Sunday, June 23, 2013

Dorothy Day on Going to Confession

From Dorothy Day's autobiography, The Long Loneliness, published in 1952.
WHEN you go to confession on a Saturday night, you go into a warm, dimly lit vastness, with the smell of wax and incense in the air, the smell of burning candles, and if it is a hot summer night there is the sound of a great electric fan, and the noise of the streets coming in to emphasize the stillness. There is another sound too, besides that of the quiet movements of the people from pew to confession to altar rail; there is the sliding of the shutters of the little window between you and the priest in his "box."

Some confessionals are large and roomy-plenty of space for the knees, and breathing space in the thick darkness that seems to pulse with your own heart. In some poor churches, many of the ledges are narrow and worn, so your knees almost slip off the kneeling bench, and your feet protrude outside the curtain which shields you from the others who are waiting. Some churches have netting, or screens, between you and priest and you can see the outline of his face inclined toward you, quiet, impersonal, patient. Some have a piece of material covering the screen, so you can see nothing. Some priests leave their lights on in their boxes so they can read their breviaries between confessions. The light does not bother you if that piece of material is there so you cannot see or be seen, but if it is only a grating so that he can see your face, it is embarrassing and you do not go back to that priest again.

Going to confession is hard--hard when you have sins to confess and hard when you haven't, and you rack your brain for even the beginnings of sins against charity, chastity, sins of detraction, sloth or gluttony. You do not want to make too much of your constant imperfections and venial sins, but you want to drag them out to the light of day as the first step in getting rid of them. The just man falls seven times daily.

"Bless me, Father, for I have sinned," is the way you begin. "I made my last confession a week ago, and since then. . ." Properly, one should say the Confiteor, but the priest has no time for that, what with the long lines of penitents on a Saturday night, so you are supposed to say it outside the confessional as you kneel in a pew, or as you stand in line with others.

"I have sinned. These are my sins." That is all you are sup­posed to tell; not the sins of others, or your own virtues, but only your ugly, gray, drab, monotonous sins.
The sacraments and the deep spirituality that flows from them are made up of the simple stuff of the earth. It is organic. This is grace.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Two Popes in Rome

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI arrived back in Rome the other day. So now we have the historically significant scenario of two popes living in Vatican City at the same time.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Rediscovering the Classic Shave

This is very important for you gentlemen!
Proper shaving has become a lost art. Today’s average male has no clue about the fine art of the traditional wet shave that their grandfathers and some of their fathers used to take part in. Instead, they’re only accustomed to the cheap and disposable shaving products that companies market. I’m not sure when or why it happened, but the tradition of passing down the secrets of a clean shave abruptly stopped. Thankfully, this glorious male ritual is making a comeback.

What are the benefits?
Reduce costs, reduce environmental impact, get better, more consistent shaves, and feel like a bad ass (for lack of a better term).
And if you're feeling really old-school manly, learn to shave with a straight razor, like your great-grandpa did.

Hat tip to the Art of Manliness blog, a blog that should be on every gentleman's daily reading list.

Thursday, May 09, 2013

Science and Faith with Br. Guy Consolmagno

Following up from my earlier post on the TEDx Conference hosted by the Vatican, several of the talks are being posted on YouTube. Here is the talk given by Br. Guy Consolmagno; Br. Consolmagno is an American planetary scientist at the Vatican Observatory.

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Aquinas Lecture 2013: Fr. Augustine Thompson, OP

There is a video from the annual Aquinas Lecture at the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology at Berkeley, CA. Fr. Augustine Thompson, O.P., speaks on, "Baptismal Theology and Practice in the Age of St. Thomas Aquinas"

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Thank you, Publix. Thank you.

Publix Mother's Day Commercial

For something so normal, this shouldn't be so controversial. Defend human life. Always.

Is Chant Like Folk Music?

Great article in Crisis Magazine from Jeffrey Tucker (of the Church Music Association of America). Our parish in Sugar Land (a large suburban parish with more than 5000 families) is one of many across the country that has put together a great program of Gregorian Chant that is used at most liturgies on Sunday -- in full conformity with the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. Some points from the article (emphasis mine):
If you look back at the roots of chant, and even just take time to understand what it means from a musical and historical point of view, you quickly find that it has nothing to do with music conservatories, stuffy performance venues, and rule-bound authoritarians. And, moreover, it has nothing to do with social class, taste, and educational level. The issue of the chanted Mass is really about whether the liturgy is going to be permitted to be what it is or whether we are going to replace its authentic voice with something else.

