Seeing double

Why is it that so many people are fascinated by others’ cultures, and yet seem so ashamed of their own?

It’s a question which has been bothering me recently. Cumlazaro has an interesting post about the need for Catholicism to take an active part in today’s culture wars, especially when confronting the growing number of people who self-identify as having no religion. He mentions the music, the Rosaries, the candles – all of those cultural markers for which Catholicism has been known for generations. The excellent Nightfever does just that – invites people in from the streets to light a candle in Church, where Catholics are adoring the Blessed Sacrament. The visitors are not asked to commit to anything, not even to stay; merely invited to light a candle and, if they wish, linger for a while in the prayerful atmosphere, surrounded by music and candlelight and face to face with Our Lord. Some depart straight away, but others do stay, and I can imagine that in a few cases a flame is lit, and not just in the Church.

So why, given the power of these cultural markers, do so many people seem ashamed of them?

It seems to me that a lot of the same people who are all for other people’s culture, are embarrassed by the traditions of their own faith. People seem fascinated, for example, by the Orthodox, and see nothing wrong with their elaborate vestments or complex chants. However so often Catholics are keen to ‘simplify’ their own religion: to use plain vestments or a drab altar; to have as few candles as possible; to replace chant with terrible hymns which owe more to 60s pop music than to Judeo-Christian tradition; to assume that people praying the Rosary are strange or old-fashioned; to try to minimise the ‘distance’ between people and sanctuary by inviting all the children to come and stand around the altar and hold their hands up with the Priest during the Our Father. (Actually I feel that the last one should go in a special category of Awful Liturgical Abuses, but at the same time it seems to stem from the general embarrassment of Priests with their Priestly state, which also seems to link back to the cultural embarrassment I was thinking about, so it’s going into the same rant anyway and no-one can stop me). Even modern Church buildings seem determined to move away from Western Catholic traditions and become as ugly, ‘functional’ or just plain weird and modernistic as possible. I have heard of at least one Church which was modelled on a Native American building. Why? Traditionally they weren’t Catholics, as far as I’m aware? Why not model it on Cologne Cathedral or Chartres or any other one of the amazing and wonderful houses of worship that belong to our own Catholic culture?

In saying all of this, I’m not trying to suggest that other cultures are in any way ‘less’ than our own. In fact, I think that’s part of the problem – that asserting the value of one’s own culture, in the Western world, is seen as denigrating other cultures. It’s not just the Church which has this problem of being embarrassed by its own traditions, but the secular world as well.

But for the Church it’s more dangerous; because when we try to ignore our culture, we risk losing those critical links to tradition – and tradition, after all, is our foundation. Without it, we are nothing. That’s why starting with getting rid of candles and chant and the Rosary and lovely vestments and beautiful altars and traditional buildings out of embarrassment, or fear of imposing our culture on others, or whatever it might be, starts us on that slippery slope that ends with lay people not really sure what their culture even is; Priests who are afraid to beautify their Churches because they are afraid of being called extravagant or ‘rad-trad’.

So people might judge us for having beautiful buildings and lighting candles and praying our beads and all the rest. So what? Better to judge us than to ignore us. Better to be an object of curiosity than a sad relic of the 1960s with no past and therefore no future.

I don’t have any solutions. But I know that a lot of Priests and lay people are fighting very hard to hold on to the culture; to make the Churches beautiful; to encourage people to take part in the cultural traditions of their faith. Let’s hope that in the future, they are the ones who prevail.


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