Saturday, September 28, 2013

Lullaby, My Beautiful One

Lullaby, my beautiful one;
See how the lights all fade to dark;
The ocean of sleep is wide and vast,
But it's not long till night is done.
Do you not see it? A little bark
Awaits with silken sails on the mast;

It wants to carry you on the wave--
Up and down, now feel it rock;
It gently seeks the house of the moon,
Where little elves can misbehave,
And naiads sing as satyrs gawk,
And faerie-harpers keep the tune.

Selene, the mistress of the dance,
Whose throne is in the starry skies,
Will linger just a while for you.
She weaves sweet dreams between her hands,
That little girls who close their eyes
Can see before the morning dew.

So go to sleep, my beautiful one,
And do not wake till night is done.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Catechism in Song - Lesson 1 - God and Man

Your voice, O God, was great enough,
To make the darkness shine;
And nothingness became a world
At your command divine.

You spoke my name and knew of me,
When you took Adam's hand;
How great the love which built all this
To house a sinful man!

My voice is yours though far too weak
To build a gift for thee,
So take your own to praise your works
And sing eternally.

You made me to adore your name,
In earth and heav'n above,
That we might be with you always
By vision and by love.

But how do I, a refugee,
Cast out by pride and sin,
Know whom I love, or how to seek
Your presence once again.

Then I look down upon my path
And footprints I see there;
The way Apostle's feet have trod
I follow without fear.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

My Ark (lyrics to a spiritual song)

Verse 1
Noah built an ark of wood,
To ride upon the wave,
And point us to that bloody rood,
Which never fails to save.

But what I build to keep my soul,
It shatters from within;
A house of cards, to be kept whole,
Needs shelter from the wind.

Sing for joy, O House of God,
For God has chosen Thee;
And let me dwell within your courts,
For all eternity.

Verse 2
Moses built an ark of gold,
Veiled by angel's wing;
We catch the sound of words untold
As angel choirs sing.

O let me stop just once to see,
With eyes of faith and fear,
The Ark which offers hope to me,
And dries my every tear.


Verse 3
And Solomon, the good and wise,
Would not lay down to rest,
Till he had seen a temple rise
From the very best.

And I'm like bricks made out of clay,
And Earth gives little straw.
So who am I to hide away
Your wonders and your law?


Verse 4
The Spirit built for you a heart
Free from every stain;
Now every grace which you impart
Is Hers to give away.

She kept for you a tender home
In flesh so pure and clear;
My flesh let it be Hers alone,
So you may linger here.


Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Peacemaker's Prayer- Prayer/Poem of the Week

Dear Lord,
You tell us that they are blessed who bring the good news of peace--peace, not as the world gives but that which can come from you alone--and you promise that those who bring such peace to the world are made worthy to be called the sons of God. And so we know that the more we become peacemakers, the more we are cast in your likeness, having our Mother Mary as the true mold by which that image is forged. Trusting, then, in the merits and prayers of the Queen of Peace, the Lady of All Nations, I ask you to forge my soul in all virtues, supernatural and natural, so that I may become a instrument of peace in the lives of my fellow man. Help me to share love where there is distrust. Help me to overcome whatever pride prevents wisdom from conquering misunderstanding. Guide me to be your presence to others and to bring about reconciliation as the fruit of a life hidden in you.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Unfolding Events Concerning the Traditional Latin Mass in Arkansas

H.E. Anthony Taylor, Bishop of Little Rock is attempting to reduce the number of Extraordinary Form masses in Batesville, AR from twice a month to once a month. The attendees at this Mass generally number slightly under fifty participants, with a large number of occasional visitors. They include longtime members of the parish, a Parish Religious Education instructor, a former president of the Parish Pastoral Council; most of the families have well-established ties to the Batesville community. We certainly consider ourselves sufficiently stable to support a Mass, and have the financial means to do so. 

In making this public, it is my intention solely to involve other people in helping the Bishop to make a just decision to continue and expand the availability of the Extraordinary Form in the Batesville area. We certainly do not wish to be antagonistic or unjustly critical, but rather seek a lawful, equitable, and charitable solution to this crisis. 

I ask for your prayers.


Sunday, June 23, 2013

Prayer for Simplicity- Prayer/Poem of the Week

Prayer for Simplicity
By an Oblate of St. Benedict

When I place the image of Your countenance deep in my breast, dear Jesus, all things become simple, the paths are made straight, the rough places plain, and the hills and valleys made low. Let me hold this image of You before my straying will at all times, and let it give me the strength to follow You, even when all the world opposes me. Let no demons torment this temple of Your Holy Face, in which, like Mary, the Word of God has taken residence. O make me more like her, whose voice was the voice of the Holy Spirit and whose heart was pierced by the contemplation of your Passion. Let my heart ponder Your mysteries like hers did, and in doing so grant that all other loves may vanish like smoke in a clear breeze.

O Heavenly Father, by whose Providence the whole world is ordered and given being, who art Being itself, make me more and more devoted simply to Your will, that I may say with Mary: Ecce ancilla Domini: Fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Father's Day: A Mealtime Prayer- Prayer/Poem of the Week

This is the mealtime prayer that my Grandfather has recited for as long as I can remember. A while back I translated it into very simple Church Latin, which I think is fairly accurate.

Latin: Pater de caelis, gratias tibi agimus pro his et universis beneficiis tuis. Benedic hunc cibum ad usum corporum nostrorum et corpora nostra ad servitium tuum. Parce nobis, quaesumus, et ignosce in nomine Christi. Amen.

Heavenly Father, we give Thee thanks for these and all Thy tender mercies. Bless this food to the use of our bodies and our bodies to Thy service. Forgive us and save us, we ask in Christ's name. Amen.

Quick and Dirty Movie Review: Man of Steel

So I saw the new Superman movie.

Suffice it to say, if you are a fan of the old Superman movie, or of Superman Returns, you will either enjoy or not enjoy the movie. The fact is, whether or not you like the old Superman or the comic book Superman will have absolutely no impact on whether you like this film. It is not only a total reboot of the franchise; it is a total reboot on the experience of enjoying a Superman film.

For precisely this reason, while I went into the movie quite prejudiced against it, mainly because it was a re-boot of the franchise, the more I watched it the more I came to see it as something which simply could not be compared with the original. It is so independent in its approach, even eschewing the original theme music and the 'crystalline' aesthetic of the original, that it must be judged on its own merits.

As it was, I did not like it.

The reason for this was that, as the movie started to come to a slow, grinding halt, I began to suspect that all of the conflicts in the movie are ultimately rather trivial and uninteresting. They lack anything that really causes the audience to risk themselves or to get themselves involved.

The conflict between Jor-El and Zod? A philosophical difference between two Spocks who fundamentally agree, one of whom happens to be Russell Crowe. The conflict between Superman and Zod? Completely lost in the bloodless and computer-generated PG-13 wreckage. The conflict between Clark and Jonathan? The old tired "adoptee angst" story, but compacted into one or two lines, and without even the presence of guilt as Clark develops into a mature young man. (And he really ought to feel guilty, as you will see.) The conflict between Superman and the government? Too familiar to really be interesting. (Note: I'm getting really tired of being reminded that we live in a police state. Can't we find a subject that helps us take our minds off of the unsettling reality?)

There is even, traditionally speaking, a certain conflict between Clark Kent and Superman, something which is almost inherent in the nature of a 'hidden identity', which is, in Superman folklore, not merely a hidden identity but also an alternative one. The invincible Superman becomes vulnerable to others and shows off his excellent rearing in Clark Kent. Yet in this movie that is mostly absent except for a few snippets here and there. I don't want to give away any spoilers, but suffice it to say that the dramatic distinction between the two is so reduced that it really stunts the emotional impact. There is hardly any difference between them at all.

In fact, considered as a movie, the only real positives this movie can claim (for some) are Cavill's pectorals, which are apparently sufficient to woo our Lois Lane and that anonymous, but cute, army captain who survives the apocalypse only to be reduced to school-girlish giggles. Glad they taught her something in basic training. Amy Adams does a passable job as Lois Lane, no doubt, but the Lois Lane character is so unchanged from her previous manifestations that she probably only had to watch a few old cartoons in preparation.

My suggestion is that you either see it once in the theater and pass on the DVD, or wait till the DVD comes out and rent it for movie night. Don't watch it after the original Superman movie or Superman Returns or you will probably experience an even greater disappointment than I did.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The Extraordinary Form is Better (At Being Modern)

I am a firm and strident believer in the Traditional Mass. I believe not only that it is more theologically rich, organizationally genius, and culturally significant than the Ordinary Form, but I also believe in it as a matter of practicality. It likely will return, at some point in the near future, as the generally preferred form of Mass. The reasons I have for this include: a secondary collapse in Church attendance caused by the older generation of cradle Catholics passing away, the generally traditional orientation of most seminarians, and the growth experience by many tradition-leaning orders and Congregations who also celebrate the Ordinary Form. The Extraordinary is becoming more commonplace.

