Christian Rock and Rocky Soil

It used to baffle me. “How can so many of my peers who were so ‘churchy’ and ‘involved’ in high school have just drifted away in college?”

It doesn’t baffle me any more.

If you are a new DRE, youth minister, or high school chaplain in the USA, here’s a sobering reality check: the chances are that a lot of the kids volunteering on the weekend, helping lead retreats, signing up for work camp each year, etc., etc., will fall away when they leave high school. No, not all, and probably not most, but many. Some will eventually find their way back, maybe by a chance encounter with a priest, or a random itch of their conscience, or if and when they get married in the Church and decide it’s time to “get serious.” Some will find their way back, but not all.

Why does this happen, how does this illusion of commitment work, and what can be done to prevent this?

Despite the provocative title of this article, music is only part of the problem, though it is one of the best examples of the core conflict – trying to choose both God and mammon in parishes and ministry programs.

But let’s talk music first.

It is possible for rock music to be authentically Christian and still be good rock. But the Christian message must be indirect, or else there will be a lack of proportion between what is being said and how it is being said. Proportion is an essential element of beauty, and who wants music that isn’t beautiful to be used for worship?

Here is one comparison between two songs with similar themes but achieved in radically different ways.

This song is a first-person account of someone trying to overcome some life obstacles.

The lyrics are vaguely Christian, but it seems like even if they were more direct it would not help much – it would still be inappropriate for worship, because it is taking a music genre entirely from and for the world and trying to Christify it explicitly. That is why it’s so awkward, at least for me, even just to listen to.

Furthermore, the music itself in this example is just plain second-rate. The message itself also is very self-centered, which would be one thing if it wasn’t marketed as “Christian” and there wasn’t the almost artificial insertion of a mini-prayer in the lyrics, “God, I want to dream again.” I’ve never heard this at church, but I don’t frequent Protestant megachurches. I can certainly imagine it being used.

The next song is about a couple of kids whose lives are going terribly wrong, starting with one who gets shot on his way to school.

This is good rock music. It’s also profoundly moving, albeit in an unexpected way. Nobody would play this at a church, and rightly so, but I argue that this is a much better example of “Christian Rock” than the first song, not only because it is better musically but also because it knows what it is: the artists don’t try to insert the explicitly other-worldly into a worldly genre, apart from a one-off Scriptural reference (“the blind leading the blind”). Instead, they vividly illustrate real world problems and the emotions associated with them. This leads the listener to the simple consideration of the bleakness of sin and the need for something dramatically good to counter young people’s hopelessness. Finally, they suggest that the solution is at least in part our responsibility: “We are, we are, the youth of the nation.” That’s about a thousand times more Christian and artistic than the previous song. (The band, P.O.D., is loosely self-described as Christian, by the way.)

Anyway, as an alternative to Christian Rock at church, we have masterpieces like this available to us:

It’s very hard to pull off something like this well – and it really MUST be recited live – but that is part of what makes it worth so much as an act of worship. It involves serious dedication. Sacrificial worship doesn’t only mean killing goats, of course: it can also mean slaving away for a few dozen hours just to produce one beautiful arrangement for a single Mass. God likes that.

“But I like the churchy Christian Rock. So do lots of other people. In fact, a lot of the people at my church come because we play that kind of music.”

Now we come to the root.

If it were a simple matter of aesthetics, one taste does not rule over other tastes. Chocolate is not inherently better than vanilla, etc. Except we are not talking about ice cream, we are talking about the public worship of Almighty God and spiritually encountering Him in that worship (which is distinct from emotionally encountering Him). There is an objectivity to music and worship, which is why the objection that “classical” music is just the “rock” or “pop” of the 17th century (etc.) does not work. Certain kinds of music do not appropriately resonate with our soul inasmuch as it is ordered toward loving and encountering the otherworldly. As the famous saying goes, “Lex orandi, lex credendi” – as one worships, so one believes. If someone heard a “Christian song” without knowing the language in which it’s being sung, and he thinks it’s probably about some guy’s girlfriend, for example, there is a big problem. If God, as the Author of Grace, is going to be treated directly, He deserves something more than what your girlfriend deserves, as nice as she may be. And the more one treats God like a girlfriend in worship, the more one is likely to think of God that way. It’s just how human beings work. When your girlfriend gets boring or too challenging, you can leave her for someone else. When God or the Mass or the one true Church is treated like a girlfriend in worship, when they get boring or too challenging, they are all too likely to be left for something else. And the more one tries to dress them up like some other “girl,” the more one will realize that it would be easier just to go after that girl instead. We can’t make God in our image, and when we figure that out, the choice is forced upon us: we either destroy our little idol and worship God on His own terms, or we go seek the thing that we were trying to make Him into.

The trumpets that will blare at Our Lord’s return will be playing music closer to Mozart than to Meatloaf, and not for no reason. If I don’t like the Parousia’s music – or even Heaven’s music – will it be because God doesn’t know what’s “relevant,” or will it be because He knows there’s something more objective about transcendence than my fleeting emotional inclinations?

