Sunday, October 29, 2017

The Meek Shall Inherit the Earth

The video  recently posted about the closing of the Abbey of Our Lady of the Holy Trinity, a Trappist Monastery in Utah, spoke to me profoundly. It conjured up all sorts of images about similar closures, suppressions and secularizations over the centuries. And beyond monastic life to the matter of the state of the Church today, it posed questions for me about what my attitude should be toward defections from church life in general and what should be the role of apologetics in the life of every Catholic. 

In the video, almost right off, the one old monk pointed to the inevitability of their having to close the abbey by observing that they could see it coming as no one who had come to them in the last thirty years had stayed... There is something terribly meek about this way of staring reality in the face. He says his part without bitterness or rage, just simply. If you want to recognize your own malaise, you have to be not only honest and perceptive, but also humble.

The video reminded me of the account of the violent suppression in reformation times in England of the monasteries in Robert Hugh Benson's historical novel The King's Achievement, where we find the older brother Ralph, attached to Cromwell, destroying the monastic world of his Catholic younger brother, Christopher. Ultimately, the persecuted monks and nuns in the story show themselves at their best and of Christ-like stature when they shoulder the injustice heaped upon them like lambs mute before the slaughter. Catholic meekness probably even saves from hell on his death bed the executor of the king's will, Ralph, and deprives Henry VIII of the surety of his gloating over a good family's son lost to greed and falsehood.

Coming two centuries closer to our time, any number of incidents from Enlightened Monks. The German Benedictines 1740-1803 by Ulrich L. Lehner came to mind as well. Here too the marauder was on the inside, in those unhappy though supposedly enlightened monks, self-proclaimed intellectuals and sophisticates among the brethren, who surely undermined German monasticism by their willful pride, when they were not openly contesting in the name of freedom the Medieval monastic order of their communities and universities.

Friends of mine today in both the neo-conservative and the traditional camps speak consistently of standing up to the menace facing the Church, whether from within or without the fold. Both contest the disbelief, the crass errors or indifference, which would deprive us of the fullness of faith in the Living God. This troubled hour, whether we are talking about the vocations crisis or the empty pews and moral decadence among our ranks, certainly calls for a new zeal. My thought, however, would be that neither alone nor in combination will the popular conservative binary of cleansing the temple or preaching in and out of season win the battle against decay. The binary does not fully display the obedience to the will of the Father, witnessed to by Christ in His Passion and so needed to save the day. Spittle on our faces, we need to stand silent in identification with our loving Lord before the tribunal of Pilate's expediency.

The media, social communications make it harder for us to be ignorant of the plots laid or the attempts made against the good order of the great Tradition and maintain our serenity. Yet, that is where meekness like that of Jesus before Pilate comes in as that one essential. Be it said that quietism or passivity is not a Gospel strategy, but the point here is of entering into the mystery of death swallowed up in the Death of Christ.

Our days' "illuminati", for all their boastful ranting, for all their pride cannot seem to see their hand before their faces or recognize, like my meek little old monk in the video, that which is all too sadly evident. We need to spend more time mulling over just what Jesus meant in teaching that the earth and the victory belong to the meek.


Thursday, October 26, 2017

Nose Off to Spite Your Face

Enlightened Monks
The German Benedictines 1740-1803
Ulrich L. Lehner
2011 Oxford University Press, New York

Not long ago I reported reading another book by Ulrich Lehner, which was actually a by-product of this his book from 2011, his prior or principal work on the general topic of monastic discipline in the face of disobedience, controversy, madness or crime. As reported then the later book from 2013 is entitled: Monastic Prisons and Torture Chambers.  The present volume was intended for my summer reading (not available on Kindle), but because of one thing or another, I ended up carrying the slim volume back with me. I just finished reading it. While this book is not for everyone (ecclesiastical history relating to 18th century German monks), I found it terribly interesting and informative on many accounts. It opened up new vistas for me, not only in terms of the history of thought, but also concerning the why and wherefore of the disappearance of so many monastic communities back then in lands where I have spent most of my professional life.

