My latest article for the Imaginative Conservative looks at the attitude of Tolkien, Lewis and others to the War of the Machines:
A friend in England has sent me a link to a moving tribute to my good friend, the late Jef Murray. Subscribers to the St. Austin Review will remember Jef as our longtime artist-in-residence, whose sketches and paintings graced our pages. Lovers of Tolkien and C. S. Lewis will know him as a highly gifted artist of scenes from Middle-earth and Narnia. All those who knew him, either personally or through his work, will be moved by this heartfelt tribute to a good man:
In my latest article for the Imaginative Conservative I defend Dr. Johnson from those who claim that he didn’t mean what he says he meant, and, in so doing, defend myself from those who claim that I don’t mean what I say I mean. Confused? Hopefully all will become clear upon reading the article:
Five images survive of Bishop Odo of Bayeux (c. 1030-1097), three occurring on the Bayeux Tapestry, two on his episcopal seal. To be precise, the seal itself has gone missing, but a nineteenth-century drawing of it survives. The first image on the Tapestry shows him giving the blessing at a chicken dinner; the second has him seated at the right hand of the Duke of Normandy; the third depicts him at the Battle of Hastings. On the seal, the obverse shows him on horseback with a sword in his right hand, while the reverse shows him wearing vestments and holding a crozier in his left hand.
The third image on the Tapestry is the most eye-catching, a representation that today seems incongruous: A bishop in chain mail and helmet, riding a horse into battle; his right hand wields a wooden club. The Latin caption above him reads, Hic Odo ep[iscopu]s baculu[m] tenens confortat pueros, “Here Bishop Odo, holding a club, rallies the boys.”
While once or twice in Church history a bishop may have been reputed to seem bellicose, it is hard to recall many wearing armor, brandishing a club, and roaring onto the field of battle. While one must see Odo in the context of his times, he is best understood as an example of military chaplaincy. Civilians can exhibit inhumanity, wrote Joseph Conrad, but “There is nothing incompatible between humanity and a warrior’s soul.”
Two contemporary chroniclers, William of Poitiers and Orderic Vitalis, recorded Odo’s checkered career. Odo was the son of Herluin de Conteville and Herleva de Falaise; through his mother Odo was half-brother to William, Duke of Normandy and future conqueror and king of England. In 1049, William, two years into his reign as duke, appointed Odo Bishop of Bayeux. After the Conquest in October, 1066, William made Odo the Earl of Kent, a rank he held for twenty-one years.
As a temporal ruler, Odo’s single-minded governance of his vast estates led to legal controversy and unpopularity. Worse, in 1082 William arrested and tried Odo for sedition: With the mutual depositions declared upon each other by Pope Gregory VII and Emperor Henry IV, Odo sought to resolve the scandalous chaos by recruiting William’s knights and claiming the papacy for himself. As Marc Morris summed it up in The Norman Conquest (2012), “A man of God, a man of the world, Odo was also clearly a man of war.”
In the eleventh century it was common for dukes and kings to appoint bishops. Popes before and after the Benedictine Gregory VII worked to reform that procedure, insisting that only the Pope could name bishops. Odo came from a political family, and he shared the cultural ideals of fighting men such as his half-brother. Yet he also shared their Catholic faith, and he bridged two domains, the court and the Church. At Hastings, certainly, he filled a role we would recognize as military chaplain.
In his contribution to The Sword of the Lord (2004), a collection of twelve essays about military chaplains through the centuries, Michael McCormick wrote, “As combat loomed, early medieval chaplains sought to maintain the morale of their fighters and seized the moment to accomplish their broader mission of pastoral care.” Odo’s role boosting morale during the battle received commemoration on the Bayeux Tapestry, but his wider pastoral role requires imaginative reconstruction. “Before battle,” McCormick wrote, “the chaplains and their flock staged spectacular and participatory liturgical services, including special votive Masses.” Odo the club-wielding bishop on horseback was also Odo the pastor, offering Mass for his men before they went to risk their lives.
