It Happened on Our Watch, as Seen in a Commercial

There are many causes for our cultural meltdown, but given our directive to be Christ’s light to the world, we must admit that to some degree we are answerable for the current state of affairs. The cauldron in Europe resulted in two World Wars largely fought in “Christian” Europe. Further, the widespread abandonment of the Faith in Europe does not bode well for anyone. We in the West often point to cite disarray and corruption in places like Africa, but Europe has been the site of bloodbaths for thousands of years, the last two thousand of which happened in a supposedly Christian Europe. In the past several decades we have seen an utter moral rebellion in the wake of a century of European war. Yes, we who would preach Christ cannot absolve ourselves of responsibility for the condition the world.

When I saw the commercial below, I felt a twinge of guilt. The words of a poem by William Butler Yeats came to mind:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed,
and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Yes, something struck me. In the commercial, anarchy, destruction, injustice, violence, and pure chaos are shown. Yet all the while our superhero, with his “bat phone” screeching in the background signaling a call for help, is wholly distracted, mindlessly flipping through the channels unaware that the world around him is descending right into Hell. He is turned inward, focused on his own little world.

Is this what we’re doing? Are we the superhero slouching on the couch as the world and Western culture descend into a maelstrom? We see the things of which Yeats wrote: lost innocence, the blood-dimmed tide of the 20th century with perhaps more than 100 million people put to death in war and for ideological reasons, and moral anarchy swept in by the four horsemen of the apocalypse—relativism, secularism, individualism, and the sexual revolution.

While the wicked have been marching with passionate intensity, the good have largely been asleep, lacking the zeal for battle. All around us are divorce, abortion, teenage pregnancy, rampant sexually transmitted diseases, broken families, increasing lack of self-control and discipline, declining school test scores and graduation rates, the inability to live within our means, rising poverty rates for children, drug and alcohol addiction, plummeting Church attendance—the list could go on and on.

Where have we been as a Church—as Christians—in a world gone mad? Where, for example, was the Church in 1969, when “no-fault divorce” laws began to be passed? It would seem that we were inwardly focused: moving furniture around in our sanctuaries; tuning our guitars; and having endless debates about liturgy, Church authority, and why women can’t be ordained. These are not unimportant issues, but while we were so focused on them, we lost the culture.

Yes, it happened on our watch. I am old enough that I can no longer heap all the blame on the previous generation. Even during my relatively short lifetime, I have seen the world as I knew it largely swept away, especially in terms of family life. Now it is up to me to try to make a difference.

How about you? It will take courage and an increasing conviction to live the Catholic faith openly. No more of this “undercover Catholic” stuff; no more trying to fit in and be liked. It is long past midnight for our culture, our families, and our children.

There is something very wrong with the scenario in the commercial: the superhero ignores the cries for help. It’s time for our superhero to get off the couch, pick up the phone, re-engage, and get to work. It is interesting to note that the movie he is watching shows a wolf being set loose. Jesus says, Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves (Matt 7:15). Indeed, many wolves preaching (false) tolerance and spouting other pleasantries have badly misled people and spread error, calling “good” what is sinful and misrepresenting biblical tradition.

Well, fellow superheroes, the last time I checked, we are supposed to be salt and light for the world. It’s time—long past time—to bring Christ’s power back to this world. It’s time for us to get off the couch, pick up the phone, re-engage, and get to work.

Don’t just watch culture; direct it.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: It Happened on Our Watch, as Seen in a Commercial

A Shocking Loss of Faith: Reflecting on the Closing of So Many Churches

Lincoln Congregational Temple in Shaw, credit: NCinDC, Flickr

As I walk or drive through my Capitol Hill neighborhood here in Washington, D.C., I pass by more than twenty churches (all of them Protestant) that have been closed in the past decade. Many of them are grand and prominent buildings. (Click here to see four of them.) Most of the them have been converted to condominiums, likely due to historic preservation norms that seek to retain the exterior appearance of historic buildings.

A recent study by the local non-profit organization Sacred Spaces Conservancy confirms my anecdotal evidence about the large number of closures. On Capitol Hill, a growing neighborhood with a tremendous number of row houses, about 40 percent of buildings used for worship have closed [*]. Such a figure is shocking and demonstrates a collapse of religious observance. Our Catholic parishes have suffered as well, but thankfully none of them have closed.

As always, there is important detail behind the numbers. At the root is a dramatic demographic shift in the population of the District of Columbia. The once majority-black city is no longer so; African-Americans now make up less than 50 percent of the population. The new arrivals to the city are also younger. To say that the city is undergoing gentrification is not really accurate. The majority of the new residents are not gentry at all; they are largely young adults, saddled with college debt and unable to afford to own property. The median home price in this area is close to one million dollars. Because most of them do not have the means to buy a home, they rent, and even then must usually share with others to make it affordable.

