Sunday, 24 June 2012

Bad Religion

About two weeks ago, I was passing through Dundas Square in downtown Toronto while a concert was going on. There were a lot of people there and I could hear the loud punk- rock music, the cries of the crowd, and whatnot. But what really struck me was that, elevated high above the stage overlooking the square, was the image of a cross with a line through it, crossing it out.

I don’t really know much about the band “Bad Religion” and just how much the theme of anti-religion is involved in their lyrics or identity. Nor do I care. It struck me, though, that if the symbol were anything other than a cross, be it the star of David, the crescent moon, the Buddha, or a pride rainbow or any other symbol of secular culture/ political identification, people would be up in arms.

What does this say, that we are so willing to deride the deeply loved symbol of one group, but not many others?  Is it because so many Christians are willing to use the cross to try to intimidate others into their worldview? Perhaps, but there’s no question that secular symbols and PC language are also used to intimidate and silence people through social pressure.

In a way, I wonder if we’re not so willing to deride the Cross precisely because there is some residue of Christian identity left within our culture.  It suggests, in a certain sense, our comfort with the image of the Cross- the extent of its internalization in the Western psyche. We do not feel these other symbols, those of Islam or Buddhism, are really ours to claim and use.  The cross, we feel, somehow belongs to us, even if it is there for us to abuse and deride as a statement of political or social rebellion.  In a culture that was truly not Christian, that truly had forgotten it’s cultural roots in Christianity, the crossing out of a Cross would not have much of an effect at all.  It wouldn’t strike us as subversive.  It couldn’t possibly be hip and show up at the centre of a rock and roll identity.  When one religion replaces another, the symbol of the new religion is a positive object, not merely the negation of the former. 

Of course, I understand that any use of a symbol is very complex and has a variety of explanations.  I am only thinking that perhaps there is just a little bit of  “the lady doth protest too much” here. To define yourself as the negation of an idea is to permit the continued power of said idea over you. 

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Springtime on the Farm

Springtime on the farm.
wind blows,
tousles the tall grass so far spared
the mower's shears, and southward shares
a hint of cherries about to be. 

the church brick warms.
A blue bird goes,
skirts the houses, scared.
The shot gun's appeared. 
All feather bullet-seared,
He'll rest on the pear tree. 

An unleashed dog crossing property lines. 
Head low
Yes, he does know
He's doing wrong. 
He slips past the pond,
scatters the bull frogs' songs
and the mayflies'  smoky throngs, 
by swishing through the reeds.  

It was the scent and sight of the cotton tail,
or the flash and flight
of some feathered gale--
something's  got him trotting out a footpad trail 
in forbidden fields. 


"don't you wag that tail"
(finger wags assail)
An old lady waves
her rag in a gale
of "Bah! Bah Get! You! Get, Be Gone!"

Oh, the guilt of living freely,
of transgressing merely
the lines drawn so unfairly
by the master's steely 

To there he's been looking daily
at the grapevines that just barely
sit out of reach and trail the   
inclining contours of the hill.

(Now, he's in the throes of the thrill.)

What's on the other side of that hill? 
A trickling stream to drink his fill? 
A ball? A bird? A boy? A  bed of grass
to rest upon? 
He'll never know. 
Bah. Bah. Get you! Get be gone!

jordan dejonge. 

Saturday, 16 June 2012

The Lord's Supper

"Grant me, O Lord, admittance to your eternal banquet."
This is just a small invocation that I've been praying lately, throughout the day or at the conclusion of prayers. I thought I'd share it with you.

Lately, I've been coming to appreciate more and more the social dimension of Catholic Christian belief. In one sense, the nostalgia for a Christendom is not entirely misplaced. Catholic belief demands a laboring towards "the good society", so we shouldn't cease to imagine it. Nothing expresses the communitarian nature of Christian belief better than our image of heaven which, perhaps, was far too long imagined as a set of pearly gates ontop of clouds where individuals get to, or don't.

In many of the world's religions, say like Buddhism and Hinduism, salvation is a release of individuality into the Absolute. It is a mystical thing, beyond words, beyond images, beyond selfhood. The Heaven of Christianity is so perfectly ordinary as to be almost shocking to the religious mind: a banquet table, a wedding, a dinner.

If ever you've treasured sitting with your family around the table, laughing and drinking wine and reminiscing or singing, you've probably satisfied, even for just a few hours, the most ordinary of human urges: To enjoy good things with good company (or mixed company!). In the end, this is the secular heart of Christianity (or the trasncendent core of the immanent, whatever one calls it), I think, that it makes something so mundane so heavenly.

So maybe our legitimacy as Christians really depends on our ability to make good banquets here, in the image of the eternal banquet to come. That doesn't really mean saying a pretty Mass. By good banquet I don't mean "good party", but "good community" on which a truly good celebration depends.

