after I said those few words.

So I was shown up to his room and was handed a large cup of coffee and by the monk who showed me the way and ushered me into Fr Joe’s cell. Fr Joe was sitting up in bed next to a window with a view of the grounds and the sea. I thought I had been told that he was recovering from a stroke. I didn’t think about it at the time, but he had a large padded white patch taped over one eye, which wouldn’t have pointed to a stroke. I found out from the book many years later that he had cancer of the sinuses and it was extremely painful because the tumor was pushing one of his eyeballs out of its socket from behind.


Despite the pain he must have been going through he called me over and I was struck by how cheerful he was. With a broad smile he asked me to sit close to him. I did so and then he looked at me, with an eyes-twinkling expression (even though one eye was covered), waiting to hear what I had to say. I passed on the message. Then started to ask me all sorts of questions about how I knew Fr Ronald and told me a bit about himself. I am sketchy on the precise details, but as I remember it, he told me that he had lived in the monastery since he was 17 years old and was now 90 years old, so he had lived there seventy-three years. At that point I couldn’t imagine remaining sane by leading a life where I had nothing to do for seventy years apart from singing, eating and hoeing the vegetable patch . If anything I felt sorry for him. The only reason that he could be so cheerful, I thought, was that he had never had any experience of the sort of things that really make like worth living – most of which hadn’t even been invented when he left the world.


He asked me what I did for a living. I remember hesitating and thinking that he must be so far from worldly things that I didn’t know if he would have any idea what my life could possibly be like. I wondered if I might even have to explain what a job was, never mind what mine as a recruitment consultant entailed. Nevertheless I told him and he listened and nodded as I gave him various details and seemed to understand.

Then asked me if I had any problems.

I was going through girlfriend difficulties at the time and rather vaguely indicated this expecting him to take the conversation no further, as his lack of personal experience would mean that he was unable to make any comment. To my surprise, he not only had some comments to make, but asked me some very pointed questions about my personal conduct. I remember thinking, how do you know about that sort of thing? Because of his warm manner and deep and genuine interest in me I found myself revealing very personal thoughts and conduct. It struck me later how quickly he had put me at ease and gained my confidence.

After the questions, he then gave me some advice about what to do. I wish I could remember the details but I can’t. What I can remember is that what he suggested was so simple and on-the-money that it was obvious, to me at any rate, that it was right. I know that I did resolve to follow his advice. At a certain point, perhaps after about 20 minutes or so with him, he apologized and said that he had to let me go because he was about to receive some treatment. But he as he did so he encouraged me to visit and come and see him again.



When I returned to London I told a friend of mine, David Birtwistle, all about Fr Joe and how amazed I was at his wisdom given his total lack of experience of the things he was commenting on.

David was my mentor, an artist and a Catholic, who had drawn me to Catholicism when I was a bitter atheist (he was my sponsor when I was received into the Church). David was, to my mind, as wise as Fr Joe. It was David, for example, who took me through a set of spiritual exercises that allowed me to discern my personal vocation and become an artist, I wrote about it here.


So when I described the meeting to him, David said something profound to me, and it was David’s comment as much as the meeting with Fr Joe that I would relate whenever I spoke of this in the following years. David said: ‘Well doesn’t that tell you something? Fr Joe is close to God. Because God is the Truth those who have a relationship with God havea a grasp of truth and understand what it means to be in relationship more profoundly than if they relied solely on experience of human relationships.’

This was true. I learned from Hendra’s book that many other people were drawn to Fr Joe and so as well as the way that David described, he will have learned things about many aspects of the secular life by listening to so many people about their experiences and difficulties. Also, the monastic community is a place, I now realise where people experience human relationships intensely and again, Fr Joe will have learnt from this. Nevertheless, what enabled him to offer insights into my situation so well, I believe, was exactly what David had put his finger on – divine wisdom.

I would often relate this story in response to an argument often used by Protestants against preistly celebacy: that single priests can’t offer advice on relationships because they have no experience of marriage. Aside from the fact that the primary role of the priest is to aminister the sacraments, not to act as a marriage guidance counsellors; Fr Joe demonstrated to me that personal experience is neither the only nor the greatest source of wisdom.

As another facet to this story, David never told me that he knew Fr Joe personally as well. He had spent a period discerning a religious vocation himself and had spent several months at Quarr Abbey in the late 1940s. David is now dead too.

Even though I would not have said that I particularly enjoyed my first visit to Quarr, I found myself thinking of Fr Joe and beautiful setting and the chant more and more in the following months. So I decided to go back and my intention was to see Fr Joe again. But by the time I got there he had gone. He had died just a few days before and there was a huge display flowers and wreaths with dozens and dozens of cards.


Now, fast forward to a conversation I was having with a parent of one of the students at Thomas More College about 5 years ago. He was telling me about this amazing book he had just read – the Hendra book – about a wise monk at an abbey in the Isle of Wight in England. Gradually I realized that he was talking about Quarr abbey and I assumed that he must be talking about the Fr Joe that I had met. I immediately went out and bought the book and realized that it was.


Hendra more recently

As I read Tony Hendra’s book and his descriptions of the abbey and the grounds and of Fr Joe and his conversations with him it not only reinforced memories, it gave me a lot more detail about the man than I had ever known. All of it supported David’s assessment of him, as one who was close to God.  It also struck me that there is a lesson here on how to be an evangelist. Here was a man who lived in one place for pretty much the whole of his life, never wrote an article, or gave a TV interview in his life, yet the Holy Spirit brought people to him and he affected them profoundly.

