In Search of a Strange Orthodoxy

4 05 2008

A Personal Testament and an Invitation

I know that the few people who read this blog may be shocked and a bit disturbed by some of the things I post. If you have been a long-time reader, you have also probably read some of the more edifying things that I have written which were often very personal and devout. I have to say, however, that I don’t think that I will be writing a whole lot of that type of stuff any time soon for a couple of reasons. The first is because I think the medium of the Internet is your least likely source of spiritual nourishment. For that, you would be much better off turning off all your electrical appliances, locking yourself in a room, and praying. Or you can take a walk with your rosary in the early morning, or a hike in the wilderness by yourself or with a few intimate friends. Reading this blog will NOT bring you closer to God, though I would hope that a thing or two that you read here might help you along the way. And the Lord knows that I have my own problems, but I’m not going to share them with you.

Secondly, you really need to know where I’m coming from. I started off my intellectual life as a religious anthropologist and a student of pagan mythologies. Okay, that was at the tender age of eight years old. I read my first 500 page book on religious anthropology when I was nine. These precocious investigations on my part formed me in ways that I have not emphasized up to this point.

For example, I have to confess to my readers something that in the past I would have been ashamed of but now I am totally fine with: I came to Catholicism through voodoo.  Okay, that is a bit of an extreme thing to say, but it’s true. My religiosity growing up was more like wallpaper than anything else: we went to church often, but there was no real intellectual substance behind it. I grew up in the age when catechism classes were nothing but emotional fluff. You learned a few prayers and how to sing “Kumbaya”. So for a child whose curiosity had developed far too early, such things were incapable of holding my attention.  I don’t know how I got involved in studying mythology at the age of eight. It was probably due to the fact that I found a lot of picture books in the public library that had cool images of Greek and Roman gods in them. From there, I found a lot of other mythology picture books on other pantheons of gods (African, Hindu, Chinese, Mesoamerican, etc.) That stuff was cool to look at and interesting to study. I even dabbled in some Joseph Campbell at that tender age.

It all only intersected with Catholicism when I began to study the syncretism practiced in the various Afro-American religions of the New World (Haitian voudou, santeria, Umbanda, Candomble, etc.) . It was only there that I began to first consciously realize that there were such things in the Catholic Church as saints, and they had some pretty cool lives as well. (I had always seen pictures of saints growing up, but no one took the time to explain them to me since a lot of that Catholicism was now so much water under the bridge in my part of the world.) So in reading about the Yoruba god of thunder Xango, I also read about St. Barbara, who God had avenged by striking her father dead with a bolt of lightening. This was also about the time that my grandmother died, and I remember going to the rosary novena for the repose of her soul (a common Mexican tradition). It was only then I began to realize that the magical and strange world that I had been searching for from a tender age existed right under my nose the whole time. It had just been veiled by a secularized Catholic ethos that had emerged a little before the time I was born. That was a few months shy of my twelfth birthday.

From then on, I cast off the voodoo stuff and began to study traditional orthodox Catholicism. My mother joined the Legion of Mary and I would tag along when she went to meetings and would go off to visit people in nursing homes. I was stuffing my brain with the lives of the saints, Eucharistic miracles, and all kinds of obscure spiritual knick-knacks that made Catholicism so cool. And yes, at that point, I decided that I had a vocation to the priesthood. The only reason I decided to start studying philosophy in the first place was because I knew that in order to be ordained a priest, you had to know philosophy.

Although you may perceive all of this as a quaint and mildly racey personal tangent, I think it is very useful in understanding what I write (if you are at all interested). Most people start their religion with a point of argument in search of the truth; they came to Christianity out of a sense of moral or intellectual crisis. This can occur even if you have been raised a Catholic from the cradle since, in this society at least, one has to make a conscious decision to believe in the midst of a marketplace of ideas. I have concluded from a very young age, however, that beauty and truth are things that are incapable of being grasped totally by the mind of man. If absolute truth exists (and I believe it does), I don’t necessarily believe that it is totally consubstantial with the human brain. At best, the mind can invoke it, but it cannot grasp it. And it will change you in ways that you least expect. To paraphrase Flannery O’Connor, the Truth is inherently strange, and It will transform you into its own image and likeness when you are exposed to It,

In this sense, what I post on this virtual bulletin board are often not going to be pristine examples of dialectical argumentation. What I aim at is a bestiarum vocabulum of ideas, stories, and images that show the Truth in all of its glorious, harmonious, and disjointed aspects, at least from my perspective. I leave it to the reader to put it all together, since that is what I am trying to do as well.

