Saturday, August 1, 2015

Christ or Anti-Christ? Art And The Power Of Imagination

Who do you see in the picture?
     The Incarnation remains among the most astounding of Catholic doctrines.  It's not easy to believe that the Second Person of the Trinity, the Eternal Word,


 . . . though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. (Phillipians 2:6-8)


The Infinite God, St. Paul tells us, willingly took on finite humanity in the Incarnation.  Because we believe this, Catholics have always understood that humble and material things can serve as channels for greater, immaterial things.  The chief examples, aside from the God-Man Jesus Christ Himself, are the Sacraments, which are created things that serve as vehicles of God’s Grace, but we also find the same principle at work, albeit on a less exalted level, in art, music, and other works of the imagination.
    In recent posts about Star Trek [here] and about biblical films such as Noah [here] I have discussed the power of images and other works that appeal to the imagination to mislead and confuse. Such things can also enlighten us, of course, if they are done properly, and deepen our understanding (which is why the Catholic faith has always had such a large audio-visual component).  I recently came across an interesting example of an imaginative work being used in a more positive manner.  Two imaginative works, actually, because it involves a renaissance fresco appearing in a modern work of fiction.
    The book is michael O’Brien’s apocalyptic novel Father Elijah.  I’m thinking in particular of a scene in which Fr. Elijah himself and a friend are looking at a wall painting in the Cathedral of Orvieto:



Elijah went over to another mural.


His eyes were drawn to the central figure of the image, a figure of Christ.  How strange, he thought, to see a representation of the Lord with the figure of Satan whispering in His ear,and his arm penetrating His robes.  Is that Christ’s hand or the devil’s that emerges from the folds of cloth?


It was not a literal representation of a scriptural scene, he concluded; although it might be the artist’s imaginative rendering of the temptation in the desert?  But there was something out of character in the way Christ leaned into Satan’s embrace and listened with such attention.


He stared at it for a long time.  Suddenly, the meaning of the mural became clear, like a scene viewed through lenses revolving into focus.  The blurred shapes of reality drew together into a sharp, piercing landscape of moral disaster.


The figure held in the devil’s embrace was not Christ but the Antichrist.


Elijah understood why Don Matteo had wanted him to see it.  Now he knew why the old friar would not tell him the reason for his request.  Matteo had wanted Elijah to discover the secret of the mural himself, and in the process, to observe the mechanics of perception.


     I immediately knew the painting by it's description, because I had used a picture of it to illustrate a blog post last winter (called, appropriately enough, "'Choice' And The Father Of Lies", here).  The painting creates a vivid picture of Satan's usual modus operandi: evil working in the guise of good.  The striking image gets the message across much more memorably than a simple explanation (hence the old saying, "a picture is worth a thousand words").
     But there's more to it than that.  Notice that the characters looking at the mural above  don't at first realize what they're seeing; neither did I, only it took me a lot longer to figure it out than it does Fr. Elijah.  But that's part of what makes the painting so effective: we think we're seeing Jesus, only to realize that we're really seeing his opposite.  We are not merely seeing a depiction of deception, we are in fact deceived by the artist's work: we actually experience deception.  That's a powerful lesson.  That's why Don Matteo wanted Fr. Elijah to experience it himself.
     Very often our faith is hindered by emotional barriers: those of us who are believers sometimes give in to doubt, even though we've experienced God's presence;  unbelievers often are incapable of accepting any evidence at all because of such barriers.  A well-crafted work of visual or imaginative art can often weaken those barriers by creating a new emotional experience, and so lead to a new or deeper understanding, while bad or disordered art can lead us further into darkness.  What we see, hear, or read can make all the difference.
     


Friday, July 31, 2015

St. Ignatius Loyola, Soldier for Christ

 I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20)  


Saint of the Week, St. Ignatius of Loyola
     When I think of today's saint, St. Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus, I think of the quote above from St. Paul's letter to the Galatians.  The impoverished Spanish nobleman Inigo Lopez was indeed reborn as a different man when he became Ignatius. 
      Like St. Martin of Tours, St. Ignatius had been a soldier before he turned his life over to  God.  After his conversion he sought to live his life in a different way.  Instead of the military officer’s stern and harsh way of addressing his subordinates, for instance, he employed a humble and gentle mode, even when administering necessary discipline.  At the same time, he never lost his “fighting spirit”, even if he expressed it in a different way; and instead of directing his fire at human enemies, he was now concerned with “the principalities, . .  .the powers, . . . the world rulers of this present darkness, . . . the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.” (Ephesians 6:12)
     In fact he saw the inner life of every believer as a battlefield, where each one of us must choose between following the battle standard of Christ, or that of Satan.  His distinctive spirituality includes an emphasis on the “discernment of spirits”, which is a prayerful sifting of feelings and other influences to determine whether they are from the Spirit of God or the Spirit of the Devil.  Drawing on his own experience of conversion, St. Ignatius forged an extraordinarily effective weapon to assist followers of Christ in this internal combat: the Spiritual Exercises, a potent mix of imagery, prayer, self-examination, and spiritual direction.
     Having self-disciplined himself in this way, Ignatius believed that the Christian should then, like a good soldier, submit to his superiors in obedience:  “ . . . we ought always to hold that the white which I see, is black, if the Hierarchical Church so decides it”, St. Ignatius says in that part of his Spiritual Exercises called “To Have the True Sentiment Which We Ought to Have in the Church Militant”.  This is not, however, simply the outward obedience that is required of the man under arms, but also the inner obedience of both the Will and the Intellect, as he explains in his famous Letter on Obedience [text here] . In other words, an obedience born of love, not fear.

