Thursday, October 30, 2014

Mary In The Annunciation Is A Model For Us All

I first posted this piece on March 24th, the eve of the Feast of the Annunciation.  In a few weeks we begin the Season of Advent, in which we wait ever more expectantly for the culmination of the pregnancy that started back in March, and the birth of the Savior.  This is not a bad time to remind ourselves how it all begins. Christ is indeed at the Center of History, and his Incarnation is the greatest event in the history of the cosmos, but at the same time it all starts with one particular young women, and one little human baby . . . and that baby is the King of Kings.

     I’ve often admired the stained glass window depicting the Annunciation that looks down on the sanctuary in my local cathedral.  We see the young woman Mary, kneeling on the floor and surrounded by angels, while God the father looks down on her from above, sending forth a beam on which rests the Holy Spirit in the form of a Dove.  God the Son is there, too, although we don’t see him, a human embryo in Mary’s womb, the Omnipotent Divine wrapped in mortal human flesh.  That’s how we encounter Jesus in the Gospels: the Eternal Word in human disguise; that’s how we receive him in the Holy Eucharist: the Second Person of the Trinity in the form of simple bread.  It’s a marvelous image to contemplate as we approach the Altar of the Lord to receive Holy Communion.
       Tomorrow, of course, is the Feast of the Annunciation, celebrated nine months before the Nativity of The Lord at Christmas.  I’ve often thought that, the current vogue for atheists and atheism notwithstanding, it’s not really that hard to believe in God.  What is difficult, very difficult in fact, is to believe that the Uncreated Creator of all Time and Space is the least bit interested in beings as small, short-lived, and insignificant as we appear to be in the vast sweep of the Universe.  That he should become a little human baby just so that he could suffer with us and die for us, well, this saying is hard; who could accept it (see John 6:60)?  And that’s not all: the Omnipotent God sought the consent of one little maiden in a small town in an insignificant corner of the world in order to do it.  Not the least of the reasons why we honor Mary is her willingness to put her very self in God’s hands: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; Let it be done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).
     Mary’s willingness to give up herself to be a part, perhaps the greatest (solely) human actor in God’s Great Drama of Salvation is the big picture; as is often the way, there’s a little picture, too, a way in which the Annunciation is reflected in our own lives.  God has a plan for all of us.  He imposes nothing, to paraphrase John Paul the Great, but always proposes (Redemptoris Missio).  He is constantly asking us to allow him in, to consent to serve him in ways big and small.  “Today if you hear the voice of the Lord, harden not your hearts” is one of the Lent antiphons in the Liturgy of the Hours.  We all hear the voice of the Lord at some point, if we’re listening; let us all not harden our hearts, but rather let it be done to us according to his word.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Claudio Monteverdi's Nisi Dominus

Monteverdi was probably the most important composer in the transition from Renaissance Polyphony to Baroque.  This beautiful piece from his his Vespro della Beata Vergine is a musical setting for Psalm 127, one of my favorites, which celebrates our reliance on God's Providence (you can read my post on Psalm 127 here).





Claudio Monteverdi by Bernardo Strozzi

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Sunday Snippets - A Catholic Carnival

