Saturday, July 31, 2021

When that's what you've got

 For some reason, the word meanness has lodged in my mind and hovered before my eyes lately, and since I am a word guy from way back, I decided to explore the meaning of this word (meaning has a completely different sense of “mean”). 

First of all, possibly because I am so close to the school, meanness comes to mind as characterizing what kids (and adults, unfortunately) do to one another out of cruelty, spite, or aggression.  For example, We discourage mean actions among the students, and punish them.  Maybe nowadays we are more likely to call that kind of meanness bullying; but interestingly enough that notion of meanness is particularly modern and American.  Around here, when you say, Don’t be mean, this is the sense of the word you most likely have. 

There is another sense entirely that is older and more widely used throughout the English-speaking world, in which meanness has a distinct sense of poverty or lack.  Now, that brings to mind circumstances, often beyond anybody’s control:  The farmers’ lives on that rocky, hostile ground was marked by meanness.  There may be enough to survive, but there is not much more: that’s meanness.

But beyond that, there is a sense to the word that might fit somewhere between the second and first senses here mentioned, because that meanness can be not only circumstantial, but also include an aspect of personal choice and activity in it: bad behavior that is chosen and willed by a person.  Worse than simple frugality, it is similar to but stronger than stinginess.  That’s harsh!

Aristotle characterized meanness in this sense as a vice, opposed to the virtue of generosity. Saint Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologica (IIaIIae, Q. 135) as usual builds on Aristotle, explaining that meanness, which in Latin he rendered parvificentia, is the opposite of magnificencia, which is the willingness and ability to do great things.  So not only does the vice of meanness pinch pennies, but also it refrains from big projects in favor of minimal goals; it refuses even to attempt great things.  

Subsequent philosophers have pointed out that meanness need not be restricted to financial matters (pecuniary meanness) but asserted that there is also meanness of behavior, in interpersonal matters that cannot be measured in dollars and cents.  

With this understanding, we can see how it can happen that people who were depending on a person for magnificence, that is, for great things to be done, but instead find only meanness of behavior (parvificentia), that results in meanness of circumstance (poverty) for them.  Meanness, the stingy vice, is often paired with or indistinguishable from the sort of meanness we associate with classroom bullies, cruelty or spite, and the result is the same: vice leads to privation, privation to grief.  How then, for the ones so deprived, not to permit the meanness of circumstance inflicted on them, to lead them to fall into meanness of behavior themselves, or even cruel meanness?

The virtue opposite the vice of meanness is magnificence, and one’s hopes for magnificence would be best answered by the greatest doer of great things, God, the Holy Spirit.  Let me propose the ancient Veni, Sancte Spiritus as the prayer against meanness:

Come, Thou holy Paraclete,
And from Thy celestial seat
Send Thy light and brilliancy:
Father of the poor, draw near;
Giver of all gifts, be here;
Come, the soul’s true radiancy.

Come, of comforters the best,
Of the soul the sweetest guest,
Come in toil refreshingly:
Thou in labour rest most sweet,
Thou art shadow from the heat,
Comfort in adversity.

O Thou Light, most pure and blest,
Shine within the inmost breast
Of Thy faithful company.
Where Thou art not, man hath nought;
Every holy deed and thought
Comes from Thy divinity.

What is soilèd, make Thou pure;
What is wounded, work its cure;
What is parchèd, fructify;
What is rigid, gently bend;
What is frozen, warmly tend;
Strengthen what goes erringly.

Fill Thy faithful, who confide
In Thy power to guard and guide,
With Thy sevenfold mystery.
Here Thy grace and virtue send:
Grant salvation to the end,
And in Heav’n felicity.



Saturday, July 24, 2021

What you say?

