Monday, December 23, 2013

A good Advent

On the day before the day before Christmas, I find myself feeling unusually grateful to God. I felt stirrings of a new life inside me this Advent.

Yesterday, I had a Proustian moment. an old Simon and Garfunkel song came up on the store's speakers. I don't think it's a great song but I doubt I could be objective about it in any case. In any case, the second I heard it, a flood of old memories from childhood came back. I was very young when this song came out, I have no memories of it all from the year it was a minor hit. All my memories come from years later from two sorts of situations" 1) when it would come up as an "oldie" on AM radio and 2) when I would be allowed to go off to play by myself while my mother was visiting some friend of hers and I would discover that this friend of my mother's children owned a copy of Bookends.

All of which, it occurs to me now, makes me something of a mirror image of Proust for he would have regarded being sent from his mother's presence as the deepest misery. Also unlike Proust, I am perfectly happy with these memories as memories and have no desire to regain, or should that be "repossess", them.

In any case, I would pull that record out of its sleeve and play it again and again. I never bought my own copy. I don't know quite why. It may be that I did the same with other LPs that had been big hits in my childhood days and almost inevitably found the experience underwhelming. I particularly remember buying a couple of Beatles albums, lsitening to them for a week or so and never listening to them.

The particular song I heard yesterday was Fakin' It. Listening to it now, it strikes me that there are really only two moments in the tune. One is the opening couplet
When she goes, she’s gone
If she stays, she stays here
I was talking to a guy the other day about a local fiddle player and he referred to her as, "The redhead who haunts all our dreams." And that's what is at work here, the gypsy girl we all imagine.

The other part is the spoken word section in the middle of the song where a man walks into a shop and is greeted by the salesgirl. This is meant to make us realize that the relationship with girl at the beginning is only a fantasy.

It really was a more innocent time.

By the way, Paul Simon learned how to write lyrics in English class. I don't know if TS Eliot would appreciate it but his influence shows up all over Simon's lyrics; you get that same sense of someone craving redemption on the one hand but mercilessly excising almost every pathway to it because they seem too easy, too sentimental.

A final thought until after Christmas, another of his songs from that era was called "For Emily, Whenever I May Find Her". Simon insisted that the song wasn't about an imaginary girl named Emily but about belief. Looking for the quote this morning, I see in Wikipedia, he also said that the song "Overs" is about loss of belief. That's interesting because Simon apparently conceives of "belief" in two ways:
  1. Craving but not finding belief is an imagined relationship with a dream girl; for all Simon's insistence that "Emily" isn't even an imagined girl you just know her last name is Dickinson.
  2. Losing belief is the loss of a relationship with a woman.
Look at those two poles, and you can see that it is a way of living that is doomed to failure. (And you can also see that it is an approach to life that haunted a lot of people in that era.) The thing is, there is something backwards in that. If you really want faith in God, you have to imagine yourself as a woman who is open and receptive to the new life he can put in you.

When he wrote "Bridge Over Troubled Water", Simon conceived of it as his message to a particular woman and quite clearly not as a religious song. He failed utterly in that as the vast majority of people who love it, do so because it is a religious song to them. As I've said here before, though, he makes promises to the woman that only God could make. The song works if you imagine the promises are offered to you, to imagine otherwise is blasphemous.

Last word to Christina Rossetti, see you in early January.

Friday, December 20, 2013

The Los Angeles TImes wants you to hate a twenty-four-year-old graphic designer

I know, you've never even heard of her so why would you hate her? Here's why:
Trinkel De La Paz, 24, loves this holiday's deep discounts because they're enabling her to be a more generous Santa.
To herself, that is.

The Silver Lake graphic designer bought herself an iPad mini and some clothes discounted on Cyber Monday, and she's not done. De La Paz said she feels free to splurge on herself because she has extra money from a recently landed job, a new apartment waiting to be spruced up and only one present to buy for her family's Secret Santa exchange.

"These prices are only happening this time of year," she said. "I might as well stock up now."
Actually, if you stop and think about it, her behaviour is quite rational and entirely defensible. You're buying stuff for others and you see a bargain on something you want. There is nothing wrong with that. Trinkle knows that and she talked to a reporter about it in what probably felt to her like a normal conversation. And then that same reporter went and put this quote up like this in a context that she knew would inspire anger to be directed at Trinkle.

Remember that the next time some nice reporter starts asking you questions in a friendly tone. You have no idea how te story is going to be framed and reporters think nothing at all of acting friendly while they position you for a knife in the back.

Okay, but why go to the trouble to set poor Trinkle up? So they can bury the lead!

Consumer's impulse purchases to buy something for themselves while out shopping for gifts is actually a very good indicator of the state of the economy.
"The willingness of the shopper to push her budget beyond what she had originally planned is a key influencer for holiday growth," NPD Group analyst Marshal Cohen said in a blog post. "In fact, the self-gifting indicator has made the difference between growth and decline."
Cohen reasons that each year, the number of gifts Americans expect to give remains roughly the same, making their tendency to buy presents for themselves a more accurate gauge of their economic circumstances. And during the recession, when spending declined, "one of the leading factors that saved retailers was an increase in self-gifting" by consumers taking advantage of big holiday bargains, Cohen said.
And now that you know that, there is a pretty obvious question: How are we doing? If you read 11 paragraphs into this article you get the answer:
But this year, the behavior is on the decline, as shoppers already accustomed to making do with less money shrink from the head winds of continued economic uncertainty.
Far be it from me to suggest that some poor 24 year old got held up to mockery in the press just to protect some politician who is having a rough time right now.

What are they selling?

