The Sarabite: Towards an Aesthetic Christianity

There is a continuous attraction, beginning with God, going to the world, and ending at last with God, an attraction which returns to the same place where it began as though in a kind of circle. -Marsilio Ficino

Friday, March 31, 2006

On the Transmigration of Souls

I recently finally listened to this work by the Pulitzer prize winnging composer John Adams. It is a very understated work musically, but it can almost bring you to tears. For those who do not know the history of this work, it was written in response to the 9/11 attacks, and the composer uses texts from the victims´ families both as spoken word and for chorus. The emotional power this brings shakes you at a very human level, and the music does its best to augment this atmosphere of anger and mourning.

This is a piece I will only listen to once, but I am glad I did. John Adams should be commended for creating a non-religious expression of the classical Requiem in response to such a tragedy.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Frequent Communion

Some Near-Heretical Observations

I went to a Russian Orthodox church for Divine Liturgy last Sunday. For those of you who have have never benefited from going to a real Orthodox Divine Liturgy (and not the overly enthusiatic convert ones), you should know that the only two groups who receive Communion en masse in an Orthodox Church are very young children and converts to the Orthodox Faith. Of course, many of you know that children receive all of the sacraments of initiation (baptism, confirmation, and Communion) the day of their baptism. Ergo, since children do not sin, they are always well-disposed to receive Communion. Adults, however, are seen as needing much preparation for Holy Communion: the service book of prayers for Holy Communion in the Russian tradition is extremely long, though the Greeks shorten it a bit. And of course, sacramental confession is also deemed necessary. Most "cradle Orthodox" receive Communion a few times a year, while there has always been a movement to increase its frequency. At a Greek church I have gone to, the Communion rate was about fifty percent of the congregation; like in all things, the Greeks are a bit more progressive than the Russians.

Compare this, however, to Western Christians, where Holy Communion is now seen as a right: witness all of the commotion over politicians and Communion last election cycle. If you go to an Orthodox Church and don't receive Communion, as long as you "go with the flow" of the services, you are no different than most of the congregation. Go to a Roman Catholic Mass and do this, people apologize to you so you don't feel like a leper. These are the reasons for such wonderful things as lay Eucharistic ministers: it's not a real service unless you "get something" at it.

This was not always the case. Even in recent memory, people were much more reflective as to how often they received Communion. People would actually examine whether or not they were as worthy as they were going to get before going (no one is really worthy). You didn´t need lay Eucharistic ministers since people simply did not go to Communion that often. Holy Communion was not separated from a real ascetical and spiritual preparation.

"Jansenism!": an accusation I can hear over the clanging of this keyboard: the ultimate four letter word in theology and spiritual life. Since the "frequent Communion revolution" of the first really revolutionary Pope of our age, St. Pius X, where has the Church gone? Have we returned to the pristine purity of the Patristic Church, where people received every week, nay every day? Is the Church in better shape because of frequent Communion?

Holy Communion is not a "grace pill" that works without any conscious effort. It does not work in spite of us. It is the Cure and leads us to everlasting life, and it is ultimately our only assured contact with God. The just man still, however, lives by Faith. And if Faith is not strengthened by a real struggle that may mean not receiving Holy Communion from time to time, no amount of eating a "grace cookie" will change anything.

This, of course, should be done under the guidance of a spiritual guide you trust. If you still, however, don't agree with me, take another hard look at the actual state of the Church and reflect some more.

Monday, March 27, 2006

In memoria eterna erit justus....

Last Saturday marked the fifteenth anniversary of the passing of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. One of the ways I would like to examine his life is by comparing and contrasting his life and legacy to two very different figures. On the one hand, he was very much like the Russian revolutionary figure Leon Trotsky. (Though the good Archbishop would be horrified at such a comparison.) There are, however, some striking parallels. On the one hand, both were very much major figures in their respective institutions at one time: Trotsky was head of the Red Army in post-revolutionary Russia, while Lefebvre was almost made a cardinal for his missionary work in French-speaking Africa. Both were rather stubborn in the face of the sign of the times, and both were excluded from power for it. And both died in exile from the institution they most loved.

