Monthly Archives: September 2015

The Physicality of Faith

“Moses, Moses!”
“Here am I.”
“Do not come near; put off your shoes from your feet,
for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”
(Exodus, chapter 3)

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Recently I have been praying in the mornings. I created for myself a place to pray. I face east, light a candle or two, and kneel. I pray novenas and rosaries, move the beads in my fingers one by one, cross myself, bow my head. It’s not much, but praying this way a fairly new thing for me. I feel drawn to a more physical expression of prayer.

What is it about kneeling? Holding beads? Candles? What is it about these physical things? Some might say they are trappings, or hindrances, or worse.

Moses was asked to take off is shoes. Why? Did God need this? I doubt it. Did Moses? I’m sure he did.

During the Penitential Act of the Mass we strike our breast three times while saying this: “through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault.”

We speak and we strike. It’s deep truth, it’s of the heart, it’s also physical. We confess physically, we worship physically. We bow. We kneel.

O come, let us worship and bow down,
let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker!
(Psalm 95:6)

I am curious about the physicality of worship; the actual, physical nature of worship. Perhaps more than curious, because the emphasis on the physicality of faith is one of the characteristics that drew me towards the Catholic Church and away from my Protestant roots. I found a richness in Catholicism and a kind of poverty in evangelical Protestantism. I’m sure some would disagree with me.

I also find those verses in Holy Scripture that point towards, or mention, physical acts of worship more than merely interesting. We are physical beings. Christ is physical (fully man). He drank, he ate, he knelt in prayer, he climbed up the mountain, walked into the garden and out to the wilderness. He stood, strolled, sat, slept. He broke bread. He went to the temple. He was whipped, beaten, crucified. He is God become man — the “physical act” par excellence. He worshiped with his body. Our bodies are part of our worship.

Consider:

It is in the physical world that the intangible meets us. A kiss seals a courtship. The sexual act seals a marriage A ring betokens the marriage. A diploma crowns the years of schooling. A doctoral robe bespeaks intellectual achievement. A uniform and stripes announce a recruit’s training. A crown girds the brow that rules England. This symbolism bespeaks the sort of creature we are. To excise all of this from piety and worship is to suggest that the gospel beckons us aways from our humanity into a disembodied realm. It is to turn the Incarnation into a mere doctrine. (Thomas Howard, Evangelical is Not Enough)

Perhaps four bare walls and a pulpit is the symbol of a disembodied, even gnostic, faith. Perhaps the non-biblical, historically recent “doctrine” of the rapture speaks of that same desire to be free of the physical. Perhaps denying the Real Presence is just an example of fear — fear of our humanness, of our bodies, that God is actually one of us.

I can’t say. I wonder.

But I know the physicality of worship is everywhere in scripture, even in moments we might overlook.

And when our days there were ended,
we departed and went on our journey;
and they all, with wives and children,
brought us on our way till we were outside the city;
and kneeling down on the beach we prayed and bade one another farewell.
(Acts 21:5)

Kneeling on the beach. I would love to have a time machine. What is it about kneeling? Why not stand in a circle and hold hands? Or just stand around smiling with “Jesus in their hearts” or some such thing? No, they knelt — with Jesus in their hearts I’m sure, with love for each other, with the Spirit at work amongst them I’m sure, but they also knelt.

Is there a law at play here? I think so. Our human nature seems created for worship, and to do so with common, predictable, even specific kinds of actions. Why wouldn’t there be some similarity across humanity, across space and time? Scripture tells us this is true. Our nature, including heart, mind, and body, seem to cry out for a totality of worship — a combination of heart, mind, and body together in action.

We know that some situations just call for physical action, whether worship or supplication or awe…

Then Abram fell on his face…
(Genesis 17:3)

Then she fell on her face…
(Ruth 2:10)

And Jo′ab fell on his face…
(2 Samuel 14:22)

…and they fell upon their faces…
(Tobit 12:16)

…he fell on his face…
(Luke 5:12)

…falling on his face…
(1 Corinthians 14:25)

Across the ages, welling up from within their humanness, individuals act in similar ways. There is a physical connection, built into the human body, connected to mind and heart, to situations and contexts that call forth acts of worship, deference, and awe. Is this not a law of nature, of creation itself?

Does a law mean there is a right way and wrong way to worship? I think so — at least some ways seem better than others (I’m no expert).

Does a law mean one is shackled, suppressed, controlled? No. A law is the path to freedom — like the athlete at play, or the rules of the road making driving safely possible, or a structure of government laying the foundation for civil society. You don’t have to kneel, bow your head, and certainly not light a candle or face east. But if you do, you just might be doing something good for your soul — something fitted to your very being itself. It’s your choice. It’s a mystery.

