In her introduction to this collection of essays titled The Beauty of God’s House, Francesca Murphy remarked that Stratford Caldecott lived among those who readily believe that King Arthur will return in England’s darkest hour. The spiritual capital of the fairest isle (Dryden) or the sceptred isle (Shakespeare) is not yet spent. To quote St. John Vianney, the Catholic Church in England “will recover her ancient splendour.”
Stratford Caldecott not only believed this but he lived to make it possible. The Centre for Faith and Culture which he established with his wife Léonie and daughters Teresa, Sophie and Rose-Marie in Oxford and his many books and journals (Second Spring and Humanum) carried on the legacy of John Henry Newman, Chesterton, Belloc, Dawson and Tolkien and did more for the conversion of England than whole diocesan chanceries.
Léonie and Stratford were inspired to start the Centre by Cardinal Carlo Caffarra, the Archbishop of Bologna, and first President of the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family in Rome. He is one of those intellectually inclined cardinals who as a young man faithfully followed John Paul II’s vision for a civilization of love. He suffered so much flak for defending Humanae Vitae that the late Sr Lucy of Fatima sent him a personal letter of support.
The first time I met “Strat” we were at a Communio conference in Virginia. Francesca Murphy had recently reviewed my book Culture and the Thomist Tradition, which she began with a joke about whether it was seriously possible that an Australian might write a book about culture. She then composed the rest of the review on the assumption that I am a scholar of the Left. She even expressed surprise that I had used the aristocratic prefix “von” in my references to Balthasar.
In this first meeting Strat took it upon himself to convey to me Francesca’s contrition. She had worked out that she had been barking up the wrong tree. Not all critics of the neo-con world-view are on the Left. There are other alternatives. As Friedrich Wilhelmsen wrote in Christianity and Political Philosophy:
There is another tradition (from the Whig) which runs back, like a narrow and straight road, through Chesterton and Belloc to the Tory-Radicalism of William Cobbett and beyond to the Cavaliers and to the King who died for England: there the road broadens into a great highway filled with the yeomen who rose in the Pilgrimage of Grace.
Stratford Caldecott was a part of this tradition and the most outstanding member of his generation to be so. In our first conversation, having assured me that Francesca no longer regarded me as an antipodean radical Leftist, Strat spoke of his then recent interview with Prince Charles for the Chesterton Review and the Prince’s interest in Chesterton’s economic ideas. We talked about various projects which the Prince had been financing in the hope of defending the viability of British country life with its craft traditions. In an era of multinational corporations and mass produced goods, Waitrose and Walmart, this is not easy. It was typical of Strat that he could hold a conversation about a meeting with Prince Charles without calling attention to himself.
This collection of essays is a festschrift from the Fellowship of the Ring, that is, from those of Strat’s scholarly friends who spend their lives hunting orcs and trying to foster, among their children and students, a Christian imagination and a Christian heart. The contributors’ page is an honor board of the great and the good.
The opening essay is by Archbishop Javier Martinez of Granada who is emerging as the Gandalf of this group. Archbishop Martinez is fluent in English, Spanish, French and Italian, and he can read Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic and Syriac. He has set up two new academic institutes in his Archdiocese, the Edith Stein Institute for the study of Philosophy and the Lumen Gentium Institute for the study of Theology. He has also forged links with scholars throughout the Anglosphere so that his seminarians are not cut off from the best currents in Anglophone scholarship in a stagnant Iberian billabong. His academic associations extend from the Centre for Theology and Philosophy at the University of Nottingham in the UK to the Faculty of Theology and Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame in Sydney. In this collection he offers a translation and extensive commentary on St. Ephrem of Nisibis’s Hymns on Virginity as a “pearl of early Christian literature” in “homage and gratitude for Stratford Caldecott, a brother and friend in whom it has always been easy to recognise the image and the presence of our common Lord.”
The article by Archbishop Martinez is followed by a contribution on “The Beauty of being a Christian” by Cardinal Marc Ouellet, another member of the Sacred Hierarchy who speaks seven languages and, according to media reports, was either the runner up or third place candidate in the last conclave. Cardinal Ouellet’s theology is strongly influenced by von Balthasar. Readers who know Balthasar’s book Love Alone is Credible will find many of its themes in this paper. The paper also includes a reflection on the theology of the Brebis de Jésus (Sheep of Jesus)—a new ecclesial movement founded in Quebec during the pontificate of St. John Paul II. The movement is of Franciscan provenance. Cardinal Ouellet says that its members “live the beauty of the Eucharistic life made possible by the sacrifice of the Lamb.”