If you live on a bus route that feeds a university campus you get to see a lot of ads about condoms:

These ads don't change anybody's minds about anything. They never have and this is well-established. Anti-smoking ads did nothing to reduce the number of smokers, pro-fitness ads do not increase the number of people who exercise, anti-racism ads don't reduce hatred and so forth. Perhaps most notoriously, the very same people who promote rape awareness ads insist that there is a ever worsening rape culture on university campuses which, if true, means their own campaigns have been a failure.

Why run the ads then?

Before I answer that, let's talk about Porsche. Or the Toronto Maple Leafs. What those two vendors have in common is that they have no trouble at all selling their product. Porsche and the Leafs always sell out. So why advertize?

The answer is that Porsche advertisements are not aimed at people who want a car but don't know which kind. They are aimed at people who already want or already have a Porsche. The ads exist to validate the desires that people already have. Thousands, possibly millions, of young men who have or want a Porsche use the ads to convince themselves that they are right to keep on wanting a Porsche.

Condoms, however, are more like the Leafs: they suck. Perhaps a bad word choice but crude as this is, the problem is that nobody, but nobody likes condoms. Don't take my word for it, trust Bill Gates:
The one major drawback to more universal use of male condoms is the lack of perceived incentive for consistent use. The primary drawback from the male perspective is that condoms decrease pleasure as compared to no condom, creating a trade-off that many men find unacceptable, particularly given that the decisions about use must be made just prior to intercourse. Is it possible to develop a product without this stigma, or better, one that is felt to enhance pleasure?
By the way, notice who gets left out here? That's right, women!  But women have no problem with condoms, you say. Actually, the best research shows that they dislike the things at least as much as men do. (Notice that the ad is actually aimed at women. The people behind these campaigns may not admit certain facts but they do know about them.)

Anyway, to get back to the central thread, you'll notice from the text I cited above that the marketing problem for condoms is the same as it is for Porsches or the Leafs: it's easy to get people to desire these things; it isn't so easy to get them to act on those desires. Lots of men want Porsches but that is one hell of a lot of money for what is really just a toy. The Leafs, they always, but always, manage to lose in the end; they're so bad they should move to Cleveland. And everybody approves of condoms to reduce the risk of disease but ... well, that's another problem.

Did you notice that they can't quite bring themselves to say it? That entire paragraph is full of evasions: "the lack of perceived incentive ... from the male perspective is that condoms decrease pleasure ... develop a product without this stigma". They won't come out and say what everyone who has ever used one of these things knows to be true: that they do reduce pleasure.

The point is to stiffen your resolve. It's an ad to make you feel good about yourself so you will keep using condoms even though condoms are really inconvenient and reduce pleasure.

So how do you make a boring and anti-romantic product seem sexy?
You don't have to take a risk to be risqué.
"Risqué" to be sure means a pretty small risk but having the ability to judge a crowd well enough to tell a risqué joke and get away with it is something we admire.

They really mean, you shouldn't take certain specific risks when you have sex but that's kinda boring and, given that the ad is aimed at people who already agree in principle and already own a box of condoms but don't always actually open the box because ..., and risqué is something they might aspire to. The ad is designed to encourage them to see themselves as rebels who challenge social norms even though the social norms they are supposedly challenging stopped applying sometime in 1963. You're not a boring lover just because you insist on stopping the action to insist on a condom that is going to reduce your pleasure and your partners because, hey, you're risque!

What really bothers me about the ad is the assumption that sex can or should be risk free but that's a whole other kettle of fish ...

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Taking Francis seriously (pargraphs 11-13): Whose renewal?

I was talking to two liberal I know Catholics about Envangelii Gaudium and both surprised me. The first, an old-schood "new lefty" from the 1960s did so by saying he thought it a very badly written and poorly thought out piece of work.

Well, he's right. I was taken aback at first because I had found lots to like in it myself. But now that I read it more carefully, I can see his point. As an example of what he and I mean, consider the following quotes from paragraphs #10 and #11.
  1. When the Church summons Christians to take up the task of evangelization, she is simply pointing to the source of authentic personal fulfillment.
  2. Consequently, an evangelizer must never look like someone who has just come back from a funeral!
  3. A renewal of preaching can offer believers, as well as the lukewarm and the non-practising, new joy in the faith and fruitfulness in the work of evangelization.
If this was a term paper submitted by an undergraduate, I'd mark it F. In the margin beside these paragraphs, I'd write, "You don't really believe what you have written here." Back in the days before I left the academic world and had to mark undergraduate papers, I'd write that a lot.

To grasp the problem compare these phrases from quotes 1 and 3.
  • "... the source of authentic personal fulfillment."
  • "A renewal of preaching can offer believers joy in the faith"

If evangelizing is THE source of authentic personal fulfillment then it WILL offer believers new joy in the faith.

Part of the problem, as I indicated in an earlier post, is that Francis is making a psychological rather than a moral or a factual argument. But there is a more fundamental issue and that is that he doesn't really believe it himself.

But maybe that is okay. He's a pastoral pope not a groundbreaker like John Paul or a deep and perceptive thinker like Benedict. His task may be to be a bit of a cheerleader who exhorts us to do better while he does his real job of fixing church governance away from the spotlight, a task suited to a tough man like him. The church is full of parish priests who are mediocre preachers but really good administrators who can pay down the debts and clean out the deadwood and thank God for them; perhaps we need a pope who can do what they do for individual parishes for the whole church.

Which brings me to my second liberal Catholic friend, a gay man who hopes the church will one day stop condemning homosexual acts. We were talking about just this aspect and he said he thinks the liberalizing Francis is getting credit for is really the work of John Paul and Benedict.