Do we “make up” the law? No. We discover it, like a miner discovering the vein of gold, or an explorer finding new lands, or a scientist understanding a fundamental rule of nature. The law is like a gift — something good and precious, and for our benefit.

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Do we need to discover this law anew every day? No. We can listen and observe those who have come before us and have already discovered the law. But we can experience it fresh every day, for no day is the same, and life keeps moving.

We can look to the past.

And all the men and women of Israel,
and their children, living at Jerusalem,
prostrated themselves before the temple
and put ashes on their heads
and spread out their sackcloth before the Lord.
(Judith 4:11)

Why does God care that we act out our hearts and minds? Why prostrate? Why ashes? Why sackcloth? Today this is a curiosity, mere archaeology — see how strange they used to behave, clearly the actions of a simplistic people, right? Incomprehensible. Inconceivable. Perhaps we have become blind and incoherent in our sophistication. Perhaps we are the simplistic ones. We lost something precious, have we not?

Okay, ashes and sackcloth may be too strange for us, but how about some appropriate form of penance? Or some act of sacrifice? It might be good for us. How about kneeling in prayer?

We don’t act out our faith for God. I don’t think He needs any of that. But we need it, because God made us this way. He created our nature, gave us the gift of worship, bid us to worship rightly because in that we find life. It is for us, not for Him. Kneel because it is good for you. Face east because you know this is a tradition of the Church; facing towards the rising of the sun, pointing towards the new day and the harkening to the beauty of the risen Christ. Can you face in another direction? Sure. Which way is better? Discover the answer in your meditations.

Moses took off his shoes. He was standing on holy ground. Where is our holy ground?

And he took a cup,
and when he had given thanks
he gave it to them,
and they all drank of it.
(Mark 14:23)

There is no secular world, not ultimately. There, truly, is only the sacred. What we call secular is merely that which we grab for ourselves and call ours. But it is not ours. All belongs to God. Every one and every place is holy, sacred, belonging to God, made for His purpose. Sin corrupts much of this gift. We can fashion ugliness, do terrible things, turn from God in many ways, but God can make all things new and good, even our darkest actions, even our hardest hearts. All things are God’s, true, but there are some things which are called out, for our sake, to be seen clearly as holy — places and times that require worshipful action. These are great gifts of “holy ground” for us. The greatest is the Holy Eucharist — really, truly, and substantially Christ present with us.

The cup of blessing which we bless,
is it not a participation in the blood of Christ?
The bread which we break,
is it not a participation in the body of Christ?
(1 Corinthians 10:16)

We kneel, genuflect, bow, pray. We sing, chant, speak. We go, enter, stand, sit, be. We eat. We drink.

We worship.

Our bodies are made for worship.

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Being Drawn to Tradition

Why is it such a surprise to many that the younger generations (mostly Millennials, but quite a few Gen X’ers) are leading the “charge” back towards tradition in Catholic worship and liturgy? I wonder if there is a sense of something missing, and a grasping for that missing part. Of course I’m not saying anything new — a number of folks have written about this already. But here’s my take:

The younger generations, because of when they were born, are fundamentally removed by time from the debates of the 1950’s and 1960’s that led to many of the changes in the Church since then. They (including me — I was born just as Generation X was beginning — and I was a Protestant) were not among those arguing for a livelier faith or a more open Church during the years immediately after WWII, Eisenhower, the Bomb, and in the throes of the Cold War. Though anyone can read about those changes, none of us “young ones” can truly experience today what it was like at that time. We have our own zeitgeist, and they had theirs. They had their Merry Pranksters and we have ours. They had their Kennedy’s and Nixons, we have our Clintons and Bushes. They had mimeographs, we have the Internet and social media. They were the Beat Generation and the Me Generation. We are something else — maybe still “beat” and certainly still “me”, but in very different ways.

For some reason the generation that came of age in the 1950’s, 1960’s, and into the 1970’s felt a powerful need to strip away the traditions of previous generations. They also had a powerful urge to seek revolution, seen in the riots of 1968 and elsewhere, seen in the sexual and drug revolutions, and even seen in music and clothing. I would argue they tended to throw out the baby with the bath water — which really is a desire not for reform, but for an altogether revolutionary rebirth based on a rejection of what came before and what had been handed down from earlier generations. What was not considered was that throwing the baby out eventually means someone has to go and bring the baby back. To the degree that traditions arise from human needs born out of human nature is the degree to which those traditions still call to us. Throw out the tradition and somehow, somewhere it will find its way back — often more appreciated and understood — because it must. This is (potentially, arguably, maybe) a kind of healthy cycle of purge and rebirth.

