Spirituality

Poll Results: #BenedictOption

Maybe I should be surprised, or maybe I shouldn’t, by the results of my recent poll asking you, dear readers, which form of Catholic spirituality you most identify with. Although I plan on leaving the poll up, as of today — February 8, 2017 — the “Benedictines” have a 2:1 lead on the “Byzantines.” Although far less people took the poll than visit this blog on a regular basis, it would seem that those identify with Benedictine spirituality make up nearly 40% of Opus Publicum‘s readership. My best armchair explanation for this is that, historically, a fair number of “liturgy nerds” (of which I am one) populated this blog’s combox, particularly when I delved into the tumultuous realm of Latin liturgical reform and praxis (including among traditional Catholics). Moreover, I suspect that more than one Eastern reader of Opus Publicum (Orthodox and Catholic alike) find it easier to identify with the sober reverence of the Benedictine way of life than the apparent exoticism of Byzantine spirituality — a spirituality which, for better or worse, is today most identified with Palamism.

The biggest “loser” in my poll is Servite spirituality, which failed to gain even single vote. Redemptorist spirituality didn’t fare much better as it drew only one vote: my own. Admittedly, my poll was far from scientific or complete. Some spiritual forms, particularly the Byzantine, could have been subdivided by geography, and certainly Benedictine spirituality has developed an array of nuances over the centuries, leading to multiple religious orders which, though distinct, all trace their lineage back to St. Benedict himself.

Thank you to all who participated in the poll. It was a fun, if not illuminating, little exercise.

Poll: Catholic Spirituality

A Thought on “Thick Faith”

David Mills has penned another one of his customarily thoughtful pieces for Aleteia, “Make the Faith Thick and the Church Expensive.” In it, he discusses some recent sociological data on orthodox Jewish birthrates compared to non-orthodox birthrates. (For some reason the piece comes accompanied with a picture of an Eastern Orthodox subdeacon, but whatever.) Not surprisingly, orthodox Jews are “out-birthing” other Jews by a considerable margin, likely because they take the tenets of their religion concerning children seriously. That is to say that orthodox Jews, rather than paring down the Law in the name an inner “spirituality,” following through on the Judaism’s legal prescriptions as an indispensable part of their religious life. Critics, I suppose, will say that this is proof that orthodox Jews are only concerned with “externals” while glibly ignoring even the possibility that adherence to “externals” is reflective of deeply held religious convictions.

Good sophisticated Catholics (and Eastern Orthodox) of the 21st C. will have none of this, of course. There is nothing worse in the minds of many than adherence to “externals,” ranging from counting Rosary beads to receiving Communion on the tongue to rejecting contraception. All of these “rules,” all of these “empty rituals,” went out the door 50 years ago, or so they say. Moral prescriptions, while ideal and nice, are difficult; people must be brought to them “gradually” so as not to feel isolated or alienated from God’s mercy. Perhaps, after undergoing a purely internal transformation, a Catholic may be brought, by their own conscience, to think more deeply about “externals” and even follow through on them. If they do, they should, of course, keep it to themselves so as to not come across as “judgmental.” For the rest of the Catholic faithful, however, they are fine where they are at, so long as they don’t deny global warming or harbor any reservations over open-door immigration policies.

As 2016 draws to a close, let me just come out and say that as much as I admire Mills’s call not to present a thin, cheapened form of the Faith, this is all that’s really available to most people today — and it’s the only form that many Catholic priests and bishops know how to deliver. While there are pockets of resistance out there to the liberal and secularizing trends that overtook the Church during the last century and continue to cause chaos today, they remain few and far between, largely marginalized and even openly mocked by the Ordinary of Rome himself. It’s not that people who truly wish to take up their cross and follow Christ are barred absolutely from doing so; it’s just that the Church, at this present and perilous moment in history, is so grotesquely unwilling to help them along the way.

Lord have mercy.

