23 Jul Modern Millennial Medievalists
He’s not even thirty years old, but James Griffin already has quite a bit of life experience – a conversion from Seventh Day Adventism, a baby born out of wedlock, a wedding celebrated in the usus antiquor in traditional Indonesian dress. He also has a distinct point of view, which the author of the popular blog ‘Modern Medievalism’ shares here with REGINA’s Ed Masters.
REGINA: James, tell us about yourself.
JAMES: I was born in Corpus Christi, Texas in 1987, while my parents were on vacation, and have lived in the state most of my life. As with many other so-called “millennials” who convert to the Catholic faith, I was a seeker of the true, good, and beautiful in a world sorely wanting for all three.
REGINA: Why do you think this is?
JAMES: My parents divorced when I was three years old. When so many of your formative years are spent alone while your mother works outside, you have a lot of time to think about the big questions: the existence of God, what happens to us after death, why so much injustice prevails in the world, and so on. You also have plenty of opportunity to get into trouble; it shouldn’t surprise anyone that most of my peers growing up strictly chose the latter option.
REGINA: You have personal experience of this?
JAMES: I’ve had my own share of stumbling and falling on the way, even (or perhaps especially) after I was baptized and received into the Catholic faith. Every time that happens, though, I take a little solace from G.K. Chesterton’s What’s Wrong With the World: “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.” Chestertoniacs may quote that line to death, but for very good reason.
REGINA: So, what made you convert to Catholicism?
JAMES: I imagine that whenever you ask a convert that question, your interview runs the risk of turning into a novel! I’ll try to keep it brief: my religious upbringing was mostly informed by the Seventh-day Adventist Church, where my mother remains a very active member and lay leader.
REGINA: They are an American sect, founded in the 19th century, which now has spread to other countries.
JAMES: Yes. To outsiders, this Protestant sect is distinguished mainly by going to church on Saturday and following a few of the Old Testament dietary laws. (I will still never eat a pepperoni pizza or a bacon cheeseburger in my mother’s presence.) For devout Adventists, though, these are just two outward signs of a whole belief system based on a “remnant church” identity and an unusual doctrine called the investigative judgment, whereby Christ entered the Holy of Holies in the heavenly temple in the year 1844 and is now in the final stage of judging the world.
REGINA: Like many of the sects founded in upstate New York in the 1840s, they emphasize the end of the world.
JAMES: Yes, to even begin to understand what that means, Adventist religious education classes teach heavy doses of the Old Testament, with special emphasis on the rites of the Mosaic covenant: the burnt offerings, the priesthood, the Temple of Jerusalem, and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement).
REGINA: Sounds like you had a great deal of this as a child.
JAMES: I have two things to say about my time studying Scripture with the Adventists: first, what passes for religious education at your typical Catholic parish today is a joke, by comparison. Second, I came to genuinely appreciate the seriousness with which the ancient Israelites took their worship of the One God.
REGINA: What do you mean?
JAMES: The Adventists are quite fond of taking their kids to tour these traveling replicas of the Tabernacle; the great tent which the Israelites used during their wanderings in the desert, before the construction of Solomon’s Temple. There, we got to tangibly experience the feeling of dread that the ancients must have had when verbally confessing their sins before a priest, with hands laid over an animal to be slain for their transgressions, at the brazen altar. We learned the significance of each of the high priest’s vestments, from the hoshen (the breastplate with twelve colored gemstones each signifying one of the twelve tribes of Israel) to the mitre (the headpiece with a golden plate inscribed with the words, “holiness unto YHWH”). We imagined the aura of mystery as the high priest stepped beyond the veil but once a year into the Holy of Holies to offer blood and incense on the Day of Atonement. And we beheld with our own eyes that God commanded the use of images in worship, above all to house His presence within the Ark of the Covenant.
REGINA: Wow, very visceral!
JAMES: If this all sounds like a prefigurement of the sacraments and rites used in Catholic worship, you would be right (and I highly recommend Catholics tour one of these traveling exhibits if they ever happen to come by your area). By the time I was sixteen, I had put aside flirtations with atheism and was ready to accept Christ as the son of the living God, but I could no longer reconcile the religion of the Old Testament with the radically opposite worship style that Adventists have inherited from other evangelical Protestant traditions: stubbornly iconoclastic, wholly anti-liturgical, and completely devoid of the sacramental spirituality that infused the Israelite faith.
