February 12, 2021

Lately, books that I read with pleasure in the 1970s have figured prominently in my (re-)reading. Yesterday it was this book that I took up, which is interesting but not one of my favorites. In fact, Lewis later disowned aspects of it. (He felt that he misused the term Romanticism, on which the book is largely based.) But, as we all know, he and Tolkien loved imaginary lands and their maps. The endpapers of this book thus include this map of the pilgrim’s progress (or, rather regress) through Romanticism.


December 24, 2020

Whither We Come

October 15, 2020

When people express interest, amazement, or just questions about my cultural, national, or political ecclecticism, I can always point to these two not-so-remote ancestors as an excuse. I of course never knew my great-grandfather “Jeff Davis,” as he was called by his friends—named, of course, for the President of the Confederate States of America—who died when his granddaughter, my mother, was a child; but I knew his widow, my great-grandmother Susannah Duncan Fraley very well and, of course, his daughter, my grandmother Dora Fraley Davis.

Ulysses S. Grant “Doll” Bunton, I did encounter a few times when I was a little child, since he was the brother of another great-grandmother, maternal grandmother of my father, who sometimes lived with us, Nancy Jane Bunton Norris.

If the parents of Jeff Davis and Ulysses Grant had met during the 1860s, at least, they might have been inclined to shoot each other or call someone else authorized to do so. I appeal to this fact when people find me inconsistent—this, and the fact that my family also fought on both sides of the Revolutionary War. (My great-grandmother Nancy Norris—known as “Aunt Nan” to most who knew her, but “Mammy” to me—told me stories of marauding homeless “rebel” soldiers, as she, a Unionist and Lincoln Republican, called them, whom she remembered in the decades after the Civil War. Her mother threatened some with a shotgun when they attempted to raid her smokehouse for food that they were probably desperate for, supposedly saying, “If you had asked me for it, I’d have given you some. But I won’t have you stealing.”)

As for their forbears, the web gets even more tangled. The name Fraley had been Fraelich, since they had come, like the majority of my ancestors, from Germany, despite the Welsh surnames of both my parents’ fathers. But what could be less German than the Buntons (sometimes spelled Bunting and Bunten), who had originally been Benjamins, Jews who came to North Carolina from Toledo (in Spain, not Ohio) after a few centuries in Windsor?

I heard someone say, “If you wish to accumulate, you must speculate.”

I’m not the person to say if that’s the route to wealth, but I’m convinced that it is the kind of reading that leads to wide-ranging knowlege. You can’t just read the stuff that’s “good for you” or that’s “to the point” if you want to cultivate yourself optimally. Dr. Johnson says somewhere that the only reading that really sticks is material that interests you. And you often don’t know what interests you until you’ve read about it. In fact, we’re most interested in the things that we know most about.

One follower’s online chronicle of an extraordinary time,
and in special circumstances,
enabled by the daily webcasts of Montserrat TV

Rarely can the sine qua non for hospitality in the Rule of Saint Benedict have met a more imperious challenge than that embodied in the 2020 coronavirus shutdown of public places.

A weekday Eucharist

The community of the Abbey of Montserrat, the historic monastery in Catalonia that is soon to celebrate the thousandth anniversary of its founding, is famed for its accomodation of thousands of pilgrims amost every day of the year. The literally standing-room-only crowds that are its wont were obviously not going to be possible for a time. Their immediate actions involved putting space among the monks in choir, limiting the assembly in the nave to one-third its capacity, and requiring masks of all who entered the precincts of the Abbey.

Naturally, this meant that the Escolania de Montserrat, the ancient and famous choir school, like all schools in Catalonia, had to disband for the duration, whatever that period might turn out to be. But, just before going home, the boy-singers also maintained their distance, for their daily midday Salve Regina, following the example set by the monks.

As it turned out, they were to be away from their choral and in situ educational pursuits for months. This meant that the newest boys missed their first experience of the highlights of the year surrounding Holy Week and Easter, for example, and the oldest boys missed the climax of their five years at Montserrat in those same celebrations and in cancelled tours of the choir, which has become accustomed to worldwide travels.

