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November 2005
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December 2005

Sunday Night Journal — December 25, 2005


The child wonders at the Christmas Tree:
Let him continue in the spirit of wonder…
So that the glittering rapture, the amazement
Of the first-remembered Christmas Tree…
So that the reverence and the gaiety
May not be forgotten in later experience….
So that before the end, the eightieth Christmas
(By “eightieth” meaning whichever is the last)
The accumulated memories of annual emotion
May be concentrated into a great joy
Which shall be also a great fear, as on the occasion
When fear came upon every soul:
Because the beginning shall remind us of the end
And the first coming of the second coming.

—T. S. Eliot, “The Cultivation of Christmas Trees”

I was a child in 1954 when Eliot wrote those lines, and I can’t say that I experience the Christmas tree as I did then. But neither must I say that my pleasure in it has disappeared, and I certainly have not forgotten my childhood experience. There is a great mystery in the fact that no one would recognize that six-year-old as me, and yet the consciousness that beheld the tree in 1954 is the same one that beholds another tree in 2005. To sit quietly looking at the tree remains one of the deeper pleasures of Christmas for me, one for which there are often more opportunities in the days of Christmas following Christmas Day itself, which is to say during Christmas proper. In other words, this is only the beginning.

Sunday Night Journal — December 18, 2005

Stained Glass and Organ Music

I listen to a lot of recorded music. Too much, really. That overused word “addiction” could perhaps be legitimately applied to my habit, and I find it useful but very painful to give it up or at least cut it way back for a while, which I often do during Lent. And my tastes are very wide-ranging. But there’s one kind of music of which there is little or none among my recordings: organ music.

I’ve always found the organ to be, frankly, rather tiresome in recordings. Even a good recording and a fairly decent home stereo just can’t do it justice. It’s an odd instrument. It can sound more notes simultaneously than the piano, and unlike the piano it can hold them for a long time. This, in combination with the similarity in tone among these notes, can result in a muddled quality. Its majesty can easily tip over into pomposity, and pomposity into something almost silly: because it’s so big and complex, and its elaborate mechanism is so slow to react (in comparison with other instruments), it can have a sort of dancing-elephant quality.

But in its proper environment—say, in the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Mobile—it is matchless. I found myself thinking today at Mass that it is not the organ alone but the combination of the organ and its building which constitute the instrument. I know almost nothing of the complex lore of these instruments, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that what I just said is a commonplace.

Toward the end of C.S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength, Jane Studdock is beginning to feel a renewed interest in the Christianity in which she was raised. She remembers the stodginess, the “stained glass attitudes” of the Christians she knew, and then “…in a sudden flash of purple and crimson, she remembered what stained glass was really like.” Something like that happens to me whenever I hear the cathedral organ. Gone is the pompous blare that I remember hearing from my stereo speakers, gone is the dancing elephant: in their place are golden majesty and glory, the sound we might hear if the sun himself could sing. It’s a sound that is felt as well as heard, but it isn’t so loud as to be punishing and destructive, like live rock music. It does not crush, but exalts.

Stained glass and organ music have been unfashionably “churchy” for some time now, but there is a reason why Christendom, having invented them, remained attached to them for hundreds of years. It’s mainly the unfortunate propensity of mankind to become bored and to seek novelty that has made them fall out of favor. But plainly we have not come up with anything better, and it’s time we encountered them again.

Sunday Night Journal — December 11, 2005

Solemn Advent Vespers at the Cathedral

You can’t read much in the history of Christianity without running across the story of the 10th century Russian emissaries who, being sent by their ruler Prince Vladimir to discover the true religion, decided that they had found it when they witnessed the Divine Liturgy in the Church of Hagia Sophia. “For we knew not,” they told the Prince, “whether we were in heaven or on earth.” I don’t think anyone—at least, anyone who knows the state of the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church—has much hope, still less expectation, of having such an experience in any Catholic church in our time. But it can happen. It has happened to me.

For some years now, the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Mobile, Alabama (that’s mo-BEEL, not MO-buhl) has offered solemn vespers on the Sundays of Advent. I haven’t attended as often as I would like; the cathedral is twenty miles away and for one reason or another it has more often than not been inconvenient for me to take the time. But it was at one of these services a few years ago that I had a momentary taste of what it might actually feel like to praise God in heaven, and I knew that there might be more than metaphor to those images of the redeemed singing eternally there.

The idea of an endless church service sounds more like hell than heaven to most of us, and is one of the reasons why people say those very ignorant and foolish things about preferring hell because it will be more interesting than heaven. But that’s a defect in us, and in our modes of worship. I have spent many years complaining, sometimes bitterly, about the drab and deadening quality of most Catholic worship: ugly buildings, wretched music, lifeless language. So it delights me to be able to report a ray of sunlight in the gloom.

