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This is the last of Gil Bailie’s Reflections on the works of William Shakespeare – and appropriately The Tempest was the Bard’s final play.


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Coming in the Fall will be Gil Bailie’s reflections on the works of TS Eliot including a series on some of Eliot’s early poems The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock, Geroniton, and Sweeney Among the Nightingales. Later this year we plan to add The Waste Land, and then in the new year The Hollow Men, Ash Wednesday, and Murder in the Cathedral.


Culture: The Canary in the Gemeinschaft

by Gil Bailie

The following is reprised from a blog posting originally made in September 2006. We believe its relevance to our contemporary situation makes it worth re-posting. The impetus for this came out of discussions at the Friday afternoon Girard seminars held episodically on the campus of Stanford University from the late 1980s to 2010.


In a lengthy article in the current issue of The Weekly Standard, Ralph Peters touches on one of the issues I raised at the last Girard seminar at Stanford and alluded to in the last Cornerstone Forum Newsletter. The issue is the erasure of cultural difference that accompanies today’s globalization and what the likely consequences of that erasure might be. Peters says some very pertinent things, for instance, that “there is a worldwide vacuum of purpose that the glittering trinkets of globalization cannot fill,” and: “The conviction that a new man freed of archaic identities and primitive loyalties can be created by human contrivance is an old illusion.” This illusion, having been entertained altogether too naively by the globalizing elites, is now collapsing into new forms of tribalism, which Peters conflates with magic or magical thinking, something he feels is likely to neither disappear nor be understood by the elites who convinced themselves that it would.

There is much merit to the argument Peters is making. It is a specification of the longstanding realization that humans are inherently religious beings, the default position on human religiosity being the primordial forms, from which biblical thought generally and the Christian revelation specifically exist to liberate us. There is a good deal of liberation from these primitive forms of the sacred yet to be done, and, even where the biblical and Christian leaven has been long at work, there remain vestiges of archaic religiosity which, under the pressure of social dislocations, are capable of revival and resurgence. One of the circumstances which favors the revival of these vestiges is the attenuation of a palpable sense of “we-ness,” a sense of social and religious belonging, and it is precisely this loss of social identity that has accompanied the globalization of the last few decades.

The mere fact that people exist “side by side, imprisoned on the same earth’s surface,” Hans Urs von Balthasar insists, does not constitute a viable community, and, if left with no bonds other than that, the soul will eventually rebel, seeking more palpable, visceral, and meaningful forms of communion. The impulse to retrieve such a communion can easily and quite naturally become retrogressive. A healthy sense of communio, von Balthasar argues, will be the precondition for all kinds of lively interactions, arguments, disagreements, and so on, the social container for a give-and-take, not an enforced sameness, which is what is currently being fostered by the globalizing elites wherever they have attained the power to do so.

Contrary to the anthropological naïveté of the social engineers, true community is not a social-contract arrangement. One’s family, or village, or nation are given. As Hans Urs von Balthasar puts it:

Those who are in “communion,” … do not enter into such a social relationship solely on their own initiative, each of his own private accord, determining its scope by the stipulations they make when they establish it. They are already in it from the start, already mutually dependent a priori, as a matter of course, not only to live together and contrive to get on with one another in the same domain, but also to carry out a common activity. … Otherwise, “L’enfer, c’est les autres” – “Hell is other people.”

There is, Ralph Peters argues, widespread “popular discontent with pseudo-identities concocted by political elites.” Globalization, he writes, “enthralls and binds together a new aristocracy – the golden crust on the human loaf – but the remaining billions, who lack the culture and confidence to benefit from ‘one world,’ have begun to erect barricades against the internationalization of their affairs.” We are, he writes, “witnessing the return of the tribes – a global phenomenon, but the antithesis of globalization as described in pop bestsellers. The twin tribal identities, ethnic and religious brotherhood, are once again armed and dangerous.”

