It is as though humanity were one of those enormous ocean liners that is a world in itself: apparatuses for the most varied purposes; collecting place for all kinds of passengers and crew with their responsibilities and accomplishments, passions, tensions, struggles. Suddenly someone appears on board and says: What each of you is doing is important, and you are right to try to perfect your efforts. I can help you, but not by changing this or that on your ship, it is your course that is wrong; you are steering straight for destruction.
Christ does not step into the row of great philosophers with a better philosophy; or of the moralists with a purer morality; or of the religious geniuses to conduct man deeper into the mysteries of life; he came to tell us that our whole existence, with all its philosophy and ethics and religion, its economics, art, and nature, is leading us away from God and into the shoals. He wants to help us swing the rudder back into the divine direction, and to give us the necessary strength to hold that course. Any other appreciation of Christ is worthless. if this is not valid, then every man for himself; let him choose whatever guide seems trustworthy, and possibly Goethe or Plato or Buddha is a better leader than what remains of a Jesus Christ whose central purpose and significance have been plucked from him.
--Romano Guardini, The Lord
Seeing is more than indifferently reflecting (as a mirror reflects all that passes within range). It is a vital process that directly affects our lives. To see, perceive, means to receive into oneself, to submit to the influence of things, to place oneself within their grasp. Necessarily, the will mounts guard over the vision. One protection against precarious things is to look at them sharply, so as to discover their weaknesses; another is to look away, so as to remain unaffected by them. On the whole, we see what we choose to see; the selectiveness of the individual eye is a protective measure of life itself. This being true already on the natural plane, how much truer it is on the spiritual, with its cognizance of others, of the positions we take to the truths and demands thrust upon us. To see another human being as he really is means to lay ourselves open to his influence. Thus when fear or dislike moves us to avoid him, this reaction is already evident in our gaze; the eye caricaturizes him, stifling the good, heightening the bad. We discern his intentions, make swift comparisons, and leap to conclusions. All this proceeds involuntarily, if not unconsciously (in which case our powers of distortion, uncurbed by reason, do their worst). Seeing is a protective service to the will to live. The deeper our fear or distaste of a person, the more tightly we close our eyes to him, until finally we are incapable of perception or the profound German word for it, Wahrnehmen: reception-of-truth. Then we have become blind to that particular person. This mysterious process lies behind every enmity. Discussion, preaching, explanations are utterly useless. The eye simply ceases to register what is plain to be seen. Before there can be any change, a fundamental shift must take place in the general attitude. The mind must turn to justice, the heart expand; then only can the eye really begin to discern. Little by little the sheen of the object on which it rests strengthens its visual power, and slowly it recovers the health of truth.
--Romano Guardini, The Lord
I said I was not going to discuss current events and controversies during Lent. But this passage is uncannily applicable to those.
The intellect cannot cope with such paradoxes, though it somehow senses the reality beyond all reality, the truth beyond all truth. Precisely here lies the danger. The mind must never allow itself to be misled into seeming 'comprehension,' into facile sensations or phrases with nothing solid behind them. The whole problem is a mystery, the sacred mystery of the relationship of the triune God to his incarnate Son. We can never penetrate it, and knowledge of this incapacity must dominate our every thought and statement concerning Jesus' life.
--Romano Guardini, The Lord
I think this basic idea is itself almost a commonplace now, so much so that it can become another means of evasion, of "seeming 'comprehension'". So that stern "must dominate" is still needed, and always will be.
I think we have one of her books on art but I've never spent any time with it. As I've often mentioned here, my interest in the visual arts is considerably less than my interest in literature and music. She died the day after Christmas and this 2006 interview was reprinted in the Catholic Herald.
“Well people find prayer hard because it’s so simple, so painfully simple,” she replies. “That’s the hardness. I would say that the essential test of whether you are a Christian is whether you actually pray. If you don’t pray you don’t truly believe. You believe in some kind of God who is an evil God because if you truly believe in the real God, then you want to be close to Him.”
"Alarming reading," as the interviewer says.
I don't think I've ever been as happily surprised by a book as I have been by Waugh's Helena. My expectations for it were not very high. In fact the truth is that I picked it up partly out of a vague sense of duty: he's a writer I like, love when he's at his best, but the subject is the life of a saint, and hagiography is a category which does not usually make for truly interesting reading, at least not from the literary point of view. I suppose I supposed that Waugh had himself approached the subject at least partly with a sense of duty. In short I expected the book to be edifying but just a bit dull.
But it's an absolute delight, and is now up near the top in my estimation of Waugh's novels. It has the wit and sparkle of some of the early comic novels and the spiritual depth of Brideshead Revisited. I'd like to write a full appreciation of it, to attempt to do it real justice, and maybe I will, but for right now I'll follow Chesterton's advice that if a thing is worth doing it's worth doing badly.
Probably anyone reading this blog knows, but I'll state anyway: Helena was the mother of Constantine, and is credited with unearthing the actual cross on which Jesus was crucified. Waugh's approach to telling the story is what I would presume or hope is standard procedure for writing a novel about a real person. In his preface he makes
This is a novel.
a paragraph unto itself, to make sure the reader understands that he is not proposing the work as a substitute for history.