Proceeding by topic, new lifestyles, new liberties, new philosophies and theologies, et al. Ulrich chronicles the tragic lives of many enlightened monks in German speaking central Europe over the time period. He does so with profound respect for all these men who were more often than not their abbots' nightmares, for their pride, their hysterics, and in some cases even for their crimes.

I cannot blame Lehner for my reading of his work. I have concluded that the Enlightenment was little better than anthrax poisoning for monasticism. The Catholic Enlightenment is little more than a repetition in a new century (the 18th) of the iconoclastic proposals of the two prior reformation centuries with a pitiable admixture of slogans from the French revolution. It involved petty demands to suppress the tonsure which marked their consecration and trade the venerable old habit for the dandy dress of their contemporaries. The obligations of choir, especially the night office, were opposed as an impediment to study, travel and scientific work, to be furthered by social exchanges at dinners in mixed company and by frequenting the theater. I can see now that the secularization movement, à la Joseph II Hapsburg and his like in Bavaria and elsewhere, which paved roads with monastic library materials and sought to abolish the monastic vocation as unproductive, found allies in these monastic illuminati and their like for their anti-Catholicism.

In his conclusions, Ulrich Lehner notes the Catholic Enlightenment as a casualty of secularization (cf. page 227). Closer to the point might be that these prideful monsters, impressed with their own genius and bent on dictating from the heights of their university cathedras, were accomplices to ending German monasticism. They were useful idiots in the promotion of something very much at odds with the tradition, anthrax for the Church as I say, by comparison with the Romantic revival or Ultramontanism.

"The period during which no monastic life was detectable lasted for almost a generation. However, because of numerous heroic monks and nuns who desired to remain faithful to their vocation, an underground monasticism arose." (page 228).

May the Church in our time be spared the caprice of similar illuminati, people eager to promote themselves at the expense of religion in humble obedience to the grand Tradition which holds us close to the Bridegroom in an ordered life punctuated by the Psalmody, which gives voice to the sentiments of the Bride's devoted heart.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Staring "Andalusia II" in the Face

Again these days, I was confronted by just how wide-ranging and profound was the impact of the decision, a good year and a half ago, of a priest from the diocese of Münster in Germany, a close relative of the famous Cardinal Frings of Cologne, ("Aus, Amen, Ende? So kann ich nicht mehr Pfarrer sein". Thomas Frings) to abandon a premier parish and enter a monastery in Holland. In the meantime Father Frings has discerned himself out of the monastery and is back into the service of his diocese. 

Middle aged priests, also in Switzerland, continue to discuss their own vocations in the light of questions similar to those Father Frings raised in his book about parish ministry. There is much more to this story than facing the issue of burn-out in the life of hard-working and apparently successful parish priests. Not enough of the conversation, unfortunately, is directed toward bringing to light the nature of the Catholic Church and its profoundly sacramental character. Sadly enough the dignity and sublime nature of Catholic priesthood is often downplayed or ignored in the discussion.

In my position, I hear both sides, both of those whose vision of parish ministry is darker and more skeptical than that of Father Frings, as well as of those who protest/insist upon proclaiming their vocational satisfaction and argue for the value of things as they are in the Church in the Western world. As harsh a judgment (or silly, depending upon your perspective) as it may be, I find both extremes (depression and euphoria) to be tied to the phenomenological, to results, and neither going much beyond categories like productivity and job satisfaction. I have no time for Frings, as he is too sad and awash in a world adrift, but "put on a happy face" or "singing in the rain" is no better and indefensible for the sake of the life of the world.