However much we might wish it were otherwise, it is nonetheless true that we humans love one another with different levels of intensity and commitment. Cultural realism requires us to recognize this fact. It’s like the law of gravity; ignoring it will not make it go away. Whatever subtle presuppositions might be operating in utopian forms of egalitarianism or meritocracy, the truth is that one always tends to love one’s spouse and one’s children better than one loves others. As Christians, we can and should try to compensate for this natural affective asymmetry, but the first thing one must do in order to compensate for it is to recognize its existence. Of course, most of us recognize the domestic version of it, but we may not realize that the family is simply the inner core of a series of concentric circles of particular affection which quite naturally exist. Extended families, clans, ethnicities, nationalities, religious affinities, and so on and so forth; these things are the bonds that bind us, fostering the social intimacies that make us human. Accepting them and appreciating them is not a synonym for xenophobia. Someone secure in his or her matrix of relationships will meet those embedded in unfamiliar cultural matrices with a good deal more openness than will those floating in a sea of social undifferentiation. If and when these bonds become too attenuated, a hunger for them is aroused which eventually may seek satisfaction by reviving archaic forms of it by way of hatred and violence.

What Peters means by “magic” is more or less what René Girard means by the sacred, using the word with an anthropological, not pious, connotation. To distinguish these contexts, Girard often uses the phrase “the primitive sacred” to refer to the combination of superstition, violence, and ritual upon which archaic societies (past and present) depended for the maintenance of social solidarity and political order. Whether it begins with the southern European Renaissance or its northern variant, the Reformation, the process we now call secularization has been underway for centuries. It was driven by Christian desacralization which it misunderstood and misappropriated. Now that that process has run its course, what is becoming clear is something I’ve been harping on for years: the secular is not a sustainable alternative to the (primitive) sacred. If those are the only two alternatives on offer, a top-down choice in favor of the secular will serve simply as the prelude to a bottom-up demand for the sacred, the ferocity of which will be a measure of secularism’s anthropological naïveté.

It is with this as historical backdrop that we can and must rediscover the absolutely unique anthropological significance of Christian sacramentality. For the true alternative to the (primitive) sacred is the distinctive form of sacramentality which it has been the historical privilege of catholic Christianity to awaken in believers and propose to the world. One is tempted to put it emphatically: Ultimately, the only alternative to magic is the Eucharist.

Again, Hans Urs von Balthasar:

The reality of Jesus’ eucharistic self-communication at his Last Supper and in the communion of those who take part in the meal which is established – not in any case magical, but sacramentally objective and inseparably constituting both communion with God in Christ and communion with one another (1 Cor 10:16ff); this opens out a possibility of living for others which exceeds purely human capacity because it is a sharing in Christ’s vicarious suffering for the Church (and thereby for all men) (Col 1:24), involving sharing a common lot with the Lord …

What is today becoming clear, and what Ralph Peters has seen through a glass darkly, is that the secular is a brief interregnum which will dissolve in due course into a religious revival, the only outstanding question is: around which religious tradition will that revival occur?

Neither ideological secularism nor the ferocious revivals of the sacred that recoil from its banality and vulgarity are capable of inspiring the spiritual and cultural revitalization that our present situation demands. The alternative to the contemporary secular wasteland is not the intoxication and fanaticism of sacred violence but the sacramental forms of religious self-donation that it has been the distinctive historical privilege of Christianity to foster.

 

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Without me, you can do nothing

Pantocrator by Br. Terence

Christian anthropology – based on the revelation of Christ and the philosophical insights which that revelation awakened – insists that grace perfects nature. What isn’t apparent until the grace-nature connection is widely abandoned is that not only does grace perfect nature, but grace rescues nature from the gnostic and antinomian corruptions to which it otherwise falls prey – as the developments of the last few decades have shown. The nihilism (the moral nothingness) arising all around us is the anthropological confirmation of Christ’s warning: “Without me, you can do nothing.”

Every effort to rectify this situation that fails to reckon with the revelation of Christ is doomed. Paganism had its virtues, but once exposed to the biblical – and especially the Christian – revelation, every attempt to fashion a post-Christian culture will lead to disaster. We are currently in the midst of one.

