Donuts and Rings

creme filledThe spin cycle is on full tilt in some quarters of the blogosphere. Fr Ray Blake fusses a bit about the Church going to the peripheries as he tries to convince himself it’s not all bad that Cardinal Burke’s career arc isn’t going up:

We talk a great deal about going out to the peripheries to evangelise but in doing that we the risk of turning the Church into a doughnut, all sides but no centre.

It seems that Fr Blake needs to read more of Pope Francis and less of his traditionalist heroes. I recall seeing quite a bit about caring for and feeding believers in Evangelii Gaudium. Thing is, the elder siblings are not what the Gospel is about. In Jesus’ time, those elder siblings conspired with  Roman authorities to put the Lord to death. The “center” always seemed to have something better to do: sacrificing one man for the good of the nation (as they saw it), sneaking around at night to meet Jesus, neglecting basic hospitality and respect and then resenting it when the sinners took over.

Sphere-like_degenerate_torusAnd what’s wrong with a torus, anyway? I wear one on one of my left fingers. Maybe it reminds me of the eternal and endless quality of my sacramental commitment. Maybe it suggests my best place is on the periphery with my wife–and not where all the action might be–in the world.

Or maybe the Holy Father is thinking more three-dimensionally, that the peripheries of which he speaks are those of a sphere. Maybe there is a center, after all. But some people have abandoned it because some of us don’t need the protection of the interior. The Church is not a castle, a museum, a fortress, or a country club behind protective gates. The Church also is not one of those cream-filled, chocolate-pasted creations my parish serves every Sunday. That puffy white mix of sugar and fat is attractive to children, perhaps. The other weekend, one young friend of mine was licking the chocolate periphery and leaving behind not only the center, but the meat of the matter. Maybe she has the better idea there …

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On My Bookshelf: Nancy Kress

Nancy Kress is not your usual science fiction author. Like others, she pops a big idea into her stories, then see where it leads the characters. In almost everything I’ve read from her, she looks deep within the person and explores those relational aspects that are quite human, but somehow are challenged, altered, or create obstacles as her character struggles to make sense of something beyond ordinary experience.

Whenever I see “Nancy Kress” in a short story anthology or in a magazine, it’s usually the first thing I read. I never skip her short fiction.

Her ideas involve hard science, but the treatment is not cold and aloof. In the author’s own words, from an online interview:

I don’t want to call (what I write) hard SF, I think I’ll borrow a term from Michael Swin and say that I write high-viscosity SF. Because again the genetic engineering revolution is so fascinating to me that I move into it, trying to get the science as right as I possibly can. But the characters to me are still to me the most important thing, because science happens to people, because if science falls in the forest and there’s no one around, does it make a sound? I don’t think so.

BeggarsInSpain(1stEd)My favorite work of hers involves “Beggars.” She expanded an award-winning novella in the 90’s and created a three-book tale of people genetically engineered to not sleep. And to be high performers in life. Ms Kress admits the series takes totally opposite ideas, like from Ayn Rand and Ursula LeGuin, and sees what happens when you mix up people who are either meritocrats or communists. There’s no in-between. So sparks fly.

Less successful, I think, is a short novel, her latest, Yesterday’s Kin. Oh, it’s quite readable, but I didn’t find it satisfying as other books she’s written. Genetics is still a Nancy Kress mainstay. At first, the story appears pedestrian: aliens land in New York. The solar system, in its wanderings through the galaxy, is about to pass through a mysterious cloud that has killed these aliens and, presumably, will kill everybody on Earth. So it’s time to band together and help each other out.

The story is told mainly from the point of view of a single mother of adult children. The children are extremes. The two elder siblings are opposites and argue all the time. They provide voices for extremes of present-day politics–instead of Rand and LeGuin, it’s treehuggers and military isolationists. Sibling #3 is a slacker–nobody likes him.

Mom herself is high-strung, highly driven, and a key player in the human-alien cooperation effort.

