Much has been made about Pope Benedict recently joining the virtual world of “tweeters”. One small step for man, one giant leap for the Catholic Church. But, a leap into what? The 21st century? Yes, we’ve been advised, admonished, cajoled and bullied into “joining the 21st century.” Nothing new in that. Has anyone wondered why, precisely, this is a good thing and worthy to be so ebulliently lauded? Every new technological advance (on the level of the individual) has only made us lazier and less inclined to interact in meaningful and thoughtful ways with other human beings. This is to be lamented, not lauded. Although, what could be more convenient than truth delivered on a screen? It’s clean, easy, and requires nothing of me. Thanks to twitter, we Catholics will now be immediately updated on the Holy Father’s frequency of sneezing and the upgrades needed on the plumbing at Castel Gandolofo. Maybe the Roman Curia will begin posting the weekly papal menu.
“When a festival goes as it should, men receive something that it is not in human power to give.” Thus, spake Pieper in a delightfully insightful little book called In Tune with the World: a Theory of Festivity. In this text, Pieper outlines the classical and religious roots of holidays, or festival days. In fact, the religious component of a holiday not only precedes the circumstance being celebrated, but forms its essence. Without the “pattern of ritual religious praise,” the festival is doomed no matter the circumstance being celebrated. The hope which forms the essential nature of every feast, both pagan and Christian, is that all things can be made whole. Further, the actual experience (however fleeting) of this making whole really happens through the ritual expressions of the feast. The underlying assumption for Christians, including Pieper, in all celebrations, or feasts, is that Christ is the One Who can and does make all things whole. This making whole goes by many names in our language: renewal, rebirth, restoration, transformation. Whatever word is used, it is this great blessing and joy of making whole that forms the content of man’s well-wishing to one another on the great festival days of the year. This is why the phrase “Happy Holidays” is such an offense.
It is the banality of the phrase that renders it so irritating. “Happy Holidays” comes nowhere near capturing what ought to be the wish we all have for each other at times of great feasting, such as Christmas. Yet, the sacred has been so diluted with the secular in our society that we no longer even understand what it means to be truly festive. Thus, a Jew becomes offended by a Christian wishing him a Merry Christmas. To the secularized Jew, this smacks of proselytizing. To the equally secularized Christian, the last thing he wants is to offend anyone during Advent. The secularized and highly vociferous cabal of African Americans who have succeeded in getting Kwanza added to our calendars (even though most African Americans not only don’t celebrate it, but don’t even know what it is) are offended by the implicitly racist Jews and Christians together, both representative of traditions with a penchant for swindling and colonizing. For the sake of diveristy, we must make everything the same. Thus, “Happy Holidays” is what we’re left with.
What is one wishing another with the phrase “Merry Christmas”? There is no need to be suspicious or uncomfortable. According to Pieper
the real thing we are wishing is the “success” of the festive celebration itself, not just its outer forms and enrichments, not the trimmings, but the gift that is meant to be the true fruit of the festival: renewal, transformation, rebirth.
Seen in this light, I would happily receive the best wishes of my Jewish brethren for all the blessings of Hannukah. Wish me good health, a good meal. By all means, wish me good beer. But, do not wish me “Happy Holidays.” Doing so, you rob me of my share in the hope expressed by the very existence of this great feast of Christmas.
We should have no fear about offering those around us our very best wishes for Christmas. By doing so, we are wishing them not only a joyous festival (of lights, or of the Light of the World), but we are wishing for them the ultimate good of all: salvation.
According to a recent Nielsen survey, the 5th and 7th biggest beer-drinking holidays in America are Christmas and Easter respectively. Americans consume 59,393,752 cases of beer at Christmas and 53,458,630 cases on Easter. I find this strange because Christmas and Easter are the two seminal feasts on the Christian calendar, yet we are living in the most secular era of American history to date. Are Christians buying most of this brew? Is beer an integral component of religious celebrations? Is this simply a function of all holidays being hijacked by shameless advertisers? Perhaps most importantly, what is a holiday? The people of the ill-named Dark Ages had an understanding of this term that illuminates it and sets it in stark contrast to modern American notions about holidays.
