Flying the Banner

Last evening at the Catholic Information Center here in D.C., Father James Bradley gave a wonderful talk on “The Way of Beauty; The Way of Happiness”, as part of the TOT (Theology On Tap) Talks organized by the Young Adult Ministry of the Archdiocese of Washington.  Pointing to examples from areas such as art, music, and architecture, Father Bradley challenged his listeners to consider the impact of beauty in our lives, and how it points us to the transcendent.  He asked the deeply important question of whether contemporary acceptance of what was formally considered ugly or demeaning, as being equal or superior to what was formally considered beautiful, is leading us away from God.  You can listen to the audio of Father Bradley’s presentation when it is archived on the TOT page later today.

While the reader may, with good reason, assume that I would have quite a bit to say on this question, I instead want to focus on a comment which Father Bradley made in the course of his presentation.  He noted that when engaging with those who do not accept the Christian worldview on topics such as beauty, we often find ourselves getting nowhere by making apologetic arguments based on doctrines and principles which have been rejected by those who disagree with us.  To put it another way, if I might, when your neighbor absolutely insists that your cat is not a cat, but rather a dog, then all of your insistence to the contrary is not going to make much of a difference.

Father Bradley asserted that when discussion proves impossible, it is through example that we can make said difference.  How we as Christians live our lives can draw people to reconsider their entrenched positions about those very important subjects on which we disagree.  If we are seen as people of joy and love, engaging in acts of kindness and charity, and surrounding ourselves with beauty in all things, we are more likely to be able to engage with those who refuse to meet us on common intellectual or philosophical grounds.  In other words, it is time for us to recover not only the thought, but the actual practice of being a Christian in a time which increasingly rejects Christianity.

An early document written roughly a century after Christ’s Resurrection, known to historians as The Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetesmay give us some idea of the sort of thing I mean.  In this letter, the unknown author writing in about 130 A.D. describes how Christians are both a part of the world, yet at the same time set themselves apart from that world by the manner in which they choose to live.  Note how the distinctions which the author draws between the practices of the wider of society of his day, and the Christians of his time, seem eerily reminiscent of some of the practices and ideas of the present age:

[Christians] dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh.  They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven.  They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death, and restored to life.  They are poor, yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things, and yet abound in all; they are dishonoured, and yet in their very dishonour are glorified. They are evil spoken of, and yet are justified; they are reviled, and bless; they are insulted, and repay the insult with honour; they do good, yet are punished as evil-doers.

I wonder how many of us who today call ourselves Christians, could consider this early assessment of what our ancestors in the Faith were like, and still recognize ourselves in such a description. We have forgotten that ours is not simply another philosophy among many competing philosophies, but rather a complete way of life, one which is supposed to be manifest to the world, not donned and doffed like a pair of favorite socks.  One sees this type of Christianity throughout Western Europe for example, where apart from christenings, weddings, and funerals, the vast majority of Europeans never darken the doorstep of their local church; this phenomenon is sadly becoming all the more apparent in this country, as well.

As Christians are paid increasingly less attention in the marketplace of ideas, we see that simply the removal of our voices from the din has not been enough for those opposed to Christianity.  We must be made to conform to the zeitgeist, whenever possible; when this is not possible, then we must be silenced.  Given this, and if we consider the historical roots of Christianity such as in the passage given above, then Father Bradley’s reasoning that our lives must themselves be the argument for Christianity at all times, but particularly when words fail us, makes perfect sense.

Certainly, it would be far easier to simply take down the blood-stained banner of the Resurrection, and fly instead the white, surrendering flag of relativism.  Yet to do so would be to deny Christ, something which no Christian wants to do.  The Early Church understood, despite the difficulties which they faced in getting themselves heard, that when our words are ignored, a living Faith through our actions can speak volumes, especially in a highly mutable society.  It’s high time that we recall and re-embrace this lesson for ourselves.

Easter Banner at Golgotha Monastery Orkney, Scotland

Easter Banner at Golgotha Transalpine Redemptorist Monastery
Orkney, Scotland

 

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Technology and the Church: Why Can’t We Have This in America?

