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.