Celebrating Catholicism in American Culture

Following on from yesterday’s post, we move to a more positive topic, which is what you can do to shake up people’s misconceptions about Catholicism.  Standing up and defending the Church is critical at this time, when the Church seems to be attacked in the press and on social media every five minutes.  Yet admittedly, some of us are better at fighting these kinds of fights than others.

Truthfully what all Catholics ought to be doing is not looking to plunge into great battles in the world of public opinion, but rather engaging in what we are supposed to be doing, which is evangelizing to those around us.  It is far easier to get into often-anonymous fights on social media, or even publish scurrilous blog posts such as the one which U.S. News had the misfortune to give the go-ahead, than it is to calmly and respectfully discuss Catholicism with one’s friends and neighbors.  And even though there is unquestionably a time for arguing, even strident arguing, more often it is through a self-confident witness that we will change minds and hearts.

A few years ago for example, I was rather surprised to be informed by a Protestant friend that Catholics do not believe in the Holy Spirit. I pointed out that the whole Trinitarian “thing” was our idea.  His counter was, that even if Catholics did believe in the existence of the Holy Spirit, we did not believe that He was God.

After wondering for a moment why therefore I had bothered about being Confirmed, or celebrated the Feast of Pentecost for decades, I realized that mere argument was not going to be enough.  I challenged my friend to attend Mass with me the following Sunday, so that he could see and hear for himself what Catholics actually believe about the Holy Spirit. To his credit, being a very smart and good fellow, he agreed.

I did not look at the readings for that Sunday in advance of our visit, but I do recall that before we left for church I prayed to the Holy Spirit, asking him to let us have a good Mass, and one that would open my friend’s eyes a little regarding what he misunderstood about Catholicism.  I was rather pleased to discover when we got there that it just so happened all of the Scripture readings at Mass that particular Sunday – and the hymns, to boot – were about the Holy Spirit. That, in combination with the set prayers and blessings which we regularly pray such as the Nicene Creed, persuaded my friend that he had indeed been misinformed.

Inviting your non-Catholic friends to come to Mass with you can be a good thing, particularly if you have a generally solid parish, but what about reaching those who are not interested in darkening the door of the Church at all? This is why cultural literacy has always been such an important issue for Catholics in this country, and something which we need to encourage more Catholics to take on as a virtue.  The study of history, literature, science, and the arts reveals a wealth of material stemming from Catholic spirituality, philosophy, and creativity, which all too often non-Catholics and even many Catholics themselves are completely unaware of.

For example, the Nativity scenes which everyone just finished packing away until next year, can all trace their origins to the first such scene, which was put up by St. Francis of Assisi.  The celebration of Mardi Gras (or “Fat Tuesday”) which, hard to believe, is just over a month away, is a Catholic tradition that arose from the practice of having a last celebration of feasting on rich food and drink, before the beginning of the Catholic penitential season of Lent on Ash Wednesday.  You know those little raised bumps called “braille”, which help the blind to read and to get around on things like elevators and trains?  They were invented by a deeply devout, blind Catholic named Louis Braille, who played the organ at Mass every day and received Holy Communion on his deathbed.  And even those who are fans of sports teams at the large, secular state universities like Alabama and Oregon owe the very existence of those schools to Catholics, who founded the original universities in places like Bologna, Salamanca, Paris, and Oxford on which all subsequent universities are modeled.

So much of what Catholicism has given to the world is all around us, and yet we never take the time to point it out to others.  I suspect this is often because those of us who are inside the Church could do with some more curiosity about the Faith, but also because we often have no idea what those outside the Church have actually been taught about us.  And when we do find out what is being said behind our collective backs, as it were, we are so shocked at what others think that we do or believe, that we are at a loss to know how to respond.

Fortunately, Americans today live in an age of terrific resources, available to all for the price of a monthly internet connection.  From websites and forums, to videocasts and podcasts, to blogs and online publications, if you want to take an active interest in learning about your Church, so that you can then turn around and share that knowledge with others, you can do so at any time.  And what’s more, you can do so from the comfort of your own home, at your leisure, in a way which your Catholic ancestors could not even have imagined.

The responsibility of what you do with that information of course, is yours.  While you may use it to try to win an argument on Reddit or Twitter, in the end it may be even more productive for you to try using it to persuade someone you actually know in real life, around the water cooler or over the back fence, that perhaps Catholicism really isn’t what organizations like the (alleged) mainstream media keep saying that it is.  A Catholic who is interested in his Faith can serve as a reputable resource for not only defending the Church in the public square, but perhaps more importantly in bringing to others a sense of appreciation for the many good things which Catholicism has brought to America, and indeed to all of Western Civilization.

