Monday, October 27, 2008

Dignus est agnus: the Feast of Christ the King

Yesterday, our schola sang the Introit for the Feast of Christ the King (yes, it's October, we use an older calendar): "Dignus est agnus...". You might know the English text from the Handel setting: "Worthy is the Lamb that was slain...". Here is a source text for the Introit: Revelations 5:12:

...dignus est agnus qui occisus est accipere virtutem et divinitatem et sapientiam et fortitudinem et honorem et gloriam et benedictionem...
("Worthy is the lamb who was slain to accept power and divinity and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and blessing..."). I was daydreaming during the long sermon and noticed a bit of word-painting in the Gregorian melody. Words referring to earthly power, such as "virtutem," tend to be lower in pitch (and with a Fa tonal center), whereas words referring to spiritual characteristics such as divinity or wisdom have a higher tonal center (either So with the hard hexachord, or La).

At that time, the priest then started addressing the Gospel reading in his sermon, which was from Pilate's interrogation of Jesus in John 18. It's worth repeating part of the interrogation here (John 18:33-38 NAB):

So Pilate went back into the praetorium and summoned Jesus and said to him, "Are you the King of the Jews?" Jesus answered, "Do you say this on your own or have others told you about me?" Pilate answered, "I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests handed you over to me. What have you done?" Jesus answered, "My kingdom does not belong to this world. If my kingdom did belong to this world, my attendants (would) be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not here." So Pilate said to him, "Then you are a king?" Jesus answered, "You say I am a king. For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice." Pilate said to him, "What is truth?" When he had said this, he again went out to the Jews and said to them, "I find no guilt in him.
Jesus never gives a straight answer to Pilate's question, "Are you a king?" The most interesting response to me is, "You say I am a king." To me, this suggests that Pilate didn't understand what Jesus meant by "My kingdom does not belong to this world..." Pilate understands "king" in particular as the potential leader of a revolt against Roman rule in Palestine, but more generally as a secular ruler: someone who deals in worldly power. Jesus understands "king" entirely differently: "You say I am a king. For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth." His dominion is voluntarily accepted by his subjects: "Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice."

The word painting in the Gregorian introit melody hints at the story of Revelations, which is the Son of God assuming his authority over the world. He accepts both power over the "lower" earth, and the divinity which is rightfully his from the beginning. I've suggested to Gregorian scholae that they keep in mind the Throne Room March in Star Wars while singing this introit. Both pieces have a heroic minor mode, and both tell the story of victory and authority over evil obtained through suffering and sacrifice. The hero comes before the throne to receive the power and grace that was his by birth, which he relinquished for a greater cause and now receives once again with even greater honor. In that sense, one can read Jesus' saying, "You say I am a king," as a willing relinquishment of his rightful title. He could have claimed it and the honor and power that were his due, but he chose to lay it down instead.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Act and Intention

Last week, we were idly watching a television program called "Ghost Adventures." In each episode, a crew of three is locked inside a place purported to be haunted, and they attempt to document visual and auditory supernatural phenomena. In the program we watched, the three visited a nightclub widely considered the residence of demons, and taunted them in order to evoke a manifestation (with apparent success). (The episode wisely included some footage of an Old Catholic exorcist bishop in Kentucky chastising the show's host for his foolhardiness, and explaining that the real threat posed by demons is not physical but spiritual.)

What I'm writing about is not whether or not taunting demons is a bad idea (you can judge for yourself!), but something that the host briefly said during the crew's "lockdown" in the haunted basement. They were in a room purported to have housed satanic rituals. The host lit some candles, and arranged them in a circle, asking a crew member to sit there and watch for possible phenomena. However, the host was careful to state as he placed the candles that the circle was randomly arranged and was not meant as "a satanic ritual or anything like that."

