On May 3rd, 2010 I pressed “publish” and this blog went live. Twelve years is a long time in blog years. Over the past several years, however, my posting slowed and has become nearly nonexistent. But the blog remains. I think I keep it up because there’s some interesting content but I might not post here anymore. I’m not done blogging, however, or at least I’m still thinking about blogging. So, you’ll find me more likely over at my other, and older, blog PilgrimAkimbo, which began in 2006 and which I am, in a fashion, restarting.
Stepping Back From the Traditionalist Brink (i.e. fleeing from idols)
For several years I had been inching closer and closer towards a staunch, perhaps even radical, Catholic traditionalist position. In other words, I was becoming a RadTrad. Recently, I have stepped back, perhaps I should say leapt back, from that cliff-edge path. I thank God that He redirected me towards a more faithful Catholic position, one that I am still figuring out, but believe firmly to be more in the spirit of Christ — that is, actually Christian rather than one of the various fake or marginal “Christianities” we find surrounding us.
Do not misunderstand me; I love tradition. Up to a point I do love orthodoxy and traditional orthopraxy. I love old churches, classic vestments, Latin prayers, Gregorian chant and polyphony, and all the smell and bells associated with a more ancient Church. These can be good and beautiful things. I believe the Church would do well to re-embrace, up to a point, a lot of what was set aside over the past 60 or more years. But I have come to see a profound sickness growing in certain corners of the Church, a sickness of Pharisaism and worldliness and pride (the kind of pride that believes the little specks in one’s bother’s eyes are enormous logs and refuses to accept even the possibility of a log being in one’s own eye) all in the name of getting the religion right and the enemies crushed. I could not take it anymore and I had to step off the bus. But let me tell you how I got there and why I am now somewhere else.
Thread one: I did not enter the Catholic Church until I was forty-seven years of age. I was born into a conservative Baptist church. I remained essentially Baptist for many years. Gradually, I shifted to a kind of generic Evangelical position, and then to a more quasi-Reformed position. All the while I retained a deep concern for an orthodox faith (warped and frankly somewhat heretical as it was). This concern for orthodoxy was instilled within me by my Baptist formation, and not because I felt a need to be Baptist, rather I wanted to pursue the Truth. At that time conservative Baptists tended to draw very strong ideological and religious lines in the sand between themselves and all other denominations (including other Baptists), all of which were viewed with varying degrees of suspicion and fear, and Catholics where the most to be feared. This tendency to draw lines is still within me for better or worse – mostly worse I think. Regardless, a passionate belief in God, in the story of salvation God is writing, and entering as He did into creation itself, dying on a cross and rising again, and now reigning in glory, has been within me for as far back as I can remember. Faith is truly a life and death issue. Believing that eternal life truly exists, that we are called to love each other, our neighbors, and even our enemies, and being utterly convinced that following Christ is something radically different than all the other options available to us, has been my journey (fumbling and stumbling) my whole life. I can’t express strongly enough how important all this has been to me. I am, as well, too embarrassed to describe just how profoundly I do the opposite of what these beliefs say and require me to do. Regardless, it was my love for Christ and scripture, however frequently shaky is that love, that impelled me into the Catholic Church. God be praised. (I wrote about that journey several months before I entered the Church and have been writing about my continued journey ever since. It’s been the main theme of this blog for a long time.)
Thread two: In college I majored in art history. I studied the masterworks of western art, including the great cathedrals and religious art, most of which are Catholic in origin and meaning. I basically brought nothing to these topics. I had zero understand of Church history and had never experienced a Catholic Mass, which is so central to that history, architecture, and artwork. I truly did not know what I was looking at other than architectural shapes and paintings with dates and names to memorize. Most Protestants in my experience are profoundly ignorant of nearly all of Church history (but, of course, they think all of that is unimportant anyway). Baptists and Jesus Movement types may be the most ignorant (but so are many Catholics, surprisingly or not). Although a great deal of that art history went over my head, I think it instilled within me something at a visceral and subconscious level. I intuitively knew there was something great there, something singing to my soul as it were, but I couldn’t put it into words. So I didn’t dwell long on it and focused, instead, on 20th century art (which is also remarkably spiritual though less easy to recognize to those looking for traditional representations).
