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

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Why Iamblichus? Why Now?

"To no man is it permitted to change these prayers...."

Some books do not merit just a review, but rather a series of meditations. Gregory Shaw's book, Theurgy and the Soul: The Neoplatonism of Iamblichus is just such a book. I have written a lot of theological reflections in this blog that many might find hard to understand. Like other Christian writers, I think philosophy can come to the rescue at least to improve our clarity on many of the issues I have addressed. This book will help in that process.

First of all, I would like to caution that I am well aware that drawing parallels between fourth century Neoplatonism and 21st century Christianity may be like comparing apples and oranges. We after all, have the truth who is Christ, these pagan philosophers were in the dark, and in some cases struggling against the Light. As a movement, however, the Christian phenomenon has an all-too-human aspect to it, and this is where the parallel lies. Iamblichus (+ c. 325) was trying to struggle to revive the pagan religion that was well into its twilight. He is a philosopher who tried to defend the old system not only from threats from without, but most importantly from real threats from within.

Iamblichus was not a Greek, but rather a Syrian by birth of royal blood. Indeed, he has some rather harsh words for the Greeks:

"For the Hellenes are by nature followers of the latest trends and are eager to be carried off in any direction, possesing no stability in themselves. Whatever they may have received from other traditions they do not preserve, but even this they immediately reject and change everything through their unstable habit of seeking the latest terms."
- Iamblichus, De Mysteriis
( Sound familiar?)

The primary object of Iamblichus' polemic was the philosopher Porphyry, who had been a follower of Plotinus. The latter persisted in attacking the traditional pagan cult, calling it superstitious, outdated and "unspiritual". Iamblichus' task was to defend the traditional pagan order against those who would turn religion into an abstract philosophy using the tools of Platonic philosophy.

For Iamblichus, unlike Porphyry, what was important was not "theologia" (thoughts about the Divine), but rather "theourgia" (the works of the gods). Iamblichus argued that our thoughts about the Divine, no matter how exalted, were still very much human thoughts. While the Plotinian school could be interpreted as saying that man deifies himself, or rather by shedding himself of the many (including matter) unites with the immaterial One, Iamblichus wrote that deification was accomplished from the outside of the soul: the gods deified man through participation in divine acts, or theurgy. The use of matter in ritual was thus not something superfluous, but rather a process by which the soul participated in cosmogenisis in order to remember the source of the material world: God.

More can be said, but for now.... to be continued.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Just Stompin'- Live at the Kitchen

The roadhous was rocking. Orpheus- the archetypal rambling bluesman, king of the animals, and all-around steady-rolling man-was wailing from the joint's makeshift band-stand, breaking a sweat that was slowly turing the road dust clinging to his clothing into think river-bottom mud. The crowd packed the dance floor. Over in a corner, the heat got the better of Elder Brown, who was so drunk that he kept trying to pick a fight. At the bar, the music and the scene so bemused the undercover cop that he flashed his badge in front of the locals. A few began looking around wildly, trying to spot the nearest exit, but most of them ignored the provocation. "Stomp it down to the bricks," they yelled, and Orpheus obliged by shaking the roadhouse into a low-down groove. Pythagoras heard the commotion from the blacksmith's shop nearby, and added to it with hammers, tongs, anvils, the clarity of the resulting harmonic ratios ringing out like a metallic music of the spheres.

Out back of the smithy, an immense high-tension stepdown transformer humed and pulsed an oceanic 60-cycle drone. La Monte Young, who had been sitting cross-legged on the ground, his consciousness wholly immersed in the sound of the transformer, slowly got to his feet, hearing everything- Orpheus, Pythagoras, the rythmic stomping that was shivering the roadhous timbers, the transformer's robust whine. He checked the clamorous machine shop next door, satisfying himself that the stampers and drill presses were all perfectly in tune, and then strode purposefully toward the roadhouse. The machine shop's drone harmonized beautifully with the other sounds Young was hearing; monentarily, he seemed lost in thought. "This could be a really accurate tuning for Young's Dorian Blues in G," he mused, "with the blues 7:6 minor third B-flat reinforcing the fundamental harmonic resonance of the power grid..." He entered the roadhouse; in his biker jacket and leather gloves, with a purple bandana tied around his head, he fit right in. When Orpheus finally took a break and headed for the bar, Young approached him. "I'm recruiting musicians, " he explained, "for this really bad blues band...."

