Monday, March 25, 2013

In Persona Christi

My pastor is one of those priests who seems to be everywhere and to know everyone, and it probably appears to those outside that he holds our parish together by sheer force of personality.  He has a cadre of parishioners who seem worryingly close to equating their faith with his impact on it - the "Fr. B club" maintains an email chain to inform its members which Mass he'll be saying on a given Sunday and tracks his media appearances.  I have to admit this has gotten on my nerves at times.

This past Saturday I went to one of the parish churches to go to Confession, which is usually held at 4 pm.  There were a few other people gathered, kneeling in the back of church near the confessional, but no priest.  We all waited for a while, and there was some less-than-Lenten muttering and watch-checking.

At about 4:30 Fr. B walked into the church and disappeared into the sacristy.  A few minutes later he re-appeared and sat down near the front of the church with his breviary, seemingly oblivious to those gathered in the back.  Since Mass was scheduled to start at 5, I figured out that he must just assume we were early for Mass and not know we were waiting for Confession.  Eventually, feeling intrusive and embarrassed, I snuck up beside him and got his attention.

"Fr. B...I'm sorry to bother there Confession today?"

He looked up at me, his breviary gently cradled in his hands, and for the first time ever I saw him without his larger-than-life, Cure d'Ars-cum-Oprah Winfrey public persona.  The quiet depth of exhaustion around his eyes was striking.

I thought about the things that might have filled his day so far.  I thought about how the Archbishop who ordained him retired in a miasma of scandal, and about how one of his associate pastors just left to enter a rehab program for alcoholism.  I thought about how none of his time is ever his own, and how this was probably his one moment alone all day.

"Oh, I think they had confessions early today because of Palm Sunday.  Are there people who want to go?"

He walked with me back to the confessional, and sat and listened and cried with me, as though there was no one else in the entire world.  He gave me absolution.  When I left the confessional, there was a small line forming even as the sacristans scurried around in the sanctuary making final preparations for Palm Sunday.  It was clear Fr. B would not be getting back to his breviary before Mass.

I left the church feeling like I had gotten a tiny glimpse under the hood of the priesthood - what it really entails to be running on divine fumes, to have utterly exhausted your own resources, to be completely emptied of self so you can be filled with the person of Christ.  I'm hoping that glimpse stays with me next time I feel like waxing critical about a priest's pastoral style or questioning the motives behind his popularity, and that I remember to just thank God for the men he has chosen to be his merciful Heart in the world.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Idiot Box

I admit it - I like TV.

I'm not sure how this interest developed - TV was practically taboo in my family growing up, aside from Mr. Rogers Neighborhood and the Green Bay Packers.  (Then again, to find compelling TV characters, one need look no further than Mr. Rogers.  I'm looking at you, Neighbor Aber. *swoon*)

Now, I can't just turn on the TV and flip channels - the ads drive me crazy.  But I love finding a great show on Netflix and getting immersed in the story.  Television as an artistic form is unique - it allows for extended character development, really letting you live alongside the characters.  In a well-crafted TV show, the story can unfold at a slower pace.  A character's arc doesn't have to be all wrapped up in ninety minutes or 200 pages.  Narrative seeds can be planted and not come to fruit for several episodes or even several seasons.

I think that the popularity of instant-viewing services like Netflix is allowing TV to develop as an art form in a really positive direction - combining the best elements of both television and film with a dash of the Conan Doyle-style serialized novel thrown in.  

In the instant-viewing format, TV doesn't have to be the passive, brain-melting escapism it's generally reputed to be.  My typical television-watching experience with my husband involves constant use of the pause button for long periods of discussion and analysis.  My degree is in literature and his is in theatre performance - so a TV show gives us lots to talk about from both perspectives.  We talk about narrative, themes, character, storytelling, staging.  We critique the actors' performances and yell about continuity issues.

As I mentioned in my first post here, TV can also tell us a lot about the society we're living in.  I don't mean this just in a whatever-happened-to-Beaver-Cleaver-this-world-is-going-to-hell-in-a-handbasket kind of way - TV really says a lot about what people are thinking about, what worries them, what they think they need to do to be happy.  My armchair sociologist self loves to watch TV from this perspective, too.  Although, since I didn't get exposed to a lot of pop culture growing up, I sometimes feel more like an anthropologist than a sociologist - unearthing the mysteries of this strange culture in all its philosophical topsy-turviness, with its loud insistence on relativism and its secret longing for the solid and the eternal.