Maybe people forget that Gregorian chant is premodern in its origin. It was not somehow invented in the age of winged collars, top hats, and mutton chops. It arose from the world of the first millennium—before there were universities, conservatories, cathedrals, or individually owned books. Chant arose among people poorer than is even imaginable to us today. The singers were from the lowest class. The composers too were monks drawn from every strata of society. They did not write their music down because no one had figured out how to write music. That only began to happen in a coherent way about the 11th century. The work of the chant composers continued for many centuries and the results have been handed on to us today.

This is why chant is what it is today. And if you look closely, you can discover that first-millennium sense about it. The more you sing it, the more you discover its humane qualities—written and sung by people just like us.

At the same time, it is a window into a world we do not know. The sensibility of chant is spontaneous. It tells stories in the folk vein. It emerged out of a culture of sharing. It wasn’t about musical theory and technique. In those days, people couldn’t write music. Mostly, the people who heard it couldn’t read either. There was no point because books were exceptionally rare and only available to a tiny group. Chant came about within this world to be the most compelling way to express the faith in a worship context.
Read the whole article.

Hat tip to Tea at Trianon.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Vatican sponsored TEDx Conference in Rome

The Vatican is sponsoring a TEDx conference in a few days to explore questions related to religious freedom. Vatican Radio has the scoop:
Does religion still matter in contemporary society? Are freedom and religion opposites? What gives real meaning to life? A Vatican sponsored TEDx conference later this month will attempt to answer some of those existential questions from the points of view of an unusual mix of people. 18 speakers, from artists and NBA basketball players to a pop singer and a Cardinal will be examining the impact of religious freedom in their own lives and from a global perspective at the TEDxViaDellaConciliazione conference April 19th...

Sponsored by the Pontifical Council for Culture and inspired by its President Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi’s Courtyard of the Gentiles, an international forum for dialogue between believers and non believers, TEDxViaDella Conciliazione has been organized by a group of lay people in Roman academia. The day-long conference will be held in an auditorium in Via della Conciliazione, just down the street from St. Peter’s Basilica. Cardinal Ravasi will be among those inaugurating the talks.

TEDxViaDellaConciliazione will be asking where’s the common ground between people of different faiths and backgrounds? Is there room for mutual understanding and religious freedom as outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948?
The list of speakers is very interesting. Take a look at a few of them:
Speakers will include architect Daniel Libeskind whose Freedom Tower is rising out of the 911 ashes at Ground Zero, Cuban American singer Gloria Estefan, Astronomer Brother Guy Consolmagno (from the Vatican Observatory), Hussah Sabah al-Salem al-Sabah (Kuwait), Chief Rabbi David Rosen (Jerusalem), Sumaya Slim (Mexico), Architect Fernando Romero (Mexico), educator Wenzong Wang (China), Comboni Nurse Alicia Vacas (Jerusalem, Gaza), NBA star Vlade Divac (Serbia), scientist Pilar Mateo, (Spain), graffiti writer Mohammed Ali, (UK). IT guru Hisham El-Sherif (Egypt), Shroud of Turin investigator Barrie Schwortz (USA), global researcher Brian Grim (USA), art historian Elizabeth Lev (Italy), a cleric from strife-ridden Nigeria and students from war-torn countries living in communion at Rondine Cittadella della Pace (Italy).
Looks very promising. More at

Europe in the Belle Époque

A rare view into life in Paris and Berlin 1900-1910:

Hat tip to blog ad-orientem.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

New Papal Coat of Arms

The Coat of Arms of Pope Francis is now available:

Personally, I like it. However, that's probably because blue is my favorite color! Here is a little bit of explanation:
The new pontiff's papal coat of arms and motto are the same that he used as bishop. The shield has a bright blue background, at the centre top of which is a yellow radiant sun with the IHS christogram on it representing Jesus (it is also the Jesuit logo). The IHS monogram, as well as a cross that pierces the H, are in red with three black nails directly under them. Under that, to the left, is a star representing Mary, Mother of Christ and the Church. To the right of the star is a nard flower representing Joseph, Patron of the Universal Church. With these symbols the Pope demonstrates his love for the Holy Family.

