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

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Postcards From Hollister # 2

Christmas Eve was rather odd for me. Since it fell on a Sunday, I ended up going to Mass with my mother and sister at the local Roman Catholic Church. Maybe I will just be repeating what I have said in another post, but being a Roman Catholic is really, really confusing. I really cannot understand how there are still people out there who devote their lives trying to convert people to Catholicism. Convert them to what? What flavor? What ethos?

At good old St. Benedict’s, I ended up going to the 12:30 p.m. Spanish Mass. Such experiences are no longer disconcerting to me. Whereas I would have considered all the liturgical oddities of the Novus Ordo sacrilegious six years ago, now I just consider them cute in a bizarre sort of way. God can take care of Himself, I figure. If He came down to earth, it is because He wanted to be manhandled. Well, maybe not quite like this…

I really have to congratulate Bugnini, Paul VI, and crew: they succeeded in creating a new religion that people like me cannot reject outright. The priest at this Mass probably gave one of the best homilies I have ever heard; unlike many priests, he was very concrete and down-to-earth about what the Gospel means in the lives of his parishioners. Otherwise, the entire Mass was a parade of all of the trimmings of the “People of God” propaganda: people surrounding the altar, applause every five minutes, secular instruments, lay Eucharistic ministers (one of which is a woman friend I have shown some interest in…. nice), etc.

(Note: the reason why God has historically forbade women from the altar area is simple: if He didn’t, NO men would be there. Everywhere there are female “ministers”, they take over like gangrene. Sorry ladies, but if you want men to be more than just brain-dead pew warmers in church, you have to give them the sanctuary and treat it like a boy’s locker room. That is just the infinite wisdom of God.)

Being smarter than the average liturgy freak, I know that you can legitimize any liturgical innovation you can think of. Somewhere at some point, some Syrian monk consecrated the elements standing on his head wearing a duck suit and somehow it was still alright. The problem with the Novus Ordo for me now is that it just doesn’t feel right. I have a gut reaction against it. Call it a sensus catholicus, a sensus fidei, or just an extreme distaste for tacky things. I still admire Cranmer and Co. in this respect: they also made a “new religion” or at the very least reformed the old one, but they did a good job of it. Their principles were consistent, they were serious, and they went for broke. And they went for beauty too, as any half-literate person can conclude by even just glancing briefly at the Book of Common Prayer. But the latter-day Roman wrecking crew has no idea what it is doing, where it wants to go, and how far it wants to take it all.

What does it mean to be a Roman Catholic? I don’t know. All I know is that I am one, my mother is one, the woman who works out at the library and hands out Communion is one, and the sedevacantist conspiracy theorist is one. If you think that Roman Catholicism is the solution to ecclesiological uncertainty in this day and age, please send me an ounce of whatever you are smoking, because that must be some pretty good stuff….

For something completely different, I went to the SSPX retreat center in Los Gatos for Midnight Mass of Christmas. The choir for some reason was not in the choir loft and they seemed to be lacking in male voices, so I volunteered myself. (I have a passable tenor voice and had Gregorian chant beat into me in seminary, so sometimes I feel bold enough to jump right in.) Unfortunately, a Lefebvrist Redemptorist said Mass, so I knew it was going to be a long sermon dripping with Devotio Moderna. That’s fine for a Sunday morning, but Midnight Mass is not the time to give a long sermon.

Of course, the entire content of the sermon made me conclude that Lefebvrism is really just a rabbinic form of Roman Catholicism as it was before the Second Vatican Council. The same spiritual authors, the same apparitions, the same theological pet doctrines (vicarious satisfaction, merits, purgatory, etc) appear in every sermon, almost in the same order, and in the same contexts. Lefebvrists and the traditionalists who ape them don’t think: they merely string phrases and preconceived notions together. It’s safer that way. That’s how you avoid heresy. That is the way of Faith.

In the library in La Reja, there was a forbidden book section in the library called “Hell” that had all of the books that were too dangerous for seminarians to read. I spent my only apostolate/vacation in the seminary answering the phone and working around the seminary. (Answering the phone was a trying task for me due to the fact that Argentine Spanish is very idiomatic.) I tended to hang around the library, so being the bad seminarian that I was, I took a peek into “Hell”. Most of it was stuff I wouldn’t want to read anyway: Hans Urs Von Balthasar, books on other religions, atheistic literature, among other things. Included in “Hell”, however, was the translation into English of the Orthodox Lenten Triodion done by Kallistos Ware. I thought that was quite myopic, but quite in step with Lefebvrist thought: Bishop Kallistos is schismatic, therefore suspicious of heresy, and thus the seminarians can’t read it. Any good Lefebvrist would defend this line of thinking.

At the end of Midnight Mass, I asked an acquaintance who was also singing what happened to the choir director, Mr. Richard Quenneville. He told me that he had a severe stroke on December 19th, and is now in the hospital. I have to ask you the reader to please pray for him. He is probably one of the most saintly men I know, and has a wife who is the priests’ cook and a fourteen year daughter who used to be one of my students. His family has always struggled to make ends meet, but nevertheless they all attended daily Mass and are the backbone of St. Aloysius Gonzaga Retreat Center in Los Gatos. I still refer to him as my second guardian angel. Please pray hard for this just man.

Driving home early Christmas morning, I began to wonder about God’s plan for my friend and his family. Echoing the Psalmist, I guess my thought was something to the effect that if God had struck me down like that, I would completely understand. I mean, I have screwed up so royally that maybe God would have to do something like that to me just to wake me up. But Mr. Quenneville, Lord? How is his family going to survive?

“I reprove, and chastise whom I love.” The Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away. Blessed be the name of the Lord. Thy will be done. Amen.


At 8:24 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Thank you for this post. I can't tell you how much it mirrors my experience of Catholicism.

At 11:52 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I went to an SSPX Mass for the first time on Sunday. It was like coming home, and I'd never been to anything but Novus Ordo before, plus it was in Singapore.

I will pray for Mr. Quenneville and his family.

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