He who learns must suffer, and, even in our sleep, pain that we cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God. - Aeschylus

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Fair Questions: Why Not Customize the Liturgy?

I read a question from a Catholic in the Roman Rite recently asking what was wrong with adding whatever musical instruments people like to the music during the Mass.  The underlying intuitions here are that the Mass can be customized to suit our likes and dislikes, and that our likes and dislikes are the deciding factor in how the Mass ought to be celebrated.  These are understandable intuitions in a culture in which mass media constantly inundates them with messages about how this product, that product, and all of life should be tailored to their whims so as to get them to buy their products.  These are understandable intuitions for people who have become so accustomed to being entertained by musicians, comedians, movies, and television.  There is understandably a deep intuition rooted in popular culture that people on a stage ought to be facing them as a means of inviting them to participate, and it's no surprise that they would find it hard to break that habit when they attend Mass.

But the deeper problem is that they have come to see the divine liturgy as a thing in that category of things which are products for our consumption.  As has been pointed out very eloquently at the  BadCatholic blog, the liturgy is supposed to be different from the ordinary experiences of our lives.  It should draw us out of our own likes and dislikes and into divine love by creating a sacred space in which we can build a habit of separating ourselves from the world long enough to renew our relationship with the divine and strengthen ourselves for going back into the world and bringing that divine light with us through our experiences of God in the liturgy.

This does not mean that we cannot have likes and dislikes, but it does mean that in the liturgy we are not there to ratify our likes and dislikes, but to reshape ourselves in the image of God.  Much as we might allow our friends and family to choose what food we will eat for dinner when celebrating their birthday, we allow the Church as the bride of Christ to choose how we will celebrate His sacrifice on the cross, the sacrifice made so that we might exist in eternal union with the divine.

This sacrifice is eternal and our celebration of it should be no less so; it should not be a product of our whims or tastes so much as a participation in the forms which connect us with the Apostles, the early Church, the medieval Church, and the Church which still exists in our own time in unity with the Church throughout history and into the future.  The liturgy is not ours to do with as we wish; it belongs to the Church eternal and not exclusively to the Church of one generation.  We are stewards of the liturgy which existed long before we did and are charged with preserving it for future generations.

There is nothing wrong with the liturgy changing in form so long as those changes retain the underlying structure and theology which keeps us connected to the Church eternal, but there is a great deal wrong with changing the forms of the liturgy with a complete disregard for the Church of the past and the Church of the future because we are fixated on arranging things to our taste.  If I were to advocate my own tastes as rubrics for the Mass, then I would have European melodic metal playing, but I recognize that my tastes are not the deciding factor in how the liturgy is celebrated.  Nor should they be.

The liturgy is not a product created for our convenience like so much else in our lives, and we should not treat it as if it were such a product.  The liturgy is a profound and timeless celebration of the sacrifice on the cross which allows us to grow in union with the divine by pulling us out of our world of self-centered convenience and into the world of loving sacrifice lived for all those loved by Christ.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Love it to Death: What is liturgy?

It is difficult to define liturgy to anyone's satisfaction, but I think that we can at least delineate some basic aspects of liturgy in an effort to come to a holistic understanding of it.  We can look at the origins of the word, for example, as a means of understanding what liturgy is.  If we do so, we might see liturgy as a costly service to the people.  We could also take a scientific approach, understanding liturgy as rituals which have their own unique characteristics (in terms of vestments, altar arrangements, etc) to be classified as belonging to the liturgy of St. Gregory the Great or of St. Mark the Apostle et al.  This would help to understand what liturgy is in its wondrous diversity and richness.  We could also look at the rubrics for the liturgy to understand the structure of the liturgy and how to accomplish all the little details that go into making it so beautiful.

These are certainly useful ways to increase our understanding of liturgy, but I would like to propose a more personal and visceral account of the liturgy.  This may seem an odd starting point, but I think that Zen Master Dogen had basically the right idea about the purpose of liturgy.

"In ceremony there are forms and there are sounds, there is understanding and there is believing. In liturgy there is only intimacy."

