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Last week, I pulled a book off my basement bookshelves: St. Denis: A French-Canadian Parish. 

It’s a rather well-known sociological study, published in 1936, with an postscript briefly describing changes that had occurred by 1949. The book was from my parents’ home and was one of the few I took with me after their deaths. My father was a political scientist, not a sociologist, but had a few works from that field that were popular or of general

amy-welborn2

My mother’s aunt, after whom she was named.

interest in the 50’s and 60’s. The other factor that I’m sure led to this book being on their shelves was my mother’s French-Canadian heritage. She was born in New Hampshire, but was first generation – everyone else in her family had been born in Quebec. In fact, since my mother was born in 1924, the emigration activity described in this book was her family’s story in a way – that very fluid border that existed between New England and Canada at the time through which young people who either had no work on family farms or simply wanted a different life passed constantly back and forth until probably the 1960’s. In 1973, we took a family vacation and visited some older  third cousins in Sayabec, Quebec, women who had lived in Lewiston (Maine) for over a decade in the 1950’s and 60’s and, of course had never had to speak a word of English during their time in the United States.

(My mother’s Catholic grammar school classes  in Maine were half in French and half in English. When she went to public school, everything was all English, all the time. The French-speaking children called their non-Quebecois classmates “Johnny Bulls.”)

So anyway, I did have a personal interest in this book, but more than that, a general interest in the subject matter, related to those persistent questions of religion and culture. What was the lived faith of these early 20th century Catholics like? How is it similar to mine? How is it different? How was faith enmeshed in culture? And can I find any clues at all as to why it has collapsed so completely in Quebec?

Well, it’s only one book centering on one tiny slice of life, but in terms of that last question, what came to me – not a very original thought – was that the intimate weaving of religion and culture gave faith its greatest strength – and was a factor in its collapse as well.

For as the study indicates, although St. Denis was, even in 1936, a very traditional rural culture, change was coming – economic pressure was prompting young people to seek amy-welbornwork in the cities and even in the US, and they were bringing back different values when they returned. Religious life was intimately tied to the rhythms of daily and seasonal life and was a largely uncontested worldview  – which we look at with nostalgia and yearning – but perhaps (perhaps) led to an experience of faith ill-equipped to cope with the spiritual questions raised in a more open culture (Not everyone believes as I do – and some of those people are good people – is it really necessary to do and believe all of this? I’m having experiences that I’ve been taught were sinful..and I still feel okay…was what they told me true at all? ) – simply because they weren’t raised.

I don’t know. Just guessing here.

Anyway, here are a few pages from St. Denis.  The first is just there to give you a taste in case you don’t want to click through. The second takes you to this link – a pdf I made of some pages related to the Mass. The first couple of pages relate to the role of the boys’ and mens’ choir – which have different liturgical functions. And then I’ve given you the entire chapter on the Mass, which I think you’ll find interesting. Note that, in this case, those laity who receive Communion don’t receive it during Mass. They go to Confession before Mass, and then Communion is distributed before Mass begins – my scant knowledge indicates that this is High Mass under discussion, and Communion was not distributed to the laity during High Mass. I’m sure someone will correct me if I’m wrong!

 

stdenis

 

Excerpt from St. Denis.

I often think about what I believe is the greatest difference in the contemporary landscape in which the Church evangelizes today and say, the most frequently-encountered conditions of a hundred, two hundred or a thousand years ago. To me, that great difference is all about human choice, mobility, awareness and relative prosperity. Some of that is reflected in St. Denis – although these people certainly had more choice and mobility than say, a medieval peasant – still. Lives were fairly circumscribed, most people followed life paths determined by their families and human health and flourishing was highly dependent on how the forces of nature treated you this year. A spirituality of Let’s make this your Best Lent Ever and God wants you to use your unique gifts and talents to set the world on fire and wow, isn’t it great to know that God made you beautiful and wants you to have an exciting life?! ….

…would be…irrelevant.

Which is why, when I’m sorting through spiritual messages and discerning what’s real and what’s fake and opportunistic, one of the criterion I’ve taken to consider is: Would this expression of the Gospel and these spiritual stylings be equally applicable to me – in my world of mobility and choice – and to a 9th century Italian peasant – or to a person in a refugee camp – or an elderly person in a nursing home – or a child? 

Yes, our different circumstances do call for varied specific applications and challenges. But fundamentally – one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism. The basics of what we say should make sense to anyone, at any time, anywhere.

 

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So, my friend Matthew Lickona is Kickstarting this:

"Bat out of Hell"

I can’t embed the video..so click on the image to go to the site and watch.

It’s an animated series inspired by Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights. 

What we’re trying to do is produce the pilot episode of what we hope will be at least a 10-episode series set in the freaky world depicted by the Netherlandish painter Hieronymus Bosch. A world full of corruption and indulgence, angels and devils, torture and torment, sin and (just maybe) salvation.

There is a weird confluence here, because I’m going to be actually seeing The Garden of Earthly Delights in the Prado, in person, soon.  Like Matthew, I’ve always been fascinated by this painting.

Oh, and the title for this post? Well, Matthew’s primary collaborator on this is his brother...who had a bit of a disaster this past weekend….

Go!  Check it out ! Support!!

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