Vintage Catholic Culture

9 06 2009

hameau

I spent my weekend chatting a lot with Mr. G (AG’s father). Unlike me, and much like my own father, Mr. G. is a man of practical skill and sensibility. From a black sharecropping family in southern Louisiana, he worked his way up to being an important petrochemical engineer with an international company that all of you would recognize. In spite of this, he can still regale us with tails from the countryside, and having visited his family in rural Opelousas, I can very well know where he is coming from.

A much different story was when I woke up Monday morning and read an essay by the Catholic writer Anthony Esolen (linked by Daniel Mitsui’s blog) about the complete absence of culture in our modern America. As is the case with many things I read by such authors, I feel their pain. After all, what average American would want to read half the stuff I post here? If anything, more Americans would read people gripe about not having a culture than read an essay about ballet, poetry, or iconography (I don’t write to be popular. Seriously.) At the same time, however, I find the whole idea of “city slickers” being nostalgic for peasant life, of reading a few verses of Dante before they bring in the harvest, to be really, really quaint. Maybe these people aren’t used to waking up at the crack of dawn because that rooster won’t shut up, going out in the fields and dipping your hands in some ice cold fruits or vegetables. Maybe they don’t know what it means to sleep eight to a room, or to have hands bloodied at the end of the day from being cut by the “fruits of the earth”. But my parents know, and AG’s father knows, and to some extent, I know. It was an edifying experience, but not necessarily one I want my children to have.

I am going to leave good construction behind and just do some good old fashioned rapid fire commentary. Here’s the first one:

It’s Saint Bartholomew’s Day, and the good folk of London have gathered for an earthy and merry celebration called Bartholomew Fair…

Seriously, why do American Catholic writers begin their tirades about culture centuries ago, as if there was no Catholic culture to speak of after that, and it disappeared from the Earth once England went into schism? Perhaps such essayists should not travel so far back into time and instead go a little less further in space, to a patronal feast in the highlands of Guatemala, or Holy Week in the Philippines. Just because you only read about it in books doesn’t mean that you have to stay there.

Think what it is like to hitch yourself to a team of oxen and to guide a heavy scratch-plow, using intelligence and main force to keep it in a straight furrow, in the stony plains of Greece.

I don’t know if either of these people have stood behind a plow, but I have been around farm animals, and I know people who have been on a business end of a plow. I am sure one can exercise one’s imagination in far more constructive ways.

That is when distinctions among men come the closest to vanishing; the very word celebrate, in Latin, suggests a crowding together. It cannot be a feast in honor of ourselves; that is but self-absorption, with food. It cannot be a dinner for making your way in the world, hobnobbing with Important People. It cannot be a fundraiser for the candidate you believe will return the most money to your pocket. If the Lord does not build the house, they labor in vain that build it, says the Psalmist.

That sounds very edifying, but I doubt that such “real feasting” ever took place. People like to extol the Catholic principle of “feasting”, but in spite of some wholesome spectacles and even some authentic piety, a drunken rabble is a drunken rabble. They tend to leave out the part about a guy’s stomach being split open over a rather minor argument, and I assure you, it wasn’t about a verse in Dante.

A farmer tilling the land his father tilled, whistling an air from of old, in the shadow of the church where his people heard the word of God and let it take root in their hearts – that is a man of culture. He might live only fifty years, but he lives them in an expanse of centuries; indeed, under the eye of eternity. How thin and paltry our four score and ten seem by comparison!

I remember AG’s 89 year old grandmother telling us about her brothers and the typhoid fever that occassionally would sweep through the community, killing loved ones in their very homes. While I can get even more nostalgic about Catholic culture than Dr. Esolen, since for me it was not a distant memory but rather a vibrant living story told and lived in my childhood, I could not be so pompous as to say that a person who only lived fifty years had a better life than someone who lives to be ninety. Indeed, if Dr. Esolen would be more historically accurate, forty would be a closer number of years lived, and not only would you have seen your parents and young brothers and sisters die, but many of your own children as well. We would best leave the speculations as to whether physical death is worse than cultural or “spiritual” death to those who have to live through it.

Maybe I am being overly glib in my criticism, but such language always strikes me as the intellectual equivalent of la petit hameau de la Reine. For those not familiar with early modern French history, this little cottage was built for Marie-Antoinette at the court of Versailles so that the Queen of France could experience what the “average” French peasant lived, only in a sanitized, comfortable enviornment. She did this not because she wanted to be “one of the people”, but more because she thought it quaint and mildly entertaining. No doubt Dr. Esolen or Mr. Mitsui have far more profound reasons to extol the virtues of standing behind a plow. But still, to the starving Catholic masses, barely eeking out a living and surrounded by death, they would raise up a volume of Ben Johnson and proclaim, “let them eat (Catholic cultural) cake”. It’s easy to bemoan the difficulties of modern life from behind a computer screen. We have it so hard, being deprived of all that rich, Catholic culture.

