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May 2008

No Such World

“I have left behind illusion,” I said to myself. “Henceforth I live in a world of three dimensions—with the aid of my five senses.”

I have since learned that there is no such world...

Brideshead Revisited

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I was going to say this in a comment...

...in reply to Janet's question about the hotel, but HaloScan is out again: This is the hotel. I'm online because I'm skipping the keynote address of this conference, partly because I don't want to hear a speech by someone whose job title is "senior futurist." I'll attempt to converse more in the comments tonight, if they're working.

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Comments and other problems

I see the very irritating problems with HaloScan comments are back again. At this moment the sidebar shows a comment from Baffled, which appears to be a response to this week's journal, but when you click on it you get "no comments." Likewise, the comments tag at the end of the post shows none. This is the same thing that went on for a day or two last week. It's maddening to try to have a conversation. I'm sorry, but there's nothing I can do about it.

I'm about to spend several days in a hotel in Nashville, and I had planned, or at least hoped, to use the evenings to move both this blog and my lightondarkwater.com stuff (poems etc.) to a WordPress blog. At the moment things don't look very good for that project, though. I have a loaner laptop from work but it's very slow, and of course the keyboard is different from my old one, so I don't know if I'll be able to get much done.

And the point of this is...I don't know, just to let y'all know what's going on, I guess.

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Sunday Night Journal — May 25, 2008

A Sudden Case of Liturgical Indifference

I’ve spent most of my life as a Catholic (over twenty-five years now) being unhappy about the liturgy: the bad music, the bad prose, the whole atmosphere that tends to be either dreary or irreverent or both. I’ve spent a lotof time complaining about it and trying to make the best of it, and have sometimes been completely demoralized by it.

But something odd has happened recently. I’ve become almost completely indifferent to the aesthetics of the liturgy. I think I’ve mentioned here before that my wife and I, now that we are empty-nesters, usually make the thirty-minute drive to the cathedral in Mobile, which is a beautiful building and often has very beautiful music. Last Sunday, having slept too late to get to the cathedral in time, we went to our local parish on Sunday evening. And it struck me afterwards that none of the things that usually bother me about the liturgy had done so.

I don’t have any explanation for this. It was not a step I consciously decided to take. Nor is it a principle: I still believe that beauty in the liturgy is very important. And I still cringe a bit when I talk to a non-Catholic who seems to have a bit of interest in the Church, and realize that if he or she gets interested enough to go to Mass I will have to apologize for the drabness of it.

But it doesn’t really matter very much to me. I would still prefer that the liturgy be beautiful, but am not oppressed or depressed if it isn’t. The only thing that matters is that I be able to receive the Bread of Life.

Some saint—Padre Pio, maybe?—has said something along the lines of “the world could more easily exist without the sun than without the Eucharist.” As a matter of physical fact, that doesn’t seem to be true, but I think I have a hint of what he means. The world would be a dark and hopeless place without Christ. Even those who do not believe in him receive his light, and are more conscious of darkness than they otherwise would be, because that light gives them the hope that there is something other than darkness, a hope that is very hard to kill. And because we are creatures of body and soul who can ordinarily encounter spirit only through the material world, our good God has given us this mysterious physical presence. Without it the world would be visibly more dark. Without it Christianity might indeed persist, but in a weakened, fainter, and more disembodied mode.

I’m sorry if this is offensive to Protestants; as I think I’ve made clear often enough (for instance in this piece, “On Not Being an Ex-Protestant”), I’m very affectionate and grateful toward my Protestant roots. But something is missing from Protestantism: this literal, physical presence of the body, blood, soul, and divinity of God Incarnate himself, this feeding of the spirit with, literally, God. And it makes a huge difference. I don’t think it can be understood by anyone who has not inhabited and absorbed the atmosphere of the Church. But once it gets hold of you, you find that you would have difficulty, at least, in living without it. Ugly buildings, ugly prose, and ugly music really don’t amount to very much in comparison; at this point in my life my hunger is so great they don’t amount to anything at all.

By the way, I had already decided on this as my subject before I realized that today is Corpus Christi Sunday.

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Computer troubles

The video on my laptop ceased to function earlier this evening, and I'm typing this from my wife's computer. This is really bad news, as I leave Tuesday morning for an out-of-town conference and really need to have my laptop with me. So you may not hear much from me for a day or two. I had almost finished writing my Sunday journal when the catastrophe occurred, so I'll either have to recreate it or somehow recover it from the laptop. Fortunately there wasn't much on it that wasn't either backed up or fairly easily recoverable.

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Music of the Week: Beethoven - Symphony #1

It’s been quite a few years since I heard most of Beethoven’s symphonies, and I’ve decided to go through the whole set in order, attentively, over the next few months. I’ve always had, you might say, a difficult relationship with much of Beethoven’s music, especially the big orchestral works: I just don’t like them as much as I’m supposed to. And I want to see if that’s changed. It used to be the 7th that I liked best, and I also had a fondness for the less renowned 4th. Part of this is my natural favoring of things smaller, quieter, more modest and often more eccentric, than those favored by general critical opinion. But that doesn’t completely explain it, because I like many of the huge late Romantic symphonies.