The host's phrase irritated me at first, because the practice of casting a circle occurs commonly in many forms of ritual magic and has nothing necessarily to do with "devil worship." (Presumably the connection has to do with figures like Aleister Crowley, along with the usual misunderstandings about non-Christian religious practices.) However, the Gospel reading this Sunday (23th Sunday after Pentecost) put the host's saying in perspective. The reading was Matthew 9:18-26, in particular the cure of the woman suffering hemorrhages. I was reminded of Mark's account of the same episode:

There was a woman afflicted with hemorrhages for twelve years. She had suffered greatly at the hands of many doctors and had spent all that she had. Yet she was not helped but only grew worse. She had heard about Jesus and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak. She said, "If I but touch his clothes, I shall be cured." Immediately her flow of blood dried up. She felt in her body that she was healed of her affliction. Jesus, aware at once that power had gone out from him, turned around in the crowd and asked, "Who has touched my clothes?" But his disciples said to him, "You see how the crowd is pressing upon you, and yet you ask, 'Who touched me?'" And he looked around to see who had done it. The woman, realizing what had happened to her, approached in fear and trembling. She fell down before Jesus and told him the whole truth. He said to her, "Daughter, your faith has saved you. Go in peace and be cured of your affliction."

I like Mark's version better both because it's more touching (you hear more of the woman's story) and because it's more "raw" than Matthew's account. Mark tells an interesting detail about Jesus' reaction to the woman's touch: he asks, "Who touched me?", even though he is in the middle of a crowd pressing on him from all sides. Imagine asking "who touched me?" in the middle of Times Square at rush hour! However, in a crowd, the act of touching is generally intentionless, or rather a byproduct of unrelated intention: I want to get close enough to have a good look at this Jesus guy, or I'm trying to push through this annoying crowd to buy some groceries from the market, or I'm just caught in the middle and trying to figure out what's going on. In contrast, the suffering woman touches Jesus with fully deliberate intent: "If I but touch his clothes, I shall be cured." Jesus in turn responds not to the act of touching, but to the intentional act, the act combined with deliberate intent.

This helped me understand why the host of "Ghost Adventures" might have said what he did. He was in a room where he thought satanic rituals might have been held (a "ritually and supernaturally charged space"), and doing something that he considered charged with spiritual significance (putting candles in a circle around someone). Therefore, he thought it necessary to announce his intent: the arrangement was "random" and "not a satanic ritual." The phenomenon resembles something that a Catholic priest once mentioned regarding the Consecration: at times, it would be necessary to consecrate bread and wine not on the physical altar in front of him, so he would consecrate with the intention to include a particular physical space. He didn't use these terms, but one could say that Eucharistic consecration normally includes an "implicit intention" (i.e., "the bread and wine on the altar in front of me"), but may also include an "explicit intention" which covers unusual circumstances. (Say the priest has to say Mass in a bread factory on a table made of stacked-up full wine bottles: the priest might want to make an explicit intention only to consecrate the elements meant for the sacrifice, and not the surrounding bread or wine.)

Jesus' sensitivity to human intention meant that he could tell the difference between accidental touch and meaningful touch. What's most interesting, however, is that Jesus doesn't even seem to know who touched him, until the woman identifies herself. It's as if her faith alone effects the cure: "Daughter, your faith has saved you." This shows the power of intention in the supernatural world. One could say that the only effects there are willed effects: there is no accident.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Asking questions

A couple days ago, I was flipping through Thomas Merton's little pamphlet on how to approach Scripture. He pointed out an example of the typical master-disciple exchange in Zen Buddhism: the disciple asks, "Who is the Buddha?", and the master replies, "Who are you?" The surface interpretation of this dialog is that you are the Buddha and I am the Buddha and everybody is the Buddha so let's all be happy hippies all together now. Merton explains it in a different way: the disciple goes to the master looking for facts, for doctrine to fill in the blanks in her spiritual worksheet. In reply, the master offers a question instead of an answer. Knowledge of the Buddha is not doctrine but experience, and therefore it requires a process of internal reflection and self-discovery ("Who are you?").

Interpreted a different way, this is what good advisors do with their students. If the answer to a question is known, it can be found in some journal paper or textbook. Instead, good advisors offer questions, because the process of scientific insight and discovery cannot begin without a good question. Long experience in a field develops the ability to ask the right questions, rather than the ability to accumulate knowledge. (Perhaps this is why among professors, good lecturers are much harder to find than good researchers!)

