Author’s note: I am away this week preaching a retreat for priests in Connecticut. I may post some new material this week but I also thought in my absence to re post some of my older articles that some newer readers may have missed. Here is one I posted back in Sept 2009:
I received my First Holy Communion in 1968 on my knees at the altar rail in our parish church of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in a suburb North of Chicago called Glenview. I received from a very elderly pastor, Fr. Dussman, whose hands shook from Parkinson’s. It was an awesome and fearsome event. I was more nervous since Father’s hands shook and receiving communion from him could be a challenge, especially for the first time.
I remember well how seriously we took Church in those days. We had special Church clothes (always a coat and tie), special Sunday shoes and approaching the altar rail was something quite wonderful but very formal: hands folded before the chest, fingers straight, right thumb crossed over left. Kneeling and waiting for the priest and altar boy to pass by was a time of anticipation, a kind of distracted prayer, alert and ready, don’t make the priest wait! Suddenly a altar boy slid a Paten under your chin. Head back, tongue out (not too far!) just over the lower lip! The priest spoke in an ancient language (Latin). Only years later did I learn exactly what he said. I am sure the Sisters taught me but I couldn’t remember(I was only 7 going on 8): Corpus Domini Nostri Jesu Christi custodiat animam tuam in vitam aeternam (May the Body of our Lord Jesus Christ guard your soul unto life eternal). And suddenly there he was, Jesus in Holy Communion. Pretty awesome, very special, beyond my comprehension but no doubt this was holy, this was serious and sacred.
But little did I know I was at the end of an era. Within a year strange things began to occur that I did not understand, things that did not comport with my training. I remember my mother telling me that we were going to a special youth mass. I had heard of a school mass, but not a youth Mass. We got there early and I noticed something that confused me. “Mom!” I whispered, (you always whispered in Church in those days), “What are those drums doing there? Right in front of the Mary Altar, behind the rail too, were electric guitars, a drum set and chairs. Then out came these guys I had never seen before, a couple of them were wearing jeans too (a major no-no in the old days). After Church my mother asked me if I liked it. I said no and she was surprised. “But Mom, I don’t know those songs and they were so loud.” I was confused. The sisters said we should dress well, be very quiet in Church so others could pray and only talk or sing when it was time to do that. It all seemed “a violation of my training.” But an era had ended. Something was taking its place. Little by little the familiar gave way to the new. The transition was at times startling, at times exciting.
I do not write this post to “bash” the liturgical changes. Just to document an experience. I have become quite accustomed to the “new” Mass. I am also privileged to say the Traditional Latin Mass. I guess I am blessed to enjoy the best of both worlds. I am proud of the glory of the new Mass as it is celebrated in my parish. We have a wonderful gospel choir which also does classical very well. There is great joy at every Mass. I am also so happy to be able to celebrate ancient Latin Mass that reminds me of the joy of my youth (quilaetificat juventutem meam). I merely document here, I leave the judgements to you my faithful readers.
The following video depicts a Mass in the year 1969. It is from an Elvis movie entitled “Change of Habit.” What an amazing little video for me! It’s just as I remember it as the changes set it. Notice the still strong presence of traditions: people all dressed up for Church, nuns in traditional habits, the priest at the high altar facing east. But notice too the guitars and “informality” of the musicians. The music is up front not back in the choir loft. And many struggle to understand the new lay of the land. It was 1969. It was the end of an era.
This blog contains something of my personal story. If you want to skip the “personal story segment” and shorten your reading, jump down to (What is Nihilism?)
What a Year! Those of us who are a little on the older side lived through and remember the dramatic culture changing year of 1968. What an awful year in so many ways. The Vietnam War was at it height and wasn’t going well from the Tet Offensive to anti-war protests here at home. The Assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King was earth shaking. Terrible riots followed that dreadful event making matters even worse. Those riots completely reshaped many cities. Robert Kennedy was assassinated later that year. Demonstrations and riots also accompanied the Democratic Convention in 1968. And all through it a steady beat of the sexual revolution eroded modesty and illicit drug use became very public. Disrespect, even hatred of authority in any form was epidemic and reverence for any form of tradition cast aside. Hippies, love-ins, crash pads and a general haze of pot and hash hung in the air of College campuses and places like Haight Ashbury in San Francisco. Slogans like Free love! If it feels good do it! Make love not war! etc. were common. Many College campuses ceased to function under the weight of almost constant student protests. The cultural revolution had reached critical mass.
Yet not all of us in 1968 were radicalized yet. I had a flat top crew cut and was just a young kid. We decorated our bikes with streamers for the 4thof July and attended parades. My patriotic father was heading off to the war, and like any typical boy I was accustomed to building forts, playing German spotlight and king of the mountain. Our little neighborhood in north suburban Chicago seemed worlds away from Haight Ashbury, or even Grant Park in Chicago where Chicago Hippies smoked pot and did LSD. I remember once driving past Grant Park on the way to a downtown museum and asking my mother with shock, “Mom! Why do those men have hair like girls!?” These strange sights were scary and made no sense. In April of that year Dr. King had been assassinated and though news was less 24/7 than today I remember being terrified to see whole sections of the South and West Side of Chicago on fire in the news. My mother only told me when I was older that she had barely escaped with her life. She had been substitute teaching on the South Side that fateful April Day when the riots closed in. An angel in a police uniform escorted her out. It was 1968. The Cultural Revolution had reached critical mass. The nuclear fission bomb of cultural revolution had exploded. But the fallout had not reached the suburbs yet.
