Friday, April 17, 2009

I Am Not a Watchdog

A while ago, after a link was posted in a lay Dominican newsletter, I started following Fr. Zuhlsdorf's "What Does the Prayer Really Say?" blog. I am a fan of what is now known as the Extraordinary Form of the mass (formerly known as the Tridentine and/or traditional Latin mass), and I thought it'd be interesting to follow developments related to Summorum Pontificum. Reading him eventually got me subscribed to American Papist's blog (AmP).

Prior to this, my main source of "Catholic news" was, which is a really good, factual report of what is going on with the Holy See, and particularly what is going on with His Holiness himself. I started subscribing to that many years ago, while Servant of God John Paul the Great was still pope, and I am still subscribed. But the news that I found coming through Fr. Z's blog and AmP and, through them, others was not the same kind of news.

AmP is authored by a youngish fellow in the D.C. area, Thomas Peters, and as with all young folk, he tends to be somewhat impetuous (I should know!). This aspect came through really clearly in his blog, in particular his criticism of Cardinal Shönborn at a less than traditional mass. I disagreed with him, specifically on the weighty accusation of liturgical abuses. He did not recant but rather continued in his skeptical criticism, despite assurances from the cardinal's office. This along with similar reactions to other happenings in the Catholic world got me to unsubscribe from AmP.

Fr. Z, on the other hand, is a priest, more mature, and a usually offers a balanced report on the topics of goings on in and related to the Church, so I stayed subscribed to his blog. Yet at the same time, his zeal for the Extraordinary Form I think prejudices him against the worthy celebration of the Ordinary Form, which I personally believe to be the norm based on my experience--I've heard of real liturgical abuses, and I've seen and experienced celebrations that did not reflect my own preferences for the sublimity which is the Eucharist, and no doubt the average celebration could be improved!--but overall, I tend to prefer it, having attended both an FSSP parish and several diocesian parishes in different states/dioceses.

But I digress. Along with the biased coverage of the Extraordinary Form, Father Z also surfaces a lot of the more general this-is-happening-can-you-believe-it? type stuff. The general tenor of his and many other Catholic blogs is a sustained state of outrage. It seems that there is almost daily a new bit of news that maintains the furor, and I succumbed to it. It felt good to be "righteously indignant."

In fact, it was this same indignance that prompted me to post several posts on this blog that are, in my opinion, borderline in terms of their goodness, and one in particular that I strongly doubt to the point of regret at times (about Bishop Lynch and Notre Dame).

Sometime in the midst of all this, I started getting more and more connected via twitter to other Catholics (mainly due, I think, to I am generally glad to be more connected to the online Catholic community, but here again I've found a number of folks who tend toward the same vein as Fr. Z and AmP--the sustained outrage fostered by seemingly justified reporting of news.

My problem is that I was bothered by this tendency towards the negative. I think Fr. Z himself is bothered as well as he in recent times posted repeated requests for good news. I suspect that, at least for some of us, this seemingly positive activity of being a watchdog--staying abreast of the various political, social, and ecclesiastical goings on in order to, theoretically, take some positive, corrective action--is actually detrimental to our spiritual growth.

To me, I liken it to Catholic gossip: "Did you hear what so and so did?" "Oh my! How terrible!" "Yes, that is bad.. how could they!" Of course, it is veiled under a positive pretense, and perhaps we do need some folks to do this, but at least for myself, I felt it was not positive. I found myself regularly becoming angry and upset. I found myself regularly thinking hostile thoughts towards the purported antagonists. I found myself blogging and tweeting and retweeting--sharing the outrage.

I do not think this is a good thing. I'm not one to put my head in the sand. I know that our Lord said he came to bring a sword. I know that he spared no harsh words for the false teachers of his day, and that he took a whip to those in the temple. But that God, that angry God, is not the main story. The anger is the exception; it is passing, not sustained. It is borne out of love, not a reaction to perceived injustice or injury. The message of the Gospel is first and foremost that of God's infinite and divine love, his compassion, his sacrifice, and his resurrection--his conquering of death that we celebrate so greatly in this Easter season.

