Tuesday, November 29, 2005
Yesterday's Gospel (Matthew 8:5-11) contained one of my favorite scenes in the NT, the story of the Centurian asking Jesus to heal his servant.
I've often jokingly said that I must not have been a very good Protestant, because I found it so easy to convert to Catholicism. In all likelihood, it was probably because I'd let my faith go so slack over the years that everything seemed new again when I started studying to enter the Church. One of the biggest revelations in those early years would come when I heard a particularly familiar verse - whether from the Mass or popular conversation - coming from one of the readings, and I could hear it in its entirety rather than just a sound bite. (Can you tell I wasn't reading the Bible as much as I should have in those days?)
And so it was here. It must have been around 1998 or so, and I remember watching the daily Mass on EWTN before heading to work, Deacon Bill reading the Gospel. And as the passage unfolded it suddenly dawned on me what I was hearing, and that it was providing the context for the "Lord, I am not worthy" that we recite as the priest displays the Host after the Agnus Dei. It's always fun hearing something familiar in an unexpected context; here it was even better, because I was actually learning something. That moment following the Agnus Dei - the priest saying "This is the Lamb of God," followed by our response - had already become one of my favorite moments in the Mass, and this solidified it for me.
Nowadays at the Latin Mass we attend at St. Agnes, I use the literal words in my interior translation: "Behold the Lamb of God," "I am not worthy that thou shouldst enter under my roof." And when I do, I often think back to the passage we heard yesterday; the humility of the Centurian, his understanding of authority and his willingness to put himself under the authority of this Jesus; and Christ's response, the joy He must have experienced as He healed the servant. We are moved by the story, and encouraged; for none of us is worthy of the salvation that God freely offers us. In presenting our petitions we keep in mind our unworthiness, but we also remember His mercy, which endures forever; we are reminded also of the need for persistence, of coming to Him again and again.
I only hope that I can be as humble when I approach Jesus with my prayers, for surely I am at least as unworthy as the Centurian; and that my testimony, however imperfect, may be as pleasing to Him.
Wednesday, November 23, 2005
A short act of Thanksgiving, from the Canon of the Tridentine Mass:
What return shall I make to the Lord for all He has given me? I will take the chalice of salvation, and I will call upon the Name of the Lord. Praising will I call upon the Lord and I shall be saved from my enemies. (Psalm 116:12-13)
And a Happy Thanksgiving to each and every one of you out there.
In any event, the battle is near; and so we offer to you the following, our five suggestions for fighting back against those who want to rid the world of "Merry Christmas." (P.S.: these really work!)
- First of all, be of good cheer. Nothing drives the secularists crazy like a cheerful Christian. While they're looking for a frothing-at-the-mouth, hard-line knuckle-dragging fundamentalists, their systems often have to reboot when confronted with something else. Show to them that when we say Merry Christmas, we mean it!
- When someone wishes you "Happy Holidays," smile and reply, "and a Merry Christmas to you, too!" You'd be surprised at how many times people smile back and wish you a Merry Christmas as well. As The Curt Jester points out, a lot of these people are under orders; that doesn't mean that they agree with them. Wishing them Merry Christmas gives them permission to be themselves. And as for those who scowl at you, - humbug!
- Send a message to the marketplace by buying cards that actually say "Merry Christmas." If you've got that really, really great card that does say "Happy Holidays," be sure and write Merry Christmas on the inside.
- Make the celebration last. One shopping mall boasted that their Christmas (whoops, I mean holiday) decorations would be down by New Year's Eve. That's ridiculous! Remember that Christmas lasts until Ephphany, twelve days later (hence The Twelve Days of Christmas). Of course New Year's is part of the holiday season - if not, just what other holidays are they talking about?
- Finally, but most important, remember what Christmas is all about. In our home we tend to celebrate both the secular and the religious Christmas; we put our tree up the first weekend in December and play Christmas music all month long. We enjoy the decorations and the specials and the cartoons, we brave the crowds in the malls as we do our shopping (and people-watching), we invite our friends over for parties and go to their houses. In other words, we enjoy all the trappings of the modern secular Christmas. However, we also have our Creche and our Advent wreath, we attend Midnight Mass, we read Luke's rendition of the Nativity before eating Christmas Eve dinner and the story of the gifts of the Magi before opening our own presents on Christmas morning. If we are to convince others that Christmas is not just another "holiday," we need to believe it in our own hearts first.
Five simple suggestions. They work for us; we think they'll work for you too. Don't be afraid to try just one; the more you wish others a Merry Christmas, the more you'll believe it yourself. And remember what it means.
Tuesday, November 22, 2005
Two closely related subjects I've frequently on written are the need for all of us to behave as role models, and the decline in civility in our public discourse. The two subjects might seem unrelated, but in reality I think it's pretty hard to keep the two seperate. After all, part of being a role model involves the way we believe in public. As Christ reminds us in the Sermon on the Mount, "by their fruits you will know them." (Matthew 7:20).
Fr. Tiffany spoke on this subject in the St. Olaf bulletin over the weekend, which I picked up online today. He makes the direct link between these "marketed heroes" and the often oafish behavior they demonstrate:
All of us need heroes and heroines to whom we can look and in whose company we can travel. Unfortunately, many of the men and women who come to us as "marketed models” for young people, as well as adults, need not be authentically moral and selfless. If they have a particular talent or skill or body profile, and as long as they can entertain us and distract us from our boredom, then they need not be honorable people as long as they give us what we pay for. In some instances we give places of dubious honor to those whose “glory” is to be especially claimed by being as crude, vulgar, outrageous and shameful in speech and behavior as they can possibly be. Kids’ bedrooms, college dorms, promotional fliers are plastered with “bigger than life” posters. Booze and sex sell and they are often linked to each other to amuse and sell product. Declaring one’s loyalty to a brand of beer (literally) spills over into caps and shirts and jackets that bear the name of a favorite beverage.
An unfortunate byproduct of this is the tendency to overlook the boorish behavior of those who agree with you, or to somehow otherwise excuse it. We give a free pass to a lot of politically incorrect speech simply because it fights a common enemy, political correctness (the "South Park conservatives," for example). You know - "the enemy of my enemy is my friend." Maybe we ignore it, maybe we chuckle (somewhat uncomfortably, if you notice; perhaps we're hoping if we laugh about it enough it might actually become funny). In the same vein, we turn a blind eye to the "antics" of our favorite athletes (but only if they deliver on the field; winning gives birth to one happy family, but losing creates many orphans). Fact is, it's not only what we say or do, it's how we do it, because in the how we often reveal just who it is we are.
It continues to puzzle why otherwise sensible people fall into this trap. As Fr. Tiffany says,
Why would people choose to clothe themselves with the garments of “marketed heroes,” desiring to emulate them, be identified with them, and spend themselves and their resources chasing an identity that has nothing to do with concerns that really matter. What is wrong with the white garment with which they were clothed at their baptism giving them their greatest dignity, having been made a part of the new creation in the image of Jesus Christ.
I've said it before, but it bears repeating: we are all role models, and the way we behave in public does make a difference. As the old saying goes, you only get one chance to make a first impression. Great athletes often say that they play every game, even the most meaningless, as if someone in the stands might be seeing them for the very first time. We believe, or we want to believe, that our behavior primarily affects us; but in fact our behavior ripples out in concentric circles, covering a wide area of people and events. As we are all members of the Body of Christ, our words and deeds can, in mysterious ways, have an impact on the entire Church.
Now, speaking from personal experience, I can vouch to many occasions when I've made a bad first impression. Sometimes it was because of social ineptitude or ignorance, other times from haughty arrogance, and on occasion it was due to simple misunderstanding. I've been profoundly fortunate to have had a number of opportunities for a second chance; hopefully I've made good on most of them. Who knows how many times I never got the second chance?
The point is that we have to always keep this in mind. People hearing us, seeing us, reading us for the first time, are bound to draw certain conclusions based on the impression we make. What kind of impression do we want that to be? An arrogant, crude, vulgar loudmouth? A hypocritical, so-called Christian? A conceited know-it-all? We have certain obligations; we must make sure we live up to them. But we don't have to do it all by ourselves.
Fr. Tiffany's final words refer to the saints; they can apply equally to us all, for we all have the potential to become saints:
Saints provide us with a community of men and women who have been tested, proven, and awarded the crown of life. There is nothing “phony” about them; they
are not pretentious; they are not full of themselves; they are not for show. They are full of amazing grace; they are real; they are for God and for us; they are now eternally grateful. They have chosen to give themselves “to all that is true, all that deserves respect, all that is honest, pure, admirable, decent, virtuous, or worthy of praise.” (Phil. 4:8)
Some people may think that "being yourself, warts and all" is the anthesis of phoniness. But in truth it has as much to do with reality as South Park has to true conservatism, or Playboy to chastity. As I said in an earlier post, let us not cheapen God's gifts to us, or use them in ways other than in which they were intended. We can only be honest with ourselves and with others if we accept the garment given us by our Lord, if we live up to the ideals He preached, and if we become that which He created us to be.
Remember, by your acts they shall know you.
Monday, November 21, 2005
Friday, November 18, 2005
I often feel like the Grinch, slapping his hands to his ears to block out the singing and laughing of all the Whos down in Whoville. He couldn't stand the confounded noise. If it were only singing or laughing I wouldn't mind so much, but the constant din just drives me up the wall. And it's all coming at us at a decibel level designed to finally make us all deaf.
