Saturday, April 29, 2006

Adventures in Downloading

In a post from last year I discussed the joys of finding music from the 1930s and '40s using LimeWire and iTunes. Since then, I've gone even further back, discovering Celtic tunes and especially the polyphonic liturgical music of Thomas Tallis (1505-1585), William Byrd (1543-1623), and Giovanni Pierluigui de Palestrina (1526-1594). I first sang Palestrina years ago while in the choir of another parish I attended, and I first heard Tallis and Byrd on a public radio classical music show some years later. When I discovered I could find just about anything using LimeWire and iTunes, I jumped at the chance to find some of this great music. It makes the contemporary Catholic music of the St. Louis Jesuits and Marty Haugen, whom I had previously admired, sound rather penny ante by comparison. The trouble with Tallis, Byrd, Palestrina, et al., however, is that you need a large choir of well trained singers to sound good. Almost anybody can sing SLJ, Marty Haugen, David Haas, Carey Landry (gag!), and the like.

One of the things I admire most about Tallis and Byrd is that they were English Catholics in a time when an English Catholic was a dicey thing to be. Both Tallis and Byrd were well-connected socially and politically and could have easily advanced themselves by becoming Anglicans, but they chose to remain Catholics, a choice that could get them arrested, jailed, executed, or deported if they weren't careful. I believe Tallis and Queen Elizabeth reached a sort of "understanding" that Tallis could continue composing music for the Roman Catholic liturgy in Latin if he also composed music for the Church of England in English. Naturally, I have a soft spot for the Catholic stuff in Latin. Gotta get one of his albums on CD! But which one?

I gave up TV for Lent because I became disgusted with all negativism behind much of the programming and advertising. Although there are some good shows out there, as I said in my Star Trek post, most of what's on TV today is trash. If "Survivor" and its ilk are considered "reality TV" I'll take good old-fashioned unreality any day. You put total strangers in a completely artificial, contrived situation, follow them around with cameras hoping they'll do something dishonest or perverted in order to win the game, and call that "reality?" No thanks. Cop shows push the message that the world is full of serial killers, drug dealers, terrorists, rapists, and perverts. Advertising constantly pushes the message that what you need to be happy in life is to buy more stuff. If you buy the right stuff, you will have more sex and be happy. Anyone with half a brain and half a heart knows this is false, but people like me who live alone continue to watch TV because the light, motion, color, and sound create the illusion that there are others with you. They create the illusion that you are not alone.

I turned off the TV, but I was still uncomfortable with the silence in the evening. I discovered Catholic internet podcasts as an alternative to the inane jabber of TV. I've become a podcast junkie. My favorite has to be the Rosary Army with Greg and Jennifer Willitts. They make and give away rosaries made from twine and teach others to do the same. Their podcasts are obviously about the rosary, but they also talk candidly about their day to day adventures and struggles of trying to maintain a home and a family in today's world. In the past year, they've tried unsucessfully to sell their house, Greg has lost his job and taken another one, Jennifer had a miscarriage, one of their sons has been diagnosed with autism, and another with epilepsy. Yet they have tried to face all these trials with humor and faith. Occasionally, they'll do skits featuring their original Catholic superheroes Captain Catechism and Merry Medal. Listening to one of their shows is like spending a few minutes with your pleasantly crazy Catholic neighbors from down the block.

Runner-up for my favorite podcast is Mark Shea's Rock Solid. These are daily 5 to 7 minute reflections on some aspect of history or culture and how they relate to the Catholic faith. His favorite tactic is to find something significant in history that happened on the date of the podcast and use it as a springboard for reflection. The guy must scour Chase's Calendar of Events or The Catholic Almanac looking for material!

I also listen occasionally to The Daily Breakfast with Father Roderick, a priest from the Diocese of Utrecht in the Netherlands. I'm not as enthusiastic about this show. Father Roderick is a young priest (from the photo on his website, I'd say early 40s, tops) and he is plainly trying to reach teens, twentysomethings, and thirtysomethings with this show. He speaks very colloquial, idiomatic English, plays new pop music, and talks a lot about movies, TV, computers, and video games. Along the way, he sneaks in information and commentary about the Catholic Church.

I don't know how I feel about this. On the one hand, it's good that a priest is trying to talk to young people (I sound like such an old fuddy-duddy when I say that. "You young people should turn that noise down! My goodness! What's the world coming to?") about things they care about and are interested in. They need to hear the voice of Christ amid all the yammering that is pop culture. On the other hand, if I want to know about the latest in pop culture there are any number of secular sources I can go to for that information. Why do I want to hear about it from a priest? What I want to hear from a priest is what a priest should know best: How I can know Christ and love Him and serve Him better? I think I'd enjoy Father Roderick more if he had less pop culture chitchat and more clearly Catholic stuff.