All sarcasm aside, I will say that we are indeed losing much, and part of the reason of this blog is to salvage a bit of it before it is blown away by the winds of time. My daughter will not have the same life that I had; her stories will be different, and I have a hard time thinking they will be as good as mine. But my stories, and the stories of my mother, and Mr. G. and others, were bought at a steep price. When all you do is work in the fields under the hot sun, you do not savor the cultural benefits of it. You would be thinking about ways of not having to do it anymore. That is both the beauty and the burden of “Catholic culture”: it often came out of situations of necessity, and those are situations that, trust me, all of you WOULDN’T want to be in. That woman climbing up those stairs on her knees while praying the rosary is doing it because her son is dying of cancer and she doesn’t have enough money to take him to a doctor. Those blessings of the fields are not just an edifying spectacle, but are weighed down with the fear in the back of the peasants’ minds that it won’t work and there will be famine again this year. Those roadside shrines are right next to the creeks filled with demons and monsters, and not the cool ones out of the horror flicks, but real ones, and very deadly ones.

I would like to think that I have no illusions about any of it. The other side of the folk piety that enkindles our own devotio moderna is the realm of el mal de ojo, white magic, and la Santa Muerte. Maybe instead of griping about it, we should just be thankful that, while we may have problems of our own, they are not the problems of our ancestors. Only a person living in a Potempkin village would be so quick to change one set of problems for another.


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30 responses

15 06 2009
ochlophobist

Arturo,

Two of the four largest Orthodox jurisdictions in the U.S. now have ecclesial cultures which are predominantly convert oriented. And those culture are very much of the making “the entire religion about satisfying their hang-ups in the sense of selling Orthodoxy as the only alternative to all of the mainstream Protestant sects…” variety.

The Antiochian Archdiocese is the Republican Party at Byzantine prayer.

James Dobson moralism is brought in from Evangelicalism and part and parcel with the faith itself in these quarters.

I very much wish that someone would write a full-scale study of the place in American society that the Orthodox “convert boomlet” fits into. The idea of the “Ancient Faith” is appropriated in an ideological manner, which these folks actually believing that they have simply and securely adopted the faith and even religious experience of a John Chrysostom or a Maximus or a Gregory Palamas. There is no consideration of the fact that from prior to the Revolution in this country there has been a hunger by Prots to discover or rediscover the true, authentic New Testament Church, and that this desire has expressed itself in a myriad of ways, including the adoption of praxis considered to be ancient. There has also been, from the beginning of America, the rhetorical use of the “pure NT forms” to defend political and economic beliefs in a horridly anachronistic and ass backwards manner (slavery in the NT used to defend Southern slavery, etc. – though even many of the Southern divines knew that the NT slavery was not necessarily anything like as brutal as slavery in the South, and no justification for it). We have Orthodox apologists today who argue that the Byzantine state was proto-capitalist, and the free market capitalism is the economic form most in keeping with patristic thought. I wish that these folks could be shown that as a religious phenomenon, they are far more American than they are ancient, and that they have far more in common with conservative converts to RCism and to the niche church magisterial Prots (like the Orthodox Presbyterians and those tiny Anglo-Catholic groups, etc.) than they do with Orthodoxy as it has historically been experienced.

What you write about visiting the sacred centers reminds me of some friends of mine. For quite a few years a common topic at Orthodox coffee hours was Kosovo and the destruction of Serbian Church property. I have some friends who lived in Kosovo as Prot missionaries, during the most difficult period of post-Nato intervention problems. They described to me the typical differences between the Muslim areas and the Orthodox areas. The Muslim areas were clean, families coherent and intact, farms and shops kept quite nicely. The Orthodox areas were filthy, full of drunks, porn was sold at every little stand in the street (they often sold icons as well), things were not well kept, family life was more strained. Imagine the irony of a Focus on the Family convert arguing a Serbian nationalist line right after signing a petition to outlaw porn at local gas stations. I think that the manner in which piety is commonly expressed in Serbia or Russia or the Georgian Republic would horrify more than a few here.

I think the situation with American Orthodoxy is more dangerous than what you suggest of American Catholicism, with regard to the group in question. You have Latinos and still a few poor whites around, and you have a culture that was formed in decidedly working class environs, even if that only remains in some places in skeletal form. We don’t. The Arabs and Greeks came here wealthy, and wealth has been a part of their experience since the get go. The Slavs had working classes, but those churches built by pipefitters are increasingly empty, and both the OCA and the Antiochians have bet on the middle class, former Prot, convert boomlet as the direction to go. There is no longer the considerable immigration from Orthodox countries that there once was. It is conceivable that in American Orthodoxy within a generation or two, “First Things/Touchstone/Republican Party” Orthodoxy will be the dominant ecclesial form, and have a stranglehold on most media and the politics of mainstream Orthodoxy. If that happens, I think it will be the death of American Orthodoxy. It is not catholic, it is not culturally “natural” and it will guarantee an even smaller boutique faith for those select few white middle class people who “really get it.”