Thread three: When our first child was born my wife and I decided to take the plunge and live off of one income and homeschool our kids. We took it year by year, but it seemed to work well and eventually we discovered the classical model of education. I spent time studying deeply the model, wrote a number of articles and blog posts, even contributed to a chapter of a book by one of the most prominent figures in the classical homeschooling movement (who took my chapter and claimed it as her own). I became convinced a Christian classical education model was perhaps the best available anywhere. Central to this view, I came to believe, was a better anthropology than found in modernist models. I came to see the nature of man more clearly, what it means to be made in God’s image, that we are made to worship God, that we are made to give honor and show reverence, that there is a profound connection between our bodies and our souls. From that I began to examine my Christian experience.
For years we were part of a non-denominational quasi-Reformed little “church” that had, I painfully came to see, an anemic culture at best. This church was two songs and a forty-five minutes to an hour long bible lecture, taught from a working-English translation made by the teacher from the original Greek. (Many in the church brought their own Greek New Testaments the way many traditionalist Catholics bring their Latin missals to the TLM.) These were good people (aren’t we all?), and some remain dear to me, and I’m all for going directly to the Greek (kudos from me if you do), but I came to see that little local church was based on a faulty and incomplete anthropology, an Enlightenment-model approach to epistemology and biblical interpretation, and some strange ideas about community and about being a Christian in the world, and non-biblical ideas about mystery and sacramentality. In short, it promoted a false religion and taught poor gospel based on (ironically) not being able to read and interpret the Bible well. Its leaders also began to veer strongly towards an alt-right political/religious stance while I was beginning to recoil from it – because it comes from a spirit of anti-Christ. Sadly, very good people, including people I love, fall for this all the time and I certainly did for years.
My Baptist formation, our homeschooling choices, and the fringe quasi-Reformed church all promoted a kind of “neither of the world nor in it” mindset. I wanted to make distinctions and draw lines. That mindset went deep in me, but was also challenged somewhat by numerous other experiences. I began to have a crisis of ecclesiology; not a crisis of faith but of what church is and what it means and perhaps how it ought to be like to worship corporately. My shifting went from thinking the real Church was essentially invisible to thinking the opposite; that the Church must be visible, like our bodies (the human person being body and soul together forever), and that we are called to a visible unity and the struggle it takes to do so is not merely a commandment but is, in fact, a gift from God. This take humility, much greater humility than evidenced in the religious cultures of my Baptist and quasi-Reformed theologies and ecclesiologies.
Thus I began searching in earnest. We had become disenchanted with where we were. Having children raised questions about our faith, our intentions in the world, what is community, what is the purpose of religion, and what is the Church? I became interested in the “emergent church,” then in Catholicism, then in Eastern Orthodoxy, then Presbyterian, then back to Orthodoxy, and then finally back to Catholicism. (I wrote about why I did not become Eastern Orthodox.) I was searching for what resonated within my heart, not in a merely emotional or touchy-feely way, but in a way that was grounded in what I was gradually coming to see as the truth of the gospel, the nature of human beings, the human necessity of worship, and the increasingly obvious fact of sacramentality. Thus, and for several other other reasons, I became Catholic and soon my kids followed and then my wife.
The Church, however, does not do a great job of orienting and guiding converts. In fact, it’s so bad, so utterly pathetic, it’s nearly tragic. Most cradle Catholics, including most priests, seem utterly clueless about what former Protestants (especially non-sacramental, minimalist liturgy, emotion-based or intellectually-based Protestants) deal with when coming into the Church. It’s like two entirely different countries and cultures with what looks like a lot of shared (but not really) vocabulary. Maybe someday I’ll write a laundry list of things that are foreign, strange, or just plain different for converts that no one explains and that cradle-Catholics don’t realize. By necessity, then, I began on my own exploring what it means and ought to look like being Catholic. I read a lot of books, articles, and bogs. I listened to a lot of podcasts and shows. I was drawn most to beauty and tradition. One reason is that beauty and tradition are, well, beautiful and traditional. They also point to the history of the Church, something I lacked in my previous Christian life. I longed for a church with a history going all the way back. I was also drawn by the mystery. The quasi-Reformed little community I was part of tended to seek every way possible to dispel mystery. I came to recognize the wrongheadedness of this. This is all to say that I found what I thought was a solution in the Catholic traditionalists and their “version” of the Catholic faith known as Traditionalism.