The reflection on beauty continues in the paper of David C. Schindler with sections on beauty in Plato, Aquinas and Heidegger and an endorsement of the ideas set forth in Caldecott’s Beauty for Truth’s Sake, a work of great value for all those involved in the development of curricula at Liberal Arts colleges.
The French philosopher Jean Borella turns the focus from the transcendental of beauty to the transcendental of truth with his contribution on intellectual intuition in Aquinas. This chapter is unlikely to appeal to Aristotelian Thomists or other species of Thomists who like to separate the philosophical Aquinas from the theological Aquinas, but it is likely to appeal to those who recognize that intellectus is as important as ratio. This is a very Newmanesque topic in the sense that it was Newman who emphasized the epistemological significance of what he called “the illative sense.” My favorite line from this paper was that the faith of St Thomas “was not for him a launch pad from which to construct an ‘autonomous philosophical system,’ which, once he had got started on it, absorbed his attention so much that he forgot his starting point and dedicated himself to building philosophical artifices.”
After Borella’s paper on intellectual intuition, the collection takes a liturgical turn and David W. Fagerberg contributes a reflection on what it means that the world has been created by Wisdom. Speaking of Caldecott’s work, Things Made New, Fagerberg comments:
It takes a certain skill set to interpret this literature [the book of Revelation]: biblical literacy, in order to catch the prophetic allusions; typological familiarity, in order to connect the two Testaments, acquaintance with the symbology of numbers from the ancient world and Hebrew scripture; mystagogical sensitivity, in order to see the text’s potency for formation in the mysteries of Christ and of the Church; liturgical depth because the liturgy is the organizational structure and contextual home of the book of Revelation; and finally, a capacity for prayer, since John’s Apocalypse opens out onto the life of mystery.
Fagerberg concluded that Stratford Caldecott had the necessary skill set. Strat had the capacity to bring it all together, to unite insights from different academic worlds in such a way that a mosaic emerged full of light and color.
The significance of the liturgical realm is amplified in Nicholas J. Healy’s contribution on the Eucharist and the Blessed Trinity. Healy begins his paper with a quotation from Tolkien to the effect that the one great thing to love on earth is the Blessed Sacrament. It is there that one finds romance, glory, honor, fidelity, and the true way of all love.
England has not only been described as the fairest isle, all isles excelling, but in theological parlance she is also known as “Mary’s Dowry.” The famous Wilton Diptych, completed around 1395, depicts Richard II kneeling before Our Lady and the child Jesus. An angel stands nearby carrying the flag of St. George, the staff of which is surmounted by an orb featuring the map of England. Other works of art from the era carry the inscription Dos tua Virgo pia haec est, “This is your dowry, Holy Virgin.” No festschrift for Stratford Caldecott would be complete without a chapter on Our Lady. Adrian Walker, Cardinal Ratzinger’s English translator, offers a meditation on Mary as the Temple of God’s Beauty. Walker brings in Aristotle, Robert Spaemann, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Tolkien, Charles Péguy, Cabasilas, Balthasar, Aquinas, Maximus the Confessor, St John Paul II and Stratford Caldecott’s work on The Radiance of Being.
Michael Cameron then takes the collection in a literary direction with a reflection on health and hope with reference to events in The Lord of the Rings. This includes some thoughts on the “total human health” of spousal love with the literary character Éowyn taking center stage.
The Diocese of Bridgeport, Connecticut then takes a bow for Mary Taylor’s entry on “Doing Ecology on One’s Knees.” It is the best article on ecology from a Christian perspective I have read anywhere. Taylor endorses Caldecott’s (and Benedict XVI’s) belief that ecology requires a Trinitarian cosmology.
David L. Schindler follows Taylor in focusing on the social justice side of Caldecott’s oeuvre. Caldecott was at one with Chesterton and Prince Charles in his opposition to Whig economics. Schindler’s debates with neo-conservatives have been precisely on this point. This particular contribution is focused on the need to move the debate beyond the Liberal tradition’s binary logic of individual freedom and coercive state power.
