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.