Thinking About Free Will

The formal class part of RCIA has begun for this year. I’m the go-to guy for history & theology (how profoundly frightening this is has so far escaped our beloved DRE). All this means is that if anyone wants, or, more likely, I decide on my own that anyone needs, a more formal definition or some historical context, I’m the guy who provides it. Such as I might. This leads to me thinking about how to talk about various dogmas in a way that isn’t too hoity-toity yet gets the essential nature and purpose across.

With that in mind, here are some thoughts on Free Will. Where angels fear to tread, and all that.

While we were created in the image of God, God is still very different from us. God’s freedom is part of his eternal Being – it is not so much something He does, bit rather is a fundamental part of Who He is. Nothing outside constrains God; He freely acts in accordance with His infinite goodness and love. Every action of God is utterly free, and completely an expression of divine goodness and love.

While God is not compelled or constrained by external thing, it might be said that He just can’t contain Himself – His loving kindness boils over in His creations. All of creation is a free expression of God’s nature as a loving Father and Creator.

Creation is thus an expression of God’s life and profound joy. It is not like a clock, built once, wound up, and then left to play itself out. Rather, God loves the world into existence at every moment. In Him we live, and move, and have our being. Each of us is a unique expression of His boundless joy.

Out of this joy, God gave man and the angels freedom. This created freedom is a reflection of God’s nature, perhaps the key aspect of our being made in His image. It is a gift from God, loved into being by God, and as an aspect of God, as sacred as God Himself. As an essential aspect of this gift, God will not overrule us.

But to be free in our own little way, our acts must participate in God’s freedom. God’s freedom is always expressed through overflowing love and goodness. Thus, we can only be free when we, too, act in harmony with that divine love and goodness. Acting against God is choosing slavery; once enslaved, we have lost our freedom. Yet God, in His mercy, will always, as long as we live in this changeable world, hold out to us the opportunity to repent, to turn from the slavery of our sins back to the freedom of His will.

An example: A man on the edge of a giant cliff is free to step off the cliff. If he does so, he has lost all freedom: he is subject to the laws of physics, and will fall to his death, shattered on the rocks below. God did not give the man freedom so that he could jump off a cliff. Rather, He gave us freedom so that we, too, could share in His joy as joyful, loving creators in our own little way. Yet that freedom means that we just might choose to step off the cliff.

The moral law, another creation of God, is, in effect, a warning: don’t step off the cliff! As long as we work to avoid sin and repent of the sins we have committed, we have the freedom to act in accordance with God’s loving Will. We stay away from the cliff. Reject the law of God, and we at best court disaster. Without God’s loving guidance as expressed in His law, we will, sooner or later, fall off the cliff of our own free will!

That we are free is a gift and a miracle. The saints, who have surrendered their wills to God’s Will, who have willingly died to themselves, paradoxically enjoy complete freedom. It is when we humbly recognize that we don’t really know what’s good for us and don’t always want what’s best for us that God can show us the Way to complete, joyful freedom.

So, do you think this would be helpful to someone investigating the Catholic Faith?

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On Followers and Humility

Further thoughts on this post, wherein the observation of Henry VIII (as imagined by Robert Bolt in A Man for All Seasons) that “…there’s a mass that follows me because it follows anything that moves” is discussed.

We modern Americans think any decision made by anyone else on our behalf is at least potentially oppressive, and, more important, has no real hold over us. In its terminal form, even the ‘decisions’ of nature are felt to be subject to review. Our own will, on the other hand, is sacred. It is meaningless to consider the possibility that we might will something wrong – wrong how? According to whom?

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Each of these sheep, despite having its consciousness determined by their class within an oppressive hegemony, has nonetheless made the sacred choice to get its ear tagged, and where appropriate, a bell placed around its neck and a splash of green die applied to its back, and has freely chosen to go wherever it is that everybody else is going. Prove me wrong.

Yet we think feel this is true while surrounded by a mass that follows this week’s herd consensus much more rigorously and with more anxiety than any slave ever worked under the lash. The slave, at least, might dream of freedom, or at least getting a break. Not so the modern American, not so! The very idea that they might differ from the herd and thus be cast into the outer darkness with The Bad People causes such distress we see weeping; anxiety leads them to not even notice how the views they are required to parrot get changed over time, without so much as an acknowledgement that they were ever different. Examples abound. We have always been at war with Eastasia.

What’s been slowly dawning on me is this: that the key getting through the Crazy Years is not to spend time arguing, trying to show the error of their ways to that great mass of people who will follow anything that moves (1), but instead coming to grips with herd behavior being the human default position – and not, in and of itself, a bad thing!

That this is true from an evolutionary perspective is obvious: we survive and breed only as members of a tribe. Taking the evidence for the argument (standard practice in evolutionary biology) we conclude that this state of affairs – tribal membership is how we live to breed, even today, for the most part, and always in history up to the last couple centuries – proves tribal behaviors have been selected for and, therefore, are hard-wired into the human brain. Be that as it may, looking at it from a more philosophically profound perspective, Aristotle’s statement that man is a political animal, and that human happiness is therefore found in what might be called our civic relationships, leads to the same conclusion: we, the products of endless generations of successful breeders, really, really want to be part of the team. We often refer to how those on the Left act like infants – they do, but the spin here is that that’s not entirely a bad thing in and of itself. Infants typically only run into problems when the adults around them have failed.