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Civilization & Barbarism

George Bernanos

Hans Urs von Balthasar, quoting and commenting on observations of the French novelist George Bernanos:

“The thing we still call ‘civilization’ has outstripped every form of barbarism in accomplishing works of destruction. It now threatens to destroy, not only the works of man, but man himself. It is capable of modifying man’s nature profoundly, not by enhancing it, of course, but by mutilating it.” In such a world, the Christian begins to run out of air to breathe and space to move around in. We may even say that this is the goal of a deliberate development: “The main thing is to make the experiment irreversible as quickly as possible by destroying all traces of Christian man. The world of tomorrow must be made as uninhabitable for the Christian as the world of the Ice Age was for the mammoth.”

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A Coda on COV&R in Innsbruck (present and past…)

University of Innsbruck

Bleary eyed after 24 hours of travel from Austria to San Francisco the accumulated work of two weeks away from the Cornerstone Forum office awaits me. Before I dig into the pile of paper, emails, and related chores I would like to reflect on the conference that ended last week and on a prior COV&R conference from sixteen years ago, also held at Innsbruck.

The theme of this year’s meeting, “Imagining the Other: Theo-Political Challenges in an Age of Migration”  highlighted the on going issues facing many countries in Europe and the Americas where large numbers of people from the middle-East, Africa, and also Mexico, Central and South America are moving. There were at least 56 individual presentations including plenary and break-out sessions at this year’s conference. Emphasis on the scapegoating behaviors of some of the countries receiving large numbers of immigrants was prominent in the presentations, as would be expected in a Girardian setting such as this. Also in evidence was a propensity to ‘scapegoat the scapegoaters’ or in at least one instance to make the purported scapegoating behavior appear other than it was in fact, as when in a presentation the 2009 conservative Swiss People’s Party (SVP) poster of the Swiss flag covered in menacing bayonet like minarets was said to be an example of the Islamophobic scapegoating of immigrants, when in fact it was a faithful representation of Turkey’s president Erdogan’s perspective in 1997, where he quotes an early 20th century Turkish nationalist, saying, “The minarets are our bayonets, the domes our helmets, the mosques our barracks and the faithful our army.” It was therefore reasonable that some within Switzerland felt threatened by the growing presence of mosques in their towns. When this was pointed out to the presenter there was just silence…no explanation, apology for the oversight or appreciation for the correction.

Stams Cathedral

One of the ironies of viewing any concerns about the influence of Islamic immigrants as scapegoating came during the final event of the conference at the magnificent (if overwhelming, to me at least) baroque Stams Stiftsbasilikia where we attended a wonderful and inspiring concert by the Regensberger Domspatzen. It was at this place in 1497 that representatives of the Ottoman Turks signed a peace treaty with the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I. In the museum at the site this historic event and its consequences was described for visitors, concluding with this:

A lasting peace with the Ottoman Empire was not for long, as the later events (Battle of Mohacs 1526 and the first Siege of Vienna 1529) after the death of Maximilian showed.

The truth of any current or historic situation is complex. Any one observer will surely miss some aspects of the event. Mimetic Theory, as the name implies, understands mimetic desire as the source of conflicts resolved in scapegoating mechanisms. It is a tool enabling us to understand human actions, especially in the collective, describing the myths, rituals, and prohibitions that come out of the conflicts and violence inherent in our species and which help mitigate their destructive effects in the form of religion. And as a tool it is only useful if it ‘works’, if it helps us understand reality,…if it is true.

Below is a poem by Richard Wilbur that deals with our epistemic challenge, or how we often run into difficulties when reality does not conform to our beliefs…and following that a report Gil Bailie gave on the COV&R conference in 2003 also held at Innsbruck, including recorded remarks by René Girard on the importance of truth.


 Epistemology

I.
Kick at the rock, Sam Johnson, break your bones:
But cloudy, cloudy is the stuff of stones.

II.
We milk the cow of the world, and as we do
We whisper in her ear, ‘You are not true.’

by Richard Wilbur


An introduction by Gil Bailie: June 22, 2003, Innsbruck, Austria:

I am writing from Innsbruck, Austria where the Colloquium on Violence and Religion has just concluded its 2003 annual conference. The conference was a rich one, with more than 70 papers delivered. The discussions both formal and informal were wonderful. It was only at the very end of the conference that an issue arose that seems to arise everywhere these days where serious attention is paid to the Gospel and its cultural consequences. In so many places today, pluralism is besieged by people who ardently feel they are defending pluralism. In fact, pluralism is being redefined as the value to which all other values must defer. But in the topsy-turvy world of postmodern thinking, it is precisely postmodernity’s supreme principle of pluralism which cannot be exported to other cultures without violating the multicultural premises upon which it is currently based.