Where the authorities are doubtful, I have often chosen the picturesque in preference to the plausible; I have once or twice, where they are silent, freely invented; but there is nothing, I believe contrary to authentic history (save for certain wilful obvious anachronisms which are introduced as a literary device), and there is little that has not some support from tradition or from early documents.
Chief of the "wilful obvious anachronisms" is the language of the characters. Waugh has given them the speech of 20th century English men and women of the upper classes, including, sometimes, the slang. Whenever they open their mouths you feel that they might have stepped out of any other Waugh novel. "I hate Rome. It's a perfectly beastly place"--that sort of thing. In the first scene in which Helena speaks, she's a teenaged girl looking out from an upper window, listening to her tutor read from Homer, and distracted by what she sees below. The tutor is a bit annoyed.
".... Do you think I read this to amuse myself?"
"It is only the fishermen," said Helena, "coming up from the sea for tonight's beano. There's basketfuls of oysters. Sorry; go on about the ox-eyed Klymene."
Possibly the greatest liberty with history (I'm not equipped to judge) taken by Waugh is his making Helena a Briton. Apparently the birthplace of the real Helena is not known for certain, though, just as apparently, there is no positive evidence to suggest she was born in Britain. There's no evidence that she wasn't, and this is enough for Waugh. And it's a good thing, because the English-ness of his Helena is not only part of her charm but in a sense integral to the power of the story. Helena as a girl is a bit of a tomboy; her father, King Coel, says she has a masculine mind and that he doesn't expect her to marry. Helena as an adult is more and more a good solid practical-minded Englishwoman who just wants to know the facts. When her husband joins the cult of Mithras:
She pressed her husband for information. "There's no harm in your knowing the general story," he said. "It's very beautiful," and he told her the tale of Mithras. He told it rather well and she listened intently.
When it was finished, she said, "Where?"
"Yes, where did it happen? You say the bull hid in a cave and then the world was created out of his blood. Well, where was the cave when there was no earth?"
"That is a very childish question."
"Is it? And when did this happen? How do you know, if no one was there?"
It's a wonderful, funny exchange, and there's more of it. It's one of many instances where Waugh manages to integrate the philosophical and theological concerns of our time into the narrative without being overly explicit.
Helena, later on, in middle age, on hearing that "her boy"--that is, the Emperor Constantine--has turned Christian:
"Not exactly, m'am, as far as we can learn. But he has put himself under the protection of Christ."
"Why will no one ever talk plain sense to me? Am I too stupid? It is all I have ever asked, all my life, a straight answer to a straight question; and I never get one. Was there a cross in the sky? Did my son see it? How did it get there?.... All I want is the simple truth. Why don't you answer me?"
The search for the True Cross appeals to her down-to-earth nature. It's a simple, solid thing, not a theological abstraction.
"Just at this moment when everyone is forgetting it and chattering about the hypostatic union, there's a solid chunk of wood waiting for them to have their silly heads knocked against it. I'm going off to find it," said Helena.
Now and then you meet a fictional character whom you'd like to know in the flesh. Helena is one.
I'm running out of time this evening so will only mention two other things I loved about the book. First, there's the way major events of the history of the times, political and ecclesiastical, take place off stage, appearing only as what we would now call news items, not necessarily of great concern to those who hear it, but of course very significant to the reader. The Council of Nicea is noticed, and there are little asides about the people and questions involved which are significant to us but aren't to the characters. Waugh has a good deal of fun with this. Eusebius of Caesarea, who took the Arian side in that controversy, is slyly mocked as unreliable. One especially memorable passage, which I should have marked and can't find now, involves a Christian thinking out loud rather bitterly about how the story of the times and of the Church may be distorted by a future historian. Nearby as he speaks is a caged gibbon.
Second, there are some wonderful lyrical passages, as good as any in Brideshead, like this one about the mood among Christians when the persecutions were ended:
The huge boredom which from its dead centre in Diocletian's heart had soddened and demented the world, had passed like the plague. New green life was pricking and unfolding and entwining everywhere among the masonry and the ruts. In that dawn, reflected Lactantius, to be old was very heaven; to have lived in a Hope which defied reason; which existed, rather, only in the reason and in the affections, quite unattached to common experience or calculation; to see that Hope take substantial and homely form near at hand and on all sides, as a fog, lifting, may suddenly reveal to a ship's company that, through no skill of theirs, they have silently drifted into safe anchorage.
Today, by the way, is Waugh's birthday.
I think this piece by Kenneth Woodward at Commonweal is the best, most balanced thing I've read about the sexual crisis (crises?) involving the Catholic clergy. He doesn't minimize the prevalence and significance of homosexuality in the scandals.
One cannot deny that homosexuality has played a role in the abuse scandals and their coverup, and to dismiss this aspect as homophobia one would have to be either blind or dishonest.
At the same time:
Perhaps the hierarchy is afraid of giving aid and comfort to right-wing zealots who would like to use the McCarrick scandal as an excuse to out and purge all homosexual priests and bishops. There can be no excuse for such a purge. We have all met gay priests who live chaste lives and honor their vows of celibacy, just as we know there are more than a few heterosexual priests who fail to honor theirs.