Revisiting a couple points from the previous post: Heads of households have historically had great sway over the lives of the people in the households. We moderns have no way to imagine how that might work in practice other than imagining the (usually) patriarch as Oppressy McOpressorface. Dad got to pick your spouse and pretty much otherwise decide your future for you – that has to be oppression, right? He negotiated with other families to find you a spouse! Where’s the love?

Answer: everywhere. Dad wanted his children to survive, as a condition to them being happy, since happiness in this life is pretty much over once you’re dead. Thus, he eliminated from consideration potential spouses who could not care for you or who would require too much care on your part: for his daughters, he crossed off the impoverished sons of poor or no family; for his sons, daughters who couldn’t come up with an appropriate dowery, since they (and their kids!) would immediately become his responsibility and a drain on his resources. He did all this, of course, to honor his ancestors and to ensure his line would continue. But none of those considerations contradict his main motive: he loved his children. Having a place in a family and a society of families is, he knew, the chief way we have any joy and freedom in this life. It’s why the heads of monasteries and convents were called abbot – daddy – and mother. The only way for monks and nuns to be happy was in a family, even if it were only a vague shadow of the family in which we are children of God.

Today, getting fed, clothed and housed is such a low bar that we can hardly imagine it being much of a concern; lack of food, clothing and a bed to call your own – and a cell phone, HD TV, and high speed internet – is a sure sign something is Very Wrong (and the eternal infants want the great daddy proxy The State to fix it NOW). But back in Jean Valjean’s day – and Dante’s, and Jane Austen’s and Aristotle’s and Gregory the Great’s – making as sure as you could that your baby of marrying age was going to be taken care of was Job 1. No husbands who wouldn’t or couldn’t take care of your daughters; no wives who might bleed your sons dry. Those crusty old patriarchs wanted spouses for their kids who would be there when needed, in sickness and in health, for richer and poorer, in good times and bad. This mundane, feet on the ground care is the basis of love, attested to by no less an authority than Christ, who threatens to throw those who do not provide this level of care to their spiritual brothers and sisters (let alone their own children!) into the outer darkness. Feelz don’t necessarily enter into it.

The underlying assumption here, if we need to call it that, is that Daddy, having successfully married and reproduced and raised up his children to marrying age, is more wise and experienced in how all that works than his 16 year old daughter or 20 year old son. He correctly believes that he will do a better job finding and choosing a mate for his children than they are likely to do on their own. At any rate, it is his duty to do so. He would of course take his wife’s views into consideration, and even his daughter’s or son’s. Again, he does this because he loves them, and wants them to be happy.

There’s not much historical evidence that children on the whole objected much to this arrangement. Why should they? The results – not just the spouse, but the family and communal nature of the marriage, seen as uniting the destiny of two families, who thus have a huge interest in the marriage’s success – compare very favorably to today’s outcomes.

But that’s not the main point here. I here want to point out how much everyone in this picture is a follower. Not only do the children and wife and anybody else in the household follow the lead of the patriarch, the patriarch himself follows the lead of his father and the men in his life when he leads: even the leaders are essentially followers. Hope and Change are the last thing anyone involved wants: everybody want things to work out according to plan – and it’s an ancient plan.

It gets worse. History and Scripture record many incidents of entire families, tribes and nations converting as the result of their leaders converting. Sometimes, as in the case of the early Spanish missionaries in the New World, villages elders would meet them, and then send them off if they didn’t want their religion, only to later (after the Guadalupana) decide that, yes, the village would convert. There’s no reason to think the other villagers objected – that’s just the way it was done, they are the elders for a reason, they make the call. We read in Acts 16 and 1 Corinthians 1 of entire households being baptized upon the conversion of the leader. Or entire nations, conquered in war, converting en mass because their new leaders said so. Once heard a story about a Viking priest who went to preach in a remote village, and was challenged by the local chieftain. They fought to the death, the priest won, and the village converted.

We humans are followers. That’s why Christ reserved the worst opprobrium for leaders who lead others astray. This would hardly warrant a whole millstone-tied-around-the-neck, cast-into-the-sea level of hellfire and brimstone unless almost all the people, almost all the time, are followers.

In this sense, what is called Original Sin might be called the Curse of the Followers. Once a bad path has been chosen, we followers really can’t do all that much about it on our own. What we need is a new Leader, a Savior, even, to follow down a better path. But once we find Him, we go all in on the following, we become as little children, as sheep who know their Shepherd.

The point here is that not following is not an option. We will follow, the only question is whom or what? Following the right leader is a great good, just as following the wrong leaders is all too literally the road to perdition.

In his beautiful Prayer after Communion, St. Thomas prays: “May it perfect me in charity and patience; in humility and obedience; and in all other virtues.” I am struck by the inclusion of ‘obedience’ in with charity, humility, and patience. Those last three virtues are big among Christians of all denominations; I don’t think anyone but a Catholic would understand obedience as used here, either in the sense Thomas means it or why he would name it as a major grace of the Eucharist. He means it in the sense another St. Thomas – St. Thomas More – lived it. (1)

St. Thomas More died, in his own words, “the King’s good servant, and God’s first.” He, following Aquinas, saw obedience to legitimate authority as a positive virtue, a full realization of humility, patience, and love. Obedience isn’t a grim duty, to be performed under duress or threat, but rather an opportunity to be eagerly embraced to live out charity and humility.

