In praise of mediocrity

30 09 2008

We are not supposed to praise mediocrity. Modernity despises it, though it is its best purveyor. Nor are we supposed to be able to live with hypocrisy. These are things that in the Gospel and New Testament are explicitly condemned and despised. So any praise of hypocrisy and mediocrity would be borderline sacreligious in the eyes of some.

If we are in the moral and social mess that we are in now, it is because we have declared an all-out war on mediocrity. This began of course with the Reformation, which was followed by the Counter-Reformation, the Enlightenment, and the list could go from there. The society that we had found ourselves living in was never good enough. There was always something that needed to be changed, overturned, cleaned up, and improved. We expect improvement, we crave it. We are always avaricious when it comes to things getting better: spiritually, financially, socially, and personally. Christians are tolerant; we are supposed to love all people. Anti-Christians one up the Christians by being even more tolerant; towards homosexuals, women who want abortions, people who divorce, etc. And to add insult to injury, Christians can’t even follow the rules that make them so intolerant in the first place, and anyone with any cursory knowledge of the world knows it.

So the pursuit of perfection, the constant drive to “make things better” becomes the demise of institutions, the iconoclasm against the forms of the past, and the foundation of the eternal dictatorship of the present. Worship must be improved; the old prayers are too long, too complicated, too repetitive, and not rich enough with meaning. Old codes of theological formulation and moral behavior are not thorough enough, are too constricting, and fail to convince man, ever skeptical man, of why he should believe in the specters of the past and fear them.  Truth must spring from “in here”, in the warm bosom of good feeling, in the always certain knowledge that things are getting better all the time. All messes need to be cleaned up, all prejudices cast out. And if this is not possible, than why bother with any of it? Either life must be sanitized, predictable, and perfectly ordered, or it must not exist.

That is why I praise mediocrity. The rote catechisms and the old beaten-up novena pamphlets were created for mediocre people, people who were addicted to routine, who took the way of life for granted. Old moral codes had hypocrisy built into them; it may have not been possible to buy off God with good works, but that didn’t mean that you weren’t supposed to try. Instead of running the mad sprint of perfection, it preferred to run the labyrinthine marathon of rules, infractions, and very gradual, if non-existent, improvement. Things are not getting better all the time. They pretty much stay the same. You are not learning to behave yourself more and more, but only learning to better live with and cover up your imperfections. You are not growing in your spiritual and emotional life; you are always where you started, and any progress is purely illusory. But like a stone at the bottom of the stream, we imperceptibly are smoothed out by the flow of time. Simply try not to notice it, and perhaps, one day, you will be better.





Autumn

30 09 2008

OTOÑO

Esparce octubre, al blando movimiento
del sur, las hojas áureas y las rojas,
y, en la caída clara de sus hojas,
se lleva al infinito el pensamiento.

Qué noble paz en este alejamiento
de todo; oh prado bello que deshojas
tus flores; oh agua fría ya, que mojas
con tu cristal estremecido el viento!

¡Encantamiento de oro! Cárcel pura,
en que el cuerpo, hecho alma, se enternece,
echado en el verdor de una colina!

En una decadencia de hermosura,
la vida se desnuda, y resplandece
la excelsitud de su verdad divina.

-Juan Ramón Jiménez

October scatters, at the soft movement
Of south, leaves golden and red,
and, in the bright fall of its leaves,
It takes thought towards the infinite.

What noble peace in this distancing
Of all; oh beautiful meadow plucking
Your flowers; oh cold water even now wetting
The wind with your stirred glass!

Enchantment of gold! Pure prison 
in which the body, made soul, is softened, 
Cast into the the vibrancy of a hill!

In the decadence of loveliness,
Life sheds her garments, and lets shine
The splendor of her truth divine.





