Monday, June 30, 2003

Asymbolist-symbolism, or Why Modern Church Art Stinks

We had a Liturgy workshop this past Saturday, and our wonderful pastor took time to explain to us the deep and rich symbolism of the beginning stages of the Byzantine Divine Liturgy. Fr. Loya explained how the introductory psalms originally were chosen to be sung by the townspeople as they walked to church, how the word eleison (have mercy) has etymological affinities with elaios, olive, referring to the olive branch from the Flood--what we ask when we say "Lord have mercy" is "Lord, make things right between us as you did after the flood", and how all the vestments worked together.

Everything in our liturgy has a meaning, and usually several. There are symbols intertwined with symbols. But, as beautiful as these symbols are, they are not well understood by the congregation, since we haven't grown up in the Byzantine Empire and we don't speak Greek. The symbols have to be translated, explained to us through telling the story of their origins.

Symbols (realities that point to other, transcendant realities) are never made in a vacuum, but are always in a historical context. In order for a given symbol to have meaning, its meaning must be recoverable by those that see the symbol. It has to make sense. Symbols are like words: if I say to you "Put the gigthump in the bobnad!" you will be confused. You will need to have the words defined so that you can make sense of the sentence. If I persisted in using my own private language like that ("Gigthumps are vermicious plagtodytes with bobbulitic snards!"), you would soon quit talking to me, since it would take to much effort to understand me.

Now imagine you see this in your church. You are told that this is a very symbolic crucifix, and even see in the bulletin that " Johanine in its symbolism, it presents a powerful portrait of Jesus, thoroughly incarnate, yet Divine Lord and Master of every moment." Intrigued by "Johanine symbolism," you sit and look at the cross, trying to figure out what it represents, and what the giant wishbone is in Jesus' right hand. (Look really closely--there is a wishbone in his right hand! The bulletin says it's a dove, but it's a wishbone.) Is this Jesus, Lord of Thanksgiving? What's going on? It looks sort of like a crucifix, but not really.

Perhaps the artist, Arnoldo Pomodoro, had a very good reason for constructing the crucifix as he did. But the symbols are private; who could figure them out? The test of good religious art is if an 85 year-old grandmother with no artistic training, but who has lived her faith for 85 years, can figure it out. I suggest this crucifx fails the test.

A language of symbols arises out of a tradition. It is accessible to those who see it because they know the tradition as well. You understand English likely because you grew up speaking it--likewise, in the old days you would have understood Gothic stained-glass windows, having been exposed to the tradition of Christian art for your whole life. But we have in the last forty years dismantled that tradition, and now our art is meaningless, obscure, and empty.

Byzantine churches have been mandated by Vatican II to rediscover and re-appropriate their roots, something that we did in our parish last Saturday night. We are trying very hard to learn what it means to be Byzantine, so that our symbols will not just be quaint echoes of the old country, but will be alive and pregnant with new meaning. If you are a Roman Catholic, perhaps you should try similarly to reacquire your own tradition. We always ask ourselves "What does it mean to be Byzantine?" Ask yourself "What does it mean to be Roman?" There is a great treasure hidden within your rite--study it!

Thursday, June 26, 2003

Amy Welborn asks whether having altar girls decreases the number of boys willing to serve

(Go to her site and scroll down).

In my experience it has. In parishes that have altar servers of both sexes, my informal survey counts at least a 60% female to 40% male proportion. Perhaps it is worse than that. So, I offer the following points for your consideration and then ask you a question:

1) The teaching on the restriction of holy orders to men will never change. Don't believe me? Read my explanation of how this teaching is infallible..

2) No one has the right to serve at the altar. Read 2 Chronicles 26 if you don't believe me: 2Ch 26:16 But when he was strong he grew proud, to his destruction. For he was false to the LORD his God, and entered the temple of the LORD to burn incense on the altar of incense.
2Ch 26:17 But Azari'ah the priest went in after him, with eighty priests of the LORD who were men of valor;
2Ch 26:18 and they withstood King Uzzi'ah, and said to him, "It is not for you, Uzzi'ah, to burn incense to the LORD, but for the priests the sons of Aaron, who are consecrated to burn incense. Go out of the sanctuary; for you have done wrong, and it will bring you no honor from the LORD God."
2Ch 26:19 Then Uzzi'ah was angry. Now he had a censer in his hand to burn incense, and when he became angry with the priests leprosy broke out on his forehead, in the presence of the priests in the house of the LORD, by the altar of incense.
2Ch 26:20 And Azari'ah the chief priest, and all the priests, looked at him, and behold, he was leprous in his forehead! And they thrust him out quickly, and he himself hastened to go out, because the LORD had smitten him.
2Ch 26:21 And King Uzzi'ah was a leper to the day of his death, and being a leper dwelt in a separate house, for he was excluded from the house of the LORD.