The word holiday derives from the Old English term “halig daeg” meaning “holy day” or “Sabbath.” In the 14th century, the word had the connotation of both a religious festival and a day of recreation. The latter word is also interesting. A halig daeg was a day for re-creation, or being created again. But, what is a festival? In Roman times, the festivalis was associated with particular public ceremonies performed at the temple. The word “festival” is related to the word “feast” which c. 1200 meant a religious anniversary characterized by rejoicing. Given the acumen of medieval monks in the high art of potent potables, it is not difficult to imagine a good deal of tippling going on at such celebrations. Yet, what strikes me is the link between festivals and religious ceremonies from Roman times down to our own. This led me to two further questions. First, how is it that we find this odd overlap between the secular and the sacred in our own time when the secular is often advanced to the point of excluding the sacred? We do not allow religious expressions in the public square, but the public square has found a profitable use for religious holidays. Just give people a reason to buy beer at a reasonable price and they will do so apparently. A second question is what does a holiday mean in America today? I thought Plato might be a good place to begin. In Laws, his last text, Plato has this to say about holidays, or festivals:
But the gods, in their compassion for the hardships incident to our human lot, have appointed the cycle of their festivals to provide relief from this fatigue, besides giving us the Muses, their leader Apollo, and Dionysus to share these festivals with us and keep them right, with all the spiritual sustenance these deities bring to the feast. (653d)
The words “spiritual sustenance” again form an explicit link between festivity and religious activity. Indeed, festivals are appointed by the gods for the good of humanity who, without such occasions, become exhausted with the vicissitudes and necessary disciplines of life. Still, what does all of this have to do with beer?
For this question, I turned to a German philosopher named Josef Pieper, who gave much thought to leisure and festivity. He wrote a book called In Tune with the World: A Theory of Festivity. Pieper states that festivity serves no utilitarian purpose. Instead, it is activity that is meaningful in itself. Thus, festivity presupposes two things: first, a festival is not inactivity; second, we know what activity that is meaningful in itself is. Pieper doubts that we do know this. Pieper believes that even a labor free society cannot be festive because that liberation comes at a time when we no longer know, according to Hannah Arendt whom Pieper is quoting here, “of those other and more meaningful activities for the sake of which this freedom deserves to be won.” Are we even capable of authentic festivity anymore? Or, is Christmas now just a day to tear open gifts, play with the kids a while, and end the day stuffed and half-drunk on the couch? This is a markedly different theory of festivity than that of the classical world.
Humanity finds many good reasons to celebrate; a marriage, a new baby, landing the job. But, Pieper asserts that festivity is different than mere celebration. It goes deeper.Underlying all festive joy kindled by a specific circumstance there has to be an absolutely universal affirmation extending to the world as a whole, to the reality of things and the existence of man himself… everything that is, is good, and it is good to exist. (p. 26)
In this context, beer has its rightful place in feasting. Without this context, the festal occasion is reduced to merely a pretext for guzzling beer. There is little joy in it. Are the consumers of these 60 million cases of brew consciously affirming “the reality of things?” It often seems that Americans celebrate holidays in a way that suggests a fleeing from reality. New Year’s Eve particularly strikes me as a time when a sort of horror vacui rears its head like a fearsome specter over the people of this nation. There is a degree of frenzy in the feasting as though a collective, “Whew!” is released to the heavens. So often on this holiday, I have heard the phrase, “Well, we made it!” “Was there ever really any doubt?” I often silently wonder in response, smiling wryly as I enjoy another delightful draught from my pint o’ Guinness. What I want to say in response is this: “And, suppose you hadn’t made it another year? After all, at some point you won’t. Does that negate the whole thing for you? Are you drinking like Jason who just made it through Rock Wandering, or Noah who narrowly escaped the flood? Or, are you raising the glass gladly, giving exuberant thanks for the gift of life, however many years it lasts?” The man celebrating an escape, like Jason or Noah, gets drunk to relieve the tension. The man who is truly feasting, or feasting truly, is already drunk. The authentically festive man is, in a sense, inebriated with the joy of being.
