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

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Religion by the Book

An interesting post at the South Bend Reliquiae blog on Catholicism and apologetics. Well worth a read.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Laudate Pueri - Domenico Zipoli

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

So, you think you're so damn smart...

(I usually only write normal posts so that some of you will read weird ones, like this one.)

I read with much delight the recent post from Ecce Ego, Quia Vocasti Me on Paganizing Christianity. You should all read it. I like this in particular:

In the enlightened post-Vatican II world, such stories are seen as far from the pristine Christianity of the Early Church, and one that is envisioned by the Council. I know one man who was a devotee of the Holy Child in his younger years, but altogether stopped believing when he came to realize the full extent of 'paganizing' elements in the cult of the Santo Nino. But how does one exactly define paganism? Is it rising from the dead, or turning water into wine, casting out demons, or speaking with forces beyond our reach? If we are to apply this frame of thought to the Gospel, then it would seem as if the Gospel itself were Pagan; indeed, such a radical framework would almost invariably filter out any hint of the supernatural, leaving only the natural-- cold, lifeless, historical, dry.

This is somwhat apropos of the book I am currently reading, The Courtier and the Heretic: Leibniz, Spinoza, and the Fate of God in the Modern World by Matthew Stewart. In the figure of the philosopher Baruch Spinoza, Stewart finds one of the founders of the modern, secular perspecitve of thought. Here are a couple of enlightening quotes from his work:

[Spinoza] adopted as his guiding maxim the words of [Rene Descartes]: "That nothing ought to be admitted as True, but that which has been proved by good and solid reasons." It wasn't long before he concluded that this maxim ruled out most of the Bible, not to mention Descartes' own philosophy....

The most impious man of the century transparently took himself to be the most pious. He rejected the orthodoxy of his day not because he believed less, but because he believed more.

...which is very much a sentiment that underlies much of the discourse in even conservative Christian circles. How many times do we hear of the necessity of purging of certain elements from religion that are unsavory to modern man? How many times are we asked, even by some legitimate ecclesiastical authorities, to make sure we have a "mature faith"? I would contend that such exhortations have the danger of slouching slowly towards the modern agnosticism founded by our apostate Jewish philosopher. And I would rather be put in a category with pagans and idolaters a million times rather than be lumped in with "civilzied" and "rational" atheists and agnostics.

And speaking of pagans, our favorite pagan hierophant and philosopher wrote something very pertinent to this discussion. When addressing the problem of evil when it comes to divine incantations, Iamblichus wrote the following:

For those that are good are the causes of good; and the Gods possess good essentially. They do nothing, therefore, that is unjust. Hence other causes of guilty deeds must be investigated. And if we are not able to discover these causes, it is not proper to throw away the true conception respecting the Gods, nor on account of the doubts whether these unjust deeds are performed, and how they are effected, to depart from notions concerning the Gods which are truly clear. For it is much better to acknowledge the insufficiency of our power to explain how unjust actions are perpetrated, than to admit any thing impossible or false concerning the Gods...

-De Mysteriis, emphasis mine

So here we have our solutions to the problem of evil and all the other doubts about whether God could make a meal for thousands out of a few fishes and loaves, among other things. The beautiful thing about Iamblichus, in spite of the fact that he was a staunch pagan in the early Christian era, is that he knew exactly where his place in the cosmos was. (A common thing to say in Argentina when someone is asking something impertinet or stupid is: ¡ubicate!, which sort of means, "wake up and realize where the hell you are!") He knew that, being a mortal, rational animal, he had to defer more often than not to beings that were higher up on the cosmic food chain than he was. This does not mean that one sinks into fideism or intellectual sloth, as is evident in the mind-boggling systematic rigor of late Neoplatonism. But it does mean that we should realize that our dianoia (our discursive thinking) is a means of union to that which is higher and not an instrument of ultimate power. This sentiment was also passed on to the Church through that famous figure of St. Dionyisus. But now it is becoming a voice and a warning that is increasingly faint.

In my own life and my own family, as you may know, the Holy Infant of Atocha is the manifestation of the Christ Child that most revered. I leave you, dear reader, with part of his story, from this website:

The statue that came from Spain had the Holy Child sitting on the lap of His Mother. At one point, the statue separated itself from His Mother. No one knows exactly why this happened. The people had a throne built for the Santo Niño, where he sits even today. He is also to be found in His own Chapel in the Santuario de Plateros.

Many mornings, the Sisters that care for the Shrine find the Infant’s shoes all dusty, from being out all night caring for pilgrims. Many people who have seen Him during the night confirm that His basket is always full of food and His gourd is always full of water, yet the statue itself has an empty basket and gourd. At times, He is referred to as the "Night Walking Infant of Atocha". Many miracles are attributed to His Presence and the Shrine is filled with acknowledgements of these.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Just in case you didn't know...

In the Spanish tradition, after a priest is ordained in the traditional rite and his hands are anointed and bound by the bishop, he goes to the altar rail, and if his mother is there, she unbinds the pieces of cloth and keeps them as a sign that she has given a son to the service of God and the Church. When she dies, they are put in her hands and she is buried with them where they remain until the Second Coming of Christ. Here is a photo from the Society of St. Pius X seminary in Argentina showing this. I am pretty sure that this is only a Spanish tradition.

Image source

Thursday, January 24, 2008

How the other half lives...

Our field trip to a Mormon temple, part 2

So anyway, back to the old guys.

What really pissed me off about the spiel of the Mormon elders was just the amount the gall they had when talking about their church's history. I suppose I don't have to explain it to most of you; how Joseph Smith brought forth a new revelation that he translated from some books that an angel gave him, etc. That wasn't at all shocking. I guess what struck me most was how bizarrely logical their position is in the context of the Protestantism in which it emerged.

Since the Reformation eliminated all real authority in the church, it was only logical that someone at some point would try to resurrect a religion in which God is present in all senses of the word, that is, not just "spiritually". And yes, our cadre of middle aged men had the audacity to claim that THEY were indeed successors to the Apostles, invested with their powers to bind and loose. Just like Catholic bishops. Except in this case, they threw out Nicene orthodoxy in the process. And they were wearing some very well-tailored suits.