On the other hand, the situation of the world as it pertains to traditionalist laity--by which I rather restrictively refer to those laity who participate exclusively, or almost exclusively, in a community centered on the Extraordinary Form--is changing rapidly. We are now, in some cases, on the third generation of traditionalists. The inherent difficulties posed by a widespread homeschooling educational culture and by the presence of large families living agrarian lifestyles, often with only one parent providing financial support, have pushed young traditionalists further and further away from higher education and into practical vocations much sooner than their parents. This will eventually limit earning potential for traditionalist youth.

At the same time, despite the very patriarchal ideology of most traditionalist communities, women continue to be as well educated, if not more educated, as their male counterparts. And all the while more and more priests, formed and informed by the mainstream American Catholic culture, are beginning to celebrate the traditional mass and take on pastoral responsibilities towards those communities. The skirts are getting shorter, the veils are becoming optional, and the new priest (gasp) isn't blinking. Before you know it there will be classes on NFP and Dorothy Day at the traddie parish. Meanwhile the bishops are pontificating (in the liturgical sense) right before they give speeches on ecological justice and option for the poor. In other words, the old guard of the traditionalist movement is beginning to lose its corner on the market for the Traditional Mass.

And then, you have young people like me. I know that I am rather an odd bird, but I also know that, on specific positions, I am not so alone among modern young Catholics. We read Vatican II, think ecumenism might not be so bad, learn Gregorian chant, go to the Traditional Mass, study Rahner, and like the pope. I know that I am not alone because, usually, when I am in a group of seminarians, a fair number of them think rather like me.

I believe, with the advent of the Summorum Pontificum era, that it is the role of young, modern devotees of the Traditional Liturgy to start explaining old devotions and customs in new ways. I believe that this is our task, not merely because the newer explanations are more palatable to other people, and therefore attractive, but because the newer explanations reveal aspects of the truth that have often lay hidden or under-emphasized.

Today I want to look at the Traditional Mass from a modern perspective. I want to highlight the ways in which the traditional liturgy corresponds to other movements in the Church today and show that it accomplishes their goals just as well, whether that be egalitarianism, space for personal meditation, or political activism. The Church was their first in her liturgy, even if She hadn't quite realized it yet.

Probably the first thing any neophyte will notice about the traditional liturgy, especially if he comes from a middle-of-the-road Catholic or mainline Protestant background, is that that throughout the Traditional Mass the priest faces the same direction as the people. (Now, however, the first myth I want to debunk is that this orientation is prescribed by the rubrics of the Traditional Mass. I have read the rubrics, and I can tell you that not only is there no requirement for the priest to face ad orientem, there are, in fact, special provisions if the priest should decide to celebrate versus populum. Ad orientem is a custom.) The traditional Mass has this in common with another liturgical movement that has been sweeping the Catholic Church and a number of other faith communities for the past twenty years--the Taize movement. This movement, originating from an ecumenical monastery in France, has, as its cornerstone, a form of liturgy radically centered on Christ through simple songs and worship in which the only apparent focus in Christ himself, usually signified by an icon or cross placed at the front of the Church. Everyone in the Church--choir, monks, and leaders alike--face the same direction, towards the Lord, to show that it is from him that unity will come and to Him that our worship is directed. The histories of animosity between different groups of Christians fade away as our own personalities take second place to the worship of the Lord.

Contrast this attitude with that of most parishes. With the priest facing across the altar, as though responsible for attracting us all to the importance of his own pronunciation and facial expressions, we are drawn to observe the ways that he is like and unlike us. His ethnicity, his accent, his level of education, and his personality all intrude on the centrality of Christ. And we wonder why ecumenism has seemed these days to slow to a halt? We are all to busy staring at one another in closed, sectarian circles and not turned towards the One by whom we shall be made one.

The Traditional Mass, with its capacity to make the priest invisible under the ceremonies and actions of the rite has this unique capacity to make us forget the failings of others and focus us on the One Who really matters. There is a profound capacity here for genuine growth together with worshipers from all backgrounds, because the Traditional Liturgy does not make personality the end-all, be-all of correct liturgical practice.

There is something else that the Traditional Liturgy shares with the Taize community: it's use of the Latin language. Today we live in a world where, because of American dominance, English is becoming the lingua franca of most of the free world. Through this language, America promotes her culture, her industries, and her dominance throughout the globe. Yet, despite this, a new globalism is starting to emerge which makes the old nationalisms obsolete through social media, music, and cultural eclecticism. The world is reaching towards an international tongue, but all it has to grasp on to is English, a symbol of militarism, interventionism, and cultural imperialism.

But the traditional liturgy, like the Taize community's liturgy; it is not an English liturgy; it is not an American liturgy. It is so international that anyone from anywhere in the world can understand and participate in it, and it accomplishes this by using a language that has been no-one's native tongue for over a thousand years. I can think of nothing more global, nothing more pacifist than that. Small wonder that Catholics were often suspected of being "unpatriotic" back when the Extraordinary Form was more Ordinary.

We live in a world which, I believe, has become more appreciative of silence and meditation. A quick glance at the bookshelves in any large bookstore and you will see that people are reaching out for a certain degree of peace and quiet in their lives. The world is noisy. Constant sources of input from other people through sites such as Facebook and Twitter barge in on our subconscious and, combined with our less-active lifestyles add to whatever level of stress that we already have. We need space.

One of the aspects of the Traditional Mass that is most striking to visitors, other than its language and orientation, is its level of comfort with silence. While the priest quietly prays for the needs of all mankind, the Congregation kneels or stands and prays in a profound moment of stillness, broken only occasionally by a muttered word or a ringing bell. The traditional liturgy gives us that space we need to just be, to place ourselves in the present moment.

At the same time, because most of the priest's prayers are prayed quietly, the traditional liturgy can have a 'layered' effect which one can simply not experience in the modern Mass. What this means is that very often in the rite, the priest continues his prayers quietly, while the choir continues singing, and the congregation is left free to sing along or to pray in the manner that they wish. Freedom is, in fact, a distinguishing feature of the Extraordinary Form. This surprises most people, because they have been told that while the Old Mass prescribed a certain song or prayer for each and every situation or time, the New Mass now gives us options for almost every part of the Mass. We can now pick between chants, between collects, between Eucharistic Prayers, between blessings, and between vestments.

Except, well, that isn't freedom. Freedom is centered around individual choices, and the giving of options to the celebrant of the liturgy or to the musicians adds nothing to the freedom enjoyed by the people. They cannot choose what has already been chosen. In fact, in so far as the congregation is compelled to submit to their subjective and often arbitrary decisions, they begin to lose their freedom to meditate on the rite as they wish. The more unchanging the rite, the more one can change his/her perception of it from day to day as his/her circumstances require.

This is my main reason for believing that the Extraordinary Form out-moderns the modern liturgy. The modern liturgy is constantly imposing, in a very ho-hum form of clericalism, the will of the clergy on the worshipers and then imposing itself through long-winded, and usually poorly written, explanations. The Traditional Liturgy, however, imposes nothing except silence and reverence. It does not take into account whether you are black, white, or Latino, gay or straight, conservative or liberal, or even Catholic. It simply directs each person towards the God who can, if He wishes, bring about that unity which tolerance can only simulate. It moves us away from that which divides us to the One who can unite an already uniting world.

I recall an experience that happened once when I was leading a group of college boys in a weekly prayer and discussion group. All of them came from traditionalist families, except for one visitor, who was neither traditionalist nor Catholic. Our custom was to say a decade of the Rosary at the end of each meeting, so I decided to explain the prayer to the non-Catholic friend. I remember the odd looks I got from the boys as I explained that the Rosary was a way of worshiping God with our minds, voices, and bodies.  With our minds, we meditate on some part of Christ's life; with our voices, we say the Hail Mary's and Our Father's, which become like a mantra to keep away distractions; with our bodies we move our fingers along the beads of the Rosary and make the sign of the cross.

The traddie boys had never heard the Rosary explained that way before, and I think their hearing it from me exposed a certain gap between us. We both loved the same things, but for different reasons and with different aspects of ourselves. If the traditional liturgy is going to be what it needs to be, for the modern Church, we need to let the rite speak for itself, to move away from the kind of ideological proselytism which has characterized the traditionalist movement up to this point, and to allow modernity (note that I did not say modernism) take the rite for its own.  I believe that the best aspects of modernity will see in the traditional liturgy a welcome space for the worship of God in Spirit and truth.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Prayer Before Confession- Prayer/Poem of the Week

O Lord, I lay my sins before you, recognizing that no merit of mine has brought me to this tribunal of grace and mercy. I know that, even as you alone have brought me to repentance, you alone can help me to make a good and complete confession. Be present now, O Lord, and let your Spirit be on my heart and lips so that I may accuse myself justly in accordance with your law. Have mercy on me, for I am a weak and unprofitable servant. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

The One About Church Music

Let me start out by saying that I am emphatically NOT a professional musician, Church or otherwise. I have had the benefit of some amazing musical training in my life (beginning with my piano teacher, the Rev. Joan Ewaldsen of Cherokee Village Lutheran Church ELCA) and participated in some really incredible musical experiences. That's all the claim to expertise that I have.

