Friday, October 20, 2017

To Hell with It

Recently, I was trying to find a quote about the Eucharist—one that contained all the majesty and mystery of the sacrament, that emphasized the absurd truth of it, that would rattle Protestant definitions and lead them home. Something akin to Tolkien’s: “Out of the darkness of my life, so much frustrated, I put before you the one great thing to love on earth: the Blessed Sacrament…There you will find romance, glory, honour, fidelity, and the true way of all your loves on earth, and more than that: Death.”

But then I came across one that stripped away prose and got to the heart of the matter. Flannery O’Connor wrote: “Well, toward morning the conversation turned on the Eucharist, which I, being the Catholic, was obviously supposed to defend. [Mary McCarthy] said when she was a child and received the Host, she thought of it as the Holy Ghost, He being the 'most portable' person of the Trinity; now she thought of it as a symbol and implied that it was a pretty good one. I then said, in a very shaky voice, 'Well, if it's a symbol, to hell with it.' That was all the defense I was capable of but I realize now that this is all I will ever be able to say about it, outside of a story, except that it is the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable.”

It was all the defense I was capable of. I so often struggle for words and explanations. I want the sound the defense—to know the philosophy and metaphysics, the teachings of the fathers, the logic, the history, the theology. I want to be able to hold and win debate. But I can’t. I’m not well-versed or well-prepared or well-spoken. But it is important to defend; it is the pinnacle of Christian worship. If it’s a symbol, then most Christians are misguided idolaters; if it’s truly Christ, then it the height of earthly experience.

So maybe I’m not the one to debate. Just stand my ground, even if my voice shakes.

'Well, if it's a symbol, to hell with it.'

Monday, October 16, 2017

Sun Day (part 3)

On the day of the solar eclipse, special glasses were a must. You couldn’t look directly at the sun. It was so bright that you couldn’t see the moon inching its way into its path until a moment before totality. Just a slimmer of sun still lit up the sky and hurt your eyes.

So we were warned, over and over, don’t look at the sun during the eclipse. It’s tempting, but it will hurt. Yet with the glasses, everything else was blacked out. The sun was a tiny, orange ball—the moon, a tinier, black spot, slowing eating away at it. There was a heavy filter between my eyes and the spheres, but it was the only way I could possibly witness them.

A few days later, I was driving to church. Normally, driving east, the sun is right in my face. But this morning was particularly foggy. I turned a corner which normally blasts me with bright light. But the fog was thick. I looked up, and I could see the dull, white ball of the sun. It wasn’t blinding me like normal. The fog allowed me to look directly at it.

I don’t see the sun that often. I see sunlight, obviously. I see daytime. I see the colors of sunrises and sunsets. I see rooms lit up by natural light pouring in windows. I see reflections and shadows. But the sun itself is too bright, too powerful. That fireball is millions of miles away yet feels dangerous close. Looking at it will hurt me. I need a filter.

We all know where this is going, right? The face of God is too much for meek humans to handle. We can’t look directly at him. Life on earth is sustained by him. We see the light all around, but we cannot see him directly. But through a fog, we somehow see him clearer. Through others—their actions, their hearts, their intercessions—we can gaze closer than we could with a naked eye.

The eclipse made me think about the sun much more than I normally do. It’s so prominent that I don’t actually think about that often. But there it is, routinely, giving heat and light, bouncing and reflecting, sometimes dancing. Sometimes it takes a moon or a fog for me to realize how much I love it. 

Friday, October 13, 2017

Sun Day (part 2)

The solar eclipse was touted as a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and for many, it was. There is a solar eclipse every 18 months or so, but the timing and placement make it rare to catch more than a couple of times. It is a natural occurrence, but it feels miraculous. I was surprised that more dooms-dayers hadn’t picked August 21 as a sign or start of the end times (but some did).

There are mentions of eclipses in the Bible. And strangely, one doesn’t make natural sense. “It was now about noon and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon because of an eclipse of the sun. Then the veil of the temple was torn down the middle. Jesus cried out in a loud voice, ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit’; and when He had said this He breathed His last.” (Luke 23:44-46). First, the darkness lasted three hours, not three minutes like a usual eclipse. And secondly, there shouldn’t be an eclipse at all. Christ died during Passover, which is dictated by a lunar calendar; it falls on a full moon. Solar eclipses can only occur during a new moon.

Different manuscripts of the Luke use different Greek words, including “eskotisthe ho helios” ("the sun was darkened") and “tou heliou eklipontos” ("the sun's light failed" or "the sun was in eclipse"). So it’s clear that darkness fell, like an eclipse, but that this wasn’t a natural occurrence. Something miraculous was going on.

