Month: June 2012

A Thing Worth Doing Badly

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 Stepping into a strange church for Sunday Mass is invariably an adventure that evokes no little amount of trepidation; it is extremely difficult to know what to expect. So, two weeks ago, as a visitor in a strange town, I found myself wondering rather nervously what kind of Mass I had walked into. Would there be a borderline heretical homily? Sketchy changes to the words of the Mass? Liturgical dancers? 
At first it seemed like it would be middle-of-the-road: a quiet Midwestern parish with a school attached. The interior had obviously been built or redone in the 60’s, but there was nothing out of the ordinary, and it looked like the Mass would be conducted fairly well.
Until the music started.
From the opening hymn to the recessional, the entire Mass was accompanied by a lone soprano pounding bravely away on an electric organ, backed up by a heavy-handed snare drum. The hymns were all from the ‘70s and ‘80s: something about peace, and celebrating, and justice, and we are one people, and harmony—all punctuated by loud raps on the drum. “Let us build the city of God (BOOM-chh-BOOM) may our tears be turned into dancing (BOOM BOOM).” I gritted my teeth, closed my eyes, and strained all my attention to focus on the readings, the homily (which was decent), and the holy sacrifice of the Mass—all to no avail. When the final “Thanks be to God” was muttered—full of genuine gratitude, on my part, that it was over—and the congregation crowded quickly out of their pews and into the parking lot, I staggered out into the sunshine feeling as though I’d just been subjected to the very dregs of liturgical artistry.
Now, come to think of it, I have heard some genuinely dreadful liturgical music in my time, both lyrically painful (“Lord of the Dance,” anyone?) and musically inappropriate (saxophone jazz at the Easter Vigil), but this Mass marked a particularly depressing milestone in my experience. It wasn’t just the inane lyrics; it wasn’t just the Disney-esque, vague ‘70s melody; it was the fact that, in addition to already being bad music, it was done so badly.
I wondered why this fact was what had made the music so distracting and frustrating to me, and I remembered that “A thing worth doing,” as G.K. Chesterton once said, “is worth doing badly.” This essentially means that if something is worth doing, then it is still worth doing even if we’re not very good at doing it. Take, for instance, my kitchen garden. It’s not acres of rich, abundantly fruitful lands that yield bucket-loads of harvest; it’s a little square of Southern clay with a few scraggly vegetables vines and a berry bush or two. But growing a garden, planting seeds and reaping the fruit of your own labor, is a thing worth doing, so it’s worth doing even if one is not wildly successful at it.  Learning how to paint is something worth doing—even if the artist isn’t a Rembrandt or Michelangelo. Writing is likewise something worth doing, even if it’s done rather badly—which is my excuse, anyway.
But, on the other hand, I think it would be safe to propose a corollary to Chesterton’s principle: if a thing worth doing is worth doing badly, then a thing not worth doing is not worth doing badly. It’s not worth it to fight a war over a mile of territory; it is doubly idiotic to wage such a war badly. It’s not worth doing to plant a tree in the middle of the desert where it does not belong; it would be even less of a worthy task to badly botch the job of planting the tree.
I would not have minded the mind-numbingly-mediocre music at Mass half so much, I think, had it been goodmusic done badly. If the most a parish could get was a cantor singing “Holy, Holy, Holy” a capella, then very well: singing “Holy, Holy, Holy,” is a thing worth doing. If all that the music ministry has to offer, however, is badmusic done badly, then it would be better to have no music at all. Insipid liturgical hymns from the ‘60s onward are not worth doing, nor is a snare drum snapping an electric organ into meter. Why, then, must we have these things at all? Would not a reverent silence be far more conducive to prayer, to raising the mind and heart to God?  
Such, at least, were my thoughts as the last pounding strains of “Here In This Place” faded away and I exited the Mass that Sunday, hoping desperately that somehow the Church will see a renewal of beautiful liturgical music—done well—in my lifetime. It will mean something of a revolution: throwing out the banal hymnals and the drums; putting more time and greater effort into seeking out good musicians, and cultivating the taste of younger generations to appreciate more traditional hymns. Meanwhile, I am resolved to stoke the fires of that revolution, by making it clear that the bad music done poorly has to go: give me good music at Mass (even done badly) or give me death—I mean, silence.
 

On Getting a Haircut and Social Networking

Author’s note: an updated version of this article was recently published on Catholic Exchange, so I’ve replaced the old version here with the new version.

Once in a blue moon, I get my hair cut at a hair salon, and last week afforded me one of those rare occasions. The lady who cut my hair was a thin middle-aged woman with a stiff dark bob and arms heavily splattered with a rainbow of tattoos. She was efficient and excellent at her job; she also was sensitive to the fact that I, unlike many of her customers, was not a “talker,” so she resorted to talking to the other stylists as she combed and cut my hair. 
“I had a dream last night that I was pregnant again,” she laughed, turning to the woman on her right.

