Tuesday, December 29, 2009

On Flirting

They told me the girls complained that I was a big flirt in middle school (said girls, in classic middle school fashion, never told me this themselves).  This upset me at the time.  Why did they think I was a flirt?  Because I was comfortable hanging out with the guys and I laughed at their jokes?  News flash: I thought their jokes were funny!  I was /not/ being a big flirt!  (Anachronistic observation: Sure, I wore quite the booty shorts, but that was for fashion and for fun, and was never intended to land me a man.)

My whole extended family functions by way of humor.  Somebody's the straight man (usually me), somebody's got the witty retort or the hilarious story (never me, save in extra-familial situations), and everybody's the audience.  My parents have always communicated via witty banter exchanged across the kitchen or over the dinner table.  One of my earliest childhood memories is of desiring such a banterability with the man I would one day marry.

But this enjoyment of humor (and especially of banter) was not limited to romantic situations, not by far.  I have bonded with many a friend over the years (both guys and gals) with such verbal interplay as could (I suppose) be considered flirting.  But flirting seems to contain an essential element of showing off, an interior risk or danger, which has rarely been part of the situation for me.

This is not just a tension between my family and the rest of the world, though.  In my secular office back home, wordplay and banter are absolutely essential to the friendly, fun office dynamic.  I take this as a confirmation that it's not just the quirks of my family or the insularity that can afflict Steubenville circles but a reality of life that people banter and are funny, and this is good.

So why is it that women still get accused of being flirtatious for such things?  Double standards?  Jealousy?  Certainly misperceptions, but is there more to it than that?

Let me know if I've missed anything.  In the meantime, I've got some co-workers to banter with.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas, everyone!

From lands that see the sun arise
To earth's remotest boundaries,
Let us proclaim the Virgin-born
The Son of Mary, Christ the King.

Divine Creator of the world,
A servile form he now puts on;
The Word made flesh will free mankind
And not lose those who are his own.

Within the Mother's stainless soul
Dwells plentidue of heav'nly grace:
Her sacred womb now bears enshrined
A secret such as none e're told.

The dwelling of that most pure heart
Becomes the temple of the Lord:
Virginity remains untouched
As she conceives God's only Son.

That Child divine is now brought forth
Whom Gabriel announced before;
Whom, cradled in his Mother's womb,
The Baptist knew, and leapt for joy.

Upon mere hay Christ deigns to lie:
He does not spurn a manger bed:
A little milk now nourishes
The One who feeds the very birds.

Celestial choirs resound with song,
And angels praise the Triune God:
To lowly shepherds they reveal
That Shepherd kind, who made the world.

All praise and glory, Lord, be yours,
Whom Virgin bore for all mankind:
All honor to the Father too,
And Holy Spirit, Three in one.  Amen.

-Proper hymn for Lauds, Christmas Morning (OF breviary).
Transcribed from The Mundelein Psalter.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

On Christmas in Advent

When I was packing to return to school after Thanksgiving, I debated whether to bring back my Christmas decorations et cetera.  The deciding factor was the thought: I'm studying at the Liturgical Institute.  If we celebrate Christmas in Advent, there's something wrong with us!  And so I left it all at home.

The celebration of Christmas in Advent has always been a question I've debated.  Certainly it is better liturgically to celebrate Christmas, well, during Christmas!  Yet it does seem a bit excessive not to celebrate it at all during Advent, when the rest of the world is celebrating, especially since Advent is a season of preparation for Christmas - in joyful expectation more so than in sorrowful penitence.

A few groups of which I've been part throughout my life have celebrated Christmas after the holiday break (from work or school), but the vast majority of even Catholic groups celebrate before the holiday.  After spending this Advent almost completely out of touch with any holiday celebrations, I'm beginning to think this is more than just conforming to the secular holiday culture.

First problem: This Advent has not felt like Advent.  Sure, I've been doing the Jesse Tree on my own, and we've been praying Lauds and Vespers in common, and I've gone out of my way to wear the appropriate liturgical color each Sunday (epic win!), but it simply hasn't felt like Advent.  My Christmas shopping has been done gradually.  I've only listened to Christmas music on occasion (in an effort to keep myself from getting sick of it before Christmas came).  I've done no decorating.  My Christmas cards are not yet written (because I don't want them to arrive in Advent).  And I've been to a grand total of two parties.  It does not feel like we are approaching Christmas.

Second problem: I'm focused on Advent-not-Christmas.  As a result, I've been hesitant to wish people a Merry Christmas - whether they're people I know and see regularly or total strangers at the mall - which does little to support the celebration of Christmas or put anyone in a Christmas mood.  Even upon leaving school for the break, I felt no compunction about wishing people a happy new year, but had to force myself to say "Merry Christmas!"

Third problem: It's perfectly natural to meet and greet and wish people well in the weeks before Christmas.  There are some people with whom you'll part ways before the holidays, and others whom you won't see until the holidays; in both cases one wants to celebrate with such people and wish them the best.  The weeks leading up to Christmas are a perfectly natural time in which to reminisce and celebrate with those people who are close to your heart but are not the family with whom you spend the feast day itself.

Fourth problem: We have a hard time celebrating things for a long time.  I don't know how much of this is innate to the human psyche as opposed to twenty-first century American culture, but anticipation builds toward a major event and then dies down much more slowly.  That is to say: it seems to be easier to celebrate "Christ is coming!" for the whole month of December than to celebrate "Christ is here!" for the whole month of January.  Certainly this is aided by the fact that our society plays Christmas music and displays Christmas decorations on that time schedule, but I wonder whether this is something deeper than a societal disorder...

* * *

It's now Christmas Eve (I wrote most of the above yesterday).  After watching Christmas movies with my friends and sister (four in the past twelve hours), wrapping Christmas presents, and eating Christmas Eve dinner with my family, I am beginning to feel like it's time for Our Lord to be born.  Advent still felt too brief, but the calendar marches inexorably on, and the holidays come anyway.  I suppose my challenge now is to live out the other side of the coin: to keep the Christmas spirit even after the octave has ended. 

Puer natus est nobis, et filius datus est nobis . . . Cantate Domino canticum novum quia mirabilia fecit!

Friday, December 18, 2009

On Chivalry, Egalitarianism, and Restraint

I like to think I've mostly recovered from my feminist days.  But every now and again, I'm proven wrong.

By the time I hit high school, I'd already gotten over the self-esteem crisis that besets (nearly) everyone in adolescence.  I was fully aware that I'm a fantastic, beautiful person (who, admittedly, makes mistakes), and that I can make great contributions to whatever social situation I'm a part of.  Two primary goals of mine were to make people feel loved and to keep them from feeling awkward.  Consequently, I developed habits of complimenting people, telling them I love them, and hugging them; I also took it upon myself to rescue conversations from the dreaded "awkward silence".  I prided myself on being someone whose presence markedly changed social situations for the better (or so I always presumed), someone who could be relied upon to be a major player no matter what we were saying or doing.

Enter college.  I had already begun to learn the value of comfortable silence with good friends, and discovering the treasures of silent prayer only increased my interior life and consequent comfortability with silence.  I slowly but surely realized that I had set up for myself unrealistic expectations, and let go of my felt responsibility to fill pauses in conversations.  I discovered that it's okay to sometimes hold back from saying what's on your mind, and that it's possible (and permissible) for me to be fully present to a conversation without saying much.  Even so, I remained a major player in most conversations, especially among good friends.

