Is This a Cult?

In the course of his tour through Greece, St. Paul addressed the Athenians. He spoke to cosmopolitan people who knew little of Jewish monotheism. The Apostle observed the numerous pagan altars in Athens.

St. Paul’s address to the Athenians took place within a context that it is helpful for us to recall.

In Jerusalem, in Athens, in Rome, and everywhere in between, the people worshipped at altars. In other words, wherever St. Paul spoke about Christ, he spoke to people who exercised a religious cult of one kind or another.

In our day and age, the word ‘cult’ has come to suggest mindless adherence. But the root meaning of the word is something simpler. A cult is simply the external expression of a group’s religion.

As St. Paul pointed out to the Athenians, people are naturally religious, so people naturally exercise a cult.

The problem is this: All the cults of the world are natural expressions of human submission to the higher power. But only one cult expresses that submission in accordance with God’s express will. In other words, all religion is natural, but only one religion is true.

St. Paul spent his life explaining–to religious people–the true religion, which is the religion of Jesus Christ. And he spent his life practicing–for the benefit of cultish people–the true cult, which is the Holy Eucharist and its attendant sacraments.

St. Paul’s successors have done the same. St. Justin Martyr was one of these successors. Justin explained the true religion to religious people, like rabbis and philosophers. And he explained the true cult of the Holy Mass to the Roman Emperor.

What does this have to do with us? Didn’t the Word of God exhort us this past Sunday to stand ready always to give an account of our faith to any inquiring mind?

Not only that—Don’t we owe it to ourselves to seek solid explanations for the tenets of our religion and the practices of our cult? Catholicism is NOT a ‘cult,’ in the pejorative sense of the term. We are free to ask questions and seek explanations. The more we do that for our own private benefit, the readier we will be to help others.

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Sound and Fury Signifying Little + Leontes

Should we bother with the burgeoning “Shakespeare was Catholic” literature?

Peter Milward’s Shakespeare the Papist kept me company last summer. Until I ran out of patience with its inconclusive, fantastical arguments. A subjective analysis of some plays does not an historical proof make.

To summarize: historical documentary evidence about the Bard’s private life demonstrates nothing conclusive about his personal religion. Internal evidence from the plays, like Claudius kneeling down to confess his sins in Hamlet, proves…nothing about Shakespeare’s personal religion.

Now Archbishop Rowan Williams opines that “Shakespeare was probably Catholic.” This is about as convincing as Oprah Winfrey asserting that the shot that killed Kennedy probably did not come from the grassy knoll.*

May God be praised! The real joy lies in the Bard’s oeuvre itself.

Can the genuinely ‘Catholic’ position on Shakespeare be: not to claim lamely that Shakespeare was Catholic but rather to rejoice simply that Shakespeare was awesome?

Like the way in which the Bard created Leontes’ convoluted, suspicious character by using over-wrought vocabulary and syntax in Winter’s Tale

…Leontes is beginning to grow jealous of the friendship between his queen and his old friend Polixenes. So the king asks his servant Camillo if he has noticed anything:

…Was this taken
By any understanding pate but thine?
For thy conceit is soaking, will draw in
More than the common blocks: not noted, is’t,
But of the finer natures? by some severals
Of head-piece extraordinary? lower messes
Perchance are to this business purblind?

Leontes asks Camillo these contorted questions in the second scene of the play. When Leontes reappears in Act V, his strange, jack-in-the-box way of speaking also returns.

One of the courtiers urges king Leontes to marry a second time, but the dead queen’s friend Paulina forbids it. Leontes replies:

Thou speak’st truth.
No more such wives; therefore, no wife: one worse,
And better used, would make her sainted spirit
Again possess her corpse, and on this stage,
Where we’re offenders now, appear soul-vex’d,
And begin, ‘Why to me?’

When Leontes learns that Polixenes’ son Florizel has come to Sicily to visit, he asks, with his characteristic stiltedness:

What with him? he comes not
Like to his father’s greatness: his approach,
So out of circumstance and sudden, tells us
‘Tis not a visitation framed, but forced
By need and accident. What train?

