Letters from my Windmill

I have loved most of my life in cities. As a child, when I had to go and visit my grandparents in the country, visits which came with an alarming frequency, I always grumbled because I knew I would be Bored with a capital B. Accustomed as I was to television, cassette players, friends in the neighborhood and prank calling on the telephone, I never came to appreciate the pastoral beauties of rolling green hills, the smell of fresh hay, and the sounds of rivulets of water and whinnying horses. In fact, I pitied the country folk with the same kind of childish compassion that I had for the starving famine victims in Ethiopia my mother called to mind when I refused to eat collard greens. How sad that they could not live in a city.

The first time I came across Hilaire Belloc’s Path to Rome, I expected a book detailing the intellectual Sturm und Drang that accompanied converts to Catholicism like myself. Instead I found a travelogue which read like an enthusiastic anthropologist’s account of joys of Catholic peasantry. While I appreciated the oft-quoted line, “Wherever a Catholic sun doth shine, there’s always laughter and good red wine,” I imagined myself sipping a meticulously bioengineered Bordeaux at Café Flo in Paris while explaining why St Anselm’s arguments for the existence of God were meaningless, not drinking pastis out of a jug at a game of petanque with old men in Nimes.

Belloc’s “How to Travel Disguised as a Catholic Peasant” meant nothing to me at the time, because my own experience of the faith was wrapped up in extracting myself from fundamentalist Protestantism of the South and the spirit-eating virus of secularism everywhere.

I am firmly convinced that there is a way to develop a Catholic culture in the heart of the city. European immigrants to America had a Catholic culture in large cities like Boston and New York. Some will argue that such a culture still exists. My own experience of what remains of it has led me to see it as a Catholicism of convention rather than a Catholicism of conviction, something unable to sustain neither the convention nor the conviction in the long run.

I would like to think that celebrated liturgical centers like the Oratory in London and St John Cantius in Chicago can provide an oasis in the desert for urban-dwellers, that curious creature whose name is disturbingly close etymologically to bottom-dwellers. Yet, at the same time, even as I participated in a glorious Rogations Procession in an Anglo-Catholic garden in Manhattan, I still had the sense that there was a disconnect between liturgy and life.

There is a lot of talk about how to bring the liturgy to the people where they really are. If I live in the city and my idea of harvesting is a sale at Dean and DeLuca, can I really appreciate the earthy language of Rogations? Would it not be better then to scrap Ember Days entirely and replace them with something more “relevant,” like a protest against nuclear war? Need the language of faith be tied to an ancient agricultural world that none of us, including today’s farmers, inhabit?

It was reasoning like that which led Annibale Bugnini to argue that, since the hours of the day are no longer divided into seven Roman-inspired hours, the Breviary had to reflect that we now live in morning, afternoon and night. Prime was suppressed, and Terce, Sext and None have become Mid-some time of-day Prayer. Liturgical progress was declared a fait accompli because finally the liturgy was adjusted to the real life of believers. Just as no one would ever build a library of cassette tapes today when one can do marvels with MP3s and MP4s and I-things and other abbreviated devices that make our lives more efficient, many wish to remake the Church according to the mind of reason and plain common sense.

Anyone under the age of 30 can see that living together is the best preparation for marriage, so the Church must adjust its teaching to what young people reason as common sense. Young people love loud music and spectacle, so the liturgy does not lose any of its essence, the Church does not become any less Catholic if we all “get with the program” and cast off the shackles of anachronism and embrace the wisdom of the modern city. And so on and so on and so on.

Meanwhile accomodationist Catholicism of this very type has ended up in churches deprived of youth and the older folks engaging in pew-and-blog warfare over what they think the Church should be about. In trying to separate the wheat of the essence of the faith from what is taken to be the chaff of historical accretions and traditions and beliefs fallen into desuetude, no one seems to be able to make a hearty loaf of bread anymore that anyone wants to eat.

But that hearty loaf of bread which was Catholic culture was not the result of a recipe fabricated by rationalist gastronomes. It was the place where Catholic belief, prayer and practice, regulated by a liturgical rite, permeated the ordinary life of ordinary people. Belloc’s peasants did not set about to analyze or produce Catholic culture. They just lived it.