These musings are not new.  What is new is the revelation of the way this has affected my outlook on chivalry.

I was brought up to think that one favor deserves another.  When I sleep over someone's house (say, while traveling), I bring a gift for the family to thank them for their hospitality.  If you invite me over for dinner, I'll show up bearing wine or dessert.  For the guy friend who pays for my food while we're out, I'll occasionally cook or bake.  I know these things are not necessary, but they seem appropriately gracious, and are always appreciated.

Well, I was at a special dinner with classmates last week, and our host (not a classmate) was a charming older gentleman who took a kind interest in me, the only woman in the group (at the time).  He held the shoulders of my coat while I took it off, and accorded to me the honored seat immediately to his left at the table.  During the meal, however, I did not converse with him much - sometimes because I was talking to the people to my left, sometimes because he was talking to the person to his right, sometimes simply because I didn't know what to say to him to spark a conversation.  And yet, at the meal's end, he took my coat and held it for me to put on, thanked me for my company, and bid me good night (along with everyone else).

I was bowled over.  I felt as though I'd failed in some responsibility (for surely the privilege of sitting at the host's side should be repaid with charmed attention and delightful conversation as well as feminine beauty), and yet he treated me no differently.  Certainly he was pleased that I'd enjoyed myself (for his job as host was to empower everyone to have a grand time), and thought nothing less of me for not engaging him conversationally, but I still felt remiss and entirely unworthy of the honor he'd bestowed upon me by being such a gentleman.

And herein lies the culprit: egalitarianism!  Michael reminded me last weekend that true chivalry would be cheapened were there strings attached: that a man who opens a door or holds a chair (or a coat) for me does so simply to honor me as a woman, and would be horrified to learn that I felt obliged to return the favor somehow, even if in a different and complementary fashion.

I've already had to break myself of the habit of immediately returning compliments, and have found that all compliments are now more meaningful.  Perhaps by humbling myself to accept chivalry in return for naught but my presence - even if that presence is not patently charming or hilarious - perhaps thereby I will more deeply interiorize chivalry, and consequently grow to better understand my role as a woman in this intricate dance we call life.

Still, maybe it is time to brush off those good conversationalist skills. They really are handy.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

On the Liturgy of the Hours as the Prayer of the Whole People of God

Scene: Room 106, Mundelein.  Characters: me, another lay woman, ten priests.

Most discussions in that class were lively, but this was one of the most memorable.  One classmate was presenting his research so far on his paper topic: The Liturgy of the Hours as the Prayer of the Whole People of God, with the idea that the postconciliar reforms of the breviary succeeded in their aim of making the Liturgy of the Hours more accessible to the laity.

Surprise was expressed at this opinion, and a discussion began as to reasons why the Liturgy of the Hours (hereafter LOH) was not being comunally celebrated in most parishes.  This continued for some time until it was questioned whether the issues brought up were related to the structural reform of the breviary (they weren't), and not to other factors that would be just as applicable to the 1964 breviary.  Slowly, as these objections had been being raised and digested, something had begun to stew in the back of my mind.  When I spoke, even I wasn't yet sure of the problem I was trying to communicate.

"The LOH is the prayer of the whole people of God, because it's a communal action of the whole Church, and the prayers contained are on behalf of all the people, okay fine.  But the fact that priests and religious are canonically bound to pray the Office*, and most laity are not, has got to mean something, has got to be reflected in its character (if not its theology).  Right?  I mean, if it's the prayer of the whole people of God, then it's mine every bit as much as it is yours; but most of you have been living and practically breathing the Office, in all its hours, every day for years; its rhythms have been internalized and it's become an essential part of your spiritual life.  When I pray the Office, it's nice, and familiar, and liturgical, but that's about it."

Fr Dana chimed in with what almost seemed like surprise in his assent:  "When I tell my parishioners about the LOH, I usually say, 'This is the prayer that every priest and religious says every day - and you can say it, too!'"   The general opinion was more or less agreement that, while we have no issue with Pope Paul VI's theological formulation that the LOH is "the prayer of the whole people of God" (Laudis Canticum, 1), this idea was somewhat at odds with our lived experience.

A few weeks later, I had the opportunity to attend sung Vespers at the Shrine of Christ the King.  I, who am quite comfortable with the Traditional Latin Mass (to the point where I positively prefer it), was saddened and disappointed to find that I could not unite my heart to the liturgical action.  In fact, if I recall correctly, I prayed through all the psalms at my own pace, napped, then looked over them again when I woke up, and simply left when Vespers was over.

Even in the Ordinary Form, I realized, the celebration of Lauds and Vespers in common has little ritual attached (unlike the Mass and sacraments); it's mostly just a matter of chanting (or saying) the right words at the right time, and occasionally sitting or standing.  It's a lovely prayer to make, but it doesn't feel like my personal prayer (and we seemed to establish in class that the LOH is meant to be both personal prayer and the prayer of the Church).

So it was with great anticipation that I was finally able to sit down and read this classmate's completed paper last night.  He traced the history and development of the LOH, showing that it began as a Christian extension of the Temple services, the whole community gathered together at fixed hours to recite psalms and hymns of praise, then evolved to two forms: the cathedral office and the monastic office.  The cathedral office was textually simple (one psalm for Lauds, and one for Vespers - the same two every day) but had great ritual (candles, incense, processions); the monastic office was structured so as to facilitate reciting the entire psalter.  Over time, the more complex monastic office came to have primacy, and priestly travel, coupled with a overall attention given to interior piety, contributed to the clericalization of the Office: it was effectively, though not officially, the priest's private prayer.  When the Second Vatican Council called for reform of the Divine Office, the faithful were explicitly mentioned, and communal celebrations of the LOH were encouraged (Sacrosanctum Concilium 84, 87, 100, etc).

I've had to oversimplify this greatly.  My apologies.

The paper was very illuminating, and I enjoyed reading it.  But it did little to satisfy my initial unease (after all, even before I understood the theology or history of the LOH as the prayer of the whole people of God, I didn't doubt it).  I know we can't base theology upon experience.  But the experiences of a group of well-formed person are something against which one might test a theology, to a certain extent...

The LOH is the prayer of the whole people of God.  Okay, we've got that.  But clergy and religious are bound to pray the Office, whereas for most laity it's (dare I say it?) more like a devotional activity.  Doesn't that suggest that clergy and religious have a different relationship to the LOH than do the lay faithful?  Then shouldn't it be possible to say that, in some sense, this prayer is more properly theirs?  We tested out a theory in class that, though it's the priest who prays the Office, because he prays for the whole Church, it is then the prayer of the whole Church; that, however, led us down a messy path wherein the laity don't need to participate in prayer because the priest is doing it on their behalf...

I don't really have a conclusion, but I do have one suggestion (even this, however, leaves me uneasy): As we are all different parts of the Body of Christ, as we each participate in His work in a different way, so does the depth of our connection to the LOH change according to our relationship to it.  Consider analogously the vision of heaven that depicts each person as a cup: each cup is filled to the brim, but the cups are of differing sizes (and no one cares about the size of their cup, because each is completely full).  In this way, it would be possible to preserve the juridically experienced idea that the Divine Office belongs with a certain fullness to those clergy and religious who are bound to its recitation without diminishing its value for and proper-ness to the lay faithful.

