On Nature

30 06 2009


Were one to ask Nature why it produces, it might- if willing- thus reply: “You should never have put the question. Silently, as I am silent and little given to talk, you should have tried to understand. Understand what? That what comes to be is the object of my silent contemplation- its natural object. I am myself born of contemplation; mine is a contemplative nature. The contemplative in me produces the object contemplated much as geometricians draw their figures while contemplating….. Within me I preserve traces and principles of my source and of the principles that brought me into being. They too were born of contemplation and without action on their own part gave me birth. But they are greater than I: they contemplated themselves and thus I was born.”

On consigning Vatican II to the dustbin of history

30 06 2009


From Fr. Anthony Chadwick:

The good priest of St. Mary Magdalene’s comments on the idea behind Vatican II as it was back in the post-war period I knew as a small child. The idea then was that civilisation had defeated barbary, and this was necessarily a sign of man’s inherent goodness. On the other side, they were anxious times as it was the Cold War and the threat of nuclear armageddon, the spread of Communism and the libertine cultural revolution in the west. Therefore, it was time to bring the Church into the modern age. The Church of the early 21st century faces a different situation – a post-Christian world. The Church is no longer welcome in any form. We need a new ecclesiology, or perhaps the oldest one – the way the Church dealt with Nero and Diocletian – dig in deep and weather the storm, and be prepared to offer your life if the chips are down. The Church simply retreats to the Catacombs to await better days, and emerges all the stronger for the purgation she has suffered.

The writing on the wall is that Vatican II will be relegated to the history books as something no longer relevant, and a new era is coming. The Church is not about politics or social causes, but about Christian identity, the priesthood, the Mass and the other Sacraments, prayer and devotion, a personal relationship with Christ. Naturally, good works flow from faith and the life of grace. It would seem that Pope Benedict XVI is looking at pre-concilar theology and the experience of the Church under persecution.

As much as I don’t like talk of the “catacombs”, and as skeptical as I am that the present Pontiff does not have an irrational attachment to the Council, I think Fr. Chadwick’s analysis is right on point. Less than a decade after the documents of Vatican II were signed, modern society went into a phase that the Marxist theorist Ernest Mandel called “late capitalism”; the general economic and political shift that is at the heart of the postmodern malaise in the developed world. Such is the hazard of trying to read the “signs of the times”, or trying to re-package perennial dogmas to suit the fancies of a particular age. Those left trying to do so are attempting to fit square pegs into round holes. Those still trying to defend the relevance of Vatican II in the face of naysayers are akin to those who defend bell-bottoms or disco music as the latest fashion. We have all moved passed it… except them.

In the decrees of Chalcedon, Trent, or Vatican I, one has to be an expert in history to know that they are addressing the “signs of the times”. No doubt they have the mark of their historical period; they were councils held by men, not angels. But the most “current”, “relevant” way to address the “signs of the times” is to proclaim perennial truth to a society enamoured with change. It remains to be seen if the Catholic hierarchy has learned its lesson, or if will continue to be obsessed with innovations.

Enchanted Protestantism

29 06 2009

On the “Incarnational Nature” of American Folk Belief

In our commercialized society, people can often be given to very distorted generalizations of ideological opponents. As I have said recently, the general course of American religion can be seen as having gone full circle. For many, such as the late John Richard Neuhaus, we are living in the “Catholic” moment in which the doctrine and general rhetorical trajectory of the Catholic Church is converging with the ideological aspirations of American conservativism. The mainstream Protestant denominations, including the former pillar of white conservative religion, the Episcopal Church, are defecting from both their conservative pretensions and orthodox Christianity itself. Not so long ago, we had an intellectually rigorous American Protestantism, committed to a “conservative” morality. This has been replaced since the 1960’s with the aforementioned liberalizing mainstream churches on the one hand, and the “Gospel frisbee”, hyper-personalistic Evangelicalism of the white suburbs on the other. Where else is an intelligent, cultured Christian to go but Rome? The irony of all of this is that a hundred years ago, Catholics were barely considered white, and they were certainly not considered Anglo. The white man’s burden used to extend to breaking the back of “Papist superstition”. Not anymore, apparently. Somewhere, someone is having a hearty laugh over all of this.
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Frederic Rzewski’s The People United Will Never Be Defeated

26 06 2009

Above: The composer himself plays his magnum opus.

Description (taken from the Classical Archives):

Few composers have integrated their political views with their compositional practice in as thorough a manner as Frederic Rzewski. In fact, much of his mature oeuvre is devoted to the idea of unifying political and musical language. Nowhere is this impulse more poignantly articulated than his hour-long set of piano variations from 1975, The People United Will Never Be Defeated.

