On the Virtues of Narrow Guest Lists

One of the most difficult lessons for men of good will to learn is that there is no way to be all things to all people. In society, at the office, in the parish, within the charitable/philanthropic spheres, etc., stretching yourself too thin and losing sight of the goal is a guaranteed recipe for disaster. Nowhere is this more readily apparent than when playing host. Yet hosting an event can be, if handled correctly, not only a great deal of fun for yourself and your guests, but more importantly a wonderful opportunity to edify those around you.

There are seemingly endless social minefields to traverse when throwing a party, before even getting to the logistics, that can distract from the point of hosting one. Take the guest list: if you invite Jane because you want her to meet Susan, then you must also invite Jane’s fiancee Tom. And the problem is that Tom and Harry do not get along, but you are compelled to invite Harry because he and Dick invited you to their New Year’s Party this year, and you owe them both a return invitation. And if you invite Harry and Tom but not their girlfriends, then they might not come. And you know that Susan is going to call you at the last minute and ask if she can bring her sisters, because they really won’t take up much room and they would so love to see you (and she is always doing this sort of thing.)

In just under two months I will be hosting my 6th annual “Festa Catalana” at the manse. For the past several years, the party has been held around the “Nit de Sant Joan” (“Night of St. John”) marking the birth of St. John the Baptist, commemorated on June 24th in Barcelona and throughout Catalonia with all-night parties and fireworks. This is my chance to have a group of old friends and new acquaintances over and serve them Catalan food and drink, celebrating the Catalan part of my heritage and allowing people whom I like but who might not otherwise meet to get to know each other.

Unfortunately, the event has proven to be a victim of its own success, for while it has grown, the house has not. From a chatty, sit-down dinner for 8 out in the garden back in 2006, it has expanded exponentially to the point where last year the many dozens of people in summer cocktail attire were jammed cheek-by-jowl both outside and on multiple floors inside on a stiflingly hot and humid evening. Indeed, one of the ladies in attendance fainted from the heat and had to be revived, much to my concern and chagrin.

Since I am still in the same tall and skinny house, this year’s guest list is going to have to be rather severely curtailed, in order to get the event down to an enjoyable, manageable size. This means that there is no way I am going to be able to avoid potentially hurting the feelings of a number of people whom I like, some of whom began asking me way back in February if I was holding the festa again this summer. Yet the thing must be done: otherwise, the goal of bringing good people together for good conversation and fellowship will be lost.

That is all very well, you may ask yourself, but why does any of this matter? The answer comes from this blog’s patron, Count Castiglione himself. He maintained that the courtier must not only educate himself and develop his talents, but also do his part to encourage the building up of polite society, because of the good deeds which flow from it.

For Castiglione, the man who is fortunate enough to move in society has a responsibility to show others that good manners, education, an appreciation of the arts, and so on, are virtues to be cultivated; from such flowers the fruits of good deeds will grow. “Therefore I think that just as music, festivals, games, and other pleasant accomplishments are, as it were, the flower,” he writes, “in like manner to lead or help one’s prince towards what is right, and to frighten him from what is wrong, are the true fruits of Courtiership.” It is therefore through celebrating and encouraging good behavior that the work of the courtier is truly accomplished.

By so doing, in Castiglione’s thinking the courtier serves as a defense against the tendency of fallen human nature to selfishness, violence, greed, and the other vices. “This is because among the many faults which we see today in many of our princes, the greatest are ignorance and self-esteem,” Castiglione remarks – no doubt to the surprise of self-esteem gurus such as Oprah Winfrey and Deepak Chopra. “And the root of these two evils is none other than falsehood: which vice is deservedly hateful to God and to men. For the ignorant mind deceives itself and lies inwardly to itself.”

For Castiglione, throwing a party should of course be a pleasant experience for the host, but also a responsibility he takes seriously. A social event should bring good people together to allow the possibility of good, perhaps long-lasting results – acts of charity, exposure to cultural interests or to literature and music previously unfamiliar, and so on. Castiglione certainly enjoyed having a good time, and encouraged his followers to do so as well, but to do so within a self-imposed sense of restraint within which the focus always remains on striving to do good.

