• Rod Dreher reflected recently on American Indian “cultural nests,” or ways to transmit the cultural knowledge of threatened languages and the attendant meaning of those languages to new generations. Dreher frames this by citing the nest as both an incubator and a refuge from predation, which in this case is the force of wider American/English language culture:

    The idea is simple but profound: the natural cultural forces around us are destroying these languages, and with them cultures, even cosmologies. The only way to save them is to pass them on to the next generations, and the only way to do that is to study them intensely a sanctuary/incubator setting, and then to put what you learn there into use in daily life.

    Reading this, I thought this is the Benedict Option for languages. These speakers of dying languages and their children are not running for the hills to hide out, but they are creating communal institutions within which precious but severely threatened knowledge can be passed on, even as the younger generations live and work in the world. The elders know their children will be assimilated to a certain degree within the broader world, but they are trying as hard as they can to give them the knowledge and the love to hold on to their traditions and inheritance.

    Dreher draws a parallel between the value of cultural nests for cultural knowledge like language and the Benedict Option, a concept within Christianity that he’s written about before. Borrowing from this link to describe it: “How to live life as a whole. Not a life of worldly success so much as one of human success.”

    Churches, families, and religious schools that don’t become “nests” will not be recognizably Christian within this century. I’m convinced of that. Hence the Benedict Option.

    American culture, and dominant cultures generally, often find themselves influenced and sometimes even transformed in surprising and unexpected ways through the life of a coherent minority. I think cultural nests are a significant thing for Christians to consider, and they’re already in existence in an obvious way through secular things like college towns. There are plenty of models.

  • Miserere

    It’s Palm Sunday, the start of Holy Week for Christians. This is the week of Christ’s passion and death, preceding Easter. I want to mark today by sharing a piece of music that’s timely and remarkable:

    This piece is Psalm 51, but first set to music by Allegri around 1630. It is one of the finest and most popular examples of renaissance polyphony. It is often heard in Churches of the apostolic Christian tradition…

    Miserere mei, Deus is Latin for Have mercy on me, God. I think this transports the listener.

    A 2008 NPR interview brings out some of the history of this piece:

    Composer Gregorio Allegri’s “Miserere” is a piece of choral music so powerful that a 17th-century pope decreed it could be played only during the week leading to Easter—and then only in the Sistine Chapel. Jesse Kornbluth of talks about the “Miserere” with Jacki Lyden.

  • Folklore

    Siobhan Maloney writes in Humane Pursuits on the “three functions of fairytale,” relating those functions through her father’s annual reading of J.R.R. Tolkien:

    Tolkien isn’t suggesting the denial of or escape from reality. Instead, as Stratford Caldecott aptly describes, fairytales provide “…an escape into reality. It is the world of the everyday—boring, banal, dull, meaningless—that is the prison from which this kind of fantasy seeks to liberate us, not by distracting us from the real but by showing us the deeper patterns and meanings that lie concealed within it.” (Caldecott, A Hidden Presence, pg. 2). Fantasy enables you to escape the boundaries of time and space, in order to remind you that you are made for the eternal. The fairytale, Tolkien says, is the human attempt to satisfy the desire for a world that is deeper, richer, and more beautiful than the present one. It’s the recapitulation of our longing for a “paradise lost.” Fairytales make you remember.

    This reminds me of a line from Roger Scruton’s BBC documentary “Why Beauty Matters.” At one point he remarks (I’m paraphrasing) that the purpose of art is “to show the real, in the light of the ideal, and so transfigure it.”

    This is also what fairytales like Tolkien’s can do, and what folklore more generally can do. They can take our everyday experiences and help us see those real things in a fuller context. That enhanced perspective can transform our experiences by suggesting there is value in them beyond the obvious.

  • Maureen Mullarkey on the soma of art and sex education, relating an event that is to my perhaps naive perspective a culturally diminishing event: “…when a grown woman plays… by herself in the Musée d’Orsay, under lights, and in full view of other grownups, we know we are not in a playroom anymore.”

