Rorate Caeli

The Oh-so-very-bourgeois Antibourgeois Revolt and the Heresy of Formlessness

Alessandro Gnocchi

[T]he affirmation that graciousness is the prime matter for Grace is in evidence and has its origin in page after page of the Gospels, where the Good News makes itself known through good manners as the seal does through wax.  “Praesta, quaesumus, omnipotens Deus: ut, qui paschalia festa peregimus, haec, te largiente, moribus et vita teneamus” says the Collect of the Traditional Mass for the Sunday after Easter, Dominica in Albis.  “Almighty God, grant, we beseech thee, that we who have gone through the Easter mysteries may, through thy bounty, hold fast to what they contain in our practices and in our life.” And, in the Gospel for this Mass we see the gracious act of the resurrected Jesus in helping Thomas overcome his rude incredulity.  It is for Thomas, who eight days before had not been present at Jesus’ appearance in the Upper Room, that the Lord returns to show with ceremonial humility the wounds on his body:  “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe”…."My Lord and my God!"  Thomas’ acclamation of faith comes from his being won over by the supreme act of graciousness towards him by his Lord and his God.  Thomas confesses Jesus’ divinity as no other apostle had done until then, and then he brings the Happy News as far as Persia and India, all the way to his martyrdom.

It is in this personal encounter that is so intimate and ceremonial, where the purest form of the sacred acts like a wax impression of the materiality of the gesture and the word, it is here that man has a fruitful relationship with God.  Here resides the strength of true conversions, provided that the ceremonial, were it also for the weakness of man, can be repeated by turning to the rite.  Saint Gregory the Great explains in the Third Nocturne of the Ascension:  “The slowness of the disciples to believe in the resurrection of the Lord, more than showing their weakness, functioned  in behalf of our own certainty of belief. In fact, their doubt was the occasion for the Resurrection to be shown as real with many encounters with the risen Lord as proof….The story of Mary Magdalene so ready to believe, is less useful to me than that of St. Thomas who doubts for some time, because this apostle, in his doubt, touched the wounds of the Lord and in this way took away from our hearts the wound of doubt”.

Gracious formality in everyday life responds to the liturgical nature of man.  In this way Saint Francis de Sales loved to teach that good manners are the beginning of holiness, or when Leon Bloy said that “only persons without depth do not trust appearances”.  But today one sees a type of Christianity that feels that it is more authentic the more it takes a negative attitude towards the least sign of reverence for form.  Religion as practiced now finds glory in getting to the substance of things, ending up by trying to find meaning in matter left to itself.  This oh so very bourgeois antibourgeois revolt has introduced a type of heresy of formlessness that feeds on an exegesis of the ugly as the only reading of the Gospel.

But the life and teaching of Jesus, the most true gestures of those around him, are all instances of a “waste” of beauty, born of spiritual devotion to the mystery of all that exists.   In great events and in small things, in kingly gestures and in the small, everyday cares, the characters in the Gospel are gentlefolk called to good manners.  

Among the clearest examples is the dinner at Bethany in the house of Simon.  This is a ceremonial occasion so full of gestures and ulterior meanings that one needs to look at the accounts of this meal in the different Gospel writers to fully understand the meaning of this event.  That evening, recounts St. Luke, Jesus entered the house of Simon the Pharisee and sat down at table.  “And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was sitting at table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears, and wiped them with the hair of her head, and kissed his feet, and anointed them with the ointment.”  The master of the house, looking in consternation at this display of so much attention given to a woman known as a sinner, had certainly organized a dinner with everything at the highest level, with a careful choice of foods to be served, correct service, every course of the highest quality.  But the one he had invited, the one for whom all this was prepared, reproached him, because those good manners of the Pharisee are not the acting out of the Good News that his guest is bringing to him as a gift.  “Do you see this woman? I entered your house, you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair.  You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet.  You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment.  Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little”  Minutiae of a sterile formalism, one would say today, but Jesus, perfect God and perfect man, sees that there is no formalism here.  Because the rite with which one adores the Lord and the ceremony with which one renders homage to one’s neighbor do not fulfill their purpose if everything is not done as prescribed.

In his version of the story, St. Matthew lingers over the indignation of the disciples: “Why this waste?  For this ointment might have been sold for a large sum, and given to the poor”.  But he focuses above all on the reproach on the part of the Lord that this so materialistic and sentimental reaction provokes: “Why do you trouble the woman? For she has done a beautiful thing to me.  For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me.  In pouring this ointment on my body she has done it to prepare me for burial.  Truly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.” And St. John tells us that the disciple so scandalized was Judas Isacariot, the traitor, who prefers the poor to God.