Let us then contrast the lives of Lefebvre and the hero of the moment, the late Pope John Paul II. Lefebvre had two doctorates, but was by no means a scholar. He was a man of action. He got things done by his implacable faith and his down-to-earth approach as a son of a textile manufacturer. Karol Wotyla, on the other hand, had charisma to spare, was a gifted actor, and a flamboyant theologian and philosopher whose work, if I may be so bold, is highly over-rated. Lefebvre died a pariah, the late Pontiff a hero even in the eyes of the enemies of the Church. Whose death was most like that of the Master´s?

An even more similar comparison, however, is to Don Quixote. Like the protagonist of the magnum opus of Miguel Cervantes, Lefebvre was a figure whose day came too late. He clung to an image of the Church that even in his youth was crumbling into ruins. What he had read in books in his seminary days in Rome was no longer the reality of the Church by the early 1960´s. He continued to fight, just as the man of La Mancha, for a past that would be no more with weapons that were outdated. As he was prone to say, the Church changed, but he didn´t.

Marcel Lefebvre was one of the most significant if quixotic figures of the Church in modern times. The movement he created is taken so seriously in spite of its small numbers because he continues to serve as the conscience of the Roman Catholic Church. He reminds the Catholic Church in spite of itself what it was and what it could have been. He is the heckler in the back of the post-Vatican II theatre who refuses to be silenced.

Like Don Quixote, however, his very need for protest might be the best argument against both his cause and the cause he is fighting against.

Friday, March 24, 2006

The Prayer of Manasses

O LORD Almighty, the God of our fathers Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and of their righteous seed;
that hast made the heaven and the earth with all their adornment;
that hast bound the sea with the word of thy commandment; that hast closed the abyss and sealed it with thy fearful and glorious name;
whom all things revere and tremble before the face of thy power,
because the magnificence of thy glory is unendurable and irresistible the wrath of thy threatening against sinners:
the mercy of thy promise is both immeasurable and inscrutable;
for thou art the Lord most high, compassionate, longsuffering, and most merciful, repenting of the evils of men. Thou, Lord, according to the abundance of thy goodness, hast proclaimed repentance and forgiveness to those that have sinned against thee, and in the multitude of thy kindnesses thou hast decreed for sinners repentance unto salvation.
Surely thou, O Lord, the God of the just, hast not appointed repentance for the just, for Abraham and Isaac and Jacob who have not sinned against thee; but thou hast appointed repentance for me a sinner:
for I have sinned above the number of the sand of the sea. My transgressions are multiplied, O Lord, they are multiplied, and I am not worthy to look at or see the height of heaven, for the multitude of my iniquities,
being bowed down by many iron bonds, so that I cannot uplift my head, and there is no release for me, because I have provoked thy anger, and have done evil before thee, not doing thy will, nor keeping thy commandments, but setting up abominations and multiplying offences.
And now I bend the knee of my heart, beseeching thy goodness:
I have sinned, Lord, I have sinned, and I acknowledge my transgressions:
but I pray and beseech thee, release me, Lord, release me, and destroy me not with my transgressions; keep not evils for me in anger for ever, nor condemn me to the lowest parts of the earth: because thou art God, the God of the repenting; and in me thou wilt shew all thy benevolence, for that me unworthy thou wilt save, according to thy great mercy:
and I will praise thee continually all the days of my life: for all the hosts of the heavens sings to thee, and thine is the glory for ever and ever. Amen.

This is a prayer often unknown by Western Christians, but is probably one of the greatest prayers of repentance in the entire Christian canon. To my knowledge, the only time it is used liturgically is in the Byzantine Orthodox rite when it is recited at Great Compline during Lent and on certain vigils.

What most strikes me about this prayer again is the cosmic and historical significance of sin. As I have pointed out elsewhere in this blog, modern man often tries to make sin exclusively about "ME". This is one of the pitfalls of a juridical approach to transgression.

Notice, however, that the author of this apochryphal prayer invokes God as Creator and Author of history; how he sees his own sin in the face of God's majesty shown in physical creation and in His saints.