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Bio of Fr. Teilhard de Chardin: following Beatrice?

Last weekend, while traveling, I read a biography of Fr. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin by Mary Lukas and Ellen Lukas. It reads much like one would expect from a biography written by journalists in 1977: a lot of chronology, some of it not particularly interesting, and some sympathy. I've been dipping into "The Human Phenomenon" (formerly known as "The Phenomenon of Man") in a new translation, and finding it very insightful. Unfortunately, that kind of book is impossible to read in short bursts (for me at least!), so I have trouble making progress.

I learned two surprising things about the good Father from the biography. The first is his apparent failure to learn anything from China about humanity, after having spent so many years there. He observed the lack of interest in spiritual matters of ordinary Chinese people, and found it alien and disconcerting. The almost self-annihilating spiritual drive of many Hindus in India, in contrast, gave him a reference point against which he could argue: it said (according to him) that "matter is bad," whereas he said "matter is good." It didn't seem to occur to Teilhard to try to account for a cultural disinterest in "spiritualization" in his views on human development.

The second thing I learned was that Teilhard also had something to say about noncorporeal "sex magick," a topic which I've discussed on this blog before. The biographers considered Teilhard's work "The Evolution of Chastity" as mainly a reflection on his personal situation with Lucile Swan -- a woman with whom he carried on a long-term platonic relationship. What's interesting about the work is that he comes to many of the same conclusions as did Charles Williams and other male authors: from the male perspective, heterosexual expression should or will evolve away from the physical and towards the spiritual.

As I read this passage in the biography, it occurred to me that Teilhard, along with other male authors who had expressed these views, was making an implicit assumption of causality. We observe this: Men often experience "the feminine" as diffuse, rather than strongly individuated. These authors seem to associate diffuseness with abstraction, and like Plato, abstraction with moral elevation. By abstracting one's relationships, they seem to say, one can reach upwards towards "das Ewig-Weibliche," or "Yin," or whatever one chooses to call the Platonic form of Womanhood. They seem to neglect another explanation of the above observation: men could experience the feminine as diffuse, simply because the human male tends towards polygamy or polyamory. Men -- perhaps some more than others -- must consciously choose to make their experience of Womanhood concrete and singular.

It's interesting that men like Charles Williams and Teilhard felt how they did for women who were outside lawful monogamous bounds: CW, for one not his wife (Phyllis Jones), and Teilhard, despite his vow of celibacy, for an arguably spoiled dilettante artist with a childish fascination for the mysterious French Jesuit. Were CW and Teilhard projecting their diffuse desires onto their metaphysics? I shouldn't speculate into their motives, and I should also point out that both relationships were resolved with moral uprightness. Fr. Teilhard also was close friends with Lucile Swan at times when he had little support and needed a lot of friendship and love. Rather than judging these men harshly, we should look into the phenomenon itself and try to understand why they saw the direction of causality pointing one way instead of another.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Don't send me an MS Word form to fill out...

(here comes a rant, watch out)

...because I can't read it. Not because I don't own a copy of Windows and haven't run it for over five years. Not because I'm a "geeky Microsoft hater." It's because MS Word files aren't even compatible with past or future versions of MS Word on Windows itself, let alone on Mac. It's because there's no free .docx to .doc conversion service anywhere on the web, even though the 'softies bribed the ISO committee to get OOXML (hahahaha, OBJECT-ORIENTED XML?!?!? that's like "MS Visual Object-Oriented COBOL") accepted as a standard. It's because the lovely ad-hoc tables that you hacked up in MS Word between visits to Cute Overload collapse into an overlapping jumble of typography unless the margins are set to the exact same number of millifurlongs as yours, even though the margin setting doesn't happen to be a part of your document. It's because you e-mail me a form, then expect me to print it out, fill it out by hand, and FAX it (remember that lovely '80s all-caps trademark? oh wait, you were just a twinkle in your father's eye then!), complete with my credit card number all in plain-text, to some random phone number in another state.

You could send... ASCII? Unicode? a web form? a PDF even, which I could print out, fill out by hand, scan in, and send to you via encrypted e-mail (because you've put your public keys on the website, right?)? Alternately, if you happen to reject post-1950's technology, you could send a physical piece of paper via traditional physical mail, which I could fill out by hand and put in a paper envelope with a money order and send back to you?

