The sacred for sale

6 01 2011

Again, thanks to Wufila for posting this link to the Wall Street Journal article on the return of hoodoo practice in the Internet age. The article and the video were fascinating. Some random thoughts:

1. An anxiety of influence: I think that there is no doubt that there is some sort of flow of rituals and prayers between Mexico, the Caribbean, and the American South. The rose of Jericho ritual seen here is something that can also be seen in Spanish-speaking botanicas and occult shops. I have even seen before a holy card of High John the Conqueror in Spanish. It would probably be impossible to find out who influenced whom in this case. As in social and economic questions, the United States is inevitably tied to Latin America, and vice versa, at least in its undercurrents.
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Mandatory Christmas post

28 12 2010

Merry Christmas, all you people I don’t know. But that sort of virtual greeting is all too common in this cyber-echo chamber. I have bumped into recently some more conservative voices talking about how we should insist on saying, “Merry Christmas”, we should resist the assault on Christmas, and so forth. My own thoughts, to be quite curt, is that I don’t mind the secularization at all. True, there is something quite ridiculous about walking through a mall two days before Christmas at seven in the morning, half the stores already open, while over the loudspeakers is being piped a song with the line, “all I want for Christmas is YOU!” Ain’t that sweet. However, some people who want to put more religiosity back into the holidays are a bunch of stuck-up killjoys who would give the nosy church lady a run for her money. Really, who wants less fun?
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Again on rejoicing in the present

13 12 2010

I have begun to move away from Neoplatonic thought, mostly because I have concluded that my affinity to it is based on nostalgia and wishful thinking. In a real sense, the core of what I have always believed has been defined by dialectical materialism as a method of understanding the world. The “purely spiritual” for me is wishful thinking and a childish dream.

That being the case, I still think there is much that I take away from the period of Neoplatonic studies. I still admire Ficino, for example, if not for his metaphysics, at least for his “syncretic” approach to Christian monotheism that proves that it is, in Lacanian terms, a signifier without a signified. On the other hand, I can still rehabilitate his counsel, passed on from the ancient Academy, to “rejoice in the present”.

I am beginning to conclude that the main cause of nostalgia is not what we had, but what we lacked at any given moment. The only reason we can appreciate certain things now is because we have now what we once lacked: family, economic security, personal self-determination, and so forth. Those things for which we are nostalgic meant little to us then because we had no regard for them. It was almost as if they weren’t there. But since their meaning has shifted in our lives, we forget how much pain and suffering we have left behind, only concerned with the pain and suffering we face now. It is an absurd shell game; we are constantly picking the piece that has nothing under it.

In that sense, the ancient counsel to “rejoice in the present” should not be seen as saying that “this is the best time in your life”, just as Hegel’s “the real is rational, etc.” should not be read as an ipso facto justification of the current social and moral regime. It is, rather, a recognition of the unsettled nature of human desire. We are not happy because we are constantly looking somewhere else, when we should just realize that the nature of joy lies precisely in lack, or the threat of lack. It is because we clung to certain things in the face of lack that those things meant so much to us, at least in our current memory.

Thoughts on a baptism

8 12 2010

Recently I had a child baptized, so I offer the following thoughts regarding Bugnini’s ceremonial and other matters:

In seminary I had been educated concerning the changes that Bugnini and Co. sought in the ritual of infant baptism. Having seen both versions, it is evident that in the old ceremonial, the parents were non-entities. This is because one was to pretend that the child is already a fully rational adult who is making the choice herself to be baptized. The modern ritual refuses to playact in that sense: it addresses the questions primarily to the parents, with only a vague concession towards the role of the godparents as a sort of cultural accretion. Even in the ritual, it is the parents who are called the first teachers of the child in terms of religious instruction.
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Notes for a busy week

8 11 2010

I don’t really understand people who want an authoritarian religion but a free state. Or rather, why do some value freedom so much in the political realm but abhor it in the religious realm? And why are people so shocked and dismayed that most people value personal “freedom” in both, especially in its “cafeteria” manifestation?

Personally, I think it would be a good idea to have an laissez-faire attitude towards religion but an authoritarian attitude towards politics. Wouldn’t that make more sense on some level? It certainly would make things interesting. Life on the ground in traditional Catholic regimes wasn’t exactly like that, but it was something like: “you may believe whatever you want as long as you sign on half-heartedly to our dogmas and empty rituals, but if you cross our police force…”

Then again, I have never really been all too concerned with what freedoms I have, but what I do with those supposed freedoms. I have long ago considered “human rights” to be a superstition founded neither in religion nor sane philosophy.

Notes on election day

2 11 2010

I haven’t voted in twelve years. And even then, I’ve only voted once in my entire life, and that was back when I was an orthodox Trotskyist. I think I voted for the Peace and Freedom Party. I don’t intend on voting ever again.

Americans are some of the most naively credulous people on earth. When I was living in Argentina, it was the law that you HAD to vote on election day. And in spite of this, mass numbers of people still didn’t vote. Try telling an Argentine about elections and the “will of the people”, and she will probably laugh in your face. But in the United States, we somehow have a metaphysical duty to participate in “democracy”. I was a monk once, and it just seems to be a whole lot of watering the stick. “Just a few more election cycles, and we’ll get rid of abortion / poverty / bigotry / etc.”. If I were a “good American”, I would probably believe in that, just as I would believe in the tooth fairy, Bigfoot, and the power of the All-Holy Constitution to make the U.S. into a “shining city on a hill”.
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On blogging pre-history

11 10 2010

I just had to repost this:

Montaigne’s essays can be meandering, yes, and often only tangentially related to their supposed themes. He filled them with anecdotes and examples collected from classical literature but also stories he got from friends and the peasants on his estate. In this and other qualities, he probably had more influence on the free-form English essay than on the lofty, abstraction-prone style of Académie française-sanctioned French. And even back in the day, people complained that he shared too much trivial detail, such as his preference for white wine over red; “Who the hell wants to know what he liked?” one crabby scholar retorted. In the 19th century, Montaigne’s candid discussion of carnal matters led concerned editors to produce a bowdlerized version of his works, more suitable for the tender minds of young ladies.