3) Many priests first considered their vocation after serving at the altar.

4) Further, we are suffering from a lack of priestly vocations.

5) Girls are naturally pious, boys need to be taught to be so.

If 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 are true, then let me ask you this: What good does it do to have female altar servers? I know that it is allowed, and that there are many wonderful girls and women who serve at the altar, but I want to know what interest it serves. Note, you cannot reply that it is a matter of justice, since (2) no one has a right to serve.

P.S. At my parish (come visit!) we only have altar boys, but we have oodles--almost every boy in the parish serves.

400,000 Jews slated for destruction

Not really. But go read Mark Shea's provocative attempt to get you to care about the evil of in vitro.

Words of wisdom

1. Moving is a curse.

2. Paying other people to move one's stuff is perhaps the best way money can be spent.

Wednesday, June 25, 2003

What should I give up for Lent?

This is a good question. But it has a simple answer: whatever you can't live without! Do an inventory of your life, and ask yourself the question: "Could I do without X?" If your answer is no, then you must give it up. The first commandment tells us that we must worship God alone, and that we can have no other gods besides him. If there is anything that you are unwilling to give up, that should be where you start. It is our attachments to the joys of this life that keep us from God.

Needless to say, my annual custom of giving up non-alcoholic beer just won't cut it.

Women as toilets

Go read this sobering comment on contraception from Kathy the Carmelite.

"Thank" is a transitive verb

Even though Thanksgiving has become a secular holiday, remember that you can't give thanks without giving thanks to Someone. Just try it: you can't say "I thank." You have to say "I thank ______ ."

Monday, June 23, 2003

Another wonderful homily

from my pastor at Annunciation Byzantine Catholic Church--if you live in the Chicago area and haven't visited yet, shame on you! The pope says that Roman Catholics should acquaint themselves with the patrimony of the eastern churces. What are you waiting for? Get to it: 10am Sundays.

Fr. Loya talked about the great things that happen if one surrender himself or herself to God. Jesus promises that those who give up father, mother, wife, or children for his sake will receive great benefits, not just in the life to come, but in this present age. He then recounted some of the blessings that he has received, things he never could have dreamed when he was a child.

We must understand that the religious life is not just another way of life, but that it is the best life. Jesus himself makes this clear when he rebukes Martha for complaining about Mary: "Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her." Sitting at the feet of Christ is the best life. Yes, marriage and family is a good life, a very good life. But complete abandonment to Christ is better.

Women for Faith and Family recently published a father's reflection on his daughter's profession as a Poor Clare. Go read it. What a wonderful life she has chosen!

It is not miraculous that people choose the religious life; it is a miracle that we all do not choose it.

Thursday, June 19, 2003

Speaking of the USCCB,

Why is it that whenever I hear the word "subcommittee" I have an overwhelming urge to sleep?

As I watch the USCCB meeting,

I think that this must be what purgatory is like. Endless meetings and speeches, all delivered in a monotone, without any apparent vigor or personal involvement.

If I were a bishop, I'd have to do something to spice it up--perhaps go up there juggling, or tap-dancing, or maybe proclaim Christ crucified. Just to stir the pot a bit.

(I'm joking of course--the job of bishop is a curse I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy. God help them.)

Imagine that you were an alcoholic

that you had a real addiction to alcohol. You've done a lot of work in order to manage this addiction, and through prayer and support you've stopped drinking. Now you move inside a bar.

Sound silly? Of course. But this is the situation that every man in America is in. All of you male readers know what being a teenage boy is like. The sexual urge is quite strong and almost unmanageable, much like an addiction to alcohol. It can be managed, with prayer and support and training in the virtue of chastity. But we all live in a whorehouse, where sexual images and temptations come from every side. The internet, for example, although a wonderful tool for research and communication, is mostly (by volume) a device for the efficient distribution of pornography. Television is similarly bad--just try to flip channels past E! on a Friday or Saturday night. It is the pixellation station.