Maybe here is the charybdis and scylla that we have to navigate through. The secular world is all about throwing the best party, about intoxication and deadening the sense of the sorrows of our social loss through sex and drugs. The temptation on the part of Catholic leaders today is to throw the best ceremony in its stead. To make our refusal of the secular temptation so adamant as to become merely its opposite. This is the danger of making the heavenly banquet "too heavenly", so heavenly that it's just a dream beyond us, and our ceremonies are more a lamentation of what we don't have here.

I think if we're really to be loyal to the beauty of the Mass in all its traditional splendor, that loyalty depends above all on the ability to make its meaning real for the lives of those around us. In this sense, too much emphasis on correct liturgy can be in danger of elevating the sign above the signified (in the words of a wise friend).

How can we make our communities better, in these times? It seems so difficult. It feels like we have so few tools, so few footholds to start from.

Gay Christians maybe have a calling here, because we do tend to be an image of "the outsider" and many of us are very shaped by our outsider experience. We're such a cause for division. But the place where we divide and distinguish ourselves is also the very place where we are to reconcile ourselves amongst one another. This is the image of the meal. Where one sits, who is admitted- it all says something about social caste and membership. It is also the place where Jesus does radical things, like invite the "wrong people".

"The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully... God loves a cheerful giver." (2 Cor. 9:6)
We will receive in proportion to what we gave. So if we pray "Admit me, O Lord, to your Supper", we should also be admitting people to our own supper. And I am finding this is a very difficult thing!

Saturday, 26 May 2012

A Prayer

A Prayer

Let us regard...

Not so much the pleasing of men
that they might later be our pleasure,

or not so much witting ourselves lone out of the pen
to enjoy alone the freedom of the pasture,

not so much the storing up of ken
to set ourselves over all men as their pastor.

But more the moment when I slip your glasses off,
quietly, because you are sleeping. 

Let us regard…

Not so much the pursuit of success
or the superlative of style,
not so much the refining of our resume 
or our puffed and breathing profile,
or the flash and glimmer of our product
and its slogan to beguile. 

But more when we were joyfully made fools by the height of our own laughter. 

Let us regard…

Not so much the apartment with the view,
unscrolling the painted backdrop of the set,
or our knowing of the cue,
not letters to heart or lips lush, painted wet, 
or the strength of our performance for those we've never met. 

But more 
when the shout of country thunder 
sent you quickly to my bed,
to the safety of my breath. 

Let us more regard these things,  
not what the market's morrow brings,
instead, have the sparrow's cares (that are her wings)
Who, with mustard trust, by the lilly sings
and plucks the heads of grain. 

Let us regard more 
the suddenness of our fellow
who, among the hard and yet moving river-earth of objects,
is outwardly riven,
offering the inward living gift
from beneath that ever migrating welter of things. 

let us settle on this, and call it 
"the great mystery"  and "the subject of all dogma."
and "altissimum". 

Let us not so regard our seeing of the global world;
the having of wonders from men and women that loom
as a landscape built of bricks built of children.
Let us not so easily have these wonders
by the magic of the frame,
or the engine of the plane. 
Let us touch our faces to the ground first,
Let us taste the dirt like Bernadette, 
Let us in the plains await,
Let us only pass through gates
after water and oil has trickled on the head. 

Let us not so regard our owning of the lone room in the tower,
where we keep the rosy flower
by the window sill under lock and key.

not so afraid of the mortal hour
when flesh loses pulse and power
and we'll rest between rock and fruit tree.  

Let us not so regard all these,
Instead, let us ascend the stair case with bruiséd knees,
let us unlock the upper door and drown the key,
let us set the table outside amidst the tugs of breeze,
Let the loaf of bread be broken among the three,
Then let us drink the sap from the maple tree,
And  say 'amen'. 

jordan dejonge.

Monday, 21 May 2012

Here and Now

It was a beautiful Victoria Day long weekend, with ample time for reflection and soaking up the sunlight. Also, I found this: 


I took a day to search for God,
And found Him not. But as I trod
By rocky ledge, through woods untamed,
Just where one scarlet lily flamed,
I saw his footprint in the sod.

Then suddenly, all unaware,
Far off in the deep shadows, where
A solitary hermit thrush
Sang through the holy twilight hush-
I heard His voice upon the air.

And even as I marvelled how
God gives us Heaven here and now,
In a stir of wind that hardly shook
The poplar leaves beside the brook-
His hand was light upon my brow.

At last with evening as I turned
Homeward, and thought what I had learned
And all that there was still to probe-
I caught the glory of his robe
Where the last fires of sunset burned.

Back to the world with quickening start
I looked and longed for any part
In making saving Beauty be...
And from that kindling ecstasy
I knew God dwelt within my heart.

