instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Monday, December 23, 2002

No Claus for alarm

Or, How I learned to stop worrying and love the jolly old elf.

When I was a boy, Santa brought one or two presents and filled my stocking. When my wife was a girl, angels brought presents and decorated her Christmas tree during Christmas Eve dinner, while at midnight the animals in the barn talked. When other people were children, Saint Nicholas or the Magi or even the Christkind brought them goodies on December 6 or December 25 or January 6.

Most of us turned out okay.

As a probabiliorist, that's good enough for me to tell my kids Santa brings them a present and fills their stockings on Christmas Eve.

I've been exposed to the Rigorist Christmas Virus (RCV) often enough to build up an immunity. The RCV is often transmitted unwittingly in statements like, "I would never lie to my children about Santa Claus," and "In my home, we don't sing Christmas carols until after sundown on Christmas Eve, when the Christmas season starts." Symptoms that you've been infected by the RCV include feelings of guilt over your lifelong Christmas traditions, worry that you have inadequately Catholic Advents, and the fear that your children are being raised as post-Christian pagans because you use no particular ritual to set up your Nativity scene.

It's worth mentioning that people can say things that trigger RCV infections in others without themselves being Christmas rigorists. It's the felt imposition of an imaginary law where none exists that marks the rigorism, not the simple expression of an opinion.


Friday, December 20, 2002

East and West

On Random Mumble Generator (via Blogs4God), Kevin Basil writes
A dear priest I know calls fasting without prayer “the fast of demons, for demons do not eat, but they do not pray, either!”
I like that very much. Human nature abhors a vacuum, and if we empty ourselves we are bound to be filled with something else. If we don't fill it with God....

Of course (and alas), fasting is more of an issue for the Orthodox, who have around 160 fasting days a year. Perhaps we should also be cautioned against "the prayer of Catholics, for Catholics do not neglect their prayers, but they do not fast, either!"


Thursday, December 19, 2002

Just a figure of speech

"St. Blog's Parish" is, of course, just an expression used to describe an imprecise on-line community. It is in no sense a real parish.

And yet, there is something real here. We share some part of our lives with each other, from [pending] birth announcements to notices of loved ones' deaths, and much of what happens in between; and we respond in joy and sorrow and prayer. Just like a real community. Or I should say, like any other real community.


In theory, theory is the same as practice

Just War Theory keeps getting tested and found wanting in the confrontation between the U.S. and Iraq.

I don't think it does a very good job, as it stands, at discriminating between an unjustifiable pre-emptive war and a justifiable first-strike war. And if the Washington Post report is correct --
U.S. intelligence officials warned yesterday that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein plans to pursue a "scorched earth" strategy in the event of war with the United States and would destroy his country's oil fields, electrical power plants, food storage sites and other facilities while blaming U.S. military forces for the damage. --
it adds a new wrinkle to thinking about proportionality that I'm pretty sure St. Augustine never had to face.

As a principle of jus ad bellum, proportionality is the consideration of whether "the overall destruction expected from the use of force must be outweighed by the good to be achieved." I don't think we can distinguish, morally speaking, between the destruction by Iraq of Iraqi power plants and the destruction by Iraq of Israeli power plants, so if we credit this report I think earth scorching has to be added to the overall expected destruction side of the scale.

On the other side, what is the good to be achieved? Sometimes I get the impression that it's peace of mind for American parents, and I suspect how you answer that question goes a long way to determining how you feel about the war. Regardless, the often-mentioned secondary good toward the Iraqi people of getting rid of their despotic government becomes harder to mention if it comes coupled with several years of starvation and suffering.

Just to clarify, I don't think the U.S. would be morally responsible for civilian suffering inflicted by the Iraqi government. But the U.S. is morally responsible for taking that suffering into account in determining whether and how to wage war.

On the other hand, as long as you're believing U.S. intelligence officials, there's another report that the Iraqi army is demoralized, poorly trained, and distrustful of Saddam.

Yeah, I know. And a Happy New Year, too.


That's my plan and I'm sticking to it

In a comment below, Therese mentions the ubiquitous alternative to St. Vincent Ferrer's recommendation to study to become a saint: Study to make others into the saint you don't have time to become.

That's pretty much my plan. I encourage others -- you, in particular -- to become saints, in the hope that I will outlive them and have plenty of heavenly advocates praying for my final perseverance and a plenary indulgence on the day of my death. The ones who outlive me (may you be among them) will offer numerous Masses in sufferage for my soul. At the eternal banquet, while these others are drinking champagne and eating fatted calves, I'll be at a card table in the back saying, "Oh, boy, Chocodiles and Moxie! This is great!"