The Liberal tradition also comes in for extensive critique in the paper by John Milbank. Milbank concludes that today we are living through a combination of “right-wing” Hobbesian liberalism in economics (i.e., life is meant to be nasty, brutish and short) with “left-wing” Rousseauian liberalism in culture (nature isn’t normative, there are no prototypical examples of a redeemed humanity). Like Caldecott and Schindler, Milbank believes that “society” is more fundamental than law or contract, politics or economics. He also argues that liberalism always imposes upon us “contradictory imperatives, which negatively reveal the reality of trying to deny, abolish, or ignore the soul.” For example, he observes that “on the one hand everything human is declared to be merely natural—we are a bunch of greedy apes with bigger brains! On the other hand everything human is declared entirely artificial—just stuff we have made up.” Milbank concludes his paper with an honorary roll call of poets who refused to get themselves caught in the contradictions of the Liberal tradition. These include Blake, Shelley, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Novalis, Hölderlin and Kathleen Raine.
Fr Aidan Nichols’ essay follows that of Milbank but it would be equally at home next to that of Mary Taylor since it concludes with an elegant account of a Christian cosmology. Fr Aidan tackles the subject of the New Atheists with a demeanor of exquisite boredom—atheists come and go—this breed is slightly different because unlike earlier species it thinks that a post-Christian culture might actually be something pleasant. Earlier species of atheists had at least acknowledged that a post-Christian society would be brutish. Science, however, is not on the side of atheism. According to a recent editorial in the scientific journal Nature, scientists “know all that appears to be knowable about the brain” but “still know nothing about the mind.” In this sense Fr Aidan’s paper does dove-tail well with Milbank’s because they both think that contemporary intellectual life suffers from a total eclipse of the soul.
Following Fr Aidan on the New Atheists there is a contribution by Reza Shah-Kazemi on passage 5: 48 of the Qur’an. The passage is often interpreted to mean that God actually wants people to follow a variety of different religions. Shah-Kazemi says:
From a Qur’anic point of view the plurality of religions is not the result of fallible human “cognitive responses” to the ineffable Absolute, —as one kind of pluralism, that expounded by John Hick—would have us believe; rather in the light of 5:48 and kindred verses, the plurality of religious forms is a mysterious and inspiring expression of the infallible will and unfathomable wisdom of God.
Since I know nothing about Islamic theology, I cannot really comment on this contribution apart from saying that Stratford Caldecott certainly believed in Newman’s “Holy Church as His Creation and her Teachings as His Own.” He didn’t follow Tolstoy’s “God is like an elephant” thesis according to which Muslims have got hold of God’s trunk, the Buddhists his tail, Catholics his left ear and so on. Caldecott could sign his name to the bottom of Dominus Iesus without the slightest flinch. However he was on the Board of the Oasis Foundation, a very academically respectable research center founded by Cardinal Angelo Scola and dedicated to exploring ways of making relations between Christians and Muslims more peaceful. Caldecott took an interest in the world of Islamic theology and the contribution of Shah-Kazemi pays tribute to this breadth of his intellectual horizons.
At this point in the collection we turn from Mecca to Michelangelo. David Clayton, an artist living in New Hampshire and Lecturer at the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts, addresses the thorny issue of what did John Paul II really think about nudity? Were his few very positive comments about the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel really intended to “baptise” nudity? While there have been some extreme takes on this issue, including at least one commune of nudists defending their lifestyle by reference to the pope’s Catechesis on Human Love, Clayton offers some sane clarifications. Strat, with his British sense of social propriety and personal space, was alert to this issue. One can regard sexuality as a gift without wanting to show it off to the entire world.
The final substantive paper in the collection was by Carol Zaleski on Newman for a New Generation. She made the point that many modern religious thinkers have sought to locate Christianity in the heart and in the moral sense. Yet, what is remarkable about Newman is that he does not; in so doing, he does not abandon reason or “institutional” Christianity. She also claims that it was her son who started the tradition of rubbing Newman’s nose (on the statue in Trinity College’s Garden Quad) for good luck. If Newman’s nose in Oxford ends up like St. Peter’s foot in Rome, then the Zaleski children are to blame.
The collection ends with a brief reflection on the prayer of St. Francis by Derek Cross, a short biographical sketch of the life of Stratford Caldecott by Philip Zaleski and an afterword by Léonie Caldecott.
If there is an intellectual center in all of this I would say that it is Trinitarian anthropology and sacramentality, with a particular interest in the evangelical value of mytho-poesis and the transcendental of beauty in unity with the true and the good.
If Dryden was right and England is the Fairest Isle, all isles excelling, it is because she somehow manages to produce, generation after generation, creatively Catholic writers and artists of the calibre of Newman, Chesterton, Belloc, Tolkien, Dawson and Caldecott.
Francesca Murphy has done a sterling job in bringing this all together.
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