The Sarabite: Towards an Aesthetic Christianity

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

Friday, 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.

15 Comments:

At 3:43 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

too many ideas
too convuluted

 
At 4:40 PM, Anonymous Shepard said...

It seems that you think that you have to be raised Catholic in order to be a truly intergrated Catholic. Do you believe this to be true?

 
At 11:05 PM, Blogger the Cogitator said...

I am only on quasi-vacation, this being my first Saturday without either illness or classes, so I felt permitted to read this. Heh.

"Catholicism will not become robust again until it can be conceived as independent from authority."

I am reminded by this of the case or cases in China of "parishes" existing for years, even decades, without a priest. They gather regularly, in secret, and perform everything of the Mass they can…without the Eucharist or final blessing. It is that kind of "renegade" devotion that, paradoxically, hankers for ecclesial authority most. What they would give for some authoritarian backing! I agree with your claim, then, abot the crucial organic vitality, or not, of the Faith.

I think much of the problem, to paraphrase Chesterton, is htat people are constantly looking ahead (ie, to new papal directives, new pastoral prompts, new apostolates, etc.) because they are reluctant to look back. In many ways, the curia can tell us nothing new. It can only, if it is being true to itself and the Lord, tell us all the old things over and over again about NEW issues int he world. The a papal commissioner, if not the Pope himself, recently expressed the need for Catholic blogging. I agree…but I wonder why this has to be said when there are so many more important, old, kitschy things every Catholic should be doing FIRST. Like first Fridays, or the Rosary, or Friday fasting, or explicitly "offering up" sufferings, or morning and evening consecrations, or standing when they bless meals before and after eating them, or wearing (faithfully) scapulars, or sticking holy cards and candles all about everywhere, or at least trying to follow the daily lectionary, making the sign of the Cross by every Catholic church and at every great or perilous moment, or bowing and kneeling before icons of Our Lady and Our Lord, etc etc etc.

I was once in a small Catholic bookstore and was struck by how many of the things there really jazzed me up in my faith…while others seemed just…kitschy and outdated. And it hit: that's exactly why the Church is THE Church. It has devotions, styles, sacramentals, traditions, idiosyncracies, warts, scars, gems, etc. for ALL people. The Church is as intricate and complex and cluttered as humanity itself. Hence, scraping away the barnacles of Tthe Barque of Peter, as V2 set out to do, may have been good for EXTREME cases, but it set a dangerous message, namely, that barnacles, glitches, scratches, bumps, imperfections, curiosities, idiosyncracies, smallness, individuality, etc. are bad, or at least sub-optimal, as if the Barque were a cigarette boat smuggling the Gospel and could only outstrip the world or the Devil by being more efficient than them. Batten down the hatches only works if the sailors already have private foot lockers they want to protect and keep cluttered in the larger order. V2, then, was a paradox: martial in its clinical spring cleaning, but anti-martial and effete in its approval of faceless, timeless, "broad" spirituality over personal, historical, narrow devotions. Every soldier fights best when he has narrow, personal trinkets to grip with his M-16; obscure, personal carvings in his standard issue helmet; unsightly, rash tattoos that keep him mindful of home, of love, of life, of his tiny, individual reality.

Of course, it must be kept in mind that I speak as a functional hypocrite, since in the last weeks and months I have had much of the "obscurity" ground out of me and have settled into a foggy, general spirituality that centers on the Mass and just "being a good witness." That, I think, is the normal mode of many Catholics. This is based, I believe, on a larger problem with culture. People leave "art" to "art types" because they have been raised in a sanitized, post-Enlightenment world, which teaches us that the world is a resource for production and mortal betterment, not a secret beehive of possibilities which we must aesthetically cultivate. So it is with the Faith: the Faith is a resource upon which we draw, but leave personal touches and devotions to the Filipinos, or Mexicans, or old French Canadians, or the new Africans, or those wily Traditionalists. People by and large have no sense of spiritual "creativity" because they have no sense of spiritual responsibility. What happens to your soul, or doesn't, is one's OWN responsibility. It can't depend on the periodic spurs of the curia. The welter of private, local devotions that a person PERSONALLY appropriates are material evidence that they are responsible for their own soul, that is, they are creative in how their soul manifestly responds to God and the world. If one's spiritual "aesthetic" is more text (Denzinger, Ott, Zenit bulletins, apostolic exhortations and encyclicals, etc) than icons, candles, music and devout bodily postures, then one's soul is in someone else's hands.

 
At 11:25 PM, Blogger the Cogitator said...

My point about the link between aesthetic creativity and personal responsibility holds for the larger world as well. (I should say, smaller world, since the soul is a vastly larger world than the world.) To complain about the ugliness, blandness, outdatedness, vapid formality, etc, of the world is to renege on one's own responsibility to transform all that banality into beauty in one's own way. The world is as ugly as it is because most people are as passive as they are. "When is the city council going to do something about these eyesores?" It won't because it is only made up of people representing a populace that reflexively asks when someone else will "beautify" the place. Jacobs's book on the Death and Life of Great American Cities deals with this problem. The City Beautiful concept of public design has never worked because it alway tries to draw a tarp of uniform beauty over the welter of minute beauties and spontaneous practices of the people on every street corner. Example: in New York (?) the city reps once built a huge public fountain amidst a "bucolic" park, only to find no one really went there. First, its massive beauty left no place for people to enjoy other than outside it, and left them nothing to do about it but observe it. Paradoxically, as public property––everybody's property––it was nobody's property. It was the city's, not the citizens'. Second, all the parents knew that all the perverts knew that all the parents would "logically" send their kids to the public play-park, so all the perverts knew all the kiddies would be there, but then all the parents, sensing what the perverts knew, logically did NOT send their kids to the park, lest they become easy pickins in an empty bucolic courtyard. So because no one trusting going there, no one went there.

Then what happened was this:

The city had to clean the fountain so it drained all the water out. For weeks, then, people saw a huge tiered pits in the ground, which wordlessly screamed out to everyone, "Let's all sit in it, like the Greeks and Romans of old in an amphitheater." And so they did. The fountain basin became popular because it was empty enough to allow people to lounge around, play chess in it, play ball in the bottom of it, run steps for exercise, etc. And the kids came to because now there were oodles of people to act as a general pervert-block. Once the fountain stopped being a "public resource" it became a personal resource, a canvas for human life.

Somehow we need to drain the fountains which have sprung up in the Church. I suspect much of that will happen as dead weight either opts out for hedonism. Perhaps what has drawn many people to the Church for a long time, is that it was presented ("pitched") as a "nice place" for the family, for the state, for the world. Well, though I cringe to use an old MTV mantra, I believe it fits: the Church needs to stop being nice and start being real. When people then see the Church is ONLY JUST people gathered in a myriad ways around the ONE LORD, then maybe the Church will seem less professionally catholic and broad and sanitary, and will seem more classically Catholic as concrete, unashamedly quirky, and offering nothing but eternal communion in a fallen world.

 
At 4:47 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Church is as intricate and complex and cluttered as humanity itself.

This is so, so, so profoundly true.

Diane

 
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