Filed under religion

It’s Lent

Trigger warning: Image of cross on field of ashesearnest religiosity ahead.

Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. There are a lot of folks who seem to take this as a sort of performative event, kind of missing a key passage from today’s reading:

“When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites. They neglect their appearance, so that they may appear to others to be fasting. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you may not appear to be fasting, except to your Father who is hidden. And your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you.

 And then there are those who take it as a moment of self-improvement. No more smoking, or drinking, or perhaps lose a few pounds.

I didn’t really get Lent as a kid (among other things, I thought you were giving something up forever and not just until Easter), and it was only as an adult that it really made sense to me when I had given up drinking alcohol for Lent and I had one of my usual failures in my love life (because being heartbroken is the dominant theme of one’s twenties). So in the midst of my distress, I said to myself, “I need a drink.” And then I stopped because I’d given up drinking and instead realized that what I really needed was God.

And at that point, I realized that the key thing about a Lenten sacrifice was that it should be about giving up something that you do habitually so that you have that frequent reminder to engage in prayer at a higher level than you normally do. The fasting and sacrifice is there to be a reminder of prayer.

And for those who would engage in some positive practice in place of sacrifice like almsgiving or social justice work, that’s great, but that shouldn’t just be a Lenten practice, that should be an always practice. Lent is a time of engaging in a kind of extreme spirituality, going above and beyond what is sustainable for a short period of time.

The Washing of the Feet

To be honest, the reason NewImage  went to St Vincent Ferrer for Holy Thursday mass was because it’s across the street from our favorite local burger place and I have a long-standing tradition of going out for a burger and strawberry shake after Holy Thursday mass as a way of celebrating the end of Lent.

But a side-benefit of this was that the washing of the feet at the mass was done the way that I feel it should be done at mass: the presiding priest washes the feet of a group of laypeople (I think he did ten, although twelve would probably be a bit more biblical). My home parish does something that just seems bizarre to me: anyone who wants to get their feet washed is welcome to come forward and then in groups of three or four, they wash each other’s feet. Given that the symbolism is meant to show how those who are nominally in positions of authority should take on an attitude of servitude towards those “below” them, this seems to be entirely missing the point. I’ve seen similarly missing the point displays at other parishes as well, so it’s not just my parish.

Occasionally a song surprises

A couple weeks ago at mass, there was a song new to me, “Take from my Heart,” by Karen Schneider Kirner and John T. Kyler. The credits indicate that the lyrics are adapted from the “Act of Resignation” by Catherine McAuley. It managed to be the perfect blend of lyric and melody to really touch me in a time when I had forgotten that music could do this, at least not church music. 

So much contemporary Catholic liturgical music has lyrics which are scriptural paraphrase and end up, over time, being a bit dulling to me. There are a handful of songs which have some turn of phrase or melody that reached me, but it feels like a long time since I’ve had some church music do that for me, so I felt like I should call out this song as something special which I’m thankful for. I’d also note that the publisher on this is World Library Press who I tend to associate with the drabbest of the drab when it comes to liturgical music, so this was an especial surprise.

Dewey Decimal Project: 230.0732 The Collar

An amazing book. It was captivating to read about theseNewImage not-so-young men on the road to the priesthood. Englert, after a number of attempts, managed to find a Catholic seminary willing to let him spend a year following the students who attended. Where he ended up was a non-traditional seminary, one catering to “second career” would-be priests, older men who had lived secular lives, in some cases having married and had children before their wives’ deaths, before answering a call to the priesthood.

The brokenness of so many of the seminarians here is fascinating to read. The blind musician who has doubts about celibacy, the ultra-traditionalists who find aspects of academic theology scandalous, the seminarian who discovers after the death of his mentor, an elderly priest with whom he had been sharing an apartment, that the man had a trove of gay pornography hidden away.

Englert does a good job of drawing the multiple characters in his book, and although there was some confusion for me due to two similarly-named seminarians (albeit men in rather different circumstances), the multiple strands of narrative are handled well. I can see this being inspiration for a nice big thick book of multiple characters, a la, Ship of Fools.