     This seems a good time to remember the concept of the “Church Militant”, and that each of us is called to be a Soldier for Christ.  I’m not talking about soldiering in a literal sense, although with our ancient rivalry with Islam heating up again it’s possible that there will be an increasing need for that.  I’m thinking more of the war to defend our souls and the souls of others against the “spiritual hosts of wickedness” that St. Paul mentions in his letter to the Ephesians.  Of course, the two kinds of warfare are not unrelated: the Jihadists and their allies can see the spiritual decay in our culture, which only serves to embolden them (just as Osama Bin Laden says he was inspired by the apparent weakness of the United States after our inelegant withdrawal from Somalia).  As the forces of Jihad discovered at Lepanto, however, they can’t hope to succeed against a Christendom united in Faith and fortified with Prayer; but against Secularism, well, what’s to stop them?  
    Having said that, it is good to remember that any conflict with Islamism, secularism, or any other "ism" that threatens Christian culture in this world is secondary to the big cosmic struggle.  The outcome of that battle is not in doubt, but there will be casualties along the way. St. Ignatius, a seeker for his own glory who, by God's grace, was transformed into a soldier for Christ, shows us how to stay on the winning side, and follow the Standard of our Lord.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Don't Be So Judgmental!

Athanasius Against the World 

St. Athansius of Alexandria
     I hate to use the now overworked term “perfect storm”, but the past few weeks I have felt like all the weather in the world was coming together at once.  I’ll share just a couple of the highlights, or lowlights.  There was the recent Sunday when I found myself (not me personally, but me and people like me) berated from the pulpit for having the temerity to expect Catholic clergy to speak out in support of the Church’s moral teaching on issues such as abortion, marriage, serial adultery, etc.  We were told we should be more like the Pope, and welcome everyone with a wink and nod and just stick to talking about Jesus (too bad Pope Francis didn’t get the memo: see here).  Then there was a recent Friday afternoon, when I found myself trying to explain the Church’s teaching on human sexuality to a classroom full of fourteen-year-olds, to whom the idea that one need not indulge any and every sexual desire seemed novel and inexplicably bizarre.  I began to feel a little bit like Athanasius contra mundum.  Shouldn’t these kids have heard this somewhere before, or from someone, anyone, beyond their 9th grade religion teacher?  Even students from church-going families seemed unfamiliar with any perspective other than the self-righteous libertinism of the popular culture, and not just in this particular group: I’ve been seeing it more and more over the years.


The Good Professor Says His Piece

     Interestingly, when I arrived home that same day my lovely bride had an article by Anthony Esolen (“Who Will Rescue the Lost Sheep of the Lonely Revolution?” here) that she had just read, and that she was eager to share with me.  Apparently, Professor Esolen is also getting rather frustrated with trying to reach students who have grown up immersed in the grim propaganda of the sexual revolution, often without even knowing that there was another (more excellent) way, or those who have heard the Truth, but see no examples of anyone celebrating it or living it out.  He makes an impassioned plea to all the adults out here, including, emphatically, those with teaching authority in the Church, to “man up”, as it were (my term, not his), and speak boldly for the sake our young people who are being left to wither on the vine:

Let me speak up for the young people who see the beauty of the moral law and the teachings of the Church, and who are blessed with noble aspirations, but who are given no help, none, from their listless parents, their listless churches, their crude and cynical classmates, their corrupted schools. These youths and maidens in a healthier time would be youths and maidens indeed, and when they married they would become the heart of any parish. Do we expect heroic sanctity from them? Their very friendliness will work against them. They will fall. Do you care? Many of these will eventually “shack up,” and some will leave dead children in the wake of their friendliness. Where are you? You say that they should not kill the children they have begotten, and you are right about that. So why are you shrugging and turning aside from the very habits that bring children into the world outside of the haven of marriage?


