In Speech and Writing
At the Toronto Oratory we have developed and practised public forms of Christian discourse. These have included extended expositions of the Catechism in the first week of our annual Summer School programme, in the second week offering lectures typically grouped thematically (in recent years, for example, the lectures have focussed on Newman, on the Church in the first two centuries, on the Church and the Enlightenment, on ‘essential’ Catholic texts, on St Augustine and his works, on the Church and the non-Christian world). We have also offered weekly public lectures throughout the academic year on historical, spiritual, philosophical and theological subjects. In the ‘Little Oratory’, we have tried to emulate St Philip’s own practice of expounding and reflecting upon Scripture, Christian writing and Christian lives in ways which might be called spiritual, rather than (say) academic, polemical or triumphalist. What does this mean? It reminds us that reason (even when deployed in expounding or defending the Faith) needs to be shaped by a kind of modesty and courtesy – Newman called it “refinement” – which “purifies us of fastidiousness, self-importance and loftiness and of whatever savours of pomp, pretence and violence.”
Publications by Community Members
Spiritual Combat Revisited by Jonathan Robinson
In this book the founder of the Toronto Oratory offers an account of the theory and practice of the ascetical life ‘understood as the ordered effort to imitate ‘Jesus Christ, and him crucified’ (1 Cor 2:2)’. Acknowledging that, in the past, asceticism was sometimes ‘badly understood, and imperfectly practiced’, Fr Robinson insists nonetheless that the Christian life asks of us ‘an effort to fight personal sin and to develop virtues such as kindness, patience, truth-telling, and chastity’ precisely so that we may grow in charity. Taking his inspiration from Lorenzo Scupoli’s classic treatise The Spiritual Combat, Fr Robinson undertakes to expound the ‘moral and theological presuppositions’ upon which such Christian asceticism depends, situating his discussion within the framework of the Second Vatican Council and the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
The Mass and Modernity: Walking to Heaven Backward by Jonathan Robinson
According to Iris Murdoch, we live ‘in a scientific and anti-metaphysical age in which the dogmas, images, and precepts of religion have lost much of their power’. Taking this fact of secularization as his starting point, Fr Robinson enquires into its origins in Enlightenment, Romantic and post-modern philosophy and culture. His concern, however, is not with the history of ideas as such, but with the impact of secularization on the Catholic liturgical tradition, an impact that has affected the Catholic Church not only from without, but also from within. According to Fr Robinson’s vigorously-argued analysis, the Church must turn away from the ‘apathy, bitterness, and triviality’ that too often characterize efforts to render the liturgy more relevant to a secularized culture. Without retreating into escapism and insularity, Catholic liturgy needs to rediscover its orientation towards the true, the good and the beautiful, which the ideologies of modernity and post-modernity obscure and refuse. Only in this way can the Mass, which the Second Vatican Council describes as the ‘source and summit’ of Christian life, begin once again to express and nourish the fundamental human impulse formulated by St Thomas Aquinas as the desire to ‘know truths about God and about living in society.’
On the Lord’s Appearing: An Essay on Prayer and Tradition by Jonathan Robinson
How are we to understand Catholic tradition? In this work Fr Robinson proposes that we should do so according to the ancient model of lectio divina. On this understanding, tradition is seen in a twofold way: as a book that is given us meditatively to read, and as our meditative reading of it – our ‘effort to assimilate the contents of the book under the guidance of the Holy Spirit’. Fr Robinson then proceeds to illustrate and develop this model of tradition, beginning with St Philip Neri’s participation in the tradition of prayer. St Philip is shown teaching us how to pray through his reading of one of the Laudi of the thirteenth-century Franciscan spiritual writer Jacapone da Todi. The Franciscan’s theme is ‘the five ways in which the Lord reveals himself in this life…and St Philip moves through Jacapone’s poem with comments designed to incline the hearts of his hearers toward a deeper knowledge and love of Christ.’ Taking St Philip’s practice as his starting point, Fr Robinson then performs his own reading of Jacapone’s poem, offered as an instance of tradition in action: a meditative appropriation of ‘the Church’s experience of prayer.’
Jesus Christ. Revelation of the Unknown God by Jonathan Robinson
In the 1980s Fr Robinson contributed weekly columns to the Catholic Register, the oldest English language publication in Canada. Many of these pieces were eventually gathered together and published in book form under the title Jesus Christ: Revelation of the Unknown God, which was given a second printing in 2011. The volume is divided into ten parts: An Unknown God; The Word Made Flesh; The Church; The Holy Father and Vatican II; The Cross and Resurrection; Tradition and History; Utopias, Gulags and Human Dignity; Words to Live By; Thinking About Morality; and finally Prayer. The unity of Fr Robinson’s very wide-ranging reflections is to be found in his prevailing concern to discover, expound and defend ‘the viability of the Catholic faith in the modern world’. And a distinctive Oratorian inflection is provided by the influence upon Fr Robinson of Bl John Henry Newman, who prefaced his exploration of the philosophy of belief in An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent with the words of St Ambrose: Non in dialectica complacuit Deo salvum facere populum suum (it has not pleased God to save his people by means of reasoning). In accord with Newman’s own thinking, then, Fr Robinson is always concerned to elucidate and sustain what belongs, not to human systems of thought, but to the obedience of Faith (cf. Rom 1:5, 16:26).
