Sorry, but Catholics Have More Fun

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Carnival in Colombia.

If you’re looking for a religion that likes to party, I highly recommend Catholicism.

I’m not kidding!

For me, one of the strongest draws to the Catholic Church was what we might call its folk piety, that is, the way the faith of the laypeople has been expressed over the centuries through meals, traditions, and yes, parties. Parties are a sorely missing aspect of Protestant devotional life, ever since the logic of primitivism and sola scriptura led the various denominations to hollow out their liturgical calendars.

But Catholics, with our angels, apparitions, and saints’ days, enjoy a year completely stuffed with reasons to celebrate. That (combined with a much more lax culture around alcohol), leads me to argue that, well, one reason I’m becoming Catholic is that it’s a lot more fun.

Let’s take our neighbors to the south as an example.

From December 9-12th, in the middle of Advent, while Protestants in America are either solemnly lighting their Advent wreaths or listening to sermons about (for conservatives) the real meaning of Christmas or (for progressives) the dangers of consumerism, Mexicans are up for three days celebrating the apparition of Our Lady of Guadalupe, patroness of México.

Skim through this video and look at the flowers, the music, and the food:

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That’s how the holiday season begins in Mexico.

And it doesn’t end on Christmas. On January 6th, when our Christmas lights are back up in the attic and the everyone has returned to work, Mexico is still partying. Now it’s El Día de los Tres Reyes (Three Kings’ Day), where all of Mexico celebrates the coming of the Magi to adore the child Jesus. More music, more food, more parades:

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And there’s more! A month later, on February 2nd, while even the most liturgical-minded Protestants in America are waiting around for Lent to start, and the rest of us are trying to stave off seasonal depression, Catholic Mexico is partying again, this time for Candelaría, a celebration of Mary’s visit to the Temple with the infant Jesus.

(OK, ignore the muñecas, which even I find a little creepy.)

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There’s more where that came from, of course, not least among them Día de los Muertos, Mexico’s take on All Souls’ Day.

But the traditions of Mexico are just one example of how Catholics like to party. We might also look to St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland, St. Joseph’s day in Italy, or St. Lucia’s day in Sweden. And we can’t forget Carnival, when nearly every Catholic country indulges in a little revelry—much more revelry, I imagine, than most clergy might be comfortable with!

Might I suggest that Catholicism, perhaps more than any other expression of Christianity, is committed to celebrating the story of Jesus in all its fullness? It begins with Christmas and Easter, certainly, but it also includes His Mother, His disciples, and every little saint that He has brought through Heaven’s doors. And so, in the Catholic Church, there’s just more reasons to celebrate!

And we could all stand to have a little more fun.

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Saturday Links 10/3/20

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Pope Francis sent out an apostolic letter on Thursday, the 1600th anniversary of the death of St. Jerome. It’s a (long) exposition of the saint’s life and his continuing relevance for today, when knowledge of Scripture is so desperately lacking among Christians, not least due to the difficulty of finding trustworthy interpreters:

Biblical passages are not always immediately accessible. As Isaiah said (29:11), even for those who know how to “read” – that is, those who have had a sufficient intellectual training – the sacred book appears “sealed”, hermetically closed to interpretation. A witness is needed to intervene and provide the key to its liberating message, which is Christ the Lord. He alone is able to break the seal and open the book (cf. Rev 5:1-10) and in this way unveil its wondrous outpouring of grace (Lk 4:17-21). Many, even among practicing Christians, say openly that they are not able to read it (cf. Is 29:12), not because of illiteracy, but because they are unprepared for the biblical language, its modes of expression and its ancient cultural traditions. As a result the biblical text becomes indecipherable, as if it were written in an unknown alphabet and an esoteric tongue [ . . . ]

Jerome can serve as our guide because, like Philip (cf. Acts 8:35), he leads every reader to the mystery of Jesus, while responsibly and systematically providing the exegetical and cultural information needed for a correct and fruitful reading of the Scriptures. In an integrated and skillful way he employed all the methodological resources available in his day – competence in the languages in which the word of God was handed down, careful analysis and examination of manuscripts, detailed archeological research, as well as knowledge of the history of interpretation – in order to point to a correct understanding of the inspired Scriptures.

Probably nobody online has had more influence on my thinking than Richard Beck, a Protestant psychology professor who moonlights as a theology blogger. I found myself nodding in agreement with this post, from a series called “The Teleological Gaze”:

Camus gets right at the question in the beginning of The Myth of Sisyphus: “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.” Why is life worth living?

That’s a great question, but without a teleological gaze pretty damn hard to answer. Oh sure, the talented and the affluent answer the question easily. The “winners” are having a delightful time. With their lives full of meaningful work, leisure time, and creative outlets, it’s easy for these few to crush the existential game of building meaning out of the resources at hand within the bounded set. But for the rest of humanity, answering Camus’ question can be difficult. Despair is always close at hand. Our work isn’t engaging, creative, fulfilling or self-actualizing. Opportunities for self-care, restoration, and self-exploration are rare if non-existent. Life within these bounded sets can be very hard.

