Monday, 27 February 2006

Mass Appeal

Fictional characters and situations often can express truths that people find it easier to face in the world of 'story.' If the truth becomes too difficult, it can be shrugged off with 'but that did not really happen'... though what 'did not happen' happens every day. Of course, one reason for which I'm grateful that such characters exist is that they give me an opportunity to ravel a thread without mentioning my own experience specifically.

Though it would win no awards for literary depth, the film "Mass Appeal," in which Jack Lemmon portrayed Father Timothy, pastor of a large and wealthy parish, touched on many realities of church life. Timothy reminded me of many priests I have known in 'the real world' (which is not to say that such types are a majority, only that one cannot be in church work for years without knowing a few.) He has a reputation for being an outstanding priest, and his charming manner, not to mention enthusiastic sermons which say nothing of substance but are appealing for their seeming warmth, have made him very popular. One would know, from seeing the splendidly appointed church and massive rectory, not to mention the clothing and homes of the parishioners, that Timothy (whose acclaim is high in the diocese) must have quite a talent for fund raising.

Yet Timothy is a master of illusion. He is an alcoholic, and avoids people because (outside of Mass times, though soon enough afterward) he is usually drunk. Somehow he has managed to keep this hidden. He has a packed calendar, but never actually keeps the appointments, always telling those who arrive that he has an emergency (usually someone who is thinking of having an abortion, or a death), thereby placing them in the position where they would have to be monsters to object. In one case, a couple with a troubled marriage come to see him, and he pretends that the wife wrote down the wrong date - and Timothy is relieved that, in the ensuing fight which he knew would happen, they'd be too busy blaming one another to see him disappear.

Timothy seems unaware, or at least unwilling to face, his lack of caring for others. It never enters his mind that someone who asked to see him may be on verge of either conversion or despair - may have prayed for weeks to have the honesty (and accompanying vulnerability) to ask for help, all the more because Timothy gives an air of having a packed schedule. Nor does it matter to him that, though his evasions may work once, no one could be subject to it again without seeing that it is highly unlikely that emergencies always arise at the exact time when they were to meet with him. Or that, at the very least, the message is "someone else contacted me - you did not matter, nor does your pain - the other person was more important - it does not matter that it's been weeks that I've left you waiting for news that I had a single free hour, and I'm saying the other person only just phoned - and I could not even think of another hour in the day when I could see the other."

Why would anyone return? Oh, that is simple. First off, those such as Timothy present excuses which are far-fetched but not fantastic - and though no one is really fooled the second time, there always is the possibility that the excuse is true. It would make one feel horribly selfish and cruel to think that one expressed hurt when another, in greater need, had to come first. More importantly, where can people turn to have the slightest chance of discussing sin, conflicts of faith, their overall relationship with God - the doubts, the fear, the confusion? Anyone over the age of 12 who has tried to walk the spiritual path has been turned away in the past. Requests for any talk "one on one" are refused with recommendations of groups or reading a Scott Peck book. Someone who ever tried to open up about pain may well have been told either to 'offer it up' or 'talk to a therapist.' At least there is that chance in a thousand that Timothy might really be there one of these days... one can see the faith and love he expresses in sermons. Or perhaps, on one occasion, he really was helpful... maybe it might happen again...

A young man whom I know is going to be confirmed in the Roman Catholic faith this coming Easter. He is enormously excited - not least because his new parish community is so welcoming, and very enthusiastic about the treasures they see in him. Well, I hope he does not see the other side too quickly. Chances are, a year from now, all in which they will be interested (if indeed they think of him at all) will be what volunteer service he can offer or that he is equipped with collection envelopes.

Admittedly, I do not have extensive knowledge of the training which secular priests received. I have heard enough to know that, for many, priesthood is a profession - and such services as those liturgical are part of the arrangement, but don't bother them outside of 'work hours.' My own experience (both lived and studied) of religious life shows me other deficiencies, secondary to the essential point one was taught. The other side of reserve and detachment (good things in themselves) is a lack of concern for individuals. Oh, "The Church" matters - but the individual? In religious life, it was easy to wonder if one had any individual identity remaining. The message "I do not care about you" was not even obvious - because one was not supposed to want caring in the first place.

