Why celebrate mass

I was at mass a few years ago at the Cathedral Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul in Center City Philadelphia, and wrote the following afterwards and thought it made sense to share.

It was a mass celebrating Latino heritage and was said by Bishop Nelson Perez of the Diocese of Rockville Centre. Bishop Perez was a local and pastor in West Chester previously, so it was something of a warm homecoming for him. The Mass was in Spanish which gave me more mental space than I typically find when it’s in English and am pulled into responding at the appropriate times.

Why go to Mass, at the most basic level? A friend shared the engraved illustration not long ago, and although I don’t know the source it conveys the traditional theological reasons:

But let me offer a non-theological basis for celebrating mass. This is the one place I’ll be this week where no one around me has any designs on me. No one wants to use me. No one wants anything. We’re just here to celebrate and worship. In that sense, we’re truly at liberty.

You’re free to retreat, if you’d like, into a mental space of solitude that we rarely get very much of in a noisy world of false urgencies.

The mass presents an opportunity every day to be a new person. To think of yourself differently. To reclaim a sense of oneself, and one’s essential role. And don’t we all want to be a new person in some way?

It’s a gift.

Summer scenes and sounds

It’s that time of year when summer is entering some of its final weeks, and the sounds of summer start to seem more pronounced for whatever reason. Here’s a view across the Schuylkill River toward University City from a few nights ago when it was hot, humid, and somewhat subdued:


And here are some sounds of summer from a night run more recently, in what could have been Fairmount Park:

How often do we really listen to what we hear?

When barriers dissolve

A scene from late last month in Washington when I was sitting outside at the Dubliner:


Along with a reflection on wholeness that I came across recently:

“When we look into the heart of a flower, we see clouds, sunshine, minerals, time, the earth, and everything else in the cosmos in it. Without clouds, there could be no rain, and there would be no flower. Without time, the flower could not bloom. In fact, the flower is made of entirely non-flower elements; it has no independent, individual existence. When we see the nature of inter-being, barriers between ourselves and others are dissolved, and peace, love, and understanding are possible. Whenever there is understanding, compassion is born.” —Thich Nhat Hanh

Nothing is more practical

I’m sharing two things today: a recent scene from Center City, Philadelphia after arriving at 30th Street Station, and a bit of Fr. Pedro Arrupe, S.J.’s wisdom:

“Nothing is more practical than finding God, than falling in love in a quite absolute, final way. What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination, will affect everything. It will decide what will get you out of bed in the morning, what you do with you evenings, how you spend your weekends, what you read, whom you know, what breaks your heart and what amazes you with joy and gratitude. Fall in love, stay in love, and it will decide everything.”

Giants v. A’s

A few scenes from the Oakland Coliseum last Sunday before I left California. We caught an Uber from the Marina District through Oakland to the Coliseum for the 1pm game, San Francisco Giants v. Oakland Athletics. It was my first time visiting either Oakland or the Coliseum. A hot afternoon in a fun atmosphere where functionally everyone there was a local, regardless of the team they were rooting for.

The A’s ended up winning 6-5 in the 10th inning on an error.

Capitalism, cultus, and culture

Michael Matheson Miller reflects on the question, “Does capitalism destroy culture?” Off the top of my head, if I had to answer this question in an elevator I might offer something like, “Yes, to the extent that markets and economic motives become the keystone of a society, then capitalism doesn’t so much destroy culture as displaces it in favor of material-driven competition.” But Miller’s piece is nuanced and a very helpful introduction to anyone considering this question seriously:

I will say from the outset that I support open, competitive economies that allow for free exchange, but I would not call myself a “capitalist.” Capitalism is generally a Marxist term that implies a mechanistic view of the economy and a false dichotomy between “capital” and “labor.” Capitalism also comes in a variety of forms and can mean many things. There is corporate capitalism, oligarchic capitalism, crony capitalism, and managerial-bureaucratic capitalism, such as we have in the United States. However, cultural critics of capitalism usually don’t make those distinctions and, even if they did, many would still be critical of an authentically free market.

