Sunday, February 20, 2011

Baubles, Bangles, Beads and God's Mercy

Whenever I complain about the lack of statuary or crucifixes in a church, or bare, whitewashed walls in a chapel, there always seems to be somebody around to remind me, in lofty tones, that I shouldn't need all that paraphernalia, and that having Jesus in the (ugly, '70s-style) tabernacle should be enough to satisfy and fascinate me (just as it is enough to satisfy them).  There is this mentality prevalent, according to which statues and pictures and symbols are a pure distraction, the desire for which is a sign, at best, of immaturity, and at worst, of a lack of faith.  

I have reason to doubt that this is God's view of the matter.  For one thing, He Who told us that we must become like children in order to enter the Kingdom of Heaven gave us our senses, and ordained that they should be the mediators between our souls and the world outside.  A believing Catholic ought to reject the notion that there is no role for the senses in the world of faith: God established the Seven Sacraments as outward signs of inward graces, so that, in approaching the Sacraments, we might be absolutely certain, by means of evidence detected by our senses, that we have received the graces we have sought.  Besides, until very recently, when this new iconoclasm became fashionable, the Church has always provided for the senses with beautiful architecture, statues, stained-glass windows, incense, bells, vessels, and vestments, each of which was filled with meaning, and served (a) to  focus us on the August Sacrifice; (b) to remind us that the house of God is really the portico of heaven, and (c) to surround us with subjects for prayerful meditation so that our minds need not wander along with our eyes.

There are those reasons for doubting the no-knick-knacks-necessary crowd.  And then there is my own story of how I came to be a daughter of St. Dominic.  The image above is a picture of a profession cross.  If you are looking at it on a regular computer screen, it appears slightly larger than the one I received when I made my life profession.  It is known in heraldry as the cross fleury, because of the fleur-de-lis on each end.  White and black are the colors of the Order.  Lay Dominicans customarily wear either this cross or the white scapular to chapter meetings.  I have previously told the story in this space of how I came to be swept into the Dominicans through the intercession of Bl. Margaret of Castello, the patroness of my chapter.  It is all true.  But now I shall disclose an additional detail that I have never before admitted publicly.

Although everything had been arranged for me to enter the Third Order of Preachers, I could still have refused to do so.  I knew, deep down, that it would be ill-advised to refuse to take a road so clearly marked by the hand of Providence, and to which all barriers and obstacles had obviously been swept away; but I had misgivings all the same, because it wasn't what I wanted.  Still, I said yes.  I would like to be able to say that my consent was motivated by reasons of high spirituality or intellect, or some other lofty and noble consideration.  But when the rubber meets the road, the thing that induced me to say yes was not the charism of the Order (about which I had no opinions) or its history (about which I was ignorant) or its traditions (about which I was even more ignorant) or Dominicans I had previously known (whom I remembered with very little affection) or even its long honor roll of illustrious saints (of which I was vaguely aware).  

What induced me to say yes was the profession cross.  I was attracted to it.  All the Dominicans wore one.  I wanted to be able to wear one too.

That's it!  It's as simple as that.  No trumpets; no shining clouds; no cherubim nor seraphim; no heavenly choirs.  I was not unaware that a commitment was required in exchange for the privilege of wearing the black and white cross fleury, but the fact remains that I was drawn in by a piece of ecclesiastical bling, dangled before me like a lure in front of a fish.  I bit down on it and swallowed.

As silly as this sounds, I do believe there is some precedent for this sort of thing.  For instance, somewhere -- I no longer remember where -- I can recall reading or hearing the story of a priest who got his vocation on account of a beard.  As a little boy, he saw a Capuchin friar with a big, bushy beard, and liked it so much that he wanted to be a priest, so that he too could have a beard like that.   Still: that is the story of a little kid.  Should a grown woman be thinking along those lines?  After all, I was 36 years old when I entered the Order.  Yet when I received my little postulant's cross, I never wanted to take it off.  I wore it for the rest of the day, and to bed.  I wore it every day throughout my postulancy, until I received the medium-sized novice's cross -- by which time the little cross was so shabby and ratty-looking that I retired it to a jewelry box.   I made a black-and-white beaded herringbone-stitch rope for the novice's cross; and now my big life-professed cross hangs from that rope.  I am proud to wear this insignia of the Order to chapter meetings and other Dominican and Church functions.  For everyday use, I wear a little Dominican shield with the cross fleury on my lapel, and also on the lanyard that carries my employee badge for work.