One of the overarching challenges or temptations suffered by the diocesan priest is located on the playing field of activism. It is only now, fifty years after the Second Vatican Council, that we generally are discovering we have come no closer  through church renewal initiatives to providing the priest in the parish or the diocesan bishop with an ironclad plan of life (a "mirror") to help him confront the ancient malaise which Pope St. Gregory the Great was struggling with nearly a millennium and a half ago: How does one keep the Saving Presence when constantly called to traverse or live life in the public eye, on the public square? What is my specific role in cooperating with the Almighty for the good of Christ's Church in prospering the work of our hands for the sake of the life of the world, of furthering the Kingdom of Christ?

If you believe the testimony out there these days, a significant part of the priestly vocations today come from the experience of Perpetual Adoration. That is good; it is promising. It is often said that a constant in the lives of young and zealous priests is their Holy Hour. That is edifying. However, the Church's Liturgy is rarely mentioned as a font of priestly spirituality, unless of course it is in the context of vocations, not to diocesan priesthood, but to the monastic or contemplative life in a monastery of the tradition, of the ancient usage, of the full monastic office in Latin with Gregorian Chant and the Roman Missal of 1962. Thinking specifically about diocesan priesthood and parish ministry, I ask myself whether all the paring back which took place, supposedly for pastoral reasons, to make the priest more available for his people isn't what is starving our priests spiritually and acting as a counter sign to our lay people, who don't seem to pray at all, at least not by comparison with their grandparents.

Pope St. Gregory the Great had no illusions about his role as pontiff, as bishop, as priest for the world. He knew he could not withdraw as before his election as Bishop of Rome into the great silence of the cloister. 

In cities, generally in Europe and up until the time of the Council, people were often a short walk from church and hence made it there both Sunday morning for the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and for Sunday Vespers which ended up being a discursive exercise or educational and a time of intellectual feeding for adults. Not much happens any more outside of the Sunday or the pre-festive Mass these days, too little care or so it would seem for leading people to and from the source and summit of Christian existence. It would seem that we owe our Catholic faithful more by way of an edifice of prayer for their Catholic life. It would seem that Sundays with Holy Mass need to become again what they were for St. Justin Martyr back in 165 AD, namely that without which we cannot live.

Yesterday, I saw a news item stating that on the average 50 religious houses (monasteries or convents) a month are closing in the once Catholic Spain. Demographics and mobility have brought the close of lots of parishes generally in the West (on both sides of the Atlantic). The number of unbelievers in our own midst, whether from defection from the Church or from migration, has destroyed the social fabric which still tends to provide the excuse for a lot of church activity, which has some priests, as I say, woefully depressed and others playing Pollyanna. The success of the Rosary demonstration last Saturday on the borders of Poland would indicate that at least some people understand the stakes in this challenge. 

I am reading a very interesting book these days which documents among other things how the Muslim conquest of Spain devastated Visigoth high culture there, which was ultimately the successor culture of a Christian stamp to the ancient Roman one. Reconquest? No, my object would be another and namely to insist that the vehicle for culture or the life of faith cannot be the parish priest's sense of job satisfaction. We need to realize that we are starving ourselves and our people and need to rebuild the edifice of prayer and official worship which is the Church's glory and works most effectively for the salvation of souls.


Saturday, October 7, 2017

Contemplating the Godhead

The Second Reading for the Office of Our Lady of the Rosary today was taken from a sermon by St Bernard and given the title: "We should meditate on the mysteries of salvation":

