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Shape-Notes and Psalms

Have you heard of Shape Note Hymn Singing? I hadn’t until recently.

It is a traditional form of protestant hymn-singing, experiencing a small resurgence in parts of the country. Variously called “Fasola”, or “Sacred Harp”, it is beautiful, striking, sometimes boisterous and even raucous, and weirdly haunting. If you are not familiar with it, check out this clip. Going Home Mountain Shape Note singing – YouTube

The style (and many of the hymns) arose out of poor, rural, musically illiterate Appalachian communities, and are joyous celebrations of release from hard lives. They often follow the line of what were once called Negro spirituals (and are now properly African-American spirituals). Compare “Swing low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home” or “Deep river, my home is over Jordan”, with “I’m glad that I am born to die, from grief and woe my soul shall fly, and I don’t care to stay here long!”  They all speak from hard lives of misery, poverty and oppression, and they look forward to rest and relief in heaven.  Even putting aside the extremity of suffering that slavery added to poverty, the common themes are striking.  Life is hard but heaven is near; and so we turn to God.

This theme is also reflected in the Psalms, the ancient hymnal of the Jews.  Many psalms are prayers to God for relief from external attack by enemies, as in Psalm 70: “Make haste, O God, to deliver me; make haste to help me, O Lord.” The voice of misery that opens Psalm 22 is so strong, asking “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”, that Jesus himself cries it out in his agony on the cross.

But what about those who do not suffer from external oppression?  In our modern lives of prosperity, security and comfort, what about those of us who suffer only from the burden of our own sins?  One of the most moving of the psalms for me has always been Psalm 130, (the De Profundis): :”Out of the depths have I cried unto thee, O Lord.…If thou should mark iniquities, O Lord, who shall stand?”

Many psalms embody the trust we can and must place in God as we navigate the uncertainty of life. Psalm 46: (“God is our refuge and our strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore will we not fear, though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the sea.”)

All the psalms include elements of praise, some of them as their primary thought, like Psalm 8 (“O Lord our God, how excellent is thy name in all the earth”). Others incorporate thanksgiving and praise, such as Psalm 66 (“Make a joyful noise unto God, all ye lands.”)

And my favorites are the ones that praise the Lord for the beauty and wonders of the world He has made. Psalm 19: “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament shows forth his handiwork.”  This one is particularly apropos for those of us who find the beauty of nature to be a roadmap to its divine origin. (See my various postings of NASA photos of the galaxies and nebulas.)

What are we to conclude from all these variation, all these different subject matters and tones of voice?  Simply this: there are many paths to God. They vary only according to our needs.  

But ultimately all paths lead to God, if followed with open eyes and heart. (And, for me at least, my ears.)



Farewell, vain world! I’m going home!
My savior smiles and bids me come,
And I don’t care to stay here long!
Sweet angels beckon me away,
To sing God’s praise in endless day,
And I don’t care to stay here long!

I’m glad that I am born to die,
From grief and woe my soul shall fly,
And I don’t care to stay here long!
Bright angels shall convey me home,
Away to New Jerusalem,
And I don’t care to stay here long!

For more on Shape-Note Singing, see Sacred Harp Singing – YouTube

For more AFRICAN AMERICAN SPIRITUALS, see African American Spirituals Lyrics

Cadaver Impeachment Indeed

I see that Mr. Hans Moleman has just posted a wry reflection on the race to  impeach nearly ex-President Trump before he leaves town.  Hans (I call him Hans because we are good friends) calls this “the Cadaver Impeachment”, referring to the Cadaver Synod that tried and condemned the rotting corpse of former Pope Formosius, in the ninth century AD.  They also repealed all his acts, including his ordinations of bishops. 


You can read it at mistermoleman.comHans doesn’t post very often these days (he’s quite old), but when he does it is worth a look.

Letter to a Concerned Friend

[A friend of mine (a good Catholic mother as well as daughter of longtime family friends) wrote me recently expressing her distress and concern over the present state of our politics and society. She asked for my thoughts; here they are.]

Hi. I am glad you asked for my thoughts on the current situation, because this is helping me sort them out – a bit. I hope this helps.

Our political life has become much more polarized and hostile in recent years. This may be because the issues involve culture and morality in addition to economics and defense. Elections were always important, deciding who is the best person to lead us, the best way to preserve peace, and the fairest tax system.  But now they are also about re-defining morality, and even what we may say out loud.

