Friday, September 4, 2015

East and West: The Liturgical New Year and the Theology of Mary

Welcome to yet another intermittent column as I compare Eastern and Western Catholic and Orthodox theological stuff. I'll look at things from liturgical celebration to theology to private devotions and go compare and contrast them.  Sometimes things'll look different, and sometimes they'll be much more similar than anyone who believes we shouldn't be reunited would like to think. Up first: the Liturgical New Year!

Everyone say Happy New Year to the Byzantines and Orthodox who are on the New Calendar! September 1st is the first day of the year liturgically. The beginning of the Eastern New Year is linked with the seasons: much as the beginning of the day is the setting of the sun so the beginning of the year is the end of summer and the preparation for winter. 

Sorry, couldn't resist. For those of you who don't like mixing theology and humor I am truly sorry for you.

The Gospel reading of the feast is Christ standing before the synagogue declaring that He, the Messiah, has come and the work of God has begun.

"On Mount Sinai You gave the stone tablets
Today in Nazareth You read the prophecy
O Christ our God in the flesh.
You took and opened the scroll
to teach the people that the Scriptures were fulfilled in Yourself"
(Stichera from Vespers)

We are to pay attention to Christ, Who is the center of all Scripture that we are to read for the year. The year is dedicated to God. The East also shows us St. Symeon the Stylite, a great ascetic who spent his life on a pillar, away from everyone. The year is to be dedicated to God for His kingdom is outside and inside our hearts. 

This contrasts with the Roman Calendar, where the New Year is the first Sunday of Advent, the beginning of the fast (Put the eggnog down!) of Advent, which focuses on the parousia of Christ in all three year's readings as well as the Liturgy of the Hours. The West looks to the two comings of Christ with eagerness and hope.

"We do not preach only one coming of Christ, but a second as well, much more glorious than the first. The first coming was marked by patience; the second will bring the crown of a divine kingdom."
-Saint Cyril of Jersualem, from a catechical instruction quoted in the Office of the Readings

Another thing I noticed when I looked at both halves is the context that the liturgical New Years are placed around. In the East you have the Birth of the Theotokos on September 8, followed by the Exaltation of the Cross on September 14th. In the West you have the Immaculate Conception on December 8 followed by Christmas on December 25th. In fact, come to think of it, September and December are the only months of the year that begin with a Marian feast and end with a Christological one, East and West (meaning January, which has the feast of Mary followed by the Epiphany, doesn't count, although the fact that  it marks the start of our secular new year reinforces the theme even more strongly). It's almost like they're saying that this is the start of salvation history or something. 

"By Your Nativity, O Most Pure Virgin,
Joachim and Anna are freed from barrenness;
Adam and Eve, from the corruption of death.
And we, your people, freed from the guilt of sin, celebrate and sing to you:
The barren woman gives birth to the Theotokos, the nourisher of our life!"
-Kontakion of the Birth of the Theotokos

"Through the fullness of the grace that was given you, dead things rejoice in their freedom, and those in heaven are glad to be made new. Through the Son who was the glorious fruit of your virgin womb, just souls who died before his life-giving death rejoice as they are freed from captivity, and the angels are glad at the restoration of their shattered domain."
- Saint Anselm, from the Office of the Readings

Huh, how 'bout that.

It's interesting how it all lines up, isn't it? To the Church the beginning of Christ's salvation is with His Mother who, because of her yes, made all that followed possible. The whole world is indebted to Mary and so should celebrate her existence. To the East it's in her birth, that meeting of Joachim and Anna and Mary for the first time. To the West, it's the lovemaking of Joachim and Anna and God's favoring of it. Both are starts and, as a new parent, I can finally see why the East might prefer the birth over the conception. But there's something special about the conception as well that's amazing; the secret beginning that can only be known by you, your spouse, and God. Both are beginnings in their own right. The beatific vision of a child's face or the whispered secret that heralds the dawn.

But the Marian event is not the only special thing that goes on in both months. You also have the Exaltation of the Cross and the Nativity, both of which are 1st class feasts in the Eastern Church. The West doesn't emphasize the finding of the true cross quite as much, which is odd considering their emphasis on the Crucifixion, although they have Corpus Christi already, so I suppose they emphasize the Cross another time of the year with gusto. The Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross can be considered a type of the Incarnation: after all, who could possibly doubt Christ's life if we actually found the cross that He died on? The concreteness of the Faith is the most important element. After all, if we didn't have proof that God became man then what's the point of being a Christian? The East does this by saying: "Here's the cross, centuries later! How much more proof do you need?" and the West answers with a just as pertinent Feast Day that proves the historicity of Christ. God became a baby. A perfect little baby, literally. Both feast days are proofs of the reality of our Faith.