So without trying to tease apart all of these strands at the outset and so risk never getting anywhere let me use the term “capitalism” and ask and answer the question with the broadest of brushstrokes. Does capitalism corrode culture? I think the answer is yes and no. …

… while capitalism does indeed transform, and even destroy, aspects of traditional cultural life, I would argue that the most destructive global forces of cultural transformation especially in the developing world come less from market economies than from the Western, secular, organizations like the United Nations, the World Bank, the NGO industry, and the U.S. and European governments. These powerful institutions wield “soft” and “hard” power to foist a reductionist vision of life upon millions of the world’s poor. People criticize McDonald’s and Walmart for cultural imperialism, but no one is forced to eat a Big Mac. Contrast this to activities of groups like the UN, UNICEF and Planned Parenthood, who impose secular ideas of family, motherhood, sexuality, abortion, contraception, and forced sterilization on the world’s poor. It is bad enough when a country like China does this to their own people, but when bureaucrats in Washington or Paris are manipulating poor families in the developing world, and tying aid packages to so called reproductive rights it is a naked act of cultural imperialism.

There now exists what the New York Times has called a “daughter deficit” and what The Economist has labeled “gendercide.” Millions of baby girls are being aborted in the developing world as people are encouraged by international agencies and NGOs to have small families. For a variety of cultural reasons, when forced to choose, many of the families choose to have baby boys and abort their unborn daughters. The consequences of the loss of all these human lives is of course incalculable, but that isn’t the extent of it. The birth ratio of boys to girls is now so skewed that this will have devastating social and political consequences.

This is not the result of free markets. It is a product of selfish consumerism, bad anthropology and faulty economics—an outgrowth decades of educational policy and top-down social and economic planning that grows out of the zero-sum-game fallacy, which in turn fosters an anti-natalist ideology that dominates development insiders. Not surprisingly, these insiders are rarely proponents of the free market, and if they do give the market a nod it is a kind of techno-bureaucratic capitalism ruled by elites who haunt Davos each year. …

While the market does enable people to indulge in a lifestyle marked by the illusion of radical autonomy, the main sources of such thinking and behavior are not market economics, but a number of harder to diagnose intellectual and spiritual crises that plague the west. These include things like reductionist rationalism that makes all questions of truth, beauty, and the good life a matter of personal predilection; a nominalist conception of human freedom where freedom is merely the exercise of the will separated from truth and reason; the radical individualism of Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau; and radical skepticism (see David Hume) which makes reason a slave to the passions.

A market economy can help spread these ideas, but it is not their source. I am not arguing that a market is neutral. Markets have clear positive and negative effects, but exacerbating a problem is not the same thing as causing it and it is simplistic to attribute to capitalism alone the effects of a host of intertwined forces of social change. …

Capitalism has profound effects on culture and it is a mistake to think that that the market economy is neutral or that markets left to their own devices will work everything out for the best. It is also a mistake to blame capitalism as the cause of cultural destruction. Market economies come with trade-offs and cultural dysfunction and cultural renewal are complex and cannot be explained by economic analysis alone. As Christopher Dawson reminds us, it is not economics, but cultus, religion, that is the driving force of culture. It is also a mistake to think that secularism is neutral. Modern secular progressivism has become the cultus of Western life and this plays a much more potent role in shaping culture than economics.

Capitalism is not perfect. Like democracy, it needs vibrant mediating institutions, rich civil society and a strong religious culture to control its negative effects. But we wouldn’t trade democracy for dictatorship. Nor should we trade the market for some bureaucratic utopia.

A commenter on Miller’s piece offers a lengthy response, but this part in particular is worth thinking on. For all the bemoaning of corrosive forces on the one hand, or incredible opportunity afforded by international markets on the other, this gets at the heart of just how radical a shift industrialization represented for human life:

“the breakdown of the traditional family certainly is – of course not exclusively – related to the physical separation of work place and family life, and while the working day has been reduced considerably, distances have increased, in some cases requiring long hours on the road to and from work, or imposing weekend family life…”

In miniature, this is why we say that neither markets nor technology (understood maximally as techne) are neutral. They will always imply or demand shifts in the way human life is lived. Perhaps often for the better in material terms, but at incredible cost even if the total cost were only the shift in individual and family life described above.

Sonoma picnic

A few scenes from our picnic at Cline Cellars in Sonoma from Saturday afternoon. We were out of San Francisco for only a few hours, but they were warm, sunny, and reinvigorating hours after waking up in a city absolutely covered in dreary fog.

We drove back to San Francisco around 5pm.

Fort Mason and elsewhere

I’m back in Philadelphia today after a great few weeks on the West coast, first in Seattle, then Napa, and then around the San Francisco Bay Area.