So, anyway...has anyone seen Dr. Who?  Is it any good?

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

St. Patty's

Playing with an Irish folk band means nine hours of shows on St. Patrick's Day weekend, which is why I've been away from the blog for a few days.  Irish fiddling has to be considered an aerobic activity - as always, my back and legs are aching and my fingers are blistered.  But it's a satisfying feeling - a way for me to direct my energy into non-intellectual channels and give my brain a bit of a break. 

Plus, you's fun.

I'll be back to posting in the next couple of days.

In the meantime, here's the band:


Friday, March 15, 2013


One of the reasons I've never quite jumped on the Chesterton bandwagon is that I get a little irritated by his reliance on paradox.  Somehow, even if I see the truth in one of his nifty little turns of phrase, I can't get past the glibness.  They seem like philosophical gimmicks rather than developed arguments.

However, it's been coming clear to me recently how revelatory it can sometimes be to take a tired truism and turn it simply and neatly upside down.

Take this one for example:

"If lay people aren't allowed to do what priests do, that's a sign of clericalism."

The arguments that I'm used to making in response to this usually have to do with the dignity of the clerical state.  But to those who are used to thinking of this statement as an accepted fact, that just sounds like more clericalism.  As true as my counter-argument might be, it is not going to do much towards changing hearts - instead, it's just going to sound like one more example of the problem. 

But take that example and flip it.

"If lay people ARE allowed to do what priests do, that's a sign of clericalism."


Our wonderful new Holy Father is quietly making pundits' heads explode the world over by not fitting tidily into any of the established categories they rely on to make it easy to choose sides.  Mark Shea quotes an incredible interview with then-Cardinal Bergoglio. In response to a question about the role of the laity, he responds:

Their clericalization is a problem. The priests clericalize the laity and the laity beg us to be clericalized… It really is sinful abetment. And to think that baptism alone could suffice. I’m thinking of those Christian communities in Japan that remained without priests for more than two hundred years. When the missionaries returned they found them all baptized, all validly married for the Church and all their dead had had a Catholic funeral. The faith had remained intact through the gifts of grace that had gladdened the life of a laity who had received only baptism and had also lived their apostolic mission in virtue of baptism alone. One must not be afraid of depending only on His tenderness...
Boom.  Flipped.  Thinking lay people should be able to do whatever priests do is not a rejection of clericalism - it is clericalism, because it is implies that the specific role of the priest is more valuable and has more dignity than the role of the lay person.  In reality, each of these roles has its own special value and dignity, and each is needed for the Church to carry out her mission in the world.
That's the value of paradox - its unexpectedness, its "upside-down-ness" jars us out of our regular habits of thought and lets us see the same truth in a new way.

And of course when we think we are turning an argument upside down -- we might just be turning ourselves right side up.

Thursday, March 14, 2013


What an incredible gift.  The Holy Spirit must really love us or something.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Seeing the Forest for the Themes

Usually about fifteen minutes into watching a movie, something like this will come out of my smartypants mouth:

"Oh, this movie deals with themes of innovation versus tradition, the old ways and the new ways.  Since Bond is the hero, his old ways will eventually be vindicated when all the slick computer technology that is seen as the way of the future eventually fails and he steps in with his grit and guts and saves the day.  But the new ways will probably have some part to play and he'll have to reconcile himself to their place in the future of espionage."

And I'm usually right.

It's what I get for spending four years studying literary criticism and then getting a job as a glorified secretary.  It's gotta come out somehow.

My tendency to see things in terms of themes and narrative structure informs my view not just of action movies but of human history.  I have trouble buying into the tired American fiction about our destiny as the apex of human civilization when I place the American empire in the context of the narrative of history, and see the rise and fall of all kinds of empires and powerful entities that saw themselves that way.   Sometimes this gives me a comforting sense of perspective.  Other times it makes me want to dive into bed and hide under the covers.

Being Catholic makes this tendency of mind chronic.  It's hard to buy into the enduring permanence of America's two hundred years when my deeper citizenship belongs to an institution that's seen two thousand.  Understanding what the Church teaches means seeing all of history as the history of God at work in the world, the history of our salvation, reaching its glorious apex when the God of eternity entered finite history.

I'm reading the book Prayer by Hans Urs Von Balthasar, and he talks a lot about the idea of Christ as Logos.  This has always been one of my favorite ways of thinking about Jesus - as the Word of the Father, spoken to bring order to chaos, creation out of nothing, meaning to the long and rambling tale of human history.  Ultimately in the one great Story, there is one overarching Theme that matters.  And that Theme is not just an idea, not just a concept, but a human being who draws us in and makes us partners in his storytelling.
"And as He spoke, He no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before."

