On the margins of theology – VII

15 02 2010

Protestantism in a hot climate

Studying the history of popular religion and living Louisiana, it is only a matter of time until one runs into the remnant and legacy of the New Orleans Spiritual Churches. On a walking tour of the French Quarter, I encountered an entire photo exhibit of these very unique and vibrant churches. One photo that impressed me was a lot like the one above. It was of a black woman wearing a long robe with a picture of the Infant of Prague sewn into it. Pinned to this robe were bills of various denominations. She was also wearing a mitre, and the photo itself was probably of an episcopal consecration. When I saw this, I joked to AG that I was going to take a picture and submit it to the New Liturgical Movement website.

“See, traditional vestments make a comeback!”

I don’t think they would appreciate the barely veiled endorsement of womens’ ordination.
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Opera Jawa

12 02 2010

The trailer of the film

The Metaphysics of the Evil Eye

11 02 2010

Part II – The Pope and jettatura

From The Evil Eye, by Frederick Thomas Elworthy:

Pope Pio Nono was supposed to be a jettatore, and the most devout Catholics, whilst asking his blessing, used to point two fingers at him. I remember once in Nice there was a gentleman who had this reputation. The Préfet, being a Frenchman, invited him to a ball. He soon, however, discovered that if the jettatore came many others would not, and he had to convey to him delicately the request not to accept the invitation.”

Ask a Roman about the late Pope’s evil eye reputation, and he will answer: “They said so, and it seems really to be true. If he had not the jettatura, it is very odd that everything he blessed made fiasco. We all did very well in the campaign against the Austrians in ’48. We were winning battle after battle, and all was gaiety and hope, when suddenly he blessed the cause, and everything went to the bad at once. Nothing succeeds with anybody or anything when he wishes well to them. When he went to S. Agnese to hold a great festival, down went the floor, and the people were all smashed together. Then he visited the column to the Madonna in the Piazza di Spagna, and blessed it and the workmen; of course one fell from the scaffold the same day and killed himself. He arranged to meet the King of Naples at Porto d’Anzio, when up came a violent gale, and a storm that lasted a week; another arrangement was made, and then came the fracas about the ex-queen of Spain.

“Again, Lord C—— came in from Albano, being rather unwell; the Pope sent him his blessing, when, pop! he died right off in a twinkling. There was nothing so fatal as his blessing. I do not wonder the workmen at the column in the Piazza di Spagna refused to work in raising it unless the Pope stayed away!”

Mr. Story tells another tale–of Rachel and a rosary blessed by the Pope, which she wore on her arm as a bracelet. She had been visiting a sister who was ill in the Pyrenees, but one day she was so much better, that Rachel left her to visit another sister. While laughing and chatting merrily, a message arrived that she must return instantly as a fit had come on. Rising like a wounded tigress, she seemed to seek some cause for this sudden blow. Her eye fell on the rosary, and in rage and disappointment she tore it from her wrist, and dashed it to the ground, exclaiming: “O fatal gift! ’tis thou hast entailed this curse upon me!” and immediately sprang out of the room. Her sister died the day after.


We can question if this is from a reputable source, but considering the fortune of Pope Pius IX, such stories would be hardly surprising if true.

Modern Catholics, as I have been writing of late, tend to have this tendency to think that the Church and the world function exactly along the lines of a well organized PTA meeting. God is nice, the saints are our friends, the world is governed by rational principles just like a clock… But the idea that a Pope, the Vicar of Christ on earth, could be the cause of curses, and that the saints can “punish” you just as well as help you… that seems like complete blasphemy to the modern, sanitized Catholic ear. What do you think we are? Pagans?!

As I have said in the past, to be deeper in history is to cease to be anything. We have changed, and perhaps are changing, too much.

On duty and the married state

10 02 2010

Do not look elsewhere for the sources of such heroism. In the events of family life, as in all the circumstances of human existence, heroism has its basic roots in the profound and surpassing sense of duty, of that duty with which it is impossible to compromise or bargain and which must prevail over and above everything. This sense of duty is, for Christians, the conscious recognition of God’s sovereign dominion over us, of His sovereign authority and His sovereign goodness. It teaches us that God’s clear mandate will brook no arguments but imposes complete surrender. Above all else, it makes us understand that this Divine Will is the voice of infinite love for us. In a word, this sense of duty is not abstract, nor a reaction to an inexorable, hostile, and overpowering law which overwhelms freedom of human will or action. It responds to the exigencies of love, of an infinitely generous friendship, transcending and sustaining the multiform vicissitudes of our life in the world.

-Pope Pius XII, from the book, Dear Newlyweds

On Papalotry

9 02 2010

In my small town growing up, Commonweal was one of the only magazines that the local library had that had any significant theological content. So it is no surprise that I am used to what they write at this point, and I quote from a recent article concerning the Pope and his relationship to the Church:

When I find the equivalent of such pictures hanging in the minds of first-rate intellectuals, however, I cannot help but wonder. I confess that a great deal of reading in the very spotted history of the Left in the twentieth century has forced me to ponder the resemblance of papal adulation by some Catholic intellectuals to that of various Great Leaders from Lenin to Fidel to Mao by some left-wing intellectuals… there seemed something disturbingly similar in this impulse, and not just in the case of John Paul “the Great,” to highlight and extol virtually every papal deed and statement while finding a way to deflect or ignore almost all criticism…

But the practical effect of all this does not bother me, though perhaps it should, as much as the questions it raises about the Catholic intellect. Catholic thinkers are well aware that the guidance of the Holy Spirit has not worked straightforwardly in the history of the popes and, furthermore, that there has not even been a clear relationship between personal sanctity or theological acumen and institutional leadership. I pay attention when Benedict issues an encyclical. I welcome it as an occasion to reexamine my own thinking and choices. But knowing how many papal encyclicals are justly forgotten today, I do not feel the need to treat it as inspired or devise complicated excuses for why he should not be held responsible for the parts of it that seem to be wanting.

Why should grown-up, well-educated Catholics indulge in this tendency to treat the pope like the Dalai Lama? (Or, on the other hand, like Torquemada?) It seems childish. It gives a bad witness to the maturity and the integrity of our faith.

A comment on this post is also worth quoting:

The adulation, near-adoration, of the Pope is a fairly recent development–19th and 20th century, it seems. Perhaps it began with the sympathy for Popes Pius VI and Pius VII when each was made a prisoner of Napoleon. In any case, under Pius IX, as several studies have shown, the figure of the pope was exalted to near-divine status. Some talked about Christ’s presence in “the three whites”: the Virgin, the Eucharist, and the Pope. Some changed the words of the ancient hymn, “Rerum Deus tenax vigor” to “Rerum Pius tenax vigor.” When a Cardinal at Vatican I gave a speech on papal authority that Pius IX did not like, he was called in and dressed down. When he protestaed that his position was traditional, the Pope expostulated: “La tradizione, son’io!” “Tradition? I’m tradition!”

Yves Congar spoke of the “incredible inflation” of the papal teaching office that has occurred in the last two centuries. He also spoke of the methodological significance for a healthy, balanced ecclesiology of the millennium-long canonical and theological reflection on the possibility of a pope’s becoming a heretic. He often quoted the remark of an Anglican churchman who commented on the fact that the last series of popes were, individually, good even holy men. “What we need,” he said, “is a really good bad pope!” In Congar’s French: “un tres bon mauvais pape!”