And he is willing to discuss calmly but firmly the high likelihood that part of the problem is
...networks, I mean groups of gay priests, diocesan and religious, who encourage the sexual grooming of seminarians and younger priests, and who themselves lead double lives—breaking their vows of chastity while ministering to the laity and staffing the various bureaucracies of the church.
He goes on to discuss the stories he heard over his forty years of covering religion for Newsweek. And he gives a fair account of Archbishop Viganò's testimony. This is just the sort of level-headed approach that's needed.
Last week, in the context of discussing "the comprehensive racialization of almost everything," I mentioned the role played by white people attacking other white people. Someone objected to that, suggesting (as far as I could tell) that this was some eccentric notion of mine. As if in support of what I said, this piece at USA Today appeared today. It shows that, if nothing else, the phenomenon is at least widely enough noticed that it's discussed in a mainstream middle-of-the-road outlet.
Friday night lights.
I'm writing this post on Thursday afternoon and scheduling it to be posted on Monday, as I'm going to be out of town for the next few days, and am a bit compulsive about not missing a week.
I say "writing" but actually I'm mostly transcribing, as I don't really have time to compose anything new. I read this passage from Caryl Houselander in Magnificat a week or so ago, and it really struck me, for reasons I'll state after the quote.
Most people who want to know God and who are outside the Church have just one thing that is precious to them, though to us with our clear-cut definitions, our discipline, and our sacraments, it may seem so vague that it is hard for us to realize how much it means to them. This is their personal approach to God. Very often it seems to be hardly that at all, so vague is it, so closely does it lean to sentimentality. It may be simply a memory of childhood, or a stirring of the spirit when a certain familiar hymn is heard; it may be just a fling of the heart to God, on seeing the first wild spray of blossom that proclaims the spring. But it is quite surely an indication of that individual's approach to God and of his approach to them, and it is as sweet to them as it would be to a blind man if, reaching out in darkness, he touched the garment hem of Christ.
Too often, through our own fault, we give people who are thus clinging to their own personal contact with God the idea that Catholicism would sweep it away. Quote wrongly, we give them the idea that we are not seeking any more, that we have a formula for everything, that we hold feeling in contempt, live only by acts of will, and that there is nothing that we cannot explain.
Of course this is untrue. We too are always seeking for God, always reaching out by blind fingers to touch his garment, and we are blinded by the very light of the mysteries of our faith, which we can live by but cannot explain and can barely begin to understand.
To the enquirer, our hard, unanswerable arguments, dealt out blow by blow with our sledgehammer of zeal, are all too convincing--the the mind. But the heart rises up in revolt against "apologetics" which may convince against the will and sweep away that lovely touch in the darkness which is at the heart of their lives.
I've had the whole concept of dogma on my mind for a week or two, because I've been writing something about it: whether such a thing can be, how one would come to believe it. It--or to use a related and somewhat less forbidding word, doctrine--is obviously a crucially important part of Catholicism, and for that matter of any serious variety of Christianity. And yet even as I try to frame and express those ideas I'm always conscious that pure intellectual belief is insufficient--necessary but not sufficient, as they say. I think of doctrine as something like the skeleton of a body. It's necessary for shape, structure, and motion. Without it, the body would hardly exist. But the skeleton alone is scary.
I suppose most Catholics, at least those who move in consciously orthodox circles, have met people who fit the description in Houselander's second paragraph--"a formula for everything." Men are considerably more prone to that syndrome than women, especially young men. Defending the faith can become for them a sort of intellectual boxing match. It's not a bad thing in itself, in fact it's a good thing. But it can seem, and sometimes even be, a mistaken and futile attempt to lock up the truth rather than to set it free.
Things have changed a good bit since Houselander's time: I think fewer people are even able to hear arguments addressed to the intellect. How they feel is the only thing that matters.
Also, something I meant to mention last week: someone pointed out to me a very good discussion of Bergman at Commentary. "Oh Lord, Why Did You Forsake Ingmar Bergman?" Just one or two quick remarks: I was slightly surprised to read that Bergman is not held in the critical esteem that he once was. I shouldn't be surprised, of course, and of course my reaction is "well, so much for critical esteem." And I don't think the Lord did forsake him, exactly. Bergman's case is relevant to my preceding bit about doctrine, in fact: I never felt that he truly rejected God, but rather false and misleading conceptions of God which his harsh Lutheran upbringing gave him. This is more or less directly stated at the end of Through A Glass Darkly. I mean, look at the context of the title's scripture reference. I don't think it could be much more clear that he knew that "fling of the heart to God" (what a great description!). Too bad his mind didn't see the way.
Just a day or two ago I ran across something else on Bergman that looks interesting, "Remedial Bergman" by John Simon, in The Weekly Standard. I haven't had a chance to read it yet but am posting it in case anyone else is interested.
I feel obliged to say something about the latest eruption of sex-related scandals in the Church. I'm not sure exactly why I feel obliged. This blog is not primarily about religious matters, and a great deal happens in that realm that I don't feel any need to comment on. But as it is written by a Catholic and looks at things through explicitly Catholic eyes, it seems to me that not to say something on this extremely important subject would look like evasion.
