The Fourth of July is, hands down, the loudest day in our Bridgeport neighborhood. It’s always amusing when we have a new person in the community this time of year, impishly warning them what is coming: an hours-long, non-stop barrage of explosions coming from every conceivable direction. Many of our neighbors leave for a few days, especially those with dogs. We, too, used to find a refuge away from the city. Hours of explosions throughout the night is not conducive to a contemplative atmosphere, to say the least. We’ve learned to make peace with the situation by watching edifying movies into the night and having a sleep-in on the 5th.
Articles tagged with virtues
I wrote several days ago something to the effect that “things are worse in the Church than people think.” This sentiment is worth qualifying and examining.
Mainly, I’d like to distinguish what I mean from what Rod Dreher means when he writes similar things. As I understand him, he sees Christian institutions under imminent attack from secularizing forces. He fears that Christians are oblivious to the seriousness of the threat. In my experience, Christians are plenty aware that demographics trends and political developments do not bode well for the Church in the immediate future. What he perhaps is responding to is the fact that few Christians make this their first concern. I don’t think that this is necessarily complacency in many cases. To explain this, let me say something about institutions.
Alasdair MacIntyre, whose famous St. Benedict quote is the inspiration for Dreher’s “Benedict Option,” is a man whose comprehensive thinking on modernity, morality, and faith deserves as much attention as one can afford. He spends almost an entire chapter on institutions in his seminal book After Virtue. Institutions are important, but should always be secondary to practices. An institution like a chess club brings together persons interested in playing chess and fostering its proper enjoyment. The club itself is not a substitute for the actual practice of playing chess. We all know that institutions tend to have their own internal logic that can often interfere with the practices they are meant to foster and protect. Therefore institutions can only function well and in proper subordination to practices if the members are virtuous. And, as MacIntyre makes clear elsewhere, virtues are learned in practices, not in the bylaws of institutions.
In my opinion, most Christians are aware that longstanding institutions are endangered. And I would agree that many of us Christians are not spending lots of time worrying about it. Ambivalence in this regard has two sources. The first is a recognition that our current institutional arrangements are often unable to surface the right kinds of virtuous leadership, and so tend to be self-defeating. The response of American bishops to the sexual abuse scandal demonstrated (and continues to demonstrate) that the institutional arrangement (meaning the current structure and operating modes) of the bishops’ conference is faulty. This is to be distinguished from the theological necessity of the episcopacy or even the virtue of individual members. Bishops could choose to organize themselves differently, but this would require hard thinking about the precise practices that the bishops’ conference is meant to foster and protect. The Council documents that encouraged the formation of these institutions are somewhat vague on this point and were, perhaps, slightly naive about how institutions can corrupt practices.
The second source of ambivalence stems from the typical Christian concentration on real practices. This is to say that the average Christian is more concerned about the practice of virtue at ground level than the institutional backing that supposedly is undergirding it. Another way to look at this is to say that Christians are already developing their own local, ad hoc institutions (which is what the Benedict Option is supposed to encourage). The collapse of larger structures that provide tax shelter for a religious soup kitchen may or may not impact the soup kitchen itself. But Christians will, in one way or another, find a way to feed the hungry. It’s what we do. And I see so much of this in my everyday life, even from the relative obscurity of the cloister, that it seems ungrateful to fret about difficulties to come, even while I do see the need to prepare for them. I’d rather point to the exercise of faith around me and encourage the Christians I know to continue the work of virtue than worry about something that hasn’t happened yet, and may or may not in fact happen. This work is being done by the laity, a visible fruit of the teaching of Vatican II.
Last of all, the mention of virtue brings me at last to explain what I mean when I say that things are worse than people might think. What I mean by this is that our Western culture, especially in America, has been somewhat less-than-fully-Christian for many generations now, and that reviving a genuine, thoroughgoing practice of Christian virtue is a lot more difficult than the average person might think. This is something I can vouch for firsthand. I am a cradle Catholic who has mostly practiced by faith all my life. And yet, I am continually amazed at how far I have to go to be genuinely holy. Now, putting it that way illustrates that this is not pessimism or frustrating, or even necessarily cause for great fear. If you read the lives of the saints, you will discover that most saints had this same experience (which does not make me a saint, by the way). Love of a transcendent God means, in the words of Fr. Michael Casey, being perpetually out of one’s depth. Where I think there is some naivete is in our American optimism that “most people are basically good.” This is a nice, generous sentiment. But it does not help us to gain a lot of energy in the spiritual battle, in which we must first notice that in every heart there are large swaths of unevangelized heathendom. These are, of course, open to hearing the Good News! Which makes them, in their way, “good,” if broken and in need of healing. This healing is what we must first be about, and only if this happens will institutional reform follow in any meaningful way. In the short term, this may mean the tottering and elimination of many institutions. Some may be sad to see them go. But the long-term needs of the Faith may require this purification.