Hmm. The plan doesn't sound quite as good written down as it did when I first thought it up....


Wednesday, December 18, 2002

Looking back to look forward

Over the past year,
  • the amount of information I have about the state of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States has measurably increased
  • the number of words I've written about the state of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States has measurably increased
  • the amount of time I have before my particular judgment has measurably decreased
  • my personal sanctity has not measurably increased
I can't escape the sense that the above are all somehow related. And for some reason, I am reminded of St. Vincent Ferrer's statement, "Study not to become learned, but to become a saint."


The anti-social society

The Kairos Guy is becoming a codgy old bore. If his blogging isn't proof enough, consider this: When I first heard of him, earlier this year, he was 32. Now he's 33. He's aging faster than 1 year/year. That's big-time codgy.

I'm sure his wife has noticed and will be giving him a gift membership in the Society of Codgy Old Bores. I look forward to welcoming him at our next meeting -- or would, but the SCOB doesn't have meetings, because about the last thing a codgy old bore wants to do is spend time with codgy old bores. (It beats spending time with eternal children, but not by much.)


Monday, December 16, 2002

To be understood

Ordinarily, all I expect from The Washington Post Magazine is Dave Barry. Yesterday, though, I found profound thinking by an Ecuadorian priest, by way of writer Max Steele.

Steele described a painting he saw in the priest's small church outside Quito:
Beyond the altar, on the back wall, was a life-size painting of an almost nude man who had so many spears pointing at him, I thought it must be Saint Sebastian a moment before his agony. But then, through the gloom, I saw the crown of thorns, and the blood trickling from the spear wound under his ribs. To my surprise, there were a dozen other wounds where blood was spurting, or trickling, or drying.

... Gradually I could determine there were arrows or small spears embedded in the childish soft muscles above the collarbone.

The painter, I assumed, was self-indulgent in his sadism, and I told the priest what I thought.

He shook his head in denial.

"Then why so many wounds?" I asked. "Why the exaggeration? Was the painter crazy or just ignorant?"

The priest continued shaking his head and then shook his finger directly at me, almost grazing my nose. "Neither," he said. "Neither. He painted it for the Indians, for the people around here. He knew how they felt."

... "But why, if the painter was not mad," I asked in the hallway, "are there so many scars and wounds on the figure?"

"You are a grown man." His voice was that of a father speaking to a child. "You have suffered in your way. But you are from a rich country. A wealthy country. Your suffering may seem heavy to you. But it is different. For you one spear wound would be enough."

I nodded, a bit resentful that he might be considering me a shallow man.

"Here, though, the suffering is great. For centuries it has been great. Every day is great suffering. One spear wound is not enough. But our people here want to be sure He has suffered more so they can be sure He understands their suffering. To be understood is to be cured."


Just in time for the holidays

One of the distinguishing characteristics of Christianity as a way of life is its emphasis on forgiveness: us forgiving others, and God forgiving us. For all its importance, though, forgiveness is a very confusing notion for Christians.

For example, it was only recently that I realized that the following is completely and categorically true:

You don't have to forgive anyone.

This may be unexpectedly good news for those who have issues with relatives they have to visit with this time of the year, and it may be denied by many others, so let me explain what it means and what it implies.

By forgiveness, I mean the cancellation of a debt someone owes you under justice. This, obviously requires two things: first, that there is an actual (rather than imagined or desired) debt that is actually owed (rather than payed back in an emotionally unsatisfying way) to you (rather than to someone else); and second, that the debt is actually forgiven (rather than partly forgiven or unilaterally transferred into a different category of debt (such as guilt)).

So when someone steps on your foot and says, "Oh, I'm very sorry," and you say, "That's all right," you probably haven't forgiven them. Not that you're harboring a grudge, but that the debt they owe you is to apologize; saying, "That's all right," is, so to speak, giving them a receipt that payment has been received in full.

Now what does it mean that you, a good Christian, don't have to forgive anyone? Simply this: that no debt owed another under justice necessarily has to be forgiven. If it did have to be forgiven, then it wouldn't be a debt under justice. It might be some sort of formality, like asking a congregation whether they accept the catechumens, but it isn't a genuine debt.

But if no debt under justice ever has to be forgiven, why the Christian emphasis on forgiveness? Because what's true for us is also true for God: no debt we owe to God ever has to be forgiven. As you know, though, God has promised to forgive us according to the way we forgive others. God doesn't have to forgive us; He didn't have to give us that promise (As a matter of justice, at least. Since forgiveness isn't required by justice, it's really a matter of charity. Still, any statement beginning, "God has to ...." says more about the limits of human language than about God.).

