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Archive for the ‘history’ Category

This was an excellent bit of history – well-written, clear, and faithful to the sources.

I came upon it when I saw the author – UC Berkeley history professor Margaret Chowning’s most recent book (published this month) mentioned in list of forthcoming historical works. The new one is Catholic Women and Mexican Politics, 1750–1940 – “How women preserved the power of the Catholic Church in Mexican political life.”

I thought – well, that’s interesting. I’ll have to read that. It’s too early for it to be available via interlibrary loan, so I wondered what else she’d written and found this. Let’s go.

Before I present the summary (which I am going to crib from another website) – let me tell you what I appreciated about the book, what it illuminated and the context it helps establish for thinking about religious life today. The summary I’m going to post is pretty long, and some of you might drift away before the end of that, so I’ll make my points first.

I say to you again and again that reading history – and by that I mean accounts relating small corners of the past, not sweeping general works – can be very helpful in keeping your bearings in the present. Of course, it’s essential to have a basic understanding of the past, especially if we’re talking Church, which we are in this space, most of the time. But beyond that, to read a monograph like this – or to even a summary of it – highlights a lot of plain truths, mainly this one:

Life in the church is always lived by complicated human beings in complicated times. Church structures are always impacted by their cultural, social and political context. They shift, change and develop. People argue. People fight. People in spiritual positions act out of non-spiritual reasons all the time. In fact, in this life on earth, in this incarnational existence, is there any other way?

So in this case, I was prompted, for one, to think a lot about the role of religious orders and their sustenance. Very often today, we look at the struggles and the general decline (with some exceptions) of women’s religious life, and we compare it to the apparent flourishing of the same in the past, and we can see nothing but a reason for condemnation of the present. Faithless, we say. Look what previous generations were able to support!

Well, let’s look at how those Mexican enclosed convents existed. The choir nuns – fully professed – were at the center of convent life. These choir nuns had to be of certain racial stock (not indigenous, not even a drop), and they entered with a dowry. The dowry was then generally invested and used as a lending source. In short, most of these convents were banks and mortgage institutions – that’s how they financially survived, and for a time, flourished. It wasn’t because of incredibly faithful donors who sacrificially made it all possible. It was because of canny financial activities. There was a time in which the convent at the heart of this book suffered financially, for several reasons, including an excess of expenditures, but also because the majordomo hired to collect rents and interest wasn’t doing his job well.

I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that system. I don’t know enough to judge that. It’s just the way it was. All I’m saying is that knowing this gives essential context when we attempt to compare the apparent strength of religious life in respective eras.

Before the summary, I’ll skip to the end of the story. The Mexican government suppressed all convents in 1863. Many enclosed nuns tried to stay together after the suppression, taking up residence in private homes, attempting to maintain some sort of common prayer life. The Purisma nuns were apparently not able to do so – Chowning can’t find any evidence. However, in a rather moving coda, when Chowning visits San Miguel in the writing of the book, a sister at the church tells her the story of more recent history. Four sisters attempted to return in thee 1920’s, but were driven out, of course, by yet another revolution. But then:

So here you go – this is from a review of the book, found here:

Before you read, however – something this reviewer omits is that the foundress was a (very) young woman from San Miguel named María Josepha Lina. An orphaned heiress, she very much wanted to continue her father’s wish for establishing a convent in the town. She was influenced to support the Conceptionists, despite the fact that she had reformed (austere) tendencies – and that had been her father’s intention – probably because of a spiritual advisor’s ties to the Conceptionists. The Conceptionists were not reformed – they followed the more worldly model of female religious life. So you can see that there are potential problems from the beginning. So:

The rebellion revolved around the issue of reform. La Purísima was established as a reformed convent, where nuns strictly observed their vows of poverty and enclosure and lived the vida común (common life), sharing meals and sleeping in communal dormitories. Donadas (lay sisters) and nuns did convent work, in place of personal servants.

The first abbess interpreted the convent’s mission narrowly, insisting on a taxing devotional schedule even though nuns had multiple responsibilities beyond spiritual duties. A rebellious faction emerged, led by Phelipa de San Antonio.

Like the abbess, Phelipa had come from an unreformed Conceptionist convent in Mexico City to help found La Purísima. She was the first to suffer an illness that later moved among her followers. Described as the salto (jumping sickness) or the mal, it was characterized by sufferers’ trancelike state and jerky movements. Afflicted nuns stayed in their cells, received extra food, and were released from many obligations. Contemporaries suspected fakery, although Chowning considers the possibility of somatic causes, at least in Phelipa’s case. Yet Phelipa and others may also have manipulated the symptoms in order to resist the vida común and undermine the authority of the abbess and bishop. The abbess and her like-minded successor were forced out after the first period of rebellion and, after six peaceful years, Phelipa became abbess. Reform-minded nuns complained to the bishop about Phelipa’s administration. Under her tenure nuns wore secular clothes, received male visitors, and mounted plays.