The classical link between festivity and religious ceremonies also indicates that festivals are celebrated according to certain rubrics. Authentic festivals are not free-for-alls organized for the purpose of drunkenness and debauchery. Such activity can hardly be seen as meaningful in itself or as an affirmation of all that is. Instead, it bespeaks a kind of tortured despair lying just below the surface of man’s daily life. There is nothing inherently wrong in pleasure. Pieper describes pleasure as “agreeable enough in itself and springing from sheer vitality.” Yet, when pleasure is charged with this desperate frenzy, the tenor of escape, it becomes the opposite of affirmation of life. It becomes what Pieper calls a “non-assent.” But, this “non-assent” to life and all that is good can be hidden under the guise of legitimate pleasure, so that, as Pieper claims, “the rejection remains for a while hidden even from the self.” Further, “this rejection may be concealed behind the façade of a more or less sham confidence in life.” Festival without rules or governing principles, what we might call tradition, devolves into solitary, joyless bingeing. A folk duo called the Indigo Girls wrote a song that was wildly popular a long time ago called “Closer to Fine:”
I went to a bar at 3:00am
Seeking solace in a bottle or possibly a friend
But I woke up with a headache like my head against a board
Twice as cloudy as I’d been the night before
And I went in seeking clarity.
I think this captures the essence of “non-assent,” of the inversion of festive affirmation into a desperate attempt to escape the horror vacui, the fear of empty or silent spaces. Confusion and a bad headache await those whose celebration is an attempted escape from reality rather than a joyful affirmation of it. It seems to me that most holidays are celebrated in this fashion in America today, although why religious holidays have become part of this sort of frenzy is not clear to me. It’s probably no coincidence that the number of suicides increases at Christmas. Escapism is not true festivity. Thus, instead of leading souls into joyful communion, it leads them into deeper isolation and loneliness. Perhaps this is because the loss of true festivity means also the loss of a sense of wonder and awe, the possibility of a supernatural reality, or what we today might call the religious sense. Affirming such a supernatural reality, and man’s participation in it, was the whole point of festivity in the classical world. Affirmation of creation assumes, in some fashion, reverencing a Creator. Music, dancing and drinking beer may be a part of festivity. But, these things do not constitute the festival itself. They are the expressions of a much deeper movement of the heart and mind toward a universal “Yes!” to all that is. Reducing a holiday, especially a religious holiday, to a mere pretext for a “bender” is not festal. A rightly festive man might become a bit drunk at a festival, but if he does it will be the result of spontaneous and joyful exuberance, not an achieved goal. Man’s joy is proportionate to his freedom. And, man is most free when he can face reality and be swept up in the great symphony of creation. This is the essence of festivity. Slainte!
I would like to write something about New York City. I don’t know what I would like to write exactly. The possibilities are as multifarious as the city and its people. It’s a prospect that presents two imposing difficulties. First, what is there to say about this magnificent city that has not already been said? Second, how to say something that truly transmits any given aspect of the experience of New York City? Both questions leave me so vexed I am tempted to fasten the idea to a cinder block and hoist it into the East River. There is beauty and goodness in this city, which might seem incongruous with the hard-nosed, no BS, who the hell are you and why the f@#* are you lookin’ at me, don’t waste my time attitude of the citizens of this paragon of cities. But, it’s there. In some sense I haven’t yet fully discerned, New York City is goodness and beauty on display. This city is, after all, more of an experience, or an encounter, than it is a place. Answers to these questions are elusive. They are as elusive as that perfect shot of the Brooklyn Bridge I’ve been trying to get for the past three years. So, for now I will not say anything. I’ll let these shadows do their dance until intellect and language bring me into the clear light of the distinct contours of this hard, beautiful metropolis.
If you are looking for a good read this winter, Mark Helprin’s novel about New York City is excellent. It’s called Winter’s Tale. This book is one of a lamentably few contemporary novels that I actually finished reading and enjoyed tremendously. This book is resplendent with rich and varied imagery. Helprin’s language is subtle and unobtrusive. The novel is a sort of fairy tale that mixes in a great deal of very interesting history about New York City and its environs at the dawn of the 20th century. The story takes the reader on a wonderful journey that I thoroughly enjoyed. It’s been a few years since I read this book. I might take it up again this winter.
