Tuesday, February 08, 2005

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I suppose I won't be blogging during Lent - I mean, this is my first Lent as a Catholic, and it'll be enough of an effort anyway without wasting all this time blogging.

Do I have anything to post in my last two pre-Lenten days? Not really. Lately I've been hit, from several vectors as it were, with how little I understand the world around me. I don't mean that as a particularly humble statement - that is, I'm ignorant, but I'm not claiming some unique ignorance for myself; I doubt that everyone else is any less confused than I am. I'm not really so much disposed to hold forth on this or that...well, anyway, I'm sure I'll benefit from spending a bit less time online. Because of course, I always procrastinate with my daily blog, and go around checking everybody else's blog first, and that can take a while - so I'm cutting out a lot more than just one blog for Lent.

I do have one thought though. That old slur on the pre-Conciliar Church, about how it was a mortal sin to eat meat on Friday, and wasn't that silly hahaha - is a sobering reflection when you actually think about it, instead of just saying "well, I guess people were stupid back then or something. Good thing I'm not living back then".

Because it occurs to me that in a culture where fasting (and I mean real fasting - if the hypoglycemics aren't having fainting spells, you haven't gotten serious yet) was considered an integral part of religious practice, there would of course be people who practiced it with differing degrees of severity. Some would be ruining their health, as we read of so many of the Church Fathers; others would be more reasonable, but still quite stern; others would do as little as their consciences would allow; others would scarcely fast at all or ignore the rules altogether. And it would make sense, in a culture like that, to draw the line somewhere and say, "look, if you can't even be bothered to do something as piddling as foregoing meat for one day of the week, how on earth can you claim to be taking your religion seriously?" In other words, when an abstention from meat on Friday is a bare minimum, and widely recognized as such, it makes perfect sense that to fall below even that minimum would be a grave matter. But our fasting practices, which were no doubt never perfectly observed, have been progressively pared-down in the last few centuries. And when, outside of Lent, the Friday abstention became just about the sole fast, it was hardly so obvious that there was something terribly wrong with breaking that one "little" rule. If fasting was no longer seen as integral to Christianity, not-fasting would logically not be seen as un-Christian anymore (like the negatives there?).

Then again, I could be wrong.

Lastly, I seem to have an improperly-stamped dime in my possession - either that, or somebody worked over the rim with some kind of tool, which would be exceedingly weird. Certainly mere age would not produce a 3-4 millimeter ring of smooth, unmarked metal around the outside rim of the dime - on both sides - especially since it was coined after 2000; the final digit is worn off so I can scarcely be more exact. I would google this thing - I'm sure some numismatical geek would know all about common deformations of the dime - but it's almost 3 am.

Saturday, February 05, 2005

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The Old Oligarch, who has returned to the blogosphere after an understandable hiatus following the birth of, presumably, a young Oligarchess - Oligarchia? - posted about conversion from the cradle Catholic's point of view. It's pretty much how I expected a cradle Catholic to see things; as to whether, as a theologian, he's missing something by never having seen the Church "from the outside", I would say, yes - but everyone is "missing something", even important somethings. That's why God made other people. There are enourmous benefits for those who have been Catholic sense infancy, and then there are a few benefits for those of us who were not.

But reflecting on the question "how did the Church look from the outside?" I was able to pin down, to some extent, one of the main differences, which is the attitude to truth. As Catholics, even if we are completely unphilosophical Catholics, we have in our heads the idea of Being, and in particular of one Being above all. I think it's instructive that the name Yahweh is (I'm told) a clear derivative of the Hebrew verb meaning "to be" - from what I've gathered, biblical Hebrew is about as unsuited to philosophy as a language can be, yet St. Augustine's talk about "QUI EST" is not some sort of sophisticated Neoplatonic gloss; he's talking about something that's really in there in Exodus. This goes to show, I think, that though we talk about "ontology" as some sort of learned metaphysical business, it really cuts much deeper - and one of the key things I remember from before my conversion, is having a very different attitude to being - and thus a different attitude to truth.

My situation would have been, I think, rather difficult for a cradle Catholic (or for me, now, if it comes to that) to grasp. It's easy enough to understand, as a sort of intellectual parlour game, how one could throw over any notion of being or truth completely, and say that it's all illusion and lies. The difficult thing is to understand (because it is not, in fact, an idea at all, but in fact an attitude) is how one can acknowledge that certain things are, and that certain other things are not, while not feeling any sort of intellectual force in arguments about being. Such a mind would not, for instance, present some logical argument against the existence of God - or for the existence of God - not because it was incapable of logic (minds of this type are generally keen reasoners in their way), but because it was simply indifferent to arguments of that sort. This is not a universal attitude among unbelievers; it may even be a rare one, though I am certain that some sort of perversity with regard to truth is a fundamental complement to unbelief.