This is the world we live in, the world we have made. The thing about television and the internet is that we get what we want. As Mark Shea points out, the typical punishment that God inflicts on us is to let us have what we want. Our society wouldn't be as sex-obsessed if we didn't want it that way, since there wouldn't be any profit in it unless we bought what they were selling.

So, it is the height of hypocrisy for Catholics to complain about bishops and priests who take part in the Culture of Sex (a suburb of the Culture of Death, right next to the Culture of Contraception) while these same Catholics cheerfully partake of the prevailing culture. "But bishops and priests are supposed to be better!" Bullspit. They are given a different office, but everyone is supposed to be perfect, as our Father in heaven is perfect.

We'll get good bishops when we deserve them. Now get to work sanctifying your family. You can start by getting rid of the TV.

(In the interests of full disclosure, and so that you, my faithful readers, can be a support to me, yes, I have a television. I watch lots of it too. This is a vice I am trying to cure--I gave up television for Lent, and am attempting to leave it off most of the time. It is a struggle, but one worth fighting.)

Wednesday, June 18, 2003

Can God make a rock so big He can't lift it?

No, he can't, Mister Smarty Pants. If you want to know why, go read the ever-formidable Old Oligarch.

Sunday, June 15, 2003

Aliens have landed in New York,

and they have captured 400,000 people, frozen them, and plan to conduct experiments on them. Most are expected not to survive the experiments or the thawing. What do you do?

If you are an American, you shrug, and go about your business. See, we do that all the time, whenever anyone uses in vitro fertilization to get pregnant. The process requires multiple embryos, and the surplus are either frozen or killed. Note, for "embryo" read "really little human being."

Islamicists may be nuts, but they are right about one thing: we really are the great Satan.

Go check out The Curt Jester on this.

Thursday, June 12, 2003

Not much blogging tomorrow

Going to the U.S. Open.

A dumb vanity plate

I saw a car this morning with the plate "TO SASSY." I was puzzled for a minute, not the least that I don't know what "sassy" means. But the plate didn't make any sense: was the car a gift to a person named Sassy? Then I figured out there was a misspelling, as the culture of stupidity has invaded the world of vanity plates. Darn those homophones!

Wednesday, June 11, 2003

A pleasant surprise

My wife and I managed to get out to a movie last night. We saw X-Men 2, which is a decent movie, despite the fact that Mrs. Athanasius has a crush on Wolverine. There was a pleasant and unlooked-for surprise: the character Nightcrawler said the rosary throughout the movie. He wasn't portrayed as a bad guy, or as crazy, but just as a man of faith. How wonderful!

Monday, June 09, 2003

More on hormone treatments

My last posts have generated lots and lots of comments, which is good. Most of them have to do with details of medical conditions, which is bad; as I said, I am a doctor, but not a medical doctor. However, I want to clear up some things.

Is it permissible to treat diseases with The Pill? Of course it is. But, and this is a big "but", it is to be avoided if possible, since it causes infertility, which is an objective evil. (I am using evil in a technical way, meaning a lack of a good that ought to be there.) As Aquinas says, the first principle of the moral law is "Good is to be done, evil is to be avoided." So we should avoid it, if we can.

Now, an action (the hormonal treatments) which has a bad effect can be done, but only if 1) the bad effect is not the intended goal of the action, and 2) the good to be achieved outweighs the bad effect. So, prescribing the pill to a fifteen year-old girl who is having difficulty coping with her period would be impermissible, since 2) the good of eliminating the pain is not proportionate to the bad effect of making her infertile. In addition, it is likely that such treatment may be chosen because the contraceptive effects are in fact desired: don't you want your kid to be on the pill so she's "safe?" A facile diagnosis of severe cramps and treatment with contraceptives would be a bad thing.

What of more severe cases? Clearly, there are occasions where the treatment is warranted due to the severity of the disease. Then criterion 2 would be satisfied. But, due to the abortifacient nature of birth control pills, sexual intercourse would not be permissible at the time of the treatment. We just can't take the chance, since sex while on the pill could kill a child. This bad effect, though unintended, surely outweighs any good that can be gained by the treatment. We don't trade pain for death. (We rarely trade death for death, and then only when both lives already exist.)

