"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Nicholas Denysenko on Liturgical Reform

It has been my happy--and frequent!--duty on here to note the many recent publications of my friend, Nicholas Denysenko, a deacon in the Orthodox Church of America and a prolific liturgical scholar at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, where he also heads the Huffington Ecumenical Institute. Previously on here I have interviewed him about his two most recent books, Chrismation, and The Blessing of Waters and Epiphany.

Now it is my pleasure to interview him about his latest book published at the end of last year by Fortress Press, Liturgical Reform After Vatican II: The Impact on Eastern Orthodoxy.

AD: For readers new to your work, give us again a bit of your background.

I am a first-generation American, grandson of an Orthodox priest of Ukrainian descent. Like many other people in clerical families, I spent my child and adolescent years serving at the altar and singing in the parish choir. My first full-time job after receiving my business degree at the University of Minnesota was music director at St. Mary’s Orthodox Cathedral (OCA) in Minneapolis.

I sensed that God was calling me to presbyteral ordination, so I enrolled at St. Vladimir’s Seminary and graduated in 2000. After a few years working in Minneapolis and getting married, we moved to the Washington, DC area in 2003, and I received my Ph.D. in liturgical studies and sacramental theology from The Catholic University of America in 2008.

I began teaching at Loyola Marymount University in 2008 and am now associate professor and director of the Huffington Ecumenical Institute here. I have also been a deacon since 2003, ordained and serving OCA parishes. For me, all teaching and writing is giving blood to the Church (to paraphrase Fathers Meyendorff and Hopko of blessed memory).

AD: Tell us the origins or genesis of Liturgical Reform After Vatican II: the Impact on Eastern Orthodoxy and how you came to write it. 

ND: I did not plan on writing this book. I was and remain intrigued by liturgical ecclesiology and in writing my book on Chrismation was quite intrigued by the twentieth-century retrieval of patristic and liturgical testimonies to anointing and the imparting of the Christic offices of priest, prophet, and king to each person, the priestly foundation of the order of the laity. It was an ecumenical endeavor and the retrieval transcended the boundaries separating Catholics and Orthodox.

For many years, I attempted to digest Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s complex response to Sacrosanctum concilium; on the one hand, he celebrated the eucharistic revival in Orthodoxy and lauded the principles of the liturgical movement. On the other hand, he was sharply critical of the Roman reception of Sacrosanctum concilium and he stated that Orthodoxy needs a theological rationale for liturgical reform. I was and remain painfully aware of the liturgy wars afflicting all the churches, including the Orthodox. The project was born after I presented a paper at a symposium on the fiftieth anniversary of Sacrosanctum concilium at Catholic University in 2013. I was determined to make sense of liturgical reform in Orthodoxy and its sources in the milieu of Vatican II, and the book delivers on the promise.

AD: As you know, the very prospect of liturgical reform is a neuralgic issue for just about all Christians, East and West, raising all kinds of fears and feelings. Did you have any dread about diving into such choppy waters?

ND: Yes, I was concerned about the tendency for discussions on liturgy to devolve into a subjective exchange of opinions on this or that musical style, or the permeation of political agendas into the fabric of the liturgy. In fact, this happened in the last few days when a popular Orthodox writer reflected on the section I have on women in the Church, with social media and other blogs re-posting his assessment of my opinion. The problem with his essay is that it ignored the entire trajectory of my study and instead illuminated one of the potential outcomes of reform, an increase of women’s exercise of liturgical ministries.

Many theologians have written on the history of the order of the deaconess or have offered theological rationales for and against the ordination of women. My book is about the liturgy as a whole and the theological rationale for reform; I am not advocating for a particular political agenda, but for the orders of the Church to exercise their Spirit-laden ministries – especially the first order of the laity. In my view, this particular essay subverted the discourse to take on a polarizing political issue. As you know, when we teach, we try to form students to adopt habits of responsible engagement of authors and their ideas, and this example violates the principle of engagement.

I am supremely confident that the people of our Churches have the intelligence and the integrity to consider how liturgical structures and components might manifest the theological rationale for liturgical reform. If we are successful in swinging the pendulum away from passionate arguments about style and towards a serious discussion of how liturgical participation discloses God as the lover of humankind and capacitates faithful to become christbearers for the life of the world, the liturgy itself will evolve into forms that are lifegiving. Experts in comparative liturgy are already offering much for our consideration; I felt I had a duty to attempt to address the question of a theological rationale for reform. And by reform, I mean a clarification of what we mean when we talk about organic liturgical development.

AD: As one who has been through liturgical wars in Anglican, RC, and Byzantine Catholic parishes, I greatly cheered your first paragraph on p.1 that discussions about liturgy are not the exclusive domain of academics but "internal Church discourse involves ordinary people and their experiences of the liturgy." Does such a perspective place you in a minority among liturgists?

Liturgical studies is essentially a product of classical patristics. I have made modest contributions to the field of comparative liturgy with my book on the blessing of waters along with several articles. As I read the initial assessments of liturgical reform, I was struck by the hegemony of referring to texts and their interpretation by experts as “liturgical theology.” Giants like Aidan Kavanagh, Robert Taft, and Nathan Mitchell have reminded us that Mrs. Murphy, Mrs. Ivanova, and the grandmother explaining Mass to the grandchild on her lap are also models for liturgical theology.

But when we explain the meaning of a particular rite or office, how often do we consider how the people respond to that rite? Our fidelity to text has caused us to ignore the perspective of the people in the pew. Liturgy is not the sum of texts and ritual performance. Liturgy is an encounter with a community and the living God. We’ll have a much more robust understanding of the liturgy when we begin paying attention to how people respond (or adjust) to liturgical participation. Certainly, there are select people in the field of liturgical ritual studies who are doing groundbreaking work in this area, but yes, I think this group is a minority in the sea of liturgical historians.  

AD: Give us a brief understanding of how you arrived at the four models of liturgical reform you focus on

I was determined to begin with Fr. Schmemann. As I read Schmemann and became convinced that he was continuing the work done in preparation for the Moscow Council, I was struck by the divergent responses to proposals for liturgical renewal within the Russian Orthodox community. Thus I decided to write next about ROCOR because of ROCOR’s steadfast fidelity to observing the Typikon, and also for their superlative patronage of the liturgical arts. I learned a great deal from ROCOR’s preference for the canonical singing promoted by the Moscow Synodal Choir, and the existence of a school devoted to the Petersburg style within ROCOR was abundantly informative.