... His motto—“miserando atque eligendo” (because he saw him through the eyes of mercy and chose him)—is taken from the Venerable Bede's homily on the Gospel account of the call of Matthew. It holds special meaning for the Pope because—when he was only 17-years-old, after going to confession on the Feast of St. Matthew in 1953—he perceived God's mercy in his life and felt the call to the priesthood, following the example of St. Ignatius of Loyola.
The Jesuit logo is a nice touch, considering it was a previous pope, Pope Clement XIV (a Franciscan!) who suppressed the Jesuit order in 1773.

When the coat of arms was announced, I couldn't help but notice a handful of Catholic traditionalists (who just can't be happy, darn it!), on a blog I don't care to name, seize the opportunity to mock the simplicity of the design, implying that it must mean Pope Francis does not take the papal office seriously. Yet, it is absurd to draw such a conclusion; there have been some pretty significant popes who have also had relatively simple coats of arms. For example, here is the Coat of Arms for master reformer Pope St. Pius V:

Pretty simple, eh? Or how about Pope Urban VIII, who famously tried Galileo:

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Social Media and the Pope

Tweets about the papal election reached 15 billion views — more than twice the world’s total population, according to a story by the National Catholic Register. In addition, it was the first papal announcement spread via social media. Some interesting tidbits:
When Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran announced the election of Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio as Pope Francis, the Twittersphere burst into a frenzy. Twitter reports that the March 13 announcement generated 130,000 tweets per minute and that it recorded at least 7 million tweets that day on the papal election — a record topped only by 20 million tweets generated over news of President Barack Obama’s re-election in November.

... According to Topsy, the United States and Argentina generated 22% and 19% percent of Twitter traffic over the Pope’s election. South-American countries (including Argentina) generated at least 41% of all related Twitter traffic.

Mentions of “Pope” on Facebook increased 10,000% in user statuses after the announcement of Francis’ election, according to Facebook. It reported the top two mentions worldwide that day were “Pope” and “Jorge Bergoglio,” followed by “Vatican,” “White smoke,” “Cardinal” and “Catholic.”
In addition, the papal twitter account @Pontifex has been brought back to life:
At 3:33 ET, the Pope made the announcement “HABEMUS PAPAM FRANCISCUM” — a message that in all caps reflected the excitement of the digital and real worlds following the election. The message has been retweeted more than 82,000 times.
Read the whole article.

It was interesting see Anderson Cooper and reporters from every major news source in St. Peter's Square together with hundreds of thousands of people standing in the rain with their eyes glued to a small chimney waiting for smoke. And even today, approx. 150,000 people showed up in the cold for the weekly Angelus prayer with the new pope, Pope Francis.

Capturing the moment

Update: The 2005 photo isn't from the papal announcement, as is implied, but from the funeral procession of Blessed John Paul II. Still, the 2013 image is striking...

Ran across this image from NBC news. Papal announcement at St. Peter's square in 2005 vs. 2013. Notice anything different?

What a different 8 years makes! (although the folks in the 2005 image look like they may be a lot farther away from the basilica than those in the 2013 image. Difficult to tell. Nevertheless...)

Pope Francis the Chestertonian

Mark Shea reports that according to Sean Dailey, Editor-in-Chief of Gilbert Magazine, “The new pope is an honorary board member of the Argentinean Chesterton Society.”

Here is the proof.

Pretty cool :)

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Pope Francis and the Eastern Orthodox

In a monumentally historic gesture, it has been announced that Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople will be attending the installation liturgy of Pope Francis this Tuesday. Here is the story:
The Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I will attend Pope Francis's inaugural Mass. The Ecumenical Patriarchate Press Office informed AsiaNews about the decision, noting that this is the first time such an event occurs since the Catholic-Orthodox split in 1054, an important sign for Christian unity.

The ecumenical patriarch will be accompanied by Ioannis Zizioulas, metropolitan of Pergamon and co-president of the Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox Church, as well as Tarassios, Orthodox Metropolitan of Argentina, and Gennadios, Orthodox Metropolitan of Italy.
Naturally, there is much work to be done regarding the reconciliation of the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church, but this is HUGE and most likely would not have been possible without the efforts of Pope Benedict XVI. May you live in interesting times, indeed.