The Self-Help Guy Agrees

Esolen makes a number of important points, particularly that our culture is toxic, that its moral corruption has very real material consequences, and, most damning, that we have largely abandoned our young people to it.  Some years ago the late self-help author Stephen Covey pointed out (in only somewhat less emotional language) that raising morally sound and emotionally healthy children has become much more difficult in our current environment: 

In the past, it was easier to successfully raise a family ‘out-side-in’ because society was an ally, a resource.  People were surrounded by role models, examples, media reinforcement, and family-friendly laws and support systems that sustained marriage and helped create strong families. Even when there were problems within the family, there was still this powerful reinforcement of the whole idea of successful marriage and family life . . .  
(Stephen Covey, The7 Habits of Highly Effective Families, p. 15)

That is no longer the case. In fact, society now actively subverts parents’ efforts to raise their children: it is, as Covey puts it, “family-fatal”. He marshalls an impressive array of statistics (he cites sources for all of these in his book) to support his assertion:  

-          Illegitimate birth rates have increased more than 400 percent.

-          The percentage of families headed by a single parent has more than tripled.

-          The divorce rate has more than doubled. Many project that about half of all new marriages will end in divorce.

-          Teenage suicide has increased almost 300 percent.

-          Scholastic Aptitude Test scores among all students have dropped 73 points.

-          The number one health problem for American women today is domestic violence,  Four million women are beaten each year by their partners.

-          One fourth of all adolescents contract a sexually transmitted disease before they graduate from high school.

Since 1940 the top disciplinary problems in public schools have changed from chewing gum and running in the halls to teen pregnancy, rape, and assault.
(Stephen Covey, The7 Habits of Highly Effective Families, p. 16)

     Covey’s book was published in 1997; I guarantee that these statistics have not changed for the better in the intervening 17 years.  And these are only some of the more obvious bad consequences of what Esolen calls the “Lonely Revolution”. 


Who Needs Those Goofy Rules Anyway?

     If you’d like something more recent, here’s an item from last week, an article [here] from the Catholic News Agency called “Agree to Disagree: Why Young Catholics Pose a Unique Challenge For the Church.”  It seems that a recent study commissioned by the U.S. bishops has found that young Catholics, even those who consider themselves devout, feel free to ignore “’goofy’ rules” that they don’t like:

If any Church teachings conflict with their own perceptions, young people simply “tune out” the teachings. 
“They agree to disagree with the Church,” [Archbishop Thomas 
Wenski] said. 
Furthermore, young Catholics are sensitive to language that could imply judgment. “For them, language like ‘hate the sin love the sinner’ means ‘hate the sinner’,” Archbishop Wenski said.

     The last sentence gives the game away, even if the article does not explicitly say which particular “goofy” rules are at issue: the conflation of the sin with the sinner, in conjunction with the damning charge of “judgmentalism”, is the preferred tactic of the storm troopers of the Sexual Revolution, and thus they often lead good Christians into error (see here, for instance).  The Church, on the other hand, has always been guided by “hate the sin, love the sinner” and the old legal maxim Qui bene distinguit, bene docet, “he who distinguishes well, teaches well.”  Notice that docet comes from the same root as doctrine: doctrine is the sacred teaching of the Church.  If those responsible for teaching doctrine don’t teach, then those under their tutelage will be left to the teaching of the World, which, as we have seen, non distinguit. Is it any wonder, then, that our young people also non distinguunt? The Church is supposed to be a Sign of Contradiction (Luke 2:34), but if all she offers is a Nod and a Wink, then how is any distinction possible between her teaching and what the Conventional Wisdom has on offer?  Do we not then give tacit assent?


     Where's That in The Bible?
The Prophet Ezekial

     The underlying problem is not a new one.  Let’s go back a little into the past, to the Book of the Prophet Ezekial:

If I say to the wicked, 'You shall surely die,' and you give him no warning, nor speak to warn the wicked from his wicked way, in order to save his life, that wicked man shall die in his iniquity; but his blood I will require at your hand. But if you warn the wicked, and he does not turn from his wickedness, or from his wicked way, he shall die in his iniquity; but you will have saved your life.  (Ezekial 3:18-19)

All of us baptized Christians have a prophetic office, and the warning addressed to Ezekial above applies to all of us, as the Letter of James tells us:

My brethren, if any one among you wanders from the truth and some one brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins. (James 5:19-20)

When it comes to guiding the young, our Lord himself puts the matter even more starkly:

Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. (Matthew 18:6)

Avoiding unpleasant Truths, it seems, is not an option. 


Go And Sin No More

     To return to the homilist with whom I began this little excursus, he’s correct that we need to model the love of Jesus, but we do that when speak the Truth in love (Ephesians 4:15).  When we distinguish between the sin and the sinner, we can show that we hate the sin because of our concern for the sinner.  I recently tuned in to a Catholic radio station just in time to hear a host ending his show by saying: “The worst thing you can do for somebody is to allow him to wallow in sin.”  That’s exactly right: it is more loving to warn a person about sin, with all its painful consequences, than to leave them ignorant of something that’s destroying them.  And if we’re going to talk about Jesus, should we not mention that he suffered and died for the express purpose of saving us from sin?
     I’m not saying we should be mean, or accusatory, or call people names.  We do, however,  need to recognize, as Anthony Esolen points out, that the currently popular sexual sins are not simply harmless “peccadilloes”: they destroy families and ruin people’s lives, and put people in danger of being lost forever.  Jesus saved the woman caught in adultery from stoning, but he also told her: “Go and sin no more” (John 8:11).  We all, and particularly those of us appointed as teachers, should be prepared to say the same.
    