There's constant music in restaurants, in grocery stores, at sporting events, in department stores. You can't even escape it in the bathrooms of these establishments. It's even louder there. Dining out used to be a convivial experience designed not only to enjoy a good meal, but also to engage in a pleasant conversation with one's dining companions. No more. Every eating establishment, from fast food joints to upper scale restaurants has to prove that their Bose speakers are better than yours. It seems that there is at least one over every table. I find that I no longer look lovingly into my husband's eyes as we talk; I have to watch his mouth so I can read his lips to see what he's saying.
We were visiting our friends in Chicago last year and decided to have a late lunch one day. We were the only ones in the place except for the employees. We literally could not hear ourselves think, much less talk to one another. Our dear friend and curmudgeon, Gary, walked back to the counter and asked if the music could be turned down so we could chat. I could have sworn the guy he spoke to thought Gary had two heads, the way he looked at him. But he did in fact turn it down enough so that we didn't have to shout. Maybe there's a lesson here: ask and ye shall receive. It might not hurt to try once in a while.
But there's a larger question here. Why do we need to have constant noise in our lives? Take this test:
1. Do you turn on the television the minute you get home?
2. Do you sleep with the radio on?
3. If you're alone at home, do you need to turn on the tv or radio or slip a CD into the player?
4. Do you have your headphones on while jogging? on the bus? at work?
Why are we afraid to be quiet? What is there about silence that frightens us? E. F. Schumacher, in A Guide for the Perplexed says, "The modern world tends to be skeptical about everything that makes demands on man's higher faculties." And I think that fear tends to fuel skepticism, rather like whistling past a graveyard. If we have noise, we don't have to have thoughts. If we have noise, we don't have to think about ourselves, what we're doing with our lives, what we're doing in this world, and most importantly, what we are doing - or not doing - to prepare for the next world. The Bible tells us that God wasn't in the storm, but He was the still, small voice in the calm. If we don't have any calm, we can't hear the still, small voice. If we drown Him out, we don't have to listen. If we don't listen, we don't have to deal with what He's saying, because it just might demand something higher from us.
I had occasion in one of the comboxes below to allude to Benjamin Franklin speaking on civil discourse, something that seems to be increasingly lacking in our own society.
Characteristically, he called for calm. "Instead of raving (with your correspondent of yesterday) against the Americans as 'diggers of pits for this country,' 'lunatics,' 'sworn enemies,' 'false,' 'ungrateful,' 'cut-throats,' &c. which is a treatment of customers that I doubt is not like to bring them back to our shop," he wrote to the editor of the London Gazetter, "I would recommend to all writers on American affairs (however hard their arguments may be) soft words, civility, and good manners." (The First American)
Intemperance was not the answer, Franklin concluded. "Railing and reviling can answer no good end; it may make the breach wider; it can never heal it."
Now, I've never been one of those decrying honest debate as "mean-spirited." I enjoy a good argument as much as anyone. But in the end one has to ask what people are trying to accomplish with their words. Are they merely in love with the sound of their own voice? Are they tourists walking past the tiger cage at the zoo, prodding the big cats with sticks to get a reaction while they stand safely outside the bars? Do their words proceed from spite, from malice, from a desire to inflict harm? Or are they honestly looking for the chance to pursuade, to engage in an honest conversation, to try to come to a meeting of the minds? In short, do their words flow from enlightenment, or frustration?
Mudslinging is nothing new; it predated Franklin and has probably always been with us. But with the advent of the Internet and the birth of literally hundreds of television and radio stations available via satellite, it introduces new and more advanced resources for slinging that mud. And we're not only talking about harsh words; it's more than that. Nowadays we're subjected increasingly to language that is vile, obscene, crude. It shows not only a lack of education but a lack of imagination, an inability to express thoughts in any but the most primitive forms of language. Profanity can be an art form, and is occasionally necessary to express a particular level of feeling (I'm no stranger to it myself, as anyone reading Graveyard of the Elephants can attest), but there is a time and a place for everything. So much of our so-called dialogue today would have been unacceptable a few years ago in what used to be called polite company.
I suppose that much of this comes from a feeling of helplessness that seems to pervade our society, a sense that things have spiraled out of control, that we are powerless to do anything about it except to lash out against the fates that have conspired to let us down so. And in an era when government seems to dominate our lives, when social conventions have been used increasingly as political weapons, when such unthinkables as homosexual marriage and polygamy seem to be just around the corner, and when even the simple wish of "Merry Christmas!" could get us in trouble; it would seem that there's good reason for that frustration to exist, and to boil over into a language filled with exasperated snarkiness.
There's also the increasing self-centeredness that surrounds us, the idea that nothing can be more important that what we think, want, and feel. The whole idea of expressing feelings, of holding nothing back, all in the name of "self-expression" and "self-fulfillment," leads rapidly to a state where any limits on behavior are seen as puritanical censorship and an impingement on "personal freedom" (whatever that is). We often see this attitude expressed by those who condemn the teachings of the Catholic Church, especially in areas of sexuality and morality. They decry such limits to our personal actions, smirking conceitedly out of one corner of the mouth while they launch into vile denounciations with the other. We are too enlightened, it seems, to allow anything to interfere with our right to express ourselves (to share our "feelings," we popularly say), other than our own sense of satiation with our very fine words.
I look at what people are saying and doing today, and they seem so angry. It must be very tiring to be mad like that all the time. I look at one correspondent who wrote to NRO's Kathryn Lopez this week. "I sincerely hope you rot in hell," the writer said. I suppose those words gave him satisfaction of some kind. But did he really mean it? Is that what he really wants?
Cardinal Dulles once said (and I paraphrase) that hell truly exists, but it is not beyond us to hope that nobody is there. The salvation of all should be our hope in life and our goal in our actions. As Christians, we share in the teaching mission that Jesus gave His disciples, the obligation to spread His words and to bring Him to the masses. We may think that someone deserves to be in hell (I think that about a great number of people), but should we be sad to find that they reconciled to Christ at the last moment and now are with him in Heaven, or at least the purification of Purgatory?
When the laborers complained about those working a single hour receiving the same wages as those who worked an entire day, Christ quotes the master of the vineyard as asking whether or not his gifts were not his to bestow as he saw fit. When Jonah complained to God that He did not destroy Ninevah, he got much the same answer.
In Luke's Gospel on Monday, we here the story of the blind man who begs Christ to heal him. The crowds jeer him, telling him to be quiet, but he persists. And his persistence is rewarded, for Christ does in fact restore his sight. And what is the reaction of the crowd then? "All the people, when they saw it, gave praise to God." What does this mean? Fr. Pavlik, in his homily on Monday, said the lesson was simple: the people of God rejoice at the good news that comes to one of their members.
Yes, rejoice, for we're all in this together. Christ hammers the message home time and time again. When a sinner repents there is great celebrating among the Saints in Heaven. Love one another as I have loved you. Love your neighbor as yourself. When you fed Me you gave comfort to the hungry. Feed my sheep.
In our self-centeredness, we forget that we're just one part of a whole, something much larger than any one of us; and we lose sight of the fact that the success of any one of us depends on the success of us all. "We're only as strong as our weakest link," the essayest wrote. "No man is an island," Donne penned. "If we don't hang together we shall surely hang separately," Franklin himself said.
There is an answer, of course. Christ gave His life for all, even though He knew that not all would accept His sacrifice. He makes sense of the senseless, empowers the powerless, and enlightens those living in the darkness, if we let Him. That's not always easy to see, nor understand. Many times that enlightenment takes the form of what we might think a harsh lesson. Sometimes it takes years for us to appreciate why things happen the way they do. On occasion we can be deceived by those who twist Christ's words to fit a personal agenda, and it only serves to separate us from His real words.
To incorporate Christ into our everyday lives requires us to give something in return. Ourselves, for example. And with that comes a sense of self-denial, a personal restraint that in reality is liberating rather than confining. For to turn away from His teachings is to deny the inner peace that He offers, a peace that may be years in fulfillment, but continues to grow within us as long as we nurture it through our actions.
And that must be our goal. We should rejoice when a sinner turns to God, when the lost sheep is found. Let us pray for the humility that it might begin with ourselves, and the part we play in the restoration of a civil society. Let us not debase ourselves by refusing to live up to the remarkable beings we were created to be, in the image and likeness of God - let us not cheapen God's gifts to us, or use them in ways other than in which they were intended. Life is not a zero-sum game - we can all be victorious when we turn to Christ as our salvation and Heaven as our goal. That this might come to all, we can be allowed to hope.
Thursday, November 17, 2005
I'd be remiss if I let the day pass without mentioning the anniversary of The Heidi Game. It was on November 17, 1968 that the Oakland Raiders and New York Jets faced off in what wound up as one of the most famous football games ever played.
Most of you probably know the basics of the game. (Jets leading 32-29 with a minute to play when NBC breaks off coverage of the game for the beginning of the children's movie Heidi; Raiders score twice in that final minute to win 43-32; national furor ensues.) A number of sources, including this article and Jeff Miller's history of the AFL, Going Long, provide the rich details that prove Talleyrand's saying, "It is worse than a crime; it is a blunder."