As for this 1st, of which I don’t remember having any very strong opinion, and which I’ve heard four or five times over the past couple of weeks, I do not love it. I admire it, but I do not love it. There is obviously a great gift at work here, and the symphony is interesting, but little of it moves me. It’s of course very much more of the 18th century than Beethoven’s later work, but it seems a heavier Mozart, and a less orderly Haydn. I have the sense that he’s gotten hold of a powerful force but isn’t yet quite in control of it. And I hear some of the things that have always bothered me: the spasmodic leaping rhythms, the repeated quasi-climaxes, and a quality I can only describe, not very informatively, as “dryness.”

I have a couple of old LP recordings of this and the other symphonies, but for convenience and sound quality I’m currently listening to this set conducted by Christoph von Dohnányi on Telarc.

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Introduction to Christianity

One of the blogs I read pretty often, and have been meaning to add to the list of links on this page, is Et Tu?, subtitled “The Diary of a Former Atheist,” the work of Jennifer F., a young mother and recent Catholic convert. I was struck by something she posted a few days ago in which she starts with her attempt to deal with the problem of explaining to one of her children the death of a bird, and ends by sketching the basic concepts of Christianity in a very persuasive way:

In my culture growing up, suffering and death had no transcendent meaning. Living things suffer, life is unfair, everything dies, and that was that. When we heard Christians comfort one another by saying that deceased loved-ones had “gone to heaven” or “were with Jesus,” their assurances seemed like nothing more than attempts to drown out reality with platitudes.

Yet there I was, saying the same thing to my own children. And, oddly enough, I meant it, and found it deeply comforting. It doesn't seem like a statement so simple could have much importance, and yet I found those few words contained truths more important than almost anything else. As I heard myself repeat the words that I once thought were bromidic sayings for people who couldn't face reality, I realized that they contained the truths that are the very core of reality.

Read the whole thing here.

If you like that, you’ll want to read her account of how she came to the Catholic faith from a completely non-religious background: Part One, on believing in God, and Part Two, on being Catholic.

And then there are the very funny stories of her battles with scorpions in her Texas home:

I admire the simple beauty of [St. Francis’s] lovely Canticle of the Sun, and am really trying to find that sort of ecstatic joy in God’s amazing creations that are all around me. And, indeed, some days I too feel overjoyed by simply noticing Brother Sun and Sister Moon.

It really starts to break down, however, when I see Brother Scorpion on my kitchen floor....

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The Forerunners

“It’s frightening,” Julia once said, “to think how completely you have forgotten Sebastian.”

“He was the forerunner.”

“That's what you said in the storm. I've thought since: perhaps I am only a forerunner, too.”

Perhaps, I thought, while her words still hung in the air between us like a wisp of tobacco smoke--a thought to fade and vanish like smoke without a trace--perhaps all our loves are merely hints and symbols; a hill of many invisible crests; doors that open as in a dream to reveal only a further stretch of carpet and another door; perhaps you and I are types and this sadness which sometimes falls between us springs from disappointment in our search, each straining through and beyond the other, snatching a glimpse now and then of the shadow which turns the corner always a pace or two ahead of us.

—Waugh, Brideshead Revisited

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Sunday Night Journal — May 18, 2008

Love and Prayer (a conjecture)

A week or two ago I brought up the question of praying to another person’s guardian angel for that person’s welfare. I meant the question quite seriously, of course, but at the same time the voice of logic was whispering to me along these lines:

Why do you need to pray to him? He’s one of God’s angels, a being so pure in goodness that he makes you look like a dirty dishcloth. Do you think anything you could possibly say or do would make him more eager for a soul’s salvation than he already is? Do you think he’s not really trying now but may if you ask him? Do you think he needs your instruction? Do you think he’s not going to do his job if you don’t remind him?

And for that matter what’s the point of praying to your own guardian angel? The same questions apply. Perhaps your praying may make you more receptive to your angel’s guidance, but surely it isn’t going to change what the angel does.

All of this leads naturally back to the question of prayer in general. Can we really suppose that God is going to do something other than what he might have done just because we ask him to? And what does it mean to say that the infinite and eternal God, to whom all time is present, might have done otherwise? How can “might” and “have done” even have any meaning with regard to him?

Well, we can’t untangle the metaphysics of that; our minds are simply not equipped to contain the answers. But the questions point even further back. Why did God create us in the first place? Not only does he have no need of our information and advice, he has no need for us. There is nothing we can add to infinite joy.

The answer, or at least part of the answer, must be love. And that must also be the answer to the question of prayer, whether to angels or to God himself. God wishes to increase the amount of love in his creation. Prayer for another is an act of love—love for the person, obviously, but also for the one to whom the prayer is addressed. We ask in love, we receive in love. And in asking one angel to somehow intercede with another, I am supposing an exercise of love between them, and indirectly offering my love to the other.

Anything I could say about how such prayer might change things in this world would be a conjecture. And of course I have one. Keeping in mind that it’s pure conjecture, I point out that love is not an emotion, or not only an emotion. It is a thing, an entity, a substance, with an objective existence, but in the spiritual and not the physical realm; it is not merely a side effect of something happening in our bodies and having no existence apart from them, like the reaction of an animal to a potential mate.

So if prayer does increase the amount of love in the universe, then a real change has occurred. The created world is not quite the same place that it was before, or would have been if the prayer had not been uttered. The spiritual environment has been altered. Perhaps it somehow gives the work of the angel more scope and power. Perhaps—and here I’ll recognize the limits even of conjecture, and stop—it might be something akin to letting more light, or fresher air, into a room.

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