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Submission to rubrics is submission to God

Recently, on an e-mail list, someone asked for advice on how to help make an Office liturgy over which (s)he was presiding more prayerful. I've heard other people ask this question too -- someone in our schola, who is new to the 1962 Roman Missal liturgy, was asking how to make it more about prayer and less about frantically flipping through various books and guessing at the right tones for responses. It's easy to understand how a quiet, prayerful person might find it very stressful to fiddle with books and worry about what to do next during the sacred liturgy. Maybe I'm just hardened to it as someone who has been through a lot of different liturgies in the choir loft! I'm convinced, though, that the busyness required to provide music for the liturgy can be an act of prayer in itself. Something that helps me is to remember that liturgy is about submission to structure leading to submission to God. When one is bound to the rubrics, one is not free to say or do whatever comes to mind. This in itself already exercises one's humility and is a prayerful act. (Not that spontaneity doesn't have its place, but the liturgy is mostly about following and not about creating.)

When I cantor in our local schola, I am bound to blend in with the voice of the other cantor, and to help the other schola members come in at the right time. We am bound to follow the director, who is bound to follow the actions of the priest and to help the congregation do their part. The priest is bound to celebrate the liturgy in a fitting way, and the congregation is bound to offer fitting worship. All of us are willingly bound together to worship God, and the Christ whom we worship is also willingly bound. All of this binding is sweet, like the swaddling clothes with which Mary wrapped the baby Jesus (see this Office hymn), or the priest's vestments at Mass. It's tight sometimes (imagine you're a new monk, it's 4am in the dead of winter, and you have to find out on the spot whether it's a Greater Double of the First Class or the Second Class), but it's there to help us out.

In a way, any mistake a presider makes or confusion that the congregation has is an act of worship -- it confesses the desire of presider and congregation to follow. The fact that one can "make a mistake" says that one isn't just making things up as one goes along. The more complicated the rules, the more one has to submit oneself to them.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Feeding the body and the spirit

Today's Gospel reading (Sixth Sunday after Pentecost) was from Mark 8. I always remember how the commentators on this "feeding of the multitude" passage identify this crowd with the crowd that shouted, "Crucify him!" In their mind, the people who came to hear Jesus were too limited to see beyond the pressing needs of their empty stomachs. Once this new prophet couldn't fill their bellies, they bent easily before the propaganda of their religious leaders.

There is an undertone of dualist elitism in this interpretation. It suggests that the masses are only capable of understanding gross physical satisfaction, and only the disciples (barely!) can rise above primitive fleshly desires to consider spiritual matters. Furthermore, Jesus himself says that they [the crowd] "have been with me now for three days and have nothing to eat." They don't seem to mind physical deprivation in order to hear the Good News -- unlike the disciples, who brought just enough bread and fish for themselves to hold out through Jesus' long-winded sermons!

One could say that Jesus' concern for the crowd echoes Maslow's hierarchy of needs: Jesus realizes that he can't make much more progress on their spiritual needs until he fulfills their physical ones. However, Maslow's pyramid can also serve a more subtle form of dualist elitism: those who are "self-actualized" have "ascended" through the levels of baser need-seeking to reach the top, where they have achieved contentness within themselves. The rest bumble around at varying levels of baseness -- either wondering where to find some scraps of food and a place to sleep tonight, fearfully casting their votes for the candidate who promises to be tough on terrorists, or trying to get their boss to respect their not-so-unselfishly-motivated hard work. There is a taste of the Calvinist doctrine of unconditional election here: those who appear to be saved are saved, and those deprived are destined to various levels of eternal deprivation.

Jesus himself doesn't say anything of the sort. It seems he realizes innocently and perhaps even naively that he has talked for three days straight, and that those folks, who walked all the way out to the middle of nowhere to seek and listen to him, are in danger: "If I send them away hungry to their homes, they will collapse on the way, and some of them have come a great distance." Jesus isn't handing out the "bread" part of "bread and circuses"; he isn't interested in pandering to a disinterested crowd, but his audience here is not disinterested.

