Liturgy and culture

The Theology of Legoland - Why Is It So Popular?

The Theology of Legoland - Why Is It So Popular?

Christians take note. Legoland have worked something out here. These children are transported in their imaginations and they love it. The fact that the images are made out of plastic bricks, does not put them off, rather it seems to attract them even more. We may hold our noses at the McDisney aesthetic, but we should look and learn. and consider why, despite that, it is so popular.

Devotion, Design and Decoration - How Liturgical Art Influences the Wider Culture

Devotion, Design and Decoration - How Liturgical Art Influences the Wider Culture

We need art that is clearly derived from the liturgical forms but is distinct from it and directs us to purest form, so to speak, by being part of the wider culture of faith. This is the beginning of the process by which the liturgy, which is a source of its own culture, begins to push out into the wider culture and transform it into a Christian culture.

A Catechesis by Which Christ Himself Becomes the Continual Mystagogical Catechist through the Mass

A Catechesis by Which Christ Himself Becomes the Continual Mystagogical Catechist through the Mass

A book review of A Devotional Journey into the Mass: How Mass Can Become A Time of Grace, Nourishment, and Devotion,  by Christopher Carstens (pub Sophia Institute Press).

In this book, author Christopher Carstens takes us through each key element of the Mass—from how to enter the church through to how to respond to the dismissal. Grounding his discussion on the sacramental thought of Romano Guardini, he takes us on a journey into the heart of the liturgy.

Why the Benedictine Rule is Psychological Training for a Joyful Old Age

I once heard a discussion on the radio about preparation for old age. The focus was on making sure that you had sufficient financial resources and so there was talk of the need for people to start making contributions to pension plans early. One person offered a slightly different approach. While putting money away for the future was not a bad idea, he said, people should think about what they are actually going to do when they retire, furthermore they should avoid getting into the trap of living the whole of their working lives as though its only purpose is to provide for retirement. Why not try to find a way of earning money that you enjoy, he said? Then you will want to work after the age of 65 because you enjoy it and so reduces the amount of money that one needs to save; and makes the time both before and after retirement more enjoyable. As he pointed out, there is danger of being so fearful of being able to support yourself after 65 that the whole of you life prior to it becomes a waiting game in which retirement is a sort of 'secular afterlife', a reward for the drudgery of work. He had a point, I think. Firstly, pension schemes are not guaranteed however prudently one saves. Also, it is good to think about what we can do to enjoy life, before and during retirement, as well as having the money to do it.

Given that my physical capabilities are going to decline with time, shouldn't I be ready to change what do as I get older so that life is always interesting. I am 52 and so am aware of this happening already. I am reminded of my grandpa here. While he did the same job all of his working life which he enjoyed until he was 65, he always had strong recreational interests as well. He was an nationally known rugby player until he was thirty, when I he gave up rugby and took up tennis and golf. For the next 20 years he played for the local tennis club and got a golf handicap of five. Then at the age of 50 he gave up tennis and golf and took up the even more sedate activity of bee-keeping, which he did until he died at the age of 83 (at the end he was recruiting neighbours and family members to help him move the hives onto the moors for the heather-honey season). Bee-keeping was the hobby that he followed for the longest time and which occupied him during all of his retirement.

Ultimately, our happiness in life rests on more than having hobbies, of course.; but the principle of anticipating how we change as we get older applies as much to consideration of doing what is right and good, I suggest. This is where, for the Christian, consideration of one's personal vocation comes in. If we find out what God wishes for us to do then we will be fulfilled and He will give us the means by which we can do it.  I have written a number of articles on guidance that I was given and will repost one of these in the next couple of days.

In recent years I have seen a number of people approaching their last days and suffering from debilitating illnesses. This has made me think about the lives of those who cannot do anything without great help, cannot concentrate long enough on anything they observe to derive mental stimulation from it and cannot communicate with others easily. Is Christian joy on offer to them too? One has to believe so...but how?