Thus Robert Palmer envisions a mythical version of the formation of La Monte Young's Forever Bad Blues Band. While the formation of this avant-garde ensemble was not quite so mystical, the music and La Monte Young's reputation as a musical avant-garde godfather make this recording of La Monte Young's Dorian Blues in G a must-have.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Postcards from a Catholic-in-exile

Part III-

How to Swim the Tiber in the "Wrong" Direction

Easter Sunday. Sacred Heart Church. Hollister.

I started Easter Sunday as any good Christian would: I went for a jog. I don't think much when I am jogging. That's probably why I do it so often. We can go over things over and over in our heads and get nowhere. A lot of times, the only real way to deal with a problem is not to think about it.

I slept very well last night. Today, I would receive Communion for the first time since I left my Byzantine Catholic monastery. The only catch is, it would not be in a Catholic Church.

For such a profound step, at least for me, I was relatively calm and certain of what I was doing. Yes, I had been a Catholic (a Catholic Christian in communion with the Pope of Rome) all of my life. Even as a member of the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX), I had pretensions of being a Roman Catholic, and I still do not think to this day that I was doing anything wrong. But things had changed.

The more I know, the less I understand. I used to think that I am merely rebelling against my grandparents, who used to drag me to Mexican charismatic prayer meetings when I was a small boy. (Want to get your children hooked on Catholicism? Drag them to a woman who prays the rosary while speaking in tongues. It works wonders!) That was the whole "Lefebvrist" bent to my spiritual journey as it began seven years ago. Things were supposedly done right "back then", now they are getting done wrong, end of story. There is one way to do things, there is one way to understand things; if you are not with us, you are against us, etc., etc.

That lasted in its pure form around six months. After that, curiosity killed the integrist cat. I got very interested in the Orthodox Church and Byzantine liturgy. I went to the SSPX seminary anyway, but I think I had already sabotaged my vocation as a Lefebvrist cleric. I already knew there was more to life than just Econe's party line.

Nevertheless, my decision to depart from the Lefebvrist movement had almost little to do with theology. Just at the beginning of my second year of seminary, my spiritual director told me that he thought I had a vocation to the religious (i.e. monastic) life. This was an exciting prospect for me, but it was also an opportunity to sneak off after seminary into the Byzantine-rite Catholic Church, which I did do.

The next part of the story is too recent and raw for me to tell objectively, so I won't. Let me just say that in my experience with the Eastern Churches, I saw very definitively that there is more than just one way to "do things". Even in theology, I found that Truth is often never a neat, well set-out system of propositions, but rather a harmony between two very different aspects of revelation. This has been the case at least since the Arian controversy in the fourth century: God is one and many at the same time. And just when we think that we have it right, there is always a wrench thrown into the machinery of our syllogisms that will wreck our conceptions and make us start over again.

So when I first came back to Hollister, I decided to take a chance and go to a continuing Anglican congregation that meets in the old Catholic Church in town, no longer used on Sunday mornings. I really did not know what to expect. When the opening hymn to the Communion service was "All Things Bright and Beautiful", I just thought to myself, "Oh no! What the f#*k am I getting myself into now!?" Then, as the service progressed, I recognized many aspects of the Catholic tradition in the 1928 Book of Common Prayer: genuflections, signs of the Cross, kneeling for Communion etc. Not only that, but the service flowed, it told a story. It was an act of worship.

For all of the following Lent, I went to various Churches: from the Catholic Churches talked about earlier in this series, to Orthodox Churches, to an Old Catholic bishop who said Mass in his garage according to his own "wacky" rite. I just kept asking myself: "Do I really want to become an Anglican?" In the end, this little Anglican mission was the only place I really felt at home. It helped that it was done in the old Catholic Church where I grew up. I had never seen a traditional liturgy done in it before and it was comforting to see, particularly because of all that I had to suffer in it growing up.

I have received no theological closure in all of this. The one thing that I do know is the whole concept of "denomination" or "church" (small "c") is dying. Soon, traditional Roman Catholics will have more in common with traditional Orthodox or traditional Anglicans than they will with members of their own communion. Can we really afford to associate ourselves with those who believe and behave differently in church just because we want to keep our identity as the "true Church"? If I have any problems with the Roman Catholic system of belief, it is that it has since the Middle Ages made the institution of the visible Church a matter of infallible belief. I no longer believe that sinful man in a fallen world has any guarantees that such-and-such an institution will not fall into error. The Institution is not God. We cannot surrender our conscience at the church door.