I heard a good sermon today explaining this passage as Jesus giving us a template for the form of the Eucharistic liturgy. The priest's arguments made sense, but I was thinking the whole time about what I wrote above: there probably really were a whole bunch of very hungry people whom Jesus fed, and that physical hunger is just as relevant as the symbolic, allegorical, or liturgical interpretations of the story. The key phrase is "just as relevant" -- not more, nor less. The demonstration of the structure of the Divine Liturgy is just as important as the exhibition of Jesus' practical compassion.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Beatrice or succubus? the male author's Muse

Many male authors, composers, and scholars in the Western canon took as their inspiration a spiritualized female figure. The Greeks gave us their Muses, with their corresponding mythology of creativity. For example, we refer to an author's "muse" interchangeably as either an actual woman who inspires him, or as an abstract spirit of inspiration. Dante Alighieri's Beatrice is perhaps the most notable specific instance. The author's "La Vita Nuova" and "Divine Comedy" detail the process by which an actual, living Florentine woman (Bice di Folco Portinari) was transformed from a passing fancy, into a spiritual guide who leads Dante to the very face of God. A lesser-known example is Sophie von Kuehn, the wife of Georg Philipp Friedrich Freiherr von Hardenberg (better known by his pen name Novalis). After Sophie passed away at the young age of 16, she inspired the young philosopher and mining engineer to produce an entire body of unique verse, prose, and essays, by which he is credited as a father of early German Romanticism. Inscribed in Novalis' wedding ring was the phrase "Sophia sei mein Schutzgeist" ("Sophie, be my guardian spirit"), and he often played on the Greek meaning of her name: "Wisdom," frequently personified in the Judeo-Christian tradition as a noble woman.

This spiritualization of the Muse is a process, rather than a static attribute. It happens primarily in the mind of the creative male subject, rather than to the female object. The last line of Goethe's Faust summarizes this process: "Das Ewig-Weibliche zieht uns hinan" ("The Eternal Feminine draws us on"). Man first experiences love as concrete and sexual (whether consummated or not). Then, circumstances (unfulfilled love, separation, and perhaps even the death of the beloved) train him to disembody and spiritualize that love so that it becomes a spiritual guide. The lover is drawn on by the noble beloved to seek higher and more noble things.

The training of the lover by the beloved is a familiar theme from courtly love. This is particularly fitting since the troubadour often sings from the first-person perspective of the male lover: the unattained beloved inspires beautiful music, even as she draws out his weeping and sighs. In Wolfram von Eschenbach's "Parzival," for instance, the protagonist's wife is named Condwiramurs, which means "love guide." Wolfram changes her name from Blanchefleur, by which she appears in his source material (Chr�tien de Troyes' "Perceval"), so as to emphasize how the thought of her guides Parzival on his many lonely journeys and eventually draws him out of religious despair and back to his quest for the Grail.

This name change also highlights Wolfram's deliberate and arguably awkward choice to desexualize her first encounter with Parzival, in which she convinces him to defend her town from a siege. Chr�tien simply has her seduce the naive young Parzival, who happened to be passing through her town during the siege. In contrast, Wolfram emphasizes her chaste intentions: She visits him at night specifically to convince him to fight for her home, but has no sexual intentions. It is nevertheless a sexually charged encounter: she crawls into his bed, clutches him, and weeps. One should also recall the habit of the time to sleep in the nude. However, "nothing happens," though Parzival had acted less than nobly with another woman before (he robbed her of her jewelry and nearly raped her). She asks him "not to wrestle" (i.e., not to exploit her vulnerable position so as to have sex with her), and Parzival honors this request. Here, it's the woman who drives the desexualization process; in other cases, circumstances drive it. For example, Dante rarely saw Beatrice, and eventually she married another man and passed away at age 24. Novalis lost his young wife after only three years of marriage. Parzival does eventually return to Condwiramurs, but only after finding the Grail.