A succession of increaingly abusrd events guaranteed the game's place in infamy. Network executives tried to reach Dick Cline, NBC's broadcast supervisor, to tell him to keep the game on the air; they weren't able to get through to him because the lines were jammed by concerned viewers themselves worried that the end of the game wouldn't be shown. After the switch was made, the network president, Julian Goodman, himself called to demand that they go back to the game, but it was impossible to reach a technician who could throw the switch. Once NBC became aware of the furor erupting, they ran a crawl on the bottom of the screen telling people the final score; the crawl ran during one of the most dramatic moments in the movie, infuriating those who actually preferred Heidi to football.
Cline's dry recitation of the facts in subsequent interviews, including his response to Goodman's demand to resume the game ("Well, I'll try."), and the equally dry coverage of the events by David Brinkley on the Huntley-Brinkley Report the next night, make anniversary recaps of the game a hoot. One of the funniest occurred in 2003, when the NFL Network commemorated the 35th anniversary by wiping out their regular schedule to show the movie Heidi, only to interrupt the conclusion to replay the final minute of the game and the two Raiders touchdowns that most of the nation had missed back in 1968.
It may be hard to believe now, but the Heidi Game proved to be not only one of the most famous games ever played, but one of the most influential as well. It made the front page of the New York Times, was featured on evening news broadcasts, and proved to television executives the appeal of pro football. Combined with the Jets' victory over Baltimore in the Super Bowl two months later, it provided a major dose of credibility for the AFL.
And it guaranteed that a very good football game, one of the best games of 1968, would live on almost forty years later; while the movie that preempted it would become a mere footnote, a word that became a synonym for a mistake, a reminder of the greatest ending to a game that you never saw.
Wednesday, November 16, 2005
Americans like things big (except women, but that's a topic for another post). Before the country was even out of diapers, we had more than doubled our original size, thanks to President Thos. Jefferson. There's Texas and the Whopper and the Mall of America and the house known as the "Starter Castle", or, as Sarah Susanka refers to it, "McMansion."
Bigger is always better in our minds. That's why we always have to have more, whether it's a more powerful, better paying job; two, or three, or more vehicles; vehicles that are as big as tanks; vehicles that are tanks; a 5,000 square-foot house and a lake place; more food, more sex, more sexual partners, more money and more things that money can buy. And a place to store them.
Many years ago I read Small Is Beautiful:Economics As If People Mattered by the German philospher E. F. Schumacher. The premise flew in the face of the "bigger is better" ideology. He said, "production from local resources for local needs is the most rational way of economic life." Intermediate Size and Intermediate Technology provide a more sustainable way of living, for our souls as well as our bodies. Hmm, also sounds suspiciously like G. K. Chesterton's theory of Distributism, which is described as "...the economic state where the possession of land and capital, instead of being concentrated in the hands of a few, are maximally distributed among all men throughout society." (Nope, it's not Communism, which is really only another form of economic despotism. Chesterton wanted people to live and work on their own property, for themselves, buying and selling on a small, local basis.) One wonders what either Schumacher or Chesterton would have thought of one large store or bank or business attacking and swallowing another business, only to be swallowed itself, ad infinitum until at last, it explodes like Mr. Creasote, collapsing into bankruptcy and ruin. Not a pretty sight. And not a pretty result for the people whose lives have been changed for the poorer along the way.
Enter Sarah Susanka, who thinks that the size of houses has gotten out of hand, that we're becoming lost in the very sanctuaries that are supposed to give us respite from the chaos around us. Square footage isn't even the real issue here; make a house of whatever size work for the way we really live, and, spend some of the money that we'd use to purchase bulk to purchase beauty instead. We build houses now that have rooms that we don't even use. We think we need these rooms based on a model of life that doesn't exist for most of us anymore. Even our formal entertainments are much more informal than in a previous century, yet we still think of our living spaces as corset-stiff entities.
The first houses in America were often one room, with the focal point being a large fireplace, which provided heat and a place to cook. Furniture often was sparse and played more than one role. A bench doubled as storage; a table could be folded up to not only provide seating, but block out the draft when it was turned away from the door and towards the fireplace. The seating was then pushed against the wall so that beds could be layed out in the middle of the room. This scenario is a far cry from the executive houses we see being built in the suburbs today, but not unfamiliar to apartment dwellers in New York City, Washington, D. C., or Boston.
When people became more affluent and houses began to grow, separate rooms were fashioned with fireplaces in each room. The cooking area no longer had to double as the main heat source and so was pushed off to a far corner of the house, to a basesment-like area, or even to a separate building to lessen the chances of burning the whole house down. As fireplaces were replaced by wood or coal stoves, the kitchen became a part of the main house again, but was still often banished to a site far away from the main living area. Partly this was to keep the smell of the cooking away from the family and guests and partly it was because servants prepared and served the food, so it was not necessary for the lady of the house to have the food prep area in close proximity to the parlor where guests were entertained or the play room where the children spent their days. And so it goes right up through mid-20th century when kitchens were still shut off from the main living areas.
In our own - former - 1950s rambler the kitchen had a door to the dining room on one side and to a hallway on the other. If I had guests, they were without my scintilating company until dinner was served, or else they all tried to be in the teeny kitchen with me. Ah, maybe that's how it started. Everyone tried to be in the kitchen so we started making kitchens larger. First we added the eat-in part, then we opened them up with a break-through to the living room. Then we took the wall down all together and put in a family room next to the kitchen. But even that wasn't big enough, so now all of a sudden we have a huge space- a great room - where we cook, eat, recreate and just generally all hang out. Hmm, back to that one room living. Except now we still have the formal dining room, the formal living room, maybe a den and maybe a family room downstairs in addition to this huge room in which we all congregate. We in essence have two houses under one roof, but we only live in perhaps half of it.
Whatever happened to the bedroom where we sleep and.., well, you know. The bedroom has been replaced by the Master Suite. Suite? Are we on a constant vacation? Do we really need to have a bedroom that has a living room in it? Does the bathroom really have to be as big as the locker room at the gym?
And just what is a "bonus room?" The builder happened to have some lumber and siding left over so he added another room. Surprise, Mr. & Mrs. Johnson, just a little housewarming gift for you - another room!
Everyone seems to think cathedral ceilings are to die for. Ever tried to light or heat or cool a cathedral? Or paint the wall? Our painter friend looked like Michaelanglo when she was painting the living room in our - former - townhouse.
It's been a long journey for us in our efforts to down-size our lives. The older we got, the more we realized that we would never have the time and means to do what we really wanted if we didn't get rid of all the stuff that was holding us back. The possessions became the possessors. Once we started getting rid of things that just sat in boxes year after year we finally were able to move to a condo downtown that better suited our style, that was smaller, but more efficient and enabled us to spend more time in closer proximity, even if we were in different rooms. Now, obviously this isn't for everyone. I don't think I'd want to raise a brood of kids in a one-bedroom condo, but the point is, we've found it's easier to live in a manageable space that really fits the way we live, that let's us enjoy the things we have because we see and use them every day.
Perhaps we can stop and look around us and start to ask ourselves if more and bigger is really better. Do all these external things really bring us the satisfaction that we're searching for? Maybe the "bigger" we truly want is that which is bigger than us all.
Tuesday, November 15, 2005
My friend Hadleyblogger Peter became yet another victim of the free press the other day.
He was appearing before a meeting of the Richfield City Council, one of many citizens speaking on a city proposal to construct a traffic roundabout in a particular area of Richfield. It was, all agreed, a situation in which the city would need to communicate the events to the public. Peter happened to point out that the means of communication the city proposed - direct mail pieces, articles in the local newspaper, PSAs on public access TV, and messages on the city's web site - might not attract people's attention.
"I don't tend to read the local paper, extra information in the mailbox is junk mail and I throw it away, and I don't go to the city Web site," DePalma said when Heppelmann suggested providing information through those sources.
Now, Peter's a pretty bright guy, as anyone who's read exerpts of his writing on this blog could attest. But this quote makes him not only sound kind of dumb, but also proud of it. "I didn't know you were wearing backwards baseball caps nowadays," I told him. "Or eating beef jerky." (Well, maybe I didn't actually say this to him, but the thought had crossed my mind.)
Peter had, by his own admission, used a Columbo-style irony and sarcasm, which might have been too much for the writer to comprehend. Nonetheless, he had valid points to make - how does the city intend to transmit information to the public - and equally valid reasons why that strategy might not work. As a former resident of Richfield myself, I can vouch that most people wouldn't do what the city was suggesting. Even people (like Peter) who routinely use the Internet don't check the city's website.
The larger point is how the story came out. The article, as you can tell if you check it out, is long enough that the writer didn't really need Peter's quote at all. He could have summarized Peter's thoughts, along with other citizens, as a concern that the city didn't take adequate steps to disseminate the information. But, although you might second-guess the writer's strategy, there were nonetheless a few standard journalistic tools he could (and should) have used. For example, as Peter pointed out, the sentence that appears in the paper was not what he said. That is, bits and pieces of a couple of sentences were cobbled together to make it sound as if Peter had said what he said all in one phrase. In fact, Peter assures me, this was not the case. Where, in that case, were the ellipses, the tool that every writer uses to show that he's removing a portion of a sentence or combining two sentences together to form one? The ellipse is a valuable way of indicating to the reader that the phrase being read should not be taken as an all-inclusive rendition of the speaker's thoughts. So what the writer really did was craft a quotation that was intended to represent Peter's thoughts. Fine, if you have to do that; but don't pretend that it's a direct quote.