Consequently, meaning, purpose, value, worth, and significance have to come through an outward turn, from outside the bounded set. This is the genius of religion, that I don’t have to answer Camus’ question all on my own. I don’t, in fact, have to answer it at all.

Man, this sentence from D.L. Mayfield:

I can no longer call myself an evangelical, because what defines a white evangelical in the United States has become a longing for an authoritarian state where Christianity is prioritized and privileged.

The full piece is here. I read Mayfield’s new book, The Myth of the American Dream, this summer. If you’re into a critique of Americanism from an evangelical perspective, check it out.

A few links on politics, if you can stomach it:

The editors at America (a Jesuit magazine) released this piece before ACB was nominated. Hard to disagree here:

What all of these concentric accusations of hypocrisy have in common is that they are largely, if not entirely, about abortion and support for or opposition to Roe v. Wade. Of course, many other important issues come before the court, but its resolutions of other epochal constitutional issues—from rejecting racial segregation to requiring the recognition of same-sex marriage—have helped usher in widespread societal acceptance of major changes. On the other hand, Roe v. Wade ignited a debate that has dominated American politics and deranged the process of Supreme Court appointments for more than 40 years.

Ross Douthat (NYT) on Amy Coney Barrett and conservative feminism (a name I’m not crazy about):

A conservative feminism today, on the other hand — again, if we can say that it exists — is adaptive rather than oppositional. It takes for granted that much of what Ginsburg fought for was necessary and just; that the old order suppressed female talent and ambition; that sexism and misogyny are more potent forces than many anti-feminists allowed. It agrees that the accomplishments of Barrett’s career — in academia and now on the federal bench — could have been denied to her in 1950, and it hails that change as good.

But then it also argues that feminism’s victories were somewhat unbalanced, that they were kinder to professional ambition than to other human aspirations, and that the society they forged has lost its equilibrium not just in work-life balance but also in other areas — sex and romance and marriage and child rearing, with the sexes increasingly alienated from one another and too many children desired but never born.

This diagnosis is not necessarily conservative; some of it might be endorsed by more radical feminists, for whom the alienation and disappointment is proof that enduring features of patriarchy and capitalism still need to be abolished.

Caitlin Flanagan in The Atlantic, also on ACB:

I’m a Catholic, more or less. I can follow along with the Mass in many languages I don’t know, and at Mass I feel connected to generations of women in my family. But People of Praise is foreign to me. If I were in the Senate, I would want to know quite a bit about it, and in particular about what it requires of its members when they operate within the secular world. In other words, what are the ecclesiastical pronouncements of her faith? These are questions that could be asked in a thorough and respectful manner. Given the national mood, I doubt that will happen.

Fall has arrived in the Pacific Northwest, but we’re still enjoying a solid two weeks of warm weather. I think I’ll see if I can get the whole family out on one last hike, before we head into the long dark.

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Do you listen to your angel?

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Today is the Feast of Guardian Angels, one of those little things that makes Catholicism more fun.

Pope Francis:

How many people settle down, and don’t set out on the journey, and their whole life is stalled, without moving, without doing anything! It is a danger. Like that man in the Gospel who was afraid to invest the talent. He buried it, and [said] “I am at peace, I am calm. I can’t make a mistake. So I won’t take a risk.” Many people don’t know how to make the journey, or are afraid of taking risks, and they are stalled. 

The angels help us, they push us to continue on the journey.

I want to ask you a question: Do you speak with your angel? Do you know the name of your angel? Do you listen to your angel? Do you allow yourself to be led by hand along the path, or do you need to be pushed to move?

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A 10,000 Word Picture

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Still thinking about Abigail Rine’s conversion story, which helped me a great deal.

Her chosen picture, from a Guadalupe procession in Seattle, is worth about 10,000 words, but since this is a Catholic blog, we’ll just let it speak for itself:

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On Satisfying No One

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I keep coming back to this piece by Abigail Rine, in her last post at Mama Unabridged. I touched on some of these themes in yesterday’s post, but I think she says it better. Here’s a quote:

My liberal protestant friends, my feminist friends, my secular friends – they might feel surprise, even confusion, that I could join a church that seems, from one angle, deeply patriarchal and conservative. Of course, I have conservative protestant friends and family as well, who might balk at the strangeness of Catholicism, its Mariology, its visceral worship, its sense of tradition that encompasses but exceeds scripture.

The answers I offer here will probably satisfy none of these people – it is perhaps ambitious to even use the word “answers,” because I am only just now arriving at a place where I can begin to give a semi-coherent account of my conversion.

I did not move toward Catholicism from a place of certainty. I moved from a place of desire.

Me too.

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‘X’ Marks the Spot

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I always find myself in a Catholic church on Good Friday, and here in Santa Cruz I made no exception.

At the very center of town is a Catholic parish called Holy Cross, and it’s hard to miss. Whenever I’m nearby, I keep an eye out for the cross atop its steeple, which needles the heavens like the point of a compass. A white cross against a bright blue sky. I can see it headed west on the main highway through town as we head out toward the beach, or headed back east on Mission Street, rising above the street signs and advertisements that line Highway 1. Santa Cruz gets its name from this parish, which began nearby as the original mission: La Misión de la Exaltación de la Santa Cruz. “The Adoration of the Holy Cross.”