In short, Montaigne was accused of every sin attributed to today’s memoirists and bloggers, whose literary great-grandfather he is. Nevertheless, you will find “Essays” in every one of those collections of great books you used to be able to buy by the set, bound in “full genuine leather,” with gold lettering. This suggests that the line between trash and literature may be less firmly drawn than some would have us believe, a notion that would probably please Montaigne himself. Or perhaps the real lesson here is that it doesn’t really matter what you write about, provided that you do it well.

I suppose I have lately tried to be too “high-brow” to the point of being pretentious. Maybe I should start posting pictures of my cats, reflections on my favorite T.V. shows, and AG’s recipes for gumbo and red beans and rice. Or maybe not. But perhaps I will be more understanding of people who do that style of blogging.


6 10 2010

AG and I went to go see the ballet, Jewels, in Houston this weekend. At the same venue, we saw this sign as well. The only time I have had the displeasure of seeing this Dawkins fellow speak made me realize that he is the intellectual equivalent of the college freshman who ended up getting a C in his philosophy class because he kept being a smart ass. Hey Dawkins, 19th century philosophy called, and it says it wants you back.

Why anyone would pay money for that crap is beyond me. I am a better atheist, and I believe in God. Sheesh!

In defense of religious snobbery

29 09 2010

Or: what I do in real life

I don’t think that there is anything wrong being a liturgical snob, and it just makes sense on one level. Do you honestly think that the King of France should have attended the same kind of Mass that the plebs had in a country chapel in Provence? Or do you think that sending Bossuet to such a chapel would vastly benefit the peasants more than the rustic style Catholicism that they were used to? I don’t think so.

The problem that I see is that Vatican II was a flattening of Catholicism. That cannot be helped, as the rest of society was flattened in terms of class divisions. When I lived in So-Cal, it was not uncommon to see people fall out of their Hummers and into a strip mall looking like bums in their flip-flops and raggedy clothes. Rich people wouldn’t be caught dead wearing that sort of thing back in the day if they could help it. Also, look at the state of weddings: people blow thousands of dollars on those sorts of things and they still come out looking cheesy and cheap. (Never understood the whole “getting married outdoors” thing, although AG and I have been over this in terms of “secular weddings”.) How much do you think liturgy directors at large mega-parishes earn? And look at the crap they put out Sunday after Sunday.

So it doesn’t make sense that little ol’ moi would go to the local parish down the street. I read philosophy books on my lunch break, and save up money just to fly to places to see a ballet. My wife and I usually spend Friday nights watching films with subtitles (lots and lots of films with subtitles). Sometimes to relax, we’ll put on some Charles Ives or Bartok. So how are we going to just go down the street and listen to some guy with a guitar chirp out “One Bread, One Body” and NOT roll our eyes? Does that make us worse Christians for not suffering with the plebs? So be it.

And that is sort of my whole point: whether you go to a traditional Mass or an Eastern-rite liturgy, that doesn’t necessarily make you a better Christian, and maybe you should stop associating where you go to church with that issue altogether. I come from a very “low church” background: raised charismatic, bombarded by kitsch and folk Catholic imagery, and surrounded by people who had just come straight from el rancho in Mexico. I appreciate that upbringing for what it was, but that doesn’t mean I want to live it, and that doesn’t mean that I am going to condemn it either. It is what it is. 99% of people will be happy with that stuff, or at least see nothing wrong with it. But in terms of where I choose to go to church, that is entirely based on my cultural snobbery, and I make no apologies for that.

My Catholic Faith

6 09 2010

image source

The personal is only good when it becomes the impersonal. On that note, I continue with some trepidation.

But this solution is problematic in Hegel’s own terms: the problem is that, in the modern times of Reason, religion can no longer fulfill this function of the organic binding force of social substance – today, religion has irretrievably lost this power not only for scientists and philosophers, but also for the wider circle of “ordinary” people. In his Lectures on Aesthetics, Hegel claims that in the modern age, as much as we admire art, we no longer bend the knee before it – the same holds for religion.

-Slavoj Zizek, The Puppet and the Dwarf: The Perverse Core of Christianity

MGR RONALD KNOX, somewhere, illustrates a salient difference between Protestantism and Catholicism by means of an “umbrella test”: if a man leaves an umbrella behind in a Catholic or a Methodist chapel, in which of these can he be confident of finding it, just where he left it, on the following week? We know the answer – or at least we used to: if you leave an item of property behind in a Methodist chapel, it will remain untouched until you retrieve it, except insofar as some kind soul may have set it aside for safekeeping until your return. Anything left in a Catholic Church will be nicked – full stop.


If there something that I have most feared about Catholicism, it is that it will become a church of respectable people. If it has already become that, perhaps I am in denial somehow. In this country, the tug-o-war seems to be to try to make the Roman Catholic Church into the Republican or Democratic Party at prayer, with the bishops in the middle trying to mediate the contest. In other countries, you have lay movements and the Opus Dei (“the dollarization of Catholicism”) trying to spread the good news about the deep involvement of laity in the Church and “evangelization”. The laity should no longer be the bumps on a log in a pew that they once were. They need to go out there and present a clean-cut, united front against the culture of death. But such rhetoric, though largely ineffective and widely ignored, still murders the spirit on an important level. Often in these campaigns, collective eccentricity becomes the mark of holiness, and though unspoken, it becomes the mark of a “real Catholic”.
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