Of course, the virtue of obedience requires prudence and the knowledge of exactly how far the proper authority of a superior goes. More struggled mightily to find a way to obey his king, and only when this proved impossible did he try to retire from public life and keep his mouth shut. He could not consent, yet to the end he tried to honor Henry and do nothing to contradict him. He expressed his love and affection for his king right up to the moment that king had his head chopped off.

Both Aquinas and More thought obedience a virtue to be actively practiced. It was a positive good to promptly obey proper authority, a step on the way to greater holiness. Put another way, these saints strongly supported active, vigorous following.

Put the other way around, thinking you have what it takes to blaze your own trail is hubris bordering on lunacy. You? Me? We don’t know nothin’! The modern phenomenon is the most slavish followers professing how independent they are, different just like everybody else. Everything from getting tats to creating your own brand new gender is imagined by the victim as declarations of unique trail blazing and laudable bravery, when a look around would show everybody doing exactly the same thing. Many seem to believe unironically that only by slavish conformity can one be unique.

The paradox: we who would restore Christendom or even just Western Civilization need to become great leaders by becoming the most humble followers on earth.

  1. Credit must go to my younger daughter, soon off to South Sudan for a year, for much of this. She wrote a very good graduation thesis exploring what the St. Thomas’s – Aquinas and More – meant by obedience.

Modernism on the Feast of Pope St. Pius X

Here’s a few selections from the old Catholic Encyclopedia’s write up on Modernism, in honor of Pope St. Pius X, who was pope at the time this encyclopedia was being written and who gave Modernism both barrels.

What Modernism is:

A full definition of modernism would be rather difficult. First it stands for certain tendencies, and secondly for a body of doctrine which, if it has not given birth to these tendencies (practice often precedes theory), serves at any rate as their explanation and support. Such tendencies manifest themselves in different domains. They are not united in each individual, nor are they always and everywhere found together. Modernist doctrine, too, may be more or less radical, and it is swallowed in doses that vary with each one’s likes and dislikes. In the Encyclical “Pascendi”, Pius X says that modernism embraces every heresy.

One reason a full definition of Modernism would be difficult is that Hegel, the tent-pole Modernist, held that definition – stating what something or some idea *is* and *is not* – is right out. The world is Becoming, not Being, so that all statements of being are essentially meaningless. Thus, expecting some sort of consistency in the beliefs and behaviors of Modernists is also nonsensical. They are all manifesting, in better or worse, or more or less advanced, ways the feelings of the age.

That “embraces every heresy” line is interesting. The future saint doesn’t say “is open to” or “may fall victim to” but “embraces” – a positive act. This embracing of the heretical, expressed in phrases such as ‘everything is a social construct’ or ‘that’s your truth’ is not just a letting down of our guard against heresy, but, in keeping with the Hegelian rejection of statements of being, a necessary step in the upcoming synthesis. A heresy is not wrong, it is merely the expression of the antithesis to some dogma, destined to become suspended yet not contradicted in a new and better understanding.

Note that one outcome of this kind of emoting – it would hardly do to call it thinking – is the readily apparent moral race to the bottom we’re seeing now. Nothing at all can be fundamentally wrong, but merely daring or transgressive, soon to be incorporated into enlightened understanding. Hegel, who imagined the Spirit driving all this enlightenment, may have not meant it that way, but it’s a funny tendency of ideas to get off leash and be pursued to their logical conclusion regardless of who thought it up and what they may have wanted.

A remodelling, a renewal according to the ideas of the twentieth century — such is the longing that possesses the modernists. “The avowed modernists”, says M. Loisy, “form a fairly definite group of thinking men united in the common desire to adapt Catholicism to the intellectual, moral and social needs of today” (op. cit., p. 13). “Our religious attitude”, as “Il programma dei modernisti” states (p. 5, note l), “is ruled by the single wish to be one with Christians and Catholics who live in harmony with the spirit of the age”. The spirit of this plan of reform may be summarized under the following heads:

– A spirit of complete emancipation, tending to weaken ecclesiastical authority; the emancipation of science, which must traverse every field of investigation without fear of conflict with the Church; the emancipation of the State, which should never be hampered by religious authority; the emancipation of the private conscience whose inspirations must not be overridden by papal definitions or anathemas; the emancipation of the universal conscience, with which the Church should be ever in agreement;
– A spirit of movement and change, with an inclination to a sweeping form of evolution such as abhors anything fixed and stationary;
– A spirit of reconciliation among all men through the feelings of the heart. Many and varied also are the modernist dreams of an understanding between the different Christian religions, nay, even between religion and a species of atheism, and all on a basis of agreement that must be superior to mere doctrinal differences.

Every get frustrated with the idea of Progress as an intransitive verb, divorced from any idea of progress toward something? That’s a feature, not a bug.

So Rodney King’s ‘why can’t we all just get along?”, that Hull House lady Jane Addams (I think) who convinced John Dewey that there are no real disagreements, only misunderstandings, and Jo Swenson’s Empathicalism, where the goal of life is “to project your imagination so to actually feel what the other person is feeling.”  – these are all flavors of Modernism. Right?

Perhaps Modernism could be defined as the idea that humanity will find peace only once all join hands in a sufficiently murky emotional miasma.

