Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Script for a YouTube Video, Part 1

Let's talk for a minute about the sacraments and this class. On the surface, what we're doing here is very simple: it's your job to learn about the sacraments of the Catholic Church, and it's my job to teach about them.

But I'm bothered by a question. It comes back to me again and again. I don't have the answer yet, and I don't want to search for it alone. The question is something like this. How, or When, or Why does a person come to love the sacraments?

What do I mean by "love the sacraments"?

Take a few minutes in class to discuss this. What images come to mind when you think of someone who loves the sacraments? What about someone who doesn't? Are there stereotypes of both of these? Name some good and bad qualities.

You know you love the sacraments when you stop receiving them because somebody else wants you to, and you go because you want to. You know, when you stop thinking about whether skipping Sunday Mass is a sin, and you start wondering why anybody would want to. You know, when life without the sacraments looks infinitely more dull and pointless--hardly a life at all--than life with them.

I know that many people do come to love the sacraments. Not everybody, but a lot. It happens to some in high school. For many more, it happens as adults. But I do believe that, for everybody, it is possible.

Take a few minutes in class to discuss this. Do you agree with me that it's possible for everybody to, someday, come to love the sacraments? What about factors of personality, taste, culture, and background? What has to be true about the sacraments for me to say that everybody has the possibility of loving them?

I am not asking: how can I make someone love the sacraments? I can't. To love the sacraments is, first of all, a gift. We have no control over it, except that we can accept or reject this gift when it comes. However, loving the sacraments is also a skill. Like loving art, or loving music, or loving a person, it is impossible to love the sacraments without learning about them, and doing the work of experiencing them.

We can't be satisfied to know only what's on the surface. We can't be content to memorize a list of symbols and what they mean. We must look beneath the surface. We must dig deeper into the heart of Christianity.

Take a few minutes in class to discuss this. Colleges often have courses in "music appreciation," which teach primarily the skill of loving music according to its own history, meaning, and value. In what way is this class similar? Different?

Consider the fact that the word "taste" (as in "her taste in movies" or "his taste in clothes") was originally not about somebody's opinion, but was rather the skill of recognizing quality and genius present in works of art. So, what is "sacramental" taste?

It is often said that the heart of Christianity is love. But it's time to leave behind "love" as just a warm feeling between friends and family, or "love" as just being nice to everyone we meet. These are children's toys. The heart of Christianity is Love: Love that gives infinitely; Love that gives even when there is nothing left to give; Love that gives, even when it is not deserved; Love that gives itself to us, to be given away again. This Love is not fleeting, but permanent; not choosy, but universal; older than the earth, larger than the universe, more fundamental than atoms, but more intimate than a wife of 60 years; closer than friend who would die for you.

Nothing in Christianity--not morality, not social justice, not ministry, not preaching, not teaching, not even reading the Bible--nothing compares to the sacraments and liturgy for connecting us to this Love. All the other things come from them; and all the other things point to them, because they are nothing less than Heaven on Earth, as best as we can have in this life.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Can holiness be predicated of things?

I read an article in the local Catholic newspaper. It outlines some liturgical policies for the diocese, including a restriction of the rite of purification to the Ordained. I thought I might offer some comments on it.

It’s true what the article says: the US bishops asked Rome for permission to allow extraordinary lay ministers to purify, and they were denied that permission. The cardinal who put the kibosh on it, Cardinal Arinze, was a possible candidate for Pope two years ago. He was popular among American Catholics because they liked the idea of having a “black Pope”. If only they knew how conservative African Catholics can be!

The policy is so strong that, if lay purifiers were considered really necessary, the directives would prefer that a church stops offering Communion under both kinds (so that fewer vessels are used, so that fewer people are needed to purify).

I imagine that the fault-line of public opinion would lie in one’s understanding of the meaning of “holiness”. If “holy” is an adjective that can really describe objects (vessels) or offices (priesthood, diaconate), then maybe the policy could be fitting. But if “holiness” only applies to personal kindness, goodness and love, then the notion of “holy vessels” or “holy offices” is silly on the face of it—they are objects, and have no inherent connection to kindness or love. Priests are sinners; objects are dead things.

So, I can understand why the policy is awkward. They effectively say that a lay person, who may incidentally be more graced than a priest, is nevertheless not as fitting to purify the vessels as the priest. And this is so, even if the priest is a nasty piece of work. Isolated from the rest of Christian teaching, this would be exactly what Jesus condemned the Pharisees for: “You pay tithes of mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected… judgment and mercy and fidelity… [you] strain out the gnat and swallow the camel!” (Matt 23:23-24). Religious minutiae should never take the place of justice.

However, the very same Scripture does not imply competition between the "weighter matters" and "the others": "these you should have done, without neglecting the others." We as Catholics should not settle for a false opposition between justice and ritual.

Yet this brings us back to the question posed earlier. Can "holiness" be predicated of things and offices, independent of personal virtues we immediately associate with holiness? The Catholic tradition would certainly answer in the affirmative. But that little word "tradition" fails to light up the faces of, perhaps, the majority of Catholics. We need to ask the basic questions again.

An old chestnut

Consider the old chestnut that, "If there is a God, and he is good, then he will forgive me for not worshiping him, because it isn't my fault that I don't see why I should." A bit presumptuous for someone claiming to be an "agnostic." But it becomes a grand excuse to ignore the question.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

On technology.

There is a pious note in taking a sober and pragmatic approach to digital goods, rather than getting wrapped up in the romantic lie of gadget-lust. Conveniences help us to extend the productivity and scope of our Christian lives; gimmicks play on fantasies of a private "realized-eschatology" of unlimited whatever (unlimited information, unlimited usefulness, unlimited portability) and prey upon the vulnerable human longing for the infinite.

At bottom, the distinction between conveniences and gimmicks has three criteria: (1) does it waste more time than it saves? (2) does it attract unwanted attention? and (3) does it fail to do the job better than common alternatives? When it came to Pocket PCs, nearly all of their advertised functionality would have earned a "yes" from one or more of the above questions (except for word-processing, and music playing). If I had had the perspective then that I do now, I would have saved thousands of dollars, and purchased a more practical solution.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

A weekend for problem solving.

I find myself, after three weeks of teaching, in a little bit of a rut. I could not have been prepared for how much these students would challenge me as a teacher. Somehow, I need to reconfigure how this class operates. My classroom is an academic church, just as a family is a domestic church. Just as the Holy Church is a hospital for the recovering and a gymnasium for athletes, so also must my classroom be.

That's a tough order, because I don't have the luxury of dividing my classes into "honors" and standard curricula, and moreover, there's the bugbear of doubt and irrelevancy which haunts at least a quarter of each classroom and typically spills over a bit during my Socratic Seminar days.

You can lead a horse to water. For a high school religion teacher, the horses have already been led--not a few, forcefully--and am both educator and advertiser for the whole lot. Take a drink! It's delicious, nutritious, and anyway, it makes life worth living. But I'm a lone voice in that area, more often than not. It's difficult to help one appreciate the vitality of water when one is already attached to those crazy energy drinks.

I think I know what needs to happen. I'll report back later.