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Archive for March, 2011

Freedom

Three songs that get sung at karaoke a lot round here: and a connection that I noticed, regarding freedom and tradeoffs.

“Verdammt, ich lieb dich”, by Matthias Reims – the most popular German song of the last 50 years or so.

A very teutonically-honest song about being single again and thinking about one’s ex. The chorus is reminiscent of the old “he loves me, he loves me not” thing that English girls used to do while mutilating innocent flowers, except the singer’s asking it of himself: “Dammit, I love you, I love you not; dammit, I need you, I need you not; dammit, I want you, I want you not; I don’t want to lose you…” In the first verse he pretends he’s totally over her, right up until he can’t pretend anymore and he flips out. The second verse ponders life without her and the reasons he ended it: “So langsam fällt mir alles wieder ein, ich wollt doch nur ‘n bisschen freier sein, jetzt bin ich’s… oder nicht?” – “Slowly it’s all coming back – I wanted to be just a little more free – I am now, aren’t I?”

A similar sentiment occurs in Wolfgang Petry’s “Verlieben, Verloren, Vergessen, Verzeihen”, on the same subject:

“Verdammt war ich glücklich, verdammt bin ich frei” – “Damn, I was happy; damn, I am free.”

Milton’s Satan could utter that line, looking back on Heaven, with little regret. But the singer doesn’t have the pride of Lucifer (I doubt Lucifer would be seen dead with that haircut & mustache combo), and the trade-off sits ill with him (“I had everything, everything that counts; but live without you, and now it’s too late”). There are freedoms that exist to be spent like money: to be given away in choosing some specific option, or person. Reims and Petry have gotten their money back, so to speak (I think Petry got forcibly refunded, from the first verse), and found freedom is not all it’s cracked up to be.

These two songs are in the genre called “Schlager”, cheesy 80’s hit songs, delivered with a kind of upbeat teutonic cheerfulness even in singing about heartbreak. Chesterton’s “Ballad of the White Horse” made reference (in describing Elf the minstrel) to “the mighty people, womanlike, that have pleasure in their pain” – this is what that sounds like.

“Desperado”, originally by the Eagles – the only song here I didn’t first hear at karaoke (I encountered Johnny Cash’s excellent version first), has something to say on the subject also:

“Freedom, oh freedom, that’s just some people talking; your prison is walking this world all alone.” I suspect Reims and Petry would agree.

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Random sketch

Alas, I’m flathunting at the moment, so the picture I wanted to have done this week isn’t done. So this week, instead, I present an outtake from another project – a first draught of a page, in which the stated requirement was simply for a girl to go into a guitar shop and buy a guitar. That the guitar might have an infernal agenda of its own was eventually deemed unsuitable, so we eventually went for something entirely different. But I think the idea might make for an interesting story in its own right… (click for slightly larger version.)

Buying a guitar

Buying a guitar

(Alternate ending: girl stares at guitar, then says, “OK, but I’m making a will. If I die, disappear or get dragged to Hell, you get chopped up into firewood.” The last panel’s the same, with the girl thanking her mother for the guitar, but the guitar’s quietly wailing “I want my lawyer….”)

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Plumbing

Having (temporarily) run out of music that it’s meaningful to me to discuss, I post one of my own works, this one concerning toilets.

(…this is 48 minutes late for the”posting on wednesdays” thing I signed up for [at least in my timezone], but whatevs dude.)

There was originally more here but I wrote it when inebriated (and drunkblogging is a bad habit to get into, I think) and it diverged from the topic of toilets, so I’m taking it down and maybe writing a separate post about it.

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Over the last few decades, countless articles and analyses have been written about the vocations crisis, the perceived shortage of priests and religious when compared with the always-increasing number of worldwide, or at least American, Catholics. The narrative always tends to be that, following the Second Vatican Council, something broke down in the Church’s ability to reach people — with a hint of irony for how lauded that particular ecumenical council tends to be — and that, now, we’re facing a situation in which there simply won’t be enough priests to minister to the faithful. Both Europe and the United States — I don’t know the situation for Canada, although I’d presume it fits into that paradigm — have experienced declines that, if not akin to the sort of cliff Wile E. Coyote would stumble off of unawares — only to look down, hold up a sign reading “Yelp!”, and plummeting to his doom — would certainly resemble a steeply-sloping hill down which, I dunno, Bugs Bunny might roll Elmer Fudd in a barrel or something before he smacked into a tree with an orchestral crash. Either way, the Church is presumed to be, at best, Elmer Fudd, and at worst, the unfortunate Wile E. Coyote, super-genius, in some way outfoxed by their respective nemeses.

