Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Quatember: The Forgotten Month

Once again the Church enters into her seasonal days of fast. The winter Ember Days are upon us.

Sort of.

In the Ember Days we discover one of the oddest ecclesiastical situations to have arisen since Vatican II, and more especially since 2007, when Benedict XVI’s Summorum Pontificum basically established an ordinary and an extraordinary calendar for the Latin church. Many Catholics with a preference for the extraordinary form of the liturgy still fast during these four sets of three days (Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday) placed regularly through the year. This custom persists due to a sense of tradition rather than any obligation or legal norm. Since Ash Wednesday of 1966, the only universally obligatory days of fast are Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Ecclesiastical laws that do not directly affect the celebration of the liturgy do not change depending on which form of the Mass one prefers.

Admittedly it seems appropriate to fast on these days if one is to observe them at all, for this is their basic focus as well as their origin. In the so-called Leonine so-called Sacramentary, a collection of early medieval Roman liturgical texts, three Ember times are known as the fasts of the sixth, ninth, and twelfth months. The fourth would presumably be the fast of the third month, except that that section of the manuscript is missing. (The word Ember is derived from the Latin phrase quattuor tempora, simply meaning four times.) The other main associations throughout history have been with agricultural produce and priestly ordination, which are in themselves not unrelated topics.

In any case, this is where the oddity arises. Since the Ember Days are still fully present in the 1962 Roman Missal, those who celebrate the extraordinary form are used to their presence and more or less take it for granted. Since there are no Ember Days in the 1969 calendar, people who only know the Church since that time (which is a fairly large proportion of the Church) likely do not even know that seasonal fasting times were a part of ecclesial practice until very recently. 1969, despite all appearances, is only 45 years ago, a minute portion of the Church’s existence.

The oddity is compounded by the fact that Ember Days are pretty much still supposed to exist, in the ordinary form no less than the extraordinary. Speaking of the Ember Days in a 1969 document outlining the way the calendar was supposed to work, the Congregation for Divine Worship instructed episcopal conferences to “arrange the time and plan for their celebration.” To my knowledge the USCCB has never done such a thing.

Thus, while they could put the Ember Days wherever they wanted, I think the best idea is for a re-introduction of the traditional seasonal fasts to the ordinary form of the liturgy, along with the obligation of fasting. Happily, this introduction could be done gradually, perhaps introducing one Ember period at first, and then increasing the number when such a course is deemed prudent. Part of this new iteration can be to pray for vocations, such an important intention especially today. The Church needs priests. She also needs fasting, structure, and an awareness of time, history, and the fruits of the earth, and the Ember tradition provides all these and more.

Note: The title of this post is drawn from the fact that the German word for Ember Days is Quatembertage, again derived from Quattuor Tempora. Clearly, Quatember is not and was never a month (it only has twelve days, after all), but it makes a catchy title.  

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Paene mortua

My father called me this morning in search of an answer to a question about the Latin language, an object of our common enthusiasm. His query concerned the pronunciation of a verb form known as the first person singular perfect active indicative of the verb moneo, I warn: namely, monui. (It is pronounced, by the way, with the accent on the first syllable because the u in the second-to-last syllable, or penult, is short.) I was only too glad to help, but it struck me as unfortunate that such a question had to be asked.
            Some say that Latin is a dead language; I would prefer to borrow a phrase from the cult classic film The Princess Bride and argue that it is mostly dead. It survives largely in the context of the Catholic Church, but even there when it does see use, its users view it for the most part as a largely technical system, both in how it works and how they employ it. The word “technical” means slightly different things in these two contexts. To learn Latin, people have to master a complicated mass of rules, distinctions, and exceptions. To make it work in the sphere of liturgy, priests (for the most part) have at the bare minimum to read certain texts aloud or quietly from designated books; it sometimes does not seem to matter much to what extent they understand what they are saying or how well a putative native Latin speaker could understand them. The first strikes me as exemplary of a technique, the second as rather more of a technicality.
            Now clearly this understanding of the Latin tongue shows marked contrast with the way in which the general population views and learns languages. Often a certain degree of immersion takes place, with apparently a fairly direct relation to the resulting fluency of the learners. While some study of the language as system takes place (a fact that I do find laudable), the teachers and students generally seem to view it as subordinate to learning that takes place by doing.
            In fact, however, a not too recent era witnessed a comparable situation in the Church, but one which is likely better suited to Latin as it exists in our time. Men who studied in seminaries, especially in the higher echelons of ecclesiastical learning such as, for example, the pontifical universities of Rome, were expected to learn to know Latin, more or less in the sense intended by the German phrase kennen lernen, namely to get to know or to become acquainted with someone as a person. In this sense, knowing a language was almost a personal relationship. Not only did these men learn to know the language, but they also cultivated, through theology and philosophy lectures conducted in Latin, their relationship with it. This relationship I would like to call, perhaps somewhat eccentrically, the techne of language.         
Moreover, this techne led to the establishment and edification of other personal relationships. Men who really knew Latin could converse with each other no matter what their respective origins. In fact in some ways, the Latin language was admirably suited to such use. For one thing, it lacked the specific cultural – one might almost say colonial – overtones of one today’s major linguae francae such as English, but retained the supracultural dimensions present in the Church.