Blessed Paul VI
Welcome to “Sunday Snippets – A Catholic Carnival”, a select gathering of distinguished Catholic bloggers sharing their posts for the past week.  This is just my little corner of the party: the big bash is happening here at This That and the Other Thing, home of our fearless leader in snippetdom, RAnn.  This is my first Sunday Snippets in a few weeks: bloggery has taken a back seat to other priorities lately.  I do have a couple of posts this past week, however, and I’d like to say a few more words about one of the principals in my last post, Blessed Paul VI.
     St. John Paul II occupied the Chair of Peter for more than half of my life, and is more than deserving (in my estimation, for what it’s worth) of the title “The Great”.   Nonetheless, Pope Paul was the only Pope I knew, up until a few weeks before my sixteenth birthday.  Consequently, his  kindly face with the sunken, sad looking eyes is the first image that comes to my mind when someone says “The Pope”.  When I read some of the unkind comments that have been made in reaction to his beatification, I feel almost as if someone is attacking the memory of my grandfather.
     Not that there isn’t cause for criticism.  His loose “management style”, as I remarked in the earlier post, led to a lot of confusion, much of which is still with us.  One doesn’t need to be a fan of the cranky  Malachi Martin to see at least some truth in his observation that “women wanted to be priests, priests wanted to get married, bishops became regional popes and theologians claimed absolute teaching authority.”   Also, the changes to the Mass wrought by liturgist-run-amok Annibale Bugnini, appointed by Pope Paul, went far beyond those outlined by Vatican II in Sacrosanctum Concilium.  Here, too, the clean-up is still in progress.
     There is a plus side, of course.  The disruptive forces that burst forth during Paul’s pontificate had been bubbling under the surface long before he came to the Throne of Peter.  They built up tremendous pressure during Vatican II (helped along in great part by the same sort of manipulation and skewed reporting we saw during the recent synod). They finally exploded when Pope Paul, in defiance of the Spirit of the Age and the so-called Spirit of Vatican II, issued what is arguably the most famous (although not, perhaps, the most read) papal encyclical in history: Humanae Vitae.
     Humanae Vitae is most well known for restating the Church's teaching that contraception is always immoral, but those who have read and studied the document know that it is much more: it is a brief but beautiful encapsulation of the Catholic understanding of marital love, grounded in human dignity.  It also contains a warning of the evils that will necessarily follow once that understanding is jettisoned, a prophecy which we have seen fulfilled in every particular in the forty-six years since. Blessed Paul never backed down from his defense of the traditional teaching on human sexuality, although he appeared to be deeply wounded by the venom of the revolt against it: Humanae Vitae was his last encyclical, even though he would remain Pope for another decade.
     It is because of Humanae Vitae, as much as his obvious sanctity and love of the Church, and despite his shortcomings in other areas, that Pope Paul VI is now beatified.  During his pontificate communism looked like the great threat to Christian civilization, but except for a few holdouts in places like North Korea and university faculty lounges communism has found its proper place on the dust heap of history.  The great domestic threat of the decline of morals and the destruction of the family has emerged as the real challenge: what better time to elevate the Pope who lovingly but firmly said "No" to the sexual revolution?
     Here are my other posts from the past week:


 The tale of a lovely young woman with Down's syndrome: “Amy or Dawkins?” [here]


Beethoven's "Gloria" is simply glorious: “Sir Gilbert Levine Conducts Beethoven Missa Solemnis, 2. Gloria” [here]


What does Pope Paul VI have to do with the recent Synod on the Family? “Blessed Paul VI, the Synod, and Pope Francis” [here]


   
     

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Blessed Paul VI, the Synod, and Pope Francis

     I set out to write a post on Blessed Paul VI; I ended up saying as much about the synod at which he was beatified, and the Pope who presided over both synod and beatification, as I did about Pope Paul himself.  I'll address Blessed Paul more directly in the near future.

     Cardinal Giovanni Battista Montini is reported to have said at the time that St. John XXIII didn't realize what a "hornet's nest" he was stirring up in calling the Second Vatican Council.  A few short years later, Montini,  as Pope Paul VI, found himself presiding over that very hornet's nest.  He faced the Herculean task of trying to preserve the unity of the Church in the face of the forces that had been unleashed, both during the council and in the years that followed. Pope Paul's approach seemed to be based on the maxim (often erroneously attributed to St. Augustine): "Unity in essential things, liberty in doubtful things, charity in all things".  Pope John had quoted it in his first encyclical,  Ad Petri Cathedram [here], and Pope Paul took it to heart.  He allowed everyone to have their say when possible, which tended to create the appearance (and, quite frankly, often the reality) of disarray in the Church.  Where he judged it necessary, on the other hand, he firmly restated the traditional teaching: on priestly celibacy [here], for instance, the all-male clergy [here], and most famously, human sexuality in his most well-known encyclical, Humanae Vitae [here]. As a rule he refrained from condemnations, denunciations, and other seemingly uncharitable gestures.

