Durtal – II

19 08 2021

Zelus domus tuae comedit me

July 16th, 2021

It was hard to get anything done that morning. Fortunately, I had the day off. I was finishing some work in the very early morning (remember on weekdays I get up at 3 am), when I checked Twitter and noticed something was abuzz. A document had come out from the Vatican about the traditional Latin Mass, but it wasn’t translated yet and wild reports were circulating about what it meant. I tried to muddle through the Italian, which is harder than you’d think for someone with a working knowledge of Latin and Spanish fluency. However, it became clear what the document meant. Traditiones Custodes issued by Pope Francis was meant to walk back the generous and theologically significant 2007 motu proprio of his predecessor, Benedict XVI, Summorum Pontificum. As I’ve written several times over the years, 2007 marked a point in the traditionalist movement when the old Mass became available to a larger number of Catholics in the United States, Europe, and a few other parts of the world. Priests no longer needed special permission from the Vatican to say the old Mass akin to getting a permit to handle nuclear waste or James Bond’s license to kill. A priest could just say the old Mass whenever it was requested of him by enough of his faithful, which opened up the traditional Mass to a lot of “normal” people (i.e. people not like me).

I understand why the Vatican had to rein that in: in the Patristic reasoning, the priest or presbyter is merely a vicar of the bishop in a church, the bishop having the fullness of the priesthood. That is why priests have to be incardinated in a diocese, why they need faculties from the local Ordinary to hear confessions and witness marriages, and why the priest swears allegiance to the bishop upon his ordination. It is arguable that Summorum Pontificum was never going to stand because the bishop should be the one with absolute sway over the liturgies of his diocese. So I expected something to happen someday to “fix” this situation.

Traditiones Custodes was different. It was way more severe, or should I say, a punch to the gut. Not only did it curb the individual priest’s ability to say the old Latin Mass, but it proclaimed that the Mass of Paul VI is the “unique expression of the lex orandi of the Roman Rite.” The old Mass is no longer to be said in parish churches, no new groups can be established dedicated to the celebration of the pre-Vatican II liturgy, and new priests may not be able to say that Mass at all, even with the permission of their bishop. In his accompanying letter to the motu proprio, Pope Francis states that a goal of his document is to indicate the “need to return in due time to the Roman Rite promulgated by Saints Paul VI and John Paul II,” by faithful attached to the old liturgy. This blows to smithereens Pope Benedict XVI’s idea of a “hermeneutic of continuity” between the pre- and post- Conciliar Church. The underlying principle of Benedict XVI”s 2007 motu proprio is that both the past and present usages of the Roman rite represent one usage in two expressions: an Ordinary (the New) Form and the Extraordinary (the Old) Form. But since the Faith is one, both of these are the essentially the same, with accidental if important differences. Pope Francis denies this in his new document: the old rite cannot express the Faith as formulated after the Second Vatican Council, and must be put on the endangered species list.

I should here point out the obvious: I don’t know why any of this disturbs me as much as it does. For one thing, I’m a Hare Krishna, at least in my profound belief and private practice. So what dog do I have in this fight again? And even when I go to church, I go to an Eastern rite church which isn’t even remotely affected by any of this. It changes nothing for me personally. But just as Ahab was allowed his own white whale, so the traditionalist movement in the Roman Catholic Church is a personal cause for me that I can’t shake off. It’s somewhere between aesthetic conviction and rooting for a sports team.

Or is it just that? That fateful morning, I had made an appointment at the dealership to get my vehicle serviced early in the morning. While waiting, I needed to finish my japa for that morning, which meant I couldn’t be goofing off on my phone. So while U.S. Catholics were waking up to the news and causing a meltdown on social media, I was dutifully chanting the Holy Names of Krishna (quite distracted of course, not my best moment).

On my drive there, I was finishing up Huysmans’s En Route, and remember especially this passage:

Durtal remembered how he left the church refreshed, freed from his hauntings, and he had gone away in the drizzling rain, surprised that the way was so short, humming the “Rorate,” of which the air had taken possession of him, ending by seeing in it the personal touch of a kindly unknown.

And there were other evenings … the Octave of the Feast of All Souls at St. Sulpice and at St. Thomas Aquinas, where, after the Vespers of the Dead, they brought out again the old Sequence which has disappeared from the Roman Breviary, the “Lanquentilus in Purgatorio.”

This church was the only one in Paris which had retained these pages of the Gallican hymnal, and had them sung by two basses without a choir; but these singers, so poor as a rule, no doubt were fond of this air, for if they did not sing it with art, at least they put a little soul into its delivery.

