Archive for September, 2013

Tasting Timelessness

Yesterday we worshipped at St George Romanian Cathedral. Early in the Divine Liturgy, during the Litany of Peace, the lights went out and the microphone died. The church was suddenly mysterious, quieter and darker, lit only by candles. The icons looked beautiful in the flickering light and the priest’s voice became human and  no longer dominated the building.

This,  I thought, is how it should be.

As the first Reading began the electricity came on, and once again the church was brightly lit, the priest’s voice boomed.

I had not thought about technology and liturgy for a long time, but I once pondered it a lot. Indeed, that was the subject of my first article in Caelum et Terra in 1991. (http://www.caelumetterra.com/cet_backissues/article.cfm?ID=50)

But I had long ago resigned myself to the triumph of what Neil Postman called “Technopoly” in the modern church.

I once attended a parish meeting in our old church and the subject of raising money for a ringing mechanism for the bell tower came up. They needed over $10,000 for the project.

I raised my hand and said that for under $100 we could install a rope and pulley and I was sure the altar servers would vie for the honor of ringing the bells.

St George’s

You could feel a collective rolling of the eyes in the room, as if I had proposed something outlandish, like training woodpeckers to be bellringers. The pastor, like his wife and son a technophile, dismissed my proposal with great condescension .

For moderns, the more technology the better, no questions allowed. They never  note the fact that brightly lit churches have, in fact, existed only in the last blink of an eye, historically. Granted, not every unlit church will be as dark as St George’s; it is a tall building with few windows, a modern take on Romanian church architecture. But relative darkness, lit only by candles and oil lamps, was the rule for nearly two thousand years.

The awe that this darkened silence inspires is strangely missing in modern churchgoers, and this, I propose, is no coincidence.

I know that agitating for a church lit only by candles and natural light is a lost cause, like so many worthy and sensible causes. Technology rules, unquestioned, though I will be surprised if there is not a revived neo-Luddism in my lifetime.

But for ten or fifteen minutes on Sunday I at least got a taste of timelessness.

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Gerson Gets Francis

Michael Gerson has been a fellow at the Heritage Foundation, sat on the Council of Foreign Relations, wrote speeches for George W Bush, and is currently a moderate Republican pundit. In spite of all this, he not infrequently is very insightful. Not least, he understands Pope Francis, when many whom one would expect to do not. As I couldn’t get a link that worked I am reprinting the whole thing:


‘Pope Francis’ blunt, conversational, subversive, disarming, humane, self-critical interview in the Jesuit publication America amounted to a sort of extemporaneous encyclical. He is clearly concerned that the message of Christianity has become obscured by ecclesiastical moralism.

“The proclamation of the saving love of God,” he explained, “comes before moral and religious imperatives.”

Just as clearly, this pope intends to be a disruptive force; the Vicar of Christ as troublemaker. Rather than leaving his critique in the realm of vague admonition, Francis waded into controversy.

“We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods,” he said. These should be raised “in a context” and not “all the time.”

While the Pope’s views on these topics are orthodox, his critique of legalism is radical and unsparing. The church must be more than the sum of “small-minded rules.” “We have to find a new balance,” he said, “otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards.”

Many casual observers of Christianity, particularly in the media, have found this surprising. They tend to view religion as identical to ethics. Remove the moral nagging and what remains?

But this betrays a very casual acquaintance with Christianity, which was founded by a subversive, troublemaking critic of ecclesiastical moralism. During three years wandering around southern Galilee and Jerusalem, Jesus managed to offend just about every cleric he encountered, whom he variously called “blind guides,” “whitewashed tombs” and a “brood of vipers.”

True religion, he said, is not found in obedience to the letter of the law; it is an affair of the heart. And this friendship with God often comes easier to the simple, powerless and outcast — children, sinners, women, gentiles and the poor. It was a message calculated to offend legalists in every generation: Ethical religion without love is arid and misleading. Relationships — with God and your neighbour — come first. Ethics arise from a grateful and transformed heart.

Over the millennia, this strain of impatience with legalism has provided Christianity with an advantage. When the church becomes ossified, legalistic and hypocritical — as all institutions periodically do — it is the radical reformers who carry on its most authentic tradition. This was true of the original Francis, the one from Assisi, who knew the power of a dramatic gesture (he once stripped naked in the public square to shame his materialistic father and begin a life of poverty). During his recent interview, Pope Francis was more modest but no less ambitious. Every time he speaks, you wonder what uncomfortable truth is about to be exposed.

Those who hope that the pope’s reform agenda is identical to liberal Protestantism are likely to be disappointed. Many mainline churches have distanced themselves from legalism by throwing traditional moral views overboard and embracing progressive causes. In some cases, this has been a panting, unsuccessful search for relevance.

Francis is taking a different direction. Rather than surrendering the moral distinctiveness of the Catholic Church, he is prioritizing its mission. In the America interview, he vividly compared the church to “a field hospital after battle.” When someone injured arrives, you don’t treat his high cholesterol. “You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else.” The outreach of the church, in other words, does not start with ethical or political lectures. “The most important thing is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you.” ‘

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Mourning the Marring

I have written before about the moment on my route when I daily walk beneath a spreading beech tree. It is broad and sweeping, its branches touching the ground. On a hot day the temperature is five or ten degrees cooler there and the light is transformed by the translucent leaves  light green in spring, darker in the summer, and copper in the fall.

One day last month, just before the baby was born, I rounded the corner, began the slight descent, and was shocked to see that all the branches of the tree had been trimmed to around ten feet off the ground, and were stacked around the trunk.

It took a minute to take it in.

I am on good terms with Matt and Kristin, who own the house on the tree’s lot. Matt, in high school, worked in the same coffee shop where my bride worked, which is where I met her. He is now in his forties and graying, a professor at the local college.