And what does all this mean, other than the trivial observation that if you want to be saved you have to forgive others? I see it as a strong framework from which to consider those tough questions about reconciling God's goodness with the reality of damnation. It isn't unfair or unjust of God to give one person, but not another, the grace of final perseverance. As a matter of justice, God need not have given it to anyone (and therefore, incidentally, Judaism need not insist on an afterlife to recognize the value of worshipping Him). The hard teaching, then, isn't why God would create an eternal soul and then damn it, but why He would create an eternal soul and then save it.


Sunday, December 15, 2002

Through a glass darkly

Hernan Gonzalez suggests that whisky-guzzling yanquishave something to learn from Argentinians.

Bueno. I am, as it were, thirsty for knowledge of the good, and will learn from whomever will teach. But this, from the link Hernan includes, interests me strangely:
Jesuits tried to ban mate for they consider it was addictive, but as soon as they discovered natives would actually work more and better, they abandoned the idea.
If the Jesuits are both for and against mate, what position is left for a Dominican?


Friday, December 13, 2002

Sloppy thinking & whisky, neat

I want to thank Minute Particulars for introducing me to the saying, "Writing is Nature's way of showing us how sloppy our thinking is." To a certain extent, though, we see what we expect to see; as a result, writing is even better at showing everyone else how sloppy our thinking is.

I also find significance in the fact that this post includes a picture of a bottle of Macallan whisky, since blogging with a glass of whisky on hand is neither unheard of in these parts nor unrelated to sloppy thinking.

While we're on the subject, have you seen this on Relapsed Catholic:
And he's not even Catholic! Rev. wants to open "religious-themed saloon"
Which reminds me of an old joke:
Two men on a passenger train enter a car, and one of them calls out, "Excuse me, is there a Catholic priest here?"

Heads shake, and the man says, "Well, how about an Episcopalian priest?"

A passenger in the middle of the train stands up and says, "I'm a Baptist minister. Is there anything I can do to help you?"

The man answers, "I don't think so, Reverend. We're looking for a bottle opener."
A touch of cheer on a sad day.
Has ever been the Catholic way.


Thursday, December 12, 2002

The Why You Do the Things You Do

I am becoming increasingly convinced that people spend entirely too much time worrying about why other people do things.

More than sixty years ago, C. S. Lewis coined the term Bulverism to describe the logical fallacy of arguing why someone is wrong about something rather than that he is wrong. (The canonical example is a wife telling her husband, “Oh, you say that because you are a man.”) As the Kairos Guy once pointed out to me, Bulverism is alive and well these days, even on the Internet.

But I'm not only concerned about bad arguments. I think indulging in the urge to decide why someone does something can be spiritually harmful.

Suppose, for example, someone bumps into you on the street, then continues on his way without any form of apology. Why did he do this?

You have no idea, right? Maybe he's simply rude, maybe he's drunk, maybe he's stressed, maybe he's in love, maybe he's afraid of strangers, maybe he's French. You can propose all these answers and more, then pick the one you prefer, but what's the point?

It seems to me a better use of your time is to note that you do not like being jostled, particularly without apology, and vow to avoid doing so to others in the future, and to teach your children to do likewise. Even if you happen to recognize the man and have found him to be rude in the past, what good does that knowledge do you? You don't avoid him because of his subjective state of mind, you avoid him because of his objective behavior. And should your own state of mind incline to rudeness, you still apologize to people you bump into, because you're trying to be the best person you can be.

I think one of the reasons we like to decide why other people do things is because it offers such descriptive power. If someone expresses venemous opinions on the Pope because his own father never loved him, then we have a neat little Freudian complex to poke at. We don't have to address any of the issues he raises, since the real issue is between himself and his father. We might even ask him what he thinks of the mayor or the president, just to see how broad his complex is. But our theories of other people's psychology don't make us any holier; in fact, to the extent they cause us to judge others rather than ourselves, they may make us more sinful.

The problem is made worse because so often we are so bad at judging others. We combine our state of mind with another person's actions, then conclude the other person must possess the state of mind that would cause us to take that action. "He thinks priests should marry. The only way I can see myself thinking priests should marry is if I only cared about sheer numbers, rather than about true discernment of individual vocations. So he thinks priests should marry because he only cares about sheer numbers, not true discernment of individual vocations. And that explains why he receives Communion in the hand; obviously someone who has no respect for the priesthood isn't going to express much reverence toward That which only the priesthood can give us."

There are, of course, situations where it is helpful or even necessary to know why someone does something, as anyone who's ever held a crying baby knows. But these situations are less common than some might think, and as a rule of thumb I'd limit them to cases where we use our knowledge of why to help the other person and not just ourselves.


I love it when other people do my projects for me

In this case, Bill White is not only doing my project, but he even thought up the idea for me, too. Very gracious of him.