This sort of ontological breakdown was, I believe, shared by my favorite writers at the time, Nietzsche and William Blake, though in very different ways. It accompanies and encourages an irrational mentality, greatly concerned with aesthetics and experiences. It was, I think, a mentality that Chesterton had somewhat shared - it was telling, I thought, that he mentioned (after becoming a Catholic) that he had more patience with doubts and difficulties in fellow-believers than he had had before. For one thing that can be said about this sort of irrationalism, is that it does not particularly lend itself to doubts or difficulties, or even to understanding them; the only man who can understand every sort of error is the man who does not himself err, and perhaps Chesterton's conversion led him to understand the troubles of a mentality that had previously been utterly divorced from his own.

Well, I'd better get to bed. It's now past 3, and nobody wants to hear from the 3 am Blogimus....

Thursday, February 03, 2005

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Today has been an informative day. I learned many things. In particular, I learned that adventure is not dead, that suburbia...well, I won't spoil the suburbia part - that a cappucino is the most vile, bitter, throat-corroding substance known to man, unless straight coffee is even worse (a brew that I have drunk once, or perhaps twice, in its pure form), and that if you want to go somewhere and write, it is good to have a fairly high ratio of "writing-time" to "traveling-to-where-you're-going-to-write-time".

Let us have a pop quiz for a moment. You have somehow lodged yourself in a suburb of Minneapolis. You decide to walk to a bus stop. This bus stop is almost exactly two miles away. This will take you:

a)45 minutes, if you jog part of the way

b)90 minutes, if you take it easy and don't push the pace

c)150 minutes, if you jog part of the way and walk reasonably quickly for the rest

You might observe that under the above-named conditions, 150 minutes is easily enough time to cover 10 miles or pretty close. You might notice that the distance to the bus stop was 2 miles. And yet you have probably guessed that "c" is nevertheless the answer. Intriguing, is it not? Yes, my journey wasn't so much "as the crow flies"; more "as the lab-rat in a maze scuffles".

As I was crossing at a traffic light, I saw a sign showing a pedestrian with a red circle around him, and a red line through the circle. In my opinion, this was no mere road sign. It was an emblem for the entire mentality of suburban planning. No doubt the planners get together and say things to themselves like, "look, Bill, the design looks great - but I notice that if I'm a pedestrian, I could travel this 2-mile distance with only 5 miles of walking. Until we can push that 5 to around 9 or 10, I don't think we can build this." And they nod and huddle over the map. "What if we don't put in a foot bridge where highway 169 crosses over I-394?" says one brilliant thinker. "Yeah, that'll cost him a good mile or two right there." That must be how it goes.

No, adventure is not dead. After all, try covering the last 3 or 4 miles in the dark....

But I made a bit more progress on the plot. Alas that I can't work suburban planning into the novel....

But don't think I'm bitter about it. On the contrary, it was a very interesting day, with a considerable amount of fun - and did I mention adventure? Adventure, unfortunately, begins to pall when you realize that you're very hungry and your feet are both cold and wet. At least I got out of the house today - whoo did I ever do that. The only problem is that I can't make certain motions with my right shoulder. Figure that one out, why don't you.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

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Ah, sleep. I don't understand how poets could write so many poems about love, about war, about grief, even about nature, of all things - and yet fail to write ode upon ode to the wonders of sleep. But then, poets probably all sleep til 10 all the time anyway; I suppose they take it for granted.

Free will is an exhausting subject, and I really can't say any more on it. Let people with more patience talk about it....

Anyway, I've got the plot more or less hammered out. No doubt Lynn's pulled way ahead of me in the race, but I'll start making amends for that tommorow. I'm going to go somewhere and write - I can't stand being cooped up in the house all day; I get weird, and of course that can't be allowed to happen. Besides which I have an errand or two to run.

Oh, and Lynn - the weather here is up to the low thirties. We're enjoying the heat while it lasts....

Oh, and one thing about liturgical music: faithful Catholics everywhere will obligingly object to manifestly heretical and more generally gushy and repellant lyrics, and some of the more cring-worthy tunes, but a lot of people seem willing to defend the more "moderate" sort of modern bad hymns. "Well, you may think they're lowbrow, but who are you to judge - and besides, if you're always thinking about how bad the hymns are, maybe the problem is with you, and not with all the faithful Catholics next to you in the pews who just sing the hymns and praise God."

First of all, secularized, banal, milk-water hymns are not a "low-brow" phenomenon. It is not as if the horrible songs we are forced to sing have simply emanated from the earthy souls of The People; they were created by a lot of highly-educated musicians. Anyone who knows something about music will recognize that the chromaticisms (particularly in the piano accompaniments) and frequent rhythmic fooling-around are not the work of amateurs...hacks, possibly, but not "lowbrows" as we would mean the word. Do you really think, for instance, that Marty Haugen doesn't know all about, say, Dvorak's Stabat Mater? This is not lowbrow music we have to hear. On the other hand, it sure isn't Dvorak's Stabat Mater.... It certainly has nothing to do with what you would call "folk" music. That sort of music - music that really is popular in the sense of being disseminated by the people (and not merely popular in the trivial sense that they file it under "pop/rock" in the CD store) can be profound or silly, pure or depraved, but it is generally pretty catchy and unpretentious. This stuff is neither, so don't adopt that reverse-snobbery nonsense of "oh, I guess you're too good for us plebes and our oh-so-popular music; I'm really so sorry we can't have William Byrd every week to soothe your sensitive little ears, but we have more important things on our minds, like worshipping God, instead of hearing the most exquisite and intellectually-stimulating bit of polyphony." I would like our music to be intellectually stimulating, but first let's shoot for "not terrible." In aesthetic sensibility, much of what we sing is like the sort of music that Sinatra or one of those types would sing - that is, it has no melodic appeal to speak of, it screams of artifice and shallow, trite emotion, and generally does not sound like something written by an actual human being with a human idea of beauty.