I've started to write about it once or twice before but came to a quick halt because any expression of outrage and anger that I might come up with is inadequate to the worst of the crimes. I doubt that I need to describe those here, and I certainly don't want to. They are the sort of thing that leave one physically ill and thinking "How is it possible that a human being could do this?" They are not "failings" or "mistakes." They are monstrous evils. Moreover, I don't think I have anything to say about any of it, either in the way of expressed outrage or of opinions about the causes and cures of the problems, that hasn't been said by someone else, usually many somebodies.
So I'm going to quote a lot of those others. But first I think it's important, really important, to note that the measures that have been taken since 2002 have certainly reduced the number of crimes against minors, especially children. The whole climate has changed, and situations that were once accepted as good and normal (and usually were) but were exploited by child molesters are in general no longer permitted. I mean situations where a priest is alone with a child for any length of time. Neither parents nor priests in their right minds would allow it now.
Nevertheless: what the McCarrick and Pennsylvania disclosures have done is to reveal that a culture of sexual, mainly homosexual, corruption, exists at the highest levels of the Church in this country, and possibly in Rome, where reports of McCarrick's sexual misconduct were ignored as he was being made a cardinal. The thing that comes up over and over again in relation toMcCarrick is that "everybody knew." That is, "everybody" knew he carried on a homosexual life which involved preying on seminarians. And they kept it secret, and did nothing to stop it. Rod Dreher has described (repeatedly) being told this in 2002 when he was a reporter investigating the abuse crisis: over and over again people in a position to know told him that "everybody knew," but no one would go on the record.
Well, you can read all about that elsewhere, and probably have if you're interested. The result, for me and for many, many other lay Catholics, is that the American bishops as a body, meaning principally the USCCB, have no credibility at all. Individual bishops may, and do, have it. But the body as a whole: no. No one can be very confident that its official statements are entirely honest.
People will always commit sexual sins, and some of those people will be clergy. That has to be accepted as a sad fact of life. But what can't be accepted is the presence of a circle of men, quite a large circle, and much of it highly placed, who are committed to serious sin as a way of life, in direct and violent contradiction of their vows and of basic Catholic moral teaching. What we hear over and over and over from most of the hierarchy evades this fact. And the clear inference, supported by evidence (e.g. McCarrick), is that at least some of them are part of it, and even more of them know about it, but for whatever reason don't or can't do anything about it.
At least one bishop, Morlino, of Madison, Wisconsin, is willing to speak plainly:
It is time to admit that there is a homosexual subculture within the hierarchy of the Catholic Church that is wreaking great devastation in the vineyard of the Lord.
You can read more of his statement here. It is harsh, and I'm sure he will be charged with "homophobia" (a word I don't consider to be of much use) and of scapegoating homosexuals. But the majority of the abuse cases have been male-on-male, and involved adolescents, not pre-pubescent children. And anyway the situation would not be fundamentally different if heterosexual activity were at the center of the "subculture," if that's the right word.
As you may know, Rod Dreher has been writing frequently about all this for some time. As you also know if you read him, his work reporting on the scandals in 2002 played the major role in driving him away from Rome and to Orthodoxy. His blog draws a lot of comments from smart readers with a wide range of views. By way of illustrating what some lay people are feeling and thinking, here's a selection of comments from two posts, this one and this one. (The posts themselves are worth reading though far from pleasant. If you only want to read one, make it the second, "Traitors In Their Midst.") I don't necessarily agree with everything in every one of these, certainly not with those who have left the Church. But I understand and to a great extent share their feelings. And I'm seeing this sort of thing everywhere I look on the Internet, particularly on Facebook, from faithful Catholics. Many of the laity are very, very angry. (I just copied and pasted these--typos and other errors are left as they were.)
The laity need to bulldog this until 100% of the network priests and bishops are laicized. Laicized. Every one of them.
Mandatory clerical Celibacy was required by the Gregorian reforms to solve problems in the medieval church; now it is clearly creating more problems than it solves. It has got to go.
In the case of the present crisis, more pain is in prospect. Many will lose their faith. The process of decline, already well advanced in places like Europe and elsewhere, will accelerate. A considerable portion of the hierarchy will defect, and in fact has already defected, to the Enemy. There is no way to put a happy face on any of this or dress it up as anything other than the disaster it is.
In short, this catastrophe has considerably longer to run. The Church that rises from the ashes will be smaller in numbers and weaker in the eyes of the world. But She will be purified by fire and suffering. And She will again be the light that Jesus called Her to be.
The worst thing is to feel suspicious of every cleric I encounter. [my emphasis]
I do have concerns that clericalism has in fact colored doctrine both intentionally and unintentionally to protect and promote the self-interests of the clergy. Is that not exactly what they have been doing regarding the sex abuse crisis, so why not many other doctrinal issues as well?
It’s past RICO time. These men are utterly and irredeemably corrupt. Nothing but force is going to protect kids.
I am at the point where you were; staying Catholic but not trusting the clergy. But that begs the question, who should you trust?
