Friday, September 29, 2006

Yeah, right

From Catholic World News:

Sep. 29 ( - The second-ranking official in Al Qaida called upon Pope Benedict XVI to convert to Islam, in a videotaped message released on September 29. In an Arabic-language message, delivered in videotape format to Islamic media outlets, Ayman al Zawahiri charged that in his Regensburg speech Pope Benedict was stirring up the same "superstitions" and fears of Islam that had led to the Crusades.

Ah, yes, those crazy "superstitions". Like the Seljuk Turks' conquest of most of the remainder of the Byzantine Empire after the Battle of Manzikert in 1071. Like the robbing and murder of Christian pilgrims on their way to the Holy Land. Why would anyone get worked up over things like that?

Benedict was clearly not trying to prepare the way for another armed resistance movement like the Crusades -- all you have to do is read what he actually said.

But I hope he's got that speech ready somewhere, because it's looking like we might need it before too long.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Mozart would not be amused

Mozart's opera Idomeneo won't be on the program this year at Berlin's Deutsche Oper. That's both a bad thing and a good thing.

It's bad because pulling the production has publicly been attributed to fears of a violent Muslim reaction to its staging, which includes a scene in which Mohammed is decapitated. I'm really tired of worrying about what some Muslim, somewhere, will take offense at. Defenders of Islam as the religion of peace should note that although Mohammed isn't the only religious figure who loses his head in this production, his followers are the only ones from whom retaliatory violence is being feared. And it's no wonder; look what happened when those relatively innocuous Danish cartoons surfaced.

But it's also good, because this production richly deserved to be yanked. It's a desecration of Mozart's original, which contains nothing remotely offensive to Muslims, and a fine example of what happens when the arts elites are allowed to do anything they feel like doing in order to "push the envelope". Gerald has an extensive post with photos and links, if you want to know more about this travesty, and why, given the general state of German theater today, it is hardly unexpected.

The scene that's causing the uproar isn't even in Mozart's original libretto. The director, Hans Neuenfels, made it up and tacked on it to the opera's end to amplify the title character's contempt for religion which, one can infer, he shares. Apparently Herr Neuenfels believed his audience would be too unsophisticated to understand that Idomeneo's rebellion against the god Poseidon could be taken allegorically and applied to the present day. So, embracing anachronism like a old buddy, Neuenfels treats the audience to the sight of Idomeneo bloodily beheading Jesus, Buddha, and Mohammed onstage.

So the real problem in this whole brouhaha isn't really Mozart's Idomeneo; it's the ludicrous, contemptible esthetics of the director. I say: dump him, restage the production traditionally, or at least not insanely "updated", put it back on the schedule, and get on with honoring through respectful performance one of the geniuses of Western music.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

One reason to be glad we're here

Spitzer Space Telescope image of spiral galaxy M81

As you can probably tell if you've been reading me for a while, I find lots of things in this world to complain about. But every now and then, I'm reminded of one of the many ways in which I'm very, very lucky. You, too.

When I was in high school in the 60's, I read Arthur C. Clarke's non-fiction work Profiles of the Future: an Inquiry into the Limits of the Possible. It's a science-fiction author's take on just how likely it is that certain things envisioned in science fiction can actually take place someday, and which ones are fundamentally impossible. He's kept updating it since then, and it's still a very interesting read.

Though I've liked Clarke's lighter short stories, his longer works I find less interesting, and his atheism and his sadly underinformed view of religious faith made his novel Childhood's End positively evil. Nevertheless, he often does produce a very handsome turn of phrase, and the following peroration at the very end of Profiles has stuck with me through the years:

Our Galaxy is now in the brief springtime of its life -- a springtime made glorious by such brilliant blue-white stars as Vega and Sirius, and, on a more humble scale, our own sun. Not until all these have flamed through their incandescent youth, in a few fleeting billions of years, will the real history of the universe begin.

It will be a history illuminated only by the reds and infra-reds of dully-glowing stars that would be almost invisible to our eyes; yet the sombre hues of that all-but-eternal universe may be full of colour and beauty to whatever strange beings have adapted to it. They will know that before them lie, not the millions of years in which we measure the eras of geology, nor the billions of years which span the past lives of the stars, but years to be counted literally in trillions.

They will have time enough, in those endless aeons, to attempt all things, and to gather all knowledge. They will not be like gods, because no gods imagined by our minds have ever possessed the powers that they will command.