This is the new demographic reality: A once solidly African-American area is now more racially diverse and younger as well. The new residents are in general less religiously observant and those who are “religious” are less tied to particular denominations or congregations. This is a challenge to institutions established in a very different world.

This has affected Protestant and Catholics in different ways.

The Protestant Experience:

There are reasons that the Protestant congregations have been more affected by the changes than the Catholic parishes. In general, Protestant denominations were and are divided in that they served specific groups defined by both racial and sectarian lines. For example, there might have been ten “Baptist” churches in a fairly small area, but they weren’t serving just different Baptist denominations; there were White Baptists, Black Baptists, Primitive Baptists, Free Will Baptists, and so forth. Add to this a slew of other denominations and distinctions such as African Methodist Episcopal, Evangelical Lutheran, Missouri Synod Lutheran, High Church Episcopal, Low Church Episcopal, and Broad Church Episcopal. The city churches were built during a time when these distinctions mattered.

However, it is the racial focus of Protestant churches that looms largest of all in this city. Dr. Martin Luther King once observed that the most segregated day of the week is Sunday. This still rings largely true. It wasn’t just race, it was the length of the service and styles of worship, preaching, and music. Black churches in solidly black neighborhoods could flourish in many varieties from storefront churches to megachurches to historical “anchor” churches such as Metropolitan Baptist and Foundry United Methodist. African-American congregations that identify strongly with black traditions of worship have not adjusted easily to the demographic shifts of recent years. Thus, they face the choice of either moving to where their congregants have moved or closing. It isn’t just “inflexible” niche marketing that is the problem; whites who move in are not easily persuaded to attend their services. Whether it is liturgical style, preaching content, or just the “awkward” experience of being a minority, whites and other non-African-American arrivals don’t join in large enough numbers to shore up a declining congregation.

In short, the combination of changing demographics and denominational division has spelled disaster for many traditionally black congregations. Some of them have moved to the suburbs; others have closed. Focusing on a niche market is a problem when the niche disappears or moves away.

As for the mainline (largely white) Protestant churches, I would argue that a collapse of faith has depleted them, at least collectively. Many of them ceased preaching the “old time religion” a long time ago, having largely assimilated to a post-Christian world and acclimated to the sexual revolution. Gone are the moral demands of the gospel, which have been replaced by a social “gospel.” Gone is the drama of salvation. Jesus is less Lord and Savior and more a good man and ethical teacher. For those who think the Catholic Church should chart a similar course, please note that as much as we have declined, the mainline Protestant churches have collectively seen an utter collapse in attendance [**].

The Catholic experience:

The experience of the Catholic parishes on Capitol Hill has not been ideal, but it is better, and we can survive collectively. There are reasons for this.

Our first commitment is generally to serve a neighborhood or region. In a certain sense, the whole world is divided up into parishes. Every diocesan parish has a boundary. Boundaries used to tell Catholics where they should attend Mass. Today, boundaries tell the Church where we are supposed to go. A parish is responsible for every person who lives within its boundaries. Thus, with few exceptions, the parish stays put whether its founding parishioners remain or move away. Although there are a few ethnic parishes here and there (mainly due to language and/or a special rite) that aim to serve only a particular group, this sort of “niche marketing” is generally frowned upon.

The Catholic Church is catholic (universal). My own parish has gone from a solidly African-American parish to one that is more than 40 percent non-African-American. In this, it is beginning to reflect the current makeup of the neighborhood, which is more racially diverse and much younger than it was. Noting this, we did a very Catholic thing. Although the changes brought stress, we went out to meet our neighbors. We knocked on doors; we talked to them in the park and at the local market. Over time we’ve adjusted to their needs; at their request we began an evening Mass that has become quite popular (it seems that younger people tend to be night owls). We still have our longer, vibrant Gospel Mass for the benefit of our traditional parishioners, some of whom have stayed in the neighborhood and others who have moved away but continue to attend Mass here on Sundays. This has been the second big sea-change in this parish and neighborhood. (The first one took place after World War II, when the neighborhood became solidly black.) Through it all, our parish stays and cares for whoever lives here.

That said, things are not nearly as good or strong as they should be in the Catholic Parishes of Capitol Hill. Not one of them has more than 1000 people in attendance on Sunday. The largest has just under 900; mine has 600; two of them have fewer than 200. Several of our schools have closed. Part of the reason for the smaller number of parishioners is that all these parishes were built before the advent of the automobile and thus are much closer to one another than is true in the suburbs. People in my neighborhood have three Catholic parishes within walking distance, with Masses offered at all sorts of different times, lowering the number in any one parish.