Pope Francis Myths Debunked

Mark Shea calls out a hoax which has Pope Francis, as Cardinal Bergoglio, saying something about women that he didn't actually say. Mark also calls out some atheists (who love to crow about evidence-based conclusions) who apparently have been pushing this myth without any regard to researching the story and providing actual, you know, evidence.

Mark links to the someone who actually did research this apparently bogus story:
Here is the latest Urban Legend making its way through the internet like wildfire and being attributed to Pope Francis in 2007 when Cristina Kirchner was running for President of Argentina. The quote is:
“Buenos Aires, 4 de junio (Télam) - El arzobispo de Buenos Aires, cardenal Jorge Bergoglio, afirmó que “las mujeres son naturalmente ineptas para ejercer cargos políticos”, refiriéndose a la candidatura presidencial de la Senadora Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. “El orden natural y los hechos nos enseñan que el hombre es el ser político por excelencia; las Escrituras nos demuestran que la mujer siempre es el apoyo del hombre pensador y hacedor, pero nada más que eso”.
The quote above begins with: “Women are naturally inept to exercise political office..the order of nature and human activity teach us that a man is superior in the realm of politics…”

“Télam” is the “AP” or major press organization of Argentina. When people research all of the Télam articles of June 4, 2007, they come up empty for this quote. The reason is because the quote was invented out of thin air and posted in a “Yahoo Answers” by an Argentinian who went by the name “Bumper Crop” and who at the time did not cite a link because the entire phrase was posted to smear Cardinal Bergoglio and make him look like he was attacking Cristina Kirchner.

In addition, the phrase completely contradicts Bergoglio known friendship and admiration for various Argentine women who have held political office and who were congratulated by him upon election.

A man who is usually very critical of the Catholic Church, but honest about Urban Legends, has published a very good exposé of this fraud

Texas Hill Country and the Pope

My wife and I spent the last week touring the Texas Hill Country exploring the contributions of German and Czech immigrants to Texas history. We stayed at a couple of B&Bs, explored wineries, caverns, and a couple of historic painted churches. When we got the SMS alert from that white smoke had been spotted, we had just finished a tour of Garrison Brothers Distillery in Hye, TX, which produces fine Texas bourbon. Needless to say, we were out in the middle of nowhere. Fortunately, we were able to watch the papal announcement of Pope Francis as I had just enough of a cell signal to stream the live video on my iPhone while sitting in the parking lot of the distillery. Technology is great when it works with you :)

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Habemus Papam! Papa Francisco!

I'm still taking in this extraordinary event. Thanks be to God for Pope Francis! Thanks to CatholicVote for this video. I also came across this photo of him, Cardinal Bergoglio, in 2008 casually riding the subway in Buenos Aires.

Ignore the inane secular media who essentially want a non-Catholic pope. Pope Francis, like popes before him, reaffirms a commitment to social justice that is rooted in the church's consistent social teaching on the innate dignity of the every human person from conception to natural death. The secular world insists on aligning people into ideological categories, and it frustrates them that the Catholic faith transcends those categories internationally. It isn't always easy for Catholics to accept it either, but it isn't supposed to be easy. It's never supposed to be easy. To be a true follower of Christ means to take up the Cross, and the Cross makes hypocrites of us all.


Sunday, March 10, 2013

There's a Saint for that!

Cool apostolate: There's a saint for that! Ask our brothers and sisters of the faith to pray for your specific intentions.

Monday, March 04, 2013

Hacking the Conclave

In this interesting article, Security expert Bruce Schneier gives a fairly comprehensive security analysis of the process used to elect a new pope. How difficult would it be to hack?
What are the lessons here?

First, open systems conducted within a known group make voting fraud much harder. Every step of the election process is observed by everyone, and everyone knows everyone, which makes it harder for someone to get away with anything.

Second, small and simple elections are easier to secure. This kind of process works to elect a pope or a club president, but quickly becomes unwieldy for a large-scale election. The only way manual systems could work for a larger group would be through a pyramid-like mechanism, with small groups reporting their manually obtained results up the chain to more central tabulating authorities.

And third: When an election process is left to develop over the course of a couple of thousand years, you end up with something surprisingly good.
Read the whole thing!

Friday, March 01, 2013

Sede Vacante 2013 Stamps!

As is traditionally done during periods of sede vacante, the Vatican prints stamps and mints special euro coins to commemorate the occasion. In 2005, a friend of mine from Rome sent me a postcard with a stamp commemorating the 2005 sede vacante after the death of Bl. John Paul II. The stamp above was just released today.