That being said, I do believe that renewing and restoring the quality of worship music is probably one of the greatest needs of the modern Church. Does that sound too hyperbolic? Surely the Catholic Church has a greater need to correct doctrinal errors, to assist people in making moral choices, to reach out to the new immigrant communities in North America, to restore trust in the clergy....etc.

Well, probably, but the thing is, I believe that many of those things are incredibly lofty goals that are almost unreachable without divine assistance. We can work towards them, but probably the best we are going to do is prepare our hearts for the Holy Spirit to do most of the work for us. (Not the actual labor, mind you, but the work of converting hearts and minds to the Gospel.) So, when you are not sure what to do, in the face of so many problems in the Church, I always say do what you CAN do.

And we CAN, very easily, change what we're singing in Church.

"What we're singing in Church." That's the phrase I want you to think of every time, in this post, that I use the words "Church music". I know that there is a broader class of music, what we might call "Sacred Music" which is music directed towards and about God. Such music might be said to include polyphony, such as that of Tallis or Palestrina, contemporary praise and worship music, Vivaldi's Dixit Dominus, and a whole plethora of different types of music that deal with the divine. I, however, want to restrict this discussion, for the sake of time and simplicity, to that music which a regular parishioner or a regular parish choir member, in a regular parish might sing or have sung to them. I suppose that one could spend a post lamenting the advent of John Rutter's anthems onto the Cathedral repertoire over the polyphony of William Byrd, or whatever, but that isn't really what concerns me. I am worried about the situation of the ordinary man in the pew, like me, and what the Church is doing, through its music, to reach him.

One of the reasons I worry about this music is because of the manner in which we go about selecting it these days. In fact, that's not what I'm worried about. I am worried about the idea of "selecting" music at all. You see, in the selection of Church music, it is an almost unavoidable temptation to do one of two things: to select music which will please the congregation or to select music which represents one's own musical/theological preferences. In fact, I have never been in a Church choir where someone didn't at some point say, "Well, everybody really likes....." or "This song really goes with....." or "We've always ......."

Now, I ask you, what if we applied these criteria to everything else in our Christian life? Would it make sense for the congregation to adopt the text of the sermon by parliamentary procedure prior to each service, or to have the congregation vote on which lectionary readings to do each Sunday? No, of course not. Somehow, in our subconscious mind, we have the notion that it is part of the Christian challenge to be formed according to the will of God, not according to our own will. If, however, we were to always hear, with the "itching ears" mentioned in the Epistle, what we wanted to hear, or only read what we liked in the Bible, we know that our doctrine would slowly be warped into a sort of mishmash of prejudices easily consumed by the greatest number of people. Enter the Least Common Denominator.

Church music is probably the single most formative part of any liturgical act. By it, words are put into our mouths so that we return to God praise for what he has done for us. We become, through song, an image of the heavenly Jerusalem, redeemed and transfigured into the likeness of Christ. Now, does that sound like something we can "choose" our way into? Do any of the phrases above sound like a transformed people, whose whole will is dependent on God? I have never thought so.

Fixing this problem is not as complicated as one might think. True, we will probably never be able to exclude choice entirely from the process of selecting music, but I do think we can at least mitigate it by singing songs and texts which we 'receive' rather than 'prefer'. This involves moving away from choosing various hymns and motets to fill our liturgy and moving towards a regular cycle of songs and chants that have nothing to do with our own preferences. Lo and behold, the Church has given us just such a cycle in the Graduale Romanum (the Roman Gradual); and, because there are two forms of the Roman Rite, isn't it incredibly fortunate that there is an edition of this book for each of the two Uses respectively?

The Graduale Romanum is written entirely in Gregorian Chant. It contains very few "hymns", unless they are prescribed for a particular liturgy. The texts are drawn either from Sacred Scripture or from time immemorial, and reflection on them is almost a theological exercise in itself. Truly, nothing could be more "counter-cultural" or, I might add, "counter-preferential" than that. The Ordinary of the Mass is in there too.

Now, however, we start coming to a problem. Many parishes simply CAN'T have the Graduale Romanum every week, because they either lack the group of dedicated singers to tackle the proper texts for each Sunday and sing them in a manner that edifies or they simply do not have a solemn celebration each week in which to sing said chants.

I believe that the texts themselves are the primary formative aspect of the chants. If the ability is lacking, why not simply sing the texts to simple melodies which are easily memorized, so that we do not lose the full effect of the chant? If the opportunity is lacking, why not put the texts in the mouths of the congregation as a Responsory Reading or Psalm, whether in English or Latin? I do not think that either goal would be too much.

Now, most of this post has been directed to churches that either omit the propers or cover them up with devotional 'hymns'. However, I don't think that even exemplary traditionalist apostolates are exempt from this attitude either. Too often we finish with a proper only to join in singing our favorite 'hymn' or motet from whatever atrocious choir book we've selected, simply because it seems to be the general preference of the congregation or because we "haven't sung this one in a while". The problem with this attitude is precisely that doing so distracts us from the transformative text, namely, the proper, and puts attention on the choir's selection. My proof of this phenomenon comes from personal experience. I am often told how beautiful "that song at the Offertory" was, meaning the choral piece, but am almost never congratulated for my faithful rendition of the Rossini Propers. Why? Because they've forgotten about them already; the propers were driven out of the people's minds by that stunning descant. And who can blame them?

The solution to this, I believe, is always to make the Proper of the Mass the star of the show. This can be by ornamenting it with simple Psalm verses (which might be chanted in a Gregorian style or by a simple harmonization), or by selecting (ouch, that word) music which primarily repeats the text of the propers themselves.

I haven't got around to addressing the issue of congregational participation, but I think that I will leave it for a later date. I do believe that we need to have more congregational participation in traditional apostolates, particularly in singing the Ordinary of the Mass. I also believe that hymn-singing has its place, but I wonder if there aren't better ways for us to make this singing more biblical in nature and restrained in tone. For example, I think that we could take some notes from the old Presbyterian tradition and perhaps sing metrical psalms to familiar tunes, particularly the psalms that are meant to accompany each of the proper antiphons of the Mass. In this way, the congregation would internalize Sacred Scripture in a much more immersive way.

All of this talk of "transformation", though, brings us back to where we started the discussion. Aren't there more pressing matters for the modern Church, issues which can only really be solved by the action of the Holy Spirit in individual hearts? And yet, what better way would there be for us to dispose ourselves to the work of the Holy Spirit than through the music that we sing? And if we sing the Holy Scriptures, if we make them our means of rejoicing to God, isn't the Holy Spirit already beginning His work in us? Perhaps the issue of Church music is not so "petty" or "self-referential" after all.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Smart people agree with me about the Boy Scouts....

A very intelligent canon lawyer Has written a post basically affirming my previous post....

I only disagree with one of his points, namely, that withdrawing sponsorship from a Boy Scout troop by a Catholic organization might not be a sign of unjust discrimination. I think it would, if such a decision were made institutionally or collectively by a group of parents or by a parish church  itself. However, it is of course up to individuals whether or not to participate in the Scouts, just as it always has been.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Prayer/Poem of the Week- Prayer of Roses (from the back of a Spanish votive candle)

I found this prayer on the back of a votive candle to Our Lady of Guadalupe. I have looked and looked for a source, but haven't had any luck. In any case, I loved the prayer so much that I immediately scribbled it into my Book of Hours and recite it on a regular basis. 

Merciful Virgin Mary of Guadalupe, show clemency, love, and compassion to those who love you and search for your protection. May the sweet fragrance of roses reach your divine Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, that He may hear our prayers, wipe our tears, and give us comfort and assistance. (Concentrate on your desires.) Amen. 

Monday, May 27, 2013

The Boy Scouts, And Why I Support Their Decision

Given all the talk in the Catholic blogosphere, especially here, at Rorate Caeli, about the latest decisions made by the Boy Scouts, I thought it might be instructive to actually read the decision, rather than giving a gut-reaction to all the media speculation. Here is the text with my commentary in bold.

WHEREAS, it is the mission of the Boy Scouts of America to prepare young people to make ethical and moral choices over their lifetimes by instilling in them the values of the Scout Oath and Scout Law:

Scout Oath

Scout Law

On my honor I will do my best
To do my duty to God and my country
And to obey the Scout Law;
To help other people at all times;
To keep myself physically strong,
Mentally awake, and morally straight.
(Does not mean straight in sexual orientation.)