(One notes without comment that, while discerning whether he has a Dominican or a Benedictine vocation, Bill starts a Rosary blog.)


Wednesday, December 11, 2002

Responsible blogging

And Then? offers some good thoughts about responsible Catholic blogging, as well as a link to the article, "A Crisis of Saints, " in which Fr. Roger Landry writes:
The only adequate response to this terrible scandal, the only fully Catholic response -- as Francis of Assisi recognized in the 1200s, as Francis de Sales recognized in the 1600s, and as countless other saints have recognized in every century -- is holiness. Every crisis that the Church faces, every crisis that the world faces, is a crisis of saints. Holiness is crucial because it is the real face of the Church.
This is true, of course, yet though in a sense St. Francis of Assisi rebuilt the Church, the gilt of Thirteenth Century Christendom comes off pretty quickly once you start examining it. It's not the personal holiness of one or even several saints that revives the Church -- nor, for that matter is a revived Church free of crisis. Saints (including you, perhaps?) will see the Church through this crisis, but crises we will always have with us.


Practicing what he preaches

Steve Mattson acknowledges the value of silence by ending his blog In Formation.

Seems a bit selfish, if you ask me, preferring to make himself more Christ-like rather than enlighten and entertain the rest of us. But what are you going to do? I hear a lot of seminarians are like that.


Tuesday, December 10, 2002

There is no Chapter 11 in the Book of Lamentations
"The cartoons, parodies, and ridicule are now in force. It will be a stigma, a mark of shame we will all have to carry."
-- letter from the Boston Priests Forum to Cardinal Law, December 9, 2002
The stigma spoken of in the letter is, of course, that of bankruptcy. (Link from in between naps.)

For some reason, this reminds me that the earliest known representation of the Crucifixion is a graffito in Rome, showing a man praying to a donkey-headed man on a cross, with the inscription, "Alexamenos worships his god."

The cartoons, parodies, and ridicule, the stigma and the shame, will always accompany the Church. When Christ Crucified is preached, it will be Christ Crucified who is ridiculed. When something else is preached, it will be something else.


Good thing it's just a metaphor

The usually sound Fr. Jeffrey Keyes proves that, nowadays at least, the laity are not actual sheep:
Working on tomorrow's homily makes me realize that no shepherd in their right mind would have even left the 99 to go seek out the one. Any shepherd listening to Jesus would have laughed and scoffed.
If the laity were actual sheep, Fr. Keyes would know by now that shepherds do, in fact, go seek out the one.

Here's an excerpt from my bishop's newspaper column a few week's back:
One of the best visits I had during those four days in Lebanon was the afternoon that I drove up to the "Holy Valley." This is a mountainous area in north central Lebanon, a couple of hours by car from Beirut, up winding mountain roads and deep picturesque valleys. This was the real homeland of the Maronite Catholics during the centuries of occupation by the Turks and other rulers. Here, half hidden in the forest and glens, they preserved their heritage, their culture and, in a special way, their faith....

As I stood almost dizzyingly close to the edge of the cliff and looked out at the villages that rim the canyons of the valley, I spotted a sheep lost in some brambles a couple of hundred yards away. I asked about it and was told that it had probably wandered from the flock and was now trapped there until the shepherd spotted it and climbed down to rescue it. Sure enough, a few moments later one could see in the distance a man slowly and painstakingly climbing down to the place where the sheep was bleating in fright. It was a real re-enactment of the New Testament story for me! I asked my guides whether it would not be very dangerous for the shepherd to climb down that steep slope and then try to free the poor animal. I was told, "He doesn't have a choice. He has to save the sheep. It belongs to him!"


Friday, December 06, 2002

Psalms every Catholic should know

I was reading a biography of Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati, a remarkable man of God whose love of mountain climbing is well known. One of his habits was praying the De Profundis (Psalm 129/130) upon reaching a mountain peak, for the souls of those who had died on the mountain. (As the old Catholic Encyclopedia explains, "The Church recites this psalm principally in her prayers for the dead; it is the psalm of the holy souls in purgatory, the words of the Psalmist applying well to the longing and sighing of the souls exiled from heaven.")

It's a great idea, and can be adapted for those of us unlikely to find ourselves on a mountain peak (or at least one that people have died attempting to reach) by, for example, praying the De Profundis when getting onto a major highway, for the souls of those killed in accidents on it.

The problem is that it sort of requires you to know the De Profundis. And this got me to thinking of what psalms Catholics should have memorized.

The De Profundis and the Miserere (Psalm 50/51) are the two psalms explicitly listed in the Enchiridion of Indulgences. The former, as has been said, is useful for praying for the souls in purgatory; the latter for praying for oneself (in particular during penitential times and Fridays).