It is just as Pope Benedict described in his little paper on the New Evangelization. The method of the Evangelist is prayer….I wonder if Pope Benedict ever met Fr Joe? It wouldn’t surprise me.

Monastic Chant Forum at Quarr Abbey, Isle of Wight, July 2017.

Fr Benedict Hardy of Pluscarden Abbey, has sent me detials about the next meeting of the Monastic Chant Forum which will take place at Quarr Abbey, on the Isle of Wight in England this coming July.

The meeting will take place from Monday 17th (arrivals before supper at 7pm) to Friday 21st July (departures in the morning: the Quarr daily Mass is at 0900).

The speakers are

Dr. Giedrius Gapsys of the Ecole de Chant Grégorien de Paris;

Dom Xavier Perrin, Abbot of Quarr, and

Sr. Bernadette Byrne, Choir Mistress at Ryde.

The theme is “Gregorian phrase analysis and practice”

Dr Gapsys writes:

“This is one of the most crucial points in Gregorian studies, and still a very practical one! Text, melody, neums and mode are the ‘four points of the compass’ that enable us to find our way to the Gregorian phrase safely, and in this way to ‘bring our chant to life’.”

The hope is to attract as many from the monastic world as possible. The presence of monks and nuns from a variety of different communities will be deeply appreciated. But also: others will be warmly welcome, and offered accommodation as space allows.

Fr Benedict said to me:

In my opinion, anyone at all attending this meeting will come away with a much enhanced understanding of Gregorian Chant, and an ever deeper appreciation of its value as great music, as sung liturgical worship, as prayer. They will also have experienced a thoroughly enjoyable few days, in a most fraternal and congenial setting.

There will be a modest residential fee of £150, or £30 for single days, payable to Quarr Abbey, c/o the Procurator, Fr. Brian Kelly. They hope to secure a grant to cover the course costs, as usual, but cannot yet promise success in this, so there may be an additional course fee.

For accommodation at Quarr, please contact Fr. Brian at: Information about St. Cecilia’s Abbey Ryde from Sr. Bernadette Byrne at

We are used to the idea of monasteries being considered power houses of prayer who prayer the liturgy on behalf the Church and the world. There is an additional very concrete reason why it is important that religious communities continue to offer ever better chanted liturgies and so events such as this are to be supported. It is through retreats and visits to the monasteries and convents around the world that many people are first exposed to the beauty of chant and encounter the power of the liturgy of the hours. Such visits, whether as part of group, guided retreats or as personal visits are popular with many people who would not normally think of themselves as interested in liturgy or even Catholicism.

This can draw people to the Church and help make more people aware of what the liturgy can be. Through such contacts people can come away with a desire to see something better. It might mean recognition that they have a religious vocation, but it is as likely to create a desire for chant in the liturgy in their parishes. It is through my visits to Benedictine monasteries including Pluscarden and Quarr that my eyes were opened to the beauty of chant and the power of the liturgy of the hours.

For any who might be wondering where they’ve heard of Quarr before, perhaps its through the popular book, Fr Joe: the Man Who Saved My Soul by Tony Hendra. I met Fr Joe the first time I visited Quarr.

Holy Iconsmith? Iconwright? More Reasons Why ‘Writer’ is Wronger

There were some interesting responses to my article about what we ought to call the process of creating icons, here. In fact a lively Facebook discussion ensued.

The more it developed the more it became clear to me that I will not use write and it relates to the characteristics of the English language. As Adam Wood pointed out (some may know his name from the Chant Cafe) the person who writes a play is called a ‘playwright’. That’s wright, not write, someone who crafts the drama. This elevates the status of the playwright from a mere writer. Similarly, someone who is skilled with words can be called a ‘wordsmith’, (although this is perhaps more colloquial).

So this seems to suggest that in English it’s actually the inverse of what is being imposed ie ‘painting’ is higher than ‘writing’. If we wish to elevate the status of the writer, then we attribute to his ‘craft’ the status that we give to the work done by an artisan. And if we wish to elevate the status of the icon painter who creates icons we emphasize his craftsmanship. So in English, painter is fine – and better than ‘writer’; as would be iconwright or iconsmith if we want to affect a bit faux-intellectualism for good measure.

This is the reverse of the Greek and the Slavic languages such as Russian and Ukrainian (which refers to the process of decorating eggshells as ‘writing’ too, a FB contributor told us).

Furthermore, if we refer to the icon painter, in Greek graphos, as a writer, then to be consistent we should also say that the photographer writes a photograph; and cartographer writes a map!

I think its easier to stick to plain English. I have trouble enough getting that right without worrying about Greek, Russian and Ukrainian as well! I hope no one is upset by the use of the word ‘paint’…but as the saying goes, if you want to make an omelette you have to crack a few eggs (but hopefully not these beautifully crafted Ukrainian ones).

Incidentally, the painting at the top is St Luke Displaying His Painting of Our Lady by Guercino, the Italian 17th century baroque holy painter/smith/wright.

Notice how he is aware of the tradition that the St Luke’s painting was a Virgin Hodegetria, one of the standard iconographic prototypes.