You can’t trust the Orthodox priest, the Protestant pastor or anyone, except hopefully your spouse. I’ll stay with the RCC, but always a bit suspicious of those in authority, never ever letting my kids around anyone, as all parents should do the world over and throughout time.
A big part of this horror is the realization that if it wasn’t for the courage of the victims of the Catholic clergy who came forward, the empathy and hard work of the journalists who listed to them, and the law enforcement agencies who put the law into motion, this evil would remain hidden;
Because of this, the bishops, with a few exceptions, have lost trust and credibility in any objective sense. They are a hindrance to authentic healing, and if they have any shred of honor left in them, should leave.
This numbness of faith I’m feeling is something new for me – I was too young to appreciate what was happening in 2002. It’s as if my limbs are being severed one by one as I watch from a distance, and eventually I’m going to have to return to my body and live in this new reality. I love the Church and weep over her. The only thing that consoles me is the understanding that this is in reality a great mercy. Two months ago nothing was different. The only thing that’s changed is a little bit of light has shined on the ugly darkness. Now there’s a chance for change that didn’t exists before.
I cannot be Catholic any long because I don’t see how I can ever trust a cleric again. I have girls that are teenagers and at least in theory they wouldn’t be targets but nevertheless I would never leave them in the company of any cleric, ever. You can’t live a faith like that.
Unlike you I don’t see another form of Christianity as an answer. I’m just done.
I work for a catholic organization in a chancery building and have for the past 11 years. I am beside myself with anger and disappointment (too weak a word, really). We were all led to believe things were different this time, that all the rot was in the past. Now I feel duped, and worse I feel like my work helped a system that gave cover to awful men and their crimes. I feel a fool for having taken Catholicism seriously when it’s clear so many priests and bishops never did. [my emphasis.] I guess I shouldn’t be entirely surprised, there were indications all along that many did not take the call to holiness seriously especially in sexual matters. Look at the way they were ignored or dismissed from the pulpit and in the confessional. I’m trying hard not to fall into despair but it is very, very difficult when I read about all those children abused and discarded, the ongoing McCarrick slime, and the good men scandalized and chased out of seminaries. The crocodile tears of a predator was worth more to these bishops than the innocence, souls, and physical protection of children and vulnerable people. I’m like a man in a bombed out building, looking around in bewilderment and wondering if there’s any good left that’s worth salvaging.
I live in the Archdiocese of Newark and have had my heart broken by our diocese and my parish over this summer. But what living in this tension with my former friend and what has gone on in my diocese is doing for me is helping me to realize that the Lord will use those broken clerics to consecrate the Eucharist and baptize my babies and absolve my sins. And I am now more aware that I am “a sheep among wolves;” very crafty wolves that sometimes dress in shepherd’s clothes.
Ultimately, I love Jesus and His Church too much to take the steps you and your wife took. I am not bashing you. But my faith isn’t any longer an intellectual exercise, it’s a love between me and my Redeemer.
I’m really angry, though. I’m planning to protest the USCCB meeting in Baltimore in November and we’re not giving ++Tobin another cent until he starts acting like a pastor and less like a CEO.
[This is one commenter replying to another.] "What I’m noticing is that the secular media is repeating the same story from 2002..labeling it a pedophila crisis. Understand: every instance of gruesomeness detailed in the Pennsylvania testimony is diabolical.
But no one is speaking about the demographics of the victims..in which 81% are adolescent or adult males."
This. If anything is ever gong to change, and children are truly going to be protected, we have to destroy the clerical lavender mafia root and branch, along with the hierarchs who protect them. Not just in the U.S., but globally. And most of all in Rome.
Every other issue is secondary to this one.
The institutional Latin church needs to be burned to the ground and rebuilt — not destroyed, but gutted and rebuilt. Unless it is totally gutted, the rot will remain. All of the hierarchs need to go, much of the priesthood needs to go, and a good chunk of laity needs to go, and from the remains a new Latin church can be built on firmer foundations which are more moral and more accountable and transparent. That kind of reform, which is needed, will prove to be impossible unless the entire current regime is liquidated.
When men made the temple into a trading house, Jesus flipped the tables and drove them out with a whip. These men have made the Bride into a brothel and their crimes demand action swifter and more severe than committees and letters and Very Serious Discussions.
Drag them bodily from the altars. Tear the vestments from their bodies and cast them from the sanctuary. Hand them over to the police.
Mercy does not mean withholding consequences, forgiveness does not mean returning to the status quo, and frankly, a jail cell is a better place for repentance than a rectory.
As for me, there's no chance at all that I will leave the Church. My commitment is irrevocable. There's no chance at all that I will repudiate the Faith. My commitment is irrevocable. But one effect of this for me has been to increase the frequency and volume of those little questions that are always with me, that in one way or other come down to this one: what if none of this stuff is true? If your physics teacher is a criminal, it doesn't mean that the acceleration of earth's gravity is no longer 32 feet per second per second (I can't believe I remember that). And it can be verified by experiment. But the whole foundation of Christian faith is the testimony of others, nothing that one can verify independently for oneself. If the custodians of the testimony are discovered to be repeating a story that they themselves do not believe, it disturbs one's confidence in their teaching in a way that the physics teacher's sins do not.
