Friday, December 19, 2008

New Website

Dear readers,

Merry Christmas to you!  This blog is being moved to our brand new website.  To find "Daily Bread," please click here.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Advent, Part 2

Following up on the previous post:

1) You may need to refer to Haggai 2: 7 in addition to 2: 8, depending on your translation.

2) "Healthily Sanguine" asks in what way we are to understand Advent as penitential, since it is so joyful.  I would respond to this with an analogy.  Imagine being separated from someone you love dearly for a long time, especially someone for whom your love is 'romantic'.  As the separation drags out, we can often become careless about our affection for this person.  We might even start noticing other people.  Men 'let themselves go' a bit in these situations, for example: shave more infrequently, wear beat-up clothes and what not.

Now imagine that the person is returning.  We remember how much we love this person, and so we are filled with joy in anticipation of seeing his or her face, hearing that sweet voice again.  On the other hand, the expectation of his or her return focuses us on the ways in which we haven't been totally faithful to his or her memory, how we've let ourselves slide.  "Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand!"  We are joyful for the coming kingdom, but realize that we need to 'clean ourselves up' a bit to be truly ready in a display of love for Christ the King at his arrival.  I think, for example, of my grandmother, who took fifteen minutes in the afternoon everyday to put on makeup in anticipation of my grandfather's return from the paper mill where he worked. It is an extra effort to show appreciation for the person we love.

The many calls to readiness in Advent remind us that we often get sluggish waiting for Christ's return, and we must repent of the entanglements of life that distract us from watching.  So this calls for a kind of penitential attitude toward the slippage in our lives, but with the focus very much on the joy of the promise of the kingdom.

Tomorrow, another Advent antiphon that I hope you find interesting. 

Please, do send questions.  I am quite happy to try and answer them as I can!

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Thoughts on Advent

Advent is a beautiful time in the monastery.  Several brothers have remarked to me how beautiful the season is, with its mysterious chants and various traditions.  We have the advantage of not having much contact with the commercial aspect of Christmas at this time of year, and the theme of watching for the Lord's coming accords well with the activities of the monk.

This year, I have been working hard at a translation of the new Antiphonale Monasticum, the 'official' book of the Benedictine liturgy.  The revision of this book called for by Vatican II is just now being completed.  One volume for the office of Vigils is still in the works.  The books are all in Latin, of course, and it is our house custom to use English, thus my task of translation and adaptation of the chant.  It has been quite an effort, but in the end a tremendous privilege to grow in familiarity with the theology of Advent.  In particular, the traditional antiphons for the divine office display a kind of 'virtuoso lectio divina' on the part of the anonymous monks who compiled and composed them over the years (most of these antiphons date back at least to the eleventh century).   Lines from the Old Testament that would pass by our imaginations opened up the mysteries of God for these inspired monks.  Over the next few days, I will share some examples, beginning with this one:

The second antiphon for the Fourth Sunday in Advent reads: Ecce veniet desideratus cunctis gentibus: et replebitur gloria domus Domini, alleluia.  This is more or less a quotation from Haggai 2: 8, with a slight change in speaker, so that the monks can more easily place it on their own lips (originally the speaker is God).  Following the RSV, the translation would read "Lo, the treasures of all nations shall come in, and the house of the Lord will be filled with glory, alleluia."  

The key word here is desideratus.  I can't say why this is exactly, but here the Vulgate follows more closely the Hebrew than the Septuagint Greek in rendering the Hebrew chemddah, "delight," "desire."  Normally, this is understood as a prophecy of 'precious things' or 'treasure' pouring into the temple, and this is corroborated in this same verse of Haggai by references to silver and gold, which are obviously things desired and delightful for those who own them.  

In the context of the Advent liturgy, with its emphasis on the world's longing to be redeemed from the slavery of sin and death, and the theme of the opening of salvation to the Gentiles, this antiphon is now referring to Jesus Christ as the One longed-for by all nations.  This is not easy to capture in English in a way that both gets at this broader meaning and is faithful to the current norms of translation (the lectionary uses 'treasures').  In any case, doing lectio divina in English we would not be likely to see Haggai's prophecy as a prediction of the coming of Christ, but I'm glad that some monk did!  

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving

Saying 'thank you' was perhaps never easy, which is probably why the Psalmist has to order it done: "Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good!" It is, nevertheless, absolutely essential to living the truth as a human being.  We are all dependent creatures, very much at the mercy of accidents and evils, and there are many times in our lives that we cannot survive, much less flourish, without the help of others.  Thanksgiving is a way of acknowledging dependence, not merely a social convention designed to stave off hurt feelings of those we take advantage of.  For thanksgiving to be real, we must practice it regularly, and it must lead to a change of heart, to humility and ultimately, if we are Christians at least, to faith.