It is distressing to see someone dying of cancer unable to do much more than watch television and eat when fed. I saw someone whom I loved slowly decline so that she was not able to concentrate or draw on her memory sufficiently well to engage in conversation. What made it worse was that she was aware of the decline in her mental abilities and was getting frustrated at not being able to respond and say what she wanted to. Unable to move without help, she was chair bound most of the day and would fall asleep periodically (perhaps under the effect of the pain controlling medication) and so could not even watch a television program long enough to follow what was going on and enjoy it.

I could not help trying to put myself in her place and imagine how life must be for her. How does one cope when there is little pleasure and continuous discomfort? It was a difficult question for me to answer, so I prayed that she could know that her family loved her. I prayed also that her capacity to respond to God's grace was always present, even as all other faculties decline in power. Then, I hoped, even in this last stage of life Christian joy can be hers too. Like the joy of the Christian martyrs who can inspire us, that there is a joy for her too that transcends the physical suffering and increasing isolation.

I have reflected also on what may be the future for me. Like any of us, it is quite possible that I will have to face such a situation myself. How would I fare? Is there any preparation anyone can make?

The only answer I could think of was a life of prayer, meditation ordered to participation in the liturgy. The Rule of St Benedict sets out one approach to such a life. As a Benedictine Oblate (of Pluscarden Monastery in Scotland) I have studied the Rule a little and have tried to adapt it a lay life.

A spiritual life should be focussed on the worship of God in the sacred liturgy and be a balance of participation in the liturgy itself, (the Mass and the Liturgy of the Hours); quasi-liturgical prayer, which is structured prayer that echoes the patterns or content of the liturgy, such as praying the psalms, repetitions of the Jesus Prayer or the rosary; and personal prayer. The liturgy is the activity from which all other human activity is derived and to which it ought to lead us.  When this is understood, it makes all our everyday, common-or-garden activities fulfilling, while at the same ensuring that they don't become our primary goals in life.

In this context we can see that as we get older and our physical capabilities decline we will be forced to do things that are less physically demanding. If at this point we have developed the habits, then we will reach naturally for things that are in harmony with the principle of ordering our lives to union with God; and the activity of worship and prayer itself will start to occupy a greater proportion of our time, through default as well as desire.

For those I saw who were in their last days, even prayer becomes more difficult, they could not read a psalter, for example and gain anything from the text. What then? I remember being told of a lady who silently prayed the rosary all day in her chair. She could do this because the memory of it was indelibly imprinted on her mind through years of habit, so that her prayer was second nature, almost unthinking. This highlights the value of memorizing some set prayers when you can so that they are there to draw on later. I would go for some short psalms and the gospel canticles and the Jesus Prayer.

What if even the ability to do this has gone? It seems to me that contemplative prayer is what remains. Contemplation is a passive state of mind by which one is receptive to God's grace.  In his Rule, St Benedict insists on the regular practice of lectio divina (you can read about how to do it in my book, the Little Oratory or in more detail in a great book on the subject by Dr Tim Grey). St Benedict describes the fourfold process: three are active - reading, meditating (thinking) and praying and the fourth is contemplation a passive, receptive state of mind that we are lead to by the practice of the first three. We do not judge the success of this, incidentally by how feel during the process or even by the number of good ideas that might, occasionally, jump into our heads. Grace is not felt directly.

For Benedict,  the 'work of God' in which we participate is the liturgy, and so I have always understood lectio divina as a discipline that is part of a training that deepens our participation in the liturgy and so allows for a fuller union with God. In praying the liturgy we move from moment to moment engaging in one or other of these four processes and these constitute the dynamic of the exchange of love that is our goal.

It may be that the people who I have described and in whom even the possibility of active prayer and worship is reduced, that contemplation is the natural activity that occupies most time. I would like to think so, at least. I do not know of any reason to believe that the power of the faculty of the passive reception of God's love in contemplatio is impaired by old age.

There is no accounting for who will respond to His grace but, to the degree that any of us can develop that faculty, the answer seems to be to include the regular practice contemplative prayer in your prayer life now, would be an important preparation for a joyful old age.