YesterdayskinYesterday’s Kin failed to deliver for me. It’s a quick and easy read, and I was curious about what was going to happen. The drug addiction of the younger son was more a distraction than a real contribution to the story, though it drives the reason why he consents to being “abducted” by the aliens in the end.

There is a key event in human history, the moment about 70,000 years ago when we went through a population “bottleneck,” from which only a few thousand people survived. When the author first mentions it through her character, Marianne, I thought, ah! that’s where we’re going with this. It was like my wife’s feeling when she’s figured out a mystery and there is still half a book or another half-hour of tv to go.

The alien reveal mid-book is a surprise, but it leaves some questions hanging in space. The aliens, of course, are not what they seem to be. They take some measure of pride in being advanced, strutting amongst the stars, helping out the poor stepchildren of the galaxy, the humans. But they turn out to be as petty and self-centered as anybody else on Earth. All too human, as it turns out.

189 pages–not a long read. Maybe just a little too long. The character conflicts are not subtle–I seem to remember her other fiction being more subtle about it. Maybe in the mainstream culture, people are presented as being extremists. In this book, I have a very non-PC urge to slap the people. I don’t care about their politics. As a reader, I didn’t care for them at all.

I would start with the best of Nancy Kress: her short fiction and Beggars In Spain.

Posted in On My Bookshelf, science fiction | 1 Comment

DPPL 62-63: Life, Death, and Christ

STA altar at night smallPopular piety can aid us in navigating the difficult straits of life and death, including the Paschal Mystery of Jesus Christ:

62. Popular piety can easily direct its attention to the Son of God who, for love of mankind, became a poor, small child, born of a simple humble woman. Likewise, it has a particular sensibility for the mystery of Passion and death of Christ(Cf. Puebla 912).

Death is a deep-enough mystery. Some of us certainly need all the assistance we can find, especially people who have gone before us and are now in the eternal embrace of God in heaven:

Contemplation of the mystery of the afterlife is an important feature of popular piety, as is its interest in communion with the Saints in Heaven, the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Angels, and suffrage for the souls of the dead.

Are we able to integrate the essence of the Gospel into religious culture?

63. That harmonious fusion or the Gospel message with a particular culture, which is often found in popular piety, is a further reason for the Magisterium’s esteem of popular piety. In genuine forms of popular piety, the Gospel message assimilates expressive forms particular to a given culture while also permeating the consciousness of that culture with the content of the Gospel, and its idea of life and death, and of (human) freedom, mission and destiny.

The Church speaks of harmony here. This is an expression, I think, of the quality of prudence. Can the Gospel and the liturgy be integrated easily into a culture that relies heavily on popular piety? Will the fusion that results be able to engage the qualities people seek: comfort, truth, integration, courage, and faith?

The transmission of this cultural heritage from (parents) to (children), from generation to generation, also implies the transmission of Christian principles. In some cases, this fusion goes so deep that elements proper to the Christian faith become integral elements of the cultural identity of particular nations(Cf. John Paul II, Homily given at the shrine of the Virgin Mary of “Zapopan”, 2, in AAS, 71 (1979) 228-229; Puebla 283). Devotion to the Mother of the God would be an example of this.

The full document, the Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy, is online at the Vatican site.

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Aparecida 78 – Violence

In paragraph 78, the bishops note the rise in violence in the region.

Social life, in harmonious and peaceful coexistence, is deteriorating very seriously in many Latin American and Caribbean countries, due to the rise in violence, which takes the form of robberies, muggings, kidnappings, and even more seriously, murders, which every day destroy more human lives and fill families and all of society with sorrow.

They list various types of violence:

Violence takes on various forms and has different agents:
organized crime and drug trafficking, paramilitary groups,
common crime, especially on the outskirts of large cities,
violence of youth gangs, and growing domestic violence.

Two other types of violence I have encountered are the violence of revenge and the violence of feuds between families, often fueled by an initial act of violence against one member of an extended family.

There is no mention in this paragraph of guerrilla forces that were active in the last fifty years and are still active, at least in Colombia, though this is briefly noted in paragraph 81.