I don't need to elaborate too much that I found this very insulting. When the Mormons and their more orthodox Protty counterparts speak of the degeneration of the Church, I find myself so indignant that I almost have to laugh. I mean, we were dying in the Colosseum and shedding our blood for Christ back when these people weren't even a twinkle in their great-great-great-great-great-great grandmother's eye. But of course, we were already idolaters and Mary-worshippers... Whatever. You can't make everyone happy.

AG has already commented that there were photos of the interior of the temple at the center, since you couldn't really go inside. And as someone else commented, it looks like the lobby of a Marriott hotel. Go figure. The spaceship actually looks like a normal conference hall inside. One wonders why they went to the trouble to make it so strange on the outside.

As we were about to leave, my rather child-like (childish?) curiosity couldn't help but look inside a door that had some sign like "God's Plan for Your Family" on it. We walked in and saw a screen and some rather strange objects lurking in the shadows. I thought that we had strolled into a closet, so we decided to leave. Just then, however, one of the Mormon girls emerged from the shadows and asked if we wanted to see the video presentation. We gave our lukewarm yes, and she explained how the exhibit worked: there were a series of exhibits that we would have to walk through in order to view the Mormon ideal of the family. Once one finished, we would have to get up to view the next one. It would take approximately half an hour. It was the theological equivalent of the "It's a Small World" ride.

After the introductory screen, we moved on to our first exhibit: a baby's nursery. A screen on the back wall began to play a brief movie in which a young couple were kept up at night by their newborn infant. (They were standing in a nursery exactly like the one we had in front of us. Creepy.) The woman said in the course of the conversation, "Just think, a week ago she was still in Heaven with God..."

Excuse me?! But I thought she would have been in her mother's womb. But as in all of the rest of the presentation, theological absurdities were presented with a kind smile and the assurance that such bizarre doctrines were perfectly normal. After all, such a clean-cut, cute, white middle class family couldn't possibly believe anything strange or abnormal, could it?

The main theological point of the presentation, however, was that the family was eternal. That is, the family is such a sacred institution that it continues to exist after death. So much for, "in Heaven, they will neither marry nor be given in marriage, but shall be like the angels." It's almost a rather sly one-upmanship in the culture wars: not only do we value the nuclear family more than others, but we deify it!

However, at the very end, we were supposed to be given the coup de grace. We were placed in a viewing room apart and were prepped by our handler that this was her favorite part personally. I should here describe her: she was not your typical Mormon. She was from New Zealand, probably either of indigenous or mixed racial background. And you could tell that she was as sweet as syrup. She told us that she was on mission and could only call her parents on the other side of the world twice a year. The rest of the time, she could write them once a month. This broke my heart, since even in seminary, I was allowed to call my family once a month for ten minutes, and could write them all I wanted. With tears in her eyes, she rolled the film.

This was supposed to seal the deal: the young family, their loving grandparents, the sacrifices of time and energy parents take to raise their children... it was the Gospel of Joseph Smith that moved it all up a notch. In presenting the story of salvation history, the short film emphasized the theme of darkness. Man was in darkness who was once in light, and man kept trying to extinguish the light. Finally, God the Father sent His own son, but men even extinguished this light. (Funny, at this part, they mentioned the Crucifixion of Jesus, but skipped His resurrection. I looked at AG and whispered, "Didn't He rise from the dead after that?") Only Joseph Smith and the Mormons restored the light to the world. At the end, with the representation of the apotheosis of the Church of Latter-Day Saints, the dimmed portrait of Christ emerged luminous to the right of the screen. Queue the music... A Hollywood finish.

We thanked our hostess, told her in the course of a brief conversation that we were Roman Catholics, and walked out into the afternoon sun.

After reflecting on this day, it all made me really sad. I remembered one time, again in Argentina, where I saw another Mormon church. On a dirty, impoverished road about an hour and a half outside of Buenos Aires, that Mormon church looked exactly the same as all the Mormon churches I had seen growing up in the States, all the way down to the immaculate lawn in the front of it. (An immaculate lawn anywhere in Argentina is a rare occurrence.) And then I realized that the Mormons are not peddling a religion; they are peddling a way of life. More precisely, they are substituting the American suburban dream for the Logos: and the subdivision became flesh and dwelt among us. Good clean living. Peppy young women in skirts. Lots of healthy smiling kids. And affluence. And cleanliness. To be spread to the four ends of the earth... I think I am going to be sick.

Mormonism is the highest form of American Puritanism with the Christianity ripped out of it. It is everything that is pleasant and nice about Christianity without the doctrine. And America sits up above the nations, a new Zion to be converted to Mormonism, and that parade of saints will march until it reaches the ends of the earth, until it proves, once and for all, that to be white, attractive, middle-class, and clean cut is to be made in the image and likeness of God.

Yes, I do feel sorry for that poor girl who showed us that movie. Please say an extra prayer for her. I leave you with the opening of an old post from the Undercroft that for me embodies what the real Church looks like:

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...

Puritanism is not Catholic. It is not even human. Prudery is not purity. Respectability is not holiness, but if anything, an actual impediment to holiness. The Church of Christ is home to saints and sinners; the merely respectable are quite welcome to shift for themselves.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

How the other half lives...

Our field trip to a Mormon temple- part 1

If you have ever been in the Bay Area, you will recognize the other side of the building pictured above. Among the buildings that sit atop the hills that hem the cities of the East Bay into their pocket next to the sea, the most familiar is this space ship-looking building. It is, of course, the Mormon temple for the area. And as I have stated from having passed the Tabernacle in Salt Lake City and having heard the stories of people who have toured these imposing structures, they are like the Vatican if redone by Disney.

I have known Mormons all my life. In all of my honors classes at my public high school in California, Mormons were well represented. (And Mexican Americans were not, even though they constituted 60% of the student body, but that is the subject of another griping post entirely.) The Mormon kids were almost always blondes and very light complected; they were often the best students and athletes. They were almost pitied by others since the Mormon church in Hollister was right next door to the high school, and it was known that they had to go to their Mormon religion classes before regular classes started.