Yet, truth be told, all our Capitol Hill parishes were once much fuller. The parish schools were bursting with children and our rectories and convents were brimming. To some degree, the fact that all our parishes are still open is based on inertia from prior times. We were bigger than the Protestant congregations to begin with and so it’s taken longer to erode. The danger is that we are parking on someone else’s dime; the fuel that those of the past left us is dwindling to mere fumes. The generation that built our parish churches was poorer than we are in a monetary sense but seemingly richer in faith. There was a time when more than 80 percent of Catholics went to Mass weekly. Today it’s only about 20 percent and the figure has been dropping by the year. The current scandal has surely not helped, but the problem is deeper, older, and wider than that. Despite the steep drop in attendance, it has often been “business as usual”; our focus seems to be institutional more so than Christological or eschatological.

The problem is not a local one in Capitol Hill. This steep decline has occurred throughout the Western world. A secular world has, by definition, a worldly focus and little time or thought for God. The Catholic Church has not always responded well to this.

There isn’t the time to set up a complete scheme for evangelization, but as most of you who read here know, I think accommodation/watering down of the faith is precisely the wrong path. We must shine brightly in a world of increasing darkness. As Catholics and Catholic parishes, we are called to love everyone, but we must love them enough to tell them the truth. A fiery love for Christ that holds Him in awe and deeply respects His teachings must be combined with a true love for souls such that we strive to save them rather than merely pleasing them.

In a neighborhood with an increasing population, no church that was once full should close. We cannot simply blame demographics for decreasing numbers of parishioners. If every parishioner found one convert or returnee, the parish would double in size. Is that really so hard? What percentage of our parishioners can say they have ever gotten even one person to return to Church and the sacraments? Blaming demographics is a convenient excuse.

If secularism has swept in, we cannot simply lament it; we must accept the responsibility that it has happened on our watch. We must meet the challenge with fortitude and with the knowledge that the Lord built a worldwide Church with a cadre of leaders who hardly looked promising. He did it against all odds. He asks that we bring our five loaves and two fishes and promises to multiply the harvest of holiness and the numbers as well. His graces are not exhausted, and His mercies are not withheld if we but ask and act.

What are your five loaves and two fishes? What are your parish’s five loaves and two fishes? Not one Catholic parish should close in a neighborhood where people still live. Even if the “old-timers” have moved on, there is still a harvest of human beings to bring in. The harvest is plentiful, so ask the Lord of the harvest, “Lord, who is that one person in my family or among my friends to whom you are sending me? Show me, Lord, and I will go to work.”

The Case of the Missing Veil

One of the most consistent appeals to tradition is women wearing veils. (I have written more about it here, here and here.) For the record, I love to see women wearing veils and hats at Mass, but as a general notion, nothing says tradition as much as the veil.

But how traditional is it? I have been collecting photographs from Catholic tradition and was surprised to see that in photos prior to 1960 most of the women were not wearing veils. It seems that the period during which veils were worn was short—not more than ten years (early to late 1960s). Rather, women wore hats. Most but not all the photos were taken in the United States, but they consistently show women in hats, not veils prior to 1960.

Do we need to adjust our notion of what type of headwear is traditional for women? I love veils and think that most women today are more likely to wear a veil than a hat. Veils also link more closely to the biblical tradition. However, the photograph evidence is clear that hats predominated prior to about 1960.

The photograph above was taken in my parish in 1954; it shows hats, no veils. The video below contains photos from various places in the U.S. and Europe as well as various times, nearly all from the early 1900s to the late 1960s. I provide some commentary as well. (The video is quite lengthy (more than 12 minutes long), so I have put the pictures into a pdf document and posted it here: Find the Missing Veil.)

Unmoored Freedom is No Freedom – A Reflection on the 4th of July

To most modern minds, freedom is a very detached concept; it is an abstraction of sorts, a free-floating power unmoored from any limits or defining standards. Freedom today is often viewed as personal and self-referential, with little consideration as to how one’s “freedom” might affect that of someone else. A healthy sense of the common good suffers mightily in a world of deeply conflicting personal freedoms.

I have written before on the paradoxes of freedom and will not repeat all of that here, but one point to reiterate is that for us (who are limited and contingent beings) the only true and healthy freedom is a limited one.

I was free to write this column and you are free to read it, but for shared communication to occur, we must each limit our respective personal freedom by following certain rules. I had to post the article in the expected place and you had to go there to read it. I had to follow many grammatical and linguistic rules in order to be intelligible, and you must apply similar norms in order to understand. As soon as either of us starts to cop an attitude and say, “I won’t be told what to do; I’ll do whatever I please,” communication suffers. Therefore, each of us limits his freedom in order to communicate.

