Sunday, January 29, 2017

Reason Number 242,357 Why the First Roman Canon Helps Me Pray

Supra quae propitio ac sereno vultu respicere digneris: et accepta habere, sicuti accepta habere dignatus es munera pueri tui justi Abel, et sacrificium patriarchae nostri Abrahae: et quod tibi obtulit summus sacerdos tuus Melchisedech, sanctum sacrificium, immaculatam hostiam. Supplices te rogamus, omnipotens Deus …

“Be pleased to look upon these offerings with a serene and kindly countenance, and to accept them, as once You were pleased to accept the gifts of Your servant Abel the just, the sacrifice of Abraham, our father in faith, and the offering of Your high priest Melchizedek, a holy sacrifice, a spotless victim. In humble prayer we ask You, almighty God: command that these gifts be borne by the hands of Your holy Angel to Your altar on high in the sight of Your divine majesty, so that all of us, who through this participation at the altar receive the most holy Body and Blood of Your Son, may be filled with every grace and heavenly blessing.  Through Christ our Lord. Amen.”

Of course, Mass isn’t supposed to be about warm fuzzies (which is why I didn’t title this post, as I had instinctively intended to, “Why I Like the First Roman Canon”).  But it is undeniably true that warm fuzzies help dispose one towards prayer; and the opinion, ever since I first heard it in college, has always struck me as probable that God wishes us to make use of all the crutches at our disposal as we seek to grow in grace.  So while the final cause of a good vocal prayer ought to be communication with God, it is probably the case for most of us that this communication will only take place through some medium which is heavily tinged with emotion—whether that emotion be one of comfort or awe, or one of sorrow or anxiety.  And thus, I think I can say that the Roman Canon helps me pray by cultivating warm fuzzy feelings in me.

To some who love the canon, that probably sounds disrespectful.  And to some who find the canon excessively lengthy or dull, with its catalogues of saints and repetitious phrasing, it probably sounds absurd.  But I have felt this way about the canon for almost as long as I can remember—and I began regularly hearing it as Sunday Mass before even receiving my first Communion.  That is doubtless part of the reason for my sentimental attachment to it (as opposed to an equally strong rational attachment, which would, however, be matter for another post).  I think now I understand another reason for the emotional appeal of the canon, a reason which also goes a ways towards characterizing some of its more idiosyncratic characteristics, such as the aforementioned catalogues.

I just finished reading C.S. Lewis’s The Discarded Image.

The lovely thing about having a preverbal baby, you know,
is that they don’t care what you read to them at bedtime.
No, I don’t think she’s actually reading.  That’s supposed to be lace.
No, I’m not sure why the baby is in a tub.  Maybe he was fidgeting?
You know how it is with those Dutch babies.

Lewis’s purpose is to explain the medieval worldview, the medieval model of the universe—“the Model,” as he calls it for most of the work, although his epilogue makes it clear that he thinks we moderns have our own model, as does every age.  One of the salient features of the model is (though I do not think this is Lewis’s term) its population: it is full to the bursting of beings at all levels, from the stones to trees to animals to humans to “longaevi,” to angels, to God himself.  There is not blade of grass has not its vegetable soul, nor a planet without its daemonic (in the good sense) intelligence.  The very night sky is not black, but golden, except where the shadow of our poor earth falls on it; not empty, but full of pulsating light and life, in the form of those intermediate beings which inhabit the space above our atmosphere.  The medieval model is, in fact, very much like medieval paintings.  It is, as Lewis says, anti-agoraphobic.

This is what the first Eucharistic prayer reminds me of.  Indeed, while the prayer has yet more ancient roots, it belongs aesthetically to that mediaeval age.  And the lists of saints, like the Homeric catalogues, fit within that sort of worldview: a worldview where heaven and earth and the heavens between are populated, as one used to feel as a child the whole backyard was populated, with God’s creatures, populo suo, the nearest not so very far from where you sat.  And so, as a child, you sat and played, alone to the eyes of the adults, but hardly lonely; and—you being mostly but not altogether unawares—He looked on your delights in that garden with a serene and kindly countenance, and your pleasures were as gifts acceptable and pleasing to Him, as you imitated in miniature the meals and doings of the grownups, your mother and father and even your grandparents and greatgrandparents; your forefathers, if you knew their stories.  And if you were especially lucky that day, you might think that you saw your not-loneliness embodied in the garden, saw a fairy dancing in the muddy rivulet that crossed the grass after every rain (to your father’s endless irritation), a fairy who might fly from the grass below you to almost the clouds above.  And if you had that fancy, you would wish wistfully, for a moment, that it could be true, for you mostly knew that fairies weren’t.

And the splendid thing about being a grownup, if only you can still feel that same wish, is to have it fulfilled, and to be for a brief moment satisfied: for you know that true it is, and better than true.

… jube haec perferri per manus sancti Angeli tui in sublime altare tuum, in conspectu divinae majestatis tuae: ut quotquot ex hac altaris participatione, sacrosanctum Filii tui Corpus et Sanguinem sumpserimus omni benedictione coelesti et gratia repleamur …


A bit more history, for the academically curious:

Thursday, November 3, 2016

The Perilous Whiteness of Pumpkins

Color me still na├»ve, but when I first saw the headline for this piece (from which I have more or less stolen this post’s title), I assumed it was an entertaining spoof, dealing with the absurdity of the gourmet decorative pumpkin explosion.  Since it was something a tad more serious, I offer here my own assessment of our current state of emergency.  If anyone has further thoughts about how to saw through this gourdian knot, by all means leave them below.

