In Mystery


  

A 7 Quick Takes Post as hosted at the This Ain’t the Lyceum blog.

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“Of the beliefs and practices whether generally accepted or publicly enjoined which are preserved in the Church some we possess derived from written teaching; others we have received delivered to us “in mystery” by the tradition of the Apostles; and both of these in relation to true religion have the same force. And these no one will contradict; – no one, at all events, who is even moderately versed in the institutions of the Church. For were we to attempt to reject such customs as have no written authority, on the ground that the importance they possess is small, we should unintentionally injure the Gospel in these matters…” St. Jerome

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This will be 7 quick takes on the fly, so to speak, since I’m going to try something I have never done.  That something is composing this post on the WordPress app, real time.  I like to edit and rewrite, and think posts over, but I have a reason for my madness.  The reason is the past week has been more than hectic due to being almost totally preoccupied with the band I joined back in January.  Last night was our semi-annual concert and the week came complete with a dress rehearsal on Wednesday night and the concert last night.  I think the whole thing went remarkably well, considering we have the entire range of musical skill levels, from rank beginner to 80 year old pro.  The point is, with weekly, sometimes twice weekly rehearsals since early January, I’m more than happy to get back into some sort of routine.

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On top of the hectic band schedule, we have had the most incredible week of weather in our fair city.  It has rained all week and yesterday we had a hailstorm of unique proportions.  I had the misfortune to have to have been out in it, and the hail was making such a noise hitting the car, even with the radio turned nearly all the way up, you couldn’t hear it.  The hail collected on the ground until it looked like two or three inches of snow, driving in it was like driving in a blizzard.  Even coming home from the concert, many of the streets looked like they were covered with snow, and this more than six hours later.  I’m a little worried about the roof on the house and will probably need to get it inspected.  Can’t wait to see what today brings since it’s supposed to keep raining until Sunday or Monday.

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To make matters worse, today I have to brave the bad weather and return the tux I rented to be all spiffily turned out for the concert.  I think for the next one I’ll just get a black suit and be done with it.

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A further cause for wonderment — we are expecting snow showers over the weekend.  Funny, I thought the last time I looked at the calendar, it said “May”.

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One thought that’s been noodling around in the back of my mind for the last week or two is the question of beauty in the liturgy.  From previous comments I’ve made, you may have guessed that I’m not totally impressed with what happened to the Liturgy after Vatican II, rather the opposite.  It seems the revisions made were with the express purpose of trivializing the Mass, I can think of no other way to put it.  No wonder many people say the liturgy isn’t doing much for them.  It’s true, on the one hand, the liturgy isn’t really about being entertainment or being interesting.  On the other hand, and this is the point I’ve been cogitating between moments overcome with stage fright, there is a role for beauty and transcendence to be had in worship.  This role may not be primarily, the worshipper has his or her own work to do as well, but I do believe the place for beauty, awe, is a necessary one.  

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Another thing rolling around in my little gray cells is the importance of books in relation to faith.  I guess another way to put it is the relation between reason and faith.  The trigger for this train of thought came when I saw a column, somewhere, I wish I could remember where, of seven “must read” books by Chesterton.  I thought the list interesting and wrote it down the list, do you agree?  

  • Autobiography (1936). 
  • Heretics (1905). 
  • Orthodoxy (1908).
  • The Dumb Ox: St Thomas Aquinas (1933). 
  • The Everlasting Man (1925). 
  • What’s Wrong with the World (1910).
  • Charles Dickens: A Critical Study (1906).