In conversation recently with a few friends, I brought up a wonderful online service which I have mentioned before on these pages. It always surprises me to learn that people are not familiar with it, so this is a good opportunity to extol its virtues to you.  Moreover, and more importantly to those in the U.S., I’d like to issue a challenge to those with the resources and know-how, and ask why we don’t already have something like it on this side of the pond.

Church Services TV provides both streaming and archived video from a growing number of cathedrals, churches, monasteries, and chapels around Ireland and the United Kingdom.  Each location has its own “channel” in a drop-down menu, so that one can quickly search for the feed from a particular parish, or switch between one church and another.  Visitors can check the schedule posted on the site to see what events are coming up that day, such as Daily or Sunday Mass, and there is also a special events calendar, useful for future planning purposes.  If you’re lucky, sometimes you may stumble across an unlisted event: I’ve caught concerts, talks, and things like baptisms, weddings, and funerals on the Church Services site this way.

What I find to be one of the most special aspects about this technology however, is what it can bring to the visitor throughout their day.  When you’re at the office or at home, trying to get work done and the phone, the kids, and/or the dog are all driving you crazy, it would be nice to be able to just take a break and go away and pray for awhile.  Oftentimes, that option is nowhere near practical.  Since Church Services leaves nearly all of the camera feeds on the site running all day, even though you may not physically be able to get to church for a few minutes of prayer after you’ve nearly blown your top, you’re one click away from having a live window into God’s house whenever you want it.

Although at night, most of the cameras on the site switch to black-and-white security mode, and the churches themselves often turn off all the lights, that doesn’t mean the site becomes useless.  Even then, I think there’s something profound and encouraging about seeing the sanctuary lamp burning before the tabernacle, in the midst of the surrounding darkness.  When all may otherwise appear dark, the light of Christ’s Presence is shining forth.  It’s not Adoration, but it’s not a waste of time, either, especially after a rough day.

Now of course, an image on the screen is not the same thing as actually being present before the Real Presence, let alone receiving Holy Communion.  Nevertheless, one can see how there are many positive aspects of this kind of technology, which could be put to good use.  Much as radio and later television broadcast of the Mass has helped people like shut-ins to be able to pray and worship alongside their fellow Christians, while not a substitute for Mass or Adoration, this more recent technology also provides an opportunity for spiritual growth and refreshment to those who want to take advantage of it.

So this brings me back to my original question, because it strikes me that, if the good people of the Emerald Isle can put a service like this together, why don’t we have something similar in the U.S.?  Certainly, there are some churches around the country that have had low-tech webcams for years: I know of a few in places like Philadelphia and St. Louis, for example.  Yet to my knowledge, there is nothing comparable in America to this centralized site with so many participating churches, where not only can one watch live footage, but even go back and watch previous video.  There is clearly an opportunity here, waiting to be discovered and implemented.

In the meantime, gentle reader, I highly recommend that you bookmark the Church Services TV site, as I have, because you will be able to make good use of it when and if you need to.  And talk to your parish and your diocese about whether they might be interested in doing something similar where you are.  It would be great to see this service spread to more communities around the world, both as a source of spiritual growth for practicing Catholics, and as a tool for the New Evangelization.

Screenshot of the Church Services TV site

Screenshot of the Church Services TV site

Kindred Spirits: St. Catherine of Siena and Sigrid Undset

Today is the Feast of St. Catherine of Siena: mystic, stigmatic and Doctor of the Church. The writings of St. Catherine (1347-1380) have inspired many people down the centuries, but among the most interesting examples from comparatively recent times is the Norwegian Nobel Laureate, Sigrid Undset (1882-1949). I will spare the reader any vain and pitiful attempt on my part to analyze the sometimes above-my-head ideas related by St. Catherine. Instead, I draw attention to the work of Undset, whose admiration of this remarkable 14th century saint led to a wonderful, accessible reflection on St. Catherine and her writings.

Sigrid Undset was one of Norway’s most important modern writers. In recognition of her talents, she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1928 – back when one actually had to be able to write, bring about peace, etc. to merit the award. Her trilogy “Kristin Lavransdatter”, set in 12th century Norway, ought to be required reading for all Catholics. Herself a convert to Catholicism, the 20th century Norwegian writer, Undset, found much in common with the 14th century Italian writer, St. Catherine.

