Sunday, January 30, 2011

Postmodern Self Help: New Opiate for the Masses

Checking out at a discount store yesterday, I had a few minutes while waiting to peruse the magazine covers near the check-out counter. One particular cover caught my eye because of the promises it made: "Shortcuts to Bliss!"  "Happy Healing"  "No More Tiredness" "Melt Away Pounds!"  It occurs to me that these kinds of promises of self-help quick fixes offered by various gurus on fitness, happiness, etc. are the current opiate of the masses rather than religion. (as Karl Marx famously wrote: "Die Religion ... ist das Opium des Volkes"). Times have changed, Herr Marx.

Having just read Father Dwight Longenecker's well-articulated post "The Collapse of Cultural Catholicism" in which he laments the dwindling number of people who take their faith seriously enough to show up for church, largely because they think they are good enough Christians on their own and have no use for the Church, it struck me that there is a relationship.

We are a society that not only thinks it is all about us, but that we can fix anything if we only try this or that system of behavior, or think positively enough. The Prosperity Gospel evangelists promote an attitude that if you are not rich, happy and leading a perfect life, it's your fault because you are not praying hard enough for those good things.  The New Age version of this comes from guru Eckhart Tolle - made famous by Oprah Winfrey's choice of his book. He would say that if you are not happy, it is because of your negative attitude. The "universe" wants good things for you - all you have to do is plug into the positive energy.  Supermarket self-help magazines direct people to the Self-Help aisle in the bookstore - which seems to get larger all the time, to find the latest books about systems for fixing everything about the human condition. Only around the corner are the corresponding New Age spirituality books which promise to fix your soul.

Organized religion is rapidly being rejected by people who have no use for what they do not understand - because it is not all about them. What we have is a failure to evangelize. Because they do not understand what the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ really has to do with their everyday life, they turn away and look for love "in all the wrong places" - depending on their own ability to follow somebody's "system" for happiness and fulfillment. The Church is not doing well at communicating the relationship of Paschal Mystery to everyday life. For that, I have to put some of the blame on the clergy - in my 24 years as a Catholic, I have only heard one homily that even mentioned it.

Jesus Christ has the ultimate system for self-improvement: his teachings and his example of life, submitting his will to that of the Father. Until people who call themselves Christian acknowledge that and stop turning whichever way the popular wind blows, we are really living in an era of "anti-Christs" - people who draw people away from Christ with promises of happiness. We live in a time where people no longer are addicted to religion, as Marx postulated. Instead, they are addicted to self-help, and to the latest system that promises health, wealth and happiness... until something newer and better comes along. No wonder few of them attend church any more.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Questions of Allegiance, Proper Attire, and Good Liturgy

Good post from Joe Paprocki over at Catechist's Journey on an incident at Mass last weekend where the priest, at the dismissal, moved the deacon's chair away from the presider's and announced to a Chicago congregation by yelling "Go Packers"  that he himself was a Packer fan in "Bear country" - tainting the closing rite with partisanship and catching boo's from the people.  Comments are interesting - and the discussion of the wearing of sports jerseys to Mass is interesting. Take a look.

One of my contentions is that we have become a society in which most people are uncomfortable with formal, ritual occasions - and that many people no longer know how to dress for Mass because it is a foreign experience. Maybe one of the things we need catechesis on is respect - and how one's garb and demeanor at Mass indicate that!

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Fierceness and Courage - Poetry Party over at Abbey of the Arts

Well, this probably takes some courage here - to pour out my heart in poetry and let you all see it - and you might not think that it has much to do with liturgy or catechesis... but as a writer and a former student of Renaissance poetry, it is always a latent possibility that I will break forth in verse!

This morning I responded to the invitation in the Abbey of the Arts blog to write a poem or reflection about fierceness and courage - with this picture as inspiration:  

The catechetical moment here is that I never know when the Spirit will inspire me to respond with verse. I have piles of unpublished poems - most of which represent some attempt to reflect on something going on in my life. It's a form of catharsis - and in many cases, like journaling in prose, a form of prayer.  The formational part of spiritual poetry for me is that it allows me to mine the depths of my relationship with God.  A good poem can teach the writer as much as it expresses to a reader.  Here is what I wrote this morning (still awaiting moderation over at A of the A:

A Song of Fierce Avoidance

Like a lion, God, you hunt me without rest, seeking to draw me with gentle paws
to your mighty heart of love.
Heedless, I cling desperately to whatever briefly comforts me, often seeking
everything but you.
I claw and struggle, fighting to find my true self, amid a bramble
Of memory, sorrow and desire,
always trying to go back to a past that cannot be recovered,
to missed opportunities, wasted joys, and ignored blessings.

I stumble blindly through thickets heavy with memory, regret and grief,
knowing you are near, yet doing everything I can to escape
the inevitable snare of your love,
refusing to admit my need, reluctant to trust you alone
with my future.

Teach me the courage to allow myself to be caught by you –
and to become like a newborn lamb,
lying trustingly, resting my head against you alone for comfort,
the thunder of your love loud in my ear,
drowning out all other voices – even my own.

There - my soul is bare -  for whatever worth the reader may find in it.  This is where I am, still working my way through the grief of losing the most important person in my life a year and a half ago.  I know God is there - I just struggle with surrender to the current reality.... as we all do at times.

Why not try your hand at poetry, reflection or another kind of response to the topic of fierceness and courage - follow the link in the second paragraph above and join the party!