"Dove of the Holy Spirit" by Giusto di Giovanni de' Menabuoi (c. 1360-70) Baptistery, Padua

Detail of “Dove of the Holy Spirit” by Giusto di Giovanni de’ Menabuoi (c. 1360-70)
Baptistery, Padua

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Blurred Underlines

There is a certain logic in the movement to eliminate the printed word in favor of the electronic one.  People spend good money to buy a printed, bound, and glued collection of pulp which, in the vast majority of cases, loses its value as soon as one starts to use it.  And we are all very much aware of the fact that previously read books are one of those categories of household effects which people tend to get rid of when they move.

Not me.

When I moved back to the U.S. from London over a decade ago, I was confronted with the fact that I had bought so many books during the couple of years I lived in the UK, and that there was no conceivable way in which I could possibly take all of these volumes with me on the plane.  I ended up leaving quite a number of them behind temporarily, and it took some dear friends with a spacious attic in Swiss Cottage, and two subsequent trips back with an empty suitcase, to bring them all home.  I know, in retrospect I probably should have shipped them, but then again I would have been more anxious about their safety crossing the Atlantic, but whenever I visit any city I find myself coming home heavily laden with more books to read, so this is not something new.

Last evening I was going through “No Man Is An Island”, a book by Thomas Merton which I had bought many years ago at the Notre Dame bookstore, and which had gone with me to London and back.  As with many of the books I purchased during that time in my life, it has quite a bit of underlining.  For those of you who have not been to law school, you cannot appreciate how much you must underline and make notes in the margins of your books as a first-year law student just to keep up with your nightly reading assignments of 200-300 pages, any of which you might be called upon to explain in class the next day.  You overcome the sense of wanton destruction rather quickly under such circumstances, even if you are, like I was, the sort of person who was always loath to write in a clean, printed book.

What I found particularly interesting, not having cracked open this particular volume of Merton in quite a number of years, was seeing what I had underlined when I was younger. The lined sections were either key elements of Merton’s arguments, or passages which spoke to me in a particularly personal way at the time I originally read them.  Looking back and seeing myself in what I had chosen to underline taught me just as much as re-visiting the content of the book itself did.  In fact, had I not underlined it in blurry, smudgy ballpoint many years ago, reopening that volume would probably have made less of an impact.  I was able to see who I was as a younger man, pushing my way through graduate school, rather overly-educated, naive, and not having much of a clue, and compared him to the older man, now long-since finished with formal education and considerably less naive, but oftentimes still not having much of a clue.

While there are a number of books which one ought not to write in – first editions, folios, exhibition catalogues, and so on – it does fall to me then to endorse the  habit of making handwritten notations on books at least in some cases, particularly where you do in fact stand a decent chance of going back to revisit a particular volume later in life.  That does not mean every work of fiction or non-fiction which comes through your hands needs to have your own personal gloss put on the margins.  Moreover if you are still in Catholic school when you read this, do not show Sister Mary Library my blog post and tell her that I told you it was okay to write in your textbooks – you have to return those books at the end of the school year, remember, and the last thing I need right now are angry phone calls from vicars of diocesan education .

Yet I would ask you to consider that even with the technology to make notes on your Kindle or other reader device, typing is still is not the same as drawing those lines yourself around words that strike you as meaningful, in much the same way that receiving an email, however heartening the details, is never quite the same as receiving a handwritten card or letter, however brief.  Even in our supposedly technologically enlightened age, that piece of paper is still just a tiny bit more special than something which arrives electronically.  Indeed, perhaps its comparative rarity nowadays makes it even more special, just like finding some old lines in an old book.

Parm

“Portrait of a Man Reading” by Parmigianino (c. 1530)
York Art Gallery, England

Read For Yourself

Recently I was watching C-Span Book TV ‘s coverage of author Robert Richardson at the 2013 Key West Literary Seminar.  As I was suffering from a rather potent bout of insomnia, the thought of listening to some old hippies rattle on about how they do not like the mess they have made of our society seemed to be the best way to put me to sleep under the circumstances.  Much of Mr. Richardson’s presentation was what one would expect., in that  we were condemned to a random rattling off of quotations from other writers, with a single adjective attached to each indicating his approval.  This sort of presentation is of course designed not so much to enlighten, as to impress the audience with the amount of books the lecturer has read.

During his presentation, Mr. Richardson recounted the passage in Dostoevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov” in which one of the brothers justifies his quasi-atheistic views, doubtless as a foil for the author himself or at least some of his thought process, since if you have read other works by Dostoevsky you know that he was something of a mixed bag when it comes to his opinions on religion.  A story is recounted about an 8-year-old boy who is quite literally hounded to death, with a gruesome punishment for a minor misdeed, before the eyes of his own mother.  If God allows such things to happen, the story concludes, then the recounter of the tale was not interested in having anything to do with him.