And then there's the newspaper itself.
Now, I have to admit that to a certain extent I have a dog in this fight; for when I ran for the state legislature from Richfield, I had to deal with that Richfield Sun Current (there are Sun Current newspapers all over Minnesota, each carrying certain boilerplate information along with a healthy dose of local news, events, and editorials). In general, I considered the Richfield Sun Current to be unfit for use in a cat's litter box. During my campaign, this particular Sun Current paper:
1) Refused to accept letters to the editor from candidates;
2) Limited the time frame in which letters (from anyone) regarding the campaign could be submitted (and required them to state that the letter hadn't been written by any committee or individual other than the person signing the letter); and
3) Restricted the times in which political ads could be run.
Now, you could have argued that some of these weren't bad ideas in and of themselves (like parts of McCain-Feingold, I suppose; it can't all be bad), but as a newspaper policy it stank to high heaven. As far as I know, it was the only paper in the area with such a restrictive policy, and the really funny thing about it was that it was only in effect the year I ran for office. Never before, never after. And, as far as I know, none of the other Sun Currents followed this practice. Other candidates I talked with couldn't believe any paper would set such a policy. (They didn't even endorse candidates that year, another one-time phenomenon, and Judie always said it was because they couldn't bear to endorse me, but couldn't justify endorsing my opponent.)
Newspapers constantly harp about freedom of the press, but these policies hardly seemed to represent any true freedom of thought. Restricting the subject matter of letters to the editor; or preventing candidates from expressing their own thoughts via that same medium. I'm not saying they didn't have the right to do it; that I don't know. (Although I do seem to recall one of the Sun Current papers getting in trouble with the Minnesota News Council a few years ago over their policies.)
No, what really got me was this liberal elitist attitude that "we know what's good for the readers," that there somehow needed to be a filter to protect the innocent peruser of the paper from some kind of dastardly plot by an evil candidate. In trumpeting freedom of the press, the press most often winds up becoming a self-proclaimed arbiter of what the public should or shouldn't know. To my way of thinking, that's a one-way freedom - power without responsibility.
And the MSM wonders why the blogosphere exists at all.
Monday, November 14, 2005
The fine site Roman Catholic Blog has been host to a rather disputatious discussion regarding the probity of holding hands during the Our Father. Even Hugh Hewitt took notice of it. Yours truly made a brief foray into the comments box, but as you know I'm not much for engaging in combox debates; they usually yield more bluster and backbiting than intelligent discussion. (Which is not to say that comments here aren't welcome; you know the rules.)
As far as I'm concerned this discussion is a moot point, much ado about nothing. You can't hold hands during the Our Father. You can say you like it, you can say you don't like it. You can do it, even though it's not permitted, you can suggest that perhaps it should be allowed. But you can't defend it. Period.
QUERY: In some places there is a current practice whereby those taking part in the Mass replace the giving of the sign of peace at the deacon's invitation by holding hands during the singing of the Lord's Prayer. Is this acceptable? REPLY: The prolonged holding of hands is of itself a sign of communion rather than of peace. Further, it is a liturgical gesture introduced spontaneously but on personal initiative; it is not in the rubrics. (Emphasis added.) Notitiae 11 (1975) 226. [Response by the Congregation for Divine Worship; courtesy EWTN.)
The established rule as far as liturgical rubrics is this: if it's not specifically mentioned as being allowed, it's not allowed. Therefore much of the discussion on this topic has been, I'm sorry to say, drivel. People discuss this as if they had a choice. Well, they do - they can obey the rubrics, or they can disobey. That's it.
But it's the height of banality to defend it. Because what you're really doing is trying to defend why you're breaking the liturgical law. And you notice how many people in this discussion get started on how oppressive the Church is, how stifling ritual can be. That's the classic technique used to distract you from the central point, which is that these people are being disobedient. And to listen to the excuses they make, methinks they protesth too much. They're wrong, they know they're wrong, and they're desperately trying to convince themselves otherwise by attempting to legitimize their behavior.
Granted, this kind of liturgical abuse is far from the worst. There are people at St. Olaf that hold hands during the Our Father, and I just close my eyes; that way it doesn't bother me. (Fortunately, none of them have been pushy enough to try to grab me against my will.) And compared to other kinds of disobedience, I suspect God may have more important things to worry about.
But it is disobedience nonetheless, and the attempts to rationalize it, to somehow offer a justification for doing something you know is wrong; these attempts are a mirror of everything that's wrong with the world and every kind of stupidity that sin introduces into our natural reason. It's the "yes, but" type of justification. And it's an all-purpose type of excuse, suitable for justifying anything from adultery to theft to murder, running the gamut of rationale from self-esteem to self-interest.
Because, let's face it, there's always a good excuse for sin. Sometimes it carries you along in a wave, so that you don't realize what you've done until after the fact. But most of the time, when presented with the opportunity for sin, we immediately go to work on a way to rationalize it, to make our sin somehow "OK." Very few of us sin just for the hell of it. We sin because we sense there's something in it for us, and we want to make this act somehow acceptable. It isn't, of course; sin never is. But as Mark Shea often says, sin makes you stupid. And sin offends God, whether you've got a good rationalization for it or not.
So that's why I'm bothered by these casual types of liturgical abuses. Because there is a real defensiveness in the way many of these people attempt to letigimize their disobedience to the Church. And disobedience, like most everything else nowadays, is a slippery slope. While some of them are ignorant of Church teaching, many more are saying, "I don't care if the Church teaches that; it's not the way I feel; therefore, I don't have to follow it." Living a holy life is challenging enough; we don't need more temptations, especially those generated by people within the Church, to make it harder.
End of screed alert.
Sunday, November 13, 2005
"[John] Wilkes habitually skewered his critics with verbal thrusts, more than one of which were appropriated by subsequent sharp tongues. After Wilkes entered politics a constituent vowed he would vote for the devil over Wilkes. 'Naturally,' retorted Wilkes. 'But if your friend is not standing, may I hope for your support?' The Earl of Sandwich predicted that Wilkes would die on the gallows or of venereal disease. 'That depends, my lord,' Wilkes replied, 'on whether I embrace your principles or your mistress.'"
H.W. Brands, The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin
Friday, November 11, 2005
Every once in a while you stumble on something that perfectly fits the mood you're in. It's even better when you find this completely by accident, without even looking for it.
Such is the pleasant coincidence I had looking through Eve Tushnet's blog this evening, wanting something to write about. (It's not that I don't lack for subject matter; it's Friday and I'm tired - I lack for energy!) I followed her link to Doublethink, where she'd had a piece published recently. And here, in the table of contents, I came upon this article: "Who Moved My Cheese? and the Meaning of Life," by Peter J. Hansen. With a subtitle reading, "How business bestsellers help impoverish our souls," it was irrestible.
I read Who Moved My Cheese? once, and considered myself both richer and poorer for it. Poorer, in that I was exposed to thinking and writing so banal that I could easily have become depressed at my own lack of success in getting published. Richer, in the sense that I was both encouraged ("Hey, if he can get published, anyone can!") and in knowing that I'd never run out of things to write about, thanks to the unlimited pablum in Spencer Johnson's "book".
Ever since the birth of this blog almost a year ago, I'd intended to write about Cheese. I'd gotten as far as doing a first draft of a fairly lengthy, if sloppy, post. There wasn't a month gone by that I hadn't meant to get back to work on it. But other things would always come up, often pieces that I found easier to compose, and Cheese remained on the back burner. Thanks to Peter Hansen, it's time to move it to the front.
Hansen only tangentially touches on Johnson's magnum awful, concentrating on the business book world in general. And what he sees isn't pretty:
In general, the business book genre reflects and reinforces our desire to make careers fill a place in our souls that they cannot truly fill. As human beings we want more out of life than jobs can provide - and thank God for that - but many or most of us don't know where else to turn. The business book genre as we know it is born of that emptiness; and it issues in emptiness as well. The lonely hunger of atomized individuals invites the empty promises of (mostly unwitting) false prophets. Whatever faults Americans had in the generations before we acquired a taste for these books (and no doubt we had many), we do not seem to have gained in self-understanding or happiness.
One of the reasons I never finished my piece on Cheese was that I knew I'd have to go back and read it again in order to get my facts straight, and I figured I'd wait for a really, really bad sin to pop up in confession so that I might suggest to the priest that I read Cheese as a penance.
But I don't think I need to reread this cheesy book to know that the central premise is a dangerous one: the idea that nobody is in control. Sure, as Christians we understand that the strength that lives in us comes from the reality that God, not us, is in charge. So there is a benefit to understanding that we can't control everything. But Cheese goes one step further, suggesting a nihilistic world in which an unseen hand maliciously manipulates our actions, moving the cheese around the maze like a deranged scientist experimenting on rats.