A Scout is:

AND WHEREAS, duty to God, duty to country, duty to others, and duty to oneself are each a core value and immutable tenet of the Boy Scouts of America; and
WHEREAS, the Scout Oath begins with duty to God and the Scout Law ends with a Scout's obligation to be reverent, and that will always remain a core value of the Boy Scouts of America, and the values set forth in the Scout Oath and Law are fundamental to the BSA and central to teaching young people to make better choices over their lifetimes; and
WHEREAS, the vision of the Boy Scouts of America is to prepare every eligible youth in America to become a responsible, participating citizen and leader who is guided by the Scout Oath and Scout Law; and
WHEREAS, for more than 103 years, programs of the Boy Scouts of America have been delivered to youth members through cooperation with chartered organizations that select adult leaders who meet the organization's standards as well as the leadership standards of the Boy Scouts of America; and
WHEREAS, numerous independent experts have recognized that the programs protecting Scouts today, which include effective screening, education and training, and clear policies to protect youth and provide for their privacy, are among the best in the youth-serving community; and
WHEREAS, the current adult leadership standard of the Boy Scouts of America states:
The applicant must possess the moral, educational, and emotional qualities that the Boy Scouts of America deems necessary to afford positive leadership to youth. The applicant must also be the correct age, subscribe to the precepts of the Declaration of Religious Principle (duty to God), and abide by the Scout Oath and the Scout Law.
While the BSA does not proactively inquire about sexual orientation of employees, volunteers, or members, we do not grant membership to individuals who are open or avowed homosexuals or who engage in behavior that would become a distraction to the mission of the BSA.
AND WHEREAS, Scouting is a youth program, and any sexual conduct, whether homosexual or heterosexual, by youth of Scouting age is contrary to the virtues of Scouting; and (This means that chastity is an essential characteristic of a good scout.)
WHEREAS, the Boy Scouts of America does not have an agenda on the matter of sexual orientation, and resolving this complex issue is not the role of the organization, nor may any member use Scouting to promote or advance any social or political position or agenda; and (Basically, the Scouts are saying, "Look, we aren't scientists or psychologists or clergy. How children work out their identity in the context of their faith has to do with people a lot more important than us. Scouts want out of this mess, but we want to do so in a moral way.")
WHEREAS, youth are still developing, learning about themselves and who they are, developing their sense of right and wrong, and understanding their duty to God to live a moral life; and (The language that we use to describe ourselves, particularly while we are young, is something fluid and incremental, and depends on family situations. For example, while a child from a practicing Catholic family might not describe themselves as "gay" but as "struggling with chastity issues" or "struggling to find his vocation", a child from a Methodist family might come right out and identify himself with the cultural term, "gay" or "bi" or whatnot. As an organization, the Scouts are more concerned with helping students to do what is ACTUALLY morally upright and to help them become good people. They aren't really concerned about the labels that students from different backgrounds and faiths use to describe themselves. After all, they're kids, and that will probably change later anyway.)
WHEREAS, America needs Scouting, and the organization's policies must be based on what is in the best interest of its young people, and the organization will work to stay focused on that which unites us, and
WHEREAS, the Boy Scouts of America will maintain the current membership policy for all adult leaders of the Boy Scouts of America, and (The Boy Scouts basically are saying that they agree with the Catholic position that having openly and avowedly gay men in charge of groups of pubescent and post-pubescent boys is probably a bad idea. To use an example, I teach at a Catholic school, but as a man, I am generally not asked to take charge of the Junior High girls on a permanent basis. If we were running a boarding school, it wouldn't be ideal to have a fairly young man in charge of the junior high girls' dormitory, whatever our estimation of his moral character might be. It just makes sense.)
The following membership standard for youth members of the Boy Scouts of America is hereby adopted and approved, effective Jan. 1, 2014:
Youth membership in the Boy Scouts of America is open to all youth who meet the specific membership requirements to join the Cub Scout, Boy Scout, Varsity Scout, Sea Scout, and Venturing programs. Membership in any program of the Boy Scouts of America requires the youth member to (a) subscribe to and abide by the values expressed in the Scout Oath and Scout Law, (b) subscribe to and abide by the precepts of the Declaration of Religious Principle (duty to God), and (c) demonstrate behavior that exemplifies the highest level of good conduct and respect for others and is consistent at all times with the values expressed in the Scout Oath and Scout Law. No youth may be denied membership in the Boy Scouts of America on the basis of sexual orientation or preference alone. (The key word here is "alone". Look, if I had a son who sexually oriented to men, or to both genders, would I want him, from adolescence, to be excluded from activities that are a normal part of growing up, such as scouting, or youth sports, or swim team, just because he might get a crush on the other boys? No. It's not cancer. It won't kill him. It won't even cause him to sin unless he wants it to. That's my personal take. Here's what the Catechism of the Catholic Church says about it....)

CCC 2358: The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible. This inclination, which is objectively disordered, constitutes for most of them a trial. They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided. These persons are called to fulfill God's will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord's Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition. 

CCC 2359 Homosexual persons are called to chastity. By the virtues of self-mastery that teach them inner freedom, at times by the support of disinterested friendship, by prayer and sacramental grace, they can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection.

Let's look at the Boy Scouts' decision in light of the two quotes above. However, first, a slight prefatory note. The Catechism states that the "inclination" is "objectively disordered". However, I think it is important to point out that the Catechism does not claim to be a psychology textbook. It is not saying that homosexual persons have any sort of genetic, psychological, or medical 'syndrome' or that they are somehow 'defective' by scientific standards. The Catechism looks at it from a moral perspective. The desire to have sex with people of the same gender is a desire which is not ordered to a moral end. End of story, from the Catholic point of view. Likewise, persistent, deep-seated desires to have sex with women other than one's wife, or to use pornography, or to engage in masturbation, are all objectively disordered. They also happen to people who are perfectly healthy, capable human beings. Being homosexual is not the same as being a leper or having PTSD. But, then again, even if homosexuality were some sort of disease like leprosy (as I do NOT believe it is), how did Jesus teach lepers? St. Damien of Molokai, anyone?

Moving on to some of the key ways that these two texts encounter the BSA resolution, I would like to note a clause that is often left out in these discussions. Right after the "objectively disordered" bombshell, which usually leaves everyone--conservatives and progressives alike--foaming at the mouth, there is a little sentence that is absolutely essential to a right understanding of Catholic doctrine. "Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided." Not just the discrimination itself, folks, but even the "sign" of it, which would include actions or words that merely hint at unjust discrimination. For example, even if the exclusion of gay boys from locker rooms might be a 'just discrimination' (I'm not sure), the effects of such a decision might be to (a) expose the boy to additional bullying at school, (b) prevent the boy from participating in school sports equally--which would surely be unjust, (c) lead him to develop an unhealthy separation from good male influences which could help him to adjust to his situation, (d) represent an attitude that homosexuals are somehow 'diseased' or 'unclean', which would be fundamentally un-Christian. I would argue that excluding homosexual boys from activities such as Boy Scouts could have largely the same effects as these, and is therefore unjustified and unjust. 

Second, we note that the part of the resolution which deals with chastity could very well have been lifted straight out of CCC 2359. Boy Scouts ought to be chaste. Period. If they aren't, then they will be kicked out anyway, and as anyone who has actually worked with youth can tell you, there is no way based on a child's declaration of sexual orientation or preference, to tell exactly what their sexual behavior will be in a given situation. I was in a Southern Baptist youth group growing up with  two homosexuals and two bisexuals. Youth are unpredictable on chastity issues. 

Finally, we might note the ways in which a Boy Scout troop sponsored by the Catholic Church, with its carefully nuanced perspective on homosexuality, might well be exactly what a young boy needs who is struggling with homosexual feelings. Within such a loving group of boys his own age, he might well find the acceptance and support he needs to make good decisions about chastity and prayer, and therefore approach the "Christian perfection" talked about in the Catechism. I am not saying that if you just take the boy camping and fishing enough you will get him to become more "manly" and less "effeminate", nor am I saying that a Catholic Boy Scout group could help a gay child "pray the gay away". Rather, I am suggesting that being around boys who loved him, not as a potential sexual partner or someone 'different', but as a fellow Boy Scout and friend might just help him to find healthy relationships that could maintain the standards of Catholic chastity. That's to say nothing about what it might teach the straight boys in the troop about the need for sensitivity to the struggles of others....

And so, with all that being said, recognizing that my view will probably make neither conservatives nor progressives very happy, I say that, if I were to have a son with deep-seated homosexual tendencies, or just a son who wasn't particularly picky, I would be very happy for him to join the Boy Scouts, sell popcorn, and go long as I didn't have to go.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Prayer/Poem of the Week- All Are Welcome (a parody of the song by Marty Haugen)

Let us build a house where all can dwell,
And no one feels left out,
Where preachers never preach on hell
And folk are free to doubt.
Full of councils and committees
To see each smiling face;
Smaller governments have governed cities,
All are welcome! All are welcome! All are welcome in this place!

Let us build a house where hands will clap,
At every choral song;
And give us jokes that make us laugh
And make no sermon long.
Every day it's Marty Haugen,
Sung by Sister Margaret Grace,
Hey that Entrance Song is really rockin',
All are welcome! All are welcome! All are welcome in this place!

Thursday, May 2, 2013

What is a teacher? What is the point in learning Latin?

I was asked these questions a couple years back by a colleague in grad school. I recently dug up my response, which I thought might serve as an interesting discussion-starter.