Then I decided to profile the Church of Greece because of the unique symposia they hold which are devoted to liturgical rebirth.

Finally, New Skete fascinates me. It might seem that their creativity attracted me, but I was much more interested in their reconstruction of cathedral rites to create a liturgical order for a contemporary monastery. I found common threads underpinning the models, but also found tensions between them, and these findings permitted me to tell a fascinating story.

AD: I flipped to your chapter on New Skete first, not least because their origins as Byzantine Franciscans have fascinated me since I had a grad student who wrote his thesis on the Byz. Franciscans of Hazleton, PA. Do you think New Skete, with such a "reforming impulse" in the decade of Vatican II, would have been possible had they started out in Orthodoxy originally? Or were their Catholic roots essential to the work they have done?

ND: I think their Catholic roots gave them the courage, the freedom to discover an ordo that worked for them. I would caution readers to beware of assuming that New Skete's ordo is an innovation without reference to tradition: New Skete created a liturgical order drawing abundantly from tradition that coalesces with the rhythms and needs of their community life. I most certainly think that a reform would have been possible for New Skete had they started in Orthodoxy if they had a bishop-patron to bless their freedom in translating careful academic research into a liturgical order based on traditional structures.

That said, contemporary Orthodoxy views liturgy as unchanged and unchangeable, a perspective partially attributable to the memory of Russian renovationists whose liturgical reforms appeared to be inseparable from their attempt to subvert the patriarchate during the early years of the revolution. Some Orthodox view New Skete as a community of innovators whose adoption of a reconstructed ordo is actually a violation of Orthodoxy. In my view, New Skete epitomizes the objective of liturgical studies: to show us what is possible. The Churches of East and West have much to learn from New Skete.

AD: Sum up what your hopes were for Liturgical Reform After Vatican II: the Impact on Eastern Orthodoxy. and who should read it.

ND: My initial hope is that this book might catalyze the approach we adopt towards liturgical celebration and move us away from the liturgical wars. If we are all Christ’s concelebrants in the liturgy, what does this mean for our rituals, our texts, and our daily lives? Should we assess liturgical traditions that are difficult to interpret and comprehend?

Take, for example, the preponderance of Holy Week hymns on Judas and the Jews. Do we continue to chant these texts to honor tradition even if we have to explain that Holy Week is about the crucified Christ (and not the impious Judas) or that we are not anti-Semitic? My hope is that this book will help us to adopt a mindset that always focuses Christ’s priesthood at the center of a liturgy, eternally offered to God and received as a gift for the life of the world. As for the ultimate objectives of my project, my hope is that we will begin to view the liturgy as the source of our transformation into God’s body. What does that look like in tangible terms? I refer you to pages 371-373 of the book. I wrote this book for students and clergy.

AD: Tell us what you are at work on next.

ND: I’m working on two projects. First and foremost is the sequel to this study: The People’s Faith: The Liturgy of the Faithful in Orthodoxy. I’ll be spending much of the next year analyzing survey results and meeting with small groups of people in Orthodox parishes to hear their descriptions of the impact of liturgy on their daily lives.

I’m also continuing to work hard on a manuscript devoted to making sense of the divisions within the Orthodox Church in Ukraine. The contemporary literature on this matter tends to be reactionary and lacks grounding in history, so my objective is to lay out the facts of the movement and disclose its complexities. Essentially, the world knows the history of Ukraine and her Churches through Russian historians. I value the contributions of Russian historians, but we need narratives that present the Ukrainian perspective, and I think the results of the study will prove to be both surprising and rewarding.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Last Supper for Middle Eastern Christians?

For well over a decade, some of us have watched the mass exodus of Eastern Christians--Copts in Egypt, Assyrians in Iraq, Catholics and Orthodox in Syria, inter alia--from the Middle East and marveled at the stupidity, complicity, and mendacity of Western governments who bear very considerable responsibility for the destruction and flight of Christian communities, some of which have been there for nearly 2000 years. Only in the past few months does the plight of Christians seem to have attracted a little more than passing interest, though I for one expect that absolutely nothing will be done. Western governmental inaction when it comes to Christian persecution in the region goes back more than a century, and is one long shameful record of doing damn all. When it comes to Western statesmen protecting Middle Eastern Christian minorities, the psalmist's counsel is superfluous, for no sensible person would put any trust in these treacherous princes.

Forthcoming early next month is a welcome study giving us more details: Klaus Wivel, The Last Supper: the Plight of Christian in Arab Lands, trans. Mark Kline (New Vessel Press, 2016), 220pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
In 2013, alarmed by scant attention paid to the hardships endured by the 7.5 million Christians in the Middle East, journalist Klaus Wivel traveled to Iraq, Lebanon, Egypt, and the Palestinian territories on a quest to learn more about their fate. He found an oppressed minority, constantly under threat of death and humiliation, increasingly desperate in the face of rising Islamic extremism and without hope that their situation will improve, or anyone will come to their aid. Wivel spoke with priests whose churches have been burned, citizens who feel like strangers in their own countries, and entire communities whose only hope for survival may be fleeing into exile. With the increase of religious violence in the past few years, this book is a prescient and unsettling account of a severely beleaguered religious group living, so it seems, on borrowed time. Wivel asks, why have we not done more to protect these people?
And among many commendatory blurbs, we find this:
"More than any other recent book, this work sets out with absolute clarity and sometimes uncomfortable honesty the intolerable reality of life for Christians in the Middle East today ... a deeply intelligent picture of the situation, without cheap polemic or axe-grinding, this is a very important survey indeed."—Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge University

Monday, April 25, 2016

Biographies and Biographers

When I'm not reading military or martial history at bedtime, I am as often as not reading a biography. Lately those have included a few biographical studies of Churchill that have hitherto escaped my attention; and then re-reading at least two of the biographies of Evelyn Waugh. On my bedside table, soon to be read, is Robert Speaight's The Life of Hilaire Belloc

I've read enough biographies over the years to know that writing them is a tricky business, and in unskilled hands a badly done biography is scarcely worth reading. Shortly after he died earlier this year, I decided I should read another biography of Antonin Scalia, and picked up B.A. Murphy's Antonin Scalia: A Life of One. It's gruesome. Almost from the first page the author's clumsy tendentiousness clubs one over the head, making this an unreadable tome. (Joan Biskupic's American Original is a much less obnoxious study of Scalia.) I have no patience for impatient authors who cannot let the story of their subject unfold at its own pace and in its own terms without rushing to tell us how we ought to think about this person; I never read a biography about anybody in the hopes of discovering what the biographer thinks. Biographers should be like John the Baptist: decreasing in focus so that the subject comes ever more sharply into focus insofar as this is possible.