Liking secular-ish Christian-ish music and feeling good about God on its account is not wrong in itself.

feelsmeme
Go on ahead! Feelings and emotions are NOT evil. But they are only GOOD if they are in line with reason.

What is wrong is when those things are at the foundation of one’s spiritual life, instead of the imperceptible indwelling of the Holy Spirit and sanctifying grace expressing themselves in the exercise of moral virtue and frequent prayer (even continuous prayer, to the point where instead of talking to yourself to think through the mundane tedium of your daily life, you talk to God). If and when well-performed secular-ish Christian-ish music and/or nice feelings about God become inaccessible for some reason, a person who had seemed to grow up in the spiritual life so quickly is liable to become “withered by the sun and die,” so to speak, just like the seed sown in rocky soil (Mt. 13: 1-23). Such a person will eventually notice that the world (or even some other church) gives quicker and easier nice feelings, and that continuing to pray and go to Mass diligently is really hard when faced with that alternative. And why resist? “If spirituality is all about the feels anyway, when I get them, great, when I don’t get them, then I just won’t kill anyone or rob any banks, and I’ll go to Heaven, or something like that. But maybe the whole ‘organized religion thing’ is all just a psychological prison anyway, and a nondescript ‘spirituality’ is where it’s at.” And down the slope we go. People don’t usually think or express their desires in exactly these terms, but they often act based exactly on the ideas found in them.

If you live in the Western world, this process is almost certainly happening with people in your parish, especially to millennials. The problem, of course, is not limited to music – the approach of condescending indefinitely to worldliness can permeate the air of entire parishes. Let pastors who are looking to “Rebuild” be aware of the lesson of Aaron and the calf… Money and popularity do not make a parish a spiritual success. Your sanctuary may be tricked out with the latest live streaming gear and some nifty projector screens, and your band may make a 6 figure salary due to generous tithing, but if there’s not perpetual or nearly perpetual adoration; if there aren’t vocations; if there aren’t long lines at the confessional; if people are not praying before and after Mass in silence… these deserve more attention.

The Protestant megachurches and the world will always win the game anyway. They produce better, flashier, trendier stuff, including morals and doctrine. They produce better rock music. They condescend to our worldliness better. Therefore, the game ought not be played. Our Lord did not play the game, though He was invited to by the Devil. (Mt. 4: 1-11)

Christ condescended to our worldliness by becoming a human being. Beyond that, He used language and images we could understand. He identified with us in our need for food and drink, as with the woman at the well, or with the Eucharist itself. He pointed out the way to perfection to the Rich Young Man and to those wondering about divorce by meeting them where they were, and yet He did not insist on poverty or celibacy as Commandments. All this condescension, however, actually serves the will of the Father by calling people to look beyond the world. Christian Rock, as commonly understood, does not do this, but instead lowers God more than He lowered Himself by putting Him into a worldly genre of music which can certainly make people feel nice feelings but cannot lead one to contemplation as it is understood by the spiritual masters. (In fact, prolonged silence is one of the best things for that.) And of course, some other parochial and ministerial projects fall into the same trap. We must not be in the business of making good novices: we must be in the business of making saints.

The longer one pretends he can find God in the storm, the earthquake, and the fire, the more likely he is to miss the small whispering sound that calls a soul out of the cave. God showed His might on Sinai with signs of His fearsome power, but now, in the invisible life of grace, the signs of His love manifestly prevail – and lovers very often want to be alone together in silence, do they not?

Education in the spiritual life must become a greater priority in parishes, especially youth ministry programs, if we are to stop the bleeding of parishioners looking “to be fed” somewhere else – back in Egypt, that is, where there were melons and leeks and fleshpots.  We especially ought to curb the enthusiasm in our young people for getting chills and thrills on retreats – and certainly for “speaking in tongues” and being “slain in the Spirit,” for goodness’ sake – and instead teach them that the greater effects of prayer and the sacraments are in an undying thirst to do what is right out of love for God and the pursuit of union with Him at the expense of any and all other pleasures. Growth may seem slower, but it will be steadier.

Better, more subdued, more dignified music is just one part of the solution. Christ our Rock is more spiritual than worldly, after all.

Post by: Eamonn Clark

Main image: The Sower, Vincent Van Gogh, 1888

Why Thomas the Apostle was so Skeptical

The Apostle St. Thomas Didymus (“The Twin”) was conveniently absent for the first Resurrection appearance to the rest of the Eleven. (Jn. 20: 24-29) Then he famously insisted on seeing and touching the wounds of Jesus, which he then got to do 8 days later. This reading comes to us every year at the close of the Easter Octave to commemorate the event. Let’s take a look.

Aside from “telephone” conspiracy theories (which ultimately don’t allow for any sensible understanding of what happened in 1st century Palestine nor of the text of the Gospels), there are usually three alternate explanations for the supposed Resurrection.

  1. Mass delusion.
  2. A spiritual resurrection proclaimed as if it were a physical one.
  3. The body was stolen and the disciples lied about it (the story that “circulated among the Jews”).