One thing I’ve come to appreciate about New York City is the juxtaposition of the ugly and the beautiful, like a human heart. Here are some shots from the last few trips to the City that never sleeps.
Roses are red,
Violets are blueish.
If it weren’t for Christmas,
We’d all be Jewish.
by Alex Araza
I have no idea where Al is these days or what he’s doing, but he was a kid I knew in high school. We used to show our poems to each other in those days and he slipped this one to me in class one day on a slip of paper. I laughed out loud and, for whatever reason, I have remembered this whimsical little lyric ever since.
It’s not a bad thing to be Jewish; and I don’t say that because we Christians only have one glorious day compared to their “eight crazy nights.” I say that because it is the Jewish people who bequeathed to the world the iconoclastic, and saving, gift of monotheism. Some scholars trace monotheism back to Akhenaten (1364 – 1347 B.C.) and the cult of the sun god in ancient Egyptian pantheism. However, what scholars cast as a reasoned choice for monotheism on the part of the Pharoah was really only a preference, and a self serving one at that. According to the cult of Ra, the sun god created himself out of a primeval mound in the shape of a pyramid. He then created all the other gods in the Egyptian pantheon. The cult also identified the Pharoah as the son of the sun god. Therefore, the son of the king of heaven had a special place among the men of earth. By consolidating power in Ra, the patrimonial well-spring of all earthly authority, Akhenaten was solidifying his own position as demiurge. If the power of rule in heaven was vested in one god (Ra), then that power was shared as the rightful inheritance of the son, i.e. the Pharoah. This cult resonates more with Greek or Roman pantheism than with Jewish or Christian monotheism, not to mention Islamic monotheistic conceptions. Moreover, Akhenaten’s purported monotheism was buried with him when he died. An economic collapse occured not long after Akhenaten’s death and many in the kingdom believed this to be the punishment inflicted upon humanity by the gods. They were offended at having been neglected. We know this to be true because Akhenaten’s successor, the young and everlastingly intriguing Tutankhamen, launched what a modern day White House spokesman might call a “national appeasement of the gods campaign.” Temples were cleaned and restored. Sacrifices were increased thus prompting the appointment of more priests. New images were created. All of this is a clear indication that monotheism never took root as the belief of a people. At best, it was an attempt by the Pharoah to solidify the position he held, not only for himself, but for future Pharoahs as well. All wise leaders from antiquity up to Suleiman the Magnificent in the 15th century understood the importance of law as the indispensible component to the integrity of the kingdom. With a system of law, there must also be an executor of that law. It was sensible to the mind of antiquity that the law giver and the law keeper should be the same person. But, this claim (usually made by the Pharoah, emperor, king, etc) needed to be placed in the context of a higher order. For the ancients, there was not a great deal of distance between the natural and the supernatural (science would create that disconnect several millenia later). It was the responsibility of the former to constantly appease the latter. And, in the natural realm, the one most accountable to the gods on behalf of the people was the Pharoah. Perhaps Akhenaten was simply making the case for the rightness of the Egyptian model of governance. Since the Pharoah was Ra’s son, the Egyptian model could be understood as somehow reflective of the governance of the heavens. And, what could be more appeasing to the fickle gods than the flattery of imitation. Did the ancient Egyptians understand it this way? Who can tell? Whatever his motives, Akhenaten’s efforts failed and his ideas returned with him into the dust.
Why didn’t montheism “catch on” within the ancient kingdom of Egypt? Polytheism reasserted itself immediately upon Akhenaten’s death. Polytheism persisted as the dominant belief system in the ancient world until the new Chrisitan religion reached Rome, almost 2500 years after an obscure, elderly man leading a rather small clan of ancients known as the Hebrews appeared with a new law, etched in stone apparently, containing ten statutes, the first of which being perhaps the most iconoclastic assertion that could be made in the ancient world: “I am the Lord your God…you shall have no other gods before me”(Gn 20: 2 – 3).