Fast forward to my renegade Lefebvrist seminary years: on the plane going to Buenos Aires that I took in order to become a crypto-fascist integrist seminarian, most of my travelling companions were bubbly, all-American Mormon missionaries ready to spread the Gospel of Joseph Smith in the Southern Cone. One of the first structures I saw in Argentina was the Mormon temple for Buenos Aires. It was right off the airport. How convenient...

Anyway, there were actually a few freakish incidents involving Mormons during my time in South America. Everywhere I went, the only Americans I would see were Mormons. Mormons riding bikes in the suburbs of the Capital. Mormons in front of the National Shrine in Lujan. I nearly got a group of fellow SSPX seminarians into a fist fight with a group of blonde Mormon kids right next to the obelisk on the Avenida 9 de Julio. And I saw Mormons on dirt roads in the countryside outside of Cordoba...

But that is worlds away now. Finally having a bit more time on my hands to do frivolous things, I finally decided to visit the people I have tormented so much on their own territory. And I decided to take AG with me so that I would control myself and play nice.

First of all, I have to say if you are ever in the Bay Area and are tired of snapping photos of the Golden Gate Bridge for the millionth time, this temple is well worth the visit. Pray particularily for a clear day because the view from it is gorgeous. The grounds are well kept, the fountain is beautiful, and the structure itself is, well... something to see.

After touring the grounds on top of the Oakland hills, we finally decided, with some forboding, to enter into the visitors center for some informative attempts to learn Mormon doctrine. We skipped the part where the statue of Jesus "talks" to you. (Again, the Vatican if done by Disney.) We went over to the reproductions of Christian religious art and the model sized replica of the city of Jerusalem at the time of Jesus. (Which was kinda cool.)

Next, we went to the large doll house looking structure where an interactive video presentation was given of Mormon children answering such questions like, "who is God?" and "what happens after we die?" All very cute to be sure.

Next, we saw an "original" copy of the Book of Mormon, all the way back from 1830. I'll give it a two and a half out of five stars.

Next, we went into a little room where we were presented with photos of the Mormon hierarchy: a bunch of smiling white men in nice suits. (I think I whispered to AG: "Our hierarchy are much snazzier dressers.") In another interactive video presentation, each one explained a part of Mormon history and doctrine and swore that they were completely sincere and could be trusted to be telling the truth. ("I'm white, middle class, and have nice teeth. And I kinda look like your Uncle Bill. So what I am saying is true...")

But what they said, well, that really got my goat...

But for that you will have to wait for part two. This post is too long as it is.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Terry Riley's Music of the Spheres

See this review of Terry Riley's 2002 work for chorus and string quartet, Sun Rings, by AG.

The only thoughts I had were more to put the piece in context of Terry Riley's opus. His collaboration with the Kronos Quartet has went on for more than a quarter century, and he has admitted that it has been the Kronos Quartet that has led him to re-explore more conventional means of composing other than the improvisations that characterized his output of the 1960's and '70's.

Riley's music is at once avant-garde and accessible, other-worldly and and at the same time almost banal. He can have in the same piece examples of great lyricism and dissonance; he can seem so familiar and strange in the same work. Styles of music that he has become proficient in, from romanticism to minimalism, from Indian raga to jazz and bebop, all come together in his music fluidly and create a voice that is at once unique, organic, challenging and soulful. The presentation at Stanford last Friday night was no exception to this.

I must say that after this multimedia presentation of our small place in the cosmos, it made me feel quite small. But it also affirmed a principle that is near and dear to the thinkers that I am studying now: the music of the spheres. While these sounds from outer space were probably not what Ficino and Pythagoras were imagining in their fantasies about the heavens, it is nevertheless wonderful to know that the heavens indeed do sing. And it could only be a composer with the depth, vision, and audacity of a Terry Riley who could sing along with them. In the song, then, we become just as large as the stars.

But the soul receives the sweetest harmonies and numbers through the ears, and by these echoes is reminded and aroused to the divine music which may be heard by the more subtle and penetrating sense of mind. According to the followers of Plato, divine music is twofold. One kind, they say, exists entirely in the eternal mind of God. The second is in the motions and order of the heavens, by which the heavenly spheres and their orbits make a marvellous harmony. In both of these our soul took part before it was imprisoned in our bodies. But it uses the ears as messengers, as though they were chinks in this darkness. By the ears, as I have already said, the soul receives the echoes of that incomparable music, by which it is led back to the deep and silent memory of the harmony which it previously enjoyed. The whole soul then kindles with desire to fly back to its rightful home, so that it may enjoy that true music again.

-Marsilio Ficino

Monday, January 21, 2008

Human Nature

O men, when you consider the universe, you are comprehending your own nature!

-St. Gregory of Nyssa

Saturday, January 19, 2008

In other words...

Some people like the Roman Catholic Church because it teaches you the truth.

Maybe. But I don't think that this is comprehensive enough.

I love the Church because it teaches you how to be a human being. And for me, at least, that is more important. (The truth, certainly, is part of it.)

Friday, January 18, 2008

Love as Message

or On Poverty, Potatoes, Persecution, Fumie, Compassion, the SSPX, Porcelain Angels, Mournful Prayer, Mountain Dew, and Why We Should Love Jesus

What are the Japanese peasants looking for in me? These people who work and live and die like beasts find for the first time in our teaching a path in which they cast away the fetters that bind them. The Buddhist bonzes simply treat them like cattle. For a long time they have just lived in resignation to such a fate.

Thus writes the main character in Shusaku Endo's novel, Silence, about two missionary priests who enter seventeenth century Japan to minister to the persecuted Christians there. In this passage, the young priest, Sebastian Rodrigues, meditates on why these clandestine Christians went to so much trouble to preserve their Faith in spite of cruel persecution. In describing their way of life in which all they had to eat were meagre vegetables and potatoes, where they had to eek out a living in some very harsh and ruggid conditions, and where they were taxed almost to starvation by the Japanese nobles, the young cleric came to only one conclusion on why they were embraced by the peasants: because the foreign priests actually cared about them, and no one else did.

(For more insights into the novel, one can read AG's book review of it starting here.)