Blessed Paul VI at the closing ceremony of the Second Vatican Council        
       Pope Paul is now Blessed Paul VI, having been beatified last weekend at the conclusion of the Extraordinary Synod on the Family.  Speaking of which, one can't help but agree with the numerous commentators who have observed that this synod was not just Extraordinary, but extraordinary.  There's no need for me to recap all the hijinx that took place; let it suffice to say that such public disarray in the upper reaches of the Church has not been seen the pontificate of, yes, Paul VI.
          There are some interesting connections here.  There has been a lot of speculation as to Pope Francis's position on the controverted issues and controversial maneuvering at the synod.  He gave Cardinal Kasper the opportunity to run with his long-time project of loosening up the rules preventing divorced Catholics who have remarried without annulment from receiving communion, and appointed administrators for the synod who finagled to make that and other liberalizing proposals seem much more agreeable to the assembled fathers than they actually were; he also put more traditionally-minded prelates such as South African Cardinal Napier in a position to counter the machinations of Kasper and his crew.  As the synod unfolded, the Pope appeared to have no public reaction to the actions of the liberalizing faction in the first week, nor to the successful revolt of the others in the second.  He very consciously took an evenhanded approach in his final address, mixing some "pox on both your houses" rhetoric with a call for unity in arriving at the truth.
          What does this have to do with the beatification of Paul VI?  Clearly, raising up the author of Humanae Vitae as the culmination of a synod on the family sends a pretty strong message that Pope Francis is not going to soften Church teaching in this area (as I previously suggested here).  I wonder if he isn't also looking to Blessed Pope Paul as a model for how to approach the question of Church Unity.  It may seem to him that, despite the fact that a whole lot of people weren't happy, Paul's light touch largely succeeded in holding the Church together.  The one significant exception, of course, was Archbishop Lefebvre and his followers, now embodied in the Society of Pius X - to whom Pope Francis seems to be making some very charitable overtures for reconciliation [here].  Like Blessed Paul VI, Francis seems to be aiming for a style more pleasing to the "progressives", while maintaining (on doctrinal matters, anyway) a more traditional substance.*


*. . . I haven't forgotten about the post-Vatican II reform of the liturgy: I'll get to that in another post.


Friday, October 24, 2014

Sir Gilbert Levine conducts Beethoven Missa Solemnis, 2. Gloria

The "Gloria": another selection from Beethoven's glorious Missa Solemnis.  It's a mystery to me why I haven't heard this composition more often, or heard more about it.  Perhaps because Sacred Music puts off those who are suspicious of the Sacred . . . a double loss for them.






Monday, October 20, 2014

Amy or Dawkins?


     One thing that comes up when I am discussing the existence of God with my 9th grade religion class is the idea that faith (not just belief, but trust in God) is much more conducive to human flourishing than the alternative.  We see how Faith can change lives and transform people, and when we embrace it ourselves, our faith is confirmed by similar changes in our own lives.
     It’s a tough sell. Unfortunately, militant atheism is a bit trendy these days, due in large part to the success of prophets of nothingness such as insect biologist Richard Dawkins (whom I previously discussed here).  A number of my current students have become enamored of the atheist worldview, and are always demanding “proof” - in this case, that faith supports life, and life abundantly, while atheism does not.
     The proof is there for those with eyes to see.  This past weekend, for instance, I attended our state Right To Life convention with my lovely bride and two of our sons.  The Keynote speaker was a man named George Michael Lane who wrote book called A Different Kind of Perfect, about his daughter Amy.  Amy has Down's Syndrome. In his talk, Lane described his struggle of conscience when he and his wife Thea received an in utero diagnosis of their daughter’s condition.  He wrestled mightily with the temptation to seek an abortion, but he was finally convinced by his parish priest to put his trust in God, who forbids us to take innocent life.
     Lane’s life since has been abundantly rewarded.  Amy is a beautiful young woman who plays the viola, has an encyclopedic knowledge of musicals and old movies, and infectiously spreads love through her family and beyond.  We spoke at length with Amy after the talk and can confirm that she is as delightful as her proud father claims she is.  She is a living reminder to us that “God is love.” (1 John 4:8)
     Which brings us back to the aforementioned Dawkins.  I couldn’t help but think of the last time I had heard of him in the news.  This past summer, in response to a woman who was wondering what she would do if her child were diagnosed before birth with Down’s Syndrome, the esteemed insect biologist tweeted back: “Abort it and try again. It would be immoral to bring it into the world if you have the choice.”  No Amy for him.
     All I can say is that it’s a good thing George Lane went to a priest for advice, and not to Richard Dawkins. And whose world would you rather live in: Amy’s, or Dawkins’?

     

Friday, October 17, 2014

Beethoven: Kyrie (Missa Solemnis)

Sacred music wasn't Beethoven's main interest,but what he did compose was,as we might expect, moving and powerful . . . and simply beautiful.  His Missa Solemnis is from the same time period as his magnificent 9th symphony, at which point he was almost completely deaf (which is to say he probably never actually heard a note of it).