It was during this period that the salto spread. Although an episcopal investigation failed to remove Phelipa, she was not reelected, probably due to factors including rigged elections and the untimely death of the esteemed pro-reform foundress, possibly seen as a martyr.

In 1792, however, Phelipa’s wishes came true (although posthumously); the bishop imposed the vida particular (individual life) on La Purísima, with nuns receiving stipends for their individual needs. This was touted as a solution to ongoing financial problems, partially caused by the remarkable, and endowment-depleting, practice of letting dowryless donadas profess as white veil nuns after a decade of service.

However, the adoption of the vida particular was as much an ideological as a financial decision; Chowning argues that it was inspired by the belief of the bishop and his advisers in free market ideals such as rationalism and individualism. The convent, like the region, suffered economically during the war of independence, but recovered afterwards, although recruitment, a longstanding problem, decreased precipitously. This was due partially to anticlerical characterizations of nuns as prisoners and non-service convents as useless, and to laws making church property taxable, which affected finances. Both factors made convents less attractive to potential novices and their families. In addition, the bishop forced La Purísima to radically limit admissions—because it was not attracting elite, dowried women, new entrants added nothing to the endowment. Finally, with the Liberal government’s closure of convents in 1863, the nuns were turned out.

As I said, this was well-written history. The only thing missing was a timeline of major events. That would have been helpful. I’m looking forward to reading her newest book:

What accounts for the enduring power of the Catholic Church, which withstood widespread and sustained anticlerical opposition in Mexico? Margaret Chowning locates an answer in the untold story of how the Mexican Catholic church in the nineteenth century excluded, then accepted, and then came to depend on women as leaders in church organizations.

But much more than a study of women and the church or the feminization of piety, the book links new female lay associations beginning in the 1840s to the surprisingly early politicization of Catholic women in Mexico. Drawing on a wealth of archival materials spanning more than a century of Mexican political life, Chowning boldly argues that Catholic women played a vital role in the church’s resurrection as a political force in Mexico after liberal policies left it for dead.

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Today is the memorial of St. Marianne Cope.

Who is she? (From a website dedicated to her)

A Sister of St. Francis, Marianne was canonized Oct. 21, 2012. She is the first Franciscan woman from North America to be canonized, and only the 11th American saint. A woman of great valor, this beloved mother of outcasts, spent her early years in central New York where she served as a leader in the field of health care, education and of her own congregation. Responding to a call to care for the poor sick on the then Sandwich Islands, she devoted 35 years to caring for those afflicted with Hansen’s disease on Kalaupapa, Molokai, Hawaii.

More:

  In 1862 she entered the Sisters of Saint Francis in Syracuse, New York, after having postponed her entrance nine years in order to work to support her family. She was instrumental in the founding of several schools and hospitals for immigrants. In 1883 she led a group of sisters to the Hawaiian Islands to care for the poor, especially those suffering from leprosy. In 1888 she went to Kalaupapa, Moloka‘i, where she set up a home for girls with leprosy. After the death of Saint Damien de Veuster she also took over the home he built for boys. She died on 9 August, 1918. 

Perhaps you know that author Robert Lewis Stevenson wrote an “open letter” in defense of Fr. Damien, against a gossipy, bigoted accusatory published piece written by a Presbyterian minister in Hawaii. Stevenson had visited Molokai – after Fr. Damien’s death – and was strongly affected by it, and was moved to defend the priest.

You can read that letter here.

During his bit more than a week on Molokai, he spent time with Sr. Marianne Cope, of course, and even purchased a piano for the colony. He also wrote a poem about the experience, the gist of which is that even though the sufferings of those with Hansen’s Disease might cause one to doubt the existence of God, that skepticism is corrected by the loving presence of the Sisters:

marianne cope - Robert louis stevenson

To the Reverend Sister Marianne, Matron of the Bishop Home, Kalaupapa. 


To see the infinite pity of this place, 
The mangled limb, the devastated face, 
The innocent sufferers smiling at the rod, 
A fool were tempted to deny his God. 
He sees, and shrinks; but if he look again, 
Lo, beauty springing from the breasts of pain! 
He marks the sisters on the painful shores, 
And even a fool is silent and adores.

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I watched this tonight on the Criterion Channel. If you’ve hung around here for a while, you know that noir is one of my favorite genres, both in print and on film. I just find it fascinating expression of existential tension, both in general and in the context of mid-century, primarily post-war America. You can always find social anxieties and concerns expressed in genre films, whether they be action, westerns, science fiction or what have you.)

This was interesting, but not great. It’s Raymond Chandler’s only original script and (you will be shocked to hear) that the studio forced a change of the ending because didn’t want a serviceman depicted in a negative light. That’s not too much of a spoiler because there are three servicemen characters, and people, this is an almost 80-year old movie. I mean, don’t be mad, but guess what? Rhett leaves Scarlett and Rick makes Ilsa get on that plane.