I have been doing lectio divina daily this since I pondered over these things. I also try to put aside time when I can be 'alone with none but thee my God' - these are periods when I just try to sit and be aware of and enjoy being alive, devoid as much as possible from stimulation. It occurs to me that it would a useful to develop such as skill when there is discomfort and lots of distraction going on around me so that I can learn to cut it out.  I will not always be able to control my environment and I might have to try contemplatio in a nursing room lounge when the television if showing Wheel of Fortune at a loud volume.

Another point is that the limitations I describe are not the preserve of the elderly. Some are born with severe physical and mental handicaps and it seems to me that they too might be unsung, natural contemplatives among us whose presence brings untold graces into the world for the benefit of all. As I understand it, God is not constrained by the sacraments and neither is He bound to act in ways that require mediation of the senses for us to benefit from them.

When all is said and done, we may be surprised to discover who has contributed the most to the good of the world and who has lived a life of Christian joy.

A Model for A Cultural Center for the New Evangelization

flogoGoing Local for Global Change. How About a Chant Cafe with Real Coffee ..and Real Chant?

There is a British comedienne who in her routine adopted an onstage persona of a lady who couldn't get a boyfriend and was very bitter about it (although in fact as she became a TV personality beyond the comedy routines, she revealed herself as a naturally engaging and warm character who was in fact happily married with a child). Jo Brand is her name and she used to tell a joke in which she said: 'I'm told that a way to a man's heart is through his stomach. I know that's nonsense - guys will take all the food you give them but it doesn't make them love you. In fact I'll tell you the only certain way to man's heart...through the rib cage with a bread knife.'  Well wry humour aside, I think that in fact there is more truth to the old adage than Jo Brand would have acknowledged (on stage at least). Perhaps we can touch people's hearts in the best way through food and drink, and in particular coffee.

There is a coffee shop in Nashua NH where I live called Bonhoeffer's. It is the perfect place for conversation. They have designed it so that people like to sit and hang out - pleasing decor, free wifi, and different sitting arrangements, from pairs of cozy arm chairs to highbacked chairs around tables. The staff are personable and it is roomy enough that they can place clusters of chairs and sofas that are far enough apart so that you don't feel that you are eavesdropping on your neighbors' conversation; and close enough together that you feel part of a general buzz of conversation around you. There is not an extensive food menu but what they have is good and goes nicely with the image it conveys of coffee and relaxed conversation - pastries, a slice of quiche or crepes for example. It  has successfully made itself a meeting place in the town because of this.


This is all very well and good, if not particularly remarkable. But, you wouldn't know unless you recognized the face of the German protestant theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer in the cafe logo and started to ask questions, or noticed and took the time to read the display close the door as you are on your way out, that it is run by the protestant church next door, Grace Fellowship Church. Furthermore a proportion of turnover goes towards supporting locally based charities around the world - they list as examples projects in the Ukraine, Myanmar, Ethiopia, Haiti and Jamaica on their website. Talks and events linked to their faith are organised and there are pleasant well equipped meeting rooms available for hire. I include the logo and website to illustrate my points, but also in the hope that if Bonhoeffer's see this they might push an occasional free coffee in my direction...come on guys!



Well, it was worth a try. Anyway, back to more serious things...the presentation of their mission does not even dominate the cafe website which talks more about things such as the beans they use in their coffee, prices and opening times and the food menu. The most eye-catching aspect when I was nosing around is the announcement of the new crepes menu! There is one tab that has the heading Hope and Life Kids and when you click it it takes you through to a dedicated website of that name, here , which talks about the charity work that is done.

I went into Bonhoeffer's recently with Dr William Fahey, the President of Thomas More College, just for cup of coffee and a chat, of course, and he remarked to me as we sat down that this is the sort of the thing that protestants seem  to be able to organize; and how we wished he saw more Catholics doing the same thing.

Cafe_SeatI agree. What the people behind this little cafe had done was to create a hub for the local community that has an international reach. It is at once global and personal. I would like to see exactly what they have done replicated by Catholics. But, crucially, good though it is I would add to it, and make it distinctly Catholic so that it attracts even more coffee drinkers and then can become a subtle interface with the Faith, a focus for the New Evangelization in the neighborhood.