As well, too many of us 'got burnt' badly. I was always running to hospitals, funerals, the police station, whatever, when I heard of someone's need - little did I know that some of those 'in need' were less than scrupulous. I saw my work (as a department head for a major archdiocese) as ministry - but I was sacked with no compassion. When my mother died a year later, though her funeral was held in a church directly across the street from the diocesan offices, not a one of the priests I had worked with for over 20 years even bothered to attend, nor did any of the priests I knew so much as send me a note. (This cut me deeply... all the more because I knew full well that, were I a large donor, the notes and visits would have been copious.)

The eternal question, of course, is why the Timothys of this world (and their number is substantial) manage to rise, to obtain the enormous donations, to have the reputation for being sterling priests. Yet there will never be a study of this. They are far too valuable.

I was listening to some tapes of the Servant of God Fulton J. Sheen. Many of his anecdotes have to do with providential times when someone came to him and let out the pain or made sacramental confession. I do not doubt Fulton's honesty or kindness - yet I cannot help but wonder what sort of 'aftercare' these people had. I hope they never approached a "Timothy."

May God grant us a spirit of true compassion and love.

Tuesday, 21 February 2006

Warming up for Shrove Tuesday

I know I undoubtedly should be saying that everyone should be in church every week - but, valuable though I find common worship to be, I'm glad to see when 'family' drop by, even if it is only on special occasions. One element which is always left out of what I'll loosely call pastoral training is the fact that, even when people are believers, they either are churchgoers or they are not. Full stop - save to add that some are temporary churchgoers because they see it as good background for their children.

Next week, of course, many of those who have not been to church since the last major occasion (however they would define this) will be queueing up everywhere to have the mark of the penitent smudged on their foreheads. (And how very appropriate this generally is... but I digress.) I love to see this, actually. There is an element of knowing the church is there for them, even if they rarely think of this - and that the church will still be there if they need Her later.

I participate on a forum where matters of faith (sometimes by broad definition) are the topic, and the usual questions about fasting, self denial, and preparation for sacramental confession are once again appearing, as they tend to do before Lent. One question related to 'examination of conscience.' It led me to recall that many books about 'self examen,' particularly those written during dreary interludes of the Counter Reformation period, may well have been valuable in their context, but need to be treated with caution today. In fact, many spiritual classics, including some of the excellent fourteenth century works I reference on my site, can be confusing because one may forget the context. They were intended for, and assume, situations where people were receiving individual guidance (often from the author of the book.)

I worked for the Church for decades, and know well the sort of schedules the clergy often have - and know better that, even amongst the best of them, few have the background and charism (largely discernment) for spiritual direction. I mention this because what follows is in no way a 'slur.' Yet it is unfortunate that relatively few people, even those quite dedicated to the Christian vocation, are likely to have access to solid direction, and that the idea (developed a good deal in recent centuries) that it should be very infrequent and brief can often be detrimental even where it does exist.

Some years ago, I came into possession of a book entitled "Spiritual Guidance," penned by a Franciscan friar. Interestingly, his book assumes that friars have personal, regular direction, so I'll assume this was so in his congregation - that would not have been true for many religious. He makes a very fine point: that one should share not only one's sins and failings, but all details of one's life - including those of one's virtues, undertakings, and good works.

I would imagine he was a wise man indeed - because, though he does not say this outright, one finds, easily half of the time, that the traits and loves which are accompanied by the best of intentions often 'need work' even more than those which one recognises as sinful or likely to lead to same. Unfortunately, and just using my convent life as an example, the closest thing to guidance we had available was sacramental confession - and the rule "be brief, be gone" was unwritten but strictly enforced.

I well remember one superior I knew (I'm going to call her Paula, because it in no way resembles her real name. I certainly cannot see into another's heart - but, allowing for that my observations may be off the mark in the individual's case, understand that I am using her as a 'type,' such as one might find in a text book.) Paula is the only Sister I have ever known who constantly was praising herself, even going so far as to say outright "see how I am - that is what comes of a deep relationship with Christ." When it comes to 'blowing one's own horn,' Paula was an entire orchestra.