The traditionalists love the smoke and the bells, they love the vestments and old churches, they love the old fashioned forms of piety and the old prayers, and they love the traditional Latin rite of the Mass which they call variously “the old rite,” the Traditional Latin Mass (TLM), the Tridentine Mass, the Mass of the Ages, the usus antiquior, and even “our birthright.” They say they love big families, try to parade older forms of masculinity and femininity, praise men in tweed suits and women in veils, and love posting pictures of little kids praying on their knees before ornate tabernacles as symbols of True Faith™. Mostly, though, they love what they perceive as greater reverence for God in the TLM. The prayers, the priest’s actions in all its minutiae, the general form, and other factors all play into the greater feeling of reverence. They do have a point and I tend to agree, at least about the importance of reverence. Given that Christ becomes truly present in the Eucharist, and that He is God, the Messiah, our Lord and savior, it makes sense that the Mass would be as reverent as possible. They see the more casual and laity-focused new Mass less reverent and therefore inferior at best (much of the time in fact corrupting the laity they believe) and even outright invalid at worst, with a growing number of fringe-types calling it patently sacrilegious. They also have a very strong “neither of the world nor in it” mindset. That, as you may have guessed, appealed to me at the time. As I saw it then, traditionalism was the antidote to the ills of the Church, the world, and my soul. A substantial number of posts on this blog are about that.
Traditionalists see the loss of the TLM and other traditions as largely the source of all the problems in the Church today (you all know what I mean and I don’t have the space here to go into all that). Reclaiming the TLM (our birthright!) is believed to be the first and foremost action to reclaim the glory of the Catholic Church and the moral high ground, reinstate Christendom, and save our children from the world and its steady turn toward immorality and liberalism. Their message rings true for many and has become a kind of clarion call for many feeling disaffected and lost at sea.
In the past two years I noticed (late to the game) the crypto-fascism, racism, and nationalism raging in many corners of the traditionalist subculture. I also began to see a kind of swaggering self-righteousness and proud Pharisaism regularly on display by the chattering class, a.k.a. traditionalist social media grifters. And if that wasn’t bad enough, again and again I saw traditionalists eagerly grasping at every conspiracy theory floating on the credulous currents of fringe Internet sites. And these folks were getting followers, tons of them, especially as they entered the U.S. culture wars and vociferously promoted Trump as God’s Man. A light bulb went off in my head. More like a high-voltage spotlight. I wanted no part of that world. So I fled. And as I did I began to see the vehement hatred of Pope Francis spewing from the trads (and many conservatives too) to a degree I had not fully noticed before. I too had been caught up for a while in not trusting the Pope. Now I felt ashamed. I became a Catholic in big part because the Church has the Pope – a huge gap in Protestantism and Eastern Orthodoxy. Once I decided to stop criticizing the Pope and others deemed “liberal” by the crypto-fascists it was like scales fell from my eyes. I felt like I had climbed out of Plato’s cave.
I would encourage anyone in the traditionalist camp, or thinking it looks attractive, to step back. Don’t give up on the wonderful traditions of the Church that you find attractive, but don’t make them the center of your faith. Don’t think traditional Catholicism actually represents some front-line is some war of any importance and that you can, somehow, both derive your identity and get good favor with God because you’re on the right side. And don’t give up on other Catholics who don’t share your love of tradition or find their faith encouraged by the smells and bells or Latin prayers. And remember, if you do turn towards tradition and away from other Catholics, you are no longer with Christ.
I originally chose to enter the Catholic Church, in part, because it’s a big tent. One finds not only all kinds of people but that the Church is global and not American. At that time I was also coming to terms that neither my politics nor my faith are “conservative.” I’m a mixed bag, but on the whole my views are more independent and more radical than the mainstream polemicists want me to be. Opening my eyes to the true intentions, and perhaps more to the point, the means of achieving those intentions of the traditionalists turned me right around. I saw that I had forsaken my original love and was, even, turning from Christ toward idols. I have come to see the traditionalist movement at least teetering on the precipice of idolatry and perhaps fully over the edge.
This makes me sad. Not only for the traditionalists themselves (thinking of their fate) and all the people they hurt, but for the natural consequences of their hatred, vitriol, and a host of others actions that are drawing down the hand of correction and discipline on them. Their actions are setting back any recovery of past traditions by those who just love them and have no need to politicize them. The old adage that one can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar is completely lost on the traditionalists. They love vinegar but don’t believe they do. They revel in vinegar and call it sweet. The movement has collected an outsized number of individuals aching for fights and opportunities to display their bravado. What folly, especially in light of our example, Christ.