Shortly before he died in 1990, one of my favorite authors, Walker Percy, set himself to reflecting on his answer to the question, “Why are you a Catholic?”  Among the reasons he is a favorite are, in no particular order, his being from Birmingham, fascinated by language and what it indicates about human nature, a convert to Catholicism, best friends with Shelby Foote, piercingly critical of the postmodern therapeutic mindset, ironic, self-deprecating, and funny.  In the heat of summer, when it feels like we are in the South that Percy called home, here are some passages from his answer to that question:

When it is asked just so, straight out, just so: “Why are you a Catholic?”  I usually reply, “What else is there?”  I justify this smart-mouthed answer when I sense that the question is, as it usually is, a smart-mouthed question. In my experience, the question is usually asked by two or three sorts of people.  One knows quite well what is meant by all three.
One sort is perhaps a family acquaintance or friend of a friend or long-ago schoolmate or distant kin, most likely a Presbyterian lady. There is a certain type of Southern Presbyterian lady, especially Georgian, who doesn’t mince words.
What she means is: how in the world can you, a Southerner like me, one of us, of a certain class and background which encompasses the stark chastity of a Presbyterian church or the understated elegance of an Episcopal church (but not a Baptist or Methodist church), a Southern Christian gentleman, that is to say—how can you become one of them, meaning that odd-looking baroque building down the street (the wrong end of the street) with those statues (Jesus pointing to his heart which has apparently been exposed by open-heart surgery)—meaning those Irish, Germans, Poles, Italians, Cajuns, Hispanics, Syrians, and God knows who else—though God knows they’re fine people and I love them all—but I mean there’s a difference between a simple encounter with God in a plain place with one’s own kind without all that business of red candles and beads and priest in a box—I mean, how can you?...
The following statements I take to be commonplaces. Technically speaking, they are for my purposes axioms. If they are not perceived as such, as self-evident, there is no use arguing about them, let alone the conclusions which follow from them.  Here they are:
The old modern age has ended. We live in a post-modern as well as a post-Christian age which as yet has no name.  It is post-Christian in the sense that people no longer understand themselves, as they understood themselves for some fifteen hundred years, as ensouled creatures under God, born to trouble and whose salvation depends upon the entrance of God into history as Jesus Christ.
It is post-modern because the Age of Enlightenment with its vision of man as a rational creature, naturally good and part of the cosmos which itself is understandable by natural science—this age has also ended. It ended with the catastrophes of the twentieth century.
The present age is demented. It is possessed by a sense of dislocation, a loss of personal identity, an alternating sentimentality and rage which, in an individual patient, could be characterized as dementia…
Judaism is offensive because it claims that God entered into a covenant with a single tribe, with it and no other. Christianity is doubly offensive because it claims not only this but also that God became one man, he and no other.  One cannot imagine any statement more offensive to the present-day scientific set of mind…
It is for this reason that the present age is better than Christendom. In the old Christendom, everyone was a Christian and hardly anyone thought twice about it. But in the present age, the survivor of theory and consumption becomes a wayfarer in the desert, like St. Anthony, which is to say: open to signs.
I do not feel obliged to set forth the particular religious reasons for my choosing among the Jewish-Christian religions. There are times when it is better not to name God. One reason is that most of the denizens of the present age are too intoxicated by the theories and goods of the age to be aware of the catastrophe already upon us.
If you like these excerpts, you can find the whole article online, or better yet in the book that collects his essays, Signposts in a Strange Land.   But it could also fill an afternoon of summer leisure simply to sit down with a pen, or keyboard, and try to answer for yourself the question, “Why are you a Catholic?”  

Monsignor Smith

Saturday, July 17, 2021

Never let it be

At a Mass with music you might miss it during the singing of the Lamb of God, but without the music, you will notice a silent stillness just before the priest elevates the Host and says, Behold the Lamb of God.  He is praying inaudibly, preparing for his communion with the living God.  One of the prayers is this: 

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, Who, by the will of the Father and the work of the Holy Spirit, through Your death gave life to the world, free me by this, Your most holy Body and Blood, from all my sins and from every evil; keep me always faithful to your commandments, and never let me be parted from you.

When I was beginning to say Mass, the English translation was still the old one, and I knew how poor it was.  Frustrated by the inaccuracies and leaden phrasing, I memorized the original Latin forms of all the prayers that are said inaudibly, since the only reason to use the vernacular would be to facilitate the understanding of the laity in attendance, and they aren’t able to hear these anyway.  Some phrases were harder than others to memorize, and to form on my lips, for example:  keep me always faithful to your commandments comes from et fac me tuis semper inhaerere mandatis, which is a real mouthful.  