Sunday, January 9, 2011

The Wisdom of Catechists

Yesterday at my parish, we had a morning-long meeting.  About 25 of us were present - for a time of prayer and sharing. It was a time to bring catechists from both the Spanish-speaking and English-speaking cultures together -  most present preferred to speak Spanish at their tables, but there were two tables of us consisting of bilingual Hispanics and some Anglos.  It was truly a case of discerning the wisdom of the community - and there was a surprising amount of agreement.

After some quiet personal reflection on how well we were doing with such things as understanding, living and sharing the faith and listening to our students, we were asked to engage in small group process on two questions:  "What do you need to work on?" and "What do you need?"

For the first question, the two goals named most often were obtaining a better knowledge of the faith and learning who our students are as young Hispanics living in the American culture. Scripture study and a better knowledge of the Catechism were named for the first. On the second point, we named a real need to listen, to explore and to understand the variations among our students (Spanish-speaking at home or not, born here or not, first or second generation here, etc.) We agreed that most of our students prefer Spanish Mass and when they know their prayers it is more often in Spanish, even when students are fluent in English. The difficulties they described pretty much can be summarized simply: not all students in their classrooms participate in the two cultures in quite the same way. Several of the Hispanic catchists very eloquently named that it was important to show teens that faith is not just fiction.

As to the second area - what they need, catechists asked for Bible study, formation, parent meetings and parent formation or more closely mandated parent contact with the catechists. It was suggested that perhaps we have a parent conference night when catechists can interact with the parents. There was an energetic discussion of the failure of parents to assist catechists - and the prevalent attitude that parents seem to have that they are relying on the religious education program to form their children in faith - while most families fail to practice that faith, do not go to Mass, or teach children the prayers they should know. The consensus was strongly that more parental involvement on all fronts is needed - and that perhaps more contact with parents or parent formation would help.

Strange, but this sounds a great deal like what parish directors of religious education (a group I am normally  with on a more regular basis through regional cluster meetings)  name whenever they are asked what they need: formation for themselves, and strategies for more catechist and parent formation.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

A Matter of Justice for the Children,,,

Just read an interesting op-ed piece from the New York Times about how the inequality between the rich and the poor affects the emotional psychology of the poor, leading to crime and illness. Couple that with this video from Fr. Allan Deck about immigrant families - and how the kids tend to disrespect the authority of their parents because their parents are disrespected in American society as illegals - which leads to gang activity:

Those of us who catechize and serve pastorally the children of immigrants, and/or those living in lower economic situations need to take note.  How much do these potentially troubled children and youth need our help? More than we know.  Pray for justice for the poor and for immigrants in this, and all nations.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

What's in an Epiphany?

In these days following the Sunday celebration and before the official calendar celebration of the Epiphany, we remember how marvelous a gift the Incarnation is - that we have a God who came down to earth to live as a human being...and all that means for us that the Light of the World came to dwell in the world as flesh.

However, the word "epiphany" is also often used popularly to indicate what Oprah Winfrey calls an "Aha Moment" - a situation where one has a sudden realization of a truth.  The term was first used in that way by James Joyce,  in Stephen Hero and Ulysses - as Stephen Daedalus (the "young man" from Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and a main character in all three works) thinks about collecting his own "epiphanies" - scintillating moments of insight - into a book. You can read a good explanation of this literary use of the term here.

I think I had one this weekend.  At our 11:30 English Mass, during the procession with the gifts, three men (two Hispanic and one Anglo who was "drafted" from the pews) came forward, dressed in colorful home-made satin robes and crowns, carrying gold, frankincense and myrrh.  After Mass, they stood in the back of church and handed out foil-wrapped chocolate coins to everyone. While this has been a long-standing tradition at all the Spanish Masses, this year for the first time they brought it to the entire community. I found myself overwhelmed emotionally as they came up, because I had not expected it.  The Hispanic community was sharing with us their traditional cultural expression of the celebration of Tres reyes.

Also over the weekend my pastor shared with me a document to be discussed tonight which he had me email to our parish council, suggesting that the council become who the parish is now (75-80% Hispanic) - and not remain representative of our past as an inner city white parish (all members save one are from the Anglo community and most of them have been in leadership roles for many years.)  Our representation needs to come from both communities, and our meetings may no longer be all in English.  Of course, this will not happen without some courageous action and some discomfort. It is simply a  long-overdue but necessary change needed for the parish to move into the future and to stop clinging to the past.

In discussing this with a friend and fellow council member, I came to the realization that both "communities" have much to learn from one another. The sharing of the cultural and liturgical celebrations and the living enthusiasm and heart for the faith that the three kings represented this weekend is one gift the Hispanic community brings to enliven the parish.  The gifts of wisdom, of years of experience in lay ministries and an understanding of the American church is what we older Anglos bring to the table. All these are needed for us to become more fully who we are as parish.

To make this possible, we will have to "re-birth" the council - and the parish into its current identity. Those who have desperately clung to memories of a past, when the parish had many ministries, parish retreats, Renew groups, and community activities and was full of life in our familiar Anglo ways need to acknowledge the death of most of that as many former parishioners left and the rest of us aged, became tired and overwhelmed - and the new birth among us of a lively parish that manifests itself in large and joyful celebrations of Tres reyes, Las mananitas, Las posadas, Quincinearas, El dia de los ninos, and El dia de los muertos.

THAT is an epiphany. So, tonight that beast (in the words of Willam Butler Yeats) needs to go "slouching toward Bethlehem" in hopes of a new birth - a new manifestation of what it means to be St. John the Baptist Parish Community. This is the cultural revolution that is happening in Catholic parishes all over America.  Tonight, at our parish, we step up to the plate to see if we are open to the challenge to be reborn - to cooperate with God in re-creating our community's identity.