Pray Tell Blog recently posted my review of Benedicta, a CD collection of Marian chants sung by the monks of Norcia. It’s really two reviews in one. One part of me admires the lovely singing, the warmth of tone, and the ringing intonation of the brothers’ voices. On this level, the recording stands up with the better chant recordings I’ve heard. The other part of me is uneasy, however, about some choices the monks made. Among these choices was their use of the “Solesmes method” of interpretation (which, as I understand, is no longer used even at Solesmes Abbey itself), which I identified as part and parcel of the larger problem of presenting the chants without context. The lone comment on the blog suggests that it shouldn’t matter whether the Solesmes method or some other approach is used. What matters is that the music is beautiful.
Even before reading the comment, I was puzzling over what I take to be the importance of getting past the Solesmes method. Is my position truly defensible? Or is it a personal preference? I believe that my position is rational, and therefore to be preferred to a ‘pre-rational’ assessment.
But defending my position will take some work. Let me give an example of the uphill battle we’re talking about here.
I was at a reception after Vespers recently, speaking with two members of our own Schola Laudis. I mentioned to them that one of the things driving my interest in chant and Renaissance music at the liturgy is that I was seeking a rational way to go forward with the composition of church music. I meant by this that we should have reasons for choosing one type of music over another. When it comes to church music, it seems that we are usually content with saying that we want music that is beautiful. Fair enough. Would it be too pedantic of me to ask why we consider some music to be beautiful and other music to be maudlin, ugly, or overly sentimental? Some people consider “Send in the Clowns” to be a beautiful song (me…not so much, though I get its appeal). I personally find the Prelude to Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde to be quite beautiful, in its way. These are not, and should not (I think) be models for church music. Many people, on the other hand, find Gregorian chant dull, elitist, hard to understand, difficult to sing with any connection to one’s emotions, etc. Yet church documents make very clear that this style is the basis of our sacred music tradition.
Much of what we take to be beautiful depends on our cultural upbringing and, one hesitates to point it out, on our level of achievement in virtues like moderation, chastity, and humility. Lacking such virtues might lead us to prefer ecstatic music to sober music, manipulative music to ordered music, or simply music that we liked as children to music that adults tell us we’re supposed to like when our tastes develop a bit more.
Therefore, simply saying that music ought to be beautiful is not specific enough. Church music needs to be beautiful to certain types of persons. And those of us who are not yet those sorts of persons need to be able to make an act of faith that the beauty of such music will become more apparent as we grow in virtue and knowledge. Furthermore, I think that it is reasonable, based on experience, to hope that exposure to “virtuous” music will actually assist us in growing in virtue (this argument goes back at least to Plato, though it is much contested). We have more likely been exposed to the opposite phenomenon, someone descending into vice accompanied by depressing, libidinous, or cruel music.
What remains, then, is for me to explain why the approach taken by the Norcia monks is delightful on one level, but, in my opinion, does not quite approximate the beautiful in the fullest sense. Furthermore, I should be able to show that their recording falls somewhat (not entirely, mind you) short of what it could have been because of specific choices that they made: the use of the Solesmes method, and the somewhat random manner in which the chants were selected (random with regard to liturgical rationales). These proofs will have to wait for a later post.
Bonus tracks: Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde…music that is not quite chaste, deliberately eliding tonal boundaries in a manner uncomfortably parallel to the elision of marital boundaries in Wagner’s personal life at the time of its composition. He was falling in love with Mathilde Wesendonck, and perhaps carrying on an affair with her. Wagner’s indiscretions resulted in his separation from his wife Minna.
Here’s my example of ‘ecstatic’ music, “Giant Steps” by John Coltrane, a piece not without its own kind of beauty and order, yet clearly not in any way a model for church music.