Between High Theory and Low Praxis

29 09 2008

image credit

Some notes towards a Christian theory of magic

In response to some of Christina’s concerns :

I think Christina is correct in asserting the first principle to consider: magic that manipulates and does harm is demonic and against the will of God. In Mexican folk practices, the women and curanderos who practice these feats of preternatural healing are usually devout Catholics. Magic is often considered a defensive mechanism against los brujos  and la brujeria  (witches and witchcraft). As E. Bryant Holman, an expert in Mexican folk religion, points out, it would be an insult to these people to associate them with Wicca or other New Age forms of the occult. Most curanderos  are merely trying to clean up the mess that witches cause, and they do so using common objects: a cross, an egg, a branch from a tree, water etc. Many sociologists would like to see in these practices survivals of a pagan past, but in reality these practices are tied into the Catholic nature of these societies. The priest is often seen as the curandero  par excellence, and many treatments in Mexican folk medicine involve taking the patient to the priest.
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Building the Catholic Inner Citadel

26 09 2008

 

 image credit

 

In response to this post

 

Modern man does not love, but seeks refuge in love; does not hope, but seeks refuge in hope; does not believe, but seeks refuge in a dogma.

 

-Nicolás Gómez Dávila

 

If there is one reason that I keep blogging, it is to resolve some of the very issues that I touched on here. Much of what constitutes the Christian ethos, culture, and practice, is a creation of a society in which traditional Christianity was hegemonic. This hegemony now being absent, many of the cultural forms that we inherited seem antiquated, silly, and borderline nonsensical. There is of course one reaction, one that many attribute to the early Church and the spirit of the Gospels themselves, where Christians are to have “nulla partem” with the Prince of this world; the Church is right and not the world. From that attitude we get the Branch Davidian sect, the SSPX St. Mary’s Kansas, the Old Believers, the Messianic movements that nearly toppled the government of the Brazilian northeastern sertão, and so on and so forth. It is the idea of the faithful remnant, that Christianity automatically “makes you weird” to cite Flannery O’Connor. Such weirdness often ends in violence, suicidal tendencies, and fanaticism.

 

There is of course the other side of the coin, where Christians are very receptive to the world. This optimism is also in the Gospel, in the altar to the unknown God in the Book of Acts, in the intellectual vision of Clement of Alexandria, the treatises citing pagan gods in the Neoplatonic Christian Renaissance, and in the creation of that most exotic and earthy of religious creatures, Spanish colonial Catholicism. There, society was a canvass on which the Gospel could paint its masterwork.

 

Now we are faced with a dilemma: how much do we accept THIS society, and how much should we reject it? How much are we supposed to be involved, and how much in the margins? Should we interpret this crisis as one of growth, or of Christianity in its death throes as a major religion? (It will never die out, but could become just another bizarre sect.) These are very, very difficult questions, and discernment is very much needed.

 

What I fear most when articulating the thoughts in this post is that Catholicism will become a thing of hobby, that from going from a real community, it becomes an imagined community of one’s own choosing. If we must go about our lives with the majority of people not acknowledging the foundational significance of Christ and His Church, how are we to prevent all of it from becoming a fantasy land? How do we have a real communion, an assembly, a Church, when we are so scattered, confused, and divided amongst ourselves? Is it possible to have some sort of community in spite of this lack of shared belief? How do we prevent it from becoming one club amongst others that I belong to?

 

I think the way many Christians approach all of this now is far from helpful. For many, doctrine is a means to be “different” from the world, not to interact with its legitimate concerns. When people gaze at ecclesiastical and liturgical “pornography”, it is really tantamount to idolatry… well not really, because classical pagan idolatry is more meaningful and profound than this stuff. And of course, I don’t have to say again that many Christians, not just in this country but throughout the world, regard Christianity as a way to be more right-wing in their political struggles. All of this is trading our birth right for a mess of pottage.