So hopefully, that clears some things up, and I can post things in peace without people freaking out that I am experimenting with witchcraft or am at the point of apostasy. In the end, I think that the “traditional” way of presenting Christianity both inside and outside of the Church is flawed in one way or another, and I am trying to dig myself another route under the profoundly numbing and dangerous bastions of agnostic modernity. I don’t do this thinking I know better, nor do intend to go against the Church in any way, shape, or form. I don’t necessarily think, however, that the hierarchical, “official” line of Catholicism as presented by the hierarchy is the only side of the story worth studying. Nor do I think that the sensus catholicus exists only in this official manifestation.

I have been told, for example, that you cannot base Catholicism on the beliefs of the “uncatechized”. I would tend to agree. However, let us define the term “uncatechized” since I think we would be very much in danger of mistaking the “uncatechized” with the “unsophisticated”. My mother, for example, can still recite snippets of catechetical poems taught to her by the priests and old people in her village that instructed her to pray for the poor souls in Purgatory, the importance of the seven sacraments, and so on and so forth. So I would pose an interesting question: who is more “uncatechized”, a Catholic who knows how to argue against “sola scriptura” on an internet forum but doesn’t have the rosary memorized, or people like my mother who have the entire Litany to the Blessed Virgin Mary memorized and can recite it in her sleep, and don’t even know how to use the Internet? There is no definitive answer, in my opinion, but it is something to think about.

So hopefully now you understand a little about where I’m coming from. Firstly, I am used to (and perhaps overly fascinated with) strange things when it comes to life in general. Secondly, I have no intention of abandoning the Catholic Faith nor playing with paganism in any way, shape, or form that I have not already been doing for years now. God and I have a lot of biography together, and although I am far, far, far from being perfect or even a little holy, I think I know when I am being faithful and when I am not. If the Lefebvrists and the Byzantine Church gave me anything in my years of religious life, it was an overly sensitive conscience. And lastly, I respect all more normal forms of Internet Catholic discussion and I think there is a place for it. I just don’t think I am any good at it. Maybe this intellectual quest is too personal to be posted without confusing the few regular readers that I have. But it is hoped that you will at least enjoy the pictures, the quotes, and the poems that I put up here. If you too feel like a fish out of water in this society and Church, I would very much want you to tag along for the ride. For if I think our world needs anything, it is a strange and colorful orthodoxy.



13 responses

13 05 2008

I don’t know how one could convert to Catholicism (or Orthodoxy for that matter) and still hold on to iconoclasm. It seems an impossibility to me…and I’m Baptist!

11 05 2008
Holy « Reditus: A Chronicle of Aesthetic Christianity

[…] Leah wrote: […]

10 05 2008

I think that there is a difference between people who convert to Catholicism from evangelical Protestantism and those who come from other belief systems. I think many ex-Protestants will always find things like Marian devotions, the Infant of Prague, and statues discomforting because of the iconoclastic nature of Protestantism. However, I think that its easier if you’re converting from atheism/agnosticism, since you aren’t coming in with all of the baggage of someone who still thinks on a sub-conscious level that Calvinism is the normative form of Christianity. The problem is that most people, even cradle Catholics, are not going to have the kind of Catholic childhood that you’re describing. What then? We can’t just collapse Catholicism into an ethnicity that you have to be born into. Otherwise, there’s no need to engage in missionary work.

10 05 2008

I came to Catholicism as a revert to Methodism who just happened to learn about Indo-European languages and studied a bit of Greek mythology and Hinduism. I also became Catholic because I collected tropical fish and hence increased my understanding of Latin. I also came to Catholicism through being introduced to Our Lady of Czestochowa by a Methodist youth director. She guided me all the way. Your post touches me deeply at a time I feel very at odds with Catholicism (reasons undisclosed). It gives me hope that there may be Catholics with whom I could enter into dialogue. I’m not asking this of you Mr. Vasquez, but I appreciate your presence in the blogosphere.