But mostly the rich formulation of the Latin, untarnished by mundane overuse, made the phrases both more beautiful and more memorable.  Plus, when the new English missal came out ten years ago, I didn’t have to learn them over again.  These prayers in this form have been uttered by priests daily for centuries upon centuries, and provide a rich reminder of what we do.

The one phrase that gives me pause every time, and not because I forget the words or trip over the syllables, is: a te numquam separari permittas -- never let me be parted from you.  It sounds like something a newlywed would say.  The words could come from the lips of a mother to her son, or a daughter to her father, or between the truest of friends, but there is an inescapably nuptial quality that embraces to the two bodies becoming one in the consummation about to occur.

These words never fail to engage my heart as well as my mind and mouth, as I realize some element of the complexity of their truth.  There is a more than a hint of desperation, and no lack of gratitude and delight.  In context, there is the acknowledgement that the coming together is more His work than mine, which work includes helping me to inhere in His commandments in what I desire and do.  How fragile this union between me and my Lord; how powerful!

This unheard whisper of the beloved to the One Who is Love, this intimate expression of the most generous desire of a soul, articulates the expansiveness of Eucharistic love.  It reveals and encourages the ecstatic openness one to another of all who share in this coming together, this becoming one.  We desperately want not only our communion with the living God to last forever, but also our communion with one another in Christ’s risen body: we on earth, with the saints round the Divine throne; we in Silver Spring with the worshiping faithful around the world; we in the pews, with our family, our friends, our neighbors; and the priest with his people.  A te numquam separari permittas -- never let me be parted from you.

Monsignor Smith

Saturday, July 10, 2021

Reality show

 Have you ever come into our church, and as you were settling into prayer noticed that some of the altar flowers looked like they had died?  Or maybe watched one of our fearless altar servers snuff the altar candles after Mass, and realized that they looked rather stumpy?  There is a reason for that:  they are real.

Artificial flowers or candles have no place in worship, not only because they are tacky, but also because they do not fit into the nature of our worship, which is sacrifice.  Both the candles and the flowers are consumed by giving their glory to God, just as Christ offers Himself as the perfect sacrifice: to be consumed.  But not being themselves divine, their finite gifts expire upon reaching their natural limit; so we obtain fresh flowers, and set out new, tall candles.   

Where did the idea for artificial flowers come from, anyway?  Long before we invented virtual reality, man had set his mind to the challenges of simulating many of the good things of the world that could be presented, preserved, or transported only at great difficulty and expense.  

Once upon a time, when cassette tapes were new technology, “Is it live, or is it Memorex?” was the tagline of an advertisement.  The thrust was that the tape was so good that, without seeing the source, one could not tell which was which – the recording, or the live performer.  As I type this, I am listening to Brahms streamed through my computer to my wireless speaker.  It’s great.  I doubt I would ever hear this music at all, much less precisely when and where I am in the mood for it, if it were not for such technologies old and new.  But in a vital way, it is not real.

Ask anybody you know when was the last time he enjoyed music that was not only not recorded, but not even amplified electronically – that is, no microphone, no speakers or earbuds, no sound system?   If the person you ask is under forty, the answer may well be, “Never” – UNLESS he goes to church, and at Saint Bernadette!

All of the music for our Masses is real: real people, singing live before God, accompanied by instruments that are real, especially our Wicks pipe organ, played by people in our midst.  The sound is human strength and breath, and real wind, metal, and wood, that moves through the air that surrounds us and courses through the very fabric of our church building, without microphones, speakers, or electronic amplification.   

For years, Andy Brown, eldest of Tom and Jessica, has been playing our organ in varying capacities from little kid noodling on the keys to substitute organist for weekend Masses and funerals.  A few weeks ago Andy, freshly graduated from DeMatha and headed to Baylor in the fall, gave a recital in our church.  We moved the organ console so that the crowd could see what he was doing with his hands and his feet, a fascinating display of the complexity and speed of movement required to make the glorious sounds.   Music originates from people, and that is what makes it a worthy offering to God.

