Tag Archives: Belloc

The Benefits of Bad Preaching

8 Feb

It is the essence of the Church to have a lot of low masses
and no sermons (Hilaire Belloc).

bored-congregation-1872-granger_zps80a6eeccIt’s a truism to say that the pulpit is at the center of most Protestant worship whereas the altar is at the center of the Mass, but nothing drives that point home better than a bad homily.

When my non-Catholic friends express curiosity about Catholic worship, I struggle to help them understand that Mass is first and foremost about fulfilling an obligation, and what we might get out of it is of secondary consideration. I’ll explain that liturgy is, quite literally, the “work of the people,” and it’s no secret that human work can be kind of routine and even boring sometimes. Yes, we always receive Jesus in spades at every Mass, wonder of wonders!, but our first purpose is to go and bend the knee – it’s a Commandment after all.

My Evangelical friends just don’t get this, and so I’m always happy when they join me at Mass to experience it for themselves – although I know what the fallout will often be: Scrunched up faces and raised eyebrows as they suffer through seemingly mindless ritual, rote prayers, and the occasional lousy sermon.

“Is the preaching always this bad?” they might ask.456px-Alonso_Cano_-_St._Vincent_Ferrer_Preaching_-_Google_Art_Project

“Sometimes worse,” I’ll offer gleefully. “Or, on weekdays, sometimes we luck out and get no sermon at all!”

“Then,” they’ll wonder aloud, “why go at all?”

Ah, there’s the nub, and it’s why bad homilies played a role in my conversion. As an Evangelical inquirer, I recognized very early on that the Mass was the heart of Catholic faith and practice, so I went as often as I could – daily even after a while. I endured many a bad sermon in those days, especially at the weekday liturgies, but they helped to cement the idea in me that the Mass is a numinous encounter that does not depend on clever preaching whatsoever.

Instead, it’s an encounter that is much more rich and profound and (most importantly) dependable than mere sermonizing. It’s an encounter borne of proclamation of a written Word and, more particularly, celebration of a Sacramental drama, the Eucharist. The setting might be a gorgeous cathedral with beautiful music accompanied by a well crafted and scintillating sermon, or it might be a drab suburban chapel with an off-the-cuff homily from a harried priest who spent the night at the bedside of a dying parishioner. No matter: Jesus will show up at both. Sure, we’d prefer inspirational and energetic preaching, but it’s not at all necessary.

Indeed, there’s a benefit to mediocre preaching once in a while, and it’s this: The faithful will be all the more likely to focus on what’s most important in the Mass if they aren’t distracted by the brilliant homily. “A preacher may be able to hold the attention of his listeners for a whole hour,” Pope Francis wrote in Evangelii Gaudium, “but in this case his words become more important than the celebration of faith.”

pope_francis_01The Holy Father went on to stress that the “homily cannot be a form of entertainment,” distracting us from Jesus as he comes to us in Word and Sacrament, “yet it does need to give life and meaning to the celebration.” It’s a tricky balance, no doubt, so be on your guard if you’ve developed a taste for great preaching. A diet of superb, memorable homilies might tempt those in the pews to grow attached to the homilist, and the last thing the Church needs are personality cults, sermon groupies, and church-hopping in search of jazzy hermeneutics and/or rhetorical pyrotechnics.

How do I know that? Easy. Those are precisely the things we converts left behind when we joined the Church – and we don’t miss them at all.
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A version of this essay appeared on Catholic Exchange.

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Of Cigarettes, Christianity, and Cool

27 Apr

mcqueenI heard on the news that the FDA is getting all fired up about regulating e-cigarettes – possibly even banning them outright for youngsters.

Why? E-cigs may not have the risks associated with ordinary cigarette smoke, but they’re still a vehicle for delivering nicotine – an addictive, dangerous stimulant. Plus, there’s plenty of fear that e-cigarettes and “vaping” could make old-fashioned smoking “cool” again – disaster! Here’s from a story in the New Republic:

Tobacco control advocates worry that any effort to “normalize” even the rituals of smoking, as with e-cigs, could undermine hard-won battles to ban public smoking, re-establish smoking as cool, and lead to youth-directed marketing.

After all that hard work on the part of the feds and the healthcare workers to make smoking uncool, there’s a real possibility that it will suddenly get hip again.

