Thursday, June 13, 2013

What a wonderful world!

    When I was 16, I got my first pair of glasses.  Near sighted.  It was a revelation to be able to see things far away and not squint.  The most amazing first sight was the night sky on the first day I wore them.  I had never seen so many stars before!  Even at the time, I was reminded of a television show I had seen a few years before which showed billions and billions of stars. I commented to my brothers, “There aren’t that many stars up there!” They were quick to point out that there in fact were even more than that. The problem was, with my near sighted vision, I had only ever seen about twenty or so.  It didn’t help that I grew up a few miles from Washington, D.C., and the light from the city is quite glaring.  This was brought home to me the first night I spent in Spotsylvania County a few years later.  The night I arrived, I went outside after dark, and almost fell to the ground when I saw the brilliance of a sky from far enough away from any major city that I could see the Milky Way.  And they seemed so close!
     Of course, we know that there are billions of stars in our galaxy, and billions of other galaxies beyond ours.  And here we sit on a tiny world, floating around a smallish star, in a swirling arm of an averaged size galaxy.  The big question is: are we alone in the galaxy?  Are there other inhabited worlds?  What about the other galaxies?  Surely, it is asserted, there must be life out there somewhere.  The odds seems to be for that assertion.
    The problem, of course, is that we have no real idea.  To say that there IS life out there is an act of faith since we have no evidence.  It might seem like arrogance for us to think we are the only sentient beings in the universe; actually, it should be an act of humility.
    The plain truth is that we are the only sentient beings in the universe that we know of.  It may very well be a fact that amidst this gigantic, unfathomable universe of stars and galaxies and planets, ours may be the only planet with life of any kind including beings like ourselves.  Our planet is perfectly situated at the right distance from the right kind of star to contain life as we know it. While this may be poopooed by those scientists and others who think there must be life out there (and I support efforts to find earth-like planets that may have some kind of life), it is an act of faith in something to believe life exists other places.  I find it interesting that those who assert science as their mantra and refuse to accept faith as a means to knowledge will make an act of faith in what is unobservable.
    Nevertheless, how marvelous it is to consider that God created a universe of such magnificence just for us!  And in this beautiful little world of ours exists a universe all its own of creatures and plants and so many other marvels. 
    Gazing at the stars can make us feel small and insignificant, but all that we can or could see is nothing compared to what God has done for us in giving us not only this beautiful world, but Himself.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Catholics and Ritual

It always amuses me when non-Catholics, of whatever stripe (though the Orthodox and some protestants would agree with Catholics), are bemused or even critical of the “ritual” nature of the Catholic Church.  Some say things like, “Why all those rites and forms or worship?  Why the movements and prayers, the genuflections and outward movements, when God, or Spirit, or the Higher Power doesn’t need those things to be honored/worshiped/appreciated?”
This amuses me because EVERY human being engages in some sort of ritual as a means of expressing something bigger than themselves.  Or at least as a way of interacting with the world.  Some use yoga as a way of deeper awareness and peace with what is. Some follow a ritual in their simple morning routine.  If we were to ask them how they get up in the morning, they would say something like, “Well, I get up every morning at 6 a.m. I spend ten minutes reflecting on my day. I have a cup of coffee and read the paper. I go running for an hour, or go to the gym for a workout. At the gym, I use cardio, and strength training; get on the elliptical and then use weights. Then I take a shower, get dressed, and get ready for work. I may read for 20 minutes, or listen to inspirational tapes or educational materials on the way to work.  When I get to work, I have to read these emails; answer these letters; have this or that meeting.  Then I have lunch at noon.  I do such and so in the afternoon.  At 5, I get ready to drive home.  We have dinner, and take some time to talk with one another.  Every Tuesday, we watch such-and-such a program. I meet with my friends once a week for book club.  On week-ends, I do this on Friday; that on Saturday.  I make sure I take a walk in the woods at least two or three times a week...” 
You get the belabored point. 
Ritual is part of human nature.  Even the interior anarchist will display elements of ritual on some level.
Catholic ritual is the same kind of thing.
First of all, the surprising thing about Catholics is that “mandatory” ritual is quite limited. There are fixed fundamentals that are “required”, but the other 167 hours of the week or pretty much open to interpretation and free expression. Some are recommended, but each Catholic is free to engage in a variety of forms and practices that suit the individual.
What is required of Catholics is attendance at Mass once a week, and holy days throughout the year (four times at most) and confession once a year. Fasting and abstinence are not that burdensome.  When at Mass, the ritual is something that has been received from 2000 years of tradition.  What is so ritualistic about Mass?  There is a gathering; communal prayers; some kneeling and standing; sitting to make it easier; and possibly communal singing. People do these things in their secular life in any number of ways.  Go to a group workout and try to get everyone to squat when they should be doing push-ups and see how that goes over.  Attend a yoga class and see what happens if someone wants to make everyone do marjariasana when they should be doing adho mukha svanasana.  People will fall into line in the gym, but object to ten minutes of kneeling at Mass. Interesting.
Catholic rituals are designed to teach something about human nature, for one, but also to express the faith in a bodily form. 
During a conference I attended, a lay “minister” of African-American Catholics made the comment that “white people pray with their minds, but we pray with our bodies”.  A friend of mine commented that, like his Polish grandmother, we pray with our bodies.  We genuflect in adoration; we kneel to pray; we fold our hands and bow our heads before the Almighty.  Many things are relative.
The issue, then, is not ritual in itself. Everyone uses ritual in some way, even in normal every day activities. Kneeling is an expression of humility and adoration.  Standing is a sign of respect. Folding of the hands is a sign of loving submission and surrender to the God Who loves us.  Communion is a sacred Banquet wherein we receive the God Who literally wants us to eat Him.  It’s kind of strange that in Hindu teaching, the goal of the highest enlightenment is that one is eventually consumed by the god one worships through one’s mantra. It’s a compliment that false religion pays to the real one, in reverse.  Catholic theology teaches that God doesn’t want to eat us; He wants to feed us. Tell me that there is no difference in religions.
I don’t begrudge someone their choice of rituals or religion. But please spare me this idea that non-religionists or non-Catholics don’t have such things.  Just because theirs are more pleasing to their palates doesn’t mean they are better or superior in any way. Theirs are just man-made.