No doubt a party which ends in a conga line of revelers wearing lampshades on their heads can be a very memorable one, so far as memories of it are preserved ahead of the intake of spirits. Yet if that is all that comes out of an event, the host has lost an important opportunity to build up his immediate society, rather than allowing it to sink to a baser level. In no way do I mean to I suggest, gentle reader, that your cocktail party be a dour, sombre occasion dedicated to the discussion of Kierkegaard and the reform of the Roman Missal. Instead, consider the opportunity of hosting such an event to be more than the meeting of a mutual appreciation society, and instead the chance to allow ladies and gentlemen of good will to get to know one another and perhaps come up with ways to benefit and improve the society in which all of you live.

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>Thoughts After Going to the Dogs

>As I was leaving the Spring Gala at the Dominican House of Studies on Saturday I was rather surprised, as I descended the steps of the priory, to suddenly hear the remark, “Hey, that’s a blogger!” Turning round, the interlocutor turned out to be one of the Dogs of the Lord (“Dominicanes”), who was speaking with an older lady and donor to the Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception. After introductions were made, it emerged that the priest in question is Father Benedict Croell, O.P., Director of Vocations for the Dominican Province of St. Joseph, and that he is not only a fellow blogger, over at Order of Preachers Vocations, but has perused these virtual pages as well as having re-posted them to the Province’s Facebook group. In addition to being deeply flattered that these scribblings would be considered worthy of dissemination to a wider audience – an occurrence which never ceases to amaze – it was also the first time that The Courtier was recognized as a writer “on the street”, as it were, by someone whom he did not already know.

As wonderfully organized by The Wondrous Pilgrim and aptly described last evening by The American Papist, the event was a tremendous success. It was a great opportunity to see old acquaintances and make new ones, and all involved worked very hard to make what one hopes will become an annual event thoroughly enjoyable. If you did not have the opportunity to attend, rest assured that it will be brought to your attention again this time next year, and that plenty of advance notice for scheduling purposes will be provided.

On the way to an after-party The Courtier and a professor friend who specializes in European history and political theory at an area Catholic college got into a discussion about the historic role of the gentleman – or lady – of means in supporting religious communities like the Dominicans. This was partly due to the atmosphere itself, since it is not often that one has the opportunity to attend an event within a structure that would have been easily comprehensible and recognizable to people living in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. However the situs of the Dominican Priory in particular was significant for this writer, having always been drawn to St. Dominic and chosen him as his confirmation saint – partially due to his being a Spaniard and partially because of his very courtly devotion to Our Lady.

Those of us who are not called to the religious life – and we of course constitute the significant majority in the Church – are asked to support our parish and diocese as best we can with donations of money, time and talents. Yet the desire to support one of the religious houses is something beyond our obligation to help our local parish and which may not occur to those of us who have seen a monastery, convent, and the like but never gotten to know any of the men and women who live there. Becoming a benefactor of one of these foundations connects us not only to the apostolate of the order which we support, be they contemplative, preaching, teaching, and so on, but also to the history and culture of the Church. Our Western civilization, whether in the preservation of ancient wisdom or in the development of the arts and sciences, would arguably not have been possible, or at the very least would certainly have been less robust, but for the connection between the religious houses and the laity which supported them.

This blog’s model and patron Baldassare Castiglione, Count of Novilara, tells us that the the courtier must act justly in the support of others when he is possessed of means to do so, since the gentleman is called to show the love of Christ at all times

but much more when they are in prosperity, so that afterwards they may the more reasonably have confidence to ask Him for mercy when they are in some adversity. For it is impossible to govern rightly either one’s self or others without the help of God; who to the good sometimes sends good fortune as His minister to relieve them from grievous perils; sometimes adverse fortune, to prevent their being so lulled by prosperity as to forget Him.

