Prayers you don’t hear any more

As in the days when you came out of Egypt
grant us to see wonders.
The pagans, seeing it, will be confounded
for all their power;
they will lay their hands to their mouths,
their ears will be deafened by it.
They will lick the dust like serpents,
like things that crawl on the earth.
They will come trembling from their lairs,
in terror and fear before you.

Micah 7:15-17.

Can a modern Christian say “amen” to that?


The Church’s indestructible core

My parish church is a liberal church. Which is funny since it’s not a liberal area, at least not as liberal as most of the surrounding metropolis. We moved here about 15 years ago and tried Mass at the church a few times, but just couldn’t take the “guitar-and-bongo” flavor of the liturgy. Then we discovered the Latin Mass about 20 miles away, and now we only come here for confession.

The parish is planning a renovation of the church in which the orientation of worship is changed from latitudinal to longitudinal. It’s not one of those old, beautiful churches built in the early 20th century that you sometimes see in movies and older sections of big cities. It was rather cheaply designed and built when it was new in the early ’60s. But it does have the traditional, cross-shaped layout, with a long nave and the altar set way back from where the communion rails originally would have been.

Before we got here they had built this hideous-looking, semi-permanent partition between the original apse where the altar was and the nave, and set up a new altar closer to the pews. Now they’re going all the way and turning the church sideways. I’m sure they would rather destroy the whole thing and build a new, church-in-the-round type of thing, but evidently the money isn’t there for that, so they’re just going to stick the altar against what is now a side wall, and build-out the opposite side of the church to make room for pews to be turned towards the new altar. The end result will be pews to the left of me, pews to the right of me, pews all around. That way we can stare at Christ in our neighbor during Mass rather than Christ on the altar.

Which goes to show that conservative politics and conservative liturgy are two very different things. A lot of Trump fans want nothing whatever to do with the Latin Mass (though lots of Latin Mass lovers love Trump).

And yet, this parish has a Eucharistic adoration chapel, with adoration going on 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. They literally built a separate building for this purpose. It’s a small building, sort of squeezed between the rectory and the parking lot. It has about six rows of pews, all set up facing the same direction, towards the monstrance in which the Blessed Sacrament is displayed behind a plexiglass barrier. It too is a cheap little building. They didn’t go all-out with it, but presumably did the best they could with the funds they were able to raise. The architecture leans slightly towards the traditional end of the spectrum, with pseudo-Greek style moldings and stained glass [EDIT: It even faces east!], though probably designed by an architect who mainly does houses and retail stores.

The main idea of liberal liturgy, as far as I have been able to make out after years of pondering the subject, is to de-formalize worship, make it casual, accessible. Vestments were simplified and made soft and flowing rather than stiff, with simple, modernistic designs replacing the intricately embroidered classical motifs of the old fiddlebacks. Priests begin Mass with a big “Howdy!” and end with a shout-out to all who made it possible. They wander around the sanctuary and up and down the pews during their homilies (as if lecterns were somehow forbidden by the rubrics). The tabernacle gets a mere nod or a slight curtsey as people walk by, because Jesus is our buddy, not our boss.

How then do they build a traditionally-oriented adoration chapel and, more importantly, get people to man it 24 hours a day?

My guess is that there were a core of people who wanted it, and the pastor said, “If you can raise the money I won’t stop you.” Either that or they had a conservative pastor for a short interval. Still, they have kept the all-day adoration going until now.

I suppose this may be a metaphor for how the Church will survive. To my mind it’s been slowly committing suicide, mainly by losing confidence in itself; either that or deliberately declining to maintain and propagate itself as itself. It does this by declining to preach the Gospel as the Gospel. It no longer preaches hell, and therefore nothing to be saved from. It doesn’t preach sin, except maybe the sins of racism and harming the environment, and being mean to homosexuals and adulterers. And it no longer preaches marriage the primary purpose of which is childrearing. The few kids Catholics do have are catechized in accord with the above, so that they grow up wondering what the Church has to offer that they can’t get anywhere else, other than corny liturgy and wimpy platitudes.

And yet these people, adoring Christ in the Eucharist at 3:30 in the morning …

I have this idea that we adherents to the old Mass are the remnant who remain true to the Faith; and I don’t doubt that’s true. But it seems there are remnants even among the mainstream. The new Mass and accompanying doctrinal wishy-washiness aren’t destroying the Faith entirely, only making it harder to find and therefore harder to follow. But it is after all indestructible, whether we like it or not. The silliness and stupidity, the ugliness and wickedness, the indifference to the welfare of souls can’t kill it.

