A Potpourri of Provocations, A Paucity of Platitudes

I.  The Catholic thing.  

Recently I read a news story that at first I thought it had come from The Onion, but no, it was a serious story.  It appears that somehow it was discovered that a Catholic priest had been doing baptisms “wrong” for years.  Without malice or any negative intentionality he had been saying, during the ritual, “We baptize you in the Name of the Father….,etc.”  WRONG, says his bishop and the Vatican.  The correct formula is “I baptize you….etc.”  Ok, so far I get it.  The next step blew me away:  both his bishop and the Vatican said that all these baptisms over a period of something like 20 years, hundreds of them, are all invalid….in other words these folks are NOT baptized.  This theologically-trained observer of the scene finds this disturbing!  Understand, the priest was not malicious, not mentally off, not “being creative,” not trying to do “something different,” etc……just making an honest mistake, or perhaps just trying to involve the whole community, with the full intention of baptizing people.  But Church Authorities say, Nope, no Baptism has taken place because of this one word mistake…..(and is it really a mistake?).   To an outsider this all looks like what is often suspected but seldom openly expressed: that Catholic sacraments are simply an extension of the “magic mentality” that pervades primitive religiosity….you have to say the correct “magic words” and you get the result.  I can’t blame them when I see something like this, but what are the real problems and implications of this mess.

The official explanation is that it is only Christ who baptizes; the priest is merely a “stand-in” so to speak.  He is a sign that Christ is the one baptizing.  He acts “in persona Christi,” in the person of Christ.  So it is appropriate and necessary that the priest say “I baptize you….”  Such is the official word, which is ok as far as it goes; but that position does need some fine tuning and interpretation and then it all might look a bit different. 

So, first, consider the Catholic doctrine of the “Body of Christ,” the community of believers  constitutes the “Body of Christ,” the true reality of Christ in the Mystery of the Resurrection.  As the Gospel of John puts it, “I am the vine, you are the branches…..”  Also in the Gospels, “Where two or three are gathered, there I am….”   So, when this priest said “we,” he was not excluding the Reality of Christ….the Body of Christ and the true Reality of Christ was present in that “we.”  (There is also a case to be made that this priest was making a nondualistic approach to Baptism without realizing, but that is a long argument.)  One begins to get the feeling that “we” as the Body of Christ, as the Presence of Christ is not taken very seriously when church officials take such positions.  Is it only a kind of pious rhetoric?  

But, secondly, a whole other conundrum is opened up here;  we have another very interesting aspect to this matter.  The priest acts in persona Christi; the “real baptizer” is Christ.  Now consider the following scene.  Someone is dying in a public place without a priest, and he asks to be baptized.  In such a case, according to Church doctrine, anyone who is there can baptize this person.   It is an “extraordinary baptism” but a real baptism.  Now, say the one who is baptizing the person is a woman.  In effect she is acting in persona Christi.  Christ is still the baptizer, but obviously she is capable of being there in persona Christi!  But the Catholic argument against female priests has been that Jesus was a male (even though in the Resurrection there is no more male or female!), and so only a male can represent him.  And this has been made into a doctrinal absolute.  But obviously there are exceptional circumstances where a woman clearly is in persona Christi during the sacrament.  So this doctrine cannot be an absolute.  Why can’t a woman then be in persona Christi during the Eucharist?

II.  John Muir

One of my favorite people, and, alas, now accused of being a racist!  A bit of background:  Long before Muir had arrived in California and long before he had ventured into the  Sierras and Yosemite Valley, there was a genocidal extermination of Native Americans through much of California.   Incredibly enough this received a lot of support from territorial and later State officials.  By the time Muir had arrived most Native Americans had vanished from Yosemite.  The complaint about Muir is that nowhere in his writings does Muir condemn this tragic situation or even allude to it.  In fact, he celebrates the natural beauty of the Sierras in their “emptiness,” as if no humans ever lived there.  And there are some other  serious problems with his language; and his new-found critics are quite vigorous in their attack.  Below are links to two other views of Muir which show the more nuanced Muir.  Suffice it to say, whether you go with the critics or the defenders, today we need to be aware of the total context of our language and our historical situation.  