I don't know how to run coffee shops, so I would be happy with a first step that copied precisely theirs - the establishment of coffee shop that competes with all others in doing what coffee shops are meant to do, sell coffee.  Then I would offer through this interface talks and classes that transmit the Way of Beauty, many of which are likely to have an appeal to many more than Catholics (especially those with a 'new-age spiritual' bent). There are a number that come to mind that attract non-Christians and can be presented without compromising on truth - icon painting classes; or 'Cosmic Beauty' a course in traditional proportion in harmony based upon the observation of the cosmos; or praying with the cosmos  - a chant class that teaches people to chant the psalms and explains how the traditional pattern of prayer conforms to cosmic beauty.

A yoga class that has the word yoga but is simply a adoption of the physical aspects would attract people who are open to spirituality. Yoga is very successful in turning people with no previous inclination to the spiritual to Eastern spirituality - so why not offer Christian mediation/contemplative prayer and incorporate this into the instruction. I once had discussions with a Dominican about the known prayer postures of St Dominic. He showed me some stick figure diagrams he had drawn to represent them. He thought that these could be the basis for a Christian yoga that engages people spiritually through a focus on the physical. I don't know if he was right, but something on these lines would be good.

Another way of engaging people who are then going to be open to mediation, chant and retreats is to have 12-step fellowship groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous meeting closeby. I am aware of several priests who go to AA and also many converts to Catholicism who were first given a faith in God through such groups. The 12 steps are a systematic application of Christian principles (without reference to the Church). The non-demoninational character of the groups does mean that people can be misdirected towards other faiths in their search, but if we were present to provide an attractive picture of the Faith, it would attract interest I am sure.

dsc_0405Another class that might engage people is a practical philosophy class that directs people towards the metaphysical and emphasizes the need of all people to lead a good life and to worship God in order to be happy and feel fulfilled. This latter part is vital for it is the practice of worship that draws people up from a lived philosophy into a lived theology and ultimately to the Faith. For it is only once experienced that people become convinced and want more. This works. When I was living in London I used to see advertisements in the Tube for a course in practical philosophy. These were offered by a group that had a modern 'universalist' approach to religion in which they saw each great 'spiritual tradition' as different cultural expressions of a single truth that were equally valid. The adverts however, did not mention religion at all but talked about the love and pursuit of universal wisdom that looked like a new agey mix of Eastern mysticism and Plato. The content of the classes, they said, was derived from the common experience of many if not all people and from it one could hope to lead a happy useful life. They had great success in attracting educated un-churched professionals not only to attend the class, but also to go in to attend  more classes and ultimately to commit their lives to their recommended way of living. They were also prepared to donate generously - this is a rich organisation. Their secret was the emphasis on living the life that reason lead you to and not require, initially at least a commitment to formal religion. Most became religious in time, which ultimately lead some to convert to Christianity - although many, because of the flaws in the opening premises and the conclusion this lead to, were lead astray too. It was by meeting some of these converts that I first heard about it. There is room, I think, for a properly worked out Catholic version of this.

wifiAlong a similar line are classes that help people to discern their personal vocation, again using traditional Catholic methods. Once we discover this then we truly flourish. God made us to desire Him and to desire the means by which we find Him. While the means by which we find Him is the same in principle for each of us, we are all meant to travel a unique path that is personal to us. To the degree that we travel this path, the journey of life, as well as its end, is an experience of transformation and joy.

11-sacred-heart-chapelDrawing on people from the local Catholic parishes I would hope to start groups that meet for the singing of an Office - Vespers and or Compline or Choral Evensong and fellowship on a week night; and have talks on the prayer in the home and parish as described by the The Little Oratory. This book was intended as a manual for the spiritual life of the New Evangelization and would ideally be one that supports the transmission of practices that are best communicated by seeing, listening and doing. These weekly 'TLO meetings' would be the ideal foundation for learning and transmitting the practices. They would be very likely a first point of commitment for Catholics who might then be interested in getting involved in other ways. It would enable them also to go back to their families and parishes teach any others there who might be interested to learn.