For me, that was one of those moments when we suddenly realize we've missed something really important. Because my friend is right. Read John Paul and Benedict correctly and you can see a path for renewing not so much the church as the faith. Liberal Catholics see nothing but roadblocks because they are rigidly committed to only one kind of renewal but there is another, and better path, open to those who are willing to see it.

Is Francis one of these? Well, in a sense it doesn't matter because, quite frankly, he doesn't have the intellectual or the moral stature to do anything else but follow what they have set out. He can do the job really well, really badly or just muddle through doing the best he can but nothing he does is going to fundamentally alter the course his predecessors have set.

As we will see next week, he makes a real muddle of "new evangelization". Such a muddle, in fact, that this particular exhortation is, for all intents and purposes, stillborn. But, so what? We can survive this and, at the very least, accomplishing little means we can be certain of accomplishing little harm; boldly launching the church in a new direction doesn't necessarily guarantee that direction will be a good way to go.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Cardinal Burke had to go

Regular readers will know that I am no cheerleader for Pope Francis but I have to say he was absolutely right about this one. Cardinal Burke's remarks to the effect that we cannot talk enough about abortion was simple defiance or, even worse, he was trying to deter others by giving them an excuse to ignore the Pope's message. Given what he said, he had to be demoted and he was.

I mention this also to call attention to an earlier post of mine "What is Pope Francis up to?" I think what I said there has now been thoroughly vindicated. Francis is a tough man, not the humble man he plays on TV, and he means to rein in those Catholics, whom I call Humanae Vitae Catholics, who want to define being Catholic in terms of our adherence to a series of moral rules regarding sexuality. I know, abortion is not an issue of sexuality but talk to any hard-core Humanae vitae Catholic and they'll tell you that, in their view, the real basis of the abortion debate is contraception.

Pope Francis has sent what ought to be a clear message and that message is lay off of this stuff; that the primary message of the church is God's mercy and forgiveness not refighting the sexual revolution. He has now reinforced that message by demoting Cardinal Burke. Local stations please copy.

And I'd add this: today, on his 77th birthday, we should thank God for Pope Francis and his doing this.

(The writing is also on the wall for fans of the Traditional Latin Mass: Don't tie your love of the old ritual to hard-line sexual morality.)

Taking Francis seriously, paragraph 10: Adjutorium nostrum in nomine Domini.

As Christmas approaches, pageviews drop. It happened last year. It's happening again. That said, I suspect the subject matter I've taken up with this series is probably driving people away. Oh well.

When the Church summons Christians to take up the task of evangelization, she is simply pointing to the source of authentic personal fulfillment.
I'll respond to that with quotes from two friends of mine, neither of whom are famous.

1. The first quote is from a therapist who now works with the military. Back when we were in university, he once said, "Self-help books can do people good but only if they read them very quickly." What Tom meant by that was that these books consist of exhortations that are good at motivating some people provided they don't look into the philosophical foundations they are built on. Analogy: telling a stage-four cancer patient to cheer up just might work provided they don't ask you to provide reasons why they should be cheerful.

For example, we could paraphrase the above quote from Francis by saying:
Get out there and evangelize and you'll find personal fulfillment!
Well, maybe. It depends what you mean by "evangelize". You could, for example, learn to speak Arabic, fly to Saudi Arabia, set up on a street corner and start to proclaim the gospel. Most likely scenario is that an angry mob would form and assault you on the spot. If your lucky, you'll survive and an appeal to Saudi authorities would cause them to waive the death penalty in your case and your badly damaged body will be flown back home.  You probably wouldn't survive.

You may think I'm being facetious, but Saint Dominic wanted to do the equivalent of that. Fortunately, for everyone, he was denied permission by his superiors and went on to found the Order of Preachers.

Where am I going with this? I don't know. What I do know is that the one of two huge questions as we read through this is how Francis defines "evangelization". Any pope could get away with saying, "Evangelize it's your duty", but a pope who writes a long letter asking us to do so also, by this very action, puts the onus on himself to come up with a very good definition of evangelization and very good reasons why we should do it.

For now, he quotes the Fifth General Conference of the Latin American and Caribbean Bishops:
“Life grows by being given away, and it weakens in isolation and comfort. Indeed, those who enjoy life most are those who leave security on the shore and become excited by the mission of communicating life to others”
That strikes me as the sort of thing you find in a typical self-help book or even on an inspirational poster. You could accept it as true in a fuzzy sort of way but it would not stand a lot of scrutiny.

2. Which brings me to the second quote. My friend John, an economist, once said to me, "One of the things you learn when you study behavioural economics is that people who go after something in a  single-minded way succeed more often than people who are merely gifted; the ugly, five-foot nothing bald guy who makes seducing a whole lot of women the centre of his life will usually do better than the tall, good-looking guy." His point was that when the rest of us sometimes sit around and bemoan the fact that we didn't have as much sex, money, fame or adventure in our lives we are forgetting that we didn't really want these things in the first place.

To stick with the guy who wishes he could have more sex partners, we could think about this in two ways. One possibility is that something, usually the fear of rejection, held us back from actually pursuing these things. Another possibility is that we didn't pursue sex because, whether we admitted it to ourselves or not, we actually value other things more.

Thomas Cardinal Collins, as quoted by my Bishop, likes to say,
Don’t show me your mission statement. Show me your budget, and I will know what your mission is.
And that's a good way to think about it. We often say we value certain things but our real mission is better revealed by how we spend our money. If "money" seems to dirty for you, it also works with the way you spend you time and energy*: you say you love your mother but how often do you visit her? (Values", by the way, is an absolutely useless concept in morality; that's why we like it so much.)