That attitude, according to Mr. Richardson, aptly reflects his own views on the subject as well.  The rather obvious rejoinder to this of course, at least for the Christian, is that Mr. Richardson’s argument is something of a cop-out, since God Himself was brutally and unjustly killed before the eyes of His Mother on Calvary.  It also assumes that the concept of free will is something which must be imposed or lifted at will, as if God is playing a chess match with human playing pieces.  Be that as it may, such a simplistic and rather narcissistic understanding of the Divine is regrettably not uncommon among the so-called intelligentsia who dominate our universities, publishing houses, and media outlets.

For forty years or so we have witnessed the build-up of an intellectual establishment built not on universal truths, let alone intellect, but rather on relative opinions, and Mr. Richardson is merely one cog in that infernal machine.  We have seen the effect of the worship of Priapus instead of God, for example, in the enormous amount of sexually transmitted disease that runs rampant through our society which, as a very wise theology teacher of my acquaintance pointed out the other evening, no one seems to talk about.  The supposed freedom granted by the Sexual Revolution has in fact enslaved us to, among other things, the pharmaceutical industry.  This chasing after temporary personal pleasure in lieu of preparing for eternity, following millennia of human intellectual endeavors to instill virtues of self-control and self-sacrifice, has had a devastating impact on our world.

Yet there is something to be said for the example of those like Mr. Richardson, who stand at podiums and preach their gospels of nothingness, and that is the fact that they do actually read.  They may largely be reading a lot of garbage bound between two covers and presented as books, but nevertheless they do undertake the effort to continue to work on the exercise of their minds  through the exploration of writing.  Of course, part of the reason many otherwise educated younger people do not read today, is precisely because they had professors like Mr. Richardson in college.  If you are burdened with a teacher who turns you off to the world of literature by insisting that everything is about oppression and sex, there can be no better barrier to raise to the concept of reading as a form of ongoing education and the formation of ideas.

Fortunately, there are remedies to the situation.  I have always found that one of the best ways to critically evaluate a work of fiction, biography, and so on which you cannot bring yourself to agree with, is to always keep in mind the question of whether the author actually understands the truth he is rejecting.  I do not have to agree with a writer’s point of view in order to be able to find merit or even truth in his work.  This is not an easy task, of course, yet if you know what you believe, then you can be at the ready when you perceive that a scrivener or a professor is trying to convince you that they are right, and you are merely ignorant.  (How one establishes what is right and what is wrong when everything is supposedly relative is another matter entirely.)

By no means am I suggesting that you go off and read the collected works of Engels and Marx, unless of course you are a glutton for punishment, or for that matter wish to fully know thy enemy.  After all, without having at least some idea of what the devil looks like, when he tells you there is no such thing as personal accountability for example, you will be hard-pressed to recognize him when he presents himself in one of his countless guises.  Just as the lawyer in the courtroom needs to be able to anticipate his opponent’s argument in order to be able to successfully defeat it, it is insufficient to say that simply because part of what an author believes or concludes is incorrect, that it is therefore impossible to gain anything from his work.’

It is often unpleasant to read the work of those who are still fighting the culture wars that led our society into the morass in which it wallows in at present.  However to back away and give those digging us in, ever deeper, into such muck is not helpful either.  One may be able to refute Mr. Richardson – and indeed Dostoevsky – without having read any of their work, but it would be a difficult endeavor to sustain over a long period.

Thus while it is certainly inadvisable to take your views on the question of eternal life from those who write novels, or indeed biographies of existentialists, it is important to at least be somewhat familiar with such thinkers, however misguided they may be.  It is through a systematic emphasis on the dumbing down of Western society, paradoxically as access to higher education has never been more widespread, that we have found ourselves in a culture that is rather shallow, materialistic, and interested largely in the seeking of personal pleasure, much like the ancient pagan societies we emerged out of.  The fight to make us into a fat, lazy, and ignorant society which can be easily controlled and placated has very nearly been achieved.

In order to take back this battle then,  you cannot rely solely on your wits: you must work. And by work, I mean you must read.  Read all of the writers you love and admire, yes, but also take the time to read those whom you are suspicious of, and do so with a critical eye as to why you find them so untrustworthy.  It is entirely possible to examine what the world is trying to sell you as truth, without actually buying into its message in the process.  And unlike Mr. Richardson, I would posit that reading someone like Emerson does not require that you actually throw yourself head-first into Walden Pond.

3ages (800x600)
“The Three Ages of Man” by Giorgione (c. 1500-1501)
Pitti, Florence