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."


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