On blindness and true guides

“A blind man, if he be not quite blind, refuses to be led by a guide; and, since he sees a little, he thinks it better to go in whatever happens to be the direction which he can distinguish, because he sees none better; and thus he can lead astray a guide who sees more than he, for after all it is for him to say where he shall go rather than for the guide. In the same way a soul may lean upon any knowledge of its own, or any feeling or experience of God, yet, however great this may be, it is very little and far different from what God is; and, in going along this road, a soul is easily led astray, or brought to a standstill, because it will not remain in faith like one that is blind, and faith is its true guide.”

St. John of the Cross, Ascent of Mt. Carmel

The liturgy: foremost and indispensable

An Irish monk explains some liturgical differences:

“Jesuits, as practical individuals, are wont to pray privately in whatever posture a man finds congenial; there is a certain distrust of ritual, corporate ceremony, and rubrics. Nec cantat, nec rubricat. This approach to private prayer even affects the way certain Jesuit priests celebrate Holy Mass. Benedictines, on the whole, are wont to submit to whatever rites, ceremonies, and rubrics have been passed on to them. Schooled by long hours in choir, day after day, they habitually engage their bodies in a kind of sacred choreography that affects their most intimate yearnings Godward. Just as the Jesuit’s approach to personal prayer colours his approach to the liturgy, so too do a Benedictine’s liturgical instincts colour his personal prayer.”

Liturgical Conflicts – II

In addition to the “El Juicio de Dios”, the battle between two knights, “one a Castilian and the other a Toledan”, which marked the tension over liturgical issues between Rome and the local church in 11th century Spain, there is also a story that two bulls, one named “Roma” and the other “Toledo”, were set to fight, and as with the knights, there also the victory was with Toledo.

Once again, in Song of Toledo, I have adapted the circumstances of the event to suit my tale. What follows is my version of how that bullfight went.

From Song of Toledo:

Pelayo turned to Ferdinando as the older boy waved him over to the bullring fence in anticipation of the fight to come. He pointed to the barn doors of the low stone building.

“They should be coming out of two of those doors any moment now.”

Sure enough, they had not waited more than a moment longer when a door swung open sharply and a black bull stepped calmly out to the ring. When the bull appeared, a cry rang out from several young voices, and a flurry of children jumped up from the fires where they were eating with their families and ran over to the fence. A moment later, a second side door opened and another bull charged out. Finally, a few moments afterward, a small man with gray hair and a closely cropped beard followed, carrying nothing but what appeared to be a long, sturdy stick with a long knife attached to the end. The bulls stood at a distance from each other, seeming to pay attention neither to the crowd nor to each other. As for the man, he remained along the fence in order to keep his distance from the two animals.

The crowd watched as the bulls began to circle each other, first slowly, then at a trot. Finally, the black bull stopped and lowered its head and pawed at the ground once, then moved at a seemingly leisurely pace toward the white bull, who lowered his head and waited. The collision was not as forceful as Pelayo would have expected. Rather, the two animals locked horns and began pushing, their nostrils flaring as they began to exert themselves. Children let out a cry, now joined by adults, and Pelayo spotted soldiers throwing coins into a cup and a line of monks leaning against the fence across from where he and Ferdinando were standing. The bulls continued to struggle, the white bull breaking once to turn away, only to turn back around and lower his head when the black bull followed. . . .

. . . The crowd was now fully engaged in the fight, with cheers erupting at random from around the ring whenever one or the other of the bulls seemed to score a definitive blow against his opponent. For a while, it seemed the black bull was winning, because twice more the white bull broke off and ran away, only to have the black bull pursue. The third time, however, the white bull turned sooner, catching the black bull in the side of the face with his horns. Both squeals and cheers rang out from the crowd, and while some seemed invigorated by the blood streaming from alongside the black bull’s eye, others groaned and turned away.

Ferdinando had opted to cheer on the white bull, but Pelayo, still feeling the fatigue of the journey, watched with little enthusiasm. When the white bull scored another blow, this time catching the black bull in the side of his neck as the black bull tried to turn away, Ferdinando and Pelayo both glanced behind them and spotted Don Juan Ruíz and Brother Raúl strolling casually toward them behind the crowd along the fence.