The strength of this Faith outlasted the persecution of the Japanese feudal hierarchy. In spite of having to step on Christian religious images called fumie (one is pictured above) to prove that they had no allegiance to the Christian religion, these abject people kept the memory of the compassionate Christ in their heart. When the priests returned, they found they were still thousands of clandestine Christians still practicing after centuries of persecution.

In knowing many converts and "reverts", I have found that there is in many a great temptation to "cerebralism". I have discerned this in myself when I first entered the sphere of the Society of St. Pius X: in spite of all the prejudices against them as being fundamentalist, closed-mided, and cold, they were some of the nicest, compassionate, and dare I say it, most Christian people I have ever met. I don't think I would have gone as far with them as I did if they weren't. But even there, I was at first consumed with the fervor of argument. I loved the SSPX and being Catholic because it meant that I had all of the right answers. And they were well-conceived and rigourous answers, answers that absolved me from the errors with which the rest of our society is affected. Only later did I encounter such figures as Dan Monary and Fr. Álvaro Calderón (who, by the way, is still the holiest priest I have ever met). People like them and other Catholics I have met made me think that even with the intellectual rigor and argumentation that surround Roman Catholicism, one has to ultimately be convinced of its truth not just because one sees the logic of it all, but primarily because one sees holiness and compassion in it. In a word, it is because you see Christ in the Church that you believe.

AG has responded to a meme here on why she loves Jesus. Her first reason is very simple: Because my mom taught me to. This reason could be considered a cop-out that we children from pious families can use, but this is not the case. For Mrs. G, AG's mother, does not just pay lip service to her Faith; she didn't teach it by words in order to make sure her children turned out to be "decent members of society". She taught it by deeds:

...when she came back from Communion, and then I’d watch her and she’d kneel down, place the first and second fingers of both hands on her temples, cover her face with the rest of her hands, and bow her head. She would go on praying like this for three minutes or so, and I’d wonder what she was thinking or saying. Then her head would lift and she’d gaze at the tabernacle...

How in the world could my mom clean the house of an ornery elderly woman who was given to making nasty statements about blacks (unware of my mom’s race), and then even come home and make cookies for this woman because she thought the woman would appreciate a homemade treat? What could move her to do that?

Answer: Because she loves Jesus.

Having met Mrs. G., I can say that she is one of loveliest people I have ever met. Even her vast collection of porcelain angels makes her all the more endearing. And I can honestly say that if you want to learn what Christianity is all about, don't just read a theology book or go on Catholic blogs at three in the morning while eating Cheetos and drinking a Mountain Dew. You won't learn real Christianity there. You will only know it by learning from and loving like Mrs. G.

In the end, if we are to be looked at as the light of the world, it is going to be for the exact same reason that the Japanese peasants looked to the Portuguese clerics from a far away land. Our society is so big and cold at times, and many people think that no one cares about them. If only people saw us Catholics as being the most caring, the most compassionate, and the most Christ-like, we probably wouldn't need apologetics. Like the situation in Japan, our Faith could outlast the cruelest assaults. So what then is stopping us? What is stopping us from proving that we can love the more than anyone else?

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Andreas Scholl - Rodelinda - Aria - Vivi Tiranno

That's right, some Handel. Because I can!!!

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

In the Eyes of a Plaster Saint

When I visited the shops around the National Basilica of the Virgin of Lujan in Argentina, I couldn’t believe some of the kitschy statues I encountered. Some were badly painted and of poor quality. Others were just outright grotesque. Since we do not live in a Catholic country, religious art is monopolized by the official Church or reputable companies. In traditional countries, street vendors often sell religious art to make a living on the sidewalks in front of shrines or in random places in a city. My former abbot told me that in Greece, you can even buy your icons and pornography from the same stall…

After my encounter with these poorly made statues, I was overheard to say, “no wonder people become Protestant!” My aesthetic snobbery was unable to tolerate these poor examples of sacred art. Now I am beginning to see the error of my ways once again.

The main problem for me when approaching orthodox Catholic discourse in this country is that it all seems so “by the book”. (Liberal heterodox discourse also seems by the book, just a different book.) The Church in its hierarchical function has always tried to formalize and codify what is allowable, appropriate, and pious, and what isn’t. They are the shepherds, and we should follow them in what they say, or at least acquiesce when they make a decision. But that does not mean that they have to micromanage everything and that they are infallible in all of their decisions. The development of the ethos of the Church was not a top-down exercise in obedience, but rather a constant give and take between a hierarchy that was often detached from many concrete conditions of life and a laity that often had to face these brutal and nasty living conditions head on. This I think is the reason behind all of the devotions and practices that Protestants and not a few Catholics think of as superstition and idolatry. As I have said, Marian devotion and the cult of the relics did not begin because the bishops thought that they were a good idea. They were rather an expression of what people felt they needed out of the Church.

So when I read many examples of Catholic writing in this day and age, often I only see a preoccupation with being approved of and “official”. The treasures of our Faith were often not the result of official proclamations, but rather spontaneous reactions of simple folk who had to adapt to the conditions of life in which they found themselves. When I read “Catholicism by the book”, then, it’s not that I find it merely to be boring (I get the feeling that I have read all of these books before), but I also find it lifeless and quite stale. There is a great danger for fundamentalism on the one hand, and party-line posturing on the other.

The problem then, as one person put it, is that there are times in the Church that it doesn’t seem “real” anymore. That is, either people openly doubt the supernatural nature of the Church, as is the case of the heterodox, or people do violence to their modern sensibility viz. assent and consider it an act of Faith. (It very well may be one.) In the latter case, while we are universal skeptics and rationalists in all other matters, when it comes to Faith, we become die-hard believers. While this could be considered admirable, it is hardly sustainable in my opinion. The asymmetry between life and Faith, between society and Church, will not be able to hold out for long. Something, in my opinion, will have to give. The dissonance cannot sound indefinitely.