Matt answered the door. I asked him why he had cut the tree. He explained that the guys who mow his lawn, using one of those stand-up mowers, had complained that the branches got in their way. Also, he said that because the shade was so thick that grass would not grow there.

Trying to be friendly, I acknowledged that those were practical reasons for cutting it back, but inside I was thinking “practical but bourgeois”, that they did not trump the glory of a beech tree spreading out to its fullness.

Trees in the forest, of course, rise thin and straight, their leaves high up, stretching for the light. It is only when planted in a field or a yard that a tree assumes the fullness of its being, reaching its peak.

This, to me, reflects humanity’s natural vocation as the steward of creation, bringing what God has made to perfection.

Of course homeowners do not generally approach their yards theologically, and most of the large trees on my route have had the lower branches cut off. I don’t know why they do this; I hope it is not to deny children the great joy of climbing trees.

There are quite a few beech trees on my route, and the one in Matt and Kristin’s yard was the only one that had been allowed to spread wide and sweep low.

I always felt a little rush of joy, walking under that beech’s shadow.

Now I mourn its mutilation.

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I Want To Be A Pip

I was looking around YouTube last night, exploring female vocalists with Maria, my ten year old, who is quite the singer. She really likes Bessie Smith, Aretha Franklin, and especially Gladys Knight. I was quite taken with the sychronized dancing by her background singers, the Pips.

How cool would it be to be a Pip?

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(Mis)understanding Francis

The headline writers are wrong, and so are the hyper-traditionalists who agree with them: Francis is not gutting Catholic moral teaching.

But those “orthodox Catholics” who are loathe to criticize a pope are missing something too.

While it is true that attempts to contrast Francis with Benedict too starkly are wrongheaded -it is not like Francis invented care for the poor, criticism of capitalism, or divine mercy- saying that the differences are merely ones of style and stress are not accurate.

First, of course, even matters of emphasis and personality are not insignificant.

But it is more than that:  the two popes have a fundamentally different vision of the Church in the modern world.

Benedict, back in 1969, proposed that the Church of the future would be smaller, more disciplined, and cohesive than has been the rule since Constantine. There was continuity with Francis in that he also foresaw that this future Church would be a church of the poor, but his vision of a remnant church, a sort of guerrilla outfit in a hostile world, is very far from what Francis envisions.

For Francis, what the Church “needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds…. And you have to start from the ground up.”

The Church must reach out and embrace its weakest and most sinful members, and beyond that, the world. Francis says “I have a dogmatic certainty: God is in every person’s life. God is in everyone’s life. Even if the life of a person has been a disaster, even if it is destroyed by vices, drugs or anything else—God is in this person’s life. You can, you must try to seek God in every human life. Although the life of a person is a land full of thorns and weeds, there is always a space in which the good seed can grow. You have to trust God.”

John Allen, who wisely called Francis “the Pope of Mercy” more recently dubbed him “the Pope of the Middle”, meaning the pope of moderation.

But this is profoundly wrong; there is nothing moderate about Francis’ call to embrace the very heart and root of the gospel, of divine mercy extended to everyone, no matter the state of their soul.

That is radical, and it is a challenge for every Catholic across the spectrum.

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The Pause

I haven’t been unintentionally silent. I wrote something about the pope’s interview this morning, but it vanished into the ether.

You see, I have a new laptop, gift of a reader who credits my writing with moving him “beyond conservative Catholicism.” This is most gratifying, as I often feel like I am tilting at windmills, or pissing in the wind, or (fill in your favorite cliche for “futile endeavor”). That anyone would value what I have to say enough to give me a laptop is really moving (and this was one of two offers, not to mention those who offered to make a monetary donation).

Thank all of you.

But this is a MacBook, and I only have experience, and very limited skills, with Windows. So I have been having problems getting it to do things that once were so easy, like, oh, checking my dashboard (the Safari search thing shuts down, every time) or writing a post (ditto; I am writing at the library).

I think I am going to make an appointment at the Apple store in Akron on Wednesday, my day off…

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About Bill

What are the odds?

The other day, after writing and posting the tale of my friendship with Bill, who lived next door until last spring, I stopped at the bank, then went to the grocery store. There, I ran into my “late” former neighbor Sherri, whom I had not seen in years.

After catching up and together bewailing the decline of her old neighborhood, I asked about her cousin, Bill.

Open hearts just a cliche? First I asked about Bill’s mother, whom he had reported had suffered a stroke. Sherri shook her head; his mother was fine and had never had a stroke. It turned out that most of Bill’s last conversation with me had been delusional, except the part about not being able to keep his house.

Apparently Bill had a worse drug problem than I thought.

She said that Bill, after moving out, had been pressured by his mom and dad to get straight. He resisted at first, but then relented. He entered a rehab program run by the Salvation Army in Columbus, where some of his eight brothers and sisters lived (apparently Bill was the only wayward child, and his siblings are stable and drug-free).

She told me that he is doing well, and that part of the program was regular work in a Salvation Army store, and that when he finished in two weeks he would be given full-time employment.

It probably does not pay well, but at least it’s regular work, in an environment where his progress, as well as his faith, will be encouraged: Bill, who was raised in a Christian home, has extensive knowledge of the Bible. Indeed, I have worked at various times with homeless people and with prisoners and I have never encountered a black person who was an atheist. They may exist, but I have never met one. And that does not mean that they have any easier time living the gospel or overcoming their sins  than I do.

I can’t tell you how pleased I was to hear this good news about Bill. I have prayed daily for him since I met him; first as a potential enemy, then eventually as a friend.

Apparently my dream that he was well was not just wishful thinking: Bill apparently has found his way.

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