So, you posted this a while ago. Back then, I felt like writing a reponse, but didn't. Now, I don't feel like writing a response but will anyway.

A teacher is, simply put, an extension of the parent. Basically, it takes a LOT to raise up a human and halfway-decent child, and most parents don't have what it takes. Among the skills that most parents don't have, usually, education tops the list. Some parents are excellent teachers, but most aren't, so they ask other people to give 'em a hand. 

Now, there are higher, deeper meanings for the word 'teacher.' A teacher in the truest sense is someone who has ideas of their own and wants to share them with others. But most of us aren't that, and if we were when we started at UMASS, it is likely that the reality of the job quickly crushed any such idealistic notions. And, basically, it's an impossible ideal, because there's only one fellow who ever came up with something truly new, and we aren't Him. 

Now, let's get back to the other half of your question. "What is the point of learning Latin?" The fact is, in my humble opinion, there ISN'T a point for most people to learn Latin. The point of learning Latin, in its most limited academic sense, to gain an in-depth understanding of the Romans and subsequent Latin-speaking cultures. That limits the academic need for Latin to a few archaeology geeks and a few anthropology majors. 

But there is a wider, non-academic need to learn Latin. Latin is the language of a culture (actually, multiple cultures) which continues to have significance for SOME of the world's population today. Connection with that tradition allows those people to root themselves and develop a deeper sense of self-identity ("autochthony" in Heideggerian terms). For some people, e.g. Roman Catholics, that cultural heritage is so significant that the language remains in active use even to the present day.

To me, however, that makes teaching Latin in most public schools (I would except those in Europe) the equivalent of forcing students in Antarctica to take lessons in water skiing. Learning an ancient language is simply too difficult to be justified, when such brain power could be used on something more applicable or local, such as regional languages. 

As for the notion that learning Latin helps with a plethora of other skills, the evidence is too questionable. I am comforted everyday by knowing that the students to whom I teach the "Lingua Latina" also use it everyday, or at least have the opportunity to do so, in the context of the traditional Roman Liturgy.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

No big post this week....

Other than the prayer/poem of the week, I am afraid I will have to disappoint you all and refrain from writing a long blog post today. We are in the thick of the last two weeks of classes. I have a May Crowning to plan for tomorrow and more grading than is humanly possible. Say a prayer for my sanity! It is possible that I will put up a post sometime before the end of the week.

I salute all of your guardian angels and ask them to show you my special love.

In the meanwhile...

Prayer/Poem of the Week- Prayer to Mary at Night, in the spirit of St. Louis de Montfort

Holy Mary, as I examine my interior practice of the consecration I made to you, I see that there is an undeniable correspondence between those times in which I put aside your sovereignty and those in which I was most exposed to the ravages of sin. Was I not, at those times, also attempting to attain salvation by climbing the arduous path of self-perfection, rather than by seeking the easy way of submission to your Son through You? You know that I was. On the other hand, when I have surrendered everything to you, I have not only been aided by the grace of God to avoid sin, but have even seen my temptations transformed into so many steps upward to union with Christ my Lord. Hear then, O Mother of my soul, Queen of my heart, hear this plea that I, though an unworthy servant, may constantly renew in heart and mind my consecration to you. May love of self and attachment to sin never disrupt the childlike confidence which I place in you this day, knowing that you will present your beloved ones, as you did at the Wedding Feast in Cana, to Christ your Son, who lives and reigns forever and ever. Amen.
Behold, Mary, I am thine and all that I have is thine! (3x)
Then ask your favorite saints to pray for you as well.

God Alone

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Prayer/Poem of the Week- Splendid Star (Stella Splendens)

This coming Saturday, April 27, is in some places the feast of Our Lady of Montserrat, which is a shrine in Spain. It has been an ancient place of pilgrimage for many centuries. Among the various manuscripts which have come down to us in relation to the pilgrimage through the centuries, one of the most fascinating is a book called the Llibre Vermell, a collection of songs, chants, and even dances which were sung during the ascent to the mountain-top shrine.

Probably the most famous of these texts is the dance, "Stella Splendens". My church choir has performed it several times over the years and it has always been one of my favorites to hear and sing.

In any case, I decided a year or so ago that I wanted to be able to sing it with the children I teach at St. John Bosco Academy. The thing is, although I knew that they would like the tune well enough, I wanted them to enjoy it in the same way as I enjoyed it, as an exuberant tune matched with an equally exuberant set of lyrics. My students study Latin, of course, but they aren't quite good enough at it to be able to express themselves with it in rhythmic music.

So, I made a rough paraphrase of the lyrics, condensing them into three verses, which they could sing.

Splendid Star of Montserrat,
Shining like summer's golden ray,
Full of miracles and light,
Hear us, thy people, as we pray.

Verse 1:
We join the joyful chorus
Which passes on this way,
To look and see the wonders
Which crown the Queen of May.
Join us all be rich or poor,
Children, or those of higher state;
Come with us and then return,
Freed from your sins and full of grace.

Verse 2:
The rulers of the nations,
Though proud in pow'r and name,
Will here at Mary's altar
Kneel down and bow for shame.
Crying out they strike their hearts,
Sighing they will confess their sin.
Then with voices full of joy,
Rising, they go, made free again.

Verse 3:
All people now entreat her,
The Queen of every race,
That on this holy mountain,
We all might see her face.
Let us now with song and dance
Climb to the heights and see her shrine,
Begging her, our Mother blest,
Favor with Christ, her Child Divine.

Here's the tune:

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Earth Day: The Green Pope

This Monday is Earth Day. Despite the fact that it is not, as far as I can tell, a very favored holiday in my community, Earth Day brings back fond memories for me. At Hope College, Earth Day was the first day of the year that you could really count on to be Spring, and we used to enjoy it by sitting out on the lawn, enjoying fair-trade coffee brought by Lemonjello's, the local hipster coffee shop, and listening to outdoor performances from local bands.

In any case, as a traditionalist Catholic I have always been fascinated by the relationship between the traditionalist movement as a movement committed to "conserving" the liturgy and the movement to "conserve" natural resources and beauty. These movements seem to me to be perfectly harmonious with one another, since both have their source in the same essential virtue: gratitude. A traditionalist looks at the liturgy that he has received, realizes that what he has received is so beautiful and so multi-layered in meaning and possible applications, and responds with gratitude. He does not seek to manipulate it to his own purposes. To use Heideggerian language, he does not treat the liturgy as a "standing reserve" which needs to be "enframed" into modern applicability (vid. Question Concerning Technology). Rather he treats it rather like the environmentalist treats the earth, as something in essence mysterious.

It seems to me like no coincidence that Pope Benedict XVI, the same pope who gave wider permission for the traditional liturgy, was also one of the most outspoken religious leaders in environmental issues. In his various works, he points out that it is the failure of humanity to depend on God for its subsistence that makes us instrumentalize, and thus destroy, the earth and its resources (Jesus of Nazareth, vol. 1, ch. 9--I think). I apologize that I don't have the book with me at the moment to give the exact quote.

Likewise, in Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict spends several pages explaining a rather developed theology of ecological action on the part of Catholics. He treats it as an example of "inter-generational justice", whereby  Catholics owe to their children a beautiful and bountiful natural world such as they have received. He also points out, however, that a love for the environment helps to develop just between persons. In one of his more moving quotes from the encyclical he says,

"Every violation of solidarity and civic friendship harms the environment, just as environmental deterioration in turn upsets relations in society. Nature, especially in our time is so integrated into the dynamics of society and culture that by now it hardly constitutes an independent variable."
At the same time he ties it to traditional Catholic morality. I don't imagine many Greens would agree with him when he says,

"If there is a lack of respect for the right to life and to a natural death, if human conception, gestation, and birth are made artificial, if human embryos are sacrificed to research, the conscience of society ends up losing the concept of human ecology and, along with it, that of environmental ecology....The book of nature is one and indivisible: it takes in not only the environment but also life, sexuality, marriage, the family, social relations: in a word, integral human development."
So much for Benedict as being out of touch with the modern world. The truth is, as he points out, that modernity, with its lust for consumption and the manipulation of the human person, is out of touch with the world itself.

How does this come back to liturgy? In his book, The Spirit of the Liturgy, Benedict situates man's worship of God within the traditional Platonic concepts of reditus and exitus. The exitus of creation, that is, God's "going out", is completed by the reditus of man's worship, the worship of God by a free being. I think it is not too far a leap, even though Benedict never quite comes out and says it, to acknowledge that the liturgy, conceived of as the public worship of God, is therefore the end and purpose of Creation, it is the locus in which man achieves his ultimate purpose, and therefore Creation achieves its ultimate purpose.