― C.S. Lewis, The Last Battle

Friday, March 8, 2013

Right and Loud

I've spent a lot of time recently thinking about the New Evangelization.  As a Church, we are unpacking this idea slowly, and one thing that's clear is that it has a lot of layers and a lot of applications.  But I can feel confident in eliminating at least one thing from any definition.

The New Evangelization does not mean being right as loudly as possible.

It's easy to fall into the trap of thinking this way - because it makes our job so easy.  Post a facebook meme of a pro-abortion politician's face with a Hitler mustache.  Storm out of Mass at a parish you're visiting in response to some liturgical wonkery.  Spend an hour trolling the comments sections of a website you disagree with.  As long as what we're saying is the truth, it's the other person's problem if their heart wasn't changed by our words.  We've done our job.

The problem is, we have the responsibility not just to make sure people hear our message, but that they listen to it.  That means that how we communicate is as important as what we communicate.

Today's faithful Catholics can find themselves falling into an "us against the world" mentality.  This reflects reality to some extent - if we're following Christ faithfully, we have been assured that we will meet with opposition, ridicule, even persecution.  But it's easy to blur the line between bold and belligerent, confident and combative.

After all, the minute we are working from the assumption that the person we are talking to is any less worthy of grace than we are, the minute correctness trumps compassion, we're so wrong that nothing right we are saying is likely to make much of a difference. 

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Old People

For whatever reason, God always seems to think I need more old people in my life.

Throughout my time as a working adult, I’ve had many variations on this conversation with (at?) Him: “Oh, so you’re pulling out this 'old people' gag again. Hahahahaha. But this time, when you say 'job at a nursing home,' you must really mean a publishing house, or a theatre company, or maybe a widget factory, or really absolutely anywhere else. Right....? Oh.”

My first real job, beyond babysitting and such, was the summer before I started my freshman year of college. It was at a nursing home, on the Alzheimer’s unit, and it remains the most difficult job I’ve ever had. Yes, that includes working in a call center answering questions about why people didn’t receive their unemployment benefits. (Okay, maybe it’s a tie.)

My shift at the nursing home usually started at 6:30 am, so I would wake up at 5:30, put on my oversized beige polo, and bike the five miles to the facility.

During the course of a day I could usually expect to be hit, bitten, screamed at, and doused in bodily fluids.  But the toughest part was looking into a resident's eyes as she groaned and flailed and wondering what nightmare she was seeing in front of her instead of someone young and scared trying to help her take a shower. For someone who grew up thinking of my identity as primarily intellectual, it was really difficult not to get sucked right in to this nightmare.

The other aide that I usually worked with was crass, tattooed, and spent a lot of time on her phone breaking up and getting back together with her boyfriend. But she had a way of dealing with the residents that was, though a little rough, somehow humanizing. She knew all their names and personalities intimately, and would alternately tease and scold them as she deftly completed their cares. The fact that she didn't allow the residents, even in their state of complete helplessness, to give way to self-pity or self-indulgence was a sign of respect and gave them a piece of their dignity back.

She was patient with me, too, and certainly never rolled her eyes at my timidity, though she did take the tough love approach with me along with the residents. Watching her made me take a hard look at myself and my attitude when actually confronted with concrete, bodily human misery, when actually given the opportunity to clothe the naked and feed the hungry. In fact, she may have been my first exposure to virtue outside the rigid confines where I'd been accustomed to look for it.

My next job with seniors was after I graduated from college. It was at an arm of a large non-profit that was contracted with the county government to provide in-home support services for the elderly. The hell that was this job probably merits its own post. For now, suffice it to say that I got to see first-hand both the tremendous need for assistance to low-income seniors and how even the best-run aid program can be easily hijacked by lying and manipulative people looking to take advantage of their vulnerability.

Now I work in an administrative position at what's called a CCRC, or Continuing Care Retirement Community. My office is located in the independent living part of the facility, so my contact with residents is generally limited to a chat in the hallway with those who are comparatively healthy, physically and mentally. Because of our price points and the socio-economic group we target in our marketing, most of our residents also have money and families that give the occasional crap about their well-being.