“Brother Raúl,” Ferdinando called out. “Since you and Brother Bernardo can’t seem to settle your differences with a civilized discussion, perhaps you should let these beasts do it for you. I’ve taken a liking to the white bull, so perhaps he can represent me and my fellow Toledans.”

Brother Raúl smiled politely at Ferdinando’s comment, but it was clear that Don Juan Ruíz was not pleased to see Ferdinando again. He stopped and touched Brother Raúl on the arm, then gestured toward an opening in the crowd along the fence. Without looking toward the boys again, both men made their way through the crowd toward the spot along the fence. Ferdinando, however, was not to be discouraged.

“My Lord,” he called out directly to Don Juan Ruíz, “I pray that you are not still upset about our encounter. I meant no disrespect. Ask anyone who knows me, and they’ll tell you I often say things which a more sensible man would not.”

As still neither man replied, Ferdinando shrugged and turned his attention back to the bulls, who had again locked their horns and were clearly stuck in a standoff. For several moments, it seemed neither bull was about to make any progress against the other, but then the black bull suddenly reared back and unhooked himself, and he quickly turned and tried to run away from his opponent. The white bull pursued briefly, but then it seemed he was ready to claim his victory, and he stopped and turned and strolled casually away, snorting a couple of times.

“Ah, see there, Brother,” Ferdinando again called out to Brother Raúl. “We can not deny the power of the soil on which we stand. This is not Rome. This is Hispania.”

On Divine Likeness

“As man’s distinction consists in a property which no other creature on earth possesses, viz., intellectual perception, in the exercise of which he does not employ his senses, nor move his hand or his foot, this perception has been compared – though only apparently, not in truth – to the Divine perception, which requires no corporeal organ. On this account, i.e., on account of the Divine intellect with which man has been endowed, he is said to have been made in the form and likeness of the Almighty, but far from it be the notion that the Supreme Being is corporeal, having a material form.”

Maimonides, A Guide for the Perplexed

Merit of the Call to Prayer (Adhān/Azān)

“Said the Prophet, on him be peace: ‘On the Day of Resurrection, three people will find themselves on a ridge of black musk. They will have no reckoning to fear, nor any cause for alarm while human accounts are being settled. First, a man who recites the Quran to please God, Great and Glorious is He, and who leads the Prayer to people’s satisfaction. Second, a man who gives the Call to Prayer in a Mosque, inviting people to God, Great and Glorious is He, for the sake of His good pleasure. Third, a man who has a hard time making a living in this world, yet is not distracted from the work of the Hereafter.’

“According to other Traditions, the Prophet, on him be peace, said: ‘All that hear the Muezzin’s cry, be they jinn, human or whatever, will testify for him on the Day of Resurrection.’ And: ‘The hand of the All-merciful is on the Muezzin’s head until he completes his Call to Prayer.’

“Commentators say that God, Great and Glorious is He, was referring to Muezzins when He revealed the Quranic Verse: ‘Who speaks better than one who calls to God and acts righteously?’ (Fussilat, 41:33)”

al-Ghazali, Inner Dimensions of Islamic Worship

Liturgical Conflicts – I

Liturgical conflicts – What’s the most appropriate way to worship God? – have been part of Christian history almost from the beginning. In Song of Toledo, part of the tension driving the plot involves that time and place’s dominant liturgical conflict. In the late 11th century, a number of popes were intent upon unifying liturgical practice across Christian Europe, and in Spain that effort was opposed by Christians who had been living under Moorish rule for centuries and had developed their own Arab language rite. Loyal to what would later be dubbed the Mozarabic Rite, these Christians didn’t appreciate Rome’s efforts, to put it lightly. According to medieval histories such as the “Chronicon Burgense“, one of the incidents sparked by this conflict was the “El Juicio de Dios”, when two knights, “one a Castilian and the other a Toledan”, were chosen to fight “pro lege Romana et Toletana”.