Thursday, February 28, 2013

Sede Vacante 2013

As of 1pm CST (8PM Rome), Pope Benedict XVI is no longer pope, and we have entered the period of sede vacante.

I would personally like to thank Pope Benedict XVI for his leadership, fidelity, and joyful stewardship. I would especially like to thank him for his teaching and dedication to the themes of liturgy and beauty, as well as the complementarity of faith and reason.  These themes have inspired me in my apostolate.

From Fr. George Rutler:
In many glorious ways, Benedict XVI has done just that. With unerring fidelity he has explained the sacred deposit of the Faith to its opponents, both cultured and uncultured, with patient eloquence and stunning insight. Many reforms in the Church’s structure and the purification of abuses were his intense initiatives. Rather like St. Francis of Assisi going to meet with the caliph of Egypt clad only in simplicity, Benedict XVI refused to wear a bullet-proof vest when he went to Turkey, turning the anger of many to respect. A new reverence and beauty in worship has been his gift to the Church through his renewal of the sacred rites, and the provision of an ordinariate for whole groups seeking full communion with the Church “amazed and astonished” many.
(Read entire post. Hat tip to Tea at Trianon)

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Waugh on Ash Wednesday in New Orleans

There is witchcraft in New Orleans! Evidently British author Evelyn Waugh noted some observations in his characteristic wit while on a tour of the United States.  His thoughts were published in the September 19th, 1949 issue of LIFE magazine. Before giving his observations of New Orleans, Waugh spends some time analyzing something quintessential to the history of New Orleans and Southern Louisiana: Catholicism. He notes some trends he found troublesome. I wonder what he would think today. Take a look:
Only three states can be said to have a strong, continuous Catholic tradition -- Louisiana, Maryland and New Mexico. In the first of these the Church has never known persecution or even discouragement and over a length of time that is not an entirely healthy condition. Catholics need to be reminded every few generations that theirs is a challenging creed. In no European country have the faithful been subject to so enervating a toleration as have the inhabitants of New Orleans. It is therefore not surprising that they take their faith easily and sentimentally, with some skepticism among the rich and some superstition among the poor, of the kind that was found in France before the Revolution. It is one of the Devil's devices to persuade people that their religion is so much "in their bones" that they do not have to bother; that it is rather poor taste to talk too much about it...
He then spends some time describing his experience in New Orleans on Ash Wednesday:
There is witchcraft in New Orleans, as there was at the court of Mme. de Montespan. Yet it was there that I saw one of the most moving sights of my tour. Ash Wednesday; warm rain falling in streets unsightly with the draggled survivals of carnival. The Roosevelt Hotel overflowing with crapulous tourists planning their return journeys. How many of them knew anything about Lent? But across the way the Jesuit Church was teeming with life all day long; a continuous, dense crowd of all colors and conditions moving up to the altar rails and returning with their foreheads signed with ash. And the old grim message was being repeated over each penitent: ‘Dust thou art and unto dust thou shalt return.’ One grows parched for that straight style of speech in the desert of modern euphemisms...
The Catholic ethos is sewn into the complicated fabric of Southern Louisiana. It is tangible and very difficult to ignore. It's actually one of the things I love about the region. However, Waugh is right to be concerned about a trivialization of the faith that can take hold once people grow complacent. Interesting. (Oh, and vocab. word for the day: crapulous)

On Beauty

Fr. Robert Barron gives here an excellent elucidation on the power of beauty to speak to the human heart and lead it toward the good and the true.  Fr. Barron ties his discussion to Evelyn Waugh's magnificent novel, Brideshead Revisited.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Can politics solve everything?

In his Wednesday audience address on February 13th, I was excited to see that Pope Benedict XVI cited Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, to illustrate how even in the midst of rampant secularization and a myriad of ideological enticements, God can still be found:
The ability to oppose the ideological enticements of her time in order to choose the search for truth and to open herself to the discovery of faith was witnessed by another woman of our time, the American Dorothy Day. She confessed openly in her autobiography to having succumbed to the temptation to solve everything with politics, adhering to the Marxist proposal: “I wanted to be with the protesters, go to jail, write, influence others and leave my dreams to the world. How much ambition and how much searching for myself in all this!”. The journey towards faith in such a secularized environment was particularly difficult, but Grace acts nevertheless, as she pointed out: “It is certain that I felt the need to go to church more often, to kneel, to bow my head in prayer. A blind instinct, one might say, because I was not conscious of praying. But I went, I slipped into the atmosphere of prayer...”. God guided her to a conscious adherence to the Church, in a life dedicated to the underprivileged.
It frustrates me that there are reasonable people, even Catholics, who cannot avoid seeing everything (including their faith) through the lens of their political ideology.  Thou fool.  As Teofilo points out, it is folly to think "that man's fallenness is a myth, and that Utopia is just around the corner if humanity would only will it."