Someone said recently in a lecture, “The Church will come to life again.” Just that simple and in passing, as if it were a mere matter of fact. And I thought, “That’s right. It will, won’t it?” After all when did it not?

Intellectual and moral capital

Modernity, it now becomes evident, has been all along eroding its own foundations; its projects and comforts have depended on an inheritance to which it has itself been inimical. Walter Lippmann spoke of “the acids of modernity”; as it turns out, the stones attacked by this acid have been those on which the modern world was itself erected. Analysts from all relevant disciplines converge on one insight: Modernity has lived on a moral and intellectual capital that it has not renewed, and indeed could not have renewed without denying itself. They moreover agree that this intellectual and moral capital was that built up by the Christian church’s long establishment in the West, [even] if they themselves do not share the church’s faith or even admire it.

Robert W. Jenson, “How the World Lost Its Story,” First Things, March 2010.

A Pro-Life Case For Elizabeth Warren

Ha! Did you think I was about to endorse a Democrat? Nah. That’s the title of a post by Mark Gordon at Vox Nova, a Catholic writing on a Catholic blog.

For some reason Gordon chose to keep comments closed, so I had no choice but to respond here if I wanted to respond at all.

In a nutshell, Gordon argues that it’s not only OK, but a good thing to vote for a stridently pro-abortion politician, if she also supports policies which one believes would result in fewer actual abortions.

But suppose the same argument were used to justify voting for someone who favored the right to own slaves, on the ground that he also favored subsidies to farmers, which would decrease their dependence on slaves to make a profit, and therefore reduce the actual number of enslaved persons?

I wonder how many modern liberal/leftists would have advocated a slow, gradual reduction of slavery by way of government incentives, rather than an absolute, principled opposition which left no choice but to end it immediately by fighting a war?

I have noticed that when a political position is heretical to the left, the very fact of someone advocating that position is said to disqualify him from public life, let alone public office, regardless of how good he is at his job. Yet when it comes to abortion, we’re told we should be practical and not get so bound up in our principles.

For the holy laws of our fathers

Let us stand fast in what is right and prepare our souls for trial. Let us wait upon God’s strengthening aid and say to him: O Lord, you have been our refuge in all generations.
Let us trust in him who has placed this burden upon us. What we ourselves cannot bear let us bear with the help of Christ. For he is all-powerful and he tells us: My yoke is easy and my burden is light.
Let us continue the fight on the day of the Lord. The days of anguish and of tribulation have overtaken us; if God so wills, let us die for the holy laws of our fathers, so that we may deserve to obtain an eternal inheritance with them.
St. Boniface, Martyr.

Are we morally obliged to eliminate poverty?

I was reading an Anthony Trollope short story recently. It’s set around Christmas time, and part of it relates how the pastor of a parish tries to make sure the needs of the poor are met and, if possible, that each of them is provided somewhat more than the necessities, so that they can feast a little on Christmas Day.

The pastor does this by taking up subscriptions for the purpose from the local gentry and farmers. At one point it is said that the pastor is not a rich man, so when the farmers don’t cough up quite enough, he doesn’t have the means to take the burden entirely on himself. As a result, one of the poor families must resign itself to having just enough to eat on Christmas, but not enough extra to constitute a feast.

Meanwhile the pastor lives in a nice, comfortable house, with servants.

The pastor’s complaint is not that some people are rich, while others are poor. His complaint is just that those who are better off, aren’t offering enough to let the poor have something extra for Christmas.

Which got me thinking:  Why didn’t the pastor feel guilty that he lived in this nice, probably relatively large house, with servants and a yearly stipend that enabled him to live in relative luxury, while others, including widows and orphans, were just getting by?

It appeared from this story, that the obligation felt by the pastor and the farmers and gentry, was not to make poor people no longer poor, but merely to make sure they didn’t go hungry — as well as making sure they had enough to celebrate with during Christmas, presumably so that they themselves could celebrate in good conscience.

And it seemed to me that this was correct:  In all the exhortations to almsgiving in the scriptures and the writings of the saints, I don’t recall anyone abhorring inequalities in wealth per se. What is abhorred is rich people living in splendor while others go hungry or die of cold or what have you. You don’t have to make the poor not poor, you just can’t let them starve.