A few lines later, Leontes reveals the mystery of his studied manner of speaking. He urges his courtier Paulina not to refer to Polixenes:

Prithee, no more; cease; thou know’st
He dies to me again when talk’d of: sure,
When I shall see this gentleman, thy speeches
Will bring me to consider that which may
Unfurnish me of reason.

To put oneself forth as a sober man of reason while, in fact, you are a burbling cauldron of jealousy, guilt, and remorse–this might lead a person to speak with Leontes’ robotic patter.

Maybe Shakespeare was Catholic. Certainly he was a veritable god.

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* Just an analogy. I am not familiar with anything Oprah Winfrey ever actually said.

Orphans and Freeborn Foreskins

I will not leave you orphans. (John 14:18)

When God created the human race, He did it with fatherly love. Adam and Eve had no human parents, but they were not orphans. God provided for them in every conceivable way. It was Satan, the father of lies, who led Adam and Eve away from the Father.

The Lord, however, had a plan to rescue us from the existential orphanage. In ancient times, God inaugurated a sign by which His children would be identified. For the first age of salvation history, the children of God were known by…circumcision.

[Listen, if you are squeamish about this subject, I am sorry. But this is sacred history.]

San Francisco activist Lloyd Schofield
So we hear our Lord Jesus promising us that He will not leave us orphans. Also we hear that out in a city in California, they are planning to put a new law to public vote. The law would make it illegal to circumcise infants.

To be clear, we know from the New Testament that the sacrament of circumcision pertained only to the Old Law. It is no longer necessary to circumcise baby boys as a sign of our covenant with God. So why am I bringing this up? Because I think reflecting a little bit on it will help us understand Christ’s promise about not leaving us orphans.

Continue reading “Orphans and Freeborn Foreskins”

‘Martyrs’ on our Potomac

On May 23, 1861, Virginia’s voters ratified the state’s ordinance of secession.

Perhaps you will remember that one of my favorite subjects is: Things that happened on May 24:

Confederate militia had held Alexandria, Virginia, since shots were fired at Fort Sumter. Only the “Long Bridge” over the Potomac separated them from tens of thousands of Union soldiers mustering in the capital.

Shortly after midnight on May 24, 1861, a force of thousands of Federal troops crossed the Potomac.

New York Militia Major General Charles Sanford marched to Arlington Heights and established headquarters in Robert E. Lee’s vacated home.

The few Virginia militia who remained in Alexandria retreated to Culpeper.

New York Fire Zoave Colonel Elmer Ellsworth marched with his troops down Main Street in Alexandria to cut the telegraph wires to Richmond. Ellsworth was a friend of Abraham Lincoln’s.

Ellsworth espied the Sic Semper Tyrannis secessionist flag flying over an inn called Marshall House. He entered the edifice, and climbed the stairs to remove the flag. James W. Jackson, the proprietor of the house, announced that the flag would be removed over his dead body. After the exchange of gunfire which followed, both Ellsworth and Jackson lay dead.

Lincoln wept at Ellsworth’s funeral the following day, and the northern press hailed him as a martyr. Later, the Sons and Daughters of Confederate Soldiers erected this plaque:

ADDENDUM/ERRATA:

Please forgive my haste in the original post. According to this Currier and Ives print from 1861, the flag flown over the Marshall House was in fact the Confederate “Stars and Bars.”

Apparently one of the stars of the flag can be seen at the Fort Ward museum in Alexandria. If the flag had stars, it couldn’t have been the Virginia state flag. Sorry.

Through the Dark Threshold

Anybody see a movie back in the late 90’s called “The Truman Show?” The true man of the movie had been the unwitting star of a reality show for his entire life. He had lived in a dome the size of a small city, which served as the set of the show. He was surrounded by hidden cameras all the time. His entire life was manipulated by the show’s producer. Everyone Truman knew was really an actor. The world loved Truman; his show was the most popular on television. The only person who didn’t know that Truman was a reality-t.v. star was…Truman himself.