Having read more than a few biographies, I have fondly--perhaps foolishly--entertained for years the idea that one day I will have the time to sit down and write a full-scale biography of some worthy and deserving subject whose life I can treat at length after luxuriously solitary spells in archives, in reading diaries, in conversing with his or her contemporaries (if they are still alive). The one biography I have long wanted to do is that of the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, who has by any stretch led a fascinating life as one of the most influential moral philosophers of the last half-century. But philosophers, especially modern philosophers, do not often seem to merit as much biographical attention as their ancient counterparts; this is true a fortiori of modern theologians and religious scholars, though there are of course some exceptions, especially in the modern West with figures like Paul Tillich, Bonhoeffer, Richard John Neuhaus, Henri de Lubac, etc.

In the realm of biographies in the Christian East, I have read Andrew Blane's rather uneven biography, Georges Florovsky: Russian Intellectual & Orthodox Churchman

More recently, one simply must read Paul Gavrilyuk's Georges Florovsky and the Russian Religious Renaissance which I discuss in detail here.

We have seen biography-like collections, including Turning East: Contemporary Philosophers and the Ancient Christian Faith, edited by Rico Vitz.

Scott Kenworthy has given us an updated version of Chosen for His People: A Biography of Patriarch Tikhon.

And of course just this year, as I recently noted, we have a full biography of Alexander Men.

But what about full-scale biographies of such figures as Alexander Schmemann, or John Meyendorff? Both have had any number of studies written on their theology and other aspects of their work but neither has been treated to a serious, comprehensive, full-length scholarly biography that I know of. Part of that, of course, has to do with protecting reputations both personal and institutional. (Otherwise we'd have all of Schmemann's journals published, not just select excerpts.) But let us hope that such concerns do not permanently prevent serious biographies of both men from emerging.

But what constitutes a 'serious scholarly biography'? And is it the biographer's job to 'protect reputations' or to 'tell it like it is, warts and all'? In treating, say, a theologian or churchman, must one be theologically literate to write a good biography--must one, perforce, be a part of the same Christian tradition as the subject of the biography? Will a Protestant make a hash of trying to write the life of Zizioulas? Can a Catholic fully understand and correctly portray the life of Staniloae? Is the temptation of the biographer to indulge in some armchair psychoanalysis always a bad one? In raising just a few such questions I have in mind to differentiate a biography from what is often conventionally called 'hagiography.' But there are many further additional and serious questions that go into the writing of a biography, and Rana Tekcan brings them to our attention in her recent book, Too Far for Comfort: A Study on Biographical Distance (Ibidem Press, 2015), 186pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
The dynamic between the biographer and the subject is one of the most fascinating aspects of biography as a genre. How does the biographer stage the illusion that is the narrative life, the illusion that the subject assumes a living form through words? In contrast to purely fictional forms, biography writing does not allow total freedom to the biographer in this creative act. Ideally, a biography's backbone is structured by accurate historical facts. But its spirit lies elsewhere. Rana Tekcan explores how some of the most accomplished biographers manage to recreate "life" across time and space. She looks at their illusionary art through the narrative strategies in Samuel Johnson's Life of Savage, James Boswell's Life of Johnson, Lytton Strachey's Eminent Victorians, Michael Holroyd's Lytton Strachey, Park Honan's Jane Austen, and Andrew Motion's Keats. She notes three types of distance in biographical narrative: First, where the biographer and the subject personally know one another; second, where the biographer is a near contemporary of the subject; and third, where biographer and subject are distinctly separated, in some cases, by hundreds of years.

Friday, April 22, 2016

The Mind of Christ and a Psychoanalytic Mind (II)

Continuing with some further thoughts (begun here) on the relationship between a Christian and a psychoanalytic mind, I return to Fred Busch's book, Creating a Psychoanalytic Mind: A Psychoanalytic Method and Theory.

As he recounts in the introduction to this book, Busch is something of a pioneer in psychoanalytic technique and training, being one of the first clinical psychologists to be admitted in the 1970s to psychoanalytic training at an American institute. American institutes, unlike those in Canada, the UK, and parts of Europe and elsewhere, generally have been extremely reluctant to admit any but psychiatrists or those with medical degrees. In this, they take a different tack from what Freud recommended in The Question of Lay Analysis

Here I want to lie down on Busch's couch, as it were, and speculate a bit with him on some early passages from Busch as part of an exercise asking whether his understanding of the psychoanalytic process does not in fact lend itself rather well to what confessors and spiritual directors (and indeed all of us) may be trying to do with their penitents and with the task before all of us to "put on the mind of Christ."

Busch understands analysis to consist of three phases:

1) The first phase is when the patient comes to be familiar with his own inhibitions and restrictions that keep him from living: until the patient can wonder about his lack of wondering, wondering is not possible. This phase, later in the book, is called one of self-observation. 

2) The middle phase of an analysis is the creation of a "psychoanalytic mind," that is, learning to observe one's own mind and its sequence of free associations. Such a psychoanalytic mind is necessary if the analysis is to bear long-term sustainable fruits in one's life. It is necessary, that is, if the patient is to be freed from the "slavery of repetition compulsion" and instead freed to "think about thinking." Later in the book Busch calls this phase one of self-reflection. 

3) The terminal phase of an analysis consists of a deeper psychoanalytic mind more completely free from deceptions in understanding one's associations with greater veracity. Here the analysand can "play, muse, reflect, and interpret her own associations." This phase Busch later calls self-inquiry. 

Busch says that part of his practice consists in seeing patients for a second analysis. They have benefited from their first analysis, but from that largely derived only knowledge of their unconscious--an "object," as it were, rather than a process. And for Bush, "the process of knowing is as important as what is known." Here Busch pioneers a different goal for analysis which, classically, has held up the importance of a state of knowing rather than a process of knowing. In the former, we come to know consciously what was previously unconscious. In the latter, the patient gains an understanding of how his mind works and how it affects him. Both offer freedom, albeit of a different degree and type, but Busch suggests the freedom of a psychoanalytic mind, with a process of knowing in addition to what is known, may be of greater long-term benefit.