Ultimately, then, the Christian faith, East and West, begins with the following statements: God is man. He had a mother. He was here, He is historical. Christ is real, and He is coming into our hearts. It's the same doctrine but different ways of expressing it. It's almost like we were commenting on the same reality but in different ways, like men and women.  And, to be even less subtle about it, it's almost like both ways really are just a matter of preference: you're still celebrating Mary and Christ. I'm not saying the differences don't matter but it's the similarity between East and West that needs to emphasized, now more than ever.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Why I Prefer Marvel Movies to DC Movies...So Far (With an Ant Man Review Too!)

I saw Ant Man the other day, and, while waiting for yet another superior Marvel film to play, I saw the trailer for Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice.

What was that crap? It's the only trailer I've ever seen that I felt an innate need to flip off. Well, until I saw this one:

Dark, boring, brooding... yuck.

Now, anyone who's been in any RPG campaign with me knows I don't shy away from dark. Hell, I dive in head first with a gusto that alienates people from time to time. Because who wants to play in a game where the main villain is an aborted god who wants to rape his half (non god) sister so he can take over the baby's body so he can have another shot at the life he was so unjustly denied? Amiright? So what's so different here?

Part of it has to do with the inability of the producers to get what the characters are about. Superman is about God among us. Pure and simple. He's a man who has the powers of a god who believes in us more than we know how to believe in ourselves. He doesn't feel loneliness from being an outsider, because to him all people have a common good that needs protecting, himself included. He doesn't see the differences so much as he sees the similarities, even in the face of overwhelming evil.

Where was any of that in the Man of Steel? Where was Superman?

Sure, he saved people, because it was the right thing to do. But there's a basic satisfaction in doing good for it's own sake that's simply ignored by Snyder and co. Don't get me wrong, some people do respond to being saved by being untrusting and bitter, but that's only one part of the picture. There's a basic commonality we all have that Snyder, in his infinite wisdom, ignored for the "gritty for it's own sake" feel. If you're going to be dark actually be friggin' dark! Do something that requires the darkness be felt! Threaten things and people the characters care about, not this "I'm brooding for it's own sake" crap we got in Man of Steel.

Guess what we got more of in that bloody trailer?

"It's man versus god, night versus day."

Who talks like that? Someone in the theatre asked if that character (Lex Luthor) was the Joker. I almost told her it was. I mean, Luthor may as well have been the Joker. All DC movies apparently think heroes and villains are the same. It's just a mess of gray. And don't even get me started on the Suicide Squad. Monsters doing monstrous work is such a spirit of the age thing it isn't even funny. I guess I could go all Valley Girl and say "That's so 20th Century guys!" because it really is. Yes, I get it, producers: World Wars I and II sucked and we found out that progress for it's own sake creates monsters, and that it takes monstrous acts to sustain our civilization. Thank you for the revelation, the blood of millions of aborted children is heard already, let's move on.

I guess when I think of dark things I think of something like Children of Men or, more aptly, the Nolan Batman films. Now those are dark films that deserve the title! Their protagonists actually have interior and exterior problems. Theo is living in a world where all the women have become infertile and lost one of his babies to illness. That's not brooding for it's own sake, that's plain old depressing. Bruce Wayne lost his parents as a child due to his fear and now refuses to do the same thing with Gotham. He's got a guilt and inferiority complex miles long and the movie reflects his failings as he attempts to be a hero. He accomplishes the impossible, interiorly and exteriorly, and that makes him mighty. He actually does stuff that makes us wonder, whether it be fight ninjas or shut the lights off in Gotham or face down the League of Assassins not once but twice!

That segues pretty nicely into my review of Ant Man. Boy, DC, if you want us to root for your movies don't put your trailers in front of a superior product, particularly Ant Man. Paul Rudd plays Scott Lang, a modern day Robin Hood who got caught, chosen to be the Ant Man by Hank Pym, a hero of WW II. The whole film asks "why this dude?" and then answers the question. Scott Lang is a man who acts because he must, not because he wants to. Everyone in the movie keeps asking the Scott the same question: "What makes you worthy of being the Ant Man?"

The fact is that it's love. Scott wants to be with his daughter who has been separated from him because of his failed Robin Hood antics and he just wants to be near her again. Scott is extremely human in his motivations and is nothing if not rootable. He actually gets something out of his heroism, it's something he actually needs. Being a hero makes Scott a better person, thus completing the heroic cycle that all the Marvel movies have set up.

And I guess that's the thing that Marvel gets right that DC still hasn't figured out: being a hero can actually make you happy. Is it easy? Is the burden light? Will things go smoothly? No. But, in the end, there is happiness. It's what they were meant to do. And, in DC's just randomly awful universe, power has no good use. It's just something you're burdened with until it either drives you insane or you die from it or you run away from it, giving it to the next poor sap. And yes, that can be true. But someone as powerful as Superman has a reason for saving the human race instead of destroying it, and I'll be darned if Snyder and Co. know what it is. I'm fairly certain they don't, and never will. That would require them knowing what a hero's about.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

St. George and the Dragon, ISIS, Planned Parenthood, and Why I Might be Turning Into a Pacifist

When I was a kid one of my favorite books was St. George and the Dragon. Beautifully written, gripping, and I suppose it shaped a lot of how I expected wrong things were to be dealt with: head on, with God's help, and a whole lot of blood. My poor action figures never made it past a year they were manhandled so roughly. But that was the price of fighting evil in my little five year old mind. You generally got broke doing it. Not that divine help wouldn't come. In my childish wisdom I'd tape the action figures back up and send them back out into the fight, where they fought just as hard as they did before. It wasn't until every last bit of that action figure was useless that I threw the thing away, and even then I'd probably hang onto it.