Fast Forward just ten years. It is 1978 and I am a Junior in High School. By now the radiation of the late 1960s had spread a kind of radiation sickness to areas not initially devastated. By now I had long hair, down to my shoulders. I was a little too shy to be far advanced in the sexual revolution and anger and a kind of hatred and ridicule of authority was my thing. Pop music was OK but heavy Rock Music was my real thing. It fed my anger and made me feel righteous in my disrespect of parents and others in authority. Rock music confirmed and validated my anger and also the dogma that old people didn’t know anything worth learning. I was somewhat at odds with my father and though I could not withstand him, I avoided him and nursed great hostility for him in my heart. And Rock music supplied me all the material I needed. Nihilism had now reached the suburbs and I was one revel in its hostility. Who were you to say what was right or wrong!? What do a bunch of old gray haired men in the Vatican know that is worth anything. Yes Nihilism had reached the suburbs!
What is Nihilism? – Nihilism is fundamentally a philosophical doctrine that exults in the negation of one of more traditionally meaningful aspects of life. It comes from the Latin “nihil” which means “nothing.” Culturally nihilism exalts in tearing down traditional forms and understanding. In its most radical form, Nihilism argues that life itself is without any intrinsic meaning or purpose. Moral Nihilism argues that there are no moral norms or criteria that are universally valid and that morality itself is just a contrivance; that good and evil are just human constructs. Intellectual Nihilists deny that anything can really be known. Metaphysical Nihilists deny that anything is actually real! But in the end what Nihilism enjoys most is reducing to nothing that which was something. It hates the past, denies that previous generations have anything to teach us. It accepts almost no limits and denies that anything is really true. Everything must go and be replaced by… nothing. Yes it is absurd but it is really more about anger and rebellion than anything reasonable. How could it be reasonable since reasonableness presupposes standards and norms? Nihilism is hostile to the notion that anything can really be known or stated with certainty and is fundamentally deconstructionist because it loves to tear down the moral, social and cultural fabric that took centuries to develop. In the end, Nihilism exults in nothingness.
But sadly most people today suffer from some form of Nihilism. Most people deny the fact of objective moral norms. Even more deny the notion of absolute moral norms. Most people today no longer consider things to be true or false. Rather, most everything is seen just as opinion or a subjective point of view. It may be true that many things are just opinion but does this mean that there is really no objective truth to be found? It would seem so, according to many if not most people today. All of this of course leads to a rather deep cynicism as well as an incapacity to come to agreement on many important issues of the day. Since no agreed upon norms exist, life amounts to a power struggle between factions. Nihilism has so permeated our culture that most people don’t even know its there. It’s like talking to a fish about water and the fish says, “What water?” Most people congratulate themselves for their Nihilism by calling it other things like “open-mindedness”, “tolerance”, “acceptance”, “progressiveness” and the like. There are real virtues by these names but it is likely that most who claim these virtues for themselves are actually just suffering from some form of Nihilism. Yes, I want to argue that nihilism has reached the suburbs, the kitchen table, the family hearth.
And more than ever this is why we need Catholic culture and faith. It is only with something that we can battle nothing. I have come a long way out of my Nihilism that reached full flower in the late 1970s. I had turned my sights away from God and the Church and found only “nothing.” I cannot say I have fully emerged from Nihilism for it has so permeated everything. And yet I credit the Catholic faith for restoring to me to truth and its existence. I credit the faith for restoring my hope and healing so much of my anger and cynicism. I thank the Catholic Faith for restoring to me my sight. Truth inevitably leads to beauty and goodness, and what a beautiful view it is. There is great serenity and freedom in the truth. I know that Nihilism brought me only anger and struggle against perceived enemies (i.e. my father, the Church et al.) that was far from serene. So here I stand more blessed than I deserve, coming out of nothing into everything, out of darkness into light. The lamp of the body is the eye. If your eye is sound, your whole body will be filled with light; but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be in darkness. And if the light in you is darkness, how great will the darkness be. (Matt 6:23-24)
This video presents what had been my “theme song” in High School. One of my favorite rock groups was The Who and they published a song in 1978 that resonated very deeply with my Nihilism at that time. I am embarrassed that I ever thought this a theme song. But it surely does capture Nihilism well. Notice how the moral Nihilism gives way to anger, then cynicism, then despair and ultimately a kind of death wish. The song ends by saying in a rather exalted tone: “Here comes the end of the world!” Nihilism alright, in the end: nothing!