Now, if this is the case, it seems to me that liturgy and creation become analogous concepts. Just as we behave towards the earth, as a matter of justice, because the earth is God's natural revelation of himself towards man, we ought to behave towards the liturgy and towards the Holy Scriptures, as God's supernatural revelation of himself through Tradition and Holy Writ. Is the reverse also true? I'm not sure I can exactly put my reasoning into words, but it would seem to me that if we accept that God slowly and mysteriously unfolds to us the full knowledge of himself in supernatural revelation, we ought to expect that he does so in the natural world as well, and that if knowledge of Him is our ultimate goal, we must respect the mysterious nature of this unfolding and not seek merely to exploit it to our own purposes. In other words, we must seek to uncover the beauty of the liturgy and the beauty of the earth, not merely to make it more useful to our purposes, which our fallen nature corrupts. We must seek to understand its essence, not "enframe" it.

Well, this is just my initial foray into this line of thought. Perhaps others who have spent more time researching these topics would be able to find even better references and respond to some of my intuitions on the subject.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Reflections of a New Catholic Teacher

It happens fairly often, I think, that converts to the Catholic faith, such as myself, who tend to be fairly well-educated people who have thought deeply about religion, get recruited as teachers in Catholic schools or PRE programs. It makes sense, to a certain extent, because they have undergone formal instruction in the fundamental truths of the faith and they are usually excited about it and ready to share it with others. However, as I tell my friends, if someone is a young and eager convert, they should NOT under ANY CIRCUMSTANCES undertake the catechesis of youth who are primarily from Catholic families.

The reason for this is because cradle Catholic children are, in my opinion, the most scandalous creatures in existence. Even if they have received impeccable religious education, the convert finds himself confronted with a group of creatures who, having been cleansed, as we believe, from original sin and nourished with the spiritual food of the Blessed Sacrament, nonetheless tend either to behave in exactly the same manner as children from the non-catholic communities he has left behind or, as has been my experience, to behave even worse than their non-catholic counterparts. At best the well-catechized children can recite their prayers, know a few theological definitions, can explain the trinity, have the Ten Commandments memorized, etc., but have absolutely NO clue the reasons for this or that particular belief, nor feel particularly effected, from long habit, by receiving or not receiving the sacraments, except perhaps Confession.

Now, while I do not have any illusions about the fact that my Sunday School experience as a Baptist was excellent in comparison to most, I also know that we, in general, had a sufficient knowledge of the Biblical texts that supported this or that doctrine to be able to make a pretty devastating reply to any would-be papists we might meet--and that by the eighth grade! It helps, of course, that fundamentalism reduces the Christian message to such an easily consumable product, but nonetheless, we were far ahead of our Catholic friends in being able to account for much of what we believed.

So, that is why I tell new Catholics to stay away from Catholic children. It often tries the faith of the new convert, who finds all of his new beliefs, for which he has suffered and with which he has struggled, trivialized or ignored by little urchins pockmarked with original sin. Luckily, before I started, I had spent plenty of time with Catholic families and, in general, had some hold onto reality before jumping into the classroom. Still, I will be the first to admit that I was disheartened by Catholic high school boys who, while they could rattle off a rosary like nobody's business, never seemed to let it sink in to their personal morality or relationship with their teachers, and who, despite their ability to serve at Mass like angels, had never gone to the trouble of actually studying their missal to see what it said.

That being said, I don't think that we can lay the guilt entirely on the shoulders of the children, nor on those of their parents who have tried so hard to bring their children up in the Catholic religion. I think that one of the biggest problems comes in the general methodology used to instruct children in the Catholic faith, which comes in one of two varieties: (1) the 'traditional' approach of giving students a certain set of catechism questions to study and then expecting them to parrot back the answers to you with rapid-fire accuracy and (2) the 'modern' approach of trying to teach little bits and pieces of the Catholic faith while removing all the traditional doctrinal content and replacing it with so many variations of "Jesus loves you!" Both of these methods, in my opinion, have the same failing: they underestimate the capacity of children for profound religious sentiments. This is because, I think, in the former case, the instructor is afraid that he cannot assess, content-wise, the religious sentiments of children, and in the latter case, because the instructor himself has no truly profound religious sentiments.

I don't pretend to have all the answers. When I was working with a group of college-aged Catholics, all of whom were brought up in the faith, I often discussed the question with them, trying to get them to analyze their experiences and bring out their deep misgivings about the Catholic faith in a group-discussion format. I noticed that there were a few things that seemed to come up over and over again.

First, most of them seemed to have never had an experience of "discovering" the Catholic faith. For them it was always a given. The process, then of maturing, which is really a process of testing and stretching things that are "given" then becomes a process of rebelling against their "given" faith. Although many of them never actually reject the beliefs themselves, they become callous to them and marginalize them to Church and family life, although oftentimes Church life is so marginalized that it eventually gets snuffed out too.

My suggestion? Generally I would say that we need to spend more time at the beginning of catechesis making students familiar with the stories and poetry of our faith. Focus on the lives of Christ and Mary, the history of salvation, the meaning and texts of the liturgy, the musical tradition of Gregorian Chant, rather than on dogma. In other words, give them all the stuff of the faith and let them play with it, never making it simplistic or watered down, long before you didactically hand down to them the official formulas of the Catholic faith. I have had great experiences in my Religion class having the students look up the important texts from the Bible and discussing them with an eye to the Catholic interpretation; generally they can remember the stories long after they forget the answers to their catechism questions.

I think that another aspect of this is setting. It simply does not take a whole academic school year to cover Baltimore no. 1 or the Penny Catechism. The whole thing, cover to cover, can be taught content-wise in a few weeks over the summer, if students spend the time on it. And perhaps this would be the better way to ensure that children see the faith as something that is holy and exceptional, if rather than being incorporated into the ordinary course of school work or Sunday school programs, they instead went to summer camps where, mixed with games, solemn liturgies, and outdoor activities away from home, they intensively studied the key texts of our Catholic faith. I envision something like what Vacation Bible School used to be when I was a small child in a Baptist congregation, but whose function has gradually been turned over to residential Church Camps.

Of course, many cradle Catholics love to carry on and on about the way their devout parents browbeat them into believing or doing this and that, and many of them tie all their notions of prayer or religious study to some fond, or perhaps traumatic, memory of their parents or home life. This is a complicated issue. On the one hand, it is good to associate one's family with one's religious life, and clearly it is the intention of the Church for one to make the family home a center of prayer and religious virtues. On the other, no person, even a mother or father, can have faith for someone else. Each person must have that desert experience of conversion and temptation; every person must work out their salvation with fear and trembling. My fear is always that parents try, in their good intentions, to preserve their children from that fear and that trembling and, thereby, deny their children the experience of testing and doubt that is needed to refine a person's faith.

Lately, I have been thinking that a certain secularism is healthy in the Catholic family home. Sure, prayer has its place, but rather than compelling children to participate in so many Catholic devotions and so forth in the home, simply taking time to pray to God before meals, before trips, or on important occasions, such as birthdays and funerals and so forth, seems to me to be more in keeping with the individual character of faith. It is true that Catholicism holds that faith is essentially shared with others, but it is with others as brothers and sisters in Christ, not as natural or biological parents.

On the other hand, religious experience, in order to be shared by the children equally with the parents, needs to have a certain "otherness" to it. That is why I think it would be best for religious education programs, particularly those that have to do with sacramental preparation, to be more intensive and to take place at times other than those which are usually taken up with school and family duties. Rather, on ordinary Sundays, I think it would be better for the parish religious ed. programs to be focused on making Catholic children literate in basic apologetics,Sacred Scripture, church history, and liturgy.

I do think that it is important to give children the opportunity to develop their own relationship with God. Some of the most devout people I know were cradle Catholics whose families were always very keen to take the family to adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, which requires everyone to just spend time in silence together with God. I like this idea lot: simply giving children an opportunity to be quiet with God and to say such prayers as interest them. It could even take place at home in the evening as a sort of "daily sabbath".

Prayer, it seems to me, is the most common element missing from the religious formation of young Catholic children. Not that many programs do not strive to have the children say prayers, but as Lesson 28 of Baltimore no. 3 tells us, merely reciting formulas "such as a machine might do" does not really amount to praying. True, we must always stick to the concrete, and formulas are often helpful for beginners, but too often, for lack of creativity, we often find ourselves merely reciting 'vain repetitions' as if saying more prayers meant that God heard us more, which is fundamentally untrue. It is likewise untrue for children.

One of the things I think I would like to see is a religious education program that taught the segments of the Catechism backwards, starting with the Lord's Prayer and prayer, both mental and vocal, public and private, as the foundation, then proceeding to the study of the Ten Commandments,  the Sacraments, and the Creed. It seems to me that this might be more effective in inculcating the need to constantly tend to one's relationship with God, even outside of school and the family.

I apologize if any of this seems overly judgmental or harsh about the nature of Catholic families. I have to confess my general ignorance about such things. I am only writing as someone who sees the effects of various family situations, and the general indifference of many children to spiritual matters. I am writing mostly to those who undertake the religious education of young children; parents have to work out their own solutions.

Prayer/Poem of the Week - A Prayer for my Community of Faith

So, every week I am hoping to write two posts. One will be a prayer or poem that either I have written or someone else has written, but which is especially meaningful to me. The other will be an opinion piece.