Blessed Nativity Fast

To all of my Eastern Catholic and Orthodox readers following the Julian Calendar (and, of course, to my dear Latin Catholic readers, albeit one day late), I wish all of you a blessed Nativity Fast. Although the official fasting prescriptions for Catholics following the Byzantine Rite have been reduced in recent decades, according to Fr. Raymond Janin’s Es Eglises Orientales et Les Rites Orientaux (1922), the Nativity Fast consists of abstention from all food cooked with or containing meat, eggs, and dairy products. Unlike the more severe Lenten Fast, oil and fish are allowed throughout Advent except on Wednesdays and Fridays. Moreover, though not “official,” the partaking of alcoholic beverages is typically limited during Advent, though like with so many things Eastern, local custom reigns supreme.

I make mention of this not to dictate how you ought to observe Advent, but to highlight that this is a season of sober anticipation for the greatest event in human history, the birth of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. It is not a time for revelry or worldliness. It is not a period which should be drowned by consumerism. God is coming in the flesh to raise the image of man. May we all find the way to prepare accordingly.

Thy Precepts Are a Light Upon the Earth

I don’t always listen to Fr. Patrick Reardon’s podcast on Ancient Faith Radio, All Saints Homilies, but I probably should. If you, dear readers, have never given Fr. Patrick’s sermons a listen, then let me suggest you go out of your way to sample one in particular, “And Leave the Rest to God.” Billed at the beginning as a reflection on the eighth chapter of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, Fr. Patrick’s homily is a bit more than that. It is, as the official summary has it, a “look[ ] at God’s providence with respect to three things: our sin, the moral order, and our conduct.”

There is much to be said about this homily, though I fear I can neither its profundity nor seriousness the justice they deserve. What became clear to me in listening to it is how far down the consequentialist path we have tread, and by “we” I don’t mean “the world” (as if we are not in it) but rather ourselves as Christians. Bombarded regularly as I am with elaborate (and many not-so-elaborate) justifications for participating in a socio-political order that is as false as it is evil from fellow Catholics, many of whom are very well-meaning, it is remarkable to hear an Orthodox cleric get right what we so painfully get wrong on a daily basis.

Review: Old Orthodox Prayer Book (3rd ed.)

Several months ago I made mention of the third edition of the Church Slavonic/English Old Orthodox Prayer Book published by the Old-Rite Church of the Nativity in Erie, PA. Having used the second edition of this excellent prayer book for the last decade, I was eager to see what, if anything, would be done differently with a new edition. Truth be told, with the exception of some minor corrections, nothing has changed regarding the text. The book still contains a full set of Morning and Evening prayers; all of the texts for the minor hours plus substantial portions of Vespers and Matins; a large sampling of troparia and kontakia; the usual run of canons and an akathist; and the longest pre-Communion prayer rule you will ever see. What has changed is the actual construction of the book. Gone is the thin, newsprint-like paper with small type; here to stay is much sturdier white paper with a noticeably enhanced font size and style for both the Slavonic and English text. The black cover of the last edition is out; a firmer red cover, with more substantial binding, is in. Like the second edition, this version only boasts a single marker ribbon, though that probably won’t be a bother to people unless they are using the book to recite a service with several moving parts, such as Vespers.

Now, there are some drawbacks to this edition. First, the third edition is noticeably thicker and heavier than the second edition, which makes it a bit less comfortable to hold and carry around. Second, while the larger font will no doubt be welcomed by more elderly users of the book, it comes at the cost of having less content on single page, which my annoy some people. Finally, an opportunity was missed to make some minor additions to the texts, such as including the rubrics and prayers for praying the small hours during Great Lent or including the daily prokeimena at Vespers (strangely the only “fixed” text from this service that is missing).

These are minor quibbles, however. Improving the quality of the paper and binding is a definite improvement, particularly since I have burned through three copies of this prayerbook over the past 10 years due to wear-and-tear. That shouldn’t be a problem with this edition.