Something I read offered that this movie could be seen as a precursor, in a way, to The Best Years of Our Lives, which came out a few months later. Of course the latter film is much better – a classic everyone should watch, today, if you can. I can see it – three servicemen just returned from the war, dealing with trauma, injury and family tensions. But of course Best Years is a deep-diving classic, while The Blue Dahlia is a relatively light, convoluted piece highly dependent on coincidence (Veronica Lake just happens to pick up a stranger on the road – who happens to be the trudging-in-the-rain Alan Ladd miles away from where her husband – a fantastic Howard da Silva – has had an affair with his wife. Sure, Raymond.)

That said, there’s a bit of snappy dialogue here and there, Alan Ladd is nice looking and short, William Bendix is traumatized, the female actors, including Veronica Lake are, as most female actors of the time except for the top tier tend to be, stiff. Doris Dowling’s screeching confession that no, her and Ladd’s son didn’t die of diphtheria during his tour – he died in a car accident! caused by her! drunk! driving! was not so much sad as incredible, in the literal sense. I mean, that’s a hard secret to keep, even when your husband is in the Pacific theater. Da Silva was the best part of the movie for me. Casually, confidently unctuous and thoroughly natural in his affect, he made the film.

Oh, and there’s this uncomfortable element – the Bendix character, as I said, has been injured. He’s got a plate in his skull, gets headaches, hallucinates a bit and reacts pretty violently to loud, jazzy music, which he shouts is “Monkey music!” Errr…Mr. Chandler? Really? Maybe that could have used a re-write, instead.

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The problem with the film adaptation of Dan Delillo’s White Noise?

There’s not enough of it.

White noise, that is.

Or spirituality for that matter, but we’ll get to that in a minute.

DeLillo’s book is (in part) about the landscape in which we postmoderns dwell, a landscape suffused with, well, white noise. A continual buzz of stimulation, information and entertainment that surrounds us, builds narratives and ultimately distract us from the issue that’s tormenting us all: death.

In Baumbagh’s film, while mostly watchable and entertaining in its own way – until the painful last third – we don’t pick up on that, we don’t sense that, we don’t hear or see any of that. It’s a mildly quirky suburban dramedy that resolves itself in near-sweetness, which the novel does not, at all. He captures the “white noise” of family life, but beyond that, no.  There’s really not much mystery here, and White Noise the novel is suffused with uncertainty and mystery. The most concrete example of this is the Toxic Event itself – its nature is never made clear or explicit in the novel, but in the film, oddly, it’s explained (a collision). I think that’s the movie’s biggest mistake, by far.

(There are others: Both Gerwig and Driver are a bit too young, Gerwig especially. In the movie, the youngest child, Wilder, is the offspring of the oft-married Jack and Babette, but in the novel, none of the children are fully related to anyone else in the family, which is important – the family is thoroughly postmodern – a collection of individuals. In the novel, Babette doesn’t appear in that last sequence of events.)

This isn’t a film I want to write about as much as I want to chew over it with someone else who’s seen it and also read the novel. There’s just a lot to say, notions and insights that emerge when I consider, not what the film includes, but what it doesn’t.

First off, please know that, um, I’d never read DeLillo before last week, when the coming film inspired me to check out the novel. It wasn’t as long as I expected, and I thought I’d knock it off fairly quickly, but that didn’t happen. It took me a good week to finish it, not because it’s impenetrable or dauntingly complex, but because it’s stuffed. I wouldn’t say it’s rich, either – just…stuffed.

And so I think this post will turn more on the novel than the film, with a bit of circling back at the end.

As I read White Noise I was put in mind of Walker Percy, and wondered if anyone had ever written comparing the two. A quick search didn’t turn up much, but yes: the vaguely apocalyptic landscape, the fractured family, the puzzled male protagonist, and – this is important – the medicalization of soul problems. When you are taking pills to ward off your fear of death, seems like that’s Percy territory.

Not surprisingly, I experienced White Noise (the novel) as not just a satire of contemporary American life, but also an exploration of spiritual presence and absence. Joshua Ferris lays it out quite well in this piece, so I’ll quote him. At length.

White Noise begins and ends with a ritual. The first is the cavalcade of station wagons arriving for the new school year, which Jack describes as a spectacle—“a brilliant event, invariably”—and which he has not missed in 21 years. It ends with the communal nightly pilgrimage to the highway overpass where he, his family and his neighbors witness the exalted sunsets that might be a temporary result of fallout from the toxic spill or something permanently deserving of awe. “[W]e don’t know whether we are watching in wonder or dread,” he says, as if commenting upon the entire phenomenon of white noise itself. In the end, neither he nor Delillo provides an answer.