Choosing the best person for the job is important; character counts.  We need good people in the White House and Congress. But policies are also important, and now far more important than ever before.

When government re-defines morality (abortion) or reality (same-sex marriage, transgenderism), politics moves into very dangerous territory. The so-called “life issues” are at the heart of who we are and how we deal with reality.

These things are of concern to many, but especially to religious believers: Catholics, Protestants, and Jews.  The push to re-define morality is a direct attack on all who believe that the biblical and common-sense view of reality are the correct basis of morality.

These cultural or moral issues are usually defined in absolute terms, and that can give rise to extremism all around: extreme opinions, extreme decisions, and extreme actions.      This can leave little room for (and little interest in) compromise. But compromise is essential to a stable democratic society.

We haven’t seen much appreciation of compromise in recent years, especially from the left.  The years-long rioting in our cities (by “Antifa” and “BLM”), along with the riot-tolerant leftist bias of the media, have been very frustrating for many Americans.  And now we face a period of time in which the left is in near-total control of our government and media.  Tough times ahead.

Prayer, for our friends and for our enemies, will be more important than ever, if we are to retain our faith and our sanity. Without religion, the natural result of left-wing violence is right-wing counter-violence.  But for those of us claiming to be Christians, that is unacceptable.  

My duty, as a Christian and a citizen, is above all to put myself on the side of morality, as I understand it through a conscience informed by biblical teachings.  That can make for a difficult decision at election time, as in 2016 and 2020, when one side is clearly supporting a more moral agenda, but is doing so through the person of a man of very poor character.  Trump is a bully and a hot-head; but the Democratic Party agenda was and is  dramatically hostile to Christian values (and even to their open expression). People who like and admire Trump tend to agree with his agenda, and had no trouble voting for him. Those of us who dislike him but want to vote for a moral agenda faced a tough dilemma. The worst possible choice is to vote for bad policies because we think the candidate is “nicer”.

But I have a Christian duty to think, speak, act, and even vote with humility. I must never forget that I can be wrong, and that disagreement must still be done with love.  If we keep a humble and loving heart, God will not let us go far wrong.

As for Covid-19, the Coronavirus, I think it is simply a nasty infectious disease that we haven’t known how to treat.  The Trump administration has done a good job, especially in developing the vaccine in record time.   The left has tried every shabby trick in the book to blame Trump for each and every death.  And Trump has, as usual, let his temper and bullying get in the way from time to time. But it is important to remember that this is a worldwide plague, starting with China and devastating every nation on earth.

My wife and I are careful but not crazy: we wear masks whenever we go into a store, we avoid crowds, and we will get the vaccine as soon as we can.  

You ask about QAnon, the conspiracy theorists.  I do not buy into it.  Conspiracies no doubt exist, but in most cases bad things result from individual actions. Looking for conspiracies is rarely helpful, and often harmful to our ability to function. In the recent voting, for instance, I suspect there was some cheating that stole votes from Republicans; but it could not possibly have been enough to change the national results.  In light of four years of constant vicious and untruthful attacks on him, it does not surprise me that Trump lost; it rather amazes me that he got as many votes as he did.

The bigger problem is our society’s drift towards “modernism”, meaning a belief that new ideas are always better than old ones.  The same drift carries us away from the oldest truth we know, which is God.

Here are my suggestions for getting through these strange and difficult times.  Pray often.  Trust in God. And don’t hesitate to visit with a priest to discuss any issues that trouble you – even political issues.  And we (you and I) are also blessed with the good and loving counsel of your Mom and Dad.  Give them my love.

Let me know if any of this helps, or if I have missed any of the points that interest you.  Or if I need to clarify anything. I am happy to help if I can. And I love you for asking.

Efficacy of Prayer?

I am fully convinced of the necessity of prayer (after all, everyone prays), and of the benefit I receive from praying. My prayers change me, internally, in my soul.  St. Thomas Aquinas calls it spiritual refreshment of the mind, and I can truly feel it.

But does it do anything else?  Does it actually benefit or help those I pray for?  If so, why?

Note: I do not ask how; if God wants to grant my prayers, it is certainly within His power.

But why?  Do I have some special “pull” with God?  If I ask Him to heal my sick brother, will He do it because I asked?  Why not heal all who are sick?  Does He then withhold healing from those who have no brother to pray for them? That doesn’t sound like Him.