There is also no mention of violence by governmental forces. In the last four decades of the twentieth century, this was a significant problem throughout Latin America, related to the authoritarian governments in the region. Often governmental police and military units coordinated their efforts with death squads. Though that era is over, there are still occasions when the police or the military use violence. At times the violence is due to the actions of individual police or soldiers, acting in a criminal manner. But the militarization of the police in several nations may lead to violence against civilians. In addition, there is always the danger of a government using the police to repress protesting sectors of the society.

The bishops continue, listing causes:

The causes are many:
worship of money,
the advance of an individualistic and utilitarian ideology,
disrespect for the dignity of each person,
a deterioration of the social fabric,
corruption even of law-enforcement entities,
and lack of government policies of social justice.

Though the bishops mention “lack of government policies of social justice,” as a cause, one might add, making this more specific, the lack of an efficient justice system, the lack of trained police, the militarization of police forces, and impunity.

Since the Aparecida conference, violence has increased in some parts of Latin America.

But, as far as I can see, the document offers no comprehensive analysis of violence, including its social roots – something which is really needed.

Here is an English translation of the 2007 document from the Aparecida Conference.

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Reconciliation Lectionary: Genesis 4:1-15

mary-the-penitent.jpgI have never heard this passage from the early mythology of Genesis proclaimed and preached at a Reconciliation Liturgy. The tale of Cain and Abel is one of the saddest in the Bible. At least I find it so. In a mere nine chapters of the Bible, Genesis 3 through 11, humankind sinks desperately low. The acceleration picks up with the first murder:

The man had relations with his wife Eve,
and she conceived and bore Cain, saying,
“I have produced a man with the help of the Lord.”
Next she bore his brother Abel.
Abel became a keeper of flocks,
and Cain a tiller of the ground.
In the course of time
Cain brought an offering to the Lord
from the fruit of the soil,
while Abel, for his part,
brought one of the best firstlings of his flock.
The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering,
but on Cain and his offering he did not.
So Cain greatly resented this and was crestfallen.

The various commentaries on farmers versus ranchers do not interest me. Nor what seems to be the arbitrariness of God being pleased with one man’s offering and not the other’s. Likewise the curiosity that an infamous member of the second generation of human beings would need, somehow, to be identified with a mark. Are these the first people, or not?

What I do understand is the perception that God sometimes seems unfair and arbitrary. It seems natural to be angry or resentful. Note also that Cain was crestfallen–the NABRE says “dejected.” His inner tumult was not just directed at another, but consumed him in a particular mood. We can feel this way. God can also intervene then. Do we listen for the questions of life:

So the Lord said to Cain:
Why are you so resentful and crestfallen?
If you do well, you can hold up your head;
but if not, sin is a demon lurking at the door:
his urge is toward you, yet you can be his master.

It is a truth that sin lies in wait for us. It’s not some personalized other to blame, at least not all the time. But something to entrap us when we choose not to overcome it. The NABRE passage doesn’t mention a demon, only the impersonal “it” of sin. Make of that edit what you will.

Now comes the sadness: murder and cover-up.

Cain said to his brother Abel,
“Let us go out in the field.”
When they were in the field,
Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him.
Then the Lord asked Cain,
“Where is your brother Abel?”
He answered, “I do not know.
Am I my brother’s keeper?”
The Lord then said: “What have you done!
Listen: your brother’s blood cries out to me from the soil!
Therefore you shall be banned from the soil
that opened its mouth to receive
your brother’s blood from your hand.
If you till the soil,
it shall no longer give you its produce.
You shall become a restless wanderer on the earth.

So Cain loses his relationship with his ability, being able to be a productive farmer. Serious sin sometimes results in separating us from not only the people we love, but the work we love to do. This kind of alienation, either as a punishment from a human source, or a loss of internal verve, often accompanies serious sin. How does the Christian community leave a path open for a penitent without creating a situation in which the spiral of sin becomes all too easy? I don’t have the answer to that one.