"The child to be born of you will be called holy, the Son of God, the fountain of wisdom, the Word of the Father on high. Through you, blessed Virgin, this Word will become flesh, so that even though, as he says: I am in the Father and the Father is in me, it is still true for him to say: “I came forth from God and am here.”
  In the beginning was the Word. The spring was gushing forth, yet still within himself. Indeed, the Word was with God, truly dwelling in inaccessible light. And the Lord said from the beginning: I think thoughts of peace and not of affliction. Yet your thought was locked within you, and whatever you thought, we did not know; for who knew the mind of the Lord, or who was his counsellor?
  And so the idea of peace came down to do the work of peace: The Word was made flesh and even now dwells among us. It is by faith that he dwells in our hearts, in our memory, our intellect and penetrates even into our imagination. What concept could man have of God if he did not first fashion an image of him in his heart? By nature incomprehensible and inaccessible, he was invisible and unthinkable, but now he wished to be understood, to be seen and thought of.
  But how, you ask, was this done? He lay in a manger and rested on a virgin’s breast, preached on a mountain, and spent the night in prayer. He hung on a cross, grew pale in death, and roamed free among the dead and ruled over those in hell. He rose again on the third day, and showed the apostles the wounds of the nails, the signs of victory; and finally in their presence he ascended to the sanctuary of heaven.
  How can we not contemplate this story in truth, piety and holiness? Whatever of all this I consider, it is God I am considering; in all this he is my God. I have said it is wise to meditate on these truths, and I have thought it right to recall the abundant sweetness, given by the fruits of this priestly root; and Mary, drawing abundantly from heaven, has caused this sweetness to overflow for us."

We meditate on the mysteries as individuals, as families and in community, as in church, both reciting the Holy Rosary and through our participation in the worthy celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

St. Bernard touches a point which has lost none of its relevance for believers today and which occasions more than its share of fretting in our day and time as, in various questionnaires and sometimes even out in the open, people who identify as "Catholic" (how's that for full immersion in the jargon of our time!) shamelessly express doubts or disbelief in all the major tenets of our faith. What is the remedy for the why so of this tragic state of affairs?

Bailing or pumping out the leaking hull will not be enough to right the listing ship. By that I mean that as essential as a full fledged restoration or rejuvenation of Catholic marriage and family life is, which is to say an insistent striving for a genuine empowerment of the family as the little Church, there is more to the Catholic edifice than the family, the keystone of its central arch, and namely, there is also the cornerstone, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass on Sunday. 

Here too we must strive with all our might for a restoration. Sunday Mass is, as we can note already in the testimony from St. Justin Martyr from his trial in 165 AD, that without which we cannot exist as Christians. Too often forgotten in our daily living is that Sunday Mass is indeed the cornerstone, the key piece which makes sense of the whole mosaic, the big picture. In and of itself it cannot be a didactic exercise, but must rather be that moment of meditation or contemplation, that still point around which all else must turn. If we could clear away all the fluff and abuse which clutters the average Catholic's experience of Sunday Mass, we could better concentrate on that which is supposed to lead to and flow from our Sunday in church. It is what makes Sunday and Mass an integral part of living which is lacking: daily prayer, penance, reading and study - each in the measure appropriate to our station in life. Important is that nobody is excused out of a mindless compulsion to "keep up with the Jones's".  

I think everyday should have space for 5 Mysteries, driving the banal, contentious and quirky out of at least a generous quarter hour out of 24 whole ones. I would invite you to start today with one decade and enjoy time contemplating one tiny aspect of the Godhead. No time to lose!


Monday, October 2, 2017

Worldviews Apart - From Mummification to Cremation

Here in the Confessions is St. Augustine describing and qualifying the nature (rhetorical) of his first interest in St. Ambrose:

XIV "Thus I did not take great heed to learn what he was saying but only to hear how he said it: that empty interest was all I now had since I despaired of man’s finding the way to You. Yet along with the words, which I admired, there also came into my mind the subject-matter, to which I attached no importance. I could not separate them. And while I was opening my heart to learn how eloquently he spoke, I came to feel, though only gradually, how truly he spoke. First I began to realise that there was a case for the things themselves, and I began to see that the Catholic faith, for which I had thought nothing could be said in the face of the Manichean objections, could be maintained on reasonable grounds: this especially after I had heard explained figuratively several passages of the Old Testament which had been a cause of death for me when taken literally. Many passages of these books were expounded in a spiritual sense and I came to blame my own hopeless folly in believing that the law and the prophets could not stand against those who hated and mocked at them. I did not yet feel that the Catholic way was to be followed, merely because it might have some learned men to maintain it and answer objections adequately and not absurdly; nor did I think that what I had so far held was to be condemned because both views were equally defensible. In fact the Catholic side was clearly not vanquished, yet it was not clearly victorious. I then bent my mind to see if I could by any clear proofs convict the Manicheans of error. If only I had been able to conceive of a substance that was spiritual, all their strong points would have been broken down and cast forth from my mind. But I could not. Concerning the body of this world, and the whole of that nature which our bodily senses can attain to, I thought again and again and made many comparisons; and I still judged that the views of so many of the philosophers were more probable. So in what I thought to be the manner of the Academics—that is to say, doubting of all things and wavering between one and another—I decided that I must leave the Manichees; for in that time of doubt, I did not think I could remain in a sect to which I now preferred certain of the philosophers. Yet I absolutely refused to entrust the care of my sick soul to the philosophers, because they were without the saving name of Christ. I determined, then, to go on as a catechumen in the Catholic Church—the church of my parents—and to remain in that state until some certain light should appear by which I might steer my course."  [Augustine. Confessions (pp. 91-92). Hackett Publishing. Kindle Edition.] 

What struck me in this passage was Augustine's critique of himself before baptism, as a young adult: he confesses his obtuseness and materialism, his sad state, incapable of discerning the truth for him and generally rendered more attractive by Ambrose's oratory. The drama of Augustine's sad state is further underlined as he classes himself a catechumen, a seeker of the Catholic faith and baptism. I found myself asking, how many young people must there be like St. Augustine before his conversion, what are their chances and just where are people's heads today?

If for a moment I might apply the question to the issue of how we look at our destiny, I find myself asking where in the world folks find themselves. In a photo news story the other day, documenting the discovery of a very, very ancient, but perfectly preserved Egyptian mummy, I got to wondering how far the mummification mentality of upper class ancient Egypt is from the nearly all-pervasive cremation mentality one encounters here in Switzerland, and which is also making advances in a better part of the United States.

This puzzle came up for me as I considered the perfect symmetry of that mummy's head and face wrapping, which though beautiful said to me nothing comparable to our Catholic belief in the life of the world to come. The world of the ancient pharaohs was a world caught up in death and taxidermy; resurrection, eternal light, happiness and peace were not what they were wrapping up so neatly in linen after having salted away the cadaver for a goodly time. 

Is mummification back when really all that different from those who rush to cremate today, scattering ashes on lakes, off of mountain peaks or out in the woods somewhere? Both processes incline toward a denial of the great truth of Christ's Second Coming to judge the living and the dead (from the earth, from the depths of the sea or from wherever) and to take to Himself in Glory all who are His own. Two worlds, one ancient and one present, both too obtuse to be touched by the Word of Life!

St. Augustine deplores the hardness of his own young heart, held bound by the Manichean heresy, which he judged totally material and leaving no space for the Almighty. Our own culture of death (evidenced in the eagerness for the destruction of all human point of reference through cremation and scattering) is no less hardened than the Manichean to the words of life proclaimed by Christ's Church today in His Holy Name.

Who will save the young Augustines of our day? Are there enough insistent prayers accompanied by the tears of their mothers, Monicas for our day and time? I love the way this intellectual, this sophisticate, this big man Augustine, blubbers away finding no other key but she, who in God's great mercy, unlocked the treasure of saving grace for him despite his pride and unworthiness. 

Augustine, from all appearances, was drawn first by the rhetorical skills of Ambrose, paying no heed to his wisdom and truth. My guess is that the young Augustines of our day don't even cherish rhetoric in their obtuseness. Maybe it is indeed a new age of barbarianism in which we find ourselves. In any case, from parents, family or friends, I pray that the young sophisticates of our day could be brought to confounded blubbering by the tears and prayers of the loved ones who would claim them for Christ!