15 06 2009
Arturo Vasquez

Owen:

I think what I find bothersome about these people is that while in the past the Episcopal Church was judged to be the “Republican Party in prayer”, the Episcopalians have gone so crazy that those “high culture” conservative Protestants have nowhere else to go other than to convert to Rome. That is the strange irony of history, since, as many fashionable scholars of race have pointed out, even the Irish were not considered “white” at first precisely because they were “Papists”. And don’t even get started with the Italians, Poles, etc.

There are of course sectors of the Church (Opus Dei, the “dollarization of Catholicism”) that would welcome them with open arms, trying to portray being Catholic as the new badge of honor of the white middle class conservative sensibility. Such a marketing ploy is far from successful since many of our bishops and clergy are still enamoured with the “social Gospel” and realize that most of the people who are starting to fill their pews are not white and middle class, but brown and working class. “First Things” Catholicism only speaks to a small, if very wealthy and powerful, few. These few just happen to be in control of various websites, magazines, and other forms of mass media to make them seem bigger than they are.

(I guess I shouldn’t complain that much, since they publish my stuff, but oh well.)

They really start getting annoying when they make the entire religion about satisfying their hang-ups in the sense of selling Catholicism as the only alternative to all of the mainstream Protestant sects that have “gone soft” and veered too far to “the Left”. Their ideas about what is important are different from our ideas, their way of doing things are always different from our ways. We Catholics have never and never will be obsessed with protecting the principles of free market capitalism as a comprehensive system. While Catholics in other countries may be chavinistic and patriotic, they are never as delusional to think that, “America works. Most of the rest of the world doesn’t.” Nor will they feel that the constitution of their country is the Fifth Gospel, etc. etc.

When reading these people, one gets the feeling that if you are not speaking to their agenda, they really don’t find Catholicism itself all that interesting. Maybe it goes the same for Orthodoxy as well. They have the things that they feel are important, the reasons they converted, etc. But how many would say they converted because they came to the conclusion that they would go to Hell if they didn’t? How many converted because they were drawn to how Catholicism looked, felt, tasted, and smelled? How many actually care what real, living Catholic societies actually look and think like, instead of lamenting that real Catholic culture died shortly after the Counter-Reformation? Indeed, it is not unusual for an Orthodox convert in this country to visit Valaam, Athos, or some other Orthodox site to enforce their Faith. A Catholic convert may go to Rome to see the impressive show of ecclesiastical splendor or power, but how many will leap across the border to go to the shrine of the Virgin of San Juan de los Lagos, or even to a church in the middle of rural Louisiana, to see what Catholicism looks like in a society that has always been Catholic? Not many. (“Oh, but Rome is our patrimony. Mexico isn’t.” Yeah right. How much Italian blood do YOU have in you?)

On my worst days, I feel that they just don’t care, so if they don’t, then why should I care what they think? I am not going to some super-convert, Opus Dei automaton to find out what it means to be Catholic. I already know, thank you very much. And if you read my blog, I am going to dish out some stuff to you that you are not going to see elsewhere, because I don’t spin it, I don’t read C.S. Lewis, and I don’t subscribe to First Things. I call it as I see it.

14 06 2009
ochlophobist

Among the “neo-Cath” crowd, and conservative Catholics in America generally, there is a culturally disproportionate reliance upon anglo-Catholic writers – Chesterton, Belloc, Tolkien, Knox, and so forth. Obviously some of this has to do with the common language. But there also seems to be a bit of fetish to it. An English, upper class Catholicism sure beats reading Frank McCourt write Pulitzer prize winning novels about masturbation, I guess.

I also wonder about some of the novelties of post Vat-II Catholicism. I have read no formal study of this matter, so what I posit is merely my gut feeling – but did post Vat-II folk masses with acoustic guitars and folk songs originate elsewhere, did they not start here in America? The phenomenon has an Anglo quality to it, or so it seems to me. And the big box church phenomenon we see, of these large, suburban megaparishes filled with beautiful people living the middle class dream has an Anglo quality as well. Somehow the ethos of German Catholicism and Polish Catholicism and Italian Catholicism got squashed. We no longer see the grand melancholy and grandmotherly resignation found in those cultural expressions of Catholicism. Of course, we don’t see that in Germany anymore either. And folk masses quickly spread over most of Europe.

In Britain there was this felt need to show that one could be Catholic and still be a decent, contributing member of the UK. The United States provided a similar milieu for white Catholics – a need to ‘prove’ their Americanness and useful place in society. The Germans and Poles and Italians, I suppose, more or less adopted the Anglo model of this sort of cultural approach to Catholicism.

14 06 2009
diane

I also defy that we have an especially “Anglo” cultural platform, being from a distinctly non-Anglo, albeit generally assimilated, background.

Anch’io! That’s Italian for: “What he said!”

12 06 2009
The Scylding

Adrian, although I can think of one ex-Methodist who certainly fulfills that role 🙂 .