Cain bargains with God, not unlike other Old Testament figures:

Cain said to the Lord:
“My punishment is too great to bear.
Since you have now banished me from the soil,
and I must avoid your presence
and become a restless wanderer on the earth,
anyone may kill me at sight.”
“Not so!” the Lord said to him.
“If anyone kills Cain, Cain shall be avenged sevenfold. So the Lord put a mark on Cain, lest anyone should kill him at sight.

The Lord’s punishments so often seem magnified, especially if we have been lured into sin from a sense of personal unfairness. As a parent, I have found this extremely difficult. How to exact consequences for bad choices without allowing my child to descend into a deeper resentment and bitterness?

I would applaud any preacher who manages to speak effectively and fruitfully on this point. Any experiences out there with this reading, or in your own personal reflection?

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Remarriage Worse Than Murder

Bishop Robert Lynch reflects on a “Rubicon” about to be crossed:

Think about it for a moment, I can absolve the most heinous of criminals who seeks God’s forgiveness for the sin of murder and give him or her the Eucharist, but let a twenty-one year old who made a mistake in choosing a spouse for a bevy of reasons return to the Eucharist – no way says the Church and I pray instead for some way. Pope Francis has instilled in my heart a desire for reconciliation of all, forgiveness, mercy and compassion for those who need it and seek it, and a Church which is itself a beacon of hope to those who walk in the darkness of this day and age.

Seems right. A person is murdered. Seems like that person should come back from the dead in order to undo the sin and permit a repentant killer to return to the sacraments.

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DPPL 61: Values in Popular Piety

STA altar at night smallValues in popular piety, according to popes, we start with the Holy Spirit, the recognition that the Spirit guides people and the magisterium accepts this, in principle:

61. Popular piety, according to the Magisterium, is a living reality in and of the Church. Its source is the constant presence of the Spirit of God in the ecclesial community; the mystery of Christ Our Savior is its reference point, the glory of God and the salvation of man its object, its historical moment “the joyous encounter of the work of evangelization and culture” (John Paul II, Homily given at the shrine of the Virgin Mary of “Zapopang”, 2, in AAS, 71 (1979) 228). On several occasions, the Magisterium has expressed its esteem for popular piety and its various manifestations, admonishing those who ignore it, or overlook it, or even distain it, to adopt a more positive attitude towards it, taking due note of its many values (Cf. Paul VI, Apostolic Exhortation Marialis Cultus, 31; John Paul II, Allocution to the Bishops of Basilicata and Apulia, ad Limina visit, 4, in AAS 74 (1982) 211-213). Indeed, the Magisterium sees popular piety as “a true treasure of the People of God” (John Paul II, Homily given at the Celebration of the Word in La Serena (Chile), 2, in Insegnamenti di Giovanni Paolo II, X/1 (1987), cit., p. 1078.).
The Magisterium’s esteem for popular piety is principally motivated by the values which it incorporates.
Popular piety has an innate sense of the sacred and the transcendent, manifests a genuine thirst for God and “an acute sense of God’s deepest attributes: fatherhood, providence, constant and loving presence”, (Cf. Evangelii Nuntiandi 48) and mercy(Cf. Catechesi Tradendae 54).

Admonishing those who ignore, overlook, or disdain popular piety: I think there is a strain of people who are skeptics on non-liturgical spirituality. To what degree do people actively discourage this strain? I think it happens institutionally here and there, but more likely focused on questionable practices: St Jude chain letters, Medjugorje, excesses. Thing is, some people are attached to excesses, and they take not kindly to others suggesting perspective.

The Latin American bishops are cited here:

The documents of the Magisterium highlight certain interior dispositions and virtues particularly consonant with popular piety and which, in turn, are prompted and nourished by it: patience and “Christian resignation in the face of irremediable situations”(Puebla 965); trusting abandonment to God; the capacity to bear sufferings and to perceive “the cross in every-day life”(Evangelii nuntiandi 48); a genuine desire to please the Lord and to do reparation and penance for the offences offered to Him; detachment from material things; solidarity with, and openness to, others; “a sense of friendliness, charity and family unity”(Puebla 913).

What do you think?

The full document, the Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy, is online at the Vatican site.

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