(Bliss Carman)

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Flif Flif Flif Very Fast

Song to Alfred Hitchcock and Wilkinson

flif flif flif very fast
is the noise the birds make
running over us.
A poet would say "fluttering"
"see-sawing with sun on their wings"
but all it is
is flif flif flif very fast.

Michael Ondaatje
(The Dainty Monster)

Saturday, 12 May 2012


It should first be noted that, while most people today would assume that the obverse of belief in God is atheism, this is not the biblical view - and, as I will demonstrate, it is not Niebuhr's view either.The true obverse of the affirmation of God's existence, whether made scientifically or dogmatically, is not the counterfactual, "God does not exist." For only a fool would say "there is no God" (Psalms 53:2), since such a denial could not possibly be proven. How can anyone prove that anyone else does not exist?
Idolatry is the radical obverse of the conviction that God exists because idolatry radically displaces the One God with some other god or gods, and idolaters are as convinced of their other god or gods as theists are convinced of their One God.

- David Novak on "Reinhold Niebuhr", "Idolatry: the Root of All Evil"

Despite the fact that his argument is in one respect not persuasive ("for only a fool would say..." seems to unjustifiably set aside the possibility of real, intellectually determined atheism)*, I find this perspective quite helpful.

This is because I am currently less concerned with finding orthodox[ies], and moreso with the purgation of idolatry from my actions and patterns of thinking. One might argue this presupposes a certain image of God, and I would think this is true. But this is God as a negation, God as an interrogation and a question, "is this [action, thought or belief] really absolute? Have you really here found that 'abiding ground' on which to build'?" and even as accusser and challenger, "you can't stop here! you have not found rest!

The God of the Hebrew Scriptures is very frequently a God of negation. A God whose face we are not permitted to see, who gives his name in the riddle of "I am who I am", and whose people consequently wander the desert and dwell in tents. Inscribed into the memory of the Hebrew People is that their God is one who always has them on the move. They eat the Passover with their loins girded, prepared to exit the land of bondage into the land of wandering. And when they do have a homeland, when they finally do build Jerusalem and its temple,  prophets are raised up to critique their ways and their cult. The city is taken away from them, the temple is destroyed. Their city of stone is lost. Paradoxically, the biblical longing is for a city of "living stones". The characeristic hardness of stone comes at the cost of it being inert and inanimate. The desire for a "living stone" is therefore the desire to unite the organic; that is change, impermanence, instability, and its opposite; to find the "still point" in the movement and "dance" of life itself or, conversely, to make that dead-point the site of movement and flux. 

Maybe this is the wisdom in the trope of "Pilgrim People of God". We live in tents wandering with the ark, we yearn for buildings and a proper place where this Presence can rest. Yet, it will only be so in that place where rock and flesh are one together. 

Perhaps if there is anything to take from this post, it's that we should always regard that we have less of God than we imagine we might. And this empty space is the spur in the boot. 

*I suppose we could agree with the Psalmist and say that all people have a god or gods, insofar as all people regard (self consciously or not), with some degree of consistency, some thing, state, feeling, or idea as absolute and the highest determiner of all their actions. We believe in something through our actions and reactions, not necassarily through our creeds.

Thursday, 12 April 2012


[to Kristen] 

What is adulthood?
It is many things, but not
knee scrapes, shoe strings,
not paper crown kings,
not stone flinging shot-slings.

And slippery! Hands are troubled to cling 
to objects enduring,
(save, maybe to worrying
for what sunrise could bring.) 

Moreover, it gives so many once-held things
In pairs!
And dares it to pare 
bonded things
together once weld' 
in rings. 

Others, still, it weds.
No matter how foe-like,
it beds 
No matter how it stings.

[It is when the having of an ordinary joy
becomes a skill,
even an art of the mind]


My present joy,
Like a winged grasshopper 
in a July day field.

To you the tall grasses are grossly tall.
I see you leap, span wings, and fall
haphazardly to ground below.

Everything is large to you and up and close.
When the wind blows, it blows;
the sun almost too greatly shines;
the dew drop really glows.

The black bird can snatch you up in a blink!
How fast the link
to life is cut.

Your little life is spent looking, is it not? 
You have a season
to befriend the trees once,
maybe for a mate to hunt
a victory to flaunt,
defy an ought,
But you’ve not 
the reason.

For you, to live is to see- to search
to keep the mouth full- to chirp
into the wind.

I watch from afar,
aware of all the out-about dangers that befall
your kind.

I can not help.

Come I near
your wings’ll span with fear
and you’ll flutter away.
I’ll have to turn my back
til you come back.
(I hope you do.)

