Friday, May 04, 2007

Reflections on Mexico, Conclusion

Perhaps before I conclude, I should distance what I am discussing from the current immigration debates. Are Mexicans exploiting America? or vice versa? Well, exploitation is the act of taking unjust advantage of another's weakness. Surely this is a danger in any relationship since human beings and their communities always have weaknesses. If Mexican immigrants are exploiting our porous borders and good employment opportunities it must be because of some weakness in our system. I will end this preface simply by noting that it is the deep weakness of a fundamental lack of culture that is possibly to blame for our unwillingness to govern ourselves in a manner that avoids these problems. On the flip side, it is precisely the strength of Mexican culture that allows for Mexicans to take the risk of leaving family in order to come north to earn money, etc. In short, there is an ecomonic imbalance that favors the U.S. and a cultural imbalance that favors Mexico. Could we instead support each other by offering our strengths?

My thoughts on culture began with visits to the many local churches, visits I described in the first of these posts. But they came to a head at Sunday Mass. Whatever liturgical angst we have in the U.S. Catholic Church is totally foreign to the jubilant celebration of the Eucharist at La Soledad. I began to wonder if the liturgical wars still burning here have less to do with the scheming of the Liturgical Soviet (as I fondly call those who monkey with forms for the sake of "The People") or with the nervous reactions of the Romish bureuacrats, and more to do with the lack of anything like a clear American culture, into which the reforms of Vatican II could be fitted seamlessly, as seems to be the case in Mexico.

Now there are obviously other factors. Spanish is much closer to Latin than English is, and so the change to the vernacular would hardly have created the difficulties it has with a non-Romance language. But for a clear example of my thought, let's take 'folk music'. In Mexico, people were clearly singing identifiably Mexican idiom tunes with guitars, maracas, and so on. By contrast, when 'folk Masses' came about in the States in the 70's, what was the American idiom of folk music? Woody Guthrie? Stephen Foster? Gordon Lightfoot? The Beach Boys? Depending on whether you were Carey Landry, Richard Proulx, Suzanne Toolan, or the Damiens, you'd answer differently. And not one of these styles reflects the actual 'folk music' I grew up with: German waltzes and polkas and hymns on my mother's side, and Polish polkas on my father's side. I hated going to Mass at home with my grandparents and having to anguish over the guitar youth cheerfully insisting that my immigrant grandparents give up their beloved Mainz hymnody for Godspell.

Some would argue that American culture is precisely this crazy amalgam of local cultures combining to form something greater. I would call it rather a confused artistic vacuum, into which top-down, 'expert' solutions easily make their way, either from the Liturgical Soviet or the Vatican. This is only an example from music; analogous problems abound in areas of architecture, lay participation and devotions. What to do?

I mentioned that there is need of an American Catholic culture, and I received at least one ironic comment on the topic. Yes, cultures do not spring up overnight. They are not planned. No one makes a decision that 'in our culture, we are going to do things this way'. Rather, people make countless transactions with reality (to paraphrase Fr Aidan Kavanaugh, OSB) and through these negotiations, customs and languages arise that begin to shape a distinctive culture.

Don't we already do this in America? Yes, but with one fundamental aspect missing: that missing aspect? Stability. Because we are constantly dealing with different people, our language must be the abstract esperanto of legal and financial institutions, or the bromides that 'personalize' these abstract transactions ("My name is Jenn and I will be your waitress tonight!" "Have a nice day!")

For a culture to grow, there must be continuity, not only in customs, but in persons. First and foremost this means families. My father is always and forever my father, and the stability of our relationship gives stability and shape to my life and by extension to all my relationships. Unless, of course, I have no real relationship with my father, which happens to be the case for one of every two Americans, more or less. Same thing with mothers, grandmothers, and so on. Another stabilizing force in families is larger numbers of children. A big family grows exponentially over three generations, and involves everyone in it in clear social bonds that knit the community together. All these grandchildren need to marry outside the family, and so this one large family become a meeting place for large numbers of persons outside the family, and the whole community again becomes interwoven.