Aquinas vigorously defends the efficacy of prayer, citing ”impetration”.

“The effect of prayer is threefold. The first is an effect which is common to all acts quickened by charity, and this is merit. The second effect of prayer is proper thereto, and consists in impetration...the original intention, to which God looks chiefly, suffices to attain this effect…The third effect of prayer is that which it produces at once; this is the spiritual refreshment of the mind.”  St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica II-II Q. 83 Art. 13)

Impetration being an unfamiliar term, I had to look it up.  The online Catholic Dictionary (1910) says:

(Latin: impetrare, to ask and obtain a request)

(1) The begging of favors.

(2) Theologically, one of the fruits of good works and especially of the Mass and prayer; one of the four ends of the Mass, which regards man. Impetration accompanied by right dispositions and certain conditions will infallibly gain us every gift and avert every evil.

This seems to state that my prayers for my brother’s healing will be granted if I pray with the right dispositions and conditions.  So it depends on me.  But what if I fail to pray for my brother?   Shall he suffer for my sin?  What of those with no one to pray for them?  Suffering for the sins of others is the role of Christ; for the rest of us, Jeremiah’s “sour grapes” injunction (31:29) holds: “Everyone will die for his own sins.”

I know that the Gospels repeatedly and forcefully tell us that God will grant our prayers, if we pray in Jesus’ name.

So my questions all have the same answer.  Yes, prayer (properly prayed) is effective, because Jesus said so.  It is revealed.

Revelation is given to us for those things we cannot ascertain by reason alone.  But revelation should not violate reason; it is to go beyond reason, not to contradict reason.  That is the thrust of Fides Et Ratio, as well as Benedict XVI’s Regensburg Lecture.  On the most basic level of non-self-contradiction, Christianity MUST MAKE SENSE.

I’d really appreciate it If someone can help me make sense of this. 

In the meantime, I’ll just keep on praying.

“Lord, I believe.  Help thou my unbelief.” (Mark 9:24)

Retirement And Its Uses

What is Retirement?  In one sense, it is a wholly negative term, defined by what it is not.  As darkness is the absence of light, retirement is the absence of work (at least paid work).  A void in time, created for both positive and negative reasons.  The upside is that retirement, if properly prepared for, allows one to live without earning a paycheck.  Savings, Social Security, and pensions can combine to make paid work unnecessary. The negative is that the aging process can reduce or destroy the worker’s ability to continue working.

So retirement is the non-existence of the need to work for pay.   Some continue working in “retirement”, or past the “usual retirement age” defined by Social Security eligibility, for various reasons: poverty (lack of savings), avarice (desire to accumulate wealth beyond need), or because they enjoy their work, or boredom (“what else would I do all day?”).

The “what-else-would-I do-all-day?” folks make an interesting point.  What do retirees do with their time?

They seem busy, but if you ask them what they are busy doing, you get confused answers; they’re not sure why they are so busy, they just are. (Spare me your senility jokes.)

(An enterprising sociology professor should get a big government/NGO grant to study this. An army of clipboard-armed grad students following old people around all day, noting their every move, would certainly liven things up in Phoenix or Broward County.)

All joking aside, the use of time is an issue for everyone; but circumstances push it to the forefront for retirees.

Some clever person has observed that “Millions long for immortality who don’t know what to do with themselves on a rainy Sunday afternoon.”  Coronavirus lockdowns have made this an everyday problem for many.

Time is a difficult thing to wrap one’s hands around.  In old age we have lots of time on our hands but very little time left on earth.  How does one deal with that?  We are told that time is relative, and anyone who has watched the last two minutes of an NFL or NBA game knows that to be true.

Some treat retirement as an extended vacation.  Others maximize social activities or hobbies.  The new-old (younger and healthier) retirees can turn it into a re-lived or re-imagined high school. Their idols are restored classic cars from the 50’s and 60’s.  Retirement communities like The Villages in central Florida cater to all these themes.

So retirement can be like an extended vacation, an endless life of socializing after golf, or an eternal summer before their senior year. (Or a post high-school “gap year” of travel.)

Is there another way of looking at it?

Jewish theologian Abraham J. Heschel touched on an aspect of all this in his essay “The Sabbath: Holiness In Time”.  He posits a contrast between time and space.

“Judaism is a religion of time, aiming at the sanctification of time.