I am no statistician — I took Statistics 208 for non-majors in college, and got a C, and mostly I only remember being 95% confident about everything — but I would like to propose, in my meager, non-expert sort of way, that the problem isn’t one of a lack of priests, but a lack of Christians; that what happened wasn’t anything as complex as some sort of breakdown in communication, but something as simple as the Sixties. Social mores changed precipitously in a very short period of time, and the social pressure of church attendance fell away, and so lots of people who didn’t want to be there to begin with simply stopped going. This process has only continued; Christianity, and Catholicism in particular, simply lack the force of social coercion we once had, and so our numbers appear to have fallen, when in reality, it appears to me that only our attendance has.

Let me explain a bit.

I recall, but since I can’t find the citation feel free to correct me on this, a recent Pew Forum survey which indicated that only about fifteen percent of American Catholics attend mass every week. That leaves us with nine million out of sixty million Catholics who are doing the bare minimum of practicing their faith. This isn’t counting Catholics who work at soup kitchens on Saturdays. This isn’t counting Catholics who give generously to the poor. This is mass attendance, which ranges from active involvement to faithfully sleeping through the homily while thinking the Eucharist is some sort of fun game of make-believe. Since mass attendance may be the most reliable gauge of involvement in the Church, a way to quantify, if not qualify, how many people really are functional members of the Church, we’re faced with the reality that the Catholic Church in the US is really fairly small. And for those nine million Catholics, we have 40,788 priests. This leaves us with a ratio of about 221 laypeople for every priest, if my remembered-statistic is correct; working with a 2008 CARA survey that gave us 20% for mass attendance, we’re still at 294:1. For comparison, in 1962, well before this crisis began, it was 771:1, in 1942 it was 617:1, and in 1903 870:1; we’re, perhaps, at this point still benefitting from the glut of ordinations in the mid-sixties, but the numbers, at least, speak very clearly to me that the problem isn’t a lack of priests — we’ve got plenty of those — but a lack of Christians. And this is a very real problem that doesn’t get very much attention at all.

For as much as the Church has been pushing the new evangelization, it has struck me that the new evangelization is targeted primarily at Protestants and former Catholics; we was Protestants to convert, and former Catholics to revert. The heavy lifting of evangelization is left to the followers of Luther and the other movements the sprang up in his wake; we are content merely to siphon off their harvest. I know this is not a universal reality — there is a wonderful parish in Bensonhurst, NY that is very actively engaging the never-ever-ever-Christian Chinese immigrant population in the area, going so far as to teach many of its parishioners Mandarin — but it’s prevalent enough. It’s a rare sight that an RCIA group features more than a couple of baptisms.

Truth is, the vast majority of baptized Catholics — five in six — leave the Church by the time they’re twenty-two. The numbers are higher in Western Europe.

Now, before this gets into just the hashing out of numbers — which I both hate doing and reading, and so my sincerest apologies for that — I’ve been trying to figure out why the Church isn’t more evangelically and culturally engaging, and honestly, I can’t say I have a solution, which is well-above my paygrade as a mere diocesan seminarian. But I have some speculations which both informed and been informed by my mixing of myself up in Christian radicalism and anarchism.

What makes Christianity engaging to begin with? While it’s true that some people are attracted to its theological rigors — “I thought my way through it, and concluded it’s true and logical and consistent, but mostly that it’s true, and so here I am” — there is the reality that praxis, the faith as lived, is itself supposed to be attractive; people looked at Mother Teresa and by and large really did say “Now that’s a Christian.” There is something immensely Christ-like in the embrace of poverty, the gift of self, the abandoning of worldly ambition to the pursuit of the Lord and his service, and I wonder if this if something we’ve stopped expecting of people. It’s as if the most we’ve concluded we can readily ask of anyone is to go to work, do their job, pay their taxes, raise their kid, and be a decent human being — all of which are good things which are hard enough to do, but where, in all of that, is the Gospel?

I was speaking some time ago with an old roommate, an immensely intelligent agnostic for whom I have great respect, and, this question in mind, I asked him point-blank what he thought of the Catholic Church. Having been told that I expected complete honesty, he gave it to me, and the very first thing he said was that, for a church that’s always talking about serving the poor, it has a lot of really nice stuff. That that we’ve given so much attention to our church buildings and vestments and sacramental tools, so we can have nice spaces to worship in, seemed immensely hypocritical to him, as though the two couldn’t really exist in the same space. For all as I’ve explained, in the past, that beauty is a good thing, that we build these places to honor God, for as much as he understood the Catholic position and reasoning on the matter, it didn’t seem to hold together. Splendor and serving the poor didn’t mesh.