But for all that, they may envy us, basking in the bright afterglow of Creation; for we knew the Universe when it was young.

That's a pretty nice blessing to have received, you and I and every human being who has ever lived; we've all known the Universe when it was young. We take that blessing for granted, as we do most, but we shouldn't. So it's a good thing that there's a reminder of it right overhead on every clear night of our lives.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

This Sunday at St. Thomas

Sung by the St. Ann Choir at St. Thomas Aquinas this noon:

Anon. 14th century English, Salve Virgo Virginum
Palestrina, Sicut Cervus

The recessional, played on the organ, was a set of variations on Deo Gratias, Anglia, one of the most stirring medieval melodies that you'll still hear now and then. Sir William Walton used it in his music for the movie Henry V, the one with Olivier in the title role.

On the less good side, a priest I hadn't seen before officiated at Mass today. Maybe he was a late replacement for our usual (elderly and ailing) Fr. Harris, so I should cut him some slack for not knowing how things usually flow at St. Thomas. But it was pretty much a mess. Canned, predictable sermon on helping the homeless and marginalized (yes, we have to do that, but you hear it so much you'd think that was the totality of Christianity). And he's the first priest I've heard to actually change words to suit himself (not, thank God, at the Consecration). I can't recall the many deviations this guy got into, but when he chimed in with "The Lord is with you", for example, instead of the standard "The Lord be with you", people seemed uncertain how to respond -- stick with the usual "And also with you"? Try something new, like "You da man"?

It just completely escapes me what priests like that are trying to accomplish. It also makes me realize how blessed we've been at St. Thomas.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Bet you can't have this on YOUR courthouse!

On our recent vacation down California's central coast, we spent a couple of days in Santa Barbara. We noticed that the AAA Tour Book had bestowed one of its infrequent "Gem" ratings on the Santa Barbara county courthouse, so in our wanderings through town, we stopped there, curious why a courthouse should have earned such high marks.

What a place it turned out to be -- the kind of public building that everyone could agree upon not so long ago, but which now would be impossible get past the censors from the ACLU and People for the American Way. Built in gorgeous Spanish-colonial style in the 1920's, it's full of exquisite craftsmanship, yet it's not a museum piece; it's still very much a fully functional courthouse. The murals, metalwork, tilework and paintings are a constant and unabashed celebration of the brief history of the region -- all of it, not just the part that's politically correct to recall.

For instance, here in California, it's not fashionable to celebrate Blessed Fr. Serra's tremendous accomplishment in founding the California missions. Since white people and their influence are considered baneful here right now, the padres are seen as foreign invaders who ruined the idyllic lives of the indigenous tribes, enslaving them and infecting them with smallpox, probably on purpose, of course. So it was a refreshing surprise to see this on their courthouse doors:

which appears to be a priest with the chalice and host; or this:

which is Fr. Serra gazing at the Santa Barbara mission -- holding a cross.

PAW and ACLU members, step away from your speed dials. Touch these artworks, and it's war.

And then there's the City Council chamber, adorned with enormous murals on three walls, showing the founding of Mission Santa Barbara, mission life, and the coming of the Americans in 1846. Each group -- Indians, the padres, the Spanish settlers, and the Americans -- is depicted with dignity. I should add that the murals are done in the style of that great American illustrator of the early 20th century, N. C. Wyeth (though not, alas, by the man himself). Wish I could show you pictures, but mine were disappointing. You'll have to see the paintings for yourself.

And then there's this motto, sitting prominently above the main entrance (and repeated in Spanish nearby):

"God gave us the country; the skill of man hath built the town." (Varro, A.D. 50).

So, come to think of it, all of this together means that Santa Barbara's courthouse has more overtly Catholic imagery and more references to God than a certain pretend cathedral down the road in L.A.

Friday, September 22, 2006

The "M" word

I hate how the word "martyr" is getting co-opted by those who are blowing other people up in the name of Allah, or the Palestinian people, or who knows what, and killing themselves in the process.

For centuries, "martyr" in the West has denoted a person who is put to death because of his witness to the Christian faith (the word itself derives from the ancient Greek legal term for a witness in court -- who, I presume, did not then blow up the court). Though the Christian might enter a dangerous situation expecting or even hoping for death, he did no harm to those around him. Death was inflicted on him, and his very defenselessness lent additional power to his witness for Christ.

