All posts by Daniel J. Heisey

Monastic Muggeridge

It is twenty-five years since the death of Malcolm Muggeridge, and twenty since Gregory Wolfe’s excellent biography of him.  Muggeridge (1903-1990) was a famous journalist, and like all such, he has faded like last year’s newspapers.  (Pop quiz:  Who were Walter Lippmann and H. V. Kaltenborn?)  Part of Muggeridge’s fame came from converting to Christianity in general and then to Catholicism in particular.  A glib and fluent journalist in print and on television, he became a glib and fluent advocate for his new faith.  In his day, admirers bracketed Muggeridge with G. K. Chesterton and C. S. Lewis, and in 1999 Joseph Pearce gave Muggeridge two chapters in his Literary Converts.

Several of Muggeridge’s books are still in print, notably Something Beautiful for God (1971), one of the first profiles of Mother Teresa.  One of Muggeridge’s most popular books was a collection of religious essays, Jesus Rediscovered (1969).  It includes “A Hard Bed to Lie On,” about his visit in 1967 to a Cistercian monastery in southeastern Scotland.

According to Wolfe, by the mid-1960s, Muggeridge had achieved a lifelong goal, to live a simple life.  It had been a rugged struggle, Muggeridge on his many exotic travels having been compulsively fond of smoking, drinking, and philandering.  He had grown up in London in a middle-class family proud of its progressive ideals, confident that the liberating powers of science and socialism were the wave of the future, under which the repressive forces of conservatism and religion would submerge and disappear.

As Muggeridge entered his sixties, he had come to see that decades of dissipation had not made him, to paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, happy, healthy, and wise.  He was a famous wit, but he knew that writing for satiric magazines and appearing on television talk shows is not the same as having wisdom.  Flickering fame and fleeting pleasures nevertheless left him with physical ailments and an inner sense that somehow his life was empty.  As have so many others, he found that the bleak emptiness could be filled only by God.

It was a sober, smoke-free, vegetarian Muggeridge, by now also faithful to his wife, who at the request of the BBC ventured north to Nunraw Abbey in Scotland.  His assignment was to film a television documentary about the monks.  “Nothing, I suppose, could be more alien to the spirit of this age than monasticism,” began Muggeridge, adding, “Just for that reason, it has always had a particular fascination for me.”  He further explained:  “The quiet, the order, the essential simplicity of a monk’s way of life, all seemed alluring in a world increasingly given over to noise, violence, and the avid pursuit of what passes for happiness.”

It all sounds very nice, but here one must pause.  Nearly all Muggeridge’s writings bristle with the personal pronoun, and the reader is advised that Muggeridge on monasticism may reveal more about Muggeridge than about monasticism.  Another defining feature of Muggeridge’s writing is indulging in gloomy delight that the present time (Muggeridge’s own) is the worst ever, probably the end of civilized life for long ages to come.  Historical perspective helps one appreciate that, to take but one example, back in the fourteenth century, when Petrarch’s brother became a Carthusian monk, people were lamenting (or, like Chaucer, lampooning) that the world was sliding down a dark path of noise, violence, and carnal pleasures.

To resume:  Muggeridge recounted his first meeting with the monks, where he briefed them on his commission from the BBC.  Muggeridge wrote that he found the monks to be “a curious combination of realism and other-worldliness,” and he decided that “it is only the other-worldly who know how to cope with this world.”  It was the sort of paradox he liked.

Muggeridge wrote about the relative youth of the monastic community, the abbey at Nunraw having been founded in 1946 by monks from Ireland.  Yet, the situation was precarious.  “Vocations are scarce today,” Muggeridge wrote, “especially in the enclosed orders, and present indications are that they will get scarcer.”

Meanwhile, the spirit of Judas was alive.  “Some of the monks,” remarked Muggeridge, “take the view that the abbey is too lavishly designed, and consider that the money spent on it might have been better devoted to feeding the hungry.”  Their altruism left Muggeridge unimpressed:  “I was glad, I told them, that such a view had not prevailed when Chartres cathedral was being built.”

Although he had expected the monks to be serried ranks of monotonous uniformity, he eventually discovered otherwise.  “Each of them, young and old,” he reported, “had his own distinctive persona within a corporate existence, dedicated, equally, to study and meditation, manual labour and worship.”  One wonders whether the monks found those words to be patronizing.  Imagine a visitor to some other institution noted for outward conformity, say a military base or a bank or a law firm or a faculty club, coming away and saying much the same thing:  Gosh, those funny little people are really people!

Muggeridge mused on the purpose and future of the monks.  “What good are they doing?” he asked.  “Prayers don’t show in the Gross National Product,” he observed, and so “in an increasingly materialist world they are non-productive citizens.”  It was a utilitarian judgment he would have endorsed in his younger days, when he believed that the Soviet Union was the Golden Age reborn, a belief shattered when in the 1930s he saw first-hand Joseph Stalin’s imposed famine on the Ukrainians.

“By all the laws of Freud and the psycho-prophets,” Muggeridge said, “the monks are depriving themselves of the sensual satisfactions which alone make a whole life possible; they ought to be up the wall and screaming.”  He was implicitly contrasting silent, celibate monks in their twenties with his own excesses during the Roaring Twenties.  “Actually, I found at Nunraw,” he concluded, “a quite exceptional peace; it is the children of affluence, not deprived monks, who howl and fret in psychiatric wards.”

Again, it sounds nice, but monks, alas, can be prey to the same demons as other people.  Still, if one reads him at all, one reads Muggeridge for Muggeridge, for clever turns of phrase offering challenges to smug suburban assumptions.  These days his star has dimmed, as have those of Westbrook Pegler and Orestes Brownson, once famous Catholic journalists now championed only by specialists.  It is a fate to keep any writer humble.


Daniel J. Heisey, O. S. B, is a Benedictine monk of Saint Vincent Archabbey, Latrobe, Pennsylvania, where he is known as Brother Bruno.  He teaches Church History at Saint Vincent Seminary.

Henry Adams and Catholic Conversion

“What the Church thought or thinks is its own affair,” wrote Henry Adams, “and what it chooses to call orthodox is orthodox.”  Adams (1838-1918) was the grandson and great-grandson of American presidents, and he was one of many people who have been fascinated by Catholic culture but have not been inclined to convert to Catholicism.  His shrugging recognition of the Church’s right to decide what is orthodox occurs in Chapter 15 of his quirky and eloquent book, Mont Saint Michel and Chartres (1904).

Adams delighted in paradox, and he would have appreciated this situation, a Protestant from an old New England family acknowledging the Church’s task of defining orthodoxy, while countless Catholics act like Protestants, choosing for themselves what is right teaching.  Since the days of Martin Luther, it has been a Protestant hallmark that each believer can become an authority on Scriptural theology, hence the proliferation of Protestant denominations.  Individual Christians studying biblical religion is admirable, but as with any intricate subject, theology requires expert guidance.

Doctrine has developed over two millennia, yet Christian theology asks basic questions:  What is this thing?  What is its purpose?  Asking the wrong questions can waste time and lead to wrong answers.  Church history records the results of a lot of wrong answers, as well as the effects of the seemingly fewer right ones.