Maybe I'm just grasping at straws here.  But sometimes, that's all we can do.  In the meantime, I'm off to go pray Vespers, for regardless of the deeper theology, it is good for my soul to proclaim the greatness of the Lord...

*Divine Office = Liturgy of the Hours

Monday, November 30, 2009

On Art and Beauty

Last Sunday after Mass, one of the other ladies in the choir suggested I consider going to art school.  I can only imagine three observations that might have served as basis for this advice: 1) I sing in the choir 2) at a parish that is particularly attentive to the Sacred Liturgy and its beautiful celebration, and 3) my style of dress.  Despite her extraordinarily brief knowledge of me, she was quite insistent that she could see the artist in me (and she would know, she clarified, since both her parents were artists), and I really should consider being an artist, because I clearly had that sort of gift…

I always take people who discern my vocation for me with a grain of salt.  But as I read through our holy father's recent address to artists, I found my thoughts swimming in a familiar stream: art as a means to beauty.

I’ve long felt like I’m on the fence as to whether I am an artist.  Certainly I am a person with artistic gifts, as evidenced by my lifelong love for (and talent for) things like music and writing.  I do look at the world with an artist's eyes, ever alert for beauty, and as time has gone on, I’ve been able to unlock understanding of graphic design, art, fashion, and architecture, thereby deepening my ability to dialog with beauty at all times.  Despite these artistic understandings, I have never felt drawn to a career as an artist, and my artistic gifts are much more subtle than those ordinarily associated with visual arts (I have little skill at drawing or painting, taking photographs, decorating a home, designing clothes, or any other typically “artsy” skills).  The only artist's career I'd ever considered was that of a writer, but even so I never seemed to find my niche.

So: an artsy person but not an artist?  Even the label "artsy" seems a stretch, for it suggests a particular social scene with which I have little commerce.

In the aforementioned address, Pope Benedict hailed artists as custodians of beauty.  That sounds just lovely.  But what is beauty?  According to the Thomistic tradition, beauty requires three elements: integritas, consonantia, and claritas (often translated wholeness, proportionality, and clarity, respectively).  That is to say, a thing that is beautiful is not lacking in any way, is perfectly proportioned (and balanced), and reveals its inner reality through its outward form.  It is this last one, claritas, that interests me the most.  A thing is beautiful insofar as it reveals what it truly is.

I was very surprised to learn in high school that fact was not always sufficient to express truth.  I can't recall the name of the book, but it was about being at war, and some of the stories the author told were not factual, but they nonetheless represented the life of the soldier in that war (one of the yucky more modern ones - perhaps Vietnam?).  Truth is more than facts.

"Decoration is a poetic expression of structure, one which gives knowledge of things beyond the mere facts of engineering by beautifully revealing the forces of nature that would otherwise be invisible."  I had long known that merely being inside a beautiful building raises my heart to higher things, but never had I considered architecture as poetry before reading about it last week in Denis's new book.  Decoration in architecture is based upon a building's structural necessities, but reflects this in a more abstract manner, in a more poetic manner - so a column can be decorative, but a steel i-beam, not so much.

Truth is more than facts.  Beauty is a revelation of a truth.

"This world in which we live needs beauty in order not to sink into despair," said Pope Paul VI, as quoted by Benedict in the speech above.  "Beauty, like truth, brings joy to the human heart, and is that precious fruit which resists the erosion of time, which unites generations and enables them to be one in admiration.

So my pursuit of beauty as an end in itself is not so much laudable as perfectly natural.  The more one understands beauty and the Mystery it makes present, the more impossible it becomes not to manifest that beauty in every aspect of life.

If being an artist simply means expressing beauty, as the words of our holy father's address might suggest, then most certainly I am an artist, even if art is never my career.  I do live by the via pulchritudinis, the way of beauty, for His beauty has captured my heart, and I can live my life no other way.
Man can live without science, he can live without bread, but without beauty he could no longer live, because there would no longer be anything to do to the world. The whole secret is here, the whole of history is here.
-Dostoyevsky, as quoted by Pope Benedict, Address to Artists, 11/21/09

Full Disclosure: Though an occasional duty of my work-study has been to help with promoting Denis R. McNamara's new book, Catholic Church Architecture and the Spirit of the Liturgy, its mention here has nothing to do with the job (as my casual tone might suggest).  I merely mention it because I think it's excellent, and because if you like my theological posts and the idea of a book about architectural theology intrigues you, I am quite certain that you will like this book.

Monday, November 23, 2009

On Symbolism, or the Church as She

Does it scandalize you to learn that the Fathers called the Eucharist a symbol?

If you understand symbolism the way contemporary man does, then that should upset you.  In response, you might consider looking to a more ancient theological understanding of symbolism.  A symbol, then, is not a mere sign pointing to what it signifies; rather, it reveals what it signifies in such a way that it actually contains it without limiting the thing signified to the revelation in the symbol.

That is to say: A stop sign is not a symbol, nor are those arrows that label this button the one that fast forwards.  Consider instead the human body.  Human beings are ensouled bodies; our souls cannot  communicate with each other without the use of our bodies (whether that's to act or even just to speak or write).  In this way, our bodies symbolize our souls, without reducing our souls to only that which is communicable via the body.

This view of symbolism is parallel to one of iconography, wherein Jesus Christ is the icon of the Father, because He communicates Him to humanity in a way we can understand.  (He is, after all, the image of the invisible God.)  In this vein, theological tradition calls Him the primordial sacrament.

The Church, then, is called the fundamental sacrament, for as Christ made present to us on earth the Father in heaven, so does His Church make Him present to those of us who have not seen Him in His glorious humanity, yet still believe.

A sacrament, even in this broad sense, is a particularly efficacious symbol that communicates the grace it signifies; the grace presented in the sacrament is actually present within the sacramental symbols.  It is through this lens that we look at Holy Mother Church.

Yes, the Church is an institution, a group of fallible human beings who screw things up.  But she is also the Bride of Christ, guided always by the Holy Spirit.  Just as Jesus Christ is God and man, and as every human being is body and soul, so is Holy Church divinely guided, though she is led by mere humans.

And there is my point:  "she is led".  By referring to the Church as she, one immediately evokes her many images: Holy Mother Church, the Bride of Christ, Our Lady, even the moon (who shines brightly with a light not her own).  By referring to the Church as she, one linguistically gives credence and support to the Bride of Christ, who is docile to the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

In such a day and age as ours, when Holy Mother Church is seen as just another corrupt institution with too much bureaucracy and too little relevance, referring to her with love is one of the best (and simplest) ways a faithful Catholic can work to restores faith in her as a reflection of Christ, thus containing His authority and power (among so many other things).

One of the most remarkable things about Holy Mother Church is that this personification of her is not inaccurate.  One can enjoy her beauty, delight in her treasures, and trust in her guidance.  Some lucky few (a blessed few, really) even have the privilege of marrying her.

This may all sound romantic, but it's simply realistic.  Before Our Lord gave up His spirit on the cross, he entrusted St John to his dear mother; likewise, He has entrusted each of us to His Church.  Let us always love her with His love, and may we in return receive from her His great blessings.  If you place your trust in Holy Mother Church, you will never be far from our dearest Lord.

Accept and bless these gifts [. . .] which we offer you first of all for your holy catholic Church.  Be pleased to grant her peace, to guard, unite and govern her throughout the whole world...
-Roman Canon, newly approved translation (p16)

Thursday, November 19, 2009

On Hunger

My car is in Illinois.  I am in Jersey.  Cars are required to get places in Jersey, and I have been going places.  This is more or less convenient, because Dad works in the city, and so long as he gets to his bus stop in the morning, he has no problem with me using his car.