And surely you didn’t think I’d leave you without “Send in the Clowns…”
Christians are called to conversion, to become different kinds of persons, a different kind of community. The liturgy is the place where we learn what sort of persons we are to be. I’ve given a number of theological reasons for this in recent weeks. I’d like now to turn to some other considerations.
First of all, what are we being converted from? The typical answer would be, “Sin.” And this is correct. But there is actually something more, something subtler that the gospel reveals. Baptism was frequently referred to in the early church as “Enlightenment.” So not only did baptism bring forgiveness of sins and sanctifying grace, but it brought about a change of thinking, a revelation, light and clarity where there had been darkness and obscurity, sight where there had been blindness.
The typical blind person in the gospels is, revealingly, the Pharisee. The Pharisees, it should be noted, were generally held to be models of virtue by the Jews of the day, and with good reason. They followed the Torah, kept ritually clean, tithed, looked after the poor, and all the rest. And yet, the Lord refers to more than one of them as blind. From this we can see that “sin”–understood as transgressions of specific laws–is not sufficient as an explanation of the worldview that we are meant to turn away from.
Saint Paul exemplifies this situation. He says in his own words that by the standards of the law, his younger self–a Pharisee–was blameless. What changed? We are apt to say something like, “He realized that he needed to be saved by faith instead of the law.” Now this gets us closer. But recall the question we are asking: from what sort of life are we being converted? This can’t be a rejection of the law, since those who do not keep it and prevent others from keeping it are least in the kingdom.
In Chapter 7 of Paul’s letter to the Romans, Paul makes some suggestive (though difficult) remarks. He writes about “sinful passions.” This word “passion” comes to play a big part in monastic spirituality and later throughout the Church (though with somewhat less emphasis). Passions are not the same as feelings. Simple movements of emotion are a natural part of our bodily structure. A feeling becomes a passion when we distort it by liking it beyond reasonable measure, seeking it out, treasuring it, allowing it to bend our minds. This is the source of blinding. When we are under the spell of a passion, we no longer think straight. We all know this in some obvious cases. All one has to do is listen to talk radio or read internet comment threads to discover that anger renders people narrow and illogical. We all have known persons (perhaps ourselves) who, enticed by an attractive person, leave all caution and good sense to the wind.
The law itself can have this effect. Paul was so good at the law that he took pride in fulfilling its prescriptions, and this pride became a debilitating passion in him. So much so that he failed to see that he was acting against God when he was persecuting the early Christian sect. A wiser Pharisee, Paul’s own teacher Gamaliel showed better sense when he urged that Sanhedrin to leave the Christians alone, lest they “even be found opposing God [see Acts 5: 33-40].” Young Saul thought he knew better than Gamaliel and even convinced the Sanhedrin to go against Gamaliel’s sound advice [see Acts 22: 3-5].
Now to our peculiar danger: according to Alasdair MacIntyre, our Western culture is an emotivist culture, and has been for some time. What is emotivism? I will use one of the next posts to give a fuller answer to that question, but here’s an attempt at a short answer. An emotivist is not as interested in truth as he or she is in effectiveness. And to oversimplify more, an emotivist wants to put in effect whatever he or she feels to be good. If MacIntyre is correct, we have wandered into an institutionalized blindness, for we have placed the passions in the driver’s seat, unaware that our arguments are not rational (an emotivist only pretends to be rational because an argument that appears to be rational is more effective than one that is naked nonsense).
If the above is true, our conversion today needs to be away from emotivism toward genuine Truth and virtue. This is the spiritual analog to the argument put forward by MacIntyre over thirty years ago in After Virtue. It is worth noting that the traditional spiritual triad of the purgative, illuminative and unitive ways begin with the healing of behavior (purgative) and then of the mind (illuminative). For reasons that I hope to show in my coming post on emotivism, the problem with emotivism is precisely that it disposes us to willfulness and blindness, the opponents of virtue and truth. This can be true even when we have the outward appearance of a devout life of prayer and service. Emotivism hampers our ability to present the gospel to others, since it disposes us to hear the gospel in terms of effectiveness (and effectiveness in terms of realizing personal desire, not effectively achieving actual justice or compassion), rather than in terms of truth.
There is a lot to unpack here. Please send any questions you have to me, and I will try to clarify anything that you are having difficulty understanding. I will try to go slowly, as this is an important topic and worth the time it takes to master it.