And here is the rub: You probably don't love your mother; or, if this makes it easier to swallow this bitter pill, you don't love her as much as you think you should. I know, what a scandalous thing to say. But, be honest, you know what she did for you and you know how much you mean to her but the truth is that you've been through a lot with your mother and there are lots of things you'd rather be doing than visiting her. Evangelization is something of a similar problem. No mother, no you; no evangelization, no church. And the point is not that there are other things we'd rather do but that month after month, year after year, we keep choosing to do other things.

In part one, I suggested that Francis has set himself a logical hurdle to get over. In this second part, I suggest that he has also set himself an inspirational hurdle that makes that logical hurdle look tiny by comparison. I don't mean to be uncharitable when I say that logical hurdles are not this pope's strong point. He follows two exceptionally intelligent popes. That said, I don't think he is up to the logical challenge and that means that everything, the entire success of his papacy, depends on his ability to inspire.

And, sorry to be a downer, I think he is going to fail. Actually, it's worse than that, I think he has already failed. I think he has succeeded in becoming a celebrity but we didn't need a celebrity. We needed someone who was going to inspire people in the church and not someone the media would love. We should all pray I'm wrong pope but, even if I am right, it won't be so bad. One of the consequences of having a really great pope is that we tend to focus too much attention and hope on the pope when our help is in the name of the LORD, who made heaven and earth.

* OTOH, the way you spend your money will almost certainly match the way you spend the way you spend your time and energy, which is the Cardinal's point.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Taking Francis seriously, paragraph #9: The dangers of sentimentality

I'm going to quote this one in full. Pope Francis makes a claim and then quotes Saint Paul to back up that claim. The question I want to ask is, "Does Paul actually backs up Francis here?"
Goodness always tends to spread. Every authentic experience of truth and goodness seeks by its very nature to grow within us, and any person who has experienced a profound liberation becomes more sensitive to the needs of others. As it expands, goodness takes root and develops. If we wish to lead a dignified and fulfilling life, we have to reach out to others and seek their good. In this regard, several sayings of Saint Paul will not surprise us: “The love of Christ urges us on” (2 Cor 5:14); “Woe to me if I do not proclaim the Gospel” (1 Cor 9:16). 
If we want to help Francis—and why not?—we should say that "every authentic experience of truth and goodness"and that any experience of "profound liberation" is really an experience of Christ's love for us. And that, no doubt, is what he does mean.

On the other hand, it is easy to see, when we read stuff like this, why Francis is so consistently "misunderstood" by the press. I put "misunderstood" in scare quotes here not because I think that the press actually does understand him. My concern is that if you are Francis and the press keeps misunderstanding you, there is point where you should ask yourself whether it might not be a good idea to start expressing yourself more carefully.

And that should worry us because the press is in the business of selling us cheap sentiment and Popes should not be. So, I ask myself why any sane person with even a modicum of life experience should accept the claim that "Goodness always tend to spread"? Really?

Here is a quote from Paul that really shook me the first time I read it:
Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is the church, of which I became a minister according to the divine office which was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now made manifest to his saints. (Colossians 1: 24)
It never shocked me to read that in Paul. I must have always let it slide by. But it really shook me when someone took it and turned it into a prayer. This is the Psalm prayer that follows  Psalm 116 (verses 10-19) in Evening prayer 1 from last Saturday night (Week III of the Psalter).
Father, precious in your sight is the death of the saints, but precious above all is the love with which Christ suffered to redeem us. In this life we fill up in our own flesh what is still lacking in the sufferings of Christ; accept this as our sacrifice of praise, and we shall even now taste the joy of the new Jerusalem.
To fill up or complete what is still lacking in the sufferings of Christ???? However we explain that to ourselves, we shouldn't try to explain it away.

Here is how the excepted section from Psalm 116 that precedes that prayer begins:
I trusted, even when I said:
"I am sorely afflicted,"
and when I said in my alarm:
"No man can be trusted."
There is a lot of ocean between that and "Goodness always tends to spread."

I don't where to go from here—other than to keep reading.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Taking Francis seriously: Santa Lucia!

This is a commentary on paragraph 8 of Evangelii Gaudium.

When last we  heard from Francis, he was quoting Benedict to the effect that the basis of Christianity is an encounter with a person.
Thanks solely to this encounter – or renewed encounter – with God’s love, which blossoms into an enriching friendship, we are liberated from our narrowness and self-absorption. We become fully human when we become more than human, when we let God bring us beyond ourselves in order to attain the fullest truth of our being. Here we find the source and inspiration of all our efforts at evangelization. For if we have received the love which restores meaning to our lives, how can we fail to share that love with others?
I quote the whole paragraph this time because there isn't a single original thought in that paragraph. I mean that as praise. Francis is a very back-to-basics guy and you can really see it here. You can trace this teaching all the way back to the first letters of Paul, and Paul is the very first Christian writer. The message is: Christ will do something wonderful for us by coming to us and we can and should change as a result.

And the key point is that we prepare for this by being receptive.
Though he was in the form of God,
Jesus did not deem equality with God
something to be grasped at.
And so Francis says that, "we let God bring us beyond ourselves". In other words, don't try to make it happen. Be receptive and open. Or, to put it in valley talk, "Try being, you know, ready to actually experience this stuff for real".

Think about how much of what the common culture means by "inner life" is the exact opposite of what Francis talks about here. So often we hear of an inner life as a place to retreat to, to get away from the world. How different it is if we think of looking side not to find ourselves but find someone else, Jesus.