St. Paul lists the fruit of the Spirit. Not one of them is anger or outrage; in fact, he says "hatreds, outburst, and outbursts of fury" are works of the flesh that lead to disinheritance of the kingdom of God. In counseling us on what to think on, he says:

Your kindness should be known to all. The Lord is near. Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God. Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

St. Peter tells us that if we suffer for doing good, this is grace before God and that our Lord did not return insult for insult--when he suffered, he did not threaten. No, rather St. Luke records that even during his crucifixion, he asked the Father to forgive us, forgive his executioners. St. James counsels us to be slow to anger.

So what does all this (and more!) say to us? to me? It says that I should judge the fruit of things, even things that could seem on the surface to be good, Catholic endeavors. The fruit of my participating in the watchdoggedness, the gossiping, was not good; it was not the fruit of the Spirit; it was not what the Apostles urged us toward, nor is it in imitation of Christ on the whole. Very rarely did he act harshly, even though he spoke the truth unabashedly, and even then, it was with divine wisdom--it would be foolish of me to assume such wisdom.

Rather, I think I should err on the side of the main of the Christian message, err on the side of meekness, humility, patience, forgiveness, gentleness, love, joy, and peace. It is this conclusion that led me to, not without hesitation for the nuggets of goodness in them, to unsubscribe from Fr. Z's blog, unsubscribe from Catholic World News, and unfollow a number of folks on twitter who seem to give themselves over to reporting these sorts of gossipy type tidbits. (So if I've unfollowed you recently, that's probably why.)

I'm not saying that we don't need folks to keep an eye out and raise awareness when the Faith is under fire. I am saying, however, that I don't think I'm one of those--at least not now, and I suspect that for many, like me, it is not our calling and is, rather, an opportunity for us to be drawn away from where we should be with God and each other. For those in doubt, I suggest examining the fruit in your life to see if you think it is bringing about goodness or not.

Peace be with you.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Speak of Your Will Before Kings

As a child, I always disliked the psalms. They always seemed so boring and distant from my experience, and they didn't give me anything. At least, that's what I thought. As far as the OT was concerned, I loved Proverbs and, as I grew into my teens, Ecclesiastes. In fact, in my senior year yearbook, we were asked (this was an evangelical Protestant school) what our favorite Bible verse was (to be included in the book). I chose from Ecclesiastes. Wisdom has always beckoned to me, and I have always been ensnared by her.

But the rest of the OT was just like required reading, especially the psalms; they were, to me as a child, just some other person complaining to God about being in trouble--enemies always trying to kill this guy--or the source of, usually annoying, praise and worship songs. They didn't teach me anything, I thought, and good grief was Psalms a big "book."

It wasn't until I got turned down by this girl I asked out in college that I first found an appreciation for the psalms. I drew great comfort from reading them at that time of being down and distraught. It was a flicker of warmth towards them, but it didn't change my overall feeling. No, it wasn't really until I became a Dominican aspirant a few years ago and started praying the Office that my appreciation (and understanding) of the psalms started to flower.

Psalm 119, especially, has become dear to me, though many others have as well, and the repetition of them in the Office has been a welcome way to serendipitously begin to memorize and internalize them. The only thing I knew about Ps 119 growing up is that it was the longest chapter in the Bible (in the longest book)--the trivia you learn. :) I did not know it was a love song for God's law. In fact, I never thought that anyone could be in love with that thing that St. Paul seemed to always be dissing. For a contemporary evangelical (especially charismatic!) Protestant, the Law is the big bad thing that Jesus came to free us from.

Of course, Psalm 119 is not only speaking of the Mosaic Law (proper) but rather of the will of God--the revealed understanding of the way everything is meant to work. We love it because God makes himself known through it--through explicit commands as well as through his design in the nature of things themselves.

In Psalm 119, especially, but all throughout the psalms, I have found the praise of God infused, not just for his law, not just of his holiness and awesomeness, but of that as expressed in his creation. Today's proper daytime psalmody (the little hours) put it this way: "How many, O Lord my God, are the wonders and designs that you have worked for us; you have no equal. Should I proclaim and speak of them, they are more than I can tell!" (Ps 40).