May God bless you and come near you always.
Can I do this? A bumbling neophyte tries to sing the Missa Secunda
Several evenings ago I walked into my parish church to do something I’ve never done before. Probably out of ignorance and hubris, and not a little blind hopefulness, I decided to lend my voice to our parish choir. But not for the normal Sunday choir, which supports our regular Novus Ordo Mass. This time I joined in because I had heard at Sunday Mass the announcement that coming up in about four weeks was going to be a special Novus Ordo Mass (feast day at St. Mary, Our Lady of the Presentation) that would be entirely in Latin along with Latin (and Greek) chant, and that if anyone wanted to join in the choir they would be welcome, and that our choir director would be offering a chant schola in preparation for the Mass.
So I reached out via email and was invited to join.
As I walked in to the church I heard beautiful music resounding throughout the nave and sanctuary from the regular choir rehearsal as they were finishing up. After blessing myself and genuflecting before the Blessed Sacrament, I turned, looked up, and saw this.
With not a little panic mixed with excitement I realized I would be going up to the choir loft. What had I decided to do? Reality was setting in. I had never been up there, but have wanted to. I had not sung in a choir since, probably, about 4th grade for some silly event. As I worked my way towards my destination I was asked a couple of times if I was a tenor or bass. I could only shrug. I had no idea. Oh no, I thought to myself. I’m an idiot. I’m a fool. At my answer a look of slight worry crossed the faces of my questioners. Had I made a huge mistake?
On the back bench lay items of sheet music and a binder. I picked up my copies and went to my place. Everything was new to me. I did not know these people. I had never been in the choir loft, I was an imposter. Perhaps I didn’t even know how to sing. However I was welcomed warmly. Okay, at least they’re nice.
Then I looked down at the sheet music. Oh no. This was not the medieval square note sheet music. Not that I know that ancient form well, but because of my curiosity about historical Christianity I know a little. And it’s rather simple to follow if you know the basic format. Rather, this was the Missa Secunda by Hans Leo Hassler, and it looked like this:
If you want to know how it’s supposed to sound, here’s a recording from another choir:
Okay. For those of you who can read music easily, have sung in adult choirs, know that you are a tenor or bass or whatever, then you might be curious at the sudden and profound panic I felt. (Perhaps you are merely laughing at my foolishness.) I realized I would have to reach deep into my past, to those few piano lessons of many decades ago and remember foggy snipits about breathing at the right time, etc. 4/4 time. 3/4 time. Half notes. Whole notes. God help me, and God save this choir from me.
The choir director, a very kind and super encouraging man (fortunately for me), brought me to a side room and had me sing Mary had a little lamb, just to determine there my voice might fit. He said I could be a tenor or bass, so he put me with the tenors. And there I was.
We began with the traditional chant Salve Regina to warm up. That helped. I know that one, and it’s not too difficult. Then we dove into the Missa Secunda. Another great blessing for me, I was next to a woman who knows the music very well, has a great ear to be able to listen to me while she sings herself, and a kind and generous spirit to guide me through my stumblings. If she had not been there I might have completely failed and not come back. Later others told me, yeah she’s great.
So, rehearsal one is over. Three more to go. Will I be able to do this. I asked several, including the choir director, after that first rehearsal if they think I can contribute. They were all very encouraging. I also found online resources to help me do “homework” between rehearsals.
God help me, but I loved it.
One week ago, on the Easter Vigil, my wife entered the Catholic Church.
I cannot be more overjoyed. Praise be to our Lord!
The Better World Party: or how the fact of political parties may be part of the problem
I don’t have any intention of this blog becoming political. I do wonder, however, and especially now that we have recently gone through another deeply problematic presidential race here in the U.S., about the nature of politics. In this country we have a two party system. All other parties (Green, Libertarian, etc.) have been carefully nullified by the forces of power (the two parties themselves, the press, and mostly by business interests). This is my opinion. Regardless, I wonder of the value of political parties.
