Another Sun

20 07 2009


De una Virgen hermosa
celos tiene el sol,
porque vio en sus brazos
otro sol mayor.

Cuando del Oriente
salió el sol dorado,
y otro sol helado
miró tan ardiente,
quitó de la frente
la corona bella,
y a los pies de la estrella
su lumbre adoró,
porque vio en sus brazos
otro sol mayor.

«Hermosa María,
dice el sol vencido,
de vos ha nacido
el sol que podía
dar al mundo el día
que ha deseado».
Esto dijo humillado
a María el sol,
porque vio en sus brazos
otro sol mayor.

-Lope de Vega

The sun is envious
Of a beautiful Virgin,
Because in her arms
He saw a greater Sun.

When the golden Sun
Rose from the east,
The other cold sun
Viewed it so bright,
He took off from his head
His own beautiful crown,
And at the feet of the star
Her glow he adored,
Because in her arms
He saw a greater Sun.

“Beautiful Mary,”
Says the conquered sun,
“From you is born
The sun who can give
The world the day that it has desired.”
This the humbled sun
Said to Mary,
Because in her arms
He saw a greater Sun.

“Cultural Catholicism”

20 07 2009


It ain’t what it used to be

Sort of inspired by this post from the Gregorian Rite Catholic. Excerpt:

The implication of course is that you are not as Catholic (i.e., you’re not a good Catholic) because you are not as obvious. And these people are very judgmental about the Catholicism of people they don’t even know. Some even conduct conferences and then hang their audiences out to dry on their web sites for their supposed “ignorance,” or “cultural Catholicism,” or lack of “fervor” or for “not understanding” the message that these latter-day apostles have bestowed on them.

As Cardinal Ratzinger, he was happy that Catholics, however estranged, did go to Mass at least on Christmas and Easter. And he certainly would not disparage such Catholics either in person or behind their backs.

I was surprised during my last conversation with my father that he still considers himself a Catholic, though I don’t think he has set foot in a church during his adult life. Indeed, when he was growing up, his family would walk two miles to Mass every Sunday, though my father often was thrown out of catechism class for bad behavior. Before my father left for Vietnam, my grandmother gave him a card of the Mexican folk saint, Juan Soldado, which he kept with him, though he barely made it out of Vietnam alive. It was in the shadow of her folk shrine to this strange spirit that I lived some of the happiest years of my childhood. But while my grandmother was devout, her children weren’t. I don’t think any of them attend Mass as adults, though my uncle, recently deceased, was buried on consecrated ground next to his mother.

“Cultural Catholicism” was a fact of life growing up. I once worked on a crew with a guy who religiously made the Sign of the Cross every time he passed a church, though he had not set foot in one since he was baptized as an infant, and possibly for weddings and funerals. I’ve known evangelical Protestants who still carry around pictures of the Virgin of Guadalupe in their wallets. That’s just how things are in the barrio, even today. I once saw a report in a national magazine concerning the growth of Protestant churches in the Latino community. Amongst some at least, they continue to use Catholic imagery, such as images of the Virgin Mary, in their churches. Like the black Spiritual Churches in New Orleans, one can’t really frame this form of Protestantism in the typical American context. Something more seems to be at work.

If I disparage those who disparage “cultural Catholicism”, I do so because their idea of religion borders on Pelagianism. While effort is always to be exhorted, the strength of a faith, like the strength of many things, is based on its weakest link. “Cultural Catholicism” has historically been that link. If the only act of Faith a prostitute or a drug smuggler can muster is wearing a medal of the Virgin or St. Jude, I fail to see how this is any worse than those who would turn Christianity into the civic religion of “decent folk”. If anything, at least the person who wears such religious symbols is more likely to acknowledge that how they live is wrong. I am not so sure about those who would turn Catholicism into a culturally Calvinist ideology of the salvation of “upstanding citizens”.

But such prejudices also underestimate how powerful such symbols really are. The Virgin is powerful, her image is powerful, and even the smallest act of love towards her can save a soul. (Read Trochu’s biography of the Cure d’Ars on this one.) No, it is not ideal, but do any of us deserve to get saved in the end, really? Perhaps the slow death of “cultural Catholicism” in the developed world is thus the most tragic phenomenon of all. If we are turning Catholicism into a mature faith of churchy busy-bodies, we are going to end up with half-empty pews filled with tightly wound, unpleasant partisans. And is that how the Church is supposed to look like?

Lost in translation

20 07 2009


Random notes on Jonathan Spence’s The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci

Spence’s book is one that I have wanted to write on for weeks, but I am not really feeling disciplined enough to write a tight, well-crafted essay on it. To summarize, the book is about the Italian Jesuit Matteo Ricci’s ambitions and dreams to convert the Emperor of China and thus the whole country to Roman Catholicism, and all the misfires, foibles, and tragedies that occur along the way. For this task, Ricci felt it necessary to adopt the garb of a Confucian scholar and attempt to lure the upper class into Catholicism through education, a typical Jesuit tactic. The particular bait that Ricci was trying to use was a set of memory techniques once popular but now extinct in the West. (I can’t even remember AG’s cellphone number.) He hoped to help young aspiring bureaucrats pass the exams necessary to enter civil service in imperial China, and in exchange, he hoped to show that the “barbarians” of the West had much to offer, especially in the religious realm. While not a total failure, he was far from a success. The closest he got to the Emperor himself, for example, was prostrating before his empty throne; the “divine” ruler was far too paranoid about his own safety to see anyone other than the inner circle of his court.
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