My weekend on retreat at Prince of Peace Abbey

Oh, I do love me some Benedictines…

Favorite hymn (though the hymns can never quite match the psalms…)

The abbot kindly asked me if I wanted to try this out – perfect for the weak Catholic afraid of death…

The Seventh Station, the Second Fall:  pray to resist discouragement.

And finally, what sort of graffiti do you find on the wall in the bathroom at a Benedictine monastery?

It sure beats the stuff on the garage door at my parish!

A wonderful weekend, a genuine retreat.  There seems to be a pretty strong Benedictine vibe around here.  We should get sponsorship.


  1. Thanks Matthew.

  2. Angelico Nguyen, Esq., OP says

    Thanks for sharing a taste of the retreat. If the Benedictines are popular around here, they deserve it; no one religious order may be indispensable, but the OSB comes closest. They were built tough to survive a Dark Age, and remain a fortress of God’s Kingdom through succeeding ages that are each dark in their own way — including even the middle age of Matthew Lickona.

    The ad for Bénédictine (which liqueur, incidentally, plays well with brandy) fills me with nostalgia for those long-ago months when Mad Men was on the air.

    • Well, Alasdair MacIntyre did say that we were waiting, in our time, for another Saint Benedict.

      Can you be nostalgic about a show that is itself built on nostalgia?

      • Angelico Nguyen, Esq., OP says

        For what it’s worth, I’m more nostalgic for Pugin’s almost(?) insanely nostalgic 19th-century Gothic Revival than for the 12th century original.

        Nostalgia is part of Mad Men‘s appeal, but only part. It’s both an elegy and an indictment — and, above all, good television.

        • Ah, the romantics. One can steel one’s heart against the “sweet sad piping of the nineteenth century,” but it’s hard work.

          I do enjoy Mad Men.

          • Angelico Nguyen, Esq., OP says

            The really refreshing thing about Pugin and so many of the other Gothic Revivalists, though, was that they weren’t just trying to steel their own hearts against the ‘sweet sad’ piping; they were trying to drown out that piping with their own, full-throated anthems.

            If they had confined their revival to churches and houses, I might admire them, but I probably wouldn’t feel nostalgia for their project. What makes their age attractive to me is the positive creative vigor the best of them exercised in trying to apply a medieval aesthetic and (variously understood and to varying degrees) ethos to modern, industrial-age projects: Office buildings (including skyscrapers), railway stations, suspension bridges….

            • I especially like this, from the Wikipedia entry on Pugin:

              “In 1836, Pugin published Contrasts, a polemical book which argued for the revival of the medieval Gothic style, and also “a return to the faith and the social structures of the Middle Ages”. […] Each plate in the book selected a type of urban building and contrasted the 1830 example with its 15th-century equivalent. In one example, Pugin contrasted a medieval monastic foundation, where monks fed and clothed the needy, grew food in the gardens–and gave the dead a decent burial–with ‘a panopticon workhouse where the poor were beaten, half starved and sent off after death for dissection. Each structure was the built expression of a particular view of humanity: Christianity versus Utilitarianism.'”

              (Not being a huge personal fan of Panopticon-inspired projects, myself.)

              Is there a modern-day equivalent to Pugin?

              • Angelico Nguyen, Esq., OP says

                Haha, yes! Rachel, have you seen Contrast?

                Google has made it free online here.

                It’s a fun read, but the meat of the book is at the end: the polemical illustrations in which Pugin contrasts pre- and post-Enlightenment architecture. Vicious architectural satire by a semi-madman with a reforming purpose.

                Your last question is an interesting one. I’ll be thinking — and would be interested in knowing whether anyone else hereabouts has any names to suggest.

                • I hadn’t, but I have now. Thanks. Those illustrations are great. And my favorite’s definitely the “Contrasted Residences for the Poor.”

                  • Angelico Nguyen, Esq., OP says

                    That is the best! In Pugin’s mind, modern:medieval::Simon Legree:Saint Francis. He even makes his draftsmanship mean and insipid when he draws the modern scenes.