For [Modernists] external intuition furnishes man with but phenomenal contingent, sensible knowledge. He sees, he feels, he hears, he tastes, he touches this something, this phenomenon that comes and goes without telling him aught of the existence of a suprasensible, absolute and unchanging reality outside all environing space and time. But deep within himself man feels the need of a higher hope. He aspires to perfection in a being on whom he feels his destiny depends. And so he has an instinctive, an affective yearning for God. This necessary impulse is at first obscure and hidden in the subconsciousness. Once consciously understood, it reveals to the soul the intimate presence of God. This manifestation, in which God and man collaborate, is nothing else than revelation. Under the influence of its yearning, that is of its religious feelings, the soul tries to reach God, to adopt towards Him an attitude that will satisfy its yearning. It gropes, it searches. These gropings form the soul’s religious experience. They are more easy, successful and far-reaching, or less so, according as it is now one, now another individual soul that sets out in quest of God. Anon there are privileged ones who reach extraordinary results. They communicate their discoveries to their fellow men, and forthwith become founders of a new religion, which is more or less true in the proportion in which it gives peace to the religious feelings.

The attitude Christ adopted, reaching up to God as to a father and then returning to men as to brothers — such is the meaning of the precept, “Love God and thy neighbour” — brings full rest to the soul. It makes the religion of Christ the religion , the true and definitive religion. The act by which the soul adopts this attitude and abandons itself to God as a father and then to men as to brothers, constitutes the Christian Faith. Plainly such an act is an act of the will rather than of the intellect. But religious sentiment tries to express itself in intellectual concepts, which in their turn serve to preserve this sentiment. Hence the origin of those formulae concerning God and Divine things, of those theoretical propositions that are the outcome of the successive religious experiences of souls gifted with the same faith. These formulae become dogmas, when religious authority approves of them for the life of the community. For community life is a spontaneous growth among persons of the same faith, and with it comes authority. Dogmas promulgated in this way teach us nothing of the unknowable, but only symbolize it. They contain no truth. Their usefulness in preserving the faith is their only raison d’être.  They survive as long as they exert their influence. Being the work of man in time, and adapted to his varying needs, they are at best but contingent and transient. Religious authority too, naturally conservative, may lag behind the times. It may mistake the best methods of meeting needs of the community, and try to keep up worn-out formulae.

Those church songs I’m always going on about, where we, the gathered people, are mentioned directly or indirectly to the exclusion or near-exclusion of God – these are not some accident. They embody the above emphasis on *us* as the source and summit of religion.

What could possibly go wrong?

All heresies are rejections of the Incarnation. From Satan on down, pride inclines us to reject the idea that an all-powerful God could ever be so humble as to become one of us. Modernism rejects the idea that, having become one of us, Jesus might have something to say, and, having said it, might expect us to embrace it. They called him ‘Rabbi’ that is, ‘Teacher,’ yet we are incapable of being taught. No – we turn to feelings, to our personal direct experiences without any animating influence from that guy on the cross. We may stumble across Him (not that that could be all that important) and feel some connection. Or not. But that hardly matters. What matters is that we embrace our feelings and each other as we stumble into the sulfurous cloud.

Little heavy, there. But nothing compared to Pope St. Pius X. He was metal. Perhaps his St. Michael’s pray would be a good palate cleanser at this point.

Pope St. Pius X – Pray for us!

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Happy, Holy, and Blessed Pentecost

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Pentecost, Verona, Basilica di Santa Anastasia. Notice Mary front and center: “When they entered the city they went to the upper room where they were staying, Peter and John and James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. All these devoted themselves with one accord to prayer, together with some women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers.” ACTS 1:13-14
By User: Testus – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4101537
With the altar, By User: Testus – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4101537

All Easter Season, the daily Mass readings have featured Acts and the Gospel of John, the first readings showing how the Church grew in her infancy, and the Gospel presenting a mystagogia of sorts, an in depth answer to Jesus’ question that occasioned Peter’s great confession: “Who do you say that I am?”

Jesus is the Bread of Life; the Way, the Truth, and the Life; the Good Shepherd, the sheepdate. The Father and He are One. Today, we wrap up this period of post-Easter instruction with the story of its fulfillment.

The big question has long seemed to me: how come the Apostles and disciples, when they received the Spirit, immediately became these powerful preachers and miracle workers, while we, most often, have to remind ourselves that, with the reception of the sacraments, we, too, have recieved and continue to recieve that same Spirit? Why (usually) aren’t we powerful preachers and miracle workers?

We have yet to make room for the Spirit. God is always polite and respectful of the free will He has given us, and will not force himself upon us. (Give Him the slightest opening, and that’s another story.) Unlike almost all of us, the people present at Pentecost had been completely emptied, even, after a fashion, destroyed. These were people raised from birth to await and seek the Messiah, the fulfillment of all their personal and national hopes. They found Him! As Peter said to Jesus, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”(Matthew 16:16-19)

And He dies in ignominy, He doesn’t restore the Kingdom, He doesn’t even fight, or allow his disciples to fight, to keep Him from being handed over to His enemies.

Then, when all hope had been crushed, when the man they had staked their lives on died like any other man, promises unfulfilled, He rises from the dead, and appears to them! And then leaves them, again, with an incomprehensible promise to be with them always, and to send His Paraclete.