I’ll share a few more scenes this week from the past few weeks. I stayed in North Beach/Fisherman’s Wharf area most of last week before meeting up with friends who moved from Lower Pacific Heights/Japantown into the Marina District. We checked out a beer garden/open house style night at the California Academy of Sciences; the penguins were my favorite part of that experience.

Spent some time working outside in Union Square during a beautiful afternoon/evening last Friday, before meeting up with friends and heading to Fort Mason’s “Off the Grid” event featuring gourmet food trucks, beer, etc. A somewhat chilly but good time.

I do love San Francisco, because despite the ways that it shares in the derivitivity of other major cities, so much of its aesthetic, architecture, and cultural character still seem distinct. That’s worth taking pride in, even if few can afford it.

Mission Dolores Park

If your timing is right, to visit Mission Dolores Park is to visit a place where the world seems to have more color. It was that way when I visited last week, as clouds swept over downtown San Francisco. The elevation of Mission Dolores, combined with its terrain, make it probably the most remarkable city park I’ve seen. It’s the sort of place that feels like a truly dignified public space, a part of the public square where everyone can put aside whatever it is that they do professionally, and be human beings together.

A trend I see in public parks in Philadelphia is that they are tending toward professionally managed public spaces, wherein some event is either about to begin or there are paid minders milling about. Dolores, Washington Square Park, Rittenhouse Square—these are public squares designed in the older model that seem resilient all on their own merit, even if they’re not.

Mission Dolores’s history is rich, since San Francisco assembled the modern parkland in the early 20th century, to its function as a Jewish cemetery in the 19th century, to its Spanish roots in the 18th century:

Mission San Francisco de Asís, or Mission Dolores, is the oldest surviving structure in San Francisco and the sixth religious settlement established as part of the California chain of missions. The Mission was founded on October 9, 1776, by Lieutenant José Joaquin Moraga and Francisco Palóu (a companion of Junípero Serra), both members of the de Anza Expedition, which had been charged with bringing Spanish settlers to Alta (upper) California, and evangelizing the local Natives, the Ohlone.

The settlement was named for St. Francis of Assisi, the founder of the Franciscan Order, but was also commonly known as “Mission Dolores” owing to the presence of a nearby creek named Arroyo de Nuestra Señora de los Dolores, meaning “Our Lady of Sorrows Creek.” …

The original Mission was a small structure dedicated on October 9, 1776 … located near what is today the intersection of Camp and Albion Streets, about a block-and-a-half east of the surviving Adobe Mission building, and on the shores of a lake (supposedly long since filled) called Laguna de Los Dolores. …

The present Mission church, near what is now the intersection of Dolores and 16th Streets, was dedicated in 1791. At the time of dedication, a mural painted by native labor adorned the focal wall of the chapel. The Mission was constructed of Adobe and part of a complex of buildings used for housing, agricultural and manufacturing enterprises (see architecture of the California missions). Though most of the Mission complex, including the quadrangle and Convento, has either been altered or demolished outright during the intervening years, the façade of the Mission chapel has remained relatively unchanged since its construction in 1782–1791. …

The Mission chapel, along with “Father Serra’s Church” at Mission San Juan Capistrano, is one of only two surviving buildings where Junípero Serra is known to have officiated…

Fisherman’s Wharf

Earlier this week I walked along Fisherman’s Wharf and eventually ducked into In-N-Out for lunch. I took my platter outside into the little Anchorage Square courtyard and enjoyed the summer afternoon along with my meal. Visitors from Asia, Latin America, and Europe passed by, speaking to one another in their native tongues, as I sat and ate. That’s one of my favorite things about San Francisco: it’s like an open-air version of New York, a place where the world comes to visit, but you have more of a chance to see and meet some of these folks out and about than you do in the comparatively denser and sometimes more claustrophobic New York streets.

That’s something else, specific to Fisherman’s Wharf, that I thought about. Namely that Fisherman’s Wharf feels like a much more relaxed, more tolerable Times Square. If you want to visit New York and pay for Olive Garden in Times Square, amidst the chaos and noise and gimmickry of Times Square, more power to you. You can do something of the same thing at Fisherman’s Wharf, but it’s an Applebee’s here, and generally most of the natural world worth admiring remains free. Avoid the junk.