Between these two rituals, the attentive reader encounters the high priest of Hitler Studies who tries to both evade and master death through his submersion in a “larger-than-death” figure; the ascetic-visionary-guru Murray Jay Siskind; the fundamentalist Alfonse Stompanato who discusses pop culture with the “closed logic of a religious zealot, one who kills for his beliefs”; amulets and vestments, like Jack’s copy of Mein Kampf, which he clutches to his chest at moments of discomfort, and his dark black glasses and heavy academic robe which bestow upon him “the dignity, significance and prestige” appropriate to priests; the rhetoric of exhortations as issued from some holy order found in Jack’s command “May the days be aimless. Let the seasons drift. Do not advance the action according to a plan”; amulets like the visor Denise wears day and night and later the protective mask Steffie refuses to take off; glossolalia; invocations (“Dacron, Orlon, Lycra Spandex,” “MasterCard, Visa, American Express”); the use of drugs, in this case not for ecstatic religious purposes but for death assuagement; numerology (“Is death odd-numbered?”); congregations, whether at the supermarket, on the overpass or in the classroom; superstitions (“It is the nature and pleasure of townspeople to distrust the city”); the miracle of Wilder’s unharmed tricycle ride across the freeway; and many other customs, rites and rituals, not only that of Friday-night TV, but Jack’s more “formal custom” afterwards of reading deeply into Hitler; the heavy visitation to the most photographed barn in America (“Being here is a kind of spiritual surrender… we’ve agreed to be part of a collective experience,” Murray tells Jack, elevating a scene typically presented as a lament about the simulation’s preeminence over the real—the photograph of the barn over the barn itself—to one of overt religious import that better explicates Josiah Royce than Jean Baudrillard), and finally Babette’s very secular custom, conspicuously occurring in the otherwise inactive Congregational church, of teaching the elderly how to stand, sit and walk, later upgraded to eating and drinking.

This overwhelming litany of how Delillo fleshes out traditional religious elements in the post-Christian world of White Noise is not exhaustive. He has done nothing short of scuttling the entirety of established religious systems only to remake one, full of the same structures and accoutrements, out of the stuff of American cultural life, very often out of the same white noise that doubles in the book as the agent of death against which those structures and accoutrements are intended to protect. The protective devices of this new pseudo-religion meet with mixed success in giving comfort to Jack Gladney as he struggles with his death fears, but no matter. Their domain is not so one-dimensional as to provide only protective devices. They also reveal to him glimpses of greater meaning, of awe and of transcendence. Above all, they reveal that Delillo goes beyond cultural assessment in White Noise to show—if we didn’t know it already from The Names—that he is a writer deeply, almost preternaturally attuned to the eternal human encounter with what constitutes the religious and the spiritual.


Yes, you’re reading that having watched the film and wondering…what?

In another article (somewhere), I read about the character of Wilder, the youngest child in the family. Those of you who have only watched the film will find my description unrecognizable. What’s in the film in general is very faithful the book – what makes the adaptation so unsatisfactory is what is left out, which is a lot of important elements: most of all, the sense of white noise and the spiritual ghosts, including what DeLillo gives us in Wilder.

In the movie, he’s just a young child who is carted around and only speaks once, and whose presence, his mother says, makes her happy.

In the novel he’s quite different. His silence is often commented upon – it is not clear whether his worldlessness is a choice or a disability. He does make noise, though – especially one day when he cries, weeps and wails from dawn to dusk. This is an important and lengthy interlude in the book. No one knows what to do. Wilder just cries and cries. They take him to the doctor. He keeps crying. But it’s not just crying. It’s a profound, deep keening – DeLillo uses the word – that his stepfather experiences, in part, as something profound with which he feels a desire to connect. In the midst of all the distracting white noise, here’s a deeply human noise coming from a real place, and so Jack, being a human, and being a human who thinks about death, senses it comes from a place where he might find…something. “It might not be so terrible to have to listen to this a while longer,” he thinks.

The family members’ responses and interactions with Wilder are almost like those of worshippers to a holy presence in their midst – they take care of him, they fawn over him, they respond to him ritually (yes yes yes yes). And in the end, when Wilder mounts his tricycle and rides across all the lanes of the highway without being harmed, we sense that he is, indeed, something special – even if that specialness resides in his innocence and, in the midst of a world that fears and denies death, his fearlessness.

Baumbach either didn’t understand or chose to ignore the spiritual implications of White Noise. It really is, as Ferris says, a book that invites us to look at and listen to the world around us and consider the possibility that we are still worshipping, we are still ritualizing, we still are looking for miracles and listening to sacred texts, and none of it seems to be helping.