You will.

jordan dejonge

Saturday, 7 April 2012

On the Death of God

I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark come upon you
Which shall be the darkness of God. As in a theatre,
The lights are extinguished, for the scene to be changed.
With a hollow rumble of wings, with a movement of darkness on darkness,
And we know that the hills and the trees, the distant panorama
And bold imposing facade are all being rolled away-
Or, as when an underground train, in the tube, stops too long between
[East Coker]

On Holy Saturday, God lies dead in the tomb. Exposed and weak, he had cried out on the cross with a cry of abandonment, maybe even despair. With most of his friends having forsaken him, he gave up his spirit. 

Yes, it is true, in John's Gospel he more soberly states, "it is finished".But what is finished is the humiliation of God and therefore the transformation of the very idea of God. The curtain has been rent in two. In a sense, God has profaned Himself, because He is pushed outside the centrality which we  claim for him and is identified with the peripheral. All can be included in Jesus because Jesus does not stand as king at the centre, on the Throne in the Hall, but wades through the spiralled throngs of hierarchy until he  stands at the outermost edge where he is made a thing despised, rejected and stricken. This is the scandal that other Abrahamic traditions have never understood, unable as they are to see the divinity in the symmetry between the God above our heads in unimaginable glory and the God crushed under the Roman boot; the God of the visions of Ezekiel and Isaiah on the moving chariot-throne, radiating a holiness that forces even the Seraphim to close their eyes, and the God whose bloodied and observable countenance forces the women to close their eyes in grief. The exalted and the despised are, together, one God. The centre is equivocated with the edge.  Those who can not see the beauty in this, or are not even moved by the faintest stir of curiosity, are lacking in a creative appreciation of thought. 

In considering this symmetry, the  highest point of heaven is drawn into one single shape with the lowest point of Hades, and precisely from the equivocation of these two is the outpouring of Spirit, if I understand this correctly. The old image of the Holy Mass comes to mind. The Father-king  holding the outstretched arms of the Crucified dead son beneath him; the small Dove hovering over this scene as a kind of perplexing extra-- far more obscure as signifier. 

Jesus, a historical man, in secular time is killed by the powers of the saeculum. And this event within the saeculum is lifted up like the serpent in the desert, raised above as the  "time of origins"- yet now founded within profane time itself rather than its cause. 

This gives Christianity its dynamism and, for me, its irrestible appeal. 


In the course of readings that I've been pursuing lately, much is being made or has been made of the death of God. And I have to admit that these theories interest me and have some clout. 

A number of weeks ago, wandering the streets of Toronto late at night, there was a middle aged, very obese man in a motor wheel chair crossing the street. From his voice, he was a bit of a flaming queen. He ran into someone with his wheel chair, and said, "Oh, sorry honey, God bless you", then quickly added with shrill laughter "What am I saying, there's no God!" [hand flick]. (Think in the vein of Roger the alien from American Dad.)

I can't tell you how disturbing this moment was for me. I was raised to look at handicapped people through the lens of the "preferential option". God's love was always more intense for the disadvantaged. Naturally, one thinks of the disadvantaged as the most in need of the feeling of God's love (though people like Jean Vanier have well testified that they are so often our teachers). So to have someone not privileged, someone not evidently well off or on the top of the social ladder proclaim God's death with such coldness felt incredibly dark.  But it continues to spur my thinking. 

As perhaps some of you know, I've come to the conviction that belief is shared, that it, along with the holy, is a category of social experience. Not simply the doubting of the neighbour, but his refusal to inhabit the world in which doubt and faith interact, is a disbelieving presence that neuters the power of my own prayer [as per the opening of Tarkovsky's Nostalgia] . We will either condemn him with rage in order to re-animate our prayer, or separate ourselves from him (which perhaps amounts to the same thing). But both of these options seem untenable today. 

As I see it, Christianity in the West is at a cross roads that is unlike any previous stage of its history. Yes, the Christian Church was at one time a sect in a pagan world. It is quickly on its way to becoming sectarian once more. But the conditions for belief are not at all the same. Whereas the early Christians could appeal to the Greek cosmos and the imagination of the Roman world, Christians today are often dealing with a different imaginary in a society of very different political and social relationships. Belief is, in many cases, impossible in the sense of how it came naturally to our ancestors, or even my grandparents and parents. In my opinion, it is quite often feigned or, at least, consistently haunted by a dissonance generated  by daily participation in a dis-embeded, uprooted and disenchanted world. There is really no hope for Christianity in the West unless it is willing to look at the conditions of belief itself, which I believe will inevitably turn us toward the dynamics of the community and our experience of "the other" within it. As scary as this may be, life for the community is the basic command of the Christian religion. Mandatum novum do vobis…