That is why I simply don’t see the “crisis” as many ecclesiastics and observers see it. I don’t see it as an issue of relativism vs. "absolute truth". When we are swimming in our daily lives in theory and praxis that are diametrically opposed to hierarchy, tradition, enchantment and order and are expected to take them up again in the pew on Sunday morning, something is not going to click in the minds of many of the faithful. And unless we are prepared to become crypto-fascists, monarchists, or New Agers, we will never be very consistent about how we integrate our lives. Can we really look at the eyes of a plaster saint in the same way, in supplication and devotion? Will this ever again feel natural to us? Will this ever again be a "bottom-up" phenomenon for people in the "developed world"?

I do not have the solution. All I know is that the path is steep and the way difficult. All I know is that despite my grandmothers’ questionable uses of eggs, traditional Christianity made much more sense to them than it does to us. That is because they really did feel that they owned the Gospel, that God really listened to them, either in turning water into wine or multiplying loaves on a mountainside. At times, I think we now feel that it’s only on loan to us.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008


Thang Dao Dance Company dances the second movement of Philip Glass' Violin Concerto...

Or a bunch of noise, as one reader of this blog has put it.

Monday, January 14, 2008

De auxilio divino

For since it is not possible to speak rightly about the Gods without the Gods, much less can any one perform works which are of an equal dignity with divinity, and obtain the foreknowledge of everything without [the inspiring influence of] the Gods. For the human race is imbecile, and of small estimation, sees but little, and posseses a connascent nothingness; and the only remedy of its inherent error, perturbation, and unstable mutation, is its participation, as much as possible, in the divine light. But he who excludes this, does the same thing as those who attempt to produce soul from things inanimate, or to generate intellect from things unintelligent. For without the cooperation of a cause, he constitutes divine works from things which are not divine.

-Iamblichus, De Mysteriis

By the way, I just got confirmation from my mother that both of my grandmothers were witches. Well, not really. They both used tricks from what is known in Mexico as "curanderismo". One of their prefered ones was used in particular when a child could not stop crying due to fever. The woman would say a Pater Noster over the child while rubbing her down with an egg. After the prayer, she would crack the egg and put it in a bowl under the crib. The baby would immediately sleep soundly through the night. In the morning, an eye would appear in the middle of the yoke. My mother claims to have seen this personally...

Another prefered egg-utilizing activity was rubbing an egg yoke on the back of the knees of an infant in order to help it learn to walk...

Anyway, call it quaint or call it superstition. But they claim that it worked.

Friday, January 11, 2008

All of that gooey, wholesome Catholic goodness...

The devotees of the Black Nazarene are mostly male; they range from thugs to politicians (the Philippine vice president is a devotee) to businessmen, but in the gigantic blur created by the reds and yellows, social rank and privilege are cast into the wind: one is either favored to have been able to get near the carriage or not. Marching bands, dancing girls, circus acts-- fire-breathers, stilt-walkers-- as well as tributes from the police and the military all hail the Lord in his passing. The noise is deafening, but at the same time mysteriously calming, and the furious swishing of white towels, held aloft and waved by fevered hands, all make the scene seem like it was transplanted by some freak of the supernatural from the 17th century. A curious calm descends on the mind when the Nazarene comes into view. His devotees desperately, madly, cling or try to cling to him, never mind the sweat and heat beating down upon their backs. They see the image as some sort of scapegoat, banging their foreheads in shame and sorrow at its carriage, touching the image's feet and hands in the hope of passing their sins onto him.

from Ecce Ego, Quia Vocasti Me

Being now on an unforeseen vacation, I can now comment on some various converging themes that are coming into my mind. (If you are not on vacation, please don't read this. You won't be any wiser afterwards. You can make an exception if you are in your cubicle and you are so bored to tears that you want to commit suicide by stapling yourself to death.)

First of all, I have discovered that Immaculate Heart Radio has a new station in the Bay Area at 1260 AM. You can listen to it on-line by going to this site.

Even though I have become addicted to this station for the moment (mostly due to the insatiable thirst in my life for novelty), the Catholic media in this country in general seems to be very much its own animal. That is, it seems to me at times more to make a culture than to merely reflect it. Maybe because we devout Roman Catholics are few and far between, and listening to news reports involving the Pope and our bishops seems to be a little bizarre after having come out of a store where Britney Spears or Maroon 5 was being blasted over a loudspeaker. Do these type of phenomenon serve as a refuge from the world rather than a reflection of a society we should be living in? Or to put it another way, is Catholic radio/television/media a bubble we put ourselves in, albeit a necessary bubble?

That's a little what it feels like to me. Having spent months of my youth in Mexico and two years of my adult life in Argentina, I have actually experienced a society where there were shrines to the Virgin on the side of the road, and where most people knew who you were when you were walking down the street in clerical garb. I have been told by AG that one of the shocks of moving from Catholic New Orleans to Houston as a girl was the absence of Catholic statuary in public places. Are we as Catholics in the U.S. so used to being strangers that this can reflect on the tone of our rhetoric, even amongst ourselves?

I get really bored reading most Catholic sites. A lot of them are done by either converts or Catholics whose exposure to religion was little to non-existent as children. This I think often reflects in their writing and how they view the Church. There is a hollowness in it, one that is by no means insurmountable to fill, but is still there. The Church does not have to be re-created in this country, it has to be rediscovered. This is not just through such high-brow activities as restoring Latin to the liturgy or reading the writings of the Holy Father, but also practicing traditions that formed our fathers in their daily lives, such as praying from old prayer books, having statues, and other somewhat kitsch goodies.

Catholicism will not become robust again until it can be conceived as independent from authority. On one of the programs on the above listed stations, they were talking about what Catholic college should a Catholic parent send their child to. First of all, I would think that the idea of a "Catholic college" is itself problematic. Ideally, there should be no such thing as a Catholic college, there should just be a college. A "Catholic college" only exists in a Protestant country, or in countries that have secularized governments and often times histories of anti-clericalism, such as France or Mexico. Secondly, I believe St. Basil and St Gregory the Theologian studied at the Academy at Athens, which was by no means a Christian place. The key to the question at hand is the situation of the latter. Maybe it would be best to send your children to places that may not be necessarily Catholic, but have a strong orthodox Catholic presence, such as Texas A & M.