REGINA: Right, iconoclasm is very big in certain Protestant sects and regrettably today in parts of Catholic Church as well.
JAMES: I’ll spare your readers the details of all the other religions I looked into, but you might find it amusing that I learned quite a lot about Catholicism via the Adventist Church. You see, Adventist apologetics haven’t changed much since their 19th century founding. There’s surprisingly little interest in meeting the great challenges of our age, such as secularism and Islam. Instead, they dedicate the bulk of their energies to refuting the “errors” of the church of Rome.
REGINA: Not surprising. Sects are known for their insularity.
JAMES: This might be because the Adventists believe that the papacy is the Antichrist and that, at the end of days, the pope will achieve world domination and lead a great persecution against all true Christians. I must’ve read more excerpts from pre-conciliar Catholic catechisms and journals (with the purpose of refuting them) than most newly ordained priests read during their entire stay in seminary. Some Adventist apologists would be surprised if they ever found out that most Catholics are actually ignorant of what transubstantiation means, not to mention that Jesuits are more apt to wear Tommy Bahamas to Mass than carry a silenced pistol underneath a cassock!
REGINA: Wow, this is amazing.
JAMES: But yes, through Adventist apologetics classes, I already knew that Catholics believed that their Mass was a sacrifice, that they believed Jesus was truly present in the Eucharist, and many other smaller points of doctrine that the average cradle Catholic might not have ever given much thought to. My great obstacle as a convert wasn’t so much learning new things as it was sorting truth from falsehood; for instance, understanding that the Mass wasn’t “re-crucifying Christ over and over again” or that a priest wasn’t assuming divinity for himself by “turning wafers into God”.
REGINA: It would be laughable if it wasn’t so sad, actually.
JAMES: I was still a minor when I had a meeting with the pastor of my neighborhood Catholic parish. It was a setback for two reasons: first, he wouldn’t allow me to enter the parish’s RCIA program without parental consent. Second, the Masses celebrated there didn’t seem to reflect much of the Catholic faith as I had learned it, either through the Adventist perspective or my own self-study of Catholic books at the public library.
REGINA: You must have been mightily confused.
JAMES: If I was going to make any progress, I knew I had to seek out a traditional Latin Mass community. Even this was a blunder at first. I still remember that one of the first things I did when I got my first job and car was to try to find the local diocesan Latin Mass at the address listed on a very primitive web page. I completely drove by it the first time, and had to try again the next Sunday. It was based in a tiny chapel behind a nursing home. This was a couple years shy of Summorum Pontificum, so the conditions for this fledgling community were still quite poor.
REGINA: Yes, we have seen this sort of thing all around the world.
JAMES: If it weren’t for the splendor and truth of the traditional low Mass alone, I’m not sure I would’ve ever gone back. Imagine about 15 worshippers gathered in a chapel built for 20, sweating like hogs under the Texan summer sun, deprived of God’s gift of air conditioning. The priest’s Latin is obscured by the hum of a fan that never seems to blow in your direction, and nothing charitable can be said about either the choice of hymns or the manner in which they’re sung. At last, when Mass is over and you want to ask someone about how to become Catholic, everyone rushes to their cars and splits with nary a nod in your direction.
REGINA: Not a very promising prospect.
JAMES: Since I had studied Latin in high school and was already an avid student of church history, the all-Latin liturgy wasn’t much of a shock at all compared to the congregation. I had come from a place where robust congregational singing and a real sense of family between all church members were normal, so it was for love of the Mass alone that I came back the next Sunday.
REGINA: So, you persisted?
JAMES: Yes. After a few weeks, I got a sense that many of the older attendees had been ostracized by their Catholic peers for years, or even decades, for continuing to prefer the traditional rite after the Council reforms. I got over the lack of hospitality and I asked if I could be baptized there, but since the chapel wasn’t a parish, the priests who celebrated Mass there didn’t have any authority to baptize new Catholics. I had to join a parish, but I dreaded returning to the one in my neighborhood.