I want to say something about the closing credits sequence. It’s a long (8-minute) stylized dance routine, involving all the characters, in the, bright, gleaming A & P. In White Noise, the supermarket functions in the same way the village church would – a gathering place, a place to build community, to fill one’s needs, to admire human ingenuity and creativity, but today, controlled and given, rather than evolved from who we are in an organic way. I suppose Baumbach conceived this sequence a way to communicate that. A supermarket scene closes out the novel, as well. But let’s look at the difference:

In the novel, the last chapter is composed of three scenes: Wilder with his tricycle, the gathering to watch the sunset, and then the supermarket. But what happens in the store? Well, the shelves have been rearranged. People – especially older people – are confused.

The supermarket shelves have been rearranged. It happened one day without warning. There is agitation and panic in the aisles, dismay in the faces of older shoppers.[…]They scrutinize the small print on packages, wary of a second level of betrayal. The men scan for stamped dates, the women for ingredients. Many have trouble making out the words. Smeared print, ghost images. In the altered shelves, the ambient roar, in the plain and heartless fact of their decline, they try to work their way through confusion. But in the end it doesn’t matter what they see or think they see. The terminals are equipped with holographic scanners, which decode the binary secret of every item, infallibly. This is the language of waves and radiation, or how the dead speak to the living. And this is where we wait together, regardless of our age, our carts stocked with brightly colored goods. A slowly moving line, satisfying, giving us time to glance at the tabloids in the racks. Everything we need that is not food or love is here in the tabloid racks. The tales of the supernatural and the extraterrestrial. The miracle vitamins, the cures for cancer, the remedies for obesity. The cults of the famous and the dead.”

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You know this is more for me than for you, right? It’s a convenient way to “file” these things. So here they are, all in one place. Click on the images to get to the page.

By Month:

2021 highlights here.

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I did this last year (Here’s one post, with links to all the others.) It’s a way for me to sort through things, retrieve ideas that might work for longer pieces in other spaces, make me feel horrible about my terrible memory (did I write that?) and so on. I don’t include posts on saints or travel here. The saints because I tend to re-run them, no apologies, and the travel posts because they are collected here. Gender-related posts here.  Book and movie takes, as well as links to other monthly highlights, at the end of this post.

Several post-V2-music related posts (in prep for the Substack, which will revive from winter dormancy this Friday), some pre-Advent thoughts, and, in travel, summing up the Mexico trip and a Thanksgiving trip to Colorado.

All November posts here.

In December? Lots of movie, book and gender-related posts, as well as saints, Advent and Christmas. Go here for all of them. A couple of highlights below.


Anyway, my point of disagreement with Douthat has to do with his core notion – in this column at least – that Vatican II was about making the practice of Catholicism easier. Okay, he does qualify this:

The idea was not simply to make Catholicism easier, of course; the hope was that a truer Christianity would flourish once rote obedience diminished.

But then proceeds to point out that the results are what matter, not the stated intentions. I disagree. I think it’s important to get the intentions right – as right as we can, given the fog of history.

And what were the intentions, if not just to “make it easier?” Too much for a mere blog post, but the core of it seemed to be a conviction that vibrant, authentic faith rooted in a free response to God’s invitation – was impeded by legalistic language and practice, as well as by the accretion of tradition and an “outdated” human anthropology and medieval Eurocentricism, blah, blah, blah. Yes, there’s even more – I would suggest the boredom, stupidity and loss of faith of religious professionals played more of a part than we like to admit – as well as other more complex, nuanced, factors, but when you read the documents and those that came afterwards, this is the clear, stated intention.

Secondly, if you go to these videos and read the comments, you will read many, may fond memories people have of this music.

I don’t necessarily have fond memories of this era’s music, but I certainly do have memories. Listening to the podcast, I was shocked by how much I could just join right in on after not having sung any of it for decades.

Of my hands, I give…to you….Oh Lord….

As several have pointed out in the comments, as simplistic and even annoying as some of this early music was, a great deal of it was at least Scripture based. That core was forgotten at certain points – as we see below – but then picked up again by the St. Louis Jesuits who, even their detractors admit, wrote music rooted in Scripture texts.

There are a number of striking, weird aspects to this corner of history, but one of the most pressing questions to me is why the course taken for the sake of lay “active participation” and the cause of restoring ancient forms completely ignored the Eastern liturgical tradition which involves a relatively high degree of possible lay participation, is musical (chanted) from beginning to end, and is, yes ancient.

Of course Latin churchmen still at that time undoubtedly harbored disdain for the East and since the agenda was centered on ModernNewProgressSignsoftheTimes I guess dudes in crowns chanting behind icon screens didn’t exactly fit that model, but still.

One more road – one more – not taken. Tragically.