I'm working at my old job again.  I used to work 9-5, which gave me plenty of time to attend 8am Mass at a nearby church (unbeknownst to them).  But since they asked me to come back for 8:30-4:30, and this allows me to drop Dad off at his bus stop (rather than forcing Mom to get up early and do so), I decided to forego my preference of attending daily Mass (for I know that this is not a requirement for a good, holy Christian life) during the time when I'm home, and to focus instead on singing the Divine Office and asking Our Lord to come to me in spiritual communion.

And it has been wonderful to focus on the prayer of the whole people of God, singing psalms and spiritual canticles.  As someone who is not canonically bound to its recitation, imposing this discipline upon myself has been a great blessing indeed.

But I've also noticed that these past few days have been filled with more longing for romance than had the weeks previous.  And I can't help but wonder how much that is connected to the sacramental distance I've had from my divine Beloved.

O God, you are my God, for you I long...

Monday, November 9, 2009

On Provocative Language in Everyday Use

As I believe I've alluded to before, this campus is over 90% male. This means that at nearly every meal I eat, I am the only woman present at the table. It's an interesting dynamic; I am the honored guest as often as I'm the fly on the wall.

There have been moments like when those generous men gave up (or at least delayed) their sports talk time and asked me about my local sports teams, diverting the center of attention to me, because they'd noticed I had nothing to contribute to the sports talk. On the other hand, there have been a number of moments when unflappable Claire was a just little bit surprised that they really just said /that/ so unabashedly, with a woman sitting right next to them.

The men here (the seminarians, the priests, and the few who are neither) are very conscientious to bid adieu to "Gentlemen" and to "Claire". If they refer to a group of which I am part as "guys", they are always quick to apologize and restate with a more gender-neutral term.

On the other hand, when vulgar language is used, there is almost never an apology nodded to me, the woman who has to sit through this (even my secular office accorded me that courtesy).

I am an educated woman, with a background in foreign languages and in Catholic tradition. I understand that a mixed group is referred to by the masculine plural. As a personal stylistic choice, I actually prefer "brethren"!

I have no opposition to vulgar language, especially when used appropriately. But I like to think of myself as a lady. I intentionally refrain from using such words for propriety's sake.

It's not that I'm upset or offended. And it's not everyone here who does this; these are just general trends I've noticed at random meals. But it does make me wonder:

When did feminist egalitarianism replace common decency as the most important sensibility to avoid offending at all costs? And what can I do to help switch it back again?

Saturday, November 7, 2009

On My Changing Relationship to Theology

Grad school is pretty different from undergrad.  Perhaps this seems obvious to you, but I suppose I'd just figured it'd be more of the same, except with more difficult electives in your field of study, as opposed to core curriculum or random nonsense electives.  The skills I learned in undergrad are essential here, don't get me wrong, but the differences between the two sometimes seem to outnumber the similarities.

The first obvious difference is in the content of the classes: at this level, theology is almost necessarily speculative.  One can hardly avoid questioning whether decisions made in recent decades are truly in light of the tradition, or wondering where the prevailing contemporary scholarship went wrong.  For example: In undergrad, I was reminded that the sacraments of baptism, confirmation, and orders place an indelible mark ("character") on the soul and are thus unrepeatable.  During the paper I handed in tonight, I grappled with questions that had simply never occurred to me before: What does this "character" actually mean? Are different characters imprinted with the different sacraments, or is it the same character, simply deepened?  What's the purpose of confirmation and why is it a separate sacrament from baptism?  Is the character imprinted at each stage of the sacrament of orders, or just once? (And those are only the questions I can throw out there without having to explain the background!)  There's not a right or wrong answer to any of these, because Holy Mother Church has really not defined very much; she's left a lot to her theologians.  "I feel like I'm always in danger of being a heretic!" I commiserated to Phillip yesterday.  Laughing, he agreed: "You pretty much are."  (Not me personally; that "you" refers to theologians in general... oh, shush. You know what I mean.)

I've mentioned to some of you how glad I am that I took that year off between degrees and spent it at home working.  Now that school is not the only thing I've ever done, now that I'm back here by choice, now that I'm studying rather than working a 9-5 job, I am able to truly appreciate the leisure aspect of higher education.  How many people do I know who long for the ability to earn a degree like mine!  And yet it can;t be in the plans; their calling in life is elsewhere, and this sort of education is not a reasonable option for them.  It is a great luxury to be living a student's lifestyle on this beautiful campus, and a great privilege to be studying the sacred liturgy among such brilliant minds from such diverse backgrounds, and I know it.  I live in awe of this gift Our Lord has given me every day (I pray that awe never fades, for this is truly a marvelous place).

Time to connect the dots!  When I was simply an undergraduate with opinions, or a layperson living in the world, thinking about the family I will someday raise, I could think whatever I wanted (to a certain extent, at least).  My responsibilities were to God, my family, myself, my friends...  But now I am here, in Mundelein, studying something so essential to the life of the Church yet which too few have the opportunity to study in much detail, and I see that my perspective is not being spoken throughout the Church.  What I have to say would be a unique contribution to the discussion of theologians the world over, and they might actually listen to me!

While this is exhilarating, it's also sobering (please don't make me actually quote that line from Spiderman 3.  I know you're all thinking it): My responsibility is now to the whole Church.  Whereas before I was perfectly content to spend the rest of my days at an Institute parish (unless God threw me a real curveball on the husband thing), drawing people to Christ slowly, one by one: it's not so simple anymore.  Now I find myself grappling with the principles of the Liturgical Movement and the Postconciliar Reform, and the actualization of both.  I must face what is deficient in each of the two forms of the Roman Rite, not what is missing in the Ordinary Form alone.  It is no longer good enough that I pray much more effectively (and easily) when invited to join silently in corporate interior prayer than when I am asked to say and do exactly the same as what others are saying and doing in a group ritual in my own language: Now I must evaluate the goods of each method in light of what is best for the whole Church.

Navel-gazing though academia can be, I really think that the Church at large can benefit from my perspective (and they'll have ample opportunity to do so in coming years, God willing).  My thoughts, my engagement with the issues, are essential to God's work today in His Church throughout the world.

How humbling, exhilarating, and terrifying all at the same time.  Deo gratias!

Saturday, October 31, 2009

On Brains and Career Choices

Two good friends of mine have surprised in recent months me by asserting quite forcefully that I am smarter than they are.  It's not that I disagree with the assessment; it's more that I'm bewildered by how they came up with enough data to make such a claim (in both cases, I feel quite certain that I lack the evidence necessary to evaluate such a claim).

Out here, too, I am widely regarded as being very bright.  Now, I'm accustomed to being regarded as being highly competent, because good, efficient work speaks for itself.  But I've not been here very long, and I don't feel that my brain muscles have been stretched in a way that would be observable to others. It's not like I've been the center of attention (well, perhaps my fashion, but much less my conversation),  and I haven't been around for many intellectual discussions (I'm quieter out here than you'd probably expect).

Don't get me wrong; I know I'm clearly an intellectual, and that does come across to people (hence why most of my friends from Spirit and Truth expect me to write a book someday).  What really baffles me is how other intellectual friends can so easily assign me a slot above them in that great mental hierarchy of intelligence.  (Not that I don't mark out other friends as geniuses myself, but that's usually only after I've had some sort of intellectual background with them...)