12 06 2009
Adrian

I think that’s fair. And yes, obviously I was unfair to the vast majority of Protestants, who do not write books and tracts on Reformed theology and apologetics.

12 06 2009
FrGregACCA

“The Protestant is the teacher’s pet of the celestial classroom, resented by all right-minded classmates and only reluctantly tolerated by Teacher himself.”

I don’t know that this applies to all Protestants, but CALVINISM certainly tends to inspire this sort of thing (and unfortunately, the roots of Calvinism, in the form of Augustinianism and the teaching of Anselm on the atonement, are also present in the Roman Church).

12 06 2009
Adrian

I don’t think people need to stress out so much. There is nothing wrong with baseball or apple pie. The problem is with those Protestants who come into the Church while retaining their Protestant conception of Christianity as a ‘Natural Science of Salvation for Special and Gifted People,’ and who crow and blather endlessly about their historical and doctrinal mastery of their shiny new religion and who expect it to “work” just like it does in the brochure, as a weapon against enemies and as a mark of personal distinction.

The Protestant is the teacher’s pet of the celestial classroom, resented by all right-minded classmates and only reluctantly tolerated by Teacher himself.

12 06 2009
Some Thoughts on Catholic Culture « Ride of the Rohirrim

[…] However, for now I wanted to re-post something that I commented to Mr. Vasquez’s blog, on this post about “Vintage Catholic Culture.” I am concerned about the fact that to find Catholic culture in our modern world it is sometimes […]

12 06 2009
Daniel A.

First of all, two of my top three blogs are Mr. Culbreath’s “Stony Creek Digest” and Mr. Vasquez’s “Reditus” (the other being Fr. Zuhlsdorf). However, I’m finding that this discussion seems to revolve around two false opposites. On the one hand, Arturo Vasquez points out that many white American Catholics, even Traditionalists who profess to care about culture (in a way that “Conservative” Catholics never seem to), but are loath to accept and even sometimes denigrate the Catholic cultures around them, usually Mexican and Filipino. On the other hand, Jeff Culbreath seems intent on building a Catholic culture out of existing Anglo-American culture, a kind of retroactive conversion of a long-Protestant tradition. A sort of inculturation, only with “divorcee” rather than “virgin” cultural elements.

I think I see problems with both approaches, but they are difficult to pin down, and I think they are rooted in aesthetics and even mere preference to a large degree. Culbreath, and many others (including me some days) don’t want to lose the good things that are part of “American culture.” Things like good old-fashioned music, picnics, Fourth of July celebrations, the whole “apple pie” Americana is attractive, particularly to fully assimilated Americans without a competing set of cultural traditions. Unfortunately, these American traditions are tainted with both Protestantism and consumerism: they come from old Protestant America, and were perpetuated and perhaps altered beyond recognition by the consumerist culture. “Catholicizing” them might be even more difficult than converting the Celts or the Aztecs (in their respective times) was: the Celts and the Aztecs, for all their faults, had not heard of the Church and were thus not immunized against it. That old-fashioned American culture has the twin disadvantages of having grown up in an anti-Catholic environment that KNEW what the Church was and rejected it, and of being largely extinct or co-opted by people who want to make money off of it.

However, to Mr. Vasquez I have to say that we are not all lucky enough to have a tie to Catholic tradition in our own families. Some people convert out of a real desire to become Catholic and receive the Sacraments, but have no where to go for culture. I read somewhere that Senator John Kerry’s grandfather, a Polish Jew, converted under such circumstances. His answer was to “turn Irish” by adopting an Irish name and trying to blend in with the largely Irish Catholic community. Now, perhaps this was easier for him than trying to create some kind of “Jewish Catholic” culture that has never actually existed (a project that, while interesting, would be fraught with danger). However, it seems odd for a man to give up his own traditions so thoroughly, along with his old religion. I know for one that I, a white Catholic convert living in California’s Central Valley, would be laughed at by everyone if I tried to “turn Mexican.” Thankfully for me I have a connection, more tenuous I suppose than Mr. Vasquez’s but more real than a typical convert, to real Catholic culture: my mother was the “broken link” in the Catholic chain, and so I have grandparents from the “Catholic ghetto,” as well as family that still remembers the “old days” of Irish American Catholicism.

However, many American converts don’t have even that. They have nowhere to go but the hard road that Jeff Culbreath proposes. As much as they might like to lay claim to the sorrows and glories and agonies and joys of Mexican, or Portuguese, or Irish, or Filipino, etc., Catholicism, they simply don’t have access to it. If they try to make their Anglo culture “Catholic” they are pretending and making something up that never was. But if they try to join some other culture, they are pretending to belong to something that really doesn’t include them. I know that Mr. Vasquez doesn’t have the answers, and neither do I, but it is a very real and pressing problem for converts.