I’m sure some of the older generation, those who relished the so-called post-Vatican II changes, who lived through those changes and saw them not only as good, but necessary, cringe at the younger generations’ rediscovery of what came before. They may worry that the Church would go backwards instead of progressing forward. This is a fair concern, and those who seek the older traditions should not dismiss the history and arguments of the post-Vatican II era. Neither should the traditionalists be dismissed. Both are on to something and may, in fact, be closer to each other than they think. For the sake of honoring those who have gone before, the younger generations should keep in mind just how worried the older generations might feel if they see all that they fought for being repealed.

Recovering what was lost seems to be a growing felt need for many today. I would argue that feeling is much deeper than fashion or trendiness. Rediscovering the great Catholic traditions of the past can seem like an archeological discovery for many — a discovery that resonates within the human soul. This discovery is not at all like the hipsters “discovering” the style of the 1970’s, or thinking they discovered irony. Finding old traditions of worship and liturgy is, rather, like finding a lost world that offers an antidote to what ails your own. It’s not about style or fashion, or adopting a new surface or creating a new appearance. At least it shouldn’t be.

But it is important that we don’t bring that old bath water in with the baby. Old is not good merely because it is old. Traditions can be good or bad, and some are interesting but not necessarily critical. Caution is good, because looking to the past can be as much about looking for source material so one can fashion a new style (like the hipster) as it can be about searching out something true. We should be sensitive to the difference. In fact, we shouldn’t really be all that concerned with things old or new, but with truth. That is, the truth about being human, about our nature and our designed need for true worship, the truth about liturgy and dogma, about art and music, about sacred spaces and prayer, and first about our Creator and the Real Presence. If we pursue those things the rest will fall into place (with some effort). The longing in our hearts for beauty, goodness, and truth will grow. Perhaps that longing is growing in the youth (many are actually not so young anymore), who have realized the modern liturgies that have been presented to them, arising as they have from the past several decades, to be lacking.

Why is this important to me? I came into the Church as an adult, having been Protestant for many years. I studied the Church from afar, too cautious I suppose to check it out first hand for a while. So I read about the Church, and I researched online. What I saw was great beauty. I chose Catholicism, in part, because I wanted to get away from the anemic styles and forms of worship I found in evangelical Protestantism. That certainly wasn’t the only reason, or the primary one, but it was important. I thought I would find something that harkened back to the great art and traditions of the past. Then I came into the Church only to find a mixed bag regarding beauty and tradition. When I hear and read about the beauty of the Catholic Church, I want to find it. Beauty can come in many forms and styles. One way is through tradition.

AND… Heaven forbid that we would be drawn towards tradition and not to Christ.

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A brief look at the Traditional Latin Mass

Here’s a nice little news piece on celebrating a traditional Latin Mass:

The group “behind” this Mass is the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter (FSSP, or Fraternité Sacerdotale Saint-Pierre). More about them here.

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Are you bad enough to be Catholic?

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You’ve heard the story: A man, who has spent his life trying to be a saint in some fashion or another, says to God, “I know I’m not perfect (because no one really is anyway), but I have not done so bad. I treat others fairly, I’m not divorced, got good kids, go to church every week, am part of a Bible study, pray, tithe, vote according to my faith, love sports but not too much, and overall am an upstanding member of society. Thank you God for all that you’ve done for me, and that I’m not like that guy over there — a wretch of a man, divorced, alcoholic, dirty, his family has abandoned him, he cheats others, can’t hold a job, lies, steals, fornicates, you know, that kind of guy. Thank you that I am a good Catholic.”

And that other guy? He falls on his knees before God and says, “God, my life is a mess. I have turned from you so many times, and will do so again, for I am weak. I do things I don’t want to do. I don’t do the things I should. I am a liar, a thief, a cheat. See what a miserable failure I am, what a sinner. As a young man I ran as far as I could from the faith of my childhood. I do not have faith anymore. I have driven away all who have loved me. I do not trust anyone. I do not even trust You, but I want to. If only I could. I deserve nothing good from You or any one else. I do not deserve forgiveness, so I am afraid to ask, but if… but if only You might have any mercy at all for me, here I am.”

The first man is at Mass every week. You probably stand next to him or behind him. He might greet you at the door, or read from the scripture. He might even offer you the Body and Blood of Christ when you come forward. He might even be you. And he might be me. That likelihood is higher than we want to admit.