And if someone says that I am being elitist in wanting to impose my tastes on everyone else - you know what? They're right. Not, that is, my tastes per se, but somebody with - I should not say good taste; taste is not enough for determining what sort of music is appropriate in the liturgy - some persons of discernment really ought to have authority over who sings what. As it is, it is not as if we live in freedom or something; there are still people who have absolute authority over what we hear and sing - it's simply that these people are often devoid of either ecclesiastical authority or any qualification for their position of power.

In other things, it is perfectly understood that some people have gifts that others lack; "to one is given prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits" and it seems to me that the discernment of proper spiritual music, is a gift that some have to a greater degree than others - yet those who lack this gift are scarcely spiritually unaffected by musical bilge; they merely do not see the problem. It is not impossible to figure out who is able to tell the good from the bad, and it would not be impossible to have these people determining what music we hear and sing.

Furthermore, as for the snide remarks that we are somehow spiritually inferior for objecting to ugly songs - that if we were really worshipful people, we would sing enthusiastically no matter how bad the music is: this is utterly false. Christianity is not Stoicism, and the Mass should not be a test for how well we can worship in the most un-worshipful of visual or musical surroundings. Frequently in this time and place, it is indeed that, and in such circumstances we must indeed do the best we can to worship. But really: if Mass were conducted to the constant sound of construction vehicles with defective mufflers being operated just outside the walls, would anyone lament the unspiritual nature of those who found this rather irksome? Only one who had taken this Christianity-as-Stoicism nonsense to the brink of lunacy. But because a great many people are able to endure the most carnal of hymns and antiphons without any noticeable distraction - well, those who are indeed bothered by them must have something wrong with them. They must not care about the Mass very much.

The fact is, I would almost have no worry about our music if everyone were disturbed. If they were, then it would show that everyone was more or less in his right senses, and in any case the music would not be able to withstand 100% disapproval for very long, and we would get something better. The fact that not everyone minds it, is the most worrying thing. It is a silly and modern notion that there is not an intimate connection between outward and inward states - that singing this particular type of music will not encourage this inward state, and standing in this particular posture will not encourage that inward state. True, there is not some sort of one-to-one correspondence between outward and inward states, but they are nevertheless connected. And moreover, it is evident to any reasonable observer that between different people there is a broad similarity in these connections. Which is to say, nobody is encouraged to giddiness by kneeling; not a single soul on earth would be encouraged to solemn contemplation by dancing the Jitterbug, assuming that they knew how. So when I find that singing many of the hymns in our hymnals is an act positively at war with offering fitting worship to God - and when I find many other people agreeing with me - I do not find it compelling when people say that they can worship just fine while singing this or that terrible Haugen song. No doubt some amazingly holy saint could indeed worship just fine in such circumstances, just as St. Bernard (I think) could roll around in brambles without shaking his divine ecstasy. But for people who are not St. Bernard, their interior state will be affected by the singing of the Haugen song rather as mine will. This is not a matter of "taste", and so mutterings about de gustibus non disputandem are empty; telling that this song is sad, or this one cheerful - or this one utterly opposed to proper worship - is not a matter of taste, merely of observation.

That said, a sensible revulsion to inappropriate songs can indeed descend into mere pickiness, but it is dangerous to go to the other extreme and consider the quality of our music as unimportant - not because it is merely aesthetically bad, for bad hymns are not a recent invention and I have a sort of fondness for a nice, vigorous bad hymn, with vigorous, manly, bad rhymes and an unabashedly cliched use of the dominant key. "Bad" is not the same as "unspiritual", and it is the latter which is truly dangerous.

The question, of course, is "what can we do?" It is a repellant disease of the modern mind to think that in every societal problem, there just has to be an answer to that question besides "pray." I suppose I should say something like "bother your bishop" or "become involved in your parish's music program", but really, I can't think of anything that might actually work besides prayer - and changing parishes. I'm really considering that last one...but there may not be anywhere better to go in my immediate area.

At the moment it seems to me as if I'm making a mountain out of a molehill...and yet, whenever I'm actually sitting or kneeling there in the pews, it really does seem like there is something terribly wrong with a liturgy that allows such music, and I sometimes find it an additional barrier to worship ("additional" because let's face it, I bring in plenty of barriers of my own sometimes. At least now I hope "lack of sleep" won't be one of them). In this matter, I trust the Sunday Blogimus more than the Wednesday Blogimus.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

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Well, I haven't heard any more on the Holy Father since hearing that he was admitted to a hospital; I hope that no news is good news in this case, and we should all keep him in our prayers.

On free will: there's more that I want to say on the subject, but that will have to wait for when I'm more awake and coherent; it's not really a good 3 am topic.