Yeah, I was a weird little kid.

Now, sometime in my childhood one of my friends molested me. I didn't know what I was doing, who does at the age of eight? But that's what had happened. Once I realized that something was wrong with what we were doing I stopped it and the "friend" turned around and helped start up a neighborhood-wide five year stint get-Nathan-campaign. For five years they tormented me and my siblings and for four years I tried to get them to stop. These had been my friends, after all, and I wasn't quite ready to give up on them. Somewhere along that way I finally put two and two together and realized that not all dragons look draconic but wear human suits. By that point I'd had training in Muay Thai and used my abilities to my advantage. By the end of my time there I stalked my neighborhood, not the other way around.

It was one of the most profoundly hollow experiences I've ever had. What did I gain by hurting, cajoling, and threatening the people who had hurt me and mine? After that quick satisfaction anyone gets from righting a wrong there really wasn't much to be satisfied over. I had become someone who could scare a neighborhood. Wonderful. Some Saint George I'd turned out to be.

Sometime after that I finally (after three tries!) read The Brother's Karamazov, which answered a lot of the questions I'd had for awhile. They weren't new answers, just repackaged in a way that I could get: we're all one family and the response to wrong doing has to be love and forgiveness, for everyone's sake; judgment and violence really get us nowhere. It's not a pill I've swallowed the whole way, it still needs a lot of water to wash it down, but it's stuck in my throat somewhere, uncomfortably.

That's when this whole thing with ISIS started happening, and women and children started getting raped on massive levels. Oh, I won't pretend to know the depth of despair that they're going through but, as a sexual abuse carrier who still grieves the event, I feel desperately sorry for them. If the pain and anguish I feel some days over what happened is any indication of what they're feeling, any indication at all, I don't blame them for wanting to commit suicide. I don't blame them for losing hope because what's more hopeless than having your own sexual autonomy destroyed? There ain't much. And yes, I'll admit it, a part of me wants to go over there personally and blow those ISIS animals to hell and back. Who deserves death more than a sexual molester? Particularly a whole army of them?

Sometime after ISIS started it's terror campaign (that our fearless leader ignores) we had Micah. My goodness, I can't believe how amazing it is to have a baby! Every day he's just happy that I'm bloody there in his life. Me. His dad. There's something profoundly humbling in that all he cares about is if I'm happy and if I love him. The lack of symbols to distract him from that love is incredibly disarming, because I can't talk useless words with him. All I can do is show him that he's loved. And he knows when he's being lied to, so I'd better mean my smile from the bottom of my heart. Nothing has changed my life more than becoming a father.

And THEN the Planned Parenthood videos came out. I will admit it flat: I haven't watched them. I've read transcripts, reactions on both sides, and got sick just from doing that. As a Catholic I believe that abortion is wrong. I have prayed in front of abortion clinics, held up the signs of bloody dismembered babies on Good Friday on the highway, and attended two Pro-Life Marches on Washington D.C. So don't get me wrong, I've done something. It ain't much, but it's something. In the face of those videos it became a whole load of bunk. Every image and account I read I saw Micah's face and it prevented me from getting all the information that I, an adult, should get. But I really don't care. That's a step I can't take, not yet.

What led to this blog post isn't the first six videos, but the seventh, where a baby's face is hacked into to get at a brain and the heart is still beating. Yeah, I'm glad my stomach was empty, because just reading about it makes me nauseous. Such a profound disregard, which looks so familiar... what makes them any better than ISIS again? As Christians we're supposed to defend the weak and some of us believe in Just War theory. Forty years of dead children and why haven't we leveled every abortion clinic in America? We don't believe we can convince those ISIS monsters to change their ways, why do we somehow think the abortionists are any different? And why do we still teach our kids about St. George if we're not going to do anything about it?

(For anyone from the U.S. government reading my post and looking up my unit to let them know they have an extremist in their ranks, please put down the phone. I'm not finished yet. Cause I know someone from the government's reading this going "And we have an abortion clinic bomber in the making!" No you don't. Put the phone down and leave my bloody unit alone. Finish the blog post.)

I've been wondering how on earth to reconcile all this in my heart. This is a level of evil I find so staggering I can barely comprehend it, nevermind do something about it.  The fact that things are going on to stop it is irrelevant to me at the moment, because I think I actually have a much larger decision to make. Does violence solve anything? I have to answer a cautious yes. Defending the weak can literally mean just turning aside the blade ad nauseum. Shattering a limb is not the same as taking a life. Kneecapping may have a use. But killing? Revenge? I've never killed anyone, but there was a time I profoundly wanted and thought I needed to. And, from everything I've learned since then, I'm glad I didn't. It wouldn't have taken those awful experiences away, just given me a new one to deal with.