Try to imagine what it would be like, emotionally and intellectually, to have gone through the Passion, Death and Resurrection in a matter of days, after 3 years of miracles and teachings by turns profound and incomprehensible. Imagine having your hopes raised beyond your dreams, then crushed in fear, shame and agony, then raised again to yet higher heights – and then, being abandoned again with vague or at least mysterious promises.

Those Apostles and disciples, in that room with His Holy Mother – they were empty of everything, except for the ineffable joy and hope they had received at His Ascension. There was nothing left in this world for them, no worldly hopes or dreams, nothing to do or see – only waiting.

The great saints get to this level of emptiness, where the Spirit has room to make His home in them. They, like the people in that upper room on Pentecost – the Church, considered in its divine nature – had been emptied, too, sometimes by trauma, sometimes by a life of penance and love, often by both. They did become channels of grace, powerful preachers, miracle workers. We, still too full, see as in a glass darkly.

In a strictly human sense, we should not envy them. The cost, dying to ourselves, is very high, much too high for any mere earthly reward. If we are somehow able to get out of the way even a little, God will not only fill us with His Spirit, but that Spirit will empty us, nudges, dynamite, whatever it takes, until we live only for Him: the definition of eternal joy.

St. Joseph Iconography

Happy, Holy and Blessed Feast of St. Joseph! Moving on from the celebration of some minor saint who is patron of some island somewhere, we reach today the feast of St. Joseph, Most Chaste Spouse of the Blessed Virgin, Terror of Demons and PATRON OF THE UNIVERSAL CHURCH. You know, this guy:

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This Bulgarian icon wonderfully expresses the tenderness and affection of St. Joseph for his family, and they for him. Joseph holds Mary and Jesus and lays his cheek on her head, showing both his love for her and her Child, his foster Son. Joseph’s attention is entirely on her. Mary leans into Joseph, who has the God-given role of protector and provider for her and Jesus, but her gaze is fixed on her Son. Jesus, nestled in her lap and embraced by the strong arm of the carpenter, turns his gaze to us, and blesses us.

As in all great icons, there is a world of theology behind these simple images and gestures. In today’s Gospel reading from Matthew 1:20-21, an angel gives Joseph instructions:

“Joseph, son of David,
do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home.
For it is through the Holy Spirit
that this child has been conceived in her.
She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus,
because he will save his people from their sins.”
When Joseph awoke,
he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him
and took his wife into his home. (1)

The angel addresses Joseph as “son of David,” showing that Joseph himself is of the royal blood of the great king. He is instructed to take Mary into his home as his wife, bringing her and her Son under the jurisdiction and protection, as it were, of the King. Note the gold cloak Joseph wears – the color of kings.

Joseph has traditionally been honored as a most humble and obedient servant of God.His blue tunic, just peaking through, is the color of the sky, traditionally seen as all-encompassing, nurturing, feminine and passive in the sense of accepting. So Joseph’s cloths tell us he is a king, but not the Great King. His is to accept obedience to a higher authority, as he does without comment or hesitation when God’s angel gives him instructions.

His eyes are on Mary. All the saints are secondary causes used by God to effect our salvation; the first and greatest saint is Mary. Thus, in the economy of salvations, Joseph turns his attention to Mary, who, through her fiat, brought Christ into Joseph’s life, and into our lives. This is the mystery of the Body of Christ, in which each of us has a role and finds salvation through being a channel of the grace of Christ’s saving sacrifice to each other. No one is saved alone. Each receives God’s grace from the hands of others.

Mary of course has her eyes on Jesus, while acknowledging Joseph by the simple act of leaning on him. She and her Son in fact leaned on Joseph, who provided for and protected them the rest of his life, in response to God’s will.

Mary wears red, a color of power, as in fire, and life, as in blood. When she is depicted alone, she is usually shown in dark blue or black – colors of the night sky, of mystery, of feminine potency. Here, in her home with her family, her ‘true colors’ as it were are allowed to show. Alone, she is often depicted with some red or gold tunic peeking out from under the dark blue or black cloak:

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Seven Sorrows of Mary. Note the royal gold trim and jewels, and the stars on her blue cloak.

Alone, we are invited to think of Mary in her humility, with just a little reminder of her power and glory. Even in the first icon, showing her with her family, she has some blue tunic showing. Her glory and queenship rest upon her humility.

Finally, Christ, seated on Mary’s lap as on a throne and supported and protected by Joseph’s arm, turns His eyes on us, and blesses us. He comes to us not as a bolt from heaven, nor in private revelation, but in the simple, human son of real human parents. He is able to bless us, to be with us and to save us, because two humble people said ‘yes’ when asked to die to themselves and live only for God. While God needs nothing, He chose to glorify Mary and Joseph by giving them a key role in His act of salvation. He Who needs nothing allowed them to support and sustain Him, and through them He saved the world. We are to imitate Mary and Joseph, say ‘yes’ to God’s commands, and be given our salvation through becoming channels of God’s grace to others.

The Child wears gold for kingship (a stronger gold than Joseph’s) and white for purity.

Back to Joseph, here a some other traditional-style icons:

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From Orthodox Christianity

The first two images above have all the traditional elements: Joseph in a black or midnight blue tunic with a gold cloak, holding Jesus with both arms, eyes locked on the Child. Jesus, thus sustained and protected, holding onto Joseph’s hand, looks out at us.