Adams could be content to let the Church think her own thoughts, but Catholics engage in family arguments about the Church’s thinking.  The 1960s provide an amusing example.  In 1961, liberal Catholics scolded conservatives at National Review for objecting to Pope John XXIII’s encyclical letter Mater et Magistra; in 1968, the tables turned as liberals objected to Pope Paul VI’s encyclical letter Humanae vitae.

In his book-length interview with Peter Seewald, Light of the World (2010), Pope Benedict XVI said, “The Church is not here to place burdens on the shoulders of mankind, and she does not offer some sort of moral system.”  He added, “The really crucial thing is that the Church offers Him.”  It is puzzling that journalists did not find that statement more startling than his comments earlier in the book about condoms.

For many people, the Catholic Church is all about rules, regulations, and burdens, and those people wonder what any church is for if not offering a moral system.  When they are told “The Church proposes, not imposes,” they think of all the paperwork they had to fill out and meetings they had to sit through for a wedding or a baptism, they think of Holy Days of Obligation (emphasis on the obligation), and they scratch their heads, guessing that the Church must have a different dictionary when it comes words like “propose” and “impose.”

The Catholic Church offers Him, Christ, to everyone, but not everyone is willing to embrace the whole complicated formality of the Church, from hierarchy to canon law to liturgy, and abide by all the answers the Church has come up with to so many of life’s questions.  For them, it all seems unnecessary, appearing to be Pharisaical tedium standing between them and Christ.  If someone is not open to accepting the Church’s procedures and teachings, one is free to find somewhere else to pray, and it would seem that for some people, it is indeed too high a price to pay for receiving the Eucharist.

One of the biggest misunderstandings about the universality of the Catholic Church is that it is for everyone.  Although anyone is welcome to attend Mass, not everyone is welcome to receive Communion.  That fact might seem unfair, but it is the same as being welcome in someone’s house, provided one is respectful and polite and follows the rules of the house.  Not everyone welcomed into the house is thereby a member of the family, and at some point in the evening, the guests have to leave.

Meanwhile, the Church is realistic enough to recognize that not all options are open, not all potentials can be fulfilled.  Thus the Church sees that one of the worst lies peddled to recent generations is that we can be and do whatever we want, and therefore everyone else must approve.  Truth then becomes a matter of personal taste, and right and wrong become determined by the calendar.  From such arbitrariness emerges the absurdity of the dogmatic assertion that there are no absolutes.  The Catholic Church disagrees, insisting that there are fixed points of morality and reality, so that, for example, a man who is short, stocky, and bald, cannot “self-identify” as tall, blond, and chiseled.

Back to Henry Adams, short and balding lover of medieval cathedrals and reader of Catholic poetry and theology.  Adams meditated long on the intriguing fact that some of the Church’s greatest intellects have also been among her greatest mystics.  “Bernard of Clairvaux and Thomas of Aquino,” Adams mused, “were both artists, . . . and one need not decide which was greater; but between them is a region of pure emotion, . . . which is more interesting than either.”  That emotional region between Bernard and Aquinas was the realm of poetic insight and mystical intuition.

“The true saint is a profound sceptic,” Adams concluded, “a total disbeliever in human reason, . . . Bernard was a total disbeliever in Scholasticism; so was Voltaire.”  Although Bernard would have been appalled by proximity even in print with Voltaire, he would have agreed that the gift of faith helps to reveal where human reason has its limits.  Bernard’s many writings are not unreasonable, but their one theme derives from his monastic vow of conversatio morum, openness to the grace for an ongoing conversion of one’s life.

Being Catholic is not a birthright, an automatic and inalienable title because one’s roots go back to a country that used to have a Catholic monarch.  Being Catholic is about becoming Catholic.  It is an individual’s daily response to Christ’s call to deny oneself, take up one’s cross, and follow Him, and following Him involves adhering to, if not always understanding, His Body, the Church.  A relationship contingent upon one party fully understanding the other will not get very far.  What matters is turning around, converting, and going back to the Father.  The Prodigal Son realized that he had to come home only after he had admitted to himself that the life he had chosen to live was wrong.

Daniel J. Heisey, O. S. B., is a Benedictine monk of Saint Vincent Archabbey, Latrobe, Pennsylvania, where is known as Brother Bruno.  He teaches Church History at Saint Vincent Seminary.

Beginning the Beguine with Socrates

In Plato’s Apology, Socrates says that in his search for wisdom he consulted poets.  If today someone were on a Socratic quest for wisdom, seeking out poets might not be on that person’s list.  For the average person these days, poetry tends to mean something syrupy inside a greeting card, hardly to be taken seriously when asking how to live a good life.  As for abstruse modern poems, the kind with complex ambiguity that clamors for attention and acclaim, they fall short as well.

A poet works within a long literary tradition, but the poet’s allusions and metaphors must be instantly, even instinctively, understood by the reader.  A poem needing scholarly footnotes has lost its immediacy, as well as its intelligibility.  That an ancient poem could need such critical apparatus is easily accepted; that a new poem would be made deliberately obscure and in need of academic commentary is easily annoying.

For Socrates and his Greek-speaking contemporaries in the fourth century B. C., poetry meant a disciplined, metrical use of language in order to convey deep truths about what it means to be human.  While conveying those truths, the poems were expected to entertain and engage an audience.  So, what Socrates had in mind were the epic poems of Homer and the plays and lyrics of other ancient Greeks, works then known to everyone.

As part of popular culture, those poems were meant to be read or recited aloud, sometimes at drinking parties, and most of them were meant to be sung or chanted.  In any culture, song is easier to recall than prose, and ancient peoples had vast stores of music and poetry beating through their memories.  The same fact holds true for humans today, as our imagined latter-day Socrates would find out.

In our day, although there are recordings on compact disc of talented actors reading poems by, for example, Gerard Manley Hopkins and T. S. Eliot, the equivalent popular poetic literature is known more for who performed those poems than who wrote them.  Thus the equivalent would be the ballads sung by the likes of Jo Stafford and Vera Lynn, Frank Sinatra and Bobby Darin.  It is a living tradition, kept alive by singers such as Harry Connick, Jr., and Tony DeSare, and groups like the Manhattan Transfer and OC Times.

In his pursuit of wisdom, a modern Socrates would listen to the lyric poems composed (if not recorded) a few generations ago.  He may well lend an ear also to more recent fare, but distinguishing every word of such lyrics is not always easy or edifying.  Here it is worth recalling Charlton Heston standing up in 1992 at a shareholders meeting of Time Warner and reading out the words of a particularly controversial rap song.  When the chairman of the meeting cut him off and told him that such vulgar and violent language was inappropriate, Heston asked, “Then why are we selling it?”