If the prayer is unattributed, it means that it's original. And no, I don't care one bit if you steal, re-post, or reproduce it.  I have had it written in my personal "Book of Hours" for a while now. The reference at the beginning is to an opinion of mine and many Church fathers that Mary did not have the same degree of pain in childbirth, since she was free of original sin. I find it to be helpful in my prayers and meditations, but it is not the established dogma of the Church...yet. You can feel free to agree or disagree.

O Mary, because you were free of original sin you were spared the usual pain of childbirth, but what terrible pain, what ultimate suffering you experienced at the birth of the Church on the Cross! No one can comprehend your pain, no one can conceive your depth of anguish, as you watched Your Son beaten, whipped, and then nailed to the wood of the Cross!

O Mary, Sorrowful Mother, look down on my little part of the Church, this community entrusted to the care of Your priest. How often do we everyday torture the Body of your Son with complaints and murmuring! How often have I spoken when I should have been silent; how often do I speak harshly when I ought to console. And so I ask you, intercede for me with your Son, that we may yet bring forth the Gospel of Christ into the world, even as I am an unworthy vessel to do so. Amen.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

The Ten Commandments as Taught by Modern America

1. I am the Lord thy God, whom thou hast imprinted on thy money; thou shalt not have any other gods before me...except money.

2. Thou shalt not use the name of the Lord thy God in earnest.

3. Remember the Lord's day, to do thy mowing, lawn work, and other household chores.

4. Blame thy father and mother for all thy ills; for thus thou shalt gain sympathy from others and shew thyself independent.

5. Thou shalt not behold animals being killed for thy food.

6. Thou shalt divorce when thou desirest.

7. Thou shalt cheat the government and thy creditors.

8. Thou shalt not tell the truth bluntly, as if truth existed.

9. Thou shalt not wear clothes that allow thee to go unnoticed.

10. Thou shalt strive to have all that thy neighbor hath.

Friday, April 12, 2013

"Problems" based on the Baltimore Catechism, no. 3- Are you smarter than a fifth-grader?

So, these are some "Problems" that I gave my fifth-graders to work out, based on Lesson 28 of Baltimore Catechism no. 3. No, I don't use Baltimore no. 3 for fifth grade. We are just doing this one lesson from it to reinforce their Baltimore no. 1 lesson on prayer. What do y'all think? Could you pass fifth grade Religion?

 1.Sister Joan says that we can receive grace every day, even if we cannot receive the sacraments every day. How is this true?

 2. Jimmy says that he only says vocal prayers because he doesn’t know how to practice mental prayer. Explain to him a simple way to practice mental prayer.

 3. Calvin Luther, who is not a Catholic, asks you what the most important Catholic prayers are. What do you tell him?

 4. Susan says that she always gets distracted during prayers at school. What are some things that she can do to avoid distractions?

 5. Brother John thinks that he is the holiest monk at Clear Creek because he can say his Breviary the fastest. Explain why he is or is not correct.

 6. You and another boy are doing chores out on the farm. How can you pray even while doing your chores?

7. Sister Perpetua says that we pray to God for rain, because otherwise He will forget that the convent’s garden needs water. What mistake has she made?

8. Tom prayed a novena to get a new water gun for his birthday. When his birthday came, he did not receive a water gun. What is one possible explanation for why God chose not to grant his prayer?

Conversion Story 7.0, continued

Here follows the rest of my lecture....

In the Fall of 2004, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the liberal Lutheran denomination that I had joined only six months prior, was engaged in a heated and momentous struggle between various factions of the denomination. The essence of the debate was whether, first of all, homosexual relations were in fact sinful and, however one decided that question, whether or not homosexuals in a stable sexual relationship with a person of the same gender would be admitted to ordination. Previously, only homosexuals who remained single were permitted to become Lutheran ministers. Around that time, I believe it was in November, the Lutheran Church was having a general assembly of church delegates to decide this very issue.

It has been a few years, so some of the particulars of how this debate was carried out have become a bit fuzzy. I remember that the big controversy going into the assembly was that the faction in favor of ordaining gay individuals simply didn't have the votes to pass any binding decision changing the rules for ordination. I also remember that, prior to the assembly, a list of "discussion questions" was being circulated around the various local churches by the ELCA leadership, encouraging "ongoing dialogue" on this issue. I love politics, so I knew what was up. The plan was to keep the resolution in play even if the assembly voted down the changes, so that eventual passage was virtually assured.

On this issue, I took the standard ELCA middle-of-the-road stance. It was probable, I thought, that the Scriptures condemned extra-marital sexual relationships, even between persons of the same gender, and there was no provision for marriages between people of the same gender. However, my opinion was that, on a personal level, there was no way for a church to judge the guilt of any particular person; rather, as I thought then, each person had to act according to the dictates of their own conscience. As for ordination, it seemed to me that Scripture offered only two acceptable lifestyles for an ordained person: celibacy or marriage to one wife. Neither of these allowed for those who are in homosexual unions. (N.B., I didn't go into this much detail during the original lecture.--Clayton). My views on this have somewhat changed and matured since becoming Catholic and having the benefit of the Catholic tradition of moral theology.

However, whether or not the assembly of church delegates voted for or against ordaining gay individuals was not really the primary source of concern for me. As I followed the coverage of the meetings, I was disheartened to see that the various sides of the debate primarily used political or social arguments to advance their cause, shoving scripture and church teaching aside as almost irrelevant to the question. It also struck me that, however we decided at this point, the position of the church had already shifted from its original doctrine on sexual relationships. We were the church that invented the phrase "Sola Scriptura", but if that was the case, and if the Bible were a sufficient 'rule book' for the Church, why in God's name could we not decide what to believe and what was right and wrong? Did God intend for the Church to decide orthodoxy by a majority vote? Certainly the Scriptures do not point that way.

At that point, my connection to the Lutheran church was severed. I had started attending the ELCA because I wanted to believe what I wanted to believe. I had gained a conscience and became a Lutheran because I wanted to believe in something. Now I left the Lutheran Church because I realized that that something could not be a path to a close, authentic walk with God. And so, on a cold November afternoon, with about a foot of snow on the ground, I left my computer screen, right after reading the latest on the ELCA general assembly, and walked to St. Francis de Sales Catholic Church to meet with the Catholic priest. I had no idea what conversion would entail, but at this point, I simply knew that only the Catholic Church even claimed to have stable doctrine and a way of determining truth from fiction and I was determined to see it through.

(The rest of the lecture gave some technical details about the process of conversion and explained a bit about the Conclave procedure. I omit it here, because it doesn't really pertain to the story of my journey into the Catholic faith.)

It has now been seven and a half years since that day. Every day of my life, I have some new reason to thank God for my Catholic faith. Every day I find something new and wonderful about Catholicism that helps me to grow closer to God. I ask all of your prayers for final perseverance and for all those who have just made the journey into the Catholic faith last Easter. It has truly been, and continues to be, the greatest journey of my life.

I would be happy to answer any questions that you have at this point.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Conversion Story 7.0- A Convert's Journey Across the Tiber

This last Easter I celebrated the seventh year since I chose to leave the Lutheran Church and become a Roman Catholic. (I always  celebrate it on Easter, because I can never precisely remember the calendar date that I converted, and I do not see why the solar year should get preference over the lunar year anyways.) Since that time, many people have asked me for my conversion story, and, for about as many people as ask, I have given about as many versions of the story, and all of them are true. I tell the story sometimes from the perspective of Divine Providence (as far as I can divine it), relating the various ways that God pointed me in the direction of the Church from my youngest days, almost foretelling my future conversion. Sometimes I tell the story from the point of view of my developing interior life of prayer which, with fits and starts, always led me closer to the spiritual tradition of the Catholic Church, if not always without the admixture of error and misunderstanding on my part.  I also tell the story from the point of view of my developing doctrinal sensibilities as rooted in Sacred Scripture, which, while not the initial steps on the road to Catholicism, ultimately proved to be the decisive ones.  There are so many versions of the same story because, by the time I decided to convert to Catholicism I had a thousand reasons to be Catholic and only one not to be: my own sense of pride.

Recently, I was asked to give a talk to a lovely group of Catholics from Lyon College about my journey. Realizing that discussing the more providential and spiritual aspects of my conversion might seem overly introspective for such a group, I decided to give my lecture more on the concrete ideas that led me to convert. I am reproducing the lecture here, with some embellishment, as best as I can remember it while consulting my notes, recognizing that my treatment of the topics covered is neither exhaustive nor even adequate for a serious scholarly discussion. My lecture was not intended to be either. This is a simple history of MY theological reflections when I was aged 17-19; some of my thinking is more nuanced now than it was, and some of it is less so. Please be charitable. 

Crossing the Tiber: A Convert's Journey

Today, as I watched the coverage of the Conclave, there were very strong feelings that motivated the shaping of my talk today. Eight short years ago, though they seem like a lifetime when you are a freshman in college, I was watching the same scene unfold on national television after the death of John Paul II. At that point, I had already decided to convert to the Catholic faith but, because of the RCIA schedule at the local parish, I was not permitted to start my instruction until the next Fall. 

