Benardete on Racine and “Useless Courage”

In the interview-style book, Encounters and Reflections, the late classicist Seth Benardete recalls his time as tutor at St. John’s College, which included reading Jean Racine’s Phèdre in his French course. It is brief enough to post in full.

Seth [Benardete]: …But actually the Phèdre turned out to be rather interesting.

Ronna [Burger]: Do you remember why?

Seth: Well, I immediately realized that this was Racine’s presentation of the difference between Paganism and Christianity.

Robert [Berman]: The difference being?

Seth: He makes one slight shift in the story at the end, which is when the monster comes out of the sea to destroy Hippolytus. The narrator says,“Hippolytus faced the monster with useless courage. But everyone else took refuge in a neighboring temple.” This is Augustine’s view of ancient virtue, that it really is a claim to having a power which you don’t have in yourself, whereas everybody else relies on God. And then it turns out that what I realized must have been true, because Racine gave up writing pagan plays and went to Port Royal and wrote Jansenist plays, with Biblical stories. This was a turning point.

Kwasniewski on Vocal and Mental Prayer

Peter Kwasniewski, writing over at New Liturgical Movement, has an interesting piece up: “The Denigration of Vocal Prayer in the Name of ‘Mental Prayer’: A Recipe for Disaster.” Written primarily from a Latin perspective, Kwasniewski contrasts devotio antiqua and devotio moderna, not so much to denigrate the latter but rather vindicate the former. Without trying to repeat the author’s findings, let me say that I agree with Kwasniewski’s assessment that the Divine Office in the contemporary Roman Church “has fallen on hard times” and this despite the fact that the Liturgy of the Hours (the preferred post-Vatican II name) has been available in the vernacular in decades and is far more accessible from a cost standpoint than Breviarium Romanum ever was. It stands to reason that more lay Catholics recite at least some of the approved Office now more than at any other point in history, though typically in private. Few parishes celebrate any of the Liturgy of the Hours publicly and the 1962 office is a rara avis even in traditionalist circles. Those traditional Catholics I know who recite at least some of the old breviary do so at home.

In Byzantine circles, whether Orthodox or Greek Catholic, communal liturgical prayer is more common, but probably not as common as some profess. For Orthodox following the “Slavic tradition,” Saturday Vespers before the Sunday Divine Liturgy is commonplace; larger parishes or those attached to the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR) often celebrate Vigil (Vespers, Matins, and First Hour) with varying degrees of completeness. Orthodox following the “Greek tradition” typically find Sunday Matins celebrated in truncated form prior to the Divine Liturgy; many Arab Orthodox parishes follow this route as well. Greek Catholics, at least in the United States, have some catching-up to do. Thankfully, the situation has improved in recent years. (For what it is worth, when I was growing up in the 1980s and 90s, Vespers was almost unheard of, and Matins was often reduced to a few hymns such as the Great Doxology.)

Of course, the offering of these services does not mean they are well attended. In Russian parishes, Vigil is also the time for hearing confessions, which means people will be moving in and out of church throughout the service. In those parishes I frequented that offered Saturday Vespers, it was a “good night” when 20% of those who would be at the next morning’s liturgy were there; often the percentage was between 5-10. Many Slavic parishes will also have the Third and Sixth hours recited before the Divine Liturgy, but often they are “background noise” as people arrive.

Reciting the Byzantine Office privately is a chore, but less so now than 10-20 years ago. For Greek Catholics, the Eparchy of Stamford and Eastern Christian Publications have published English-language editions of the Horologion (Chasoslov) that include as much material as practicable for reciting the daily office without additional books. For the Orthodox, Saint Ignatius Orthodox Press has done the same. Those with more ambitious budgets, whether Catholic or Orthodox, can now find a variety of translations of the Horologion, Octoechos, Menaion, Triodion, Penetcostarion, and Psalter available. However, the complexity of Byzantine rubrics and the length of the services themselves make reciting the office a daunting task for any except the most hardened liturgical nerds.