Another example can be found in the realm of sports. Rules, in a sense, make the game. The players and spectators limit their freedom by accepting that a given game has a specific goal. Further, there are boundaries and rules of play. If some or all of these limits were removed, there would be no framework. Players would start moving aimlessly about the field and teams would break apart. Spectators would argue about everything and even forget why they were in the stadium to begin with. All order on the field and in the stands would break down; even the distinction between the field and the stands would start to lose meaning. Chaos and conflict would result.

To some degree this picture describes our modern age. Cultures, like the microcosm of a sports event, need agreed upon goals and rules of play in order to function properly. In the modern Western world, we are currently engaged in a misguided experiment as to whether a culture can exist without a shared cultus.

Obviously, the word cultus is at the heart of the word culture. In Latin, a cultus is something for which we care or about which we are concerned; it is something of worth, something considered valuable. It describes the most central, fundamental values of a group. In later Latin, cultus came to describe the worth or value we attribute to God, who is our truest goal.

Remove the cultus from culture and you get the breakdown we are seeing today. While pluralism and diversity have value, they must exist within a framework that is shared and agreed upon. Otherwise pluralism and diversity are unmoored and become like ships crashing about in a stormy bay.

In order for a culture to exist, there must be a shared cultus, a shared focus on what is good, true, beautiful, and sacred. Our modern experiment shows the failure of trying to have a culture without this.

Bishop Robert Barron, himself commenting on Pope Benedict’s analysis, writes the following:

The setting aside of God can take place both explicitly (as in the musings of the atheists) or implicitly (as in so much of the secular world where “practical” atheism holds sway). In either case the result is a shutting down of the natural human drive toward the transcendent and, even more dangerously, the elevation of self-determining freedom to a position of unchallenged primacy.

[Pope Benedict elaborates] here a theme that was dear to his predecessor, namely, the breakdown of the connection between freedom and truth. On the typically modern reading, truth is construed as an enemy to freedom—which explains precisely why we find such a hostility to truth in the contemporary culture. Indeed, anyone who claims to have the truth—especially in regard to moral matters—is automatically accused of arrogance and intolerance.

Society will be restored to balance and sanity, Benedict argued, only when the natural link between freedom and truth—especially the Truth which is God—is reestablished. … Behind all our arguments about particular moral and political issues is a fundamental argument about the centrality of God [Vibrant Paradoxes, pp. 217-218].

Thus, freedom cannot be an abstraction. It cannot be unmoored. It is not an unlimited concept. Freedom can only exist in a healthy and productive way when it is in reference to the truth—and truth is rooted in God and what He has revealed in creation, Sacred Scripture, and Tradition. This is the cultus necessary for every culture. True and healthy freedom is the capacity to obey God. Anything that departs from this necessary framework is a deformed freedom, on its way to chaos and slavery.

The more one does what is good, the freer one becomes. There is no true freedom except in the service of what is good and just. The choice to disobey and do evil is an abuse of freedom and leads to “the slavery of sin” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1733).

>

How to Discuss Same-Sex “Marriage” With Dissenting Family Members

SocratesI was out on the preaching circuit this past week and spoke at five parishes (including my own) on the biblical vision of Holy Matrimony (marriage) as set forth by God and the Church. The talks were sponsored by the pro-life group Defend Life.

While I cannot succinctly reproduce the talk in today’s blog, I spoke from notes that are available here and here. A video of one of the talks will be posted soon.

I heard a consistent concern voiced by those in attendance that pulpits have been too silent on this critical matter of marriage, and by extension, sexuality and the family. Since I don’t get around to many other parishes on Sundays, and I don’t have statistics or polls to consult, I can only assume that this complaint is widespread. That said, nothing prevents a Catholic layperson from breaking out the Catechism and teaching his or her children and grandchildren. There seems to be a lot of waiting around for the Church to “do something” regarding ignorance of the faith. Pulpits must get better, but so must adult religious education. Parents, too, must actively seek out sources for instruction so that they can learn and hand on the faith. I recommend two places, among many, to start: The Institute of Catholic Culture and Catholic Answers.

Another common question that came from distressed parents at the talks was how they could counteract the bewitching effect of modern culture on their children (30 and under) when it comes to the redefinition of marriage. Many of their young-adult children see “no problem” with same-sex unions (a.k.a. gay “marriage”) and parents wondered how to counter this position.

My recommendation would be to use the “Socratic method.” This method, rooted in the teaching style of Socrates, uses questions to stimulate critical thinking and to draw a person to find answers by examining his own premises. Rather than simply refuting the position of their young-adult child, it is often more helpful for parents to ask questions that permit him or her to see for himself/herself the faultiness and/or emptiness of the logic underlying this modern thinking. Today it seems that logic, critical thinking, and proper premises are often lacking.

