Silence: Golden or Deafening?

My wife spent this past weekend on a silent retreat—her first. Despite what it sounds like, such retreats are not entirely silent, of course. There is spiritual direction, a variety of instruction, a book-on-CD playing during meals, and daily Mass. But you’re not expected to talk, to spend time networking, making or renewing friendships, or trying to seem interesting. It’s like the opposite of going to the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association (and probably no shortage of Christian conferences, either). As a result, it can be quite disorienting at first. It’s as if you’re in a foreign place, because—in a very real way—you are. I went on one last June, with some hesitation and second thoughts, only to find it the finest few days I’d spent in a very long time.

Why is that? What is it about silence that intellectually attracts us, but in reality repulses us?

The 17th-century French mathematician, philosopher, and well-rounded intellectual Blaise Pascal—I think—observed that our miseries come from our inability to sit quietly alone in a room (I’ve misplaced my copy of the Pensées, so I can’t confirm this.) While that may be a stretch, Pascal was certainly onto something. The impulse to mitigate silence is not new. There are very few of us in this wired Western world who can truly relish unmolested quietness for more than, say, a few minutes. I work in a relatively-quiet office for hours a day, but it’s not the same. I’m working, plugged in, online, and available (but selectively responsive). Even when I’m alone at home, my tendency is to pull up a favorite Pandora station.

So while we are prone to fantasize about stealing a half-hour to just sit, or meditate, or pray—and complain about our inability to find or be afforded those minutes by a spouse or away from children—I suspect it’s often a fantasy, or a false front. We say that silence is golden, but live as if it’s deafening [Read more...]

Confession: It’s Cheaper than Therapy

Since becoming Catholic last Spring, I’ve had opportunity to think about what’s been gained by swimming the Tiber, as well as what’s been lost—by which I mean things about my former religious life and culture that Catholics just don’t understand or do. My post a few weeks back about the absence of a contemporary Catholic music scene was one of those. This post is about an addition: the confessional.

I admit I anticipated this part of Catholic life with some trepidation. On the other hand, I had never sensed a great deal of settled reconciliation with the Almighty in solitary, silent, mental confession. Which meant forgiveness took on the form of a circadian rhythm of sorts. I would feel bad about things for a day, confess silently, and then wake up the next morning having largely put behind me whatever it was that I had blundered the day before. Although a good night’s rest seemed to sufficiently shelve yesterday’s misdeeds, I don’t know that the divine economy actually works like that.

Alas, that approach is no more. Now confession is spoken, in real time, and it occurs when I go and actually do it. The psychological difference between a silent and a spoken confession is like night and day.

Lots of Christians are a part of accountability groups, of course. [Read more...]

Lost (and Found) in Translation

Yesterday was an unusual Sunday for American Catholics, and reinforces the distinctive nature of worship in Catholic and Protestant Christianity. It was the long-anticipated introduction of the “new” Mass translation. It is, of course, a bit humorous to talk about “new” anything when referring to Catholic worship forms, but yesterday was a bona fide beginning as the 3rd edition of the Mass translation into English rolled out for mandatory use. Since the worldwide official language of the Mass is written down, in Latin, this is a big deal—bigger for priests than for parishioners, because the former have more speaking parts than the latter.

Many American Catholics have long ago memorized their lines, and even in one year’s time I pretty much had mine down. Except for the Nicene Creed, which—although I occasionally recited it in the Presbyterian and Reformed circles in which I ran—is sufficiently longer and more complicated than the Apostle’s Creed. My memorization skills, at age 40, are not what they were in college. If I’m remotely normal, then plenty of people will be using the pew cards for a long time to come.

I suspect memorized worship lines are a curiosity to evangelicals, among whom spontaneity retains not only psychological appeal but also religious appeal. [Read more...]

CCM: Contemporary Catholic Music?

My wife is a big fan of contemporary Christian music (CCM), and has listened to it as long as I’ve known her—about 22 years. I’m a fan, too, I suppose, although at a much more “socially acceptable” level than she is. (I just had to say that.) Basically, she introduces me to new songs, albums, and musicians—some of which I wind up enjoying, others not so much.

Our transition from evangelical to Catholic has shed light on the role of music in one’s faith tradition. (It’s also gratefully revealed little that’s distinctively Protestant about most CCM.) For many evangelicals, CCM is a hallmark of their cultural consumption patterns. Sure, there are different tastes and preferences, from the cheesy to the edgy, from the very to the barely (Christian). But one fact seems pretty clear: most performing artists in the CCM world run with evangelicals, so far as I can tell. Very few are Catholic. Why is that?

My best guess at an answer is three-fold. First, CCM’s origins are evangelical, and thus—speaking sociologically—there probably weren’t many “cross-cutting social circles” in its development. That is, when a brand new—or in CCM’s case, a hybrid—cultural form emerges among one group of people, it won’t likely emerge similarly among a different group if social ties between members of the two groups either don’t exist or aren’t strong. So the first part of the answer is rooted in older patterns of sociality; that is, historically evangelicals and Catholics haven’t socially interacted all that much, curbing the likelihood of diffusing cultural forms between them.

This is similar to the reason why country music is a largely Protestant thing as well. If you look at a map of religious affiliation distinctions across the US, Nashville—the CCM and country music capital of the world—is smack in the middle of a very Protestant state (and region). This is probably the primary reason behind the lack of diffusion of CCM.

A second (more interesting) part of my answer/guess is rooted in [Read more...]