This Throwback was first published November 21st, 2014.


   

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Biblical Films: What Would St. Paul Do? (Worth Revisiting)

This Worth Revisiting post is based on two earlier posts first published on March 31st and April 1st 2014. To enjoy the work of other faithful Catholic bloggers see Worth Revisiting Wednesday, hosted by Elizabeth Reardon at theologyisaverb.com and Allison Gingras at reconciledtoyou.com.


When is a movie not “just a movie”?

I’ve mentioned before that I listen to a popular Catholic call-in radio show on my drive to work in the morning.  Sometimes I hear something that gets the figurative wheels turning in my brain, and the result is a blog post, like this. Other times the host or his guests, who normally do a great job,  seem to miss an important point, which also can inspire me to write something (as here).  It's very rare indeed that I think that the Catholic commentators on this program are just plain wrong, but it happened one morning last spring, when the topic was the recently released biblical epic Noah. I was so worked up that I dashed off not one, but two, blog posts addressing brain chemistry, movies, and catholicism.  Today's post is a condensed and updated version of those two posts.

Russell Crowe as the protagonist in Noah

     Let's start at the beginning.  As I was listening to my favorite Catholic apologetics radio program one morning the guest, himself a very well-known Catholic radio personality, made the following remark:  “There’s nothing much your kids can see that will really damage them, as long as you’re watching with them.”  He quickly qualified (contradicted, really) his statement, saying “I’m not saying you should watch steamy sex scenes with them” (why not, if nothing much will damage them?).  These remarks came up in a discussion of the recently released movie Noah The host, who had seen the movie and had a mostly positive view, added, “after all, it’s only a movie”!


An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure

     Where to begin?  I was amazed, first of all, that two intelligent, well-read, orthodox Catholics would be so dismissive of the power of images, and the emotional experience wrought by drama, to permeate our consciousness.  This is something the Church has always understood:  why else the great art, stained-glass windows, cathedrals and Gregorian chant, the whole “smells and bells” routine?  Why else the traditional condemnation of “impure” images, and the stern warnings to steer clear of their dangers?
     The findings of modern neuroscience tend to confirm this ancient wisdom (which itself has been more than confirmed by experience over the centuries).  Research shows that pornography, for example, has profound and possibly permanent effects on brain development and chemistry [see here], and the same is true (although perhaps not as dramatically) of other powerful experiences. Children and adolescents are particularly susceptible (see here and here), but even as adults our brain is still developing to a certain degree. According to the Brain Institute [my italics]: “New findings on the adult brain establish two principles. First, the adult brain continues to grow and develop throughout our entire life.  Second, brain development in adulthood is shaped mostly by outside stimuli” [here].  Simply explaining something to our children after the fact can’t take away the effect of the images and emotions they have experienced, and by exposing ourselves to such experiences we expose our own psyche to influences we are better off avoiding (hence the old Catholic maxim: “Avoid the near occasion of sin”).  And, given all that, a movie is never “just a movie”: it is a visual and emotional experience that can have far-reaching consequences.


Even the Devil can quote Scripture

     Biblical films, such as last year’s Noah and Exodus (released in the spring of 2015), present complications beyond ugly, frightening, or impure images.  We all understand that a movie maker will need to add things to a story, or change some things, or leave certain details out in order to transform a written work into a viable film. Of course that’s the case.  In the case of the story of Noah, for instance, the Book of Genesis provides only the barest outlines of a story: a filmmaker must necessarily supply quite a bit of his own imagination to make it work on the big screen.  If in the process he significantly changes the underlying meaning, however, and still sells it as the same story, that’s an injustice to the original work, and a false promise to the audience that they’re getting “Story A” when in fact it’s “Story X” in disguise (I discuss my ideas about this topic in greater details in a series of posts on Peter Jackson’s misbegotten adaptation of The Hobbit, here).