Our society believes political parties are important, even necessary. Are they? I am inclined to think that parties are created and promoted because someone, or some group, desires power. The ideas behind the Republican and Democratic parties in this country don’t need parties in order to exist. And once those parties are created and grow they become increasingly disconnected from the rest of society, even from their own members. This is the way of political parties. They, by design, and because power always tends to concentrate (like wealth), become centralized, demagogic, and prone to simplistic slogans hiding their real workings behind closed doors. Clearly, and eventually, all “successful” political parties end up thriving largely based upon secretive power and the enthusiastic ignorance of their membership.
They also thrive by controlling the means of communication, especially mass communication. They are, in effect, big business-backed, government supported, marketing agencies designed to benefit a minority of interests by leveraging the support of a majority who, for many reasons, and with various levels of enthusiasm or resignation, go along with the game.
Imagine a political leader in the western world saying something like this:
“If there is to be Better World [a Republican world, a Democratic world, a Libertarian world, etc.] , there must be a Better World party. Without a Better World party, without a party built on the Better World goals and ideals, and in the Better World way of doing things, it is impossible to lead this country and all its people in defeating the forces [those of other political parties] who stand against a Better World.”
Of course no good marketing strategy would use the Better World moniker for the name of a political party, but you get the idea. And I realize this verbiage is rather clunky, but it is taken (hacked rather badly) from another political leader, an idealist and a utopian who envisioned a better world in opposition to the forces of evil, a man who saw concentrated power as a way of helping his country become a land of goodness, wealth, and peace.
“If there is to be revolution, there must be a revolutionary party. Without a revolutionary party, without a party built on the Marxist-Leninist revolutionary theory and in the Marxist-Leninist revolutionary style, it is impossible to lead the working class and the broad masses of the people in defeating imperialism and its running dogs.”
Quote from Mao Tse-tung, found in “Revolutionary Forces of the World Unite, Fight Against Imperialist Aggression!” (November 1948), Selected Works, Vol. IV, p. 284.
We might cringe that these words are from Mao, but the human heart that beat in him is the same as the one you and I have — and prone to the same weaknesses and skewed desires. The politics in the U.S. became years ago (really from the very beginning) the purview of a few seeking wealth and power for the “benefit” of everyone. Political parties became the way for power to concentrate more fully and be wielded more aggressively.
I firmly believe the only real alternative is love, is humility and sacrifice, is the way of the cross. To think otherwise is to live in fear.
For God so Loved the Pale Blue Dot…
In 1990 the Voyager 1 spacecraft turned its camera back towards Earth and found a pale blue dot.
At that time Carl Sagan said:
“Consider again that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every ‘superstar,’ every ‘supreme leader,’ every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam”.
That mote of dust, that pale blue dot, is our home, a gift from God to us.
From Laudato Si:
As Christians, we are also called “to accept the world as a sacrament of communion, as a way of sharing with God and our neighbors on a global scale. It is our humble conviction that the divine and the human meet in the slightest detail in the seamless garment of God’s creation, in the last speck of dust of our planet” (LS 14)
Sagan’s quote is powerful, but Pope Francis pushes that sentimental understanding such that the sentiments are rooted in the powerful, cosmic truth that the world is a sacrament of communion. In other words, as we engage with creation and come to know it we become like priests offering up to God the world which He gave us. If this is our relationship to this pale blue dot, then questions of market forces, or government regulations, or pollution, or poverty, or global supply chains, all fall under this sacramental understanding.
Right at the beginning of the encyclical, Pope Francis says:
This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she “groans in travail” (Rom 8:22). We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth (cf. Gen 2:7); our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters. (LS 2)
I see too many Christians here in the rich and powerful “west” chaffing at the Pope’s encyclical, often using common evasive tactics like focusing on whether it is well written or organized, or whether the Pope mentions Jesus enough times, etc. These are all fair assessments, but if our first response to the world was to fall on our knees in supplication and worship, because our first understanding is of the world as sacrament, I wonder if we would be pushing back as much to the Pope. I think he gets it right. His critique seems to be spot on. We have forgotten the garden, the gift of creation. If we understood and lived out the idea of “world as sacrament” there might not be a need for the encyclical, because the world would be less ravaged. Still, and our struggle bears this out, only in Christ do we find salvation, and only through Christ will the creation cease to groan.
Final thought: It’s a strange thing to think that the so-called radical, left-wing environmental movement is showing the Church (especially in the west) a little something that it has lost along the way.