As is well-known, our ersatz culture corrodes these family bonds in many ways. The smiling, guitar-strumming Godspell teen choir might have meant well, but they were, perhaps unknowingly, putting me in a position to forsake the values and culture of my own family history (Bavarian) in favor of the celebrity values of Steven Schwartz and (R) "Gather Comprehensive." Of course, political human engineering, such as the striking down of anti-abortion legislation, the hiking up of the drinking age (what 20-year-old German/Pole doesn't drink beer, for heaven's sake?), public schooling that force-teaches human sexuality and evolution where parents don't want it, and the drumming up of wars whose aims bear little relationship to the everyday concerns of normal inhabitants of the struggling local cultures of places like Dubuque, Iowa or Tuscaloosa, Alabama--these maneuvers are great for the economy and international swagger of the USA, but they make family life and stability very difficult and costly. Deciding for stability in many cases is deciding for second-class status. Driving the American economy requires ambitious, upwardly mobile types to be encouraged to shake free of culture. Many people today are so conditioned by our consumerist 'culture' and the promise of total satisfaction of desire, that to sit in one place and be less productive, to have to deal with the same persons all the time, is simply intolerable. This phenomenon goes by many names, individualism being one that springs to mind.

What to do? This sort of crisis is by no means new in human history. A similar decay of culture took place with the slow fade of the Roman empire. Monasteries helped to refound culture in Europe by becoming places of stability. But all of us, even outside the monastery, can make some contribution. For starters, we should encourage families to stay together and each of us can make the effort to be a little closer to our own families. This also means accustoming ourselves to what seem like the unpleasant realities of committing to a parish, a set group of persons in a stable environment. It is tempting to shop around for a parish, but this impulse assists in the reduction of church life to yet another consumer choice, rather than the humble but privileged place of my encounter with the mystery of the Incarnation. Jesus spent almost his whole earthly life in Nazareth, travelling around the relatively small area of Galilee after thirty years at home, and then finally going up to Jerusalem to die.

There are many other related projects here, and to consider them would take us too far afield. I mention the question of family and stability because these attributes are clearly on display in places like Atotonilco, Guanajuato, Mexico. Families are large; five children seems to be about a minimum (I saw no evidence whatsoever of a mass exodus of persons to the States--there are plenty of people coming up to replce those who have emigrated). Plus, families have lived in the same group of villages possibly for centuries, even predating the Spanish conquest. There is no GIA to send out brochures telling the local organist which hymns are 'in' this year.

The Anti-Catholic government that ruled for most of the 20th century in Mexico tried to stamp out the Church, but they couldn't stamp out local cultures. Because of this the Church survived even official persecution. There has been no official effort to weaken the Catholic Church in our country, but culture is so weak that the Church suffers a great deal more here without official persecution.

I'm sure that many of these ideas, being well beyond my personal competence, will strike some readers as missing on certain details and realities. But I stand behind the general thrust. What we have to learn from Mexico is how to be a culture: how persons with ties of geography and blood can and should stand together and oppose efforts of homogenizing government-types to break us loose from our places in order to fit us into the giant consumer scheme that turns the cranks for the American machine. So I close with one final exhortation to anyone who thinks that there is any merit to what I have just written, and I promise to go back to the Rule after this. My exhortation: If you want to participate in the rebuilding of a real culture, take the first logical step of turning off your television. Take the time you save to talk to your kids, your parents or your neighbors. Cancel your subscription to Newsweek and take the time and money you save to plant some flowers and say hi to the people who walk by as you weed around them. End of sermon.

Glory be to God in Jesus Christ!


Antony said...

The whole post was great, but the last paragraph was awesome! End of sermon? I say "Preach on, brutha!"

Anonymous said...

Fr. Prior,

Thank you for this post. The lack of a culture is a far bigger deal then most of us realize. The lack of culture means we are, individually and collectively, suffering tremendously in virtue of not knowing who we are. Stripped of a history and unable to synthesize an intelligible new culture of any particular depth, we inherit no identity from our ancestors, which becomes just one more factor in encouraging us to identify solely as individuals with concept of belonging to a we. America's particular malaise is so deeply bound up with this question that I am just thrilled you have brought it to our attention.

God bless,

Br. Christian,
St. Meinrad

- Also - religion which isn't mediated by culture is abtraction. How much longer can we be fed on abstraction?

Bob said...

Really enjoyed the post (and the series) Prior Peter. Just started reading the blog and thought I'd comment.

Your statement cultures do not spring up overnight. They are not planned. No one makes a decision that 'in our culture, we are going to do things this way'. couldn't contain more truth.

As someone who has tried to "change culture" by doing the things you exhort here (turn off the TV, interact with family and neighbors, get outside, leave the blinds open, etc.) for the past 3 years I find that this is not an overnight proposition. I guess it is obvious but really the time frame extends from years to lifetimes to generations very quickly. But as you said, someone has to take the first step for the sake of tomorrow.

I appreciate your reflections on the Mexican culture and especially the posture of "what can we learn from them?" It not only enriches our lives but also creates an environment for better intercultural relationships.



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