The fundamental purpose of liturgy is the same whether we are Christians of the ancient Church or Zen Buddhists: the liturgy exists to bring us into an ever deepening intimacy, and in the case of Christianity this intimacy is in relationship with Christ.  The other ways of viewing liturgy lead us to this same point.  In looking at the origin of the term we learn that the liturgy was indeed a service to the people to reconcile them with God and was indeed very costly, a cost paid by Christ's sacrifice on the cross.  In looking at the variety of rites within the ancient Church, we learn that there are many ways to cultivate that intimacy in the liturgy within disparate cultural contexts while maintaining the same underlying structure and theology.  In looking at the rubrics, we learn that the underlying structure and theology are there to help keep us focused on our beloved Lord by providing the boundaries which draw our gaze and will to Christ, which assists in preventing some of our many distractions from creeping in and ruining the intimacy we seek.

"Haven't you heard the ancient master's teaching: Seeing forms with the whole body-and-mind, hearing sounds with the whole body-and-mind one understands them intimately. Intimate understanding is not like ordinary understanding."

While the Zen Master's words might seem otherworldly to Western readers, the experience of intimacy is one that many humans understand at least to some degree.  We have experiences of intimacy with family, longtime friends, and spouses. We all know that our relationships with those who are intimates are qualitatively and quantitatively different from our other relationships.  Intimate understanding between persons makes conversation less necessary because we already have a strong sense of what the other is thinking or feeling.  It generates an abiding joy which can weather the many difficulties of human relationships because we know that this relationship is deeper and more important than the petty daily squabbles or even the lifelong ailments.

Intimate relationships are cultivated by creating a special place in one's life for another person.  Our intimate friends get more of our time, our experiences, and our burdens than others.  They know us more deeply, and we often have special ways of greeting and communicating with our intimate friends and family and spouses which do not apply to other relationships.  In the same way, we cultivate an intimate relationship with Christ by spending more of our time with Him in the divine liturgy, by sharing our experiences and burdens with Him in prayer, and by greeting and communicating with Him in a way that conveys that he is our intimate friend and deeply important to us.  This helps us to build the profoundly loving relationship we so desire to have with Christ.

In healthy intimate relationships, we tend to take on the good qualities of those whom we love, and this is also true of our relationship with Christ.  The more time and effort we put into building our relationship with Him, the more we begin to become like him in all His virtues.  In the same way that holy Christian friendships and marriages help us to smooth out our rough edges and become more Christ-like in mutual service to one another by learning to value those relationships over our selfishness, so to do we starve our desire for anything that would hinder our relationship with Christ by serving Him as he pours out His grace upon us.

In the liturgy, we lift up our hearts in love and are lifted up in the embrace of divine love, and by this love we gradually put to death those parts of us that can not partake of divine love.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Living On the Mountain: Out of the Tomb

Today I heard an excellent homily on the Gospel reading, which was the passage in which Lazarus is raised from the dead.  This passage is well known not just for the raising of the dead, but for the tears Jesus cried for his friend Lazarus.  When it is well delivered (which is certainly was today), it is a very moving passage to hear.

The pastor took note of the fact that Jesus called Lazarus out of the tomb, and Lazarus came out, though he was restrained by the burial wrappings and unable to see clearly.  He also pointed out that many of us find ourselves in tombs as well, either because we created them ourselves or were put in them by others.  Some of the ways we create tombs for ourselves are by deadening our senses with alcohol, pills, smoking, injecting, watching TV, casual sex, hurting others, overwork, and in many other ways retreating from the difficulties of life. 

The problem with this approach, in my experience, is that when we retreat from the difficulties of life we also retreat from many of the blessings we find in life.  We might retreat from a difficult marriage by diving into our challenging work and focusing heavily on getting all sorts of good work done; we might find that in doing this, we don't find enough support in our weakened marriage to carry us through the difficult times at work.  It is easy to retreat from difficulties and back ourselves right into a dangerous corner with more difficulties than ever.

In my teens I had entombed myself pretty thoroughly already.  The foundation of the tomb was solid pride, unshaken and unstirred by any rumblings of imperfection on my part.  The walls were made of all the injuries I had not forgiven, both those injuries done to me and the injuries I had done to others.  The roof was made of all the reading I did and the video games I played that kept me from feeling the harsh light and warmth of a troubled world.  The burial wrappings constraining me were the cynicism and bitterness at the world I used to justify my attempts to shut it out.  The wrappings kept me from truly seeing the suffering of others and caring for them as I should have.  Over the past few years, I have been hard at work extricating myself from those wrappings and tearing down the tomb I built for myself.