12 06 2009
Sam Urfer

Heh, “super-Trads”. There’s a good dose of truth in that. The Anglican hymnody is one thing I could do without. If Catholic Churches must use Protestant hymns because of our “Anglo” cultural base, I’d rather they were more authentic parts of the “host culture”, Gospel choirs and guitars and all. That’s my native culture, as an “Anglo”, not some hoity-toity faux Anglicanism. A rendition of “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord” even if done cornily is a beautiful thing, and far more native to this country and it’s culture than Anglican style, which has always been a fringe minority, even if a high class fringe minority.

12 06 2009
Arturo Vasquez

On Anglican hymns: as Thomas Day so thoroughly documented in “Why Catholics Can’t Sing?”, immigrant Catholic culture was allergic to that Anglican stuff, especially the Irish. Just because the Irish speak English now doesn’t mean you can tell them that “I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say” is part of their heritage. Religiously, at least in the Catholic ghettos of yesteryear, that music was as foreign to one as Tibetan chant is to us. It just wasn’t “us”; indeed, many interpreted it as the music of the enemy (or rather, music WAS of the enemy).

Only after passing through the great equalizer of post-World War II suburbanization were Catholics exposed on masse (or rather pummeled) music of an “Anglo” variety, for the most part for guitar and tambourine. However, I have been to churches, such as the Dominican priory in Oakland, St. Margaret Mary’s “super-Trad” Novus Ordo Mass (“We’re not Trads! Really!”) in the East Bay, and to some extent, my own parish church in New Orleans, where we sing hymns that originated in the Anglican/Protestant tradition, and I have always found it odd and misplaced, though perhaps only I see the cognitive dissonance involved in this. For many, these hymns are the real alternatives to the “guitar fluff” of most parishes, but for me, it is Catholic worship dressing up and doing High Anglican liturgy. If anything, at this point I like my Catholic music fast to non-existent. But to think that Catholics have been doing Anglican hymns for more than thirty years is just wrong. Before, Catholic barely sung in this country, period.

11 06 2009
The Scylding

We bring out cultures with us. We do not approach the Church naked. My culture is an Anglicized Afrikaner culture. I’m billingual. I pray and dream in both.

My Church is English, but wih a strong German undertone (It is a Lutheran Church). About half the people still have German surnames.

I live on the Canadian prairie. In my small town, the predominant culture is backslidden Mennonite. With it comes a strange background of English/German/Ukranian cultural elements, together with a separate aboriginal (Plains Cree) culture.

In my chuirch, there are lements of all of these. Yet there is less Anglo-Saxon culture than in your average English-speaking South African church. Not so much because of the German & Ukranian influence. More so because of the infleunce of the big, noisy neighbour to the south.

Trying to grasp back to any specific culture becomes a complete impossibility. We are reduced to wandering souls in a young world, culturally speaking. Post-modern visions of an an idyllic past is just way off, as Arturo suggests. And yet, I am also a fan of the “Old Ways”, wanting to rescue the good from the rubble heaps of history. We just need to remember what it is we are really doing.

11 06 2009
Blogmaster

Language is supremely important to culture. Volumes have been written about this, as you know, so I’m not going to elaborate. But you’re right, language doesn’t make a culture by itself. That’s why I mentioned other things. Take hymns, for example. It’s the season of Pentecost, and lately we’ve been singing “Come Down O Love Divine”. A hymn transmits more than just the language. The melody, the message, the tempo, the accompaniment – all of these things transmit a habit of mind, a way of thinking about God and man, a set of emotions, a range of sentiments, aesthetic taste and sensibility, etc., which are the ingredients of culture. Nothing screams “ANGLO!” like a processional march to “Come Down O Love Divine” with full choir and a pipe organ, even though the words were originally penned by an Italian. The same is true of classic English literature, where by “English” I mean historic Anglo-American culture more than merely the English language.

Like your Argentinians and Mexicans and Guatemalans, English does not define, by itself, American or British or Australian or South African culture. But it unites these cultures, on some level, in a way that seems impenetrable to outsiders, the same as Spanish does for Latin Americans.

Finally, I admit that Anglo-American culture is not Catholic. It’s a platform, not a finished product. And yes, it lacks the “folk traditions” that characterize more integral Catholic societies. To some extent Americans must come to the Church naked, without the aid of religious culture, without the trappings of Christendom which make Catholicism seem so natural and effortless for Mexicans and Filipinos and the like. That’s just how it is here, and how it is likely to remain for generations. Am I bitter about it? No, although I do have bouts of envy. Folk Catholicism, for all its color and vitality, has its own drawbacks too, as you are quick to remind anyone whom you suspect of romanticizing it.

We are born for our time and our place, with all its limitations. We can and should make the best of it. In order to make the best of it, though, it is essential to understand the magnitude of the catastrophe that has befallen us, and I appreciate Dr. Esolen and those like him for their work toward that end.