Each of these have plenty of issues, of course. Leaving aside #3 (which has the largest problems of motivation among the 3, and it ultimately just destroys the trustworthiness of the entire text), #1 and #2 do not explain the skepticism of Thomas. Why was he not part of the delusion or vision of the spiritually risen Christ from the beginning? How was he incorporated into it?  What sense does recounting Thomas’ separate physical encounter make given such scenarios? There is no good answer.

There is a fourth alternative. It is the scenario, in fact, which Thomas had in mind when he questioned the claims of his friends.

He clearly doubted that they had seen the Risen Christ… But he did not doubt that they had seen someone. It just does not make sense that he would think all his friends would lie.

The words of the Gospels are careful. If you see some little detail that is added, you can be sure it is an important detail… The author went out of his way to add it. Paper was expensive in the 1st century – no Kinko’s, remember – and drafting the Gospels would have involved the most serious attention to what was going into the text. And of course, this is all under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. That being said, in this passage we do not find the Apostle called plain old “Thomas.” We also don’t find “Thomas the Scientist,” or “Thomas the Physician,” or “Thomas the Skeptic.” We find “Thomas called Didymus,” or “Thomas the Twin.”

Why add that detail?

Thomas thought Jesus had a twin who until that time had been in hiding. He figured the supposed Resurrection was part of a massive scheme of some sort, like the tricks he and his own twin brother would have undoubtedly played as children but with an agenda far larger. It may even be the case that Thomas’ brother had died, and that one time Thomas was confused for him, no doubt producing a similar effect of shock and confusion and joy in the mistaken person or persons.

This also makes sense of Thomas’ startling insistence on seeing and touching the wounds, as he knew that this would be the best way to show that it was actually the same person who died on the Cross. (There was a recent movie based on this theme. Spoiler alert.) No mere man could walk around with those wounds! The others had been shown the wounds (Jn. 20: 20), but it does not seem they had “double-checked” as Thomas wanted to do by completely verifying that they were the same kind of wounds that one would get from a crucifixion rather than being some serious paper cuts.

This incident with Thomas the Apostle, then, also preemptively answers the Muslim objection to the Resurrection, which is simply the “twin claim” in reverse: Jesus had a look-alike who was killed. (The Muslims, however, wave their hands over the inconvenient parts of the New Testament though, so it matters little. If every clear bit of evidence from the text is a corruption, then there can be no efficacious textual demonstrations.)

All this can also help shed light on the slight differences in Christ’s appearance before and after the Resurrection. Mary Magdalene and the men walking to Emmaus didn’t recognize Him at first. While identical twins can usually be told apart on close inspection, they are mistaken for each other easily. Jesus must have looked quite different indeed – unlike a twin, but close enough to His old appearance that one would be able to see that it is really Him. This is certainly not a twin – no one would dare try to pull off such a stunt unless he did indeed have an identical twin.

Perhaps seeing the Risen Christ was like running into a grown man you had been friends with in childhood… different, but the same. With the Risen Christ, the flesh-cloak of Adam’s sin has been shed so that the man Jesus, the New Adam, could be as glorious as the Divine Person He embodies. (See Gen. 3:21, Rom. 5:12-18) Yet He keeps the wounds, as if to be in solidarity with us and to remind us of His suffering, in addition to proving He has risen.

The Scriptures are wiser to objections than we are ourselves. That is not only because God understands us better than we do ourselves, but also because the Resurrection actually happened… That removes the need for creative thinking and gives the writer of the text the freedom simply to say what really happened.

St. Thomas Didymus, pray for us!

Post by: Eamonn Clark

Main image: The Incredulity of St. Thomas, Caravaggio, c. 1601-1602

Intercession and Science

Once in a while some zealous atheist, agnostic, or deist will throw down a challenge: “If God answers prayers, we should be able to prove it with an experiment. But we see no statistically significant difference between groups of sick people who are prayed for and groups who are not. Therefore: A) there is no God, or B) we can’t be sure if there is a God, or  C) God does not involve Himself with us.”

It seems like a strong argument at first. If God really does respond to intercession, then we ought to be able to observe that response in contrast with a lack of response corresponding to a lack of intercession. Intercession is an action, healing or whatever response is or would be an equal and opposite reaction, while on the other hand whatever is in motion tends to stay in motion – those who are sick or in need will continue to be so unless they are helped.

There are some problems with this argument.

First, let’s take a look at the Temptations of Christ (Mt. 4:1-11)… It is Lent after all.