My grandfather, when he was a younger man, had entombed himself as well in many of the usual ways.  He worked excessive hours, enjoyed his alcohol, enjoyed his smoking, enjoyed his chewing tobacco, and perhaps enjoyed other things I'm not aware of.  My grandfather came out of tomb when Jesus called.  He gave up drinking and smoking very abruptly, turned his life over to Christ, and gradually gave up the other things that were dragging him toward the tomb as well.  Before he entered eternal life, he had already left the tomb to encounter his beloved Jesus, just as Lazarus did.

May we all do the same, coming out the tomb at the call of Christ to live fully with Him and carry His peace and love into the world for as long we are able.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Forward Thinking, Backward Lookers

Previously, I've written about backwards thinking on the part of progressives with regard to the relationship between their moral values and their political views.  In the interest of fair treatment, I will write about one of the common errors which conservatives tend to fall into with regard to the relationship between their moral values and their political views.

Whereas progressives frequently impose their political views backwards onto their moral framework, conservatives are much more likely to look backwards at their moral framework for guidance on how to proceed in forming their political views.  Our political views are a special case of applied moral values; we have to apply our moral values while taking into account that the political framework has a specific purpose not shared by the individual moral actor and that this political framework needs to serve people who do not share our values.  Forward thinking is imposing one's moral values forward  onto one's political views without considering that politics is a special case of morality with different aims and limited boundaries.

The problem for conservatives (particularly in Western democratic republics) is that it is extremely difficult to reconcile their moral framework with the philosophical underpinnings of the legal system as it exists in their countries of residence.  The strategy frequently adopted by conservatives in response to this is to straightforwardly apply their moral framework to the issues of personal liberty which are currently controversial while taking a more complex view of the relationship between their moral framework and foreign policy.  Conservatives also tend to be more likely to take for granted settled legal issues from previous generations; this is why the conservatives of one generation can be perfectly comfortable with women voting and the generation of conservatives at the time it was controversial was far less comfortable with it.

This habit of imposing one's moral views straightforwardly onto one's political views is not generally a problem in certain areas.  It would be difficult to find someone who was not opposed to murder on moral grounds, so forward thinking doesn't cause any problems there.  In other areas, it can cause quite serious disputes where different groups have different views on the morality of an act.  For example, a conservative Christian in one era might support a law which would punish banks which charge interest because he views charging interest as immoral.  This brings him into immediate conflict with the aims and interests of many bankers.  A conservative recovering alcoholic might support a Constitutional Amendment prohibiting the sale of alcohol in another era because he finds it to be immoral based on his experience with it.  This brings him into immediate conflict with those who enjoy a good beer or a nice glass of scotch on occasion.

Where competing moral claims exist, how do we decide which should prevail in our legal system?  The forward thinker has the answer, and it is frequently to require by law that people not engage in behavior which he believes to be immoral.

Related: Can Catholics Support Legalizing Same-Sex Unions?

The commonly controversial example of this sort of forward thinking (which is still making headlines today) is the issue of same-sex marriage.  Many conservatives of various belief systems have opposed and continue to oppose the legalization of state-sanctioned same-sex marriages.  Being in the U.S. where the largest religious demographic is adherents of Christianity, it is no surprise that many forward thinkers with regard to this issue are Christian.  They propose that same-sex unions be illegal for a variety of reasons, but primarily because they believe that the sexual acts of same-sex couples are immoral and that redefining marriage will damage the family unit in certain ways.

One public Catholic Christian has gone so far as to suggest that all Catholics are required to oppose the legalization of same-sex marriages. This is an interesting position, though not a surprising one coming from a forward thinker, and there are many forward-thinking Catholics indeed.  Historically, the Catholic Church has in many places had a much cozier relationship with the State than most in the United States would be comfortable with.  Not surprisingly, many Catholics from those places or cultures feel less of a need for a wide separation of Church and State.

The author of the article (who is one of the increasingly rare staunchly pro-life Democrats in American politics) cites Church teaching and Pope John Paul II for her claim that all Catholics should oppose the legalization of same-sex marriage because it is at odds with Catholic moral teaching.  I completely agree that it is at odds with Catholic moral teaching, which I have written about at some length.  Unlike many self-identified Catholics, my position on this matter is not rooted in dissent from the moral teaching of the Church.  I think it would be a terrible idea for the Catholic Church to allow a "marriage" between two people of the same sex in the Church because it is profoundly incoherent with Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition to do so.

