>A Dominican Weekend (No Merengue Required)

>It is a big weekend for the Dominican friars here in the Nation’s Capital, and it’s not too late for you to get involved in their upcoming events this Saturday and Sunday!

The Priory of the Immaculate Conception is located at 487 Michigan Avenue NE here in Washington, D.C., only a couple of blocks from the Brookland-Catholic University Metro station on the Red Line. With the annual Cherry Blossom Festival kicking off this weekend, many tourists or residents with visitors will find themselves with much to do during the day, admiring the blossoms and participating in many cultural events, but may also find themselves wanting something more edifying to do with their evenings. A visit to the Priory is a welcome antidote to the crowds and hustle-and-bustle of tourist Washington. There is a wonderful sense of timelessness, as in the best European monasteries, where in its hallways, chapel, and cloister, the Priory imparts a sense of permanence and removal from the everyday world, while at the same time not feeling completely cut off from it.

On Saturday evening beginning at 6:30 pm the Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception at the Dominican House of Studies (“DHS”) will be holding their Spring Gala, and it is not too late for you to attend: online registration is closed, but tickets can still be purchased at the door. The evening will include a reception with food and drink (including beer brewed by the Student Brothers at the Priory!) prepared and served by the Dominican Student Brothers; a silent auction of many – for lack of a better word – tempting items, including such lots as signed prints by my friend Matt Alderman of New Liturgical Movement and Shrine of the Holy Whapping fame, as well as pieces by local artists, and tickets to events at The Kennedy Center, The Folger, and The Shakespeare Company, among others. The evening will conclude with Compline in the beautiful main chapel of the Priory. I have been looking forward to this evening for many weeks now, and hope to see not only old friends but perhaps meet some of my readers in person.

On Sunday evening at 7:15pm my friend Brother Innocent Smith, who was recently interviewed by The Washington Examiner about the season of Lent, will be giving a talk at the DHS on Lenten Gregorian Chant, as part of the series “The Passion of Christ: Conferences for Lent 2011″. More specifically Fra. Innocent, whom I have found to be quite the scholar of early music, will be examining three of the Dominican chants for Compline: “Evigila”, “Media Vita” and “O Rex Gloriose”. He writes:

The Dominican liturgy preserves many ancient chants that are sung during Lent and Passion-tide. These chants present beautiful articulations of Christian teachings on death, suffering, dependence on God’s mercy, and Christ’s protection of his people. This presentation will include the singing of several Latin chants, and will offer an exposition of their history, influence, and theological meaning.

If you cannot make this Sunday’s talk, for your reference keep in mind that there will be Sunday evening talks in this series up to and including Palm Sunday. Upcoming talks by the friars will consider St. Luke’s narrative of the Passion, a modern-day example of St. Dismas the “Good Thief” of Calvary, and the iconography of the Passion and Redemption in the work of the great 20th century fiction author Flannery O’Connor. The Dominicans are, of course, more properly known as the Order of Preachers, and because of their apostolate take great care in crafting their public presentations so as to prove not only well-thought out but also memorable.

I would also like the reader to consider the idea of visiting the Priory as a small, personal pilgrimage – and not just because the friars have quite a number of very interesting saintly relics in the cloister (which they do.) A pilgrimage does not, as some would think it, necessarily entail an enormous outlay of time and resources combined with personal discomfort in order to reach a distant point on the map. We forget that, for many centuries, people would flock to the nearby houses of the various religious orders at Lent and other times of the year for periods of prayer, reflection, and works of piety, during which their spiritual and temporal needs would be provided for.

A true pilgrimage begins with the desire to change the heart, rather than simply ticking off a “been there, done that” box on some sort of list of major Catholic shrines and Lent itself is meant to serve as a pilgrimage from death to life. We are approaching the mid-point of Lent, but there is still time for you to act on those Lenten resolutions which you wanted to take on with all sincerity back on March 9th. Spending some time with the Dominicans this weekend will be a tremendous boost for you to continue to persevere in those efforts, or to make a new start at sticking to them as you continue your Lenten pilgrimage.

Statue of St. Dominic outside of the
Priory of the Immaculate Conception, Washington D.C.

>Thou Art Dust

>Today being Ash Wednesday many Catholics – and even non-Catholics – will head to church to receive a cross of ashes on their forehead. This morning at St. Yuppie’s, Father Siranni gave me something that looks more like a Maori tribal stripe rather than a cross, but no matter. The point is, or so I would have thought, that the imposition of ashes is to remind us of our mortality as we enter this penitential season.

As he placed the ashes, Father used the traditional formula: “Remember that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return.” You may of course hear a different formulation, which came into vogue after Vatican II: “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.” Of course, Lent does provide us a season in which to try and make a better job of doing so, but to my ear it does sound a bit too American of a choice when giving the sacramental ashes. As I discussed with some friends during a long and convivial afternoon over (perhaps too many) bottles on Sunday, there is a distinct aversion in this country to thinking about suffering, decay and death, which in other cultures people are far more accustomed to living with.

