SIGNS SEEN AND HEARD
Prophecy can be conscious or unconscious, openly declared or more symbolic, presenting itself like a Jungian synchronicity.
Something of the latter occurred at the Palm Sunday mass in Notre Dame on April 14th less than twenty four hours before the ancient cathedral’s destructive fire. And quite clearly those so calmly present were unaware of any subliminal messages being conveyed by especially the choir’s impressive performance of the thirteenth century Stabat Mater (The Mother was standing), a celebrated Latin hymn nearly as old as the cathedral itself but sung in the dramatic modern arrangement of Jean-Charles Gandrille. Looking back on that morning can supply something of a frisson. It’s like observing a last meal on the Titanic. After centuries of sacred music rising to the rafters, shortly the historic moment will strike in which song will be silenced for no one knows how long. And who would imagine it? (For a youtube video with Latin and English subtitles, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XbdXXzhVKJc )
The performance has been compared to angels lamenting. Though the all-female choir looked relaxed enough, what is certain is that, as it develops, music and performance convey something agitated, urgent and towards the end almost frenzied in a way that would better suit precisely warning and prophecy than the post-communion reflection the average mass-goer might prefer. And although the hymn’s reference is not directly to things earthly and any church ediface, the words do make an appeal against flame and destruction by fire. Altogether there is something of a requiem about the performance.
The irony does not stop there. The fact that the disaster occurred during the Christian Holy Week, that it struck during a season when worldwide there is much persecution of Christians (highlighted the following Easter Sunday with the Sri Lanka massacre) and that celestially, we are currently at the very end of the age of Pisces which began around the time of Christ’s birth, raises a variety of questions. It does so perhaps especially for those of us who are non-Catholic Christians. For us, sacred space is less sacrosanct than in Catholic tradition – biblically we will recall that, as in the vision of Ezekiel 10, God may depart from and remove protection from even the holy city and the Temple when it no longer represents what it should.
AN END TO SOME MISLEADING IDEAS?
From the standpoint of history and aesthetics, there is every reason to preserve and restore Notre Dame. Religiously the case is less strong, or it is if one’s position is, like some, that the cathedral should be seen as almost the leading symbol of Western Christianity. That’s one claim too far, especially if you mean Christianity as representing any species of Judaeo-Christian tradition.
Amid its undoubted beauty, Notre Dame represents almost too well a chequered tradition of questionable beliefs and values launched upon Western Christianity through mainly France from the twelfth century St Bernard de Clairvaux to the eighteenth century St Louis de Montfort. St Bernard, leading advocate of the crusades and persecutor of the philosopher Abelard, was the “Marian doctor” par excellence. Certainly he claimed the Virgin had gifted him her breast milk and, taking devotion to Mary to unprecedented levels, suggested God recreates the universe through Mary and that it’s from the overflow of her graces believers receive the Holy Spirit.
The Marian cult of St Louis is so extreme it scarcely recognizes any distinction between Christ and Mary who becomes virtual co-redemptrix, (which however is not necessarily the liberating/feminist idea it might superficially appear to a few connoisseurs of the mystical). It was the always extreme Marian associations of French cathedrals and of Notre Dame which housed a miraculous image of Mary for pilgrims, that arguably occasioned the hostile substitution of Mary during the French revolution by a “goddess of Reason” enthroned on the high altar in the person of a prostitute).
A work like Stabat Mater betrays the repressive influence of a strong Marian tradition as indicated presently. But to accept its outlook is in any case to deny virtually everything that especially the Bible’s Epistle to Hebrews affirms in relation to Christ and redemption; it’s an outlook become seriously untethered from atonement doctrine’s symbolic and doctrinal basis in the Old Testament and Judaism. This disconnection would to some extent facilitate a medieval anti-Semitism which Notre Dame half endorses with its disapproving Synagoga image near its entrance. Christianity’s Judaic inheritance is as good as denied.
But consider what the excruciatingly medieval and masochistic Stabat Mater actually says.
Unlike for example “Oh Sacred Head Sore Wounded”, from the outset Stabat invites us to observe and identify less with Christ’s own suffering than Mary’s suffering observing it : “Who is the person who would not weep seeing the mother of Christ in such agony?”
Mary sees Christ in torment for “the sins of his people”. (It’s not perfectly clear if this means the Jews or the greater world).
Mary, next addressed as Fons Amoris (fount of love), is then implored to make us feel the power of love so that we may grieve with her…… Is there no spontaneous, natural spiritual love towards Christ to make us grieve? And how and why is Mary the “Fount of Love” if God is the true and ultimate source of Love? (1 Joh 4:8).
The remote origins of extreme forms of address to the Virgin in this style, derive from Jewish apocrypha where they attach to the figure of Lady Wisdom first introduced in the Hebrew bible’s book of Proverbs. However for Christians, St Paul, the New Testament and even Jesus himself, Jesus is not only the (male) Logos but the (female) Sophia or Wisdom combined – even if psychologically and spiritually the implications of this have never been fully worked out! Short of wanting a substitute for Diana of the Ephesians, there was never a case to bestow Mary divine-sounding attributes and status, especially given her less than perfect record in the New Testament where she evidently joins her family in questioning Jesus’ vocation (Matt 12:48, Mk 3:21,22).