It has come to my attention that in recent years, we have descended as a nation from our previous greatness, the greatness established by our foremothers in the kitchen—and our forefathers in the field—in their ceaseless efforts to perfect the perfect pumpkin for the hallway, the table, and the pie.  Having reached Peak Pumpkin sometime around 1950 or so, we now find ourselves in a strange, psychedelic world in which you have only to imagine any kind of pumpkin you like in order for it to appear.

Pumpkins are no longer orange; they are white; green; brown (brown?! the rainbow’s most boring color); even on occasion a hideous, sickly yellow.  No longer smooth, but bewarted.  No longer round, but distorted, tortured, even squashed—and they were already squash.  Once invariably large, they now come (like heroes) in all shapes and sizes.  The used to be respectable vegetables, and now their attitude can only be described as punkin’.

If you saw a produce product at any other time of the year that looked like this …

… would you ask it out? take it home?  I thought not.  You would shudder, avert your eyes, and wheel the grocery cart on.  If this turned up in the back of your fridge, you would shriek and call for your husband to remove it, stat, even though it was probably your fault that it got that way.  If teenagers left this in your driveway, you would call the police.  If its white cousin …

… apparated anywhere within a block of your house, you would dive for the holy water, in sure and certain fear of having seen a ghost.  Ghosts, respectable ghosts, anyway, used to buddy-buddy with pumpkins; they certainly did not impersonate them.  But to such depths we have fallen.

This, my friends, is what has gone wrong with our democracy.  Not education, not the lack of any virtue in particular, but our inability to distinguish proper vegetables from the escapees or a horror film has brought us to this pass.

It may already be too late to salvage your Halloween, but may I proffer an humble suggestion?  Find the nearest sledgehammer, walk outside to your front porch, and smash those pumpkins now. I promise, the kids on the block will be impressed.  Think of the example you will have set for future generations.

As for Thanksgiving: please keep those winter wonders in the appropriate sizes, shapes, and dimensions.  You don’t want to serendipitously poison the pie.

Don’t even get me started on Indian corn.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

We're All Going to Die

A large bowl (a sieve, actually) of leftover candy is sitting by the front door, taunting me.

For we, alas, did not encounter the expected hordes of Trick-of-Treaters.
There will be some happy college students this evening, though.

I’m fairly certain there is no diet in which Tootsie Rolls and Smarties are part of the suggested balance.  Then again, most of the diets that become popular enough to sift down to the level of my attention don’t seem to be especially “balanced”.  One either cuts out fats, or grains, or meats; one always cuts out sugar.

Sometimes I wonder what poor sugar did to anyone …
Aside from being saccharine, that is.

Supposedly one of the secrets to such diets is that a reduction of variety in the options available nearly always translates into a reduction in calories consumed overall, a notion which makes sense intuitively, though it never worked for me.  It is a far, far butter thing (or for me, at least an easier thing) to place butter on one’s white bread, and develop temperance with said item, than to eat ALL the gluten-free fiber-rich toast, or ALL the saturated fats.  Perhaps I am simply more tempted by the same sort of gluttony as the Patient’s Mother, than by the more recognizable kind?

At any rate, many people do seem to find Special Secret Food Groups diets helpful.  But an additional reason for their adoption is that such diets nearly always come armed with a fascinating theory about body chemistry, in which familiar words like “gut” partner with exotic foreigners like “lipid” or “alkaline”.  And I had always imagined that these explanations were mostly, well, bunk.  After all, it can’t be true that the Paleo diet and the Mediterranean diet are BOTH good for you …

Except that it seems that they are both good for you.  Also, they are both bad for you.  At least, that is the news from a recent (so you know it’s true) study.  We can eat Paleo, and lose weight and look amazing …

Emaciated, beautiful Frenchwoman who enjoys steak and bacon every day.

… or, we can eat Mediterranean, be sort of chubby, and live longer.

Happy old Italian lady who has been eating pasta her entire life.
Also, apparently, eggs.  (Oh, and she's probably Dutch.  But anyways ...)

As if eating healthily weren’t already hard enough, now we have choices, and choices to which there is no right answer.  It’s not the poison but the dose!  What makes you stronger kills you!  We’re all going to die!

Which is actually true, and a very useful consideration, on this feast of All Saints and this eve of All Souls.  We are, in fact, all going to die; and in the grand scheme of things it probably doesn’t matter much whether we go to heaven having satisfied our vanity or our carb cravings.  Neither will really be “satisfied” anyway, if heaven is the only real, the ultimate satisfaction.  And it would indeed be not simply a useful, but also an amusing consideration if the human search for The Perfect System to nurture the body should turn out, in the end (as this latest fallible study suggests) to have no solution.  Bodies, all bodies, and indeed all matter—as Aquinas warned us a several hundred ago—are doomed to wear out sooner or later; and any purportedly scientific system which tantalizes us as if we could avoid the fatal day is at best a distraction and at worst a temptation to Be Like Gods.

I don’t mean to say that we shouldn’t be prudent and temperate and good stewards of our bodies.  But I do think that it is ironic and appropriate that an age absorbed with physical satisfaction and perfection might ultimately have to face up to the realization that these are unobtainable—not merely obtainable at an unacceptable price, as our nightmarish dystopian movies love to remind us, but unobtainable simply speaking.  The physical is not the sort of thing that is perfectable.  Glorifiable, someday, God willing.  But not perfectable.  And at some point everyone has to face up to the this reality that he not only isn’t a perfect specimen, but also he can’t be, and, in fact, no one can.

Now, to check up on that bowl of smarties …