If Catholicism was a spontaneous, organic phenomenon where everyone from the lowest layman to the Pope himself agreed on the fundamentals of the Faith without having to be scolded by a higher authority, then we would have far fewer problems than we have now. The problem is that there are only two alternatives in many cases: either you don't care about the traditional teaching of the Church to the point that you pick and chose what you believe, or you become a "Papal fundamentalist" who hangs on everything the Pope says/does. A creed cannot be based on a constant exercise of authority. If it can't go on "auto-pilot", if it can't exist outside of the exercise of this authority, then in a real sense it only exists on paper. Even if the Papacy is essential to the Catholic ethos, it is not equivalent to that ethos. There has to be something more there.

The very first paragraph is a quote from a blog that I read by a young man from the Philipines. If anything, the Philipines is still a Catholic country. I think the passage above best summarizes what a Catholic society looked like up to very recently. Catholic societies were not wholesome, edifying places to live in. At worst, they accentuated the hypocrisy ever-present in our fallen condition even more. We can almost thank God that we can sigh to ourselves constantly: "if only this society lived by the Gospel like in the good ol' days..." This probably gives us some excuse: we can turn on our Catholic radio, listen to programs expounding on the attacks of the "culture of death", and shake our heads in dismay. It makes us all the more righteous. But it probably won't make us very holy.

And yes, I will keep listening.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

In the Depth of Winter


A Manuel Machado

Rosas rosadas y blancas, ramas verdes,
corolas frescas y frescos
ramos, Alegría!
Nidos en los tibios árboles,
huevos en los tibios nidos,
dulzura, Alegría!
El beso de esa muchacha
rubia, y el de esa morena,
y el de esa negra, Alegría!
Y el vientre de esa pequeña
de quince años, y sus brazos
armoniosos, Alegría!
Y el aliento de la selva virgen,
y el de las vírgenes hembras,
y las dulces rimas de la Aurora,
Alegría, Alegría, Alegría!

-Rubén Darío

Pink and white roses, green branches,
fresh corrollas and fresh
bouquets, Joy!
Nests in tepid trees,
eggs in the tepid nests,
sweetness, Joy!
The kiss of that blonde
girl, and that of the dark girl,
and that of the black girl, Joy!
And the belly of that small girl
of fifteen years, and her harmonious
arms, Joy!
And the breath of the virgin jungle,
and that of the virgin girls,
and the sweet rhymes of the Dawn,
Joy, Joy, Joy!

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Please don't eat the baby Jesus

...and some thoughts on not belonging

Over Christmas, AG and I went to visit her family in New Orleans. One of the attactions that her father brought me to on the North Shore was St. Joseph's Abbey and its beautiful church. Its frescoes were done in the early 1950's by Dom Gregory De Witt, and are awe-inspiring. More photos of the church and the grounds can be viewed by going to this site

There was among the frescoes an image I had never seen before. It seemed to be a version of the Byzantine Deisis, but the figure of St. John the Baptist was shown with wings and holding a chalice with a small child in it. My first reaction was, "St. John the Baptist has turned into a monster and is going to eat the baby!" After AG researched it on the Internet, we found that this is actually a traditional image in Byzantine iconography, which is odd since it was the first time I had ever seen it. (Of course, I've see the Forerunner portrayed with wings, but not with a cup of baby cocktail.) Here is one Russian example of the same image:

The more you know...

Changing gears entirely, since I am somewhat "between things" right now, I had this rainy and dreary California day off. So what does the modern 21st century individual do with a day like this off? That right, surf and surf and surf the Web. It is sometimes rather disturbing for me to think that much of my own religious formation took place because of the Internet. Coming back to the same websites and groups that I was allied with over eight years ago now is a rather bizarre experience. When I shared their opinions on many things, I was an entirely different person. Going back to the sites of many traditionalist Roman Catholic groups, I see just how crazy and surreal some of their views are. But somehow, I still sympathize with them, even if I am fully aware now that what they think is not reality.

I think the problem is that we like to put ourselves in bubbles, and the people who are right are the ones that are the best at thinking that the bubble is all there is. I can no longer do that. Once you have spent half a night praying with Coptic monks in the middle of the Mojave Desert, for example, you are never again going to see the liturgical wars that go on over the Web in the same light. The truth is much broader than we can ever imagine, though in some ways it continues to be very, very narrow. (Strange paradox.)

I am not a traditionalist by persuasion. At best, I am a fellow traveller. I don't belong to that movement since I think it is a lost cause. It will in the end lose since the tides of history are flowing the other way, and God does not particularily care about humeral veils, birettas, and the "dominos and biscuits" (read: Dominus vobiscum) But I will still be a liturgical snob until I die. I just know that this snobbery will die with me, and part of me thinks that this is not all that sad.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

In Reply to Critics

If you don't want to waste your time with mere words, use poetry.

Saturday, January 05, 2008


Reading Hans Urs von Balthasar is a little like eating flavored rice cakes. You might like the experience while you're doing it, and you might think it's quite good, but you never really take anything away from it afterwards. You never really feel full. There is too much of him in it, and not enough of the voice of the Church. So far, of the books that I have read or tried to read by him, only Cosmic Liturgy is the one I would ever own, and that is because it has some cool quotes and summaries of the thought of St. Maximus Confessor.

But the real point of this post is not to bash von Balthasar or to post once again the famous picture of him with Mickey Mouse. It is to write about the foreword to his book that I am reading now, Presence and Thought: An Essay on the Religious Philsophy of St. Gregory of Nyssa. While I love St. Gregory of Nyssa, and his influence on how I think I have written about here and here, it is von Balthasar's approach that I care to focus on. It has much to do with the approach to tradition in the Patristic resourcement of last century, which I think has left us rudderless in the face of Church history and praxis.

Von Balthasar begins by stating correctly that one cannot merely transpose the thought and concerns of one epoch, (in this case, that of Greek Fathers) to another epoch such as our own. He also writes that tradition cannot be conceived as passing a baton in a relay race; the light of the Spirit is not flawlessly passed from one generation to another unchanged. Then, however, he begins to drift off into talk about more "spiritual" approaches to tradition, and how in order, "to be faithful to her mission, the Church must continually make the effort at creative invention." In this sense, our German theologian wishes the Church to read St. Gregory of Nyssa as an adult would read her diary that she wrote as an adolescent: not directly pertinent to her circumstances, but rather providing inspiration for her life that is so completely different now:

Let us read history, our history, as a living account of what we once were, with the double-edged consciousness that all of this has gone forever and that, in spite of everything, that period of youth and every moment of our lives remain mysteriously present at the wellsprings of our soul in a kind delectable eternity.

