Monday, November 18, 2002

Well, maybe this year

I moved to California just over thirty years ago, when the Air Force transferred my father from Germany to what was then Castle AFB. At the time I was an Episcopalian, but I started reading stories about a Christmas tradition here that I had never heard of before: La Posadas (a place of shelter or inn). I have loved the descriptions, but have never made it to a celebration, even after becoming a Catholic. Well, this year, Fr. Oneyma is conspiring with the Spanish Mass community in out parish to surprise the rest of us with something for Christimas, and I hear that some version of La Posadas is it. Maybe this year.

For nine days (December 16 to 24) in many Mexican communities, a group of families will gather each evening to form a candlelit procession that can include a boy and girl dressed as Mary and Joseph. The group will reenact the travels of the holy couple by going from home to home, singing or praying the Rosary. At each home they stop and sing a request for a place to stay the night:

En el nombre del Cieloos pido posada,
pues no puede andar
mi esposa amada.

In the name of Heaven
I ask you for lodging,
because She cannot walk,
my beloved wife.
At all but the last house, the homeowner refuses, singing:
Aquí no es mesón;
sigan adelante.
Yo no puedo abrir,
no sea algún tunante.

This is no inn,
keep on going.
I won't open the door,
in case you are a truant.
There are more verses to be sung at each house, until you get to the final destination where the door is opened and the group wating inside (which usually includes those who were at the earlier houses) sing:
Entren, Santos Peregrinos,
reciban este rincón;
no de esta pobre morada,
si no de mi corazón.

Enter, Holy Pilgrims,
accept this dwelling;
not of this humble house,
but of my heart.
Everybody then enters in for celebrations, especially for the children. On the last evening, the celebration ends with Midnight Mass.
Father Gilberto Cavazos-González, O.F.M. (in the article, Whom will you welcome this Christmas in the December 2002 U.S.Catholic) remebers La Posadas and the building of the naciamento (the creche) growing up as an immigrant in the U.S. La Posadas have largely been a lay practice, with little invovement fron the Church, which mystifies Fr. Gilberto:
For better or for worse, the institutional church in the United States has all but ignored the Posadas and nacimientos, calling them superstitious wastes of time and money. For us, this ecclesial ignorance of our Christmas practices is disconcerting, given the fact that it was the church itself, under the direction of Franciscans and Augustinians, that taught us the Posadas and showed us how to build nacimientos.
While a parish priest in Texas, Fr. Gilbert worked with his parishioners to, in his words, evangelize the Posadas. Keeping them lay lead and family based, they added a stronger emphasis on proclaiming the Gospel story, lay preaching, and prayer.

For nine nights, the people of the barrio were treated to tamales and the gospel in hopes that those who never came to church would feel the call to do so. Throughout the rest of the year I would occasionally meet people after Mass who would introduce themselves as having been touched by the Posadas enough to at least occasionally come to Mass. Some went on to become active members of the parish.

I like it -- this is what Catholicism does better than any other Christian tradition in the West. Tamales and the Gospel -- you need both.

For some additional information:

Friday, November 15, 2002

How to do it better

This post started life with the title Better Bead Wrangling, but I thought better of it. This is the fourth of what will probably be five posts on the new apostolic letter Rosarium Virginis Mariae :

After I get the last post done, I plan to combine these into one piece accessible from the navigation menu.

In the third chapter of this letter, John Paul II turns to "The Rosary, a way of assimilating the mystery" -- to the method of the Rosary itself. This method uses repetitive prayers which in pattern and content can bring us into a proper psychological state for contemplation:

We should not be surprised that our relationship with Christ makes use of a method. God communicates himself to us respecting our human nature and its vital rhythms. Hence, while Christian spirituality is familiar with the most sublime forms of mystical silence in which images, words and gestures are all, so to
speak, superseded by an intense and ineffable union with God, it normally engages the whole person in all his complex psychological, physical and relational reality.