An open question, I suppose, is what (if any) impact the preference for mental over vocal prayer has had in Eastern Christianity. While the tradition of monastics reciting the Jesus Prayer repeatedly in private (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”) is ancient, opinions differ on its contemporary prevalence among the laity. Various rules, such as those printed in old Slavonic Psalters still used by Russian Old Ritualists, indicate how many Jesus Prayers can be recited in place of the liturgical hours, though it is unclear how many ever followed these prescriptions. Moreover, some Eastern Christians, particularly Orthodox, take a low view of Western devotio moderna and mental prayer in general, seeing it as little more than a gateway to prelest (spiritual delusion/deception). Often ignored in these polemics is the extent to which modern Western devotional works such as Thomas Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ and Lorenzo Scupoli’s The Spiritual Combat influenced post-medieval Orthodox spirituality. That’s a quagmire to be waded into at another time, I suppose.

A Few Words on John P. Meier

John P. Meier, the Catholic priest and Biblical scholar, passed away a couple of weeks ago at the ripe old age of 80. His last academic post was the University of Notre Dame, though he had made a name for himself during his tenure at Catholic University of America with the publication of A Marginal Jew, a massive five-volume work on the so-called “historical Jesus” that was never completed. Meier was working on the sixth volume at the time of his repose.

I make mention of Meier’s passing for two reasons. First, his magnum opus has been on my reading list for some time and so in “honor” of his legacy, I read the first volume and am currently engaged with the second. The second, and maybe more important reason I bring this up in a brief post, is that I am increasingly perplexed at the fever-pitched hostility many of my coreligionists have for that field which may generally be called “critical-historical studies.” Granted, much work on the “historical Jesus,” particularly in the 19th century, was animated by an “Enlightenment spirit” that often carried deep anti-Catholic, to say nothing of anti-Christian, prejudices. (Old Testament scholarship during this period and on into the 20th century exhibited strong anti-Jewish biases as well.) As Meier notes throughout the first volume of A Marginal Jew, “historical Jesus” studies in the early-to-mid 20th century were colored by existentialist philosophy and no doubt Meier’s own work, and the work of his contemporaries, carry ideological baggage. What is refreshing about Meier’s study is how open he is about all of this. With more than a touch of humor and engaging stylistic flourishes that are sorely missed in academic prose, Meier makes his case for a plausible, but always tentative portrait of Jesus of Nazareth based on the limited, but not insubstantial, sources available to us. As Meier routinely reminds readers, the “historic Jesus” of A Marginal Jew (or any other critical-historical work) is not and cannot be the “real Jesus,” that is, Jesus as He actually was in all facets of His life on earth. And just in case you were wondering, Meier does not, and adamantly maintains he cannot, say anything for or against the “Jesus of faith,” that is, the Anointed One of God, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity.

So, what value does a work like Meier’s have for a professing Christian, particularly a professing Catholic? Before I answer that question in detail in future posts, let me “warn” anyone thinking of engaging with Meier’s work that they are apt to uncover some “impieties” to the extent that Meier rests his often-tentative case on what the limited historical record may show us. Several cornerstone elements of the Gospels, such as the Infancy Narratives of Matthew and Luke, are not, by Meier’s lights, historically reliable and therefore cannot adequately demonstrate that Jesus was born outside of Nazareth. Similarly, the references to Jesus’ brothers and sisters indicate that they were His biological siblings—a conclusion that runs up against the Church’s longstanding profession of Mary’s perpetual virginity. Alongside these revelations, which may startle some, are needful refreshers such as the fact Jesus’ skillset almost certainly included more than working with wood; that His mundane vocation required him to be physically robust; and that while He came from an obscure backwater town, Jesus was likely literate and probably even knew enough Greek to engage in commerce.

Nobody has to believe any of this, of course. Meier tells what I would call a “good story” backed up by a defensible methodology conservatively applied to a particular set of texts and secondary material. It would be foolish for anyone to take Meier’s learned word as gospel truth, rejecting along the way the vivid image the Gospels portray of the Son of God. Meier is not out to challenge the Faith even if what he concludes can, at times, be challenging for those reared on a form of Biblical literalism that is less defensible than the pious but unlikely theory that Matthew, not Mark, was the first Gospel written. Certainly, Meier’s work, like the work of most critical-historical scholars, is open for misinterpretation and abuse. Meier does a better job than many trying to undercut that opportunity, but he could only control what he could control. What readers can and ought to manage is their own expectations for what Meier’s works can tell us while tempering any temptation to overact against a fascinating though necessarily imperfect academic undertaking.