Along the gracious path of homage to the divine majesty the Magi had already  travelled a little after the birth of Jesus.  And Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus walked that path with about one hundred pounds of a mixture of myrrh and aloes to anoint the body of the Master after his death.  Only the recognition of the primacy of God and the attention due to it allows man to render service to God in doing great things.  This certainty allows the Good Samaritan to turn the Jewish perspective upside down.  It is his love for God that stops him on the road to come to the aid of the stranger wounded by robbers.  And with what sensitivity does he approach his neighbor!  “He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’”

It is the same attention that Mary offers to the Lord who has come to visit her in her house.  She sits at his feet and listens to his words.  And the Lord says to Martha, the sister who is complaining that she has been left alone to serve the food:  “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.  Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”  But the ceremonial act, in this way as a rite that is a reflection of the way one functions in the world, is made up of manifestations that are inexplicable to the secular eye as much as the hidden things which he is not able to get around.

For example, in the Gospel of St. Matthew, the Master prescribes: ““And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.  But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

There is a precept that marks the movement of elegance and graciousness as does no other. Its practice is a moral attitude that, one step before holiness, is called sprezzatura, a balance between rigor and lightness that is expressed with respect for the divine breath hidden even in the smallest sliver of creation.  From this root comes that love with which Mary accepts the death of her Son nailed to the cross.  This painful and joyful understanding of the greatest mystery, is rooted in her consent to the announcement of the angel, Gabriel:  “ Behold the handmaid of the Lord. Let it be done to me according to thy word”. The account of the Annunciation can be read as a treatise on good manners, a masterpiece of the ceremonial act that has no equal.  One finds there not one word out of order. There is not a quiver that betrays weakness, no shadow of rejection:  and the destiny of the world is being decided.

As the beginning of sanctity, good manners are an efficacious defense against the wiles of the devil.  St. John Cassian teaches in his Seventh Talk to Monks that the prince of this world is not capable of understanding the thoughts of man because he is of a different nature, but he can guess at man’s thoughts by observing the movement of their bodies:  “Nobody doubts that unclean spirits can influence the character of our thoughts, but this is by affecting them from without by sensible influences, i.e., either from our inclinations or from our words, and those likings to which they see that we are especially disposed”.

The writings of St. John Cassian, close to the heart of St. Philip Neri, are the source of the Rule of St. Benedict, which mapped out a route for sanctification made up solely of minute prescriptions on how the monk should live out his daily life.  Speaking about the last two steps of humility, Benedict lingers over details that are incomprehensible to the badly educated Christian of today: “The eleventh degree of humility is that when a monk speaks he do so gently and without laughter, humbly and seriously, in few and sensible words, and the he be not noisy in his speech.  The twelfth degree of humility is that a monk not only have humility in his heart but also by his very appearance make it always manifest to those who see him. That is to say that whether he is at the Work of God, in the oratory, in the monastery, in the garden, on the road, in the fields or anywhere else, and whether sitting, walking or standing, he should always have his head bowed and his eyes toward the ground”.

With respect to the first steps of humility, these last two seem as if they are slender and evanescent.  But they are so only from the perspective of the one who does not see in them perfection taking form in ways of living that are capable of leading to conversion with a simple gesture: an act of reverence before a crucifix, a genuflection before the tabernacle.   These are manifestations of a world that secular man can perceive in the flickering rustlings and the distinctive atmosphere in the waiting parlors of certain convents and monasteries or in some rectories:  places made smooth by time dilated by the spirit, arranged in a way that recalls other times, the walls spotless and sweet smelling, a crucifix, a portrait of the founder and knick knacks that have been in that particular place forever:  spiritual chrysalises in which the unexpected arrival of this nun or that priest are epiphanies of destinies that are directed to perfection.

This was one of the characteristics that captivated Cardinal Newman and led to his vocation as an Oratorian of St. Philip Neri.  In a discourse to the Chapter in 1848 he wrote:  “ An Oratorian has his own room and his own furniture, which…without being luxurious, should be of the type that one can grow fond of.  Together they do not form a cell but a nest.  The Oratorian must be surrounded by his things, his books, his personal objects: in one word he must live, to say it in an English way, in comfort….The church should be beautiful, the religious ceremonies should be conducted meticulously, and, if possible, with magnificence; the music should be appealing….Avarice, poverty, austerity, carelessness, rigor are words that are unknown in an Oratorian house.”  And if one should need to point to a model for the Oratorian, Newman sees him in the portrait of Monsignor Clemente Merini, painted by Andrea Sacchi:  “ seated in an armchair with a peaceful expression: one hand resting on the table, his eyes alive and bright, with a happy expression.”

The good Christian is a good Christian when he is repugnant to the world because of what he witnesses to and not because of how he presents himself.  If one has to shed his blood and one is looking for models to do this well, he has only to look at Thomas More, who on July 6, 1535 climbed the scaffold carrying with him as his last baggage his sanctity, his good manners and a word of comfort for the executioner: “Friend, I am ready and you take courage…I warn you that I have a short neck and therefore be attentive to strike correctly so that you do not have a blot on your good reputation.”

[Source: Il Foglio, May 1, 2014, main excerpts. Translated by Father Richard G. Cipolla]