The same at Fatima. Today is the 100th anniversary of the sixth apparition at Fatima, commonly called the Miracle of the Sun. Thousands had descended to the field to see Mary appear as promised. The eyewitness accounts attempt to describe what they saw—the breaking of the clouds, the changes of color, the movement which defied their understanding. Even rural farmers know how the sun works. The sun doesn’t dance. Or rather, the earth doesn’t shift from its rotation. Something miraculous was going on. It’s not going to fit into the scientific explanation. God creates the rules of physics. He keeps them in motion. And he can supersede them. That’s the nature of the miraculous.

What am I to make of Fatima? I am not obligated to believe it. I am not obligated to disbelieve it. I am not inclined to discount what the witnesses claim. I don’t put too much emphasis on its meaning or warnings. But I accept it as proof that our God is not a clockwork god. He can and will intervene in his creation.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Sun Day (part 1)

Back in August, solar eclipse fever swept the country, especially those of us living in the arching band of totality. Schools and businesses closed, tourists poured into farms and small towns, a pair of cardboard glasses become a hot commodity. It seems silly and over-hyped, but it also seemed worth it. It was a fun, fantastical distraction, a natural occurrence we humans couldn’t control. For all our modernity and avoidance of nature, we still stopped to look at the sun.

In 1878, people rush west to see a solar eclipse. Eclipse fever got caught up in scientific advancement and Manifest Destiny of the time. Even back in New York, which only had a partial eclipse, the Herald reported: “Portly bankers about to start for home paused on their office steps and turned their eyes above the money making world; merchants stood in the doorways of their busy stores, alternately consulting the face of their watches and the face of the sky; clerks and messengers, hurrying along the crowded streets, ceased to knock and jostle one another and with upturned faces and a blissful forgetfulness of business stood gazing all in one direction, while shop girls, escaping from the toilsome factory, caught a [momentary] glimpse of the heavens above and stalwart policemen stood boldly by frightened French nurses and their infant charges.”

The eclipse started slow. Without glasses, one couldn’t see the small moon starting to cover the massive star. But it gradually grew darker, like a coming storm, or twilight in late summer, a grayish yellow tint, distorting the color palate. Sunset arrived, in 360°. The cicadas began their ritual. Sun snakes weaved across the pavement, light twisting and bending to make the eight minute journey to earth. In a moment before totality, a diamond ring appeared in the sky, the then band with a bulb of brilliant shimmer. For a few minutes, we were transfixed, looking into the sky (sans glasses at this point), at the wisps of the corona, at the unusual sight that indicated the usual routine of the movement of the spheres. And then the moment passed, and the sky lightened, and the birds began their morning songs, and the world moved on.

I rarely think about how life on this planet is sustained by a giant fireball millions of miles away. Throw on some spf and sunglasses and it’s rarely an issue. But watching 5% of it still light up the sky, seeing its luminous corona glimmer, feeling its heat retreat and return, reminded me just how powerful it is.

Our universe works to exacting precision. It demonstrates God’s massive power and attention to detail. We are so finite in scale, yet God’s love for us is immense. We were created to know him and marvel at his creation.

“For he gave me sound knowledge of what exists, that I might know the structure of the universe and the force of its elements, the beginning and the end and the midpoint of times, the changes in the sun’s course and the variations of the seasons, cycles of years, positions of stars, natures of living things, tempers of beasts, powers of the winds and thoughts of human beings, uses of plants and virtues of roots—Whatever is hidden or plain I learned, for Wisdom, the artisan of all, taught me” (Wis. 7:17-22).

Monday, October 2, 2017

By My Side

I don’t know what my guardian angel looks like. I don’t know his name (though I do give him a masculine gender for language convenience). The whole concept of angels interacting in our world still feels foreign and bizarre to me. I like to avoid things I don’t understand.

Angel is the title of particular created spirits. They are God’s messengers. They are non-corporeal, personal, and immortal. The Catechism explains, “From its beginning until death, human life is surrounded by their watchful care and intercession. Beside each believer stands an angel as protector and shepherd leading him to life. Already here on earth the Christian life shares by faith in the blessed company of angels and men united in God” (CCC 336).

Lately, I’ve begun acknowledging and leaning on my guardian angel. When I had no one to reach out to, it was comforting knowing that I had my own, individual guardian watching over me, wanting the very best for me. When I felt attacked, it was comforting knowing that I wasn’t battling evil alone.

My angel knows God’s love and will for me. His purpose is to care for me and get me to heaven. And goodness knows I could use the help. His choice to serve God is unwavering, unlike human free will. He does so much work that I don’t realize or acknowledge.