 

The challenge, then, is to “make Church” here and now, with everyone around you, regardless of where the institutional Church goes in the future. I think it has to do with building, to quote Marcus Aurelius, an “inner citadel”, a means by which we defend ourselves from and interact with the rest of the world. For that we need the Gospel, the traditions of the Church (all of them, and not just the nice, “correct” ones) and a whole lot of savvy and common sense. Many readers of this blog have helped me directly and indirectly to build this citadel, and that is why I continue to maintain this page, and appreciate very much your input.





Indian harmonium

26 09 2008

Not native to the Indian subcontinent, the harmonium was introduced into raga in the 19th century, and has been a staple ever since. Here is one good example of its use by Suvendu Banerjee.





On Self-Knowledge

25 09 2008

Now I have no leisure for such enquiries; shall I tell you why? I must first know myself, as the Delphian inscription says; to be curious about that which is not my concern, while I am still in ignorance of my own self, would be ridiculous. And therefore I bid farewell to all this; the common opinion is enough for me. For, as I was saying, I want to know not about this, but about myself: am I a monster more complicated and swollen with passion than the serpent Typho, or a creature of a gentler and simpler sort, to whom Nature has given a diviner and lowlier destiny?

-Plato, from the Phaedrus dialogue





At the traditional Mass…

24 09 2008

This last weekend, I broke down and finally went to the traditional Latin Mass in Oakland. AG and I usually go to one of the churches here in Berkeley for Sunday Mass, but as she was feeling under the weather, I had an opportunity to go back to my old stomping ground. Perhaps it was a result of making myself believe various ideas about liturgy, or maybe it had something to do with the fact that I don’t go to it regularly anymore. Maybe it was just the time of day (it started at 12:30 p.m. and ended after 2.:00 p.m., which is an ungodly time to be indoors in California on a Sunday afternoon). But I just felt really disconnected from it. At this point, I just see the whole phenomenon of Catholic traditionalism as less and less real. Probably before, during my years of ecclesiastical sojourns, I had lulled myself into thinking that the liturgically bizarre is what is supposed to be the norm. But now I just see it for what it is: a bubble within a bubble.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I love the regular Catholic Mass. If anything, I really don’t like the fact that I am “talked at” so much in the post-1960’s rite.  When I am at the old Mass now, all I can think is, “this isn’t normal”, “this is not what they do at the Catholic church down the street”, and other such thoughts. I suppose when I was with the SSPX, I nearly brainwashed myself into thinking that what I was doing there was what was authentically Catholic. I couldn’t come up with a good explanation of what other people were doing. I knew other SSPXer’s did, and I didn’t necessarily agree with their remnant fortress mentality. I was just there for the liturgy. I could have done without the politics or even the arch-reactionary, nearly farcical scholastic theology that they spewed. Now, I think I could do without the liturgy too.

Unlike most, there were years in my life when church WAS my life. In seminary, we went to church five times a day at least. In the monastery, services went on for hours. I thus can really not fathom why people can obsess over what they do for an hour and a half of their week. Maybe I have just learned to wean myself from it. Maybe I have just had enough church for one lifetime, and I consider all of it as something to be endured. I guess with anyone who obsesses over liturgical questions, I am just tempted to grab him from the collar and shake him saying, “This is not your life, get over it!!!!” Maybe if we looked at church going more as a matter of obedience and not edification, we would be in much better shape. Something tells me that, for better or for worse, this has always been the Catholic attitude towards Mass, in spite of what modern reformers have tried to do to it.





The war against the saints

24 09 2008

On the extirpation of “idolatry” in a Mexican village

…And here also we can see, naively acknowledged, the purely pagan character of Baroque religion when it is examined in its essence. Vallemont certainly regards the liturgy as something sacred; but, to his mind, sacred means untouchable, something to be preserved intact at any price, and something which cannot be kept intact without the complete renunciation of all attempts to make the practice of it intelligent and living. No notion more fundamentally unchristian can be imagined: here, in fact, the kind of false “holiness” of the pagan mystery-religions is given the name of the true holiness of Christ.