It is easy to make pejorative statements about the pagans of antiquity. Many such statements are made by modern Christian theologians. Catholics might believe they have special permission to denigrate the polytheists of ancient times and their ignorant pantheistic beliefs because they find precedent in the Church Fathers. However, the Church Fathers were in the trenches. They were combating a persistent and pervasive mistake which, in light of the gospels, could only be considered heretical. There is no merit in debunking the dead. This is what we are doing when we castigate the pagans of antiquity. I think the great Catholic minds of the previous century such as Chesterton, Tolkien and Lewis knew better. The errors of polytheism notwithstanding, I would choose the Pantheon in Rome as my place of worship over any church I’ve seen in this country built after 1950. But, I digress.
Monotheism did not “catch on” precisely because monotheism is not something that “catches on”. Akhenaten could not simply decide upon monotheism as state policy and then have it adopted as an authentic belief throughout his dominion. Whether there is one God or many is not something human intellect can determine by its own efforts. It is God who takes the intiative to reveal Himself to man in His true nature, as Blessed Pope John Paul II asserts in his seminal text Faith and Reason. If monotheism is something that can be achieved solely by coursing the pathways of philosophy, why then did the Hebrews arrive in a different place than the Egyptians or the Greeks? The Israelites originated at the outer edges of the Fertile Crescent where the earliest civilizations known to have existed, all of them polytheistic, have their beginnings at the close of the Neolithic Revolution. How is it that this smallish tribe of Semitic people who took their name from an ancient ancestor developed a radically different and distinct understanding of themselves, creation and the Creator than all the peoples around them? As John Paul II states in the same encyclical mentioned above, the Hebrews did not come to understand reality by abstraction as the Greeks did. They also did not understand themselves as abandoned creatures placed in a hostile environment of elemental forces, as did the Sumerian tribes of Mesopotamia. On the contrary, among the Jewish people was the ultra-distinct understanding of one God, Creator of all. Within God’s creation, humanity, man and woman, stand in a specially exalted position, having dominion over all that surrounds them. This God has made Himself known, established a binding covenant with His people, and shown Himself to be a God of love and compassion. He is a God Who prefers obedience to sacrifice. All of this left the Hebrew people with an utterly unique understanding of themselves and the order of the cosmos. With this radically distinct and illuminating understanding of God, received by revelation rather than discerned through philosophical inquiry, the ancient Jews also bequeathed to civilization unique conceptions of individuality and freedom, will and personality. As the Second Vatican Council affirmed (in the language of the then Cardinal Karol Wojtyla), when God revealed Himself to man, He revealed man to himself. This is the great legacy of the Jewish people. This is also why I will never understand in my days of sojourning through this wondrous and havoc-wreaking world how any Catholic person, or any Christian of any denomination, can ever maintain anti-Semitic beliefs or opinions. Christianity is rootless without Judaism. Further, in the context of salvation history, any Christian harboring anti-Semitic views is a walking contradiction. It is an utterly incongruous position for a Christian, tantamount to supporting Jim Crow legislation.
I have a deep and abiding respect for Judaism. I also think it’s wonderful that the great celebrations of Christmas and Hanukkah, the feast of the Light of the world and the festival of lights, are celebrated in such close proximity. The Jewish people bequeathed to civilization a truth that changed the world. “I am,” said the heavenly Voice in the burning bush when Moses asked for a name; “I am” – not “We are.” That response would be a much different voice from a much different source: “We are many”(Mk 5: 9).
I think often of my Jewish brethren at this time of year. Theirs is a rich and storied tradition. It is through them that Christ our Savior is born. Shalom.
I have long wanted to launch a quarterly dedicated to the the categories of truth, goodness, and beauty, with particular consideration given to how these categories have been expressed in previous epochs and continue to find expression (I must believe this to be so!) today. In lieu of such a project, I will utilize this venue, so common to our common era, to formulate what, for the most part, currently drifts through the half-light of my intellect; ruminations that twist and turn like incense in the dim, sacral light of a cathedral dome. My beliefs, views, opinions and objections are informed by the Catholic tradition. I am a practicing and believing Catholic. That being said, I will be making no attempts at apologetics in this venue. Tolkien once advised Lewis to stick with stories and avoid apologetics. To the delight of millions, Lewis ignored that bit of advice from his colleague and friend. But, that was nearly a century ago. We have apologetics ad nauseum in our time.