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Man, the Worshipping Animal


  
Fr. Richard John Neuhaus is probably best known to Catholics through his work with EWTN, especially as a commentator during their coverage of the death of Pope St. John Paul II and the conclave which followed soon after, a conclave resulting in the election of Pope Benedict XVI.  They may know him as well as for his work as the founder and publisher of First Things magazine.  Yet, there is far more to Neuhaus’ life and career, and the entire story is skillfully told in a new biography by Randy Boyagoda, Richard John Neuhaus, A Life in the Public Square.  Whether familiar with Neuhaus or not, readers will find Boyagoda’s book provides an astonishing wealth of detail, not only about the subject, but also the historical context in which Neuhaus lived and worked, from his time as a committed civil rights worker and anti-war protestor during the 1960’s to his role as occasional, sometimes controversial, advisor to President George W. Bush in the first decade of the 21st century.  To many readers, much of his life story may come as a surprise, perhaps even a shock, but the story is interesting and important. The extent of the causes he engaged in, the friends and enemies he made, and the things he achieved, is astonishing.

The book is organized as a chronological narrative of the events of Richard John Neuhaus’ life, taking him from his birth in 1936 in Pembroke, Ontario where his father, Clem Neuhaus, was serving as a Missouri Synod Lutheran pastor, to his death in 2009.  In his early teens Neuhaus was sent off to a Lutheran boarding school in Nebraska, a school he was asked not to return to after just one year, the result of a few youthful indiscretions.  After leaving Nebraska, Neuhaus lived with relatives in Texas and the book details his adventures shooting jack rabbits and being a teen age gas station owner liked to brag about being the youngest member of the Cisco Chamber of Commerce.  All during this time, however, Neuhaus displayed strong, active interests in Lutheran theology and ecclesiology, philosophy, and whatever else happened to strike his fancy, despite having dropped out of school entirely.  After a year in Cisco, Neuhaus, realizing that any career he would want to pursue required an education, applied to a small Lutheran college in Austin, Concordia Lutheran College, being admitted only after bluffing admission authorities into waiting for evidence of his nonexistent high school graduation papers to arrive in the mail.  

After graduation from Concordia in Austin, Neuhaus attended Concordia– St. Louis seminary, the most influential seminary in the Lutheran Missouri Synod.  At St. Louis, he fell under the influence of Arthur Carl Piepkorn.  “Pieps,” as he was known on campus, was a prominent professor, one with known “Romish” sentiments, and a man of great influence on Neuhaus.  Piepkorn accomplished this by providing Neuhaus with “a catholic-framed Lutheran ecclesial identity integrated with intellectual sophistication and ordered to and by a joyful love of God and the Church.”  Boyagoda goes on to say that many of Neuhaus’ fellow students at the seminary were convinced that Piepkorn was so catholic-minded that he “wore a Roman collar with his pajamas.”  Among the entire faculty of this most prominent Lutheran seminary there is little doubt Piepkorn exerted the strongest influences on Neuhaus during his seminary career, even to the point of Neuhaus picking up the use of a breviary for his daily prayers.  

Once he finished seminary, Neuhaus was assigned, perhaps as a punishment for his association with the “Romish” Piepkorn, as pastor of a tiny church in upstate New York, where he spent a year.  Then he was transferred to the church that became his home, in one way or another, for the next twenty years, St John the Evangelist Lutheran church in Brooklyn.  It was here that he would begin the career that would make him famous and influential, as political activist, Lutheran pastor, and finally, editor and publisher of First Things magazine.

While at St John the Evangelist, Neuhaus became active, and gained a level of prominence, in the civil rights and anti-war movements, working with people like the Berrigan brothers, William Sloane Coffin, and even Martin Luther King himself.  However, the unrest and outright violence triggered at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, which he participated in, marked the beginning of his disillusionment with the left.  It was from that event that he began the long process of disengagement from these leftist associations, leading ultimately to his conversion to Catholicism, to the priesthood, and to the founding of First Things.  
The process took time after that 1968 awakening but quickened during the 1980s, when Neuhaus came into contact, especially through his ongoing engagement with pro-life issues, with prominent Catholic officials, including Cardinal John O’Conner, (then) Fr. Avery Dulles, and even, in a minor way, Pope St. John Paul II and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.  It ended in 1990 when Neuhaus began First Things and entered the Church.  He was ordained a priest a year later, having been personally formed under the tutelage of Fr. Dulles.
Neuhaus’ journey from activist liberal to renowned “theo-con” was remarkable, as was Neuhaus the man.  Boyagoda paints a picture of a man with an outsized intellect and a lifetime of singular accomplishment.  It isn’t surprising that Neuhaus also had some of the flaws typically associated with such people.  To all who came in contact with him, Neuhaus was clearly a man of great intellect, huge ambition, strong, domineering personality, with the ego to match, who tended to dominate any room he entered.  He also didn’t mind enjoying a good cigar and a sip of 18 year old Scotch along the way.  