While he does accuse himself of all that he has done wrong, he also calls God the "God of the repenting". This line has also touched me deeply. God is indeed God of the just, but he also loves us who are far from being so. God loves the sinner because with God, there is no "plan B". Many more chique theologians like to side with Duns Scotus and Maximos the Confessor and say that God would have become incarnate even if man had not fallen. God, I would argue, does not do "back-up plans". All that is happening now is for His greater glory. It is in being a Savior that God has been most glorified, and how would He be able to save us if we were never in peril? He is indeed a God of those who have fallen and repented. O felix culpa!

For Immigrant Rights

Because Work is Not a Crime!

Many are joining in these days protests against a bill in Congress that would make being undocumented in this country a crime. This is wrong. There is no other way around it.

This is not just about the right to control our borders or any other jingoistic excuse. This is simply a matter of keeping labor in the North American economy cheap and workers scared. The history of the United States in Latin America in general has been that of trying to create economies that favor U.S. interests at the cost of workers and farmers not being able to make a decent living. Farmers in particular cannot compete with cheap American products dumped on the Latin American markets. So what do they do to survive? Go to the economic super-power that created the mess in their country in the first place.

We as Christians should realize that it is precisely the Outsider, the foreigner, who is one of the main characters of the Gospels. At the Last Judgement, we will be asked if we fed, comforted and welcomed Christ in our neighbor, not if we asked to see His green card first.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Dmitri Shostakovich

A Brief Meditation on Music and Conviction

See this article from a local paper here.

Shostakovich is a composer very dear to my heart, and not just because I am an ex-Marxist. The power, drive and idealism that his music exudes is truly an astounding phenomenon in a century so dominated by musical experiments that didn't work. There was no flamboyant experimentalism in his music, even though it was indeed modern. His symphonies are unparalleled works of music in the twentieth century, and he undoubtedly the greatest master of that genre in modern times.

Shostakovich was not a great composer in spite of being a communist. It was because of his convictions that he could write such moving symphonic works. He very much tried to be a composer of the people, even if the Stalinist bureaucracy tried to put stumbling blocks in his way.

Was he stifled as an artist because he lived in such a repressive regime? One of my favorite anecdotes is that of Bertolt Brecht moving back to Soviet-occupied Germany. When asked by Western reporters whether he felt repressed because of the censorship of the Soviet regime, he replied that at least in this socialist society, important government officials would set him aside for hours to talk to him about his work, when in the West they would simply ignore him.

Do we censor the arts and ideas by simply ignoring them? Is our own society even more toxic to the arts and culture because, rather than persecuting them, we simply ignore them? And does such a situation lower the aesthetic standard of the works that this decadent society produces?

I don't want to impose a repressive regime on anyone, but what is the true intellectual and cultural cost of the dictatorship of personal license?

Monday, March 20, 2006

Lenten listening

Tomas Luis de Victoria's Responseries for Tenebrae

Music that can melt even the hardest of hearts.

Friday, March 17, 2006

The Prayer of St. Ephrem the Syrian

Lord and Master of my life, do not give me a spirit of sloth, idle curiosity, love of power and useless chatter.

Rather accord to me, your servant, a spirit of sobriety, humility, patience and love.

Yes, Lord and King, grant me to see my own faults and not to condemn my brother; for you are blessed to the ages of ages. Amen.

This is a prayer recited by Byzantine Orthodox Christians many times during the weekdays of Lent. It is usually accompanied with about four prostrations to the ground and twelve profound bows. Aside from the poetic simplicity that this prayer exudes, the intensely physical character of its recitation shows once again how the East has maintained a more wholistic approach to the spiritual life in many aspects.

I will not try to break down the prayer and explain it line by line. For that, one would have a very good knowledge of Greek, and I have none. The translation given above is from the website maintained by Ephrem Lash.

My main focus will be on the last line, which I have always thought is the clincher. The Greek theologian Christos Yannaras in his book Freedom of Morality, gives a radical critique of the legalistic distortions that have beset modern man in his relationship with God. The most powerful moment in this book for me was when Yannaras points out that Christ forgives the woman caught in adultery without her asking explicitly for forgiveness, and how this scandalized some early Christians so much that this story was left out of some early texts.

