Beyond the Blue Glass: Catholic essays on faith and culture, Vol. 2

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Press: Saint Austin Press; First Thus edition (September 2000)
Author Name:Nichols, Aidan
Edition:First Thus Edition


The first of two volumes of dazzling essays on faith and culture by one of the most gifted and erudite Catholic thinkers today. 
The range and depth of these essays is remarkable, covering many of the most significant themes and theologians of the twentieth century: liturgy, literature, the Anglican "Radical Orthodoxy" movement, Scheeben, Newman and, of course, St Thomas.
What is particularly impressive about this collection is the way in which Nichols presents us with a panoramic sweep in which clarity, detail and sobriety are not sacrificed to scope and virtuosity.
No one interested in the major issues of modern theology will want to miss this book.
Essays include: St Thomas in His Time Thomism and the Nouvelle Théologie Balthasar and Rahner: "Anonymous Christianity" in Question Cardinal Ratzinger on Theology, Liturgy and Faith A Tale of Two Documents: Sacrosanctum Concilium and Mediator Dei Liturgy as Consummate Philosophy: A Reading of Pickstock's After Writing

About the Author

Fr Aidan Nichols, O.P., is the Prior of Blackfriars, Cambridge, and author of some twenty-five books, including Dominican Gallery, The Shape of Catholic Theology, The Theology of Joseph Ratzinger: An Introductory Study and the forthcoming Discovering Aquinas.

--This text refers to an alternate Hardcover edition.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

St Thomas was born in 1225 into a pro-imperial Italian aristocratic family, the de Aquinos, who had land and a castle at Roccasecca, half way between Rome and Naples, just to the east of that great thoroughfare, the Via Latina. 
His parents – Lombard on his father's side, Neapolitan on his mother's – sent him to the boarding school run by the monks of Monte Cassino and arranged for him to become an oblate there, planning so to make use of their local influence as to have him, in due course, elected to the abbatial dignity.
For Cassino was, to the feudal nobility of the region, a great prize.
When he was fifteen, however, and could have made solemn profession (the oblateship was understood in this period in a way which makes it comparable to simple profession in the modern Latin church), the abbot of Monte Cassino advised his parents to send him, rather, to the emperor Frederick II's studium generale at Naples – probably because skirmishes between emperor and pope were making Cassino too hot for comfort.
He would have lived, no doubt, in the Neapolitan study house owned by the Cassinese monks, the dedication of which, a significant pointer to the half-Greek character of southern Italy in the Middle Ages, was to St Demetrios of Thessalonica.
Naples was a cosmopolitan place, as were generally southern Italy and Sicily under the influence of a ruler who sat lightly to his own religion (and anyone else's).
There Thomas was introduced by one Michael the Irishman to the latest ideas in the shape of the natural philosophy of Aristotle.
Arab astronomy and Greek medicine would also have been capital in this University milieu.
Catching a whiff of pagan naturalism at Naples was important: in Paris at the same period the study of Aristotle was officially forbidden.
At the age of nineteen Thomas joined the newly instituted Order of Friars Preachers – a priory had been founded at Naples in 1231 by Jordan of Saxony, St Dominic's successor.
He did so in the teeth of opposition from his family, who resorted to such low tricks as abduction and (attempted) seduction: abducting Thomas while he was on his way, in the entourage of the Master of the Order, John the Teuton, to the 1244 General Chapter in Bologna, and attempting to seduce him by introducing a prostitute from the camp following of their military retinue into his room at Roccasecca, during his "house arrest".
The claim that the reason for their opposition was social embarrassment, much as if a son of the Duke of Buccleuch had absconded from Eton to become a hippy in Islington, though widely made by socially radical Thomists in the 1960s, looks less plausible when we learn that the friar who gave him the habit, his namesake Thomas de Lentini, shortly after became bishop of Bethlehem, papal legate and patriarch of Jerusalem.
Benedictine influence would in any case linger in the form of Thomas's habitual citation of Gregory the Great (nearly two thousand five hundred times), and especially of the latter's Dialogues, on the life and miracles of St Benedict, which Thomas drew on heavily in his theological defence of the Religious life.
Thomas's last known writing is a letter of 1274 to abbot Bernard Ayglier of Monte Cassino where, as his most recent biographer, Père Jean-Pierre Torrell, writes, he "refound spontaneously his language as a young monk and presented himself as ‘a son always ready for prompt obedience'".
In all probability, St Thomas passed over to the Dominicans chiefly because he saw there greater opportunities for the study and communication of the fruits of contemplation to others for which he had already developed the aptitude at Cassino – though we cannot rule out as a possible secondary factor in his renunciation of life in that well-endowed monastery a desire for evangelical simplicity.
Père Chenu called his departure from Cassino "the exact replica of the gesture of Francis of Assisi", inasmuch as St Francis repudiated his father's wealth, St Thomas the great riches of his abbey.
In his treatise in support of the friars, Thomas will call Religious poverty an outstanding lesson of the Cross of Christ.