Now, dear reader, you know that I am not the most reactionary person when it comes to liturgy, Church governance, theology, etc. My more reactionary sentiments often come from my counterproductive desire to be a curmudgeon, and I really don't care where people attend Mass or what prayers they say, as long as they're in the pews saying their prayers. But the old traditonalist flame ignites again whenever I read things like this. I think there is a tremendous hermeneutical hubris involved here that plagued much of the Patristic resourcement leading up to the Second Vatican Council. From Chenu, Congar, de Lubac, von Balthasar, etc. we find simultaneously a sense of wanting to return to the roots of tradition and a contempt for many things that came before them. For simplicity's sake, I will break this down into numbered objections.

1. Why are we so different? In all of the ideas that bubble to the surface, there seems for the Vatican II peritus a sense that the sky is falling, and that this has just begun to happen. That is, our epoch is in drastic crisis, and drastic crises call for drastic measures. I'm sorry, but especially in reading a St. Gregory of Nyssa or a St. John Chrysostom, the sense I get is that things haven't really changed a bit. Even down to people being more concerned about sports than they are about what's going on in church. (Chariot races, anyone?) So why do we have to frantically start putting up new drapes and throwing furniture out the window (or in this case, adding or subtracting things from the Mass or the rosary) under some pretense the we are "different"? I don't get it.

2. Does the Church have to increase her calcium intake? Is the Church older? Middle aged? Concerned about her 401-K plan? For all we know, these end times after the first coming of Christ could last another 2,000 years. So where's the fire at?

3. It's okay. I'm a doctor (of theology). All of those years in a Jesuit novitiate, knowing six languages fluently, and even being well versed in all the jargon of modern philosophy make you perfectly competent to diagnose and treat all the things that "ail" the Church? Seems like you better think twice before you pick up the saw and start amputating, doc.

4. Caught in a head trip. Most importantly, what really irks me about the advocates of the Patristic resourcement is their disregard for small "t" traditions in favor of a supposedly neglected big "T" tradition. That is, it is the idea that the former have somehow clouded and eclipsed the vitality of the latter. In other words, since the Middle Ages and the Baroque era, we have been doing it wrong, that is, up to 1962 when they started to have their say in the Church.

Maybe we can blame it on Aristotle; that whole accident vs. substance distinction has got us all into heaps of trouble. For one could envision the folks at Vatican II getting together and saying: "okay, guys, what is essential to the Mass? And what can we change to make it more relevant?" That is, what is accidental? What is essential to the Gospel, and is that getting across, or is it being clouded by Gregorian Masses for the dead and novenas to St. Jude? Is a drunken procession of Indians in Peru really what the Church Fathers had in mind when it comes to liturgy? And so on and so forth.

There are philosophical presuppositions to all of this, ones which I feel are highly questionable. For they all assume that in matters of Faith, we are the ones who are active in the signifying: that is, we must create a medium that expresses perfectly a clear and transparent message. It is a well defined process of transmitting information that is best left to predetermined planning and meticulous composition. I would contend, however, that we are much more passive in this process than we would care to admit. The stained glass windows, the burning candles, the statues, and the priest mumbling with his back turned to you all transmit things that we cannot express in mere words, things that are far from "accidental" to use the Peripatetic term. That is why the Church in the past, if it did intervene to change liturgy or praxis, did it slowly and almost imperceptibly, ultimately not feeling confident enough to radically alter a system that, if it didn't work well, at least worked.

(One can thus see why the historical liturgist's job can be so difficult since he has to trace small changes over an immense amount of time. One can speculate that a liturgist studying our own time would be utterly bored since everything is so variable that it would spark little interest for a keen investigator.)

In those details then lie small sparks of divinity; in those solemn and seemingly superstitious actions lie the very life blood of the Gospel as it has been read for centuries. My greatest fear is that the periti behind Vatican II unwittingly deprived the following generations of the formation in "small things" that they had as children but in their mature years deemed inessential and detrimental to the Gospel. We do not form Tradition, the devotions, processions, and mumbled prayers; they form us. Our resourcement theologians extracted Tradition out of life and made it into a mental construct.

Even if I can live with the Pauline liturgy, the new church buildings, and the priests walking around in lay clothing, I cannot help but feel that the "hermeneutic of continuity" is a rather hollow phrase. If it doesn't look the same, it isn't the same. And no amount of "spiritual" explanations about the "signs of the times" can silence the lament of the eyes, the ears, and the soul.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

St. Joseph's Cord

AG, as you may well know from reading her blog, is from New Orleans. Her family hails from a small city some ways away called Opelousas. You can read more about her memories of going to this place here, as well as on other parts of her fine blog.

Her parents were recently in the Bay Area, and her father regaled us with many tales of growing up in a sharecropping family in the Louisiana countryside. Being Creoles, they grew up speaking both French and English, and now having met his mother, I can say that I really don't know when that gentle woman is speaking English and when she is speaking French. (She makes a fine gumbo, though.) And of course, they are Catholics to the core.

Mr. G told one story in particular that intrigued my sense of the unusual and the extraordinary. As in other places in rural communities, doctors were few and far between. People then had to rely on other means of healing in order to cure their ailments, sometimes even in emergencies. Mr. G. thus told me about "treaters", people who could pray over people and make them better. One story in particular highlighted the role of these people in that community.

The G. family had an old dog that had the useful habit of attacking and chasing away snakes. Usually, it was quick and agile enough to get out of the way of a snake's path when it would strike. One time, though, it was not quick enough, and a poisonous moccasin bit the dog in the face. The dog's face began to swell up and it became mortally ill.

Not wanting to lose the dog, the family called the grandfather who was known as a treater. One of the main tools of a treater in that community was the St. Joseph's Cord, the image of which you see above, and prayers that go along with it can be found here. After this treater recited the prayers of the St. Joseph's Cord, the dog became a little better. After three days, the dog's face returned to its normal size and he was up and about again as feisty as ever.