Here’s the thing, though: Smoking is still cool. It never stopped being cool. It didn’t matter how many pictures of diseased lungs you showed kids, smoking’s allure never diminished. Heck, I’m a nurse with experience in cancer and hospice care, and an ex-smoker, and I even still think it’s cool.

You see, it’s not the nicotine so much as the culture – something Hilaire Belloc understood apparently. Here he is using a smoking analogy to make a point about Arianism:

To give a man the history of tobacco, to give him the chemical formula (if there be such a thing) for nicotine, is not to make him understand what is meant by the smell of tobacco and the effects of smoking it.

Think of Humphrey Bogart and James Dean. Steve McQueen and, well, pretty much every actor (and actress) from the previous era (i.e., my era). They all smoked – on camera – and it was very cool.

Of course, that was back when smoking on screen didn’t land you an automatic “R” rating for your movie, thus walling you off from impressionable youngsters. But I’m not so sure today’s impressionable youngsters are so backward that they’re not still picking up the message (and images) that smoking is associated with coolness, despite the “R” ratings. Celebrities still smoke, after all, and they’ll still be seen doing so by our kids even if it’s not on the silver screen.

Smoking has always been associated with membership in the adult world – especially that upper echelon of adulthood in which serious issues and important matters cause so much stress that chemical stimulants (like nicotine delivered via smoke) are required to handle it all. Smokers were like Holden Caulfields, and if Holden’s angst appealed to you, so did his approach to managing it. Even if you avoided smoking yourself, you still secretly longed to be part of the angst-ridden clique that coped by lighting up.

What was true then is true today: Cool often trumps truth, and no amount of public health marketing and browbeating will change that.

Note to evangelists, catechists, and youth ministers: The same principle applies to the Gospel. And forget the hype surrounding our new cool Pope. There’s simply no way to make Christianity itself cool, and you’ll discover that those outside the church have already figured this out.

But, really, it’s not a remarkable finding. Just walk into any Catholic church, and you’ll see behind the altar a guy being tortured to death. That’s who Christians worship, that’s our God. There’s simply no way to make that cool.

In fact, it’s totally uncool. It’s about sacrifice and martyrdom. It’s about meekness and turning the other cheek. It’s about kissing lepers and loving the enemy and taking care of the poor even when the poor resent your care.

And it’s also about a whole range of related causes and positions that are bound to offend just about everyone – things like the right to life, the defense of traditional marriage, rational immigration reform, abolishing the death penalty, and sane alternatives to perpetual war.

We need to quit kidding ourselves, especially when we’re reaching out to teens and young adults. Like smoking cessation, Christianity will never be able to count on the coolness factor. But truth? As Chesterton wrote of his own conversion:

The difficulty of explaining ‘why I am a Catholic’ is that there are ten thousand reasons all amounting to one reason: that Catholicism is true.

Of course, our Lord said it first – and better: “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”

Cool – like vaping – has no staying power. Truth and freedom, on the other hand, never go out of style.

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A version of this story appeared on Catholic Gentleman.

Lazy Man’s Spirituality

29 Sep

If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.
~ G.K. Chesterton

My high school choir director couldn’t have been more emphatic. “Whatever you do, whatever happens, no matter whatever else you do wrong,” he told us before we left for Europe, “don’t lose your passport!”

Needless to say, I did.

I made it through four countries without a hitch, stashing my passport in my hotel room after check-in, and retrieving it before departure. When we hit Brighton, England, however, I got a bit too clever. I hid my passport so well that I couldn’t find it several days later before leaving for London. As a result, I spent a whole day at the U.S. Embassy filling out forms and being grilled by officials while my compatriots toured Buckingham Palace and Westminster Abbey. Bummer.

On the plus side, however, I got to hang out at the U.S. Embassy—something my Palace and Abbey visiting friends missed out on completely. The Embassy was a fairly boring encounter in itself, to be frank, but being in that physical space—inside the Embassy, on American turf within the confines of a foreign country—was unexpectedly solemn and comforting. There, I was home, although not home. There I wasAmerican_Eagle_on_the_London_Embassy safe and could get the help I needed to continue my journey home.

I have similar feelings when I go to Mass every day. It’s like I’m slipping into God’s embassy for a respite from the jarring and disorienting journey of my daily jumble of life.

Hilaire Belloc touches on this in The Path to Rome, where he talks of daily Mass as a source of both spiritual and temporal goods.

