Do bear with me as I reminisce about graduate school. There, I learned how to identify passages in old books we should talk about. I even learned how to talk about them a little bit! You can see in the Short Encomium for Joshua Parens a few ideas about how property rights and the Platonic forms could work.
Still, what got me through grad school was being involved with choir. Specifically, the Collegium Cantorum. We sang Renaissance polyphony and medieval chant. We visited churches and monasteries all over the world. Here's a recording of us singing at Mass in a church near the Vatican:
What's below is a talk I gave at a Lenten Retreat for Collegium on March 25, 2018. We had lost Fr. Ralph March two years prior; he taught us chant and prayed with choir before singing. I never got to pronounce a eulogy. So I thought it was appropriate to deliver some remarks at Cistercian Abbey, Fr. Ralph's monastery, about his preaching and the chant he sung.
At least two times Fr. Ralph’s preaching stayed with me. A Collegium wedding prompted him to give a homily on what kind of sacrament marriage is. He cut right to the chase: a couple marries each other; the priest and congregation merely conduct a ceremony and bear witness; the beauty of the wedding has far less to do with a certain status, far more to do with resolving to conduct oneself with grace. There is a peculiar sentiment some have, which holds that faith, perhaps even the whole of life itself, is a matter of completing a series of tasks on a checklist. Some dare to think of Sacraments in this way: experience the sacrament, get the grace. Fr. Ralph flatly rejected this notion. He seemed far more interested in what a sacramental, devoted, graceful life would look like. I cannot help, in recalling this, but think of the word for grace in ancient Greek, charis, meaning that which “reasonably pleases.”
Another time was right before a First Friday Mass during Lent. Fr. Ralph came out to lead a prayer with us and expressed a bit of frustration with most Lenten devotions. Virtually no one, he remarked, spoke of what they planned to do for someone else, for those neighbors they are commanded to love as much as themselves. He encouraged us to think less of giving up things for Lent and to think more about what we could do.
There is no doubt that Fr. Ralph is a wholly spiritual man, one who wonders about how the traditions that have sustained his order for hundreds of years encourage, enable, and complete his faith. He is also, in the moments I am recounting, unabashedly practical. I wonder, in general, how spiritual things and practical things fit together. Sometimes, the tension between this world and the one beyond is vast and terrible. Wittgenstein expresses a Lent-like sentiment in his Lecture on Ethics: he speaks of having a tremendous guilt which requires religious language to even express. That guilt doesn’t just motivate one to be moral, but might have inspired morality itself. Still, most of us can speak about times where guilt paralyzed us, gave us a bleak, awful outlook on life, and encouraged anger against many who deserved better. If spiritual things and practical things fit together completely, we request they give us hope, especially as we acknowledge our wrongdoing.
Enter Pange Lingua, or “Sing, my Tongue.” The first four stanzas, which we do not sing, briefly explain Christ’s life in an entirely Christological manner. We are told of the Immaculate Conception; Christ’s three years of preaching are summarized in an allusion to a parable. Et in mundo conversatus, sparso verbi semine — “He, as Man, with man conversing, stayed, the seeds of truth to sow.” The spiritual is the practical; for a moment, the Word became Flesh. However, moral perfection does not just entail God modeling a life well-lived, but the Eucharistic sacrifice. Observata lege plene cibis in legalibus, cibum turbae duodenae se dat suis minibus — “He the Pascal victim eating, first fulfills the Law’s command; then as Food to His Apostles gives Himself with His own hand.”
The problem of the spiritual and the practical remains: God did not just become man in order to demonstrate that He alone could be moral. He wanted us to live a certain way, wanting us to freely acknowledge His sacrifice for us with a certain felicity. The verses we sing do not concern overwhelming guilt or even make particularly mystical demands. They acknowledge that faith is difficult, that our hopes depend on what we see achieved and conceive in this life. Tantum ergo Sacramentum veneremur cernui: et antiquum documentum novo cedat ritui — “Down in adoration falling, Lo! the sacred Host we hail; Lo! o’er ancient forms departing, newer rites of grace prevail.” Over ancient forms departing, newer rites of grace prevail. We sing that. We, Collegium. One might argue that this marks Catholicism as the completion of a final cause, a telos. I do not believe that is accurate if we are speaking of an individual’s all too human encounter with faith. We would like to see faith make a difference in this life, we need to hope that what comes after us will be better. The importance of a God that sacrifices Himself for us is that He is a providential God. He wants life to be better for each of us: His kingdom is the literal inheritance of the poor. This might seem to you, to use a much maligned word, a rather progressive notion, one that embraces change at the expense of certain traditions. The author of Pange Lingua is Thomas Aquinas.
Praestet fides supplementum sensuum defectui — “faith for all defects supplying, where the feeble sense fail.” I can’t explain how exactly one’s spirit becomes manifest in thoughts, words, and deeds. But it does seem to me that if one reaches out to others, tries to do something that can be characterized as loving and practical, one will find the spirit is there.