At the time, I  was struck by the solemnity and grandeur of the moment, a moment which was being carefully watched by all the national media, whether religious or not. The thing that kept running through my mind the whole time was, "Baptists (the faith I was raised with) have nothing like this. Lutherans (the faith that I had chosen for myself not six months earlier) have nothing like this." What a striking thing that the head of this one Church should get so much attention. Sure, the election of the President of the Southern Baptist Convention gets a blurb in the local papers, but nothing like this, and Lutherans are almost invisible. 

One day later, and I, the mainline Lutheran boy trying to be Catholic, watched with absolute joy as the announcement was made the Joseph Ratzinger would be Pope Benedict XVI. I liked this guy. His book, "Pilgrim Fellowship of Faith" was one of the first Catholic religious works that I had really devoured on my own. It had given me the first theologically sound explanation of the role of the Holy Spirit in the Church that I had ever thought reasonable, and I already knew that he was a friend of more traditional liturgy, which I was already involved in. Pope Benedict was my first pope, and I was very happy about that. 

Let me give you a little of my background. 

I was born right here in Batesville, AR; I grew up about forty-five minutes north of here in the thriving metropolis of Ash Flat. My mother was a devout Baptist. My father had been raised Church of Christ and was a devout...golfer. At first there was a compromise between Baptist and Church of Christ, where I would to the Baptist Church one week and the Church of Christ the next week, but at seven I decided to give my life to God (a time when Baptists say that they are "saved") and become a member of Spring River Baptist Church. I was baptized a week later. Although to Catholics it may seem rather old for Baptism and rather young for a life-changing conversion, in the Baptist Church I was considered VERY young, almost too young, for baptism. I know, however, what I did and what I felt, and ever since I have been thoroughly convinced that those Catholics who either (1) deny that children can have profound spiritual experiences or (2) deny that children have the intellects both to earn merit and commit mortal sin have no idea of children's capacity. 

In the Baptist Church, my mama was my Sunday School teacher for most of my adolescent life. She was a very capable teacher and I credit her with both my knowledge of and love for the Scriptures. She very faithfully taught me what I would consider the key features of the Baptist version of Christianity, the main points of which are as follows: 
(1) The Bible is the written Word of God and the only rule of faith for Christians. 
(2) There are two ordinances- baptism and the Lord's Supper- and both of them are merely symbols of our relationship with God.
(3)"Once saved, always saved"- meaning that once one repents of their sin, believes in the Lord Jesus and in his death and resurrection, confessing it in a public manner, and commits their life to Him as their Lord and Savior, all their sins-past, present, and future-are wiped away. At that moment one is assured of heaven, even if they should fall for a time. 
(4)Every local church is independent of the other local churches and should be run in a democratic manner. 
(5) Worship is generally non-liturgical and unscripted, unlike Catholic, Lutheran, or Episcopalian services. 

I was Baptist for a long time, so a lot of things happened to me that influenced my thinking, of course, but one of the most profound experiences that I would ever have happened when I was eleven years old and attending Church Camp over the summer. In the evening we would gather to listen to a long, impassioned sermon by the main preacher of the camp, where we would be exhorted to either give our lives to God for the first time or rededicate our lives to him if we were not living as we ought to be. I remember being struck to the core during one of those sermons, which were mostly about the stinging fires of Hell. I realized, while listening to the descriptions of heaven and hell, just how powerful and majestic God truly was and how wonderful the story of salvation was to me. At the end of the sermon, when there was generally some time left open for people to respond to the sermon, I remember walking up and praying, kneeling on the ground and just wanting to be as close to God as I could. When one of the assistant preachers came to talk with me, all I said was, if I recall correctly, "I want to rededicate my life to God and I want to be a preacher." Like I said, those who say that young children cannot have profound religious experiences have no friend in me. 

Now, I was a pretty good student, and because I had every intention, from then on, of becoming a Baptist preacher, particularly a "hellfire and brimstone" preacher like the one I had heard at Church Camp, I tried to learn as much as I could about my faith. I generally read the Bible everyday, sometimes even toting it around with me at school. By the time I was sixteen, however, reading the Bible had lead me into a few doubts regarding the fundamentals of my Baptist faith. 
(1) If the Bible was the only certain way to know God's will, or at least the only rule of faith, why isn't there a list of inspired books actually included in the Bible? How do we know that these are the only Scriptures, and if there is some other way of determining what ought to be included, isn't that at least one rule of faith that is not included in the Bible?
(2) Baptism seems pretty important in the New Testament, to the point that St. Paul says, "Even so, Baptism now saves you...." (Epistle to the Romans) and both Mark and Luke lay it down as a condition for the reception of the Holy Spirit. And why did St. Paul also say to the Corinthians "The cup that we share, is it not a communion in the blood of Christ?" And, in another place, "He who eats and drinks unworthily will be guilty of the body and blood of Christ"? How could someone be guilty of profaning something that wasn't there?
(3) If the whole point of Jesus' teaching was to get us saved, why didn't he get to the point faster instead of spending so much time telling us how to live? Essentially, it seemed to me, from most preachers' description of "meat and potatoes" preaching (telling people how to get saved and why) that Jesus was not a "meat and potatoes" preacher. 
(4) If every church is supposed to be democratic and independent, what, for goodness sake, were the apostles, especially St. Paul, doing bossing all the local churches around and telling them to get in line? I can only imagine what would have happened if someone called an "apostle" from the Convention were to try any of that business with Spring River Baptist! Something was missing from the Baptist churches' organization.
(5)If liturgical worship should be considered "vain repetitions", as the King James version of the Bible says, then why did Old Testament prayers contain so many repetitions and scripted prayers. Was Jesus really speaking badly of Jewish prayers, in which he participated so many times? What about the psalm where the phrase, "his mercy endureth forever" is repeated at each verse? How is that, or any other hymn with a refrain, different in substance from a litany?

Around this time, after struggling with these questions for a while, I realized that, while I still wanted to be a preacher, I could no longer in good conscience become a Baptist preacher. 

So, at ages sixteen and seventeen, around the time I became mobile with my first car, I set out on a sort of spiritual journey. I felt sort of...adrift. I used that car to go basically EVERYWHERE to Church. People started recognizing me as the boy who went to a different Church almost every Sunday. I went to Methodist churches, Pentecostal churches, Lutheran churches, other Baptist Churches, and, yes, even a Catholic church. I was looking for that one church that would perfectly fit the list of beliefs that I had drawn up for myself. 

Finally, not finding any church that could match all my beliefs, I gave up and decided to join the one church I had visited that seemed like it would just leave me alone and let me believe what I wanted to believe. It was a Lutheran Church ELCA, the very liberal branch of Lutheranism. It was here that I first became acquainted with liturgical worship and slowly, although I hated it at first, I came to really enjoy it. The pastor, who was a woman (another big no-no in the Baptist Church), had been my piano teacher when I was a little boy. The congregation consisted of fairly well-to-do and well-educated yankees who tried to make me feel "welkom". I loved it and became a member after a couple months of attending services there regularly. 

The funny thing is that the more I drifted in my religious opinions the more I turned to God in regular prayer. From the Lutheran tradition, rooted as it is in a catholic heritage, I slowly tried to bring in more and more liturgical and Catholic elements into my daily prayer life, just to add more content and significance to it. I must have creeped my poor Baptist mother out, chanting away upstairs, lighting candles, and burning incense until a thin haze would escape from my room every time I opened the door. A less trusting mother would have thought I was engaging in different recreations entirely.

Let's fast-forward a bit. A few months after joining my local Lutheran church, I headed off to Hope College, a Calvinist school in Holland, Michigan. While there, I spent some time going to Lutheran churches, but I was still a wanderer at heart and found my way into all sorts of Churches on Sunday morning. I went to a couple Reformed churches, which seemed to me like the most mind-numbingly dull service ever conceived by the human mind (all the length of a Baptist service but with none of the passion); I went to college chapel three times a week and on Sunday evening like most Hope College freshmen of any religious inclination. (For those who think that the number of times I went to chapel seems incredible, I would add that every chapel service, which was entirely voluntary, was generally standing-room only in a Church that could easily hold a thousand students. True, there were 2,800 students at Hope, but for a weekday service most preachers would consider that a pretty good turnout, and on the weekends many students went to local churches or went back home.) I also went to the Catholic Church nearby on several occasions, and I was now pretty comfortable with the way the Mass worked and was able to fully participate in it (except for receiving communion, of course). 

As I said, I was still a wanderer, looking for just the right church to fit my needs. However, by this time, I began to realize just how prideful the process had become for me. Should I really be looking for the Church that matches my beliefs, or should I, instead, try to find the Church which has the most authority to tell ME what I ought to believe? If I could answer that question, then whatever might be my own opinions on this or that doctrinal matter, I ought to be prepared to submit to whomever the search might turn up as the most authoritative church. 

The question, then, was this: "Did the Lutheran church have authority from Christ to tell me what I ought to believe? Did they even claim to have this authority, as the early apostles did?"