The additional value of the Socratic method is that it requires the “accuser” (the one who wishes to set aside biblical and Catholic teaching) to account for his view rather than the faithful Catholic to mount a complete defense. The method also involves listening respectfully as the accuser speaks.

Consider a scenario in which an adult son or daughter makes some remark that indicates opposition to the Church teaching on traditional marriage. You might ask,

Do you oppose the fact that the Church upholds only traditional Marriage and rejects same-sex “marriage”?

Assuming the response is yes (or some form thereof), follow up with this question:

How do you define marriage?

Now just wait as long as necessary. Give no assistance, just wait patiently. Let the question hang there. It is quite likely that he or she will struggle to answer the question because those who have redefined marriage have not really redefined it at all; they have simply made it increasingly devoid of content. Saying what marriage isn’t is not the same as saying what it is.

The response might be something like this: “It’s when two people love each other and want to be together.” You might then pose some of the following questions:

Could you be more specific? For example, why do you say two people? Could it be more than two? Why or why not?

Or,

When you say, “two people” do you mean any two people? For example, what if the two people are related, such as being brother and sister, or two brothers, or a father and his? Must the two people who love each other have to be unrelated? If so, why?

Or,

You say that they love each other. Must this be the case? Are there other reasons they could marry other than love?

These are not intended to be merely “gotcha” questions. The purpose is to force the dissenter to stake out a cogent position by carefully thinking through his premises and where they lead. If the dissenter responds to the above questions with some limits, it forces him to consider why those limits make sense while others (such as one man and one woman) do not.

The Church knows what marriage is and so does God, who taught us clearly (in Genesis 2 and other places) that marriage is one man for one woman in a life-long, committed, and faithful relationship, open to the procreation and rearing of children.

This traditional definition is clear, sets limits, and has been the way marriage has been understood for thousands of years. Those who wish to remove these limits must account for what restrictions are left and why they think those should be kept rather than also set aside.

Just ask these questions. Wait for answers. Wait as long as necessary and don’t help. Let them think through it and become more responsible for what they think and the implications that emerge from it.

In this video from Catholic Answers, Trent Horn makes significant use of the Socratic method. In this case the topic happens to be atheism, but it gives a good idea illustration of how the method might work. Atheism is a complex topic. Defining marriage is far less complex since the field of the discussion is more focused.

Hyperstimulation Is an Increasing Evil Whose Influence We Must Combat

blog11-11We live in an age of such overstimulation that it would be unimaginable to people even a mere hundred years ago. In fact, it is probably more accurate to say we are not simply overstimulated, we are hyperstimulated. The number and kind of diversions available to us and imposed upon us are almost too numerous to mention. Silence and quietude are as unknown to us as is real darkness. We are enveloped in such sea of light that we are no longer able to behold the stars at night.

And the artificial lights of our time do not simply illumine, they move and flicker as well. Television and computer screens flicker at an incredibly high rate. It is a rule of thumb with television producers that the angle of the picture should change at least every eight seconds, and preferably more frequently. Many, if not most, of our movies present action at a dizzying pace. Chase scenes, violent outbursts, and explosions are regular fare. 24-hour news channels, not content to have simply the picture of the story being presented, also have stock tickers and headlines running across the bottom of the screen. Children love to play video games that feature graphics moving at a frantic pace, and often involving violent and jerky motions. Thus, even our recreation is often mentally draining, involving hyperstimulation of both the eyes and the ears.

Background noise permeates even our “quiet” moments. Sometimes here in the big city, in the wake of a heavy snowstorm, an eerie silence descends; the usual din of traffic is peculiarly absent. On the afternoon of September 11, 2001, after the terrorist attacks on this country, I went outside and noticed a very strange silence. The constant sound of airplanes above was gone; all air-traffic had been grounded. I never realized just how much noise they produce until then.

Many people have never really known true silence. Some complain that they are incapable of sleeping without something playing in the background such as the radio, the television, or some other noise-producing device. Throughout our day, cell phones ring and blink away; emails, text messages, tweets, and all sorts of other fun, interruptive stimuli bombard us.

Our overall pace is frantic. With modern communication and transportation, unreasonable expectations of our availability quickly crush in on us. We are often expected to participate in conference calls in the morning and then by afternoon be forty miles away at some other meeting or activity. With modern communication cutting across time zones, it is not uncommon for people to be up in the middle of the night attending to business matters on the other side of the world.

In these and many other ways, our lives are harried, distracted, and not just overstimulated, but hyperstimulated. It is a kind of death by a thousand cuts.

All of this leads to many unhealthy and unholy behavioral issues. I’d like to distinguish three main areas: distractions, doldrums, and debasement.