  1. Turn stones into bread – Jesus could solve world hunger and win over all the crowds this way. (Jn. 6:26 – “Amen, amen, I say to you, you are looking for me not because you saw signs but because you ate the loaves and were filled.”) He responds, “One does not live on bread alone, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.”
  2. Fly around Jerusalem – Jesus could publicly manifest Himself with abundant clarity in a way that would leave everyone in awe. (Mt. 16:4 – “An evil and unfaithful generation seeks a sign…” And in the same chapter, v. 17 – “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in Heaven.”) He responds, “You shall not put the Lord thy God to the test.”
  3. Make a compromise – Jesus could rule over the Earth without the Cross, without the public ministry, and generally without much effort. (Jn. 18:36 – “My Kingdom is not of this world.” And Lk. 24:26 – “Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and enter into his glory?”) He responds, “Get away, Satan! For it is written, ‘The Lord, your God, shall you worship and Him alone shall you serve.'”

Christ’s Temptations provide the first major counterpoint to the skeptic, which is that God is not primarily concerned with making this life easy for us. We are promised that we will receive whatever we ask in His Name (Lk. 11:9, Jn. 14:13), but we are also promised trouble and suffering, the acceptance of which is even a condition of discipleship (Mt. 10: 16-39). These two promises do not square with each other unless we see that Jesus does not mean we will be given whatever material convenience we want, like a genie would do for us, but that we will be given every spiritual gift truly suited for us for which we pray sincerely. Virtues are the goods which truly help us.

Furthermore, God is wise to our tests and designs (Jn. 2:24). And no, He does not care to play along. A mysterious kingdom needs a mysterious road to lead to it. The New Jerusalem is nothing like the New Rome. Citizenship in the one is gained by unyielding faith in a crucified carpenter as God Incarnate, while in the other citizenship would be gained by simple obedience to an opulent and benevolent dictator.

Let us consider another passage, Mk. 9:14-29, where Jesus heals a possessed child. The crowd gathers, and the boy’s father explains the damage the demon has done over the years… “But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” Jesus does not take kindly to the word “if”: “‘If you can!’ Everything is possible to one who has faith.” Then we are given the famous line, “I do believe, help my unbelief!” Jesus rebukes the spirit and tells his disciples that this kind of demon only comes out “through prayer.”

This episode gives us an insight into the project of the public ministry – it is not primarily about fixing people’s inconveniences, it is about fixing people’s souls. Jesus waited to do a good deed until the boy’s father manifested faith… This was His prerogative, since He came to draw people away from the world to Himself. The Christ did not open a miraculous hospital, or an infinite soup kitchen, or an infallible psychic hotline; rather, He told people to beg for God’s forgiveness (Mt. 4:17), to sin no more (Jn. 8:11), and to extend faith in God to Him as well (Jn. 14:1). Fixing people’s earthly problems were and are for Christ merely a means to an end: moving people to repentance, conversion, discipleship, and finally perfection in union with Himself and the Father. Just because we don’t get exactly what material convenience we want, when we want, how we want it, does not mean that God does not exist or concern Himself with us. When He doesn’t give worldly help, even when asked sincerely, it’s because He knows that to give us some particular opportunity to forsake the world and cling to Him in abandonment to His will is better than to give us what we’re asking for. (Remember the dichotomy of promises!)

We are not in the same position. It does not belong to us to help others conditionally to the same extent as God because we do not have the same privileged insight into people’s souls that He has, and even if we did we would not always know how best to use that knowledge. Sometimes we can be quite sure that withholding some help will be good for another – like when we allow a child to “learn the hard way” – but by and large we have a duty to provide basic goods for others we encounter and are able to help. We do need to open hospitals. We do need to run soup kitchens. (No psychic hotlines, however.) In fact, we would never be able to show love for each other without the opportunity to do these kinds of selfless acts.

So, can we test God’s response to prayer and prove with statistically significant results that He does indeed answer them? As it turns out, we actually can. Anyone who prays earnestly and frequently for help to become virtuous and holy will become virtuous and holy. And you can survey the lives of the saints and see that this is indeed how they prayed.

I will now teach you a short but powerful prayer which if you repeat often and with sincerity will change your life radically by changing you radically: “Oh Lord, help me to become a saint as soon as possible and at any cost to myself! Amen.”

Don’t be afraid to have this prayer answered.

 

Post by: Eamonn Clark

 

Main image: screenshot from the film Aladdin (1992)

The Optic Nerve and Amoris Laetitia

As we read the Gospels, we can often feel that certain persons and events are such caricatures of prophetic fulfillment that there must have been some kind of embellishment on the part of some redactor with a theological agenda. Everyone’s heard it before – “Jesus gave the 5,000 the miracle of SHARING… You don’t have to believe the multiplication was real, that was probably something the Matthean community used to show that it was like God giving manna in the desert.”

Sound familiar?