Hence the Christian is not afraid of the clock, nor is he in cunning complicity with it. The Christian life is not really a “victory over time” because time is not and cannot be a real antagonist. Of course, the Christian life is a victory over death: but it is a victory which accepts death and accepts the lapse of time that inevitably leads to death. But it does this in a full consciousness that death is in no sense a “triumph of time.” For the Christian, time is no longer the devourer of all things. Christian worship is at peace with time because the lapse of time no longer concerns the Christian whose life is “hidden with Christ in God.”

That’s Thomas Merton, not me.

For most of human history, it hasn’t been the full, satisfied college degree holder looking to scratch a vague itch of existential despair who’s been hearing the Good News. It’s been the peasant nursing constantly aching teeth, squinting to see through weakened eyes, middle-aged at thirty, working hard from dawn to dusk, remember dead children, hearing rumors of war, studying the skies, waiting and praying for rain, subject to the whims of human authorities.

From a friend who was also at that Mass, I learned that a parish near me had added a 7am Sunday Spanish Mass to the lineup. Since, due to old age I suppose, early morning Masses are starting to be my jam, I decided to check it out, not expecting a big crowd since the Sunday afternoon Spanish Mass was still in place.

Wrong!

The place was packed!

This is a marvelous piece about the effect and importance of singing the Torah.

Although obviously from a Jewish context and perspective, it might be enlightening for any of us who think about prayer and liturgy, no matter what tradition.


January 2022 Highlights

February 2022 Highlights

March 2022 Highlights

April 2022 Highlights

May 2022 Highlights

June 2022 Highlights

July/August 2022 Highlights

September 2022 Highlights

October 2022 Highlights

November and December 2022 Highlights

Books of 2022

Movies and Television of 2022

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I did this last year (Here’s one post, with links to all the others.) It’s a way for me to sort through things, retrieve ideas that might work for longer pieces in other spaces, make me feel horrible about my terrible memory (did I write that?) and so on. I don’t include posts on saints or travel here. The saints because I tend to re-run them, no apologies, and the travel posts because they are collected here. Gender-related posts here.  Book and movie takes, as well as links to other monthly highlights, at the end of this post.

Lots more to share this month, with a big trip at the end – to Guanajuato, Mexico. Posts related to that trip here. All October posts here.


As has been noted by…everyone…the emphasis (and hope) was that by cracking things open, the core truths would be more accessible to a world that, to use a minor example, did not respond in the same way to, say, concepts of kingship that previous generations did, or could peak into galaxies that may not have been fashioned in seven literal days after all or examine the bones of ancestors who might not, after all, have had names.

Understanding how this concept – that there’s a core of faith that can be expressed in diverse culturally-formed ways – was used and abused is a key to tracking the path that leads up to this synod.

I suppose the point on which much of it turns is the small step from: the core of faith might be expressed in a culturally-bound way to —> the core of faith is, because of its essentially mystery and the way humans live and communicate, always and necessarily expressed in culturally-bound ways, so…let’s go for it.

What struck me, and not for the first time, was the sense in this liturgy that I was entering into something. That there was something present and real and solid in whose presence I had entered and was free to approach or not, from whatever place I was in. It was there yesterday, it would be there tomorrow. As a congregation, we responded to that presence in our own ways, speaking, chanting, silently. But it was always there, waiting.

Yeah, it’s broad (but startlingly knowing) satire, but it’s not a bad reminder, either: when someone has made the effort to ask you a question – even it’s how do I get him to use his magic powers to help me score? – take a moment and mind the gap, as we say, between what you’re hearing, what’s really being asked – and whatever comfortable nonsense you’re tempted to reflexively pull out of your answer bag first.

It just seems to me that whenever we suggest that our self-proclaimed weirdness, our quirkiness, our tattoos, our use of language, our family size, our role as employed outside the home or working within it, our pop culture choices, our political views, and even – yes – even our self-identified sinfulness – makes us “different” from those others, and worth some kind of special attention, no matter how “humbly” it’s articulated, what I hear, every time, is simply:

O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest….

Now, I love a good vintage travel account, so I thought I would take a look. One of the aspects I always dig into in these kinds of books is what the writer says about Catholic Things. I find that reading what contemporary travelers say about their encounters with Catholic popular traditions, liturgies, figures and cultures is illuminating, more helpful in regard to helping me understand Catholics of the past than many academic historical studies.

This author only mentions Catholic Things once, but it’s fascinating. He has landed in Malta, and, as are all the other travelers, is required to quarantine for time before entering the country. The place of quarantine in the harbor there – as well as around the world at the time, was called a lazaretto. There’s one, for example, outside of Philadelphia, built to protect the city from yellow fever.

Here’s what he sees on Sunday…

For decades I have thought, “Wow, I can’t believe that was my sophomore religion text in a Catholic high school, crazy times, right?” but last night I transitioned fully to: I CANNOT BELIEVE THEY USED THIS AS A TEXT IN A CATHOLIC HIGH SCHOOL. WHAT THE HELL WAS WRONG WITH THESE PEOPLE.