Why do I use the word nihlistic? Because in Johnson's world, no one has the answers. The fact that the book has become popular with CEOs everywhere (including, as Hansen dryly points out, some of the most unsuccessful companies in business today) indicates that the lesson applies to them as well: even a billionaire CEO has to react to circumstances beyond his control. And while there's something levelling in this (the idea that your boss, no matter how glib he or she might be, could just as easily be steamrolled as you), there's also something disturbing, at least to my mind.
For where, in the world that Johnson describes, is the motive in living? Free will would seem to be a farce; your only choice is to adapt or die. There's no suggestion that your decisions can play a an active role in shaping your future, that God has an interactive plan for us all. No, the message is that change happens, there's nothing you can do about it, get used to it. No wonder we look for refuge in sex, drugs and rock 'n roll - or in the increasingly impersonal Internet. Having already discovered the dehumanizing world of Corporate America, which breeds cynicism and despair the same way mosquitos breed disease, why bother to have any human interaction at all?
Hansen does cite business books that seem, however imperfectly, to recognize this. In Now, Discover Your Strengths, authors Marcus Buckingham and Donald Clifton "argue that it is generally more important to develop one's strengths or talents than to overcome one's weaknesses. 'Without underlying talent, learning a skill is a survival technique, not a path to glory.'" However, Hansen adds, the book is flawed by the "apparent absence of the thought that there is something higher than being an effective cog in the economic wheel":
The problem isn't merely that the authors are looking at the world through rose-colored glasses. One subtle effect of books like this is to redefine human strengths as the ones that productive organizations in fact need. The authors encourage us to discover our strengths so that we can put them to use in our careers. Thus empathy makes one suited for sales (rather than, say, friendship or raising children); imagination makes one suited for formulating business strategy (rather than art or, if allied with other abilities, philosophy or science); and so forth. There is no suggestion that our strengths or virtues point to anything higher than our careers. The book implies, or at least encourages the reader to feel, that one should either redirect or neglect those strengths that have no economic application.
Hansen explains that "[s]mall organizations (including families) can experiment with giving their members a high level of autonomy; but this is much more difficult for large organizations." This would have come as no surprise to G.K. Chesterton, who raised precisely this point in arguing against the dangers of Big Business. Although Hansen doesn't use the term, the employes he describes - those for whom "[s]ubordination and drudgery are inevitably part of the job" - are living, breathing examples of Chesterton's "wage slaves."
The modern company in Corporate America does recognize the existence of human beings, and the necessity of satisfying their needs. However, the humans they serve are not the employees, but the stockholders; and the needs are not spiritual, but material - the bottom line is, indeed, the bottom line.
Hansen makes a telling observation about the change in the relationship between our work lives and, for lack of a better word, our "real" lives:
As late as the 1950s, most men saw their jobs primarily as a means of supporting their families, the most important thing in their lives. As the success of books like Now, Discover Your Strengths attests, many men and women now look to their careers to provide the central satisfaction or meaning in their lives.
Corporate America not only reflects this change in our priorities, it's been the agent of the new reality. And they expect us to put up with it, indeed to thrive in its toxic atmosphere. As Johnson says, when your cheese is moved you don't stand around wondering what happened; you accept and adapt to change, because there's nothing else you can do.
But that's where corporate martinets are wrong, for there is something we can do about it. There always is. For starters, we can reject the world painted by Johnson and his like-minded cronies. We can fight back against the idea that we're only puppets in a deist world, that we've been left alone to bob up and down in the cruel seas of life, buffeted by these incessent winds of change. By applying logic, reason and critical thought we can use our minds - our God-given minds, infused by the wisdom of the Holy Spirit - to determine the proper response to a new idea. And we can realize that there is a place to go for answers, and Someone Who can and will give us the straight scoop, unlike the impotent CEOs that live an implied existence in Johnson's maze.
Sometimes change must be embraced, or even championed (the civil rights struggle, let's say), but sometimes it must be fought - to the death if necessary (the heresy of the Reformation, to cite just one example). The past, just because it's old, doesn't always deserve to be swept under the rug every time something new comes along. That might be the way Elizabeth Taylor treated her husbands, but human dignity deserves and demands more.
And you're not going to get it by eating cheese that's been left out in the open for too long.
Thursday, November 10, 2005
Television and I are old chums. We were born not too many years apart and I have fond memories of our childhood together. So I was really looking forward to last night's PBS show Pioneers of Primetime. From the review in the Star Tribune, I knew I'd better not expect too much, and I was glad for the warning.
The history of television is too big and the medium has had too much impact on modern society to be stuffed into a one hour time slot. Had this been part one of a multi-part series, like Baseball or New York , it would have made a better impression. As it is, it skimmed, trimmed and skipped over a lot of what made early television great.
There's no doubt that the personalities and shows that were covered were indeed pioneers. But, the show only covered comedians that came from or were heavily influenced by the vaudeville era: Red Skelton, Bob Hope, Donald O'Connor, Burns & Allen, among others. Where was drama, where were the shows with headliners from nightclubs, where were the game shows. Early television wasn't only about comedy and variety. What's My Line began in 1950 and ran for 17 years in virtually the same format. Kraft Television Theatre was the first drama series (1947).
The show touched on the presence, or lack thereof, of minorities, showing clips of Sammy Davis, Jr. and his father and uncle. Mr Davis's regular musical variety show didn't even show up until 1966. Nat King Cole's program was on in 1956-57. And Beulah, a situation comedy starring Hattie McDaniel aired in 1950.
There were some wonderful clips of Milton Berle and Red Skelton, along with their rememberances, and comments from vaudeville "brats" such as Steve Allen and Donald O'Connor. There were even films of live vaudeville shows, although who was in them was a mystery since there were very few captions. Production was shoddy in this vein because if the makers knew who they were, why didn't they let us in on it, and if they didn't, shame on them for not doing better research. This is probably a show that shouldn't have been undertaken at all if it wasn't going to do a better or more complete job.
One thought came through loud and clear, even though the topic wasn't discussed: television changed forever how we spend our free time and paved the way for the isolated, sedentary, attention-lacking world we find ourselves in today. A vaudeville show was a family activity that lasted a few hours one evening every once in a while when a show came to town. Moving pictures dealt it the first blow, but even they were something that lasted only a couple of hours at a time. The rest of the time, people had to make their own entertainment. People learned to play a musical instrument, they made up plays, they read, they played cards or games, they went for walks, went to the library, went to visit friends or relatives. They still connected. In person. With each other.
When radio appeared, it was the beginning of a different world. Yes, you could do other things while the radio was on, but it was right there in the home, right there waiting to be turned on, any time, and left on. There was an interesting picture on the show of a family sitting around the living room watching the radio. It commanded more attention and there was less incentive to do other things that took more effort. Many vaudevillians, in an effort to keep going, developed shows for radio that used their non-visual talents, but when television came along, they jumped at the chance to be in front of an audience, albeit an unseen one, and once again use broad, visual humor for big laughs. Now the audience was captive. You had to watch every minute or you'd miss something. And, being that this was a time well before VCRs and TiVo, you had to watch every week.
After a long day at the office or looking after the kids, it was just a lot easier to sit back, turn on the television and enjoy Uncle Miltie than it was to read, play the piano or visit the next door neighbors. We started staying home, staying inside, not talking to each other, slavish staring at the glowing blue screen. Try having the television on and resist the urge to just sit in front of it and stare. It's difficult. It's almost as though it's an alien being sucking the life blood right out of you.
Now, I'm not one of those people who have thrown away my television, nor do I even pretend that I never watch it. I like to see Kenneth Brown's latest decorating triumph, pick up a cooking tip from Rachael Ray and enjoy the witty banter between Lorelei and Luke. I even like to watch reruns of Magnum, P.I., especially on really cold days in January. But I know that my old friend who I spent so many hours with as a child, probably didn't have my best interests at heart and it was a friendship where I gave more than I got. We have a lot of history together and I'm willing to cut it some slack, but I'm going out to the opera tonight, I'm going to listen to the live orchestra broadcast on Friday night and I just might finish the book I'm reading on Saturday. Sorry pal.
The first reading in yesterday's Mass to commemorate the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica came from Ezekiel 47:
1. Then he brought me back to the door of the temple; and behold, water was issuing from below the threshold of the temple toward the east (for the temple faced east); and the water was flowing down from below the south end of the threshold of the temple, south of the altar.
Clearly the temple is Christ Himself, as becomes more apparent when read in context with John's Gospel. (2:19-21; "Jesus answered them, 'Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.' The Jews then said, 'It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?' But he spoke of the temple of his body.")
I've always had a fondness for this passage, mostly because of its use as the basis for the Vidi Aquam, the Asperges used in the Mass during Eastertime. And it is here, in the much-maligned English translation of the Tridentine liturgy, that Ezekiel's allusion to Christ becomes much more apparent:
The Vidi Aquam survives in the Novus Ordo, but in a much more ham-fisted translation that loses not a little of the beauty of that passage. But regardless, this section shows once again the prefigurement of Christ in the Old Testament, and how the New Testament exists as a fulfillment of the Old. It remains a pity that many Christians choose to ignore the Old Testament, or at least give it short shrift.
I saw water flowing from the temple, from the right side, alleluia; and all those to whom that water came were saved, and they shall say: alleliua, alleluia.
But then, in a society that seems to see little value in the past (other than as a marketing tool for selling nostalgia), and seeks even to kill those whose old age makes them a burden, can we be surprised?