Over and over I find myself asking: do these men even believe in God?
One last note in what is already far too long a post: I think the Church should consider ordaining married men. I know this would have many problems of its own--everyone who grows up Protestant knows the term "PK." And even aside from theological and pastoral problems the practical obstacles are immense and could not be overcome quickly. Maybe it's not a good idea. But it's certain that for the priesthood to be seen as heavily composed of gay men who may or may not be celibate is a catastrophe. You could not come up with a better way to drive normal men, husbands and fathers, from the Church.
Because of the grim subject matter I wasn't going to include a picture this week as I usually do. But having written the above, I feel a need to see and think about some healthy green living thing. This is another picture from my Ireland trip. It's a small tree that seemed to be of the fir family. I have no idea what it's called. But that yellow at the tips of the foliage is not a trick of the light--the color actually varies that much.
I seriously considered not going to Mass on Ash Wednesday. In fact I came pretty close to not going. My reason was partly that I just didn't want to bother, and was possessive of the time involved, because I had some other things I wanted to do that day. But the strongest reason was my desire to avoid hearing the song "Ashes." I don't know whether I should call it a hymn or not. Perhaps I should, since it's a piece that's sung as part of a worship service. But the word sort of sticks in my throat when I try to use it for this and many other...songs that are sung at Mass. I'll give "Ashes" this much credit: in tone it is more hymn-like than many such compositions.
But for reasons that (1) I would have difficulty articulating and (2) probably should not try to articulate because doing so would involve some distinctly uncharitable thoughts about the song's composer, and even more about the apparent consensus among music directors in Catholic parishes that it should always, always be sung on Ash Wednesday--for these reasons, I'll just say that it produces a reflexive antipathy in me. It puts me in an entirely undevotional frame of mind, which is a bad way to begin Lent. I've been hearing it for a good many years now, and the reaction is not as potent as it once was, but it's still fairly strong. Part of my method for coping with it has been to treat hearing it as a penance and the attempt to control my reaction to it as mortification.
(In case you're a regular reader of this blog and are wondering: our Ordinariate group is so small and scattered that we ordinarily don't meet apart from Sundays, and on other holy days I often go to the local parish, which as contemporary parishes go is not bad liturgically--but still, I could be reasonably sure of hearing "Ashes.")
Most of that is true every year, and I wouldn't have considered not going, however little I wanted to, except that it dawned on me this year that Ash Wednesday is not a holy day of obligation (for non-Catholics: these are days, apart from Sunday, when Catholics are officially required to go to Mass). I think I've always just somehow assumed that it was. But of course it isn't. So I thought "Hey, I can skip it without being in technical violation of the rules." But that, obviously, is entirely the wrong way to look at it. As our priest said in his homily today, it's usually Satan's voice saying "I wonder if this is really a sin." (At least for most of us--it's a very different matter for those who are troubled with excessive scrupulosity, in which case it may be Satan's saying"It's probably a sin," and God's voice saying "Don't worry about it.")
Not to say that it would have been a grave sin if I'd skipped Ash Wednesday Mass. It would have been a relatively minor one, and in some circumstances for some people not a sin at all. But for me it certainly would have been: it would have been a deliberate and conscious refusal of something I knew to be a duty toward God.
In the end, though, it wasn't the desire to avoid that sin that convinced me to go. It was a sense that the observation of Ash Wednesday, and especially the actual reception of ashes, is not a private devotion, and that my participation in it along with a few hundred other ordinary lay Catholics is important--important to me as a recognition of my place in the community of sinners, and to me and the whole Church as a recognition of its mystical nature, something more organically real than a simple collection of individuals. To have stayed home would have been a sort of insult to that body. It would have been a sort of denial that I am part of it, and a sort of denial of its significance. Both it and I would have been diminished by my absence. Only I would have been aware of that diminishment, but it would have been real nonetheless. Only I--and God, of course.
So I went. And I did hear "Ashes." And I thought bad thoughts about it. But it was sung during the imposition of ashes, and the closing hymn, which I can't remember the name or words of now, had a melody by Bach, and that was what remained in my head when the Mass was over.
I've noticed that some Protestant groups have taken up the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday. This is a good thing in general. Some Protestants have always done it, I guess, but not most. Definitely not the Methodist church where I grew up. But I have some reservations about what one local Protestant church was doing this week: offering drive-through ashes. That church is on the same street as mine, and when I passed it on the way I thought I saw a sign to that effect, but wasn't sure I'd read it right. On the way back I took a closer look, and yes, that's what they were doing: the sign said "Drive-In Ashes," and there were two men at a table in the parking lot. Can't say it's wrong, exactly, but somehow it doesn't seem quite in the spirit of the thing. I assume they had a service in the church building itself.
And we've had another massacre at a school. If anyone reads this ten years from now he probably won't know which one I'm referring to, which is a pretty sad commentary. The usual argument about gun control immediately started, with the usual proportion of heat (lots) to light (very little). I've sometimes considered putting together a page of basic facts about guns and gun crime in the U.S.A. with the intention of trying to get the misinformation out of the way so that a rational discussion could take place. If I ever do that, it shouldn't be on an occasion like this one, when even to use words like "rational" and "fact" only opens one up to the charge of heartlessness. Maybe I should say "productive" instead of "rational." It seems to me that the strength of one's belief that there is a clear solution to this problem is in inverse proportion to one's knowledge of it.