    I’m not interested in getting into the specifics of that event, but Mullarkey offers a critical perspective on our present sex ed approach:

    Children will hear nothing of courtship or tenderness. Instead, there will be much about prophylactic measures to avoid pregnancy and HIV. Brian Evoy, president of the Ontario Association of Parents in Catholic Education, tells The National Post that “our organization is very much in favour of the curriculum and all of the changes that will be made.” By the time Ontario’s little scholars reach puberty all reticence will have been vanquished. Steeped in government run sex-ed, they will understand sex as a value-free, mechanical activity, a recreational choice like any other. They will know all about the social construction of “gender” but nothing of morals, self-control, or commitment. Any lingering sexual shyness will have been coaxed out of them. Sexual shame will be the only sin left. Children will enter adulthood as the free, consenting, rutting species that Huxley anticipated.

    We’ve reached the point where any conversation of this sort is so calcified between the poles of abstinence on one side, which supposedly many remain intent on advancing, and a necessarily value-free, scientific/mechanistic perspective on the other.

    Another problem is that it’s more or less impossible to discuss this subject as an advocate for anything other than value-free immersion without being cast as a would-be paragon of chastity or sexual integrity. Which is to say in most cases, anyone who advances a particular set of values is suggested probably rightly so to be something of a hypocrite.

    And that’s the problem with values, and with advocacy of ideals. It’s human nature to fall short of our values. It’s also human nature, since hatred remains one of our indelible aspects, to respond with sanctimony rather than tenderness toward those we disagree with especially when we know they advocate for something which they themselves do not consistently achieve.

    Yet I’ll risk these things to affirm Mullarkey’s point:

    When we promote sex education, are we promoting a comprehensive approach?

    Are we conveying the values of genuine personal commitment in addition to the medical, chemical, and scientific approaches toward resolving issues inherent to personal longing and fertility?

    Are we advancing not only knowledge of reproductive prevention, but also knowledge of the productive roles of courtship, tenderness, ethics, responsibility, and charity within the context of loving relationships?

    If not, we’re not really transmitting an education that’s inclusive of the scope of human knowledge about sexuality. We’re just advancing our team’s version of the normative, which we’ll justify through whatever means we’ve lately decided.

    Which is as dogmatic and fundamentalist as anything that yesterday’s advocates of restraint alone should be rightly criticized for.

  • Hell

    Michael Novak on Hell:

    The Gospels picture Jesus warning that some people are casting themselves into the fires of Gehenna. Note: it is not fair to say that Jesus cast them there. Rather, no one goes to hell who does not reflectively and deliberately choose to turn away from God of her own free choice. And the real fire of hell is the acute consciousness, too late dawning, that you alone have chosen to be where you are, banished, as you chose, from His presence. …

    To my way of thinking… the most terrifying and bitter punishment that could await me in hell is the deep, deep regret that I have chosen my own banishment from the source of all beauty, all joy, all goodness, all truth. To have deliberately and consciously separated myself from all the pleasures and good things of life – from laughter and good red wine. To have sundered myself from communion with all brothers and sisters in the travails and blisses of human life. Not even Macbeth felt such bitter remorse. Hell is being trapped inside oneself. Or as Dante showed in his Inferno, trapped and immobile in the frozen ice of one’s own self-centeredness.

  • I’m heading to Saint Ignatius of Antioch in Yardley, Pennsylvania tonight to join the Knights of Columbus. The Knights of Columbus are the world’s oldest Catholic fraternal service organization. The Knights are driven by local councils, basically chapters, and have an enormous collective impact. I’ll be joining through the Fr. McCafferty Council #11013.

    After joining the Sons of the American Revolution two years ago I’ve felt like the Knights represents a natural companion commitment as the other side of the same coin. Rod Dreher’s recent insight also comes to mind here: “It is one thing for the church to be separate from the state, but a meaningfully different thing for religion to be separate from life.”