Perhaps I ought to reproach myself for being so childish and superficial as to be easily stirred by such trivia.  The world is full of people who would agree with that assessment.  But then again, perhaps a more appropriate response would be thankful reflection upon God's immense goodness and kindness.  Extras, as Conan-Doyle once remarked through the lips of Sherlock Holmes, could only issue from the goodness of Providence.  God is not content to provide us merely with what we need.  He also showers us with extras, like this profession cross, things that we do not absolutely require for our survival but which it pleases Him to give to us for our pure pleasure.  

And then there is His goodness in using all necessary inducements, however trivial, to get us onto the right path and keep us there.  Clearly, He wanted me to be a Dominican.  It is an immense gift, wholly unasked for and undesired, the full meaning of which I do not expect to be able to grasp in this life.  I can only suppose that it must be necessary for my salvation, because it is equally clear that He not only wanted me to be a Dominican, but was also very determined that, in my waywardness, I should not turn down this gift.  And so  He left undone nothing that could be done to induce me to accept it.  He thought of everything, down to the most minute detail.  He condescended to appeal to my aesthetic tastes, and to hold out this tiny reward in return for consenting to receive His awesome favor.

Though perhaps it is a mistake to call it a "tiny reward," since issues of such great moment depended on it.  And since it has meant so much to me.   And since Almighty God has, in His boundless goodness, thought to give this minuscule decoration a place in His inscrutable counsels regarding my eternal welfare.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Of Daggers and the Extraordinary Form

I love the Extraordinary Form of the Mass.  I love sacred polyphony, traditional hymns, and Gregorian chant (and, aided and abetted by a certain Dominican friar just south of the border, am quickly becoming a Dominican chant addict).  I love the Latin, the silence, the atmosphere that fosters recollection, and especially the priest turning away from me and facing God.  I am very sorry that so many of my fellow Catholics do not love these things, and indeed loathe and despise them, and flee from them as though they were mortal sins.  I am especially sorry that this number includes even many priests and bishops.

When you love something, you want everybody else to love it, too.  How do I convince my fellow Catholics to love the Extraordinary Form of the liturgy and all that goes with it?  Unfortunately, I am about the last person on earth equipped to bring about this much-desired result.  Too often my passion for these things, coupled with frustration and impatience, turns into hot-blooded vehemence.  Then out fly the daggers from my mouth, and from my keyboard.  And how sharp my daggers are, and how swiftly and skilfully I drive them home!  Right through the heart of charity.

Should I blame my fellow Catholics -- sincere, observing Catholics who try to live their faith as they understand it -- for looking at the Extraordinary Form and seeing a monstrosity where I see celestial beauty?  Or for listening to Marty Haugen's "Mass of Creation" and hearing the music of the spheres where I hear nails screeching on a chalkboard?  Or for reducing to just another political special interest my desire to revive the Mass of tradition in my city?  After years and years of the wolves overrunning the sheepfold, how can the average Catholic be expected to know that the very things they despise are the keys to the undreamt-of supernatural realities for which they strive?  Or that the liturgical mediocrities they cherish actually hinder our confrontation with God, as Dietrich von Hildebrand warned they would do 45 years ago?  Merely human talents and abilities hesitate and collapse, or rage impotently, before such difficulties. 

And so when I find myself about to rage, impotent to do anything except give unnecessary pain, I must just shut my trap, set side my quarrel, and give place to those practiced in the ways of charity and patience.  And I must resign myself to the fact that charity and patience do not move nearly as fast as I want them to, but do move at just the right pace for both the sensibilities of all concerned and the lasting good of the ultimate desired outcome.  