I would not be surprised if this is a feeling widely shared. In a world that has lost all its trust for institutions, the Church seems to be just another one. This is not to say we aren’t doing good work, but it is to say we’re doing a pretty crappy job of getting the message out their that this work is of paramount importance. What’s worse, the past decade of sexual scandals has drained whatever credibility we had left as an institution away. We’ve got very little respect left in the wider culture. It’s all been torn away by our own failure and inaction, and even the work we’ve done to repair that damage has proven insufficient; the wider world still thinks of pedophile priests with ease.

We are at rock bottom.

There’s not a whole lot more we can do to make things worse.

We are suspected, unpopular, untrusted. We are hypocrites in funny hats. We are roundly mocked, and what is worse, much of it seems to be deserved. And now I’m wondering if all our splendor is officially no longer helping matters.

I want our church, which is true and wonderful and holy, to be evangelically engaging in the modern world. I want to do it without compromising the truth of what Catholicism is at it’s core — remaining theologically orthodox, keeping the sacraments and our sacramental theology, our respect for life, our opposition to the culture of death and its many permutations, keeping everything that’s essential — and shunting off the rest. We are no longer able to engage the world as we did during the Church’s height and age of splendors, so perhaps we should no longer be spending millions of dollars building cathedrals. Is the Eucharist not the Eucharist if it’s in a simple building? Do the sacraments falter depending on the setting? If a priest in mortal sin can offer absolution, a priest in a storefront church can do the same.

The core preaching of the Church is centered upon sanctification, the transformation of our lives according to the words and mission and preaching and gifts of Christ. And perhaps the time has come to consider preaching from poverty again, and shuttering our fabulous buildings as no longer serving a need. We  need to be able to evangelize the culture in different ways, because the ways we’ve found, which are basically to be faithful, mass-going, successful middle-class people, simply aren’t working, and so it struck me: maybe the problem is that we can’t do that anymore. Maybe Christ never meant for us to be prosperous. Maybe we’re supposed to be poor and dependent, worshipping in storefront churches and pooling our resources. Maybe we’re supposed to stop talking to Caesar and get back to the catacombs, if you will, or the farms, or the streets, anywhere but Washington. Maybe we need to shutter our cathedrals and sell off our cars and walk our way around the country as vagabonds like St. Francis. But I don’t know.

Either way, I’m wondering if respectability is what we should be working for, and so my thinking of late has embraced this sort of vision, because it proposes, very dramatically, a way to abandon ourselves and live our principles, the Gospel life of poverty and giving. It places God at the center of our lives, and makes a dramatic pitch to people looking for meaning: God is absolutely sovereign, and there is no other.

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A Tree

Tree platform

Tree platform

Something from a comic I’m working on.

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A greener beer

On a happier note, ST. PATRICK’S DAY WOO

I don’t have time to go drinking today, and unlike in Ottawa, here they don’t serve green beer and have lots of people wearing ridiculous amounts of green clothing and green sparkly gadgetry – alas. Maybe next year I’ll find time. I realise some people dislike the fact that a day dedicated to a great saint is now just party-time, and indeed, it can go to excess, which is not praiseworthy. I do not advocate getting so drunk you wake up next day realising you’ve traded in your carefully-kept chastity for a splitting headache. (As it happens I currently have quite a bad headache myself, albeit one that arose mostly from insufficient tea-drinking.) If you are unable to observe proper temperance and moderation when indulging in wild corybantic revels, it is better to stay at home. But if one is capable of carousing in all virtue and innocence, there’s nowt shameful in throwing a party in honour of a saint. [EDIT: see also comment from Nick below. My experience of the occasion is limited and largely benign – it’s not widely celebrated in England. But from what he’s said and from internet-chatting with another friend from the Americas, I understand that in universities particularly things get ridiculous, with lots of 18-year-olds who can’t yet handle alcohol getting absolutely hammered.]

Here’s a picture of St. Patrick I found lying around on the internets. If you’re in Ottawa, the Greek Melkite Catholic church down Vanier way has a painting of St. Pat on the south-facing wall – it’s worth taking a look, as the entire inside of the church is covered with beautiful, light pastel-coloured, Eastern-style icons. Alas, it’s not often open except for services, and the services aren’t very edifying unless you speak Arabic. (I went there once; being six foot tall and bright blond in a church full of Syrians and Lebanese, I felt like a rather conspicuous intruder.)

St. Patrick

St. Patrick

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Lord, have mercy

I haven’t had much to say about Japan – what can you say? But I pray, and can recommend the Chaplet of the Divine Mercy as possibly relevant. I usually pray a decade or two, with my own requests interspersed between each prayer. (It’s considered particularly fitting to pray it on Fridays at 3:00 PM, so I’ll be praying for the victims at that time tomorrow. Not that God is too concerned when we pray, He isn’t bound by time; but we are.)

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