The last two images, of the angel appearing to St. Joseph in a dream, also have Joseph in blue, but with a red cloak in the first and a brownish cloak with just a hint of gold in the second, lying in what might be a red hammock or blanket. In both the angel is dressed as a royal messenger.

There’s a lot more to traditional representations of St. Joseph, how he became portrayed as an old man with a flowering staff (medieval embellishments) sitting flabbergasted on the edge of the Nativity scene (nod to the mystery plays, or maybe the other way around) – but that will have to wait until next year.

  1. This calls to mind a story I once heard from a woman who did prison ministry. She’s trying to explain the perpetual virginity of Mary to a bunch of scary looking dudes who aren’t buying that Joseph kept his hands off Mary all those years, until one very large and scary dude opined that it made sense to him: “Who’s going to touch God’s Baby’s Mamma?”

Concrete (and Wood and Steel) Sins

May God forgive us for modern church architecture.

Have we turned the corner on terrible church buildings yet? I sometimes think we have, but that may be just me putting the blinders on so I don’t have to look at this:

There is nothing to recommend this building. It is preposterous and ugly by any standards. That it claims to stand in the line of the many noble and glorious cathedrals around the world is an insult to our intelligence.

Or this:

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This building, on the other hand, is not so terrible in and of itself – it would make a daring convention center – and has been enholied by the beautiful masses celebrated there, especially by the current archbishop. But in and of itself, as a church? Not so much.

Or this:

Oak Cathdrl 1.jpg
Wouldn’t this make a great Apple Store? The bomb-shelter greenhouse look will come back into vogue some day, eventually, and we’ll be ready for it! Not so ugly in and of itself, but insulting when compared to the thousands of much-beloved churches around the world.

and pretend they are anything other than hideous abominations, insulting to both God and man.

Ya know? Or this:

Image result for newman hall holy spirit parish
Berkeley Newman Center. If it weren’t for the sign out front, you’d be hard-pressed to identify it as a church. Looks like a detail from rejected plans for the Maginot Line.

The bomb shelter look was big. I remember reading about the Los Angeles Cathedral, how they took care building it to last 500 years at least. This is achieved by deploying thousands of tons of concrete and steel. Unlike many ugly parish churches, which probably have a 50 or so year life expectancy before the repair/tear down calculations starts to get (mercifully) interesting, these monstrosities are built to last. If the goal was to burn through the Church’s money while saddling her with repulsive buildings for generations or centuries to come, the outcomes would not have been any different.

The L.A. Cathedral is in a class of its own – there’s just no redeeming it, artistically. It is a giant, $200,000,000 middle finger to the Catholics of L.A. To get rid of it is almost impossible. I fantasize that a billionaire might come along, buy land next door, and build a huge beautiful Neo-Gothic or Romanesque Revival church, seamlessly incorporating influences from Mexico, the Philippines, Asia, Africa and so on in order to honor the remarkably world wide nature of L.A.’s Catholics, and then offer it to the diocese. The underlying tensions would thus be exposed. And L.A. would get a nice church.

At least in San Francisco and Oakland, one gets the feeling they were trying for something good, even if they went about it under the constraint that whatever was built must rebuke the pre-Vatican II church. The unhealthy compulsion to be different, which has lead to many bad fashion decisions and questionable tattoos on a small scale, leads to stuff like this when writ large:

These are a few of the approximately 800 louvres, I guess you’d call them, that make up the walls of the Cathedral of Christ the Light.

Louvre mania! And an imposing image peeking past the cables and braces!

These features appear to be slabs of laminated 2 x 12s, bolted to laminated uprights(1) with some seriously industrial looking galvanized hardware and bolts. They would make excellent work benches and picnic tables. Here? Oh, I’m sure there’s an artist’s program somewhere that describes how they are meant to let in the light in some deeply meaningful way that only a uncultured peon would fail to understand.

The effect is just weird. Like I say, not irredeemably ugly, just – weird. With 2,000 years of church architectural experience to draw on, this is what you do? Only if hell-bent on rejecting all that collected experience and wisdom.

I cherish my visit to the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in La Crosse, and my many visits to Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity at Thomas Aquinas College, as both buildings are very beautiful and built in the last decade or so. Beautiful and appropriate churches can still get built, if people want to build them.

Obligatory note: over the centuries, many people have pushed and pulled church architecture in many different directions with greater and lesser success. Gothic, after all, was an innovation at one time. I’m not wedded to any particular style or approach, as long as it strives to embody the true, the good and the beautiful. For a century now, many architects have actively rejected those ideals. Such should not be let anywhere near a church design project.

Final funny (at least to me) moment: Youngest son and I were visiting the Oakland Cathedral for a Boy Scout function, when a mom came up to me (I was just sitting there! Minding my own business! I swear!), pointed at the huge image of Christ Enthroned, and asked: “What is He doing with his right hand?”

Somebody thought a 70 foot tall heavily pixelated image of Christ partially obscured by structural members was a good idea, the dominant and central statement of the building. Right.

I answered honestly that he was giving a blessing, and that such images – Christ enthroned giving his blessing – are quite common. She was hesitant to accept this, but eventually gave in. “I thought he was flashing a peace sign. I was afraid they’d gone hippy on us.”

“I have no comment.” I smiled.

  1. I have to think the external frame, or a steel core to the uprights, or most likely both, are actually holding this thing up. Those louvres have got to be heavy.