One needs to be reminded that pluralism is not a “truth,” rather it is the social arrangement most suitable to the charitable quest for truth. When and where a doctrinal pluralism censures that quest, it becomes — like so many other late-modern and post-modern “good intentions” — a parody of itself. I say this, all too quickly no doubt (I am pressed for time in these last few hours in Austria), in order to introduce a few remarks that René Girard made at a panel discussion at the end of our conference. I am putting a streaming audio player of the recording below where you can listen to René’s remarks, as well as a transcription.

One of the panelists expressed discomfort with the distinction Girard has always made between “myth” and “revelation,” suggesting that by privileging “truth” Girard and Christians generally set up a conflict with those who might not affirm that truth, thereby contributing to the very violence which they purport to be resisting. René’s interlocutor said that “The message of the market has become the market of the messages,” implying that the free flow of this information-age exchange would be jeopardized by attempts to privilege any one message the way Christians privilege the Gospel and insist on its universality and uniqueness, and the way Girard privileges the mimetic theory as both the product of the Gospel revelation and, in turn, its best anthropological explicator.
René responded with remarks that lasted slightly over four minutes. The recording I was able to get of his response is not of the very highest quality, but I think you will find its mediocre audio quality a small price to pay for the profound but perfectly simple and obvious truth to which he calls our attention.

René Girard:

“You know I find this debate very interesting on a certain level, but unconnected at all with the mimetic theory at other levels To put, in a way, all these messages more or less on the same level without asking the question of truth and falsity is the basis of our entire culture today. So, there the mimetic theory is totally misunderstood in the sense that the mimetic theory is entirely about the question of truth or falsity. Therefore, it has to disregard, in a certain way, the question of whether it’s going to cause controversy or not. I think one has to take a scapegoat example which would be modern enough to still be meaningful to us in terms of being for or even against injustice, and in those cases I always take the Dreyfus case.

“In the Dreyfus case you can see that the anti-Dreyfus theory which triumphed in France for years supported by the government and so forth was a perfect myth in the sense that there was a victim who everybody thought was guilty and who in reality was innocent. The first people who said that this victim was innocent suffered for it in the same sense we might say that the prophets suffered for the truth, Christ suffered for the truth. In the Dreyfus vision of mythology is the exact counterpart of the anti-Dreyfus…they resemble each other extremely. But there is one little difference the importance of which we don’t see in the case of religion and we see very well in the case of Dreyfus. Was the victim really innocent? Did he deserve to be punished or not? The only question is that. Oedipus is supposed to be guilty… this is a myth. Judaism and Christianity always call myths lies and they are right! And Judaism and Christianity say that the opposite, the vindication of the victim, is true, period. Nothing else matters. And that’s all. See what I mean? If you get away from that you’re off course. We are all trying to get along on avoiding the question of truth, and in a way it is very understandable and it’s still the philosophical way. We should avoid talking about religious violence; you know– the Platonic way. We are all for it because our instinct tells us, in a way, it is the only way you can have peace today. But I think at the same time it’s false in the sense that the account of the passion, if you read it, is exactly the truth of these myths which these myths do not give you. I think there is one man who understood this Christological sense, paradoxical, of the Dreyfus case and his name is Charles Peguy and he saw it as a Christological affair, which is very mysterious to a lot of people ? ‘vindication of that Jew’ and so on ‘should we be anti-Semitic?’, ‘we’d be better Christians‘ and so forth….no, only the truth counts. This is it.

“Either the mimetic theory has nothing to do with what I have just said, in that case its pure bunk, and has no interest whatever, or it has something to do with it. And of course, I think it has a lot to do with it, that it is really the same thing.”

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A California Yankee in Innsbruck

The Colloquium on Violence and Religion’s 2019 conference is winding up what seems to have recently become its annual attempt to distance itself from René Girard’s Christian and Catholic sensibilities.