But they were finally allowed to return, under strict controls, for their equivalent of graduation exercises on the weekend that contained the Feast of Saint Benedict. But how to manage their usual presence with the monks in choir? The solution arrived at was both extreme, ingenious, and quite dramatically effective musically. How were they, for example, to sing their second Salve Regina of the day—the polyphony of this one being sung in alternation with the chant of the Solemn Tone by the monks?

As it happens, there is a second monastic choir space high above the Basilica’s floor and at great distance from the ground-level choir. It is a noble space used by the community for the non-public offices of their daily (and nightly) round. It was decided that the boys, in their masks while not singing, and in their plexiglass masks while singing, would be there for Vespers, following the lower choir happenings via video feed, with the organist below having his own feed in order to see the conductor. The alternation of two choirs a city block apart made for a rare musical experience!

Otherwise, the Vespers of those few days were normal.

Their end-of-school-year exercises also involved facial barriers, of course.

For the occasion, the children took roles more usually taken by adult professionals, here taking turns accompanying their colleagues via the remote, wirelesss, moveable console for the organ, with its mechanical-action console further away.

Older escolans also conducted some of the chants.

As with American graduation exercises, family and friends in numbers came to help celebrate.


Such culminations also imply new beginnings. And, while schools around the world agonize over when and whether to reopen, the fifty or so boys of the Escolania de Montserrat (who thus call themselves, in the title of their own collaborative blog, Cent Peus—or a hundred feet) are in a special category, since they live, study, and work together on top of a high mountain that is quite distant from the dangers of contagion down below at sea level. For their first Sunday Mass back in place today, I wondered how they (including, of course, a whole new supply of escolans to replace those who had moved on) would manage the logistics, since they would normally be in choir with the monks of the community.

Once again, imagination came to their rescue. Space for them was set off at the front of the public assembly, all masked, so that they are in visual and aural contact with, but at a remove from, their usual place of performance. The public was notified last week that advance reservations would be required for attendance at most liturgies and for individual veneration of the image that is a center of devotion (, so controls have evolved with the situation in society.

As can be seen below, tenors and basses from among the monks moved down to join them for the Palestrina motet at the offertory.

Where there’s a will . . .

On Sundays, the midday Salve Regina (not sung alternatim with Gregorian chant as after Vespers, but in one of their extensive repertory of elaborate choral settings of varioius stylistic periods) is sung immediately after the Conventual Mass. For that and the traditional Virelai, they went forward after the departure of the monks, still preserving the mandated distance.

So ingenuity has preserved both the eternal Benedictine imperative for openness to every kind of visitor
and reponsible caution during a worldwide health crisis.

Verge Santíssima de Montserrat, pregeu per nosaltres.

Shame of Thrones

August 9, 2020


One of the interviews that I was involved in concerning the exile of the former Spanish king.



The New World Order

June 10, 2020

It seems to be characteristic of life today, and presumably has been so in all places and times, that we reflexively (though not, of course, intellectually) take things of our everyday existence as inevitable givens. The lockdown that we have been experiencing has undoubtedly put a dent in that for most of us.

Today, having been summoned for a test at the hospital in the neighboring town of Sant Pere de Ribes, I was struck by the act, once so simple and normal-seeming, as boarding a bus—since I hadn’t seen the inside of a bus or train since February.

The novel feeling of having been out of circulation for so long was enforced as the bus passed enormous vineyards with thousands of lush-looking grape vines in neat rows where there had been only mournful-looking brown sticks last time I saw them.

Then there was the hospital, which for my sins I know well. Or knew. This seemed an entirely different place. I walked through long corridor after long corridor completely deserted—not another soul to be seen. And the procedures in the hospital felt eerily unfamiliar, though they are now routine in other contexts: masks universally worn, hand sanitizer pushed on one.

The new perspectives that are spreading among us can be put to good use. Or not.