I forgot all about that hymn, but remembered that we used to sing a version of it during Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament in seminary. Throughout this section, where he talks about the various traditional hymns throughout the liturgical year, I would start singing them to myself, or at least the little snippets I remember. It’s been almost twenty years since I left seminary, but they are still up there, in my distracted little brain. They’ve almost been woven into me.

I guess that’s why I am taking this business with Traditionis Custodes so personally.


When we last left Durtal, he was leaving a Trappist monastery where he did a retreat to return to “the world,” in this case, Paris. The second book in Durtal’s religious odyssey, The Cathedral, opens with Durtal’s moving to Chartres, following his friend Abbé Gévresin when he is appointed a canon of the cathedral by the new bishop. Durtal has nothing to lose in moving, he has no friends left in Paris other than the priest and the whole city leaves a bad taste in his mouth. So Durtal settles in and studies the cathedral as a new inspiration for his writing. He meets various characters throughout the book who allow him to get deeper and deeper into the lore and symbolism of the cathedral at Chartres, which in Durtal’s opinion is the most significant and theologically rich in all of Christendom. It should be noted that even less happens in this book than in En Route: everything feels like an excuse to talk about this or that aspect of the cathedral and its history. The one tension that has to resolve itself in the book is the next step for Durtal. Unhappy with his circumstances in Chartres, and feeling a higher calling, Durtal is urged to try his vocation as an oblate to a monastery: not quite a monk, and not quite a layman, but living a consecrated life as far as he is able.

Conversations in The Cathedral touch upon the aesthetic and esoteric, as the following passage discussing numerology:

In considering the system of symbolism it is necessary to study the significance of numbers. The secrets of church building can only be discerned by recognizing the mysterious idea of the unity of the figure I., which is the image of God Himself. The suggestion of II., which figures the two natures of the Son, the two dispensations, and, according to Saint Gregory the Great, the two-fold law of love of God and man. Three is the number of the Persons of the Trinity, and of the theological virtues. Four typifies the cardinal virtues, the four Greater Prophets, the Gospels and the elements. Five is the number of Christ’s wounds, and of our senses, whose sins He expiated by a corresponding number of wounds. Six records the days devoted by God to the creation, determines the number of the Commandments promulgated by the Church, and, according to Saint Melito, symbolizes the perfection of the active life. Seven is the sacred number of the Mosaic law; it is the number of the gifts of the Holy Ghost, of the Sacraments, of the words of Jesus on the Cross, of the canonical hours, and of the successive orders of priesthood. Eight, says Saint Ambrose, is the symbol of regeneration, Saint Augustine says of the Resurrection, and it recalls the idea of the eight Beatitudes…

Later there is a discussion of making a model of the cathedral in the form of a garden, with various plants and herbs cultivated for their spiritual and medicinal properties:

That is, to make a liturgical garden, a true Benedictine garden, where flowers may be grown in succession for the sake of their relations to the Scriptures and hagiology. Would it not be delightful to follow out the liturgy of prayer with that of plants, to place them side by side in the sanctuary, to deck the altars with flowers all having their meanings according to the days and festivals; in short, to associate nature in its most exquisite manifestation—that is, its flowers—with the ceremonies of divine worship?”

Here the modern Catholic reader collides with Husymans’s anachronistic romanticism. As with the reform of the beloved Solesmes abbey itself, the scholarship is quaint and outdated for someone who has passed through the crucible of doubt of the 20th century. In Huysmans’s time, concurrent with the modernist crisis in Catholic thought, resorting to the books of the medievals was thought by many to be the highest authority of Tradition. However, this was before the Patristic resourcement that more keenly divided the Fathers from the Scholastic Doctors, and again from more modern thinkers. This is before critical editions, the unreadable monographs of Ph.D.s, and the endless specializations that parse their subjects into a myriad of sub-topics. The object of our learning, even religious learning, is not to seek truth, but to try to prove how someone else is wrong. The passage of time defeats all certainties, it seems. We could paraphrase Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita and say, “Time I am, the Destroyer of Knowledge.”

So while many of the discourses about the cathedral in Huysmans’s book might be true on the surface, there is no doubt that the modern scholar sees them as incredibly biased and possibly unhelpful. The narrative of how the sanctuary was rebuilt after a fire seems fanciful to the modern ear:

Nothing was ever more simply or more efficiently organized; the convent cellarers, forming a sort of commissariat for this army, superintended the distribution of food, and saw to the sanitation of the huts and the health of the camp. Men and women were no more than docile instruments in the hands of the chiefs they themselves had chosen, and who in their turn obeyed gangs of monks. These again were under the orders of the wonderful man, the nameless genius, who, after conceiving the plan of this cathedral, directed the whole work.