We could perhaps sell art by making it visible on the walls or have a permanent, small gallery space adjacent to the sitting area (provided it was good enough of course  - better nothing at all than mediocre art!). All would available in print form online as well of course, just as talks could be made available much more widely and broadcasted out across the net if there was interest. This is how the local becomes global.

What I am doing here is taking the business model of the cafe and combining it with the business model of the Institute of Catholic Culture which is based in Arlington Diocese in Virginia. I wrote about the great work of Deacon Sabatino and his team at the ICC in Virginia in an article here called An Organisational Model for the New Evangelization - How To Make it At Once Personal and Local, and have International Recognition. His work is focussed on Catholic audiences, and is aimed predominently at forming the evangelists, rather than reaching those who have not faith (although I imagine some will come along to their talks). By having an excellent program and by taking care to ensure that his volunteers feel involved and are appreciated and part of a community (even organising special picnics for them) Deacon Sabatino has managed to get hundreds volunteering regularly.

Another group that does this just well is the Fra Angelico Institute for Sacred Arts in Rhode Island run by Deacon Paul Iacono. I have written about his great work here. The addition of a coffee shop give it a permanent base and interface with non-Catholics and even the non-churched.

imagesI would start in a city neighborhood in an area with a high population and ideally with several Catholic parishes close by that would provide the people interested in attending and be volunteers and donors helping the non-coffee programs. It always strikes me that the Bay Area of San Francisco, especially Berkeley, is made for such a project. There is sufficiently high concentration of Catholics to make it happen, a well established cafe culture; and the population is now so far past 'post-Christian' that there is an powerful but undirected yearning for all things spiritual that directs them to a partial answer in meditation centers, wellness groups, spiritual growth and transformation classes, talks on reaching for your 'higher self' and so on. Many are admittedly hostile to Christianity, but they seek all the things that traditional, orthodox Christianity offers in its fullness although they don't know it. Provided that they can presented with these things in such a way that it doesn't arouse prejudice, they will respond because these things meet the deepest desire of every person.

Here's the additional element that holds it all together. As well as the workshops or classes I have mentioned I would have the Liturgy of the Hours prayed in a small but beautiful chapel adjacent to and accessible from the cafe on a regular basis, ideally with the full Office sung. The idea is for people in the cafe to be aware that this is happening, but not to feel bound to go or guilty for not doing so. I thought perhaps a bell and announcement: 'Lauds will be chanted beginning in five minutes in the chapel for any who are interested.'  Those who wish to could go to the chapel and pray, either listening or chanting with them. The prayer would not be audible in the cafe. So those who were not interested might pause momentarily and then resume their conversations.

From the people who attend the TLO meetings I would recruit a team of volunteers might volunteer to sing in one or more extra Offices during the week if they could. If you have two people together, meeting in the name of Jesus, they can sing an Office for all. The aim is to have the Office sung on the premises give good and worthy praise to God for the benefit of the customers, the neighbourhood, society and the families and groups that each participates in aside from this and for the Church.

When the point is reached that the Office is oversubscribed, we might encourage groups to pray on behalf of others also in different locations by,  for example singing Vespers regularly in local hospitals or nursing homes. I describe the practice of doing this in an appendix in The Little Oratory and in a blog post here: Send Out the L-Team, Making a Sacrifice of Praise for American Veterans.

As this grows, the temptation would be to create a larger and larger organization. This would be a great error I think. The preservation of a local community as a driving force is crucial to giving this its appeal as people walk through the door. There is a limit to how big you can get and still feel like a community. Like Oxford colleges, when it gets to big, you don't grow into a giant single institution, but limit the growth and found a new college. So each neighborhood could have its own chant cafe independently run. There might be, perhaps a central organization that offers franchises in The Way of Beauty Cafes so that the materials and knowledge needed to make it a success in your neighborhood are available to others if they want it.