My only complaint about this particular performance is that it is in a concert hall and not a church (well, also that the men are dressed like Soviet apparatchiks). No matter, the few minutes you take to listen to this magnificent Kyrie from one of the all-time greats will be abundantly rewarded.


Thursday, October 16, 2014

Remember That Thou Art Dust (Throwback)

I originally published the piece below on March 15th of this year, the Saturday after Ash Wednesday. It may be a little out of season, but today seems a good day to reflect on our need for penitence - after all, what day isn't?

 I had a little epiphany this morning.  Not a BIG EPIPHANY, Road to Damascus style, just a little lamp going off in my head.  Something I heard Fr. Mitch Pacwa say pulled a few different things together for me in a way that made sense.
     First thing: I prefer the traditional Ash Wednesday admonition, “Remember Man that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return.”  Now very often they say “Repent and listen to the Gospel” or some such thing, which is a fine thing to say, a very good thing to say, but a definite softening of the traditional statement.

     Second thing: in a very good Ash Wednesday homily at our local church, Father P. discussed the apparent contradiction between the first reading from Joel, which warned against  “theatrics” to draw attention to our charitable actions, and what he rightly described as “one of the most theatrical things we do as Catholics”, that is, wearing ashes in the sign of the cross on our foreheads.  He pointed out the importance of outward signs to embody spiritual experiences which, again, was very true and appropriate; but it didn’t quite answer the initial objection.
     Here’s where Fr. Mitch comes in as the catalyst (with a little help from Julius Caesar and his friends).  Amidst a discussion on his radio show of whether the ashes on the forehead were or were not ostentatious, Fr. Mitch pointed out that the ashes were a tangible reminder of our fragility, that all too soon we’ll be nothing but dust. They are a public sign of our weakness. Nothing to brag about there.  I was immediately reminded of a curious feature of the ancient Roman triumphal parade.  The Triumph was a formal, highly choreographed event celebrating significant victories on the part of a particular military commander, called the Triumphator for the occasion; as the Triumphator, amidst the celebration and pageantry, rode through the streets of Rome dressed like the god Jupiter in a golden chariot, a slave stood behind him, holding a crown over his head but whispering over and over: “Remember that you are going to die.”  Can’t have the guy thinking he actually is a god, after all.

     That’s the valuable service rendered by the traditional formula. We, not unlike your average Roman general, are fallible and prone to self-puffery.  Whatever the original symbolism of the ashes, walking about in public displaying so prominent a sign of our Christian Virtue is liable to be a temptation to the Sin of Pride.  We need a blunt reminder, we need to be hit over the head with the obvious: “Remember man that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return.”

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Why We Fight

(The latest bizarro piece of news from the Culture Wars: a school district in Nebraska has decreed that its teachers and its students may no longer use gender-specific terms  - like "boys" and "girls".  Instead, teachers must use alternative terms like "Purple Penguins" (I'm not making this up!) so that "all genders" will feel "welcome". [link] As absurd as it seems, this story shows just how far the assault on the Family, traditional morality, and plain common sense has come. It brings to mind, just in time for Throwback Thursday, a post I first published back on March 11th, when the ground was still covered with a couple feet of last winter's snow.  It's called Why We Fight):

The following scripture passage has been very much on my mind recently:

Put on the whole armor of God,that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.  For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the  powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in heavenly places. Therefore take the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. Stand therefore, having girded your loins with truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and having shod your feet with the equipment of the gospel of peace; besides all these, taking the shield of faith, with which you can quench all the flaming darts of the evil one.  And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. Pray at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints, and also for me, that utterance may be given me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains; that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak. -Ephesians 6:11-20

