Whence 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 (https://abadiamontserrat.cat/montserrat-facilita-visita-santuari-amb-reserves/), 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.

Resurrection and Life

November 2, 2019


“Lazarus, come forth!”

Today, All Souls Day, is the traditional day for commemorating all the “faithful departed.” Since I have a lot of departed family and friends in my life, with a lot of faithfulness among them, it is my practice to go to my local community’s ceremonial commemoration of all such each year.

This morning, unexpectedly, a Catalan priest whom I had never seen before, hit me with one of those simple-but-rich insights that I thought was far better than most entire sermons, and I stored it up to think about later. Speaking of Martha’s comment to Jesus about the death of his friend, her brother Lazarus, she said, “If you had been here, he would not have died.” Her sister Mary later affirmed the same thing separately. This preacher, whose name I don’t even know, then said, “For those of us who carry the spirit of Jesus with us, he is in fact ‘here’.” Needless death is just that: unnecessary. He may have said it better than that in Catalan, but my English more or less represents how I heard it. “Death has no more dominion over him,” wrote Saint Paul, and by extension, no dominion over us. At least it need not have, in many profound senses.

As I said, this thought was more than sufficient to repay my longish early-morning walk to the remarkably lovely chapel where this was taking place. But he went on. We need not limit ourselves to only one death and one hoped-for resurrection. We can treat other things in our life as “little deaths” from which we can, if we are willing, be resurrected: breakups, breakdowns, divorces, bankruptcies, addictions, depressions, and even things that are considered trivial but can build up to weights that bring us down. We can lie in the grave with these things, or we can use the means that we are offered (and, to Christians, there is a powerful one in the life, death, and continued life of Jesus) to rise up renewed and ready to start again.

On the walk home, it also occurred to me that this phenomenon of death and resurrection is also available to more than just discrete individuals—to families, communities both religious and secular, meaningful associations of all kinds (even football teams!). It happens that I live in a small country that has been seeking resurrection ever since a hostile takeover of it in 1714 by an absolute monarchy explicitly intent on wiping from the earth its ancient political and cultural traditions, including its very language. Against all odds, including much fire and sword, repression that is seeing a current increase in savagery, and periods of almost giving up, glimmers of resurrection have continued and are, in recent weeks, flourishing unprecedentedly among the masses of young people of Catalonia who are tired of seeing the unfulfilled longings, and sometimes real sufferings, of their parents and grandparents.

Without pressing the generalizations too far, I feel, with Saints Mary and Martha of Bethany (not to mention their brother Lazarus, who still had to face more life—and, no doubt, more troubles), that a means is available to us, in which all that is good and meaningful need not suffer definitive death if we choose to use it.

Link: The Death of Lazarus, according to Saint John the Evangelist



Roger Minus X=Humor?

September 20, 2019


During my youthful stint at Oxford, there was a fellow student whom I liked very much who was from Montreal. In those days, early in the prime ministry of the first Trudeau, it was still possible for an educated québequoise from the professional classes to be uncomfortable in English, and she was a self-conscious example of that. She said that, in Canada, she always refused to speak English to an English-speaking Canadian. (I gather that the atmosphere has changed in this regard in ensuing years.)

In my current situation of having close friends who don’t know me in English, I often think of her lament: “The problem is that I’m a very funny person, but only in French. People who know me only in English don’t know me.” I think I’m funny only in English, if then.

But this morning it occurred to me that there can be small compensations, when I was paying my therapeutic masseur and putting my shirt back on. He complimented me on how prim (slim) he thought I was looking. I replied, “Cada dia una mica menys de Roger.” And he laughed heartily. In English, it would never occur to me to say, “Every day a little less of Roger,” but the comparative restraint of reduced powers of expression does make me unintentionally funny sometimes.

Maybe that and my being of uncharacteristically few words in voluble Catalan company, letting others talk instead, give me unmerited popularity!


On the other hand, I hope the laughs at my Catalan are not of the same species as my own reaction to this e-mail that I got from my bank this morning:

Hello Roger,

As we come to speak, thank-you for yuor time and following subjects there are three items:

1st. We need please that you update your passport at our database, you can do this online or send me a nice copy. 

2nd. Tell me please the monthly amount of your income and I will check which fees can apply as best for you.

3rd. I attch information in case you would like a home insurance with us. You can contract this by phone. We will need the exactly door of your address.

I have calculated for 115 square meters 25.000 euros for the content.

Let me know please anything that we can do for you.


Montserrat [surname1  surname2]


Even this article, in diagnosing a current problem, doesn’t contemplate that possibility that the brightest students from the best universities might choose to be creators of literature, art, music, or . . . thought. All the Ivy League colleges, like the historic European universities, were founded primarily to train clergy, who for many generations then tended to be the best-educated, most intellectually focused members of American communities. What a change it is to turning out a steady stream of investment bankers! The second President of the United States, the Harvard graduate John Adams, was a kind of prophet when he predicted how things would go at his college, which was a mighty contributor to American culture before the current dismal trend:

I must study politics and war, that our sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy.

Our sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain.

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