And yet we are told by Christ (see Luke 18:9-14) that it is the second man who is closer to God than the first. It just might be that that guy is the true Catholic — perhaps not sacramentally but of the heart. A Catholic is a sinner who knows he is a sinner. And the first man? He is a sinner as well, and when his heart is softened he too will say, “Lord have mercy on me, a sinner.”

So the answer is yes. You and I are bad enough to be Catholic. Pray that we have eyes to see as well. Praise God for His great and inestimable love for us!

There are saints indeed in my religion: but a saint only means a man who really knows he is a sinner. ~ G. K. Chesterton

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I would have embraced the folk-mass

Not long ago I sat in a pastoral council meeting at my parish church. We were discussing the form of Mass, use of music, etc., and I heard an older gentleman, a servant of the church, exclaim that he loved the liturgical changes brought on by the spirit of Vatican II, and thought they were one of the best things that ever happened to the Church. His words gave me pause.

Catholics waiting for someone to bring them a folk-mass. Just from this image alone one might imagine the younger generation of that day reacting to a perceived ossification.

Catholics waiting for someone to bring them a folk-mass.
Just from this image alone one might imagine the younger generation of that day reacting to a perceived ossification.

I have become increasingly interested in the very solemn-style, traditional Mass which many see as harkening back to a pre-council time. Consequently I tend to dislike what I perceive as the terrible music and bad art so common (I assume, from what I hear and read) in contemporary worship services today — all brought on by Vatican II according to popular legend. But then I had to step back a bit and think about it. Am I right in my opinions? Perhaps yes, but perhaps no.

Folk mass 2

I’m not sure this is from a Catholic Mass or Protestant service, but you get the idea.

I’m not a folk-Mass or guitar-Mass kind of guy, but I think I would have embraced the changes the Church experienced in the 1960’s if I had been a young man then. I too would have thought those changes represented a great change to a more authentic and grounded expression of faith. However, I think I would have eventually changed and embraced a more traditional style as I got older. I say this because, as a Protestant, I went through a similar experience in the 1970’s and early 1980’s. I grew up in a rather conservative, staid kind of Baptist church, but I began to embrace Christian rock, and enjoyed how the youth groups changed with the times, and then “big” church changed to a more rock-n-roll ethos as well. I don’t like rock-n-roll church either, but I did years ago.

I don’t believe this question of what kind of music is appropriate at Mass is a question of taste, though taste plays a part. It’s deeper than mere taste, for it has to do with the fact of the Real Presence and human nature. How one feels at Mass is not as important as what Mass is; in other words, it’s an ontological question, not an emotional one. Folk and rock are great genres of music, but they are arguably inappropriate for the Mass because of the Real Presence and human nature, and the very purpose of the Mass itself. So why would such changes been made if all this is so obvious?

I don’t think it was that obvious, at least to a certain generation at a certain time and place.

Of the many shifts of the 1960’s, one was towards a kind of youth leadership. That is, youth began proclaiming its divergence from older generations, and grabbed the reigns of its own destiny. This shift was, perhaps, nothing terribly new, but interestingly the older generations embraced the change, often declaring their own generation had lost its way and only the youth have the answers. Some telling slogans appeared in popular culture: “I hope I die before I get old” was a line from the band The Who in their anthem My Generation. “Don’t trust anyone over thirty” was a phrase coined by Jack Weinberg in the heady days of the Free Speech Movement. This shift also precipitated a revolutionary spirit, leading to many protests and the belief that the youth could really change the world if they just let love reign. In Protestantism there was the Jesus Movement, a kind of hippie Christianity that had profound ripple effects throughout Protestantism, and also Catholicism (as many Catholics became fascinated with the more emotive forms of Protestant spirituality in light of the perceived deadness in their own). In fact, it became a sweeping movement of sorts, and many, many people were caught up in it — not unlike being caught up in the spirit.

Folk music and then rock music were powerful cultural expressions of the spirit of that age, and continue so today.

May 5, 1973: Hundreds of Calvary Chapel members line Corona del Mar beach for baptism ceremony.

May 5, 1973: Hundreds of Calvary Chapel members line Corona del Mar beach for baptism ceremony. Calvary Chapel, lead by Chuck Smith, was a major influence on modern American Christianity.

But this shift in the zeitgeist of 20th century Christianity also had humble, simple, and personable expressions. Expressions that, I believe, constituted a kind of healthy “reformation” within the Church — often drawing people into a closer, more intimate relationship with Jesus Christ.

