“The Church became for me an inspirer of remembrance.” — Dom Erik Varden, OCSO
The inferno at Cathedral Notre-Dame de Paris left behind more than smoke-damaged stained glass and charred eight-hundred-year-old oak beams. Lingering after the laughable pledges of such secular scions as French President Emmanuel Macron to rebuild “our history, our literature, part of our psyche, the place of all our great events, our epidemics, our wars, our liberations, the epicenter of our lives,” is the sense that something durable and permanent is lost: not the cathedral but the faith that built it. An ocean of sentimental tweets, posts, clips, and pics—mostly ephemeral and insubstantial—suggests that in much of the world our spiritual anchor has been cut. We long for something. This is why, in large part, bystanders knelt, clutched rosaries, or stood dumbstruck before the flames.
Wherever the church or cathedral, whatever its significance to Catholics the world over, it is not our final home. It is not the end of our deepest longing, but the means by which we seek its fulfillment. The stones and altars represent communal memory and longing; both phenomenal aspects of faith woven—even unconsciously—into the fabric of our culture. It is the “ache for homecoming” that Anthony Esolen writes about so movingly in his recent book Nostalgia: Going Home in a Homeless World. Longing and remembrance are dimensions of a particularly Christian disposition that point to both our Edenic origin and our Heavenly destination.
Dom Erik Varden, OCSO, Abbot of Mount Saint Bernard Abbey in Leicestershire, England, offers us—in a similar vein as Esolen’s Nostalgia—a strange and brilliant book about longing and remembrance. It is, in sum, an assemblage of hope for a shipwrecked race. It creeps up in one’s mind at the strangest of times and in the strangest of places. Even in predictable quarters—Sunday Mass for example—the book so saturates the mind (if read well and slowly) that it generates deep and unexpected insights. It is to see the story of salvation in living color, not the black and white of homilies or papal pablum. It is no surprise, then, that such a book emanates from the monastic periphery.
Far from being insulated from the joys and torments of life, contemplative monks and nuns live these joys and torments more intensely and profoundly than most. Erik Varden was, it seems, marked early for monastic life. Upon hearing Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, specifically the Fourth Movement, Varden experienced the realization that “I knew I carried something within me that reached beyond the limits of me. I was aware of not being alone.” It is easy to miss the significance of this insight, not only in Varden’s life but in our own. Spending time with it in contemplation leads to lasting resonance; “the sense of it,” he says, “never left me. That this should be so amazes me still.” It is not something new. It is something remembered.
Christian remembrance is rooted in identity: who we are, to whom we belong, and where we are going. Dom Varden rather modestly says that The Shattering of Loneliness “chronicles an apprenticeship of remembrance.” It is both apprenticeship and master class. Surveying six biblical commandments charging the believer with remembering our identity in God, Varden ranges deep in Scripture. He also ranges widely in the arts. Primal patterns of identity and remembrance are detectable in music, poetry, literature, painting, and philosophy; any authentically human endeavor bears the mark of longing. These patterns—even when created by avowed atheists—betray the impulse of human longing and corroborate the Scriptures. They are a testament to man’s creative restlessness, but more importantly each expression reveals the trace of a loving God relentlessly revealing Himself. Once, after a rather smoky Mass, I asked the priest why he used so much incense. He said that for some people it is the only way God can get in.
This is no book of rarified spirituality or arid theology. It is guided by the Benedictine character of Varden’s monasticism. It is therefore dynamic and practical. He writes of the “Lenten character” of life, monastic and lay. The admonition, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return” is beautifully rendered alongside the story of Adam (from the Hebrew adamah, meaning “ground”) after the Fall. Remembrance of these words, and the Lenten character of our fallen existence, “simply re-ground in truth one who has surrendered to momentary amnesia.” Avoiding the disfigurement of sin, we strive to return in humility to our created likeness to God. We are dust indeed. But not only.
As we must not forget what we are, we must not forget to Whom we belong. By remembering that we were slaves in Egypt, we remember the One who ransomed us and brought us to the place that He had promised. We remember too that we were once slaves to sin, what Varden calls our “sharable remembrance.” But through Christ and the Eucharistic “sacramentality of remembrance” we are freed once more. And yet, we must remain vigilant or else, like Jacob eating his fill, we become “fat and frisky” and forsake the God who made us.
As Varden puts it, “Forgetfulness threatens to envelop us…the smog of perceived entitlement obscures grateful retrospect.”
We must be vigilant, too, as in the days of Noah and the days of Lot, for when we may be overcome with a “catastrophic suddenness of presence.” Varden’s chapter on remembering Lot’s wife is a moving exploration of her humanity (and ours) and the importance of her story. Until reading this, I viewed the story of Lot’s wife—turning into a pillar of salt for looking where she was told not to—as sort of a biblical version of my uncles’ attempt at teaching me redemptive suffering. If one of us kids got clobbered, or if we tripped and fell while running around at a family party, one of the uncles would holler “Let that be a lesson to ya!” After reading Varden’s chapter, replete with references to the poet Anna Akhmatova and Tolstoy, I was left with a nuanced and sympathetic appreciation for Lot’s wife. It is a necessary aspect of remembrance that we “must be ready to break up again and again, to leave even what we thought would be our final destination, to let love be purified.”
Our love so purified, we can appreciate the eternal present in the Eucharist. For “in the liturgy, we come as close to as we can to seeing as God sees.” Here again Varden goes outside Scripture to explore the texture of this vision of love in music (the Lamb triumphant in Handel’s Messiah) and art (Zurbarán’s magnificent image of the bound lamb in Agnus Dei). The music and image are examples of God getting into us however he can. It is as seamless in the book as in reality. In true monastic spirit, Varden wanders the same liminal boundaries we do, orienting us to God and not himself.
Varden, in the rest of his book, ranges from Russians (St. Seraphim) to Rilke (“I’m made of longing”) with penetrating stops at Athanasius and The Aeneid. But he never loses sight of his primary purpose—or ours—which he says is “to develop a capacity to receive the Spirit, that is, to live a divinized life.” He is never pedantic or preachy. The book effects something like a walk with God at the breezy time of day; like the memory of a meaningful conversation long after you’ve forgotten what was said. It is unforgettable.
The Shattering of Loneliness: On Christian Remembrance
By Erik Varden
Bloomsbury Continuum, 2018
Paperback, 192 pages
(Dedicated to the memory of Fr. James Schall, S.J., whose light extinguished much darkness in the life of a student he never knew he had.)
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