I then discovered that my diocese had something called an “Anglican Use” parish: a church erected specially to accommodate converts from the Episcopal Church. I soon found out that this church, called Our Lady of the Atonement, routinely accepted converts from many Protestant churches year round, and since it was designated a “personal parish”, you didn’t have to live within a certain boundary to be a member. It was a bit of a drive, but from the first Sunday Mass I attended there, I found a liturgy that was offered with reverence and a real sense of continuity with the preconciliar Roman Rite. It was a bonus that the people there took congregational singing quite seriously, and that the pastor was a convert from Protestantism himself (a former Episcopal minister). After a short conversation with one of the deacons at the church, he determined that I knew my catechism well enough to not have to attend any classes at all. I was baptized and confirmed by the pastor just a couple of weeks later, on Christmas Eve of 2005.
REGINA: So this was ten years ago, then?
JAMES: Yes, and after Pope Benedict XVI issued Summorum Pontificum, the diocesan traditional Latin Mass community was given a new home at the parish of Saint Pius X. By this time, I was assisting there as well as at Our Lady of the Atonement. Since I was a chanter at Atonement’s Gregorian chant schola, I was invited to help the TLM community build up their choral program for their first-ever sung Masses.
Although I’ve moved out and back into the city a few times over the years, I’ve been an enthusiastic chanter (and resident eccentric) at both churches whenever I’m in town! Where liturgies are concerned, the traditional Latin Mass will always be my first love, but I’m also very grateful for the role that the Anglican Use played in bringing me into the Catholic faith, and so I remain a member of Our Lady of the Atonement, even though I also regularly sing the sacred chant and occasionally serve the altar at the diocesan TLM as well.
REGINA: So how did you meet your wife?
JAMES: I’m afraid this story may not be as edifying as one would hope, but since you asked, Mrs. Griffin and I met originally on the Internet about four years ago, through a forum dedicated to Catholics interested in the traditional Latin Mass.
REGINA: Very common these days.
JAMES: Lauren’s picture is next to the definition of the word “seeker” in Merriam-Webster’s. Though a cradle Catholic, we had a lot of shared experiences growing up. Her parents divorced before she was even a year old, much of her childhood was spent alone, and she, too, came to discover the traditional Latin Mass on her own. In her case, it was offered at a parish near a small art school for traditional drawing and portraiture that she was attending at the time.
Like me, Lauren has a very strong sense of how the Catholic faith ought to be expressed in liturgy, sacred art, and music. I’m no artist myself, but I enjoyed her discussions on traditional art and iconography, and she must have found something redeeming in my snarky armchair pontifications on liturgical matters.
REGINA: Sounds like a match made in heaven.
JAMES: The first two years were quite difficult because Lauren lived in Pennsylvania. Long distance relationships are tough for anyone, and in most cases, I wouldn’t recommend it. It’s expensive to fly out to meet your significant other every few months in order to maintain personal interaction, and even more challenging to be chaste when you do meet. And yet, since finding like-spirited Catholics these days can be a textbook needle-in-a-haystack scenario, a long distance relationship is sometimes a “necessary evil”. Eventually, after enough waffling about over the question of marriage and encouraged by a holy religious priest who celebrates the old Mass here, we promised ourselves to each other in a traditional rite of betrothal after Mass on the feast of the Immaculate Conception. Now, for most couples, engagement is a joyous affair followed by the excitement of planning a wedding. Two families come together to help, and while they may not necessarily like each other, they’ll cover most of the costs and arrange the details. Parents indulge the bride’s aesthetic whims, and the groom just shows up.
REGINA: That’s not what happened to you?
JAMES: For us, the following year was just the opposite; to the contrary, they saw some of the most harrowing and trying months of our lives. Our betrothal was the day after I returned from Houston for my older half-brother’s funeral. After a long struggle with depression (which had also played a part in my father’s premature death), he had committed suicide, leaving behind two young children, my niece and nephew.
REGINA: How terrible!