The Holy Spirit, the Pope and Homosexuality

There’s been a great deal of jubilation and consternation regarding Pope Francis’s conciliatory remarks about homosexuality on the plane from Brazil to Rome. “Who am I to judge?” “Gays should be fully integrated into society.”

The conservatives were quick to argue that there is no change in church doctrine reflected in these remarks, and they have a valid point, although there is an implicit re-opening of the door for celibate gay clergy that Benedict XVI closed during his papacy.

And among liberals there were those who argued that the pope’s remarks didn’t go far enough. 

As someone who has argued that the moral imperative for the church to recognize equal rights for gays and lesbians, a reader might be well-justified in assuming that I might fall into that latter category. The truth is I do not. I think that the Pope did as much as could be done with his remarks.

But surely the Pope can set any doctrine he cares to, the reader might object. Why not just make the declaration and be done with it.

And my answer is the Holy Spirit. As a Catholic, I believe that the Holy Spirit acts through the Catholic Church, not just among the saints in the streets and the parishioners in the pews but even in the clergy, even, shocking as it might seem, through the Pope (including, to the surprise of some people to whom I’ve spoken to, through Benedict XVI). The shortage of clergy, I believe, is the Holy Spirit trying, in her own wonderfully indirect way, to get the laity more involved in the running of the church (something that popped up a bit explicitly in Francis’s comments about the role of women in the church). And while recognizing gay rights, up to and including marriage, is a moral imperative, the experience of the Anglican communion shows the problem with simply making a declaration. Were Francis to declare that gays should be allowed to marry in the Catholic Church, there would be an immediate schism, and those who criticize the attitudes towards gays in the Catholic Church would then turn their attention towards the even more virulently anti-gay neoCatholic (paleoCatholic?) movement. 

No, what needs to happen first is a transformation of the hearts of the members of the body of Christ. And it is this transformation that I see being sparked into becoming realized through Francis’s comments and giving hope that the Church, while it may bend towards justice slowly, will bend towards justice inevitably. 


A thought on the state of the church

Over the past year as we’ve been adapting to the new language of the liturgy, I’ve found myself thinking that this would have been a good point for me to have converted to Catholicism since the self-consciousness of not knowing the responses as well as those next to me in the pews would be ameliorated by the knowledge that everybody else was unfamiliar with the mass. This thought was quickly followed with the realization that given the hyper-politicization of too many of the hierarchy that I probably wouldn’t have converted to Catholicism at this time. As Dan Savage’s mother said, “It’s like they’re trying to make Lutherans of us all.” But where else can I turn? Orthodoxy is just too foreign for me, I can’t take seriously the Episcopal church given it’s origins and I am most definitely not a protestant of any sort. No, I really believe all that about the apostolic succession and the Catholic Church being the one true Church. I can only hope that the awkward legacy of current times won’t outlive me.

Why Christians should support equal rights for gays and lesbians

The key justification for the widespread anti-gay stance of many Christians today is scriptural. It’s hard to get past the scriptural prohibitions on homosexuality, even if we were to discard the Old Testament texts as having been superseded by the new covenant, there are still the passages in the Pauline epistles. So given this, then the question is settled, end of discussion, right?

Perhaps not.

There is a moral question on which Christians are universally united (I suppose there might be some marginal sects which disagree, but they are vanishingly small, if they exist), in direct opposition to scriptural teaching. More universally even then doctrines that most Christians consider central to the church, such as the Trinity, or the idea that Christ was both fully human and fully divine.

Before reading further, I suggest you take a moment to see if you can figure out what moral stance Christians take that is contrary to the clear teaching of the Bible, both Old and New Testaments.

The answer is slavery. The institution of slavery was considered normative throughout most of the history of Christianity. A few early figures, such as St Patrick stood up against slavery, but in a limited context, excommunicating Coroticus for enslaving some of St Patrick’s converts to Christianity while raiding Ireland. Not until the sixteenth century with the question of the treatment of the native Americans by the Spanish and Portuguese was there any official statement from a pope indicating that the Church opposed enslavement of native peoples, but even the three bulls issued by Pope Paul III in 1537 did little to change the overall attitude towards slavery. And Paul himself made a number of decisions in the years that followed in support of institutional slavery.