There you have it, friends. My thoughts on TV, podcasting, and pop culture. This concludes this test of the Emergency Ranting System. We now return you to your regularly scheduled lives.

Still Trekkin' After All These Years

Via Catholic Ragemonkey, I learned that Paramount Studios is developing an eleventh (Yes, eleventh!) big screen Star Trek movie produced, and possibly directed by J. J. Abrams, creator and producer of the TV series Alias and Lost. I also learned that this year is the 40th (yes, 40th) anniversary of the Star Trek fanchise.

In my humble opinion, Abrams seems to be a good fit for the project. "Star Trek" and "Lost" have many similarities. Both shows feature a diverse group of people thrown together in a strange environment, strugging to survive and work together for the common good, and along the way learning about "the big questions:" the nature of good and evil, the reality of sin and redemption, and the meaning of life and death. Almost anybody would be better than the team of Rick Berman and Brannon Braga who gave us the anemic "Voyager" series, the downright pathetic "Enterprise" series, and the absolutely atrocious "Nemesis" movie. Ironically, B&B are capable of writing good Trek, because they gave us "First Contact," which, in my opinion, is the best of the big screen efforts featuring the cast of "The Next Generation."

Reportedly, the proposed story is a kind of "Kirk and Spock: The Early Years" vehicle, focusing on the first meeting of the two legendary heroes of Trekdom. This type of story has a lot of potential if it's done right. Paramount tried a sort of retro-Trek project with "Enterprise," but it was so abominable I gave up on it after the third season. I was so disgusted with "Enterprise" that I decided to try my hand at imagining the early days of the Star Trek universe, and I've been working sporadically for several years now on a story of my own featuring Zefram Cochrane and taking place immediately after the events of "First Contact." It's languished unfinished on my hard drive for quite a while now, mostly because I feared it would take a novel to adequately resolve the story, but I may give it another whack. I can't seem to just leave it alone. I've also written a couple of original Trek stories that you can find here and here.

Besides the poor quality of recent output from The Powers That Be at Paramount, the other thing that's diminished my enthusiasm for Trekdom is confirmation of my long held suspicion that Gene Roddenberry, Star Trek's creator, was an atheist. In one of his recent "Rock Solid" podcasts, Mark Shea quoted Roddenberry denouncing religion. I'm disappointed but not surprised. It wouldn't take a pointy-eared Vulcan science officer to figure out that the Great Bird of the Galaxy took a dim view of matters religious. In several episodes of all the various Trek series and movies, our intrepid heroes meet various strange beings with apparently godlike powers only to find that the beings are only super-advanced life-forms of one sort or another. The Enterprise-D has a ship's shrink, but not a ship's chaplain. Yet Star Trek, at its best, continues to appeal to people precisely because it touches on moral, ethical, and spiritual issues. Roddenberry's sci-fi universe is just as Christ-haunted as the rest of our postmodern world.

Gulp! Part II

The printer and Quicken software I ordered last weekend arrived on Wednesday. Would you believe they didn't include the cable to connect the printer to the computer or a black ink cartridge? Since when are things that are essential to operate a piece of equipment considered "accessories?" I always thought accessories were non-essesntials, things it would be nice to have, but not required to use a product. Sheesh! Fortunately, I had ordered a black ink cartridge separately, but I had to send a friend of mine to Wal-Mart for a cable. Now I have no excuses. I can print to my heart's content, but I also have to get my finances under control. It ain't gonna be pretty.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Benedetto! Benedetto!

Many around the Catholic blogsphere (Amy Welborn, Mark Shea, Catholic Ragemonkey, for example) have noted that this week marks the first anniversary of the former Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger's elevation to the Chair of Peter and his taking the name Benedict XVI. I remember watching television as the networks interrupted regular programming to announce that a new pope had been elected. The news people reported that there were groups of people in St. Peter's square waving various national flags and hoping somebody from their country had been chosen. When it was announced that Cardinal Ratzinger, a German, had been selected and had chosen the name Benedict XVI, the Italians, far from being disappointed, obligingly began chanting "Benedetto! Benedetto! Benedetto!" Love for the pope apparently trumped national pride.