The liturgy is the primary place where this happens. And this is why the liturgy first disorients in order to re-orient us as new kinds of persons.
What kind of persons are we to become?
If I may coin a term, we must become eschatological persons.
The eschaton is the end-time, the goal of history, the eternal life in communion with the Holy Trinity that we hope for. A person who is eschatological lives already with one foot in this reality.
Let me unpack a bit of this today.
Becoming a different kind of person really is a matter of kind and not degree. The aim is not to become better at some set of behaviors that we already possess, to be nicer, more generous or happier. Becoming a different kind of person involves receiving and cultivating capacities that my old self did not possess. Let me use music again as an analogy. At age seventeen, when I first heard the album Close to the Edge by the band Yes, I couldn’t make heads or tails of the music. As a result, I judged it inferior to the music I liked at the time, mostly variations on blue-eyed soul and the later New Wave bands of the mid-1980’s. The album was on one side of a cassette tape, and I liked the music on the other side. So rather than rewind, I began flipping the tape over and playing Close to the Edge without listening very closely (I used to listen while practicing basketball and while running). After a few such passive listenings, I suddenly realized that I was actually able to identify recurring themes, and I began to have a sense for how the very energetic opening section was constructed musically. After some months, I had a capacity that I did not have before, a capacity to understand this difficult kind of music. I wasn’t necessarily a better listener, or a more discriminating listener. Rather, my ears had changed, my mind and heart had changed. Close to the Edge became one of my favorite albums.
Now conversion to Christ is analogous, though stronger. In my example, one might argue that in fact, I already had the capacity to understand Close to the Edge, but it was latent and needed actualization, to use Aristotle’s term. By contrast, when we are initiated into the “things handed down to us,” the Christian faith, we really do become new creations. By grace, we receive a share in the divine nature. Therefore we receive potentialities and capacities that we did not have before baptism [it is perhaps important to note that all human beings have the capacity to receive this divine life; but the divine life is not present in the same intimate way before baptism].
What are these new capacities? We would normally group them under the three theological virtues of faith, hope and charity, and the gifts of the Holy Spirit: wisdom, understanding, counsel, knowledge, fortitude, piety, and fear of the Lord.
Here’s the trick, though. Since these virtues and gifts are proper to the divine nature and not our own, their exercise should, at first and perhaps for prolonged periods of time, feel unfamiliar, perhaps even strange and uncomfortable. We might not even recognize what it feels like to walk by faith, to act in charity or live in hope, even when this is actually happening, just as we aren’t usually aware of our breathing until we pay attention. We can become accustomed to the divine nature at work in us through self-denial (which reduces the distractions of the flesh to allow us more freedom in the Spirit), and through prayer. The work of asceticism and prayer is the work of owning this new self, making it who we really are.
The liturgy is the primary place where we are acclimated to the divine life. There we co-operate with our high priest and Head, Jesus Christ, to offer worship to the Father in the Spirit. We are immersed in the divine life, and it appears to us, as it were, through the senses. The visible, audible, and tactile signs of the liturgy really do communicate God’s loving, enveloping, and suffusing presence. The liturgy conforms and accustoms us to the divine nature, to the life of heaven, the eternal life to which we aspire, the celestial commonwealth that is our true abiding homeland.
But the liturgy will often feel unfamiliar, strange, perhaps even a bit irritating at times for the same reason that the divine life is at first unfamiliar. It is not ours; we didn’t invent it based on some already-existing human capacities that we discerned. The liturgy is a gift from God, attuned to and ordered for the human person, to be sure, but not of the human person.
This is why efforts at liturgical reform that are based in rationalism, trying to help the liturgy “make more sense,” are misguided at best. We only begin to understand the deepest logic of the liturgy when we have become totally transparent to the Divine Will, when our minds have been truly renewed in Christ. And unfortunately, there is some reason to think that, in the West, we have been truncating and rationalizing our liturgical observances for some time, probably coinciding to some measure in the rise of the centralized, monarchical papacy during the high middle ages. Which is to say since the end of the Benedictine centuries (ahem). As active religious life became more the norm and the papal curia became more involved in the standardization of the liturgy throughout Europe, the usual drift has been toward simplification, utility, and so on. The last thing the liturgy can be is utile (David Jones’s wonderful term) or useful. It is divine, and God has no need of spaceships or our worship for that matter. The liturgy is a gratuitous gift to His creatures, a bridge between the creaturely and the Creator. In a utilitarian world, this will be profoundly uncomfortable for many of us (what if Mass started to take two hours? Would we stick it out?). All the fuss about candles, processions, maniples, altar cloths…I agree that this can be irritating, and the liturgical traditionalists sometimes can be their own worst enemies. Perhaps because the tendency even for a traditionalist is to find a water-tight reason why you need this or that thing, to make it make sense, rather than allowing the profound uncanniness of liturgy to break down our human agendas and replace them with the divine.
