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Latin: A Convert’s Romance in Three Movements

22 Apr

“This ‘one language’…was an expression of the unity of the Church and through its dignified character elicited a profound sense of the Eucharistic Mystery.”
~ Pope St. John Paul II

Allegro

The waitress dropped off our check, and the busboy was starting to clear away our syrupy dishes. “Do you have any other questions?” the priest asked.

Like the waitress, Fr. Tom was itching to get on with his day. He’d already given up a good chunk of his morning over breakfast with me, but he was being trying to be understanding and polite. I was an utterly naïve Catholic wannabe who had parachuted intellectually into the melee of early-1980s catechetical confusion, and I was desperate for straight answers and guidance. As pastor of my Uptown parish, Fr. Tom was generously taking the brunt, and he did his best to field my many questions about Mary, the papacy, confession, and the like.

“Well, yes, I do have one more,” I replied. Fr. Tom waited – I hesitated. It was an embarrassing question that I knew would expose my flights of anachronistic Catholic fancy. “I bought this Rosary the other day” – my first one; I still have it! – “and there’s some Latin on the crucifix. Can you translate it for me?”

I figured (correctly) that Fr. Tom had gone to seminary when Latin was still required, and he nodded as I handed my beads to him. “Let’s see…Ecce lignum crucis in quo salus mundi. Basically it means ‘Behold the wood of the cross which holds the savior of the world.’” It was a condensed line from the Good Friday liturgy, with which I’m well familiar now, but Fr. Tom didn’t mention it at the time. I thanked him and accepted back the Rosary without further comment.

Inside, however, I was thrilled. It seemed so mysterious, so obscure, and yet so solid, so reassuring. Somehow, it meant more to me that the words were in Latin than if they’d been in straight English – or Italian, or even Biblical Greek for that matter. The Roman part of Roman Catholic seemed inexorably bound up with the Latin language, and now I not only had my own little token of it, but I even understood what it meant! It was like I’d been granted an insider’s glimpse of something essential about the Faith – it’s character, it’s personality. It was a small emblem of entrée into a world utterly foreign to me, but it was significant. The Church, to me, was like a family, a big, messy family, with its own bewildering constellation of traditions and quirks and esoteric language, yet it was to be my own.

I clutched my Latin-laced token as if it was a ticket for an ocean crossing.

Andante

“But why is the word for ‘ship’ feminine when the word for ‘sailor’ is masculine?” I asked my longsuffering Latin instructor. “And a farmer is masculine, but farming itself is feminine?”

He sighed, and I suspect the others sitting around the long table did so inwardly. It was supposed to be an accelerated Latin course for graduate students, not a seminar in philology. “There is no reason,” he calmly explained for the umpteenth time. “It’s just how it is. It’s just how the language developed.”

I didn’t buy it, but I let it go…again. We resumed our plodding through Allen and Greenough, and I shelved my curiosity. I was working on a master’s in medieval history at the University of Colorado, and my goal was supposed to be acquiring a reading knowledge of Latin, not unpacking its subtle linguistic lineage. Yet, as I struggled with vocabulary, conjugations, and declensions, I kept coming back to Latin’s alluring temperament. I should’ve been anxious to get on with utilizing the language to tackle minims, miniscule, and manuscripts, but I was getting bogged down in the language itself.

Then the moment came when it became clear that medieval studies were not to be my life’s work. A different instructor took over the second half of the accelerated Latin course, and, on a lark, he decided that we’d spend the final weeks of the semester translating the Vulgate’s version of John’s Gospel instead of Cicero. Who knows why he chose this – at a state university of all places. Regardless, we all dove in – and I was transfixed by the text. The debates about translation naturally revolved around meaning, and I swiftly drifted away from caring much about paleography and medieval charters. What mattered was John’s theologizing about the God-man’s invasion of our world.

As you’d expect in such a class, the goings were slow, but we managed to arrive at John 6 before the term concluded. “The text is pretty straightforward,” the instructor indicated. “Qui manducat meam carnem et bibit meum sanguinem habet vitam aeternam – ‘He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life.’ And it aligns well with the Greek. Thoughts?”