Cast this in Christian terms, as between a penitent and his confessor or spiritual daughter and her spiritual mother, and consider the following, beginning with the distinction between a state of knowing and a process of knowing. In the former, I may well possess knowledge of my sins and weaknesses; but with the development of the latter, I may come to understand how and why it is I always fall prone to certain sins or temptations--I may, that is, come to understand a bit more about how my mind and soul work. Could such a process also unfold in a three-fold manner, as Busch suggests?

1) In the first phase, one comes to the director or confessor aware, perhaps vaguely, that something is holding him or her back from advancing in the Christian life--a besetting sin, perhaps, a stubborn habit, or a certain tristitia de bono spirituali. One is aware, or others have made him aware, that he has not yet come close to putting on the full stature of Christ, and he needs help to do this.

2) In the middle phase of the work, what is less important is discovering the underlying causes of one's sinful habits or lukewarm spiritual life; what is less important is acquiring here some insight into "cause" or some doctrinal insight which one must master and be "convicted" by or "convinced" of. Rather, one needs instead to develop a way of thinking with the Church (sentire cum Ecclesia), which is thinking with Christ. By thinking with Him and in Him, we come to a fuller understanding of ourselves, and to seeing ourselves as He sees us. In the famous words of Gaudium et Spes (no.22), "Christ, ...by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and His love, fully reveals man to man himself."

3) In the third, and perhaps terminal, phase, the patient penitent has acquired enough insight into how his own mind and soul operate that he knows how to remain free from the (to switch to Evagrian terminology) logismoi, from his previous disordered thoughts and tendencies, and to be able to "let this mind be in you which was in Christ Jesus." Here the penitent comes to see thoughts as "mental events" as Busch calls them--with, again I would suggest, clear Evagrian overtones. And with the help of divine grace, those events can all be directed towards the glory of God. They need not, in other words, be events which take us away from God or cause terror in us, but can be used, as all things can be used, to work for the good of those who love God.

Anyway, I am neither a clinician nor a spiritual director (Deo gratias), so perhaps I have overstepped, but in reading Fred Busch's interesting Creating a Psychoanalytic Mind, these thoughts did occur. 

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The New Monasticism?

As a convinced MacIntyrean, I am of course skeptical of the modern urge to think "I'm from nowhere in particular so I can pick traditions from anywhere" sorts of movements that seek to construct an identity or community in a bricolage fashion that does nothing more than covertly reproduce the assumptions of modern liberal societies and their wickedly effective capacity for commodifying just about everything and rendering it an individual 'choice.' Still, for all that I bring to your attention The New Monasticism: An Interspiritual Manifesto for Contemplative Living (Orbis, 2015), 256pp. 

This book, the publisher tells us, seeks to draw on Eastern and Western monasticism. Further, we are told:
Young leaders of the new monastic movement introduce their vision for contemplative life- one that draws from the long traditions of East and West but also seeks an interreligious and 'interspiritual' dimension to intentional living in our time. With a preface by Mirabai Starr, a foreword by Sufi teacher Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, and an afterword by Fr. Thomas Keating.
The New Monasticism is an introduction to the "new monastic movement," offering the authors' intellectual and spiritual reflections on what contemplative life could look like in the 21st century. With chapters focusing on spiritual practice, vocation, contemplation and activism, dialogical dialogue, the relationship with traditional religious paths, contemplative psychology and the building of intentional communities, the authors seek to "cut across the boundaries of religious traditions, of contemplation and action, and endeavor to create intergenerational alliances between those immersed in the depths of our traditional religious frameworks and those who are being called to contemplative and prophetic life outside of those frameworks."
While drawing on the work of Raimon Panikkar, St. Teresa of Avila, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Ewert Cousins, Fr. Bede Griffiths, Thomas Merton, Brother Wayne Teasdale, St. John of the Cross and the Russian sophianic tradition, among others, the book also incorporates some popular modern day academic, cultural, and contemplative theorists, such as Ken Wilber and Fr. Thomas Keating, who speak to young people about creating a more sacred and just world while providing them with sophisticated tools for psychological analysis and integrated action. It also offers specific practices for a disciplined contemplative life and inspired social justice activism.

Monday, April 18, 2016

City of Demons

The University of California Press has put into my hands a new book City of Demons: Violence, Ritual, and Christian Power in Late Antiquity, written by Dayna S. Kalleres and published last fall. Comprising 392 pages, with helpful maps at the outset of Jerusalem, Antioch, and Milan, this book, the publisher tells us, looks at an overlooked area in the burgeoning studies on episcopal roles and authority in antiquity:
Although it would appear in studies of late antique ecclesiastical authority and power that scholars have covered everything, an important aspect of the urban bishop has long been neglected: his role as demonologist and exorcist. When the emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the realm, bishops and priests everywhere struggled  to “Christianize” the urban spaces still dominated by Greco-Roman monuments and festivals. During this period of upheaval, when congregants seemingly attended everything but their own “orthodox” church, many ecclesiastical leaders began simultaneously to promote aggressive and insidious depictions of the demonic. In City of Demons, Dayna S. Kalleres investigates this developing discourse and the church-sponsored rituals that went along with it, showing how shifting ecclesiastical demonologies and evolving practices of exorcism profoundly shaped Christian life in the fourth century.
The first section treats of St. John Chrysostom and Antioch, while the second treats Cyril of Jerusalem; and the third Ambrose of Milan.

Friday, April 15, 2016

The People You Run into in the Desert

There's no telling whom you'll run into while on a stroll through the Egyptian deserts of the mid-fourth century. A recently translated book about the monk Palladius tells us that he was not lolling about his cell but instead lead a very peripatetic life: John Wortley, ed. and trans., Palladius of Aspuna: the Lausiac History (Cistercian, 2015), 176pp.

About this book the publisher tell us:
Born in Galatia in the 360s, Palladius enrolled as a monk on the Mount of Olives in his early twenties. As a monk, he traveled to Alexandria, the desert of Nitria, the Cells, Palestine, Rome, and the Thebaid. During his travels he encountered Rufinus of Aquileia, Melania the Elder, the hermit Dorotheos, Macarius of Alexandria, Evagrius of Pontus, Jerome of Bethlehem, and John Chrysostom. He wrote this elegant account of his visits to various monastic sites in Egypt toward the end of the fourth century AD for the imperial chamberlain Lausus. It is both the most sophisticated and the most informative of the few documents illustrating the earliest chapter in the history of Christian monasticism. Palladius’s work is the only one of the major monastic writings not written for fellow monks to inspire them with models for their emulation but rather for a man very much of the world, with the explicit intention of exerting not only religious but also political influence.