I. Distractions – One of the clearest signs that we are hyperstimulated is our short attention spans. After a steady diet of video games and other fast-paced diversions, many, if not most, children find it very difficult to sit in a classroom and endure a more normal human pace. They fidget, their minds wander, and they seek in many ways to create the stimulation that seems normal to them.

Having been trained by television and the Internet to simply change the channel or click on something else when their interest diminishes, kids just tune out when they feel bored by what the teacher is saying—something that happens very quickly for many of them.

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), not just among children but also adults, is the new normal. Sadly, many children are medicated for what is often merely a short attention span caused by hyperstimulation. But since the idea of unplugging and drawing back from excessive stimulation seems unrealistic or even unreasonable, many children are simply put on medication. While there may in fact be authentic cases of ADHD, it doesn’t take too much analysis to see that many, if not most, cases are more environmental than organic in cause.

II. Doldrums – Another result of hyperstimulation is boredom. When one is hyperstimulated, ordinary human activities and a normal human pace seem dull and uninteresting. Simple things like engaging in conversation, taking a walk, going to an art gallery, listening to a talk, enjoying a good meal, or reading a book become almost unendurable.

This leads to a great poverty of soul, since many of the finer things of life must be savored rather than devoured. They require dedication and patience and cannot simply be reduced to quick sound bites.

To overcome boredom, many engage in quick and crass diversions which, even if not evil in themselves, are often shallow, unenriching, and do not feed our higher nature. Such activities also tend to reinforce the hyperstimulation that fuels them.

Boredom, or even the fear of boredom, has deprived many people of the things that were once considered the best things in life: family, fellowship, art, literature, and deeper personal relationships, not to mention prayer and communion with God. To the hyperstimulated only one word comes to mind when these things are mentioned: BORING!

III. Debasement – Another major and modern issue is that our entertainment and pursuits of pleasure become increasingly extreme and often debased. Hyperstimulation begets a kind of addiction to extremes. Ordinary dramas and adventure movies from fifty years ago seem awfully slow-paced to people today. With new cinematic techniques and special effects, the demand for shocking realism becomes ever more extreme. Violence becomes more raw, and themes must be ever stranger in order to keep our attention.

The pornography explosion of the last seventy years is another sad illustration of this. Those who are caught up in the tragic descent into Internet pornography often need to look at strange and even horribly debased images of human sexuality in order to get the stimulation they seek. Never satisfied, they look voraciously for images that are ever more lewd and unnatural. Their hyperstimulated lust increasingly knows no limits.

On a wider cultural level, other strange behaviors become daily fair. Activities once considered crude and shameful are now paraded about and celebrated by those who crave ever-baser levels of stimulation. Any normal person from a mere fifty years ago would scarcely believe how ugly, crude, lewd, and debased our culture has become.

G.K. Chesterton well described the modern trend in his book The Everlasting Man:

The effect of this staleness (boredom) is the same everywhere; it is seen in all the drug taking and drinking and every form of the tendency to increase the dose. Men seek stranger sins or more startling obscenities as stimulants to their jaded sense … They try to stab their nerves to life … They are walking in their sleep and trying to wake themselves up with nightmares (The Everlasting Man, p. 291).

Yes, welcome to the increasingly horrifying world of the extreme, unusual, immodest, and just plain strange. Welcome to so-called “body art” (tattooing), body piercing, tongue-splitting, and any number of other self-destructive body alterations, along with crude and destructive behaviors. The carnival sideshow seems to have gone mainstream.

So much of it just comes back to being hyperstimulated and thereby wanting to flee to the strange and unusual as a way to stay entertained and, frankly, awake. What is merely interesting is no longer enough; it must be shocking, edgy, extreme, and usually just plain awful in order to attract attention.

It may be difficult to do, but it’s good to try to slow down a bit to the pace of normal human life, the way God intended it. We can start by turning off the television and the radio more often. Perhaps we can spend a little less time on the Internet (except for this blog, of course). Maybe we can rediscover some old pleasures like walking, talking, and dining (an image for the kingdom of God from the road to Emmaus). Perhaps we might actually consider sitting down with people and having a real conversation, maybe gathering the family together for meals. Perhaps it involves learning to say no a little more. Maybe it involves recognizing that there are diminishing returns that come from overscheduling our children in extracurricular activities, and that it is good to let them just be home sometimes to rest and spend time with the family.

Whatever it is, you and the Lord decide. But hyperstimulation is an increasing evil of which we should be aware. We do well to discover it, name it, learn its moves, and then combat its increasing power in our lives.

On Blaming Others, as Seen in a Humorous Video

in the CourtroomWe live in a litigious culture, especially here in America, where we think of most things in terms of the law and legislation. If there is a problem, one of our first thoughts is to have lawmakers or judges craft a solution.