The author of the article quotes Pope John Paul II as having written (or approved the writing) that, "all Catholics are obliged to oppose the legal recognition of homosexual unions."  I'll not bother over-analyzing the quotation, though I do wonder how exactly we square this with Pope Francis' view on limited civil unions.  Does Pope Francis disagree substantively with Church teaching on sexuality?  No.  Does he endorse the idea that same-sex couples can be "married" in any meaningful sense of the term?  No.  He upholds the definition of marriage in the strongest terms. But interestingly, he and other Bishops do not oppose limited civil unions as a means of the State ensuring civil rights for its citizens.

So what conclusion can we draw from this?  Their views do appear to be in some tension when taken at face value.  Either that is a problem or it is not a problem.  If it is a problem, then it would be a problem because we consider their statements on matters of politics to be a binding part of the Magisterium.  If it is not a problem, then it would not be a problem because we do NOT consider their statements on matters of politics to be a binding part of the Magisterium.

Let's consider the consequences of taking the view that Pontifical statements on political questions are a binding part of the Magisterium in addition to their statements on faith and morals under the appropriate circumstances.  It would be absurd to conclude that the Pope is heterodox or heretical given the massive amounts of evidence against that position, but that is the conclusion one would be left with if we read the selection from John Paul II without any critical analysis.  At that point, we might have to become sedevacantists with respect to the current Pope.

In addition, if we do take that view, then the Pope can just tell us what all our political views ought to be and be done with it.  That strikes me as incredibly dangerous for a variety of reasons.  One of those reasons is related to the marriage issue, as I've mentioned before.  It is very much to our benefit to draw a clear distinction between secular marriage and religious covenants, because if you keep insisting that they are the same, then it follows that the government has jurisdiction to regulate our religious covenants and force us to allow homosexuals to participate in such covenants.  For this reason, it is a staggeringly bad idea to conflate the concepts of marriage as a financial arrangement facilitated by the State and the sacramental union of a man and woman for life in unity with Christ.

Now let's consider the consequences of taking the view that Pontifical statements on political questions are NOT a binding part of the Magisterium.  It avoids some obvious problems like paving the way for the State to have jurisdiction over a sacrament.  It avoids a potentially dangerous precedent which would give the Pope essentially unlimited political authority over faithful Catholics.  That doesn't sound so bad.

But is there an issue with taking this stance which is problematic?  Some people might be concerned that taking those statements as non-binding would relieve Catholics from their duty to oppose the legalization of abortion, for example.  This is not the case for a couple of reasons: first that opposition to abortion does not rest on the teaching of the Popes alone (it was the teaching long before most of the Popes we've ever heard of existed), second that the moral teaching regarding abortion brings us in a very straightforward way to its legal opposition because it is murder and murder is already illegal (except in cases of self-defense).  If we support the law against murder, we must in consequence support the law against abortion to the same degree.  Not because the Pope says so, but because we favor a rational legal standard.

So why would this same reasoning not apply to marriage aside from the aforementioned negative consequences?  It is not so simple to apply the Church's teaching on marriage to the law.  If we are to be consistent, we would need to oppose the legalization of divorce as a grave moral ill.  We might even need to require that all marriages be held in a Catholic Church or with the approval of a Bishop.  We would need to favor enshrining in secular law an annulment process.  This seems pretty untenable, though if someone wants to take that position I will greatly admire their consistency.

In light of the above discussion, what can we make of John Paul II's statement which does not strip it of its meaning entirely?  For one, I think all faithful orthodox Catholics can agree that we cannot support or endorse same-sex "marriages" in a sacramental sense.  I think that we can also conclude that we should be very clear that we do not endorse same-sex sexual acts which may occur during the time of state-issued marriage contracts.  None of this would prevent us from favoring two people being allowed to join their finances or share a health care plan, however.  And I seriously doubt that people sharing health care plans or money was what John Paul II was opposed to, given his other statements.

I am quite content with the notion that faithful Catholics may oppose legalizing same-sex marriage on the grounds of various kinds of legal reasoning.    I am also quite content with the notion that faithful Catholics can favor legalizing limited civil unions even if the term marriage is applied to them so long as it is clear that they are not endorsing what the Church teaches are sinful acts.  What I am not content with is setting the precedent that the Church and State should have a relationship that will impair the integrity of the Church and the State, which is precisely what is proposed unknowingly by those who want to straightforwardly apply the moral teaching of the Church to the laws of the State so as to make them the same.