In any case, it will not be surprising if in a few decades a history of the twentieth century’s English-language poetry will spend more time on the lyric verse of Cole Porter than on the dream songs of John Berryman.  Johnny Mercer and Irving Berlin will likely get more notice than Allen Ginsberg.  If this speculation turns out to be correct, consider some lines of what such a literary historian would chronicle and what our hypothetical new Socrates would hear:

“I’m with you once more/Under the stars,/And down by the shore/An orchestra’s playing,/And even the palms/Seem to be swaying,/When they begin the beguine.”  In those lines anyone can see at once the scene of two lovers and the waves and the music.  Mentally entering into that image will open up a lot of truth about romance, if not love.

“Somewhere, beyond the sea,/She’s there watching for me./If I could fly like birds on high,/Then straight to her arms/I’d go sailing.”  Separation and longing, flying birds and sailing ships:  here are themes and images accessible to all.  Even the most land-locked of us can appreciate such maritime evocations.  Socratic interrogation of these word pictures would echo the question found in the lyrics of one Dame Vera Lynn’s big hits:  “Was that a dream or was it true?”

“Fly the ocean in a silver plane,/See the jungle when it’s wet with rain./Just remember, till you’re home again,/You belong to me.”  Here again we find the theme of lovers who are apart and wish they were re-united.  Also, we encounter anew the images of travel and the tropics, all suffused with amorous desire for fidelity and being together.

In Chapter 5 of The Everlasting Man, G. K. Chesterton wrote that a poet “worships the peak of a particular mountain, not the abstract idea of altitude.”  As Socrates understood, poets must evoke elemental desires of the human heart.  From the first time man gaped at what Homer called “rosy-fingered dawn,” poets have evoked those desires and conjured images from within the audience, appealing to basic realities we all can know, from beneath the palms and under the moon to beyond the sea.

True, most of us might not know what a beguine is or how to begin one, but everyone can grasp what it means for it to bring back the sound of music so tender, a tune making lovers remember.  Whereas a rapper might repeat vivid phrases about violating girls or killing cops, an old-style crooner assures his beloved, “I’d sacrifice anything, come what might,/For the sake of having you near.”  Given those two diverging outlooks, the implications for the development of society could not be more stark, something worth reflecting upon during this centennial year of Frank Sinatra’s birth.

The men who wrote the lines of what has been called the Great American Songbook are the abiding poets of our culture, and the men and women who have recorded them are our troubadours.  Snobbery may lead some people to deplore those songs as cheap and the singers as merely popular, but that same attitude forgets that Socrates sought truth in popular poems.  While Sammy Cahn was not Sophocles, long after Ezra Pound’s cantos have been forgotten, people will still turn to these lyrics and these interpretations to articulate the hope that their waiting lover stands on golden sands, and still beg for the love that was once a fire to remain an ember.


Daniel J. Heisey, O. S. B, is a Benedictine monk of Saint Vincent Archabbey, Latrobe, Pennsylvania, where he is known as Brother Bruno.  He teaches Church History at Saint Vincent Seminary.

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 108

Scholars seem to agree that the only sonnet by William Shakespeare with a religious theme is Sonnet 146.  It is the only poem by Shakespeare in the original Oxford Book of Christian Verse (1940), as well as in The New Oxford Book of Christian Verse (1981).  R. S. Thomas included it in The Penguin Book of Religious Verse (1963), and he appears to be the odd man out by also including Sonnet 129.  Likewise, C. S. Lewis, in his volume of The Oxford History of English Literature (1954), observed that Sonnet 146 “is concerned with the tension between the temporal and the eternal and would be appropriate in the mouth of any Christian at any moment.”  However, the same could be said of Sonnet 108.

First, an open mind is in order.  If we encountered Sonnet 108 all by itself, with no attribution to cloud our critical faculties, there would be every reason to read it as a Christian poem.  Sonnet 108, between a topical poem about the Queen Elizabeth I (thus A. L. Rowse) and a personal poem wherein the beloved rose may well be the speaker’s (or the poet’s) wife, apparently follows no pattern or sequence.  Sonnet 108 therefore stands as a work with its own integrity and importance.

While there is strong textual and circumstantial evidence to argue convincingly for Shakespeare’s Catholicism, for our purposes here we can definitely say that whatever else he was, William Shakespeare was a Christian, baptized and buried in Holy Trinity church, Stratford.  How pious or devout he was between those two sacramental points is anyone’s guess.  All the same, in a pervasively Christian culture a man who retired from London back to his home parish in the shires may be reckoned to have been a committed believer.

In 1607, Shakespeare provided for a church funeral for his younger brother, Edmund, also an actor, and The Winter’s Tale (1609) deals not only with the perils of spousal jealousy, but also with the theme of death and resurrection.  Shakespeare’s plays are full of heartfelt prayers and dignified friars.  Moreover, whether Hamlet or Macbeth, his tragic heroes have lives frequently intersecting with the supernatural, and Shakespeare’s comedies, such as Measure for Measure, end with a moral, indeed, biblical, lecture.

There is no reason, of course, to read any of the Sonnets (or any of the plays) as autobiographical.  William Shakespeare was a complex and creative man, able to imagine himself into any number of characters and situations.  For example, is the real Shakespeare to be found in Julius Caesar or in Juliet?

Nevertheless, one can read Shakespeare’s Sonnet 108 objectively as a Christian devotional poem.  If we grant that Shakespeare was a believing, even a practicing, Christian, we would be surprised if in 154 sonnets there were only one with a religious subject.  We would be right to consider the possibility, even the probability, of others.

Commentators in recent years, though, have seen Sonnet 108 as a secular love poem, probably articulating same-sex desire.  Thus, critics from Peter Quennell (1963) to Robert Matz (2008) have tended to interpret the “sweet boy” in line five of Sonnet 108 as a young man, namely the Earl of Southampton, amorously thought of by the poet.  In the 1590s, when he wrote the Sonnets, Shakespeare was turning thirty, whereas Southampton was some ten years younger.

Their unequal ranks in society notwithstanding, Shakespeare could well have had some paternal or fraternal regard for that young earl, his noble patron.  After all, Shakespeare’s brother, Richard, was a year younger than Southampton; Shakespeare’s brother, Edmund, was six years younger.  Nothing requires the earl to be the “sweet boy” of Sonnet 108, any more than the “sweet boy” must refer either to one of Shakespeare’s kid brothers or to his own son, Hamnet, who died in 1596.

The true identity of the “sweet boy” emerges in the sestet.  The speaker, perhaps also the poet, talks of “eternal love” and having “hallowed thy fair name.”  For a Christian, there is only one eternal love, and it will be found in Heaven.  The Christian learns from Scripture that in Heaven there is no marriage, no need to worry about whose spouse is whose if there has been widowing and re-marrying (Mt 22:30).  All will be bound together in ecstatic love, adoring God.

Sonnet 108 is about someone wondering how to express anew a longstanding love.  “What new to speak, what now to register,” the speaker asks, “That I may express my love, or thy dear merit?”  Many a Christian poet has stood “tongue-tied” (a favorite phrase in the Sonnets), wondering how to express either love for the Lord or the Lord’s unspeakable worth.  Here that love is for a “sweet boy” whose “fair name” the speaker has long “hallowed.”  The speaker, alluding to the Lord’s Prayer, is concerned about “eternal love” in a place beyond “the dust and injury of age.”