Other good psalms to know include:
  • Dominus reget me ("The Lord is my Shepherd," Psalm 22/23), popular at funerals and ecumenical occasions
  • Venite exultemus ("Come, Let us Sing to the Lord," Psalm 94/95), which appears frequently in the Liturgy of the Mass (and every day in the Liturgy of the Hours)
  • Iubilate Domino ("Cry Out With Joy to the Lord," Psalm 99/100), a psalm for cheerful occasions
  • Laudate Dominum ("O Praise the Lord," Psalm 116/117), the shortest in the psalter
  • Ecce nunc benedicite ("Come Bless the Lord," Psalm 133/134), a fantastic bedtime prayer (also suitable for moments of wakefulness during the night)
Now, I don't have all (or even most) of these memorized, but there's something to be said for being prepared to pray them (or a similar set) at a moment's notice. If we could all just agree on a translation.


Wednesday, December 04, 2002

For example

A Zenit article reports on a gathering of Franciscans on the U.S.-Mexico border. They
called on the U.S. government to end Operation Gatekeeper, which they said forces migrants to cross in the most dangerous sections of the border through the desert and mountainous terrain, the Misna agency reported.

"This plan is killing innocent human beings who are in search of better lives," said Father Gearoid Ó Conaire, leader of the International Council for Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation, for the Order of Friars Minor in Rome. "In the nonviolent spirit of St. Francis and St. Clare, we call on the U.S. government to end this policy of death."
Let me attempt a conservative response:

"Operation Gatekeeper kills no one. Those who die have chosen to break the laws of a sovereign nation, and must be held to be responsible for their own deaths. If they were truly in search of better lives, let them apply to enter the country legally -- or better yet, to copy what they like about the U.S. in their own countries. If the U.S. opened its boarders, as these liberal and ignorant Franciscans insist, then we would soon be swamped with out-of-work immigrants not much better off than they were before, while the rest of us would find ourselves much worse off in the attempt to provide them with all the services the nanny state would insist we provide. We have the right and the duty to refuse entry to those who would make our country worse off."

I suspect a fair number of American Catholic National Review subscribers would agree with the above paragraph and disagree with the Franciscans, once they finish rolling their eyes at the existence of something called the International Council for Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation.

But the Franciscans are making a moral argument, and my imaginary conservative is making an economic argument. Once the economic argument is made, a moral argument can be constructed to oppose the Franciscans (e.g., they don't understand or are misapplying the "nonviolent spirit of St. Francis," or the virtue of justice speaks against open borders, or immigration policy is a matter of prudential judgment and friars have no competence to speak on it).

What isn't clear to me is how one judges the worth of a moral argument when his mind has already been made up by an economic argument.


Well, I thought it was funny

A post on the New Gasparian begins:
There is a National Magazine that would like you to believe that it carries on a serious conversation in both culture and politics.
When I saw that the entire sentence was a link to National Review, I laughed long and hard.

Mostly because I know about, and am largely sympathetic to, Fr. Keyes's on-going opposition to the tone, tenor, and content of much of what NR's Rod Dreher writes about the American bishops. But also because I too have wondered about the fealty so many American Catholics show toward the magazine and its on-line presence. As Fr. Keyes puts it,
Unfortunately, there are many Catholics who take what they write seriously, and even form their opinions of the Church on what they read there. This is a serious mistake.
A criticism of the bishops that I've seen time and again from National Review Online and its supporters is that, while they may be competent to speak about matters of religion, the bishops know nothing about economics or politics, and therefore they should say nothing. It's interesting that journalists (and this is by no means limited to those writing for NRO) seldom direct such criticism toward themselves.

I've read that National Review's role in the conservative movement is to keep the loyalists feisty and girded for battle, while other magazines do more of the intellectual heavy lifting. If this is a fair characterization, then NR and NRO should be thought of as more revival sermon than catechism. And while there is a place for revival sermons, it can be a real challenge to separate the emotional delivery from the dogmatic content and evaluate the dogma objectively and rationally.


Tuesday, December 03, 2002

Keeping the X in Xmas

On the one hand, the Knights of Columbus's "Keep Christ in Christmas" campaign is a noble effort in the exercise of the virtue of religion. On the other hand, it's as hopeless as a "Keep St. Sylvester in New Year's Eve" campaign.

My resolution to the tension between the sacred and the profane on Christmas is to acknowledge that there are two different events -- one sacred, one profane -- that happen to occur on the same day and that happen to both be called the same thing.

The sacred Christmas is the celebration of the Solemnity of the Nativity of the Lord. The profane Christmas is our culture's winter festival. Other than the name and the date, the two celebrations don't have much in common.