11 06 2009
Arturo Vasquez

While language forms a significant part of a culture, it is hardly constitutes one by itself. The most significant case in point in this regard is Castillian, otherwise known as “Spanish”. Castillian is spoken in Spain, but it is hardly its only language. To speak of Spanish culture in and of itself would be a misnomer. The other aspect is that, like English, Castillian is not just spoken in Spain. Indeed, if we were going to take principles of language and some superficial exteriors to say that this is what makes a culture, you would have to conclude that Mexicans and Argentines belong to the same culture, and trust me, they do not. Even if they pray the same in church, and both read Cervantes in school, they do NOT share the same culture, and if you suggested such a thing to a Mexican or an Argentine, they would laugh in your face. Indeed, I have gotten jokingly teased for being of Mexican culture by Salvadorans and others, and they would be adamant that we weren’t the same, in spite of our common language. To protest to them that they are swimming in a “Hispanic culture” due to language would be a cruel joke in their eyes.

So one would have to do better than that to say that “Anglo” culture is what makes America what it is. If anything, it is much more complicated than that. It’s a good thing that I have a post coming up that might be right up this alley.

10 06 2009
Jeff Culbreath

Well, at my traditional parish, the Mexicans and Filipinos and Vietnamese sing English hymns (many of them Anglican in origin), pray the Our Father from the old BCP (yes, that’s where it comes from), read English translations in their missals, venerate the images of European saints, conduct most of their devotional life in English according to Anglicized practices from many different groups, homeschool their children using classic English literature, etc. etc..

You’re like a fish who doesn’t know he is swimming in water; that is to say, you have an Anglo cultural platform whether you understand that or not, and whether you like it or not.

By all means, though, if you are part of a community that has Mexican traditions, embrace those too. But not at the price of despising the heritage of your host culture.

10 06 2009
Sam Urfer

But embracing Ye Oldde Englyshe Traddytones is just as arbitrary, indeed much more so *when the Filipino/Latino practitioners literally live next door*. Of course, who cares what the yard keepers and field workers do in their spare time.

I also defy that we have an especially “Anglo” cultural platform, being from a distinctly non-Anglo, albeit generally assimilated, background. It would in fact be less artificial to adapt the practices from our *literal neighbors* than to look back to the Sarum Rite days or what have you. There is no natural Anglo tradition to build off of. There is a living Catholic folk tradition to learn from, that is present among us, even if it is “dying”, it’s *there*.

10 06 2009
Jeff Culbreath

“There is a serious danger of being disingenuous when one enthusiastically embraces a reconstructed set of medieval English devotions, but sneers at the idea of embracing current Mexican or Filipino folk religion.”

If one lived in Mexico or the Philippines, you would be right. But in the U.S. – unless one is already a privileged beneficiary of ethnic and family traditions – embracing Mexican or Filipino folk traditions is purely arbitrary. This goes back to the America-as-a-blank-cultural-slate argument I had with Arturo a while back. We are not a blank cultural slate. For better or worse, we have an Anglo cultural platform on which to rebuild – or, if you prefer, from which to jump randomly into an alien tradition.

10 06 2009
Sam Urfer

Heck, at least in the San Francisco area one can easily find votive candles in abundance by going to a Walgreen’s drugstore, which is common as Starbucks in the City.

There is a serious danger of being disingenuous when one enthusiastically embraces a reconstructed set of medieval English devotions, but sneers at the idea of embracing current Mexican or Filipino folk religion. What is it that makes medieval folk Catholicism better than contemporary folk Catholicism in many peoples eyes? Is it that the older English tradition is felt to be “High Culture” and “shiny” whereas the actually extant Latino folkways are viewed as “Lowbrow” or “tacky”? I cringe whenever I see Catholics throw poor Mexicans under the bus as “poorly Catechized” and therefore “bad Catholics”. People have really unhealthy attitudes about “Catholic culture”, and need to get past it. How, other than just living as well as possible, I couldn’t say.

Also, why is it that no one seems to talk about the good old days of German folk Catholicism? Why is it always the English who get this privileged status, when German Catholics like my grandparents probably play a bigger role in the background of American Catholics? Curious…

10 06 2009
random Orthodox chick

“Mr. Mitsui, as a Chicagoan you should know that the traditions Arturo writes about aren’t dying at all but are flourishing in our very city…”

I don’t know if this is in Chicago, but I know I like a place when I can get tall votive candles (with the icons on them) at Meijer in the international section right next to the Ragu.

10 06 2009
Arturo Vasquez

People ask me, “what am I supposed to do?” as if I have the answer. I post poems, footage from ballets, operas, prayers, images… five days a week. Is that not enough for you people?! Gosh…

In any case, what I don’t want people to be in is bad faith, or to be consumed with the obvious bitterness that seems to plague Mr. Mitsui. If you want to do artifice, by all means. Just don’t pretend that it is something it isn’t. If showing my child a Bugs Bunny cartoon is akin to handing their soul over to Satan, well, what can I say. Good luck with that.