But let's take this supposition and run with it.  So I'm smart.  Smarter than most people.  (Certainly logical thinking is a good beginning that's lacked by most Americans.)  I realized tonight that perhaps my own intelligence is the trap behind my unfortunate Jansenistic tendency of separating my faith from others' reason.

See, I know that faith is reasonable, especially ours (well, to a point, anyway).  And I've heard all the philosophical arguments for faith; they all make sense, but I find none of them to be quite compelling enough.  So I don't get into philosophical arguments about religion, unless it's with people who are coming from the same philosophical playing field as I'm on.

So I've learned, over time, to explain my education and life plans in such a way that they make sense and sound reasonable and nonthreatening (if a bit bizarre) to religiously apathetic people.  My passion remains invisible (though implied), but I'm okay with that; sometimes that's how it's gotta be.

Well. Tonight I was in a social situation with mostly areligious peers, strangers.  So naturally, the first conversation opener is to ask about work or school, and I run through my usual spiel, receiving the usual polite-but-not-particularly-interested responses.

And then it hit me: My intellectual gifts are near-completely hidden in such a situation.  Sure, my social competencies play out nicely, but these people first meeting me will likely place me in a mental bin with people of lesser intelligence than they have, simply because I value religion.

Perhaps that's why I feel like universalizing my life's ambitions is just dumbing them down: because speaking in such a way fails to bear witness to the glorious reasonability of our faith.  And that reasonability so desperately needs to be borne witness to.

And maybe it's just the nonconfrontational people-pleaser in me that only wants to engage with those people who positively want to have religious discussions.  But you attract more flies with honey than with vinegar.  And while you might have fewer buyers at first if you leave the honey loose, it'll last longer and be better kept if you seal it in a jar and open it only at the appropriate time.

Peddling honey is somebody's role.  I just think mine is more like serving tea and waiting for my guests to ask for it.

And yes, Luke, I did title this post just for you.

Monday, October 26, 2009

On Delight

Delight in the Lord is a principle and a virtue clearly lauded all over the Scriptures. But searching through Holy Writ for references to my delight in Him instead directs me to reminders of His delight in me.

This delight, of our God in His people, is usually demonstrated, at least in the Old Testament, by some sort of physically measurable gift: prosperity, victory in battle, kingship, good crops, etc. When God delights in us, He shows us His favor.

Yet he delights in our prayers, our humility, our interior sacrifices - in short, He delights in our gifts of love from ourselves to Him. (He then shows this delight by giving of Himself and His own to us.)

Shelve this train of thought for a moment. We'll come back to it.

Each of us is made in the image and likeness of God. Thus each of us shines with the love of God. The more we are in tune with God, the more of His love we give to others and receive from others.

Shelve this thought right next to the other one.

Delight is a strong word. There's a big difference between "You make me laugh" and "Your humor delights me." Even greater is the gulf between either of these and "I delight in your humor" (or, even further removed, "I delight in you").

Can you imagine that? If a friend came over and told you, "I just delight in you, in your person: your quirks, your humor, your intelligence, your passions..." (Naturally, this would have to be someone who knows you well enough to have a sense of these things, otherwise it'd just be creepy, and that's not what we're discussing here.): Does that make your skin prickle? Does it feel just a bit intrusive? Just plain weird?

Why? True delight is based in generous love. When one perceives the goodness of God incarnated in another person, words like joy and appreciation are often simply inadequate to relay the depth of heartwarming love experienced. Agape needs no excuses.

I am sure I will someday delight greatly in my children, much more than I can currently conceive possible. In the meantime, Our Lord has blessed me with a jovial temperament and true delight in many, many people. As I am a young single woman, these people fall into four categories: family, female friends/acquaintances, male friends/acquaintances, and people I know from afar (this runs the gamut from that priest at the parish whom I've never met outside of Mass to that professional musician whom I consider to be a genius).

Family is family, and it doesn't feel voyeuristic to admire a stranger from afar (well, usually). Women are used to complimenting women (catty competition aside). There's even a certain degree of security in my friendships with married men, because I'm also friends with their wives (though these can still be precarious). When these extraordinary affections get most tricky is when it's with those single men whose mere presence brings me such delight.

This has happened to me more times than I can easily count: I experience such great love and appreciation for a man with whom I interact regularly... You've seen it coming: it's very difficult to delight in a man without succumbing to the pressure to develop a false crush on him. It becomes much easier when one of us secures our vocation in some way (e.g., enters a relationship or seminary), because then the ambiguity disappears.

But why the pressure of compliment? Why is it so threatening for me to communicate to a man that my delight is not only in his humor or his brains or his way of telling stories or his fashion sense? That it's more holistic than that: that everything about him fills me with holy joy simply because Our Lord saw fit to create such a wonderful creature?

But sometimes such bare honesty is inappropriate to the relationship between two people. Sometimes true charity requires that you withhold verbal expression of the depth of your delight. Though neither agape nor philia need eros, they both can be easily confused by the thought (the fear?) of the presence of their more passionate sibling.

Right now, I think I'll show that love by beseeching Our Lord to send His favor upon those who fill me with such true delight. That, and by laughing at their jokes.

Friday, October 23, 2009

On Just Laughing

Some of you know me to be terrifically witty and hilarious. But in the beginning, it was not so.

Even still, you bring me to a Gilligan family gathering and I'm the one who sits there quietly and laughs at everyone else's jokes (and it's not because I turn off my humor quotient; they're just that much more hilarious than I am, in comparison). When I was a little girl, one of the things I most longed to be (besides not white) was funny.

I can still specifically remember the first time someone acknowledged me as funny (in early high school). Gradually, I came to realize that it was okay to recycle my dad's and grandfather's jokes in a new audience, and from that eventually developed a sense of humor all my own. I became used to making people laugh, and delighted in it!

This continued into college. The famed "Ann Arbor Eight," who constituted my immediate group of best friends, included many hilarious, philosophically inclined men, and I thoroughly enjoyed throwing my two cents into their conversations (and was especially proud when I could hold my own).

But I grew more into myself over time, which (in my case) meant drawing back in and becoming a bit more introverted. By the end of college, when the same guy banter came up, I was equally pleased to join in, to sit and listen and laugh, or to leave and chat with the girls.

So it wasn't a huge transition when I came to grad school at a seminary and found myself mostly just laughing at everyone's jokes, and rarely making my own. At first I thought this was a transition and comfortability thing, but I am very comfortable here now, and yet most of what I do is still to just laugh.

This makes sense to me: As it took me a long time to believe I was actually funny, so it's taking me a long time to believe that my presence can be appreciated when all I contribute to a conversation is laughter.

I'd begun to realize this now that Michael is graduated and moved to the area - see, his girlfriend Gina doesn't find him funny at all, whereas he barely has to wave hello and I laugh. When I'm around (read: when he has a heartily laughing audience again), it's visibly the-opposite-of-demoralizing for him, and he appreciates it.

Seriously? Who doesn't love a good-natured person who will laugh at ALL their jokes, and not out of pity but because she legitimately thought they were funny? How silly that it's taken me so long to realize!