But I would like to venture a bit beyond what either critics or defenders are saying.  What almost no one seems to get is that Muir is staunchly against the anthropocentric view of reality, which is dominant in western civilization.  This means that the human person is the center of the Cosmos, of reality.  As Alexander Pope put it, “Man is the measure of all things.”  During the Renaissance the emergence of humanism was a sign of this mindset.  

As I mentioned in a previous posting on western artistic depictions of nature, here we see the human being writ large.  By contrast, in Chinese art for example, the human being is only a very small part of the Total Reality.  In the anthropocentric view the wilderness, nature, is there “for man,” as a resource for enjoyment or exploitation or simple use.  The human person is “in charge.”  A goodly amount of this comes out of the Judaeo-Christian view as exhibited in the opening chapters of Genesis.  And interestingly enough, recall how for ancient and medieval westerners especially, the earth was the center of the cosmos.  After Copernicus and Galileo (with much resistance from the Church), that was no longer so.  And then with modern science we now know that the earth Is only this tiny speck of matter in an incredibly vast universe.

Now Muir is much closer to the Chinese Taoist view…even though there is no evidence that he ever encountered their art or thought.  For him, the wilderness, nature, had a value of its own that had nothing to do with its “usefulness” for man.  The human person was not alien to the wilderness; indeed, the wilderness was a sacrament of deep truths that the human person badly needed to discover; and one of them certainly was that the human is only a very small piece of this vast mystery.  But one thing for sure, the wilderness was not “yours” to do with it what you want.  And no matter who you were, brown, black, or white, natives who lived there for thousands of years or newcomers who came to get what they can from it; no matter if you were rich or poor, etc., he would not hesitate to call you out on it and in sharp language.  Not the human person but Nature had priority.  This is not a popular view, then or now.  The American poet, Robinson Jeffers, from the early 20th Century,  can be put in this camp; at times he was called an anti-humanist!  Same goes for Edward Abbey.  The fact is that most conservationists and environmentalists would not be in this camp because the more common view is that the wilderness, nature, is there “for man,” to use the old language.  It is there as a kind of surrounding resource either for human beings to enjoy or to create wealth or to make a home in it, etc.  Neither Muir nor the ancient Chinese Taoists would buy into that!

III.  State of the World

It’s a mess.  Enough said.  But one can’t help but note this awful war in Ukraine.  A lot of people are suffering this insane ordeal, and Putin is certainly to blame; but there is something that all the national media are not telling us about the background of this war, how we got “here” in the first place.   And the U.S.’s role in all this!  Of course they won’t tell you about all that….it implicates everybody, Democrats, Republicans, the ideology of the American Empire, etc….all hidden under a veneer of our patriotic rhetoric.  Take a look at this little tour of recent history:


Now another big mess is our political situation.  The Republicans seem to be mostly insane, like totally out of touch with anything real.  The Dems have a different problem.   Many years ago the humorist, Will Rogers, said, “I don’t belong to any organized political party.  I am a Democrat.”  And that begins to get at their problem:  they are a chaotic mess, a chaotic amalgamation of various interest groups, some of which are good, some of which are bad, very bad.  (You have to remember that initially the Dems were the home for the segregationists, and later they specialized in lies to get us into various wars.) In the pop media they are portrayed as “Liberals,” or “the Left,” neither of which is even closely true.  And the rhetoric of “centrism,” or “being a moderate,” is a smoke screen for the right wing agenda with which even the more sane Republicans are more comfortable. There is a small segment of the Dems that is distinctly better than anything the Republicans offer, but it’s not true of the party at large.  In fact, there are some who see little or no difference in the two parties.  Here is one such cogent argument:


V.  Our History

Lately I have been drumming on the history both of my Church and my country and how seriously It is flawed and how so many prefer to hide that fact.   This is not just “bad history” but it distorts our present and our hopes for the future.  And this glorification of our institutions is a disturbing phenomenon; a refusal to live in the truth.  It is only when an alcoholic knows he/she is in trouble that they can be helped; it is only when a person knows he has “sinned” that he can be forgiven.  But so much of both country and church seems to want to live in a kind of institutional fantasy, and most alarmingly we are urged to teach this fantasy to our children, to pass it on to the next generation.  But recently I came across a refreshing approach to this problem…in the National Catholic Reporter.  The author, Thomas Reese, is a Jesuit whom I have often disagreed with, but here I am grateful that he reminded me of something very important:  you can see American history through a kind of biblical lens, an evangelical approach if you will.  He points out that the various authors of the Old Testament do not conceal or sugarcoat the awful failings of the state of Israel.  It is all there for all to see, and its consequences fully explained.  Neither institutions nor individuals are spared.  The article was a good reminder, especially to more conservative, evangelically minded folk.  Here is the link:


VI. Lent

My favorite season.

But first there is Mardi Gras.  Everyone knows about Mardi Gras, but I don’t think many know of the roots of this celebration.  Its most ancient roots are probably in ancient Rome, then in medieval and Renaissance Europe, where a hedonistic celebration was engaged in view of some religious functions.  In the United States Mardi Gras can be traced back to the early part of the 19th Century in New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama, both places rich in French and Catholic history.  The celebrations and parades were put on by these secretive “mystic” societies.  The Order of Myths was one of the most prominent.

The Order of Myths chose, as its symbolic emblem, “Folly chasing Death around a broken column of life.” During parades, a person dressed in a jester’s suit, as Folly, chases a person dressed in a skeleton suit as Death, around a Greek column on the emblem float.  That motto or expression, “Folly Chasing Death Around a Broken Column of Life,” really fascinates me.  It can take on several very different meanings.

1.  First, it can be simply all-out nihilism.  In other words, all human activity is just folly chasing death…..and the conclusion of this line of thought is eat, drink and be merry…..there is no other meaning to life.  Macbeth:  “Life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

2.  There is an “official” interpretation of this motto by the Order of Myths:  here you see Folly chasing Death, catching it and beating it….Folly wins!  Weird!  They kind of get it wrong!  Somehow Folly (whether partying, having fun, or whatever) beats death.  Now what is interesting about this is that it’s a perverse echo of the Pauline theme:  recall, “Death where is thy sting?…….”  It is Christ who defeats death.

3.  Now in this interpretation we will have recourse to the Bible:  the Book of Ecclesiastes and the Gospels.  . recall, “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity….”  This can easily be mistaken for the first reading, but here the reality of God is fundamental.  As one wise Jesuit put it to me, “All is negotiable, except the Glory of God.”  And then there is this bullseye from the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 12:

“He spoke a parable to them, saying, ‘The ground of a certain rich man brought forth abundantly. He reasoned within himself, saying, ‘What will I do, because I don’t have room to store my crops?’ He said, ‘This is what I will do. I will pull down my barns, and build bigger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. I will tell my soul, “Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years. Take your ease, eat, drink, be merry.”‘ “But God said to him, ‘You foolish one, tonight your soul is required of you. The things which you have prepared—whose will they be?’ So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.”

Folly chasing Death, indeed.  This could be the banner around most of our endeavors and institutions…Wall Street, the Pentagon, our national ideology, our entertainments, our desire for more and more,  all our own little projects which we take so seriously, all our constructed identities, etc., etc.   There is a whole Buddhist approach to this, and the general diagnosis of the problem is very similar; but we shall refrain from going into that now.  Suffice it to say, this is a good intro to Lent, and it is closer to the real meaning of Lent.  We have to get way beyond “giving things up” for Lent, and focus more intently on what is real.  Lent introduces us to THE JOURNEY from the unreal to the Real.