The Long, Strange History of the Harvard Black Mass

The Long, Strange History of the Harvard Black Mass

What does the death of a French author have to do with the recent “black mass” flap at Harvard?

To start with, the collected works of Joris-Karl Huysmans (aka Charles-Marie-Georges Huysmans), born in Paris on Feb. 5, 1848, include a couple of very controversial novels. One was called À rebours (Against the Grain or Against Nature or Wrong Way, 1884). Considered decadent in its time, it was said to have influenced other authors, including Oscar Wilde (who converted to Catholicism shortly before his death in late 1900).

Huysmans then wrote the fictional La-Bas (Down There or The Damned, 1891), which dealt with Satanism in contemporary France. It ends with the description of a black mass–a ritual based on the Catholic Mass but intended to subvert and denigrate it–which reportedly provided the blueprint for the event the Satanic Temple and the Harvard Extension School Cultural Club intended to carry out on Monday, May 12.

Interestingly, Huysmans died in 1907…on May 12. More on him in a bit.

When we last left the saga of Harvard’s black mass, organizers the Satanic Temple–which is less of a temple and more of an excuse for political activism–and the Harvard Extension School’s Cultural Studies Club had abandoned its original plan to hold the self-described “educational” event at the Queens Head Pub at Memorial Hall on the Harvard campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts. There are rumors that it was strongly urged to move, but nothing official states that the club or the Temple were compelled to move.

The controversy started because the Satanic Temple (which boasts about 20 members, according to a February interview with The Atlantic by head Lucien Greaves, aka Harvard grad Doug Mesner) originally said it was using a Consecrated Host–a wafer that, after being consecrated by a Catholic priest, becomes, for believers, the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ–which would have to have been obtained by illicit means from a church.

That claim was later walked back after questions began to be raised–spearheaded by Patheos Catholic blogger Elizabeth Scalia, aka “The Anchoress,”–but by that time, the Harvard Extension School Cultural Studies Club was the target of dismay from both within Harvard and from the Archdiocese of Boston.

In an interesting side note, the Crimson wrote, “Despite repeated requests for comment, the Cultural Studies Club has not responded to questions about its leadership or membership, although it did say that its formulation required 10 members.”

The Club eventually withdrew its support, as organizers tried unsuccessfully to shift the black mass to the Middle East Club in Center Square. According to published reports, about 50 people attended the final version of the event, which took place about 10 p.m. on the second floor of a Chinese restaurant, the Hong Kong, near Harvard Yard.

As described in the Harvard Crimson  (which, by the way, did a bang-up job with its breaking-news coverage): 

About 50 people, mostly dressed in black and some wearing face makeup, were present for the ceremony. A consecrated host, believed by Catholics to be the body of Christ, was not used in the ritual. Four individuals in hoods and one man in a white shirt, a cape and a horned mask were active in the proceedings, as well as a woman revealed to be wearing only lingerie. The ceremony began with a narration on the history underlying Satanism and the black mass ritual.

Meanwhile, across town, opponents of the event–including Harvard President Drew Faust, who had allowed the black mass to continue on free-expression grounds, while calling how it was done “deeply regrettable”–and general supporters of Harvard’s Catholics gathered at St. Paul Church, just off Harvard Square.

Following a Eucharistic Procession (in which a Consecrated Host is displayed and reverenced; click here for a set of pictures on Flickr) through local streets, there was a prayer service at St. Paul, featuring Scripture readings, psalms, hymns, and remarks from attending clergy.

Also in attendance at the standing-room-only service was Catholic journalist Charlotte Allen, who originally headed to Cambridge to attend and observe the black mass. Instead, this is what she saw at St. Paul’s:

There were students from MIT and Harvard, babies in arms and in strollers, nuns, a bishop (Arthur Kennedy, a Boston auxiliary), and two young women who had driven from Stockbridge in western Massachusetts; they carried big pictures of Jesus. There were people in T-shirts sporting Bible verses, and people with medals, crosses, and sometimes medals and crosses around their necks. There was a portly man standing on the church steps wearing a Knights of Columbus polo shirt and eating ice cream from a cup. There was an ancient lady who insisted on kneeling on those steps during most of the service and then had to be helped to her feet by friendly neighbors. There were little girls in pretty dresses and at least a dozen Franciscan friars. I talked to two of them, Brother Rick and Brother Scott. They were grinning. They had learned that the Harvard club canceled its sponsorship of the Black Mass “while we were processing,” said Brother Scott. “We were overjoyed.”

So, for the moment, things have calmed down, at least until the Satanic Temple decides to make some more mischief.

Anyway, back to Huysmans, the founder of the feast, as it were. Having achieved a bestseller with La-Bas, the author–who had long ago abandoned the Catholicism of his childhood–spent a week at the Trappist monastery of Issigny, France. That experience figured into the 1895 novel En Route, in which he sends Durtal, the semi-autobiographical protagonist of La-Bas, to also spend 10 days at a Trappist monastery.

At the end, Durtal finds himself at one with God and flooded with divine light.

Whatever the state of the author’s internal religious sense, we do know that at the time of his death, Huysmans was a Benedictine oblate, a lay person who has associated himself or herself with a Benedictine community to enrich the spiritual life by living the wisdom of Christ as interpreted by St. Benedict.

Unwittingly or not, the Satanic Temple, Harvard, and the Archdiocese of Boston marked the 107th anniversary of Huysmans’ passing in a way that might, ultimately, have pleased him.

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