I think it's finally sinking in, though. As I chuckled through lunch yesterday, Denis declared, "I'm glad you're here to laugh at my quirks." And that's when it hit me: My laughter is a contributing to the conversation! I don't have to be a major player; I don't have to throw out incredible insights or hilarious quips and puns. Somebody has to be the audience, and that's no less essential to an enjoyable chat.

I like this whole finding yourself in Christ bit. The me He has in His mind is way more relaxing and awesome than the me I've tried to create for myself.

Iesu, mitis et humilis Corde, fac cor nostrum secundum Cor tuum.

Monday, October 19, 2009

On Red Hats and Other Wardrobe Eccentricities

I like to wear eccentric outfits.  It’s about beauty, really, and offering to the world a unique shade of beauty with a style that they won’t see anyplace else.

It wasn’t about beauty when I started.  Well, maybe it was in childhood, when I just liked bright colors and loud patterns; perhaps the fact that I liked them so much shows the attractive power of beauty (you can judge for yourself how my subjective standards of beauty measured up to more objective standards).

But when I got to college and could finally, after thirteen years of Catholic school uniforms, wear whatever I wanted every day, beauty was not a factor in my equation.  I wore what I wanted to wear because I could, and because it was fun to combine things together that formerly seemed taboo (a favorite: skirt and tshirt).  I clearly remember the shock I felt when a dear friend, reminiscing over our first year, remarked that my outfits didn’t always look spectacular, but were none the less distinctive.  This opened up a new world to me: You mean that these crazy ensembles I’ve been throwing together actually look good!?  The thought had never occurred to me!

Not an unusual combination for Claire world of early college
Over time, as I got older and more involved in campus leadership positions, I found myself wanting to class up my act a bit.  I kept the unusual flair of my style, but tamed down some obnoxious tendencies and looked more into classic or old-fashioned stylistic elements.

In the meantime, beauty had been becoming more and more a central theme in my interior life.  We are lead to truth through goodness and beauty, and it is in the very nature of woman to offer her beauty to the world (the trick is doing it in an appropriate manner…).  Simply by being beautiful, I can draw people to God.  How cool is that!?

Additionally, Our Lord sees my beauty, on the inside and the outside, and loves it thoroughly (particularly as it is a reflection of his perfection).  I am secure in His Love, and therefore am able to offer his love to others.

So I offer my beauty.  I wear elegant hats on everyday occasions, clothes with strange textures or exceptional colors.  And I do it with the confidence that, no matter what I wear, I am beautiful.

And let me tell you: The looks on people’s faces as they observe or compliment a particularly unusual outfit is one of joy.  As much as I enjoy the clothes I wear, it is quite clear to me that the people around me love it even more.  (Which makes packing for a long weekend very difficult, let me tell you.)

So, my friends, treat your beauty as a gift.  Wear it with confidence in Our Lord’s great love for you, and with the knowledge that sharing with others a bit of the beauty He’s given you is truly drawing them to Him.  Let your elegance be a bright spot in someone’s day, and never tire of receiving compliments graciously.

They say you never know the difference a smile can make in someone else’s day.  Let’s see how much of a difference we can make with a hat, shall we?

Saturday, October 10, 2009

On Slowing Down, and Being

Sometimes it takes a visitor for you to realize what a new place has taught you.

This weekend, Greg came to visit.  We pretty much did the same things I'd normally do anyway, except that the homework bits were replaced by the two of us chatting.  As we took a leisurely drive around the lake this morning, Greg commented that, "It's so weird not to be doing fifty things at once."  And I realized: I've become used to that, to whatever is the opposite of multitasking (unitasking?).  But let me back up.

For meals here on campus, they only serve at certain times, and for only so long.  So the whole campus eats lunch at 12, for instance.  Because of this, it's standard procedure (and only polite) to remain at your table until everyone who's seated there - including those who arrived as you were finishing your food - has finished both eating and talking.  If you have a particular reason why you need to go, that's not held against you, but the primary time of socialization here is over meals, so you just budget an hour for lunch and chat with who you sit with.

Even the campus itself invites you to slow down.  The speed limit here is 25, but every time I glance at my speedometer, I'm barely hitting 15.  There's just this serene feeling of being in nature (on nature's turf, if you will), such that you want to slow your car down to be as inconspicuous as possible.  The focus is not on where you're going to end up but on the journey, on the beauty you're in the midst of as you go.

Too, there aren't a million social activities here like there are at undergraduate colleges.  This place is just a grad school and a seminary, nothing else.  So while there are things to do and people to see... let's just say I don't think I've had so few extracurricular activities in my schedule since middle school.  Not to suggest that I'm not doing anything - I work, and I go to class, and I catch up with friends via the phone, and I do research, and I pray, and I eat, and I sleep - but only that I spend larger chunks of time doing fewer things.

I suppose I'm learning about small town life, in a way.  Not to suggest that ours is a self-contained community, but that it is small, intimate, and slower-paced. And I've always had a hard time with not-fast-paced.  I do, I suppose, expect that others who come to visit are looking for something to do, which we don't really have.

You don't come here to do; you come here to be.  It's a distinction I often forget.  Hopefully two years here will enable me to internalize this enough that I can live it even in the midst of Big City life.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

On Names

They told us in theology classes years ago that, in the Hebrew tradition, names are a big deal. That God renaming Abram Abraham was significantly more than just a nickname. That God's revelation of His Name to the Chosen People through Moses marked a covenental intimacy that no other people had with their God. That even still, when one writes the Name of God in the original Hebrew, he is required to break the pen (or whatever writing implement) he used, because it has written the greatest thing it is possible to write. That at the Name of Jesus, every knee must bow.

But names still never seemed like anything to write home about, other than these sacred Names. Making connections at a new place here has reminded me how normal it is to name-drop - not even to impress people, but just to find common ground, whether it's people you personally know or perhaps those with a bit more notoriety that you mutually follow. I'm sure my fellow Steubie grads who read this are well aware of the moment when you introduce yourself and identify your background, and the Catholic you're talking to immediately throws out names of others who attended our school. It's just a natural way to put ourselves at ease with others.

So when I'm now meeting awesome people who are headed to my alma mater, I think nothing of telling them to send my best to those people still there whom I most treasure and/or whom they're likely to meet.

There is one particular professor whose class I recommend as worth nearly as much as the entire rest of one's education there; naturally, I tell these new student friends of mine to seek him out and take his class at all costs. Turns out at least one of these friends made it in to his already overfilled class specifically because he told this prof that I told him he had to take the class.

That brought it home: My name is important. Perhaps that's just me developing notoriety, but it was a strange feeling, to know that my name alone - not my presence, my email, or anything else I directly did, but just my name - was enough to influence such a decision.

Growing up, I always called the Mother of God simply "Mary." That was her name, so that's what I called her. When I began to meet other Catholics my age who practiced their faith, I noticed that most of them called her the Blessed Mother. As I grew to learn bits and pieces of other languages, I saw that in Polish, she is usually called Mother of God; in French and Spanish, Our Lady. Whenever a Marian priest said Mass, his homily always tied in Our Lady.

My point? After a time, it became clear to me that those people with great devotion to the Immaculate Virgin called her by different titles, and almost never by her name. So I intentionally switched from referring to her as Mary to our Blessed Mother. As time continued, I found myself desiring a deeper love for Our Lord's Mother, so I thought I'd do what everyone I know with strong Marian devotion does: intentionally refer to her as Our Lady.