All of this is illustrated best in behaviours associated with the concept of the holy. As I know it, the holy is never more real than when I experience it in the throng of a crowd. Walking solemnly towards the altar of sacrifice, with the looming Cross laid out for veneration and Allegri's "Miserere Mei" - this is the summation image of everything ever entrusted to me from birth as holy- I am filled with something that is beyond words, because I am participating in something that is beyond time and beyond fragile individualities.  But how much the more when, upon returning to the pew, I can see the hundreds of people walking in their own silence, in the middle of their own prayer, with some of their own faces streaked with tears. Without them, without the crowd, the Catholic holy becomes its own desperate parody. This is why I do believe the pressing onwards to "full inward participation", in both the liberal and conservative sense, is ultimately destructive to traditional Catholicism because it is, in effect, a dis-embedding force. The usages of religion have proved to a great many that the Church and formal religion are not necessary to accomplish the goals they lay out. That is to say, the well ordered life. The irrelevance of religion to many today is actually a sign of its own success, internalized to the point of disappearance.  The Right argues less and less for the existence of God directly, and more and more for Him on the basis of the supposed necessity of the idea for the sake of the well-ordered society. But this just proves what has happened by the very terms of the debate, and constitutes a dare to the secular world to prove that we can have morality, beauty and meaning without religion. 

Should it really be taken as tangential that here, today, we can not really parade the Blessed Sacrament through the street? Or a statue of Mary? Or, that when such things are done and we can see crowds busily moving like a fish feeding frenzy- just to get a piece of contact with God-  these crowds are generally not white Westerners? (And if they are, they are young (gay?) men with half-a foot in seminary?). Doesn't this tell us that "the holy", as Catholics have traditionally experienced it, is completely tied to the operation of a logic found within the community life, and so does not live and work independently from it? 

Though I believe He is still heard in the corners, there is a great silence of God in these times. This is expressed in the utter incomprehension of the majority of members of my generation to see the relevance of the concept of God for their lives. On the other hand, I am convinced reactionary fundamentalisms aimed at recovering the old world of belief only deepens this incomprehension. 

If it appears God has left us, if it appears God has broken with us, I think it must be because we have broken our communion with one another in some sense. Perhaps this is the darker side of the gains of political life in the last centuries. 

Each like a sheep has gone astray
Each has gone his own way...

Yet we know that the world is groaning to be repaired, and so the work of religion can not be over, if the purpose of religion is indeed to hold us together, lifting us into what is beyond our own selves, and not just an individual path for a life lived rightly. 

God is in the tomb. He is dead, but death can not keep him. He will rise, transfigured, changed. Isn't faith following this path, even if we don't know in advance what his rising will be like? 

I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark come upon you
Which shall be the darkness of God. As in a theatre,
The lights are extinguished, for the scene to be changed.
With a hollow rumble of wings, with a movement of darkness on darkness,
And we know that the hills and the trees, the distant panorama
And bold imposing facade are all being rolled away-
Or, as when an underground train, in the tube, stops too long between

Friday, 6 April 2012

Holy Wound

O tenderly worded palm inscribed;
the hand that bleeds is the hand that guides;
crushed, the finger pointing to hallowed skies;
from none, 
from one, 
from her, from all derived           tenderly;
O wounded palm, I'll touch Thy blood to doubt.

skin tethered, en-skinned text;
the word spoken speaks, blesses, is blest;
presses palm to heart, prays, is prayed, is pressed;
laments, is lamented, suffers, comes to rest.

from above
from blood,
for blood;
from flesh 
to flesh to give;
Life taking up life, 
to die to live.
to wound the Wound 
to mend It;
forsaken of grace 
to send it;
deprived of aid 
to lend it;
succumbed to sorrow
to fend it
at last away and forever. 

O tenderly worded palm inscribed
by Adam's deed,
by Eve's vale-low cries;
from love, for love
from the Father,
with the Dove,
Take my palm in thine 
and glove 
it with thine own.

jordan dejonge

Saturday, 24 March 2012

Some Verses for Lent

This year I didn't give up anything for Lent beyond the meagre demands of canon law. I didn't have the energy anymore to pretend with myself that I would do these things, or that I'm living in a world where they make sense and come naturally, where people around me are doing this too, or that my spiritual life has the vitality, and I the sheer power of will for it.  This is not to disparage those who can keep their Lenten commitments. Mine have been a consistent failure year after year since my parents stopped mandating its observance. It's come time to think about the "why" of this before I fix on externalities. 

It's nonetheless been Lent for me, in its own faint way. A kind of desert season where I see purple cloth when I close my eyes at night. And it's been a time of thirsting, questioning, receiving answers and also stark realizations about myself. 

"the desert is not remote in southern tropics,
the desert is not only around the corner,
the desert is squeezed in the tube train next to you,
the desert is in the heart of your brother"
[The Eagle Soars in the Summit of Heaven] 

The desert is not just in me. The world is not just in me. The first realization has been sin as something other than an abstract category, something more than the purely (seemingly) personal, like looking at pornography or entertaining a lustful thought, where the harm is never really manifest in the disappointed face of the other. 

