Monday, November 30, 2009

What brings us joy this Advent

Thanksgiving is a time of festivity and food and visiting with family and friends, arrived at with hours of preparation, and followed by dirty dishes and much cleaning up. Some travel many miles to eat the traditional meal, and by the end of the day most of us are exhausted (though well fed) and ready for an afternoon nap and a long night’s sleep - looking forward to (or maybe not looking forward to) leftover turkey for lunches and dinners in the days ahead. As evening approaches and the guests take their leave, we rest from the days events.

But some do not rest...

The Friday after Thanksgiving – Black Friday – with its deep-discounted, bargain sales and slick marketing campaigns, has become the shopper’s holiday. People awake in the wee hours of the morning, or do not sleep at all, to stand in line or camp out in parking lots, waiting for the doors to open at their favorite retailers and shopping malls. It is a vigil of sorts, as they gather in shuffling crowds before the sun rises, bundled up against the cold, anticipating the joy of sharing in this “sacred” rite.

Some friends I know awoke at three or four o’clock in the morning to join the teaming masses. A coworker’s wife drove more than thirty miles from their rural home into the city where she hoped to find the best deals – she had already visited three stores before her husband had gotten out of bed. I even heard about a couple who exchanged wedding vows in front of an electronics store and received a new flat-screen TV as a wedding gift from the retail chain that hosted their nuptials.

Now, call me old-fashioned, but a cold dimly-lit parking lot, surrounded by strangers clutching their purses and shopping lists, hardly seems like holy ground on which to wed. Do we now enter into the bonds of holy matrimony in the shadow of the dollar sign, where once the Cross stood? Have we erected a new god? What is the cultural significance of this “Black Friday” phenomenon?

The name itself strikes me as rather odd - Black Friday. Friday, the day that Christ gave up His life on the cross. How fitting that this day be called “black,” since Christians have traditionally marked Friday with solemnity - especially Catholics who have in the past given up meat on this day of the week, and still do throughout the season of Lent. Of course it is called “Black Friday” for quite another reason. It is the day that businesses hope to be “in the black” with large profits, drawing in customers with unbeatable deals and clever marketing. It is the day that starts the “official” Christmas shopping season.

Does this commercialized “Black Friday” compete with our Christian faith?

Don’t get me wrong. I am not opposed to the free market, and I love finding a good bargain. But a friend of mine made a remark this past Friday that put it all in perspective. He said, “You know, my wife went to these sales today, and it only took her half an hour to get ready. She was up before the sun and out the door in no time flat. Funny thing is for any other event she takes more than an hour to get ready, dragging her feet the whole time and showing nowhere near the enthusiasm. I’ve never seen her get up this early. When we leave for church on Sunday morning she always waits until the last minute and we barely make it there on time.”

His mention of “church” I found particularly relevant. This Sunday was the start of Advent, the time of preparation before Christmas, when Christians reflect on the coming of the Christ. During these weeks leading up to the celebration of Jesus’ birth, we set our priorities for the beginning of the liturgical year. As with Lent leading up to Easter, during Advent we pray and quietly prepare our souls for the coming of the Savior. It is a long vigil encompassing four Sundays…

But for this vigil we do not stand huddled in a parking lot counting our money and listening for the sound of doors being unlocked as crowds of eager shoppers press in around us. Christians during Advent retreat into the quiet of their own hearts and listen for the sound of angels singing, announcing Joy to the World. This vigil is a time to devote ourselves to the Almighty God, not the almighty dollar.

Certainly during Advent we shop and buy gifts as we prepare for the coming holiday. There is nothing sacrilegious or sinful about purchasing such tokens of love for family and friends as we plan for Christmas. But if we arise before dawn with glee and excitement, rushing to the mall for hours of money-spending madness, can we not bring the same enthusiasm to each Mass, or to the vigil of Christ’s birth? Do we instead drag our feet and complain that we need more sleep, and that we wish Mass was scheduled not quite so early? Do we give to Jesus the same joy that we give to our material goods (bought at discount prices, of course)? Are we denying Christ what is rightfully His – our love and devotion?