There was a craving for authenticity: authenticity of living, authenticity of worship, authenticity of emotions, authenticity of self. Needless to say, old forms of worship seemed terribly stale to many — though that probably says more about that generation and their knowledge of those forms than it does about the forms themselves. Regardless, it became an easy step to ask how could one possibly have a genuine relationship with Jesus while sitting in old churches and singing old hymns. (Not a very analytical question, but a visceral one for sure.) Thus grew the folk music movement (followed by the rock movement) within Christianity, for both Protestant and Catholic. [Note: I have played guitar at numerous church and youth worship services — so I’m am also part of the so-called “problem” if there is one.] [Note: The issue much of the time is not about what instrument is being played. Guitars are not really a problem, except for their symbolism.] Of course there is a lot more to be said about this history, but my point is that if I had been a youth or young adult at that time I’m sure I would have fully embraced the so-called spirit of Vatican II, at least in terms of worship. AND… I actually love a lot of the folk-mass/folk-christian songs — having sung many from the old, brown Young Life song book back in the day — though some (like the ones in this post) seem rather sappy nowadays. And let’s admit, as well, that many old hymns are dusty, that they were contemporary once, and being old now does not mean they are good.

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Consider how one (maybe you) feels after having gone to a deeply emotional and moving (perhaps even Christian) rock concert, with its powerful music and light show, and the next morning you go to church and it seems so blah. Couldn’t you argue that you were “closer to God” at the concert? At least you felt that way, right? The same feeling would have been common in the 1960’s with its folk music, which seemed so much more authentic than dusty old hymns. I understand this. Bob Dylan was a prophet. “The Times They Are A-Changin'” is a better homily than is mostly ever preached by any priest. Peter, Paul and Mary sang truth. “If I Had A Hammer” is a more viscerally powerful sermon than most any Baptist preacher can muster. A young adult looking for such a connection at church just might welcome a couple of guitars and some bongo drums in the service of a passionately sung worship ballad in four-four. I have been that young adult and, if I am honest, I still am to some degree.

Given all that, after hearing that older gentleman wax positive about those changes of yesteryear, I realized my tendency to denigrate those changes of the post-Vatican II era is not an entirely honest tendency. Nor might it be entirely empathetic or loving. I still prefer a more traditional form of Mass, and I tend to think that guitars generally have their place outside of Mass, but I cannot assume I’m really any different than anyone else. I have come to this position over time, and I’m still on my journey. I am sure my current preferences are in reaction to my own experiences over a number of years. I too am a fish in the stream of history — and it just goes to show how easily I can forget myself.

Folk Mass Frances Mary Hunter Gordon

Final note: Let us not forget the Real Presence at Mass. The question of proper form and proper music at Mass flows from this profoundly radical fact. It’s not ultimately about a particular style, or particular instruments, or specific lyrics, as much as it is about appropriate reverence and worship, which includes proper action, and what it is that leads us to that. Understanding how much of contemporary music, especially folk and rock, does not fit within a Catholic liturgy may require a sensitivity and a knowledge most of us are unlikely to have; not because we can’t understand, but because our culture has trained us not to.

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Ubi caritas

The following is a truly, truly beautiful version of the Ubi caritas by Maurice Duruflé (from what I can tell). It is performed by the Maîtrise Notre-Dame de Paris Chœur d’adultes, under the direction of Henri Chalet.

According to the Duruflé version, they only sing the words of the refrain and the first stanza, but here it is in Latin:

Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est.
Congregavit nos in unum Christi amor.
Exultemus, et in ipso iucundemur.
Timeamus, et amemus Deum vivum.
Et ex corde diligamus nos sincero.

Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est.
Simul ergo cum in unum congregamur:
Ne nos mente dividamur, caveamus.
Cessent iurgia maligna, cessent lites.
Et in medio nostri sit Christus Deus.

Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est.
Simul quoque cum beatis videamus,
Glorianter vultum tuum, Christe Deus:
Gaudium quod est immensum, atque probum,
Saecula per infinita saeculorum. Amen.

And here is the English translation:

Where charity and love are, God is there.
Christ’s love has gathered us into one.
Let us rejoice and be pleased in Him.
Let us fear, and let us love the living God.
And may we love each other with a sincere heart.

Where charity and love are, God is there.
As we are gathered into one body,
Beware, lest we be divided in mind.
Let evil impulses stop, let controversy cease,
And may Christ our God be in our midst.

Where charity and love are, God is there.
And may we with the saints also,
See Thy face in glory, O Christ our God:
The joy that is immense and good,
Unto the ages through infinite ages. Amen.

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