If one thing can be said about the history of the Anglican Church, it is that it is not pretentious about these things. The closest I think they come is a joke I once heard. It goes that an Anglican clergyman was asked if there was salvation for those outside the Anglican Church. "There is," he replied, "but no gentleman would avail himself of it in those circumstances." I suppose, at this time of my life, that type of conservative tolerance is what I most need.

I arrived at the old Catholic church early in order to go to confession to the Anglican priest. (At least I think it was confession.) Afterwards, I offered to serve at the service. Having had experience serving as a traditional RC seminarian and the Byzantine rite, it wasn't very hard to do.

While I was kneeling there in my alb, I had memories of all of the hundreds of ceremonies and Masses I had served previously. This was just another one; there was nothing new I felt on that day. All I can really say is that Father went through the ceremony less rigidly than a traditonalist priest saying Mass and was much less confused than a Byzantine priest serving Divine Liturgy. There was as well a "via media" between the formality and informality of worship.

And no, there were no epiphanies after I took Communion. No tears and no levitation. This is not a conversion story after all. It was not "ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem" (from the shadows and simulacra towards the truth: Cardinal Newman's epitaph). Tertullian once said that if someone says he is seeking the truth, don't listen to him because he doesn't have it. If that's the case, I'm screwed. My motto, for my consolation, I take from Origen, another early Church Father: "Go where the Word leads you." I didn't "come home" on that Easter Sunday during my "first communion" in the Anglican Church. Rather, another path was open to me. The only thing I did receive was strength for the journey.

In the sacristy, I joked with the priest asking, "Does this mean I'm a Protestant now?" We both laughed, since such distinctions are becoming more and more absurd.

Yes, it was a big step for me. I finally concluded that it was alright to throw myself in the water and swim away from St. Peter's Basilica. Whether or not God will still be with me, that is entirely up to me with the help of His grace.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Postcards From a Catholic-in-exile

Part II - A Country Chapel and a Good Night's Sleep

Good Friday. Immaculate Conception Church. Tres Pinos

Good Friday was not going as I expected. For being one of the most solemn days of the years, it was quickly degenerating into a typical busy work day. I took a jog in the morning at the insistence of a friend who wanted a work-out partner. Then, I was consumed with errands for the rest of the morning.

So when I arrived around noon at this small country chapel five miles outside of Hollister , I was not at my most recollected. I was thinking on the fact that I had to work the afternoon shift, and dealing mentally with other matters of my change-of-life transition. When I arrived at this chapel, the first thing I noticed was that the statues had not been covered. Immaculate Conception Church was built in the 19th century probably by Irish immigrants, and unlike other churches, it was not gutted in the spirit of Vatican II. Normally, then, these statues would be a consolation to see. They were, however, a disturbing presence on this most grave of days.

The service started on time, but throughout the hour and a quarter I was there, I could not help but pass the time vacillating between the part of a bored teenager dragged there by their parents and a stuck-up theatre critic.

"No, not this part again."

"You know, there was a genuflection at this part in the old rite."

"Is it over yet?"

"They are reading the Passion as if this were a really bad third grade play...."

The only thing close to a prayer was my occasional glances to the stained glass window next to me portraying the agony in the Garden. For me, though, I think I was just admiring the artwork.

The veneration of the Cross finally took place. An organ played softly in the background, but in my head, an imaginary choir was singing the Crux Fidelis, one of my favorite Gregorian hymns:

Crux fidelis, inter omnes arbor una nobilis:
nulla silva talem profert,fronde, flore, germine.
Dulce lignum,
Dulces clavos, dulce pondus sustinet.

But that's all it was. That's all that was left for me: an imaginary Church. Sure, I had first heard this hymn in seminary, and it was still being sung there on this day. Still, it is no longer the reality of the Roman Catholic Church. And it would never be again

I venerated the Cross in the traditional manner, and quietly left the chapel since I had to go to work.

On my way, I reflected on who I had become. An Orthodox priest friend had summed it up best: I am a dinosaur who knows too much. For those people in that chapel, what they were doing was perfectly alright, and I cannot judge them for it. They had been radically severed from the Traditions of the Church, and there was no way of going back to them. Indeed, they probably had no idea that they even exist. For me, however, I cannot ignore them. I have experienced them very deeply, and they have formed me in a way in which it is no longer possible to go back to the Church of my childhood.