I remain firm in my conviction that this is hands-down the best Orthodox prayerbook available in English, one that can be used profitably by Greek Catholics as well. Most of the translations are less clunky than those found in, say, the Jordanville Prayer Book and the structure of the morning and evening prayer rules is more sensible as well. Those disinclined to adopt some of the particular aspects of the Russian Old Rite, such as the double (rather than triple) Alleluia or minor variants in the Creed, can easily bypass them. While used copies of the second edition are still fairly easy to come by, those looking for a prayerbook that will hold up over the long haul would do well to invest in this new third edition.

Raskol

Just over 450 years ago, in the faraway land of Russia, a synod was held which, inter alia, upheld a series of far-reaching liturgical reforms which noticeably altered the articulation and practice of liturgical piety in the Russian Orthodox Church. More than a few marginal adjustments, the liturgical reforms instituted by Patriarch Nikon (who, ironically enough, was deposed at the 1666 synod in question) was immediately noticeable to clerics and laity alike, particularly during the penitential season of Great Lent which, arguably, the reforms hit the hardest. The synod also took the disconcerting step of flagrantly nullifying the decrees of an earlier gathering—the 1551 Stoglavy Synod—which had upheld the integrity and orthodoxy of Russia’s liturgical rite—a rite which differed in noticeable ways from Greek usage as it had solidified by the 17th Century. The rest, as they say, is history.

Within a decade or two, the Russian Orthodox Church was fractured into officially approved believers under the Moscow Patriarchate and so-called Old Believers (or Old Ritualists) who refused to acquiesce to the Patriarchate’s liturgical reforms, even though it meant losing the priesthood. The heavy hand of the Russian secular authorities ensured that no bishops joined the “Raskol” or schism, and many of the priests who held to the Russian Old Rite were imprisoned, tortured, and executed. While relations between Old Believers and the mainline Russian Church have improved over the past century to the point where both the Moscow Patriarchate and the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia count Old Believers among their membership, the dark legacy of the Russian Church schism still hangs in the air, centuries later.

At the time of the schism, many Old Believers held to an apocalyptic view of the liturgical reform, arguing without irony that altering Slavonic grammar and the number of prostrations performed during the Prayer of St. Ephraim at Lent amounted to losing the Orthodox Faith. Even today, there are Old Believers who maintain that we are still living in the time of antichrist where God has deprived his followers of all of the sacraments save Baptism. Of course, the end of history has yet to come; Christ has not returned in glory; and life continues on. But still, the Old Believer air is thick with eschatological expectation or, at the very least, a powerful sense that God is not done exacting revenge on those who have apparently betrayed Him.

Maybe there is no perfect parallel in the Roman Catholic Church to this phenomenon, though that could change in a hurry. Next year marks the 100th anniversary of the Apparitions at Fatima and it is not an exaggeration to say that there are more than a few Catholics who believe that a moment of great reckoning is coming. Some, in fact, are longing for it, fed up as they have become with the authorities in Rome and the laxity rampant throughout the Universal Church. Others are holding to a more positive outlook. Instead of expecting impending destruction they hope that the Blessed Virgin’s promise, namely that her Immaculate Heart will triumph, shall be fulfilled. At that point a period of renewal will occur in the Church, with the troubling developments of the past 50 years being swept away so that the Church can once again fulfill her divine mission in the world.

It is easy to draw superficial comparisons between the upsetting developments which occurred in the Russian Orthodox Church during the 17th century and what the Catholic Church has had to endure during the 20th (and well on into the 21st). In fact, that’s what I just did above, albeit with a wee bit of discretion. What is more fascinating to consider is how different “these days” are from “those days.” Traditional Catholics, understandably upset by the post-Vatican II liturgical reforms and doctrinal confusion, have opted to stand up against the prevailing chaos, though only to limited degrees. Getting some shade thrown at you for Tweeting against Mother Theresa’s canonization is a far cry from getting torched at the stake for refusing to change how you make the Sign of the Cross. While traditional Catholics are eager to speak of “persecution,” “injustice,” and “struggle,” very little of that is found during the present situation because even those who wish to eradicate tradition do so not with an axe, but a limp wrist. And for that, traditionalists should probably be grateful.