In order to keep Truman from wanting to travel beyond the confines of the dome, the producer had managed to train him to fear the unknown and prefer the comforts of his day-to-day life.

But as Truman grew older, his desire to know more about the world became increasingly intense. He commandeered a boat on the shore of the staged ocean, and he sailed into the unknown. Truman managed to reach the outer wall of the concrete dome in which he had lived his whole life. The prow of the boat crashed into the cinder blocks that were painted to look like the horizon. Then Truman found a hidden emergency exit door in the wall that he had always thought was the sky. The producer got on a microphone, trying to convince Truman not to walk out the door. But Truman would not be stopped. He stepped through the dark threshold into the outside world that he had never known.

Continue reading “Through the Dark Threshold”

Questionable, Aesthetically

The train station in Rome assaults you with oppressive ugliness from every angle and in every way.

Fittingly, they have erected this statue of Blessed Pope John Paul II in front of the stazione:

Yes, our late Holy Father was a heavenly man.

(but one could question his aesthetic judgment)

Was Philip Kennicott* on the committee that chose this statue’s design for public installation in Rome?

The statue makes me think of the Hirshhorn Balloon Project.

…This morning my dear brother thoroughly covered the possibility of our “crashing full-speed into the federal debt ceiling.”

The idea of crashing full-speed into the limit conjured a memory from over a decade ago.

Anybody remember this movie with Jim Carrey and Ed Harris?


(WARNING: Bad word in this clip.)

This clip shows the end of the movie, when Truman has sailed ‘off the edge of the world’ after becoming dissatisfied with his circumscribed life as an unwitting reality-show star.

I think I will give a “Truman Show” homily on John 14 this weekend. Stay tuned…
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* The most thoroughly documented Aesthetic Fool Ever. Tied with Michael Kahn.

Will He Judge?

Jesus said: “The Father commanded me what to say and speak, and I know that his commandment is eternal life.”

On a number of occasions, Christ declined to present Himself as the supreme judge which, in fact, He is.

Once, He told his audience that the Ninevites of old and the ancient Queen of Sheba would judge them, because these pagans had listened to, and heeded, the Word of God.

Christ told His faithful Apostles that they, His appointed teachers, would judge the Twelve tribes of Israel.

He asked an aggrieved plaintiff, “Friend, who appointed me your judge and arbitrator?”

And right before the Last Supper, the Lord Jesus insisted: ‘I came to save, not to judge. My doctrine itself will judge those who fail to heed it.’

Continue reading “Will He Judge?”

Keats Sonnet in Honor of Derrick Rose

The Bulls trounced the Heat this evening, filling me with such euphoria that this John Keats sonnet came to mind…

“On first looking into Chapman’s Homer”

Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-brow’d Homer ruled as his demesne:
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez, when with eagle eyes
He stared at the Pacific—and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise—
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

[George Chapman was a contemporary of Shakespeare’s. Chapman was the first to translate Homer’s works into English. Chapman’s iambic-pentameter Homer had been supplanted by later, more precise translations, which were the standard fare at Keats’ time. Apollo directs the divine Muses, to whom Homer appealed for aid. Darien is a province of Panama.]

In Through, and Out From, the Sheep’s Gate

Here is a little homily, with some remarks of purely local interest…

Jesus said, “I am the gate for the sheep. Whoever enters through me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.” (John 10:7-9)

Kidron Valley, without a knucklehead in the photo

“The Lord is my shepherd.”

Maybe these are the most famous words in the Bible. With these words, we, the Church, respond to Christ, Who declared Himself to be the divine Shepherd of souls.

Christ gave His Good Shepherd discourse in the Temple precincts of Jerusalem.

In other words, Jesus spoke about being the sheep’s gate very near the Sheep’s Gate in the Jerusalem city wall, where they led the animals for sacrifice into the Temple area.

The sheep that entered through this gate had walked through a dark valley–the Kidron Valley between Jerusalem and Mt. Olivet. For these lambs, the Kidron Valley was a valley of death in more ways than one.

Continue reading “In Through, and Out From, the Sheep’s Gate”