Who were, I don’t hesitate to say, very nice, well-meaning people. Most of them.


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Hahaha. I have no highlights for July.

I did this last year (Here’s one post, with links to all the others.) It’s a way for me to sort through things, retrieve ideas that might work for longer pieces in other spaces, make me feel horrible about my terrible memory (did I write that?) and so on. I don’t include posts on saints or travel here. The saints because I tend to re-run them, no apologies, and the travel posts because they are collected here. Gender-related posts here.  Book and movie takes, as well as links to other monthly highlights, at the end of this post.

Why no July highlights? I certainly posted – here are all the July posts, including those on books, movies, saints and gender issues – but beyond that most were travel related – the last chunk of the England/Scotland trip, then Nashville, then driving from Alabama to Wyoming, then at the end a couple of stops on the way to Charleston.

August saw travel as well – back to Charleston for a bit, and then a big solo driving trip to New Mexico and back.

But I did write about other matters in August. Here are all the August posts and then some highlights below.


A space opens up…what do you do?

Whether it be in terms of your career or personal life or just the day, what’s the question you ask?

Is it What do I want to do? How can I follow my dreams today? What are my dreams, anyway?

Or is it…

What is my duty right now? What does love invite, call or even require me to do in this moment?

And one of the points you hear being made about the current situation with the TLM is that it’s a return to the days right after the promulgation of the current Mass, even the days (it is feared) before the establishment of groups like the FSSP, before the indult. It’s an attempt to re-create a moment in time that occurred about forty years ago. It’s a desperate attempt to reclaim a hope and a dream rooted, not in the present with all of its nuances and developments, but in a nostalgic vision of that immediate post-Vatican II era , when all seemed so simple and clear.

You know, those last decades of … the last century.

But I did see and hear for myself how contentious the question was among Catholics. I had one fascinating evening where I went from one parish-related event to another and heard two completely different takes on the situation – one set of conversations assuming that the parish in question was moving too fast towards “normality” and as a consequence, these people would be attending another parish where there were more restrictions in place – and then an hour later, another conversation among many people from the same parish who were happy with minimal restrictions and would prefer none at all.

I think my appreciation of it this time is directly due to other recent (as in over the past year or so) experiences I’ve had – recounted here – of super dramatic praying of the Eucharistic Prayer. I mean – just almost to the point of parody.

What are you doing? Why are you talking like that?

Well, I think the reason the presider in those cases is talking like that – which varied, but in general, amounted to drama – was because he knew he needed to communicate that this moment was special, and all of his formation and (importantly) the assumptions of the congregation in front of him led him to a point of assuming the burden of communicating that sacredness via his personal demeanor.

Kind of like….he’s trying to sell us something.

Huh.


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I did this last year (Here’s one post, with links to all the others.) It’s a way for me to sort through things, retrieve ideas that might work for longer pieces in other spaces, make me feel horrible about my terrible memory (did I write that?) and so on. I don’t include posts on saints or travel here. The saints because I tend to re-run them, no apologies, and the travel posts because they are collected here. Gender-related posts here.  Book and movie takes, as well as links to other monthly highlights, at the end of this post.

Lots of travel in June – to England and Scotland. Those posts are here.

All June posts here.


There is a temptation, when considering these experiences – the ecstatic concerts (or sporting events), the immersive, interactive games and other kinds of role-playing experiences like cosplay on which people spend untold hours of their time and lots of money – and to think that religion is missing out, in a way. That feeling at the Garth concert? Do you ever get anything like that in church? What the larping and gaming and cosplaying experience adds to your life? Shouldn’t church give that to you instead – or at least, also?

Questions which then can inspire church leaders to either condemn or – more likely these days – jump on bandwagons, something we’ve seen over and over (through history, not just recently) – taking what seems to grab people in the culture, baptizing it, hoping to bring that same kind of engagement, investment, and emotion to the Lord – where it properly belongs, right?

Maybe not. Maybe the better answer is to observe all of this – and whatever it is that people seem to feel connected to and inspired by – and ask questions instead.

So, when consumers of mass media and spiritual seekers and tourists virtually approach the online evanginfluencers expecting and demanding “openness” and “authenticity” and almost claiming a place in their role model’s lives, they’re putting them in a spot. Yes, it’s a spot most of them have cleared out for themselves and settled in, happily, Patreon button at the ready, but everyone has a role to play here, everyone’s responsible in their own way.

Keep saying we’re one body in Christ, sure. Keep saying we take care of each other, that we’re here to help each other to sainthood and holiness.

How is encouraging, expecting, and paying for another person to put their lives on public display as your spiritual food helping them?