I drafted the first part of this post long ago, but was brought back to it by this post on the Vox Nova blog. The same author had previously written a post titled something like, “Is it a mortal sin to be wealthy?”

We will always feel a tension between what we are doing and what we could do. No matter how poor we are, we can always do more for others than we’re doing. We can always be kinder, more patient, more generous. Does this mean we must all become paupers as long as paupers exist? If anyone is poor, is it therefore a sin to be well off?

I decided to check St. Thomas Aquinas, who seems to have analyzed everything about good and evil and religious obligations. What St. Thomas has to say on the matter is basically the following:

1.  It’s more important to give “spiritual alms” than corporal alms. Since it’s more important to take care of the spirit than the body, therefore the spiritual works of mercy are of more importance than the corporal works of mercy. It’s more important to turn someone from his sin than to relieve his hunger.

Now obviously, if someone’s hunger is extreme — i.e. he is sick or dying from lack of food — you need to succor his health before anything else. But once he has enough to eat and is not in imminent danger or extreme pain, the top priority should be to make sure he is instructed if he is ignorant; counseled if he is doubtful; reproofed if he is living in sin, etc. In other words, it’s more important to improve his spiritual condition than his economic condition.

2.  Corporal alms nevertheless have a good spiritual effect, on both giver and receiver:  On the giver when they are given out of love, and on the receiver when he is moved to pray for his benefactor.

3.  Almsgiving is a matter of precept — but only to a certain extent. (By a “matter of precept” is meant something that we are specifically instructed and required to do.)

St. Thomas says that almsgiving is a matter of precept insofar as one has surplus from which to give, after taking care of his own needs and the needs of those for whom he is responsible (and “needs,” says St. Thomas, includes maintaining one’s station in life); when someone’s need is extreme, in other words he is in danger of illness, injury or death if he doesn’t receive help; and when without our aid he will not receive the help he needs. In those circumstances we are obliged to help as a matter of precept, since to let a person die when we could have saved him would be like killing him ourselves.

Otherwise, almsgiving is “a matter of counsel” — we may or may not give alms depending on our inclination or the circumstances.

(See S.T. II-II, Q. 32.)

It’s easy to become scrupulous when there isn’t a clear “yes or no” commandment on a given issue. The Gospel doesn’t require us to give a fixed percentage of our income, such that if we give less then we feel guilty, but if we exceed it our conscience is clear. We can always give more; and if we don’t, why not? Don’t we love our fellow man? Wouldn’t we rather be among the sheep than the goats?

The solution to the conundrum, I think, is to remember that Jesus came to free us, not to enslave us. If we can’t escape guilt no matter how much we give, then we must be looking at it the wrong way. I think St. Thomas puts us on the right track. Giving is an obligation to the extent that we have the means and someone else has the need, and beyond that it’s an option. And by “need” he means need, not mere relative poverty. If you look at the parable of the sheep and the goats, the scenarios Jesus names are extreme:  I was hungry, I was thirsty, I was naked, I was in prison; not, my clothes weren’t as nice as yours and my food was very basic while yours was fancy, therefore off you go to the everlasting flames.

I feel sure that God doesn’t want us to be scrupulous or to feel constantly guilty. That’s not what the Gospel is about. The more we give the better, if charity so moves us; but guilt and fear of punishment are not charity.

The Mass in Literature, Part 5

Midnight Mass in the Austrian mountains:

At last we came to a wide road, where we could walk side by side, and now and again we heard sleigh-bells. The torch had already burned right down to the cowman’s hand, and he kindled another that he had with him. On the road were visible several other lights—great red torches that came flaring towards us as if they were swimming in the black air, behind which first one and then several more faces of the churchgoers gradually emerged, who now joined company with us. And we saw lights on other hills and heights, that were still so far off we could not be sure whether they were still or moving.

So we went on. The snow crunched under our feet, and wherever the wind had carried it away, there the black patch of bare ground was so hard that our shoes rang upon it. The people talked and laughed a great deal, but this seemed not a bit right to me in the holy night of Christmas. I could only think all the while about the church and what it must be like when there is music and High Mass in the dead of night.

When we had been going for a long time along the road and past isolated trees and houses, then again over fields and through a wood, I suddenly heard a faint ringing in the tree-tops. When I wanted to listen, I couldn’t hear it; but soon after I heard it again, and clearer than the first time. It was the sound of the little bell in the church steeple. The lights which we saw on the hills and in the valley became more and more frequent, and we could now see that they were all hastening churchwards.