A parallel to the religious character of Sonnet 108 appears in the shorter poems of a Jesuit martyr, Robert Southwell.  Three years older than Shakespeare, Southwell was arrested for treason in 1592 and executed in 1595.  Southwell was a distant cousin to Shakespeare, and Southwell’s shorter devotional verse shows similar imagery to that found in Sonnet 108.

In particular, Southwell’s poem “The Burning Babe,” despite grotesque images such a title may conjure, is about the Christ child, as are his poems “New Prince, New Pomp” and “Come to Your Heaven, You Heavenly Choirs!”  That last concludes, “If thou wilt foil thy foes with joy/Then flit not from this heavenly boy.”

Taken out of context, Southwell’s “heavenly boy” could seem as camp or homoerotic as Shakespeare’s “sweet boy” could be misread to be.  In context, however, Southwell’s words clearly refer to the baby Jesus, and a fresh and objective look at Shakespeare’s Sonnet 108 would point to the same subject.  Christianity permeating Shakespeare’s world, it could hardly be otherwise.

Of course, at a Christian interpretation of Sonnet 108 (or any other) secular critics will object, preferring to see the Bard as a modern agnostic.  Interest in Shakespeare has endured for four hundred years because, as a great Shakespearean actor, Maurice Evans (1901-1989), observed in his memoirs, each age finds in him “a responsive echo.”  Even four centuries from now, though, Christian readers may still hear an echo of another Christian voice.

Daniel J. Heisey, O. S. B, is a Benedictine monk of Saint Vincent Archabbey, Latrobe, Pennsylvania, where he is known as Brother Bruno.  He teaches Church History at Saint Vincent Seminary.

Perils of Irony

“What a miserable little snob Henry James is,” wrote Theodore Roosevelt to a friend in June of 1894.  Roosevelt had just read James’ short story “The Death of the Lion” in the April issue of a new periodical called The Yellow Book.  “His polished, pointless, uninteresting stories,” Roosevelt continued, “about the upper social classes of England make one blush to think that he was once an American.”  As an antidote, Roosevelt read something by an Englishman then living in Vermont:  “I turned to a story of [Rudyard] Kipling’s with the feeling of getting into fresh, healthy, out-of-doors life.”

Roosevelt seems to have been a stranger to irony, a deficiency for which Americans have been stereotyped.  What caused his outburst was James turning his gift for irony on himself:  the dying lion of the story is an aging author admired by all the best people, but they have no time in their busy social calendars to read his books.  As the old literary giant lies on his deathbed, no one in the stately old house can find the lone manuscript of his latest (and last) book that one of them had borrowed, although everyone is sure it must be brilliant.

Just as all Roosevelt could see in the story was an English country house populated with pompous aristocrats, many people today seem to think that Henry James’ stories are all about flower arrangements and antique furniture.  Merchant-Ivory’s lush film adaptations of three of James’ novels have helped create that impression, distracting from the two key elements in all James’ fiction, greed and manipulation.  Often an instrument in those machinations is sexual energy, and here the reader is left to find the lewd scene in, to take but one example, The Spoils of Poynton (1897).

Roosevelt was right about James being an expatriate.  Although born in New York City, James spent much of his boyhood abroad.  In 1875 James, at age thirty-two, moved to Europe, staying in Paris and Venice before settling in London and then in the English village of Rye.  In 1915, near the end of his life, James became a British subject, and early the next year King George V bestowed upon him the Order of Merit.

Still, Roosevelt apparently had forgotten James’ stories set in America.  One of the best known and most accessible may be Washington Square (1880).  Set in a fine old house in New York City, it depicts the sort of reserved, respectable people with whom the Roosevelt family might have associated.  In 1949 it was filmed as The Heiress, starring Olivia de Havilland, Montgomery Clift, and Ralph Richardson.  The heiress is plain, simple Catherine Sloper, only surviving child of a successful physician, and she refuses to believe her widower father’s insistence that Morris Townsend, a handsome young man rich only in charm, is courting her solely for her money.

It is the same plot as James’ The Aspern Papers (1888).  In that story, the unnamed narrator schemes to get his hands on rare letters, not money, but to do so he must woo Tita (in later editions, Tina), an unmarried, middle-aged woman living with her elderly spinster aunt in a faded palazzo in Venice.  Eventually Tita sees through his ploy and wounds the narrator more severely than if she had stabbed him.  Likewise, Catherine at last recognizes the truth of her father’s warnings and preserves her broken heart by never marrying.

“Catherine,” James mused, “became an admirable old maid.  She formed habits, regulated her days upon a system of her own, interested herself in charitable institutions, . . . and went generally, with an even and noiseless step, about the rigid business of her life. . . . She developed a few harmless eccentricities; her habits, once formed, were rather stiffly maintained; her opinions, on all moral and social matters, were extremely conservative; and before she was forty she was regarded as an old-fashioned person, and an authority on customs that had passed away.”

One is tempted to apply those words to James himself, especially when recalling that William Faulkner supposedly described James as “one of the nicest old ladies I ever met.”  Part of James’ attraction to England and the Continent was his sense of the past, an instinctive desire for layers of antiquity, for cultivated order and dignified heritage.  To James, the worst traits of America, vulgar arrested adolescence and crass egomania, were embodied in aggressive, volatile men like Theodore Roosevelt.

Yet, irony turned upon one of its supreme practitioners.  In 1908 James visited G. K. Chesterton, and, as Chesterton recorded in his Autobiography (1936), “the balanced tea cup and tentative sentence of Mr. Henry James” were rudely rattled and interrupted by the sudden and unexpected arrival of Hilaire Belloc and a friend, boisterous and scruffy after a few days of hiking.

Chesterton doubted whether James ever appreciated “the irony of the best comedy in which he ever played a part.”  Chesterton explained that James had “left America because he loved Europe, and all that was meant by England or France; the gentry, the gallantry, the tradition of lineage and locality, . . . and there, on the other side of the tea table, was Europe, was the old thing that made France and England, the posterity of the English squires and the French soldiers; ragged, unshaven, shouting for beer, shameless above all shades of poverty and wealth; sprawling, indifferent, secure.  And what looked across at it was still the Puritan refinement of Boston; and the space it looked across was wider than the Atlantic.”

Henry James was a snob, his stories are polished, but they are not pointless any more than they are uninteresting.  They do require patience, especially his later novels, long studies of reticent people of means, lapidary stories of desire and duplicity, marked by introspective and meandering sentences, replete, if one may so say, with subordinate clauses.  Best to start one’s sojourn with James in Washington Square.

By 1908, when James was being baffled by the rowdiness of Belloc, an Oxford-educated Member of Parliament, Theodore Roosevelt was winding down his presidential term and planning a safari to eastern Africa.  There he shot lion and other big game, while James was publishing a volume of his stories, including one from 1903, “The Beast in the Jungle,” about a man obsessed with some elusive future event that will define his legacy.

Daniel J. Heisey, O. S. B, is a Benedictine monk of Saint Vincent Archabbey, Latrobe, Pennsylvania, where he is known as Brother Bruno.  He teaches Church History at Saint Vincent Seminary.