The purpose of this long preamble is precisely to talk myself into giving way to one more practiced than I in charity and patience, who expresses more eloquently than I can why we should love the liturgy in its Extraordinary Form -- and who finds that the best way to do so is by explaining why he himself loves it.  Rev. Christopher Smith is a young priest devoted to the Extraordinary Form of the liturgy, and whose methods of coping with opposition are far superior than, say, mine.  He begins thus:
I was having a delightful meal recently with a bishop whom I love and respect as a father, and who has been extraordinarily kind to me. My personal policy never to even mention the extraordinary form of the Mass at the dinner table was circumvented by one of my brother priests whom I also esteem as a friend and colleague. “So what do you think of the Tridentine Mass, Bishop?” Sweat began to form on my brow as my stomach churned and the previously delectable filet mignon on my plate suddenly revolted me. “Not again,” I said to myself as I began to drown out what I knew would be an deluge of verbiage against the Missal of Pius V/John XXIII by reciting the Prayers at the Foot of the Altar from memory.
Read the rest here -- especially if you are curious to understand the attractions of the Extraordinary Form.

And if you have ever been the recipient of my dagger-thrusts...please forgive me.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Prayer Alert Update: Bill Gross

Please continue to pray for Bill Gross.  He has been moved to a hospice facility.  He is now unable to speak.  

Please stop right now and say a Hail Mary or a chaplet of Divine Mercy for him.

UPDATE: Bill's pneumonia is gone.  He is out of hospice and back in hospital for treatment.  However, he is still very weak and still has serious medical issues.  He is not out of the woods yet, so please keep praying for him.

Monday, February 07, 2011

How Responsible are WE?

When bad things happen to us, do we bear any of the responsibility?

This is a hard question, exceedingly politically incorrect, more likely to provoke temper tantrums than serious thought -- particularly in an age filled with incentives to play the role of victim and put the blame on somebody else.  But serious thought is exactly what this question deserves.  If we bear any measure of responsibility for bad situations that we find ourselves in, then, however painful or difficult or humiliating, we ought to attend to that which gives rise to such responsibility.

Take, for example, the problem of bad priests and bishops.  It is no secret that they are out there, and always have been, ever since Judas Iscariot.  The great heresies and schisms that have plagued the Church down the centuries have been midwived by priests.  There are priests and bishops who neglect their flocks; who exploit their flocks; who lead their flocks astray.  There are even some who are guilty of the most unspeakable and filthy crimes imaginable, disgracing the priesthood and bringing good and faithful priests into disrepute.  There certainly seem to be times when the number of bad priests and bishops increases.  It appears that we have been living through just such a time.

The question naturally arises: why does God permit this?  Yesterday I came across this disturbing quote from St. John Eudes, priest and reformer of the 17th century:
The most evident mark of God's anger, and the most terrible castigation He can inflict upon the world, is manifest when He permits His people to fall into the hands of a clergy who are more in name than in deed, priests who practice the cruelty of ravening wolves rather than the charity and affection of devoted shepherds. They abandon the things of God to devote themselves to the things of the world and, in their saintly calling of holiness, they spend their time in profane and worldly pursuits. When God permits such things, it is a very positive proof that He is thoroughly angry with His people and is visiting His most dreadful wrath upon them.
Take a minute to read that a few times.

Can this be right?  Is it possible our present sufferings really have roots in our own conduct?   There is no doubt that western civilization in general is going to hell in a bucket, but does God have a reason to be angry with Catholics in particular?  We are supposed to be the light of the world and the salt of the earth.  The Pope recently warned us that we are on the brink of a new dark age.  Could we have come to such a pass if Catholics had not been lying down on the job?  Consider:

-- How many of us attend Mass every Sunday and holy day of obligation?  How many of us think it's okay to miss Mass without a good reason?

-- How many of us go to confession at least once a year?

-- How many of us receive Holy Communion in a state of mortal sin?

-- How many of us believe in the Real Presence?

-- How many of us behave appropriately in church?

-- How many of us see nothing wrong with contraceptives or infertility treatments that divorce procreation from the marital act?

-- How many of us see nothing wrong with abortion?

-- How many of us see nothing wrong with homosexuality or sex outside of marriage?

-- How many of us think we can reject any doctrines of the Church that we disagree with?

-- How many of us pray and do penance?

-- How many of us study our faith?

-- How many of us fail to carry out the duties of our state in life?

-- How many of us think it's possible to sin without affecting others?

We cannot be unfaithful as Catholics and expect to escape the consequences.  The next time a priest makes headlines on account of some misconduct, or we hear a priest preaching heresy from the pulpit, or we see abuses in the liturgy, instead of giving ourselves virtuous airs, perhaps we ought to take that as our cue to amend our lives, do penance and make reparation.