Having said this, I wonder if his human failings, the untamed ego, over arching ambition, and domineering personality are traits that merit the attention Boyagoda gives them.  Do those human failings, while interesting, really affect our assessment of a life dedicated to ensuring that the voice of faith be heard in the public square?  If I have a complaint about Boyagoda’s book, it’s that I think these personal traits sometimes appear out of any context within the narrative, at the expense of conveying more substantive details of Neuhaus’ life and work.
Neuhaus considered himself throughout his career, as both Lutheran pastor and Catholic priest, to be a Christian and a patriot, in that order.   It was his lifelong concern that the voice of those of religious faith be heard in the public square, not as the dominant voice, but certainly as an equal part of the national conversation of ideas.  This is an important message in a age when the popular culture is doing all that it can to silence those voices. The emphasis on Neuhaus’ personal failings is regrettable because the attention paid to these minor faults distracts from the important, lifelong, theme of Neuhaus’ thinking, neatly summarized by R. R. Reno in the April, 2015 issue of First Things: “What will endure is Neuhaus’s constant reminder: Man is first and foremost a worshipping animal, not a voting animal.  Rendering to God what is God’s matters most.  The rest is commentary.”  To miss this point is to misunderstand Richard John Neuhaus.

One other minor criticism concerns a sometimes disjointed narrative.  For example, Neuhaus spent his early years in Pembroke, Ontario and his early life in that small Canadian town is covered in the first three chapters, which conclude with a brief allusion to events to come in Neuhaus’ life.  At the start of the next chapter, we find him attending boarding school in Nebraska, where one of his sisters lived.  How, and why, was he sent there?  Why would his parents send him so far away from home at such an early age?  There’s no explanation, leaving the reader only to question.  Another, more glaring, example:  given the time spent on Arthur Piepkorn’s early, strongly Catholic, liturgically based influence on Neuhaus, the reader expects Piepkorn to have played some part in Neuhaus’ ultimate decision to become Catholic.  Yet, this connection remains undrawn, and once Neuhaus leaves the seminary, Piepkorn drops from view, the reader can only guess how Piepkorn contributed to the formation of the future Fr. Neuhaus, as he must have done.

Despite these few quibbles, Richard John Neuhaus, A Life in the Public Square, is a worthy endeavor and deserves attention. The book is backed up by meticulous research, is well written, suffering only a few minor flaws.  Boyagoda offers his readers critical background in trying to appreciate all of the various forces of upheaval spawned during the unrest of the 1960’s and later years, and the efforts of one man to participate in and shape those forces according to his deeply Christian, and finally Catholic, point of view.


FTC  Disclaimer:  “I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.”

A Belated Lenten Reading Program




We’re approaching the third Sunday of Lent and, therefore, are close to half way to Easter.  It’s long been a custom for Catholics, perhaps stemming from the practice St. Benedict outlined in his Rule, to step up their spiritual reading for Lent.  This spiritual reading is usually planned for some days before the season begins on Ash Wednesday.  If you’re like me, however, that doesn’t always happen; Ash Wednesday comes and goes and suddenly you find yourself getting little or no spiritual reading done at all.  Then, like all good procrastinators, you say to yourself, I’ll do better next year and give up on the idea altogether.  Shame on you, it’s never too late to set things right.

