By Samuel Keyes
Pondering the recent commemoration of St. Dominic, I came across this little gem from the 19th century Anglo-Catholic leader Stewart Headlam:
If it be true … that St. Dominic was much troubled by a revival in his day of that damnable heresy called Manichaeism, and that he brought the Holy Rosary into use with a view of counteracting it, then I think he shewed himself to be a very wise man, not only because a proper reverence for our Lady is the best way of bringing the great Anti-Manichaean doctrine of the Incarnation into prominence, but also because the use of these little beads in worship is so excellently unspiritual, so usefully mechanical and arithmetical, so offensive to those who deny the sacredness of what is outward, visible, tangible. And if St. Dominic in the 12th century had a battle to wage, and waged it in this way, against Manichaeism, you surely in this 19th century are not to be blamed if, when the heresy is again rampant, you not only do all you can to bring prominently forward the great doctrine of the Incarnation, but once again in England use these little beads in worship. (A May Address to the Union of the Holy Rosary, The Church Reformer, Vol. XI, 1892.)
Whether or not the Albigensian heresy in the Middle Ages should be so simply equated with “Manichaeism” is not all that important. Headlam points out that it is not just Marian doctrine and devotion itself that is powerful, but its physical manifestation. Perhaps we could add to the “little beads” the variety of medieval and modern iconography and statuary, hymnody and cult. Mary brings out the best and the worst in Catholic culture. But if “the worst,” in that sentence, is bad for its lack of taste, its simplemindedness, its kitsch, all the better. Have you ever met a mother who, receiving her preschooler’s sincere if incoherent “art,” throws it in the trash and declares it unfitting for her maternal dignity? A good mother does want to elevate the taste of her children, but she does this over the course of a lifetime.
In many ways, my own shift into Roman Catholicism (notice I do not say “conversion,” which is misleading) happened in sync with an increasing openness to bad taste. It’s not that I think guitar Masses are of equal value as Palestrina (they’re not); it’s that Holy Mother Church loves her children anyway. As both my spiritual director and my father-in-law often say, don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.
There’s plenty more to say there, both about my own journey and the sad state of Catholic aesthetic culture, but here I want to focus on Headlam’s idea of the “unspiritual.” To be “spiritual but not religious” remains a popular stance, even if “religious but not spiritual” grows in significance among the mainline churches. In a certain sense I want to say that Headlam is wrong to call beads “unspiritual.” That is to accept the delusion of modernity’s divisions and to relegate the “religious” category to a realm beyond real conversation, dispute, and knowledge. But I suspect that Headlam’s aim here is rhetorical. That is, the promotion of what mainstream culture (including mainstream Christian culture) considers “unspiritual” can help give witness to the true nature of Christian spirituality. If the “little beads” can be “spiritual,” so can anything else.
Stewart Headlam was, maybe unsurprisingly, one of the more famous Anglo-Catholic socialists of his era. Even if it translates easily into the 21st century (and I’m unconvinced that it does), I am unsure about whether we should imitate his politics. But what he rightly understood is that “politics” is not something disconnected from the spiritual life. But nor is politics — despite certain mainline ventures on this path — something that can be simply disconnected from theology and the “big picture” beliefs that form our view of reality. It makes about as much or as little sense to promote policy or do good work in the world without prayer as it does to attempt to live in a purely “spiritual” manner.
In one of the stories from the Desert Fathers, Silvanus mocks a monk who refuses to work:
The brother said, “Why didn’t you call me?” [Silvanus] replied, “You are so spiritual you do not need food. We are earthly, and since we want to eat, we work with our hands. But you have chosen the good part, reading all day, and not wanting to take earthly food.” When the brother heard this he prostrated himself in penitence and said, “Forgive me, abba.” Silvanus said, “I think Mary always needs Martha, and by Martha’s help Mary is praised.”
The Christian vocation is not to escape the world but to manifest the life of heaven on earth. It is not to transcend bodily life, but to show the meaningfulness of bodily life here and now.