The point of this anecdote I think was to illustrate a tension in Christianity between justice and mercy. On the one hand, we must be on the look-out so that we don't degenerate into what one Protestant theologian called "cheap grace". This is sort of the classical "are you saved?" argument of our evangelical Protestant friends. Christianity requires work, it requires struggle and reform of life. The early Church was well aware of this, perhaps too well aware of it as the ancient penitential canons of the Church often testify. The Church, in a real sense, wants her children to do better, and at times in history has pushed them to do so.

The other pole, of course, is mercy and the understanding of human weakness. This is what has led the Church to relax many of the ancient disciplines that have been seen as too hard for modern man. It can be argued quite persuasively that perhaps the modern Church has swung too far in this direction.

What, however, is the linch-pin that binds these two extremes together? Is Christianity about doing better so that we be better? Or is it the realization that we are a dunghill covered in the light white dusting of God's justice?

The answer is that it is neither put simply. Holiness is not what we think it is. Fr. Serphim Rose, a now deceased Orthodox monk here in the United States, was asked by people what they had to do to be holy. He replied that it was not about what you have to do, but rather who you have to BE. Holiness is not about never screwing up, nor is it about how many brownie points we can rack up in our column. It is about becoming a person, it is about acquiring a meek, humble, and loving heart. It is about being deified in Christ, acquiring His love for God and our fellow men.

This is where not judging our brother comes in. The spiritual life is not about being "holy" if holiness means what we have often thought it means. It's not about being "holy", it's about being sorry. It is about realizing how much we need God and our brother. As St. Silouan the Athonite said, "our brother is our life". It is this self-knowledge, or rather this knowledge that we are nothing without the Other and that our life is in Him, that will lead us to get rid of the barriers that block our way towards Him.

The summit here again is Love, which is always the true object of repentance.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

The Trinity and the Church

I was speaking last Friday to a good friend of mine who is an Orthodox priest. Again, as he likes to do, we spoke much on theology, and his great catch phrase is the "trinitarian consciousness of the Church". Without getting too abstract, we can define this simply by going back to the Council of Nicea and adressing the problem of the one and the many. Of course, the ancient Greeks were monistic; one simply need to look at Plotinus to see that for them "all must return to the One." The many was deemed to be the cause of all evil; the reason that there is imperfection in the cosmos. As my priest friend pointed out, a pre-Nicene Father like Origen had a great temptation to reduce all things to the monad even in his trinitarian thought. The problem is that the understanding of the Church when it came to the Trinity would not allow for an absolute monad; the "Hebrew" aspect of respect for revelation quarelled with the Greek aspect of logical explanation. The resolution of course is the orthodox undestanding of the Trinity: God is many and one at the same time (One God in Three Persons).

So how does this apply to the Church? I can never really pin down my dear "batiushka" to define concretely how, but I will try and take a stab at it. For him, of course, it is the Orthodox Church that has best preserved the "trinitarian consciousness" in that it has best preserved tradition and has a more balanced concept of communion and Church governance. To an extent, I agree with him: from an abstract point of view, the Orthodox Church "looks" the best. The judgement of history, with the rule of Muslim sultans, power hungry czars, and Communist apartachiks, however, has not been so kind.

With the Protestant communities, the problem has been too much plurality. The problem of communion here is that it is too disperse and amorphous. Protestants, in order to be joined more to Jesus as their "personal Lord and Savior", almost cut themselves off completely from their fellow Christians. Their Trinity, to use an analogy, does not have three hypostases, but as many as there are individual believers. To a certain extent, this is the problem of liberal Catholicism today as well.

In classic Catholicism, the problem is then monistic. The "many" is always seen as a threat. This can be attributed to some extent to the rise of subjectivist paradigms of thought in the early modern period, but in combating them Catholicism began to lose the the symphonic nature of truth that primitive Christianity often had. In a real sense, the Vatican in general, and the Pope in particular, became the one and only source of truth and power in the Church. Not just the Papacy in general, but the CURRENT Pope became the supreme arbitor of what the Christian mystery ultimately means, to the extent that he can change the liturgy and time-honored devotions if he sees fit to do so. Thus, communion with the past, with tradition, is ultimately severed in the name of a perceived certainty of one absolute source, instead of a harmonic flow of fountains of Christian belief and life.

