Saturday, July 21, 2007

On Hobby Horses, Fr. Denis's and my own.

There are certain kinds of people, whether because of their temperament or hobby or career, will have their opinions and priorities known by those in their sphere of influence. Priests almost always fall into this category, and I am reminded of a proverb I heard years ago at Louvain: "Every priest preaches only one homily." This may certainly be true of those priests (and other opinionated people) who have allowed themselves to drift off into the remote and narrow distributaries of the river of human thought. Giving up on the hard work of study, they forget the inconvenient complexities of truth and instead are content to drum up a simple, catchy beat that excites the lowest common denominator and provides modest successes of influence within a restricted province. Here we have our Ann Coulters and our James Carrolls, caught up in tiny creeks and bogs, far away from the river whose tributary is ancient, forgotten truths and whose momentum is difficult questions. By their very immobility, those caught in the tiny veins are able to make familiar friends with those on the shore.

But even well within the undulating river of thought, i.e. those whose who have been trained to fear all modes of intellectual suicide (a sin equally accessible to those of liberal or conservative bent), the adage is still quite true: every priest preaches just one homily. Everyone "specializes"; everyone has a distinct notion of just what is wrong with the world and what needs to be done/taught/changed. I know I am sloppily mixing analogies here, I'm sorry.

Fr. Denis Robinson, OSB, now sub-prior at St. Meinrad Archabbey and a double-Ph.D. in systematic theology, has one of the most complicated and non-axiomatic minds I have encountered (and he would hate that I am talking him up like this). Yet this does not mean that his speaking (liturgical, academic, or private) is an exercise in sheer variety. Now an interpretation of one of Flannery O'Connor's short stories, now an exhortation on the importance of self improvement, now a tirade on the dangers of modern rootlessness, now a statement that John Henry Newman is modernity's most important theologian, Fr. Denis's judgments have a daunting range but a discernible union.

I spent a relatively short time with him, but I could probably guess at themes that are among, if not certainly, his most favorite. I don't think he would balk too much at a description of himself as a champion of unpretentious and democratic faith as against the arrogance of the university; though behind this is an equally potent defense of reason in the service of Truth as against any anti-intellectualism in the service of peripheral goods (he is nothing if not an anti-sentimentalist).

Fr. Denis, I know, has a particular concern for the liturgy in all of its ritual and strangeness; in his words, "Relevance is the death of liturgy," and "The liturgy is supposed to be anachronistic," and "The liturgy should be somewhat theatrical". I was not surprised in the least to learn that he recently was granted faculties to celebrate the Divine Liturgy according to the Melkite rite, and I was not surprised in particular that he would seek those faculties rather than receive training in the Missal of John XXIII. Why? Knowing him I would guess his primary reasons are theological, not political. But I also know that Fr. Denis is keen on avoiding the easy solutions to difficult problems as presented by many conservative Catholics.

If I were looking for a common thread among these and other favorite themes of Fr. Denis, I might suggest something like the following. That in the Catholic Church is a power unique to it by virtue of the the Holy Spirit and its providentially guided history. And this power is a great many things, but one of those things is an as-yet largely untapped power to enrich and transform the individual. This is a power to turn a person from a sheep of the world--the "hired man"--into a man or woman of culture, of virtue, of good works, and of saving faith. And that this power is equally accessible to every individual irrespective of natural gifts. However, it is not commonly sought, and worse, it is not commonly offered by those to whom it has been entrusted.

I haven't even begun to skim the surface (and if this gets back to you, Father, my apologies in advance if I have given you unwanted or inaccurate publicity).

I don't pretend to have the breadth of learning or thinking that Fr. Dennis does, but I do try to plod along with what I do have. My hobby horses are well known from this blog (when I finish categorizing my posts, someday, they will be available for all to see in the category index). I might outline them as follows...

  • I am brash enough to believe that I know what liberalism truly is, and that as a philosophy--to say nothing of those who materially accept some of its doctrines--it is profoundly evil. The values that liberals proclaim are certainly good and must be defended. However liberalism is a modification of the virtue of mercy that, as a logical consequence, eventually terminates in its opposite. Liberalism is different from mercy and liberality not in degree but in kind. It is a personal mission of mine to name the devil that oppresses modernity in order to assist in its proper exorcism.
  • It is also my firm belief that perhaps the saddest symptom of the above oppression is the truncation of human possibility both on the level of the individual and civilization. Very broadly we might call this the "dumbing down" of civilization, but specifically my focus is on the deletion of the virtue of religion--a natural virtue connected to the cardinal virtue of justice. We have so completely removed the virtue of religion from public consciousness that we have even removed it from our Catholic worship. We have absolutely forgotten the sense that the worthiness of the liturgy depends upon nothing so much as our consciousness of our own unworthiness before God the Father. These are the terms I have chosen to phrase the same problem Fr. Denis refers to when he says, "Relevance is the death of liturgy." It is partly my attempt to answer the question of why this is so--because relevance is a criterion by which the movement of God must first be validated by my prior preferences. Beyond this, I believe that the issue of our rootlessness/culturelessness and the death of the virtue of religion are cyclically connected. I believe that culture is to a great degree recovered and built when an individual rediscovers the virtue of religion (and the passion of awe)--such is the phenomena of the clamor for the old rite of the Mass. Yet the recovery of culture, history, and ancestry fills out religiosity, not only by connecting today's youth with their religious forebears, grandparents and great grandparents; but by filling our modern religiosity with the Communion of Saints, with the music and the stories and the traditions of the past. This does not drag us backwards but precisely gives us a platform from which to leap.
  • In the main, I do think in terms of a cosmic struggle. It is a struggle which has already been won, but in which nevertheless we are players in the pages of an unfolding revelation (how is that for sloppily mixing analogies?)
  • I don't think I've adequately covered things here. Big surprise. And now I am exhausted. Oh well. Maybe something will get something from this. Good night, happy Sunday!


Matt of CG said...

"In the main, I do think in terms of a cosmic struggle. It is a struggle which has already been won, but in which nevertheless we are players in the pages of an unfolding revelation (how is that for sloppily mixing analogies?)"

Sounds similar to what I learned from a couple of priests about what Paul was saying about "filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ" in today's liturgy.

I also learned today that I need to find an equilibrium between being contemplative like Mary and active like Martha.

Suzanna said...

There's a running joke in my church about how every single one of Fr. Art's homilies are about life being a journey. Even Deacon Regi joked about it at the spring RCIA retreat...then promptly remind everyone that whatever is said at Mepkin Abbey stays at Mepkin Abbey.

The joke has a sad tinge because it's very true and people have been hinting (or outright telling him) for years that he needs to improve on his homilies. But, even then, I usually "get" something out of his homilies and that's what I learned as a Protestant. No matter how bad the preacher, as long as you keep your heart open to the Spirit, you'll get taught something, even if it's just patience.

Matt of CG said...

Right on Suzanna, right on.

Matt of CG said...

Hey Jeff, the imagery you conjured up with the "river of human thought" bit is crazy solid. It resonated with me so well that I still remember it to this day. To me, it felt like your blog caption which bursts forth profusely with concise truth. Jesus was nothing if not concise. (He never pussyfooted or meandered about when he spoke on an issue. Even his parables are straightforward.) I love him for that.