Mr. Stewart Goes on Radio

Joe Queenan, writing “In Praise of Libraries” in the March, 2015, issue of The Rotarian, described public libraries as places of adventure and serendipity, where through books someone can discover new people, places, and things.  Some libraries, though, also take one into unexpected areas by means of old movies, and sometimes even through old-time radio shows.

In several rooms adjoining the public library in Indiana, Pennsylvania, is the Jimmy Stewart Museum, preserving the memory of that small town’s most famous son.  One can get to the museum either from the library or from the street, and the museum brims with Stewart’s movie posters and memorabilia, as well as family photographs and artifacts.  Also on display are his uniforms from his twenty-seven years as an officer, ultimately a general, in the United States Air Force.

Stewart (1908-1997) seems to be best remembered for playing Everyman roles on film, but he performed on radio as well.  He stands out today as George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), and that wholesome image suited the dark purposes of Alfred Hitchcock, who cast Stewart in four of his films.  Stewart’s many other film roles ranged from an idealistic young United States Senator (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, 1939) to an elderly janitor (Mr. Krueger’s Christmas, 1980), from a Big Band leader (The Glenn Miller Story, 1954) to a pioneering aviator (The Spirit of St. Louis, 1957).  Also noteworthy are roles that seem unlikely for him, such as a circus clown (The Greatest Show on Earth, 1952) and a cowboy who inherits a brothel (The Cheyenne Social Club, 1970).

Less well-known nowadays are Stewart’s appearances on various radio programs in the 1940s and 1950s.  As John Dunning wrote in On the Air (1998), “Stewart was a superb radio actor, overcoming the drift of some scripts into folksy platitude.”  Fortunately for Stewart’s fans, just as many of his movies are available on DVD or on YouTube, some of his radio broadcasts are available commercially on compact disc and also on-line.

Stewart was a big name in Hollywood when he was asked to narrate an hour-long patriotic radio broadcast, “We Hold These Truths.”  It was commissioned to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the ratification of the Bill of Rights (15 December, 1791), and so it aired a week after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.  In March of that year, Stewart had enlisted in the U. S. Army Air Corps; when war broke out, he was already a corporal.  Norman Corwin, a New Dealer noted for his eloquent (and often melodramatic) radio scripts, wrote the show, and by special arrangement, it was broadcast simultaneously on all four national radio networks (CBS, NBC-Red, NBC-Blue, and Mutual) and was heard, in Corwin’s words, by “the people of the federated states” and across “all zones of continental time.”

After the war, Stewart’s time in radio occurred primarily on weekly anthology shows.  Along with most movie stars of the day, he appeared on the series Suspense, which tended to cast against type, so that comedians like Bob Hope and Milton Berle took on serious roles, and Boris Karloff, usually associated with horror films, played a Scotland Yard detective.  Stewart joined this line-up of half-hour stories, beginning 21 February, 1946, in “Consequence,” playing a medical doctor who feels trapped in an unhappy marriage, and he reprised the role on 19 May, 1949.  In “Mission Completed,” aired on 1 December, 1949, he played an embittered disabled war veteran obsessed with revenge against his Japanese torturer.

In the years before television, movies were adapted for radio.  Thus, the stars famous for their faces also had to distinguish themselves by their voices.  Lux Radio Theatre, described by Dunning as “the most important dramatic show in radio,” led the way with hour-long abridgements.  On 10 March, 1947, Stewart was behind the Lux radio microphone as George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life; he also revisited for the Lux Radio Theatre his roles in Destry Rides Again, The Philadelphia Story, and Winchester ’73


Another series that brought the silver screen to radio audiences was Screen Directors’ Playhouse.  As its name implies, the director introduced the radio version of his film, and after the radio production, he and the actors talked about the show and the challenges of making the hearers see the story.  On 8 May, 1949, Stewart appeared on the program and once again became George Bailey of Bedford Falls, and on 9 December, 1949, Stewart recreated for the Playhouse his role as reporter P. J. McNeal in Call Northside 777.

For about nine months Stewart starred in his own weekly half-hour series, The Six Shooter.  For thirty-nine episodes, from 20 September, 1953, to 24 June, 1954, Stewart portrayed Britt Ponset, a genial loner who, according to the opening words of each show, “is angular and long-legged, his skin is sun-dyed brown.”  Whereas by the early 1950s children had long enjoyed a popular Western radio series, The Lone Ranger, The Six Shooter provided grown-ups with more realistic entertainment about life in the old West.  Radio, however, was then in decline as more people could afford televisions.

When television became readily accessible, it was advertised as bringing families together by connecting them with their ancestors who had gathered around the flickering tribal fire whilst a bard regaled them with heroic tales and ballads.  Radio shows like Suspense, Screen Directors’ Playhouse, and The Six Shooter, though, have a stronger claim on that connection with the storyteller captivating folks around the ancestral hearth.  Radio requires the listener’s mind to supply the visual scene; as the Chorus enjoins the audience at the beginning of William Shakespeare’s Henry V, “Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts:/ . . . Think, when we talk of horses, that you see them/Printing their proud hoofs in the receiving earth.”

As Joe Queenan said, in a library someone can find a book and thus discover a new world.  The same holds true for a classic film or radio show.  Although it can be easy to doze off during a movie or over a book, disengaging from a radio drama tends to be more difficult.  Whether in a library or elsewhere, new frontiers beckon when one encounters James Stewart’s old radio programs.  If on screen he could almost make people see a tall white rabbit, imagine how well he could conjure illusions on the radio.

Daniel J. Heisey, O. S. B, is a Benedictine monk of Saint Vincent Archabbey, Latrobe, Pennsylvania, where he is known as Brother Bruno.  He teaches Church History at Saint Vincent Seminary.

Savagery Silver-Gilt

Some actors seem to define a role for all time, so that few people can imagine Thomas More as anyone but Paul Scofield or T. E Lawrence as anyone other than Peter O’Toole.  So, too, Allan Quatermain will always be Stewart Granger, tall and handsome and clean-shaven.  However, Quatermain is much the opposite, bearded and described, for example, in the brief tale “Hunter Quatermain’s Story,” as a “curious-looking little lame man” who has “short grizzled hair, which stood about an inch above his head like the bristles of a brush.”

That description was most closely depicted on film in 1937 by Cedric Hardwicke, but it is the 1950 interpretation by Granger that determines how most people think of this fictional hero.  Portrayals by Richard Chamberlain and Patrick Swayze scarcely bear mentioning, while Sean Connery, as he can with any role, conveyed Quatermain’s shrewdness and grit.

Allan Quatermain was created by H. Rider Haggard (1856-1925), and like his contemporary, Sherlock Holmes, Quatermain has taken on a life of his own.  Haggard’s alter ego is best known from the novel King Solomon’s Mines (1885) and its four movie versions.  Although the most faithful film adaptations were in 1937 and 1950, both took liberties, notably by adding to Quatermain’s expedition a beautiful young lady, in 1950 played by Deborah Kerr.