But here's one observation, made from a step or two back from the detailed argument about what should or should not be done: Americans seem to have a very hard time dealing with the fact that some serious problems do not have "solutions" that can be attained if we feel very very passionately that they must be solved, and can pass laws saying that it should be so. It just goes against the American grain to say "Well, this is a terrible problem, and there doesn't seem to be a way to get rid of it." If any of us had been a witness to the ravages of alcoholism among the poor at the turn of the 20th century, we'd no doubt have a better understanding of how Prohibition came about. To many very well-intentioned people it seemed necessary, the only humane and reasonable response to a scourge. More recently, we've attempted to handle the drug problem in a similar way. We see the results of that. There's a sardonic remark circulating: "Let's make guns illegal. That's how we solved the drug problem."
Sadly, once again during Mardi Gras a certain number of people were trampled and devoured by dragons.
I've listened to Beauty Will Save the World (the album by The Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus), several times now, and I like it a great deal. It may not be everyone's cup of tea. It's certainly not a pop music album in any sense. The description I quoted from Wikipedia a couple of weeks ago is pretty good. Here it is:
The group's music is a blend of folk and sacred music, industrial and ambient sounds, and samples that has drawn comparisons to neofolk artists like Current 93 and Death in June, as well as artists including Dead Can Dance, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Henryk Górecki, and Arvo Pärt.
But if you don't know those artists the description won't help much. I don't know about their other albums, but from what I've heard of Death In June, which is not a whole lot, that comparison doesn't much fit with this one. Most of it is not songs, exactly, but assemblages of music and other sounds, as the Wikipedia entry says. It begins with a recitation, in Spanish, of St John of the Cross's "Dark Night" ("noche oscura"), which fades into wordless singing. Rather than continue trying to describe it, I can suggest that you listen to this track, which begins with a setting of what I think is a translation of a (the?) Compline liturgy; I've heard it before but I can't think where. I could do without that sort of blubby bass sound, but apart from that I think this is gorgeous.
The album seems to be out of print in solid physical formats. Amazon says "temporarily out of stock" but the group's Bandcamp page says "Sold out", which sounds rather final. But you can buy it in MP3 form at Bandcamp, which I did, along with two other albums, The Gift of Tears and Mirror. I haven't listened to either of them yet. I wonder if the CD or LP versions would have any sort of what we used to call liner notes. If they do I'd be tempted to buy it again just to get that, because I have some questions about what I'm hearing. But then the group seems to like remaining mysterious and letting the work speak for itself.
The cover picture is of Simone Weil
which is an interesting coincidence, because I've been thinking for some weeks now that I'd like to read her again. I have a Simone Weil Reader which I bought back in 1980 or so and read a fair amount of at the time, but can't recall even so much as opening it in the years since. As you probably know, she was a somewhat eccentric (it's hard to avoid the word) religious and political thinker, born Jewish, later a sort of Christian, having what she said was a direct encounter with Christ, but refusing baptism, believing (on what grounds I don't remember) that she was somehow called to remain outside.
I picked up the Reader one day last week and browsed in it a little. Much of it is taken up with her social and political thought, and at a glance I found that rather turgid. Then I flipped over toward the back and found things like this:
If God had not been humiliated, in the person of Christ, he would be inferior to us.
All that I conceive of as true is less true than these things of which I cannot conceive the truth, but which I love. That is why St. John of the Cross calls faith a night. With those who have received a Christian education, the lower parts of they soul become attached to these mysteries when they have no right at all to do so. That is why such people need a purification of which St. John of the Cross describes the stages. Atheism and incredulity constitute an equivalent of such a purification.
That's what I feel a need to hear right now--the hard stuff, uncompromising and apophatic. I think she is frequently mistaken, but in ways that are illuminating.
You may have seen a news item (here's a link to one) about the Episcopal diocese of Washington DC adopting a resolution which calls on the diocese to
…eliminate, when possible, all gendered references to God and to replace them with gender neutral language, and if necessary, to alternate gendered titles when referring to God.
I don't understand why this was considered newsworthy, as Episcopalians have been talking this way for at least forty years now. I mention it only because it got me to thinking about exactly why this sort of thing is wrong. The first response of more or less orthodox Christians, including me, is "But Scripture says...", "The Church says...", "The creeds say..." And that's all true. But there's a more fundamental problem with the sort of liberal or modernist or progressive theology that calls for changes like this one. It's the assumption that we have a right to make such changes if and when we feel the need. This rests on a misunderstanding of the foundations.
Obviously there are changes that can and should be and have been made over the centuries, and obviously there will always be a vast amount of space for our understanding to grow. But the most fundamental fact about Christianity is that it begins with a revelation. Its central doctrines are not the result of particularly gifted people thinking about God and coming up with interesting and useful answers, or approaches to answers. They were given and revealed to us, not created by us, or even discovered by questing human minds. ("Discovered" until maybe the late 18th century or so meant more or less what we mean by "uncovered," which is sometimes amusing--you get things like "he discovered the bed.") Accepting that they are a revelation is an essential part of accepting that they are true.