Before he mentioned Day, Benedict referred to diaries of Etty Hillesum to illustrate how God can be found even in the midst of utter horror... in Hillesum's case, the Holocaust:
I am also thinking of Etty Hillesum, a young Dutch girl of Jewish origin who died in Auschwitz. At first far from God, she discovered him looking deep within her and she wrote: “There is a really deep well inside me. And in it dwells God. Sometimes I am there, too. But more often stones and grit block the well, and God is buried beneath. Then he must be dug out again” (Diaries, 97). In her disrupted, restless life she found God in the very midst of the great tragedy of the 20th century: the Shoah. This frail and dissatisfied young woman, transfigured by faith, became a woman full of love and inner peace who was able to declare: “I live in constant intimacy with God”.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Legacy of Benedict XVI

Fr. Robert Barron gives here an excellent summary of what he believes the legacy of Benedict XVI will be.

As Fr. Barron says, the purpose of the Second Vatican Council was not to modernize the church. Its purpose was to equip the church with the tools necessary to christify the modern world. I'm going to miss Pope Benedict. As a principled scholar and theologian, the man possessed one of the keenest theological intellects many of us had ever seen. Interestingly, this appears to be the last time that we will have as pope someone who had been intimately involved in the Second Vatican Council. Benedict is largely responsible for presenting us a consistent and balanced interpretation of the council, and we will see it continue to blossom in the years to come. Thank you, Papa Bene.

Saturday, February 09, 2013

Love Among the Ruins

Oh, heart! Oh, blood that freezes, blood that burns!
Earth returns
For whole centuries of folly, noise and sin!
Shut them in,
With their triumphs and their glories and the rest!
Love is best.


Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Astrolabe and the Cosmic Symphony

Tom Wujec of Autodesk delivers here an awesome TEDtalk on the medieval astrolabe and its use of stereographic projection. Please take a moment to listen to what he has to say about it!

I have been learning about the astrolabe in recent months and enjoying it immensely. The more I learn, the more I wish the astrolabe were still in common use.  There are several reasons why I think the astrolabe is quite possibly one of the coolest pieces of technology ever created:

First, the astrolabe, being an instrument that captures the movement of the sun and stars, provides for the user a window into the very operation of the cosmos as well as (and this is most important) the user's proper place in the cosmic order.  This is to say that it orients the user toward something bigger without giving the user the illusion of domination or control.  Sounds lofty, doesn't it? We're not used to thinking of technology in that way today.  Modern technology tends not to have the same focus or intent and also can create unhealthy dependencies (on electricity, oil, consumption of natural resources, etc...) that further separate us from the function of the natural world in which we live.

Second, the astrolabe is an instrument that has been used devoutly and faithfully for centuries, transcending cultural and religious boundaries. It has allowed different cultures and religious groups, including Jews, Muslims, and Christians, to share practical knowledge with one another.

Finally, the astrolabe is, quite simply, a stunningly beautiful work of art.  Each culture and maker has sought to create these instruments with deep precision and beauty, reflecting a profound respect for the instrument and what it does.

Use it wisely, my friends.

Monday, January 21, 2013

The Hobbit's Guide to the Spiritual Life

My wife and I went to see The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey at the movie theater yesterday. My wife is a diehard fan of Catholic author J.R.R. Tolkien. Unlike CS Lewis, who was influenced by Tolkien, Tolkien's writing is more subtly imbued with deep Catholic themes pertaining to things like beauty, goodness, truth, evil, human and divine will, sin and redemption, and sacrifice and grace. Who could've expected that an author could produce novels so thoroughly Catholic yet able to also be enjoyed by generations of believers and non-believers alike? Growing up, many of my friends who were most devoted to Tolkien were also atheists. I think it's because Tolkien had a genius for telling stories by relating them to the common human experience, very similar to the way in which the ancient myths were communicated and passed down from antiquity.