Quatermain is by profession a big game hunter and by circumstance an explorer in southern Africa, based in Natal.  He therefore has become a symbol of British imperialism and Western bigotry.  Anyone reading the stories, however, will see a more complex picture.

In King Solomon’s Mines, for instance, one of Quatermain’s English companions falls in love with Foulata, a native girl, an aspect of the story that surely raised eyebrows in Victorian drawing rooms.  Meanwhile, in each story Quatermain muses upon the nature of civilization; like exploration itself, such self-examination is something associated with Western culture.  King Solomon’s Mines being so well-known, though, we turn instead to Quatermain in the novel of 1887 simply entitled by his name.

Allan Quatermain is the sequel to King Solomon’s Mines, and it finds Quatermain undertaking another trek into officially uncharted regions of Africa.  This journey is by way of recovering from grief, the widower Quatermain having just buried his only child, his son Harry.  Quatermain and his three companions from the previous story search for a mythical people, the Zu-Vendi, possibly descended from Persians or Phoenicians.

In his mid-fifties, Quatermain has observed that human nature never changes, and he believes that humans are nineteen parts savage and one part civilized.  He sees no big difference between an African girl in a necklace and feathers and an English lady bedecked in much the same manner.  Likewise, he notes that a gentleman in a London club would quickly lose his refined veneer were someone suddenly to strike him.  “Civilisation,” concludes Quatermain, “is only savagery silver-gilt.”

Several scenes in his new adventure are harrowing, but Quatermain reflects that fearing for one’s life makes no sense.  “We never know what is going to happen to us the next minute,” he says, “even when we sit in a well-drained house with two policemen patrolling under the window.”  The end will come, despite all our comforts and precautions.

Quatermain contrasts the law of the Zu-Vendi with that of the English.  English law, he notes, “is much more severe upon offences against property than against the person, as becomes a people whose ruling passion is money.”  He adds, “A man may half kick his wife to death or inflict horrible sufferings upon his children at a much cheaper rate of punishment than he can compound for the theft of a pair of old boots.”  Among the savages, however, “they rightly or wrongly look upon the person as of more consequence than goods and chattels, and not, as in England, as a sort of necessary appendage to the latter.”  That ironic indictment is hardly the opinion of a mindless jingoist.

Quatermain’s adventures contain all the elements humans have always loved in their best stories:  mountains, rivers, and caves; forgotten kingdoms, lost cities, and hidden treasure.  Moreover, there are lions and elephants, swashbuckling battles and narrow escapes, and connections with the world of the Bible.

Quatermain regrets that the old virtues seem to be giving way to commercial celebrity and “many a time-serving and word-coining politician.”  Instead, Quatermain takes pride in being an adventurer, which he defines as “he who goes out to meet whatever may come.”  To his way of thinking, “that is what we all do in the world one way or another.”  For him, being an adventurer “implies a brave heart and a trust in Providence.”

He declares that “all our magnificent muster-roll of colonies, each of which will in time become a great nation, testify to the extraordinary value of the spirit of adventure which at first sight looks like a mild form of lunacy.”  While Quatermain can foresee a day when the British Empire has devolved power and created new nations, he listens sympathetically to the worldview of Umslopogaas, his Zulu friend:  “Better is it to slay a man in fair fight than to suck out his heart’s blood in buying and selling and usury after your white fashion.”

As in Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Aida, the villains in Allan Quatermain are the priests, votaries of the sun god.  Quatermain himself is a religious man, steeped in his Bible and his Book of Common Prayer, yet he doubts the goodness of this world.  “How can a world be good,” he asks, “in which money is the moving power, and self-interest the guiding star?”  He adds, “The wonder is not that it is so bad, but that there should be any good left in it.”

Quatermain has inspired other intrepid characters in bush hats, first Harry Steele, played by Charlton Heston in The Secret of the Incas (1954), and then from the 1980s into the 2000s, Indiana Jones, a role indelibly associated with Harrison Ford.  Quatermain has also roused the imaginations of real-life adventurers, such as Theodore Roosevelt and Wilfred Thesiger.  Those men agreed with Quatermain’s words, “I would go again where the wild game was, back to the land whereof none know the history, back to the savages, whom I love, although some of them are almost as merciless as Political Economy.”  Almost:  It is what makes Quatermain the cultural critic still worth reading.

Daniel J. Heisey, O. S. B, is a Benedictine monk of Saint Vincent Archabbey, Latrobe, Pennsylvania, where he is known as Brother Bruno.  He teaches Church History at Saint Vincent Seminary.


Gerald Ford and Kenneth Clark

In Conservatism (1956) Peter Viereck noted that British thinkers tend to see conservatism as “an inarticulate state of mind.”  He explained, “The liberal and rationalist mind consciously articulates abstract blueprints; the conservative mind unconsciously incarnates concrete traditions.”  Although Viereck did not cite him, Stanley Baldwin summed up this view by saying, “I would rather trust a woman’s instinct than a man’s reason.”

In twentieth-century American political history, Gerald Ford (1913-2006) represented that inarticulate frame of mind, not only because as a boy he dealt with a stammer or as an adult could not pronounce certain words, so that, for example, professors and other intellectuals were to Ford “acamedicians.”  The United States’ thirty-eighth President knew he was not eloquent, and he liked a line written for him:  “I am a Ford, not a Lincoln.”

In his memoir, A Time to Heal (1979), Ford was candid about his dependence upon speechwriters, but his inarticulate conservatism emerged most clearly in that book when he found that the best way to convey his core beliefs was to quote someone else.  That statement of his basic principles occurs a few hundred pages into the book, and it comes from an English art historian.

“Conservatism has always meant more to me,” wrote Ford, “than simply sticking up for private property and free enterprise,” and he added, “It has also meant defending our heritage and preserving our values.”  Ford then quoted approvingly Kenneth Clark’s closing remarks in Civilisation (1969):


At this point I reveal myself in my true colours, as a stick-in-the-mud. . . . I believe that order is better than chaos, creation better than destruction.  I prefer gentleness to violence, forgiveness to vendetta.  On the whole, I think that knowledge is preferable to ignorance, and I am sure that human sympathy is more valuable than ideology.  I believe that in spite of the recent triumphs of science, men haven’t changed much in the last two thousand years, and in consequence, we must still try to learn from history. . . . Above all, I believe in the God-given genius of certain individuals, and I value a society that makes their existence possible.


Earlier in A Time to Heal, Ford had described his boyhood in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and the discipline instilled by his parents.  They had, he recalled, “three rules:  tell the truth, work hard, and come to dinner on time—and woe unto any of us who violated those rules.”  Douglas Brinkley, in his concise biography of Ford, noted that Ford was an Eagle Scout and always adhered to those three rules.  “That wasn’t a sophisticated philosophy,” Brinkley conceded, “but he wasn’t that sophisticated a guy.”

Yet, Ford, Yale-educated lawyer that he was, astutely discerned that whereas his disgraced predecessor had hammered on about “law and order,” Ford ought to remind people of the Constitution’s mandate “to insure domestic tranquility.”  According to Ford, insuring domestic tranquility meant making sure citizens were secure in their persons and property, free from fear of crime.  It also meant easing their tax burden and letting them decide how best to spend and invest more of their hard-earned money.