To achieve such results the spirit of the multitude must really have been admirable, for the humble and laborious work of plasterers and barrow-men was accepted by all, noble or base-born, as an act of mortification and penance, and at the same time as an honour; and no man was so audacious as to lay hand on the materials belonging to the Virgin till he had made peace with his enemies and confessed his sins. Those who were reluctant to repair the ill they had done, or to frequent the Sacraments, were dismissed from the traces, rejected as reprobates by their comrades, and even by their own families.

At daybreak every morning the work decided on by the foremen was begun. Some dug the foundations, cleared away the ruins, carried off the rubbish; others, going in parties to the quarries of Berchère-l’Evêque, at about five miles from Chartres, cut out enormous blocks of stone, so heavy that in some cases a thousand workmen were not many enough to hoist them from their bed to the top of the hill where the church was presently to rise.

And when these silent toilers paused, exhausted and broken, the sound went up of prayers and psalms; some would groan over their sins, imploring Our Lady’s mercy, beating their breast and sobbing in the arms of priests who bade them be comforted.

The Middle Ages in Husymans’s time was considered an “Age of Faith,” but we with our scholarship know better now. Indeed, the reform of the Second Vatican Council was anti-medieval as much as it was a reversal of the Counterreformation. The true church lies beyond all of these fantastical fairy tales, back to an age in which “Apostolic simiplicity” meets our own modern prejudices and aesthetic preferences.

My interrogation of Huysmans’s ideal of the Church has everything to do with the recent motu proprio from the Vatican. In his accompanying letter, Pope Francis alludes to such practices as “private Masses,” which have long been a bête noire of the modern liturgist who thinks that the presence of the community around the Table of the Lord is central to the Eucharistic mystery. The private Mass on a side altar is a “medieval accretion,” and thus an abuse, as seen in the recent rule that no private Masses should take place on the side altars of St. Peter’s Basilica. Pope France further alludes to this “archaeologism” in Traditionis Custodes stating:

St. Paul VI, recalling that the work of adaptation of the Roman Missal had already been initiated by Pius XII, declared that the revision of the Roman Missal, carried out in the light of ancient liturgical sources, had the goal of permitting the Church to raise up, in the variety of languages, “a single and identical prayer,” that expressed her unity.

Was Durtal’s (Huysmans’s) erudite piety ever sustainable, or did it have some part in the thorough revision of Catholicism that would take place in the 20th century? Durtal himself decried the predominant liturgical praxis of his day, with its tendency to entertain and mimic the style of popular culture. The chant of Solesmes and the monastic revival may have started off as a seemingly reactionary impulse against modern society, but it soon was succeeded by the modern Liturgical Movement and ecumenism that also had a monastic component. In other words, piety wasn’t an enemy of the Reform, but always accompanied it. Many of the people learning Gregorian chant and advocating greater participation in the liturgy one generation were advocating an open church with a liturgy driven by guitars and tambourines in the next. Once one begins to interrogate the liturgy and religious life as Durtal had, it was only a matter of time before such thinking produces Dialogue Masses, worker priests, the vernacularization of the liturgy, and finally its replacement with a new rite and order of things entirely. And it all began with Durtal’s malaise at a secular ditty or two being played in a Paris church.

My fear for the Catholic traditionalist movement has always been that it is subconsciously replicating the crises of yesteryear in a new context. It is not enough to like “smells ‘n bells,” to like Latin because it’s more mysterious, or to find the ceremony more “recollected” because you don’t understand it. Weird doesn’t necessarily mean holy. Pomp doesn’t necessarily equal divine. Hard doesn’t necessarily mean edifying. And so on.


One enigma, something I found true in my gut long before it made sense in my head, came from a Russian Orthodox abbot. Addressing a group of Orthodox converts, he began giving various counsels on the spiritual life. The last one was very simple: “He who does not believe in the Mother of God does not believe in God.”

At the risk of defiling the archimandrite’s memory, I can honestly say that I fully grasped this once I became a Hare Krishna. I grew up in a household surrounded by images of the Virgin Mary. My grandparents faithfully prayed the rosary. When I was a teenager, I was an auxiliary member of the Legion of Mary. Though I grew up in the shadow of a patriarchal culture, the feminine aspect of religion was always prominent, and at the forefront of my imagination.

Only when I decided to “stop being Christian” could I say the quiet part out loud: God is a woman. Or rather, He is a Man and a Woman, a Divine Couple. St. Paul talks about the Great Mystery, namely Christ and His Church in the Epistle to the Ephesians. Sophiology in the 20th century took its inspiration from Biblical Wisdom literature and came a bit closer. The Shepherd of Hermas sees the Church as an old woman, for whose sake the world was framed. In Ignatius of Antioch, the deaconesses stand in the Church in the place of the Holy Spirit.