Christian Bale gives a unique interpretation of Moses in Exodus

     In the case of a purportedly Christian film, and particularly a Biblical film, we Catholics have a serious responsibility that goes far beyond the concern we might have for the integrity of a particular story.  The Bible, after all, is the Inspired Word of God.  While it is understood that certain liberties must be taken in order to turn a written text into a viable film, we need to be on the lookout for an adaptation that trivializes God’s word; both a proper sense of reverence, and a need to prevent giving the impression that Holy Scripture need not be taken seriously, compel us.  
     Not only that, a poorly conceived or executed film that distorts the underlying message of the Biblical proclamation can cause serious harm, much more substantial than the harm done to the work and reputation of a secular author.  We live in an age in which Biblical literacy is at lower ebb than it has been for centuries.  Films like Noah and Exodus may be the only sustained exposure a very large number of people will have to the Biblical account, and given the powerful emotional impact of such images, it can be a profound and lasting exposure.  People will assume that a movie billed as the Scriptural story will, in fact, be the Scriptural story.  A seriously flawed film can give a false understanding of Christianity, and even drive people away.  It’s not alarmist to suggest that, for some people, such an experience may jeopardize their salvation (don’t laugh: some years back a person I know, a well-educated person, cited The Da Vinci Code as a major factor in her decision to leave the Church).


Hold fast to what is good . . .

     So here we are. There is a great temptation on the part of us Believers, disheartened by the unrelenting secularity that has engulfed our culture, to jump on the band wagon whenever a remotely Christian-looking film emerges from the fetid swamps of Hollywood (as we saw with Noah).  We need to remember that movies are a money-making venture.  After the unexpected (by the movie industry, at least, and elite "opinion-makers") success of The Passion of the Christ ten years ago, Hollywood realized that there was a badly underserved market for religious films, and nature abhors a vacuum.  They’ve been trying to replicate the success of Mel Gibson’s film ever since.  While some filmmakers may share Gibson’s zeal, others surely do not, and many will understand neither the material with which they’re working nor the audience they’re targeting.  Still others will have a consciously subversive intent.  
     We do have some guidance in Holy Scripture for this sort of situation: St. Paul tells us, “Test everything; hold fast to what is good, abstain from every form of evil” (1 Thess. 5:21-22).  This should be our standard in evaluating purportedly Biblical or Christian films: we should ask ourselves, What Would St. Paul Do?





Monday, July 27, 2015

Looking For God In All The Wrong Places

    There’s an old joke about a police officer who was walking his beat one night when he came upon a man, apparently drunk, crawling around on his hands and knees on the pavement under a streetlamp.
     “What are you doing?” asked the officer.
     “Looking for my keys,” came the reply.
     “Where’d you lose them?” returned the constable.
     “Over there” answered the other, gesturing toward a shadowy area outside the halo of the streetlamp.
     “Then why are you looking here?” demanded the bemused policeman.
     “Well,” said the man, looking up at the officer, “the light’s better here.”
     I am sometimes reminded of the unfortunate man under the streetlight when I am engaged in discussion with atheists.  It’s not that they are intoxicated, but that they insist on conducting the search for God where He cannot possibly be found, using a method that is guaranteed not to find Him. 
     Most atheists I talk to are materialists, who insist that we can’t reasonably argue for the existence of God unless we can detect his presence using the tools of science.  This is, of course, a very narrow and limited understanding of “reason” (and one for which they have a hard time coming up with a reasonable defense).  They either can’t or won’t accept that the Creator of the universe must logically be outside  his creation  (just as an artist cannot be inside his own painting), while science can only detect things that are part of the natural universe.  If God is truly God, then finding Him through scientific inquiry is as useless as looking for lost keys thirty feet away from where you know you dropped them. 

Unless, of course, you don’t want to find anything . . .

Sunday, July 26, 2015

"Ubi Caritas" - CWU Chamber Choir & Ola Gjeilo

     When it comes to music, my favorite century is the 18th (with honorable mention to the 17th), but it's been downhill since the early 19th.  There are occasional pieces or composers from more recent times, however, who rise above general run of their era.  Such is Norwegian-born composer Ola Gjeilo, who is very recent indeed, having been born in 1978, the same year St. John Paul the Great was elevated to the Papacy.  I can't tell from the biographical information I've seen whether or not he is a believer, or whether he simply finds the Christian (particularly the Catholic) tradition a particularly rich vein to mine for musical inspiration, but religious music has been a large part of his output to date: he has composed a Mass, for instance, and a breath-taking "Sanctus" (I've posted a clip here), a piece called Dark Night of the Soul (a title, at least, inspired by St. John of the Cross), and the piece featured here, his own musical setting for the ancient hymn "Ubi Caritas" (you can find the Latin words with English translation at the bottom of the page).
     In this clip, the composer himself improvises a piano accompaniment to Central Washington University Chamber Choir (to see the choir sing the hymn unaccompanied, click here).
    