To assist all you procrastinators out there, I’ve come up with a list of five books that make good Lenten reading, in fact good reading, no matter if you start on time or not.  I’m not saying you should try to read all five books between now and Holy Saturday, but you might pick one, possibly two of them and start reading today.  Then, come Holy Saturday, you might have firmed up your spiritual reading habit and decide to read the other three or four books to finish the list.

What are these five little books?  Here’s the list.

  1. The Spiritual Combat, Lorenzo Scupoli
  2. This Tremendous Lover, Eugene Boylan
  3. In Silence with God, Benedict Baur
  4. Seasons of Celebration, Thomas Merton
  5. Bread in the Wilderness, Thomas Merton

Why these five books?  Well, I have a reason for selecting each of these books as candidates for a belated Lenten reading program, but I leave you with a challenge – after you’ve read the books on the list, tell me why you think I consider them candidates for reading during Lent, even if you start late.

Looking forward to hearing from you.

Notes from the Underground


schall_asol_lgA year or so ago, I published a post and added a page to the blog called “Catholic Classics Reading List” and at the time I intended to make some sort of use of that as a theme for much of what goes on here.  However, ADD set in and the idea was soon forgotten.  I’d like to make an effort to overcome the old ADD and carry on with that idea.  To do that requires I provide some background on the impetus behind the idea, which lies specifically with Fr. James Schall’s book, Another Sort of Learning, a book that was published nearly 30 years ago and is about confronting “the truth of things.”  Given the state of our educational system today, the best way, possibly the only way to do that is by independent reading.  You might think Fr. Schall would be talking about the “great books” but that doesn’t quite get to his point.   He writes, “But the reading of great books does not do the trick, if I might call it that. What does the trick are books that tell the truth. And usually these books are very difficult for a student to come by. They are “notes from the underground,” to steal a phrase from Dostoyevsky.”

You’re probably wondering where to find these “notes from the underground”.  Not to worry, Another Sort of Learning is filled with lists of these books, one or more at the end of each chapter.  For me, that’s one of the things I’ve treasured the most from what Fr. Schall has done.  Not all of the books Fr. Schall lists are easy to find, some are quite expensive.  You’ve probably never heard of a good number of the books Fr. Schall mentions.  For example, here are the three lists that appear at the end of Chapter 5:

Three Books on Education:

  1. John Henry Newman, The Idea of a University.
  2. Christopher Dawson, The Crisis of Western Education.
  3. Jacques Maritain, The Education of Man: The Educational Philosophy of Jacques Maritain.

Four Books on Philosophy and Literature by Marion Montgomery:

  1. Reflective Journey toward Order: Essays on Dante, Wordsworth, Eliot, and Others.
  2. Why Flannery O’Connor Stayed Home.
  3. Why Poe Drank Liquor.
  4. Why Hawthorne Was Melancholy.

Eight Books on Christianity and Political Thought:

  1. Jacques Maritain, Man and the State.
  2. Charles N. R. McCoy, The Structure of Political Thought.
  3. Heinrich Rommen, The State in Catholic Thought.
  4. Rodger Charles, The Social Teaching of Vatican II.
  5. John Courtney Murray, We Hold These Truths.
  6. Thomas Molnar, Politics and the State.
  7. Yves Simon, The Philosophy of Democratic Government.
  8. Glenn Tinder, Political Thinking: The Perennial Questions

Reading has been critical to my continuing conversion, and I love finding new books to read, good books, and I thought I had heard of most of the best books available. Yet I can say that, of the authors on these lists, I’d only heard of Newman, Dawson, Maritan and John Courtney Murray.  And, while not all of these books are, strictly or theologically speaking Catholic, or even by Catholics, in that they show us the way to “the truth of things”, they are definitely worth being part of any faithful Catholic’s reading plan.  And that’s why I started the idea of a Catholic Classics Reading List – to share this wonderful discovery.

I encourage you to pick up a copy of Another Sort of Learning and see for yourself.  In the meantime, my plan for this year is to read and share a little bit about five or six of the books I’ve discovered from this delightful work in the hope you’ll find something you enjoy too.