Today is the Feast of the Guardian Angels. So, thank you, Angel. Keep up the good fight.

Friday, September 29, 2017

The Dogma Lives Loudly

When law professor Amy Coney Barrett faced her Senate confirmation hearing to serve on the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, it was not just her legal philosophy or her qualifications that were questioned. Her Catholicism itself was under question, with strong implications that her being Catholic should disqualify her from serving as a judge.

Senator Durbin asked Barrett if she considered herself an “orthodox Catholic” and if she considered Catholics who didn’t follow Church teachings to be Catholic. What this had to do with her qualifications as a judge, I can’t imagine. Senator Feinstein dealt the resounding quote though, when she said, “I think in your case, professor, when you read your speeches, the conclusion one draws is that the dogma lives loudly within you, and that’s of concern.”

American Catholics aren’t unfamiliar with anti-Catholic sentiments and religious litmus tests, wrapped up in concern that one is more beholden to Rome than Washington. JFK toured the country trying to quell such fears when he ran for president. But in this case, Senator Feinstein was so blinded by her secular idealism that she did not recognize the compliment she paid Barrett.

What orthodox Catholic would not be honored to be told that the dogma lived loudly within her? Is that not a goal of this life, to be so steeped in the faith, so aligned with the will of God, that it shines through our every word and action? It was wonderful to see “the dogma lives loudly within you” become the Catholic equivalent of “nevertheless, she persisted.”

Dogma is a word often used with disdain. Dusty, old rules written hundreds of years ago. Words cluttering up the faith. Rigid. Close-minded. Arrogant. “It’s a relationship, not a religion.” But dogma is just the official principles of faith and morals. It’s the code by which we live. Without some form of dogma, our morality and philosophy are nothing more than whims, easily malleable and manipulable.

To have the dogma alive in us is to breathing expressions of the faith, to be the salt, to be the light. When I think of people within whom the dogma lives loudly, I think of Father Stanley Rother. I think of Dorothy Day. I think of St. John Paul II. I think of people who are passionate for their love of Christ and whose passion spills over into loving the world.  It is not shameful or concerning to have a moral code and live up to it. I strive for the insult: “the conclusion one draws is that the dogma lives loudly within you.”

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Down on One Knee

Traditionally, when a man proposes, he gets down on one knee in front of woman and offers her a ring. It’s a sign of respect, of devotion, of humility as he awaits her answer. In the Western Church, genuflection (which means kneeling) is typically expressed by bending down on one knee. It is a sign of respect to a superior; it has meant such since Alexander the Great’s time. In the Church, it is a sign of respect to God, present in the Blessed Sacrament. The whole body acknowledges the presence of God. 

In sports, players go down on one knee when another player is injured. As medics and coaches go on the field to tend to the injured, the rest of the players remain silent, on one knee, as a sign of respect and concern to their injured peer. It also signals to the spectators that there is a serious incident on the field and that they too should be concerned and quiet. 

So when Colin Kaepernick, a professional football player who lived a fairly privileged life, started to realize the systemic racism and injustice in the country, he began feeling uncomfortable standing hand-over-heart for the National Anthem at each game. To him, it felt like a mockery to claim that America was one way when it was really another. So he sat. And then he knelt. And others followed suit. He took a knee, a sign of respect but also a signal that there is a serious incident going on that demands own concern.

This past weekend, it escalated, with dozens of players and others, including a franchise owner and a singer of the National Anthem, taking a knee. As far as protests go, this is about as mild-mannered as you can imagine. No chanting, no inflammatory language, no blocking streets, no occupying private property. And yet, people were outraged, calling the protesters un-American, seditious, thugs, disrespectful. There were demands that the players be fined, that they lose their jobs, that they be forced to stand for the anthem. 

Now, the NFL can very much dictate if they allow their players to kneel on the field or not. It’s their field, their uniforms, and their time. As a private company, they have that control. That’s why Colin Kaepernick isn’t working this season. But when dozens of players join in the peaceful protest (and when the act brings much attention to the league, especially when people tune in to see who’s kneeling or not), the NFL is also very much in their right to let it happen. And people can freely boycott or not based on the NFL’s decisions.

The First Amendment allows for peaceful protest. The very foundation of the country supports citizens bringing their concerns to the public forum and petitioning the government for redress of grievances. Freedom of speech is in place to protect minority or unpopular speech. You don’t have to like what others say, you don’t have to like that they are saying it. But you can’t restrict them from doing so. 