The interior of the cathedral is beautiful and has unusually fine acoustics. For a cathedral, it’s rather small, and so an organ and a small but talented and well-directed choir can fill it with sound. The choir director knows how to use the space, with long slow lines of chant and polyphony that have time to bloom sonically. Most of the texts are sung, which means that our dispirited liturgical translations have little chance to work their negative spell. There is no badinage whatsoever. Offhand I don’t in fact recall a single word spoken this afternoon that was not part of the liturgy.

Above all, I think, there are two things operative here that make this service so worshipful: the first, the sine qua non, is reverence, and the second is a kind of taste which follows from and is supported by reverence. I don’t mean simple aesthetic taste, although that’s important. I mean also a sense of propriety as to what is compatible with reverence. The worst days of marginal competence in Catholic choirs may be over—I hope they are over—but I have heard any number of capable choirs sing a hodgepodge of peppy pop-worship songs and traditional hymns which always somehow seem to be calling attention to themselves, a quality strengthened by too-prominent placement of the choir and all their guitars, amps, mikes, keyboards, and mixers at the front of the church. In the cathedral the choir is in a traditional loft at the rear of the church, and the sound floats out into the huge reverberant space above us.

This reverence doesn’t seem the least bit strained or inauthentic, nor this taste self-consciously exquisite. Rather they seem to be the natural unforced result of a sense that we are approaching God and that our understanding of Who He Is leads naturally not to any sort of shallow conviviality but to a respectful attentiveness that necessarily becomes an external and internal quiet, because its object is outside itself. Nothing, therefore, seems directed toward the nurturing or manipulation of our feelings. The music is at the service of the texts. The texts are at the service of the Advent message: Something wonderful is about to happen. Prepare ye the way of the Lord.

The only disappointing thing about this afternoon’s vespers was the slight attendance. I don’t think more than fifty people were there. If anyone in the Mobile area is reading this: there’s still one more Sunday in Advent.

Sunday Night Journal — December 4, 2005

Let’s Get Religion Out of the Biology Textbooks

I’ve been thinking a lot—“brooding” might be an applicable term—about evolution, materialism, and the nature of science. It seems plain that materialists, in their eagerness to suborn science in aid of their views, have drawn conclusions that aren’t supported by the physical facts. And it occurs to me that the almost violent objection of the scientific establishment, which I think can fairly be called predominantly materialistic in philosophy, to the concept of intelligent design may be a tactical mistake.

The charge against intelligent design is that it is not science. As I wrote here a couple of weeks ago, if “science” means laboratory or experimental science, it is indeed hard to see how ID qualifies. But the same objection applies with the same force to the materialistic conclusions drawn from facts by doctrinaire evolutionists.

One need not be a scientist to see this. It requires only common sense and open eyes. A week or so ago I ran across a brief article describing the relationship between the chromosomes of chimpanzees and humans, which was presented as a vindication of Darwinism. But what struck me was that it was nothing of the sort. It did not even touch on the Darwinian mechanism—common descent by means of chance variation and random selection. It illustrated a resemblance: a striking and fascinating resemblance, and an even more striking difference which nevertheless emphasized the connection between the two. But it was only evidence of common descent if you brought that assumption to the data. (My apologies for not citing the piece; I ran across it on the net, failed to bookmark it, and now can’t remember where it was.)

I’m not particularly concerned to deny common descent. Once you’ve conceded ground on the literal interpretation of Genesis, which I’m willing to do, there’s no particular difficulty in accepting the idea that the human body has as its ancestor some sort of ape body—no problem in the idea that God used, so to speak, existing material with a long developmental history to receive the first human soul. Granting this, and granting that the transition from ape body to human body was gradual, the facts do not supply any reason whatsoever to believe that the changes were the result of the Darwinian mechanism or any other array of purely material causes. Let me emphasize that: no reason whatsoever. The facts can tell us at most only that a very complex transition seems to have occurred; they tell us nothing at all about how it occurred.

If scientists want to take material causes as a working assumption for further investigation, that’s fine. That indeed is what they are supposed to do. But when they go beyond this and declare their certainty that purely physical forces have produced the unimaginably complex structures which fill the cosmos, still more when they imagine that they have disproved the existence of God, yet more, absurdly and unacceptably more, when they declare the question closed, they have stepped far beyond the facts and beyond science, and are pretenders to knowledge which they do not have.

I think the time is ripe for theists of all stripes—and for that matter rationalists who can see the question of intellectual integrity at stake—to press the attack here. It is no more tolerable in a secular biology textbook to state materialist conclusions on these questions than to state religious ones. If science, and, more to the point, spokesmen for science, would get out of the philosophy and theology business, the level of acrimony in this controversy could be greatly reduced. Unfortunately the tactic which comes immediately to mind for this effort is the very acrimonious one of the lawsuit. But that battle is already under way. The scientific establishment is making legal war on any attempt to include the idea of purposeful design in scientific education, and that, as I mentioned above, may be a tactical mistake. Darwinism and Intelligent Design are both attempts to fill in the gaps in our knowledge of origins. Neither has been proved or is, in my opinion, likely to be proved, by physical evidence alone. We are constantly being told that science textbooks are no place for religion. Very well; let’s get all the religion out of them.