I have made the point before that eating and drinking are quasi-liturgical activities by which we echo the consuming of Christ Himself in the Eucharist (it is not the other way around - the Eucharist comes first in the hierarchy). So it should be no surprise to us that food and drink offered with loving care and attention open up the possibilities of directing people to the love of God. If the layout and decor are made appropriate to that of a beautiful coffee shop and subtly and incorporating traditional ideas of harmony and proportion, and colour harmony then it will be another aspect of the wider culture that will stimulate the liturgical instincts of those who attend. (I have described how that can be done in the context of a retail outlet in an appendix of The Little Oratory.) We should bare in mind Pope Benedict's words from Sacramentum Caritatis (71):

'Christianity's new worship includes and transfigures every aspect of life: "Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God." (1Cor 10:13) Here the instrinsically eucharistic nature of Christian life begins to take shape. The Eucharist, since it embraces the concrete, everyday existence of the believer, makes possible, day by day, the progressive transfiguration of all those called by grace to reflect the image of the Son of God (cf Rom 8:29ff). There is nothing authentically human - our thoughts and affections, our words and deeds - that does not find in the sacrament of the Eucharist the form it needs to be lived in the full.'

So Jo Brand, we'll put away the bread knife and offer the bread instead!

Step one seems to be...first get your coffee shop. Anyone who thinks they can help us here please get in touch and we'll make it happen!





Cardinal Burke on the value of the liturgy in forming and preserving the faith

LISA JOHNSTON |  His Eminence Raymond Cardinal Leo Burke | Prefect of the Apostolic Signatura | Archbishop Emeritus of St. Louis in front of the shrine to the Sacred Heart of Jesus in the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis.In a recently published interview on, here, Cardinal Burke made the following statement about the value of the liturgy. The question asked by the writer, Izabella Parowicz: how can our worship of God help us stand up in defence of human life? The Cardinal's reply was: 'According to the ancient wisdom of the Church, the law of worship is essentially connected to the law of belief and the law of practice. Christ comes into our midst through the Sacred Liturgy, especially the Sacraments of the Most Holy Eucharist and of Penance, to cleanse our hearts of sin and to inflame our hearts with His own love through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Only when we have a strong sense of the reality of the encounter with Christ in the Sacred Liturgy will we understand the truths of the faith and the moral life, and what they mean for our daily living. This sense is fostered by a manner of celebrating the Sacred Liturgy with our eyes fixed on Christ and not on ourselves. It should not surprise us that the period of post-Conciliar experimentation with the Sacred Liturgy, a period which was marked by so many liturgical abuses, was accompanied by a loss of faith and by moral decline. If the Sacred Liturgy is seen as a purely human activity, an invention of man, it will no longer be true communion with God and, therefore, will no longer nourish the faith and its practice in everyday living.'

This simple explication of what is summed up in the ancient phrase lex orandi, lex credendi - rule of prayer, rule of faith. If we accept what he says, it tells us the when the faith is waning, we must look first at liturgical practice for the answer. Furthermore, given that the contemporary culture is an incarnation of the core priorities and beliefs of society, the greatest weapon we have for the evangelization of the culture is the liturgy. This is how we create a culture of life.

As an aside, this is precisely the principle that Leila Lawler and I had in mind when we wrote our book, The Little Oratory - A Beginners Guide to Prayer in the Home. This is promoting the idea of liturgical piety in the home that is derived from and points to the Mass. The Liturgy of the Hours is an overflowing of the Mass into the day and into our daily lives and the praying of the Liturgy of the Hours, therefore, is a supernatural key to the ordering of every aspect of our lives in accordance with a liturgical piety. So as well as focussing on the most important matter of the Mass, we should consider also the Liturgy of the Hours. Accordingly all Catholic devotions should support rather than distract from our liturgical practice. When all of this is harmonised the life prayer is one that makes ordinary living easier and not (as one might believe sometimes) a burden - an ever increasing list of things that I ought to be doing, and feel more and more guilty about when I fail to do them all.