The death of Pope John Paul II was a particularly difficult time for me because it followed hard on the heels of my own father's death less than two months before. I had just lost my earthly or natural father. Suddenly I felt I was losing a spiritual father, too. As if that weren't bad enough, I was already having a crisis of faith because of unanswered questions about Scripture, serious health problems of my own, and the end of a precious personal relationship. Everything that was once so clear now seemed uncertain. I felt lost, alone, worthless. Where was God?

Yet the homily that Pope Benedict delivered at his installation Mass (in which he received the pallium and fisherman's ring, two symbols of the pope's office) was an enormous comfort to me. In it, Benedict spoke candidly about his own feelings of loss and loneliness after the death of John Paul and his anxiety at being called to the awesome responsibility of leading the Church. Yet of John Paul he said this:

He crossed the threshold of the next life, entering into the mystery of God. But he did not take this step alone. Those who believe are never alone--neither in life nor in death. At that moment, we could call upon the Saints from every age--his friends, his brothers and sisters in the faith--knowing that they would form a living procession to accompany him into the next world, into the glory of God. We knew that his arrival was awaited. Now we know that he is among his own and is truly at home.

When I read those words, I knew they were true not only of John Paul but of my Dad as well. Yet Benedict went on to say:

I too can say with renewed conviction: I am not alone. I do not have to carry alone what in truth I could never carry alone. All the Saints of God are there to protect me, to sustain me and to carry me. And your prayers, my dear friends, your indulgence, your love, your faith and your hope accompany me. Indeed, the communion of Saints consists not only of the great men and women who went before us and whose names we know. All of us belong to the communion of Saints, we who have been baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, we who draw life from the gift of Christ's Body and Blood, through which he transforms us and makes us like himself.

Did I dare hope that those words were true for me too? I felt lost, alone, and worthless. Yet the Holy Father reminded me that I did not have to feel this way:

The human race--every one of us--is the sheep lost in the desert which no longer knows the way. The Son of God will not let this happen; he cannot abandon humanity in so wretched a condition. He leaps to his feet and abandons the glory of heaven, in order to go in search of the sheep and pursue it, all the way to the Cross. He takes it upon his shoulders and carries our humanity; he carries us all--–he is the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. What the Pallium indicates first and foremost is that we are all carried by Christ.

Benedict continued:

We are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary. There is nothing more beautiful than to be surprised by the Gospel, by the encounter with Christ. There is nothing more beautiful than to know Him and to speak to others of our friendship with Him.

The pope continued:

At this point, my mind goes back to 22 October 1978, when Pope John Paul II began his ministry here in Saint Peter’s Square. His words on that occasion constantly echo in my ears: “Do not be afraid! Open wide the doors for Christ!"

I was feeling afraid of God at this point. If I trusted Him, what else was he going to zap me with? Again, the pope spoke:

Are we not perhaps all afraid in some way? If we let Christ enter fully into our lives, if we open ourselves totally to him, are we not afraid that He might take something away from us? Are we not perhaps afraid to give up something significant, something unique, something that makes life so beautiful? Do we not then risk ending up diminished and deprived of our freedom? And once again the Pope said: No! If we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful and great. No! Only in this friendship are the doors of life opened wide. Only in this friendship is the great potential of human existence truly revealed. Only in this friendship do we experience beauty and liberation. And so, today, with great strength and great conviction, on the basis of long personal experience of life, I say to you, dear young people: Do not be afraid of Christ! He takes nothing away, and he gives you everything. When we give ourselves to him, we receive a hundredfold in return. Yes, open, open wide the doors to Christ--–and you will find true life. Amen.

Amen and Amen! This homily helped restore my faith in a loving God. Indeed, it had so many passages that spoke so directly to my situation at the time, I'll swear it could have been written for me. Thank you, Holy Father.

Before Cardinal Ratzinger was elected, his critics dubbed him "Der PanzerKardinal" or "God's Rottweiler" because he was head of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, the agency responsible for defining and maintaining correct Catholic doctrine. He had a reputation, largely defined by his critics, as a fierce, narrow-minded opponent of anything remotely perceived as heresy or heterodoxy. Yet these are not the words of a narrow-minded uncharitable zealot. In fact, Pope Benedict surprised his critics by focusing his first encyclical, "Deus Caritas Est," (God Is Love) on the importance of charity in the Christian life. Pundits have remarked on Benedict's reserved, scholarly, quiet and unassuming manner, very much in contrast to John Paul II, with his actor's flair for the grand dramatic gesture.