Every word in the Gospels is chosen very carefully, yes. But it is not Catholic, and indeed, it is downright foolish to think that because some action “fits” with a prophecy, it must be untrue. (Suppose it didn’t “fit” – then doubt would be cast in the other direction.) So when the most obvious prophecies are clearly fulfilled, say, in the Lord’s Passion and Death, we cannot simply call it “too bad to be true.” Hear Paul address the Antiochenes: “The inhabitants of Jerusalem and their leaders failed to recognize him, and by condemning him they fulfilled the oracles of the prophets that are read sabbath after sabbath.” (Acts 13: 27)

Our eyes become accustomed to darkness. That does not mean that it isn’t still dark. The pupil dilates to allow more light to enter the eye so an image can be produced. We all know, though, that sometimes we see things in the dark that aren’t really there. The dark allows for illusions and distortions, no matter how well we think we have accommodated – there is no replacement for a truly well-lit environment. Therefore, ignorance of the content of prophecy is one thing, while ignorance of oneself in relation to it is quite another. The best example is Christ’s prophecy of Peter’s threefold denial which would come not centuries later but only hours. Can we really not understand how Peter could make that mistake, even given that prediction?

The eye of the soul can become accustomed to darkness just as the eye of the body. It is built to take in the brightest Light while fully opened, although it cannot for now… But it will open to find whatever light there is in the darkness, for it will always be drawn to light, as man always seeks the good even if he is mistaken about what the good actually is. The Western world has all but completely abandoned itself to liberality, consequentialism, and Modernism. It presents, therefore, a great pressure on the Church, and sometimes the world entices those in the Church most responsible for fighting against it, just as it does anyone else. They are drawn in by the shade of the zeitgeist, and their souls’ pupils dilate. This allows for errors which to many are plain to see. But the darker it becomes, the more difficult it can be to tell what one actually sees in the dim light still available.

We do well to remember this as the Amoris plot thickens, wherein we are seeing shepherds gently – even mercifully – picking up lost sheep and then carrying those sheep to the jaws of the wolf. The same scene is lit differently for different people, according to the light in their mind and heart, that is, in their soul.

It is easy for some to see the difference between a single adulterous act in some particular circumstance that might – just might – mitigate culpability for that act and deciding after taking counsel on the “internal forum” (presumably away from that mitigating circumstance) to continue doing that same adulterous act habitually.

It is easy for some to see the difference between a temptation, which can never excuse from sin, and a psychological disorder, which can. (1 Cor. 10:13… “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your strength, but with the temptation will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” Also, Council of Trent, Decree on Justification, Can. 18… “If anyone shall say that the Commandments of God are even for a man who is justified and confirmed in grace impossible to observe: let him be anathema.”)

It is easy for some to see the difference between the conscience of a minister of Holy Communion being bound (c. 915) and the conscience of a communicant being bound (c. 916).

It is easy for some to see the difference between the authentic development of doctrine combined with a fair use of the historical-critical method and the complete relegation of Christian truth not only to an impenetrable cloister of history but also to the shifting, subjective, and fallible consciences of individuals. (Jn. 18:38… “‘Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’ Pilate said to him, ‘What is truth?'” Also, Decree of the Holy Office of July 3, 1907, “Lamentibili,” Condemned Proposition #4… “The magisterium of the Church, even by dogmatic definitions, cannot determine the genuine sense of the Sacred Scriptures.”)

It is easy for some to see the difference between the ideal presented by the Gospels (perfect poverty, chastity, and obedience together with the Beatitudes) and the ideal presented by defenders of Amoris (merely following the Commandments), which is not only a dreary and hopeless vision of humanity completely at odds with Catholic doctrine but is also as legalist as can be, seeing as for them following the law is the ideal, rather than the ideal being the transforming union, a life of heroic virtue, etc., things which only begin with the law. (Mt. 19:17-21… “‘If you wish to enter into life, keep the Commandments.’ He asked him, ‘Which ones?’ And Jesus replied,  ‘”You shall not kill; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; honor your father and your mother”; and “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”‘ The young man said to him, ‘All of these I have observed. What do I still lack?’ Jesus said to him, ‘If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.'”)

It is easy for some to see the difference between dioceses encouraging the faithful to follow the precept of the Church requiring material contribution to the Church for the good of their souls and holding that contribution as even more sacred than the Sacraments to which those dioceses grant access contingent upon that contribution being given… and then insisting on some kind of spiritual and intellectual primacy in the global Church.

But it is not easy for everyone to see these distinctions, especially if they are directly involved.

The tragedy, frustration, and irony, especially of the last example, can be overwhelming. We might sit and waste hours pondering how men who publicly read the words of Christ to the Pharisees, the Sermon on the Mount, etc., etc., “sabbath after sabbath” could obstinately walk into the same kind of pitfalls which the men of Jerusalem did, or at least into ones just as obvious. The answer lies in realizing the darkness which surrounds the eyes of the soul, crowding around the Church as it spills over from secular Western culture. The optic nerve has become accustomed to it, allowing for errors more easily. The amount of light by which the eye was supposed to be able to see, even after the Fall, is not the light by which it currently sees. That light is now painful, and it will be shunned. (See John 1.) This same darkness allowed the men of Jerusalem to think of themselves completely apart from the prophecies they knew by heart as they fulfilled them as clear as day.

Looking into the Gospels, as always, will help to reveal the deeper things of our current situation. In this case it is also true that our current situation will help us to understand the Gospels.