--This text refers to an alternate Hardcover edition.


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  •     Whilst launching The Modern Rite, Father Aidan Nichols remarked that its author, Monsignor Gamber, had produced more books "than even me"! Beyond the Blue Glass, however, another offering from England's most prolific Catholic theologian, is perhaps evidence that the final tally may well go in Father Nichols' favour.The present volume is divided into two parts. The first consists of seven essays on different aspects of theology. "St Thomas in his Time" provides a concise theological biography of the Angelic Doctor which serves well as an introduction or as a tutorial to his work. A valuable exploration of "Thomism and the Nouvelle Théologie" follows, exploring in detail the (at times) stormy relationship between the twentieth century proponents of these schools of theological thought. An appreciation of the issues involved is of some importance for, as Nichols points out, their influence on the Second Vatican Council and on the present Pope are clear. "A View from Cologne: The Fate of Patristic Trinitarianism in Modern Catholic Theology" seeks to correct the neglect of the work of the nineteenth century German, Matthias Joseph Scheeben. It also, rightly, draws attention to the twentieth century `patristicism,' whereby the patristic age was embraced somewhat too exclusively. "The post-patristic divines of the Catholic Church" can "furnish fresh insight into the deposit of faith also," Nichols reminds.The next three essays concern the work of the theological giant of the twentieth century: Hans Urs von Balthasar. It is true to say that the work of Aidan Nichols has been pivotal in rendering Balthasar's thought accessible in the English-speaking world. These essays further that mission.The first looks "at Littlemore from Lucerne," i.e. it studies Newman's Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine in the light of the Swiss-born Balthasar's work. The result is a study which brings together these two theological greats and offers a fresh and valuable way of reading the work of the former in the light of the achievement of the latter.The second, "Balthasar's Aims in His Theological Aesthetics," is a concise and useful introduction to his mammoth work on theological aesthetics. A taste of its wholesomeness may be had from Nichols' observation that:"What we are dealing with in theological aesthetics is the study of how we come, enraptured, to see God, the world and ourselves in relation to God and the world with new eyes, thanks to our perception of the form of God's self-disclosure. It is because Balthasar aims to show us that the Christ-form in all its objective novelty and originality has the power to change our understanding of the world and our habitual sensibility in this way that he adopts a reserved attitude towards the historical-critical method as applied to the Jesus of the Gospels - with its necessarily somewhat reduced and minimal conclusions about the Jesus of history, and argues instead that the real Jesus is found only by looking through the lens of the New Testament canon as a whole, guided in doing so by the Liturgy and teaching of the Church born from his Spirit. (pp. 95-96)"A further poignant observation:"Balthasar...questioned how much use his entire trilogy of aesthetics, dramatics and logic was going to be to a Church that is often as activist and unthoughtful as the culture it inhabits. He offered his theology, he said, in the spirit of someone putting a message in a bottle and throwing it overboard from a boat in mid-ocean. That such a bottle land and someone find its message is, he commented, something of a miracle, adding..."But sometimes such things happen." (p. 106)"The third of these essays, "Rahner and Balthasar: The Anonymous Christianity Debate Revisited," is of quite some importance given the rapid spread of syncretism throughout the front-line missionary and catechetical organs of the Church in the decades following the Second Vatican Council, and which persists to this day. As Nichols puts it, Balthasar's criticisms of Rahner's views assert:"Not that they need modification in some fashion or re-contextualisation in some wider perspective but that they are, quite simply, contradictions in terms, or, more specifically, examples of contradictio in adjecto where the adjective ("anonymous") unconditionally nullifies the content