~Bill from Tampa

10 05 2008

BTW, Arturo–did you used to be Orthodox? As well as Lefebvrist? Aren’t you just a youngun? How’d you fit it all in? 😉

10 05 2008

Arturo, I hear ya. I was a little kid before Vatican II, and the Church of my childhood was all about incense and candle wax and Benediction and May processions and holy cards and sun slanting through stained glass and statues of the Little Flower and nuns floating down school corridors (I was convinced that nuns didn’t have feet). And none of that has Thing One to do with beng able to argue against Sola Scriptura. Not that I undervalue the latter. Scott Hahn’s arguments come in handy, I must confess, now that I live down here in the Bible Belt. But I am not a Catholic because of Scott Hahn. I am a Catholic, at least in part, because it’s in my blood. Holy cards and statues are in my blood, and saints are in my blood, and Three-Way Medals are in my blood, and novenas and rosaries are in my blood. The Catholicism of inner-city Irish-Italian Dorchester, Mass., circa 1958, is in my blood. And no, it has nothing to do with the Latin Mass vs. the Novus Ordo. Popular Catholicism, for better or worse, is in my blood–including even some of the weird stuff, like the red ribbons my Sicilian relatives wrapped around the doorposts to keep away the Evil Eye. (And yes, I do recognize, of course, that that’s not Christian!)

But, anyway, this is something no convert will ever be able to grasp, not viscerally at least. Converts are great, no doubt about it; but, as Marcus Grodi once put it, for a convert from Protestantism, the Infant of Prague is just weird. And understandably so. Whereas for a Cradle Catholic–at least for one of my generation–the Infant of Prague is more like Proust’s Madeleine: It brings back a flood of memories.

7 05 2008
The Shepherd

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
The Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not.–Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.

7 05 2008
The Wingèd Man

[…] The above comes from one of Arturo Vasquez’s recent posts. […]

6 05 2008
The young fogey

A traditional Catholicism that’s not all “rah rah, isn’t the pope great?” and “the 1962 missal is the most holy thing on earth”.

Something we have in common.

5 05 2008
Matt K

This blog is wonderful, I’ve been following it for something like two years now and loving almost every post. Thanks for everything so far, Arturo.

While reading this post I was reminded of something I heard about the other day — just after the recent shootings at Northern Illinois University, a group of students gathered outside Cole Hall to pray, and they wanted to pray the rosary — but no one knew the words!! How many of these kids grew up in “Catholic” households but were never taught how to pray the rosary because it was too superstitious, how many would regard the story of the presentation of the rosary by Our Lady to St. Dominic as mere fantasy? Or perhaps their parents were just too busy between climbing the corporate ladder and making sure the kids got good grades and played sports to teach them to pray. And yet in times of tragedy, when the positivist system crashes and fails, in the hour of our deepest need, we’ll always return to those “superstitions,” to the faith of our ancestors which stands always like a rock for those in need. May the faith never be forgotten!!

5 05 2008

Actually, pre-reformed Christianity is “Messianic Judeo-Pagan”. Adam Kadmon is the Logos.

5 05 2008
Arturo Vasquez

I was just flipping through the channels and found a program by a “Messianic Jew”. Then I thought I could start my own movement of Messianic paganism. Think about it, I could push for the Corpus Hermeticum, the Dialogues of Plato, and Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue being included as mandatory appendicies in each Bible. Christ isn’t contrary to paganism, He is rather the fufillment of everything good in paganism. And I wouldn’t even have to start my own Church, I would already have one: the Roman Church. Just an interesting footnote.

5 05 2008

Don’t worry about it. If some people can’t handle a traditional Catholicism that’s not all “rah rah, isn’t the pope great?” and “the 1962 missal is the most holy thing on earth” that’s their problem, not yours.

For my part, as a long time reader, I find your retrospectives on argentine seminarian life and byzantine monk life some of your best posts (as I’m too dense to understand 5th century neo-platonists and 15th century humanists).

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