Besides, dragons aren't in human suits, they're much worse. We do have an Enemy and we can't kill him. Do I pray for him? I know some do. But do I? That's a completely different question. I'll ponder that at some point.

I guess that makes me a pacifist then. Those people who are murdering babies in the womb and then dismembering them and selling their body parts so they can get cars out of the deal are my brethren. They're in need of saving just as much as me. So's the kid who molested me. He needs saving too. Prayer does work, clinics have closed and hearts have been opened. Abortion was already being attacked on a massive level before these videos. I'll do what I can to make sure it ends and help those who have suffered from it, regardless of the blood. It wasn't too long ago that I wanted blood on my hands too, so it's not like I can judge.

Yup, that makes me a pacifist. Heh, my mom's gonna kill me. The irony of that previous statement is not lost on me, either. Good thing I'm twenty seven, long out of the womb, so now it counts as a murder in this barbaric nation. Now please excuse me, my wonderful son is awake and wants to munch on my prayer rope. If anyone's looking for a toy for their children Eastern Christian prayer ropes make the best toys. They're nice and soft with a tassel that you can use to tickle your child's nose. Micah adores it.

Friday, August 14, 2015

My Approach to Making Tabletop Campaigns

How my players see me.

 Designing a tabletop RPG campaign is one of the most rewarding things I've ever done and it's something that's devoted a bunch of my time over the last eleven years. After fumbling around for about eight years I found something that works really well for me. Always remember that, if your players don't have fun with my approach that's OK. Different people have different priorities, so you really have to cater to their tastes. My method's pretty simple: I decide what type of story I want to experience with my players, find a song that gets the feel that I want to experience with my players, pick a game that make that type of story work the easiest, decide what the major themes of the game are, design a world that reinforces those themes, and come up with an opening scenario that'll kick-start the group into the adventure. These steps aren't necessarily in order, although I like to believe that I work in this order, more or less.

When I first start making a campaign I ask myself  what sort of story I would like to experience with the players. Contrary to popular belief a huge load of pre-session prep work does not help all that much if you don't know what you want the game to be about. Decide what it is about your concept that grabs you. This is what we will call the theme of the game. Make sure it's something specific so you know what you want to go for. "Trying to make the best out of a bad situation" is better than "hope", since with one you now know you'll be throwing really crappy situations at the players that they'll be unable to completely solve, whereas with the other you're a bit unfocused. And while that meandering sense may be fine for some players and games it's not really what I like to GM. I like to get right to the point and hammer it in as hard as I can.

The concept for campaign number one is pretty simple: the players are in a sequel to a previous campaign we'd played through, living in a city that was built to imprison an arch-demon. My twist on this idea was very simple: what if the arch-demon they thought they were imprisoning was free and there was a completely different demon they were guarding? That's a pretty horrible situation, so I figured that the game would be about coming to grips that they had the wrong dude and needed to adapt if they needed the save the city. I thought about it being sort of like the first season of Arrow or Eden of the East: how do you save a city? What actions must you do to save a city? What must you become to save others?

This is example number two. In this example the game comes first, not the concept: I really wanted to DM a 4eMOD game. DnD games have always been a very difficult thing to nail down: character classes make character creation much a more individual than group activity and it's always been one of the challenges of the d20 system. So this time I wanted to make a game where that was the strength of the story: disparate characters finding a common cause. 

My next step is to pick a game that mechanically reinforces the theme I just outlined. This usually means that I start with a game that I own  and, if it generally fits, modify it to until it gives me what I want. I modify with extreme conservatism unless I'm very familiar with the system. And, if I am familiar and need to hack it to bits, I do so. I never ever pick a game that doesn't have what I need at the core, however.

Since the previous game was a Burning Wheel game and since this one centers around character development and growth the obvious go-to is Burning Wheel again. This means that Burning Wheel is the defacto game to go to. I usually use every single bloody optional rule in Burning Wheel, so that's pretty much all the thinking I need to do about that. 

In the second pitch I hit a snag: all the stuff that I really wanted to do story-wise just couldn't be done in any version of 4th Edition. Heartbreaking as it was to do, I realized that I couldn't get the cooperative story-telling that I demand as a part of my games and play 4th, not without a whole lot of extra work that really turned 4th into 13th Age. So that's what I decided to do: play 13th Age instead. The good news is that anything from 4th that I really want mechanics-wise is very easy to port over to 13th Age, as opposed to the other way around, where 4th (even 4eMOD) would be unrecognizable to me. 

Now that I have actions that I want my players to do and a game that'll give them the ability to do those actions to the fullest extent I go and find songs for an interior soundtrack to help me keep the mood of those actions going. This is pretty loosey-goosey, but generally I'm starting to find that the song I start with is rarely the song I'll finish with.