I think maybe that's the fundamental mistake of modernist theology. It's not that its ideas are necessarily always wrong, but that it doesn't understand or accept the conditions under which specifically Christian theology operates. There is plenty of room around the peripheries for argument as to what is part of the revelation and what is not, but the references to God as Father and Son are too clear and frequent to be considered separable and optional.
Note the second sentence.
One of the things that make being a pessimist less enjoyable than it might be is that the pleasure of being proven right about the impending collision with the oncoming train is substantially diminished by the discomfort of experiencing the collision itself. On balance, I would rather be wrong than right about many of my predictions and expectations.
Recently someone remarked that the culture of Catholicism on the Internet seemed to be dominated by those whose motto was taken from Flannery O'Connor's Misfit ("A Good Man Is Hard to Find"): no pleasure but meanness. You can certainly see his point, and of course it's not only the Catholic subculture that has this problem. It's everywhere. I'm not on Twitter, and I don't think I ever will be, so my impression may be distorted, but that impression is that some very large portion of what goes on there consists of people savaging each other, and sometimes of a large number of people attacking one person in what can fairly be described as a verbal lynch mob.
Almost twenty-five years ago, in the Fall 1993 issue of Caelum et Terra, I published a short piece in which I considered the potential for the world of online communication to increase the level of hostility in the world rather than to bring people together. I don't think I had heard the term "World Wide Web" at that point. It did exist but if its existence was known to me at all I'm fairly sure I hadn't yet experienced it, as the original browser, Mosaic, had not yet been introduced to the world at large. But I'd had five or six years of experience in pre-Web online forums, including Usenet, the text-only discussion groups on the Internet, and at least one of the commercial services which provided similar capabilities by subscription. (America Online, or AOL, you may remember, was pretty big at the time.) And I'd seen the way people could turn on each other with startling viciousness.
That piece was called "Global Metropolis," and I've thought about it often since the Web changed our lives so strikingly. But I don't think I'd read it since it was published, so I decided to dig the magazine out of the closet and, if it still seemed relevant, spend some of the time this evening when I would have been writing typing it in instead. Well, I did find it interesting as a view from 1993, and at least part of it seems pretty accurate. The next-to-last paragraph is the one that seems a fairly accurate prediction of the Internet's potential for exacerbating rather than pacifying conflicts.
I sometimes think it might be more accurate to say that we are creating a global metropolis, a violent one like those of the United States, where people perceive each other socially either as naked individuals in isolation from family and community, connected, if at all, by financial ties, or as anonymous components of a class or race. In these great warrens, people live in close physical quarters but without much sense of belonging to the same community; with, in fact, a dangerous sense of having tribal enemies everywhere. What this combination of proximity and anonymity has done for the great cities, television, along with increasing economic interdependencies, may perhaps do for the world at large: to increase both the level of tension and the degree of isolation.
You can read the whole piece here (it's not very long, about a thousand words). I certainly didn't imagine anything like Twitter, which as far as I can tell is an active deterrent to substantial discussion, which is actually intended to reward the quick and superficial remark. The glimpses I get of it make me think of an enormous number of dogs barking hysterically and ineffectively at each other. And if I had imagined it I would never have dreamed that we would have a president who sits in the White House and uses such a ridiculous medium to bark at anyone among the citizenry who annoys him.
I'm not saying that the Internet in general and "social media" in particular are altogether bad--I mean, here I am. And I even have a Facebook account. Still, it seems that the "bringing people together" effect of it is very often to bring them into tribes united by their detestation of another tribe, and thereby to purify and concentrate their anger. The net did not cause the political divisions in this country, but it is certainly exacerbating them.
Still, when I look at the people around me going about the ordinary business of their lives, I don't see this division, and that's a hopeful thing.
A couple of weeks ago on the first Sunday of Advent our priest made the point in his homily that Advent is as much about the Second Coming as it is about the Nativity. "We await the birth of a sweet little baby who will one day destroy the world," was more or less the way he put it.
While watching The Crown on a chilly evening last week I discovered that my old dog, who is too blind and deaf to notify us of strangers in the vicinity, still is capable of service as an all-natural toe warmer.
I enjoyed The Crown considerably, by the way, and I think my wife enjoyed it even more. It's wise to keep in mind that they filled in some historical blanks with their own speculations and that it's a mixture of fact and fiction, not a documentary. Claire Foy's performance as Elizabeth is extremely convincing. I must say, however, that I remain puzzled to say the least about the function of the British monarchy.
Have I mentioned that we also recently watched the third series of Broadchurch? I suppose it's not surprising that I didn't like it as much as the first two, but it's still very good. There is apparently little to no chance of a fourth series, which might be a good instance of quitting while you're ahead, but this one left an important matter unresolved, which is a little frustrating. Well, maybe it isn't unresolved--maybe that was just the end of...well, if you've seen it you know what I'm talking about, and if you haven't I shouldn't say any more.