The Book of the Courtier, Part IV.

Patronage of a religious house does not mean that you have to commission an altarpiece, or build a beautiful new carmel, on behalf of the religious community you are drawn to support. Of course, if you are in a position to do such things, then you certainly ought to consider doing so. [N.B. I have already promised one of the friars that I will pay for the repair of the marble floor in the cloister if I win Powerball.] What it does mean however, is that you adopt a willingness to go beyond what is expected of you as a Catholic-in-the-pew to making a sacrifice in support of something larger than yourself, as did the widow in the Temple. It is something that I challenge you to consider, gentle reader, in your own life.

This does not necessarily mean that you have to support the Dominicans and the Little Sisters of the Poor here in D.C., or the Poor Clares in Barcelona, as I do. Worthy as these groups are, wherever you may find yourself in the world as you are reading this, you can be certain that there is a religious community near you which would be deeply grateful for your support, however large or small. It is through their lives of prayer, sacrifice, hard work and devotion that we are all given a model to follow in our own lives. And because they are dependent upon charity, a true courtier has the obligation to consider whether he can do something to help in the promotion of the good works of these, our brothers and sisters who have chosen to accept God’s Grace and direction in their lives in an unique way.

Altarpiece of St. Dominic
Unknown Aragonese Master (c. 1300-1320)
National Art Museum of Catalonia, Barcelona

>Anti-Catholic Theatre in Catalonia: The Play’s Not the Thing

>A new play is premiering tomorrow night at the National Theatre of Catalonia, in my beloved city of Barcelona, entitled “Gang Bang – Open Until the Hour of the Angelus”. As if the title was not enough of an obvious clue, based on [WARNING: graphic material] the press reports I have seen, the plot is a predictably amateurish and puerile mixture of anti-Catholicism and human degradation, fed through a meat grinder. The director-playwright and the actors claim that it is not an attack on the Church, but rather exploring loneliness and spirituality through unconventional expression. They also joke that there is smoking in the play, which is what the audience should find truly controversial given Spain’s new smoking ban.

Because the production is being funded in part by taxpayer money, it was inevitable that complaints would ensue. The National Theatre of Catalonia is a prominent theatre indeed in both influence and actual size; this is not some off-off-Broadway venue. There are already calls by Christian groups for an investigation, and promises of lodging official complaints and the taking of other measures against the government in Catalonia. As often happens of course, the controversy has led to record advance ticket sales.

Much as this sort of thing disturbs us to some degree, it is also an occasion to reflect on what it means to be a gentleman (or lady) in the present age, not only in framing our response but more importantly in examining ourselves. Regular readers know that Castiglione, the inspiration for this blog, has much to say on how a courtier ought to develop himself. What does he have to say about those who shock for the sake of provocation and notoriety?

In his seminal “The Book of the Courtier” (of which title the title of this blog is a pun), Castiglione explains why it is that those of marginal abilities who are seeking wealth, power, fame, or all three, often resort to shock value to make a name for themselves. During a part of the discussion in the book as to how to behave in public, the character of Archbishop Federico Fregoso describes how people who want to become popular are often so lacking in personal humility as to make fools of themselves. “People like this very often embark on certain things without knowing how to finish,” he says, “and they then try to extricate themselves by raising a laugh. But they do this so awkwardly that it does not succeed, and instead their efforts fall flat and they inspire the greatest distaste in whoever sees or hears them.”

Fregoso goes on to criticize the equally common tendency of the under-talented to try to shock others for the sake of shocking. “On other occasions, convinced they are being terribly witty and amusing, they use filthy and indecent language in the presence of ladies, and often to their face,” he states. “And the more they make the ladies blush, the more they are convinced that they are being good courtiers; they never stop laughing and they pride themselves on the fine talents they believe they possess.”