For the Burning Wheel game I found a song that really inspired me in ways that I'd never even counted on: Falling Down by Oasis. It was so influential that I even named the campaign after the band! The game really fell into focus here: this was a tale of the miseries of trying to be a savior when you yourself needed saving. And that feel has stuck with the campaign ever since.

In the 13th Age example I've only just begun to think about the concept, but the song Politicians by Switchfoot really strikes me. It's not so much a case of finding something that "fits" as it is about finding something that inspires me to process the game more. And who couldn't get fired up from this song, really? I think I'll name the game "C'mon and Break Me". Certainly captures the feel that I want!

This is when I start working up a world that will facilitate the actions that I want to have the group do. To make players do the actions you want you need to create a universal need for that action in the world around them. Want a game of intrigue? Make the problems more subtle, harder to suss out without going into serious information delving and thus doing a lot of talking and politicking. Want high falutin' action? Blowing up stuff frequently and often, while introducing villains who don't want to talk, and you're on the right track.

In Oasis the setting is a long-running project that I've been working on for years: it's set in your "typical" pseudo-medieval world, but the catch is that there is a giant blue flame in the center of the planet keeping all good things alive.  Other flames exist that for various reasons, but the Flame is the reason why everyone gets to stay sane for another day. I decide that, in order to drive home the idea of interior corruption, to design a "zombie plague" that, as the players progress, find out really isn't necromancy, but is something much more sinister and terrifying. The central conceit of the setting is how to save a city, and thus yourself. So the threats need to be more centered around how to save people. Obviously the characters are gonna need some friends to save.

In "C'mon and Break Me" I decide that  I want to pick the 4e Forgotten Realms Setting, a vastly under-appreciated gem in 4e's crown that lets me screw around while sticking this story inside of the same universe as Oasis (the blue flame from the Spellplague ain't a coincidence). Threats don't care about salvation, they have a goal to accomplish that means everyone's death. Enemies are then nameless entities that you can knock over.

The opening scenario is the hardest part of this whole process for me. You have to make something that'll kick it off in the right direction. This sometimes means taking the time to set up a good situation, even more than what you spent prepping the rest of the game!

Prepping the opening situation for Oasis took a very long time! I had a lot of ideas but couldn't figure out how to best set up the situation. Eventually I decided to go with the grenade approach: threaten everyone and everything all at once. The town the campaign's set in riots after taking in so many zombie survivor refugees that the locals have had enough.

The 13th Age game is a bit easier to gauge: it's a combat game, therefore it should probably open up with a fight! I'd want the nature of the threat showing pretty quickly, so I'd just open it up with a fight with ghosts from the Shadowfell, intent on fulfilling their evil schemes. Right out in the daylight. Yeah, shades in the daylight. That'll work.

The last thing you have to do? Be ready to change your plans on the turn of a dime. No campaign scheme survives contact with the players, and frankly their plans combined with your plans makes for more fun than just one or the other. Learn to incorporate their actions and reactions into your long term plans, because you'll seriously enrich everyone there for doing so. Do not forget: you are not the writer of the story but the director. You take what the players do, add your own vision to it, and make it all one cohesive whole. Never, ever, ever, go against the players for the sake of story unless they're trying to destroy everything out of spite. Then you have a different problem altogether. But that's for another blog post.

Friday, August 7, 2015

4eMOD: The Terror Track and Escalation Die

Surprise! This column's back! It's been awhile, but I wanted to put forth one of the best elements from 4eMOD that my buddy Marty came up with. I didn't design this particular mechanic, but I made it a part of 4eMOD and kindly thank Marty for designing it.

When I was ten I played Ocarina of Time for the first time. I went into the Deku Tree and all was going well when Gohma showed up. That's when I froze. I couldn't hurt her with my sword! Why couldn't I? What was going on? As my Uncle Peter told me over and over again to calm down and think I jumped in and got my butt handed to me. The next time I faced Gohma, 8 years later, I almost did it again, but this time I stopped, thought, and avoided Gohma's attacks until I analyzed her weaknessness and devised a plan.

That's the essence of the Terror Track, to put the fear of God into players of solos in 4th Edition. You'd think they'd be terrifying as they are, but solos are actually a pretty tame breed in the game. Out-actioned and out-damaged, solos are usually just bags of hitpoints that take way too long to kill to remain interesting. So Marty proposed a solution: at the beginning of a combat with a solo it gets a +5 to attack, defense, and damage. Each round and successful attack the bonus decreases by 1 until it dissipates.

I can guarantee you from experience that this houserule changes everything. Now, instead of rushing at the solo, the players are forced to go into defensive mode and try to survive. Maybe they'll start looking around the battlefield, trying to find an advantage, any advantage, that can be exploited against the solo. Because for all intents and purposes the solo is unhittable, will hit you every time, and will mess you up big time.