Rather, now a confrontation with the real harm caused to relationships on account of wrongful patterns of thinking, tendencies towards self involvement, the poison of pride in the "thoughts of the heart". I do hope, with the ongoing stress of Lent as a season for awareness of social justice, that it's real penitential nature is not lost, though neither falsified through a pharisaical repentance that says "I am better because I acknowledge sin, whereas this hopeless secular world does not".

Stand in awe, and sin not; commune with your heart upoon your bed, and be still.
(Psalm 4:4)

We need to be able acknowledge our sins and ask for forgiveness, and to be able to do this together. So I am thankful for this season, its themes and scripture readings. It is an important structure for us, I think, that we should work to keep vital.

In the end, we all have to confront God-as-Judge. Whether wholly secular or not, properly theistic or not, some form of the belief in final judgement is the only way to live a human life, as I see it; meaning a human life responsible to the good of the community. For there is no other way to be, to feel full but to be beating alongside the community's pulse.

This, I think, will have to be the fundamental lesson learned by my generation (and myself). Individualism has taken a wrong turn and there is no sphere of the purely personal, the purely private on this side of the grave, so that we are always in charge of absolving ourselves because we can create the terms. A sheer positvist contract mentality is at work in many social relationships today, but, in the end, it seems to hurt us. We don't work this way, Love does not.

We can not write the rules of engagement according to our own constitution, but must also adapt to the constitutions and needs of others. In that sense, Pope Benedict is perfectly correct when he writes we need something like "an ecology of man", though I think its naive to think that this necessarily requires dogmatic obedience to Catholic Natural Law. In fact, we are already learning this lesson, though not on the terms of the Christian Right who want the recovery of community to be a nostalgic recreation of a moment impossibly retrieved, and who often do not really care if their prescriptions for the community are workable;  being, in truth, more concerned about the appearance of having answers because therein lies their source of power. This is why they watch the unfolding of decadence and disorder with a certain veiled glee, and hope for the failure of the noble ambitions of their secular contemporaries for a better world.

But we are increasingly more willing to acknowledge, for example in the spheres of the environment and economics, that our interrelation requires some imposition on us for the sake of others and our mutual good. It seems to me religion continues to be very relevant to this point. Though the demand that religion take certain highly specific forms  often obscures it and makes people suspicious of its adherents intentions, it is also at base a call to responsibility towards one another. In the Christian case, it is a summons towards a life lived under the light of the eventual "calling to account" that ought to drive our actions. The genius of the Christian doctrine is to proclaim individual responsibility in the midst of the fact of communal culpability. 

"For good and ill deeds belong to a man alone, when he stands alone on the other side of death,
But here upon earth you have the reward of the good and ill that was
done by those who have gone before you ."
[Thus Your Fathers Were Made] 

The private sphere, where God is Judge, can not really be known now, though it nonetheless means we must strive towards our full development as individuals. T.S Eliot writes "make perfect your will".  I think this is reasonable to all, once we acknowledge that our individuality is totally embedded in social relations. 

There is, in our culture, a real rot of nihilism and shirking of all obligations for ambition and self-pursuit. I admit that this sometimes has its appeal to me. But there are also powerful secular voices for responsibility, a global minded ethic, and real passion for the common good. I think this is no less true of religious culture. There is a potential for Christianity to be a nihilism in disguise, a perverse desire to make the world seem as dark as possible so as to make the Christian "light" more palpable by contrast. I admit that this sometimes has its appeal to me too. Yet, here, the opposite is also true. There are and have been religious voices that are truly concerned about our human future, for whom caring is not hostility in disguise. Often these two camps, really on the same side, are both at odds- Matthew Arnold's "ignorant armies that clash by night".  

And if we acknowledge that we are in that night, standing "as though on a darkling plain", should there not be a certain humility of blindness? 

Do not let me hear
Of the wisdom of old men, but rather of their folly,
Their fear of fear and frenzy, their fear of
Of belonging to another, or to others, or to God.
The only wisdom we can hope to acquire
Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.
[East Coker]

It is my hope for myself that I can carry on in this way, conscious of sin and self enclosure, and the needs of others, with a humble hope. 

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

The Steadfast Changeless Shore

"But I'll not fear. I will not weep
For those whose bodies rest in sleep,-
I know there is a blessed shore,
Opening its ports for me and mine
And, gazing Time's wide waters o'ver,
I weary for that land divine,
Where we were born, where you and I
Shall meet our dearest, when we die
From suffering and corruption free,
Restored into the Deity."
"Well hast thou spoken, sweet, trustful child!
And wiser than thy sire:
And worldly tempests, raging wild,
Shall strengthen thy desire-
Thy fervent hope, through storm and foam.
Through wind and ocean's roar,
To reach, at last, the eternal home,
The steadfast changeless shore!" 