In Vaishanavism, all of this is cleared up. God is both Energy and Possessor of that Energy, Enjoyer and Enjoyed. In the Gaudiya version, Krishna’s pleasure potency (hladini shakti) is Srimati Radharani, His consort (not wife), who He puts all of His pleasure in. While all living entities look to Krishna, Krishna looks toward Srimati Radharani. This energy expands and spreads into the lower parts of the Heavens, and into what we know as the material world, where it becomes maha-maya (the Great Illusion), all for Krishna’s pleasure. The Gaudiya mood then is manjari bhava, the assistants to the gopis (cowherd maidens) who serve Srimati Radharani. Our acharya, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati said, echoing the Russian abbot above, that the only reason we love Krishna is because Srimati Radharani loves Him: an “inversion” of the normal theist argument. Love of God is more important than God Himself.

That all conflicts with Roman Catholicism, but it doesn’t matter, for me it’s helpful to think of things like this. The more I learn about krsna-bhakti, the more I realize that the differences don’t bother me that much. We’re talking about the same thing, just with different emphasis. To return to Huysmans’s The Cathedral, Durtal at the end of the book finally decides to visit a monastery with the intention of becoming an oblate. Before he goes, he tries to summarize what he learned about the cathedral during his stay in Chartres:

“Well, I, who am no visionary, and who must appeal to my imagination to picture Her [Mary] at all, I fancy I discern Her under the forms and expressions of the cathedral itself; the features are a little confused in the pale splendour of the great rose window that blazes behind Her head like a nimbus. She smiles, and Her eyes, all light, have the incomparable effulgence of those pure sapphires which light up the entrance to the nave. Her slight form is diffused in a clear robe of flame, striped and ribbed like the drapery of the so-called Berthe. Her face is white like mother-of-pearl, and her hair, a circular tissue of sunshine, radiates in threads of gold. She is the Bride of Canticles. Pulcra ut Luna, electa ut Sol.

“The church which is Her dwelling-place, and one with Her, is luminous with Her grace; the gems of the windows sing to Her praise; the slender columns shooting upwards, from the pavement to the roof; symbolize Her aspirations and desires; the floor tells of Her humility; the vaulting, meeting to form a canopy over Her, speaks of Her charity; the stories and glass echo hymns to Her. There is nothing, down to the military aspect of certain details of the sanctuary, the chivalrous touch which is a reminiscence of the Crusades — the sword-blades and shields of the lancet windows and the roses, the helm-shaped arches, the coat of mail that clothes the older spire, the iron trellis-pattern of some of the panes — nothing that does not arouse a memory of the passage at Prime and the hymn at Lauds in the minor office of the Virgin, and typify the terribilis ut castrorum acies ordornita, the privilege She possesses when She chooses to use it, of being ’terrible as an army arrayed for battle.’

“But She does not often choose to exert here, I believe; this cathedral mirrors rather Her inexhaustible sweetness, Her indivisible glory.”

As for traditionalism and Traditionis Custodes, the real reason I care is because my only positive experience of Mass as a small child was sitting next to my grandmother, hunched over and with so many health problems, in a cry room off to the side during the modern rite. But that old Mexican woman with her rosary and mantilla showed me something very powerful and feminine about God, and I only really witnessed it again when I saw a Society of St. Pius X priest say Mass. My first time in an SSPX chapel, I had to sit way to the side, but from that vantage point I could see for the first time what the priest was doing on the altar: all of the genuflections, the Signs of the Cross, the dance of the chalice, paten, corporal, and pall… Something just clicked there. It made sense. God loves details, details are the language of love. And really, the true and beautiful can’t be found in a gradual historic evolution, but in the manifestation of something eternal that crashes time like an unexpected but welcome guest.

There is no other way to finish this reflection other than the end of this Huysmans’s novel, a dialogue between Durtal’s priest friend and his house keeper, exuding its own feminine charm:

“Father,” said she, “will they cut his moustache off if he enters the cloister?”


She tried to imagine Durtal clean-shaven, and she concluded with a laugh,

“I do not think it will improve his beauty.”

“Oh, these women!” said the Abbé, shrugging his shoulders.

“And what, in short,” asked she, “may we hope for from this journey?

“It is not of me that you should ask that, Madame Bavoil.

“Very true,” said she, and clasping her hands she murmured,-

“It depends on Thee! Help him in his poverty, remember that he can do nothing without Thine aid, Holy Temptress of men, Our Lady of the Pillar, Virgin of the Crypt.”



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