In an insight born of practical experience, Terry Schappert, in his television series Warriors (2009), noted that on the night before the Battle of Agincourt (1415), about the only sound to be heard in the English and French camps was from men confessing their sins to priests. A master sergeant in the United States Army, Schappert served in the Gulf War and the Iraq War.
Mention of current wars against Muslim forces in the Middle East brings us back to Odo’s time. In 1095, at a council at Clermont, Pope Urban II, formerly prior of the Benedictine abbey of Cluny, unveiled in a homily a new idea that combined several old ideas. In order to defend Christians in the Holy Land and to liberate Jerusalem from Muslim occupation, Pope Urban proposed a penitential pilgrimage for knights, whereby if they fulfilled their vows as armed penitent pilgrims to Jerusalem, they would receive a plenary indulgence, complete forgiveness of all their sins and the temporal punishment resulting from those sins.
This proposal has become known as the First Crusade. Among the first to take the vow for this new form of penance was Odo of Bayeux; more than most of us, he knew he had much publicly to repent. With other Norman nobles dedicated to this new cause, he set out for Jerusalem, but early in 1097, after a brief illness, he died at Palermo, Sicily. Since he died before he could fulfill his vow, under the terms of Pope Urban’s plan, Odo received a plenary indulgence.
For dreamers of co-existence, it is a stretch to see Odo the Club-wielder being in Heaven. As Pope Urban understood, however, Heaven is not only for people who enjoy the peace and comfort secured by others standing ready to fight. From Saint Cornelius the Centurion to the Swiss Guard, the Church has had room for Christians in uniform, not least when the enemy’s flag is blazoned with a prophet’s sword.
Modern perspective comes from another American warrior, Chris Kyle (1974-2013). In his memoir, American Sniper (2012), he recounted an attack in Ramadi that took a heavy toll on his unit. Afterwards, he and his brothers in arms became subdued and introspective. “I spent a lot of time praying to God,” Kyle remembered, adding, “I find some comfort in faith, and I found it in those days after my friends had been shot up.” Along with prayer, he spent time reading the Bible. “With all hell breaking loose around me,” he said, “it felt better to know I was part of something bigger.”
Being part of something bigger, being deployed in a just cause, defending one’s fellow Christians and countrymen: Therein lies the key to Odo of Bayeux and men like him throughout the ages.
My latest article for the Journal of the Cardinal Newman Society looks at the importance of words as the foundation of all education:
My latest argument for the Imaginative Conservative involves me in a controversy with another writer about the meaning of words:
To the delight of philatelists and dismay of traditionalists, word was the Vatican’s post office would issue a stamp to commemorate Martin Luther and the 500th anniversary of his Ninety-five Theses. On that day in October, 1517, when he nailed up his now famous Theses, Luther began securing a place in history, but needless to say, a Vatican postage stamp highlighting his schism could make some people believe that there is suddenly ice skating in Hell.
For converts from Protestantism to Catholicism, Luther remains an unavoidable name in the background, a kind of ancestor: He began the break that their conversions are small steps in repairing. For someone whose Protestantism was outside Lutheranism, Luther looms as an odious and ominous figure; a fat, arrogant Scripture scholar who raged against anyone who was not open to his way of being inflexible.
With providential quirkiness, October marks not only the split between Luther and Rome, but also one of the more famous conversions to Catholicism. More than 300 years after Luther’s Ninety-five Theses, John Henry Newman, an Anglican clergyman who taught and preached at Oxford, sought out a Catholic priest and was received into full communion with Rome. Two years later Newman was ordained to the Catholic priesthood, and thirty-four years later he was made a cardinal.
“After October, 1845,” wrote Henry Chadwick, “Newman was never in doubt that his decision for conversion was correct,” and yet Newman “quickly discovered that the path of a convert can be uncomfortable, even miserable.” Amidst his frustrations as a Catholic, Newman remained a prolific spiritual writer. His prose tends to Victorian heaviness, the soporific lull of sunlight through gauze curtains in a widowed aunt’s parlor on a warm Sunday afternoon. When his writings are not suggesting a prim and tedious author, they are challenging the reader to consider just how much more converting, how much growing closer to Christ, one must face.