Of course there is a grace and influence belonging to such a custom, but it is not of that I am speaking but of the pleasing sensation of order and accomplishment which attaches to a day one has opened by Mass.

Belloc lists four reasons that daily Mass is comforting to him—four reasons that James Schall, SJ, described as being “as profound as any seen in theological literature since.”

For example, Belloc includes the simple fact that by attending daily Mass, one is setting aside thirty minutes or so to be quiet and “recollected,” putting aside “cares, interests, and passions”—an action that “must certainly be a great benefit to the body,” says Belloc.

He also notes that Mass is a ritual, and that when you give yourself over to that ritual, it takes over and can “relieve the mind…of responsibility and initiative and…catch you up (as it were) into itself, leading your life for you during the time it lasts.”

The “most important cause of this feeling of satisfaction,” says Belloc, is that daily Mass attendance is an ancient tradition—and it wouldn’t be an ancient tradition if it wasn’t important. “Whatever is buried right into our blood from immemorial habit…we must be certain to do if we are to be fairly happy….”

But my favorite of Belloc’s four reasons is his third—Mass as an escape and a refuge.

3. That the surroundings incline you to good and reasonable thoughts…. Thus the time spent at Mass is like a short St._Peter's_RC_Church_Chicago_from_eastrepose in a deep and well-built library, into which no sounds come and where you feel yourself secure against the outer world.

Note that he says that the surroundings themselves incline you such, and that the “time spent at Mass” is itself the repose, regardless of your attentiveness or even interior disposition. In other words, taking all his four causes together, Belloc is suggesting that the mere act of getting to Mass has value, even infinite value.

Now in the morning Mass you do all that the race needs to do and has done for all these ages where religion was concerned…and all that your nature cries out for in the matter of worship.

This is vitally important, especially to a slug like me. I am not always properly disposed or attentive at Mass—a truism that might be lost on those who don’t make Mass a daily priority. Those of us who do make it a priority know that it’s certainly not because we’re particularly holy, or anywhere close to it. In fact, the opposite is the case: We know we’re lousy sinners, and we want to be holy. Getting to daily Mass is just the lazy man’s approach to the matter.

Lazy man’s approach because, as Belloc was suggesting, all you have to do is show up to accrue some benefit. I even confessed this once—that my practice of going to Mass every day seemed like spiritual sloth because it was just too easy. Shouldn’t I be doing more than that? My confessor laughed and pointed out the pride in my question. “Just being at Mass is of infinite value, regardless of your state of mind,” he said. “Remember that Jesus is the one who is the real Actor there. You never know how He’ll be able to get through to you, but it’s up to you to get yourself into the pew.”

Romano Guardini writes about this in his Meditations Before Mass:

At the celebration of the Lord’s memorial we are not dependent on our own faculties of perceiving and appreciating; Christ works with us. Primarily it is He who acts; in our “remembering,” it is Christ Himself who stirs.

On the other hand, Guardini also speaks of a “veritable crisis of boredom and weariness” when Mass becomes just routine.

When the Mass threatens to become a habit for someone who goes regularly during the week, it is certainly advisable for him to attend less frequently, perhaps only on Sundays for a while, substituting visits in the quiet church or Bible reading.

Gulp—is that me? I must confess that I’m frequently distracted at daily Mass, or even so fatigued that I routinely fall asleep (hopefully during the homily). Yet, even then, isn’t there greater value in getting to Mass than simply making a visit or reading my Bible? If I make it inside the door, and I’m present for the miracle that takes place there, isn’t that always preferable to virtually everything else?

My confessor and Belloc would argue in the affirmative, I think, and perhaps even the Holy Father.

In his recently published interview, Pope Francis referred to the Church in medical terms:

I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds…. And you have to start from the ground up.

pope1_0What a terrific image of daily Mass! When I get my sorry self into the pew for Mass every day—despite the distractions and fatigue, and regardless of how attentive or disposed I am—I’m a wounded warrior that needs first aid and basic care before returning to the battle. Yes, I need to strengthen my prayer life outside of Mass, and, yes, I need to say my Rosary and find time for spiritual reading.

But for the moment—a spiritual expatriate in need of assistance, a limping combatant requiring balm—just being there is enough. And I’ll be back again tomorrow, please God.

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A version of this story appeared on The Catholic Thing.

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