What is it that I am then? Someone who wants to face the Lord during worship, not Fr. Bill. Someone who does not mind not understanding everything that is said or sung during worship, since I know that its meaning is more profound than human speech. Someone who instead of criticizing the past as something outdated, wants to listen to it and give it the benefit of the doubt. Someone who knows that God resides in silence, recollection, and beauty, and not in noise, enthusiasm and banality.

Does this make me a snob? Am I missing the Gospel in order to defend a theory that would reduce the Church to a mere museum piece? Or is the Gospel not something detached from ecclesiastical Tradition, but rather the latter serves as a prerequisite to understand the former, and this fact has been forgotten by modern man? Tradition, beauty, order, and mystery are the foundation and ground of the Christian message, not a perk of particular historical circumstances. There is thus no excuse not to invite modern man to come up higher, to worship in a way that makes him feel uncomfortable at first. That is, in the end, what the Cross is.

At first, I thought that I would go to the Holy Saturday Vigil tomorrow to see if my impressions of the last two days had been mistaken. Then again, I would be working a swing shift, so maybe I would not go after all. In any event, I don't think my impression would change.

Holy Saturday. My room. Hollister.

It is Holy Saturday, and the sun has just went down. I will not stay up, I will not try to wait for the sun in the darkness. It is no longer necessary.

For six years, this night has been one of anticipation. In the fabricated Roman rite dating back to 1954, a Vigil was supposed to be celebrated around midnight, and of course, in the Byzantine Church, Divine Liturgy begins at midnight traditionally. Even as a teenager, I remember staying up all night on this day. I always wanted to be a light in the darkness, a vigilant watcher standing by in order to greet Christ, the Sun of justice. A romantic vision, but an unnecessary one. The sun will come up anyway. I do not need to be there to watch.

Yes, there was indeed joy in those vigils. There was, however, also fear. Fear of losing God, fear of doing the wrong thing. Fear that my life and my works were not good enough. Fear that I would not make it to who I needed to be. Fear of the judgment to come.

We can put so must trust in ourselves. It is very easy for some to think that Christ always offers us and "either/or" ultimatum in our life. For some unfortunate people, happiness may be a sign of eternal reprobation. I speak here mostly of myself, and unfortunately, some people in my life have taken advantage of this fear to make me live in inhuman ways, maybe even without them knowing it.

The worst part about this is that part of you wants it that way. It is easier to not change and suffer than it is to take a chance and be happy. "I must do this," is always our cry, whether this means becoming a missionary in another country, withdrawing to the desert to pray, or anything else. The problem is this can be a great way to try to escape from yourself, and ultimately from God. It does all catch up to you eventually. This I know all too well.

It is very hard for me to accept that God wants me to love Him and that's it. It has not been easy for me to put away the feeling that whether or not the sun comes up tomorrow depends on what I do as a cleric, a monk, etc. It has not been easy to come to terms with the fact that Faith has been given to me as a gift, not in exchange for putting on a habit, and at the cost of my misery and suffering. Blessed are those who have no clue what I am talking about!

All this being said, it might not be easy for me to lay down my head and sleep tonight. Maybe there will be voices of doubt in my head accusing me of disobedience to my superiors in leaving my monastery and kicking my vocation into the gutter. Maybe it will say, "Whatever happened to 'what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world but loses his soul'?" Maybe it will tell me that I will never be happy, that earthly happiness is fleeting and I made a mistake in giving up the better half.

Maybe this will happen. I think, however, that I will turn out the light, lay my head on my pillow, pull the covers over me, and just dose off, content and thankful....

After all, it's not my victory over sin and death that was won on this night. It's Christ's victory. All I have to do is accept it the best I can.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Postcards From a Catholic-in-exile

Part I- The Tenebrae Lessons

Holy Wednesday. St. Anne Chapel, Palo Alto, CA

Never try to get anywhere in the Silicon Valley at five o'clock in the afternoon. My plan to get from Gilroy to Palo Alto in an hour turned out to be more like an hour and a half. And of course, I had never been there before, so I hoped that my directions were accurate.

The chapel, thankfully, was not on a busy street. It was in a rather nice, quiet neighborhood. Parking was not hard to find, and I ran in in order to catch the service that had already started.