This is also true with assessing blame for things. Not long ago, perhaps fifty years or so, we were more accepting of the fact that accidents sometimes happen, and that they are the fallout of many factors, including the involvement of human beings in the situation. I use the word “fallout” deliberately, since the word “accident” comes from the Latin accidens, meaning “that which ‘falls alongside’ of something.” Many unfortunate events have complex origins, a kind of witch’s brew or perfect storm of factors that come together. For example, an accident at a processing plant might involve a combination of human error, improper maintenance, lax safety precautions, poor training, a sleepy employee, a rush order, etc. It is almost never just one thing.

In the absence of malice or extreme negligence, we were once more willing to admit that sometimes accidents just happen and that we should concentrate on improving the situation. Today the more frequent response is to look for someone (hopefully someone with deep pockets) to blame so that lawsuits can be brought.

Further, there was more acceptance of so-called “acts of God” such as storms and earthquakes. These, too, were things we chalked up to unfortunate circumstances, which we all had to expect and factor in. For example, if it snowed everyone was expected to use caution by walking more carefully, discerning whether work or other activities should be cancelled, and generally factoring in the presence of snow and ice. Today, however, if someone slips and falls on my sidewalk it is assumed to be my fault for not shoveling it well enough. Even if I made some effort to clear it, if I didn’t achieve a perfect surface I might be sued.

I remember one bitter cold morning when an angry parishioner pointed to ice in the parking lot and said, “Look at your parking lot; it’s covered with ice!” I responded to her with some mirth, “I swear I didn’t do it!” She smiled, realizing that we all too often look for someone to blame. Sometimes ice just can’t reasonably be removed in time or even at all. So we all need to adjust and proceed with caution.

Today we frequently look for someone to blame; we expect comfort and a sort of perfection without any difficulties or dangers. Life is a little more complex than that.

In this post, I do not propose to find the definitive answer as to what should be punished/fined and what should be chalked up to unfortunate circumstances. This is more of a light-hearted reflection that occurred to me as I watched this video, which I hope you will enjoy.

An Image of Grace in a Paul Simon Song

gospel musicI’ve got my Gospel glasses on and my holy hearing aids in; I’m seeing and hearing God in strange places. There are several Paul Simon songs that bring holy thoughts to me, even if he didn’t mean them that way. One them is this one (followed by my commentary):

When I was a little boy,
and the devil would call my name
I’d say, “Now who do … who do you think you’re fooling?”

I’m a consecrated boy

Singer in a Sunday choir

Refrain: Oh, my mama loves me, she loves me
She get down on her knees and hug me
Oh, she loves me like a rock
She rock me like the rock of ages
And she loves me
She love me, love me, love me, love me

When I was grown to be a man
and the devil would call my name
I’d say, “Now who do … who you think you’re fooling?”

I’m a consummated man
I can snatch a little purity

Refrain: My mama loves me, she loves me
She get down on her knees and hug me
Oh, she loves me like a rock
She rock me like the rock of ages
And loves me
She love me, love me, love me, love me

And if I was President
and the congress call my name
I’d say, “Now who do … who you think you’re fooling?”

I’ve got the presidential seal
I’m up on the presidential podium

Refrain: My mama loves me, she loves me
She get down on her knees and hug me
And she loves me like a rock
She rock me like the rock of ages
And love me
She love me, love me, love me, love me
She love me, love me, love me, love me
She love me, love me, love me, love me

Here’s my commentary, wearing my Gospel glasses and with my holy hearing aids in:

When I was a little boy, and the devil would call my name. We live in a fallen world, governed by a fallen angel, with fallen natures. And even the youngest find that these thrice-fallen forces reach them. Scriptures are clear in saying that the devil is prowling through the world like a roaring lion seeking souls to devour. We are to resist him, solid in our faith (cf 1 Peter 5:8).

I’d say, “Now who do … who you think you’re fooling?” There is a power within the soul to refuse Satan’s voice. Where does this power come from? It comes first from our freedom, from our will. It also comes from the voice of our conscience, the voice of God that echoes in the depths of our soul saying, This is the way walk in it (Is 30:21). Even the youngest children know basic right and wrong. It is not hard to appeal to them to understand what they’ve done wrong. But because of the weakness of our human nature, our inclination to selfishness, and our tendency to justify sin, we need additional help.