Anyone who knew her could see that, for whatever reason, she was a vicious, bitter woman, who missed no opportunity to be cutting to others, even gentle sorts with whom it would take unusual talent to find a source of ire. She'd become enraged at perceived 'disobedience' or slights - and, if one tried to explain the actual circumstances, she'd sneer "well, that might have happened." Her favourite tactic for tearing others' apart was to begin sentences with "Some people (do this, this or this," undoubtedly so that, if the other responded, she could accuse her of 'taking things personally,' personal though they clearly were.

I would have had more sympathy with Paula, since I myself deal with a fiery temperament, save that she always bragged about her ways. I heard her speak of her approaches as if she were setting a wonderful example, fostering virtue in others, and so forth. On one occasion, when a few of us had travelled to a nearby monastery for sacramental confession, I took a bit longer than Paula considered acceptable - and she tore me apart (sorry - not me - 'some people') in front of everyone for 'telling priests too much.'

My mention of Paula is to underline a point. Her commitment was clearly genuine, even if her charity and prudence were falling short of the mark. Paula spoke all the time of the vows and of prayer, and perhaps the underlying passion and zeal she must have had, properly harnessed, could have developed into great virtue. Yet she had no guidance (and, being a superior, could not be contradicted by those whom she abused as well.)

All Paula or any of us had available was sacramental confession, as I have described. Yet no one who considers her ways to be illustrative of an unusually deep relationship with Christ and concern for others' souls would be accusing herself of the very ways that made her such a penance to others. Paula would have needed the opportunity to speak of her 'virtues' in order to be 'guided along the right path.' This cannot be done in three minutes in the confessional, nor even in spiritual direction that is half an hour, twice a year. In such cases, there is no time to so much as mention what needs to be treated.

When it comes to printed booklets of 'examination of conscience,' I would say that some are more distracting than helpful - they would lead one to examine the consciences of the entire world, or, in some cases, be so filled with peccadilloes that one will beat one's breast over dropping a tissue on the pavement (and concurrently recognising just how holy one has to be to have such a delicate conscience... and proceeding to miss the essential weakness that, in the devout, always tends to masquerade as virtue.)

I have had the good fortune to have regular, expert direction, for which I am extremely grateful. More often than not, the areas which I need to face and towards which I must find remedies were those I could never have identified on my own.

Which brings me to my final point. Valuable though many spiritual classics may be, one must be cautious about applying those about self examen and meditations on this area to oneself. Since many were written in a context of personal direction (and, even if this was not literally true, assumed such guidance), they can be quite confusing if one's circumstances are very different.

I well remember, when I read DeCaussade, finding some of his letters to be (so it seemed) very insensitive and cold, even brutal. Yet, when I'd taken a moment to think, it occurred to me that he wrote these words to people whose situations he knew well, and with whom he had continued contact, which had been extensive long before the words were written. Some of the most valuable guidance I myself have received, in a similar context, might seem 'cold' were a sentence to be extracted and read by anyone who knew nothing of other discussions or of elements in my situation of which the reader was unaware.

... now, off to answer e-mail from those who, not realising that the Cloud of Unknowing was written for an anchoress who did not need to be told that prayer, Church, and sacraments were important, think it is an independent approach, or possibly a new take on Zen.

Jeremiah was a bullfrog...

As my readers know, I have no fondness for frogdom, and indeed think that John the Divine had a point when he spoke of evil spirits coming forth as same. No, that just happened to be the beginning of song "Joy to the World," which just came up on my CD player. It is midwinter, I'm frozen to the core and have spirits to match, and the time has come, once again, when I must dose myself with a plentiful amount of rock music from the 1960s-70s.

With that being the 'what's your sign?' era, I'll note that I was born with both sun and ascendant in Capricorn (moon in Pisces, in case anyone is taking notes - that's where I get the romantic side), and as a double Cappy I am entitled to be born old and live backwards, somewhat after the fashion of Merlin and with that troublesome moon making me even more inclined, at heart, to the magical. :) I also shall share the recollection that, old though I was in my teens, I once took a modern dance class, and ended up performing to "Joy to the World" (yes, the one that begins with Jeremiah) - in hot pants, no less. Then as now, I was the most awkward of creatures - and even then I was no sylph - but I was enough of a free spirit at heart not to care if I danced like rather an unbalanced trained seal.