Sometimes, men enter into this separation process deliberately, rather than letting circumstances bring it to them. For example, the New York Times recently interviewed a Buddhist couple who have taken an unorthodox vow of conjugal celibacy. Sts. Francis and Clare of Assisi form an analogous (though much less extreme) pair in the Western Christian tradition. Francis, himself first a troubadour, chooses a religious life of poverty and preaching, and ordains Clare into the religious life. Some stories even have the young Francis fall in love with Clare, and others depict him as dying in her arms. In a traditional Roman Catholic parish last weekend, the pastor defended priestly celibacy in his sermon by arguing that though priests in ancient times were allowed to be married, they were required to live apart from their wives after ordination. (Whether this is true or not is less interesting than the fact that he mentions it!)

Situations such as this exploit the tension between spiritual companionship and sexual desire. At times this tension has theurgical overtones. On occasion it finds expression directly in terms of the sexual act: for instance, Chinese emperors of the Qing Dynasty were taught that forestalling ejaculation whenever possible would magically add years to their life. More often, it takes a more abstract form as "courtly love" nonsexual relationships. Charles Williams, the 20th century English author and poet, was reputed to have followed this practice. Williams would have been well aware of the theurgical implications from his training in the Western esoteric tradition. In that tradition, nonsexual theurgical relationships later devolved into actual sexual practice (what many self-identifying neopagans call "sex magick"), as described for example in the novels of Dion Fortune. The fundamental idea in these nonsexual relationships is to generate sexual tension, and then by resisting its physical expression, "sublimate" it into a higher spiritual force. This makes the Muse a vessel for creative intellectual work, just as the female body serves (in arguably sexist magical thinking) as the vessel of creation in physical terms.

In his short story "Calliope," Neal Gaiman unites the intellectual and physical roles of the Muse: his protagonist author regains his creativity by magically enslaving and physically raping the Greek Muse Calliope. This illustrates the dark side of the spiritualized female figure: she remains Object to the male as Subject. He creates alone, without her cooperation, and projects an image upon her which obscures her actual identity and makes her ever more divorced from reality. She dies, lies unconscious in a coma (as described fictionally in Williams' 1931 novel "Many Dimensions," whose female protagonist some have argued was modeled after his lover Phyllis Jones), or is simply inaccessible and therefore ever more ripe for projection. Furthermore, Dante Alighieri and Charles Williams were married (not to their Muses), and Novalis was engaged to marry Julie von Charpentier the year after Sophie's death (though he died before their marriage). Keeping a Muse was for them a kind of intellectual (and actual, in Williams' case!) adultery.

Williams did, however, understand well the consequences of this projection process. In his 1937 novel "Descent into Hell," one of his male characters descends so deeply into a fantasized relationship with a particular woman, that his fantasies become a succubus that leads him to despair and suicide. While undergoing this process, he encounters the actual woman, and she is so taken with fear that she flees from him: he has detached the fantasy entirely from reality. Despite Williams' dabbling in the darker aspects of Muse-keeping, one need only read his collected letters to his wife Florence Conway ("To Michal from Serge") to learn the depths of his intense and very real love for her. Novalis may have transformed his first wife into a "Schutzgeist," but he still weeps at her tomb, as depicted in "Hymn to the Night." One also sees in the "Divine Comedy" how even the spiritualized Beatrice is still very much a woman who attracts Dante, whose shining eyes and half-mocking smile have a power over him which is chaste but by no means nonsexual. The examples of these three authors -- Dante Alighieri, Friedrich von Hardenberg, and Charles Williams -- show the moral tension of taking on a Muse, but also show the importance and value of staying grounded in the reality of the female person -- physical, spiritual, intellectual, intelligent, an equal Subject in her own right.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The dreadful process of self-deception

I was reading an article in Rolling Stone linked from BoingBoing, called "Jesus Made Me Puke." It's easy to expect just sheer (though deserved) mockery from such an article (in which a reporter infiltrates a fundamentalist Christian weekend retreat and tells all), but he makes a valuable point in a couple of paragraphs:

After two days of nearly constant religious instruction, songs, worship and praise — two days that for me meant an unending regimen of forced and fake responses — a funny thing started to happen to my head. There is a transformational quality in these external demonstrations of faith and belief. The more you shout out praising the Lord, singing along to those awful acoustic tunes, telling people how blessed you feel and so on, the more a sort of mechanical Christian skin starts to grow all over your real self. Even if you're a degenerate Rolling Stone reporter inwardly chuckling and busting on the whole scene — even if you're intellectually enraged by the ignorance and arrogant prejudice flowing from the mouth of a terminal-ambition case like Phil Fortenberry — outwardly you're swaying to the gospel and singing and praising and acting the part, and those outward ministrations assume a kind of sincerity in themselves. And at the same time, that "inner you" begins to get tired of the whole spectacle and sometimes forgets to protest — in my case checking out into baseball reveries and other daydreams while the outer me did the "work" of singing and praising. At any given moment, which one is the real you?
He goes on to say,
For a brief, fleeting moment I could see how under different circumstances it would be easy enough to bury your "sinful" self far under the skin of your outer Christian and to just travel through life this way. So long as you go through all the motions, no one will care who you really are underneath.

What's startling here is the vast capacity of the human person for self-deception, not necessarily even as a deliberate act, but merely as a weary, gradual assent to external pressure -- a pressure which is applied by a vast crowd of those who are going through the process of self-deception themselves. It's easy for us educated, sophisticated, BoingBoing and Rolling Stone - reading types to push these "middle America fundies" to the margins of our perception, but hard to realize that at the very root, there's surprisingly little difference between them and us.

I discovered this most recently when observing how many vocal Hollywood stars and activists in the West reacted to the recent troubles in Tibet. It was very easy for them to shout condemnations, but I didn't see any of them examine the real reasons behind this particular incident, or question why they should support this particular cause. The trouble was not with the expression of personal opinion, but with the lack of intellectual justification for these opinions. Why should Tibet be "free"? Who wants to support (financially and militarily) a "free Tibet" once it exists? What happens if we base national sovereignty on ethnicity? Why should we pay attention to some faraway land in another faraway country's possession when we have our own darker history (and arguably, present) of oppression and marginalization of Native Americans at home?

The Tibet incident was distressing for me, much like the Rolling Stone reporter was distressed to find himself swaying to the "Praise & Worship" band. I had been involved in protests against the (second) Iraq War, and had considered my "side" somewhat more enlightened than the other. Yet, with the recent Tibet issue, I found a lot of people on "my side" doing something perhaps equally ill-conceived and unreflective, and the "thugs and goons" on the other side actually for once not. It was a painful reality check to realize that otherwise educated and fairly intelligent people could close their eyes to any information that opposes their views, just as the other supposedly ignorant and low-born people had done before. (Doesn't the constant mockery of "middle America" sound a lot like bourgeois derision of the peasant class? Recall that the word "boor" shares a root with "Bauer," the German word for "farmer.")

A big part of this process of self-deception must be the "mass effect," which is what the Rolling Stone reporter feels. If he had been alone in an auditorium with the preacher for the whole weekend, he probably wouldn't have been able to carry on with his facade for very long. If I spend all of my time hanging out with pro-Tibet protesters, then it will generate in me a community mentality that makes it hard for opposing information to penetrate. Likewise, if I only hang around with pro-China protesters (there are such people, and large numbers of them!), I'll start to see China as "my team" and will have a hard time accepting opposing news.

The most distressing part (here's where I go a little bit Kierkegaard) is that even if I don't join a group, even if I deliberately spurn groups so as to gain a supposedly more objective and elevated viewpoint, I am still quite capable of self-deception. The very claim of objectivity is itself subjective. It's impossible to avoid influencing the world economy, because even if you strip off all products of civilization and run naked into the forest to forage for nuts and berries, you're _not_ buying some article of clothing sewn by some factory worker in a distant country. If you gather enough followers, that factory worker might have to find a different line of work. Rejecting globalization is itself an act within globalization. Similarly, claiming objectivity by rejecting group membership is itself belonging to a de facto group, whose members often refuse to hear the perhaps legitimate reasons that others have for joining their groups. (The words "evangelical atheist" perhaps come to mind.) Living in a groupless world, these people reinforce each other's scorn of membership through a constant stream of verbal and written chatter.