Wednesday, November 9, 2005
How the men must be laughing. Not the "laughing with you" but contemptuously "laughing at you." Yes, men are certainly getting, if not the last, at least a good laugh at the goings on with the Panther cheerleaders.
In trying to become more like men, that is, more assertive, more aggressive, more free with our bodies and attitudes, women become something less than human, a weird kind of monster not recognizable as man or woman. Since the dawn of modern feminism in the 70s, feminists have insisted that men take women more seriously, to command respect for their minds and intellects. These women took themselves seriously, too seriously most of the time. Now it seems that in vying for equality we've swung the pendulum so far the other way that we've fallen off it altogether and don't take ourselves seriously at all any more.
Women having sex in a public restroom is a perversion that, at present, is limited to a small percentage of participants. But what about ordinary, everyday things. Let's just take women's clothing as one example. Try going into any Penney's, Kohl's, Macy's or Bloomie's and finding modest, stylish, well-fitting apparel. Your style choice is homeless or hooker. Clothing is so clownish that it isn't even a question of whether a women can wear tops that don't go down and bottoms that don't come up far enough; there just aren't a lot of options.
It used to be said that women were the civilizing force on men. Now, we want to speak, act and party just as hard. Harder. We're Girls Gone Wild. We tatoo our bodies. We kiss other women in front of an audience of millions. We use language in every day conversation that used to make even men blush. We box, we're soldiers in combat zones, we fight in bars. We're children acting out. How can we expect men to take us seriously when we dress and act in a manner that invites ridicule.
Should we then cover ourselves from head to foot, never speak unless spoken to, hide our talents under a bushel basket, or allow ourselves to be abused? Certainly not. While women today chafe under Saint Paul's admonition to women to "be subject to your husbands," (Ephisians 5:22) they forget that three verses on he tells men to "love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her." Remember, Eve came from Adam's rib, not his foot. Nor his head. We're not better or worse, just different. And we don't have to act like something we're not in order to claim our place in the world.
When did it become dishonorable or lowly to keep a household running and be a full-time mother? For these are full-time occupations whether we work outside the home or not. And they are dignified and worthy of respect.
When did we come to the conclusion that we had to sacrifice our children's lives and welfare for our own pleasures and desire for material wealth, instead of sacrificing these things for our children?
When did we decide that we had to run out into the world and take it over in boardrooms and legislatures, giving up the influence we had in much larger, but much subtler, ways in the home?
Are we better off in the modern world of feminism that pushes us to be more like men, less like women and, ultimately causes us to remain as children; never growing up, sloughing off responsibility, eschewing sacrifice, and living our lives with a vague, unsatisfied feeling of having lost more than we've gained?
Tuesday, November 8, 2005
Badda-Blogger links to a column by David Gelernter on the mangling of the English language, as seen in the pages of the revised Strunk & White's "The Elements of Style." It's yet another example of how we sacrifice the elements of good writing at the altar of political correctness.
According to White, Strunk "felt that the reader was in serious trouble most of the time, a man floundering in a swamp, and that it was the duty of anyone attempting to write English to drain the swamp quickly and get his man up on dry ground, or at least throw him a rope." The revised version tells us that Strunk felt, on the contrary, "that the reader was in serious trouble most of the time, floundering in a swamp, and that it was the duty of anyone attempting to write English to drain this swamp quickly and get the reader up on dry ground, or at least to throw a rope."
"At least to throw a rope?" Throw it where? To whom? The phrase is vague bordering on meaningless. And White's "get his man up on dry ground" hints at the author's personal responsibility to his reader. Of course these are details. But White cared passionately about the details that make for good writing.
The reviser clearly disapproves of the indefinite masculine — "he," "man" and so on — to mean anyone. Fine. Except that White believed the exact opposite, and said so in a rule he added to "Elements": "He has lost all suggestion of maleness in these circumstances."
This is exactly the kind of thing I was writing about last week when relating the story of the female liturgical assassin. Her desperate attempt to avoid any use of the masculine pronoun resulted in a sentence breathtaking in its ham-fistedness and vapidity. But lest you think that an isolated example, check this out:
The latest "Elements" includes clunkers like this: "When repeating a statement to emphasize it, the writer may need to vary its form. Otherwise, the writer should follow the principle of parallel construction." Here's the way it was actually written: "When repeating a statement to emphasize it, the writer may need to vary its form. But apart from this he should follow the principle of parallel construction."
It's ironic that in an era when journalists routinely distort the facts, even to the point of fabrication, in order to create a more "literary" piece, we now have the beauty and elegance of literature itself being obliterated by this pervasive political correctness.
Amy Welborn has a piece up today on the decision by a school board to drop all religious holidays from their calendar. This is an interesting situation - as you know, I'm no friend of public schools. (As a matter of fact, I'm not sure you can find too many people who hold public schools in more distain than I do.) And yet Amy provides some perspective on the whole thing:
I believe that schools should, at all costs, deal with religion honestly. They should call Easter, Easter, Christmas, Christmas, allow children to draw pictures of Jesus, allow children to bring Bibles to school, sing Christmas songs as part of choral presentations, allow students giving speeches to mention God all they want. I believe that high schools should offer courses in comparative religions and Bible as literature, if they want. Absences for religious observance should be excused, of course.
But on the other hand, as a Catholic with a keen eye to the history of the origins of the Catholic school system in this country, I am also, while being an absolutist on student freedom of expression, and an honest presentation of religion when it comes up in the curriculum, also very wary of what the government schools themselves present.
So, no, I don't believe that government schools should sanction official prayer - let the students pray on their own, if they want, on school grounds, but keep teachers and administrators and those who would write dull, watered down appeals to Higher Beings out of it.
Now, I'm always open to discussion on issues like this, but what Amy says seems to make a lot of sense to me. Considering how public schools have botched everything else, there's no reason to believe they won't make a hash of religion as well. So don't establish it in the school, but don't deny its existence, and don't prevent students from practicing it on their own.
You have to admit that schools have created much of this problem themselves (with due cooperation from the courts, of course). Their constant hostility to religion, coupled with their abandonment of common sense, have opened the door wide to all kinds of situations. Were they to adopt Amy's suggestions, everything might blow over. But of course, with their lawyers and ACLU toadies in hand, they'll do everything they can to keep it from happening.
Not that "Catholic" schools are always better. But I can dream, can't I?
Monday, November 7, 2005
I'm constantly - well, surprised is not the word;maybe illuminated - to see how true it is that there's nothing new under the sun. As I alluded a few days ago, I've been reading H.W. Brands' biography of Benjamin Franklin, The First American. And right here on page 218 is a passage I found quite - illuminating:
Few of their children in the country learn English; they import many books from Germany. . . . The signs in our streets have inscripitons in both languages, and in some places only German. They begin of late to make all their bonds and other legal writings in their own language, which (though I think it ought not to be) are allowed good in our courts, where the German business so increases that there is continual need of interpreters; and I suppose in a few years they will also be necessary in the Assembly, to tell one half of our legislators what the other half says.
Now, you have to admit this is very interesting. I'm sure some will read Franklin's words and see comfort that our current immigration situation will amount to nothing. "After all," they might say, "we've always been worried about newcomers to America - even in Franklin's day. And everything's turned out all right." And I suppose there's something to that. The study of immigration in American is a fascinating one, as we see how different groups assimilated into American culture, gaining power, influence and acceptance.
But when I read this paragraph I see something else; the recognition that there actually was a distinctive American culture, even though at the time (early 1750s) America was a mere British colony. And that the Founding Fathers had, even before the founding of the country, an appreciation of that culture and a concern that it should be preserved. (And we shouldn't be surprised that Franklin would pick up on that, for in the debate about American independence he argued that "We're a new nationality . . . we require a new nation.")
With a few minor substitutions, Franklin's words could be spoken today by anyone with a mind to do so, and they'd be just as accurate. Yes, it's true we've faced this problem before - even predating American independence. But throughout the history of the country we've placed a premium on preserving that culture - enhancing it with contributions from other cultures, to be sure, but with a parallel process of assimilation. I know all the stories about German and Polish and Italian families where the native tongue was the only one spoken in the household, and where the sons and daughters became the first to learn the new language - but the point is, they learned it. There was an agreed-upon belief that it was a good thing for them to speak English, that it was essential to their chance to succeed in the "land of opportunity." I'm not sure I see a common belief in that today.
The Founders believed in a unified language, a common culture. They might be Virginians or Pennsylvanians or New Englanders, but they were also Americans. And there was something specific about being an American. Franklin was famous for saying that if we didn't hang together, we'd all hang separately. I wonder what he would think today; would he see a nation that, despite its political differences, was held together by common threads - shared language, culture, memories? Or would the vision be that of the Balkanization of America, a country being divided along cultural and ethnic lines, people with little in common and even less desire to have anything in common? We aren't hanging together anymore, it seems; but we certainly do know how to hang separately. If he could see us today, I don't think he'd be pleased.
For all his world travel, being an American was precious to Ben Franklin - even before there was an America.
More precious, apparently, than it is to many of today's leaders.
