Wednesday, October 11, 2006

From Crunch Cons--Swallows and Tradition

From Rod Dreher...response to First Things article:

Swallows and Tradition

Continuing the discussion from the last post, what prompted Maggie Gallagher's e-mails to me was her reading of Jody Bottum's long and rewarding essay from the new issue of First Things, in which he makes the failure in recent times of the famed swallows to return to Capistrano a metaphor for the death, or near-death, of Catholic culture in the United States. Bottum says that Vatican II's reforms cleaned out a lot of "nests" in the American Catholic Church, things that the would-be reformers thought were mere cobwebs, detritus, cultural bric-a-brac, but which were actually crucial carriers of Catholic culture. Here's Bottum:

An entire culture nested in the crossbeams and crannies, the nooks and corners, of the Catholic Church. And it wasn’t until the swallows had been chased away that anyone seemed to realize how much the Church itself needed them, darting around the chapels and flitting through the cathedrals. They provided beauty, and eccentricity, and life. What they did, really, was provide Catholicism to the Catholic Church in America, and none of the multimedia Masses and liturgical extravaganzas in the years since—none of the decoy nests and artificial puddles—has managed to call them home. All the mission bells will ring, / The chapel choir will sing, / When the swallows come back to Capistrano.

True story: a few years back, Julie and I were visiting our friends the Mathewes-Greens outside of Baltimore. We attended the beginning of the liturgy at their Orthodox parish, and were knocked flat by the beauty and majesty of the service and the singing. Most of these people in this parish were converts, but they celebrated the tradition they had found with inspiring vigor. An outsider could hardly fail to be impressed by the beauty on display -- and that beauty (the beauty of the chanted psalms and ancient liturgy, the icons, the prostrations) carried within it an entire way of relating to the world. As someone who came to Catholicism out of a low-church Protestant background, I had come to understand by doing how all the aesthetic trappings of Catholicism were not just decoration, but carried within them the Catholic worldview. I came to appreciate sacramentalism not through cognition, at least not primarily, but by experiencing the Catholic tradition in rituals formal and informal. Anyway, we left the Orthodox liturgy after some time to drive up the road a bit to fulfill our Sunday obligation at the local Catholic parish.

It was quite a contrast. The 1970s building suggested Our Lady of Pizza Hut. Inside the rounded interior, a large molded plastic cross hung over the altar, which had been moved forward, like a theater in the round. The walls had been stripped of nearly anything identifiably Catholic, except for some modernist representations of the Stations of the Cross. It looked like some sort of badly-dated bus terminal from "The Jetsons." The white-haired priest processed in, trailed by a couple of altar girls, with the congregation mewling some Seventies-era hymn. You can imagine the rest -- indeed, if you are an American Catholic, you don't have to work hard to imagine it. You've seen it. Perhaps you do see it every Sunday. What finally made us leave during the mass was the priest's homily, in which he preached the exact opposite of the teaching of that day's Gospel, and something which I had enough sense to realize directly undermined Catholic teaching. We'd had it. We picked up Matthew, who was a toddler then, genuflected and left. We were both near tears on our way back to the car, and it wasn't so much over the blasted modernist disaster on display architecturally, liturgically, homiletically and aesthetically in that parish we'd just left so much as it was the contrast between Holy Cross Orthodox parish and that one.

Don't misunderstand me: I am not putting forth an argument saying "...and therefore Orthodoxy is better than Catholicism." What I'm trying to get at is that living truth is not just a set of propositions. The propositions are conveyed to us through Tradition, and that includes old rituals, old customs, and so forth. Though few of the people in Holy Cross had grown up with Orthodox tradition, they had been grafted onto its trunk, and were making it their lives. The crucial thing to remember is that there was an intact tradition for them to accept. I have a dear friend, formerly Orthodox and now Evangelical, who says he left the Greek church of his youth because all he could see was dead ritualism on display. I've no doubt that's true, and Tradition can become an idol. Still, a Catholic from 1960 who walked into that Catholic parish we visited would wonder what "bare ruined choirs" catastrophe had happened to render the Church so unrecognizable. One wonders: would a Catholic child raised in that kind of environment have a chance to grow up to be Flannery O'Connor or Walker Percy? Would an Orthodox child raised in the Holy Cross environment have a chance to grow up to be Dostoevsky or Solzhenitsyn?

The answer is fairly obvious to me, but Jody Bottum makes a key point here, when he says that there are new signs of life among younger orthodox Catholics, but he doesn't overpraise them:

For the development of a new Catholicism, this doesn’t look the most-promising start. Rich local cultures may produce great works, but few people in the United States have that kind of cultural wealth anymore. Certainly not many Catholics. The number of Americans who grew up in a profoundly Catholic setting is smaller than it ever has been before—which creates a problem for a new culture. If Catholicism is something elected rather than received, can Catholics achieve what earlier cultures did?

Their children, perhaps, will come from a thick-enough world that they can write the kind of strong Catholic novels, make the kind of strong Catholic art, prior ages knew. But in the meantime, a rebellion against rebellion doesn’t escape the problems of rebellion, and a chosen tradition is never quite the same as an inherited one.

And that was Maggie's point: that there is something of a "wannabe" quality to the neotraditionalism I advocate. Yet again, I go back to the "what else is there?" rejoinder. If I prostrate myself before the Orthodox icons on Sunday morning, and teach my children to do the same, or if I say my beads at the Latin Mass, it is an unusual thing. It is not the culture I inherited. The culture of my immediate inheritance is Our Lady of Pizza Hut. But it is a dead end and a dead thing. It won't last. The Orthodox liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, the Tridentine Mass in Catholicism -- and all the trappings and devotionals of those wondrous poems -- have stood the test of time. There is true life in them, and the culture(s) that grew up around them. We can never go back to the ghettoized faith and culture of the past. We can't unlearn, but we can relearn. It might be impossible for Catholics of my generation to write the Great Catholic Novel, but if they've been diligent in raising their kids, and (as Flannery put it), pushed back as hard against the age as it has pushed them, maybe in their children's generation. Or their grandchildren's. The only alternative I can see is to accept our rootless condition as fated.

[N.B., The point is not that we should worship Tradition for its own sake. That ends up in worshipping the Tribe, or worshipping Ritual, etc. Tradition (in religion) is only worthwhile insofar as it helps its adherents become saints. The right-thinking traditionalist must always keep that truth in front of him.]

The Kirk family is very traditional and Catholic. Russell KIrk's immediate ancestors were Swedenborgian spiritualists. Are we to tell the Kirks that they're faking it, that they're not really Catholic because the tradition was broken? Or did the recovery take place in a generation or two? You see?

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