Latin Text
Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est.
Congregavit nos in unum Christi amor.
Exsultemus, et in ipso jucundemur.
Timeamus, et amemus Deum vivum.
Et ex corde diligamus nos sincero.
Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est.
Simul ergo cum in unum congregamur:
Ne nos mente dividamur, caveamus.
Cessent iurgia maligna, cessent lites.
Et in medio nostri sit Christus Deus.
Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est.
Simul quoque cum beatis videamus,
Glorianter vultum tuum, Christe Deus:
Gaudium quod est immensum, atque probum,
Saecula per infinita saeculorum. Amen.
English Translation
Where charity and love are, God is there.
Love of Christ has gathered us into one.
Let us rejoice in Him and be glad.
Let us fear, and let us love the living God.
And from a sincere heart let us love one.
Where charity and love are, God is there.
At the same time, therefore, are gathered into one:
Lest we be divided in mind, let us beware.
Let evil impulses stop, let controversy cease.
And in the midst of us be Christ our God.
Where charity and love are, God is there.


Beautiful "Sanctus" Composed By Ola Gjeilo

Not all modern music is dark and discordant.  37 year old composer Ola Gjeilo appears to have embraced the old idea, which over the last century or so has often been neglected or even  intentionally defied, that music ought to be beautiful.  He also seems drawn to Christian musical expression.  The clip below, for instance, is an inspiring setting for the "Sanctus" ("Holy, Holy, Holy"), performed by the Central Washington University Chamber Choir (I have also posted a clip. here, of the same group performing Gjeilo's setting for another ancient hymn, "Ubi Caritas" with the composer himself playing piano accompaniment).






Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus
Dominus Deus 
Sabaoth.
Pleni sunt cæli et terra gloria tua.
Hosanna in excelsis.
Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini.
Hosanna in excelsis.



Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God of hosts.
Heaven and earth are full of your glory.
Hosanna in the highest.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest.



Saturday, July 25, 2015

Star Trek, Secularism, and Christian Faith

Data talks to Worf about faith
 One of the great entertainment success stories of the past half-century has been the Star Trek television and film franchise.  I've enjoyed watching its various iterations since I was a child, at first because it's great fun, but more recently for another reason as well.  I've discovered that, although most of the action is set several centuries in the future, Star Trek provides a useful window into the world-view of late twentieth and early twenty-first century cultural elites, a world-view spread and reinforced through the popular media.
    In later versions of Star Trek, for instance, perhaps as a reflection of the way that western opinion makers want to celebrate every culture in the world but their own (which they tend to treat with disdain), Earth seems to be the only planet whose inhabitants have "outgrown" their need for religion; everyone else in the galaxy is still fully engaged with the traditions of their forebears.  The interactions of the (mostly human) main characters with these other beings nicely illustrate how our secular friends view those of us who take religion seriously.
    The episode "Rightful Heir" from the series Star Trek: The Next Generation is a good example. It focuses on the the religious practices and beliefs of the fictional alien race of Klingons, in particular their expectation that Kahless, who had founded their empire 1,000 before, would return to them in the flesh.  A Klingon claiming to be Kahless does indeed make an appearance, and a DNA test confirms his identity.  There are incongruities, however, and he is eventually discovered to be a clone created by Klingon priests.  Nevertheless, desite the disappointment of their hopes and the trickery of their religious leaders, at the end we see most of the Klingons still confidently awaiting the coming of their savior.
    I found one scene at the end of the show to be particularly interesting.  It is a dialogue between two of the regular characters: Data, who is an android (a human-like robot who has, apparently, achieved something like consciousness - this is science fiction, after all), and Worf, the only main character of Klingon parentage. The events surrounding Kahless have raised some questions in Data's mind:

Data: May I ask a question?  In the absence of empirical data, how will you determine whether or not this is the real Kahless?

Worf: It is not an empirical matter, it is a matter of . .  . (pause) . . . faith.

Data: (musing) Faith . . . (gesturing to Klingons kneeling before the empty throne of Kahless) They insisted upon waiting here until they see Kahless again.  Their "faith" appears unaffected by his inability to defeat Gowron. They still believe. (thoughtful pause)  I once had what could be considered a crisis of the spirit.

Worf: You?

Data: Yes. The Starfleet officers who first activated me on Omicron Theta told me I was an android - nothing more than a sophisticated machine with human form. However, I realized that if I was simply a machine, I could never be anything else; I could never grow beyond my programming. I found that difficult to accept. So I chose to believe... that I was a person; that I had the potential to be more than a collection of circuits and subprocessors. It is a belief which I still hold.

Worf : How did you come to your decision?

Data: I made . . . a leap of faith.