As I have said many times, I’m a student of social movements – my graduate work was focused on 19th century feminism and American Christianity – and I am no stranger to the ins and outs and evolution and fractures in any and all movements, including the pro-life movement. In any movement, you will always have disagreements on process, emphasis and goals. In the American pro-life movement, the serious disagreements have been centered on support of legislation and politicians: is supporting half-measures a sell-out or just realistic politics? And of course, a fundamental disagreement about process: should politics or culture be emphasized? You can trace these disagreements back decades.

But there’s never been any disagreement that helping women and their children is central to the pro-life movement. And this is what is so annoying about those in the Catholic world who are busy declaring, Well, ackshually, pro-lifers (eew) you DO know that just because Roe is gone…that doesn’t mean abortion is going to end tomorrow, RIGHT? Ackshually….you DO know that the REAL work starts now, right?

They were handing out cards to those on the street (and there were a lot – this was one of Oxford’s main streets on a busy Sunday afternoon) – cards which explained what this was all about, with contact information.

As Pope Benedict said on nearly every occasion of a Corpus Christi procession during his papacy – this is a moment in which we do what we are called to do all the time – take Christ out into the world that needs Him so badly. Taking that one, very small step further – of actively inviting and engaging the curiosity and interest witnessing the procession might inspire – is, yes, brilliant.

But do you know what else these homilies had in common, aside from being just good, substantive, practical and oh yes, under fifteen minutes long?

They were both written.

Oh, there were moments in which the homilist did a bit of improv and added a thought or two, but for the most part, both seem to have kept to what they had written.

I’ll be honest. I’ve never heard an off-the-cuff homily that was worth a dime. I know that homilists can be all Oh, the Holy Spirit will guide me and it will be awesome…but real talk here. Most of the time, guys…it’s not. The risk of meandering self-indulgence is super high if the homily isn’t written down and presented pretty much exactly as planned.


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I did this last year (Here’s one post, with links to all the others.) It’s a way for me to sort through things, retrieve ideas that might work for longer pieces in other spaces, make me feel horrible about my terrible memory (did I write that?) and so on. I don’t include posts on saints or travel here. The saints because I tend to re-run them, no apologies, and the travel posts because they are collected here. Gender-related posts here.  Book and movie takes, as well as links to other monthly highlights, at the end of this post.

All May posts here.


It also strikes me that intense discernment of “vocation” in the world is a luxury good, an expression of privilege. And in the modern world of self-fulfillment, quite often twisted into a baptized version of privileged “life journey,” and a way to avoid serving and meeting the needs of those right in front of us, right now.

There is a spiritually healthy way of talking about lay vocation in the world, I think, but it’s not a way that centers on personal fulfillment. It challenges us to ask: “What does the world need? What do the people in this world need? How can I help? How must I help?”

I will add that there have always been actually pastoral pastors and ministers who have listened to seekers’ and inquirers’ stories in the mode of the apostle Philip. They have been open to the presence of the seeker on the road. They’ve taken the time to instruct and answer their questions. And when the Spirit moves, they don’t hold up more and more hoops. They stop the chariot right there, and go find some water.

So there’s that.

But that’s what we’re here for, isn’t it? Not just for our family members, but for everyone. This thing we call love takes different forms in various circumstances, but always at the heart of it, it seems to me, are two things: presence and self-gift. That’s where the decision starts, the answer to the question begins.

Whatever you have, whatever you can give to who needs it at that moment…

…that’s what you do now.

To fulfill our duties in ordinary life, letting the love of Christ live and grow in us, bringing Christ to each and every interaction whether it be washing dishes, conducting a meeting, comforting a child, hammering a nail?

To do that? Even those quiet, ordinary tasks are ways to be his witnesses to all nations. 

There is great depth and richness in the imagery of sheep and shepherd, not reducible to simplistic allusions to gentleness and lambs, as appealing as that may be. It has profound historical resonance in relation to Israel and its kings. It is about intimacy and recognition and protection, for, if you think about it, the rod and staff of Psalm 23 are not decorative. They are for support, they are for warding off enemies. The critique of contemporary shepherds implicit in all of the Scripture readings is directed at their weakness and failure to protect the sheep.

Because, indeed, we’re not walled off from the broader culture. People enter into that sacred space carrying everything with them, and Christ seeks to redeem all of it.  So knowing that Mother’s Day permeates the culture, accepting it, but also accepting that motherhood and parenthood in general is far more complex than the greeting cards and commercials and even Super-Authentic-and-Relatable-Instagram-Influencers let on, and that people come bearing, not only motherhood-related joy, but motherhood-related pain as well – the Body of Christ embraces and takes it all in.

Why the heavenly messengers challenge those of us still on earth, are you just standing here? He’s told you what to do …move on and out and get going!

So it’s an appropriate day, it seems, to talk about a unique way in which evangelists in the past took that challenge to heart and, instead of just sitting around wondering what to do – actually did something creative to share the Good News.

***Spoiler alert: it’s a method that was eventually banned by bishops. Of course. ***


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