And, back to Ps 119, "I will speak of your will before kings and not be ashamed." and then again in chapter 40:

Your justice I have proclaimed in the great assembly. My lips I have not sealed; you know it, O Lord.

I have not hidden your justice in my heart but declared your faithful help. I have not hidden your love and your truth from the great assembly.

O Lord, you will not withhold your compassion from me. Your merciful love and your truth will always guard me.

This hearkens back to a recent post, that was admittedly a tad aggressive and negative. I prefer to put it positively, as an encouragement to us and to our pastors. We should be able to sing the passages above express with verity. We should not be ashamed to speak of God's will before the powerful civil leaders and, indeed, the entire "great assembly" in the media. If we do, as the psalmist says, God's love and his truth--the truth we are proclaiming--will always guard us.

Isn't that an amazing thought? That the truth will guard us? I have often found this to be true. In a sense, the truth defends itself. Because it is true, we're not merely opining or sharing one perspective among many that only has the guarantee of our own rhetorical capability to make it stand. Even if we manage to muck it up a bit, the truth is the truth; it stands on its own and will remain true regardless of our imperfect expression of it. The truth will guard us from our own incompetence and speaks to people in their hearts, even as they attack and dismantle our arguments through rhetorical rationalizations.

Although the Psalms are not explicit pedagogy, they still instruct. In fact, they instruct us in a way that is more beautiful and primal than other more directly didactic methods. In our joining our voices with the psalmist, we find ourselves expressing, often in moving poetry, praise and love for God and, in so doing, we learn (as we may also learn from our own Catholic liturgy) more about God, more about our relationship to him, and more about our relationship to others. Lex orandi; lex credendi.

I'm now a big fan of the Psalms. There are still some difficult and odd bits here and there, but overall I regularly find them moving, instructing, and empowering me to better praise God and, at times, to better express my own fears, anxieties, and sorrows in an ancient way, joining my voice with the people of God throughout the epochs, bringing me closer to and instilling a deeper kenning of the communion of the saints.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Interior Sacred Silence

In a recent blog post, Fr. Z encouraged priests to foster a sense of the sacred and holy inside of our churches.  I think that’s great.  I think it is a shame when people want to be there in the presence of our Lord in the Sacrament, and folks interfere with that by chattering.

That said, I was disturbed this morning by my own inability to silence my own mind.  I am so blessed to now live within about five minutes of my parish (I go to St. Anthony’s—that picture doesn’t do it justice; I’ll have to grab one of the inside sometime to share), and it is a beautiful church—the kind that really inspires you to look upward and transcend the here and now (as church architecture and design should!).  This morning, as I sat there before mass, I was trying to just be with our Lord.  And I couldn’t, at least not more than just a few seconds at a time.

My brain just kept wandering off.  I even started musing about how frustrating it is that I couldn’t do it, and then realized that I was doing it again!  I remember reading, I think it was St. Teresa of Avila, on how to contemplate (and I’m at the very beginning of that journey), but the nice thing, if I recall correctly, is that she said it’s okay if this happens—it takes practice.  Just make space for it, make time, and practice; it will happen.  (Clearly, I’m not practicing enough!)

But I think it’s maybe even harder today with the level of “inputs” we have from TV to phone to email to blogs to twitter to music to just the Web in general, and it’s all always available on nifty mobile devices, so we can always have our inputs.  I find myself, even worse since I got my iPhone, constantly checking all these different sources when I have down time (and sometimes when I don’t!). 

Now I’m not one to say the Web is making us dumber, but I do think all this makes it harder to not only just concentrate but also to simply relax and be silent.  That has psychological value in its own right, but take that to the next level of sacred interior silence, true contemplation of the Divine, and losing the ability to be silent becomes not just unfortunate but positively destructive to our spiritual growth.

On the other hand, I have on my one device that I always have with me everywhere, the iBreviary, the Roman Calendar, and bookmarks to a good examination of conscience and a couple litanies that have come in handy many times already, including just this morning.  So it’s obviously not all bad—I certainly wouldn’t advocate luddism to solve the problem.  It just means we have to try harder to cultivate this interior sacred silence.

We just need to recognize that we need to, and then do it.  Pray for me to be better able to do this.  Leave a comment or email me if you want me to pray for you.