In May, 1976, George F. Will wrote in his column in Newsweek that “Ford is the most conservative President since [Calvin] Coolidge,” but while Coolidge was taciturn and laconic, “Ford is the most inarticulate President since the invention of broadcasting.”  In A Time to Heal, Ford had other journalists in mind and noted, “I kept reading in the press that I was the most conservative President since Herbert Hoover.”  It therefore baffled Ford that conservative Republicans were never content with his policies, and he wondered whether some of them, regardless of his own words and deeds, would ever be pleased with anything.

As Brinkley put it, Ford “was always a Midwest conservative with a healthy skepticism about the power of government to fundamentally change people’s lives for the better,” and related to that conservative skepticism “was his libertarian belief that the government should stay out of the boardroom, the classroom, and the bedroom.”

That libertarian streak in Ford’s thinking informed his opinion regarding what during his Presidency was becoming a major political issue, abortion.  Ford came from an era when decent people did not discuss such matters in public, and as President he approached the topic with reluctance.  “While I opposed abortion on demand,” he wrote, “I also opposed a constitutional amendment that would prohibit it.”  To him the most sensible solution was a compromise whereby a constitutional amendment would allow each state to decide the question.  He seems not to have seen the issue as being solely about a baby’s right to life.

Still, in a new age of bombast and narcissism, someone interested in preserving continuity with the biblical and classical past can find much to admire in Ford’s reticent and intuitive beliefs.  As Ford understood, Kenneth Clark’s comments could become a manifesto for cultural conservatives.  The stick-in-the-mud ideals Ford loved but could best put into words by using the words of another man will appeal to many more as common sense.

Although critics and comedians thought Ford came across as dull and even dim, he was a determined and athletic man, his broad shoulders developing from football and boxing.  During the Second World War, he saw combat in the Pacific as a Navy officer, and after the war he served twelve terms in Congress.  In his rare leisure hours and especially in retirement, if rain kept him off the golf course or the ski slopes, a pleasant day at home with his golden retriever, some Field and Stream pipe tobacco, and a book by Louis L’Amour suited him just fine.

All the while, for him, faith and family came first, and from such a reserved gentleman it comes as a surprise that more than once in A Time to Heal he described that when he and his wife, Betty, went to bed, they would then hold hands and pray.  In 1973, for Ford’s inauguration as Vice President, his son, Mike, bought a Jerusalem Bible for his father, and Ford and his wife chose Psalm 20 as the text to which it should be open when he was sworn in.

When Ford narrowly lost the 1976 presidential election, he tried to console a friend by assuring him, “there are more important things to worry about than what’s going to happen to Jerry Ford.”  Ford was gratified when his own deeper yet unformed thoughts were articulated by his son, Jack:  “If you can’t lose as graciously as you had planned to win, then you shouldn’t have been in the thing in the first place.”  Kenneth Clark would have agreed.


Daniel J. Heisey, O. S. B, is a Benedictine monk of Saint Vincent Archabbey, Latrobe, Pennsylvania, where he is known as Brother Bruno.  He teaches Church History at Saint Vincent S

A Lesson from Thomas Merton

It seems more and more people are living to be a hundred, and if he were alive, Thomas Merton would this year be among them.  Merton (1915-1968) remains the most famous Christian monk of the twentieth century, and his writings will engage scholars and others for some time to come.  His fame began in 1948, when his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, became an unexpected best-seller.  In England it was published as Elected Silence, a phrase from Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem “The Habit of Perfection.”

Once he had made the best-seller lists, readers and publishers wanted more.  Fortunately for them, Merton was a gifted and prolific writer, turning out essays, poems, translations, and book-length musings on the spiritual life.  In the decades since his sudden death at an international monastic conference in Bangkok, Thailand, several volumes of his private journals and letters have been published.

By the mid-1960s, Merton had begun exploring controversial topics.  He wrote about points where Zen Buddhism and Roman Catholicism might connect, especially in the area of monastic spirituality, and he addressed the era’s turbulence over race, poverty, and war.  These later writings have become favorites of activists for social change, while this same phase of his life has left others suspecting Merton of groovy syncretism.  Yet, at the time of his death he had at the press a slim book on contemplative prayer that fit in well with his early work, back when one of his first admirers was Fulton Sheen.

Since Merton’s centenary coincides with the Church’s Year of Consecrated Life, let us consider a passage from his early thirties.  In December, 1947, Merton noted in his journal the death of Brother Gregory, an elderly native of Switzerland.  Merton published that journal in 1952 as The Sign of Jonas.

“Brother Gregory,” Merton wrote, “was a saintly old man,” and Merton asked their abbot what had made the departed brother so holy.  “I don’t know what kind of answer I was hoping to get,” Merton admitted.  “It would have made me happy to hear something about a deep and simple spirit of prayer, something about unsuspected heights of faith, purity of heart, interior silence, solitude, love for God.  Perhaps he had spoken with the birds, like Saint Francis.”

Instead, the abbot replied, “Brother was always working,” and he added, “Brother did not even know how to be idle.  If you sent him out to take care of the cows in the pasture, he still found plenty to do.  He brought in buckets of blackberries.  He did not know how to be idle.”  Merton was crestfallen.  “I came out of Reverend Father’s room,” he recorded, “feeling like a man who has missed his train.”

Serving God and neighbor is the essence of the vocation of a religious brother.  It is, of course, the basic vocation that goes along with Christian baptism, and religious vows build upon and reinforce those baptismal vows.  The spirituality of brothers focuses on the example of the Holy Family’s hidden life of Nazareth.  Thus, Brother Gregory’s obscurity:  he is known only from the writings of a now famous priest who had met him.

Probably the most famous religious brother is the fictional Brother Cadfael, first appearing in the late 1970s.  According to his creator, Ellis Peters, he was an early twelfth-century Welshman who fought in the First Crusade and then entered a Benedictine abbey in western England.  There he tended the monastery’s medicinal herb garden and solved crimes.

Next to him in name recognition would be the real-life Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection (Nicolas Herman, c. 1605-1691), a Carmelite friar in Paris.  There he worked in his monastery’s kitchen and is best known for his spiritual observations posthumously compiled under the title The Practice of the Presence of God.

Despite the perennial popularity of that little book, Brother Lawrence has not joined the ranks of canonized brothers.  Most recent among canonized brothers is Brother André Bessette (1845-1937) of Canada, and others include Majorca’s Alphonsus Rodriguez (1532-1617) and Bavaria’s Conrad of Parzham (1818-1894).  As it happens, all three served their religious communities as porters.  Saint Alphonsus, a Jesuit, has been commemorated in a sonnet by Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Saint Conrad’s canonization in 1934 was a big event for the young Ratzinger boys, Georg and Joseph.