I thought this story was quaint and uplifting for a variety of reasons. I have always been puzzled in the Gospels as to why Christ could not perform miracles in places where there was little faith. I don't think an easy answer can be given to this question. Maybe this is why the miraculous is also so scarce in our day and age. For the miracle is often is the result of faith sown in love, and love is the bond of all things, and it can do all things. As we see in this story, it can even cure a lethal snake bite. In this sense, then, loving prayer can be considered magical.

being to timelessness as it's to time,
love did no more begin than love will end;
where nothing is to breathe to stroll to swim
love is the air the ocean and the land

(do lovers suffer?all divinities
proudly descending put on deathful flesh:
are lovers glad?only their smallest joy's
a universe emerging from a wish)

love is the voice under all silences,
the hope which has no opposite in fear;
the strength so strong mere force is feebleness:
the truth more first than sun more last than star

-do lovers love?why then to heaven with hell.
Whatever sages say and fools,all's well

-e.e. cummings

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Messiaen, "Les Bergers" from "La Nativité du Seigneur"

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

On Ugliness and Catharsis

There is a sense in many conservative cultural circles that all forms of modern art are somehow decadent or contrary to traditional ways of looking at the world. Beauty, in simple terms, seems to be under siege for many, and the weapons that are attacking it are hard rock, Webern string quartets, Joyce novels, Dylan Thomas poems, Picasso paintings, and the sculptures of Richard Serra, to name a few. For many conservative Christian theorists, to portray the ugly, the subconscious, and the dissonant is a very modern obsession that forms part of the anti-Christian revolution started at the Renaissance. It is deemed that such obsessions were not part of a classical and more human aesthetic.

Upon reading some texts of the fourth century Neoplatonic pagan philosopher, Iamblichus, it would is necessary for me to revise this view in saying that in many circumstances, the ancients viewed the representation of disorder as a fundamental part of their religious and philosophical conceptions of the world. Those familair with the thought of Frederich Nietzsche would recognize this as the balance between the Dionysian and Apollonian realms of expression and consciousness. An explanation of the thought of Iamblichus can further shed light on the German philosopher's suppositions.

Iamblichus in his work, De Mysteriis, writes an apology for the pagan cult against the accusations of another philsopher, Porphyry. Like the early Christian writers, Porphyry was uneasy with various unseemly forms that pagan religion took. Iamblichus at one point addresses one of his concerns, that of the establishing of large phalli in cultic rituals, and from there expounds the idea that the invoking of the base and unpleasant is a fundamental part of philosophical liberation and catharsis:

But I am of the opinion that the obscene language that then takes place [at the erection of phalli], affords an indication of the privation of good about matter, and of the deformitiy which is in material subjects, prior to their being adorned. For these being indigent of ornament, by so much the more aspire after it, as they in a greater degree despise their own deformity. Again, therefore, they pursue the causes of forms, and of what is beautiful and good, recognizing baseness from base language. And thus, indeed, the thing itself, viz. turpitude, is averted, but the knowledge of it is rendered manifest through words, and those that employ them transfer their desire to that which is contrary to baseness.

In the Iamblichean system, then, the representation of the base in art and religion reflects the longing of matter for the immaterial and the infinite. The only way to conquer the aethetically unpleasing is to confront it by showing what it is.

This exposure to the unseemly also can prove as a vaccine against the passions, as Iamblichus further writes:

The powers of the human passions that are in us, when they are entirely restrained, become more vehement; but when they are called forth into energy, gradually and commensurately, they rejoice in being moderately gratified, are satsified; and from hence, becoming purified, they are rendered tractable, and are vanquished without violence. On this account, in comedy and tragedy, by surveying the passions of others, we stop our own passions, cause them to be more moderate, and are purified from them. In sacred ceremonies, likewise, by certain spectacles and auditions of things base, we become liberated from the injury which happend from the works affected by them.

Thus, the bias of the Platonic system against matter is in a way nuanced, for it is not through escape from the unpleasant results of materiality that brings liberation, but rather their use in a type of catharsis that longs ever for the things beyond physical appearances. Even though many modern artists do not have this conception while conceiving their creations, we can view them ourselves in this manner. Whether it is listening to Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire, reading a Sylvia Plath poem, or viewing a Jackson Pollock painting, we can see how far things have fallen from the beautiful, and how in their ugliness, they long for it again.

For me, there is also very much a cultural aspect to this unwillingness to accept the darker side of humanity in our own religiosity. As I wrote in another post, there seems to exist the idea in the Anglo-Saxon world that the best way to deal with existential catastrophes is to either ignore them or deal with them in a sterile way that never really accepts the human condition as it is. This may be due to the more affluent state of the faithful in these parts of the world, and also to the idea that the expression of suffering and pain is inappropriate for the public sphere. That is why religious art in churches here can be so clean and often without the feeling of a Spanish saint or a Baroque crucifix.

This is also the reason that I have criticized the idea that Byzantine iconography or medieval relgious art is somehow superior to other religious art forms because they are more "objective" and "sober". To exclue the reality of what occurs in the world under the guise of wanting to "transfigure" it can be escapist in the wrong cultural context. In the context of Ottoman Greece or Czarist Russia, such religious art may have avoided these pitfalls. (Though most of these places also adopted the "Italian" style alongside more traditional Byzantine forms, so speaking of distictions here is very complicated.) Thus, in our American religious culture that has no roots in apostolic Christianity, to argue for primitive iconography as purer and less scandalous to the eyes could merely be taken as aesthetic Protestantism carried out by other means.

I am not arguing here that one religious style is superior to another. What I am arguing is that some cultures may approach the world in a more wholistic way, and ours may not be one of them. That which is ugly, unseemly, and causes us discomfort may in the end be good for us. It may stir in us a longing for something that transcends this vale of tears. In religious art, especially in such forms as the Spanish baroque, it can inspire us to realize how much God emptied Himself in becoming man, and it can remind us about how people continue to suffer in our human condition, and that the most beautiful moment is when this suffering is overcome and transformed into redemptive love.