When I was in my young adult years, priests and Religious of the generation before mine (who'd had an equally awkward time, coming to maturity in the age of twin sets and formality, and then trying desperately to be cool and relevant in a period when people were psyched out on... more than incense and innocence) occasionally tried to draw in the young. It worked, to some extent, because some universities and parishes which had basements where it was possible to sit on the floor for Mass and receive communion to "My Sweet Lord - Alleluia, Hare Krishna" catered to the youth culture of the time. One favourite 'meditation' technique was to seek Christ through Modern Music. Some over-enthusiastic sort, who'd begin sermons with "How ya doin'", would speak about or write of how lyrics to popular songs set forth the Christian message. (The congregation would be in awe, loving, everyone join hands... but sometimes would look as if they were on drugs, which half of them undoubtedly were.) I once remember a highly innocent novice mistress, who somehow heard an obscure John Denver selection, and thought that 'talk of poems, prayers, and promises, and things that we believe in' would make a lovely selection for reception day - I can still remember my embarrassment at having to explain to her what it meant to 'pass the pipe around.'

Naive I am, but I have a certain native sense, and I thought then (and think now) that half of those inspirational lyrics were about sex and drugs. However, now that I am well into middle age, and years of an unconventional but intense life of prayer have had their effect, I shall concede that, even when I am listening to rock music (as I am right now), a lyric here or there will remind me of some aspect of the Christian life, so bear with me if I accidentally type any of them...

Saving up your money for a rainy day, giving all your clothes to charity,
Last night the wife said, oh boy when you're dead,
You don't take nothing with you but your soul, Think!

How very innocent I was then (I still am - I've just lived longer.) I admired those who could step out of the mainstream - not care for convention - risk security to seek peace and love - and so forth. (I still would admire this, since, much as I walk my own path, the fear of not having basic security has hampered me.) Promiscuity held no appeal for me, and my earnest mindset was such that I could have plenty of both highs and bad trips without any help from drugs, so I had no inclination there as well. But I was radical in many ways, and indeed still am. (It never occurred to this working class kid that many of those who were 'dropping out' of society did not have the slightest need to fear whether they'd have a roof over their heads tomorrow...)

And I work in his factory, and I curse the life I'm living,
and I curse my poverty, and I wish that I could be Richard Cory.

Sorry, the oddest passages from CDs are coming forth at inopportune times. I still am very much into 'peace and love,' and rather sad that many of my own generation have become very conservative, and quite devoid of a social conscience. (That Richard Cory puts a bullet in his head underlines that wealth does not mean joy... but anyone who has had the crap jobs I had, even after I had a Master's degree, has cursed the life and the poverty.)

The other man's grass is always greener,
The sun shines brighter on the other side.

Yes, Petula, point taken.

You're my first love, you're my last; you're my future, you're my past... all I'll ever need is you. No, Elizabeth, stop right now - no sentimentality to that degree! Whisper words of wisdom, let it be.

My religious path has been far from conventional, now that I think of it. It started out rather like a love affair - and I was never a sort for groups, but a more private, retiring sort, who prayed in silence. (That this was not an era when discernment was valued, and that my loving but misguided heart led me to a temporary Gnosticism I have treated elsewhere.) It was later that I would still believe avidly, yet see God as unknowable even if Incarnate... and discover that those of us who are not well-suited to an Establishment, however defined, have to deal with loneliness and isolation, and the pain of being misunderstood when we would ache for love and respect.

No, I am not on a whinge fest! I suppose I am laying bare a bit of what it is like to be a burnt idealist - one whose ideals are no less strong, but who has reached the blushing point of admitting that much of the spiritual life is just 'going through the motions.' I'm not suggesting for a moment that this does not mean genuine belief or devotion. But there are no ecstatic moments, no piercing insights, no elation - just going on with (perhaps, since it varies) the liturgy - and leaning on wisdom that goes back to the fourth century hermits (and what a crowd of hippies they were!) and psalms that are far older.

Turn back, O man, foreswear thy foolish ways... See you later, I'm going to the front of the the-A-tre...