"Lord have mercy upon us, and incline our hearts to keep this law..." I knew that this was from the Prayer Book, but the atmosphere just seemed too much like "Tridentine Low Mass-lite". The exact position and behavior of the priest at the altar made me have flashbacks to the days when I had to serve the Latin Mass on a side altar in whispers at seminary.

"So, this is the Anglican Missal Mass," I thought. Not the "low Church" 1928 Book of Common Prayer that I was used to at my little Anglican community in Hollister. This was my pilgrimage to see how the real Anglo-Catholics lived, and I was not too impressed. I guess my experience with the Eastern Church has made me come to respect the ethos of each liturgical tradition. To me, it seemed that the Anglo-Catholic Mass mixed things that did not belong together. It just didn't flow gracefully as a liturgical service. The Holy Communion service that we do here in Hollister from the Prayer Book seemed much more inspiring to me.

The second portion of my pilgrimage would be attending the Office of Tenebrae at the same chapel sung by a Gregorian choir. The Mass ended an hour before the office was supposed to start, but the singers arrived at the end of Mass to practice. At first, I was a bit disturbed by the atmosphere the singers seemed to bring with them. I was used to singing Tenebrae as a liturgical service, but it did not seem that all of the singers were particularly religious. I was hoping that it would not seem too much like a piece of musical archeology rather than one of the most sublime services of the Church.

While they practiced, I took a walk around the surrounding neighborhood. At first, my old Marxist Mexican-American self began to wonder about the money these people had to make in order to live here near Stanford University and that a person with my name would only set foot there in order to mow the lawn or trim the hedges. But soon my thoughts turned to more Christian subjects. I reflected on the Mass I had just attended, and whether or not I was really prepared to start receiving Communion in a non-Roman Catholic Church. I had attended the services at the Anglican Church in Hollister without receiving Communion since I left the monastery about a couple a months back now. I really wanted to be sure that I was not doing the wrong thing, that I was not "leaving" the Roman Catholic Church for the wrong reasons. I had resolved then, that I would receive Holy Communion on Easter Sunday at the Anglican service. For me, this would be something significant, although for others it might not be. I had been a loyal son of the Catholic Church since I was baptized into it as an infant. Did I really want to leave?

Also, of course, my thoughts turned to my "failed" vocation. It has been very easy to try to assign blame. At this point in my life, I cannot see clearly what really happened. The only word of peace I heard on this walk through the cool and damp evening air was that I had to let go of the anger inside of me. I am human, and it won't be easy. But it has to be done.

"Zelus domus tuae comedit me..." As soon as those first words were sounded, I returned back to that humid plain outside of Buenos Aires in an empty cavernous church with a fifteen branched candelabra in front of the altar. The "performance" was indeed an act of worship in all respects. It is hard to explain a true act of worship; modern Christians often have never experienced it. It is an act of communion with God and the celestial choirs, with the Church, both of the past and of the present. I really prayed for that time. I prayed that I would do the right thing. I prayed that I would learn to let go.

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, convertere ad Dominum Deum tuum.

Holy Thursday. Mission San Juan Bautista

I arrived at the church fifteen minutes before Mass was supposed to start and stationed myself in the very back pew against the northern wall of the eighteenth century church. "This is how I had grown up," I thought. Like somreenactmentnt from a distant past, people continued to go through the motions that their fathers went through: genuflection, sign of the cross, etc., etc. For them, nothing had changed. This is the way it has always been. For me, however, things were now different. And as the night went on, I couldn't pretend that things were otherwise.
The first annoyance of the night came in the "bilingual format". Anyone who has attended a bilingual Catholic Mass will know that instead of uniting a congregation, it divides it all the more. Unless you are like myself (perfectly bilingual), the Mass degenerates into "our part" and "their part". This, however, was the price that had to be paid for the "active participation" so desired by the advocates of aggiornamento of the late 20th century.

The banality of the music and liturgical acts in general also proved to be a bit of a trial. I acknowledge that this was a sincere act of worship on their part. I acknowledge that they are worshipping the Lord as best they know how. I even acknowledge that the sermons of the priests were good and perfectly orthodox. When, however, the "sign of peace" degenerated into a series of hugs and reluctant handshakes, I couldn't help but think that the Fathers of the Church were rolling in their graves. This is not what they meant by this action, and even if similar scenes took place in ancient Rome or Constantinople, this was probably why the action was discontinued by the Universal Church.