-Louis Bouyer, Liturgical Piety

In one chapter of John M. Ingham’s book, Mary, Michael, and Lucifer: Folk Catholicism in Central Mexico, the author discusses religious change in a small village in the Mexican state of Morelos. In the town of Tlayacapan, there was an attempt to impose more correct forms of Catholicism and liberation theology beginning in the middle of the 1950’s. The clergy who served in that town often felt that their parishioners were far too pagan and used the festivals of the saints and their side altars to behave in an unchristian manner and divert attention from Christ Himself. They thus began to refuse to say Masses for the dead and the saints, and even began to tear down the side altars to various patrons of the village. In this way, they felt that they were creating a Catholicism more in harmony with the Gospel, and completing the evangelization of the people that began almost five hundred years before.
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Don’t Despair

23 09 2008

Joseph to his father in Canaan shall return, don’t despair walk on;

and Jacob’s hut will brighten with flowers, don’t despair walk on.

 

Aching hearts heal in time, vanished hopes reappear,

the disparate mind will be pacified, don’t despair walk on.

 

As the spring of life grows the newly green meadow,

roses will crown the sweet nightingale’s song, don’t despair walk on

 

If the world does not turn to your whims these few days,

cosmic cycles are preparing to change, don’t despair walk on.

 

If desperation whispers you’ll never know God,

it’s the talk of hidden games in the veil, don’t despair walk on.

 

O heart, when the vast flood slashes life to its roots,

Captain Noah waits to steer you ashore, don’t despair  walk on.

 

If you trek as a pilgrim through sands to Kaabeh

with thorns lodged deep in your soul shouting why, don’t despair walk on

 

Though oases hide dangers and your destiny’s far,

there’s no pathway that goes on forever, don’t despair walk on.

 

My trials and enemies face me on their own,

but mystery always backs up my stand, don’t despair walk on.

 

Hafez, weakened by poverty, alone in the dark,

this night is your pathway into the light, don’t despair walk on.

 

-Hafez, from this site





“Poorly catechized”

22 09 2008

Like most canards, the phrase, “poorly catechized” is whatever you want it to mean. Some people seem to think that it means that people don’t read the Bible enough. Pace  the testimony of some of the Fathers of the Church, reading Scripture by yourself is not a noble exercise per se. And for most of history, most people couldn’t read anyway. Sometimes “poorly catechized” means that people simply don’t know their catechism. Every good Catholic should then have a dog-eared copy of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (I would prefer the Roman Catechism of the Council of Trent: I prefer my doctrine dry and straight-to-the-point.) But in my mother’s village in Mexico, they learned all they needed to know in rhymes and songs. So that base I think was covered. Some people think “poorly catechized” means that people misbehave themselves more than usual. Well, we have unlimited access to Catholic radio, print press, and you can’t even type in the word “Catholic” into Google without getting hundreds of apologetics sites, each waiting to get in a rumble with any wayward “separated brethren” that comes their way. Has Catholic morality gotten any better? Wait, don’t bother answering that…

So I have concluded that “poorly catechized” merely means that some great theological mind out there seems to think that the practices of certain people are kitschy, primitive, and not at all to their liking. How much do you really need to know about fourth century Trinitarian theology for it to really make an impact in your day to day life? Is knowing all about the theology of grace really going to keep you from gossiping, cutting people off in traffic, or having uncharitable thoughts toward your boss? On the other hand, is it going to remind you that in the end, divine doctrines are only vaguely grasped by mortal minds, and doctrine should be probed only on a need-to-know basis (the mantle of theologian is not something to be eagerly coveted)?

That is why I grasp tightly onto my trinkets, my holy cards, and my statues of saints. Loving God and your neighbor and behaving yourself are really not that hard of concepts to grasp, but they are what’s important. A scapular around my neck reminds me more of my sinfulness than a million treatises on original sin read with great erudition. Ideally, you should have both. But if you don’t have the former, I can’t see the latter doing you much good.