Pray for me, my readers. :) Peace and love.

Tuesday, 7 February 2006

Symptoms of being Roman Catholic

Granted, I saw a thread on a theology forum, entitled "You might be Roman Catholic if," which gave me the inspiration for this post. So, a few thoughts are in order:

You just might be Roman Catholic if...

  • You have many prayers which you have recited, perhaps daily and certainly at every Mass, since you were old enough to say your first word - but, with the exception of the Ave and Paternoster, you would feel uncomfortable trying to say them without the printed words in front of you.

  • You wonder why poor Saint Jude, who has enough troubles just from bearing the same name as the traitor, refuses to answer prayers unless the supplicant guarantees him press coverage.

  • You know someone from your religious 'unit' (parish, school, community, whatever) who seems to know everything about everyone in the country, if not the world. (Not gossips - just those whose words are purely informational, unfailingly accurate, and frequently helpful. Think about it - how do you know her?

  • There is someone in the parish who has been in every photograph taken there during her lifetime, usually in a prominent position - and who belongs to every committee in existence and a few no one else knows exist. Whether she is 30 or 90, she looks very robust - yet everyone knows she was supposed to have died years ago.

  • There also is a quiet creature who really does most of the work, holds no positions, hates committees, and never gets any credit. (For details of who does, see the previous entry.)

  • You wonder why no one ever refers to anything good as "God's will."

  • You puzzle over why co-ordinators of this-or-that complain that the people are opposed, whilst concurrently insisting that this-or-that was implemented because the people wanted it.

  • If female, you rolled your school uniform skirt to the mid-thigh... long before and after miniskirts were fashionable.
  • You feel you are a classics scholar on the first day when you realise that 'translations' of Latin hymns and prayers seldom bear the slightest resemblance to the original.

  • You wonder if any pagan babies really were baptised with the name you spent hours choosing. (Classroom choices don't count. If they are the norm, half the population in emerging nations are named Mary or Joseph.)

  • If a priest or Religious, one finds that the one person of the diocese/Order with whom one is totally incompatible is inevitably one's next superior and/ or the only other occupant of the house at which one is stationed.

  • You wonder why the woman (usually an ex-nun) who is in charge of religious education is upset that she was not consulted about problems with the boiler. You further wonder why she cannot see that the reason Methodists attend Methodist churches has nothing to do with the RC parish's 'sense of community.'

  • You know we are endowed with free will.. but wonder why the left blames everything on psychiatric problems and the right on the devil.

  • You cannot understand why Sisters who are dressed in fashionable lay clothing are insulted when they are not automatically recognised as Sisters.

  • You wonder why the 'active laity' are insulted to hear that anyone entered a convent or monastery, and why this is taken to involve a denial of the 'universal call to holiness.'

  • You probably leave your coat on in church, even when it's horribly overheated.

  • You wonder why surveys (issued by dioceses, programmes, whatever) directed to hundreds of people not only indicate universal agreement but duplicate the pet phrases of those who composed the questionnaire.

  • You were taught that attending the dawn Mass on Sunday meant great sacrifice and holiness - though, with the exception of a few cops, hospital employees, and elderly insomniacs, the people who are there were out all night.

  • You hate things in your parish, but would not dare say so lest you hamper unity, nor would you go elsewhere because 'it's your obligation.'
  • You love things in your parish, but would not dare say so lest it seem you were not making sufficient sacrifices.

  • You once spent three weeks working up the humility to make a sincere confession of the messes you'd got into during the past 15 years. When you finally made your confession, you were told "nothing you are telling me is a sin."

  • You wonder how it happens that the 'devil gets a sleigh ride' if someone plays with rosary beads, or why the Blessed Mother cries if a girl whistles.

  • You have stopped to question why, in the popular picture of the guardian angel leading the children across the bridge, the two share one angel.

  • You wish Rome would hurry up and say ‘yes’ to contraception… just so you’d not have to meet any other dream couple who want to tell you about safe and effective natural family planning. (You don’t believe in abortion, but still would like a ten year moratorium on sermons on the subject.)