Another suggestion is to steal the Escalation Die from 13th Age and throw it into your 4th Edition battles. It's really simple: put a d6 on it's 1 face on round 2, and march it up every round that the players make headway against their opponent, all the way up to 6. In a solo battle don't give them the escalation die until the Terror Track has run out and allow the solo monster access to the Escalation Die as well. This creates a natural ebb and flow to the battle. The solo comes out big and bad and forces the characters to strategize and examine the solo, looking for weaknesses. Right when the players begin to catch their wind the solo gets his second win and the battle begins in earnest.

Just the Terror Track alone makes for exhilarating solo battles. I know 4th Edition isn't exactly "in favor" anymore, but honestly? I don't care. I'll finish putting out 4eMOD and if people use it then that's great. If not, at least I continued working on something that I love.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Why the Novus Ordo is Great plus a Long Ramble plus Power Rangers

To hear conservative American Catholics talk it sounds like the Catholic Church ended after Vatican II, with the introduction of the Novus Ordo. While most will just politely say they prefer the Extraordinary Rite some are less.... kind. I mean, Bugnini (the chief architect of the Novus Ordo) had to be a Freemason! He just had to be, despite the fact that there is no evidence, even for the most uncharitable. Why else would the Catholic Church dump the most beautiful liturgy ever created? This requires a bit of a history lesson, because while the Church has not "dumped"  the Extraordinary Form it certainly has very good reasons for wanting a new liturgy drawn up.

Before I start, a caveat: I'm not a huge fan of the TLM.  The fact that they have a special option for the lay people (y'know, the people who are actually supposed to be celebrating the liturgy) to respond to the priest and that it's something they had to put in as a matter of renewal is... disconcerting. It goes against every last current in my Byzantine soul to such an extent that, if not for the sheer beauty of the TLM, I'd just chuck it out the window and tell the Traddies to weep. Nothing that beautiful deserves to be destroyed and forgotten, even if I dislike it on a genetic level.

The Church's missionary efforts post-Trent (with those Jesuits we keep hearing about) ran the gamut, from being perfectly intentioned to dubious to outright spiteful. Going into other people's cultures they tried to uproot the culture and put their Western culture in. Nevermind the fact that Western culture is no more enlightened than any other, the arrogance inherent in some of these missionary efforts was overwhelming. And it got worse when the Jesuits encountered other Apostolic Churches not in communion with them! They'd try to uproot that brand of Christianity and put their oh-so-superior Latin rite in its place. This had predictably violent results and the Jesuits were usually thrown out of these countries relatively quickly. Some countries still have statues of the people who threw the Jesuits out enshrined proudly.

While the intentions of the Jesuits and other similar missionaries were good, they'd forgotten something very important: there is more than one way to be Catholic. The Orthodox and the long-suffering Byzantine Catholics have expressed the same mysteries of Christ for just as long (if not longer, if you want to go with who kept their liturgy the longest) without any approval of Rome. This fact had been forgotten by Trent, however, and instead of trying to preach Christianity to the natives the Latins tried to preach Latin Christianity to the natives, with predictable results.

Then the World Wars happened. I cannot overemphasize how impactful these wars were on the rest of the world. While America prospered after World War II the rest of the world was going through a huge crisis. Vatican II may have appeared to have come out of the blue for us Americans but the rest of the world, tired from two wars, was in sore need of some of some renewal. And there's a fair bit of compelling evidence that the Tridentine Mass was not the Mass for the world.

Because, ultimately, the purpose of missionary work is not to spread Latin, Byzantine, Maronite, or any other *insert adjective here* Christianity. We spread the news of the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ. That is what we are to spread. Not our brand of it, not our take, not our boasting in our flawed but redeemable culture. No, we are to spread the Good News and to boast in the cross of Christ. No more, no less.

Which finally brings me to my point: the Novus Ordo is an example of the Mass that the world needs right now. Not because the Tridentine and Byzantine rites aren't good, far from it! But there are as many ways to be an Apostolic Christian as there are nations and cultures. Pentecost did not make us all speak the same language, it made our all our languages understandable. That wasn't done so there could be one sacred language, one sacred rite. It was done so that all languages and rites could be made sacred.

Yes, the Novus Ordo is "incomplete", the way mustard seeds are when first planted. On their own they're really not much but, given enough sunshine, rain, and good soil and they'll turn into the largest of bushes. And by stripping  the Mass down to it's bare essentials and writing the most flexible General Instruction ever seen Rome has begun to address the needs of its Churches, which need to be able to decide for themselves how they will express the Tradition handed on to them. The uniformity that Rome thinks of as it's greatest strength can really be a horrible weakness because not all cultures are going to think like Rome.

Don't believe me? Look at Africa. The whole continent is bursting with Catholics who are full of life and love and who have made the Novus Ordo their own. They've put in their own chant and have edited parts of the Mass to fit more with their understanding of how to pray and worship and it's worked wonders for them. For the first time in the history of the post-Schism Church we have real and actual growth in an area that we couldn't get before, and all because the Church stripped all the Latin out of the Mass and presented it humbly to a culture, asking for them to do what they could.  Missionary friends of mine who have gone to Africa come back inspired by the incredible things they've seen there, by the up to 2 HOUR long Novus Ordo Masses that happen there, all filled with love, reverence, and 100% African worship. Do they know Latin or Greek or Old Church Slavonic? Not a lick, but if the key to good liturgy was language then the Church of Africa would have died and withered a long time ago.