JAMES: Even with the grace of the sacraments, it’s easy to succumb to the soullessness of this post-industrial, post-Christian age; I’d be lying if I denied falling into despair and isolation multiple times after becoming Catholic. The next few months would be the ultimate test of faith: about three weeks after the betrothal, while Lauren was away in Pennsylvania, she called me late one night to tell me that she was pregnant. I wasn’t financially in a good place at the time, and Lauren would soon have to withdraw from college. Fears ran amok, we weren’t sure about having any future stability, and any further plans for marriage were tabled. There was little talk of God in those days, and I even apostasized for about a week. With our baby, we were on the verge of betraying everything we had believed in.
REGINA: Sounds like a bad time for you.
JAMES: Looking back now, I can only see the petty fearmongering of two materialists who suddenly regressed into adolescence at the thought that a cushy, middle-class existence with their own two-story house might not be in their cards for the immediate future. I didn’t think about it at the time, but that scared phone call late in the night was made on the feast of the Holy Innocents, commemorating the babes who were slaughtered at the command of a petty king who feared that a child would someday take everything he had. It’s not always heroic virtue to do the right thing, but the wrong choice can easily make us no better than Herod.
REGINA: Yes, this is true.
JAMES: Eventually, we turned to God and finished the initial pre-marital counseling shortly before our baby was born. Our daughter was christened with the name Katharine, after Saint Katharine Drexel (also a native of Lauren’s home of Philadelphia) and Queen Katharine of Aragon, the headstrong wife of Henry VIII who upheld the indissolubility of her marriage to her last breath. God has provided, and I’ve joyfully adopted the new role of father, dressing and carrying her wherever I go.
REGINA: And the wedding…?
JAMES: Lauren is not the sort of woman to pay much mind to wedding arrangements even in the best circumstances, and with a baby in tow, it all but ensured her total apathy to the secular trappings around the nuptials. None of her friends or family would come to Texas to attend, except for her mother. Our reception was a low-budget affair with all homemade food served; having it on a Monday cut even more costs.
REGINA: Okay, but the liturgy…?
JAMES: The marriage liturgy, on the other hand, is about more than just two people. The Mass and sacraments are given to us to glorify God and increase our relationship with Him. The modern world devalues the marriage bond to a mere contract that can be entered and broken between anyone who can sign a piece of paper issued by the state.
As Catholics, though, we know that the Lord restored marriage to its first dignity, as it was “in the time of man’s innocency” in the Garden, and elevated it to a sacrament. I wished for our wedding liturgy to be celebrated with all the solemnity that the Church once accorded this sacrament, long ago.
So, with the immeasurable help of my friends in our Gregorian chant schola and the full support of my parish church, we were able to invite a priest of the Priestly Fraternity of Saint Peter, who flew in from his apostolate in Guadalajara, Mexico, and two seminarians of the same Fraternity to officiate the marriage rite following the pre-conciliar Roman Ritual (with some adaptations from the ancient English Ritual) and offer the solemn high nuptial Mass according to the Missal of 1962 at Our Lady of the Atonement.
My friends formed a schola of eight chanters, seated to the couple’s left and right in antiphonal style, to sing the full Gregorian propers and other chants. We were also able to organize a second choir of professional musicians to sing the Ordinary of the Mass according to the Missa Pange Lingua by Joaquin des Prez.
Imagine that arrangement for a weekday wedding with less than twenty guests, without any bridesmaids or groomsmen, or even our parents in attendance! Three professed sisters who participated assured us, though, that the nave was full of angels.
REGINA: Okay, I have to ask about those wedding garments.
JAMES: I was born and raised in the United States, but I was always fascinated with the diverse wedding garments worn throughout the islands of Indonesia, where my mother was born. A distinctive wedding costume outwardly affirms the dignity of marriage, but Lauren didn’t want to wear a conventional white dress, and besides, the monochromatism of the typical white wedding is a bit bland for the riot of colors of the church and its rich vestments.
So, I wrote to a dressmaker in Jakarta to order a made-to-measure set of garments for us both. It took six months and we didn’t receive them until just days before the wedding, but they were as comfortable as pajamas and cheaper than custom garments from any western clothier.
In Indonesia, the wedding garments can be made in any colors, though the mainstays are black and gold, red, and green, depending on the region. The bride and groom wear matching colors and designs; the more ornate in needlework, the better, because even the poorest of farmers from the rice paddies are a king and queen on the day of their wedding.
Ours still featured white, which has become the traditional color for weddings in the west since the age of Queen Victoria; but the dominant color is blue, the most desired of all shades by the artists of medieval Christendom.
Our Lady of the Atonement’s interior takes its cue from the tradition of the pre-Reformation churches in England, which our medieval forefathers in faith unreservedly painted in a resplendent array of colors, inside and out. And, like so many other pre-modern cultures worldwide, they exalted colored fabrics and gemstones, the sapphire above all.
Observe an image of the Blessed Virgin in a Book of Hours. She is almost certainly clad in a cloak of blue, an exceedingly difficult and expensive shade to paint in the centuries before industrial-era pigments. That image would have required the artist to crush a blue gemstone such as lapis lazuli into a fine dust. Now imagine undergoing the same process to dye an entire priest’s chasuble… or a wedding garment. How precious it must have been! (Traditional images and icons of Christ are more apt to show Him in red, blue, or gold, while Protestant or modern depictions prefer a simpler white raiment.)
Let me put it this way: for most of us young folk who are coming to embrace the Church’s treasury of traditions, when we see a priest in a cassock on the street, we don’t see “a man in a dress”, as so many non-Catholics or even Catholics who grew up after Vatican II do. We see a man outwardly witnessing his dedication as a servant of God, making himself plainly known to anyone who might need his guidance or the sacraments in a time of emergency.
When we milliennials watch an old video of Bishop Fulton Sheen speaking on some issue of timeless import, we don’t think that he’s trying to dress like a comic book superhero because he wears a red cape. We might not all know that it’s called a “ferraiolo” or precisely for what occasions it’s worn, but we see that the good bishop is clothed with the dignity of his episcopal office, and that those garments lend weight; gravitas; to what he says.
REGINA: This is the same perspective as the Church has had for centuries, of course.
James: I’m not going to leap from there to conclude that a man sins when he goes to Sunday Mass without a suit coat and necktie. That is, in my opinion, arbitrary and adding to the gospel we’ve received with unnecessary obstacles to salvation. Folding a pocket square isn’t an indulgenced act.
But the value of distinctive dress extends well beyond our clergy. From princes to peasants, the lay Catholic is anointed at confirmation to represent the Savior of mankind to the outside world as a type of priest, prophet, and king. We are subjects and citizens of a kingdom greater than any nation-state on earth.
So I don’t encourage priests (and deacons, too!) to take to the public square in an “outmoded” form of dress like the cassock without making my own efforts. So, as in my grandfathers’ youth (both in Georgia and rural Java), I’ll sometimes put on a vested suit and hat when going out and about town for very “special” occasions like leaving the house, driving around aimlessly, grocery shopping, or visiting friends’ houses. Mrs. Griffin will do the same in a pencil skirt, blouse, hose, and cloche. She says I’m the only person on earth who habitually wears a baby wrap over a suit. We occasionally get more eccentric by celebrating the even richer styles from past centuries of Christian civilization at Renaissance festivals and similar events. When the torturous summer sun burns with full fervor here in Texas, I shed these in favor of light, yet splendid batik print shirts imported from Indonesia.
REGINA: So, what is life like for modern medievalists?
JAMES: If Josef Pieper was on to something in his book, Leisure: The Basis of Culture, then Mrs. Griffin is one of the most cultured women alive. This isn’t to say that being a domestic mother is easy! Rather, no matter how little sleep she gets or how crazy little Katharine acts through the course of the day, Lauren is somehow always contemplating the “big questions”; the reflections which are necessary to build lasting civilization. She permeates nursing and playtime at home with audiobooks and podcasts on anything from the old Icelandic sagas to lectures from the Rev. John Hunwicke (an eminent Ordinariate priest and gentleman-scholar, if there ever was one) on the liturgy. Last weekend, she went to the public library and checked out books on parenting methods in other countries and old world European cooking. Before she became pregnant, Lauren was also studying the Renaissance lute. We’re currently trying to figure out how to get her back to her lessons.
If she’s a Mary, I’m more of a Martha. I always have to be “doing” something. I started chanting and serving the altar at Mass very soon after I converted, and even after marriage, I still regularly chant in choir and serve low Mass once every month or so. If I want to learn about some heretofore unknown facet of history, I read everything I can find on the subject and write an essay to post online. When I got into genealogical studies last year, I started work on a book of my family history and joined a hereditary society, the Sons of the American Revolution. Even if I play a video game, I’m apt to write a full-fledged review of the experience and analyze its narrative themes afterward. Lauren is sometimes annoyed that I can’t just sit still and contemplate the mysteries of God and eternity without turning it into a paper.
What’s most important to us both is that we share our experiences together. If she reads a book, I’m probably going to read at least part of it, too, even if I’m not actually interested in the subject. If I play a video game, we take turns on the controller or keyboard. We almost always go out to meet friends as a family, and are not the slightest bit ashamed to bring our baby to a pub or a nice restaurant. I don’t know if this naturally changes for married couples over the years, but that’s how we go about life right now: together everywhere.
REGINA: You have a popular blog, ‘Modern Medievalism.’
JAMES: At Lauren’s suggestion, I created Modern Medievalism so I could relate our present world to ideas rooted in the Middle Ages. The first “modern medievalists” were those who spearheaded the Gothic revival in art, architecture, music, and literature in the 19th century, after the disasters of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars. Some obvious examples in the secular world are the romantics like Walter Scott and Lord Tennyson who inspired a revival of Arthurian literature, and the pre-Raphaelite painters such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti. But their influence was felt in the Church as well. These were the same decades that saw the medieval maid of Lorraine, Joan of Arc, put on the track to canonization. Where sacred music was littered with chamber pieces and saccharine hymns, Dom Gueranger and the abbey of Solesmes led the revival of Gregorian chant from the brink of extinction.
REGINA: Lots of stuff on Pugin on your blog, too.
My blog has a very special focus on the king of modern medievalists: Augustus Welby Pugin. An architect by profession, Pugin converted to the Catholic faith in 1834 at just twenty-two years of age, well before Blessed John Newman and the other, more famous British converts of the century. Soon after his conversion, he started changing the face of the newly emancipated Catholic Church in England, raising up one new parish after another in the Gothic revival style. His book Contrasts illustrated the banality and even the dishonesty of architecture in his own day, and called for a return to the principles that raised up the great cathedrals, abbeys, poor houses, and civic centers of the later Middle Ages.
The “true principles of Christian architecture” didn’t stop at buildings; Pugin designed everything from vestments to chalices, jewelry, household furniture, dinner plates, and his third wife’s wedding dress. He died, exhausted and overworked at forty, but not before building the first Catholic cathedral in England since the Reformation, meeting Pope Pius IX, holding a professorship in antiquities at Saint Mary’s seminary (despite never having attended a day of college in his life), and most famously, impressing his ideals forever in the British imagination by designing the interior of the Houses of Parliament and the “Big Ben” clock tower at Westminster.
REGINA: What lesson are you drawing Pugin’s legacy?
JAMES: Just as Pugin had no problem boarding a train to the site of his next church project and incorporating new technologies into the design of his locks, I’m hardly a Luddite, nor even the sort to advocate a return to agrarian living; but I believe we have much to learn from our forefathers in the ages of faith, when the Church shaped culture to a way that’s never been seen since.
REGINA: What’s your favorite Blog post to date?
JAMES: One of my favorite blog articles was a call to revive the Divine Office as a publicly offered liturgy in the churches. Today, the vast majority of Catholics don’t even know what the Office is because priests treat the hours as a devotion to be prayed in the privacy of the office or rectory. The hours are unknown even in our cathedrals. Yet, in England before the Reformation, a typical Sunday involved attending not only Mass, but Matins and Lauds before, and Evensong (Vespers and Compline) at the close of the day. I still recall reading an old record of a congregation that sued their pastor before the local bishop because he wasn’t singing his Matins in church. Now, we bolt to the door before the end of Communion and can’t be bothered to go to church at all if a major holy day falls on a Monday. No one has time for God anymore. And so, I’ve proposed the Office as a solution for the restlessness of our age, for they sanctify time, and force us to make time for Him.