  • You’re sick to death of the attitude that musicians do not need to get paid – and that the truly holy (who are angelic, I suppose, and therefore in no need of housing or food) do things merely for the glory of God.

  • You have a secret love for rather weird devotions (Infant of Prague, perhaps) - yet do wish that Margaret Mary Alacoque had not immortalised Jesus (Sacred Heart) as an effeminate whinge bag.

  • When you are holding a new baby (not necessarily your own), you take his little hand and make the Sign of the Cross with it. Since the cat never manages to learn how to cross herself, you make the cross yourself on her head, preferably with a relic of Saint Francis.

  • You read an Andrew Greeley novel once... and knew so little about such matters that you thought it qualified as pornography.

Thursday, 2 February 2006

World Day for Consecrated Life

I could not find a writing of Papa Benedict's on this subject as yet, but know that John Paul II always had special homilies for this, the Feast of the Presentation, the anniversary of the Vatican II decree, Perfectae Caritas. This is not likely to be one of my witty posts, though I certainly hope that arises. I mentioned John Paul's attention to consecrated life because this is an area (just as with liturgy... though I'll save that for another day) where what 'came from Rome' often had little resemblance to that with which one might be confronted locally.

The Roman Catholic Church (in particular - this is not to minimise the value of consecrated life from all traditions) was blessed with a rich, large heritage of religious families (paraphrasing Perfectae Caritas a bit.) As well, and this since the earliest centuries of the Church, there have been those who have not lived in community but lived a vowed life, whether hermits or, for example, those with rather extensive concerns outside of a hermitage, such as Catherine of Siena. Little is written about the theology of consecrated life today, and I believe this is a great loss. The life of committed chastity, poverty, obedience, and (in some cases) stability or enclosure witnesses to the Church's eschatological hope. Those dedicated to a life of prayer and service (even if the service is the prayer) witness to that there is more to this world than the wonders of creation and the love we share with one another.

It always amazes me how single sentences or paragraphs from Vatican documents, excellent in themselves, can lead to unexpected distortion. Vatican II would speak of the "universal call to holiness," I am sure with no intention of this meaning that, in the coming decades, those in vowed life would feel they had to minimise the mention of their consecration lest this be taken to mean they were claiming that others are not holy! (Incidentally, very few Sisters and Brothers fall into the trap of thinking that they themselves are holy... and one day I'll tell you my memories of some of those who did...)

I have poured over volumes of theology, much of it mystic and ascetic, for three decades or more. It is beyond me how anyone could think the call to holiness ever was not recognised as univeral. In fact, in the part of my library reserved for old devotional books (inherited from priests.... at this stage of my life, I wish some had left me a bit of gold...), there are many volumes, the sort which married ladies may have carried in their pockets, which speak of sanctifying the actions of daily life.

Somehow, people have become very defensive. The 'active laity,' whose contribution always was valuable (and this before they could distribute Communion), will often take offence at any mention of, for example, a woman's entering a convent, as if this implied their married lives were second rate. Nonsense - but, sadly, Religious, fearful of offending them or of not offering what the Church 'wants now,' spoke only of their work or 'corporate identity.'

The other side of this, of course, is that, implicitly, Religious were being told that their own lives were not of any real value. If 'the only vocation is baptism' - well, what value in a vowed life? I'm not ever surprised by to what I am led by Google searches, but when I see documents which give the impression that the vocation of a Religious is solely to work against "the oppression of women," or writings of Religious which make it seem positive for religious congregations to die out, or articles by priests who resigned from active ministry which make it seem that they are superior to active priests because they recognised a higher "theology of marriage," it makes me very sad.

I would imagine that the general opinion towards those entering religious life always has been wonder over whether they were crackers, and I have no reason to believe this has changed. Yet I would feel especially sad for those on this path today. It will be assumed that they have a poor 'theology of marriage,' or that they have mental problems, or that they want security... Lord knows what else, because the pat answers authors seek for why there was a mass exodus thirty years ago can be used against those embracing consecrated life today.

May I ask my readers to join me in prayer that a renewed recognition of the blessings of vowed life, and of the contribution it makes to the kingdom of God, will be forthcoming. (Then, if you're good, I'll tell you plenty of convent stories.)