Yesterday in conversation with a woman who, while technically Catholic, long ago fell away from the Church and does not practice her faith, we had a bit of a discussion about Ash Wednesday which led to the subject of cremation. I mentioned that my intent, when the time comes, is that after my funeral mass my body will be cremated and shipped to the family tomb, located on the mountain of Montjuïc in Barcelona, which overlooks the Mediterranean Sea. She was surprised to learn that the Church permitted cremation, which it did not do when she was growing up in the 1950’s.

Paragraph 2301 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, in relevant part: “The Church permits cremation, provided that it does not demonstrate a denial of faith in the resurrection of the body.” This is, admittedly, something of a broad directive, and for those who want to read more about the practical development of the Church’s view on the subject, a good starting point for further research is an article from St. Anthony Messenger. Except under a very specific set of circumstances, cremation if it is chosen as an option seems to be something which should take place AFTER the funeral, not before, but it is still permissible.

The practice of burying the dead in the United States is something I have always found obnoxious and wasteful. In Spain for example, and in many other countries, if you die on a Wednesday you are in the ground no later than Friday. In this country if you die on a Wednesday you will be lucky to be buried by the following week. We drag things out, incurring ridiculous expenses from embalming to limousines and receptions, and to an extent that many people in other parts of the world would find appalling if they would ever happen to attend a funeral mass in this country.

Why do we need, for example, to spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars on a satin-lined, polished metal or hardwood box that looks something like a Cadillac from Boca Raton, which is ultimately going into the ground where no one will see it? Does it not strike you as being somehow pagan, or at the very least that the bereaved are missing the forest for the trees, that families go into debt in order to preserve a body in an almost Egyptian manner? Surely it is not a denial of the resurrection of the body to follow monastic example, providing Great Uncle Jim with a simple coffin and a funeral mass for those of immediate association with him, rather than something approaching a state funeral. If Great Uncle Jim was a prominent member of the community, the family can always schedule a memorial service later, where eulogies and tributes would be permitted.

This is part and parcel of the American view of aging, suffering, and death. For example, we shunt our actors off the screen when they get too saggy; we put our elderly away where no one can see them; we fill ourselves with botox and supplements and who-knows-what-else to forestall looking deathly for as long as we can afford to do so; we even put make-up on our corpses so that we are not too disturbed when we glance at them. This, to me, is more akin to denying the resurrection than simply having a body cremated.

In its way the attitude towards death and burial in the States is analogous to some extent of how ludicrous weddings have become in this country as well. The point of the event – i.e. the entry of the couple into the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony – is lost in a flood of things such as outrageously expensive floral arrangements, the selection of “favors” which are provided as some sort of recompense to guests for having given up their Saturday afternoon on the couch, or the ridiculous sight of 8 bridesmaids accompanying a woman who is neither the Queen of England nor even queen of the local dairy festival. In both cases, there seems to be an imbalance between the natural human desire to share a moment of sadness or joy with others and have that moment blessed by God, and the call of Mammon to spend pointlessly on things which ultimately do not matter nor make a whiff of difference sacramentally.

It is important for us, as we make our way through Lent, to repent and be faithful to the Gospel; indeed, we are challenged to do this every day, but Lent provides us with a great opportunity to focus on this challenge. However for my two cents, the reminder that I am dust and will return to that state is a far more powerful consideration to keep in mind during these 40 days. My hope is in the Lord and the resurrection on the last day, and chances are that I will have to go through a lot of nasty stuff before that happens.

My challenge to you, dear reader, is to be utterly un-American this Lent, and think about your own mortality. It is admittedly not something that we Americans like to do. Yet the apex of Lent commemorates one of the bloodiest, unpleasant, awful things that ever happened – and without that event none of us could live in hope.

Do not shy away from considering death, both that of Our Lord and your own, and reflecting upon it, even if it makes you uncomfortable – for my sincere desire is that it does.

Tomb in the cemetery of Montjuïc in Barcelona

>(Not) Chewing the Fat

>In the evenings before bed, I often listen to podcasts from sites such as EWTN, SQPN, and Librivox. However on Sunday evenings after “Masterpiece Theatre”, I turn to WAMU 88.5 FM here in Washington, D.C. for my evening’s entertainment. From 7:00 pm to 11:00pm Ed Walker hosts “The Big Broadcast“, featuring recordings of classic radio plays, variety shows, and so on from the 1930’s through the 1960’s.

Last evening I enjoyed a detective serial from the spring of 1951, sponsored by Kraft Foods. The announcer took intervals during the story to push Velveeta processed cheese. During one of these breaks, he noted that Velveeta was a good source of milk products for the busy mother, “which is so important now that it’s Lent.” When was the last time you heard someone remind you of the liturgical season on commercial radio?

For Advent of course, Catholics do not have to fast or abstain from meat, and given the number of Christmas parties most of us either want or have to attend over the next several weeks, this is probably a good thing. At the same time however, it might be good to make a little sacrifice for yourself as we enter the new liturgical year this Sunday after Thanksgiving. Perhaps we can hold off on eating Christmas candy until Christmas actually arrives, or limit ourselves at Christmas parties taking place before Christmas to not eating any cakes or sweets. Not only would this be better for our saturated fat intake, but it would also make the 12 days of Christmas a bit more meaningful.