Oh, “Spirituality”

I rarely write on anything of a “spiritual nature” for the simple fact that I do not consider myself a spiritual person or, rather, I find my “spirituality” (however narrowly or broadly defined) tepid. This has never been truer since I started to (re-)attend Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) after a long period away. I was never convinced that I needed AA and a significant part of me resists it even now. Were it not for my sponsor, an eminently sensible veteran of the program who effectively blends good humor with a serious commitment to sobriety, I would have left (again). Having dipped my toes in other “recovery”/sobriety programs (I dislike the word “recovery” for alcoholism, but I’ll save that for another time), none have struck me as immediately superior to AA’s 12-step approach and all of them share some commonalities with it. Even when I was attending an intensive outpatient program (IOP) for alcoholism, I found a good deal of overlap between it and AA. In private therapy sessions I was encouraged to add AA onto the 10 plus hours of IOP. There was to be no quick turnaround that would allow me to avoid AA.

I do not intend here to be critical of AA despite still harboring reservations. There may come a time and a place to say more about the program, but now is not that time. I would never discourage any soul from attending AA if they believed they needed it. In fact, I have started to believe that those who claim they do not need it or any other program are the ones who could receive considerable benefit from not merely going to meetings, but actively engaging in the Twelve Steps. As I am fond of telling newcomers at so-called “First Step” meetings (i.e., the “initiation meeting” where a first-time attendee is directly spoken to by other members about their experiences with the program), “Do not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” There are good meetings, bad meetings, and in-between meetings. Some people like to use meetings to tell “war stories” about how drunk they got one night or have a good laugh at themselves or others over drunken follies. There are some where people routinely shed tears and even a few where almost nobody talks at all. At almost every meeting I have attended, I have heard at least one thing that stuck with me and more than a few that have helped me turn away from the liquor store entrance. That also means I have encountered plenty of excuses, faux wisdom, self-justificatory rhetoric, and outright lies. Afflicted as I am with a tendency to “make faces” when I hear raw nonsense, AA compels disciplined listening; I rarely like it, but I imagine I am better for it.

Circling back to the beginning, the reason I mention spirituality and AA is because the program is shot through with “spirituality,” albeit of a mundane sort that should be unrecognizable to most devout Christians, Jews, Muslims, etc. AA’s “spirituality” can (and I would argue should) be enhanced by the true spirituality available only through faith in God. While God is mentioned throughout AA’s Twelve Steps and its attendant literature, it is typically “[g]od as we [i.e., individual AA members] understood [h]im.” On one hand, this is a harmless formulation insofar as it acknowledges that different AA members have different religious backgrounds. On the other, it risks (and often leads to) making God out to be little more than an “imaginary friend” who is there to give members a boost when the going gets tough. Any “spirituality” that emanates from such a low point is not one I care to be associated with and yet it surrounds me day in and day out. I find my current incapacity to transcend it to be indicative of a grave pneumatic defect that has yet to be corrected.

Maybe things have not gotten so bad as to render me “a-spiritual,” but judging by my recent reading habits, which include everything from the Russian classic The Way of the Pilgrim to Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises to a number of anthologies of other spiritual traditions, it is possible I am showing signs of desperation—but I am far from being without hope. If my current trajectory has taught me anything, it is the simple fact, obvious to many but too often lost on me, that I cannot will myself to be more than a shadow Christian; I must trust in God. If someone were to tell me that sounds impossible, especially today in this “worst of all possible worlds” (Elon Musk now owns Twitter!), I would be tempted to agree. Many things that are not tied up with a joyless consumer-driven existence fueled by incessant feelings of anger, fear, and inadequacy probably do sound impossible. God’s love, from which all authentic hope flows, seems like the most impossible thing of all.

And yet it is unfathomably true.