I'm not sure how to deal with this problem of persistent self-deception. I can only close with a quote from one of Søren Kierkegaard's journals, taken from Charles Williams' "The New Christian Year":

To thee, O God, we turn for peace . . . but grant us too the blessed assurance that nothing shall deprive us of that peace, neither ourselves, nor our foolish, earthly desires, nor my wild longings, nor the anxious cravings of my heart.

Friday, May 9, 2008

The leap of faith begins in the inner room

Ascensiontide sermons often criticize the disciples of Jesus for remaining in the inner room after Jesus' departure, rather than "going out to all the nations, baptizing them." They either make the disciples into cowards, trembling behind locked doors, or assert their incapability of spreading the faith without the particular gifts of Pentecost. One forgets that Jesus had already sent them out two-by-two, to spread the Gospel, heal the sick, and cast out demons. Locking the doors must have been a reasonable security measure, rather than an expression of irrational fear. Once we let go of our premature, possibly hypocritical judgment, we can see what they were doing in the upper room: praying together, with Mary Coredemptrix and Priest, awaiting the promised coming of the Advocate. In this awaiting, they are already executing the leap of faith that Jesus demands of them: to face the paradox of a God whom we actually have perceived, who even has real power over life and death, but who draws himself back from human contact and silently asks us to deal with life and death by ourselves. When one is despair asks, "Where is God?", that one asks not whether God exists, but why God doesn't come down and resolve the situation by force. To relinquish force -- to overcome the gross by the subtle -- is the characteristic of the Christ as Christians know him. This is the leap of faith: to face the paradox in prayer, in the inner room.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Chant workshop announcement

Gregorian chant workshop on 17 May in Oceanside, CA: Here is the flyer.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Sermon: "Viri Galilaei"

Viri Galilaei, quid statis aspicientes in caelum? Hic Jesus, qui assumptus est a vobis in caelum, sic veniet, quemadmodum vidistis eum euntem in caelum. -- Actus Apostolorum 1:11
The "Men of Galilee" passage is one of my favorites -- both for the glorious Gregorian Introit with that text, and for the way in which the angels chide the Apostles: "Why do you stand here looking at the sky?". The image of a dirty, rag-tag bunch of fishermen staring open-mouthed up at the heavens amuses, even as one thinks of how it really must have felt to watch the Savior depart and wonder what to do next. The deeper meaning startles just as much as the angels' words did: We Christians have to learn to act on our own, ultimately without the assurance that God is leading us or even that we are doing the right thing. "The sky" is a place where people look for answers: from gods, aliens, the stars, "orbs," religious or political figures, famous scientists turned evangelical atheists, Hollywood actors, or any other creatures that inhabit a world seemingly far above our own, and dispense tidbits of wisdom on their own inscrutable schedules. Like the Apostles, we go beyond respecting our position in the celestial hierarchy, to ask that our superiors do our jobs for us; we want to absolve ourselves of the risk of making decisions with limited information. The angels' rhetorical question has another meaning: we must expect to hear only silence from God when we pray. God's preferred mode of communication in this age is, in fact, silence. However, silence also communicates -- it tells us how God wishes us to act, namely, to go forth and make decisions and take risks. But I don't like it! I don't like that God speaks to us with void. Sometimes it feels worse than if there had been no God at all -- then at least we could acknowledge living in an arbitrary universe, and try to make the best of things as they are. (Note that I'm not speaking exclusively of theodicy -- though action-in-the-world is a form of communication. Omnipotence is unnecessary.) Dan Simmons in his "Hyperion Cantos" uses the expression "The Void That Binds." In a way, this captures the problem of a silent God: we perceive the existence of a Divine beyond a doubt, and yet it seems to have nothing to say to us -- yet, it persists in making its presence felt. God doesn't hide entirely from us, despite the lack of communication. Indeed, it's this very presence that "binds" us to worship and follow (which is the meaning of the word "religion" -- to "bind back"). One could call this the Advocate, as Jesus seems to do -- though usually one expects a defense attorney to confer with her clients once in a while! How we might wish that she did -- though we are bound to her and she to us. I do not think even the depths of hell could shut her out.