It was an open invitation and I jumped at it. I gave a rudimentary overview to my classmates of Catholic teaching on the Eucharist, but with a revealing enthusiasm that marked me for a divergent future. Clearly my career trajectory wasn’t going to involve staid academic impartiality. I was a sectarian partisan, and it wasn’t long after that day that I dropped out of the medieval studies program and headed off to Steubenville to study theology. Once again, a singular encounter with the Church’s dead language had resulted in a lifegiving epiphany.

Presto

Mrs. Dance had Ben’s folder open and it was time to choose his freshman language requirement. “I don’t care what else you take in high school,” I told my teenage son. “But you have to take Latin.”

Why not Spanish? Why not something useful? Why not, why not, why not…? I wouldn’t budge, and I haven’t budged since. Ben and two of his siblings have since graduated high school having enjoyed (or endured) at least three years of Latin each; Crispin will graduate this spring after a full four years. Cecilia is in her second year, and her two younger siblings will follow in her footsteps once they get there. Honors courses, dual-credit college courses, calculus and trig (or drawing and digital photography) – whatever they’d like. But Latin? It’s a must.

For one thing, I’m still persuaded by the argument that there’s no better way to buttress vocabulary, writing skills, and critical thinking than a hefty dose of Europe’s original lingua franca. My collegiate children back me up on this to a certain extent – although there’s a considerable lobby there to allow their younger siblings to acquire a modern, “practical” language.

Overruled.

Besides, in addition to Latin’s value a prep for the S.A.T. and college-level composition, there’s also the fact that it has always been everybody’s high school home base – an oasis in their daily grind, a safe space, both intellectually and socially, even emotionally. This stands to reason if you consider the camaraderie that would naturally emerge when kids of varying classes and backgrounds are compelled by their backward parents to study an ancient tongue. “It was great,” Crispin told me. “There were people I’ve been close to in Latin that I’d never run into outside of class.” And whenever our teens over the years have laughingly shared school-day anecdotes, they’ve more often than not emanated from Latin class.

But this is all smokescreen. The real reason – the ulterior motive, as it were – for my insistence on Latin for my kids has always been because it’s the language of the Church – the syntax and structure of how the Church thinks, the way our Faith family communicates at her very core. I want that drummed into their heads, along with sound catechesis and regular participation in the sacramental life of the Church, so that, if they’re ever to stray, they’ll be plagued by Latinate cadences. They’ll be haunted by the drumbeat of ecclesial sentence structure, and their very imaginations will be penetrated by Romish categories of reason.

That’s not to say that I don’t want them to think for themselves, to think broadly and openly – far from it. “Of its very nature Latin is most suitable for promoting every form of culture among peoples,” Pope St. John XXIII declared. “It gives rise to no jealousies. It does not favor any one nation, but presents itself with equal impartiality to all and is equally acceptable to all.” Its static character is its very advantage, for it fosters organized thought while allowing for wide-ranging entertainment of other and opposing views. And can there be a better foundation for achieving fluency in other languages – Romantic and otherwise – which, in turn, will lead to intellectual meanderings and couplings well beyond the Catholic fold?

Yet, no matter how far they wander, their years of Latin study will ensure an ingrained mental link to the liturgical language of their ecclesial homeland. Even if they come to reject and despise their baptismal heritage, they’ll carry with them that heritage’s mode of expression. That’s critical, because they are coming of age in a culture “often characterized by concern with appearance, superficiality,” as Pope Francis put it recently, “the division between heart and mind, interiority and exteriority, consciousness and behavior.” Study of Latin and Latin literature, the Holy Father said, can be part of the antidote to such postmodern existential caprice, for it can help young people find “the path of life, and accompany them along paths rich in hope and confidence,” to connect them to “the inner and intimate essence of the human being.”

Certainly, in a much more limited and haphazard way, that’s what Latin did for me – at least insofar as it contributed to my grounding in the life of the Church. And there’s nothing more important to me than fostering a similar grounding for my children. It’s the best I can offer them, and they shall have it, despite their objections. Felix culpa – amen.
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Of Sports Radio, Squabbles, and Signs of Life

14 Jan

“Whenever I feel bad, I go to the library and read controversial periodicals. Though I do not know whether I am a liberal or a conservative, I am nevertheless enlivened by the hatred which one bears the other. In fact, this hatred strikes me as one of the few signs of life remaining in the world.”
~ Walker Percy

I’m what you’d call a “fair-weather runner” – which means I’m not running these days. Come spring, however, and the thaw (God willing), you’ll find me out there on the street almost daily: Putting in my miles, getting ready for my 5Ks, running my 5Ks, chasing my younger kids on their bikes when they let me. It’s my annual endorphin spree, and just enough aerobic workout (averaging out the year) to stay in decent shape (again, God willing).