(from "Faith and Despondency", Charlotte Bronte) 

Thursday, 1 March 2012

The Poet is...

 “The poet is, must be, for the moment at least, a man so intensely aware of some Thing in his universe- Frost’s tuft of flowers deliberately spared by the mower- that he is driven to inventing an arrangement of words that makes others aware this Thing may exist in their universe too.” [Earle Birney] 

Readers, what is your favourite poem? What does it make you aware of?

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Screens and Dilemmas

Last week I did something I swore I would never do, I bought a Kobo e-reader. 

Knee Jerk Conservative Fears

I had been resistant to this change for several reasons. The first was a conservative knee-jerk reaction against the seeming hubris of it all. The steady movement towards the digitalization of our works of literature seems to make their preservation all the more precarious. We sacrifice their  tangibility for levity. For the sake of convenience and succinctness, from the human urge to constantly unify and bring together the many, so that everything is increasingly only at a finger touch away or-intellectually-the whole of thought contained in a single over-arching concept: 

How many stores have to offer more and more variety, so that one can do more and more in a single location? Tim Horton's is now offering lattes, along with the McCafe, Wal-Mart is also a grocery store, other grocery stores are now featuring affordable clothing lines, and so on, while strip malls spring up everywhere. Even new condos in Toronto are featuring built in cafes, gyms and merchandize. There is, it seems, almost a crass materialization of the Platonic movement towards "the One" as the diversity of objects and options increasingly pool together into a single point. 

The idea of a personal library accessible on-the-go is in this vein.  

I remember, when I was 19, I became aware of a tendency to isolate myself in a room I was renting at an acquaintance's house. In this room, I had my shrine with its link to God, small library with its link to our cultural forbears, internet connection with its link to people, coffee maker so that I could brew coffee without having to leave the room and, after I begrudging cooked my meals downstairs,  would always eat them alone upstairs. I wanted a small fridge so that I didn't have to store my groceries in the common one. It struck me that I didn't want to leave my things downstairs, I didn't want to share or be shared, but desired all the constituents of life localized for me, not merely in the house, but in my absolutely private sphere.

This might seem tangential, but I think its an urge, perhaps shared by most to varying degrees, that is exploited or further developed by our technological situation today. With the rise of unlimited personal choice we can live alone in the midst of people in a false manner: individuals seated side by side on the subway each listening to the music of his choosing; through cellphones, we have private conversations with our absent friends while we wait in a line up  for our morning coffee, families don't have to fight over the remote because each has a tablet or a computer screen;  we don't have to show up at the TV for the right time because TIVO has recorded it and so I can choose my own television schedule, and on and on… reality itself is increasingly manipulatable towards our convenience, and is less and less burdened by having to be shared with the inconvenient wishes of another. 

He's got the whole world in His hands
He's got the whole wide world in his hands...

The world today is actually in our palm. This inevitably blunts the perception of the need for God, or the need to throw ourselves down and weep and plead at the feet of fate. I used to scoff at the saying of Rudolph Bultmann that 

“it is impossible to use electric light and the wireless and to avail ourselves of modern medical and surgical discoveries, and at the same time to believe in the New Testament world of spirits and miracles” (New Testament and Mythology, 5). 

Now it gives me more pause. 

E-books, E-missals, E-Bibles, E-Sacraments? 

Perhaps it has something to do with my Catholic upbringing, but the written word has always felt sacred. I think of the Missal on the altar, flanked by two candles; its weight when I had to carry it for the priest to pray the collect, which he prayed with his hands outstretched. Further, the family Bible, or the sense from my English teachers that literature disclosed the profound or sublime- a perception not very distant from that of "the holy". Books always felt like sacramentals. Holding a book in my hand felt/ feels like a sacred act, and I would sometimes just hold the Bible or a prayer book while kneeling, with the feeling, perhaps, that the profundity of truth was therein contained. Simply holding it felt prayerful. This continues/ continued, though somewhat more palely,  with texts like "The Odyssey", a Shakespeare play, or anything from the the venerable canon of Western culture. There is therefore something wrong about the E-reader, it seems. Can you imagine a priest praying the collect from an I-pad? (Though from an appropriately liturgically coloured binder is nearly as bad). The idea is very off-putting to me. But all of this can be considered,  I think, with reference to certain points of ideological fixture.  In a time increasingly characterized by fluidity, rootlessness, freedom of movement and choice, one of the primary concerns of my life, as I reflect, has been to find that "still point of the turning world".  

One reason I returned to Catholicism was because it is the only cultural form that has pervaded and characterized my family life and that of my relatives before me and, further, whose rituals and symbols seem certain to remain even after our unity dissolves, my grandparents die, the farm is sold, we disperse, and so on (its still a good reason, in my book). But is this really possible today? The cleaving of Christian faith from cultural inheritance and externalities began long before I was born, with a church composed of "true believers" offering "internal assent" and "witness", acting with "full conscious participation"-- all symptomatic of the dissolution of the link between religion and society, where religion ceases to be religio in the sense of "to-bind".