The Sancta Mater (Holy Mother) is then implored to drive the wounds of Jesus deep into our hearts and let us bemoan the crucified as long as we may live. One doubts the choristers and Palm Sunday mass goers would really consent to that vocation …. and they shouldn’t as it’s anyway unchristian. It is not to rejoice in and proclaim the resurrection and redemption achieved. Hebrews urges believers to offer not tears but a sacrifice of continual praise (Heb 13:15) and to God, not Mary, and their leaders are told to lead the people with joy and not with sighing as this would only be harmful to them (Heb 13: 17)!
But Stabat continues asking “the Virgin of virgins” not to be “bitter” towards the would-be mourner (why should she be bitter?!), but let us weep, letting “me” be “inebriated” by the cross and Christ’s blood. “Inebriated” is an astonishing idea and meaningless too since till modern times Catholics weren’t even allowed communion in two kinds, though nowadays they may have a wafer dipped in wine as looks to be the case at Notre Dame.
Now turning to Mary as though to the Redeemer, the hymn continues, “Lest I burn, set afire by flames, may I be defended by you on the day of Judgement”. This fearful, mistrustful approach to God is the very opposite of what faith in Christ as “pioneer and perfecter of faith” is supposed to engage (Heb 12:2). Moreover as regards confidence, Heb 4:16 even proposes, “let us approach the throne of grace with boldness.”
The noted Christian apologist C.S.Lewis once asked to summarize the difference between Christianity and other world faiths, answered simply “grace“. But this is not entirely true in much Catholic tradition and absolutely not Stabat’s. One is still considerably left, almost Hindu style, with a religion of earned merit. Never quite good enough, the believer doesn’t go to Christ, the “high priest” of Hebrews, for pardon and deliverance so much as to Christ through Mary, a mediator to the mediator. As in Stabat she almost protects you against Christ, a Redeemer more crucified and suffering than resurrected. Indeed, instead of his offering “one sacrifice, once and for all when he offered himself” (Heb 7:27), Jesus is sacrificed in the mass again and again to the end of time… with the incidental effect that there needs to be a priestly elite to oversee the constant sacrifice.
SO HERE IT GOES AGAIN
One of the reasons the misguided psychology and theology of Stabat Mater has kept in circulation, is because around 20 noted composers ancient and more modern from Pergolesi to Poulenc have put it to music. It’s nonetheless time for some real change, but as long as people refuse to critically examine their hymns and won’t examine the bible to absorb the general drift of its messages, there won’t be any revision. As it happens, Stabat Mater is even taking on new life and being used as almost the defining statement for Notre Dame, its disaster, Paris and France via an agreeable post-disaster popular song called Notre Dame, Stabat Mater https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4o4XuluCDmM
Notre Dame, the ediface, is now seen as “ou Dieu vit et appelle (where God lives and calls), it’s “sa demeure” (his dwelling place) as though it were Solomon’s Temple. She, Notre Dame, is herself Stabat Mater, attacked and killed like many mothers. “Elle est pour nous Stabat Mater (She is for us Stabat Mater) while since Mary is a being “sans pareille” (without compare), at our side and watching over us, “let us present to Mary our prayers for France”.
It sounds nice and despite the touch of traditional Mary for France nationalism, doubtless well-intentioned. However, it may only be to compound an old problem and possibly even signals a reason there was not more divine protection in the first place, namely because it’s high time to exit from a serious ultra-medieval bind. Unless Mary were herself divine along with Jesus as part of God, there can be no shared divine powers with a queen of heaven to appeal to in the beyond or to treat as centred upon a place of worship on earth. The prophet Jeremiah was inevitably and automatically opposed to Israel’s devotion to any “queen of heaven” because, as per the Covenant revelation, “the Lord Himself is God in heaven above and on the earth beneath; there is no other” (Deut 4:39).
However… I am writing this in the month of May which the present pope has urged Catholics to be sure to dedicate to Mary – a Jesuit custom since the late eighteenth century – and the Catholic trend (considerably under French influence) has been towards ever closer association of Mary with redemption and heavenly authority. This is the case despite, and paradoxically so, that last February this same Pope signed an accord which, contradicting all evangelical obligations of the faith and envisaging a union of religions, has declared differences of faith divinely willed.
To be a little speculative and prophetic, I am inclined to say that if the medieval rut is not escaped from, any renewed Notre Dame will not finish a truly Christian site but the arm of a new end-of-era false world faith in which Mary will share space with, or at least be increasingly identified archetypally with, various goddesses. It is perhaps no accident that already there have been suggestions ND’s fallen spire could be replaced with the form of a minaret.
The times we are living in must be taken seriously as a turning point and a theme of endings needs to assume its due place among our perspectives. Catholics who regard Pope Francis as an “anti-pope” they want out and Protestants who fear he may facilitate the world faith of a false prophet Antichrist, must be allowed their point.
Further reading. See poem: “Maryianity: A Poem concerning the Virgin” https://wp.me/p2v96G-dQ
“St Malachy’s Last Pope Ringing Down the Curtain?” https://wp.me/p4kNWg-oM