I am informed that programs exist, at such places at Wyoming Catholic College, in which immersion forms a large portion of the pedagogy. However, it seems to me that this method still tends toward the technique side of the language. I do not get the sense that students in such programs really get to know the language holistically, or in such a way that it enables them to form and enrich relationships with others. Let me relate an anecdote to illustrate a point that will then lead to what I believe is a true – though at this point admitted rather vague – alternative.      
I recall once, while working at a seminary library, stumbling upon a book – published (I believe) in the Sixties – that contained an interview of a major twentieth-century theologian: I think it was Fr. Karl Rahner. The book’s editor noted that the interview had taken place in Latin. This discovery made quite an impression on me; it seemed to me to represent an ideal worth striving for. This ideal would combine the technique and the techne of Latin in such a way that people would be able both to understand how Latin works, and to be comfortable with using it in a wide variety of contexts, analogously to the situations pursuant upon one’s meeting an old friend at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden or at a cafĂ© in Paris that could only be described as charmant, at a chilly bus stop somewhere in West Milwaukee or in a hospitable hut somewhere in East Africa.
            I do not go quite so far as to wish for a return to full life for the Latin language, such as would ensue if, for example, we succeeded in procreating a generation of native speakers, for whom the very attractive surname of Grammaticus would undoubtedly not be amiss. Rather I would like to see it go from mostly dead to mostly living, preserving all the best things that have accrued to it throughout its long and storied career, in the realms of technique and of techne, so that people could really know it, and use that knowledge-rapport to interact with and augment their other relationships, with a view to building up the common of the Church and the world. 

Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Referendum

The day has arrived, friends. Millions of Scots are voting in an independence referendum, colloquially known as IndyRef. I imagine that, if a Yes victory occurs, in 2514 they will hold an event called Indy 500. But I digress.

I am pretty glad I don't get to or have to vote in this referendum. For that matter, it's probably a good thing that I don't have enough stake in a foreign vote to have a confirmed opinion. However, I think I can state with some certainty the high likelihood of the following statement's being true: This referendum is more important than any election that has occurred in the US in my lifetime, and probably since at least the Civil War.

The idea is to undo a union that has existed for 307 years, i.e. longer than the United States has been a nation. Indeed, 307 is a conservative (Tory?) estimate, since a personal union of the monarch (though not of the kingdoms) has existed since 1603, when James VI of Scotland, being in some way the closest non-Catholic relative of Elizabeth I, became James I of England. This state of affairs did not persist overlong, since the seventeenth century included such things as the English Civil War, and the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688 that saw the overthrow of James VII and II. It was only in 1707 under Queen Anne that the actual United Kingdom was formed (and even then it did not include Ireland till 1801). And then of course the Germans came, an event about which I will make no further comment. This history lesson is now completed.

I don't have many Answers about the Rightness of any given Side in the Referendum. I do, however, have a Number of Musings.

1. I believe the Referendum is seen as a victory for "21st-century democracy." I am not convinced that a) democracy in itself is of high importance or b) that the current century knows how to go about it better than any or every previous century. I understand the importance of freedom, but I think it comes from God and not from a freedom exchange inherent in humanity or any particular political system.

2. I wonder how this Referendum will affect other quests for independence, whether recognized as legitimate by the United States and its allies or not. The referendum in Crimea, which was widely condemned, comes to mind; so, too, do the aspirations of Catalonia. And Texas, I suppose, to use an example closer to the homes of most of my readers. Will the Union of the States endure much longer than the Union of the Kingdoms that once ruled them? (Assuming, of course, that a Yes victory occurs.)

3. I have realized that I am not such a medievalist that I automatically assume that if a state of affairs existed in the Middle Ages, it must be fitting in some way. Scotland was independent for much of the medieval period, but I have not found myself allied to the Yes campaign for this reason.

4. I still love Scottish traditional music.

5. My final Musing regards how people I know would vote and why they would do so. Feel free to share your own Musings on this topic.

Monday, September 15, 2014

A poem

The chances we take define us, my father used to say
As he sat in his old recliner, and watched his children play.
That ace was a keeper, Samuel; that deuce was a loss, Maureen;
His sense was a tad too knowing, and his eye was a mite too keen.

He played when he wasn’t watching, and he won when he wasn’t tired.
I wanted to see the time come round when his winning streak expired.
But when he found he was losing, he’d know it was time to quit;
He would win, and after that winning, he’d say he was tired of it.

I found as I grew in knowledge, that his skill was a way of life.
He kept things that wanted keeping, and his judgment cut like a knife.
He laid things that wanted laying, and gained what he wished to gain.
But he always insisted grimly that a cheater must end in pain.

The last night my father gambled was the night that he played with me.
He thought my hand held a seven; but it happened to harbor three.
When he saw my hand on the table, he knew he could win no more,
And he shot himself with a piece he’d won from a man that he’d rendered poor.

I buried my father early; the sun had an hour to sleep.
I dug till my palms were blistered; I dug till the grave was deep.
The things that he lost undid him in games he could clearly win.
His final opponent cheated; the sinner had met his sin.