The Good Friday liturgy is the same in every parish, brutal, gutting: the crucifixion story from the Gospel of John is sung in choir, the priest offers a brief homily, the cross is unveiled before the altar. Then we line up in the aisle to kneel and adore it, one by one. This particular year, however, nestled between the reading and the kneeling, it was the homily that arrested me.

The priest came down from his chair behind the altar and stood in the center aisle, preaching from memory. He is a young priest, unassuming and robed in purple for the season. His free cadence arrives as a welcome counterpoint to the exalted language of the Gospel reading. He opens his arms to deliver his homily.

“Scholars, whose Greek is certainly much better than mine, say that St. John’s telling of the crucifixion has a chiastic structure. The word comes from the shape of the Greek letter chi, which on the page looks like an ‘x‘. Like the letter, the structure of the story is symmetrical, expanding outward on each side of a central scene.”

He had my attention. I still miss studying Greek.

“St. John, using this structure, is pointing us to the story’s focal point, which is the famous words of Pilate: ecce homo, which in English means, ‘behold the man’.”

Then he spoke the following phrase with a sort of happy confidence, a phrase on which everything in my own story would now center:

“The cross,” he said, “reveals that the nature of God is suffering love.”

“My God,” I thought. “That’s the most beautiful and true thing I’ve ever heard. Why don’t I become a Catholic?

It was as if someone had opened a hidden door before me, and I who had been groping about in the dark for years finally stood in the light.

My next thought was bit more crass—“Oh, shit!”—because I knew right away: this was one of life’s central moments, the center of that ‘x‘, around which the rest of my story as a Christian would now find its place.

Driving home through the redwoods that night, I felt so many of my heart’s core experiences begin to align around something essential which had previously eluded me. My life story, my family history, my favorite prayers and practices and theologies. Radiating outward from that center—I could almost hear the clicking sound inside me—everything began to reorganize itself. Questions I had never asked now had a glaring, obvious answer.

Why was it, for example, that for nine years running, I had insisted on spending every Friday night in Lent attending the Stations of the Cross service at the nearest Catholic parish?

Why was it that late every night in Advent I found myself on Google searching for lost and forgotten Christian traditions and holidays?

Why was it that after college the first thing I did was take an “educational trip”—it had always been a pilgrimage, I realized now—to Jerusalem?

Why was it that, after I lost my job at the mission and needed a place to heal, I had found myself at daily Mass for six weeks at St. Anne’s?

Why was it that I insisted on dragging Rebekah through the underbelly of Mexico City to visit Tepeyac, and, upon seeing with my own eyes Our Lady of Guadalupe, had knelt down and begged her to be my mother?

I had to laugh at my own blindness. Wasn’t it obvious? This was what I wanted.

The truth was, I had never really felt at home in any branch of Protestantism. Not really. A couple months prior to all this, I sat down to apply to seminary, and I realized something disorienting: that, even after all of my varied experiences, I still didn’t know which church I even wanted to belong to, let alone which one I thought was, well, true. Each of them had pieces of something I recognized, in an almost primordial or ancestral way, but also something that kept me from committing.

I valued the evangelicals’ social conservatism, how they gave primacy to faith and family, but I couldn’t abide their politics.

I was nourished by silence among the Quakers, but I couldn’t understand why they rejected the sacraments.

I studied Scripture under mainline professors in college, digging deeply into every chapter and book, but I grew exhausted when I realized that we would never reach the bottom, and that everything was always up for debate.

I felt secured by the Presbyterian commitment to order, but I loathed Reformed theology.

I was overawed by the power of Episcopal liturgy, but I found their communion too wealthy, too white, and too permissive.

I loved to pray for miracles with the charismatics, but found their spirituality to be, at bottom, terrifyingly chaotic.

I had thought I was running out of options; I was really being pointed in a new direction.

The reason I couldn’t choose among them was that I wanted a place of worship that held together all of these good things, which, until that Good Friday, I had failed to recognize for what they were: scattered pieces of what, in Catholicism, formed part of a larger, coherent whole. In Catholicism I could sit in silence as I did with the Quakers, I could celebrate a liturgy just as high as the Anglicans’, I could even count on a commitment to process longer than the Presbyterians’. But I could also be held, bounded, disciplined by a structure and an authority which was better than my own clever arguments. I could live in a communion that includes and celebrates the dead, our ancestors who walked on this earth before us and who live on, just beyond the veil. And I could take joy in a sensate spirituality, one which does not look away from the stuff of everyday life—the turning of the seasons, food and drink, birthing and breathing and dying—but rather raises it all to the altar, incorporating it into the Divine.

Which is why, on that night of adoration, I knew that the time had come to stop wandering on the peripheries and head home for good.

Which leads me to today, friend, where I confess to you my secret, which is that I have committed myself to something called the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults at the parish of Our Lady of Guadalupe, where after a time of prayer and discernment it is my intention to enter full communion with the Catholic Church.

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