Monday, February 28, 2011

Mass Music--or Mass Hysteria?

As a brief segue towards the topic of Latin hymns in a later blog post, I thought I'd share a piece I wrote in Musica Sacra (see "Reflections on a Hymn" on page 53) concerning the importance of beautiful music and art in our worship. They set the tone of reverence and move our hearts a little closer to heaven.

I'm still mulling over a thought-provoking NCR blog by Simcha Fisher entitled "Why I Love My Ugly Little Liturgy." It makes an interesting point, but it fails to ring true for me. If we believe that beauty honors God and draws our hearts to the Lord, then it's only logical that ugliness accomplishes the reverse goal. I understand the caution against pride and pretentiousness, but her argument just doesn't quite work for me. Thoughts?

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Wisconsin Reflections

I was thinking this week about the fifth chapter of James and how it relates (or fails to relate) to the state employee situation in Wisconsin.

1 Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you. 2 Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. 3 Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. 4 Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. 5 You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter.[a] 6 You have condemned and murdered the innocent one, who was not opposing you.

I have to first disclose that I am an Oregon State employee, and I completely sympathize with the frustration experienced by these workers. After all, we might find ourselves in the crosshairs next. I have to wonder, though, whether the unions themselves combined with the antiquated structure of state government in general (agency structure essentially unchanged or streamlined for decades) must share a significant degree of responsibility for where we find ourselves today. It's no mystery, for instance, that national demographics are quickly changing; we're quickly aging and domestic birthrates are falling. Immigration is masking the effect, but it's there--if you look.

Are public pensions and state legislators taking this opportunity to stem the flow of dollars and create economically sustainable systems? Governor Scott Walker and his ilk would appear to be trying to do so, except recent revelations cast significant doubt on his motivations for ending collective bargaining. I, for one, doubt whether he has honestly disclosed his true motivation for pursuing these sweeping reforms at this time. Something doesn't feel right, as they say.

As to unions, I must admit longstanding discomfort with unions. With few exceptions, unions seem designed to encourage mediocrity more than promote excellence. Their attitude is, sadly, too often one of entitlement rather than thankfulness. I think it's that attitude and perception that's really keeping more people from jumping on board with the unions in this fight. While we sympathize with the Wisconsin state employees' heart-rending situation, many of us find it difficult to support unions, whose behavior seems questionable and polarizing.

So, in short, I can't recognize many in the Wisconsin situation as blameless. The unions should have proactively addressed this situation much earlier in the process, and the governor seems to be pursuing a shadowy and undisclosed personal agenda. It's time for everyone to come clean and restore honor to state government.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Is Worrying a Sin?

Does the act of worrying constitute a sin? This has been a topic of discussion in our home lately, and I thought this would be as good place as any to share a short discussion on this question. Please note at the outset that this is a very simple exploration of a particularly complicated question; books could (and have been) written on this.

A good starting point for this discussion is to contrast definitions of worry and concern from the Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. "Worry" is defined as "a troubled state of mind arising from the frets and cares of life; harassing anxiety or solicitude." While "concern," on the other hand is defined as "to distinguish, discern, or perceive." An interesting argument can be made, then, that concern for something without an element of worry suggests that we may be lacking in empathy. Does a degree of worry bring the seriousness and immediacy of a crisis into clearer focus? For example, doesn't worry encourage many a parent and grandparent to pray earnestly for adult children who may be on a spiritually dangerous path?

We multitaskers can worry about many different things at the same time! There's the worry CBS executives may have with regards to unbalanced talent like their notorious Charlie Sheen. We might broadly refer to this as an office worry. With regards to our salvation, there's the legitimate spiritual worry or concern that recognizes that our salvation is worked out with "fear and trembling" (Philippians 2:12). When we sin, after all, we are turning our backs on Christ. Our free will means that this separation from God and man may happen at any moment unless we walk with Christ. If worry is a symptom that we are "going it alone," we have committed a sin akin to idolatry, placing our faith in ourselves instead of Christ.

Then, there's the worry or anxiety that comes when we find ourselves facing something that represents a deep-seated fear or even phobia: heights, for instance. Sometimes we know that there's an element of the irrational in these worries, but, then again, perhaps at times even these fears may serve a legitimate purpose.

When I attended Seattle Pacific University in the late 1980s, I spent the summer of 1988 working at their Camp Casey Conference Center on Whidbey Island (across the choppy Admiralty Inlet from Port Townsend). I ended-up spending most of that summer painting roofs on my own, and, I have to tell you, I was always worried about falling--especially when the ladder crashed down in the wind when I was a couple stories up, but I digress... My point in bringing this up is that it seems to me that this kind of worry can serve a legitimate and natural purpose. Let's face it, I am a clumsy guy. Having a natural worry or anxiety associated with heights might just be the natural genetic compliment to that "clumsy gene." It's going to keep me from being a painter on the Golden Gate, and that's probably a good thing.

We're all familiar with the usual kinds of worry described above. We could refer to these as ordinary daily worry, but there's also worry which is rooted in physical illness or trauma. There is, for instance, anxiety in some people which is attributed to chemical imbalances in the brain. These people suffer dark feelings of worry and panic that most of the rest of us could not imagine. This kind of worry really is more along the lines of an illness than anything else.

So, here we've outlined some basic types or examples of worrying. The question remains unanswered, is worrying a sin? Archbishop Fulton Sheen said, “All worry is atheism, because it is a want of trust in God.” As an admirer of this great man, I have to admit that he makes a good point, but perhaps turning to a deeper understanding of what sin is will help us untangle this issue more clearly? Here's part of what the Catholic Encyclopedia offers on the question or nature of sin.

In every sinful act two things must be considered, the substance of the act and the want of rectitude or conformity (St. Thomas, I-II:72:1). The act is something positive. The sinner intends here and now to act in some determined matter, inordinately electing that particular good in defiance of God's law and the dictates of right reason. The deformity is not directly intended, nor is it involved in the act so far as this is physical, but in the act as coming from the will which has power over its acts and is capable of choosing this or that particular good contained within the scope of its adequate object, i.e. universal good (St. Thomas, "De malo", Q. 3, a. 2, ad 2um). God, the first cause of all reality, is the cause of the physical act as such, the free-will of the deformity (St. ThomasI-II:89:2; "De malo", 3:2). The evil act adequately considered has for its cause the free-will defectively electing some mutable good in place of the eternal good, God, and thus deviating from its true last end.

We see, then, that unless worry represents an intentional act for wrong born out of our own free will (a possibility perhaps if we "nurture" our worry), simple worry, while not being good thing, fails to rise to the seriousness of a sin. Philippians 4:6 urges us not to worry, but to place our faith in Christ. This verse offers a comfort to the reader that through faith in Christ, we may pray for relief of our fears and anxiety. The verse does not say that those who suffer from this particular emotion are committing a sin. For whatever reason, there are those who pray for healing of physical or mental illnesses--such as chronic worry or anxiety--but the answer from heaven is not always the miraculous healing for which we hope. Sometimes, these things must instead be born by the believer, to be offered up as a sacrifice to God.

One of the strongest arguments against painting all worry as sin is seen in passages such as the one describing Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane. As we read in the 26th chapter of Matthew or the 14th chapter of Mark, Christ himself is displaying anxiety or worry about what's to come. Does this mean that Christ committed a sin because He failed to trust His Father. Of course not! Christ, as all God and all man, suffered as we suffer. Since worry and anxiety represent an integral part of our existence since the Fall, He also experienced these feelings as a man. Another writer I was reading recently pointed out the good example of Christ staying behind in the Temple as a child. Do we really think that Mary and Joseph weren't worried about their son while they searched for him high and low?

Unless we nurture or kindle the flame of our worry, ignoring Christ and His message, I can't agree that ordinary worry constitutes a sin. Of course, this doesn't mean that worrying is a good thing; it's true that we should strive to replace worrying with devotion to and faith in Christ. It's important to offer some clear thinking on this particular issue. For instance, if one begins to believe that chronic worry or anxiety is a sin in and of itself, it creates a vicious circle, simply creating more worry about the worry. Besides being unhelpful, it's based on faulty, overly simplistic reasoning and an incorrect understanding of the nature of sin itself. In conclusion, here's how Catholic Answers' Michelle Arnold eloquently addresses this issue.

Sin requires an immoral action, sufficient knowledge, and sufficient consent. To the extent that it keeps us legitimately concerned about the welfare of ourselves or others, it is not an immoral action to worry. Even in cases of needless worry, most worriers do not purposely worry despite knowledge that they should not. Indeed, in some cases, excessive, compulsive worry may be a symptom of a legitimate illness, and therefore not a sin.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Reflections on Prayer

Should my coming week be a particularly busy one, I thought I'd go ahead and make a second short post this evening.

This essay, Mysterious Tools, which appeared in America, The National Catholic Weekly a few years ago remains one of my all-time favorite pieces. This article seems to articulate the mysterious nature (and power) of prayer better than anything else I have written--so far.

I hope you have time to read it, and I'd welcome your comments or questions that it may raise for you. Are there unique ways God makes His presence and guidance known to you?


I have to admit at the outset that this photo really bears little connection with what I'm writing today. Here in western Oregon's Willamette Valley, we're expecting a wintery blast to arrive mid-week. As I'm finally (almost) recovered from a bad case of pneumonia picked-up over Christmas in Texas, I'm actually looking forward to playing in the snow with the kids. Some of my fondest memories are associated with snow, so I'm hoping that the valley will soon be covered in a white blanket. (This photo was taken some years ago at Silver Falls.)

Towards the end of Mass yesterday morning, a child somewhere in the congregation yelled "Mine!" with surprising force. When the church is hushed for a moment, it's amazing how much attention one little voice can bring. The child reminded me that, in a sense, we're all in danger of saying the same word internally. Is there really that much a difference between a child and an adult? We all have things we're reluctant to surrender to the Lord.

Like the child, we might as well be calling out "Mine!" ourselves. Whether it's possessions, time, attitudes, the need to place a spouse's needs ahead of our own perceived needs, or something else close to our hearts, we often try to tell God what our boundaries are. We're only comfortable going so far, we explain. As that child was beginning to perhaps recognize, learning how to give or surrender things important to us can be hard work.

Recently, someone I know did something particularly giving and heartfelt for a stranger in need. Was my first reaction to compliment the selfless gift? No, it was to critique the practical nature of the act. Without pausing to reflect on what I was saying, I downplayed the action on the basis that the person in need might not be authentic. For me personally, I think I need to surrender a critical mindset at times when it comes to acts of selfless charity in particular.

It may be a cliche, but we can't expect to receive from God until our hands are opened first in the act of giving, placing His will above our own. Instead of "mine," let's pray to say simply "Yours."

Saturday, February 19, 2011

A New Beginning

So, here we are again at the start of a new blog adventure. While the food blog was fun, I've decided to give a traditional writer's blog a shot. If a few readers find the offerings of interest, I'll endeavor to keep this ball in the air for a while.

The blog's new name, The Singing in the Wood, comes from a couple different sources. First, it's been the name of a document in which I used to try to save all my writings in chronological order--whether published, or not. The original idea was to bring good out of declined articles by finding a place that recorded our spiritual journey in the form of these diverse essays and articles starting about a decade, or so, ago. As time went on, I stopped being so careful to record my articles there, and it's probably quite out of date by now. The central idea of one large volume of all my writings, documenting a long spiritual journey for myself and family, still resonates deeply with me. Maybe someday I'll resume the endeavor more seriously.

You might also say that the singing in the wood refers to the call of Christ and His Church echoing forth from His creation. It reminds us that we don't go out in search of Him, so much as He goes in search of us. It evokes this love and grace, which infuses our lives through and through with meaning and substance otherwise missing entirely.

PS. One of the reasons I've decided to keep the current URL, is that there may be food-related posts from time to time. I might be tempted to include recipes or meals that help bring the family together in a meaningful way. (See very first blog post as an example.)

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The End...?

Sadly, I think I'm going to call it quits on the food blog. Instead, I may branch into a more traditional blog focused on current events, literature, apologetics, and religion and the arts. The food blog was a fun experiment, though! Until the new blog is up and running, farewell for the time being!