Interesting concepts, but take them for what they are: speculations. In the end, the Holy Trinity is THE Mystery, and trying to apply it to these earthly things may be unworthy of Its dignity. If anything I have written, however, has any truth to it, it can go a ways to explaining the ecclesial bind we are in.

Friday, March 10, 2006

On Praying the Psalter in the 21st Century

Exegesis or Prayer Wheel?

Experience in religious and monastic life in Christianity inevitably leads to an encounter with the Book of the Psalms. This is the book, according to the Fathers of the Church, in which God prays to Himself so that we know how to pray to Him. Ancient Christianity had great reverence for this book, and early Christians often knew the entire Psalter by heart. They had a great sense of devotion while praying it since they knew that it was God's word itself, and it was considered the highest of all forms of personal prayer.

Over the centuries, particularly in the West, the popularity of the Psalter as a prayer book faded in the mind of the Christian masses. The Rosary and other devotions in the West, and private prayers and akhathists in the East began to be much more popular in the private prayer lives of the people. While there have always been attempts to revive fervor for this inspired book of prayers, a certain gap remains, and I would argue that this gap is due to a lack of understanding in the modern mind itself.

Having had experience reciting the Psalter both in a sacred language and the venacular in liturgy, I have to say that some verses and entire psalms are impenetrable. One verse, "they have been sated with swines' flesh and have left the remainder to their infants," always made me smile with peaceful resignation that the power of the words would never quite penetrate. And what of the famous line, "in splendoribus sanctorum ex utero ante luciferum genui te". What is that supposed to mean?

We will not get into the linguistic subtleties here, since we are well aware of them. And of course, the result will always be the same: we still don't understand much of the Psalter. This is why the Roman Church placed so much emphasis on the antiphon; it was the highlight of the psalm even if the rest of the psalm seemed to have nothing to do with that verse. So why did the early Church so revere this book, while we can pray some psalms, like the famous Psalm 108, only blushing and in a very low voice?

The problem is that we have changed. We often approach a text with the desire to master completely its meaning. We might be too subjectivist in our approach to how we read God's word. "How is God speaking directly to me?", might be our most pressing question. Could it be, though, that the act itself of reciting this sacred text changes us in ways that we don't perceive? Could it be that when we pray, we need to keep in mind that we are not just before God, but we are also before the Church as the Body of Christ? Our communion is not just vertical (from God to me), but also horizontal, ( from me to my neighbor, through space and time). Praying this book is not just a study, an act of exegesis, but a communal act of worship. And in very postmodern fashion, when we contemplate the meaning of the text, we cannot simply try and take into consideration the mind of the (human) author, but also how the Psalter has been prayed throughout Christian history.

Of course, we also have to avoid the "prayer wheel" approach, like those poor nuns of yesteryear who used to chant the rubrics as well as the Psalter when singing the Divine Office in Latin. But as in all things, "in medio stat virtus", in moderation lies the right thing to do. We must try to read and pray with understanding, but also with humility.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Morton Feldman

Morton Feldman is not one of my favorite composers. His work can be described as the musical equivalent of watching clouds go by for hours and hours. However, in his opus, two particular pieces stand out: the aria Only and his work named for Rothko Chapel in Houston (seen on the left.)

Feldman is not particularily lyrical, but at least his music is not painful on the ears like Boulez and Stockhausen. He deserves at least one listen.

More information about Feldman can be found here

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Who's Bringing the Keg?

If the forums don't want to become the Fifth International, they should also avoid becoming a social Woodstock.

-from the Nation Magazine March 6th, 2006 issue

The above quote was metioned in realtionship to the World Social Forum held in Caracas recently, a sort of meager attempt at an international leftist congress. Again, I cannot help but think that globally even the Left is experiencing a "crisis of tradition". Gone are the days when leftists were paragons of discipline, altruism and culture. Gone are the days when the Italian communist Antonio Gramsci could give workers Latin grammer exercises to better their minds in dialectical thinking. (The most ironic thing about this latter thing is that Gramsci is the darling of the New Left, and if he tried to do this same thing today, he would be accused of "Eurocentrism" of the highest degree.)