One of my favorite lines is from a small book by Tomas Rivera called, “…y no se lo tragó la tierra .”, and it goes, “Porque la voz es la semilla del amor en la oscuridad”: for the voice is the seed of love in the darkness. It was said in the context of reading poetry aloud, and I suppose I will read poems aloud to my own children. I marvel at how powerful a gesture like this can be, and also how pointless pessimistic meganarratives are in the face of the shifting sands of time. Once we start to speak of “survival” and “resurrection” we have just dug ourselves in a hopelessly deep hole out of which there is no escape. The seed is always there, is only needs to be planted.

9 06 2009
Adrian

Mr. Mitsui, as a Chicagoan you should know that the traditions Arturo writes about aren’t dying at all but are flourishing in our very city, where corner grocery stores sell candles of all kinds and the Infant of Prague is practically an alderman.

I followed the link to your website and saw your wonderful illustrations, which, while obviously drawn by somebody who has digested and appreciated a lot of religious art, aren’t a revival of a dead culture, but examples of new culture referencing old, which is what culture always does. It would be interesting, from a technical standpoint, to see an expert make a “historically accurate” icon in tempera and gold leaf on wood panel, but it would not be as artistically interesting as your bookplates.

9 06 2009
Blogmaster

“You have every right to be happy that you were born to a family with real, surviving ethnic traditions. Great. But I wasn’t. As the generations pass, fewer and fewer people are, worldwide – not in America, not in Mexico, not in Poland, not anywhere … Now, what do you propose I do? I’m not going to tell my son bedtime stories about Super Mario and Marty McFly. If there is an artifice to telling my son stories about Sir John Sockburn or St. Theophilus instead? Sure. I’ll admit it. But they’re the best I have – I know at least that they weren’t thought up in a corporate board meeting and sent to the marketing department for refinement. And I recognize the goodness in them and know how to communicate it.”

What Daniel Mitsui said.

9 06 2009
Blogmaster

“As for the cultural bias of Esolen, I think it is far more accurate to say that ‘his readers’ would simply look down upon such cultures, not matter how Catholic they really are, and how much closer to the real deal they resemble.”

With all due respect, this is really just wildly unfair and wrong. Why do you say such things?

9 06 2009
Blogmaster

“For all the talk of chosing the “Age of Faith”, I think we have to realize that for our ancestors, there was simply no choice in the matter.”

Very true. We’re in the odd position, as moderns, of having to “choose” tradition, which is of course very un-traditional.

Our ancestors didn’t have a choice. Do we? Perhaps we don’t have the choice of bringing back the whole package – and that is totally fine by me – but we do have the choice of reclaiming some of what was lost. Having that choice makes the project necessary.

9 06 2009
DM

I suppose that what I’m getting at is that I don’t understand why you are so happy to celebrate traditions that are dying, like those of your family, but so critical of those who celebrate traditions that are “dead”, in the sense that the organic connection between the generations have been broken. Pretty soon “dead” traditions are all that we will have left – that and whatever the industrial-entertainment complex feeds us. I’m not sure that, given such an inevitability, the distinction between dying and “dead” is all that important. At this juncture in history, I have more faith in resurrection than survival.

9 06 2009
Daniel Mitsui

Arturo:

I think you’re a bit quick to read this entire essay in light of one of its less important sentences – the one about the plow – as a sort of agrarian/distributist tract, which I don’t think it is. I’ve certainly never publicly endorsed with any agrarian/distributist arguments – I mean, I live in the middle of Chicago, and do so by choice.

The essay is primarily about a lack of a collective cultural memory, a lack of any shared stories and symbols other than those projected by the Great Stereopticon. Elitist? Well, certainly not by intent – the essay finds the worth of the stories told by Shakespeare and Johnson not in their coming from some great-man genius, but in their coming from a popular tradition understood by the unlettered and lettered alike. As to whether Esolen chooses a 17th century example or a 21st century Guatemalen example to make his point – what does it matter?

It easy to bemoan the artifice in thinking about these questions in abstract, intellectualized terms – yes, our ancestors didn’t do that. But I wish that you could propose some workable solution to those who are trying to keep their souls intact, raise children, create art, or otherwise confront the consumeristic nihilism of postmodernity. You have every right to be happy that you were born to a family with real, surviving ethnic traditions. Great. But I wasn’t. As the generations pass, fewer and fewer people are, worldwide – not in America, not in Mexico, not in Poland, not anywhere. My great-grandfathers were immigrants to American who worked as coal miners and farmers. Presumably they told old stories and sang old songs from Japan to their children. Well, none of that survived to my generation – blame the war, blame the internment, blame simple assimilation. Whatever the reason, they’re gone forever.

Now, what do you propose I do? I’m not going to tell my son bedtime stories about Super Mario and Marty McFly. If there is an artifice to telling my son stories about Sir John Sockburn or St. Theophilus instead? Sure. I’ll admit it. But they’re the best I have – I know at least that they weren’t thought up in a corporate board meeting and sent to the marketing department for refinement. And I recognize the goodness in them and know how to communicate it.