That this is done in the name of Girard’s understanding of the role of scapegoating violence in the human cultural enterprise is not surprising as most of the participants come from academic institutions where the heritage of the (Judeo-Christian) West with its colonialist past of enslaving and expropriating peoples and lands of the non-western world is not just studied but recounted as a kind of mantra in an effort to inoculate themselves against what they perceive as the pernicious hegemonic influences that have produced the horrors of the current western world’s incipient fascist immigrant fearing climate change deniers.

I am grateful for the important work scholars here have done in documenting the suffering of those caught up in the upheavals of violence and starvation that have in recent years precipitated some of the massive movements of peoples from their native lands to the comparative safety and abundance of Europe and America. The desire to alleviate such suffering is not the exclusive purview of Christians, but it is certainly one of the duties of every Christian who wants to follow Christ. I only pray that those who feel free to make use of Girard’s mimetic hypothesis to explicate the perversity of our human propensity to find someone to blame for our problems would appreciate, as Girard did, how our relationship to the cross of Christ is the lens through which, in the West, we perceive the suffering we see around us.

I have been greatly encouraged by young scholars I’ve met here whose faith has informed their study of Girard’s mimetic theory. Their work deserves our support and prayers as they will become, with God’s help, the impetus to heal and strengthen the Church as she travels its penitential and purgatorial path through our world and into the future where few things are certain…that there will be suffering is one of them.

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Found on a wall in the village of Ein Karem

the village of Ein Karem

During my visit to Israel, ahead of the Colloquium on Violence and Religion conference in Austria, I spent two days as the guest of the Sisters of the Rosary in the village of Ein Karem. This is the place traditionally associated with the ‘hill country of Judea’ to which the Virgin Mary went in haste after her interview with the angel Gabriel (Luke 1:39) where she learned of her own and her relative Elizabeth’s miraculous pregnancy. Here it was then that the two pregnant women, one old, one young, met carrying in their own bodies the infant bodies of John the Baptist and Jesus. So much of my daily prayer life began in these environs, the Magnificat and the Canticle of Zechariah.

While exploring the area I found this poem posted on an exterior wall in an alley way written in Hebrew and English.

Sometimes to reach heaven above
You have to descend
And the valley spread before you
Shall appear as an ancient wonder
From the book of Genesis.
The grass and the colorful flowers
Will seem to you as holy letters
In the handwriting of God
While the wind will guide your heart to the words
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”.
And a young Yemenite shepherd girl
With seven white goat kids dancing around her
Decorate each biblical verse
With dark eyes, golden flute and curls..

by Shoshana Bakarsi

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Patriotism or Hatriotism

In commemoration of America’s celebration of Independence Day Gil Bailie posted a link on the Cornerstone Forum’s Facebook page to a book review written by Tim Rice of Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story, by Wilfred M. McClay. I haven’t read the book, which Rice describes as a more thoughtful and fair alternative American history text than what most secondary school students are offered these days. Howard Zinn’s victimology of american self-loathing being one example. However, I have read Walter McDougall’s Freedom Just Around The Corner, which is not a text book overview of American history to 1828 but a Bailie-esque reflection on the people and events that led to the American founding until the deaths of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson (who both died on July 4th, 1826). It is Bailie-like in that McDougall begins his reflections with a review of Herman Melville’s The Confidence Man, which I’ve also read, and makes reference to Melville’s novel throughout his work, the title of which is taken from a Bob Dylan lyric in his song Jokerman

I think of all this as I am now visiting friends in Jerusalem. On the 4th of July we attended a ‘festival of light’ in the Old City, a rather strange laser and special effects laden display on the ancient walls attended by many thousands of the denizens of the Holy City and its surrounds. The vibrant energy of the crowd reflected all the various ethnic, religious, socio-economic, and age groups from the Arab security guards checking the attendee’s bags for bombs (my Israeli host pointed out to me the paradox of this) to tattooed youth and Haredi families pushing infant laden strollers. I thought the closest thing to this in America might be New Year’s Eve in Times Square – but this was a warm evening with street buskers and food vendors everywhere.

A relative texted me a question, “How does it feel to be an American on the 4th of July in Israel?” I must say I feel very much at home here in the only democracy in the area. Israel is not without many of the same pathologies of democracy as my home country but the cultural roots that bind the soil to its inhabitants run much deeper here in ways difficult to describe. Freedom…real freedom, and its blessings may always be ‘just around the corner’.