While I have adapted the tale (changing the year it occurred as well as its location) to fit the structure of my story, what follows is the introduction to my version of the battle between Ferdinando, a young, sometime reckless Toledan, and Don Juan Ruíz, the commander of the archbishop’s guard and, by extension, a loyal subject of King Alfonso VI, whom Rome had enlisted in its efforts to unify Christians across Hispania under the Roman Rite.

From Song of Toledo:

“I must say, however,” Ferdinando finally continued, “that as a son of Toledo I don’t believe it is anyone’s place to tell me how I might worship the Lord our God.”

Don Juan Ruíz hesitated, seeming confused by Ferdinando’s comment.

“I am referring to yesterday’s conversation between Brothers Raúl and Bernardo concerning our Toledan rite,” Ferdinando continued.

“Oh, that,” Don Juan Ruíz said with a dismissive wave of his hand. “That has nothing to do with me, but it appears you have no choice in the matter. The Holy Father himself has deemed that Hispania will conform to the Roman Rite.”

“And how is that right?” Ferdinando persisted. “How do you have the right to come into my home and impose your will?”

“But, I just said,” Don Juan Ruíz laughed, “it is not my choice.”

“Are you not the archbishop’s protector?” Ferdinando shot back.

He was becoming agitated, and his voice grew louder, and he seemed suddenly eager to make the older man angry. Even his own comrades began to look concerned, and again Pelayo quickly glanced behind to see if Brother Bernardo were in sight, but no one in camp seemed to be paying them much mind. As for Don Juan Ruíz, the smile on his face once again faded, and he began to look around as if trying to decide how much longer he should continue the conversation.

“I am the archbishop’s protector,” he finally replied quietly. “And I am a subject of King Alfonso, as are you.”

Ferdinando didn’t reply, instead walking over to Pelayo and grabbing the sword from his hand, then turning and throwing it at Don Juan Ruíz’s feet.

“I do not believe this is the work of the king,” he spat out. “And I will defend the honor of my home,”

A look of amazement swept across Don Juan Ruíz’s face as he looked from Ferdinando to the stick and back again.

“This is foolishness,” he said in a quiet growl. “I have indulged your recklessness long enough. I am not in the habit of fielding challenges from impudent children.”

“Ah, impudent,” Ferdinando replied with a loud laugh. “I have been called many things — mostly by my father, I might add — but that is one I have never heard. Please, my Lord, do not consider me impudent. I am but a man defending the honor of my home.”

“You are not quite a man . . . “

“If you are so hobbled by the restrictions of age, sir,” Ferdinando interrupted, but Don Juan Ruíz persisted.

“I know what my eyes see,” he snapped, then he leaned over and picked up the sword at his feet.

“Did your eyes see me in battle by our king’s side, then?” Ferdinando smirked.

“No, and I strongly suspect nobody else’s did, either.”

Suddenly, as if prompted by the same signal, they both dropped into a semi-crouch, leaning over and grasping their swords before them in both hands. . . .

Beatus Vir- A sampling of Mozarabic chant

The term “Mozarabic” refers to Christians living under Arabic rule in medieval Spain, and identifies the Old Spanish rite (also called Visigothic), which remained in use there. Mozarabic chant, then, is the liturgical plainchant of the Mozarabic rite of the Western church in the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal). The rite and chant was replaced by Muslim and Christian conquest and reconquest, and was revived in the early 16th Century.

Here’s a version of Beatus Vir, performed by Ensemble Organum:

Song of Toledo – Kindle, Nook and Paperback

Song of Toledo, a novel of 11th century Spain.

Now available on Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble.

Can a man go home again after fighting his own king?

The year is 1086, and for Brother Bernardo, who is accompanying the new archbishop of Toledo from the great monastery at Cluny back to the ancient capital of Hispania, that question is like a hammer blow sounding louder with each step he takes. Fourteen years ago, fleeing from the new ruler of the Christian realm, he abandoned his homeland, the defeated aide to an assassinated king. Now, following Alfonso VI’s historic victory over the Moors who have controlled Toledo for 300 years, Brother Bernardo is stepping back into a past he thought he had left behind forever.