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On the kiss

9 02 2010

My heart, bring me some sign plucked from the roses of hope’s garden
You cannot bring a flower in bloom? Bring me an autumn leaf
Companion of my begging days, get up and go out quickly
Pawn anything- your life, your clothes- and bring abundant wine
O God, You have brought forth all this from what was non-existent
Bring me a kiss or two, brought from the corner of her mouth

– from The Seeing Eye: Selections from the Urdu and Persian Ghazals of Ghalib, translated by Ralph Russell

The Metaphysics of the Evil Eye

8 02 2010

Part I – Things gettin’ worse all the time

My family is Mexican, ergo, I am a fatalist. Americans can’t perceive what that really means. In a way, I am just as American as anyone else living in the U.S. of A., but my family definitely isn’t. It’s hard for someone with so much Latin blood and upbringing to say: “Hey kiddo, keep your chin up. Things will get better.” If I do say that, what I really mean is, “Yeah, life sucks. But don’t worry, you’ll get used to it.” Or as my ex-abbot (a Greek) was prone to saying (perhaps quoting someone else?): “Whatever happens, it’ll be bad”.

Perhaps this was the social ground of the phemonemon of the “evil eye” in such cultures. The evil eye always has to do with envy. In Mexico and other parts of Latin America, the evil eye is cast inadvertenly on small children by people who admire them too much. Growing up, my mother was always taught to touch a child who she had admired, lest she give the child a preternatural illness that could possibly cause death. Having a beautiful, healthy child was seen as being a dangerous thing; people would “desire” the child, and that desire, even from afar, could be fatal.

In my rather unsystematic studies of folk belief, I have found that, not without accident perhaps, southern Italian ideas of the evil eye parellel the Mexican manifestations of the phenomenon. Indeed, the best description given for the basis of the evil eye (malocchio, for the multilingual), can be found in the book, Italian American Folklore by Frances Malpezzani and William M. Clements. They write:

Connected with the deeply rooted fatalism of the southern Italian peasant world view, malocchio reflects a pessimism that perceives potential threats from almost anyone and assumes that good fortune cannot endure. To prosper, according to this world view, is to invite envy. And envy generates ill feelings that may result in harm befalling its target. Malocchio makes concrete the abstract envy that pervades a universe defined by only a limited amount of good.

“A limited amount of good.” Americans would best chew on that phrase. For if there was anything so “unAmerican”, so counterintuitive to how we work, learn, and perceive the world, it is the idea of a “limited amount of good”. We are taught that the good is something we create out of thin air. It is a manner of cutting the pie into an infinite amount of pieces until everyone has a share. Indeed, in the metaphysical sense, modernity is the overcoming of fatalism; it is the overcoming of caste and “station in life” so that we can reach our “full potential”. God is on our side since He has thrown open the floodgates of infinite goodness. We are more informed, more comfortable, and of course, better people than our ancestors. Even in our nostalgia for the past, there is a sense of living in a superior age, and our pining for it is just as rational as a four year old’s pining for Disneyworld.

Of course, I wouldn’t want to go back to the life of a Mexican campesino or an Italian paesano either, but their approach to life should at least give us pause. Especially in the fields of religion and culture, we may want to have our cake and eat it too, but perhaps our ancestors knew better than that. Perhaps our universe is governed by the principle of a “limited good”, and it is just a matter of time before the payback comes, either on the microcosmic or macrocosmic level.

Blog happenings

6 02 2010

The first is Rod Dreher’s assertion that Voudou in Haiti is the worship of demons (found in this post). I am all for the whole idea of “omnes dii gentium daemonia”, but why stop there? Indeed, I described once how Tommaso Campanella (no paragon of “orthodoxy” himself) thought that Calvinism was the result of demonic influences. So why is it that we are so disturbed at people being ridden by the loa and eating glass when, in reality, heretics and schismatics should be just as repulsive to us. Is your Presbyterian neighbor who mows his lawn every Saturday and pays his taxes on time every year on par with a Voudou priest? According to your Catholic Faith, he is. And so is Rod Dreher, who abandoned the bark of Peter for the Eastern schismatics. If we are going to speak of demonic influences, let us at least be even handed about it.