But let no one pride himself on his faith. (Eph. 2: 8-9)

Note: This will be CRM’s only post on Amoris Laetitia. This post is intentionally left void of links to the persons and groups responsible for these dangerous ideas. Let us use the time and energy we would spend investigating particular persons to pray for our clergy instead.

 

Post by: Eamonn Clark

Main image: Detail from Gustave Doré, “The Creation of Light,” 1866

The Liturgical Creeps

In my time in parish work, and in my exploration of the world’s great (and little) churches, I have encountered many interesting phenomena. As you might imagine, that involves a spectrum, with the simply “good” on one end and the simply “bad” on the other, with plenty of ho-hum stuff in the middle. But there is also a category of things sort of “in the middle” which don’t really fit well into such a simple paradigm. They deserve their own little separate space.

In psychology, there is something called the “uncanny valley.” Here is a chart:

uncanny1

At this point, I’m not exactly sure how I would rearrange the variables on this chart to explain these experiences, but they are definitely of the kind that would fit into that valley which just feels “off.”

Electric candles – especially votive candles – are a big one.

Yes, it’s cheaper. Yes, it’s less dangerous. Yes, it’s cleaner. But isn’t that all part of what makes it not as good? It seems far “less human” than it should. All you do is put in a coin… Some electrons move… And there you go. That’s it. No careful management of the flame as you transfer it from a candle already lit, no satisfaction of getting your wick to light, no organic timeline for when it will go out, and nothing is actually burnt up and “wasted” on God. The last bit is probably the most important. Here’s 2 Sam. 24:22-24:

But Araunah said to David: “Let my lord the king take it and offer up what is good in his sight. See, here are the oxen for burnt offerings, and the threshing sledges and the yokes of oxen for wood. All this does Araunah give to the king.” Araunah then said to the king, “May the Lord your God accept your offering.” The king, however, replied to Araunah, “No, I will buy it from you at the proper price, for I cannot sacrifice to the Lord my God burnt offerings that cost me nothing.”

King David was worried about not spending enough himself for a burnt offering of oxen. One can only imagine the king’s reaction if Araunah had offered to put coins into a candle machine that just moves electricity in a circle.

This does not necessarily mean that the one using a candle machine is doing a poorer job praying, but perhaps over time it could have an effect on a person’s perception of worship, leading to the thought that what’s in your wallet is more important than what’s in your heart… After all, there are no “suggested donations” for a machine.

Another big one is recorded music.

We don’t accept lip-syncing at concerts. Why would God accept a recording from a CD at Mass? This can be especially prevalent at funerals, where a well-meaning family wants their loved one’s favorite song played, and while it is certainly difficult to deny a grieving family, the songs are often inappropriate and are never anything much more than a catharsis over memories when what the funeral rite is primarily for is prayer for the soul of the deceased.

Recorded music also shows up outside liturgies as “filler,” when silence is, I suppose, too unsettling. You will find this in many churches in Rome, Paris, and beyond. While the music is often “good,” the fact that it is an mp3 means that those voices and instrumentalists are not actually there praying with you – it just sounds like it. And to me that can be a bit more unsettling than silence.

Notice once again the lack of “waste” – it is a mere digital re-presentation of someone else’s work.

On the other hand, once I walked into Wieskirche in Bavaria and there was a magnificent little choral arrangement being sung by a small group. Wonder and joy, the opposite of the liturgical creeps?

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Notice the real candles. The detached altar was nothing to write home about, but everything else was!

The “liturgical creeps” are then, I suppose, when something a little “fake” is helping mediate or ground prayer that reduces the “waste” of human effort. It’s a working definition, at least.

Perhaps you have had the experience yourself. What else fits into the liturgical uncanny valley?

 

Post by: Eamonn Clark

 

Main image: Opening title from the popular 90’s kids’ show, “Are You Afraid of the Dark?”

Uncanny chart: By Smurrayinchester – self-made, based on image by Masahiro Mori and Karl MacDorman at http://www.androidscience.com/theuncannyvalley/proceedings2005/uncannyvalley.html, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2041097

Will the Real St. Matthew Please Stand Up?

“That finger of Jesus, pointing at Matthew. That’s me. I feel like him. Like Matthew.” Pope Francis remarked in his 2013 interview with Fr. Antonio Spadaro, S.J.

“It is the gesture of Matthew that strikes me: he holds on to his money as if to say, ‘No, not me! No, this money is mine.’ Here, this is me, a sinner on whom the Lord has turned his gaze. And this is what I said when they asked me if I would accept my election as pontiff.”

In Caravaggio’s The Calling of St. Matthew, Pope Francis found the perfect image to express his own surprise at being uniquely called by Christ to serve the Church as supreme pontiff.

But, we have a problem. Which figure in the painting is St. Matthew?

(If you haven’t already done so, take a moment to give the painting at top a good look and try to figure it out for yourself.)

Besides the faintest loop over Christ’s head, there are no halos in this painting. Nor should there be – St. Matthew was only Matthew the tax-collector at this point. Here he is, in the midst of his sin, and in corrupt company. Matthew has just as much chance of being called out of this situation as any of the five guys in the tax office.