Every one of us occupies a portion of space…Yet no one possesses time.  We share time, we own space.

Indeed, we know what to do with space but do not know what to do about time… We suffer from a deeply rooted dread of time and stand aghast when compelled to look in its face… ”

For Heschel, the Sabbath is the focal point of the Jewish sense of holiness in time.  And while retirement is generally defined in negative terms (non-work), the Sabbath reverses this.

“The Sabbath is not for the sake of the weekdays; the weekdays are for the sake of the Sabbath.  It is not an interlude, but the climax of living.  Three acts of God denoted the Seventh Day: He rested, He blessed, and He hallowed the Seventh Day (Genesis 2:2-3).”

(This may appear similar to the conception of our modern week-end.  As an old song* had it, “Everybody’s working for the weekend.” But that image of the weekend is closer to the high school model than to the Sabbath. Still…)

If the workweek is for the Sabbath, could that mean that the working life is for the retirement?

Prior to the last century, and even now outside the prosperous industrial world, it was and is certainly not the case.  Retirement, if it happened at all, occurred when the worker was no longer of any use in gainful employment, becoming an economic burden on his family (at best).

But here and now, retirement has expanded (even exploded) as a highly desirable, wealthy, and sustainable demographic.  Social Security in all developed countries provides an income floor.  Savings (often tax-sheltered) and private pensions add to the comfort level. The elderly are now, on average, among the most prosperous sectors of our society (there is, of course, a cohort of the elderly poor: but they do not predominate).  One has only to visit retirement communities in Florida, Arizona, or anywhere else warm, to see this.  Golf cart-accessible “villages”, boomer classic car gatherings (high school redux!), and second homes (for those who find Arizona too hot or Florida too muggy in summer) abound.

What’s wrong with that, one may ask? Nothing; but it is not the Sabbath.  It is not holy.

(Of course, modern retirement often resembles the customary modern secular sabbath, devoted to socializing and spectator sports.)

But can retirement be a time for awareness of and participation in the holiness of time?  If not “instead”, then at least “in addition”?  What would that look like?

Daily mass?  Morning and evening prayer?  Time with family?  Volunteering at the hospital, school, or food bank, to help those in need?

In fact, this describes the regular life of many good Catholics, even during their working years.  How much more so could retirement be?

Holiness in time: maybe  it isn’t just for Sundays anymore.


*1981 song by Canadian band Loverboy, containing the following:

Everybody’s working for the weekend

Everybody wants a little romance

Everybody’s goin’ off the deep end

Everybody needs a second chance,

The album was titled “Get Lucky”.

Moleman on…

My friend Mister Moleman just posted a new mini-essay, and it is worth a look.

Titled “Civilizations Can Die, Too“.  It is about…I can hardly say what.

Hope is the Hardest

I often think (and write) about Hope.  “The Little Girl Hope” was inspired by a French poet and a little neighbor of mine. “Hope Without Faith” was an early attempt to figure it out.

St. Paul recognized its place as one of the three theological virtues: “So Faith, Hope, and Love abide, these three.”  He then clarified that “the greatest of these is Love.

This is from the thirteenth chapter of First Corinthians, his justly famous ode to love.  “If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love…”  You know the rest.

He is of course correct.  Faith that does not result in love is nothing, because an unloving faith is a false faith.  Faith is what produces love, and love is faith in action.  Faith is input, love is output.  Hope works the same way.  Hope is another output of faith.

The greatest of these is love.” But the hardest of these is hope. For me, anyway, these days.

Of course, there is no hope without faith. That is why we so eagerly grab for easy false faiths.  But hope built on false faiths is false hope. Continue reading

When We (George Weigel and I) Consider Thy Heavens

I am glad to see the valuable and insightful Mr. George Weigel calling attention (on the insightful, valuable First to the powerful (if inadvertent) ministry of the NASA folks at APOD. If only all our taxpayer dollars were spent this wisely.

Weigel’s post is entitled “The Heavens Declare the Glory of God.” If that sounds familiar, it is from the often-quoted Psalm 19.

As my faithful readers know, I have been following APOD for years.

As I have said, every new image I see paints a wider, deeper, and more wonderful picture of the universe our Lord has created. And the incomprehensible distance grows between this universe and its beginning in an infinitesimally small seed in the palm of God’s hand barely 14 billion years ago.