If priests are the Church’s fathers, religious brothers are the Church’s bachelor uncles.  Over the years brothers have been characterized by plain and even at times blunt speech, while also being known for reticence and a great capacity for inner stillness.  Tragically, religious brothers have not all been paragons of virtue:  one need only recall reports of a number of Christian Brothers in Ireland preying upon teenage and pre-teenage boys.  Nevertheless, as the presence of saintly brothers demonstrates, the vocation of brother can be a way to holiness.  If it were not, the Church would have suppressed it ages ago.

Once again the Church faces a shortage of vocations, and so the faithful ought to pray for an increase in vocations to the religious brotherhood.  Time and again one senses that a prayer “for priests and religious” really means “for priests and nuns.”  There is another way, as much a “little way” as that of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, a way first marked out for men by Saint Joseph, the chaste and silent carpenter of Nazareth.  It is a contemplative way, yet for that reason it stands at the service of others, prayerfully doing the day’s work without any fanfare.

Sometimes one hears of a man who had entered religious life but then left, having discerned that priesthood was not for him.  One wonders whether the possibility of being a religious brother was ever presented to him.  Perhaps God was calling him to belong to a particular religious community, but not to the priesthood.  During vocation visits and religious formation, a healthy approach would be to remain open to seeing that option as both viable and respectable.  After all, the primary purpose of religious life is to provide someone with a way to sanctification.

Although he may never be among the officially canonized, Brother Gregory of Gethsemani answered God’s call to struggle along that hidden path to holiness.  One of Merton’s finest books is No Man Is an Island (1955), and Brother Gregory showed by his simple yet active life that Christian holiness has less to do with mastering encyclicals and esoteric concepts such as apophatic prayer than considering that one’s time is better spent thinking that others might like some fresh blackberries.


Daniel J. Heisey, O. S. B, is a Benedictine monk of Saint Vincent Archabbey, Latrobe, Pennsylvania, where he is known as Brother Bruno.  He teaches Church History at Saint Vincent Seminary.

Gian Carlo Menotti’s “The Consul”

Sixty-five years ago premiered The Consul, an English-language opera in three acts.  It won the Pulitzer Prize for music in 1950, enhancing the growing reputation of its young composer and librettist, Gian Carlo Menotti (1911-2007).  A performance for television in 1960 is available on DVD.  That version recreated the original production, and Patricia Neway brilliantly reprised her role as Magda Sorel, the central figure in the opera.  Central, that is, unless one counts the looming presence of the never seen and unnamed Consul.

The Consul is set in a police state somewhere behind the Iron Curtain.  Menotti said that he got the idea for The Consul when he read a newspaper story about a woman in an Eastern Bloc country who was denied a visa to the United States and then committed suicide.  Menotti transformed that fleeting and tragic news item into a powerful and enduring work of art.

The late twentieth century saw topical operas by another American composer, John Adams, works such as Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer.  Controversial from their first performances, they will probably fade from the repertoire once people have forgotten the historical events on which those operas were based.  Meanwhile, Menotti’s The Consul will endure because of its timeless, almost mythological or fairy tale, quality.  In order to appreciate The Consul, one need never have heard of the news report that had inspired Menotti.

In the 1950s and 1960s, The Consul spoke to the fears and tensions of the Cold War.  In 2000, when Menotti directed a revival of The Consul at Kennedy Center, it fit into current debates about immigration.  All the while, The Consul transcends passing political worries and addresses perennial themes such as the duty a citizen owes his country, the state’s tendency to turn humans into numbers, the instinct of parents to provide for the security of their children.

In a large city in a totalitarian state in Europe, Magda Sorel lives in a small, walk-up flat with her husband, their baby, and her widowed mother.  Magda’s husband, John, is a critic of the oppressive regime, and because he attended a clandestine midnight meeting that had been raided, he is on the run from the authorities.

As plain clothes police officers arrive to search his residence, he hides on a ledge on the roof of the apartment.  The chief inspector questions Magda and tries to intimidate her with menacing, double-edged lines such as, “We like to give people a second chance,” “We could leave you alone if you would prove to be of help,” and “We shall see each other again.”

Once the police have gone, John climbs back inside and prepares to flee that night for the frontier.  Driven by fear for her family’s safety, Magda obeys John’s parting instructions and goes the next day to the consulate to apply for a visa for her family to leave the country.

At the consulate, she encounters the slow, heartless routine of any bureaucracy.  With several other aspiring emigrants, Magda must wait to see the Consul while a lone secretary sits at her typewriter and processes paperwork.  To an elderly man who has been retuning day after day, the secretary explains, “It isn’t our fault if you never bring the necessary documents.”  In answer to Magda’s repeated pleas, the secretary reminds Magda of the inflexible procedure:  “Your name is a number, your story’s a case, your need a request, your hopes will be filed.  Come back next week.”

Among the desperate people waiting day after day in that dreary office is a man claiming to be a famous magician.  He regales the secretary with his resume and attempts to charm her with magic tricks.  She tries to retain her cold façade but is clearly flustered by his antics, nothing ever covered in the training manual, and to his chagrin he realizes that confronted with such a resolute gatekeeper, there can be no magic word, no “Open sesame.”

Like the magician and the others, Magda must come back each day and fill out new forms.  Worn down by months of waiting to see the Consul, Magda despairs.  Her husband is a fugitive, her baby has died, her mother is dying, and the secret police patrol outside her flat.  All because the country she loves has become a prison.

At the end of Act Two, Magda sings a show-stopping aria, “To this we’ve come.”  She laments to the secretary, “If to them, not to God, we now must pray,/tell me, Secretary, tell me,/who are these men? . . . Who are these dark archangels?/ . . . Is there one—anyone behind those doors/to whom the heart can still be explained?/ . . . I ask you for help,/and all you give me is papers!”  The person left unmoved by Magda’s anguish is but a fist clenched around a hammer and sickle.

For close to seventy years some critics have disdained Menotti’s operas as second-rate Puccini.  Moreover, since Menotti’s operas are in English, those critics dismiss them as merely quaint operettas.  Menotti himself billed The Consul as “a musical drama,” hoping to attract a wider audience beyond the standard white-tie opera society crowd.

Still, there are worse fates than being labeled a poor man’s Puccini, and people who avoid opera because they cannot understand Italian (or French or German) have no excuse with Menotti’s works.  Like Puccini’s Tosca, Menotti’s The Consul explores themes of love, faith, and loyalty bullied and crushed under a dictatorship.  Unlike Tosca, there is no need for subtitles.  Opera distills human nature to elements common to us all and need not be obscure to be great.

A year after composing The Consul, Menotti wrote the first opera for television, Amahl and the Night Visitors.  Ever since, whether on stage or the small screen, it has been a favorite parable for Christmas.  Amahl’s tale is happier than Magda’s, but both characters reveal deep truths about family and faith, as well as about hope and love.  Menotti was a deeply religious man, yet he was full of questions and doubts.  As an artist, he used his inner struggles to shape his work; Menotti understood human nature and how to express its fears and desires in beautiful words and music.


Daniel J. Heisey, O. S. B, is a Benedictine monk of Saint Vincent Archabbey, Latrobe, Pennsylvania, where he is known as Brother Bruno.  He teaches Church History at Saint Vincent Seminary.