As slavery began to fall into moral disfavor in the late 17th and early 18th century, it’s interesting to note an attempt to re-interpret scripture similar to what some contemporary theologians do with the passages on homosexuality. Just as the contemporary theologians make the argument that prohibitions of homosexuality should be read as prohibiting such behavior as it related to pagan cultic practices, these attempts fell short in their persuasiveness. After all, the literal meaning of the text is clear. Instead, anti-slavery forces were forced to focus their moral arguments on the lived experience of slavery and its outcomes, the idea that the people who had been enslaved were human beings with souls and capable of salvation (for African and American slaves, this was a surprisingly long-lived question), the impact of slavery on these same people in their real lives.

If we look at the impact of the anti-gay stance of so many Christians, we can find similar outcomes. Youths find themselves hating themselves and their lives so much that they fall into drug abuse, depression and suicidal tendencies. Surely, this cannot be the result of a Godly view.

But it’s not being gay that we condemn, some Christians will protest, it’s acting on homosexual urges. And I can sympathize with that claim. I was there once myself. The problem is that this is easily said, but not so easily done. I’ve been at social gatherings among people who would never say anything racist or sexist who are comfortable with homosexual slurs. And I attribute this directly to the claimed stance of condemning the sin and not the sinner. 

The fact of the matter is that sexual orientation is an inborn trait, something that’s part of our created nature. And unless we subscribe to the Manichaean heresy, than we believe that creation is inherently good (in fact, that is the essential message of Genesis 1, not the absurdity of a 6,000-year-old earth and all the deception inherent in creation that such a belief necessitates), and from that comes the fact that homosexuality cannot be inherently evil. It’s precisely this point that causes many evangelical Christians to deny the clear results from biological and psychological studies that show that people are born gay and that sexual orientation is fixed. 

Church exploring: St Giles

This week, I went to the 5p mass at St Giles. The north end of Oak Park is by far the most suburban section of our village. It largely lacks multi-family housing and is far enough away from the two “L” lines that run through Oak Park that people are far enough away that the residents are dependent on cars for their commuting. This means, among other things, that the parish has a good-sized parking lot and the parishioners are whiter than even St Edmund’s (although, I should note, the parish is still not completely white).

The most notable thing about the parish, I would say, is the architecture. The interior of the church is gorgeous, showing some prairie style influences in the design, with a curious marble canopy over the sanctuary. And the sound system worked, meaning that I could actually understand what the priest was saying. But I didn’t find the worship especially uplifting. Maybe it’s me.

One other observation: This is now two weeks in a row that the Apostle’s Creed was used rather than the Nicene Creed. I wonder if, with the other changes in liturgical language, that parishes are shifting to the shorter creed (and its lack of the problematic “for us men and for our salvation”).

Church exploring

I’ve decided to look around for a somewhat more satisfying faith community, so as one step in that direction, my wife and I went to mass at St Catherine of Sienna/St Lucy parish. The parish community is certainly more diverse than St Edmund’s, which is 95% white (at least). The St Catherine/St Lucy community is roughly 50-50 white/African-American.

The music was piano/cantor at the 10.30a mass, which was a bit of a disappointment, but it might be the case that the choir had the week off (as I recall, when I was in the Holy Name Cathedral choir, we never sang the Sunday after Easter).

The sound system was a bit poor and I had a hard time understanding the priest.

One of the coolest things about the parish was that the first reading was given by a young woman with Down Syndrome. I loved the radical inclusivity of this, although I do confess that I couldn’t understand her at all. But then, I couldn’t understand the priest.

The other unusual feature of the mass was that there was an anointing of the sick during the mass. I’ve never seen this happen—ever, anywhere—before.

This is a strong contender, although I think I need to come to a mass where the music ministry is in full force.

Mr Rogers, a model for being human

This article, admittedly a bit old, seems to me a recipe for being human, albeit one which I very often fail to live up to. I so often want to impose my views, to argue that I’m right, instead of just being gentle and kind and leaving things at that.