It is Santa Lucia today. Think of the light in the darkness but don't try to be the light. If the light is real, it will come to you.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Taking Francis seriously: Gaudete in Domino semper

This post deals with paragraphs 4, 5, 6 and 7 of Evangelii Gaudium. I don't think I have done anything better than expand on Francis's very good work here so you'd be better off reading the relevant sections of the exhortation again rather than my commentary below.

There are Christians whose lives seem like Lent without Easter.
A friend recent told me of the travails of a couple of traditionalist Catholics and their fight against the post-Vatican 2 reforms. As a result of two decades struggle, their marriage foundered, one of them lost their faith and the other became a supporter of the SSPX, their children are bitter and unhappy and they have no friends left. After describing this, my friend says, "They paid a tremendous price for fighting for their values."

Well, I suppose they did but if fighting for you "values" (whatever that is supposed to mean) leaves you miserable, then they either weren't worth fighting for or you went about it the wrong way.

As I said in response to a comment yesterday, my mother taught my sisters and I that we were morally obligated to strive to be happy. She never read a word of Aquinas in her life but she understood.

It's a lot like being in love. Our culture treats this as a feeling that comes as a product of other things. But love (along with hope and faith) is something you have to pray for and then work for. So is happiness or, to use a better word, blessedness. You have to believe that God can do this for you. And I can't make it conditional on other stuff—I'll be happy if church politics goes my way or I meet someone to marry or I get a good job or whatever.
I never tire of repeating those words of Benedict XVI which take us to the very heart of the Gospel: “Being a Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction”

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Time headline: "Pope Francis, The People’s Pope"

I read that and thought, "Just like Princess Diana, the people's princess".

And then I threw up.

Taking Francis seriously: "I invite all Christians"

This is a commentary on paragraph three of Evangelii Gaudium.

I invite all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least an openness to letting him encounter them; I ask all of you to do this unfailingly each day.

The temptation is to dismiss that as boilerplate, and rather Protestant-sounding boilerplate at that. In fact, this is Pope Francis doing what he does best. This paragraph is a back-to-basics message and it is a message that those of us on the traditionalist end of the Catholic spectrum especially need to listen to.

I've spent a fair amount of time talking to Catholics and those considering entering the church about what the Church teaches. Sometimes, when people just aren't getting it, I find it useful to bluntly say, "You know, I really believe this stuff."

I say that because it is easy, when discussing the details, to forget that the base of our belief is that God exists; we do not believe that "a god" exists but that the real God, with a real identity, who has made real promises and he will keep them because he really is a loving God.

One of the places that we more traditionalist Catholics tend to go wrong is that we get too focused on the rules. For a traditionalist Catholic. where you stand in relation to God is a matter of rules. You use the rules to calculate your status and you follow other rules to fix that status. Ask a traditionalist Catholic whether you can receive communion on a given day and they will cite a series of rules you can use for self-examination and, if you don't pass muster according to these rules, they will tell you about other rules whereby you can examine your conscience, repent, go to confession and make penance so you can receive. And there is nothing wrong with that. Traditionalist Catholics will point out, with justice, that they at least know and respect the rules.

But there is something else that is more fundamental and much, much more important here and that is that God is a forgiving God.
Now is the time to say to Jesus: “Lord, I have let myself be deceived; in a thousand ways I have shunned your love, yet here I am once more, to renew my covenant with you. I need you. Save me once again, Lord, take me once more into your redeeming embrace”. How good it feels to come back to him whenever we are lost!
That is the message of evangelization. Christ came to save sinners and I'm a sinner. He will save you too.

Too often we tell people who are considering joining the church what they can't do. "Lesson one: Contraception and why you have to stop using it and stop having sex with your boyfriend right now!!! Welcome to the Catholic Church.

I think I've mentioned this before but the Lemon Girl and I found ourselves talking to some young women who were considering joining the church last year. They were probably all sexually active. We didn't, of course, ask them. But they were very resistant to any church teachings on sexuality. One of the most fruitful discussions came about when we asked them, "Never mind what you imagine that the church does or doesn't teach, is there anything sexual you can imagine yourself doing that would constitute a sin?" It turns out that there was. There was a quite a lot.

Christ came to save sinners and the first step is recognizing that I am a sinner in need of redemption. And everyone who isn't a psychopath will recognize this if you give them a chance.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Taking Francis seriously: Here comes the jargon

The great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience.
Here, I think he begins to go a bit wrong. This, if you are counting, is the fifth sentence of the Exhortation. The first hint is the use of the meaningless buzzword, "consumerism". It's in a parenthetical comment so we could drop it out.
The great danger in today’s world is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience.
With that distraction removed, now we have a logical challenge for "a complacent yet covetous heart", while a bad thing, doesn't obviously lead to desolation and anguish. We normally speak of complacency as something we need to be shaken out of. Okay, but anyone who just cruises along in their complacency is surely going to get a rude awakening. Well, maybe. Then again, they may just go on dodging the bullet for decades.

"You'll never go anywhere in this world if you don't learn to be respectful and polite, young man!" My parents told me things like that and following that advice more or less worked for me. But Jon Stewart's parents probably said similar things to him and he has gone very far in this world by being an asshole. Perhaps he is miserable in the deep dark nights of his soul. And perhaps the grapes are sour too.

This isn't just a picky point. Francis is making a strong psychological claim here on the basis of no evidence.

Here's the next sentence:
Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor.
Slow Francis down and ask yourself what exactly this is supposed to mean? "When our interior life becomes ... there is no longer room for others." No room where? In our interior life? What does any of this mean?