Br. Patrick Mary Briscoe, OP, of the Eastern Dominican Province has written a good article exploring some of these themes in The Hobbit.
The world of The Hobbit is not a world of random chance where anything goes; in fact nothing could be further from the truth. The Hobbit tells the classic adventure story, the kind of story ordinary people naturally crave. The trademark of such a tale—a story which appeals to every person’s desire for truth, goodness, and beauty—is the dramatic difference between good and evil. In such a story good vanquishes evil, beauty conquers the repulsive, and characters rise to the challenges placed before them to fulfill their destinies. Within such a story, the hobbit Bilbo Baggins does not have to grapple with an existentialist crisis, nor carry the burden of creating his own meaning in light of the perceived absurdity of the world. Far from being an isolated and angst-ridden protagonist from Sartre’s Nausea, Bilbo joins Gandalf and the dwarves on a quest that has every appearance of being directed by providence itself.
Br. Patrick then explores the protagonist Bilbo Baggins and his heroic journey and what his character traits mean for the spiritual life. Read the whole article!

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Restoring the Altar Rail

Deacon Greg Kandra, who (I suspect) would not identify himself as a "radical traditionalist", offers some thoughts on the restoration of the altar rail in Catholic churches. He's now in favor of it. Here's what he says:
Okay. I've changed my mind. It's time to bring back the altar rail.

Hey, I'm as surprised as anyone else that I feel this way.

Two years ago, I rhapsodized on the Feast of Corpus Christi on the theology behind standing to receive communion, and defended it. And why not? I've received that way for most of my adult life; I even remember the Latin church's experiment with intinction back in the '70s. Standing and in-the-hand always seemed to me sensible, practical and—with proper catechesis—appropriate.

But now, after several years of standing on the other side of the ciborium—first as an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion, now as a deacon—and watching what goes on, I've had about enough.
Deacon Greg's thinking on the subject reflects my own. At one time, I was a diehard proponent of standing to receive communion. And I did believe that stripping out altar rails was something the Second Vatican Council wanted us to do (it wasn't). It took several years of service as an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion (aka "Eucharistic Minister") for me to change my mind. Today, I find that more churches are coming to the realization that it was a mistake to take the altar rail out of churches in the wake of the Council. There are churches in Houston where I live who actively use their altar rails. There are other churches around the country who are actually installing new altar rails for active use. (See here and here for a couple of examples). I never thought I would live to see a trend to restore the use of some things that were hastily done away with. It may not be on a large scale, but the times are definitely changing in this regard.

Kandra continues:
The fact is, we fumbling humans need external reminders—whether smells and bells, or postures and gestures—to reinforce what we are doing, direct our attention, and make us get over ourselves. Receiving communion is about something above us, and beyond us. It should transcend what we normally do. But what does it say about the state of our worship and our reception of the Eucharist that it has begun to resemble a trip to the DMV?
His observations are spot on. The altar rail is an architectural detail that developed largely in the West, and as this article points out, its roots can be traced back to the way the earliest Christians worshipped; this is a point of commonality with the East. The altar rail serves a deeply symbolic as well as practical purpose in liturgical worship. I'll be exploring some of this in future posts.

Let me conclude with some additional thoughts by Deacon Greg:
Can kneeling to receive on the tongue help alleviate some of this? Well, it can't hurt. And for this reason: to step up to a communion rail, and kneel, and receive on the tongue, is an act of utter and unabashed humility. In that posture to receive the Body of Christ, you become less so that you can then become more. It requires a submission of will and clear knowledge of what you are doing, why you are doing it, and what is about to happen to you.

Frankly, we should not only be humbled, but intimidated enough to ask ourselves if we are really spiritually ready to partake of the sacrament. Kneeling means you can't just go up and receive without knowing how it's properly done. It demands not only a sense of focus and purpose, but also something else, something that has eluded our worship for two generations.

It demands a sense of the sacred. It challenges us to kneel before wonder, and bow before grace. It insists that we not only fully understand what is happening, but that we fully appreciate the breathtaking generosity behind it. It asks us to be mindful of what "Eucharist" really means: thanksgiving.
It's time to bring back the altar rail.