Two thoughts immediately came to mind when I saw this scene again the other night.  First, this is just how secularists perceive religious faith, either pure intuition, as in Worf's case: feelings based on no "empirical evidence"; or a "leap of faith" in the sense that Data uses the term, in which the leaper simply chooses to believe that what he desires to be true is actually the truth.  
     The second thing that struck me is that neither of these versions of "faith" correspond to the Catholic meaning of the word.  To see the difference, compare the scene above to the following passage from the gospel of Matthew:

And in the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea.  But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, "It is a ghost!" And they cried out for fear.  But immediately he spoke to them, saying, "Take heart, it is I; have no fear."  And Peter answered him, "Lord, if it is you, bid me come to you on the water."  He said, "Come." So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus; but when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, "Lord, save me." Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, "O man of little faith, why did you doubt?" And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased.  (Matthew 14: 25-32)

   Peter does not need to take a “leap of faith” in the sense that Data means it, nor is he relying on intuition.  He not only sees with his own eyes Jesus walking on the water, he actually walks on water himself, before his faith falters and he sinks.  You can’t get much more empirical than that.  When Jesus tells him that his faith is weak, then, he clearly is not talking about believing something with no evidence: he means trusting what you have truly seen and experienced. Christian Faith is not blind faith.

Allessandro Allori's St. Peter Walking On The Water
    St. Peter himself would later write “Always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15), and in fact there is no shortage of reasons, and no lack of evidence, for God and for Christianity.  There are cogent philosophical arguments from St. Thomas Aquinas and others, well-attested miracles, and the witness of countless Christians whose lives were transformed when they put their trust in the promises of Christ.  The evidence is there.  What is lacking is the will to see it for what it is, to trust what we have seen and heard.
    It is important to bear this distinction in mind when discussing faith with those who don't share it, or who have not been well-formed in their faith.  If we accept the Star Trek version of Christian faith we put ourselves in the position of having to defend a position built on fantasy.  The reality, however, is that we do have the Truth, and we really are prepared to give an account of the hope in us. Let's leave the science fiction explanations to the other guys.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

St. Bridget of Sweden, Patroness of "Successful Failures"

     Today is the feast day of St. Bridget (Birgitta) of Sweden, who lived in the fourteenth century.  She was married in her early teens and had eight children, one of them St. Catherine of Sweden, she enjoyed a deeply committed and loving relationship with her husband, and at the same time acquired a reputation for personal piety and charity that attracted favorable notice from many people, including learned clerics and even the King of Sweden.  When Birgitta was in her early forties her beloved husband died, after which she devoted herself completely to the practice of religion and Christian virtues.  Also, as the Catholic Encyclopedia [link] puts it:

The visions which she believed herself to have had from her early childhood now became more frequent and definite.  She believed that Christ Himself appeared to her, and she wrote down the revelations she then received, which were in great repute during the Middle Ages.  They were translated into Latin by Matthias Magister and Peter Prior.

Influenced by these visions, she laid the foundations for a new religious order (the Brigittines), and set out for Rome, both to seek Papal approval for her order (which was finally granted twenty years after she set out, in 1370), and also to urge to Pope to return to Rome from Avignon (a task later taken up by St. Catherine of Siena).  She is truly a versatile saint: she can be seen as a patroness of mothers and families, and also for those in religious communities, and also an exemplar of charity, piety, and determination.  One of things that I found most interesting about St. Bridget is summed up in this passage from the article about her [link] at Catholic Online:

Although she had longed to become a nun, she never even saw the monastery in Vadstena.  In fact, nothing she set out to do was ever realized.  She had never had the pope return to Rome permanently, she never managed to make peace between France and England, she never saw any nun in the habit that Christ had shown her, and she never returned to Sweden but died, [a] worn out old lady far from home in July 1373.  She can be called the Patroness of Failures.

The article goes on to call her a “successful failure”, citing her canonization in 1391.
     St. Bridget of Sweden is in fact an excellent example of the quote attributed to St. Theresa of Calcutta: “God hasn’t called me to be successful, he has called me to be faithful”.  Whether or not Mother Theresa actually said it, it’s a marvelous statement of what it is to be a Saint.  As St. Paul tells us, the “wisdom of this world” is foolishness in the sight of God (1 Corinthians 3:19).  St. Bridget is a living reminder to all of us that our “success” as Christians consists in fidelity to Christ, and in nothing else.



Christ Is King Of All . . . Even The Holidays

(This Throwback Thursday post was first published in November, 2014)

So Paul, standing in the middle of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious.  For as I passed along, and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, “To an unknown god.”  What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.” (Acts 17:22-23)

     Halloween is past, Christmas is coming, and not only are the geese getting fat but the doubters and mockers are getting ready for another round of “demystifying” the Incarnation by pointing out (or making up) connections to pagan holidays and practices . . . and then we’ll go through it all again at Easter time.  Here in the time in between, I’d like to take a few moments to reflect on the holiday (i.e., Holy Day) just past, and look forward to those that are to come.