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An intimate conversation

Edith Stein – Sr. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross

The brilliant philosopher, Edith Stein, found Catholicism to be – not the alternative to her Judaism, but its fulfillment. It is conceivable that the genesis of that conversion occurred quite by accident (or was it providence) when she happened to stroll into the Frankfurt Cathedral. There she saw a woman with a shopping basket kneeling for a brief prayer. She later wrote: “This was something totally new to me. In the synagogues and Protestant churches I had visited, people simply went to the services. Here, however, I saw someone coming straight from the busy marketplace into this empty church, as if she was going to have an intimate conversation. It was something I never forgot.”

Perhaps in this time when the Church is being shaken from top to bottom, we her faithful might follow the example of the nameless and humble woman who helped bring the great philosopher to Christ without ever realizing that she had done so.

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The Longing…

C. S. Lewis

C. S. Lewis:

The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing — to reach the Mountain, to find the place where all the beauty came from — my country … the place where I ought to have been born. Do you think it all meant nothing, all the longing? The longing for home? For indeed it now feels not like going, but like going back.

 

Why does it feel like going back? Why does the longing feel like a vague memory? Perhaps the answer can be found in something that the Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar regarded as the biographical foundation for a child’s subsequent sacramental experience: the effect on the newborn infant of his mother’s smile. In Balthasar’s view that moment is pivotal, as are its many repetitions in the early stages of an infant’s life. By Balthasar’s account, the mother’s smile gives the child her first experience of the goodness of existence, and it is the origin of her subsequent longing to retain or regain access to the “place where all the beauty came from.”

Hans Urs von Balthasar:

The little child awakens to self-consciousness through being addressed by the love of his mother. … everything – “I” and “Thou” and the world – is lit up from this lightening flash of the origin with a ray so brilliant and whole that it also includes a disclosure of God. … This awareness is joined to the primal experience that one has arrived at participation in the world-fellowship of beings by means of a summons coming from outside one’s own “I”. It is not through the perfection of one’s own power that one has entered this fellowship.

The mother’s smile carries ontological weight. With it the child enters a world loved and affirmed at the deepest and most ineradicable level. Without it, the most promising mitigating efforts notwithstanding, the child’s ontological circumstances are impaired.

The father’s responsibility is threefold: First, his obligation to both the child and the mother is to foster and safeguard an ordered and peaceful domestic environment, one in which the love and promise awakened in the child by the mother’s smile can grow into an enduring predicate for the child’s life. Beyond the task of preserving and protecting the home from whatever forces antithetical to its spiritual tranquility might threaten, it falls to the parents, and traditionally at least to the father of the family, to influence to the degree possible the larger social and cultural environments, with a determination equal to the proximity and spiritual efficacy of these influences. No less important is the need to provide children with a link to their cultural, religious, and family history, their spiritual patrimony. There is nothing inherently either masculine or feminine about this task, save for the danger of turning attention to political and social matters at the expense of those features of the domestic environment that will have greater and more enduring consequences in the lives of the young. On the other hand, the fact that we use the word patrimony for the spiritual treasures received from prior generations should not be dismissed as a vestige of gender inequality.

 

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Now CDs come with free MP3s

The Cornerstone Forum webstore is now adopting the ‘industry standard’ for online sales of audio materials. All sales of CDs will come with free downloadable MP3  audio files. When a customer completes an order for any CD material from our webstore they will receive an email receipt containing a link to a downloadable MP3 version of the same material.

Not only that – we are making our offer retroactive – anyone who has purchased CDs from our webstore in the past may receive links to downloadable MP3 files of the materials they have purchased. Just contact me at forum@cornerstone-forum.org and request the MP3 version of the CD(s) you purchased and I will email you the link(s).


In the coming months we will be adding more items from Gil Bailie’s Audio Archives to our webstore including Reflections on TS Eliot’s The Waste Land, The Hollow Men, Ash-Wednesday, Murder in the Cathedral, and The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock. We will also be adding more audio-book titles to Audible and other audio-book vendors.

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