Cracks in the Cloister lives again (updated with links)

LONG-STANDING READERS here will know that the work of Dom Hubert van Zeller of Downside has appeared in these pages, under the nom-de-plume Brother Choleric. His cartoons—charming caricatures really—offered a glimpse into the life and dynamics of the cloister, principally that of Downside itself. The Cracks series began in 1954 but Br Choleric did not finish publishing until the 1970s.

The very first volume, Cracks in the Cloister, was published under a separate copyright in the USA, and that copyright has expired. So, a cartoon and comics devotee, Nat Gertler, has reissued the volume in America. It is a simple, softcover edition but it plays no games with the originals, even down to including the colouring added by van Zeller to some panels. It is available at Barnes & Noble, and also at Amazon USA where a Kindle edition will also be available.

Nat asked if he could edit a previous post here to provide a short introduction for the reissue, which I was happy to agree to as a micro-homage to a monk who has given me much delight, both as Br Choleric and as a serious spiritual author. At the end of this post I append the text of my introduction, not least because of its quotation in full of a letter van Zeller wrote to The Tablet in March 1970 which provides some insight into the change in mood of the Cracks series through the 60s and into the 70s, as well as being relevant to the golden jubilee of Missale Romanum and its new Mass.

Nat Gertler’s little outfit, About Comics, has reissued some wonderful Catholic cartoons from the 50s and 60s, many involving nuns, including Heavenly Days, father, dear father, Convent Belles, and the Little Nuns series. Perhaps even more delightfully, he has published Charles Schulz’s (Peanuts) church bulletin cartoons, as well as other relatively unknown Schulz works. All these offerings are examples of cartoons as social history. You can find them on Amazon and elsewhere and they would make a charming gift to someone who could appreciate them.

Dom Hubert van Zeller (d.1984), a far-from-boring monk of Downside Abbey, had prodigious talents which have given joy to many a monk, though perhaps some heartburn to an abbot or two. He was very gifted sculptor, with a clean and distinctive style that breathes the air of Ditchling. He was a popular spiritual writer whose works are still in print. Yet for those of us who were not his immediate brethren at Downside, he is most memorable for his books of caricatures published under the pseudonym Brother Choleric.

The Brother Choleric Cracks series of books—Cracks in the Cloister (1955), Further Cracks in Fabulous Cloisters (1957), Last Cracks in Legendary Cloisters (1960), Posthumous Cracks in the Cloisters (1962), Cracks in the Curia or Brother Choleric Rides Again (1972), Cracks in the Clouds (1976, under his own name not the pseudonym)—span a period of great turmoil in both Church and cloister, and the tenor and tone of these books mirror the march of progress both of the changes afoot and in the author’s reactions to them. Over these 21 years “Brother Choleric” moves from affectionate and amused tolerance to thunderous disapproval. As the changes in the Church increasingly intruded into the life of the cloister so too his gaze moves from the cloister to include the wider Church in the world. In all of them his powers of observation are matched with his sense of humour and his skill as a caricaturist. The increasing note of sadness, even anger, is not hard to detect if you read these otherwise charming books.

Dom Hubert—Brother Choleric—was a severe looking man with what was, quite probably, an angular personality. One wonders if he found it hard to settle at a time when settling was a tall order in the life of the Church. He spent time as a convent chaplain as well as a good decade or so in the USA, which I suspect had at least something to do with finding his monastery unsettling, and perhaps his monastery finding him unsettling. He deserves a biography.

On 7 March 1970 a letter to the Editor from him was printed in The Tablet, under the title “The Fallacy of Change.” His pain is evident, as is his essential monastic and priestly commitment. It makes me sigh a little on his behalf. May he rest in peace.

From Dom Hubert van Zeller

Sir. In case my letter about the changes in the Church should cause others besides Mr. Bretherton (The Tablet, 14 February) to have misgivings about the quality of my obedience, I would like to say that I accept absolutely the Holy Father’s ruling about the new form of the Mass. I accept his decision about this as I accept without question his decision about the pill or about the celibacy of the clergy. My criticisms are not levelled at the Pope but at the people who have taken advantage of the liberty left by the Pope in liturgical matters, and who have, over the past few years and with the unhappiest results, experimented. It is not Rome’s fault that permission to use the vernacular has been abused and that hymn-singing has in most churches ruled out the possibility of silent prayer. My own preference, I admit, is for the old rite and for the traditional language, but I hope I shall be allowed to go on saying a daily Mass until the end of my days—even if it has become for me more a penance than a prayer. Since the Mass is essentially a sacrifice, and one which invites a corresponding sacrifice on our part, I am quite ready to do without recollection and even peace of mind if this is what God wants. God evidently does want it or he would not have spoken so clearly through his appointed authority.

Hubert van Zeller, O.S.B.
Downside Abbey, Bath.


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