So yes, go to the Tridentine Mass and the Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom and Saint James and Saint Basil and Saint Mark! Express it all. But please don't take our rebellious, dying, and evil culture for being the only way the Novus Ordo is being celebrated. That does all the people who have found it, recognized it for what it is, and have used it to full effect a huge disservice. If Africa and our monasteries can do something beautiful with the Novus Ordo there is no reason the rest of the nation can't.

Christianity is more than Latin and Byzantine and Coptic and Maronite and all the rest. And it is our God-given duty to make it so. The Novus Ordo, our first true missionary Mass, is our key to that.


I was going to leave this blog post alone. I really was. But, the thing is that I did a lot of soul searching afterwards and found that it was incomplete for me, because I can hardly claim to want complete unity with the West and profess a genetic dislike for the TLM, now can I? As a Byzantine Catholic I've moved beyond the silly notion that we must have exactly the same theology to be a united Church, because the last time I checked men and women have different ideas of how to live life all the way to the grave and they still get married and live to a ripe old age together. If a man and a woman can do it why can't the rest of us?

So after I wrote the first part of this blog post I started digging around in earnest. I've linked to Fisheaters before because that's where I first started to dig. But nothing they said about the TLM really got to me, because I've heard that mumbo jumbo before except with the serial numbers changed to say "Divine Liturgy". While I'm partial to Eastern Triumphalism (seriously, how can you NOT be? We made monasticism, Thomas Aquinas based a lot of his stuff on Pseudo-Dionysius and Chrysostom, and things like the Responsorial Psalm were stolen right from the East and put into Western Liturgy to make it less somber!) I know this isn't all there is to the story. Saints have come from the West, honest-to-goodness saints that I love and respect. Any rite that helps shape someone as awesome as Saint Francis of Assissi, one of my favorite saints of all time, deserves my respect.

So I kept reading. I asked questions. I didn't like a single answer, because it all smacked of the same bullcrap that I've heard every single religion say time and time again. "We're the best because of.... (insert overused reasoning about what the world actually is and how your religion explains it)". 

No, your religion does not have the most beautiful rites ever. Stop saying that. Cut it the hell out, cause it's pissing me off because it's simply not true. My brand of Christianity converted all of Russia based off of the beauty of its Liturgy alone and I don't think it's the most beautiful thing ever. That privilege belongs to God, the one who makes all these things beautiful in the first place.

And all I found in support of  the TLM, which did not give it any points in my book. If I wanted half-baked points about the superiority of one religion over another I'd go read Russian Orthodox Anti-Catholic literature because that stuff is hilarious. Of all the branches of the Orthodox Church they claim Rome is the devil? Two centuries ago they were seriously latinized, they were the lapdogs of the Communists and now Putin and they want to get on their high horse about staying pure? That makes for good entertainment.

I guess you could call me jaded then. Oh well.

Another thing you may have gathered from my blog posts is that I'm not exactly a logical person. If you were to give me a Myers-Briggs right now you'd find that I was either an ENFP or ENFJ, depending on the minute you caught me (the ENFP is when I"m having a good day and... just don't catch me in a judgmental mood, OK?). The thing is that, according to that test, the Feeling aspect of my personality is almost off the chart. I do not process things through cold hard logic. I do it with my gut. I feel out the truth. You can tell me all your rationalizations for doing something but the thing is that I"m not listening to your words at all. I listen to the emotion behind the words. Are you OK with what you're saying? Do you believe it? Are you at peace? Because if you are then I'll listen to you. I might not agree, but I'll listen and try to respect your words to the best of my ability because I"m sure they come from you, the dude/tte talking to me.

This makes things like reasoned debate very difficult.

So, after reading all this stuff about the TLM (and rereading my 1960 Daily Missal of the Mystical Body by the Maryknoll Fathers several time) I ran out of patience and I just decided to ask my Traddy friends what the hell they found so enticing about a Liturgy that thinks that congregational response is innovative. I got more lines that I knew would help a rational human being but, unfortunately, didn't do as much for me as I'd like, until one of my buddies posted the following (yes, you were quoted. Yes, I hid your name. You're welcome)

"I have only been to one Divine Liturgy, but it did seem to me that your description there is right on. However, in a lot of vernacular OF masses, that is not at all how things end up. Honestly, and call me a traddy, but I think that our liturgy is built in such a way as to support a liturgical language. Not that the vernacular is bad, but that Latin is better. It took me, a Latin teacher who speaks the language, 5 or 6 TLMs to get the hang of it, but now it is way more powerful to me than the OF which I grew up with (I didn't go to a TLM until I was nearly 20).

 I guess what I am saying is that it takes getting used to, but is worth it in the end. I don't know anyone who went to 5 or 6 and then said "No, this is still too difficult/distant." If we in the West had all had this growing up, it would not be new to us as Catholics. I know this is barely touching on the issue though, as there are an enormous number of variables and personal experiences that change this experience dramatically."