I have sometimes felt guilty about leaving a job where I was specifically working with the poor to take a job making sure rich white people get their trips to the symphony and enough low-fat options on the dinner menu. But there is more to it than that. For one thing, my workplace identifies itself as a Catholic institution, which means there's plenty for a vineyard-laborer to do to encourage support for this identity and what it means.

Even beyond that, I'm starting to realize that care of the elderly is necessary and important work. Getting old means a new weakness and vulnerability that all the money and family support in the world can’t prevent, and eventual preparation for and acceptance of death. For many of those in the industry, serving those who are facing these challenges is absolutely a labor of love. As long as God keeps sending me old people, I'll keep trying to follow this example.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Being Original

I learned to play the violin according to the Suzuki method.  For those unfamiliar, Shinichi Suzuki was a Japanese violinist and music educator who developed a method of teaching music based on the principles of language acquisition.  Like an infant learning his first words, a student of the Suzuki method learns a piece of music by listening to it over and over again.

Rightly or wrongly, Suzuki violin students have gotten the reputation for uniformity: an almost automaton quality.  The method does have a very specific repertoire of pieces that are taught, and it does begin with imitation - so a large group of Suzuki students playing the same piece in the same way can come across as a little robotic.  But most Suzuki students move past this phase and, as with language development, use the "vocabulary" they have learned in their early studies to develop their own unique "voice" as musicians.


The next phase in my musical development was in high school, when I got interested in Irish and Scottish folk music.  My Suzuki-student ability to learn music by ear served me well, since this is the typical way that folk musicians learn and teach.  Folk musicians within a specific tradition also have a shared repertoire of tunes that can be heard wherever they get together to play, anywhere in the world. 

You often hear that Irish music "all sounds the same."  And it's true to a certain extent - a musician or band playing Irish music in the traditional style doesn't put a huge premium on doing something new.  They value their connection to a tradition, and though many bands write some of their own tunes or try to frame up old tunes in new ways, the building blocks are still held in common.  The shared, communal nature of this music is one of the things I love most about it, and the best way to experience it is at a session, where everyone is playing the same tune and the shared energy, or "craic," is electric.


All of this is my rather convoluted way of raising the question: what is the importance of originality?  What is the comparative importance of doing something new as opposed to doing something old well? 

My perception is that originality has become overvalued, or maybe that our understanding of originality has become distorted.  Various movements in every art discipline over the past several decades began elevating originality as the one true indicator of artistic merit.  Technical skill was no longer a prerequisite – as long as you were saying something you felt strongly about, or something people hadn’t heard before, it was worthy of applause.  After a while this devolved even further, and originality now seems to be equated with mere novelty or shock value.

Of course art needs innovators and pioneers and visionaries.  We would have missed out on quite a lot if T.S. Eliot had confined himself to writing Shakespearean sonnets.  But we also would have missed out on quite a lot if T.S. Eliot had not had a thorough grounding in the Shakespearean sonnet and other established poetic forms.

Appropriately enough, my response is not very original: I don't think the answer lies at either extreme.

But I do think there is a proper balance to be found between slavish conformity to tradition at the expense of creativity and unqualified glorification of originality at the expense of excellence. 

Anyone else have thoughts?  Maybe about an art form other than music?

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Graffiti and the Liturgy

Apologies to any non-Catholics reading for this bit of inside baseball...

I know lots of people with a professional and/or obsessive interest in liturgy, architecture, and the relationship between them.  So I mostly would like to open the discussion to these knowledgeable souls about the recent commissioning of graffiti artists to paint the inside of the dome at Santa Eulalia church near Barcelona.

The painting, to my eyes, is stunningly beautiful, and there's no question it draws on specific traditions in sacred art.

My question is about the relationship between making use of a more "popular" medium and style elements in church architecture and the use of more popular musical styles in the liturgy.  Pope Benedict has talked about certain traditional types of music (Gregorian chant and polyphony) as being the "supreme model of sacred music."  I've heard people of a more traditional liturgical bent go so far as to call this "supreme model" the only music that's really appropriate for Mass.

I struggle with this a bit.  Yes, I think music used at Mass should be beautiful and prayerful.  And I have a general preference towards older and more traditional hymns.  But I would have a hard time getting excited about tossing hymns all together, and though I recognize the importance of the universal nature of the Mass, I see value in incorporating the good and the beautiful from local cultures as well.  In fact, I would tend to perceive this as enhancing, rather than detracting from, the universality of the prayer of the Church. 

I would see a parallel between hiring a "graffitero" to paint a church and using a gospel hymn at Mass.

What do people think?