Every APOD is a proclamation of the greater glory of God. “When I consider Thy Heavens, the work of Thy hands…” (Psalm 8:3)

Here are some of my favorites (most recent first): Continue reading

God’s Will? Really?

In a recent scriptural reading from First Peter, I was struck by this: “It is better to suffer for doing good, if this should be God’s will, than for doing evil.” (1 Peter 3:17) I wondered, as I often have: is it God’s will that some must suffer from the evil deeds of others?

I have always taken comfort from the inherent realism of Catholic doctrine. Evil exists because we have free will (or free choice), and we sometimes choose to do evil. It is really as simple as that. We cannot blame God for the evil that men choose to do, no matter how they hurt us in the process. This is the fundamentally difficult truth underlying the Holocaust.   Even though God could choose to intervene to prevent evil acts or their consequences, he does not do so because that would rob our freedom of all meaning. If we were free only to do good, then we would not be free, or human. Evil would not exist, and so neither would good.  I know that Christian theology declares that evil is only a negative, the absence of good; but without the possibility of evil, good also has no meaning in strictly human terms.  So for us, evil does indeed exist.

But does God will evil? Does he want person A to do evil deeds that hurt person B? I realize this is a central problem in the Bible. When Jesus prays in the Garden, he sets up an inherent dichotomy: “If it is possible, may this cup of suffering be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” This dual prayer reflects his dual nature, but in its ambiguity it raises the same question: Lord, do you really want me to suffer?

This could also be called the Judas problem. Does God really want Judas to betray His son?

In the Lord’s prayer, we ask (in a somewhat confusing subjunctive phrase) that “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” We are asking that God help us to conform our will to his, so that we may want (and do) what he wants us to do. But what if He wants me to hurt another?  Is that possible?

This also drags me unwillingly into a confusion I have over the expression “God’s permissive will.” It was offered as a quick walk-back explanation for Pope Francis’ incomprehensible announcement that the existence of many religions in addition to the true Catholic Church must be God’s will. Early in 2019, in a joint statement with an Islamic leader, he stated “Plurality and diversity of religions…are an expression of the wise and divine will by which he created human beings.” Can heresy be God’s will, I ask? Religions espousing hate and encouraging murder are God’s will?

Relax, we are told, it only means God’s permissive will: not what He wants, but what He allows. Which presumably includes the Holocaust, communism, Rwandan genocide, and every other waking nightmare in human history? Thanks for the explanation, but…

It doesn’t help.  I’m still confused.

Can someone help me out with this?

I Was Glad When They Said Unto Me…

[My friend Dan Wing has asked my thoughts on this strange Easter. Here they are.]

Dan, I have often shared with you my love for our Cathedral and how I miss it during the long winter months I spend in Florida. The parish I attend there is a sad affair, a church that feels old and tired. Literally old, as the congregation is almost 100% retired and 65+. And figuratively tired, as there seems to be no awareness of any of the challenges the church is now facing.

In Montana, I feel old; but in Florida, the world feels old. I prefer the Montana feeling. And throughout the Florida winter, I dream of attending mass in the magnificent Cathedral of St. Helena when spring arrives.

At my conversion, you helped me find my place in God’s world.  At the time I especially felt the truth in Psalm 122: “I was glad when they said unto me, let us go into the house of the Lord.” You and Cherie were two of the ones who most persistently said it unto me.

And I remember that joy I felt, and still feel, whenever I have the chance to enter our Cathedral.

Yet now I have been back in Montana for a month, and still have not been to a single mass here. I am of course grateful for the opportunity to be of help to my family in this time of crisis. And my heart leaps with joy whenever I see our beautiful Cathedral on the hill as I drive through town. But still…

I know you and so many others feel the same sense of loss that I do.   In my case I wonder if this sense of loss could be a part of the purgatory my sinful heart needs.

The emptiness that has often hit me this month has sometimes seemed like an extended Holy Saturday, a day with a conspicuous absence in its heart. Now, He is Risen!

But the challenge continues. How to keep the holiness of God in my heart without the help of the sacraments ad our priests?  Very hard, indeed. The Magnificat helps with regular devotions. And my daily diet of “Thank You, Lord” prayers finds no shortage of occasions.

But still I long for the day when I again hear “Let us come into the house of the Lord” for mass. And I think it may be a foretaste of the day I can walk joyfully into God’s full and complete presence. God willing.

Yours in Christ