In truth, the old succeses of the Left were based on a very much Christian attitude whose forunners were St. John Chrysostom, the monastic fathers of the desert, and the Gospels themselves. With that spirit of sacrifice and brotherly love taken away, the workers' hammer has turned from steel to glass. Now in this age of self-interest and self-fufillment, always one of the goals of the revolution, any collective action shatters into factionalism and accusations of racism, sexism, imperialism, homophobia, etc. Like all people today, the "oppressed" band together in interest groups for very myopic goals.

So what then? What else more is there to do than party, if real social action is impossible?

Indeed the Left has so deconstructed itself that only the goals compatible with global capitalism have been acheived (that is, complete personal license), while oppression and exploitation go on unabated.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Clean Monday

Open the gates of repentance to me, O Giver of Life, for my spirit rises early in the morning to your holy temple, bearing a temple of the body all defiled. But as you are full of pity, cleanse it by your compassionate mercy.
-from Sunday Lenten Matins of the Byzantine Church

Orthodox Christians begin their Lent today. The Orthodox Church has mastered in its services the "joyful sorrow" talked about by Father Alexander Schmemann. Western Christians owe it to themselves to become more familiar with the Eastern Church, and I will periodically post prayers and reflections on them throughout Lent. The one already posted above is by far my favorite, and applies to me above all.

I encourage all Christians to go out of their way to attend an Orthodox service during this Lenten period.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Jorge Luis Borges

The Power of the Imagination

I am reading again this Argentine writer so well known for his erudition and creative mind. The ultimate bohemian, he spent most of his career in obscurity, working as a librarian among other things, until he was catapaulted to fame in the 1960's.

His works range from poems mythologizing his beloved city of Buenos Aires to fantastic short stories that are powerful meditations on time, space, and identity. In order to read Borges, you have to have done your homework since everything is fair game for him, from obscure second century Gnostic heresies to the finer points of Argentine history.

Borges was no friend of the Church nor of Christianity. What we can learn from him, however, is how to see things from radically different perspectives, and to realize that no matter how far afield we might go, investigating all things is in reality the investigation of your own soul.

Above is shown Borges' grave in Geneva. On it are inscriptions in old English. His love for the English language stems from his grandmother, who was English, and was to the point that when he finally went blind in his old age, he could still recite large parts of Beowulf from memory.

For more information visit this helpful webpage.

Response to a Critic

"the modern Roman Catholic Church is looking more and more like the non-entity that Newman perceived the Anglican Church to be in the 19th century"Excuse me, but I find this statement patently absurd.Mr. Vasquez's next question is illuminating. "Is the Catholic Church of today still a bastion of certainty in a world rife with subjectivism, or has it made its peace with modern liberalism hoping to at least slow down the revolution a little?"Has it? No, it has not. Not even Romano Amerio's "Iota unum" could make that claim convincingly.Nonsense? Sure. Confusion (sociological, at least, not theological) and ugliness? But compromise in *doctrine* with theological liberalism? I say no. Prove me wrong, Mr. Vasquez.

From a comment made on the Conservative Blog for Peace

First of all the vaciliation of the Catholic Church on finer points of doctrine has already been adressed on this blog here, here, and in a series I did on Vatican II that can be found in the January archives.

The point of the controverted post, however, was not to get bogged down in points I have already made, but rather to focus on the reality of the Church today. To steal from another's terminology, it is not to focus on an "essential" ecclesiology (for me, this means what the Church looks like on paper), but rather on an existenial and phenomenological ecclesiology (what St. Agnes Catholic Community is like in its "worship space"). To illustrate my point, I will tell an anecdote. If you read a sonnet by John Donne on a semi-darkened stage in a full, clear voice, the experience is one thing. If you take the same sonnet and read it in a hip-hop night club with loud music blaring, the experience will be completely different. The same sonnet, two different circumstances. Take traditional Catholic doctrine and the Tridentine Mass, that is one religion. Take what passes for your average "children's Mass" at your local Catholic "worship space" and lip-service to Catholic doctrine, that is another. The former, I would argue, could pass for apostolic Christianity. The latter cannot. To quote St. Pavel Florensky, truth is manifest, it is not proven. And what is being manifested here are two completely different things.