Otherwise, my athleticism is entirely derivative and vicarious.

And since we live in South Bend, that means football – Notre Dame football to be precise. Rooting for the Irish has always been an integral part of our family culture every fall, and that only intensified when my two oldest kids matriculated there. We watch the games on TV, we faithfully read the South Bend Tribune’s game day pull-out in anticipation, and we listen to post-game analysis on the radio. Frankly, that’s my favorite part. In fact, I generally skip watching altogether and rely instead on the radio broadcast. It allows me to work on other things (like dishes or the garage), and it reduces my stress when it’s a close game. Plus, the television broadcast is about 15 seconds behind the radio, so I get to hear the touchdowns and interceptions before everybody planted in front of the screen – much to their dismay. “Dad,” I’m regularly reminded, “don’t shout out when you see stuff! It ruins it!” (Sorry, guys.)

Anyway, the other part I like about the radio broadcast is that there’s nothing to distract me from the commentators and their analysis. Beforehand they’ll give me their Keys to the Game – stuff like “establish the running game, protect the football, and watch for the big play on special teams” – and I’ll nod my head vigorously in agreement. Following kickoff, I happily depend on the voices of IMG’s Don Criqui and Allen Pinkett to verbally sketch out the action for me. They’re my Notre Dame football gurus, and I accept their every aside and throwaway without question. “If you turn it over three times, you oughta’ lose,” Pinkett has repeatedly emphasized over the years. “If you turn it over four times, you gonna’ lose.” As a dedicated Pinkett disciple, I’ve come to consider that maxim a self-evident dogma.

Once football season is over, my radio listening habits largely revert to the dulcet tranquility of NPR, but I’ll still fire up CBS sports from time to time just to hear them rant and rave.

And, boy, do they ever rant and rave. Baseball, basketball, soccer, hockey – even tennis. Even golf, believe me! Most of the time, I have no absolutely no idea what they’re talking about – minutiae related to coaching techniques or on the field strategies or contract negotiations, whatever – but that’s part of the fun. As a near-total outsider, I can enjoy listening to the hosts, guests, and callers exchange shots regarding issues of great import to them, secure in the knowledge that it has no bearing on my life whatsoever. They’re strident; they’re uncompromising; they’re combative. “There’s no way this team is coming out on top” followed by “You clearly don’t know what you’re talking about!” I love it.

Why? I tell you, it’s the vehemence that’s so appealing. It’s the fight; it’s the undeniable evidence that these people are passionate about something and willing to make a stand. My family and I watched The Treasure of Sierra Madre last night, and there’s that scene near the beginning when Humphrey Bogart and his partner are brawling with the crooked boss who bilked them. As the fight ensues, you see other denizens of the bar casually nursing their drinks while observing the fracas. That’s me when I listen to sports radio. I listen to the sports guys duke it out and revel in their passions. Something has them riled up, and it’s good to see folks riled up – riled up enough to go at it with their opponents.

In other words, the fight itself is what I find satisfying, the disagreement and its manifestation in the form of conflict. Since it’s just radio talk, there’s no physical violence, praise God, but the verbal assaults can be vociferous and brutal. All the better.

There’s evidence that fighting about stuff is not only entertaining to others (me, at least), but healthy in itself. I heard mathematician Hannah Fry’s TED talk on NPR recently about the application of statistical analysis to the vitality of love relationships and marriage. Contrary to what we might expect, the researchers found that the most successful marriages – the ones least likely to end in divorce, in other words – were those that include more conflict and confrontation rather than less. Here’s Fry from her talk:

I would’ve thought that perhaps the most successful relationships were ones…where couples let things go and only brought things up if they really were a big deal. But actually, the mathematics and subsequent findings by the team have shown the exact opposite is true. The best couples, or the most successful couples, are the ones…that don’t let anything go unnoticed and allow each other some room to complain.

