The Winter 2016 issue of Communio explores “The City.” Modern urban life challenges us to examine the principles according to which cities either foster or hinder the human person and community in their relation to God.
Philip Bess reflects on good urban order in “City Stories of Nature and Grace: An Urban Pilgrim’s Progress.” A city’s architecture and objective pattern educates its inhabitants, whether poorly or well, in their role as “intermediaries” between the sacred and mundane. “Cities (like families) point beyond themselves to transcendent truths and realities of which their denizens may be but dimly aware, if at all.” In tracing the emergence and features of contemporary cities, Bess shows how a well-structured city is centered on the thriving of local neighborhoods and, by its very form, reflects the sacramental cosmos in which it is embedded.
In “Political Life and the Horizon of the Human: Polis, Church and State, and Totalitarianism,” Mark Shiffman takes up Aristotle’s definition of man as a “political animal,” for this would imply that “in cities and as citizens, we discover and are able to enact what it truly and fully means to be human.” He explores three paradigmatic conceptions of the human person as citizen: the ancient, the Christian, and the modern.
In “The Creation of the City of Man,” Giorgio Buccellati considers the origins of the city, focusing on the symbolic structures, such as writing, that made largescale communication and organization possible. “Writing was the perfect mechanism for that increase in the degree of control over reality that the urban system had institutionalized.” However, the same factors that enabled the formation of cities also brought the possibility of commodifying citizens, as exemplified above all in slavery. It is the personal creation of man, and his destiny in the city of God, that presents a foundation for an alternative vision even of the earthly city.
Rodney Howsare, in “Flannery O’Connor and the City,” looks at O’Connor’s use in her fiction of the modern city as a “no place” whose anonymity circumvents those features of local culture and tradition that O’Connor calls “[m]anners, which derive from the accumulated wisdom of a particular group of people sharing life together over time.” She tries to “alert us to something that concerns us all”: how modernity’s nihilistic indifference to particularity is an implicit denial of the sacramental presence of God in things and places.
In his “The Conversation of Ascent: A Reading of St. Augustine’s Confessions, Book IX, Chapter 10,” Scott Jude Roniger shows how, for Augustine, the ascent to God is inherently social in character. Focusing on the Ostia episode in the Confessions, Roniger reflects on how Augustine’s union with God is mediated by and shared with his mother Monica. “Dialogue, thought, and conversation are integrated, and as a result the individual moves toward God in communion with other persons in speech, and eventually this human society expands to include all the cosmos in the return to the Fatherland.”
In “The City and Apostolic Solitude,” Gilles François, postulator of the cause for the beatification of Madeleine Delbrêl, introduces two of her works published here in Retrieving the Tradition. In “We, the Ordinary People of the Streets,” Delbrêl proposes her vision of an apostolate in the ordinary and often dehumanizing circumstances of urban life: “it is Christ serving Christ, Christ in the one who is serving and Christ in the one who is being served.” In “God in the City,” she ponders the busy loneliness of the modern city as an invitation to sacrificial, representative solidarity with those among us who have lost a sense for God. “Living love, which is tireless in addressing the one for whom ‘God is dead,’ will announce to him or her the calling of the children of God. In our tender concern for this person, there will be no gesture, no word, no beat of the heart, no anguished pleas, no respectful silence that we don’t address to Christ in him.”
Our third piece in Retrieving the Tradition is Christopher Dawson’s “Religion and the Life of Civilisation.” Dawson points out how central worship has been to all human cultures prior to modernity. With the rise of scientific culture, a new relationship to the natural order, now reconceived as a resource for human artifice, led to a corresponding revolution of social and political life. “The state was no longer an ideal hierarchy that symbolised and reflected the order of the spiritual world. It was the embodiment of human power, whose only law was Necessity.”
Notes & Comments includes Nicholas J. Healy Sr.’s sketch of the life and writings of the influential urban theorist in “Jane Jacobs: ‘Who Is This Crazy Dame?’” Her work, Healy writes, is remarkable for its focus on the person and the community as the necessary measure for city planning. “Her foundational principle is that what matters most in the city are not buildings or highways or parks as stand-alone structures, but how their design, function, location, and appearance affect the way people live together, interact, and develop extensive social networks.”
Also in Notes & Comments, “All the Talk About Silence” features Margaret H. McCarthy’s reflection on the reception of Martin Scorsese’s 2016 film Silence, which adapts the well-known novel by Shūsaku Endō. McCarthy argues that commentators have confused the apostasy at the film’s climax with obedience to Christian mission. Against this interpretation, she sets forth the image of the martyrs who “encountered something for which it was worth dying (and living), something that was present among them, a grace.”