    I’m excited to be joining, and am sure I’ll write more about membership in the months and years to come. In the mean time for context, here are the Knight’s four principles:

    Charity – Our Catholic faith teaches us to “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” Members of the Knights of Columbus show love for their neighbors by conducting food drives and donating the food to local soup kitchens and food pantries, by volunteering at Special Olympics, and by supporting, both spiritually and materially, mothers who choose life for their babies. Knights recognize that our mission, and our faith in God, compels us to action. There is no better way to experience love and compassion than by helping those in need, a call we answer every day.

    Unity – None of us is as good as all of us. Members of the Knights of Columbus all know that – together – we can accomplish far more than any of us could individually. So we stick together…we support one another. That doesn’t mean that we always agree or that there is never a difference of opinion. It does mean that – as a Knight of Columbus – you can count on the support and encouragement of your brother Knights as you work to make life better in your parish and community.

    Fraternity – The Venerable Michael J. McGivney founded the Knights of Columbus, in large part, to provide assistance to the widows and children left behind when the family breadwinner died – often prematurely. The Order’s top-rated insurance program continues to do this today, as do individual Knights, who last year gave more than 10 million hours of their time to assist sick and/or disabled members and their families. In the Knights of Columbus, we watch out for and take care of one another.

    Patriotism – Members of the Knights of Columbus, be they Americans, Canadians, Mexicans, Cubans, Filipinos, Poles, or Dominicans, are patriotic citizens. We are proud of our devotion to God and country, and believe in standing up for both. Whether it’s in public or private, the Knights remind the world that Catholics support their nations and are amongst the greatest citizens.

  • God is

    The Catholic Thing’s January article clarifies (pushes back against?) the sometimes-tendency of Christians to argue for “the existence” of God:

    God—as understood by the Catholic Church and by most other theistic traditions—is not a being in the universe, a superior agent whose existence we postulate in order to explain some natural phenomenon, but rather, Being Itself, that which all contingent reality depends for its existence.

    In an earnest spirit, I think, many Christians engage in debates with non-believers who suggest that God doesn’t exist, citing science or whatever.

    What I love about Francis J. Beckwith’s excerpted point above is that it illuminates an incredibly delicate aspect of Christian theology. Namely, that Christians don’t believe God exists, but that God is.

    What I mean by this is that Christians believe that God is being. That is, that God is the metaphysical (beyond-physical) basis for reality. Everything that exists owes its being-ness, its reality, to God who is the basis for it. This is why Christianity is so concerned about a person’s relationship with Christ, because it’s a way to acknowledge that our lives are wholly owed to God who is the basis for all things.

    When we’re talking about whether God exists, we’re not seriously debating whether God is some creature hiding in or above the universe. He’s not “out there” someplace. He is “Being Itself, that which all contingent reality depends for its existence.” An example of something similarly mysterious is love. Love doesn’t exist. It’s not out there.

    It is, however, something felt forcibly and powerfully within us, and something we manifest to another through our lives, through our own being in relation to another.

  • Today marks the start of National Catholic Schools Week. I remember Catholic Schools Week being a big deal during my time in grammar school in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.

    It was a time for open houses to invite parents, parishioners, and visitors into the school to get a sense for what the place was like. It was a time for celebrating Mass with the special intention of recognizing Catholic education as a distinct social good that stands apart from the larger culture. Essentially, it was a time to recognize that Catholic education, at its best, can be transformational for both its direct participants and the larger culture.

    While Catholic education played a big role in my childhood institutionally, it was my grandparents John and Marion Shakely who played the most significant roles in my life after my mother. John taught social studies at Central Bucks High School for nearly 30 years, but he and my grandmother made the decision early to equip their children with a Catholic experience of education. That eventually trickled down to my experience, and so by the time I entered school I already felt like part of a larger community in time because of the shared Catholic experiences of my family. It continues to root our identity.