Then along came the suicide bombers of Islam, and the perverse habit of translating the Arabic "shahid" as "martyr". So now what used to be a word for honorable self-sacrifice while doing no harm is being expanded to encompass killing yourself while doing others the ultimate harm. And consequently we have to read about such things as the Al-Aqsa "Martyrs" Brigade. What evil nonsense.

Followers of Muhammad, there's a better "M" word for what you're doing: Murder.

Ah, yes. The Al-Aqsa Murderers Brigade. That's better.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

This Sunday at St. Thomas

Most of the St. Ann Choir is singing on a tour in eastern Europe this week, but the "saving remnant" left behind still managed to produce these three Renaissance gems at the noon mass today:

Josquin d'Ascanio, In Te, Domine, Speravi
Martin de Rivaflecha, Anima Mea Liquefacta Est
Thomas Tallis, If Ye Love Me

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Some common sense at last

The Salt Lake City Tribune quotes a gutsy priest about the U.S. response to 9/11:
Rev. Erik J. Richtsteig, pastor of St. James Catholic Church in Ogden, says the U.S. had every right to strike back after it was attacked on Sept. 11. "If someone is pulling a gun out of their holster, you don't wait for them to pull the trigger before you do something about it."
Fr. Richsteig's blog provides a link to the whole article.

I haven't heard such moral clarity from any representative of my Church since the whole shootin' match began.

Living as a Catholic in the San Francisco Bay area (which I'm hoping is good for at least 300 days' indulgence just by itself) I've much more often heard the following kind of thing, also from the same article:
The war in Iraq is not just, said Dee Rowland, director of government relations for the Salt Lake Catholic Diocese. "It was too soon and the danger was not imminent," she said. "But always, there is support for those who serve."
Too soon? The danger not imminent? One can only shake one's head at the sheer blind folly of it.

As you might expect, The Tribune gave Ms. Rowland a flattering photo, and added this revoltingly fawning caption:
Dee Rowland was arrested three times for world peace. The 1999 YWCA Outstanding Woman of the Year is still fighting for a safer world through her work with the Catholic Diocese Peace and Justice Commission by lobbying Congress.
Poor Fr. Richsteig's comments, in contrast, were stuck way at the article's end. No photo. No fawning caption.

But maybe the truth doesn't always need those to prevail.

Monday, September 11, 2006

This Sunday at St. Thomas

Sung by the St. Ann Choir at today's noon Mass at St. Thomas Aquinas:

di Lassus, Adoramus Te, Christe
Palestrina, Super Flumina Babylonis

Saturday, September 09, 2006

On the folly of taking no action

From Jean Anouilh's 1960 play Becket:

KING HENRY: Life is one long web of difficulties. The secret of it ... is to give them no importance whatever. In the end one difficulty swallows up the other and you find yourself ten years later still alive with no harm done. Things always work out.

BECKET: Yes. But badly. My prince, when you play tennis, do you simply sit back and let things work out? Do you wait for the ball to hit your racket and say "It's bound to come this way eventually"?

Thursday, September 07, 2006

What "diversity" will always become

Joseph Bottum, writing about the banning of evangelical groups from Georgetown University:

There’s an obvious irony here—employed too often to be surprising—in which people begin by protesting in the name of diversity against centralized authority, and later discover, once they’re in charge, how useful those old forms of authority can be in controlling diversity.

Those of us who were at college in the 1960's certainly have seen that happen before. At my alma mater, Pomona College, the conservative values the school espoused when I got there have now been completely replaced by the usual dreary soft-leftist orthodoxies, and heaven help you if you dissent. But back to Georgetown:

But it also represents a tactic we’re likely to see more of: claims of old-fashioned Catholicism, used by people who are far from old-fashioned Catholics, to maintain control of officially Catholic institutions and to ban the people whose political opinions they don’t like. Watch for it at Boston College, and Marquette, and Notre Dame, and Loyola Marymount, and on and on.

The trouble for these institutions is that sooner or later, people catch on, and they take their money elsewhere, where it will actually support what people think is worth preserving. Though we still send a little money annually to Pomona, mostly for old times' sake, we send as much or more now to Thomas Aquinas College.

Eventually, maybe money will talk.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

This Sunday at St. Thomas

Sung by the St. Ann Choir at St. Thomas Aquinas church in Palo Alto, at today's Gregorian mass:

Josquin des Prez, Tu Pauperum Refugium
Lodovico Viadana, Exsultate Justi