Thursday, January 19, 2012

A Commitment to the Future, Not the Past

Archbishop Oscar Romero, martyred in
El Salvador in 1980
Why do I write this blog—it takes a chunk of time out of my day and I am never caught up in my work as it is.  Well, for one thing, I do need the discipline to write.  Writing is difficult and this is not my best writing.  Most of the time the blog is just a quick sketch and I go over it no more than once while normally, when I write for publication, I labor over revision after revision, tweaking and puttering until I get the words just right but I have no time for that when doing the blog.  It takes me an hour or more as it is.  But at least it forces me to churn out some piece of writing most days; left to my own I would have a thousand reasons to avoid the task of sitting down and marshaling my thoughts and then forcing them out from within the convoluted channels of my brain onto paper—or actually into the circuitry of my computer.
     But I have another reason, and one more serious than just forcing myself to some discipline.  I have a strong vision for the Church, a vision I want to share.  At times I think it is a vision that I want to rescue.  You see I was brought up before all the Vatican II changes.  I learned that Ad Deum qui laetificat stuff.  To a fifth grader, of course, they were just nonsense syllables and damned hard nonsense syllables to memorize, but I did it. And I loved it.  I was one of those taller altar boys who MC’d Solemn Mass.  I knew the bows and rubrics and in those days before middle age spread and pattern baldness I looked quite distinguished in my violet cassock and stiffly starched white cotta.  In fact I loved the whole old Church thing—bevies of nuns in white wimples and mantles, bowing and scraping before tabernacles, tenors and basses in choirs that sing—these were a few of my favorite things.  I mean it was fun being Catholic.  They didn’t make Hollywood movies or Broadway shows about Presbyterians. 
      I have always been a trivia buff which explains why I ended up becoming a historian.  I have a mind that captures the kind of information from which you can never make money.  But I always knew that the Blessed Sacrament and the Bishop when in Miter (though not when in choir dress) got three double swings of the censer.  Speaking of choir dress I knew a mantelletta  from  a mozzetta and I even knew when the diocesan bishop wore the mozetta over the mantelletta which was a very rare occasion but looked quite majestic.  I knew that the humeral veil should match the color of the mass vestments unless the Blessed Sacrament was to be carried with it when it should be white or gold.   I knew the altars were to have their annual washing on the evening of Good Friday in imitation of Christ’s body being washed and anointed before it was put in the tomb and I knew that the cross was to be veiled in violet during Passiontide except on Holy Thursday when the veil was to be changed to white.  I knew all that stuff and I loved it.  Although you would never know if it you saw my office, I have a mad passion for order and “The Old Church” satisfied that.   But what happened?
     I am not sure.  I was excited about the changes in the liturgy as they gradually were introduced between 1964 and 1970.  (That doesn’t seem gradual in retrospect but it struck us so at the time.)  I have always loved music and I liked it when we began to sing more—when music was not just for the noon mass with Palestrina and choir but at each of the Masses, though, admittedly, Ray Rep was no Mozart.   I liked it when we could go to an Episcopal Church for Evensong without thinking we had to go to confession afterwards.  I thought the nuns looked pretty homely when they moved into their “modified” habits and absolutely ghastly when they started to wear ordinary clothes, usually of the cheapest make and poorest coordination, but hey—I didn’t have to sweat beneath yards of serge on a summer day.  I missed the communion rails at first, but gradually came to prefer the more spacious look of the sanctuary.  But more important, somewhere at this point in life—my late teens or early twenties—I began to pray. I mean I had always said prayers.  We were (sporadically at least) a family rosary family.   We would, especially in lent and advent, kneel leaning into the chairs and couches of the living room with our backs to one another and recite the repetitions of this favorite prayer.  Like my father (and his father before him) I began attending Mass each day.  But I slowly learned about mental prayer.  I am not sure how.  I would go out and sit in the back of our parish church at night.  I would just sit there.  I would begin a rosary or some other prayer, but end up just sitting there in the dark staring at the distant red flickering lamp.  Actually it probably began even earlier when at age eleven or twelve I would just go down to the river and sit by the bank among the day lilies and wild daisies and watch the stream roll by and follow my heart to some inner place I had not yet begun to understand.  But I suppose I was only about twenty when I began picking up some of the books of Thomas Merton and they made me think in ways that other books—even books by saints—had not.  Little by little as I went through my twenties, not Merton but the scriptures became my ordinary book for reflective thought.  I still read Merton—and other authors as well:  Henry Nouwen, John Main, Thomas Keating—but the scripture has long been my book.  I began to see connections between scriptures and the choices I was making—or failing to make—in life.  I started to read some of the Fathers, most notably Augustine but also Chrysostom and Basil.  At the time I was getting a Master’s Degree in Theology.  I came to understand from Chrysostom that one cannot separate the Christ one meets in the Eucharist from the Christ one meets in the beggar in the street.  I began to see in Augustine that to recognize Christ in the Eucharist is to know that you are already by baptism part of his body and so is the woman in front of you and the man beside you.  I came to see how doctrine and worship and ethics are all of a piece.  
      When the American Church women were killed in El Salvador with weapons supplied by my government it hit me that I share in responsibility for the crucifixion.  And when Archbishop Romero was gunned down at the consecration of the Mass by assassins trained in my country I realized that I could no longer live in the cocoon of pious claptrap but had to start weaving a consistency that would integrate my public and pious lives.  I came to realize that the Eucharist is the strongest bond of all and that to share in the Christ present on my altar was to stand in solidarity with all others who share in that one Christ at altars throughout the world.  I realized my faith was not simply the affirming of doctrines but the weaving of a seamless garment of faith and works.  There are a lot of dropped stiches in my seamless garment but my faith today is something far richer and far deeper than the doctrinaire piety of my youth.  And I for one am not willing to go back to that that superficial and supercilious smug Catholicism of “We have all the answers and nobody else does.”  The Church for me has long been a door to be pushed out of into the world with a Message rather than a door inside of which to hide behind from the troubles of the world.  
     I eventually went on to earn a Masters and a Doctorate in history and to take up a career as a teacher and research historian.  History for me acts as a brake against the retro-Catholoism of those who are trying to come back to the Leave It To Beaver Catholicism and Americanism of the Eisenhower years.  History is a medium in which we can see the Good News of God’s Kingdom unfolding.  As the reading said at Morning Prayer today: the Kingdom of God is not a matter of eating or drinking, (that is to say, it is not a matter of the Law and its regulations) but of justice, of peace, and of the joy that comes from the Holy Spirit.   I want to keep that word alive.             

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