Atheism and Fundamentalism

In recent news, theoretical physicist Peter Higgs (of Higgs boson fame) lashed out at biologist Richard Dawkins, accusing Dawkins of fundamentalism. From the article:
"What Dawkins does too often is to concentrate his attack on fundamentalists. But there are many believers who are just not fundamentalists," Higgs said in an interview with the Spanish newspaper El Mundo. "Fundamentalism is another problem. I mean, Dawkins in a way is almost a fundamentalist himself, of another kind."

He agreed with some of Dawkins' thoughts on the unfortunate consequences that have resulted from religious belief, but he was unhappy with the evolutionary biologist's approach to dealing with believers and said he agreed with those who found Dawkins' approach "embarrassing".
Dawkins has, in the past, rejected this designation, but in some ways, I suspect Dawkins doesn't understand what the accusation means. That leads me to a related point concerning biblical interpretation.

Catholic Mark Shea is fond of saying, "Scratch an atheist, find a fundamentalist". The reasons underlying this saying are manifold, and while I'm sure it isn't universally applicable to all atheists, I have often found a trend when debating Internet Atheists that they will insist on holding Catholics to an incredibly rigid interpretation of Scripture. It seems that in most cases, their knowledge of the biblical interpretation had not advanced beyond 8th grade Sunday School, if that. Any suggestion that Scripture is not perspicuous, that it requires an authoritative reading that actually may encompass many levels of interpretation, in consort with an equally authoritative Tradition going back (at least) 2000 years, is simply brushed aside as being irrelevant. For them, it's nothing compared to, as one thread commenter put it, the "idiosyncratic beliefs of Bill and Ted's Excellent Bible Shack, whose teachings go back to last Tuesday."

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Pro Life Ireland

Ireland's pro-life legal system has been in the news lately as there have been attempts in recent weeks to change the law. Much of this was motivated by the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar. Pro-life youth, led (unsurprisingly) by young women, are fighting back to keep Ireland abortion free and ensure that all women have the best medical care possible.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

St. Ambrose: to the Sacred Altar of Christ!

(... a repost from July, 2007...)

From St. Ambrose of Milan, On the Mysteries, Ch. VIII, circa 387 A.D.:
Fresh from the [baptismal] waters and resplendent in these garments, God's holy people hasten to the altar of Christ, saying:
I will go in to the altar of God, to God who gives joy to my youth.
They have sloughed off the old skin of error, their youth renewed like an eagle's, and they make haste to approach that heavenly banquet. They come and, seeing the sacred altar prepared, cry out:
You have prepared a table in my sight.
David puts these words into their mouths:
The Lord is my shepherd and nothing will be lacking to me. He has set me down there in a place of pasture. He has brought me beside refreshing water.
Further on, we read:
For though I should walk in the midst of the shadow of death, I shall not be afraid of evils, for you are with me. Your rod and your staff have given me comfort. You have prepared in my sight a table against those who afflict me. You have made my head rich in oil, and your cup, which exhilarates, how excellent it is.
... It is wonderful that God rained manna on our fathers and they were fed with daily food from heaven. And so it is written:
Man ate the bread of angels.
Yet those who ate that bread all died in the desert. But the food that you receive, that living bread which came down from heaven, supplies the very substance of eternal life, and whoever will eat it will never die, for it is the body of Christ.

Consider now which is the more excellent: the bread of angels or the flesh of Christ, which is indeed the body that gives life. The first was manna from heaven, the second is above the heavens. One was of heaven, the other is of the Lord of the heavens; one subject to corruption if it was kept till the morrow, the other free from all corruption, for if anyone tastes of it with reverence he will be incapable of corruption. For our fathers, water flowed from the rock; for you, blood flows from Christ. Water satisfied their thirst for a time; blood cleanses you for ever. The Jew drinks and still thirsts, but when you drink you will be incapable of thirst. What happened in symbol is now fulfilled in reality.

If what you marvel at is a shadow, how great is the reality whose very shadow you marvel at. Listen to this, which shows that what happened in the time of our fathers was but a shadow.
They drank, it is written, from the rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ. All this took place as a symbol for us.
You know now what is more excellent: light is preferable to its shadow, reality to its symbol, the body of the Giver to the manna he gave from heaven.
What a gift we have in Christ!

TEDx Iconography

Classically trained iconographer, Lynette Hull, draws fascinating parallels between contemporary and ancient "icons" in this TEDx talk:


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