At the communion time, I knelt and prayed, but the last six years came flashing through my head. Being master of ceremonies at an SSPX priory, life as a traditional Catholic seminarian, long monastic vigils in a monastery in the Mojave Desert. I could not pretend these things never happened.

"Gone", it suddenly occurred to me, "all gone". I had tried to live as a good Roman Catholic in a liturgical bubble, worshipping in a way foreign to most people under the Pope of Rome. THIS, what was going on before me, was the real deal. If I wanted to continue to be a Roman Catholic, I had to accept that. I could no longer lie to myself by living in a Potempkin village within the Catholic Church.

When they transferred the Blessed Sacrament to the altar of repose, I knelt and joined along in the Pange Lingua, sung in Latin. I continued to pray, but my thoughts turned to my own soul, still so wounded by all that has happened in the past six months. Will I really ever be happy?," I asked the Lord. I remember how my mother said in her village in Mexico, everyone stayed in vigil all night before this altar, praying for a good rain and the health of their children. I stay, with the words of Our Lord echoing in my head: "Could you not watch at least one hour with me?"

"Miserere me Deus, secundum magnam misericordiam tuam," I begin, praying Psalm 50 in Latin over and over. I felt so ashamed before God. Am I a failure? Have I just been too selfish to succeed in all of this? But just as I began to fear the judgements of God, I finally saw the Cross, and then I realized the most chilling and frightening thought that a man can ever think:

The Cross is an instrument of judgement, but it is a sign that God' s love is immovable. "Stat Crux dum volvitur orbis." No matter how much I screw up, no matter how much I might try to ruin my life, He will always be there, hanging on that tree in love with me. There is nothing I can do to change that look of suffering and love. And that is scary. That is what most wounds human pride. "Will you love me? I have always loved you.?"

I walk through the porch of the corridor of the mission, dimly lit by fluorescent lights, listening to the persistent chirping of frogs after a spring rain. The streets of this small tourist town are empty now. My thoughts then turn briefly to the errands I will have to run tomorrow.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Surrexit Dominus Vere

I wish a happy Easter to all Western Christians! Indeed, for some of us it was a very blessed day, but more on that in another post.

St. Symeon the New Theologian, an abbot in Constantinople in the eleventh century, in one of his ascetical homilies, made a comment about this Byzantine prayer:

Having seen the Resurrection of Christ, let us worship the Holy Lord Jesus, the only sinless one. We worship your Cross, O Christ, and we praise and glorify your holy Resurrection. For you are our God; we know no other but you; we name you by name. Come, all the faithful, let us worship the holy Resurrection of Christ; for behold through the Cross, joy has come in all the world. Ever blessing the Lord, we sing his Resurrection. For having endured the Cross for us, by death he has destroyed death.

The prayer does not say, "Having believed in", but rather, "Having seen". How do we see the Resurrection of Christ? St. Symeon was a great advocate of the perceived reality of grace. We live by Faith, but we can be too cerebral about what that really means.

For St. Symeon, we see the Resurrection of Christ in ourselves, in our own hearts. At least for me, life in Christ has truly transformed me. I am not a saint, nor am I even close to perfect. There has been, in truth, a resurrection in my heart as soon as I came to believe.

No, I am not a "better" person. Faith doesn't cure male pattern baldness or make the sky seem bluer. It has happened though. And I have seen it. I thank God for it every day.

Scimus Christus surrexisse
A mortuis vere
Tu nobis Victor Rex miserere
Amen. Alleluia

Monday, April 10, 2006

Holy Week Hiatus

Behold the bridegroom is coming in the middle of the night; and blessed is the servant whom he finds watching; but unworthy is the one whom he finds idle. Take care then, my soul, not to be overcome with sleep, lest you be given up to death and shut outside the kingdom; but stay wakeful and cry, ‘Holy, Holy, Holy are you, O God. Through the Mother of God have mercy on us’.

-From Bridegroom Matins of Holy Week in the Byzantine Church

ALEPH quomodo sedit sola civitas plena populo facta est quasi vidua domina gentium princeps provinciarum facta est sub tributo
BETH plorans ploravit in nocte et lacrimae eius in maxillis eius non est qui consoletur eam ex omnibus caris eius omnes amici eius spreverunt eam et facti sunt ei inimici .....

O vos omnes qui transitis per viam:attendite et videte si est dolor sicut dolor meus.