This is all modern spirituality jargon. It's the kind of thing people say on the third day of the religious retreat when everyone feels really comfortable and we're sitting in a circle really, like, "communicating with one another", and not just talking. Except, it is just talk. This sort of jargon has been floating around since the 1970s and it's never reached anyone outside of the tiny circles of people who just love it. (I strongly suspect, by the way, that Pope Francis didn't write this paragraph; similar boilerplate has made it's way into the writing of Benedict and John Paul II and it is most likely the work of the Vatican bureaucracy that prepares the drafts for most papal writings.)

By the way, isn't the desolation and anguish born or consumerism a bit of a first world problem? This is navel gazing.

The important thing to remember is that these are psychological claims that are being made in this exhortation. Francis is saying that if you live a certain kind of life, you will be miserable. And he is further saying that the modern world is full of misery because people are living a certain way of life that he calls consumerism but doesn't define.

The consumer ethic, meaning nothing more than a life that is at least partially built on shopping for and acquiring goods, has won hundreds of millions of converts. If this way of life so obviously leads to misery, then why aren't more people willingly abandoning it?

Don't get me wrong; I think there is a point to be made here but Francis isn't doing it. This second paragraph is morally and intellectually lazy.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Taking Francis seriously: Filling hearts and lives

Crazy projects are me. If I have done this right, there are 288 numbered "paragraphs" in the five chapters of Evangelii Gaudium.  At one a day, it ought to be possible to get through it in a year.
1. The joy of The gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus. Those who accept his offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness. With Christ joy is constantly born anew. In this Exhortation I wish to encourage the Christian faithful to embark upon a new chapter of evangelization marked by this joy, while pointing out new paths for the Church’s journey in years to come.
 "Those who accept his offer are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness". That's a very strong claim. It's not new to make this sort of claim. Saint Paul did it. But he was Saint Paul. And even he dialed that back a little because, it would appear, he was not pleased with followers who took this as antinomianism and  saw themselves free to behave in ways Paul found repulsive*.
It is actually reported that here is immorality among you, and of a kind that is not found even among the pagans, for a man is living is living with his father's wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you. (1 Corinthians 5: 1)
Not a lot of joy there! And what, in this light, does "set free from sin" mean? Perhaps you think I am being obtuse? Am I too stupid to see that "being free from sin" so obviously does not mean "free to do repulsive things". Perhaps! But what does it mean then? Let's see, as we go on, what sort of flesh Francis puts on those bones.

This is an exhortation. That means more or less what you would guess based on the common use of "exhortation", admittedly not a word with a lot of common use. Pope Francis wants to exhort us to evangelize. It doesn't define church doctrine. That is interesting because most of the criticism, both positive and negative, has praised or attacked for what it says about church doctrine. As near as I can tell, there isn't a single doctrinal claim in this exhortation that hasn't been said hundreds of times before by dozens of different popes.

That doesn't mean that we might not end up wondering about some of the doctrine we find here. What it does mean is that we can't blame Francis for it. He is relying on well-established principles throughout.

The real questions, it seems to me, should be something like the following:
  • Does this make me want to go out and evangelize?
  • Does it give us a good idea of what evangelizing means?
  • Related to the previous, do we leave this document with a real practical sense of things we can actually do?
  • Also related, does Francis open up real possibilities for ordinary Catholics, as opposed to clergy, to go forth and actually evangelize, again, assuming we know what that means?
That's all uncertain because I am uncertain. But aren't we all?

* As the footnote in my Bible observes, the man who has so offended Paul by living with his "father's wife" was presumably in a sexual relationship with his father's second wife;  if Paul had meant mother he would have said "mother". Is she widowed? Or is the father still alive? I don't think we can assume that Paul was so deeply shocked that he said "father's wife" simply because he couldn't bring himself to say "mother". His intent, after all, is to shock and "mother" would pack that punch but good.

I mention all this because the ick factor seems to be what motivates Saint Paul. One might ask why, if it is okay for a man to marry his brother's widow, it is so mind-boggling odious for a man to have a sexual relationship with his father's second wife? Other than the ick factor? 

Of course, the man is not married to but living with his father's ex-wife or widow, but, again, if sex outside of marriage was what offended Paul, he would presumably have just said so. In addition, if the real problem is sex outside marriage, we could hardly be expected to believe that that type of sexual immorality was not even found among the pagans. No, what deeply disturbs Paul is a sort Oedipus aspect of a man having sex with a woman who once had sex with his father. And one can see the ick factor easily enough but what is fundamentally wrong about it?

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Saint Ambrose and the inner life

Today is the feast of Saint Ambrose. One of the most famous stories about Ambrose, recounted in the Augustine's Confessions, is that he read without moving his lips. If you are unfamiliar with the story, check out this post of Father Z's where he talks about it.

There are two kinds of questions to consider here. The first is what is it that made this experience unusual? Had nobody figured out how to read without moving their lips before Ambrose?  That seems unlikely. It is more likely, given the context, that most people simply did not read without moving their lips. Why not?

The passage quoted by Father Z (with his added emphasis) is telling:
Now, as he read, his eyes glanced over the pages and his heart searched out the sense, but his voice and tongue were silent. Often when we came to his room—for no one was forbidden to enter, nor was it his custom that the arrival of visitors should be announced to him—we would see him thus reading to himself. After we had sat for a long time in silence—for who would dare interrupt one so intent?—we would then depart, realizing that he was unwilling to be distracted in the little time he could gain for the recruiting of his mind, free from the clamor of other men’s business. Perhaps he was fearful lest, if the author he was studying should express himself vaguely, some doubtful and attentive hearer would ask him to expound it or discuss some of the more abstruse questions, so that he could not get over as much material as he wished, if his time was occupied with others. And even a truer reason for his reading to himself might have been the care for preserving his voice, which was very easily weakened. Whatever his motive was in so doing, it was doubtless, in such a man, a good one. 
Reading was a public act. Ambrose stood out for Augustine not because he could do this but because he flouted a social convention by reading silently. Even if you were all alone, you read aloud such that, should someone come into the room, they could hear what you read.