                    I’ve been thinking about your question, and am still stumped. The nearest name that comes to mind is Daniel Mitsui. Can you — or anyone here — think of anyone alive now who is equivalent to Pugin?

                    • Mitsui was the easy answer, but I thought we had to stick to architecture. Duncan Stroik?

                    • Well, I guess I was sort of wondering about architectural parallels, with that question, but the larger question, to me, anyway, is this one:

                      How can one draw on a medieval aesthetics (and on medieval practices of charity??) in a way that is responsible and that doesn’t descend into sentimentality?*

                      I’d settle for either an explanation or an example. Mitsui is someone who does this, I would guess, although I’m not super familiar with his work.

                      * One could of course argue that this is precisely what Pugin failed to do. But, without knowing a lot about the man, I would suspect he is something akin to Dickens in this regard. And I am no longer as convinced as I once was of Dickens’s sentimentality. (It seems oddly appropriate that Uncle Tom’s Cabin has made it into this discussion, as Harriet Beecher Stowe is often accused of the very same fault.)

                    • I guess there is always Tolkien.

                    • Angelico Nguyen, Esq., OP says

                      Good question, Rachel. More to follow, when I get a chance.

                      Lickona, I agree that Duncan Stroik is a good near-parallel for our time, but Pugin wouldn’t have: He considered Renaissance, Baroque, and Neoclassical architecture to be dishonest, worldly, illogical, and pagan. Stroik, like Pugin, designs modern buildings that extend ancient traditions (rather than slavishly copying), and lives to see them built. But Mitsui shares more of Pugin’s attitude.

                    • Angelico Nguyen, Esq., OP says

                      Still thinking about how to draw on medieval aesthetics (or practices, or ideas) in a way that is responsible and doesn’t descend into sentimentality. Here’s an attempt:

                      Pugin tried to be responsible and to avoid sentimentality — even though his idealization of the Medieval past in, e.g., Contrasts is historically irresponsible and very sentimental. But moving away from his polemics (however delicious!) to his ideas about architecture, he thought the Gothic style/ethos was worth reviving not only because of its superior beauty, but also because of its superior honesty.

                      Superior to what? To the Renaissance, Baroque, and Neoclassical revivals of pagan artistic and architectural modes. These post-Gothic styles — especially the Baroque — relied on illusion, even theatrical effects. Case in point: The cross-section of Wren’s dome for St Paul’s. From the outside of the Cathedral, you see the outer shell of a dome, with a big lantern on top. From the floor of the Cathedral, you see the inner shell of a dome. But between the outer and inner shells is the structure that actually bears the weight of the lantern: A brick cone, hidden from sight.

                      For Pugin, hiding the true structure of a building comes close to violating the Eighth Commandment. If your building must have a cone, show it off and make it beautiful; this is the principle behind the flying buttresses of the Gothic cathedral, which serve the practical purpose of propping up thin walls, but also add to the beauty of the building. I think you’ll find the same or similar ideas in John Ruskin.

                      They were reacting not only against the various Pagan revivalists, but also against medieval sentimentalists, such as the 18th century’s Horace Walpole, whose Strawberry Hill House made pointed arches and crenelated turrets fashionable for the first time in more than two hundred years. Look at the famous fan-vault ceiling of Strawberry Hill’s Gallery. Its visual beauty isn’t diminished by the fact that it’s made of papier-mâché — but its moral beauty is! A true fan vault uses tracery to highlight the actual self-supporting structure of the pointed vault. It’s an elaboration of the structure that holds the ceiling up. At Strawberry Hill, by contrast, Walpole wanted the beauty of fan vaults, but lacked the interest or resources to build real ones. Structurally, the gallery is an ordinary rectangular box of a room, with a flat, not a pointed, ceiling. All that elaborate papier-mâché fan-vaulting is thus hiding the true, flat ceiling of the room. Worse: Whereas true fan vaults hold up the ceiling, Walpole’s imitation fan vaults hang from the ceiling. They are the opposite of what they are supposed to be!