So, which one is he?


Option 1: The Bearded Man

At first glance, Matthew appears to be the man with long beard. His eyes show surprise, his face is illuminated, his finger seems to point toward his breast. And, maybe just to help us out, he has a distinguishing coin in his hat and a right hand fingering money on the table. If there is anyone in this painting who is reacting as the one who is called, it’s this guy.

bearded-guy

There are two other reasons why the bearded man is the best candidate for Matthew.

First, Caravaggio did not paint The Calling by itself. With this painting in the Contarelli Chapel in the San Luigi dei Francesi Church in Rome, Caravaggio painted two other scenes from the life of St. Matthew: The Inspiration of St. Matthew and The Martyrdom of St. MatthewIn both of these adjacent paintings, Matthew is depicted as a man with a sizable beard.

The second reason concerns some of the interesting history going on at that point. Before this was painted, there was a passing fear that France might go the way of the Church of England. This fear partially subsided when the Huguenot (Protestant) Henry IV converted back to Catholicism upon taking the French throne in 1593. Caravaggio was commissioned six years later to paint three works for the church of San Luigi dei Francesi (St. Louis of the French). To flatter the now-Catholic king of France (and appease his patron), Caravaggio painted St. Matthew to resemble Henry IV. (You can see the bearded resemblance here.)

But that might not be the whole story.


Option 2: The Hunched-Over Man

People make a big deal about Christ’s pointing gesture just below the window in the painting. His hand is unusually relaxed for a definitive signaling of direction. The reason for this is very likely that Caravaggio is alluding to a more famous painting: The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo.

finger-edited

fingers

Michelangelo’s Adam is depicted in the Sistine Chapel fresco in the moment just before his animation, with his finger less than an inch from that of God. Michelangelo, instead of showing an Adam already filled with life, depicts the precise moment prior to his ensoulment with all the drama of a limp wrist.

Like Michelangelo, Caravaggio is not capturing the moment of the calling of Matthew; he is capturing the precise moment before the calling of Matthew. The finger of Christ the New Adam has yet to be fully extended, the call is only just about to happen. The whole painting is in that dramatic tension of the moment before the call. If Matthew is the hunched-over man at the end of the painting, it almost would be more accurate to call it The Moment before the Calling of St. Matthew.

hunched-over-guy

And here, Matthew is still a sinner, still a tax-collector, still fingering his coins and gripping his money bag. The bearded figure to his left echoes the perceived direction of Christ’s soon-to-be-extended finger, pointing not to his own breast but to the hunched over man next to him. This man’s face, only half-illuminated by the light that comes from Christ’s entrance, still intently looks down to the table; he has but to lift his head an inch to make eye contact with Christ. Will his eyes meet the gaze that tests mortal men and will he remain the same? Will he respond to the call?

 

So, which one is Matthew?

It’s still not entirely clear.

But that’s probably how Caravaggio wants it to be. Caravaggio’s art was at the cutting edge of the subjective turn of modern thought. As a controversial artist of his time, he departed from the idea that art is exclusively at the service of the true, good, and beautiful, and turned instead toward an innovative realism. (Remember our earlier post on what makes art good.)

Part of Caravaggio’s goal is to pull the viewer into the painting. He wants this ambiguity; he knows that things are not so cut and dry in this world. Christ entered a world in chaos, a world engulfed in sin. He calls us out of that darkness and into His light.

Turning again to the painting, if we go to the source of Christ’s call and look above His outstretched right hand, we are at the foot of the cross (the fourfold window pane forms a cross). At that cross, at our Lord’s ultimate crucifixion, darkness appears to triumph over light, chaos over order, death over life.

But it is precisely at that moment when Christ conquers. It is from that cross that Christ calls His disciples, and it is to that cross that Christ calls His disciples. We are drawn up while we are still sinners into the cross, into the central mystery of our faith.

Pope Francis, without weighing in on the identity of Caravaggio’s Matthew, hits on what our response should be to Christ’s call: “I am a sinner, but I trust in the infinite mercy and patience of our Lord Jesus Christ, and I accept in a spirit of penance.”

Independent of who we decide Matthew to be in this painting, our response to Christ should be the same as that of Pope Francis. We are that sinner uniquely called by Christ. How will we respond to His call?

 

Main image: “The Calling of St. Matthew,” Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, 1599-1600

Post by: Deacon Peter Gruber

Should Christians Dance?

A young priest sets out into the countryside to journey to his new assignment… He is not quite sure how to get there, but in the evening, while walking in a field he finds two boys. They tell him he has just crossed into the parish boundary. Father gets on his knees and prays in thanksgiving for being sent there and in preparation for the work he will do in the little country town. The first and most important job, he would find out, will be to eradicate “the scourge of dancing.”

Of course we are speaking of the one whom they called “the saint” even during his lifetime – St. John Vianney, the Curé of Ars. We are not speaking of Rev. Shaw Moore, the antagonist of Footloose… Although the two might have gotten along, ecumenical issues aside.