9 06 2009
Arturo Vasquez

I think I would append this post by saying that the it is ironic that the means by which we bemoan cultural decline has its origin in that “decline” itself. As many have said in the past here, our American cultural wasteland is due to the creation of an effective and mandatory secondary education system, and investing increasing amounts of capital into higher education, if only to build up the industrial economy of the nation. What people like Esolen fail to acknowledge is that “old fashioned” learning was so “edifying” precisely because it was so “elitist”: few people could read, and fewer could discuss the topics that he discusses on various on-line media. Those who do may have been of “higher caliber”, but to think that such education can be reproduced on a mass scale is a tenuous assumption. I wouldn’t mind children spending their time laboring over Latin declensions or Renaissance English poets, but I know full well that this is very unlikely to happen.

I have less of a problem with Esolen’s ideas than I do with his language. Such crypto-apocalyptic talk is unhelpful and defeatist. For all the talk of chosing the “Age of Faith”, I think we have to realize that for our ancestors, there was simply no choice in the matter. As my mother has told me, when she came from rural Mexico, she didn’t even know what a Protestant was. Dreaming of cultural time machines may make one feel superior in one’s knowing that, given the choice, one would go back to the “old Catholic society”, even if it meant spending all day slathering the side of your hut with dung. I do not have to draw attention to, however, how pointless such an exercise ultimately is.

As for the cultural bias of Esolen, I think it is far more accurate to say that “his readers” would simply look down upon such cultures, not matter how Catholic they really are, and how much closer to the real deal they resemble. Why should the classic “American-mut” suburban white convert to Catholicism feel some sort of deep bond to his “patrimony” in sixteenth century rural England or Dante’s Italy? Why is the bond of centuries much stronger that the contemporary bond of Faith that stretches merely across space? Is it simply because his readers would ask, “what good can come out of Mexico / the Philppines / etc.?” For me, I think the latter is the case. Dante and St. Bartholomew’s Day are no more the “context” of Americaness than sushi or Indian raga.

9 06 2009
MCH

Having just returned from the rural areas myself, I definitely concur that the agrarian life can be such a pain in the ass. The neurotic weather, for one, and the ever declining standard of living of farmers in the Philippines (an important labor leader was shot down just a few days ago) all point to the simple truth that, Catholic culture or not, farming can be a very difficult, if not dangerous path. Many are deprived of even the basic necessities; food and medicine are sometimes rarer than rice itself, and then there is the squalor that often accompanies the lives of these people. To be sure, they are all devoted Catholics, but they are all praying for an end to their miserable lives of toiling in the fields all day. My parents were probably the last generation to produce their own food; it meant waking up at 4 in the morning to feed the pigs in the backyard, then a matter of picking up the vegetables, cleaning the house, all before going to school (which they had to walk to, btw). Then at night the process is repeated all over again, with the added stress of having to do it all in the dark.

Interestingly enough, the hardships of the agrarian life are also reflected in the people’s faith. May 15th is, of course, the feast of San Isidro Labrador, and in the Philippines, where a great number of parishes are under his patronage, this means massive preparations for the town fiesta. In my grandmother’s hometown, this meant adorning every square inch of the house’s facade with rice paper and offering the best fruits to the saint. In some places, water buffalo are made to genuflect as the image of San Isidro passes by. While all of this may sound very pious, there is also another reason why such elaborate preparations take place, this being the fear of offending San Isidro. If the yield is not good, or if the very best were not offered to the saint, the people believe that he would send floods to destroy the crops, or in some cases, cause a drought. Perhaps it’s difficult to imagine a saint acting so flippant in our desensitized little bubbles, but the collective wisdom of those around me has always maintained it to be true. Amidst the feasting, the dancing, the processions and the fireworks, one is ultimately dealing with powers beyond their control.

9 06 2009
Blogmaster

Arturo, I really don’t think you’re being fair to Dr. Esolen. I’ve been reading his work for years and he is not sanguine about the hardships and suffering inherent in traditional Catholic culture. I don’t know about Dr. Esolen, but I do not imagine that I could transport myself into such a world and not perish within six months.

That said, theirs was the Age of Faith, and ours is the Age of Unbelief. There are those who think those are the only alternatives, and you had better choose your side. (I’m still on the fence about this.) What Catholic would not choose the Age of Faith, despite the fear in his heart?

As for Dr. Esolen skipping examples from the Philippines and Guatemala, those places are simply outside of his western orbit and the patrimony of his readers. I’m sure he would agree that such places provide helpful examples, but can you really blame him for concerning himself with his own homeland, and the lands from which the United States received its primary religious and cultural inheritance?

As for the agrarian life, I am living it myself to a small degree, and concur with both Dr. Esolen’s praise and your own caveats. It’s very hard, and it’s very good for the soul … if lived in the right spirit. Of course it is easy to live the agrarian life wickedly, and many do, but there are fewer excuses for doing so.

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