My primary concern will be literature, although I will not confine myself to this topic. No doubt I will find cause to take up the subjects of music, art, religion, and education. We’ll see how it goes. To echo the words of the Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI, I am but a humble servant in the vineyard of the Lord. Moreover, I know about as much about computers as I know about growing grapes.
The first item of business is my blog’s name: Abdiel. He is the “flaming Seraph fearless, though alone” who had the courage to speak out against Satan in what is arguably the greatest work of literature in the English language. I am speaking of John Milton’s 17th century epic poem Paradise Lost. In Book V, Satan is making his case for rebellion against God. Initially “his bold discourse without controule / Had audience.” Then, Abdiel “whom none with more zeale ador’d/The Deitie, and divine commands obei’d / Stood up.” Milton’s language is so sublime it defies adequate critique. That “Stood up” is brilliant. The Epic Voice gives us a potent visual. As the seraph rises to confront Satan, so the tension rises to an insufferable pitch. A momentous and historical encounter is about to take place. Incidentally, the image above is Dore’s engraving of Abdiel striking Satan.
I will simply state for the sake of introduction to the ethos behind this attempt to pursue the true, good and beautiful that this image seems fit to the purpose. The tension in the poem has reached a level of palpable intensity at the point of this stand-off between Satan and Abdiel. One can just imagine Abdiel, seething at the blasphemies and lies pouring out of Satan’s mouth, the deceitful invective hurled at Abdiel’s beloved Father and King, “Words which no eare ever to hear in Heav’n / Expected”, especially, Abdiel points out, from one “so high above thy Peeres.” Yet, one can also imagine the uncertainty of Abdiel’s precarious position. Milton describes him as “Encompass’d round with foes.” He is utterly right. Yet, he is unalterably alone, much like Christ in the Garden just before his arrest. Nevertheless, Abdiel “Stood up.” And, by standing up he committed himself to speaking out. He spoke with passion and rebutted Satan’s lies, making the case eloquently and zealously, like a Church Father, for truth. Yet, the Epic Voice tells us “his zeale / None seconded, as out of season judg’d”. There is an enlightening footnote in Roy Flannagan’s Riverside Milton regarding Abdiel’s predicament:
“…Abdiel is in danger of becoming a martyr because of his timing alone. The rest of the angels in the process of falling seem to be acting on mass hysteria, like lemmings on a suicidal march to the sea, and Satan will rejoice, increase in haughtiness, and address them almost hysterically after he notices that no one stands behind Abdiel”(241).
I find the same to be true concerning the three all-encompassing categories that are of most value to me: truth, goodness, beauty. I cannot be disabused of the idea that this exchange depicted so beautifully by Milton in his great poem is a paradigm for the exact point at which we find ourselves today culturally. The first person plural pronoun in the previous sentence is not circumscribed by Bernini’s colonnade in Rome. We Catholics are not innocent of the causes of this problem nor untainted by its effects. In fact, I am becoming more and more concerned that Catholicism is fast becoming an intellectual pursuit rather than a lived reality with sometimes irksome demands, precisely because those demands are thoroughly human and inter-personal. I am certain to be touching on this topic at some future date. Can it not be said that these fundamental categories of truth, goodness and beauty, too, are found to be out of season? Can it not also be said that anyone who stands up amidst the mindless throng clamoring for bread and circus, pleading, like Abdiel, “Cease then this impious rage” will also be found to be out of season? Yet, those concerned with conserving and nourishing that which is authentically true, good and beautiful must do exactly that. We, like the great lone seraph in the face of the father of lies, must admonish our languishing culture with his angelic plea: “…hast’n to appease / Th’ incensed Father, and th’ incensed Son, / While Pardon may be found in time besought.” And, while we’re at it, pull up our own lazy habits by the roots.