When Christ died on Good Friday He had told Peter just hours earlier, “Before the cock crows you will deny me three times.” At sunrise each morning the “cock crows.” When that time comes, have we already been to three stores before others are even out of bed? How many hours of silent devotion and prayer could we spend in that same time? Do we deny Christ our joy and enthusiasm on Sunday mornings when we give it so freely to bargain sales and cheap discounts? This Advent we should not care so much about the gifts we purchased at the lowest sale prices, guaranteed, but focus instead on the Gift that was freely given – the birth of God’s Son.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Book Reviews

I have recently been given the opportunity to write reviews of books for an online Catholic retailer. The books are available for purchase at catholiccompany.com (along with many other fine Catholic products). Here is a link to the site…


For the record, I am under no obligation to write favorable reviews. The Catholic Company values the integrity of their reviewers, and requests honest evaluations of their merchandise (including any criticism). I, for my part, will oblige by offering my true opinion whenever submitting a review. To aide me in this endeavor my own penchant for reading Catholic theological, historical, and apologetic works over the past several years will give me some basis on which to judge the merits of any text I might analyze for The Catholic Company.

The book I am currently reading (and nearly finished) for my first review is “Sharing Christ’s Priesthood: A Biblical Study for Catholics,” by Mike Aquilina. I have previously read two other books by the same author, which has given me a good base-line from which to evaluate this current volume of his. Also, over the past few months (and quite coincidentally) I have read two other theological and more technical works on the priesthood and diaconate, which should prove useful in placing Aquilina’s Biblical study in broader context for comparison. Every book I review will receive the same treatment and be subject to a solid critique, applying authentic Catholic doctrine to the best of my ability.

When I have finished writing and submitting a review to catholiccompany.com’s website, I will also post it here at this blog, along with a link to the site, so that anyone who wishes may purchase the featured book or any other product offered by the fine folks at The Catholic Company. Please visit their site as often as you like, and enjoy the excellent faith-based and family-friendly merchandise sold there.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Latin Revival

I am a life-long Catholic. But I was born after the Second Vatican Council. The parish I attended was a small country church built in 1968 in a simple modern style, (not as ugly and uninviting as some) but the Masses held there were just as understated as the architecture. That is to say, they were bare-bones and contained only that which was necessary to make them "valid" but lacking any adornment or style. But occasionally a "style" (of sorts) was supplied by visitors to our parish, who brought with them some recent liturgical "invention" which we had to endure with groans and embarrassment, often averting our eyes from the carnage.

Our resident nun at the time (who, I am certain, looked forward to the day of Catholic priestesses and charismatic Masses filled with liturgical dance and new-age symbolism) led the way in this liturgical demolition derby, crashing her way into every component of the Mass and leaving the congregation wondering what was left that was sacred and untouchable. The people patiently endured these periodic displays of irreverence, but it was obvious that the simple farming community in which I lived was not going to respond to or embrace something so grotesque, masquerading as legitimate Catholic liturgy. As time went on the experimentation slowly stopped and something of a "normal" Mass settled in (which admittedly still lacked a distinctive "style," but at least the intrusions of "style" we had endured were worthy of elimination). Bland was better than heretical.

Needless to say, I was born into a time in Church history marked by liturgical abuses that confused the laity and robbed the faithful of many traditional Catholic devotions and prayers and spiritual beauty. The Mass itself was so badly misused that few of us in the pews knew for certain what the Divine Liturgy was even supposed to look like anymore. For decades that has been the state of affairs in many parishes across the country and around the world.

Recently though, there has been the beginnings of a revival within Catholicism, especially among the youth who (like me) never experienced the Mass in Latin or knew the Church before the confusion that followed Vatican II, that promises to bring a more traditional form back to the liturgy. There is a movement to re-establish traditional prayers and devotions like Eucharistic adoration and the Rosary, and to breathe new life into the Mass by restoring some of the old.

Now I am not suggesting that Vatican II was a mistake. As a valid Ecumenical Council approved by the pope and convened under the proper conditions for such a Council, Vatican II was guided by the Spirit and teaches with authority. But the implementation of the Council was often sloppy and unregulated. While the Council Fathers certainly taught correct doctrine, the changes that came about within the Church afterward did not always follow the letter of the law. My childhood experience of bizarre experimentations and invented rites bears witness to the fact that Vatican II was not implemented in a uniform way that preserved the integrity of what had come before. And my experience was not unique. Others endured the same sort of liturgical inventions, and far worse.

Now, as I am older, I realize that all of the liturgical "styles" that had been forced on us in my youth were all lacking in one thing – SUBSTANCE. Substance is the meat of the matter and should drive our determination of the value of liturgical style. To have substance means that a thing has "practical value" or "purpose" (as a dictionary will tell you). The liturgical "styles" that were in vogue in my childhood were literally invented out of thin air or borrowed from some new age spiritual movement that happened to be popular at the time. They were not natural outgrowths of Christian spirituality or handed down from saints and martyrs who could attest to their religious worth. Rather, these liturgical inventions were pieced together by self-appointed liturgical gurus who wanted nothing more than to shape the liturgy to their own desires. The "spirit" of Vatican II gave them the perfect cover for their radical experimentation. They cared nothing for the "substance" of true Catholic Tradition, they only sought to concoct the most unique, the most avante-garde of ceremonies.

But what escaped these liturgical abusers is that real substance, real worth in religious liturgy is found not in the cutting edge newness of experimental forms, but in the depth of spiritual Truth contained in the rites and prayers that have an historical connection to the movement of the Spirit that came before. Christianity is handed-on, not reinvented. Our liturgy (while it may change) must always have a connection to its past in order to remain valid and True. Discarding the old and replacing it with something radically different can never be a valid expression of true Catholic liturgy. Otherwise it becomes all "style" with no "substance."

My experience of the Mass from childhood was not all bad. The substance of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist remained through it all. And that gives us hope for the future of the liturgy. The new awakening of Tradition in the hearts and minds of the next generation of Catholics means that we have not lost the faith that was handed on to us.

In keeping with that spirit of awakening old traditions, I decided recently to learn some Latin prayers for personal use in my own prayer life. In 2005 Pope Benedict urged the lay faithful to memorize some of the basic Catholic prayers in the Church’s ecclesial language, so that common prayer could be had during international gatherings such as World Youth Day, and to keep us in touch with our historic liturgical roots. Along this same line, the recent Motu Proprio, Summorum Pontificum (issued in July 2007) allowed for the expanded use of the old Roman Rite Latin Mass throughout the world. Also the Church’s outreach to the Society of Saint Pius X (known for its hard-line traditionalist views that caused schism within the Church) shows a new openness and appreciation for Latin in the Church’s prayer life and a ought to encourage all Catholics to explore how Latin can be incorporated into their own experience of the faith.


With that in mind, I have posted below the Latin text for the Sign of the Cross and the Our Father. Together these formed the starting point in my exploration of Latin in my spiritual life. I hope other Catholics are encouraged to do likewise as the Church enters a new age of spiritual renewal...

SIGNUM CRUCIS (The Sign of the Cross)
In nomine Patris, et Filii,
In noh-mi-neh Pah-tris, et Fee-li-ee
et Spiritus Sanncti. Amen.
et Spee-ri-toos Sanc-tee Ah-men

PATER NOSTER (Our Father)
Pater noster, qui es in caelis,
Pah-tair noh-stair kwee es in chay-lees;sanctificetur Nomen tuum.
song-tee-fee-chay-tour No-men too-um:
Adveniat regnum tuum
ahd-vay-nee-aht ren-yoom too-um
Fiat voluntas tua, sicut in caelo et in terra.
Fee-aht voh-loon-tahs too-ah seek-oot in chay-lo et in ter-rah
Panem nostrum quotidianum
Pah-nem noh-stroom kwo-ti-dee-ahn-oom
da nobis hodie,dah noh-bees oh-dee-ayet dimitte nobis debita nostra
et dee-mee-tay noh-bees day-bee-tah noh-strah,
sicut et nos dimittimus
sic-oot et nohs di-meet-tee-moos
debitoribus nostris.
de-bee-toh-ree-boos noh-strees
Et ne nos inducas in tentationem,et neh nohs in-doo-cahs in ten-tah-tsee-oh-nem
sed libera nos a malo
sed lee-bay-rah nohs ah mah-loh
Amen

Friday, November 6, 2009

The humble embrace of traditional marriage

The recent election has again brought to the fore the issue of same-sex “marriage.” In Maine voters struck down the state’s gay marriage law which had been recently enacted by their elected representatives. In a referendum vote, 53% of Mainers decided to repeal the law and leave traditional marriage intact…for now. Obviously this is good news in a state as left-leaning as Maine tends to be. But of course the fight is not over. As the push for “gay rights” continues on many fronts, we must remain vigilant knowing that the culture is saturated with the homosexual agenda and a disdain for traditional values and institutions.

After the election I discussed the Maine vote with a few liberals who live in that state. They expressed dismay that the people of Maine voted down what they saw as a step toward equal rights and freedom for all. Among the many arguments these liberals presented in favor of gay marriage two ideas stuck out in my mind as most deserving of closer examination here on this blog. I address those two ideas below…

1) A person’s sexuality is not that big a deal. Why should it matter that a person is homosexual?
 