Between 1834 and 1842, Newman preached in the university church at Oxford, the result being eight volumes entitled Parochial and Plain Sermons. Still admired by Protestants and Catholics alike, those sermons pulled no punches.
In one entitled “The Religion of the Day,” Newman described English Christianity as having become genteel: “Everything is bright and cheerful. Religion is pleasant and easy; benevolence is the chief virtue; intolerance, bigotry, excess of zeal, are the first sins. Austerity is an absurdity; even firmness is looked on with an unfriendly, suspicious eye.”
Such shallowness developed, Newman explained, because Scripture’s wrath of God was dismissed as an anthropomorphism, but God’s love was not. Heavenly glory was to be enjoyed here on Earth, so Christ dying on the Cross seemed like a gauche and outdated metaphor. It was a faith of being nice, a polite piety reflected in Charles Wesley’s hymn, “Gentle Jesus, Meek and Mild.”
Other Protestants in Newman’s day and later had hymnals that flexed with more robust lyrics. While those sterner Protestants’ churches had no crucifixes, their hymns left no doubt about what happened on Calvary. “There is a fountain filled with blood,” began a hymn by William Cowper, “drawn from Emmanuel’s veins/And sinners plunged beneath that flood/Lose all their guilty stains.”
With Newman’s lukewarm Anglicans, though, those more hardy Protestants shared reverence for the King James Version of the Bible, with its poetic glimpses of a wild, primeval world: “Their wine is the poison of dragons, and the cruel venom of asps” (Dt 32:33); “He maketh them also to skip like a calf; Lebanon and Sirion like a young unicorn” (Ps 29:6).
When a Protestant converts to Catholicism, it is often because of what Newman put so succinctly in the Introduction to his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (1845): “To be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant.” Study of the Church Fathers, such as Newman undertook, can lead one to see that their Church was the Church that Christ founded when He gave the keys of the Kingdom to Peter. From those keys, through the days of Clement of Rome and Gregory the Great, the historical trail takes one through to the present day and to an old man in a white cassock on a balcony in Rome.
By tracing the path from Peter’s keys to Peter’s successor, one encounters a variety of characters. One sees a saint like Pope Leo the Great stare down Attila the Hun, and one hears a sensualist like Pope Leo X, who eventually excommunicated Luther, blurt out, “God has given us the papacy, let us enjoy it!”
That continuity carries a price, namely meeting unpleasant people, such as anti-Semites and pedophiles; throughout Church history, they turn up with disturbing regularity. There are also tiresomely well-meaning people who insist that being a good Catholic means sharing their love of Baroque art or the music of the Saint Louis Jesuits, or who think that just a little more conversion will make one give up preferring The Federalist Papers to the Berrigan brothers, Joseph Conrad to Flannery O’Connor.
Along the way, one must leave behind a lot that is congenial and familiar. Gone is the fountain filled with blood, gone are the unicorns. Still, amidst the resulting drabness, what counts, Newman would say, is that vital continuity. Its vitality means change as well as continuity, since all living things change, but even that change occurs within an established pattern. Apple trees grow and mature (change) but end up producing apples, not artichokes.
Owen Chadwick, older brother of Henry, quoted above, said that Newman’s outlook on life could be summed up, “expect change because change cannot but happen to society, but see that the change grows out of and conserves the best of the past.” He added that this perspective “was the thought of Edmund Burke, and thereafter of all sane and moderate conservatives.”
Sanity and moderation are not words historians consistently apply to Luther, but they fit Newman at his best. (At his worst, he could be, like many scholars, prickly and pedantic.) Whatever their respective inner steadiness, both men were deft and sinewy poets, Luther writing about God as our “mighty fortress,” and Newman about “that flesh and blood/Which did in Adam fail,/Should strive afresh against the foe,/Should strive and should prevail.”
One hundred twenty years after his death, the Catholic Church beatified Newman, and ironists await the day when Vatican postal meters will mark Luther cancelled.