It wasn't till I realized that the secular Christmas really is a winter festival, rather than just a debasement of a religious holy day, that I understood why people sing "Winter Wonderland" and "Jingle Bells" in December, most of which falls during autumn, yet disapprove of singing them in January and February, when (in my experience) it might actually snow. We celebrate winter when it first arrives -- a thoroughly human response in the face of the inexorable -- but within a week begin to treat it like an out-of-work uncle who has overstayed his welcome. This also explains why the sentimental notion of a white Christmas is such a big deal: it effects what it symbolizes, the arrival of winter.

From this perspective, calls to "remember the reason for the season" are misguided. The season is winter; the reason is the tilt of the earth and the eccentricity of its orbit. If there were no Christmas holiday, we would have invented it.

At the same time, of course -- quite literally the same time -- the Nativity of the Lord is of tremendous religious importance to most Christians, and those Christians who also celebrate the winter festival called Christmas need to maintain an appropriate balance between observance of the holy day and celebration on the holiday. This is the same balance we have been called to since the first Christian Pentecost. But though the appropriate balance heavily favors the religious over the secular, it eliminates neither, and I don't see our culture's winter festival as in direct competition with, still less opposed to, our Church's solemnity. Over-eating, over-drinking, and over-spending are as wrong -- no more and no less -- on Christmas as on St. Elizabeth of Portugal's Day.


31 Days, 31 Ways: The Website

It's here, unedited and unadorned.

I'll be happy to have it printed up as a booklet (about 48 pp) if I can get pledges to buy 25 copies @ $6 each, including shipping.


Monday, December 02, 2002

Good homilies

What do you consider a good homily?, Amy Welborn asks on behalf of Fr. Stanley.

The answers are, generally, hard to argue against. But that won't stop me from trying.

Several commenters said they like homilies that stick with the basics of the faith, explicitly condemn abortion, and stay away from politics. All of which is fine, but I can't help but think such a homily is intended for everyone else. (You know, those hour-a-week Catholics, the ignorant, undercatechised, cultural or cafeteria Catholics who keep trying to hold our hands during the Lord's Prayer.) A homily we approve of, not one we are affected by.

There are various techniques of rhetoric and delivery that can make a homily more effective on the natural level; we are, remember, physical beings, and physical things (including temporal arrangement of spoken words) matter to us (so to speak). But I think the most important effect of a homily is to enable me to leave Mass a better disciple of Christ than I entered. This means it has to change me, to give me something I didn't have before.

[As an aside: part of the insipidity of the common or garden parish homily is likely due to the wide variety among the parishioners. There is no single homily whose content and delivery will have something for, and be well received by, everyone in a typical Ordinary Time Sunday morning congregation.]

There are a lot of things a homilist can give me: historical information; an anecdote; an insight into the implications of the Gospel reading. But I've found one of the most valuable things he can give me is the sight of a man of faith talking about his faith. Meister Eckhart said that a good preacher is a man on fire with the love of God, and his listeners watch him burn. Exhortation and explanation are necessary, but on any given Sunday they may miss the mark. I may have already heard the anecdote, or the insight may go over my head. But I am always going to be affected by the sight of a man on fire with love.


Wednesday, November 27, 2002

31 Days, 31 Ways: Number 31

St. Louis Marie Grignon de Montfort, one of history's greatest preachers of the Rosary, offers this advice:
Before beginning a decade, pause for a moment or two [and ask] for one of the virtues that shines forth most in this mystery or one of which you are in particular need.

Take great care to avoid the two pitfalls that most people fall into during the Rosary. The first is the danger of not asking for any graces at all, so that if some good people were asked their Rosary intention they would not know what to say. So, whenever you say your Rosary, be sure to ask for some special grace or virtue, or strength to overcome some sin.

The second fault commonly committed in saying the Rosary is to have no intention other than that of getting it over with as quickly as possible. [The Secret of the Rosary, 45th Rose]
Custom has not found people content, however, with asking for graces for themselves. Praying a Rosary for someone else is as Catholic as lighting a candle for them, and done under the same circumstances of ill health or ill fortune.

Whole generations of Catholics grew up with the idea of praying the Rosary for peace -- an idea that had been endorsed as recently as Rosarium Virginis Mariae last month, in which Pope John Paul II teaches:
The Rosary is by its nature a prayer for peace, since it consists in the contemplation of Christ, the Prince of Peace, the one who is “our peace” (Eph 2:14). Anyone who assimilates the mystery of Christ – and this is clearly the goal of the Rosary – learns the secret of peace and makes it his life's project.
When your Rosary intention is world peace, then, you become peaceful and a source of peace yourself.