In No Strange Land: The Embodied Mysticism of Saint Philip Neri by Jonathan Robinson
In this work Fr Robinson undertakes to show that the best way in which to understand the life and influence of St Philip Neri is by focussing on what can be called his ‘embodied mysticism’. According to Fr Robinson, St Philip exhibits ‘an extraordinary, personal, unstructured, and non-institutionalized influence that is almost unique in the history of the Church.’ But traditional recountings of St Philip’s life tend to make this influence difficult to explain. To remedy this deficiency, Fr Robinson proposes to read St Philip as ‘one of the great mystics of the Catholic Church’. But St Philip’s mysticism was not secluded, in private and incommunicable experience; on the contrary, it was fully embodied: essentially visible to his contemporaries, and also, if we know where to look, to ourselves. Following Newman’s thought, that it is not ideas but persons who most profoundly influence us, Fr Robinson argues that St Philip’s mystical graces were ‘given to [him] not merely for his own edification, but so that through sharing in [Divine] power he [could help] to bind up the wounds of Christ’s body, which is the Church.’ The result of this line of thought is not only that the life and work of St Philip receives, at Fr Robinson’s hands, a new and deeper integration. It is also that the nature of Christian mysticism itself is accorded a renewed understanding. Rooted in tangible sacramental and liturgical life, mysticism shows itself in the bodies of the mystics and in their relations to other members of the Body of Christ.
Duty and Hypocrisy in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind: An Essay in the Real and Ideal by Jonathan Robinson
In Hegel’s view, in Phenomenology of Spirit, a life ordered around the idea of duty must inevitably end in hypocrisy. In this book Fr Robinson follows Hegel’s reasoning about why this must be so, dwelling especially on what our experiences of moral consciousness can tell us about the Hegelian argument. According to Fr Robinson’s interpretation, ‘Hegel is not saying that there is no such thing as duty and conscience; he is saying that you cannot ground law and conscience merely in the autonomous activities of the moral agent. There has to be some kind of fixed system of reference if the agent is to avoid that dissemblance and hypocrisy which flow inevitably from the attempt to define the human being as essentially subjective spirit.’ And in order to illustrate the role of a ‘fixed system of reference’ in resolving the dilemmas of a self-legislating moral agent, Fr Robinson turns for enlightenment to the conscientious resistance of St Thomas More.
To the image of the Trinity by Juvenal Merriell
One of the most thought-providing ideas that the Bible presents is the notion that man has been created in the image of God. Since the age of the Fathers of the Church, in particular since Augustine, Catholic theologians have seen the image of God in man as an image of the Trinity. Thomas Aquinas inherited and developed this tradition in his own teaching.
Augustine’s De Trinitate is the foundation on which Thomas built. In that work Augustine conceived of the image of the Trinity as the mind’s acts of remembering, knowing, and loving God. But at the end of the work he emphasized something else: an analogy between the mind’s formation of the inner word and of love, on the one hand, and the eternal processions of the Word and the Holy Spirit in God, on the other. By examining in depth the principal passages on the image in Aquinas’ Scriptum super Sententiis, the De veritate, and the Summa theologiae, Fr Merriell finds that the development of Thomas’ position is largely based on his appropriation of this Augustinian conception of the image in terms of the two processions. And although Thomas does not explicitly apply this notion of the image to the spiritual life, it is clear that the image in us, as he conceives it, is the foundation that makes us capable of being raised to participate in the eternal life of the Trinity.
Philip Neri: The Fire of Joy by Fr Paul Turks, trans. Daniel Utrecht
This translation, by Fr Daniel Utrecht of the Toronto Oratory, of a life of St Philip written in 1986 by Fr Paul Turks of the Oratory in Aachen, Germany, was published in 1995 to coincide with the 400th anniversary of the death of St Philip. According to Fr Turks, ‘[to] understand the Oratory one must focus more on an example than on a rule, more on Philip’s personality and words, than on the structure of the Oratory…[Philip] lived during the transition to a new age, and was a contemporary of the Protestant Reformers. Church history numbers him among the greatest figures of ecclesiastic al renewal at the beginning of modern times. His was a reform without clamour and revolution. It took place through the return to the basic sources of Christianity: to the living Word of God and to the first apostolic community – the one surrounding our Lord Jesus Christ Himself’.
The Lion of Münster: The Bishop Who Roared Against The Nazis by Daniel Utrecht
‘The dear God placed me in a position in which I had a duty to call black ‘black’ and white ‘white’…I knew that many suffered more, much more than I personally had to suffer, from the attacks on truth and justice that we experienced. They could not speak. They could only suffer…But it was my right and my duty to speak, and I spoke…and God gave it His blessing. And your love and your loyalty…also kept far from me what might have been my fate, but also might have been my greatest reward, the crown of martyrdom.’ With these words, Bl Clemens August von Galen addressed the people of Munster when he returned to his diocese from Rome on March 16th 1946. In this definitive English language biography of von Galen, Fr Daniel Utrecht tells the story of an aristocratic prelate and traditional German nationalist, carefully tracing the influences upon him which, when the time came, enabled him to craft and sustain his public opposition to the murderous ideology of the Nazi regime.