This is seen in both liturgical and non-liturgical prayer, where all the dimensions of a person are involved by various means. In the case of the Rosary, a variety of means can be combined with repetition to assist with spiritual concentration, similar to a number of popular methods known in orther religions. The difference is that the Rosary is structured to fulfill uniquely Christian requirements:
In effect, the Rosary is simply a method of contemplation. As a method, it serves as a means to an end and cannot become an end in itself. All the same, as the fruit of centuries of experience, this method should not be undervalued. In its favour one could cite the experience of countless Saints. This is not to say, however, that the method cannot be improved. Such is the intent of the addition of the new series of mysteria lucis to the overall cycle of mysteries and of the few suggestions which I am proposing in this Letter regarding its manner of recitation. These suggestions, while respecting the well-established structure of this prayer, are intended to help the faithful to understand it in the richness of its symbolism and in harmony with the demands of daily life. Otherwise there is a risk that the Rosary would not only fail to produce the intended spiritual effects, but even that the beads, with which it is usually said, could come to be regarded as some kind of amulet or magic object, thereby radically distorting their meaning and function.
Suggestions on method

The Holy Father has concrete suggestions on a more conteplative praying of the Rosary -- methods that may not be new to you.

Each mystery should be announced, as a way of making that episode in salvation history more concrete, to provide a focus for attention to assist contemplation. This could include meditating on an icon appropriate to the particular mystery, or using methods similar to those suggested by St. Ignatius in the Spiritual Exercises.
To deepen this meditation, and to give it a proper foundation, the announcement should be followed by the proclamation of an appropriate biblical passage. In certain situations, this can include a brief commentary. In letting God speak to us in this way, we also break up the reperition in a way that can prevent boredom.
Finally, after announcement and proclamation of the work, is silence. In my experience this is the one suggestion least followed currently -- we are all in too much of a hurry to "get it done". This pause gives us time to concentrate on the mystery, and to enter into meditation on it.

The prayers

Focusing on the mystery, we raise our minds up to God in the Our Father as Jesus in each mystery leads us to the Father. He makes us his brothers and sisters, as we are of each other, making the Rosary a communal, an ecclesial experience, even when one prays by oneself. This prayer lays the foundation for the meditation that will unfold.

The ten Hail Marys are the main part of the Rosary, a prayer both supremely Marian and but also Christ centered. We start each prayer joining in praise and wonder over the great miracle of the Incarnation, in God's tremendous intervention. After acknowledging Mary's unique position, the Theotokos, we appeal to her and ask her intercession both in our lives and in the hour of our deaths.

The "hinge" of this prayer is the name of Jesus. That name provides the "center of gravity" for meditation:
Sometimes, in hurried recitation, this centre of gravity can be overlooked, and with it the connection to the mystery of Christ being contemplated. Yet it is precisely the emphasis given to the name of Jesus and to his mystery that is the sign of a meaningful and fruitful recitation of the Rosary.
John Paul II points out (as Paul IV did) that the custom in some places to addition of a clause referring to the mystery being contemplated (especially in public recitation) reinforces the Christological nature of this prayer and aids concentration of meditation.
The meditation on each mystery is summed up in the "Gloria", where we end up in praise, worship and thanksgiving to the Trinity, the proper end of all contemplation. This should not be a perfunctory conclusion, and can be sung, especially in public recitation.


Much of the rest of the form of the Rosary does vary from place to place. The opening and closing prayers for the entire Rosary, as well as any concluding prayer after each Gloria can take on a legitimate variety of forms. What makes any of these practices legitimate is that they properly prepare the mind for and sustain the mind in contemplation. This includes starting with either the Apostles Creed or the opening of Psalm 70, and ending with the Salve Regiina or the Litany of Loreto. It can include prayers specific to each mystery after the Gloria. Once again, John Paul is making suggestions not commands.

A suggestion that has received a lot of attention is the scheme for distributing the sets mysteries over the week.
day of weekexistingsuggested
ThursdayJoyfulMysteries of Light
Sundaydepends on seasonGlorious
I wonder if this is going to turn out to be a work in progress -- I have not talked with anyone who is wildly happy with this schedule, but we will see.
Overall, the aim is to make the Rosary a more contemplative form of prayer. None of the practices is new by itself, but the stress on aquieter and more meditative approach is welcome

Wednesday, November 06, 2002

Resting Signs

You've seen these I'm sure -- a cross with flowers or ribbons and somebody's name set at the side of the road, marking the place where someone died in a car accident. More recently, I have been seeing makeshift shrines with pictures, candles, flowers, stuffed animals, and whatever springing up at or near death sites -- usually tragic or violent deaths such as shootings. There is a memorial at the curb where a woman died last year, hit in a crosswalk while crossing a busy street, just five minutes walk from my house. More than a year later, fresh flowers and balloons continue to appear at the foot high painted cross there. I remember seeing things like this from time to time when growing up in the South.

This evening I ran across an online discussion on these (on Mefi), with respondents bringing in examples from all over the world. One term for these apparently is descansos, reportedly from the Spanish term for rest, after a traditional practice in places like New Mexico of marking with a cross the places where the pallbearers would pause and set down the coffin for a rest, on the long walk from the town to the cemetery.

Well the word may be Spanish, but the custom seems to be worldwide. Photograpic documentaries of descansos, generally in America, have been put online by Bill Sampson and Dave Nance, along with a discussion of them in the Southwest and Mexico by the Tombstone Traveller ChrisTina Leiner. She links to this fascinating site that shows over 400 roadside memorials in Ireland, many of them elaborate stone or metal plaques. (Interesting links on this site too.) The practice is even showing up in New Zealand. There are those who think these should be preserved, and those who do not.

The online discussion followed in interesting ways some of the points made by Thomas Lynch in the U.S. Catholic article I discussed last week. One point in the discussion was that these were sudden deaths, that there was no time beforehand for those who survived to prepare emotionally, no process of gradual adjustment, of letting go, of saying goodby. Maybe in these cases people simply need more time to come to terms with the reality of death.

Adding to this problem is the distance that modern funeral practices creates between the survivor and death. The graveyard is no longer the patch of land next to the parish church that we walk past each day. Now it is (under well justified and proper modern planning guidelines) off at some distance from our homes, well kept, clean and remote Thomas Lynch speaks of this:

For the past couple generations, we've begun to think the major purpose of funerals is to be a warm, fuzzy event. So very often the dead are disposed of quickly and conveniently. We don't witness our burnings the same way we witness our burials, and what a shame that is.

We have farmed out the corporeal business of dealing with the dead to people like me, to professionals. And in its place put these tastefully upmarket, well-organized, beautiful commemorative events that have really fine finger-food and plenty of mixed media and music and video and, needless to say, uplifting, life-affirming talk. But the dead are not there. And in that sense it's a little bit like going to a Baptism without the baby there.
We seem to need to respond in specific ways to death.  This response is:
  • personal -- it is something we need to do personally, an offering of something unique to ourselves, even if it is only grafitti;
  • physical -- somthing real, something we can touch and see and come back to;
  • social -- death and grief are isolating and seeing others sharing our grief reassures us that we are not alone or abnormal either in grieving, or in valuing the person who has died
  • specific to the person -- we feel that each person is owed some rememberance that is theirs, something that shows that they once lived and mattered;
  • specific to the place -- something we often ignore concerning many spiritual issues, but something that is extremely important
  • repeated over time -- whether on the anniversary of a death or Memorial Day or whatever, we need to find some way of taking this event that has left so much that is ragged and unfinished and weaving it into the rythms of our lives going forward.
And this need appears to be common to all -- not just a matter of a specific cultural or religious tradition, although the particular examples here are Christian in content or influence.

I'm running out of time tonight -- I want to come back to this later, to look at one of the most impressive recent examples of this kind of informal or unconventional memorial, the Temple of Joy at this year's Burning Man. I think all of this should be a strong set of signs to Christians of what needs are driving many who have no definite or developed faith today -- needs that are a tremedous pastoral challenge and evangelical opportunity to us, if we can understand them.