And, wouldn't you know it, my love for her has soared. And all I've done differently is change how I refer to her. Not even how I address her; that's the same as it's been since childhood. Just calling her "Our Lady."

Because of which, I've unconsciously begun to refer to Jesus as "Our Lord," rather than simply as Christ. It's a title that radiates both loving affection and submissive intimacy. And I love it.

I pray that Our Lord bless you and Our Lady watch over you and all those whom you hold in your heart.

Monday, October 5, 2009

On the Divine Office (and Liturgical Time)

Ouch. Has it really been so long since my last post? My thanks to those of you who've reminded me, through comments and conversations, that I have a blog and that people read it. This one goes out to you.

From the time when I first came to know what the Liturgy of the Hours was, I knew that priests were canonically bound to say all the hours every day. (Note: Each "hour" takes only a few minutes to pray; they are so named because they are tied to specific times in the day.) There was a period of about three months when I prayed three to seven of those hours each day. And for years I've prayed morning &/or evening prayer close to daily.

But being surrounded by priests has slowly shown me that, like most laypeople, I take the Office for granted, and completely underestimate what a vital element it is to the life of the priest.

The director of my program often says, "The liturgy shares her treasures with those who sit with her and wait." One does not come to understand the liturgy by a cursory glance or by going through the motions, but by inserting one's whole self into the prayers consistently for years and patiently picking up little gems along the way, one by one, until you have more diamonds than the Queen of England.

Liturgical time is an important function of the sacramental life of the Church. That is to say, in liturgical time, the mysteries of salvation are explained and lived out for all those who pay attention. This is most easily seen through the liturgical year, which obviously walks us through the life of Christ. But it's also true of the liturgical week. In the Office, if you look closely, you can see a pattern of beginnings and endings, in the intercessions and especially the proper hymns for the four-week psalter (which are unfortunately only visible in the original Latin and in the Mundelein Psalter). The hymns at the beginning of Weeks I & III are about creation, and those toward the end of Weeks II & IV are about the end of time. It's very cool.

What I always forget, however, is that each day is a liturgical mini-history of salvation! Again, this is especially apparent in the Divine Office: particularly check out the orations (prayers) for each hour in any of the four weeks (stick with Ordinary Time, because it doesn't have any other themes to distract from the point I'm trying to make). Morning prayer is about creation and beginnings, midafternoon prayer is about Jesus' passion, evening prayer is about thanksgiving for the day that's been lived, and night prayer is about death.

LinkDo you see now how praying these hours every day for years upon years would have a profound affect upon a priest? Little wonder many priests jokingly refer to their breviary as their girlfriend: she's with him wherever he goes, he checks in with her throughout the day, and he must be faithful to her.

The Divine Office is an extension of the Mass; in the Liturgy of the Hours, the priest continues to live in the texts of the Scriptures and of the day's feast long after the Eucharistic celebration has ended. Priests are canonically bound not only to celebrate the Mass, but to live it via the Divine Office.

I love our Catholic faith. Its beauty never ceases to astound me.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

On the Great Amen: Some Theology and A Moment

The priest concludes the Eucharistic Prayer with the Final Doxology, or the per ipso:

Through him, with him, in him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all glory and honor is yours, Almighty Father, forever and ever.
To which the congregation responds: Amen.

This prayer is the final summation of the orations that consecrate the Eucharist. It's as if he's been threading the shoelace all along, and this prayer is the big bow on top that ties it all together. So it's kind of a big deal.

I've been noticing recently that most of the hymn settings of the Great Amen shift the focus away from the Holy Eucharist being offered to the Triune God in glory and to the congregation's assent that this is as it should be. How many times have you heard four bars of instrumental introduction, plus "Amen" repeated between three and twenty times, and maybe a few other words thrown in there for good measure? This is especially dramatic when the per ipso is spoken and the Amen is sung. The focus is unquestionably on the congregation's assent.

Recently, I was attending Mass with a few of my priest classmates (other laypeople were invited, but didn't come). When it came time for the Eucharistic Prayer, eight priests stood around the altar, and I knelt alone in the congregation (wearing pink, to boot). At the per ipso, eight strong male voices sang out:

Through him, with him, in him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all glory and honor is yours, Almighty Father, forever and ever.
And my lone voice responded:

Truly this was a demonstration of the respective importance of those words. The Sacred Liturgy is so beautiful when it's done simply but as written.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

On Liturgical Music

When I first arrived here two weeks ago, I walked out of Sunday Mass, meandered a bit to let it sink in, and began to cry. The Mass itself was beautiful in so many ways, but I had not at all been able to insert myself into it in such a way as to actually pray.

I knew that part of my trouble was caused by the fact that I've been attending the Traditional Latin Mass all but exclusively for the past year, and sporadically for the year and a half before that. The extraordinary form of the Roman Liturgy is so much quieter and more contemplative than its brother the ordinary form.

Too, I've been spoiled by the Liturgical Institute. From my first days here, we've chanted Lauds together daily, and Vespers most days. This is beautiful in its unity and simplicity, but is unfortunately musically distinct from most Masses on campus with the seminary.

As the days rolled by, I began to realize the primary reason I had trouble praying at Mass here: the piano accompaniment was SO LOUD, it drowned out the voices of all 185 seminarians singing, as well as any shot I had at thinking prayerful thoughts. It was just so loud. Occasionally the organ was played instead, which was less jarringly percussive, though no less loud. (The chapel is a large space easily filled, and easily filled to overwhelming.)

Last Sunday, a few hours after campus Mass, I drove out to the nearest TLM available, at a parish apostolate of the Canons Regular of St John Cantius. As soon as the priest and servers processed in and began the prayers at the foot of the altar, I felt the comfort of familiarity, and immersed my spirit in the sacred action with relief.

That is, until the Kyrie. (Background: At my parish back home, we always sing the Ordinary in a seasonally appropriate chant setting.) This choir director had selected a lovely polyphonic setting of the Ordinary, which had great potential to be a wonderful aid to prayer, even despite that one soprano who was consistently just sharp enough to make you cringe. Unfortunately, the choir was mic'd. This church was a small space, with a maximum seating capacity of maybe two hundred people. No carpeting, nothing but bodies to absorb the sound. There was no need to artificially amplify the choir's voices. And though the music they sang was objectively much more beautiful than the 1970's hymns that were sung at the seminary that morning, I could no more pray THROUGH THE NOISE OF THEIR BEAUTIFUL SINGING than I could with the too-loud piano.

As the days have gone by here at the seminary, I've learned to pray via the sound itself of the piano or organ, and they've gotten choirs organized which fill out the sound in a much lovelier (and more balanced) way. Too, the the LI has begun to have our own Masses once or twice a week, which is a retreat into simple chant, at least.

But Friday night tied together for me what's been missing. I went to a local Spirit and Truth, which was much smaller than the one I'm used to. Back home, a night that's light on music ministry had only Isaac and me, guitar with two full, blended voices (other options over the years have also included up to two additional harmonic voices and instruments such as violin, bass, and keyboard). I had anticipated missing this musical delight very much, and much as I expected, music ministry here was just one woman and her guitar.

But in its simplicity, there was such fertile beauty. Fewer than twenty of us were scattered throughout the small church. Her voice and guitar were both clearly heard, but neither impressed the listener with any necessity to join in. The sound floated above us from the choir loft, and we could add to it or pray without our voices, as we so chose. The music itself gave us the choice.