The Deus Vult Hymnal, part the third (a): Lord of the Dance

Proposed by aetherfilledskyproductions. Amazing, but I don’t think this tune has yet come in for brotherly correction on this blog. We will need to fix this oversight before giving it the Deus Vult treatment. Thus, Part the Third (a) shall review this song; we shall see what can be done to properly weaponize it in (b). 

Lord of the Dance: This needlessly long song suffers from a couple obvious flaws:

  1. Speaks in the person of the Lord. Whether we like it or not, whether we can intellectually justify it or not, on a direct simple level we have a hard time thinking or feeling like we are praying when we speak in the person of the Lord all song long. We may be charmed, or even inspired, but this practice all but prevents prayer. For a song used at Mass, this is not a good thing. (Before you mention the ‘thus sayeth the Lord’ parts of the psalms, merely note that the Lord sayeth his peace, and then the psalmist gets on with it.)
  2. It is too cute by half, and is trying too hard. It would take far deeper poetic gifts than are on display here to make this work.
  3. Salvation is likewise portrayed as a dance. In the hands of a great mystic, this might work. In the hands of Sydney Carter, not so much.

This concept – Jesus as Lord of the Dance – possibly traces back to a song written in the Middle Ages. Based on internal evidence, it is supposed to have been associated with mystery plays. This is believable. Tomorrow Is My Dancing Day, which I append to the end of this post,  is a masterpiece after the fashion of the didactic purposes of mystery plays. Each verse lays out in 4 lines some fundamental teaching, yet frames it as completely personal. the refrain is:

Sing, oh! my love, oh! my love, my love, my love,
This have I done for my true love.

…where we, each one of us, is the beloved of Christ, Who expresses his love AND explains what His Dance entails through the example of His life, death and resurrection. He is Crucified for us – AND that Crucifiction is part of the Dance that He is inviting us to!

In other words, as you will see when you peruse the medieval text, quite a bit deeper and more challenging than Sydney Carter’s Lord of the Dance.

Speaking of Mr. Carter, it seems Shiva, the original Lord of the Dance, was as much an inspiration as Jesus:

In writing the lyrics to “Lord of the Dance” in 1963, Sydney Carter was inspired partly by Jesus, but also partly by a statue of the Hindu God Shiva as Nataraja (Shiva’s dancing pose) which sat on his desk,[3] and was partly intending simply to give tribute to Shaker music. He later stated, “I did not think the churches would like it at all. I thought many people would find it pretty far flown, probably heretical and anyway dubiously Christian. But in fact people did sing it and, unknown to me, it touched a chord … Anyway, it’s the sort of Christianity I believe in.”

The sort of Christianity Mr. Carter believes in is not what the Church believes – it is a sort of syncretist Jesus-light Hindu flavored Arianism. So, in the last song, we had a Church of Christ heretic, not to put too fine a point on it, teaching us about the Eucharist. Here, we have a syncretist teaching us about how Hinduism and Christianity are a lot alike, especially Hinduism.

What could possibly go wrong? It’s not like he’d be inclined to equivocate on Jesus’ unique divinity or anything….

[Aside: a perhaps unintended consequence of Vatican II was the driving out of many folk devotions in favor of ALL devotional activity needing to be included in the Mass. Thus, while previous ages had songs for pilgrimages and processions, oratories, and devotional activities such as the mystery plays explicitly for use outside the Mass, we seem to think it essential that any and all devotional fervor find expression in the Mass itself. Much of the less heretical stuff we do today at Mass, from rock bands and their goofy songs, through liturgical dance, to many of the more scripturally based St. Louis Jebbies songs would be perfectly fine things to do – outside of Mass – for the people who like that sort of thing. Indeed, this extending of our personal devotional lives to our time outside Mass is one of the good things to come out of the Charismatic renewal, it just has as yet to spread far enough. Lord of the Dance might be acceptable accompanying a mystery play or sung on a pilgrimage. It just doesn’t really belong at the Eucharist.]

It is set to a modified Shaker tune, perhaps best known from Simple Gifts. Shaker tunes do have a certain charm, and are not as utterly inappropriate for use at Mass as many other styles, but – maybe I’m a snob – they are not great music. We can do better, but, hey, we can and certainly do do much worse. In the folk tradition, the tune is merely beaten into submission whenever the text doesn’t quite fit it.

Let’s go verse by verse again.

Lord of the Dance

I danced in the morning
When the world was begun,
And I danced in the moon
And the stars and the sun,
And I came down from heaven
And I danced on the earth,
At Bethlehem
I had my birth.
Dance, then, wherever you may be,
I am the Lord of the Dance, said he,
And I’ll lead you all, wherever you may be,
And I’ll lead you all in the Dance, said he
This has a rustic charm to it, and is not strictly heretical. He echos the first chapter of John, except that Jesus here dances in creation, instead of *creating* creation. The world was not just passively ‘begun’. Weak. His Divine Nature is omitted, as one would expect from a syncretist.
 