The liturgy is not utile. It does exist for any end in this creation, which is also why it is eschatological. I hope to have more to say on this point in future posts.
Seven or eight years ago, I was invited by a group of priests of the Marquette (Michigan) diocese to give a series of talks on music and morality. They were very receptive to my approach and suggested that I might set down my thoughts in a book. Hence the memoir I mentioned in the previous post. I chose the memoir format because music and morality are so difficult to write about in the abstract. And indeed, I more recently gave a similar talk at the University of Virginia’s St. Anselm Institute and faced some tough questions which, to be honest,
Fr. Joseph Koterski, S.J., in his Great Courses CD’s on the Nichomachean Ethics of Aristotle comments that new readers of Aristotle’s ethics are frequently surprised that he spends almost no time discussing rules of behavior. What is right behavior, then, if not obedience to rules? Don’t we have the Ten Commandments? And a host of other rules? Aren’t Jesuits supposed to be jesuitical and concerned about minimal applications of rules and maximal excpetions? What’s with Fr. Koterski and Aristotle?
St. John Cassian demonstrated that he is in the Aristotelian tradition when, in his first Conference, he asks “What is the goal of a monk?” And he answers this by saying that monks choose their actions based on a calculation of what is most likely to bring about the Kingdom of God in their lives. The word ‘calculation’ might sound odd here. All I mean by this is a reference to the cardinal virtue of prudence. And by mentioning prudence as a virtue, I’ve indicated what is different about Aristotle and Cassian versus modern ideas about ‘morality’ or ethics. Aristotle and Cassian are interested in achievement of a goal: happiness for Aristotle*, the Kingdom of God for Cassian. Good actions move us closer to our goal and evil actions move us away. Rules can help us in important ways: they tend to condense the hard-earned wisdom of those who have been in the quest before us. But they can almost never be adopted naively. The second Conference makes this clear. There are many stories of monks who failed to achieve the Kingdom because of an over-reliance on a limited number of hard and fast rules.
But what about the Rule of Saint Benedict? The translation of the Latin Regula as ‘Rule’ is another example of what I all ‘linguistic drift’. We no longer easily sense what is meant by regula, and our word ‘rule’ only gets at a small part of it. A regula is a guide to behavior, a framework, a template. It doesn’t do your thinking for you; it provides the contours of the arena in which the spiritual battle is to be fought by monks. Saint Benedict is very clear that he does not wish to legislate a series of rules, and throughout the Regula, he gives the local abbot the discretion to dispense with virtually any particular rule. This is why the abbot should be a man learned in divine things; he must know how to assess the particular situation and adapt himself to many different characters and temperaments.
When Saint Paul writes that the letter of the law kills and the spirit gives life, he is teaching in this vein. The danger with rules, as the monks of old discovered, is that they tend to deceive those who put too much trust in them. The legalistic monk is tempted by vainglory and pride, and is tempted to judge his fellow monks who seem to fail at keeping the rules strictly enough. Self-justification through the keeping of rules is far from the justification that we receive unmerited from the love of God in Jesus Christ. Preoccupation with rules leaves uninspected the deeper questions of the heart.
None of this is to say that no laws are necessary, or that sin is no big deal. Rather, it is to alert us to a particular modern problem we have, living as we do in liberal democracies where laws are paramount. Laws in our political system are there to allow individuals to pursue their own personal goals, rather than teaching us how to pursue common goals, like eternal life with God. The teachings of Christ are meant to bring us into communion with God and with neighbor.
God’s blessings to you!
Fr. Peter, OSB
* It is important to specify that for Aristotle happiness is not mere pleasure, but knowing how to take pleasure in truly noble, good things, even Goodness itself. In this case, he is quite close to Cassian, for whom Goodness would simply be God. And to delight in God, to seek the face of God, is to seek His Kingdom.
The meaning of human life can only be understood in terms of goals