I am frequently asked about how to pray.  Again, this is not a new puzzle for those seeking God.  The disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray as John taught his disciples.  Many of the Fathers wrote long treatises on prayer.  The one most influential to me is John Cassian's Conferences 9 & 10.  Conference 10 is the more famous, dealing as it does with apparent states of mystical prayer.  But Conference 9 offers four practical suggestions for praying based on St. Paul's First Letter to Timothy 2: 1.  (This sort of exegesis often appears capricious to us moderns, but I have found this one most helpful through experience)  We pray by acknolwedging our sins, second, by determining to amend our lives and make offerings to God in the future (what Cassian and Paul, following Old Testament usage, call 'vows').  Third, we ask God for what we need and intercede for others (the most common form of prayer, and what most people think of and do when they pray), and last but not least, we should thank God.  I find this last recommendation most helpful.  A few moments a day to recall the many blessings that God continually gives us, and to remember what he has promised us for eternity tends to dispel whatever gloomy prospects my cotidian existence portends.

A few weeks ago, I received an email with a somewhat anguished question regarding how frequently and for how long we can licitly ask God for something, before we become like whiney children.  As far as I can tell, we should constantly ask God for what we feel we need or even desire, with the important proviso that we accept his answer and give thanks for the fact that He always listens and answers, and always in a way that is to our benefit, whether we can understand that benefit immediately or not.  Indeed, start with thanksgiving, and you might decide that what you thought you needed isn't so important once you see what you have from God!

For His love endures forever!

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Forthrightness as a condition of personal freedom

Peace to you all who continue to check up on this blog!  I am happy to resume writing, as things have somewhat returned to 'normal'.  In addition to our construction, we have had to spend time assisting our Br. Augustine, who has been hospitalized for the past 18 days with a variety of ailments.  He will undergo his fourth operation today as a precaution against pneumonia, but there is talk of him being strong enough to leave intensive care this weekend.

Today's reading from the Rule of Saint Benedict urges brothers to come forward when they make a mistake of some kind or otherwise commit a fault.  At first glance, this chapter, as well as the entire 'disciplinary code' of the Rule, has the appearance of strictness, and perhaps strikes us as being overly authoritarian and suspicious of the possibility of monks achieving personal maturity, needing overseers and Correctors for all the details of life.  

If we take it this way, I suggest that this reveals about ourselves an anthropology that is not entirely compatible with that of the Early Church, and possibly with Biblical Christianity as a whole.  As I never tire of pointing out, our anthropology takes its default stance in line with modern thinkers like Rousseau, who believed that children are faultless and it is society that corrupts them.  The ancient anthropology, and I believe the better one, holds that children, while morally not culpable, are in fact very much in need of socialization in order to become mature adults.  Left on their own, children will not develop past self-centeredness and an infantile need to have all desires met.

What this means is that all of us need help from others to discover our faults and weaknesses.  If we do not discover them, we will make decisions based on hidden agendas and undisciplined desires.  Perhaps worse is the common situation where we excuse our faults and assume that others should just put up with them because "that's who we are."  Of course, part of the atmosphere that allows us to confront personal faults is the sense of love and acceptance, that invites us to correction rather than threatens us.  I believe that this is the atmosphere presumed by Saint Benedict to be in the monastery.

Thus the invitation to admit faults, to apologize forthrightly and seek advice for correction, is an invitation to maturity and freedom.  If we excuse our faults on the premise that others should leave us alone, we more or less admit that we are in thralldom to said faults.  On the other hand, frank admission of our failures manifests a desire to be free of the control of our desires and hidden agendas.  When I firmly admit that losing my temper is wrong, I can begin to ask what it is about myself in certain circumstances that brings anger out of me.  Then I can ask whether I want to be that sort of person and, with the help of others who love me even if conversion is slow, or even proves to be ultimately impossible in this life, I can begin to reclaim true freedom to act in accord with reason and charity, and to counteract selfishness and blind passion.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Catholic Readers Society Update

I'm hoping to continute updating the blog for the Catholic Readers Society, and I invite you to visit at:

Any reading suggestions are very welcome. We normally focus on fiction or poetry that is either written from a Catholic perspective or otherwise might be useful for evangelism or apologetics. Please note the list of books that we have already read in the August post on the blog.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Music and Morality 4: The Problem of Culture

In my first course on Gregorian chant, Fr. Gerard Farrell, OSB, spent one class on the affects of the modes. The idea is that Mode 1 (in modern parlance "Dorian," the scale that goes from D to d using only white keys on the piano) connotes joy, strength, and so forth, whereas Mode 2 (same notes, but utilizing a lower range) connotes mystery, reserve, reflection. While the distinctions are not completely universally valid, there is much to be said for them. It is not a coincidence that the antiphons for the Divine Office of Easter Sunday are almost entirely set in Mode 7, the mode said best to connote exuberance and rejoicing.