The theme of the work is drawn from the popular Chilean revolutionary song El Pueblo Unido Jamás Será Vencido, which was composed by Sergio Ortega and performed by the group Quilapayun just months before the 1973 coup led by Pinochet. Rzewski works out the song’s textual message within the compositional structure of the piece, executing the musical metaphor with incredible rigor. The theme is subjected to 36 variations, which proceed in six sets of six; each set follows a similar structure of “stages,” which the composer enumerates as “simple events,” “rhythms,” “melodies,” “counterpoints,” and “harmonies.” The last variation of each set serves to combine elements from the previous five stages. The sets themselves are connected in the same way across a different axis: the first set is generally the simplest, the third the most lyrical, the fifth the most homophonic, even though within each of these sets the six stages apply on the level of the individual variations. The sixth set of variations, then, represents a busy intersection of structural trajectories, as each of its variations sums up the previous five variations at that position within each set—so, for example, the first variation in the sixth set combines elements from the first variations in all the previous sets, the third variation recalls all the other third variations, and so on. The final variation, then—the sixth of the sixth set—takes on exponential duties, as its recollections of the previous five variations, themselves recollective in nature, make up an elaborate reflection on the entire monumental work. At two points the piece is structurally disrupted but semantically enhanced as Rzewski weaves in quotations from two other tunes, the Italian revolutionary song Bandiera Rosa and Hanns Eisler’s Solidaritätslied. Despite its episodic and variational nature, the piece as a whole thus assumes a trajectory toward greater musical and semantic integration and unity, the wide diversity of sonorities and styles compositionally combining in a manner exactly analogous to the unity espoused Ortega’s revolutionary song.


25 06 2009

duende altar

Notes on the folk theology of the limbus infantium

In a book about Guatemalan folk saints, I saw a prayer to Don Diego Duende, who is portrayed as a portly man with a red suit and a red hat. Poke around the Internet, and you will find more prayers to him (the difference between these and witchcraft are virtually non-existent). Poke around even more, and you will find many prayers to protect oneself from duendes. Their role seems to be a bit ambiguous, as I quote from one Mexican website that I found, a series of children’s stories that mention duendes:

A pesar de ser tan traviesos, los duendes también acostumbran ayudar a los que se vuelven sus amigos. Los que quieren sus favores hacen un pacto con ellos: van a lo más apartado del monte a llevarles regalos, como elotes, agua, carne… y les rezan la oración del encantado. Algún duende les contesta que está de acuerdo echando tres chifliditos; o responde mandándoles venados y dejando que encuetren los tesoros de las cuevas.

In spite of being mischevious, goblins also are prone to help those who become their friends. Those who seek their favors make a pact with them: they go to the most secluded mountains and take them gifts, like corn, water, and meat… and they pray to them the enchanted prayer. A goblin answers them affirmatively by giving three whistles; or they answer them by sending them deer or leaving them to find treasures in caves.

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Catholic Traditionalism

25 06 2009


An excerpt (the whole essay is well worth reading):

The error of Ultramontanism is easy to see, with hindsight, because it is rejected not only by Liberals and Trads but also by the Pope and the Papal Magisterium. In the chaotic decades which have followed the Council, Papal teaching has often been a lifeline for Catholics who wanted to see traditional teachings reiterated; it is natural that Conservatives have clung on to it. It is understandable, but obviously wrong, to take this to an extreme and start saying that whatever the Pope, or some Vatican department, makes a friendly off-the-cuff remark about must be imposed on everyone by next Tuesday, and the Popes themselves would regard this attitude as absurd.

Hence we find a frequent contrast between what Popes have said about their own positions, and how Conservatives have applied those positions. So Paul VI said that Natural Family Planning can be legitimate in certain circumstances. And you get Catholics who regard themselves as Conservative saying that all Catholics preparing for marriage should be drilled in it. John-Paul II said that the Luminous Mysteries of the Rosary might be found helpful, and Conservative presses suddenly pulp all their books on the Rosary so they could add the new mysteries, and conservative parishes insist on having them. Benedict XVI carefully explains that his books are not papal teaching, but his opinions as a private doctor, but Conservatives promote them without such a warning and they are printed wrapped in the papal colours.

And in other news, those crazy kids in Winona just keep on keeping on:

Sometimes I just like to stick it to the Man.

On the Communion of Saints

24 06 2009

juan soldado altar

image credit: Juan Soldado altar in Tijuana, Mexico

A good article from Inside Catholic. Here are some highlights:

The convert sometimes finds that he’s not completely comfortable with how Catholic the Catholic life actually is. He may come to the Church with all the slobbering, tail-wagging enthusiasm of a hungry beagle hearing table scraps hit his supper dish, but he can suddenly turn into an overfed cat when he finds out what’s in that supper dish.