Dance is commonly assumed to be an art form and a generally good way to recreate. Such assumptions are in fact so deep that the suggestion that it might be better to do away with public dances is seen as rigid, cruel, “medieval,” etc. One can only imagine the reactions of North Dakota’s teens to then Bishop Aquila’s decision a few years ago to ban dances (and pajama days) in one of his Catholic schools in the Diocese of Fargo… Maybe even some parents and faculty were upset. But would they have told John Vianney that he had been “too rigid” after he finally conquered the last of the dancers in the tiny village of Ars, which by that point had become the brightest beacon of holiness and civility in all of France?

The Abbé Trochu, in his famous biography of the saint, notes that, while St. Francis de Sales “wore gloves” when treating the topic, Vianney did not. “Go on! Dance! Dance all the way down into Hell!” Thus spake the saintly curé from the pulpit, time and time again. After decades, Ars was perfectly obedient to its pastor and was much happier for it.

Imagine the efforts it would have taken to accomplish the same feat in a 21st American century town even of normal size by today’s standards.

The people of Ars were not having dainty upper-crust waltzes, but neither were they “grinding,” “twerking,” or doing any other kind of categorically pornographic actions, which no reasonable person would think to call morally acceptable. They were simply dancing like country folk, having some drinks, and then getting too familiar with each other. The saint saw that this was not an accidental relationship, and he thought “the dance” to be the single greatest occasion of sin in Ars.

Note that it was seen by him as an occasion of sin, not necessarily a sin in itself, except perhaps inasmuch as a certain recklessness therein could be an expression of a lack of due care to avoid offending God. So, the question remains: can a Christian dance?

It depends.

The downfall of dance is usually what is touted as its greatest quality – the ability to arouse and express the passions. It is violent, it is sensual, it is angry, it is sad, it is joyous, it is whatever you need it to be. It intensifies all these things and shows them to others, while “freeing the spirit.” That’s the point. And that’s the problem.

In expressing the passions haphazardly, one can lose a grip on reason and be drawn to wherever that passion leads. The main problem is with sensuality.

First of all, we can, without hesitation, discard the utterly obscene motions and actions that have no other purpose than to sexualize the participants. These are not only done out of inordinate desire for the pleasures of the body, but they are also scandalous. Scandal here means a “stumbling block” to the spiritual lives of others – to cause sin in them. We are bound to avoid causing sin in others inasmuch as it is possible while not neglecting other duties. Nobody has ever had a duty to do anything like one would find going on at the average American high school dance. And it can never be good art, if art is the good expression of something good to express.

Secondly, we must examine the motivations and circumstances of those dances which are less clear. Should a desperate bachelor engage in a romantic tango with a beautiful woman he’s just met? Perhaps this will be a real challenge to him interiorly, urging him to go further and further… The same may hold true for her, which he must be careful about as well. Such a dance loosens the foundation on which chastity rests.

But what about a professional dancer who is so used to these movements and is so concentrated on his craft that he is greatly fortified against temptations? It seems the difficulty begins to disappear. And if a man is dancing with his wife, certainly there is no problem.

The case becomes different according to the abilities and circumstances of those involved, and according to the capacity of a dance to evoke problematic urges.

What would John Vianney think of the teens of Bomont jumping on the Kevin Bacon rock-n-roll-will-free-your-soul bandwagon? If we are honest – which we are here to be – we must say that he would probably be just as indignant as he was when he arrived in Ars, if not more so. He would think Rev. Moore was a wuss and a bad leader for finally caving. He would go to his bedroom, scourge himself to a bloody pulp, not eat for a few days, then start preaching, if his approach in Ars is any indication.

While the final scene of the film doesn’t have anything too bad (especially since these kids who have apparently never danced before are actually professionals), it is the culture and ideas which are introduced by the habitual loosening of inhibitions in social settings with the opposite sex (that often also involve alcohol) which sends up red flags. It is the dark cloud on the horizon: there is not yet a storm, but one is coming.  Just as well, the spirits of angst and rebellion are not spirits from God, but they are exactly what Kevin Bacon’s character and the whole idea of rock-n-roll are about.

There are ways to “cut loose” and socialize that do not involve the dangers of “the dance.” Running, golfing, hiking, and yes, even spelunking are all appropriate alternatives. I simply can’t imagine John Vianney giving a sermon against spelunking… Can you?

“But wait!” some will say. “There is that scene where Bacon’s character goes before city council and throws down some verses from Scripture about how great dancing is! Ha. Game, set, and match, you Jansenist clown!” Unfortunately, we will have to save the detailed examination of the Scriptural treatment of dancing for another post. For now it will suffice to say that the Holy Bible decidedly does NOT encourage us to “kick off our Sunday shoes” so that we can do the worm to impress our friends.

Here is a challenge to those who have charge of Catholic schools: take a good, long look at the reality of what is going on at your dances, and whether it is worth the spiritual risk.

 

Main image: screenshot from “Footloose” (1984)

Post by: Eamonn Clark