When I mentioned this once to a novice who had studied ethnomusicology, he laughed out loud. It would seem, from the perspective of this modern and very useful discipline, that these connotations are strictly the work of inculturation and bear no intrinsic value. In modern music, for example, we often distinguish 'major' and 'minor' triads and keys by linking them to feeling of happiness and melancholy. Does this not happen simply because from an early age, we sing happy songs in major keys, (Happy Birthday, Jesus Christ is Risen Today) and darker songs in minor keys (Pray for the dead... Beethoven's Fifth)? Could we condition ourselves to hear keys in different ways?

In support of this cultural relativism, it is often pointed out that what was considered a noisy racket a generation ago is mainstream today. Fifty years ago, Ed Sullivan would only broadcast Elvis from the waste up. His music sounds almost silly compared to the hard rock and heavy metal trotted out today. When Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" was premiered, the crowd rioted. Today, we hardly bat an eye at the harsh sounds demanded of 'new music' orchestras, that is, if anyone attends the concerts.

This phenomenon of novelty creating a stir is not itself new. Here is a quiz: guess the century of this quote and the style of music being condemned:

Indeed, when such practices are taken to excess, they can more rapidly stir up the urgings of the lower regions of the body than devotion in the mind.

Answer: John of Salisbury (ca. 1150 A.D.) condemning the polyphonic compositions at Notre Dame of Paris, the distant forebears of the music of Palestrina, today held up as the style closest to Gregorian chant in appropriateness for the Divine Liturgy.

In attempting to assign affect to musical practices, are we really dealing merely with a case of de gustibus non disputandem est? Must we simply learn to put up with 'other peoples' preferences' and be suspect of our own, rather than holding ours up as exemplary and risking insensitivity or even musical colonialism?

Much of what I hope to write in this series will deal with this difficult question. In fact, there are two ways of attending to this problem. The first, which is somewhat easier perhaps, is to acknowledge that communities do, in fact, inculturate their members and ought to. Communities cannot survive, and by extension individual human beings cannot survive, without common standards of behavior. In any community, there will be a tradition of music which will be used to elicit proper emotional response in certain circumstances and also music whose use will be highly circumscribed or even outright prohibited. In such a case, we can limit ourselves to studying the rules of specific cultures or communities and see how music is linked to the passions by conditioning (see the previous post), and then draw conclusions about the morality of the use of music within this particular culture or community. I intend to do some of this, but we must admit that it veers somewhat close to moral relativism or situation ethics, that any type of behavior can be justified given the right circumstances. From a more positive perspective, I intend to treat the Church as a highly specific culture in which the restrictions on music are higher than they are when we function as members of our respective cultures in the world.

However, my own conviction, one that is backed by recent scientific studies about the biological effects of music and sound on the human body, is that certain musical gestures bear intrinsic moral weight, so that there are absolute rules for music that would transcend culture. This possibility is more easily entertained if we share some assumptions regarding the ordering of the cosmos. I hope to write on this aspect of the argument next. For today, we can restrict ourselves to obvious points. Loud sounds, especially when alternated with quiet sounds, can damage the human ear and tend to provoke irritation that disposes to violence. Loud sounds are also effective for announcing the threat of violence, as is the case with many car stereos today. Long exposure to steady rhythms has been shown to alter mental states, with the tendency to provoke a lowering of normally maintained personal boundaries, both physical and emotional. And so on. It is well established that certain styles of music assist the body and mind in healing (Pythagoras believed that certain illnesses could be cured by playing the flute; modern science has confirmed the underlying idea!).

Today, advocates of health food, non-smoking bars and green consciences are only too happy to make it moral obligation to restrict what is put into our bodies. Why is it considered controversial to suggest moral restrictions on what we allow into our ears?


This blog is published with ecclesiastical approval.

If I, who seem to be your right hand and am called Presbyter and seem to
preach the Word of God, If I do something against the discipline of the Church
and the Rule of the Gospel so that I become a scandal to you, The Church, then
may the whole Church, in unanimous resolve, cut me, its right hand, off, and
throw me away.

Origen of Alexandria
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