It’s all too much. To be able to talk to the Mother of God, or to St. Joseph, or to the great martyrs of the early Church, or a favorite medieval theologian — that’s great. It’s simple and straightforward… But then it begins to get complicated, with the multiplication of people with whom you have a real connection. And worse, this group includes people you’ve known well. It can include people you’ve seen in embarrassing situations or whose sins you’ve witnessed. You’re a private saluting . . . other privates. At least it feels that way.

That, in my experience, is where the convert tends to balk. It just doesn’t feel right. Even after eight years as a Catholic, when someone I know says, “I was praying to X,” naming someone we’d both known, I still want to respond, “What, are you nuts? X?”

And of course, since this is my blog, I will include my own comment here:

I’m so Catholic …I pray to saints even the Pope doesn’t recognize. When we went to the cemetery as children, we used to visit the graves of my brother and sister who died a few days after birth. Because they had been baptized, my mother said they were angels (not true, but a common belief in Mexico… heck, close enough). It was kind of cool having a brother and sister who were angels.

In Latin America, it is hard not to think at times that the graves are shrines and not places of mourning. Maybe it’s “Catholic ancestor worship”, but people feel that they are helped from beyond the grave by even the suffering souls in Purgatory (there are holy cards for the “Anima Sola”, and people can seach my site for an English translation of the prayer.) Down there people have all sorts of “Catholic spiritual helpers”, some good, some bad, some not so clear: Sarita Colonia, Juan Soldado, La Milagrosa, Gauchito Gil, Pedro Jaramillo, etc.

All canonization does is say that a public cult can be celebrated for a person, and indeed it should. But I am beginning to think that, scratch the surface a bit, and PRIVATE cults are just as necessary. I pray to my deceased grandmother and some of her “folk saints”. I knew one blind woman who was a pillar of the Legion of Mary in my town who I consider a saint. Saints from long ago, reigning in glory both in Heaven and in the hearts of all the faithful, serve as an example of emulation and intercession that tie us into the mystery of the Universal Church through the ages (the Virgin, St. Jude, St. Michael, St. Joseph), but those “uncanonized” saints make it all real and tangible in the here and now. Both are very much needed, and both should be propagated both from the pulpit and in the Catholic home.

The Death of Amédé Ardoin

24 06 2009

“Two Lungs”

23 06 2009


At special services in the pope’s chapel the gospel and epistle for the day were recited both in Latin and in Greek to remind all listeners that the two were parts of the same Catholic church and that the pope was lord of both; but to show the faded state of the Greek church, lights were dimmed and ritual dispensed with as the Greek was read, the lights returning to full glory when the Latin text was returned to once again.

-Jonathan Spence, from The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci

Now that barely anyone knows Latin, I wonder what would be done in today’s papal chapel. So much for the two lung theory.

Talking truth to theological chicness

22 06 2009


Above: St. Philomena, victim of theological chicness, in a church in Metairie, Louisiana

Anyway, what Vatican II gave us, at least to judge from the majority of the American blogs I’ve visited, is: minimal orthodoxy.

Minimal orthodoxy is: let’s parse our way through the thicket of Church teachings and traditions, especially traditions, ignore or delete whatever is not specifically required, and move on….

But how does Welborn think that faith and religion are sustained, if not in a culture that is at least receptive to them? Does she have any idea why it has been so difficult to enact meaningful Catholic evangelization in American culture? I mean, aside from the hostility encountered by generations of redneck, nativist Protestants, which still obtains today?

Similarly, those from dessicated religious traditions, such as evangelical Protestantism, see anything other than the most minimal as a resurgence of “medievalism” or the bad, old days that antedated Vatican II…

See, there’s little, if any, difference between the uninformed, secularized cradle Catholics of the Vatican II era and the Protestant converts of today. They both inhabit a world where dessicated liturgies and dessicated thought-forms are dominant, if “valid.” And that’s just fine with them.

-from the Gregorian-Rite Catholic blog

I am not at the point that I will say such things in such stark and unnuanced terms, but to say that I am only a little sympathetic to these positions would be far from the truth. Visiting the sites of popular bloggers and “Catholic luminaries”, one does get a real taste for what some would have Catholicism become: a sentimental version of conservative Presbyterianism with hard dogmas, uplifting moral behavior, and maybe a few statues (but let’s not overdo it). After all, who needs culture? We Americans do just fine without it, and all that matters is how much I love Jesus, and try to be nice to everybody, and maybe read a few ancient authors who make me feel good about what I believe. Let us not get too preoccupied by issues of Catholic culture, since things are really not so bad. The seminaries are full, the faithful militant, and the Church is growing by leaps and bounds…
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