“Oh, Lord . . .” groaned her companion, shaking her head.
“I know, isn’t that nuts,” my stylist replied. Glancing at me in the mirror, she explained that she had sterilized herself years previously. “So it’s like not even possible,” she said.   
I squirmed uncomfortably as the conversation swiftly moved on to other topics. Somehow I felt guilty at having missed an opportunity. There sat I, a Catholic young adult with a solid Catholic education under my belt, one of the John Paul II generation that was supposed to change the world and restore all things in Christ. And I couldn’t even bring up morality in front of my hairdresser as she casually dismissed the sacred, life-giving powers of human sexuality. I just sat there, shrinking behind my big black cape and trying to melt into the salon chair.
As much as I failed to do so, I did desperately want to plant a seed, ask a question, open up an opportunity. That’s the way personal evangelization starts—or so I’m told, because, as you probably have guessed, I’m awfully bad at it. When face-to-face with a chance to speak the truth to one who thinks differently, I always seem to utterly flub it. I miss the cue and fail to speak before the topic changes, or I cannot think of what to say until hours later.

If that sort of evangelization was the only kind out there, I would be, to put it mildly, sunk. But fortunately for people like me, in our day and age, when every faithful Catholic is called upon to be a witness for Christ in a world that has rejected Him, there is a multitude of other chances, in many different fields and through many approaches. In particular, in these times there is an immeasurably vast new ground to be won for Christ, and Pope Benedict XVI has been particularly vocal in urging young Catholics to use the new tools at their disposal to evangelize that new world.
I’m speaking, of course, of the internet. There is incredible potential for evangelization in social networking like Facebook, in YouTube, in the blogging world, in Twitter. Those of us who can use these tools, who maybe even are skilled at using them, have an increasingly important responsibility to use them well, to use them for the greater glory of God. Although they are most often used to transmit secular messages, these sites can and should be used to actively proclaim the truth.  As our contemporaries, dissatisfied and longing for happiness, wander about the cyber-world seeking not only entertainment but fulfillment, we should be out there letting them know where that abiding fulfillment can be found: in Christ.

Take Facebook, for instance. It’s a social networking stream that, if not heavily polluted, can at least be pretty pointless—a hub of mindless procrastination. But precisely because it can reach so many people, it’s a perfect outlet for Christians to witness to the truth—to post about it, talk about it, proclaim it in that very public world by showing that they’re not afraid to identify themselves with their Faith and show the world what living the Christian life looks like. Catholics on Facebook can share their faith experiences with those who otherwise may never come into contact with faithful Christianity.  Moreover, because social networking is exactly that—a network—when someone connects with one person who lives the Faith to the fullest, he often quickly comes into contact with a whole group of others who are doing the same. For that reason, Catholics can use the same outlet to actively spread the Catholic position on key issues. For instance, I know an actively pro-life young woman who frequently posts pro-life images and news to her Facebook feed—and all of her “friends,” and her “friends of friends,” Christian, agnostic, or whatever, pro-life and pro-choice alike, will stumble across that taste of the truth as they browse their Facebook Newsfeed over their morning coffee—and even more people will see it if it has “likes” or comments.
That’s just one small example; but there are many other avenues of using new media for Christ that are rapidly rising in importance and influence. Catholic bloggers have in recent years dramatically increased the volume of the Catholic voice on the web on political issues, pro-life and pro-family topics.  Catholic magazines and news sites that have moved online in recent years are now reaching a much larger audience. Young adults gifted with video-editing skills have also taken huge strides in promulgating the faith to an image-and-sound-byte driven world. Such tools and opportunities are available for free to everyone with internet access; so virtually every Catholic has the chance to make the best of them. On the web, we can also expand our ability to evangelize in new media by connecting with and supporting other Catholics across the world in ways we were never able to do previously, so that together we can speak about Christ to a generation that is giving Him the cold shoulder.
St. Paul in Athens

It’s not my charism to argue apologetics over the fence with my Baptist neighbor or catechize my hairdresser on sexual morality as she evens out my bangs. There are gifted individuals that can do that, and it’s a special responsibility they are called to exercise prudently; I hope that maybe it’s a skill I can pick up with time. But right now, for those of us who aren’t so adept at being vocal in those situations but still want to be Christian witnesses, there are thousands of less time-sensitive opportunities right at our fingertips. Across the internet, young adult Catholics who understand this new world have a special opportunity to proclaim Christ, to speak the truth, and to get the message of the Gospel “out there” where our secular counterparts can find it.