    It’s a much different world today from when my grandparents sent my aunts, uncles, and mother off to learn. Then, tuition was practically free for many years because parishes were able to cover costs. Later, it was something like a few hundred dollars in the first years of Archbishop Wood High School. As institutional Catholicism has changed, access to a Catholic education has become more challenging, too. A year’s worth of tuition at Archbishop Wood after fees stands at more than $7,000 today.

    The challenge of access to Catholic education is something my grandmother has sought to address in the years since my grandfather died in 2001. Yet a source of frustration for her has been the lack of institutional investment and distribution solutions for Catholic philanthropy. We were thrilled to learn about the founding of the Catholic Foundation of Greater Philadelphia, which enables anyone to create permanently endowed funds to institutionalize things like scholarship support, program funding, and grants. Recently I created the John & Marion Shakely Charitable Fund to perpetuate my grandparents’ tradition of support for access to Catholic education. The fund will support scholarships for Archbishop Wood students.

    We’re starting small, with an initial gift of $5,000. I’m hoping this Catholic Schools Week to raise an additional $1,000 that will be matched dollar for dollar. As the fund grows, scholarship support for students grows. It’s my hope to eventually build this fund to the point where it can provide substantial support for the Catholic Foundation’s competitive grants process, perpetuating a tradition of charity while enhancing opportunities for young people.

    Gifts are 100% tax-deductible and the process is simple. Visit the Catholic Foundation’s Donate page to contribute. Be sure to select “John & Marion Shakely Charitable Fund” as the designation when processing your contribution. Also, consider subscribing to my newsletter for the fund. I share a few updates each year on the state and impact of the fund, so you can see the impact of your support.

  • R.R. Reno of First Things delivered a talk last month to St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers. The talk is “In the Service of the Word: The Catholic Media and the New Evangelization.” First Things is part of my daily media diet, and it’s got a rich history as an effort to connect the thinking of public intellectuals with a wider audience.

    In their words they’re for cultivating a “religiously informed public philosophy for the ordering of society.” First Things matters to me because it’s a place that takes an appreciative thinking approach to Catholicism, meaning it respects Catholic theology and is content with advocating and reporting on the best means to live the faith in a manner that respects its surroundings. Firm in the essentials, flexible in the various particulars.

    Reno’s talk is a good one for understanding how First Things approaches Catholicism and how First Things tends to view Catholic’s position in contemporary American society. I particularly liked Reno’s comments in the last few minutes drawing out some of the characteristics of American Catholicism that are super important. They’re super important because they involve precise distinctions that are not often grasped:

    “I think the Catholic Church has a charism in America that’s distinctive, that doesn’t fit easily into various party categories. The Catholic Church never has, and it shouldn’t. We’re capable of affirming patriotism without nationalism, without nativism, because we’re a global church. We also didn’t fit in for a long, long time, and felt what it was like to be accused of being anti-American or un-American… We can affirm capitalism without individualism—with a sense of our responsibility to the common good. That’s distinctive. We can affirm modernity’s strong emphasis on freedom, while still emphasizing the important central, fundamental role of responsibility.”

    As an American Catholic I benefit from a double foundation for constructing my life. As an American, the foundation of the received wisdom of a revolution that sought to conserve the best aspects of democratic life within a system of Republican self-governance. As a Catholic, the foundation of a theology that provides both the source to govern my own life and the distance necessary to understand and to work toward the maintenance of a just social order.

    George Washington instructed the young nation that “religion and morality are the essential pillars of civil society.” Americans have always been somewhat uncomfortable with the role that religion and morality have played in appealing to the better angels of our nature. But a certain lingering discomfort is part of the nature of a sustaining a conscience.

    I hope the distinctive aspects of Catholicism that Reno outlines can continue to serve the role that Washington outlined, and help Catholics themselves make better sense of their place in society as people in this world but not of it.