                      Building in true medieval style means being honest about your building’s materials and structure. The medieval attitude, as Pugin, Ruskin, and other Gothic revivalists understood it, was to let form follow function, and then bring out the beauty of that form.

                    • Thank you. This helps a lot. I am glad he had substantive reasons for his aesthetic stance.

                      Also, they seem like good reasons to me.

                      (Disclaimer: I am an aspiring medievalist, and maybe not so objective.)

                    • Angelico Nguyen, Esq., OP says

                      Thanks, Rachel; delighted to hear it! The Gothic Revival was about more than pointed arches and pinnacles, that’s for sure. Its principle of ‘honesty’ or ‘integrity’ just might — might — find better expression in the naked-and-unashamed minimalism of a plain plastic IKEA chair than in all the sham battlements of Strawberry Hill.

                      This is idle curiosity, so I won’t take it amiss if you don’t answer. But it’s rare to meet a medievalist, so I have to ask:

                      What are your favorite ‘sub-topics’ of study within the larger topic of the Middle Ages? (If you had the funding, what would you most want to research and write about?)

                      And within the blurry spatio-temporal limits of ‘the medieval world’, do you have a favorite place and a favorite time-span? A favorite ‘where’ and a favorite ‘when’?

                    • I’m glad that IKEA isn’t the only alternative to sentimentality. I see what you’re saying, though.

                      If I had the funding, or, perhaps more to the point, if I wasn’t in a literature department, I might very well allow myself to be happily absorbed into the vast sea of Thomistic studies.

                      Short of that, I’m very interested in the Victorines (especially Richard of Saint Victor) and in how, as regular canons, they seem to have been able to hold together elements from both the active and the contemplative lives (and this, before there was any such thing as a Dominican!).

                      Either Paris or Strasbourg, for a favorite place. Paris because of the schools, and Strasbourg because of the cathedral.

                      And I love the twelfth century. I have loved it for a long time now. It has the best people: Abélard, Héloïse, Bernard, Isaac of Stella, Aelred of Rievaulx, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Henry Plantagenêt, the troubadours and writers of romance. Not to mention Hildegard von Bingen, who, I would say, is in a class of her own.

                      I wouldn’t exactly say I’m nostalgic for the Middle Ages, but if I were, it would be for the twelfth century, and probably for twelfth century France.

                    • Angelico Nguyen, Esq., OP says

                      Thanks very much for these satisfying answers, Rachel.

                      A definite ditto on the Thomistic studies — both as a viable philosophy and as an historical subject.

                      I am ignorant of the Victorines, but now have at least some hope of remedying that eventually. Just as it’s encouraging to meet another individual who’s attempting the ‘mixed life’, it’s encouraging to hear about another order.

                      I didn’t know what Strasbourg’s cathedral looked like, but I do now. Good Lord. That really might be enough to tempt a scholar away from Paris.

                      Anyway, thank you again for giving good answers, and your reasons for them.

                      And happy studying in our own century!

  3. Angelico Nguyen, Esq., OP says

    The Kollektor’s Edition of Korrektiv Klassiks (leather-bound, on cotton rag paper, designed and hand-colored by Daniel Mitsui) should come boxed up in a Benedictine-built miniature coffin.

    ‘Remember, man, that books are pulp….’

  4. I remember reading The Rule of St. Benedict in a seminar class in college. It was so different from what I expected — so mild, so understanding, so reasonable, that I was suddenly filled with a vast desire to leave the world and embark upon the religious life, nevermind that Darwin and I had been dating for a year and half by then. The urge passed, but the respect it generated for the Benedictines still lives on.

  5. The Duffer says

    I need to go on a retreat.

    Any epiphanies?

    • Angelico Nguyen, Esq., OP says

      ‘Aha! Keyser Soze was dead the whole time; I was just hallucinating that he was still alive because I’d been hit in the head with a sled called Soylent Green! IT ALL MAKES SENSE NOW.’

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