Arturo Vasquez has written a piece for Inside Catholic that – while exploring the problems of homogeneity specifically within the Catholic church — excellently analyzes how “official” versus “traditional” religion in our cultural context is somewhat of a false dichotomy; once a tradition dies, it is gone forever, and any resurrection of it is just that, a re-creation based on source material.  It may be a good imitation, mind you, but it’s not the same.

You don’t just see this in Catholicism. Conservative Evangelicalism — which has a much more of a presence in my local area — has done a tremendous job of taking away local distinctions and making everyone, more or less, operate on the same program. So while a Church of God—Cleveland, Tenn., church may still have some mountain religion flavor, it’s not really all that different from the Assembly of God down the road or the non-denominational “House of Praise” in the next town; and if you want to break away from charismatics to those of a more generic mega-church flavor (and even their smaller-church aspirants), things really are the same everywhere you go. Some folks just do it slicker. This is nothing more than survival of the lowest common denominator.

A few excerpts from Vasquez’s piece (read the entire thing here ):

In many ways, the American experience is all about forgetting. Since this is a nation where almost everyone descends from immigrants, homogenization of cultural differences is necessary for creating a harmonious social order. It is only a matter of time before this affects the religious sphere of any given group. It is at least arguable that religion in the United States must inevitably become individualistic, consumerist, and fascinated with innovation. What came from the past, from ancestors in another time and society, must be forgotten since it is irrelevant; or at the very least, it must be subjugated to the needs and prejudices of the present.

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These Catholics — call them “Neo-Caths,” “traditionalists,” or “conservatives” — seek to satisfy their hunger for a “thicker” Faith through books, Web sites, clubs, and even specialized “niche parishes” where they are allowed their own liturgical and devotional particularities. While such aspirations are legitimate, they must be tempered by the realization that these efforts do not necessarily create an organically traditional Catholicism, but rather can be yet another manifestation of American consumerism on the religious level.

In these circles, arguments over what Tradition is can miss the forest for the trees. Having been deprived of a tradition, properly speaking, many try to recreate it using books, Internet forums, and popular media. What often results is a parody of the ancestral faith; a version in which certain practices are preserved while others are conveniently dropped. Variations on the theme of remembering and forgetting are often at the heart of the arguments among members of the Catholic right. Some want one thing done at Mass, others want another. One group says we must follow this page in the book, others say that we must follow that page. These arguments often have nothing to do with what we were taught at the home by our parents, or what was passed down to us by our forbearers. In other words, they have little to do with tradition proper, and more to do with personal taste.

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I have come to learn the hard way that such debates over what constitutes tradition have little foundation in what tradition actually is. I confess here that I first learned to pray the rosary out of a book. I had joined my local Legion of Mary as a teenager and said the rosary the way the Legion did. After a long youthful period of religious exploring, which included a stop in the Eastern Church, I ended up once again where I started from: in the house of my grandparents.

I began to pray the rosary in Spanish with them, and in the process realized that this was not the rosary I had learned as an adolescent. The method of saying the rosary that they had brought with them from Mexico was a rushed catechetical poetry, an echo of generations of prayer that I could never learn from a book. There was nothing wrong, in principal, with what I had learned as a youth, but the way my grandparents said the rosary seemed better precisely because it was old. It belonged to me. It was my birthright. It was almost in my blood.

It is that organic tie with the past that is missing in many of the polemics over liturgy, devotions, and the general shape of Catholic life in this country. When some pundits speak of capital-T Tradition, they are often speaking of a disembodied ideal that they want for everyone that was lived in the past by no one. It is found only in books, beamed to them directly via satellite feeds from the Vatican, packaged in cellophane wrap complete with a user guide. It is often disconnected from real life, and negligent in terms of the little details of the Catholic ethos. How does one pray the rosary, bless the food, decorate a home altar, etc.? Like learning to drive or raise children, there is only so much one can learn from a book (or from a blog, for that matter).

A little late, but better than never.

I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, a very patriotic person (at least as it is defined in current political discourse by either the left or right); my loyalties lie with my family, the Church and the local community.  But on the Fourth of July I don’t mind watching fireworks displays with my children, and so we headed down to the local riverfront to watch the annual show over the Mississippi River.

Somewhere in the middle of it, I was struck with a thought: these fireworks are supposed to represent “the bombs bursting in air.” This is the reenactment of battle, albeit with a lot of artistic license.

I apparently wasn’t the only one with this thought. Iraq II veteran Ryan Harvey had these thoughts:

I tend to believe … that the fireworks celebration is not about Independence, it’s about explosions. It’s about war. It’s a yearly mass-experience that reminds us that we live in a culture of violence and that we are safe enough from war that we can celebrate it from a detached position. But it’s not a conspiracy by some branch of government or some multinational fireworks company, it’s a cultural practice, an unwritten consensus.

You can read the rest of Harvey’s essay at Iraq Veterans Against the War.

It is easy to think of the Church as a well-organized monolith that only really suffered a communication break down at the time of the Orthodox Diaspora (or in the West, shortly after the Great Schism and just before the Reformation), but the fact is that lots of pieces of history and praxis have fallen through the cracks of time.

St. Phanorious

St.Phanourios

A good example of this is St.Phanourios.

Literally nothing is known about him except that at one time someone painted an icon of him, and that — at least according to the somewhat gruesome side panels on his icon — he was tortured. In fact, we don’t even know when he lived, only that his lost icon was discovered circa 1500.

Apparently some Arabic raiders had decided that Rhodes was too pretty looking, and so they decided to go through smashing churches, houses, etc. At one of the churches they decided to smash, the raiders found a group of ancient icons that had been theretofore hidden, perhaps within a wall.

Most of the icons were in a sad state, but one — which bore the name “Phanourious” —  still held the appearance of being freshly painted despite being hidden for centuries. The raiders didn’t think too much of this, really, and went on their way.

The monks who were hiding nearby, however, thought a good deal of it, and once the raiders were gone they rushed out and picked up this icon that had miraculously survived the years.

The Church of St.Phanourios in Rhodes

Except when they picked it up, they had no idea who Phanourios was.

After finding none of the other ancient icons in such good shape, the monks decided to investigate just who Phanourious was. No such luck was to be had — there was nothing in the local civil or ecclesiastical libraries.

To this day, the only things we know about this saint come from the miraculously preserved icon. Apparently his martyrdom include being stoned, placed on the rack, slashing, being tied to a frame, being burned with candles, tied to a stake, crushed by a boulder, being forced to hold hot coals and being thrown to wild animals.

The Archbishop of Rhodes, Milos, came to believe that the miraculous preservation of the icon and the icon’s testimony of Phanourious apparent indestructibility were evidence of his sainthood. The Patriarch convened a synod,Phanourios was proclaimed a saint and a cathedral was built to enshrine his icon.

His feast day is August 27, and he’s considered the patron of lost things, since, you know, he was lost for a while.

There’s even a pie named after him.

Image source here.

For a while now I have held my tongue about the ongoing oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Two of the men who were killed in the initial explosion on the Deepwater Horizon were local, and I have spoken with their families, heard their grief and

promised my prayers. Before this was a national ecological tragedy, for me it was a local human tragedy, one that has been a repeat of accidents in days past.

I have had numerous people tell me of losing family members in similar accidents, and on a personal level for my in-laws oil well explosions are more than — as some have put it — just one of those risks you have to be willing to take when you work in oil: my wife’s grandfather was killed in an oilfield explosion, dying before his last child, the child who would eventually become my father-in-law, was even born. With the memories of their own losses now refreshed, and the deaths of two men they knew, went to high school and attended church with still fresh in their minds, people around here can’t talk about what is going on in the Gulf without talking about the loss of human life.

And now, due to the ecological disaster, there is a significant potential for a second wave of human tragedy. SBTS Professor and Biloxi native Russell Moore sums it up well, demolishing the logic behind BP Representative Randy Prescott’s flippant remark that there are places in the world other than Louisiana that have shrimp.

We’ve had an inadequate view of human life and culture.

What is being threatened in the Gulf states isn’t just seafood or tourism or beach views. What’s being threatened is a culture. As social conservatives, we understand…or we ought to understand…that human communities are formed by traditions and by mores, by the bond between the generations. Culture is, as Russell Kirk said, a compact reaching back to the dead and forward to the unborn. Liberalism wants to dissolve those traditions, and make every generation create itself anew; not conservatism.

Every human culture is formed in a tie with the natural environment. In my hometown, that’s the father passing down his shrimping boat to his son or the community gathering for the Blessing of the Fleet at the harbor every year. In a Midwestern town, it might be the apple festival. In a New England town, it might be the traditions of whalers or oystermen. The West is defined by the frontier and the mountains. And so on.

When the natural environment is used up, unsustainable for future generations, cultures die. When Gulfs are dead, when mountaintops are removed, when forests are razed with nothing left in their place, when deer populations disappear, cultures die too.

And what’s left in the place of these cultures and traditions is an individualism that is defined simply by the appetites for sex, violence, and piling up stuff. That’s not conservative, and it certainly isn’t Christian.

You can read the rest of Moore’s essay at The Christian Post.

From a story in the New York Times about the St. Cono Day procession in a Brooklyn neighborhood now overrun by hipsters.

As a little more than 100 people and a brass band accompanied the saint’s statue through the neighborhood, onlookers were sparse. Younger residents in cafes barely looked up, or stopped to take a picture, but nothing more. There used to be small altars honoring the saint set up in front of old houses. Now, entire families in new condos stood behind their windows and looked curiously down onto the street.

The sight of the police’s closing off Graham Avenue to traffic piqued Chris Tocco’s curiosity. The procession itself was puzzling.

“It was a tiny parade, and they shut down Graham Avenue?” said Mr. Tocco, 26, an actor. “There was one float and a horrible marching band. It was very ironic. The Latino parades are more festive.”

Two young people standing on the sidewalk looked a little puzzled after one of the faithful sold them a prayer card featuring the saint. “It seems very old school,” said one of the onlookers, Jon McGrath, 27. “It’s kind of like a vestige of the old neighborhoods of Brooklyn.”

[…]

Which is not to say the newcomers do not relate to saints, just in a different way. Inside an old storefront, Jack Szarapka was going over preparations for a juice bar he was about to open. In one window, a statute of St. Francis Xavier towered over a patch of wheatgrass.

The statue, he said, was owned by his landlord and business partner, who grew up in the area. They had hauled it down from a stairwell and put it in the window. They might — or not — name the place the Saint Francis Xavier Juice Bar. “We have a collection of odd things in here,” he said. “This is another odd thing. We have bottles for a lamp fixture, found objects.”

Ironic? Sigh.

A philosophy is only as good as the art it spawns, and that is why postmodernism is a failure. Of the real, enduring art of the last century — and I include literature in this — there isn’t much that was produced in its second half. And what was produced only really served the purpose of generating long, rambling discussions of what defines art in a postmodern culture.

Postmodernism fails because it affirms the denials of modernism — there are no mysteries — but acts as if what is being produced can have a deeper meaning (“because I so affirm”). This is schizophrenic and necessarily kills any real creative impulse, and so the bastard child ends up rehashing its mother’s work, badly. The type set by Holden Caulfield — a character from the badly-named contemporary period but truly the illegitimate spawn of a modernist protagonist —  ends up being the voice of three generations, and the book ends the same way every time: isolated and agnostic.

When we talk about 20th century art, the discussion inevitably falls to the men and women who lived through the First World War and what they produced. The problem with modernism is that — while it did us the service of killing the false neo-classicalism of the romantic period — its end result is soullessness, a relentless search for truth and meaning while denying the mysteries of life, and especially religion. No wonder so many of them died before their time, either directly at their own hands or indirectly through substance abuse.

Which is why, I think, I find myself identifying more and more with the Baroque (gaudiness and all). Even though they painted a false picture of the middle ages and their views of the Greeks were reconstructed and cleaned up at best, it was a thoroughly Catholic period that — while affirming the truth of Christianity — was not afraid to embrace its Western past or acknowledge its Greek roots; the longer you look at philosophy, the more you realize how deeply entangled it is with theology, and thus with art.

Later, the Enlightenment, would usher in with it what has been labeled the Classical period in art, which eventually trashed both Christian philosophy and the Greeks; but the art that intellectual moment de novo spawned was devastated by the emo-kids of the 1800s, the Romantics.

And the Romantics, who were so full of emotion but divorced from religion and philosophy, were the logical precursors to the moderns, who realized that emotion without meaning was exactly that — meaningless self-flagellation. They felt nothing but isolation and could produce nothing more than terse verse, some of it quite good but not laying enough stonework for a foundation for the next step in artistic-philosophical evolution.

And thus, Holden Caulfield is truly the defining figure of the 20th century.

Of course, I realize most of this is just meaningless babble, not good enough for my predecessors, nowhere comparable to those I admire and as banal and short-sighted as my contemporaries, because — like them — I lack any real schooling in philosophy.

Such are the times.