I am getting a glimpse of what this really means, and much to my chagrin, I see that the symbiosis of rural life and Catholic culture is quite natural in a way that the modern urban intellectual, especially if he is a Catholic of conviction, cannot always perceive. Authors like Flannery O’Connor, Evelyn Waugh, Jacques Maritain, or Francois Mauriac are all exemplars of a certain self-conscious Catholicism. They are all part of what has been termed a Catholic literary revival, even when their characters or theses are not “explicitly” Catholic at all.

All of them lived as urban-dwellers for whom the faith was an assent of the intellect to divine truth which formed their lives. Their faith is certainly authentic, but it is still essentially apologetic, because it is at variance with other conceptions of the human person, God, and the Church. Even though O’Connor’s stories reflect the life of the rural South, her theological anthropology is often the result of urban academia, of Teilhard de Chardin’s quest for meaning in the face of modern questions.

Compare this self-conscious, apologetic Catholicism with that of Alphonse Daudet. Practically unknown outside of France, this prolific nineteenth century writer lived the tension between the simple pleasures of a happy boyhood in Provence and the tortured glitterati of Paris. Catholicism permeates his stories of Southern France, not because of a desire to develop characters or a moral with a Catholic idea behind them, but because he describes the inhabitants of down-home country Provence as they are: shorn of pretext and filled with humour. Letters from My Windmill is a collection of stories of people Daudet knew growing up around Nimes. The faith of the characters is not self-conscious, but it is remarkably liturgical.

Today’s liturgical iconoclasts repeat like a mantra that, in the bad old days, no one knew what was going on because Mass was in Latin and the priest’s back was to the people. The characters of Daudet’s book, set as it is amidst Provencal peasantry of another century, would be all totally ignorant if the mantra were correct. The liturgoclasts would laugh at the shepherd explaining to Stephanette that a shooting star was a soul going up to paradise. But have they constructed any community-building rite more touching than that of an entire village continuing to give Old Cornille corn to grist in his windmill when everyone was sending their corn off to fancy new factories in the city?

One imagines the horror with which the modern liberated Christian reads an entire paragraph describing sumptuous processions, “the Pope’s soldiers singing in Latin, the rattles of the begging friars,” only to end in the bald assertion, “That was how the Popes of Avignon governed their people; that was why their people missed them when they were gone.”

Every page mentions causally that some event happened after Vespers, of how the Blessed Sacrament was exposed in every church so the faithful could pray for the sick Dauphin, why “there was not a soul about in the village streets, all were at High Mass” because “our lovely Provence, being Catholic, allows the soil to rest on Sundays.” The book is filled with amusing tale about the village clergy: how the chaplain of the chateau forgot to say Midnight Mass on Christmas because he was thinking of food, how Father Balaguere kept saying Benedicite instead of Dominus vobiscum and how “like hurrying wine-harvesters treading the grapes” priest and server “splatter about in the Latin of the Mass, sending splashes in all directions.”

One of the most side-splitting stories in the book is that of how a Norbertine canon saved his monastery from starving by inventing an elixir of fragrant herbs that everyone wanted. The priest then gets addicted to his potion, and even the Prior’s addition of prayers at the end of the Office for “Father Gaucher who is sacrificing himself in the interests of the community” can’t stop him from singing in his stupor. Daudet calls the clerical medicine man a “worthy parish priest” who then muses aloud, “Mercy me, suppose my parishioners heard me!”

I think that Daudet’s book is illustrative of many things: it gives the lie to the criticism that “fossilized Tridentine worship” had no place in the hearts of the people, and it shows that simple faith lived in a community of neighbors, priests and laity alike, produces joy. He does so not by making an argument, but by describing people whose lives were shaped by the faith. Daudet’s churchgoers are not angrily marking their territories as clergy or laypeople; their relationship is harmonious precisely because they accept the tradition as it has always been handed down to them, without rationalizing it or analyzing it. These are not unintelligent or unsophisticated people. They know their history, they know their crafts, they know their faith.

Crawling into Daudet’s abandoned windmill and enjoying these stories for their literary value has meant a lot to me. If I knew my faith, my craft, my history from my vantage point in the secular city as they did theirs from abandoned windmills! I no longer fear that leaving the city will bore me or that my faith will be shipwrecked if I can’t parry with the truly uncivilized, who live, neither in the countryside nor in the metropolis, but where God is a mystery to be ignored or exploited and not three Persons with whom to share an endle

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