In the 1943 case West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, the Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment protected students’ rights to not salute the American flag or say the Pledge of Allegiance. The Court ruling read: “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of option, or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.”

What I’ve found so interesting in the “take a knee” protests are the vitriol, distain, and accusations heaped onto the protesters. The flag and the anthem have, in many’s minds, to represent the military, which subsequently, can never be wrong nor disrespected in any form. So an issue about racism becomes an issue about veterans. A conversation about injustice becomes a conversation about patriotism. A sign of concern becomes a sign of disrespect. A peaceful protest becomes an act of sedition. 

The post 9/11 patriotism was beautiful but dangerous. We can together as a country, we were all in this together. There is a demand that we maintain a solitary mindset of blind patriotism, that anything less is unacceptable. But that itself is un-American. America promotes free speech, free assembly, the right to petition; North Korea is where blind obedience is demanded. In the Barnette case, Justice Jackson wrote, “Those who begin coercive elimination of dissent soon find themselves exterminating dissenters. Compulsory unification of opinion achieves only the unanimity of the graveyard.”

The “take a knee” protest is about as peaceful—as passive—as a protest can be. But it’s still not submissive enough for some people. Just as college students weren’t submissive enough when they sat down to lunch at Woolworth’s. Just as Rosa Parks wasn’t submissive enough when she remained in her seat on the bus. Just as Tommie Smith and John Carlos weren’t submissive enough when they lifted their fists on the Olympic podium. Anything less than total capitulation is never enough for some authorities. And that’s the mindset Colin Kaepernick wanted to fight against. Every voice saying the players should just stand up, shut up, and play are proving him right. There is an injury on the field. Show your respect. Pay attention.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story?

History is written by the winners, they say. But that’s not entirely true. Living in the South proves that. The Lost Cause narrative sustained, even if it’s not the national narrative. There are still Rebel flags and monuments to Jackson and Lee and reenactments of Confederate victories. The reasons why these persist are varied, and yes, many of those reasons are rooted in racism. The war was lost, the cause was wrong, but no one wants to say that their boys died in vain. Losers write history too.

How historical times or events are remembered and interpreted say more about the current times than those of the past. How interpretation of the past shows how we want to connect the present to some larger narrative. We want our times to make sense. We want to connect to moments of victory or morality or innovation. We want assurances that we are moving humanity the way it ought. So we fit our values and missions into the larger historical context. We align past heroes to ourselves, obscuring context. And when the stories don’t fit, they get reinterpreted or replaced entirely.

After the Civil War, President Johnson pardoned the Confederates. This was so that Southerners would not be punished by Northerners thus continuing the division. Rather, Confederates were reabsorbed as Americans, accepting the union and the label of American. That’s why in the South, the Confederacy is often remembered as part of America—Americans fighting Americans, i.e., a civil war. The regional memory is different than the national memory, and the fight over statues is really a fight over the story. Every group wants their story told, their memory validated. Collective memory is at the core of a group’s identity. It is worth fighting for. So the struggle to dictate the story can lead to violence and destruction.

Whether the statues should stay or go should be debated. Personally, I think there are cases for some to stay and some to go, and it would have to be determined on a case by case basis, factoring in the intent when it was erected and the community’s past and present situations. Baltimore city government decided to remove its statues before they became foci of conflict. And they had a point. The statues have become tangible beacons of the division of narratives.  Letting a frenzied mob tear down or vandalize property legitimizes chaos; it allows emotional outbursts to win over civil social discourse. Politics becomes not about rationalized ideology but about brute force.

Iconoclasts seek to erase history. They want to distance themselves from a dark past and create a new utopia, free of any tainting, residual influence. They want to purify themselves by sanitizing the landscape. In doing so, they disregard the past, destroy art, damage buildings, desecrate burial grounds.

We see iconoclasm in ISIS blowing up ancient sites, smashing some of Christianity’s oldest churches and even Muslim holy places to dust. We see it in the Red Guard destroying the Four Olds during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. During the French Revolution, the heads of the statues of Notre Dame were decapitated, and the cathedral became a Temple of Reason.

In the sixteenth century, the iconoclastic Protestants smashed stained glass and statues and threw out relics.  This was beyond a reformation; it was obliteration. The Church, her art, and her contributions were sought out to be erased. Along with political power, the iconoclasts wanted control over the community memory, to shape history as they wanted.

There are narratives that are truer and more just than others. There are reasons to remove images that represent oppression. But we must be careful from becoming iconoclasts, from believing that a purified landscape and erased history will lead to a pure, new society. There are no pure societies. There is nothing new under the sun.

In 1984, George Orwell says, “Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.”