Catholics are encouraged to think of the pope as a father figure, of course, but it occurs to me that a better metaphor might be a grandfather. Now that I've had a year to get to know Benedict, I can see some of the differences between him and his predecessor. John Paul was the grandfather who comes with hugs and jokes and presents, naturally warm and expressive. You know he loves you because he shows it so openly and easily. Benedict, perhaps, is like your other grandfather, who is quiet and not really comfortable with public displays of affection. Yet when no one is looking, he might slip you a shy smile or place a gentle hand on your shoulder. Because you know he's not likely to do anything extravagant, that small, simple gesture really means a lot. You know he loves you just as much as your other grandpa does, but he merely shows it differently. Your two grandfathers are two different men with two different styles, but you are grateful to God for both of them. Ad multos annos!


I just took the plunge and ordered a printer for my computer and an upgraded version of Quicken for Mac. Not being able to print anything at home--Legion of Mary documents, fiction, or letters, for example--was a nuisance, and the old version of Quicken, which ran under a different version of the operating system, was causing problems. It's exciting but also a little scary. Will everything work? Did I spend too much money? I don't believe these were frivolous items, but still it makes me nervous.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Long Time No Blog


Yeah, yeah, I know. Long time no blog. Why was I silent for so long, you might ask? Call it Seasonal Affective Disorder, winter blues, whatever. I've had problems with depression for years, and it's always worse in the fall and winter months. Early in November, shortly after my last post, I slid into a pretty deep funk from which I am only now emerging. In recent days and weeks, as the days got longer and the temperatures got warmer, I felt something switching on inside, something coming back to life.

Part of the reason I fell silent was embarrassment and discouragement from the huge pile of still unpaid doctor and hospital bills from my medical adventures last spring. With something switching on, something coming back to life, I am resolved to take advantage of the momentum and get my finances in order.

Another big downer was my continuing dissatisfaction with my job as a librarian in rural South Carolina. My unhappiness grew and my performance dwindled until finally my boss issued an ultimatum: shape up or ship out. That brought me up short. I was forced to take a hard look at my attitude about the job, and I realized I could not afford to continue the whiny, prideful, condescending attitude I had developed. I had essentially convinced myself that the task was beneath my abilities, intelligence, and dignity, and I really didn't have to do it. This was nonsense, of course. No one owed me this job. It was not mine by right. In fact, I owed myself, my coworkers, and my boss, who had been more patient with me than I deserved, the best performance I could give every day. It's still a struggle because I find myself thinking of things I'd rather be doing, but I am trying to do better.

In November, I joined The Legion of Mary, an apostolate or organization within the Catholic Church dedicated to fostering devotion to Christ and His Blessed Mother primarily through works of charity and prayer, principally the Rosary. I've had a great devotion to the Rosary for years now because of the rhythm or meditative "zone" one falls into while praying it. Even when I felt most alienated from God because of all the disasters of last spring, I was still able to say the Rosary, still able to approach Jesus through Mary. All of the Legion's literature speaks of doing everything for the glory of God and the honor of Mary and imitating Mary's charity and humility. In a moment of insight, I had an image of myself offering my day to Jesus and Mary. If I were going to give my earthly mother a gift, I wouldn't give her a wadded up Kleenex or a greasy piece of cardboard. I'd want to give her the best I could possibly afford. If that's true for my earthly, biological mom, how much more so for my heavenly, spiritual mother. Now I say the Morning Offering before beginning work, and it helps.

Now that I'm feeling better, I have the urge to write again, and this blog seems one avenue in which to do it. I've been surfing around the Catholic blogsphere for about a year now (check out the additions to the blogroll on the left), and I wonder why Amy Welborn and Mark Shea get to have all the fun. I have blogworthy thoughts too, don't I? Easter Sunday seems the perfect time to (ahem) resurrect my blog.

I really should toddle off to bed now. I shall endeavor to be a more conscientious blogger and regularly share my VAST wisdom and profound humility (please stifle those snorts of derisive laughter) with you, the good people of cyberspace.

Happy Easter! He is Risen! He is Risen Indeed!

He Is Risen!

Rejoice, Heavenly Powers! Sing, Choirs of Angels!
Exult all creation around God's Throne!
Jesus Christ your King is Risen!
Sound the trumpet of salvation!
Rejoice, O Earth, in shining splendor,
Radiant in the brightness of your King.
Christ has conquered, glory fills you,
Darkness vanishes forever.

Rejoice, O Mother church! Exult in glory!
The Risen Savior shines upon you!
Let this place resound with joy,
Echoing the mighty song of all God's people.

--Easter Proclamation