It's not hard to think of reasons why that might be. Books were expensive and rare and so were the people who could read them.  That's one possibility. And there is also a related moral possibility that you shouldn't be locking your reading away.

Saint Augustine, as Father Z notes, is determined to be charitable. Based on his other experiences of Ambrose, he assumes that the goodness he has seen in his outer life must also be true of his inner life. What Augustine doesn't say, but is unintentionally implied by what he does, is that there are reasons why someone might be reading silently that are not admirable. Most obviously, I could be reading porn. Less obviously, I might be keeping something really good solely to myself intending to later whip it out as if it was the product of my own thinking.

I could keep on meandering along these byways but the question I want to ask is this: Suppose the "inner life" were nothing more than what we do when we read without moving our lips? I mean, suppose that there were nothing I could do in my inner life that I could not, in principle, do outwardly? In that case, it becomes very easy to think of the "inner life" as a possible cesspool of corruption and evil.

I mention this because there is a tendency to talk about an inner life as if it was something only morally cultivated people were capable of; as if, as it were, we lived in a  society where most people could barely read and where, therefore, being able to read read without moving lips would be an indicator of superiority. We, therefore, talk as if developing your inner life will make you better.

Suppose a woman approaches me and asks if if I have ever read Hans Urs von Balthasar. I answer her question, confessing to my relative ignorance of the guy, tell her what little I do know, confess that I've always wanted to read more and then suggest that we might both read a particular work of his and discuss it together. That's my outer life. My inner life could match it more or less. Then again, I might be thinking, "Boy it would be great to see and handle those magnificent __s! If we meet regularly to discuss Balthasar and she starts to like me, then maybe ... ."

The point here is not that that is uniquely evil. Every woman knows that men think about them that way and there would be something wrong with a woman who did not hope for and even deliberately provoke such reactions at least some of the time. Our entire civilization, especially the parts having to do with courtship, relies on our knowing how and being willing to play a double game. The point rather is that there is nothing necessarily good or terribly mystical about an inner life.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Matins and sleep patterns

Matins, now known as the Office of Readings, used to be said in the wee small hours of the morning. I remember the first person to tell me about it was a Dominican who described it to me as what they did "back in the days when ships were made of wood and men were made of iron."

The local Dominicans, it must be said, have slacked off considerably in their practice of the Divine Office but, even at that, I thought he was right in suggesting that the practice of getting up in the early hours before the dawn was pretty hard going.

Lately, however, I find myself saying Matins earlier than I used to; the current instruction allows for it to be said at any hour of the day. I say it at 5:30 in the morning now. These days, the shortest of the year, I find it particularly wonderful to sit in the glow of a  single low light surrounded by darkness and solemnly say the office. I find I say it slowly and more reverently. I love the long, drawn out quality of saying it at that time. The other offices, which end up being said in the middle of work, I too often find myself looking to get over. Matins I want to last.

Some recent scholarly discoveries suggest that it wasn't as difficult for our ancestors as I imagined to get up in the night to pray. They are suggesting that the notion that we should all sleep eight hours straight a night is a modern innovation and that our ancestors slept two sleeps running about twelve hours. You can read more about it at this link. I first found out about it here.

The implication here is that perhaps the eight hours we have always been told is healthy practice may just be something that is convenient for an industrial age. Perhaps we would be better if we slept in two sleeps extending over a longer time? I don't know enough to do any more than raise these questions. I do know that I often wake up in the early hours of the morning and have a hard time getting back to sleep. My usual practice when that happens is pop my ear buds in and listen to a lecture or book on my iPhone. Next time it happens, I may just get up and say Matins instead.

In any case, it would seem that, far from the harsh discipline I imagined it to be, the practice of Matins may have been simply a prayerful way to make solemn an hour when most people were awake anyway.

Matins used to be the most important part of the Office. I can't remember exactly how many, but I think a total of nine Psalms and three readings were included. Today, the Office of Readings is three Psalms and two readings. The local Dominicans no longer say it at all and have chosen to incorporate the two readings into Morning and Evening prayer instead. That is a sad thing.

Postscript: The Office of Readings, as noted above used to be called Matins. Morning Prayer was formerly known as Lauds and Evening prayer was formerly known as Vespers and Night Prayer was formerly known as Compline. For the life of me, I can't think why the reformers looked at those beautiful names—Matins, Lauds, Vespers, Compline—and decided that we needed all that poetry ripped out of our lives.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Latin Mass: What is modern?

I had a pleasant tea with Eliot Girl last week. Part of the discussion revolved around modernism. It really did revolve around; despite our best efforts we never got near to anything that might be called the heart of the matter, or, to be modern about it, we never got anywhere near the still point of the turning modern world.

That isn't surprising. I've watched all sorts of people, including hundreds of academics, try to define "modern" and "modernism" over the last thirty-five years of my life and I can't think of a single one of these definitions that didn't end up feeling random. The problem is not figuring out where to go but rather where to start. You need a fact or, more likely, a solid set of facts to build your definition of modernism on. This for the simple reason that you have to be able to describe what the world was in order to say that the world has changed or must change (and modernists never seemed able to make up their minds about which of those two options would be the launching pad for their revolution). And that is just as true for the person coming along today with the goal of explaining "what modernism was" as it was for the young rebels in the early twentieth century who were trying to say "what modernism is".