But an intercessory Rosary need not be for something as grand as world peace, or even someone's health. Following St. Louis's suggestion to ask for a different grace at each decade, a different person (or a different need of the same person) can be prayed for at each decade. In this way, the Rosary becomes a prayer of charity toward others, and if the same general intentions are prayed for -- for example, your spouse or parents, children or siblings, parish, diocese, and whole Church -- as part of a daily Rosary, it becomes a habitual vehicle for holding those you are bound to pray for up to God for several minutes a day.



31 Days, 31 Ways: Number 30

The U.S. bishops, in their 1973 letter "Behold Your Mother," acknowledged the value of meditating on non-traditional mysteries while praying the Rosary. Perhaps the most popular of these were variations on the public life of Jesus, a subject that the laity of our times might have more interest in than did the laity of the Sixteenth Century.

Now that Pope John Paul II has recommended the Luminous Mysteries to the Church, what will happen to all the ad hoc mysteries out there? My guess is, to the extent they continue to be fruitful, they will continue to be used.

Had Rosarium Virginis Mariae not been released while I was composing this series, I would have recommended a Public Life of Jesus Rosary, meditating on the mysteries of the Baptism, the Temptation in the Desert, the Feeding of the Multitude, the Transfiguration, and the Entry into Jerusalem. No doubt if pressed I could have written a few words about what these mysteries have in common, but I selected them as more as highlights of Jesus' life than as a set of fundamentally related events.

To this extent, the Luminous Mysteries are more coherent. They consider "the person of Christ as the definitive revelation of God," as the Pope put it in his letter. I heard a homily recently in which the priest pointed out that they are all stories of transformation (water is transformed into something with sacramental power; water is transformed into wine; stony hearts are transformed into hearts of flesh; the appearance of Jesus is transformed into the appearance of the Son of God; bread and wine are transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ).

But there are still whole aspects of the Gospels that are not directly touched on by the Luminous Mysteries. The two that come to mind immediately are Jesus' parables and His miracles.

A Rosary of Miracles
  1. The Miracle at Cana (John 2:1-11)
  2. The Healing of the Paralyzed Man (Luke 5:17-26)
  3. Feeding the Five Thousand (John 6:1-15)
  4. The Healing of the Syrophoenician Woman's Daughter (Matthew 15:21-28)
  5. The Raising of Lazarus (John 11:1-44)

A Rosary of Parables
  1. The Parable of the Sower (Luke 8:4-15)
  2. The Parable of the Wicked Servant (Luke 12:42-48)
  3. The Parable of the Wedding Feast (Luke 14:16-24)
  4. The Parable of the Lost Sheep (Luke 15:3-7)
  5. The Parable of the Wicked Tenants (Luke 20:9-19)
These are not necessarily the optimal choices of miracles and parables for meditation, but any combination like the above -- supplemented by prayerful reading of the Gospel accounts -- will help to form a person into a more faithful disciple of Christ.

I think, by the way, that it would be better to select a particular set and stick with them, rather than mix and match as, so to speak, the spirit moves you. Although the entire premise of this series has been that there are countless legitimate and fruitful variations on the Rosary as a form of prayer and meditation, I find that repeated meditation on a limited number of themes over a period of time produces better fruit than meditation on constantly varying themes.



Don't sweat the minutiae

I think In Between Naps is at its best during naps, when Amy Welborn has the time to write more commentary than short introductions to various news stories. (Too often, I find, those news stories are for me an occasion to indulge my vice of curiosity.)

Today, Amy asks the question,
[H]ow can religious leaders and teachers walk the line, balancing the commitment to help the flock understand the totality of the faith commitment, yet avoid making statements on the minutiae of life that make them look at best silly and at worst, like frantic little totalitarians?
Let me make two suggestions (neither of which, the careful reader will notice, answer Amy's question).

First, I don't think bishops should avoid making statements on the minutiae of life, as long as the statements they make are true. Among the minutiae is where most of us spend most of our lives, and we can use concrete examples of how to apply the principles of the Faith to current circumstances. I don't believe the principle of charitable almsgiving, for example, can be effectively preached in a wealthy country without some specific recommendations, suggestions, and opinions. (Here is where the "as long as the statements are true" condition comes into play; if a statement is a suggestion or opinion, rather than a teaching or commandment, that needs to be made clear.)

Second, the faithful have their own responsibility to listen to their bishops without presuming silliness or totalitarianism. Christ has given His Church the episcopate to sanctify and govern Her, but no one can be sanctified against his will. It is up to each of us to listen to our bishops in a receptive -- though not passive -- manner. An attitude of receptivity, to my mind, accounts for the biases and failings a bishop may have, but it also acknowledges his authority and role in the Church. A hermeneutic of irrelevance won't do.