I hope this gives some clarity to my thinking on this issue, which I believe to be in line with the Church.

Friday, June 06, 2003

Doctors are inhuman ghouls

Well, not really, but I wanted to get your attention. If you look in the comment box for my previous post, several posters, Eric and Cathy, tell stories of women who suffer from endometriosis, who were told to take contraceptives and sent on their way. One, Eric's wife, apparently had a malignant tumor that grew for many years, but whose symptoms were masked by the treatment with contraceptives. I also know several 15 year-old girls who are taking contraceptives, prescribed by doctors, in order to control cramps.

This is the exact wrong way to do medicine--find something that controls the symptons, no matter what it may be. You may ask: "Dr. Athanasius, I know you are a doctor, but your doctorate is in philosophy, not medicine! What do you know about treatment of disease?" Ah, yes. I may not know medicine, but I know human nature. I believe that I (or at least Plato and Aquinas) have a better grasp of what humans are and how they should be treated than many doctors.

Consider the concept of health. You are prescribed drugs to make you healthy. But what does it mean to be healthy? Can "health" be determined by medical research? Imagine if there was a population that suffered from a certain disease. Over time, the incidence of the disease rises, to 30%, 40%, and finally 51%. If we based health on physical examination of human bodies, we would have to conclude that the disease had now become health. Obviously this is incorrect. Even if 100% of the population got sick, they would still be sick, not healthy.

The approach to curing diseases that focuses merely on the treatment of symptons suffers from the same flaw. We can't determine if symptoms or treatments are good or not just from the physical characteristics themselves. A sympton is not good or bad in itself; good and bad are moral qualities that attach to persons. "Good" is always "Good for someone." So when we treat a disease, we cannot just say that this drug is good for this symptom, we need to examine whether the drug is good for the person who has the disease.

In the case of the women and girls I mention, the treatment is clearly bad for the person, since it takes away their fertility. It chops out a significant part of the uniqueness of the woman. If the woman is sexually active, it dooms her to intrinsically disordered and selfish sexual relations. Further, the treatment didn't ever look to the cause of the disease, but only to mask the symptom. Consider another example of a similarly dehumanizing treatment: rambunctious children are routinely prescribed Ritalin these days, so that they will behave better. The treatment masks the symptoms of bad behavior, but is it good for the person? Perhaps there is a good reason for the child to be rambunctious--perhaps he is painfully bored by a stultifying education. If he is merely drugged, will he ever learn the virtue of self-restraint? Will he need to be medicated for life?

Patients are often treated as problems to be solved, rather than as humans to be loved. This past winter I attended a bioethics conference in Chicago. One of the presenters, a nun who works as a nurse, explained how she arrived at a teaching hospital, only to hear the residents refer to some of the poorer and less cognitively alert patients as "Sposes." She was curious, and asked what "spos" meant. "Subhuman piece of shit."

Think about that. Doctors, who care for the weakest among us, were being trained to think of those least of our brethren as pieces of excrement.

This problem is not only present in the medical profession, but also can be found in education, business, and even in pastoral ministry. It is evil, and both infuriating and humiliating to those who are dehumanized. Furthermore, it is false: individual humans are not commodities or problems to be solved. They are every one of them immortal, and of infinite worth, or as Hopkins puts it, "I am all at once what Christ is, since he was what I am, and/ This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,

Is immortal diamond."

Wednesday, June 04, 2003

Being a Woman is Now a Disease!

So says the Chicago Tribune, in the June 4 issue. Many doctors are now prescribing the Pill to woman and girls in order to suppress menstruation. (I knew several girls in the Catholic high school class I taught who were taking contraceptives to prevent cramps.) This practice is becoming more and more accepted, as women chemically castrate themselves, incidentally making promiscuous men's lives easier. Here is an excerpt: from the article: As dramatic as it is to reduce monthly menses to quarterly events, Sonder believes even four times a year is too much for women not interested in pregnancy.

"The greatest innovation in women's health, in promoting good health and preventing chronic disease has been oral contraceptives," says Sonder, 52, who has been taking a regimen of continuous birth control pills for 11 years. She is a member of the Coalition for Cycle Freedom, a national group of reproductive health professionals who advocate menstrual suppression.