The little calm stars of the lanterns floated towards us, and the road was growing livelier all the time. The small bell was relieved by a greater, and this one went on ringing until we had almost reached the church. So it was true, what grandmother had said: at midnight the bells begin to ring, and they ring until the very last dweller in the farthest valleys has come to church.

The church stands on a hill covered with birches and firs, and round it lies the little God’s-acre encircled by a low wall. The few houses of the village are down in the valley.

When the people came close to the church, they extinguished their torches by sticking them head downwards in the snow. Only one was fixed between two stones in the churchyard wall, and left burning.

And now from the steeple in slow, rhythmical swing, rang out the great bell. A clear light shone through the high, narrow windows. I longed to go into the church; but Sepp said there was still plenty of time, and stayed where he was, laughing and talking with other young fellows and filling himself a pipe.

At last all the bells pealed out together; the organ began to play inside the church, and then we all went in. There it looked quite different from what it did on Sundays. The candles burning on the altar were clear, white, beaming stars, and the gilded tabernacle reflected them most gloriously. The lamp of the sanctuary light was red. The upper part of the church was so dark that one could not see the beautiful painting of the nave. Mysterious shapes of men were seated in the chairs, or standing beside them; the women were much wrapped up in shawls and were coughing. Many had candles burning in front of them, and they sang out of their books when the Te Deum rang out from the chancel.

Sepp led me between two rows of chairs towards a side altar, where several people were standing. There he lifted me up on to a stool before a glass case, which, lighted by two candles, was placed between two branches of fir trees, and which I had never seen before when I went to church with my parents. When Sepp had set me on the stool, he said softly in my ear, “There, now you can have a look at the crib.” Then he left me standing, and I gazed in through the glass. Thereupon came a friendly little woman and whispered, “Look here, child, if you want to see that, somebody ought to explain it to you.” And she told me who the little figures were. I looked at them. Save for the Mother Mary, who had a blue wrapped garment round her head which fell down to her very feet, all the figures represented mere human beings: the men were dressed just like our farm-servants or the elder peasants. Even St. Joseph wore green stockings and short chamois-leather breeches.

When the Te Deum was over, Sepp came back, lifted me from the stool, and we sat down on a bench. Then the sacristan went round lighting all the candles that were in the church, and every man, including Sepp, pulled a little candle out of his pouch, lighted it, and fastened it on to the desk in front of him. Now it was so bright in the church that one could see the paintings on the roof clearly enough.

Up in the choir they were tuning fiddles and trumpets and drums, and, just as the little bell on the door of the sacristy rang, and the priest in his glittering vestments, accompanied by acolytes and tall lantern-bearers, passed over the crimson carpet to the altar, the organ burst forth in all its strength, joined by a blast of trumpets and roll of drums.

The incense smoke was rising, and shrouding the shining high altar in a veil. Thus the High Mass began, and thus it shone and sounded and rang in the middle of the night. Throughout the offertory all the instruments were silent, only two clear voices sang a lovely shepherd-song; and during the Benedictus a clarionet and two horns slow and softly crooned the cradle-song. During the Gospel and the Elevation we heard the cuckoo and nightingale in the choir, just as in the midst of the sunny spring-time.

Deep down in my soul I understood it, the wonder and splendour of Christmas. But I did not exclaim with delight; I remained grave and silent, I felt the solemn glory of it all. But while the music was playing I could not help thinking about father and mother and grandmother at home. They are kneeling by the table now in the light of the single candle, and praying; or they are even asleep, and the room is all dark—only the clock ticking—while a deep peace lies upon the forest-clad mountains, and the Eve of Christmas is spread abroad over all the earth.

The little candles in the seats were burning themselves out, one after another, as the service neared its close at last; and the sacristan went round again and extinguished the lights on the walls and altars and before the pictures with the little tin cap. Those on the high altar were still burning when a joyous march music sounded from the choir and the folk went crowding out of the incense-laden church.

When we came outside, in spite of the thick mist which had descended from the hills, it was no longer quite so dark as before midnight. The moon must have risen; no more torches were lighted. It struck one o’clock, but the schoolmaster was already ringing the prayer bell for Christmas morning.

I glanced once more at the church windows. All the festal shine was quenched, I saw only the dull red glimmer of the sanctuary lamp.

Peter Rosegger, The Forest Farm: Tales of the Austrian Tyrol (1912), pp. 50-54.

(See also Part 1 (last three quoted paragraphs), Part 2Part 3, Part 4.)