The triumphalism of the therapeutic

Greg Popcak has an interesting theory about parenting. Actually, he has both a theory and a metatheory.

His theory can be found in a book he wrote, which he describes as "genuinely the most important book a Catholic parent can read."

His metatheory is that his book is genuinely the most important book a Catholic parent can read. In other words, every parent has a choice between subscribing to Greg's theory of parenting or sending their children down the path of learned helplessness, depression, and despair.

Personally, I have chosen to send my children down the path of learned helplessness, depression, and despair. If it was good enough for me, it's good enough for them.


Manners good and bad

I expect you have seen Eve Tushnet's posts about Miss Manners, but I think this (from Miss Manners' Basic Training) is worth repeating:
Searching their hearts, most people came up with the idea of talking about themselves or of critiquing others.
The old fallen human nature thing.

If I were to recommend one book about teaching one how to live in society, it might be J. P. Donleavy's The Unexpurgated Code: A Complete Manual of Survival and Manners. For entertainment purposes only.


Monday, November 25, 2002

"Bernard Law and his ilk have no moral authority left..."

"... it's impossible to take them seriously...."

Or so says Rod Dreher, commenting on Amy Welborn's comments on Glenn Reynold's rejection of basically everything the U.S. bishops say.

I honestly don't understand this way of thinking. First, it is entirely possible to take them seriously; it is even necessary, if one respects the charism of the episcopacy and believes the Holy Spirit is with the Church.

Moreover, this attitude presumes that "bishops seriously tainted by this [sex-abuse and coverup] scandal" -- the "ilk" of Rod Dreher's remark -- had moral authority to begin with.

We might ask what sort of moral authority Glenn Reynolds granted the bishops before the scandal broke. We might even ask why, as a prudential matter, we should care that he doesn't care what they say. It would be nice if he did, but the mission of the Church in America is not to convince Glenn Reynolds of the moral authority of the U.S. bishops.

Suppose the scandal had not broken, that sex abuse and coverups simmered along unnoticed by the country in 2002. Would the absence of public scandal have affected the prospects of a pre-emptive war against Iraq? If not, would it have stopped the bishops from writing letters on the matter? If not, would it have changed, substantively, the content of those letters? If not, would it have changed, substantively, the reaction to those letters?

My own answers to these questions are no, no, no, and no. As I see it, the primary effect of the scandal on the voice of the U.S. bishops is to give people another excuse to ignore it.

There are other, secondary effects as well, but I think all of these must be measured against the attention paid to the bishops' statements in the years before the scandal broke. People who enjoy feeling morally superior to others have a new group to insult and ridicule, assuming they hadn't already been insulting and ridiculing the bishops; foolish crypto-Donatists can persuade themselves that their bishop no longer has any authority over them, assuming they hadn't been paying attention and already rejected their bishop's authority.

There is, however, another substantial effect the scandal might yet cause, although whether it does remains to be seen. (And the voices saying, "There's nothing to be done but wait for this foolish and perverse generation of bishops to die off," are not cause for hope that it will.)

That effect is this: Catholic laity in America will no longer rely on the bishops to present the Catholic faith, and its attendant consequences, to America. We will grow up from adolescent whining -- "The Church won't let me do anything! I have the meanest bishop on the face of the earth!" -- to mature action, living lives of faithful witness to the Gospel. Then no one will care what the Catholic bishops say, for the simple reason that they are already persuaded by what their Catholic neighbor says.

To complain that the bishops -- or the Vatican, or religious congregations, or parish councils -- have lost their moral authority is to waste the time and energy God has given us to build up our own moral authority. If no one takes what Cardinal Law says seriously because inbred clericalism blinded his judgment, so what? Aren't there two million other Catholics in the Boston Archdiocese who should be saying, by and large, the same things he is?


Prayers for discernment

Bill White is trying to discern his vocation. Should he become a Benedictine oblate or a Dominican tertiary?

I sympathize with his problem, although for me the decision (between Dominican and Carmelite) was not particularly arduous even if it was unclear for a couple of months. (When, a month before my reception, I asked a friend, "If an angel laughs, does he stop laughing, and why?," she replied that there was no doubt I had found the right order for me. Now the rumor in my chapter is that, as a baby, I wore black and white diapers.)

Obviously, I can't tell Bill what he should do. He probably knows too much about both orders to make a decision without serious reservations. Perhaps what he should do is pray the Rosary daily during Advent and into Christmastide for the gifts of counsel, knowledge, and wisdom. Then, on January First, the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God, he will resolve to begin a postulancy with whichever order he feels closer to.

And may God bless him in his journey.