In his "Introduction to Christianity" Ratzinger observes of the early modern period that 

“the world finally appeared no longer as the firm housing of being but as a process whose continual expansion is the movement of being itself.”

And we are still there today, suspicious of every "firm house". Even though various forms of Christianity promise to offer the believer that fixed dwelling within which to abide, the very effort is constantly contradicted by the currents of culture itself, which most of these religions embrace, including Catholicism.  Catholic spirituality today is like a tumblr blog, where the art enthusiast can instantly pull up works from across the entire historical spectrum to decorate his new Facebook "time line".  One can "resource from the past", choose "baroque-retro", "patristic- chic" or go "relevant-contemporary". We can mix and match rites not just across cultural/ national boundaries, but across time: the EF, the OF, the up-and-coming "hybrid"; all of which are brought under the so called "big tent":  the great tarp over the flea market. 

Process theology continues to have its strong appeal for this reason: the entire world of culture and politics today, with the reign of pluralism and technological saturation, urges us on to reject any "hard kernel" to reality, as  the manner in which we live in order to actualize our sense of freedom, our constant striving towards defining (and redefining) the loose parameters of fragile identity, comes at the consequence of any such still-standing point. Conversely, the uncertainty and fear brought about by the endless fluidity can urge us on to find something- in some cases, anything- to anchor ourselves and escape the anxiety of permanent change. Is this the battle between progress and conservation?

In this sense, the fixed written page and the screen are a world apart. The missal on the altar or Shakespeare in the hand really do speak to truth as a fixed thing attainable within the world. Our world, "coloured and frail, with fleeting change on change", is more and more characterized by mutability, all the while the variety of options converge into a localized point. What reflects this better than the screen? To pick up a book is difficult, often boring for the fragmented attention span that increasingly characterizes today's generation. What is behind the preference of the screen over the page? Is it mere convenience?

While the book held gently in the hand might radiate with a sacred sense of cradling a fixed and profound truth (like the Blessed Sacrament shinning from the monstrance), the screen has a very different kind of magic. The screen, like the mutable, metamorphosing identity of postmodernism, is perennially "open". It can always, at any moment, become something else. It is the localized point into a all localities and none. With a book, we can turn a page; what was written and what was read remains materially. With the screen, what was read vanishes, sublated by the next series of text…

The physical Kobo or Kindle or Ipad can have none of the sacredness of a material text because it just plays host to the idea that temporarily inhabits it. 

El Pelon brought some important insights to my attention recently, when he contrasted the ideological implications of the Lutheran and Catholic doctrines of the Eucharist. Readers should be familiar with this controversy, understood as consubstantiation and transubstantiation respectively. He writes: 

The Lutheran just median, however, has spirit dwelling in the substance only to surpass it in its change into something else. In and of itself, the host is nothing; only in the process of being destroyed does it embody spirit. The truth is in the eating and not in the bread itself. One could thus say that Hegel’s entire philosophy is Lutheran par excellence: the truth only exists insofar as it is being immolated, consumed, and destroyed, to bring about a higher state of truth, ad infinitum. This is the “absolute negativity”, the “tarrying with the negative”, so often discussed in Hegel.

and then he writes of the doctrine of transubstantiation: 

Would not the feudal doctrine described above be all too convenient for these interests: the truth is a hard thing one could taste and touch, and which can be maintained by one particular group to the detriment of another? Does not the stability of the embodied host give a sort of moral and philosophical anchor to thought in the face of an ever-changing world dominated by the “anarchic” needs of the market (basically, the “Calvinist menace” that has been condemned since the Romantics and Marx)?
There is no need, of course, to stop with the Eucharist. To the extent that books were ever emblems of the truth- unquestionably so in Western culture- the e-book supplants the hard truth of the hard cover, "spiritualizes" it into the digital realm. We continue to abstract the tangible sign of the real, as into an I-Cloud. If the Protestant revolution was greatly aided- even made possible- by the printing press and the spread of information through books that helped to the draw the boundaries of the newly minted modern subject, what spiritual revolution exactly does the e-book contribute to? 
Is there good reason, beyond my own personal idiosyncrasies, to think that the sacred can not emit from an e-book like it can a physical text? I think so.

Is there any use looking for the still-point? Do fundamentalisms vulgarize this innate human urge and render it violent? Can the human need for rootedness ultimately be denied? Or is it an illusion, impossible to swallow given modern conditions? 
This is what troubles me lately, at any rate. Is there a grounding Absolute to be found beyond the confines of bitter, anti-modern fundamentalisms? What is "the absolute"? 
Do not call it fixity…
At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.
[T.S. Eliot]