I danced for the scribe
And the pharisee,
But they would not dance
And they wouldn’t follow me.
I danced for the fishermen,
For James and John
They came with me
And the Dance went on.
Ever wonder why pharisees don’t enter into our Mass songs much? As Chesterton brilliantly points out in The Everlasting Man:
 
We have all heard people say a hundred times over, for they seem never to tire of saying it, that the Jesus of the New Testament is indeed a most merciful and humane lover of  humanity, but that the Church has hidden this human character in repellent dogmas and stiffened it with ecclesiastical terrors till it has taken on an inhuman character. This is, I venture to repeat, very nearly the reverse of the truth. The truth is that it is the image of Christ in the churches that is almost entirely mild and merciful. It is the image of Christ in the Gospels that is a good many other things as well. The figure in the Gospels does  indeed utter in words of almost heart-breaking beauty his pity for our broken hearts. But they are very far from being the only sort of words that he utters. Nevertheless they are almost the only kind of words that the Church in its popular imagery ever represents him as uttering. That popular imagery is inspired by a perfectly sound popular instinct. The mass of the poor are broken, and the mass of the people are poor, and for the mass of mankind the main thing is to carry the conviction of the incredible compassion of God. But nobody with his eyes open can doubt that it is chiefly this idea of compassion that the  popular machinery of the Church does seek to carry. The popular imagery carries a great deal to excess the sentiment of ‘Gentle Jesus, meek and mild.’ It is the first thing that the outsider feels and criticises in a Pieta or a shrine of the Sacred Heart. As I say, while the art may be insufficient, I am not sure that the instinct is unsound. In any case there is something appalling, something that makes the blood run cold, in the idea of having a statue of Christ in wrath. There is something insupportable even to the imagination in the idea of turning the corner of a street or coming out into the spaces of a marketplace, to meet the petrifying petrifaction of that figure as it turned upon a generation of vipers, or that face as it looked at the face of a hypocrite.
Here we have the interjection of the gentle side of Jesus that the Church rightly presents to her children the vast majority of the time into a situation in which He was not gentle. A modern pharisee or hypocrite, confident that he is unlikely to run into the “petrifying petrifaction” of Christ’s face in wrath just around the next corner, might very well comfort himself with the idea of Christ merely dancing an invitation to the pharisees, rather than rebuking them and – gulp! – judging them. 
 
Can’t have that.  It is too horrible to contemplate. The nice syncretist Jesus of our cowardly imaginations would never rebuke us! He is our brother! Our Friend! 
 
Our ultimate Judge, too: 
 
That Guy. The One His Holy Mother is diverting her eyes from. He appears to have smiting on His Mind, and doesn’t seem too interested in excuses.
Verse 1 has watered down Jesus of the Scriptures to an acceptably tepid level. 
 

I danced on the Sabbath
And I cured the lame;
The holy people
Said it was a shame.
They whipped and they stripped
And they hung me on high,
And they left me there
On a Cross to die.
In a similar vein, note how it’s not the hypocrites who “said it was a shame” but the holy people. We needn’t stretch too far to see the blanket condemnation of anyone even trying to be holy in any conventional manner in favor of those who are simply willing to dance – as equal partners, of course – with Christ. 
 

I danced on a Friday
When the sky turned black
It’s hard to dance
With the devil on your back.
They buried my body
And they thought I’d gone,
But I am the Dance,
And I still go on.
While the ‘devil on your back’ image is certainly evocative, I note that this lyric does the opposite of what the Church does when it commends the Crucifiction to our contemplation: we are urged to focus on our role in Christ’s death, how He died for our sins. 
 
But that would be, like, a total buzz kill. Better to redirect attention to the devil. 
 

They cut me down
And I leapt up high;
I am the life
That’ll never, never die;
I’ll live in you
If you’ll live in me –
I am the Lord
Of the Dance, said he.

“Cut”? Odd word. 

In general, this is just not a good song, not overtly heretical, but subtly so. I would find better things to complain about if it were sung around a campfire or as part of a procession, even though even then we could do better. But as part of Holy Sacrifice of the Mass – no. Just no. 

Next up: give it the Deus Vult treatment. 

Appendix: Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day

Tomorrow shall be my dancing day;
I would my true love did so chance
To see the legend of my play,
To call my true love to my dance;

Chorus

Sing, oh! my love, oh! my love, my love, my love,
This have I done for my true love.

Then was I born of a virgin pure,
Of her I took fleshly substance
Thus was I knit to man’s nature
To call my true love to my dance.

Chorus

In a manger laid, and wrapped I was
So very poor, this was my chance
Between an ox and a silly poor ass
To call my true love to my dance.

Chorus

Then afterwards baptized I was;
The Holy Ghost on me did glance,
My Father’s voice heard I from above,
To call my true love to my dance.

Chorus

Into the desert I was led,
Where I fasted without substance;
The Devil bade me make stones my bread,
To have me break my true love’s dance.

Chorus

The Jews on me they made great suit,
And with me made great variance,
Because they loved darkness rather than light,
To call my true love to my dance.

Chorus

For thirty pence Judas me sold,
His covetousness for to advance:
Mark whom I kiss, the same do hold!
The same is he shall lead the dance.

Chorus

Before Pilate the Jews me brought,
Where Barabbas had deliverance;
They scourged me and set me at nought,
Judged me to die to lead the dance.

Chorus

Then on the cross hanged I was,
Where a spear my heart did glance;
There issued forth both water and blood,
To call my true love to my dance.

Chorus

Then down to hell I took my way
For my true love’s deliverance,
And rose again on the third day,
Up to my true love and the dance.

Chorus

Then up to heaven I did ascend,
Where now I dwell in sure substance
On the right hand of God, that man
May come unto the general dance.

Chorus