While I've known some people who grew up with the TLM and never adjusted to it what my friend had written hit me particularly hard, and I'll explain why, assuming you're still reading this rambly thing.

As I've mentioned time and time again on this blog, I'm Byzantine Catholic, among a group of Orthodox who think that, while salvation does not hinge upon the Pope, to not be united is scandalous in and of itself and so we unite ourselves to Papa Rome, hoping to God that he doesn't trample on us again (Newsflash to all Roman Catholics: it's happened a lot. Yes, I'm bitter about it on bad days). But I was not raised so. I was raised Roman Catholic until the age of thirteen. I did the whole first communion thing and got to swing my streamer and sing "This is the Day the Lord Has Made. Let Us Rejoice and Be Glad in It" and not understand a bloody thing I was doing. The point is, I didn't see my first Divine Liturgy until I was thirteen years old.

I hated it the first two times I went. I could not figure out what the hell was going on. It was an incomprehensible mess. 

But my family continued to go and I found that I was falling in love with the East. That I wasn't converting to the East so much as finding out that I was never Western to begin with and never could have faked it past a certain point. The more I learned the more eager I became to realize my identity in this most ancient of Churches.

So when my friend said that it took him, a Latin professor, 5 to 6 times to get the TLM it finally clicked for me. As a matter of fact, Catholicism in general clicked for me. There is a learning curve. Period. You can't not genuine apostolic Christianity without this learning curve because Christianity does not make sense according to the world's thinking. I mean, why would you get up on a perfectly good Sunday morning to either go pray with some celibate man for an hour and a half or sing at the top of your lungs for an equally long amount of time? Because you have seen Christ and you want nothing more than to dump this shitty little world behind you and go become something that you can actually be proud of. Because the way of least resistance gets you least results.

Because, deep deep down, we were all made wanting to be gods. And being a god is hard friggin' work. And anything that tells you can come just as you are and that no change is necessary is telling you horrific lies. 

So grow up. Life is difficult, and so is religion, and Catholicism is about as hard as it gets without being immoral. There are as many ways of being Catholic as there are cultures and people. And, no matter what you may think, there is no one best way to get to heaven once you believe in the Faith of the Apostles. 

Go Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom. Go Novus Ordo not celebrated with crappy modernist leanings. Go Dialogue TLM (sorry, couldn't resist). Show the world that being Christ doesn't make us little Latin or Byzantine clones and confound the rest of us by your fruits. Go.

And just because I kept saying "Go (whatever)" here, I must put this in. Don't hate me too much. Or jam out and glory in the nostalgia and un/intentional thematic links between this blog post and song.

Or just shake your head and wonder if I'll grow up when I hit 30. A lot can happen in 3 years! 

Friday, July 24, 2015

Better Late Than Never?: Twilight

Ok, I'll admit to being curious all these years. How could I not be? When 85% of the female population is swooning over a book it's hard not to take note. Especially when it's met with such horrific critical reception. Either the ladies are crazy or it's another Lord of the Rings type event, where the critics hate it because it goes against their ridiculous materialistic ideology so hard their genetics prevent them from liking it, even as us unwashed riff-raff praise it for being true. So, out of curiosity, I watched the first movie. 

Heh, go figure. They're both right. Bloody fantastic.

I'm not going to do everyone reading this blog post the indignity of telling you what Twilight's about. If you don't know by now you've been living under a rock and this blog post won't really apply to you anyway. The point that I want to make is that, had this thing actually been taken seriously by the author, it would have been a really good tragedy. Bella was bored with the inanity of this life and thus wanted something real. And can you really blame her? Highschool isn't a real place. What works there sure doesn't work in the real world. I'd even go so far as to say that movies are more realistic than high school. So, Bella being bored was pretty easy for me to sympathize with.

But... vampires? Really?

Of all the places to go?

She's running for her life while her highschool acquaintances are out having a good time, and for what? So she  can be part of something that's real? How is running for your life more entertaining than highschool? (11 Bravos be quiet) In her wish for something not quite so mundane Bella mistakes the terror that is dating a vampire for something real. It's a pretty sad look at our society, isn't it? That what our culture offers is so bad that dating a vampire while staying human is preferable. Does that make anyone else sad? Cause it does me. 

Something else that maddens me about this movie is Edward's attraction to Bella. Now, Bella's attraction to Edward makes sense to me, as I've already spelled out. But Edward is 117 bloody years old. That's more insight than the oldest person alive currently by a long stretch. This guy has probably seen it all. So what makes Bella so unusual? The movie never explains it. Bella and Edward are shown talking for hours and hours but you have no idea what they're talking about or why they click the way they do, you're just told that they do. That's not good enough if you want me to buy in, which I unwittingly found myself wanting to do!

Excuse me. There's some wine in my kitchen that demands my immediate attention. I'd go get something stronger but I'm broke.