-from the Service of Tenebrae, the Roman Church

Christus factus est pro nobis obediens usque ad mortem mortem autem crucis.
Propter quod et Deus exaltavit illum: et dedit illi nomen quod est super omne nomen.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Christian right-wing politics

I read an article yesterday on the role of Father Richard John Neuhaus in the American right in a recent issue of New Republic Magazine. It was a biased article from a fairly agnostic perspective, but nevertheless it hit some points that I have been thinking about.

First of all, it is very much in vogue among concerned Christians to create a moral hierarchy of issues on which we must all march lock-step. First and formost among these are issues of a sexual nature (abortion, homosexual "marriage", etc.). The problem with this perspective is that we more often than not lose sight of how the Gospel addressed social questions. Who really gets it from Christ in the Gospels? Is it the prostitutes, the lechers, or perverts? Sure, Christ does not endorse their behavior and even condemns it. The only time he gets angry, and really angry, is when sellers cheat the poor in the Temple. And what about Lazarus and Dives? Do we get indignant over the same things Christ gets indignant over? Sure, we might say that economic crimes are wrong, but where is the passion of most concerned Christians when it comes to these isssues?

Secondly, it is the old question of the "sacrum imperium". Is Christianity a recipe for a good, civilized society, or is it a constant challenge to the social order in any society where the Gospel emerges? Like the "self-help" approach of many evangelical Christians, many try and sell the Faith as something that will make us all live in peace and harmony. (Images of "Leave It to Beaver" episodes should be flashing through your head.) Christ, however, said He would bring strife and the sword. So how do we reconcile these things?

Real Christian political theory is almost exclusively prophetic. It knows that you can't fix a hopelessly broken situation, that is, life here amdist fallen human nature. Christianity in society cannot be reduced to a system; indeed, that is the quickest way to kill the Gospel. Simply put, there is no such thing as a "Christian society", there are only Christians living in a fallen world. Our task is to care for the least of our brethren, witness the love of Christ, and cry against injustice when it emerges. This can be done in many ways, but always with the mentality that there are no perfect solutions this side of the Parousia.

Any other approach, no matter how affective it might appear at first, can only lead to the most tragic perversions of the Gospel.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Regnavit a ligno Deus

The beginning of Passiontide in the Western Church coincided with the anniversary of the death of Pope John Paul II. I was still a monk when the late Pontiff died, and remember it well. We sang a panakyda at the news of his death, and the monastery bell tolled three times.

When John Paul II died, he had been Pope longer than I had been alive. Yesterday, I watched a special on CNN about his last days, and everyone praised him as one of the greatest Popes in history (of course, you don´t speak ill of the dead). For me, however, I never quite know what Church they are talking about. The Church that I grew up in was not better off because of Pope John Paul II. The Church I grew up in was always in a profound state of crisis. So what is going on?

CHARISMA. Yes, that is the word. Charisma absolves many sins. All now say that JPII has raised the bar of the Papacy since he was such an intelligent and charismatic figure. He made people "feel" good. He was popular. People want to make him a saint, and NOW. It doesn´t matter that he has presided over the burial of the Church in Europe, or has done nothing to rein in a hierarchy that is lukewarm when it comes to combating heresy and sacrilege. No, he was a star, and stars are impeccable in whatever they do. Not an administrator was he, more a phenomenon who could through his gravitas around when he felt like it.

I am not saying that he was not a holy man (though I do think that all that phenomenolgy of his student days made his mind into mush). He was very devoted to the Virgin Mary and so am I. That, however, does not make a good Pope. Then again, maybe one of the weaknesses of Roman Catholicism is that it needs a "good Pope" so that things can even function normally. Perhaps the Papacy has become too important, and this Pole´s stellar performance at the job has not helped matters in this regard.

Charisma died the death as a Christian virtue at Palm Sunday. Those who cried out "Hosanna" one day would cry out "Crucify him!" only a few days later. Charisma lies, and charisma is fleeting. Will those screaming "John Paul youth" be enough to revitalize the Church, or was their explosion of enthusiasm merely one thrill in the midst of many more exciting ones? Is the legacy of John Paul II enough to save the Roman Catholic Church?

And as for all of the media adulation, is not the burial of Pius IX, whose body was almost thrown into the Tiber, or all of the other Popes who died imprisoned, exiled, or martyred, more desirable ends in the face of a world that has turned away from Christ? If the world praises us, could it be because we are doing something wrong?

Regnavit a ligno Deus.... God reigns by the shameful wood of the Cross, not by the flashing lights of photo-ops.