I suppose losing the life of sanctifying grace in one's soul is a small price to pay for the convenience of not having a period. As Thomas More might have said: "It profits a woman nothing if she gain the whole world and lose her soul. But for a period?"

Tuesday, June 03, 2003

Here's a bit of beauty for you

Our Lady of Kazan: The original of this icon is in the Vatican (as a result of the turmoil of the Communist Revolution), and the pope wants to return it. Unfortunately, the Russian Patriarch has apparently fallen into the heresy of nationalism, and says no. But that's all beside the point. There is a very nice gallery of icons at this website. Go, look, pray.

So how could we get our holy days and fasts back?

Judging from the comments below concerning fasts and holy days of obligation, most of my readers think we should go back to the more stringent requirements. Ok, fair enough. My question: how can we accomplish this? How can the laity let the bishops know that we need stricter rules? Should we start a petition? Picket in front of the cathedrals? "Hey hey, ho ho, minimalist Catholicism's got to go!"

I await your response.

If you are thinking of learning ancient Greek

(and who isn't?)

This website looks like a lot of fun. It has grammar drills, vocabulary drills, paradigms, and much, much more. Seems very agathos to me.

Why should you bother? Philosophy makes much more sense in Greek. Besides, if you can read ancient Greek, the New Testament should be no problem. And reading the New Testament in Greek allows you to throw that NAB in the dumpster where it belongs (or would belong, if it weren't the Word of God, in a mutilated sort of way).

If you are curious, you can read the Greek NT here. You might have to tweakyour browser to display the text properly.

Monday, June 02, 2003

Speaking of marriage

I attended a wedding on Saturday, the first Byzantine wedding I've ever seen. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to pay much attention since I was busy trying to scrape a presentable tenor part out of my strained vocal cords. But at the homily, my pastor gave them this advice: "If you want a long, happy marriage, pray together. Start it tonight, before you `retire'." I think that is quite right.

Think about it: you say grace before you eat, don't you? Food is a gift from God, and one ought to thank him every time one eats. Sex is also a gift from God. I think saying grace before sex is an absolutely splendid idea. You could even use the same prayer: "Bless us O Lord, and these thy gifts, which we are about to receive from thy bounty, through Christ our Lord. Amen."

P.S. If praying before sex spoils the mood, may I suggest that you are probably doing stuff you shouldn't be doing?

Russian Spy update

Back in January, I wrote about a young couple in our church, whom my wife and I call "The Russian Spy" and "Polite Marine Guy"--we've since learned their names, but I like the nicknames better. I wrote about them here--go read it. It won't take but a minute.

Well, it appears that blogger links don't work. Here is the old post:

That's the way it is supposed to happen

In my parish over the past few months I have noticed a beautiful young woman attending with a young man. The woman (I don't know her name; my wife and I call her "The Russian Spy," since that is what she looks like--pale, blonde. and delicate) goes up to communion, and the young man remains at his seat. He has been reading along in the liturgy book, and tries very hard to cross himself and bow at the appropriate times; it is a Ruthenian Catholic church, and liturgies are a bit complicated to those who are new. I suspected that he and she were engaged, and that he was thinking of joining the Catholic Church.

Today during Liturgy, the pastor stopped before the final blessing and invited the young man up to the front of the church. He announced that Derek (that's his name) was to be married in the church this December, and that he was taking instruction because he had chosen to become Catholic, so as to be one with his future wife. Further, Derek was being called up on active duty this week. There was a beautiful blessing (all Byzantine prayers are beautiful) given to ask God to protect him and grant him long life and many happy years.

This is a perfect example of how male-female relationships are supposed to work. You see, men are pigs, or as the Pope puts it in Love and Responsibility, the man is much more susceptible to sexual desire than the woman. If the Russian Spy had not been chaste and faithful, if she had moved in with young Derek, if she had "given him the milk for free," chances are that Derek would never have made the journey to the fullness of the Faith. We men are very happy to substitute physical satisfaction for spiritual fulfillment. If the women hold themselves as the treasures that they are, men will be more likely to stretch and to achieve great things. The old fairy tales have it right: men will go slay dragons for the sake of the fair maiden. If women are good, men will become better.

If you have a moment, could you say a prayer for the young couple, and for all those who may be going off to war?

The update is that Polite Marine Guy is safely back from Iraq, and so should be becoming a Catholic soon, and getting married in December.