It seems that bringing hurts and perceived slights, no matter how insignificant, to the fore is much healthier than simply overlooking them to keep the peace. Better to get the tensions and differences out in the open, that is, hash them out, bicker and fret, than to “go placidly” – Desiderata notwithstanding.

I think that’s the reason I found Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday so appealing when I first read it as a young Catholic-wannabe. Without giving too much away for those who haven’t read it (and I urge you to do so if you haven’t), there’s a delicious disorientation at the novel’s core that involves would-be Victorian bomb-throwers who are surprisingly sympathetic figures. Aside from their enchanting personalities as individuals, their very radicalism appeals, and by the end of the novel you’re rooting for them and derivatively swept away by the allure of Sunday, their ostensible, yet elusive, anarchist leader.

It’s clear that Chesterton, in Thursday, isn’t advocating actual physical violence as a remedy to society’s ills, but he is making a compelling case for violence nonetheless – a violence of conversion, that is, a no-holds-barred upheaval – in persons, in societies – that can lead to redemption and sanctity. “A world of nice people, content in their own niceness,” C.S. Lewis observed, “would be just as desperately in need of salvation as a miserable world – and might even be more difficult to save.” As in marriage, goodness and holiness cannot be approached by merely being amiable. Indeed, amiability that glosses over conflict serves only to obstruct the very revolutions that usher in true change of heart.

“Would that you were cold or hot!” St. John records the Lord telling the Laodiceans. “So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth.” Nothing doing. I’ll take my cue from the heat of sports radio and stay clear of lukewarm. So please forgive me if I’m cranky. I’m just working out my salvation.
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Reformation Reconsidered: Becoming a Bible Christian

10 Dec

“Maybe in fifty years, or a hundred, Catholics will be reading the Bible the way they should have been reading it all along.”
~ Flannery O’Connor

Read more…

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Of Memory, Metanoia, and Manslaughter

15 Oct

Oh, of thine only worthy blood
And my tears, make a heavenly Lethean flood,
And drown in it my sins’ black memory.
~
John Donne

An essay by historian Andrew Bacevich scrolled up in my Facebook feed, and I saw that it had been posted by my friend Shawn Storer of Catholic Peace Fellowship. That was enough to make it a must-read sooner rather than later, so I opened it up.

It was entitled “Autopilot Wars,” and it was Bacevich’s take on our nation’s numb embrace of perpetual armed conflict as a norm. “Like traffic jams or robocalls, war has fallen into the category of things that Americans may not welcome, but have learned to live with,” Bacevich writes. “In twenty-first-century America, war is not that big a deal.”

It was a depressing read, yet hardly a surprising one, for our country long ago inured itself to killing as a way of solving problems. A people who’ve come to tolerate abortion through all nine months of pregnancy is a people primed to mow down entire populations without a second thought. Death has become a way of life, and, in the name of patriotism, we don’t even question the motives or objectives. Heck, we can’t even keep count of how many wars we’re in, let alone why we’re in them.

Bacevich’s article was rattling in mind as I drove to morning Mass. NPR buzzed in the background – it was the TED Radio Hour. I could hear a researcher murmuring about manipulating the memories of lab rats.

I turned up the volume.

The researcher’s name was Steve Ramirez, a professor of neuroscience at Boston University. He and his colleagues developed a technique they call optogenetics that allows them to turn memories on and off by aiming lasers at particular regions of rodent brains. The effects are temporary, but Ramirez indicated that he anticipated further research that will lead to more enduring effects.

It creeped me out. I’d just recently seen the new Blade Runner 2049 which prominently features memory manipulation in cyborg replicants, and here was an actual process for doing the same thing in miniature mammals. However, my creepy feelings turned into alarm when Ramirez and his interviewer, Guy Raz, discussed possible future applications of optogenetics – like altering the memories of those suffering from PTSD; to erase, in effect, the crippling memories of the battlefield. Despite the possibility that such memory manipulation might be abused, Ramirez indicated that the potential for good is much too great to avoid continued research in this area.