Here are the words to the song you can hear on the video:
I’ve had enough of bein’ nice; I’ve had enough of right and wrong I’ve had enough of tryin’ to love my brother.
I’ve had enough of bein’ good; And doin’ everything like i’m told I should; If you need a lover, you’d better find another
Life is for the living; Takers never giving
Suspicion takes the place of trust; My love is turning into lust; If you get on the wrong side of me you better run for cover
I’ve had enough of bein’ trodden on; My passive days are gonna be long gone; If you slap one cheek, well, I ain’t gonna turn the other
Life is for the living; Takers never giving. Fooling no one but ourselves; good is dying; Here comes the end
Here comes the end of the world
I’m gettin’ sick of this universe; Ain’t gonna get better; it’s gonna get worse; And the world’s gonna sink with the weight of the human race
Hate and fear in every face; I’m gettin’ ready and I’ve packed my case; If you find somewhere better, can you save my place?
Fooling no one but ourselves; Love is dying; Here comes the end; Here comes the end
Here comes the end of the world
There was a movie from back in the late 1990s called “Blast From The Past” The Movie begins in the early 60s at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis. An eccentric man and his pregnant wife have built and elaborate fallout shelter underground in their backyard. It is no ordinary bomb shelter but a large and well stocked one that even allows the growing of food and fish and has many amenities.
When a plane crashes nearby they think the country is under attack and that the Atom Bomb has hit. They run into the shelter and lock it behind them setting the automatic locks not to open for 35 years when the radiation had dissipated.
During this time the pregnant wife gives birth to their son, Adam whom they raise in that shelter. Adam receives the usual education one would expect in the early 60s, strong on reading, writing and arithmetic, American and world history. He also obtains a liberal arts college education from his father who was a professor. The education included Latin, Greek, French and German. Adam also learns all the usual social skills of that time such as basic manners, how to treat a lady, ballroom dancing, the meaning of life. He is also raised to reverence God.
In a way the family was frozen in time and preserved the values of that time of the early 60s. The film does not present that time as flawless. The mother has a bit of a drinking problem, the father is rather eccentric and xenophobic etc.
Suddenly it is 1997 and the locks come open. The family makes its first excursion since the “bomb” went off. The father expects to find that those who survived will show signs of radiation poisoning and that the world will surely manifest many signs of the destruction the bomb surely wrought so they go forth cautiously.
Now, you and I know that no atom bomb ever did go off. Or did it? As they emerge from the bomb shelter the once quaint neighborhood they lived in has become a red light district. They see shocking things. Not only prostitutes and adult book stores, but also drug addicts, trash-filled streets and signs of grave disorder. People are coarse in their behavior etc. They run back into the shelter concluding that things are worse than they thought. They send their son Adam out to get provisions and possibly to find a wife if he can locate someone who is less effected by the “radiation.” Then they will once again throw the locks on the shelter and wait for things to improve on the outsiide lest they be poisoned by it all. In this scene Adam emerges from the shelter and first encounters a drug addict who thinks Adam is God. Adam then goes forth and sees things and people outside for the first time.
As Adam goes forth he discovers that beyond the world of the red light district is less devastated but he still struggles with what he experiences. Families seem in disarray, people are coarse, cynical, and use God’s name in vain. The technology amazes him as do simple things like rain, the open sky and the ocean. In this scene he is troubled by some modern cultural trends and then sees the ocean for the first time:
It is quite clear to us who watch the movie that much has been lost. Adam is head and shoulders above the modern people who surround him. He is kind, respectful, polite, innocent in his interpretation of the world. He is much smarter than those around him as well, having quite an encyclopedic knowledge compared to the moderns around him. In this scene two things are illustrated: his superior educatoin and also his coming to grips with modern technology. How can a computer (giant in his world) be in a house?
And he can dance, really dance! Not just the gyrating common on modern dance floors but the flawless execution of 40s swing is natural to him since he was trained in every form of ballroom dancing by his parents. You can see the video of Adam dancing HERE (I can’t embed it due to audio issues).
He is befriended by a young lady named Eve and her brother. They think him to be strange and naive but come to discover he has much to teach. In this scene they ponder something he has taught them about graciousness, kindness and the blessing of strong family ties.
This movie is worth seeing. It is not preachy (like me). It gently suggests to us that we have lost some important things in the past 40 years. Things like kindness, optimism, the value of traditional education, the importance of parents teaching and raising their kids. In many ways the movie gently suggests that we have become coarse, cynical, even vulgar. Family ties have often been severed and culture has melted down to more base level. Education is less thorough and broad, simple things like learning to dance are lost. As I have already said, the early 1960s was not a perfect time. Many troublesome cultural trends were already well underway. These are not unreported in the movie. But still the point remains, some things of great value have been lost. A young man steps out the past and is bewildered by what he finds. Technology is impressive, but people seem lost and cynical. The world is hostile and disordered. But he brings with him some healing balm, some of the best virtues of the past, to remind us all that we have lost important things along the way. THe bomb did go off. Not the Atom Bomb but an even more devastating cultural bomb. Rebuilding will take time.