Under the direction of John Henderson, our music here is of a level rarely encountered in an “ordinary” parish church; the breadth and depth of centuries of sacred music from the Church’s treasury.  Did you ever think you would stand among so many people singing the centuries-old “Salve Regina,” by heart?  Or hear Bach, Victoria, Palestrina, and Elgar sung so beautifully by people whom you know, and have doughnuts with after Mass?  It is all real, an authentic gift to God and us.

Our singers have given us marvelous music throughout the pandemic restriction times.  Once public officials gave us all permission to sing again, there was remarkable change in the congregational singing that had been tiptoeing along the edges of our liturgies, and that full-throated joy was music to my ears, and John’s too.  How vital singing is to our worship!

After Labor Day, we hope both Community Sunday doughnuts and our choirs return at full strength.  I cannot wait.  Sure, I have recordings, but only the real thing, unrecorded and ephemeral, offered by people in our midst whom we know and love, is music worthy to give glory to God.  Pray that people you know, young and old, be willing and able to make the sacrifice of time and effort to offer glorious music before God, and us.  Offer a prayer for this intention; maybe even light a candle.  

Monsignor Smith


Saturday, July 03, 2021

What constitutes us

Already it has been three years since I ran this column, and since Independence Day falls precisely on Sunday this year, I will take this opportunity to share it again.  

The concept of “American exceptionalism” has almost as many definitions as there are commentators on it.  I have long been fascinated by the term, whether its first best use was by Alexis de Tocqueville or Josef Stalin, both of whom are candidates for credit.  Some would assert that the only exceptional aspect of our country is that it is ours, which is thus the same thing that makes any country exceptional.  While I could not endorse any particular theory, it seems sufficiently commonsense to acknowledge that there is something authentically exceptional about our nation.

My first candidate for the ground of exceptionality would be our form of government, the Constitution, and that this form of government is the first and defining characteristic of the country. Ethnicity, culture, and geography all contributed to our nation’s earliest self-understanding and establishment, but did not even then, much less do they now, define what makes the United States of America, the United States of America. 
Lest anyone think that the USA was simply the first of a historical generation of nations to be born of revolution and coalesce by constitution, one need examine the suggested “other examples.”  The French staged a revolution with the express intention of emulating what they saw in our society, but “Liberty, Fraternity, and Equality” quickly descended into tyranny and bloodshed by committee.  We are all aware of how the Russian and other so-called “revolutions” played out, pursued as they were in the names of ideologies that led to domination by ideologues. Many Latin American nations claim their own “George Washingtons” who nonetheless failed to manifest not only his executive virtues, but also and especially his virtuous relinquishing of executive power.  Anybody familiar with the European Union’s huge phonebook-size assemblage of regulations knows it is a “Constitution” in name alone.
I think what lies at the root of the current mocking of American exceptionalism is a rejection of the possibility that anything can be an exception.  There is a desire to subordinate the character of USA to a rule, and by that rule to take away any privilege or responsibility that would belong to a truly exceptional nation.  
Both privilege and responsibility are eliminated by the tyranny of false equality, which refuses to admit not only any exception, but also the possibility of authentic difference.  The reality of difference is manifest in the differences between and among human beings and all the creatures of the earth. Good and evil, true and false, reality and fiction, beauty and disorder are truly and clearly different.  The only way to deny or suppress these differences is to erect a false equality through authority and power.  That authority and power is necessarily in opposition to the author of all these differences, our Creator. 
My willingness to accept that the United States is exceptional among nations is rooted in my belief that among human beings there are lives that are exceptional.  That belief is founded on my acquaintance with the perfectly exceptional man who is God, Jesus Christ.  His immaculately conceived mother, the Virgin Mary, is not only an exception to the rule of original sin, but also a model of and invitation to acceptance of the privilege and responsibility that comes with freedom from the rule, with being an exception.
The inherent difference among human lives is reflected in the differences of the societies they erect.  The true differences between good and evil, true and false, between God and everything else, undergird a world where every human soul is called to be exceptional in a way that he or she is uniquely capable of being.  This is the foundational freedom that can be suppressed but not eliminated, as it inheres in our very souls.  Better than anywhere else or in any other time, this is the freedom that has until now been both provided and protected in our exceptional nation’s exceptional Constitution.
God bless America, and God bless you.
Monsignor Smith