I cannot adequately express in words my baffled amazement at this comment. If sexuality is not a “big deal” then why are homosexuals so adamant about claiming the status of marriage? After all, marriage is society’s way of holding up human sexuality as a BIG DEAL! If being gay (or being straight) is no big deal, then why should we have an institution such as marriage that recognizes sexual relationships…gay or straight? Why not do away with marriage all together?
 
Any way you look at it, our sexuality IS a big deal! It shapes our interpersonal relationships; it affects our emotional and psychological dispositions; it influences how we act in society and how others treat us. Sexuality (our sexual identity) touches so many facets of our lives that it is probably one of THE BIGGEST DEALS in shaping our outlook on life and our overall personality. Just tell a gay person (who undergoes a sometimes agonizing process of self-identification) that their sexuality is “no big deal.” Tell a person who is experiencing confusion in their sexual identification that it’s “no big deal” and they should just get over it.
I don’t think this is a valid argument to be used by the pro-gay-rights movement. Not only is it flat out wrong, it also hurts their cause by belittling the role of sexuality in our lives and thus undermining the importance they place on the cause itself. In other words they are shooting themselves in the foot.

2) The people who oppose gay marriage think they are better than everyone else. They push their ideas on the rest of society and don’t leave room for other opinions.
Now these are really two separate issues, but the way it was presented to me in conversation the two ideas are linked in the mind of the liberal gay-rights activist.
Let’s look at each claim separately and then see why it is wrong to equate the two...

The first claim is that the advocates of traditional marriage think that they are “better” than everyone else. This implies that we traditionalists are “self righteous” or “holier than thou” (to use some of the exact terms that were thrown at me). This brings up the question of “goodness” in the sense of personal sinfulness. So the liberals I spoke with believe that traditionalists support male-female marriage because we are the sinless God-fearers and we reject same-sex marriage because those on the other side are the evil enemies of God.
 
But the fact is I am a sinner and so are all the other supporters of traditional marriage. We know that we are sinners and that is precisely why we hold up traditional values and traditional institutions because they help us to be better people. We certainly do not live up to the ideals of our Christian faith, but then Christ came to save sinners and anyone who claims Christ as their Savior must first admit that he is a sinner and in need of salvation. I do not see myself as “better” than a gay person…I see us both as sinner who need God’s help in overcoming our sinfulness.
 
The second point used in this example is that traditionalists push their ideas on society without leaving room for other opinions. The fact is that marriage is not MY idea. Marriage is (and has been for millennia) a universally recognized institution that fosters male-female sexual expression directed toward procreation and the building of families. Marriage has always been society’s way of recognizing a particular sexual relationship as important for transmitting values and bringing up the next generation of citizens. In short, marriage is the fundamental building-block of society.
 
How can we say that traditionalists push their idea on the rest of society, when in fact marriage has been received by all of us from society since time immemorial? Traditional marriage was not invented one day by a group of religious fundamentalists in order to oppress gays or force a certain theology on the community at large. Marriage predates Christianity. Marriage between man and woman is older than Biblical texts, older than religion, and extends back into pre-history.
 
Traditionalists are not sinless, perfect, holier-than-thou religious freaks who want to force a rigid definition onto society. To be honest, traditionalists see marriage as something bigger than anything we in our imperfect state can tamper with. We know that we are imperfect sinful creatures, and that marriage has been handed to us from the history of humanity and we have no authority to change it or alter it in any way. It is those who do advocate a redefinition of marriage who must bear the burden of proof. What makes them so self-righteous and arrogant to believe that they have a “better” way of defining marriage?
 
So we can conclude with the following: Human sexuality is indeed an important facet of our being. It is a VERY “big deal.” It is such a big deal that cultures around the world, across the religious spectrum and all throughout human history have recognized the sexual relationship between man and woman as deserving of its own institution which we call marriage. Those who support traditional marriage between a man and a woman do so, not because we are arrogant or self-righteous, and certainly not because we think we are “better” than anyone else. We do so because we humbly accept what has been handed down to us from God or the “wisdom of the ages” or whatever you prefer to call the source of this venerable institution.
 
Those who support re-defining marriage must learn to accept the importance of human sexuality, not as some personal choice, but as a part of our human nature that touches the lives of others and affects the whole community. To try to change marriage into something that fits our personal desires and that flies in the face of every civilization, religion, and culture we have ever known is the very definition of self-righteous arrogance.