There are two huge obstacles in the way. The first is that it has gotten much harder to simply lie about the past. That was what the Enlightenment figures did. They made up a straw man of a past and beat it up but good. Every movement that has sought a deliberate break with the past since then, including modernism, has attempted to do likewise. But the trick is far harder to pull off now; there are just too many people with access to media who know you are lying and will call you on it. Galileo was not a hapless victim of superstitious clerics who refused to look into his telescope, there never was a Copernican revolution, the Victorians did not cover the legs of their furniture nor were they particularly prudish about sex. Most importantly of all: there never was a period in history (ever!) when everyone shared a common and comforting understanding of the world and their place in it that was later shattered by any of the following, either singularly or in combination, science, Enlightenment, political revolution, social change, economic change, technological change, Darwin, Marx, Wagner, world wars or any of the other "revolutionary new stuff" we might want to conjure up.

The second obstacle is that there is something ridiculous about the notion of artists as self-appointed leaders of the culture. In military use, it makes sense to speak of an advance force or avant-garde because there is a commanding officer who sends the soldiers who will make up the avant-garde out. He sends them out into an area where he later means to send his main force. The artist who claims to be leading is just making their best guess about where the world either is or should be going. And the rest of us think, "Who appointed you?" Even today, a time when modernism is about a century old, you could not honestly argue that the leading figures of modernist art and literature guessed where the world was going better than the leading figures of politics or plumbing did.

And before you get all excited and start citing examples, consider just this example of non-modernist art:

That's the work of my buddy Leonetto Cappiello. Beautiful isn't it? It's also very modern. It shows a modern subject, doing a modern thing, using modern techniques. On top of which, it is absolutely brilliant. It isn't and wasn't modernist however.

Behind this work is the fascinating coincidence that two very different words, meaning very different things, that look and sound similar. The two words are "espresso", which means coffee made by forcing hot water under pressure through coffee grounds and "express", which means something for an express purpose and, more specifically, a train or bus that will expressly take you to a particular place without stopping anywhere in between. That poster sells you not only coffee but also a wonderful new world in which steam power, which drives both the water that makes the coffee and the train, makes a wonderful new life full of convenience, pleasure (espresso tastes batter!), speed and comfort.

And colour!

All this in 1922! You don't exactly get the sense that the artist was haunted by the memory of the carnage and disillusionment of the first world war do you? This poster was produced the very same year that Eliot's The Waste Land was published. Both are very modern but they portray two very different visions of "modern". And it wasn't just him, that poster had to convince millions of people who saw it that Cappiello's vision of the modern world was their world. And it succeeded.

Now we could get into a very long, and tedious argument about which vision was "better", I put the word in scare quotes because no one with their wits about them would willing choose Eliot's world over Capiello's. A huge part of Eliot's claim is that we don't really have any such choice and there he was clearly wrong.

And it's not just that. Cappiello needed  to make a living so we can't say that he made a philosophical choice in favour of capitalism and mass production. Regardless, however, of how much he did or didn't think the choice through, there is no denying that he made the better choice than did the modernist artists in those areas.

And this has what to do with the Latin Mass? Well, I think we are in a good place to look at the choices that were made and think seriously about what their real impact was and wasn't. It was ffty years ago yesterday that Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Vatican 2 document that set out the objectives for liturgical reform was promulgated. The reformers didn't pay an awful lot of attention to what that document actually said. They, like avant-garde artists, had their own ideas about where the world was going and the inexcapable fact is that they were wrong.

I don't, as some may think, advocate returning to the Latin Mass. But I do think we should revisit it as a starting point and rethink the changes. The "modern" world that  the liturgists foresaw when they started their reforms never came to be.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Another image: What is it selling?

A vintage ad:

You can buy this one on-line at this link. I get no consideration for that, BTW. I mention it only because it's a classic modern image from the people who invented modern, the Italians, and it's beautiful. It's also a complex image worthy of our admiration.

The description at the site selling the poster reads as follows:
Illustrated by Leonetto Cappiello, 1927. A vintage Italian advertisement for Bellardi Vermouth. A woman dances while holding a bottle of Bellardi Vermouth.
It's the last line that made me chuckle. Yeah, that's what's happening here. By the way, Cappiello is often described as the father of advertising and with good reason. He could just as easily be called the father of the modern. I'll get back to that issue with my weekly post about the Latin Mass later this week (perhaps Thursday). Oddly enough, although he is the acknowledged father of advertising, Cappiello rarely used sex to sell and, to the best of my knowledge, this is the only ad of his that overtly uses sex to sell.

Anyway, this ad is using sex to sell but we might ask ourselves, what "kind" of sex is being presented here?

Is that  a woman? She seems to have breasts but no nipples. Okay, maybe that was due to the mores of the era. But why, then, has the artist gone to such trouble to make her look like a rooster? Perhaps the artists at Leo Burnett had this in the back of their mind when, thirty years after the ad above appeared, they created the Kellogg's rooster. If they did, they did well to keep it a secret as the Kellogg company have a long, and disgraceful, history of being anti-sex. Roosters, to get back to the topic at hand, are male. And, speaking of the topic "at hand", do take note of where and how "she" is holding that bottle.

It's an image of masturbation. Yes, there is a female form implied but that image is meant to lead your mind to self pleasure and not participatory sex.

And it makes sense. Masturbation is a kind of self-indulgence and so is alcohol; if you can link them together in peoples' minds the sales will ring up.