For me, there is no bourgeois uber-religion of decency that transcends what’s true and what isn’t true. That is a modern invention based on disordered sensibilities, and to say we “good Christians” all worship the same god is an insult to God. For it would mean that we worship a schizophrenic god with various personalities for various kinds of “decent” people. If that is the case, I would rather worship a god who could manifest himself in the Haitian loa as well. That seems a lot fairer.
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Two faces of Maya Plisetskaya

5 02 2010

Dancing the Black Swan, a very classical role.

Dancing to Ravel’s Bolero. Choreography by Maurice Bejart.

On the inherent superiority of Western culture

4 02 2010

Greek wisdom and Roman law were divine gifts that prepared the fullness of time for the coming of the Savior. Only this cultural treasure, after centuries of theological discussions and conciliar definitions, allowed the great Christian dogmas to be formulated with precision. And since they [the neo-modernists] like to speak of the “incarnation”: Just as only the most pure flesh of the Virgin Mary was capable of receiving the Word of God, thus only the “flesh” of Greco-Roman culture was sufficently healthy enough to be animated by the wisdom of the Gospel, and to build the cathedral of Christian cultural, the highest spire of which is the Summa Theologiae of St. Thomas. But for the mentality that has today invaded the Church, we have just blasphemed: in Africa, India, and America we have to begin anew. And since there has been a cultural revolution in the Christian West, we have a new task for the next millenium: “A new mobilization is imposed on the Church, in order to confront the task of inculturation of the Gospel in the modern world. In this matter we should embrace the concern of John Paul II: ‘From the beginning of my pontificate I have considered the dialogue of the Church with the cultures of our time an important field of work in which the fate of the world at the end of the 20th century is at play’.”

-Fr. Álvaro Calderón, La Lámpara bajo el Celemín: Cuestión disputada sobre la autoridad doctrinal del Magisterio eclesiástico desde el Concilio Vaticano II, my translation

In spite of my perennialist tendencies, my impulse to post Hindu kirtans and videos of Vodou rituals, I agree 100% with Fr. Calderon’s assessment. Christianity is fundamentally a historical religion. If there were any way to get around that, I would have found it by now. But the fact that the Gospel was written in Greek using concepts such as “logos” that had been in formation in the Greek mind for centuries is no mere accident of history. God could have been incarnated in the context of another culture, just as He “could have” been incarnated in a pearl or an ass. But He did not do that; He came into this world at a very specific time and a very specific place, as did His Body, the Church. Even the Fathers of the Church saw this, and there will always be a superiority of the Greek and Latin tongues to all others, just as the Muslims consider Koranic Arabic sacred, or the Jews Hebrew.

That being said, I think that it is profitable to study other forms of religiosity and cultures, since I do think (good crypto-perennialist that I am) that in them are embodied foreshadowing echoes of the Word of God. They also teach us concepts that we, in our sanitized, modern mentality, once understood but some time ago forgot. But this always has to be done in the mind frame of historical hierarchy. God chose to express Himself this way, and we are obligated to keep to that way as much as possible.

As for inculturation itself, it is not an easy process, and it takes centuries to happen legitimately, and not without many setbacks. I have long defended on this blog the idea that even the more “exotic” aspects of Mexican “folk Catholicism” are just as “Western” as the Pope and the Summa. Only after centuries, and not a little violence, did Catholicism become not just the religion of the State, but of the hearts and minds of even the simplest people. Indeed, if you mentioned to me the persistence of indigenous religion outside of remote parts of Yucatan and Chiapas, I would laugh in your face, as would most Mexicans, save the random New Age-style shaman trying to perform a limpia on you in the Zocalo in Mexico City. Catholicism, in its Spanish flavor with a few alterations, is the indigenous religion of Mexico, as much as that frustrates intellectual radicals who would return us to the pristine religion of “Aztlan” and the “Mexicas”.