“But the only reason they behave in such a beastly fashion,” continues Fregoso, “is because they think it makes them the life and soul of the party. This is what they think truly laudable and what they pride themselves on most. And so to acquire this reputation they indulge in the most shameful and shocking discourtesies in the world.”

One feels that Castiglione could just as easily apply such descriptions to Josep Maria Miró Coromina, the writer and director of “Gang Bang”. Mr. Miró hails, appropriately enough, from the provincial sausage-making capital of Vic, where he was born in 1977. Through Catalonia’s generous education system he has managed to earn a doctorate in literature and work his way up to the prominent position of becoming a writer in residence at the National Theatre. He has feigned surprise in press interviews at the controversy surrounding his piece, telling people that if they are worried they will be offended they ought not to come and see the play, and that such complaints are completely foreign to his experience due to his age – an oblique reference to his having been born after the death of Spain’s long-reigning dictator General Francisco Franco, under whose fist censorship held sway.

Of course, Mr. Miró’s is a very old canard indeed: so old its feathers and the bits of beak and sinew have been fed into his sausage-making machine. It is typically waved about by shock-makers as a justification for their actions, since no one likes the idea of censoring the free exchange of ideas. In this case, it is their way of seemingly offering what most people want, i.e. a sense of choice. I do not have to eat the nasty broccoli on my plate, and can instead turn my attention to the mashed potatoes and the sausage.

However the point of course is not that one is free not to see the play, any more than one wants to see how to go about getting the bits with which to make sausages. Rather, the issue here is that public money is being used. Since I do not pay taxes in Catalonia, my money is not supporting Mr. Miró’s sausage festival; I can question his artistic integrity from a financially neutral position. Those who do have to pay for it however, have every right to question why they are being forced to do so: that is no choice at all.

This type of controversy is nothing new, of course, for such controversies over funding happen in this country and in Europe on an almost weekly basis. We have seen such things in New York, in Vienna, and here in the Nation’s Capital in recent months, and fortunately there will always be good Catholics in a position to stand up and complain. Sometimes they will succeed in getting the work removed from the taxpayer’s bill, and sometimes not. At first glance, this play is just another example of more of the same.

However, in considering the context of this particular bit of offal, I believe the fact that Mr. Miró set his play on the eve of Pope Benedict XVI’s Papal Visit to Barcelona this past November is a more significant one than he lets on. The popular reception which the Pope received when he came to dedicate the Sagrada Familia, Barcelona’s most iconic building let alone church, and raise it to the level of a basilica, took many of the commentariat in Catalonia by surprise. The fact that Barcelona, cradle of anarchists for the past century or more, and home to the most leftist of leftist intellectuals in the Iberian Peninsula would be inundated with people overjoyed to see the Pontiff, was no doubt itself a shock to those who thought that the Church was just about finished in Catalonia.

And what is likely even more worrisome to such people were the enormous numbers of young people, with no memory of either General Franco, the Civil War, or a time when they were forbidden to speak Catalan, excited to even catch a glimpse of this elderly German priest and to participate in the mass. Indeed, this past November was a likely preview of what is about to happen when the Pope arrives in Madrid this August for World Youth Day. If the Church as it exists in Catalonia today is no longer any real threat to Mr. Miró or those of his ilk, they would not bother to try to denigrate it. The fact that the flame may be burning low, but has demonstrably not gone out, means that the Church is not as weak as believed.

Ultimately, Mr. Miró’s efforts will fail of course. It is doubtful that any devout Catholics will go to see his play. He may succeed in further hardening the hearts of those who loathe the Church as he obviously does, and he may even convince a few unfortunate theatre-goers to go over the edge and join him. Yet one reason why Castiglione makes the point he does about those who seek to put on an uncouth show, is that no matter how much fame, attention, or popularity such individuals may gain, they know in their heart of hearts – even if they do not choose to admit it – that the more they wallow in filth, the more they disappoint those whose approval they desperately want. And in the case of Mr. Miró and others like him who attack the Church, that person is Christ.

National Theatre of Catalonia, Barcelona