Friday, November 4, 2005
Lest we become too distracted by the liturgical expert we sat next to yesterday, we should also spend a moment on the message of yesterday's Gospel, as Jesus tells the parable of the lost sheep (Luke 15:4-6). On the face of it, Fr. Tiffany said in his homily, this doesn't seem to make much sense. After all, why would a shepherd risk losing 99 of his sheep in order to recover one?
And then, a few years ago, he talked to a man who actually was a shepherd, who explained it all. The lost sheep, having been found by the shepherd and hoisted up on his shoulders, would have started bleating; the bleating in turn would have attracted the other sheep, who would have headed toward the sound, and thereby returned to the shepherd. So in a way it's the recovery of that lost sheep that brings the flock together, gathered around their shepherd.
And it makes perfect sense.
So it is with our relationship with Christ, Fr. Tiffany concluded. Sometimes we become lost on our journey; we know where we want to go, but not how to get there. Other times, however, we seek to lose ourselves, to hide from that which is expected of us. And it that effort to hide, in giving others the slip, we wind up losing our way completely, so that we become strangers to ourselves. We are truly lost sheep, with no idea of where we are, but also no idea of who we are, or where we want to go.
And that is when Christ seeks us out, the shepherd trying to reunite his flock. You can't hide from God; we are born with the love of God inside us, and the desire to be with Him. It is that homing device that leades Him in pursuit of us, of finding us no matter where we are. It is of this chase that Francis Thompson wrote in The Hound of Heaven:
I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.
Up vistaed hopes I sped;
And shot, precipitated,
Adown Titanic glooms of chasmèd fears,
From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.
But with unhurrying chase,
And unperturbèd pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
They beat -- and a voice beat
More instant than the Feet --
"All things betray thee, who betrayest Me."
The unnamed protagonist of Thompson's poem discovers that he can run, but he can't hide:
But just that thou might'st seek it in My arms.
All which thy child's mistake
Fancies as lost, I have stored for thee at home :
Rise, clasp My hand, and come !"
Halts by me that footfall :
Is my gloom, after all,
Shade of His hand, outstretched caressingly ?
"Ah, fondest, blindest, weakest,
I am He Whom thou seekest!
Thou dravest love from thee, who dravest me."
Neither can we hide from Him Who sees all. We may deny Him; we may refuse to return with Him. But we cannot imagine that He does not see us, nor that He will not seek us out. For, as Fr. Tiffany reminded us, "He has ways."
Thursday, November 3, 2005
One of the things you notice about a commuter church like St. Olaf - where most of the weekday Massgoers are not members per se - is that everyone brings their own parish's customs to the weekday Mass. It's kind of a Catholic melting pot, where almost anything goes. Some people kneel for communion; others stand. Many assume the orans posture during the Our Father and other parts of the liturgy; others do not.
And then you have the woman who was next to me during the 7:00 this morning. During the Orate, Fratres she studiously avoided any use of the male pronoun: "May the Lord accept the sacrifice at your hands, for the praise and glory of God's name, for our good and the good of all God's church." (I'm not sure, but she may have raised her voice slightly when pronouncing God.)
Hmm, I wondered. This wasn't the first time I'd experienced something like this, but I'd never heard it so up close, without being lost in the sound of the congregation's general response. I waited to see what she'd do at the Sanctus and Benedictus. I wasn't disappointed: ". . .Heaven and earth are full of God's glory. . . Blessed is God who comes in the name of the Lord."
Now, aside from being a very cumbersome and forced sentence, I'm pretty sure there's something theologically wrong here. In the first place, I don't think Jesus was talking about Himself when He said, "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord." (Matthew 21:9; the word "he" isn't capitalized in the Douay-Rheims, which generally did use a capital "H" when referring to Him.) It also begs the question: can God worship Himself? After all, isn't that what it's saying? Blessed is God who comes in the name of the Lord. Isn't this kind of like matter and anti-matter coming together? It just can't happen! Besides, if Jesus were referring to Himself in that verse, He'd be putting Himself on an equal footing with God - assuming that the use of the word "God" was referring to His own journey into Jerusalem - and that, as John reminds us, was something He generally didn't do. (Philippians 2:6) So her translation was not only bad grammar, it was flat wrong.
As I think of it now, maybe this woman's a regular parishioner at St. Joan of Arc. We just don't know, and I didn't ask her afterward.
Anyway, what brought this to mind is a very interesting point made by Robert Benne in the latest issue of First Things (link for this article not up yet). It concerns a recent proposal at the ELCA (Lutheran) Assembly that will result in a change to the words of the Nicene and Apostles' Creeds, all in the name of inclusive language, "so that hypersensitive feminists will not be offended by masculine language":
In the Nicene Creed we will avoid confessing that Christ was "made man." Rather, he "became human." In the Apostles' Creed we will evade a masculine pronoun for God in the second article. Instead of "We believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son," we will now confess that "We believe in Jesus Christ, God's only Son." The ECLA is now willing to risk a heretical formulation of the Creed in favor of femspeak. (In a Trinitarian formula the Son is Son of the Father, not of the Triune God. The Son of the Triune God would be another God.)
So there you have it. Truth itself being sacrificed on the altar of political correctness. Rush Limbaugh always reminded us that "words mean things," and it's never more obvious than it is here. You might think the question of using masculine pronouns in the Creed is a small, fussy point, and that Benne's observations are taking things to extremes. You know what we mean, they might say, with an exasperated voice. But if we believe that the words of the Apostles and the Church Fathers were inspired by God through the Holy Spirit, and if we believe that Matthew was right in quoting Jesus as saying "Blessed is he" and meaning it, then we have to believe also that they chose their specific words for a reason.
The radical feminists certainly believe that words mean things; otherwise, they wouldn't waste so much time and energy removing masculine pronouns from every place they can find them. Would that we, who are called to be witnesses to the truth, attached the same level of importance to those words. If we did, maybe we'd defend them more.
Wednesday, November 2, 2005
It is a good thing to pray for the dead, as Judas Maccabees does in 2 Maccabees (43-46):
"And making a gathering, he sent twelve thousand drachms of silver to Jerusalem for sacrifice to be offered for the sins of the dead, thinking well and religiously concerning the resurrection, (For if he had not hoped that they that were slain should rise again, it would have seemed superfluous and vain to pray for the dead,) And because he considered that they who had fallen asleep with godliness, had great grace laid up for them. It is therefore a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from sins."
Today is All Souls' Day, a day when we recall the dead, especially those who may have been near and dear to us. It is a time when we should reflect on the universality of the Church, among both the living and the dead. It is when we, the Church Millitant, unify our voices in prayer for the Church Suffering, in hopes that they may soon join with the Church Triumphant in Heaven.
The doctrine of Purgatory is a complex one, seeing as to how it's never mentioned explicitly in the Bible. Of all the stumbling blocks between Catholics and non-Catholics, it's the one that, in my experience, causes the most difficulty. The Catechism teaches us that all sin, unfortunately, has a life of its own and may have bad effects even after the sinner repents. (Think of it as the scar tissue that remains even after a successful operation to remove a tumor.) Our repentance for our sins, when offered truly and sincerely, includes our desire to repair the damage done by these sins - the stain left on the fabric of our soul. Depending on the course of our lives, this repair work may or may not be complete before the person dies. (#1030-32)
We are reminded in Revelation that "nothing unclean shall enter" Heaven (21:27). Since God is perfect holiness, it is our destiny to achieve that same holiness ("You shall be holy, for I am holy," 1 Pet. 1:15–16). For those of us who retain the stains of our sins, Purgatory is the place where we are made ready, where we assume the cleanliness that allows us to be next to God.
Eastern and Western tradition differs on the exact form which Purgatory takes; the Eastern Catholic Church doesn't use the word Purgatory, a Latin word, instead referring to it as "the Final Theosis." In this time the remnants of our humans nature are transformed, and we come to share in the divine life of the Trinity. Rather than seeing this as a place to "sit and suffer," the Eastern Fathers of the Church described the Final Theosis as being a journey. While this journey can entail hardships, there are also powerful glimpses of joy. (Thanks to Anthony Dragani for the concise explanation.) Nonetheless, whatever the the differences, both East and West concur in the need for a waystation enroute to Heaven, and that it is a good thing to pray for the dead.
In January of this year, following the death of Johnny Carson, I wrote of the misunderstandings that exist in our contemporary society regarding the meaning of life and death. At the time I mentioned that some of these thoughts might be more appropriate for All Souls' Day, and that I might repeat them then. Well, here we are; and here they are:
[On the proper Catholic attitude about death.] This is true particularly especially when one looks at what the modern Catholic funeral has become. Leon Suprenant of Catholics United for the Faith puts it well, saying “the dominant mindset is that the deceased assuredly is ‘in a better place,’ and thus the funeral rite itself should be nothing other than a mini-canonization.” The Catholic writer James Hitchcock comments on this tendency:
This compulsory praise includes a compulsory insistence that the deceased is already in heaven, indeed has always been one of God's favorite people, probably now sitting in that privileged place that Jesus rebuked his apostles for coveting.
This, Hitchcock goes on to say, completely misses the point of the Catholic funeral:
The old funeral liturgy was somber, with black vestments and mournful chant, the most shattering of which was the "Dies Irae" ("day of wrath"), reminding people that they would have to answer for themselves on that day "when even the just will need intercession". Since the Second Vatican Council, the emphasis of the service changed to hope, and white vestments, symbolic of the Resurrection, are now always used.