I found myself yelling back at the radio, “No! No! Don’t do it! Can’t you see?” Consider what the Pentagon would do such memory altering therapies. We already train our soldiers to suppress their innate resistance to exterminating human life, and we push them forward to the front lines to wipe out as many enemy lives as possible. Then, when they come back to us physically wounded, we patch them up and send them forward to kill some more. Is it really all that hard to imagine that the military would draw on optogenetics to do the same with the psychologically wounded? To take, that is, those suffering from PTSD and re-program their memories to enable them to return to the front?

Even if that appalling development could be avoided – and that’s a huge “if” – the underlying premise of Ramirez’s suggestion is itself flawed. The problem with PTSD isn’t the crippling memories. The problem is what caused the memories in the first place: the dehumanizing horror of war. Isn’t there good reason to remember that horror, painful as it is? It seems to me that such remembering could help undo what Bacevich details as our “collective indifference” to war as part of modernity’s landscape.

Ramirez and Raz were concluding their radio conversation as I arrived at church. I shut off the car, went inside, and settled in for the liturgy. Entrance antiphon, sign of the cross, greeting, and then this:  “My brothers and sisters, to prepare ourselves to celebrate the sacred mysteries, let us call to mind our sins” – and that’s when it hit me. Memory of agonizing reality is central to our faith and essential for real conversion – metanoia in the Greek of the New Testament.

In fact, we use a different Greek word that translates as “memory” (anamnesis) to describe how it is that Christ’s singular sacrifice on the Cross is made present for us at Mass. The Reformers of the past and our Fundamentalist detractors in the present accuse us of re-crucifying Jesus in the course of our “false” worship. Yet the Mass is not a repetition, but rather a re-presentation – a liturgical and sacramental remembering that connects what Christ suffered on Calvary with our recollected transgressions here and now.

I think of that scene in The Mission (1986) when Robert De Niro’s character, Rodrigo Mendoza, a former slave trader and mercenary, is lugging the tools of his inhuman trade up a muddy jungle slope. He repeatedly slips and falls until one of his Jesuit companions cuts the burden free. Mendoza subsequent silent descent back down the hill, his angry reattachment of the bundle to his back, and then his slow ascent back up the hill again is a powerful image of real repentance. Rather than forgetting the past – cutting it away and rolling it out of sight – authentic conversion requires remembering. It requires revisiting our painful histories and our damnable decisions. Mendoza was a murderer, and his redemption requires that he thoroughly avow his murderous past before he can experience the grace of forgiveness.

Our faith is dependent on remembering violence, for all sin is violence – a violent battering if not rending of our relationship with God. Similarly, our entire civilization also depends on such remembering, and the tragedy of our times is that we’re already re-programming our memories to avoid unspeakable realities, even without optogenetics. “Responding to the demands of the Information Age is not, it turns out, conducive to deep reflection,” Bacevich notes with reference to our war-making amnesia. “Our attention span shrinks and with our time horizon.”

This is the point that Nicholas Carr made in his recent WSJ essay on our contemporary smartphone dependencies. “Now that our phones have made it so easy to gather information online, our brains are likely offloading even more of the work of remembering to technology,” he wrote. “No matter how much information swirls around us, the less well-stocked our memory, the less we have to think with.” No wonder we don’t care about how many wars we’re in – or how many babies are being slaughtered in our abortuaries.

Granted, remembering more means suffering more, which is a tall order for a world bent on avoiding suffering – at least for ourselves. Remember more anyway, and then choose to suffer alongside those whose memories of killing cause them the deepest kind of distress – coming alongside them figuratively and prayerfully, at the very least, but in reality as well if given the opportunity. Such compassionate companionship might embolden them to speak out on behalf of peacemaking and nonviolent solutions to our problems. We’ll be wise to listen to what they have to say – and commit it to memory.
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What I Mean When I Say ‘Amen’

13 Aug

“I believe and profess all that the holy Catholic Church believes, teaches, and proclaims to be revealed by God” (RCIA 491).

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Of Creeds, Conversion, and Cribbing at Mass

11 Jun

“I’m not asked on a Sunday morning,
‘As of 9:20, what do you believe?’”
~ Jaroslav Pelikan

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Discovering Good Friday on Queen Anne Hill

14 Apr

“God has died in the flesh, and the underworld has trembled.”
~ from an ancient homily for Holy Saturday

Read more…

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