   Every time I look at the news I am reminded that we are engaged in a Spiritual Battle, we collectively, and each one of us personally.  It has always been this way, and will be until Christ comes again in glory. The nature of the battle is constantly changing: for individual believers there is always a personal, internal struggle, but there is also a more external, public conflict which changes and ebbs and flows over time and in different places.  We can see this external spiritual battle raging all around, and picking up intensity, in the so-called “Culture Wars”.  A major theme of George Weigel’s authorized biography of Pope John Paul II is that the Pope understood that culture trumps politics and economics, and that culture grows out of religion, a given people’s understanding of God.  And acting on that understanding, St. John Paul the Great helped bring down the walls of that latter-day Jericho, Soviet communism.     
     If the cultural war is really spiritual warfare, then, who is the real antagonist?   This becomes tricky, not because we don’t know, but because saying so in our current climate is difficult.  Those of us of a certain age will remember the Flip Wilson Show.  One of the comedian’s most successful gags was a character called “Geraldine”, actually Wilson himself in none-too-convincing drag, whose most memorable laugh-line was “The devil made me do it!”  More recently, Dana Carvey’s “Church Lady” on Saturday Night Live always provoked uproarious laughter from the audience when she said “Could it be . . .(pregnant pause) . . . SATAN?!?”  For a long time now, the message in the popular culture has been that anyone who actually attributes anything to the Evil One is, well, ridiculous (interesting, by the way, that both of the examples above involve men dressed as women).  We are set up to be dismissed as unserious cranks if we see the hand of the Devil anywhere.     
     There are some who are still willing to speak out, however.  Just a few years ago, one South American cleric described a law legalizing same sex marriage as “a move by the devil, looking to confuse and deceive all children of God” [link] (interesting that this same cleric, who now has a rather prominent position in Rome, was recently named Person of the Year by the gay magazine The Advocate).  Closer to home, I was listening to a radio interview the other day with Joseph Bottum, who was arguing that one reason why it’s so difficult to make any headway with those who have left the faith and are now clinging to new enthusiasms like gay marriage, global warming, Marxism, etc. is that those beliefs have taken on a religious significance for them, and are occupying the place reserved in our hearts for God. Those other things, of course, are poor substitutes indeed for the Real Thing, the One who made us for himself, as St. Augustine tells us, and to Whom we can say “our hearts are restless until they rest in You” (inquietum est cor nostrum donec requiescat in Te). For which reason they cling to their false spiritual consolations all the harder, in the unconscious hope that if they just try a little harder, they'll feel fulfilled; but such things do not ultimately satisfy.   We can see here where we get the word “Devil”, from the Greek Diabolos, the Divider, because he divides us from God.       
     None of us is immune to the temptations of Division. St. Ignatius of Loyola represented this internal battle as a conflict between the Spirit of Jesus and the Spirit of Satan, and pictured it as Two Standards, as in Roman battle standards, around which the armies of each Spirit gather.  When we follow the Standard of Jesus internally, we serve in his army out in the world as well, and so it is in the case of the other side. As St. Paul tells us, our battle is with "spiritual hosts of wickedness in heavenly places".  Those whom we take to be their foot soldiers here on Earth most certainly do not think of themselves in those terms.  Having spent many years as secular leftist, I know that the vast majority of those who serve in that camp are well-meaning, and honestly believe they are on the side of good and righteousness, not realizing that the breastplate of righteousness is part of the full armor of God. That’s the other message of Paul’s letter: we can’t withstand in the evil day without "the armor of God", without the "Gospel of Peace", without "all prayer and supplication". When we separate ourselves from God, or don’t avail ourselves of all the spiritual arms with which he provides us, we are helpless against the wiles of the Divider.  We need to remember this in our interactions with those who are on the other side.  We need to speak the truth in love (Eph 4:15), and aim for the conversion of their hearts, and, ultimately, their redemption, not their destruction.     
     Finally, this is the reason why St. Paul asks that "utterance may be given me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains; that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak". Jesus rallies an Army of Love around His Standard. That’s why we engage in the culture wars: not because we like brawling (see Eph. 4:15 above), and not to inflate our egos (Scripture is chock full of warnings about getting “puffed up”), but to win hearts and souls for Christ. 


Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Ave Verum Corpus (Mozart) - King's College, Cambridge

There has been a long dispute between the partisans of J.S. Bach and Mozart as to who is the greatest composer of all time.  There is also a strong pro-Beethoven contingent, and I would gladly award him the bronze medal without a second thought, but as far as I'm concerned, Bach and Mozart are the most giant of musical giants.

There is an element of the apples/oranges dilemma here, because their musical geniuses and personalities were so different. My personal preference is for Wolfgang the boy-genius from Salzburg, partly for musical reasons, partly for purely subjective reasons, and partly (my apologies to my Protestant friends out there) because he was Catholic (even if a sometimes erratic one). That's not to say that Bach didn't compose some magnificent Sacred Music: he wrote some of the best, which I have posted on more than one occasion.  As a Lutheran, however, I don't see how he could have matched Mozart's stunning tribute to the Real Presence in the Eucharist, Ave Verum Corpus: