Monday, January 31, 2022

The Power of Catholic Customs: A Candlemas Procession in the Life of Dom Hubert van Zeller

In his extremely entertaining and somewhat melancholy autobiography One Foot in the Cradle, well-known spiritual writer Dom Hubert van Zeller (1905–1984) describes a particularly memorable February 2nd in his life as a Benedictine novice at Downside Abbey, in the school of which he had been enrolled for a decade as a student. (Since there appear to be no archival photos of any Candlemas at Downside, I found a photo that perhaps suggests a similar spirit: Candlemas at Westminster Cathedral in 1938, with plenty of schoolboys in attendance.)

Dom Hubert had entered religion one year after graduation, in 1924, and so still had friends among the older boys. At this point in his life he is struggling with his vocation — whether to remain in the monastery, or to go back to the world, to which he was drawn by many affections. The account deserves to be shared on this eve of Candlemas. Afterwards I will share four points of reflection.

*       *       *

“It was a little later, when the school reassembled after the Christmas holidays, that the proximity of the boys and of all that went with them began to trouble me. Up till now I had been so busy learning what to do as a novice, and finding satisfaction in the fulfilment of what had been so long awaited, that I had not found the presence of the school within hailing distance any great distraction. But now the whole question of my place in Benedictine education became more acute. The immediacy was brought home to me on February 2, the feast of the Purification.

“At Downside the Candlemas procession, everyone holding a lighted candle, moves round the cloisters. Following the cross and acolytes come first of all the boys, then the monks, then the celebrant and ministers. So it was that together with my fellow junior novice (Brother Maurice, Reggie) I came close upon the heels of the two most senior boys in the school. These were Maurice Turnbull and Robert Arbuthnot — Robert as well as Maurice being a very particular friend of mine. By stretching out my candle I could have singed the hair of either of them. I was as close as I had been to the Field Marshal’s ears in Egypt.

“While the Purification antiphons were going on and we wound our way from one cloister to another I was conscious of a dualism at work inside me which so boiled up as to make me wonder for a moment which part of the procession I was in. I felt that there was a significant difference between belonging to those who walked in front of me and belonging to those who walked behind me. I was caught in the middle between two environments. Spiritually I was in one, emotionally in another. It was like a bad dream, because I could not tell where the one ended and the other began. I knew only that for me there were two quite separate worlds, and that one or other must win in the end. Must, indeed, be winning now. I knew in which world I willed to be — namely among the monks who were just behind me in the procession — but was the will strong enough to override the pull of the emotions which drew me towards those in front?

“This Candlemas procession came to be, during the months which followed, something of a symbol to me. It was one which carried particular urgency as the time for taking vows drew near: I must know in good time where I was in the procession, and where it was leading me.

“Things were not made any easier by such glimpses and echoes of school life as inevitably came my way. The roar of laughter from a classroom well beyond novitiate bounds, light music played on gramophones in rooms whose doors had been open to me eighteen months ago, the sound of a band-practice, the cheering at a rugger match, the sight of teams on their way up to the field, the crowding in to Mass and Benediction, the group of rather cheeky boys whom I had known as fags [i.e., boys who acted as servants to older schoolmates] who would bump into me on purpose in the church and then laugh and look away: all this made for matter of further self-searching.

“It is commonplace to observe that the human mind can want two opposite things at once. I wanted very much to be under the rule which forbad novices to speak to anyone not in the novitiate, and at the same time wanted to talk to people. Everything all round me told me that the school was an essential part of the life, that it was an extension of the community, that the boys belonged to the procession as much as the monks did. It was not even a question of one world impinging on another: they coincided. But until I could myself feel this, and not merely see it as an identification which others could feel, I knew I would never be at peace. Without the experience of such a harmony, I would always be a misfit.

“While in America not long ago I was saying Mass at a convent where the community runs a large high-school for girls. Some few of the students are boarders, but the majority are day-girls. These, the ‘day-hops,’ arrive noisily in cars and school buses just in time for the first class of the day which begins at a quarter to nine. I had said Mass at eight and was about to leave at a quarter to nine when I noticed a young nun rinsing out the cruets at the sacristy sink. Cars were still racing through the campus and skidding to a gritty stop at the school entrance. I could hear the car doors being closed with a rich plunk, the loud cries and shrill laughter, the hurrying of feet and the dropping of books. The young nun was hearing it too, and I watched her face as she looked out of the window. She was too preoccupied to know that I was there, that the tap was running, that the cruet needed no more drying. My guess was that she had been in the school a year or two before. I felt like telling her to keep her wits about her at the next Candlemas procession.” (One Foot in the Cradle: An Autobiography [New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1966], 134–36.)
Downside boys ice-skating in the 1930s

Several things about this account are striking to me.

First, it was precisely by having such a Candlemas procession that the young novice was able to have a sort of “peg” on which to hang his thoughts, a palpable “axis” around which he could arrange his thoughts of discernment. It’s a brilliant example of how the so-called “externals” of Catholicism in fact constitute something like a spiritual gravitational field that gathers our scattered selves into coherent entities. The procession became a symbol of the new monk’s life, and helped him to sort out where he belonged. If we diminish or abolish such symbols — as the postconciliar liturgical reform did, both on paper and especially in its iconoclastic implementation — we are eliminating solid walls, ceilings, windows, and doors for the interior castle in which we are capable of living. We take away the centripetal power of rituals and leave the field open to the centrifugal force of fallen mindlessness and worldly distraction. As conservatives never seem to realize, it is not enough, most of the time, to “desire to be a good Catholic”; the desire has to be suggested, shaped, nourished, solidly built up by the structures of ecclesial life.

Second, only traditional Catholic communities today could actually understand and relate to the liturgical experience van Zeller is describing, since they alone (with a tiny number of exceptions) have retained the candle procession with the Latin Gregorian antiphons Dom Hubert is talking about. Such communities are continuing to do nearly the same thing he was doing (with perhaps some unfortunate modifications from the 1960 code of rubrics).

Third, monastic life at this time was exuberantly flourishing. As van Zeller describes it in the book, every religious community in England was pretty well packed with vocations. This is the kind of record that gives the lie to the myth — propagandistically repeated so often that it is now practically assumed as self-evident — that the Church before the Second Vatican Council was in desperate straits and needed radical reform. In fact, it was precisely the sudden explosion of radical ideas in the 1960s that precipitated the crisis of faith that undermined the consensus and common life of Catholics, leading to a decline from which the Church in the Western world has never recovered (except, incipiently, in those traditional communities against which Pope Francis and his nostalgic advisers have aligned themselves). As Martin Mosebach says somewhere, it was inevitable that there would be some crashing challenges to the Church in the post-War era, but the very best thing churchmen could have done is to meet those shocks with an adamant refusal to budge, rather than with a slippery willingness to move wherever the world moved.

Fourth, the genres of autobiography and detailed historical accounts of individuals and particular places are extremely valuable in achieving an accurate Catholic sense of the past and of what a Catholic culture looks like. Monasteries that still practice refectory reading have long shown a preference for these genres, and one can understand why: a robust awareness of belonging to a tradition is best achieved by learning about those who belonged to it before, and how they faced and either surmounted or failed to surmount the anti-traditional forces that opposed their way of life. General history, fiction, and theology obviously have their honorable places, but let’s not forget about books like One Foot in the Cradle, which have a lot to teach us.

The Dedication of the Downside Abbey Church in 1935

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: