Monday, December 5, 2011

Reflection for December 4, 2011


It was – I must say – funny to hear ourselves mixing reflexes with will power last Sunday as some of us responded to familiar expressions of the celebrant like “The Lord be with you” with our habitual response of “And also with you” becoming entangled with the new response “And with your spirit” – creating a audible traffic jam that took the edge off the change, making for laughter instead of aggravation. Laughter is often the Holy Spirit’s way of resolving differences. I’ve lived long enough not to be disturbed by such changes in the Church – so many have come and gone. The Mass is the thing, its continuity; indeed continuity is the thing! As Catholics we value continuity – and if the intent of the language change in our English liturgy has to do with the continuity of essential beliefs – then so be it.

Why last week I happened to catch on TV a Charlie Brown film in which Charlie wins a local spelling bee and from there gets caught up in a series of regional spelling bees until he’s a competitor in a national one – limelight and all. His life has changed; great pressures promising great rewards or public ruin – the consequence of our modern quest for upward mobility. Of course, he misspells the word “beagle” much to Snoopy’s dismay. Charlie feels ruined, brought down to earth. Things will never be the same again. And then back in his own neighborhood he sees Lucy handling a football, teeing it up, apparently oblivious of Charlie’s seeing her. He approaches stealthily and makes a sure fire run at the football, only to have Lucy lift it up as usual. Nothing has changed – he has returned to a continuity that may be stressful but keeps us as viewers always happily expecting Lucy’s guile and Charlie’s gullibility.

I’ve been reading Henry James’ novel The Portrait of a Lady. It’s all about a late 19th century young woman who wants to break out of the mold into which all such young women were destined to be wed: to be domestic, relatively uneducated, raise kids, serve as their husband’s trophy wife and so on. And she is determined to break out of that mold; she refuses marriage to an aristocrat, to an American industrialist – both real catches. She must expand her mind, experience life to the nth degree. In this quest she marries an American expatriate in Rome who is a connoisseur of art, seemingly wise, a likely source of insights that could broaden her mind. He turns out to be a tyrant, expecting her to abide by his likes and dislikes; he only married her for her money.

Desolate, Isabel (for that was her name) finds comfort in Rome itself, takes drives among the relics of antiquity, the old churches, St. John Lateran, ancient ruins. “She had long before taken this old Rome into her confidence, for in a world of ruins the ruin of her own happiness seemed a less unnatural catastrophe . . . She had become deeply, tenderly acquainted with Rome; it interfused and moderated her passion . . . This is what came to her in the starved churches, where the marble columns, transferred from pagan ruins, seemed to offer her a companionship of endurance and the musty incense to be a compound of long-unanswered prayers . . . the firmest of worshipers, gazing at dark altar-pictures or clustered candles, could not have felt more intimately the suggestiveness of these objects nor have been more liable at such moments to a spiritual visitation.”

Now this is said by a writer of Protestant background and of a story character of similar background who find in ancient and Catholic Rome’s long accumulation of human experience a grounding that does not resist new experiences but enters into them as remembered as much as new. That’s called “continuity” – a Catholic value.