entertained by the noun ("Christianity," "faith," "discipleship"). Then secondly, it is alleged that the currency given these terms and the mind-set they exemplify, by the prestige attaching to Rahner's name as one of the great masters of twentieth century Catholic theology not least at the Second Vatican Council, has not simply damaged theological culture, the thinking found within the Church. More alarmingly still it has adversely affected ecclesial practice, the action which Catholics feel committed to by virtue of their faith. Notably, the "anonymous Christianity" notion has severed, at any rate partially, that nerve of the mystical Body which connects the Body to missionary activity - evangelism, the seeking of conversions, the spreading of the faith. (pp. 107-108)"Nichols skilfully disentangles the strands of this debate and without completely exonerating Rahner's stance - particularly its impact on ecclesial practice - demonstrates that his work, whilst perhaps operating in categories which are perhaps questionable in their breadth, is not entirely inimical to the fundamental mission of the Church to spread the Gospel to all.The final essay of part one, "Cardinal Ratzinger on Theology, Liturgy, Faith," explores the theological and ecclesial phenomenon that is Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, seeking to update Nichols' 1988 book The Theology of Joseph Ratzinger. Nichols considers Ratzinger's stance on rôle of the theologian vis a vis the magisterium, the debate about liberation theology, the grave threat posed to the Church by relativism, and the effects of theological and liturgical horizontalism, employing an incisive horticultural metaphor to assess Ratzinger's position:"To a gardener, tending plants and pruning them often amount to the same thing, and not least when a garden is - like modern Catholicism, vital but rank - in the eloquent Cockney idiom "blooming awful." (p. 146)"Part two of this collection comprises three essays on the Sacred Liturgy. The first revisits the contribution of Dom Odo Casel (d. 1948), the monk of Maria Laach famous for his theology of Christ's continuing action through the mysteries of the Liturgy. Casel prompted controversy at the time being accused of a hyperliturgism that left no room for non-liturgical prayer. His influence on the liturgical Constitution of the Second Vatican Council was significant. Because of this Casel has recently been accused of doctrinal erorr (by the Society of St Pius X's The Problem of the Liturgical Reform). Yet, as Nichols asserts:"The reluctance to treat Dom Odo Casel as one of the great fathers, indeed I would say the great father of the twentieth century Liturgical Movement made it easy for those who had quite different agendas for the future of that Movement, and appealed to other, less crucial, sections of the Conciliar constitution - those, namely, dealing with the pastoral adaptation of the rites - to push the entire life of Western Catholicism in a direction which, I do not think it excessive to say, Casel would abhor. (p. 164)"Dom Odo is certainly worth re-visiting.The second liturgical essay, "A Tale of Two Documents: Sacrosanctum Concilium and Mediator Dei," (also published together with the two documents themselves in the Abbey Press' volume A Pope and a Council on the Sacred Liturgy - which corrects two inaccurate references in the footnotes published in the present volume), is a poignant study of the content and contexts of these seminal magisterial documents, and essential reading for any serious student of the Liturgy.The final essay attempts a presentation of Catherine Pickstock's "extraordinary book" After Writing: On the Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy. Nichols succeeds in distilling her principal themes - which is no easy task - and accords her high praise indeed, concluding that the work constitutes "a genuine novelty in the life of theology - and one that, unlike most innovations, really can claim to be `radically orthodox.'"An attractively produced book, Beyond the Blue Glass offers the reader a sound and wide-ranging tutorial in significant aspects of and persons involved in the theological life of the Church. Theological students cannot but profit from Nichols' erudition and originality. And the interested reader will be richly rewarded for taking up the challenge of studying these essays.

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