That's what I'd been missing all along: liturgical music should invite the listener to pray, not force them to sing.

How far I've come since the days when I thought participating in the Mass simply meant singing along! I daresay that even more important than the musical style or the lyrical content (excepting heresy, of course) is the prayerful quality of the music. That is what liturgical musicians today must learn, and then teach to their congregations.

Dear Jesus, draw more hearts to Thee through true musical beauty, that Thy whole Church might come to know Thee in beauty and purity of soul. Amen!

Monday, September 7, 2009

On Transitions

Note: Though I rarely break the fourth wall (save in the combox), I apologize for the interruption in my posts.  Moving halfway across the country will do that to a gal.  I hope to be more faithful to writing here during my graduate studies.)

I have always been a very adaptable person; I acclimate to new situations without much difficulty.  But I have noticed that in recent years, my transitions have become more difficult.

Perhaps it's because more of my heart remains with the community I've left behind.  Certainly I've made more and deeper friends over the years, whom I dearly miss.  But I was pretty darn connected to my high school friends when I started college, and that didn't stop me from meeting a zillion exciting people and diving headfirst into college life.

No, no more perhaps.  I know exactly what is going on.  As I have grown closer to Our Lord, and He has shown me more both of Himself and of myself, it has become more difficult to give myself to others precisely because there's so much more of me to give.  How can I communicate to another the incredible depth of my being?

Consider this stark contrast: Here I am awkwardly making smalltalk with priests and seminarians I hardly know, largely in order to pleasantly pass the time.  But just a few days ago, I roamed this beautiful campus in near-silence with a friend so dear to my heart that words were unnecessary to express the depth of God's glory that we were experiencing in tandem.

Transitions are hard because they're lonely.  I am lonely because I know myself, and long to give of myself on a deep level.  I know myself because Our Lord has revealed myself to me.  I know Our Lord only through His gracious mercy, and as that knowledge increases, so does each transition become more of a challenge.

So the solution to a tough transition would seem to be: Remain centered upon Our Lord.  Everything else may change and pass away, but He alone will remain.

I love You, O Lord, my strength.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

On Scrupulosity

This morning's epistle spoke about law and covenant (and the distinction between them). See, God made a covenant with Abraham, a promise of salvation, about 400 years before He gave Moses the Law. He gave the Law because the people had a hard time figuring out what was sin and what wasn't - not to say that the Law contained any earth-shattering revelations; He was just reminding His people what not to do. But the Law had little to do with Israel's holiness or status as the Chosen People; that was all about the covenant. Father Munkelt's homily today focused on this part of the reading: God's promise predates the Law; the Law tells us what is sin; we need this because Original Sin has clouded our minds and made it difficult for us to determine that on our own... I carried this train of thought to a natural conclusion and was reminded that the reason we cannot earn our salvation by being good is because our salvation comes from God's promise, which long predates the Law (not that we shouldn't follow the Law... but I'm sure you're all already familiar with the faith/works debates).

A recent friendly discussion of differences between the Eastern and Western lungs of the Church caused me to conclude that the modern Western Church struggles with laws and rules in a way that the East doesn't, and perhaps a way that the West didn't used to. The predominant dichotomous groups within the Church today (e.g., conservative and progressive, traditional and charismatic) seem to be divided over rules: are they supremely important, or of little importance whatsoever?

So, too, does it seem to be very easy for a person striving for holiness (especially one with a duty-bound conscience like my own) to see fault everywhere, and to get caught up in the rules (Commandments) and the "supposed to"s and the "could have been better"s... Admittedly, humility does require that one see one's own faults, but it absolutely does not ask one to be overly anxious about them. Thus the problem: scrupulosity.

Fortunately, Our Lord has blessed me with a liberal trust in His loving mercy, so I am usually quick to accept His forgiveness for the little things I screw up on all the time. But how does one tell conclusively that a sin is venial as opposed to mortal? Oughtn't one to refrain from receiving Communion if ever in doubt, so as not to profane such an august Sacrament, even unintentionally?

Two responses spring to mind. First requires me to define a mortal sin: a sin that cuts you off from God in such a way that you are incapable of receving His graces until you repent and receive His forgiveness through his sacred minister, the priest. Three conditions must be present in order for a sin to be mortal: Grave matter, full knowledge, and deliberate consent (cf. CCC 1857). Or, as they taught us in middle school, it must be seriously wrong, you have to know that it's seriously wrong, and you have to freely choose to do it anyway. In short, a mortal sin is like choosing to spit in God's face and then turning your back on Him. But many Catholics often get caught up in that first condition, grave matter, and count themselves (or others) to be in mortal sin when mitigating factors such as poor education or addiction reduce one's culpability for that sin. In other words: Many good people who are striving for sanctity misdiagnose venial sins as mortal sins.

The second thing that comes to mind is a particularly memorable paragraph I read a few years ago from the Diary of St Faustina, a poor, sparsely educated Polish nun who was blessed with mystical visions of Our Lord on a regular basis (the words of Christ are in bold):

(156) + Once, I desired very much to receive Holy Communion, but I had a certain doubt, and I did not go. I suffered greatly because of this. It seemed to me that my heart would burst from the pain. When I set about my work, my heart full of bitterness, Jesus suddenly stood by me and said, My daughter, do not omit Holy Communion unless you know well that your fall was serious; apart from this, no doubt must stop you from uniting yourself with Me in the mystery of My love. Your minor faults will disappear in My love like a piece of straw thrown into a great furnace. Know that you grieve Me much when you fail to receive Me in Holy Communion.
I don't mean to suggest that I know what anyone else should do with their interior life, but that paragraph did it for me. I told Our Lord that I would no longer fret over whether to receive Communion, but would go unless I know I was fully guilty of a grave fault, which is rare, because His Spirit is with me.

I still go to Confession regularly. Like every other human being (with two exceptions), I sin. But I don't let my sins get in the way of my relationship with Our Lord. I simply apologize, accept His generous, unconditional forgiveness, and move on with my life and His plans for it. It's a beautiful relationship we have, and I look forward to Him continuing to transform me in His love.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

On Being, and Being Catholic

My inspirational concept here comes secondhand from a homily, so if I get any important details wrong, I hope Isaac will correct me in the comments. Or anyone who knows more Thomistic philosophy than I do (which is several of you).

The initial point which caught my attention was the claim that the popular American Life League slogan "You can't be Catholic and Pro-Abortion" is untrue and contains a logical fallacy. (Mind you, the intended point of the slogan is not in dispute, only its philosophical accuracy.) So the argument goes something like this:

Existence is the first act.* At baptism, our existence is ontologically changed, and we become Catholic in our very essence. Thus things like knowledge and opinions are irrelevant; we ARE Catholic in a much more fundamental sense than we are, say, American or pro-life or traditional. Even partisanship within the Church is false insofar as it separates us based on our thoughts, not our essence.

Damn those Enlightenment thinkers** (well, not really; I'd like to put a little more trust in God's mercy than that, but you know what I mean)! I have had such a thorough, solid Catholic education (thanks to my university, my friends, my parish, my reading material, etc); it scares me when I discover that I've been caught by so fundamental a lie as that.

I would like it if this post inspired some discussion. Pretty please, with sugar and a cherry on top?

*That is to say, the existence of every human being is the fundamental aspect of his personhood and is necessarily first and foremost.

**e.g., Descartes (Cogito ergo sum: "I think, therefore I am")
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