Good Cop, Bad Cop     

    First, a little background. Many, many years ago, in the days of my neo-pagan youth, I recall reading that the Christians, as they converted previously heathen peoples, intentionally built churches on what had been pagan holy sites: the Church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva in Rome, for instance, built on the ruins of what was believed to have been a temple of the Roman goddess of wisdom.  In the same way, countless churches were built adjacent to ancient circles and standing stones in Northwestern Europe, including a whole series of churches dedicated to St. Michael the Archangel, the scourge of Satan (the most famous of these is Mont St. Michel, pictured above), which were situated on the hill tops that were considered especially sacred by the pre-Christian inhabitants.
     There was a two-fold purpose to this practice, an ancient precursor to what we today call the “Bad Cop, Good Cop” routine (wherein the suspect confesses to the Nice Policeman, the Good Cop, hoping to earn his protection from the Mean Policeman, or Bad Cop).  On the one hand, we have a concrete sign of the triumph of Christianity, a church built sometimes on the very foundations of a previous pagan establishment, sending as clear a message as one of those paintings of St. Michael with his foot on the Devil’s neck.  Consider also the very name of the church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva: “Holy Mary over Minerva”.  The name does not simply tell us which building previously occupied the site, it proclaims the victory of the Mother of God over the pagan goddess.  This is the “Bad Cop” approach.
     We can see the “Good Cop” strategy in the passage from the Acts of the Apostles at the top of the page.  St. Paul commends the Athenians for their religious devotion, which may well be an expression of a real desire to find God, but directed toward false divinities.  Rather than condemn the Athenians for idolatry, he seeks to redirect them toward the True Lord.  In much the same spirit, the Church seems to have concluded that previously idolatrous peoples would accept conversion more easily if they could worship the True God in the same places that they and their ancestors had been accustomed to commune with the old gods.  We can see this as an example of “Baptizing the World”, of sanctifying what is good or neutral in the outside world, and using it to build up the Kingdom of God.  And in cases such as this, how powerful must the effect have been when the new Christians had a tangible sign, in the old familiar place, of the Victory of Christ?

Trick or Treat?

     We can see a similar process at work in the case of many Holy Days.  Not that the Church created them for the purpose of replacing pagan festivals, as the naysayers claim: the Christian feasts commemorate real events in Salvation History.   Christian feasts do tend, however, to subsume and Christianize some pagan practices, which the Church often allows to happen.  Take Halloween, for example.  A couple of weeks ago the Catholic blogosphere was filled with commentary, some arguing that Halloween is no more than a modern day pagan bacchanal, others that it is at worst harmless fun, and still others explaining its Christian source and purpose.  One of the better discussions is this one [here] by Nathan Barontini.  Of the “Four Halloween Mistakes for Catholics to Avoid” Nathan’s mistake #1 is thinking that “Halloween is ‘Pagan’ Rather than Christian.”  He points out that it is tied to the feast of All Saints established by Pope Gregory III in the eight century in conjunction with the dedication of a chapel to “All Saints” and not, as he says, “to compete with some Celtic pagan feast.”  Quite so.  At the same time, one can make a case that some pagan traditions did indeed attach themselves to the celebration of All Hallows Eve, but here we see them serving a new master.  As Mr. Barontini says (under the heading of “Mistake # 3 – Make Halloween ‘No Fun’”:

The traditional ghouls, skeletons, vampires, and zombies all speak to a simple post-Easter reality - Christ has conquered death. At Halloween we mock death, we laugh in its face, proclaiming with St. Paul, "O death where is thy sting, O grave where is thy victory?" (1 Cor 15:55).

In other words, like Holy Mary Over Minerva, or St. Michael curb-stomping the Devil, our celebrations on the eve of All Saints Day invoke images of death and corruption in order to show Christ’s victory over the forces they represent.

Our Battle Is Not with Flesh And Blood

     This is not to say that we should disregard those Christians who warn about the demonic aspects of Halloween: when Christ is out of the picture, all that’s left is death and corruption, and the powers of darkness are left in possession of the field of battle.  I have noticed over the past couple of decades that, as the wider culture becomes less Christian, observances of Halloween are becoming both more elaborate and more grotesque.  And there is always a risk when we set out to “Baptize the World” that, if we are not properly fortified and sustained by the Faith and the Sacraments, the World may instead have its way with us.  We should not, however, let the Devil have the last word. 



Our task is first to “put on the full armor of God” (see Ephesians 6:3-17) and then set out to reclaim Halloween for Christ, rather than surrender it to the hosts of the Evil One.

     It is good to bear all this in mind as we approach the so-called “holiday season” (i.e., the Christmas Season).  We will hear a chorus of claims that our Feast of the Nativity is really “only” a thinly disguised form of the Roman Saturnalia, or some Mithraic feast, or something similar (never mind that the Birth of Jesus really happened, and these other things are based on fantasies).  Even if it’s true (and most such claims are highly debatable) that Christmas took it’s gift-giving from Saturnalia, or Christmas trees from some pagan Germanic Yule tradition, and so on, well, so what?  If these things ever did have pagan origins, now they are in the service of Christ, who “will reign until he puts all enemies under his feet” (1 Corinthians 15:25).  So, be of good cheer, and when the time comes, throw another Yule Log on the fire, because Christ is King.