Christianity in Africa

With chapters on the Coptic Church, the Ethiopian Church, and the development of early Eastern Christian communities in Africa, inter alia, The Routledge Companion to Christianity in Africa is a collection not to be missed. Edited by Elias Kifon Bongmba, and coming in at nearly 600 pages, this tome, while expensive, was published at the very end of last year and looks like it deserves a place in every library devoted to the study of Christianity on the continent where it is experiencing some of the most dramatic--if not explosive--growth of our time.

As the publisher futher tell us us:
The Routledge Companion to Christianity in Africa offers a multi-disciplinary analysis of the Christian tradition across the African continent and throughout a long historical span. The volume offers historical and thematic essays tracing the introduction of Christianity in Africa, as well as its growth, developments, and effects, including the lived experience of African Christians. Individual chapters address the themes of Christianity and gender, the development of African-initiated churches, the growth of Pentecostalism, and the influence of Christianity on issues of sexuality, music, and public health. This comprehensive volume will serve as a valuable overview and reference work for students and researchers worldwide.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Conciliar Christology

With the upcoming Great and Holy Council of Orthodoxy scheduled for June in Crete, there has been much discussion of, and reference to, the councils of the first millennium and whether and to what extent they may be models for this year's council. One of the oft-underappreciated aspects of the councils was their use of rather recondite philosophical terminology in their complicated Christological debates. Oxford University Press tells me of the forthcoming publication in May of a monograph devoted to the conciliar process of arriving at a coherent Christology as understood by a philosopher: Timothy Pawl, In Defense of Conciliar Christology: a Philosophical Essay (OUP, 2016), 288pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
This work presents a historically informed, systematic exposition of the Christology of the first seven Ecumenical Councils of undivided Christendom, from the First Council of Nicaea in 325 AD to the Second Council of Nicaea in 787 AD. Assuming the truth of Conciliar Christology for the sake of argument, Timothy Pawl considers whether there are good philosophical arguments that show a contradiction or incoherence in that doctrine. He presents the definitions of important terms in the debate and a helpful metaphysics for understanding the incarnation.
In Defense of Conciliar Christology discusses three types of philosophical objections to Conciliar Christology. Firstly, it highlights the fundamental philosophical problem facing Christology-how can one thing be both God and man, when anything deserving to be called "God" must have certain attributes, and yet it seems that nothing that can aptly be called "man" can have those same attributes? It then considers the argument that if the Second Person of the Holy Trinity were immutable or atemporal, as Conciliar Christology requires, then that Person could not become anything, and thus could not become man. Finally, Pawl addresses the objection that if there is a single Christ then there is a single nature or will in Christ. However, if that conditional is true, then Conciliar Christology is false, since it affirms the antecedent of the conditional to be true, but denies the truth of the consequent. Pawl defends Conciliar Christology against these charges, arguing that all three philosophical objections fail to show Conciliar Christology inconsistent or incoherent.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Eternal Memory Indeed: 50 Years Since the Death of Evelyn Waugh

Portrait of the Artist as a Bright Young Thing
In the late 90s, I made the enormously, endlessly delightful discovery of the life and works of Evelyn Waugh. Now, as this very day commemorates the fiftieth anniversary of his death, I thought readers might indulge me a look back at his writings (a second and longer look back, that is, having written a different and shorter essay last week on the anniversary, which you may find here). Apart from some hilariously incorrect satire about Ethiopian liturgy--he was a paid correspondent for a London paper at the coronation of Haile Selassie as Abyssinian emperor in November of 1930--and later some official military travels among some Orthodox Christians in wartime Yugoslavia, Waugh was a staunch Latin Catholic who had little to say about the Christian East, and none of it positive. So I can't and shan't pretend that this post has a lot to do with Eastern Christianity.

But it does have everything to do with a man who during his life and after his death on Easter Sunday (April 10) 1966 was often acclaimed the greatest Catholic novelist of the 20th century--and more widely acclaimed, even by people who didn't like him, as having been one of the funniest novelists and greatest literary craftsmen of the last century as well. On those terms alone he deserves continued attention--or fresh discovery by those who have not yet had the joy of reading a wonderful writer. He is, in sum, a delightfully droll antidote to and distraction from the woes of the world today, not least the endless ghastly pageant that is modern politics, which he loathed (as we shall see below).

The Artist's Famously Terrifying 1000-Yard Stare

At the time of my discovery of Waugh I was living with a bunch of leftist grad students for roommates, and Waugh’s splenetic views of socialism (calling even its mild version in the 1945 Labour government such things as “the Atlee terror” and the “grey lice”) came in handy as stink bombs to be dropped over dinner, alternately perplexing and enraging my comrades in a combination I found greatly amusing. Like the 5-year-old boy that lives inside almost all men and exults in banging all the more and all the louder with his toy hammer upon discovering how greatly it vexes his mother, I would regularly and repeatedly quote Waugh whenever I sensed that doing so would drive at least one person into apoplexy.

Indulging this jejune pastime farther afield, I published articles in Canada and the United States, and gave lectures in both countries as well as Ukraine, about Waugh, deliberately using provocative titles (e.g., “In Defense of Christian Snobbery,” some excerpts of which and commentary on which may be found here) and highlighting choice bits from his rich correspondence and diaries as well as his novels and short stories. One in particular has often come in handy over the years as we are assaulted with fad diets and hectoring health nazis: "Food can and should be a source of delight. As for 'nutrition'--that is all balls."

More recently, I gave a scholarly lecture at a literary conference examining some of Waugh's characters and asking whether they could be considered examples of "holy fools" or iurodivy. My article was later published in Unruly Catholicsa book I first detailed here.

Now, a half-century after his early but--for him--welcome death (his letters and diaries for much of the last decade of his life indicate clearly how he welcomed the prospect of death), let us look back at both what he wrote, and what has been written about him.

To start with the latter category first: Biographies. There are four major biographies that have been written about him. All are interesting, and each contributes something unique, partly because each is written from a very different perspective. To take the weakest first, we start with Martin Stannard's two-volume Evelyn Waugh: The Early Years 1903-1939. The first is somewhat the more problematic of Stannard's two volumes, indulging as it does--though less so in the second volume, Evelyn Waugh: The Later Years 1939-1966--in subjecting Waugh to a crude kind of hostile armchair psychoanalysis.

The second biography was actually the first to appear within a decade after Waugh's death in April 1966, and it was written by his friend and sometime traveling companion Christopher Sykes, Evelyn Waugh: A Biography (1975). This did not pretend to be anything like a comprehensive and totally objective biography. The author was a sometime friend of Waugh, but had nonetheless enough distance to write a fair study of the man without indulging in any kind of romantic hagiography.

The third biography that came out was very good, and when it was published in 1994 was to that point the most comprehensive study extant: Selina Hastings, Evelyn Waugh: A Biography (1994). It was a literary study, and quite good, but it left one large lacuna: Waugh's faith, which Hastings, to her credit, seems to have felt unqualified to address and so she commendably passed over it largely in silence rather than make a hash of it, as Stannard did and others did during Waugh's life and since his death.

But far and away the best biography of Waugh, which has never been surpassed, was and is the absolutely splendid and superlative Douglas Lane Patey, The Life of Evelyn Waugh: A Critical Biography (1998). Patey's study is a true monument to the art of scholarly biography. I have often returned to it not only because it is such a delightful book, but also because it is a model of how to write a scholarly biography with great lucidity, intelligence, insight, and grace. Alone of the four biographies Patey's is not only the most penetrating and comprehensive, but also the only theologically literate study of Waugh's mid-century Catholic worldview. It is Patey's very considerable achievement that he could describe Waugh's faith accurately and without the rancor of a Martin Stannard, the dry dismissiveness of Sykes in some places, or the near-total silence of Hastings. Patey really makes it clear that Waugh cannot be understood without understanding his Catholic Christian faith. If you read only one biography, this is the one to read, and indeed the only one you really need unless you want to study the man as obsessively as I have. (It seems, in October of this year, we are to have a fifth biography: Evelyn Waugh: A Life Revisited. I look forward to reading it when it appears.)

Memoirs, Diaries, and Letters:

But there are other semi-biographical books or personal memoirs treating Waugh in whole or in part, most of them written by some of his friends. Frances Donaldson was Waugh's neighbor in the last decade of his life, and her short book offers some lovely and hilarious anecdotes about him: Evelyn Waugh: Portrait of a Country Neighbor.

A similar study of Waugh at one brief period of his life may be found in W.F. Deedes, At War with Waugh: the Real Story of Scoop. This is a very narrowly and very modestly interesting study of interest only to die-hard Waugh fanatics.

At points, Waugh was friends with nearly all the celebrated Mitford sisters, and insights into his friendship with Nancy Mitford, an accomplished novelist in her own right, may be found in The Letters of Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh.

In a similar vein, one should also see Mr. Wu and Mrs.Stitch: The Letters of Evelyn Waugh and Diana Cooper, 1932-66. This collection of letters is perhaps especially useful in dispelling the notion that Waugh was always a cranky and rude old man, even with his friends. We see a tender side to him in, e.g., consoling Diana after the death of her husband, and constantly extending invitations to her to visit afterwards. When he indulges in some rather rough and ready Catholic apologetics with her, she rebukes him and he straightaway apologizes with complete grace and sincerity, thereby putting another lie about him to rest.

But perhaps the most diverse collection of remembrances was edited by David Pryce-Jones, Evelyn Waugh and His World. Containing, inter alia, essays by the priest who received Waugh into the Church in 1930, and his comrades in arms in Yugoslavia in the early 1940s, it offers many fascinating glimpses into various aspects of Waugh's life, as well as one of the most generous samplings of photographs and reproductions of Waugh's sketches for many of his novels. (Waugh had tremendous respect for the crafts, and for craftsmanship--sketching, painting, sculpting, and furniture-making. Indeed, he himself thought about furniture making as a career at one point, and his last son, Septimus Waugh, has long had a career as a cabinet-maker, joiner, and carver--as well as dabbling in the "family business" of writing.)

Going beyond piecemeal correspondence, the largest single collection of letters is very much worth a read: Mark Amory, ed., The Letters of Evelyn Waugh. (You can get a taste of one of Waugh's letters, recounting one of his outrageous experiences in the war, here, read by Geoffrey Palmer.)

I found it an interesting exercise to read his letters alongside his Diaries, trying to pair them up whenever possible to see what he was saying publicly in a letter on a given day and then more or less privately in his diaries.

Fathers and Sons is in a category of its own as far as biographical studies are concerned. It was written and published in 2004 by Waugh's grandson Alexander (who, at last report, is editing all of his grandfather's works to appear in an opera omnia from Oxford University Press at some point). It is a wonderful book as much for its winsome style as its revealing discussion of Evelyn Waugh, his son the journalist Auberon (whose Will This Do? the First Fifty Years of Auberon Waugh: An Autobiography was, I thought, a bit of a dud), and the "family business" of writing.

Finally in this category, and a suitable bridge as we turn next to his novels, one simply must read Paula Byrne's 2011 book, Mad World: Evelyn Waugh and the Secrets of Bridesheada hugely entertaining and deeply fascinating study of some of the real life family and friends who were, mutatis mutandis, behind some of the characters who occupy Waugh's most famous novel, Brideshead Revisited. (A similar, though not nearly as interesting, study was attempted by Humphrey Carpenter in Brideshead Generation: Evelyn Waugh and His Friends.)


As just noted, Brideshead Revisited was a huge best-seller upon publication in 1945 and made Waugh a very wealthy man; and it has remained his best known work ever since, thanks not least to the lavish and lovely 1981 television adaptation featuring such illuminaries as Sir John Gielgud, Sir Laurence Olivier, and a young Jeremy Irons. For viewers of 2016: this 1981 series was the Downton Abbey of its time. If you have not seen it, then you simply must. (Pray do not pay the slightest heed to the wretched and beastly movie that came out in 2008 purporting to be based on Waugh's novel. It was, to use a Waughism, "too, too sick-making." As Charles Ryder's father from Brideshead would have said of the movie, "Such a lot of nonsense.") Jeremy Irons is also the reader for the audio book version of the novel, which is fantastic for long car rides.

Brideshead, for more than 70 years, has remained the best-known of his works, as I noted, but Waugh came to find the book distasteful in some ways, not least, as he later admitted, because it was deliberately written in a lush, lavish, luxuriant style, with great attention to food, wine, and wealth while he was a serving solder during the Second World War, with all the sensual deprivations of wartime Britain under severe rationing.

During the 1950s he traveled to Hollywood to negotiate a film deal about the novel, but it fell through in part because it featured an adulterous and divorced couple which American censorship rules of the time would not permit to be shown on screen. Waugh was just as glad it did not come to pass as he found the would-be producers totally obtuse and tone-deaf to the novel, which he regarded not as a paean to wealth or an encomium for the loss of the British aristocracy but as a lesson in the operation of divine grace.

It is on this point--how grace operates, and what it does, but especially does not do--that I think Brideshead is such a bracing corrective to too much of modern Christianity, perhaps especially in its moralistic-therapeutic North American versions of success and prosperity. The character clearly made out to be the worst in the novel--the morally degenerate, sexually disordered alcoholic Sebastian--emerges at the end to be the holiest of his family, spending his remaining days in the lowliest toil at a North African monastery, where he is treated as something of a joke: half-in, half-out the monastery, bottles of brandy hidden about the garden for a bender a few days of the month before pulling himself together again and appearing once more at chapel, repentant and sober (more or less).

His pseudo-saintly mother--whom the Joel Osteens of this world would gladly salute for her riches and apparent success--was a misguided and largely destructive force whose treacly piety does not adequately mask her libido dominandi, especially that directed at her adulterous husband ("that Reinhardt nun, my dear, has destroyed him but utterly," as Anthony Blanche memorably and accurately puts it, noting that she "has convinced the world that Lord Marchmain is a monster"). She screws up her own life and that of all her children, though they each in turn add to their woes. (Her friends, too, fare no better: "She sucks their blood" as Blanche says.) But grace does not swoop down to rescue any of them (just as their enormous wealth does not protect them either) from all the ill effects of their sin. Sebastian is "saved" in the end, but only as through fire; grace perfects and transforms nature, but the scars remain, as even the body of the resurrected Christ makes clear.

Brideshead appeared relatively late in Waugh's career, even if he was only 42 at its advent. He had, long before the war, made his mark for such novels as Decline and Fall (1928), Vile Bodies (1930), Black Mischief (1932), and A Handful of Dust (1934). These satirical-comical novels treated, inter alia, the vapidities of the inter-war generation of "bright young things" (of whom Waugh himself was sometimes accounted a part) and the vacuous promises of "progress," a word and concept that never failed to move Waugh to mockery ("Progress is a word that must be dismissed from our conversation before anything of real interest can be said"). By these novels he also became widely acclaimed as the great chronicler of the bright young things

Black Mischief in particular got him in some trouble by the editor of the Tablet, an obtuse sycophant who did not appreciate Waugh's satire about such things as African cannibalism. (One can only imagine the shrieking outrage of the banshees on Twitter were a publisher courageous enough to bring out such a book today.) This novel also made clear Waugh's lifelong disdain for "this revolting age" with all its preening technological advances and social "progress" that do nothing but cover over its moral, artistic, and spiritual bankruptcy. The longer the 20th century went on, the darker Waugh's vision of it became, so that by the time (1949) he would write the preface to Thomas Merton's Elected Silence he would say "the modern world is rapidly being made uninhabitable by the scientists and the politicians."

My favourite novel from this period is Scoop, published in 1938. It is loosely based on Waugh's real-life adventures as a journalist paid by London papers to report from Abyssinia on the imperial coronation of 1930 mentioned above. Anyone who thinks the laziness and mendacity of journalists which Waugh mocks in this novel are a thing of the past has simply not been paying attention to today's shenanigans. As Conrad Black, himself an erstwhile London newspaperman, noted several years ago,
a substantial number of journalists are ignorant, lazy, opinionated, and intellectually dishonest. The profession is heavily cluttered with aged hacks toiling through a miasma of mounting decrepitude and often alcoholism, and even more so with arrogant and abrasive youngsters who substitute 'commitment' for insight.
Historical-Biographical-Fictional Works:

The 30s were Waugh's most productive period because in addition to all the foregoing, he also produced a prize-winning historical-fictional account of the martyrdom of the Jesuit priest Edmund Campion. Written in a restrained, rather formal style, this book, published in 1935, was one of several semi-fictionalized treatments of important Catholic figures. Waugh felt that this book was, in part, a re-payment of personal debts owed to the Jesuits, not least the Jesuit priest, Martin D'Arcy, who instructed him and received him into the Church in 1930. It was also something of an aide-mémoire, reminding audiences of the 1930s that the martyrdom of Catholic clergy in 16th- century England had contemporary and ongoing parallels in those martyrdoms then occurring in the violence of revolutionary Mexico, which Waugh treated in Robbery Under Law (about which more below).

Two other such studies would follow, but not until the 1950s:

Helena (1950) was regarded by Waugh (according to Patey) as his true magnum opus. It is a short book, but full of buried jokes and puns, deliberately anachronistic speech, and political pot-shots at the socialism of the Atlee government. Waugh--who was often falsely accused of sucking up to the aristocracy and upper classes--deliberately chose to write about the life of the dowager empress of the Roman Empire in part because as the richest and most powerful woman of her time she showed that wealth and power were not, per se, obstacles to sanctity. (And Helena is indeed a canonized saint in the Catholic Church, and feted by Byzantine Christians as "co-equal to the apostles" along with her emperor son Constantine.) Moreover, he liked her, as he explains in his letters, because of her understanding of vocation: it did not necessarily require being thrown to the lions, or living in a desert eating locusts.

I love Helena not only for the humour but especially for her description of the feast of Epiphany/Theophany, and for what she says about the gifts brought by the wisemen, gifts that were not needed but "were accepted and put carefully by, for they were brought with love. In that new order of charity that had just come to life, there was room for you, too.....For His sake who did not reject your curious gifts, pray always for the learned, the oblique, the delicate. Let them not be quite forgotten at the Throne of God when the simple come into their kingdom."

Finally from this period, a formal, factual, and authorized biography, published in 1959, was devoted to Waugh's friend, the Roman Catholic convert, priest, and scholar: The Life of the Right Reverend Ronald Knox: Fellow of Trinity College, Oxford and Protonotary Apostolic to His Holiness Pope Pius XII. It is a slender study in a highly formalized style that does not pretend to be exhaustive. It, too, was repayment of a debt of sorts, and also, I think, something of a plaidoyer for Knox, whom Waugh and others felt had been badly treated by the English bishops, perhaps out of envy at Knox's superior education and background.

Semi-Autobiographical Works:

Waugh, though nearly 40 when war broke out, was desperate to obtain a position serving because he thought that wartime adventures would give him fresh material for later novels, and in this he was right. George Weigel has retailed some (possibly apocryphal) tales about Waugh's military service, including needling people by asking whether “in the Romanian army no one beneath the rank of Major is permitted to use lipstick.” And Patey's biography gives us tales of Waugh's researches in Tito's Yugoslavia. Waugh came to loathe Tito for his vicious persecution of Christians, and began a long campaign of mocking Tito as really a lesbian, whom he called "Auntie." ("Her face is pretty, but her legs are very thick.")

His resultant war trilogy is based in part on his own experiences, and has been acclaimed as one of the most realistic portrayals of what actual wartime service was like.

That trilogy was also turned into a movie which is not bad at all: Sword of Honour stars Daniel Craig and Nick Bartlett, inter alia.

Desperate to get out of England after the war, especially during the winter, and desperate therefore for a trip to warmer climes that someone else would pay for, Waugh undertook a number of trips, including most infamously a sea voyage in January 1954 for Rangoon. Waugh at this point in his life was plagued with boredom, melancholy, and insomnia. To deal with all three, but especially the latter, he was accustomed to regular imbibing of pharmacologically primitive sleeping potions liberally taken with large splashes of crème de menthe (on top of copious drinking during the day--gin, claret, champagne, wine). Over time, these sleeping draughts were slowly intoxicating him in what would be medically diagnosed as bromide psychosis, causing the fantastic delusions and hallucinations he had aboard the ship. Instead of hiding this embarrassing escapade, he used it as the basis for what he openly acknowledged was his most heavily autobiographical novel, The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, which is also available in audio form. After he returned and went through a period of detox, he gleefully reported to friends "I've been mad!" and "I was clean off my onion!" He then adapted these experiences for use in Pinfold. 

Finally, Waugh attempted an actual autobiography, A Little Learning. It is a laconic work and clearly Waugh's heart was not really in it. He never finished it: this is the first of what were expected to be at least two volumes. Published in 1964 less than two years before his death, this book only goes up to Waugh's suicide attempt in 1925 which, like the book itself, was rather desultory and manifestly incomplete. Waugh died before bringing out a second volume, but even before undertaking the writing of this one, his diaries and letters are full of his worries that his writing days were over, that he saw nothing but boredom and tedium in the years ahead, and that he had run out of anything fresh to say.

In addition, his spirits were not helped by the Second Vatican Council, whose reforms, he confessed, had knocked the stuffing out of him, making attendance at church now "pure duty parade." He regarded the liturgical reforms above all with nothing short of horror and was glad that his life would not last long enough to have to endure further changes. He confessed to family and friends that the council had sucked the last bits of joy from his life, and everyone agreed that his death, on Easter Sunday itself in 1966 shortly after hearing Mass in the traditional form he loved so well, was something he greatly welcomed. (Had he further exposure to the clunky, graceless, ideologically driven English translations of the Mass, one could well imagine Waugh saying of the translators what he himself said of the socialist writer Stephen Spender: ''to see him fumbling with our rich and delicate language is to experience all the horror of seeing a Sèvres vase in the hands of a chimpanzee.'')

Waugh's disgust with the changes, and especially with the mendacity and treachery of the hierarchy in the 1960s, comes through in a short but powerful little book, A Bitter Trial: Evelyn Waugh and John Carmel Cardinal Heenan on Liturgical Changes. Waugh was not, however, solely against John XXIII or Paul VI. He regarded Pope Pius XII as a villain for his reforms (also brought about by Bugnini) to Holy Week services, which Waugh felt had been completely wrecked in the name of restoring so-called earlier usages.

Political and Occasional Works:

Waugh made no secret of his disdain for modern politics. He hated being at parties where people wanted to talk politics, and found the whole area tedious. In the run-up to the 1959 election, the Spectator asked him to write a short piece, which he did: "Aspirations of a Mugwump," published in The Essays, Articles and Reviews of Evelyn Waugh. This collection, edited by Donat Gallagher, is absolutely invaluable for collecting a lot of Waugh's short and early pieces--essays, book reviews, and other doggrel he wrote to earn money before he made it into the big leagues.

In his short 1959 essay, Waugh noted that "I have never voted in a parliamentary election. I shall not vote this year." He regarded the whole process as a "very hazardous process" for the Sovereign to choose ministers. Calling popular election a source of "many great evils," he ended thus: "I do not aspire to advise my sovereign in her choice of servants."

For all his voluble disdain of politics, however, he did give it some sustained attention in what is perhaps his least known non-fiction work, viz., Robbery Under Law. This was a study he undertook after a paid trip to Mexico to see what life was like after the revolution there. He memorably described himself as a "conservative" after that trip, saying, inter alia:
Civilization has no force of its own beyond what is given it from within. It is under constant assault and it takes most of the energies of civilized man to keep going at all. There are criminal ideas and a criminal class in every nation and the first action of every revolution, figuratively and literally, is to open the prisons. Barbarism is never finally defeated; given propitious circumstances, men and women who seem quite orderly, will commit every conceivable atrocity. The danger does not come merely from habitual hooligans; we are all potential recruits for anarchy. Unremitting effort is needed to keep men living together at peace; there is only a margin of energy left over for experiment however beneficent. Once the prisons of the mind have been opened, the orgy is on. 
American civilization was one with which Waugh had an ambivalent relationship. There was much in 1950s America he admired, and American audiences made him very rich, not least when Brideshead was a Book of the Month pick, and sold well over 100,000 copies in the US alone.  But American treatments of death provoked what is perhaps Waugh's most masterful work of social satire, the 1948 novella The Loved One. It is a brutal fictionalized take-down of the treacly euphemisms emanating from and the vulgar death-denying, money-making machinations of the gruesome funeral industry, a parallel to the non-fiction and equally scathing work of Waugh's compatriot Jessica Mitford, The American Way of Death.

There is more that could be said about Waugh, and further works that could be discussed, but this covers his main works and is sufficient, I trust, to illustrate my main point: tolle, lege. 

Our Hero in His Library
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