Many conservative Catholics argue the point that "abusum non tollit usum" (the abuse does not take away from the use). They argue that there exists some "perfect way" that hovers above the reality of the Church today like a Platonic idea that is never really incarnate anywhere, not even in the Vatican itself. They argue that it is almost reached in certain isolated ghettos if one is willing to drive an hour and a half and be content with the crumbs that the Catholic hierarchy meagerly offers. They argue that this is a "participation in the Passion of the Church", as if having to witness widespread heresy and banality were something virtuous when the Fathers of the Church preached otherwise.

I would argue that the whole modern Catholic Church is really based on an abuse. The Novus Ordo liturgy was designed for improvisation, so complaining about abuse is like complaining to a jazz virtuouso that the song doesn't go like that. The Second Vatican Council documents were written as cowardly compromises that tried to please everyone, but ended up confusing all. What then does it mean to be Catholic, and what does its communion mean? How can Holy Spirit Catholic Community at U.C. Berkeley be in communion with the indult parish in Oakland, California down the road?

I think in this sense, the analogy with the Anglican Church of the ninteenth century is clear. Vatican II is the Anglican Thirty-Nine Articles; in order to remain a sincere intellectual Catholic you have to become an expert at mental gymanstics, making excuses for being in a church that is no longer consistent with itself.

I do not say this so that all can leave the Roman Catholic Church for better waters. I say it only to sober up those who are drunk with ultramontane illusions. If one can remain a Roman Catholic in good faith, let them do it. But let them not judge those who cannot bring themselves to do so.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

On repentance

As Western Christians enter into Lent, a few thoughts are appropriate on the theme of repentance. First of all, what does forgiveness ultimately mean, and what is its foundation? For me, it is the knowledge that the other is in us and we are in the other. That is to say, when we understand and own up to the fact that sin is prevalent everywhere in this fallen world, and that even irrational creation is affected by it, we must go before the Lord in humility and ask for pardon. Sin is not just a legal problem; it is a cosmic problem.

In this way, we can understand original sin far more profoundly. We were in the Garden of Eden in a mystical way, we were present too at the Fall and it lives in us. We have no ability to overcome it by ourselves, but must implore God to shield us from its most pernicious consequences. In this way, as well, we can understand why our brother offends and hurts us, and realize that we do the same all of the time without even realizing it.

The Eastern Church has a concept of involuntary sin that is present in many of its offices. This is not a contradiction in terms, it is more that the mind of the Fathers understood that the Fall was so cataclysmic that man commits sin even without knowing it. It is a state that we are constantly in, it is this fallen world. Thus, the Byzantine monastic discipline is to pray constantly the Jesus Prayer ("Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner") . No matter if we are in the "state of grace" (what an odd term!), everyone can say, in eschatological expectation, "Super flumina Babylonis..."

With this in mind, it is easy to pardon those who have wronged us, and beg forgiveness from those who we have offended. We do not just think of sin as something we have done, but even weep over the sins of others as if we had commited them ourselves, knowing full well that we have probably done worse. We do not judge because our love for our brother is such that we want to take his guilt on ourselves and transform it through love. We then share in the love of God, who does not want the death of the sinner, but rather that he repent and live. This in the end is the Divine mystery of the Cross.


In my last post, I might have come across as judging too much other Roman Catholics. Indeed, I have no problem with the laity and many clergy in the Roman Catholic Church. I think many of them are of good will and try to live out the Gospel as well as they can under the circumstances. Blessed are those who are not bothered by Church politics! This is the case with my immediate family.

However, my point was more intended for those neo-conservative Catholic cheerleaders who continue to assert that there is nothing seriously wrong with the Catholic Church as it is today. It was intended to express that we are no longer in the world of the absolute certainity of the "Una Sancta" of Pius IX, but rather the more ambiguous world of Lumen Gentium and Ut Unum Sint. I cannot understand how many Catholic pundits can continue to beat up on those outside the Papal fold when the Papacy itself has ceased to do so. I cannot understand how they can pretend to be so ultramontane in such an ecumenical world.

Like Newman, I do not doubt the sincerity of those who continue to remain in the Roman Catholic "non-entity". I do not doubt that the Holy Spirit is using it for the good. I do doubt that it is the only source of sanctification when it has already put away for good that distinguishing mantle.