But hope is not the same as presumption, which is precisely what some funerals now are. Another joke tells of the man who died at the same time as Mother Teresa of Calcutta and found himself a few places behind her at the Pearly Gates. He is complacent that he will be admitted until he hears Saint Peter exclaim sternly, "But Teresa, you could have done a lot more."
Hitchcock touches on what I think is one of the major reasons why Catholics have lost touch with the true meaning of the funeral Mass: the eliminaiton of the Dias Irae as a mandatory part of the liturgy. As Hitchcock says, it was a reminder of the high stakes that accompany us in life, and in death. When this was eliminated from the liturgy, as part of the new Mass following Vatican II, this somber realization dimmed as well.
I have an interesting piece on the Dias Irae that I’d planned to hold on to until November 2, All Souls' Day, when it would have made a nice meditation (maybe when that date comes around I’ll use it again). In the meantime, it seems appropriate to introduce it. It’s from the transcript of the television commentary of Fr. Leonard Hurley during the funeral Mass for John F. Kennedy. (Back in the days of Latin, televised Masses often featured a commentator, who would explain to the viewers what was going on during different parts of the Mass.) At this point in the liturgy Cardinal Cushing, the celebrant, is reciting the Dias Irae:
This hymn is a Christian meditation on the meaning of death. A non-Catholic has described this magnificent hymn as solitary in its excellence. The secret of its irresistible power lies in the awful grandeur of the theme. Intense earnestness and pathos of a poet, the simple majesty and the solemn music of its language, the stately meter, the triple rhythm, all combine to produce an overwhelming effect, as if we heard the final crash of the universe, the commotion of the openings of graves, the trumpet of the archangels summoning the living and the dead. And so the King of tremendous majesty, seated on the throne of justice and mercy, and ready to dispense everlasting life or everlasting woe.
And there you have it, perhaps not quite in a nutshell, but beautifully stated nonetheless. The funeral Mass is not intended for the pleasure of the mourners, nor is it meant to transmit “good feelings” to one and all. What these people really want is a wake, when they can sit around and laugh and cry and reminisce about the good times and the bad. The wake is for the living; the primary beneficiary of the Mass is, or at least should be, the deceased, with the living to receive comfort from it in a secondary way, the hope and faith in that justice and mercy of which Fr. Hurley speaks.
The Catholic funeral Mass signifies the most intimate of connections between man and Creator. It is a plea for compassion and understanding. It is the priest, on behalf of the deceased, throwing himself at the mercy of God. It really is, when you think about it, a beautiful thing, one that never fails to stir me when I do think about it. For when we die we go to our particular judgment, our chance to meet with God, and to receive sentence. To think that this beautiful Mass, with the prayers for the dead offered by the priest and people, exists to mediate for us with God, is a comforting thought indeed.
Instead, the feel-good funeral, understandable though it may be, winds up a true disservice to the dead. As Hitchcock puts it,
Mother Teresa herself would have insisted that she could have done a lot more. It is one of the characteristics of saints that they are acutely aware of their sins, of how completely they depend on God's mercy, of how little they "deserve" at God's hands. But modern sensibilities have subtly changed hope -- that a merciful God will grant me salvation -- into arrogant certainty…
Even if the eulogist is aware of the deceased's perhaps considerable faults, he dare not hint that the dearly departed is not in heaven. An unfortunate result is that it forestalls people's praying for the dead, which used to be regarded as a solemn duty.
What we ultimately wind up with are people who mean well, who think they’re doing the right thing, without realizing that the Church has a reason for everything it teaches. That rationale doesn’t come lightly, as if someone woke up one morning and for no apparent reason decided, “I think I’ll ban eulogies today.” It usually comes out of considerable thought, and for good reason. But these do-gooders put an emphasis on feeling, rather than reason. They rely on those feelings to dictate their actions, and while those actions may be innocent enough, at the very least they minimize the amount of good that can be done.
Oh, by the way, if you've never read the Dias Irae, or if you'd like to look it over again, here' s the complete text.
And now let us pray for the dead:
Réquiem ætérnam dona eis Dómine; et lux perpétua lúceat eis. Requiéscant in pace. Amen.
Last week we blogged on the case of Katelyn Sills, the young student whose mother dared to expose the fact that her Catholic school employed a pro-abort as an assistant teacher. Well, it seems the school is trying for its revenge now, as they've expelled Katelyn. (Of course, what they're really doing is digging they own way deeper and deeper into one of those inner circles of Hell, but they're doing a lot of damage in this world in the meantime.)
Jimmy Akin has the story here, and Mark Shea offers contacts we might want to make. For those of you who do write to the school, remember to keep your correspondence polite and business-like, but firm in convictions and demand for the truth. (Some might argue that we aren't entitled to demand anything of that school, since we don't pay the bills; I counter that in terms of the Universal Church, we're all members of one Body, and since we all pay the bills for sins by members of that body against that body, we're absolutely entitled to demand fidelity to the Church's teachings.)
Rest assured that one way or another, they won't get away with it.
Tuesday, November 1, 2005
And a happy All Saints to you as well! Fr. Zuhlsdorf's homily tonight emphasized the duty we all have to strive for sainthood, and he assured us that it's possible. We read Butler's Lives of the Saints and look at dramatic examples of martyrdom, heroic performances of witnessing to the faith or missionary work; and we ask ourselves How could we ever measure up? Well, we can't of course - not by ourselves. It's only through the graces that God gives us, and the ways in which we open up to Him, that we can sanctify our lives.
But it is possible, Fr. Z reiterated. We must pray, we must resist temptation, and we must follow the examples of the saints. We remember that all of those in God's loving presence in Heaven are saints, and in fact it is this fact that we celebrate today. And remember also that this is what God wants for us - He wants us to be saints! Maybe we won't be famous, maybe books won't be written nor icons painted nor statues carved; but we'll be saints in the eyes of God, and that's good enough for me.
Keep trying - keep reaching - keep praying.
For some very good reflections on today (much better than I'm capable of), check out this at Amy's site.
Someone asked how it went for Msgr. Schuler's 60th anniversary Mass on Sunday, so I thought I'd post this brief report:
The day itself was cold, cloudy and damp. The church was full - not standing-room only, but the side pews were filling up, which is usually an indication that we've got a much larger congregation than usual. The procession from the back of the church took about five minutes to wind its way to the altar. Fr. Richard Hogan, Msgr. Schuler's nephew, was the celebrant and preacher, along with 11 concelebrants from as far away as Wisconsin and Illinois, Archbishop Flynn, the Knights of Columbus, and U.S. Senator Norm Coleman (former mayor of St. Paul), his wife, and his father. Fr. Zuhlsdorf flew in all the way from Rome to take part (and was the chief concelebrant, up at the altar).
Fr. Hogan and the deacons were wearing vestments that Msgr. Schuler's mother had made for him when he was ordained - as Fr. Hogan said, for being 60 years old, they were a little frayed around the edges but still in one piece! (Actually, they were beautiful, white with ornate dark red and gold trim.) The music, Haydn's Pauken Mass, is apparently a kind of Schuler-Hogan family theme - it's one of Msgr. Schuler's favorite settings, and was played for Fr. Hogan's ordination, and also for his parent's wedding anniversary. (The Pauken Mass is also known as "Mass In Time Of War," which, Fr. Hogan's father once said, was a very appropriate piece of music for a wedding anniversary.)
Sunday's readings were quite appropriate for the service that Msgr. Schuler has performed over the years, especially the Gospel reading from Matthew. ("The greatest among you must be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.") In the homily, Fr. Hogan spoke about the meaning of the priesthood, and the larger question of faithfulness to the truth. The Church represents that truth, as revealed by Jesus, and to obey Christ means to obey the teachings of the Church. Msgr. Schuler has always been the humble servant of thet truth.
In comments following communion, the Archbishop also spoke of Msgr. Schuler's service through the years, and of the role he played in creating the glories of the Mass that are now a staple of St. Agnes (while also pointing out that he was going to be celebrating Mass later that day in a prison, under conditions quite different from where we were, but with the same God present).
One of the most moving tributes to Msgr. Schuler was not spoken at the Mass at all; it was the "Pastor's Page" comments written by Fr. Welzbacher. Reading this piece, one comes to appreciate not only the role that Msgr. Schuler has played in the parish and the Church as a whole, but also the ways in which he has touched others - priests, seminarians, and parishioners alike. At the reception following the Mass people had a chance to give Msgr. Schuler their own personal greetings, and I'd imagine quite a few of them had similar stories to contribute. (A man standing next to us told me he thought he might be Msgr. Schuler's most surprising guest; he'd gone to school with him all those years ago.)
Fr. Welzbacher mentioned how it was a great, historic day for the parish, and it truly was. We see Msgr. Schuler every week, whether it's conducting the chorale and orchestra (something he does rarely now), celebrating the Mass (usually the early Mass on Sunday), or sitting in choir. We see him, and we're aware that we're watching a piece of history move among us. On Sunday, that feeling was just a little bit stronger, and one couldn't help but wonder if you might even be in the presence of a future saint. But it is no time to think of the future; the priests who have passed through Msgr. Schuler's orbit will continue to be a testimonial to his influence. Better to reflect on the past, and to enjoy him in the present.