Both women were Third-Order Dominicans, and lived in times when the Church appeared to be in danger of disintegrating. Indeed, Undset’s conversion from secular atheist to fervent Catholic was considered a tremendous scandal both among the Low-Church Lutherans and the no-Church intellectuals of her countrymen. Yet like St. Catherine fighting against a tide of materialism in her own day, Undset encouraged the faithful to fight back again the secularization of Western society.

Undset’s magnificent spiritual biography of the saint, “Catherine of Siena”, was published posthumously in 1951. It is a fitting introduction or companion for those interested in learning more about St. Catherine, written in a thoughtful and sensitive style that is typical of the author’s other works. The fact that Undset was so interested in the Middle Ages, not just in her own country but in the idea of Christian Europe, allowed her to build a bridge for us between our own day and a world which may at times seem very foreign to our experience.

Like many of us, Undset recognized the fact that the writings of this great Italian mystic are not always easily accessible for the modern reader. Apart from most likely not having had any mystical experiences, the modern reader most certainly did not have the benefit of growing up in the more deeply spiritual world of Medieval Europe. Yet she saw that, as in St. Catherine’s day, man’s perennial tendency to either ignore God completely or remake Him in our own image leads to evil results.

In “Catherine of Siena” Undset opined that the problems of the modern age grew out of a denial of man’s being made in the image and likeness of God, and all that entails. In order to justify his own bad behavior in violation of the natural law and the teachings of Christ and His Church, man can convince himself that sin is, in effect, virtue. If we have “ceaselessly stained and crippled the image of God in ourselves,” she writes, “we have succumbed to our desire for power and flattery, to our passions, hate and revenge, lust and ambition.”

In Undset’s view this paradoxical mindset leads to impotence, or destruction, or both. She notes that modern men are always planning utopian visions of the future, only to tear them down: man accomplishes something good, and almost immediately sets about destroying it. There is no sense of planning or preservation, all is caprice, shallowness, and pique. “We are afraid of change,” she writes, and yet simultaneously are “afraid of stagnation. We love old things and institutions, and will have something which is new and different.”

St. Catherine’s dogged perseverance, such as in trying to get the Papacy to return to Rome from Avignon, impressed Undsett tremendously: particularly because the saint seemed so often to be fighting a losing battle against the materialism of her times. Undset points out that the efforts made by St. Catherine to persuade others to take the right path were pursued with the full understanding of the saint herself that she might very well never see their fruits. In this, Undset says, St. Catherine drew closer to Christ:

She gave of herself until her physical life was used up; in a fight whose final results she was as sure of, as she was sure that she would not see many victories on the battlefield of this world. But in fact Our Lord has never made any promises regarding the triumph of Christianity on earth – on the contrary. If we expect to see His cause triumph here, His own words should warn us: “When the Son of Man comes, will He find faith upon the earth?” He did not tell us the answer.

Undset points out that even in the Middle Ages, when Christianity was in full flower all over Europe, there were still plenty of people who refused to follow Christ. She counseled that those who speak of “the bankruptcy of Christianity in our times” ought to keep this in mind, as well as Jesus’ own aforementioned speculation from St. Luke. God gives us no promises about the safety of the Church – other than that the gates of Hell will not prevail against it.

Living as do we, in an age of horrors which St. Catherine could not have imagined in her most intense mystical experiences, Undset championed the idea put forward by St. Catherine’s example that the single soul must stand up to be counted. Undset reminds us that, whatever the world may say, “every man is born individually, and must be saved individually.” This last point is an important one, for it gives us cause to not only hope but to continue to act in accordance with God’s Will for us, even if we feel we are all alone or there is seemingly little or no possibility of stemming the tide.

One of St. Catherine of Siena’s most famous counsels is: “Be what you are meant to be, and you will set the entire world alight!” Undset must have taken that counsel very seriously, for she “put herself out there”, as the saying goes. She may have lost the respect of some of her peers by rejecting secular materialism, but she gained the far greater blessing of Christianity in return. Let us hope that God, in His Mercy, has not only gathered her to Himself, but also that she and St. Catherine have become friends in heaven, given what extraordinary women each of them in her way was upon earth.

St. Catherine of Siena by Sano de Pietro (c. 1442)

Bonnefantenmuseum, Maastricht