Song of Toledo is the story of a man trying to find peace in a world that has changed in ways he never imagined possible. But it is also the story of Pelayo, the young novice whom Brother Bernardo takes on as a companion when he stops briefly at a small monastery along the way. Against his wishes, Pelayo is told he must accompany Brother Bernardo before he decides whether to take his vows and spend the rest of his life cloistered from the world. And it is the story of Faisal, the young Moor who has seen his beloved Tulaytula (Toledo) snatched from his people, shattering his own hopes for the future.

Written against the backdrop of the historical re-consecration of Toledo’s main mosque as a Christian cathedral, a time when the tide began to turn against centuries of Muslim domination of the Iberian peninsula, Song of Toledo follows the increasingly intertwined stories of Moors and Christians alike as they try to make sense of lives which are slipping, quickly and inexorably, out of their control.

Religious toleration: In the eyes of the beholder?

The period of “convivencia” in medieval Spain is often looked to as, if not a perfect model, at least an example of how different cultural and religious traditions can co-exist.   An example, in a word, of how potentially conflicting communities can “tolerate” each other.

But what does “toleration” mean? Evan Haefeli, a history professor at Columbia University, argues that though we gravitate toward a few common terms, “in fact we are describing a diversity of arrangements, dynamics, and possibilities taking place in different societies at different times.”

He notes a little later, “Far from being a stable category or experience, toleration is fundamentally a relationship, and inherently an ongoing, ever-evolving relationship, the content of which varies significantly depending on the parties involved.”  Viewing toleration as a “perpetual motion machine”, he suggests, rather than as a static, achievable reality, will lead to a better understanding of the world in which we have always lived.

Freedom and Religion: Is it Either/Or?

Pick up a newspaper on any given day and you’re bound to find an article describing a clash between some form of secular political power and a religious institution. In the West, these episodes play out, at least for the most part, in courts or legislative bodies. But that has not always been the case. In medieval Spain, over the course of many centuries, who controlled a city very much determined the plight of the religious communities within that city.

In 1085, for example, when King Alfonso VI imposed Christian control over Toledo for the first time in more than 300 years, the impact on the Muslim community was immediate and pervasive.

From Song of Toledo:

In some ways, very little changed when the Christian king claimed the city, but in other ways things changed too much for many of their friends, as well as his father’s colleagues, to accept. They were allowed to remain as more or less free citizens, keeping both their property and the right to practice their faith. And those who wished to leave could do so and take their belongings with them. Still, Muslims, along with the city’s Jews, were now forced to pay the annual head tax, which was traditionally paid by the faith communities who did not rule the city. At first, all their mosques remained in their hands except for the main Friday mosque near Faisal’s grandfather’s house. That mosque became the property of the new king, and he was free to do with it as he wished.

Soon after the change in rule, the families of many of Faisal’s friends took what property they could and moved south to Qurtuba, which, when the Christians held the city centuries before, they had called Córdoba. Faisal’s father opted to stay on with the administration as muhtasib, but he now knew he could be dismissed at any moment. As for Faisal, he had the hope of youth that the change would be temporary, but he couldn’t deny that the changes underway, if they continued for long, would change Tulaytula forever. Perhaps the uncertainty surrounding the city’s mosques was what concerned him the most. The mosque at which he had worshipped since his father taught him salaat stood at the base of the street on which his house was located. It was not nearly the size of many of the city’s other mosques, but except for Fridays, when Faisal accompanied his father to salaat in the main mosque, he always tried to be near Bab-al-Mardum, as the neighborhood mosque had been called since its construction nearly 100 years before Faisal was born. For one thing, it was obviously in convenient proximity to his home, but it also had a beautiful garden, including a fountain, which looked out over the southern wall of the city and across the Tajo River. And after salaat, from that garden Faisal fashioned no small number of his dreams as he gazed out across the river to the flat meseta beyond. . . . . .

In the modern West, this world seems foreign to us. But in other parts of the world, tensions and complexities which we might consider “outdated” are very much alive and well.

Here, for example, is an interview with the new Vicar General of the Catholic Archdiocese of Tunis.