I’m a consecrated boy; singer in a Sunday choir. This describes a young man who has been consecrated in Baptism and is walking within the life and sacraments of the Church. The Sacrament of Baptism and the life of the Church give us additional insight to understand that the voice of the devil is seeking to deceive us. But human soul and intellect—illumined by the consecration of Baptism, the other sacraments of the Church, and strengthened by the fellowship of the Church —further strengthen us to be able to say to the devil,

“Who do you think you’re you fooling? I’ve been consecrated and I’m living my life in the light of God’s truth as expressed in the Church. I see your darkness for what it is and I’m not fooled. It is error; it is deception. It is darkness, not the light! I am no fool because, consecrated in baptism, the wisdom of God has reached me.”

Oh, my mama loves me, she loves me. She get down on her knees and hug me, oh she loves me like a rock. She rocks me like the rock of ages, and loves me. She loves me, loves me, loves me, loves me. And this “mama” is Mother Church, who loves us as a mother. She is our mother because we have come forth from her womb, the baptismal font, having been conceived by the chaste union with her beloved spouse, Jesus.

She is Mother Church, Christ’s bride, and oh, how she loves us! Down on her knees in prayer for us, she reaches out and embraces us. Yes, she loves us!

It will be noted, that the word “love” occurs seven times in the song’s refrain. Mother Church loves us sevenfold. Is it the seven sacraments? Is it the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit? Is it the seven corporal works of mercy? Is it the seven spiritual works of mercy? Yes, and more besides! It is love in all its perfection.

And in her sevenfold, prayerful love that embraces us, she loves us like a rock. This is the rock of Peter upon whom Christ, the rock of ages, builds His Church.

When I was grown to be a man – All of us are called to the maturity of Christ.

  • We [must] all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ. So may we no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of erroneous doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes (Eph 4:13-14).
  • Brothers and sisters, stop thinking like children. In regard to evil be infants, but in your thinking be adults (1 Cor 14:20).

Our Mother Church raises us to be mature in the fullness of Christ’s truth.

And the devil would call my name – Still the devil calls. He does not give up, hence we must remain ever-vigilant. So the song still says, “… who do you think you’re fooling?”

I’m a consummated man. Yes, we are called to full maturity in Christ, as stated above.

I can snatch a little purity. The strength to resist the devil comes from the maturity and purity that come to us in our walk with Christ and by the ministry of His Bride and our Mother, the Church. The purity and maturity of our faith help us to see even more deeply how the devil tries to fool us. Then we can reject him in strength, and with certainty and clarity.

Oh, my mama loves me, she loves me. Yes, she does! The Church just keeps on loving us. Sadly, many walk away from the Church in young adulthood. For those who come to maturity in Christ, the ever-stronger devil requires an even stronger capacity on our part to say, “Who do you think you’re fooling?” This comes through our maturity, wrought in us by our Mother, the Church. She raises us up in the faith to be strong and mature, teaches us the Word of God, bestows His sacraments, and gives us Holy Teaching. Thank you, Mother Church, for loving me like a rock!

The last verse gets a little strange and must be interpreted allegorically, not politically.

And if I was President – In other words, even if I should rise to the highest worldly power, even should I become a great leader.

And the congress call my name – While to modern American ears this refers to the people gathered in Washington, D.C. (the U.S. Congress), the word “congress” itself comes from two Latin roots: con (with) and gradi (go or walk). “Congress” means “coming or being together with,” or more literally, “going with.”

Scripture often warns of those who gather against us, telling us that they are often gathered by Satan himself. Jesus warns of the “synagogue of Satan” (Rev 3:9; 2:9). “Synagogue” is just the Hebrew word that means gathering or “congress.”  The Book of Psalms also warns of those who gather against us:

Rise up Lord against the rage of my enemies. Awake, my God; decree justice. Let the assembled peoples (Synagogus) gather around you, while you sit enthroned over them on high. Let the Lord judge these people (Psalm 7:7-8).

The devil often calls our name through pressure groups, through our desire to be popular, or through those who are together against us tempting us to do wrong. And thus this verse reminds me that even should I rise to the highest places, with many gathered about me pressuring me to do wrong or trying to intimidate me, yet still will I say to the devil, “Who do you think you’re fooling?”

I got the presidential seal. In other words, I have the highest seal, the seal of the Holy Spirit!

I’m up on the presidential podium. That is, I have the highest office, the office of prophet. I am one who speaks for God by this office! And despite the hatred of the world that comes to me from proclaiming God’s Word, and despite the gathering of my enemies all around me, yet still will I proclaim God’s Word as God’s prophet!

And through whatever hatred comes from those who gather against me, my mama loves me, she loves me like a rock. Yes, I have the love of my Mother, the Church, and my Lord, Jesus Christ, who is my rock, my fortress, and my deliverer.

You may say, “Well, this is all a bit much. And your interpretation is surely far from what the lyricist probably ever intended.” That’s fair enough, but with my Gospel glasses on, I see Christ everywhere. With my holy hearing aids in, I hear Jesus all the time.