A Saint Without Compromise

Today, according to the Gregorian Calendar, is the Feast of the Beheading of St. John the Baptist. Kept as a solemn liturgical celebration and fast day among many Eastern Christians, this day—and one might argue the Baptist’s entire earthly ministry—has lost a bit of its import in the West. In his book The Friend of the Bridegroom, the Russian Orthodox theologian Fr. Sergius Bulgakov threw shade on the West’s elevation of St. Joseph, the spouse of the Blessed Virgin Mary, at the apparent expense of keeping St. John central in its liturgical and spiritual heritage. Although it is unlikely that many Latin Catholics would entirely follow Bulgakov’s assessment, particular since it smacks more than a bit of knee-jerk Orthodox anti-Catholicism, it is true that the Forerunner of Christ does not factor considerably in contemporary Catholic reflections on sainthood, witness, and martyrdom. Why that is so I cannot say. What I can say is that perhaps now more than ever, the Baptist deserves to be at the forefront of our minds.

Let me be clear. St. John did not mince words, nor did he retreat from the truth, even at the cost of his own life. In the face of public scandal and sin, he stood firm with the Law of God over and against earthly powers. While the Byzantine hymnography for today’s commemoration of the Baptist’s decollation tends to focus on the sinfulness of Herod Antipas and his vile stepdaughter Salome, there are numerous references to the Forerunner’s unrelenting preaching, both on earth and to the souls in Hades awaiting the coming of Christ, the Conqueror of Death. Any man with ears to hear cannot walk away from today’s cycle of liturgical services without a firm appreciation for St. John’s steadfastness in all things.

And where, might I ask, are we to find a St. John in our own day? At a time with hierarchs, priests, and laity cower from muttering any word which may run afoul secular-liberal “morality” and the tyranny of “tolerance,” the Baptist looks like a legend, or an ideal which we can no longer strive toward for fear of reprisal. Maybe some are even tempted to think that there were other, undocumented, reasons for the Forerunner’s death. Maybe it wasn’t because he spoke out against public sin, particularly public sexual sin. Perhaps he died because he held to some wrongheaded political beliefs or supported that “revolutionary” from Nazareth or forgot to pay his taxes, etc. Let there please be an intramundane explanation for his decapitation! Do not tell me this holy man met his end because he failed to do the one thing all of us crave to do every single day of our lives: capitulate.

Those illumined by the light of faith cannot set aside why St. John met his end any more than they can deny that all sins of the flesh, including open and unrepented adultery, are worthy of condemnation. They cannot deny that the Forerunner of Christ was, fully and faithfully, a man of God whose tongue was gifted to him for one reason and one reason alone: to speak the truth without reservation. Does this unsettle us? Does this make us uncomfortable? If so, then shame, for the life and heroic death of St. John the Baptist should inspire everyone, from the highest authority in the Church to the lowliest layman, to never waver in their witness, even at the highest cost.

Old Orthodox Prayer Book – Third Edition

The Church of the Nativity has just released the third edition of its wonderful Old Orthodox Prayer Book with parallel English/Church Slavonic text. You can get a look at the new edition, including the improved font size, at the Church’s website here. As a longtime user of the second edition of the prayer book, I can’t recommend this spiritual resource enough. If you’ve never used this book before or, like me, have worn your second edition down, this is wonderful news.

Steve the Builder Returns

I realize that I am late in commenting on this, but Steve the Builder, the podcast of one Steve Robinson which is hosted by Ancient Faith Radio, has returned to the airwaves after a five-year hiatus. The “relaunch episode,” which serves as both an update on Robinson’s life and a reflection on discerning the will of God, is a must-listen installment of the show, particularly during this season of Great Lent (or Holy Week for Western Christians).

For those unaware, Robinson used to pen the equal parts insightful and hilarious Pithless Thoughts web-log, co-hosts another podcast entitled Our Life in Christ, and has authored two books, including Fire From Ashes: The Reality of Perpetual Conversion with Fr. Joseph Huneycutt.