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Friday, July 5, 2013

Harry Potter, fake Latin, and the quest for mystery

Dominus tenebrarum vobiscum?

We've been big Harry Potter fans in my family. On our recent trek to Nebraska to visit UNL with Desi, he read Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire the entire trip, and then came home and started another one. He already has them all memorized from listening on CDs as a child, and from bedtime reading by his mom. But all of us have read all the books and seen all the movies. J.K. Rowling is a kajillionaire partly because of us. 

And if you’re a Catholic, you’re at least marginally aware of the hubbub that has barely abated around Pope Benedict’s 2006 motu proprio allowing the reintroduction of the 1962 version of the Latin Mass back into the stable of licit expressions of the Roman Rite, side-by-side with the Latin text of Paul VI’s Novus Ordo and its more widely used vernacular translations. This, in turn, has awakened a fascination with Latin: not studying it so much as dropping it into writing to connect with the fad. Blissfully unaware of conjugation and declension, Latin noobs leave their pseudo-intellectual droppings everywhere, unassisted by spellcheck that hasn't been programmed for ancient languages.

Not surprisingly, I think these two events are related; not directly, but through the human search for transcendence.

We humans hunger for transcendence. We want to be more than ourselves. We want there to be more to the universe than what we can see and experience, and for the most part, we want it to be wonderfully benevolent. Because there is evil in the world, for the sake of a benevolent ineffable, we're willing to accept what's unseen and evil as part of the universe as well.

That leaves a couple of possibilities. There either is a beyondness to things, and an unseen world that might include an uncreated Creator, or there isn't and we're making it all up. If there is, then, because it's unseen, we can either have a good idea about what is out there for us, or we can attach ourselves to counterfeits of the unseen. If things are unseen and outside the world of empirical evidence, they have to reveal themselves in some way to us to let us know who they are. Failing that, we just make them up, more or less in our own image and likeness, with power that we wish we had.

I think the fascination with Harry Potter (and throw in vampires, zombies, and aliens), the love-hate thing people have with horror films and even just slasher films that make us voyeurs over death, high art, and Latin are all the result of our hunger for transcendence. We want to be better than we are, we want to think that the universe can save us from ourselves through the deus ex machina of magic. If we can't understand it, there's a good chance it's better than we are. (This is a natural consequence of the Enlightenment, don’t you think? Knowledge is power, understanding is control.) Harry Potter's spells are pidgeon Latin and other languages (expelliarmus; reducto; lumos; patronus; crucio; impedimenta; avada cadavera) because they belong to the world of the occult that is safeguarded by shamans who know the language.

The high art thing is connected but off on a different track, and I don't want this to be completely unreadable. I'm definitely not saying that Bach and Verdi are not transcendent, only that the pursuit of art as transcendence is a dead end. Art is a finger pointing at the moon, but it's not the moon itself. Furthermore, it's not the only finger pointing at the moon. Furthermore, the moon gets its light from elsewhere, so let's not go there. High art does not either result from nor engender value living. As Nathan Mitchell carefully and with nuance pointed out in recent articles in Worship magazine, the same Germans who were putting Jews, Poles, homosexuals, and religious into the ovens at Dachau and Auschwitz were listening to the work of Wagner and Beethoven.

The only genuine transcendence is agape, the kind of love that has transcended the ego and need for reward and notice, and gives itself without desire or hope for repayment. And it's not a sacrament of love, either—it's genuine self-gift, and there's no substitute for it, including the Eucharist. The Eucharist is a kind of rehearsal of it, and a keeping the memory alive by acting like we are children of one father, equals, people who are bound to remember someone whom we believe to be the actual Word, the revelation of the Beyond-in-itself, the incarnation of the invisible God. What we believe about the Eucharist as divine presence notwithstanding, or that it is a foretaste of a banquet that is both present and eternal, it is not a substitute for agape, it is a sacrament of agape. What I mean is, without the life of Jesus, with its meals that demonstrated solidarity with victims of prejudice, religious bigotry, nationalism, and so on, without that day-to-day table ministry that so infused his life and the life of his disciples that it became identified with his presence, the Last Supper truly might have been the last supper. What infected that ritual meal, whether it was a seder or a sabbath meal or just one leading up to pesach that year, was the life that preceded it, every meal shared with him for the previous thousand or so days. It is that entire complex of meals that is the origin of the Eucharist.

However, it's much easier for us to believe in the rigmarole surrounding the ritual than it is to actually love other people and advocate for them and for a world that is free of hierarchies based on power. It's easier to believe that a ritual in a dead language that defies the understanding of the uneducated (yes, education is for the privileged) and does not invite their complicity is real transcendence than to look for it in loving human interconnectivity. It's easier to believe in the transcendence of complex music than it is to join in the chorus of the great unwashed singing their democratic songs.

Ultimately, we are required to get back to loving God with our whole heart, soul, mind, and wealth (this is closer to the meaning of “strength” in Deuteronomy), and loving our neighbor as ourselves. The problem we have is transcending the self on behalf of the other, or the Other. But it is in doing that that we are part of the paschal mystery, and only God can enable that. Meanwhile, we can be distracted from God's intentions for us by imagining that with a few magical words and pious incantations, whether from the Liber Usualis or at Symphony Hall, we can participate in the transcendent world. Can’t get rid of an enemy, or see in the dark, or find an ally in a fight? Maybe a few words of Latin can fix things for us. Can’t conquer poverty, stop war, feed the hungry, or welcome Spanish-speakers into your country? Maybe a few words of Latin will make the troubles go away. Can’t seem to summon a sense of God in your community by surrendering to the mystery of agape that holds the body of Christ together? Maybe some incomprehensible incantations by a shaman will make you feel better. That’s what we tend to do - substitute the counterfeit for the real thing. What we want is community; what we settle for are parishes. What we want is love; what we settle for is piety. What we want is mystery; what we settle for is incomprehensibility.

The trouble with seeking beyond the created world for transcendence is that the sole Occupant of the transcendent world is coming in this direction. God, being agape itself, can’t help that. That’s the meaning of the incarnation. There is no substitute for God, though the counterfeits are legion. The search needs to go on down here, focused on the self-gift of Jesus Christ, the image of the invisible God. In the memorable pre-2011 words of the Eucharistic Prayer for Reconciliation, “You gave him up to death so that we might turn again to you and find our way to one another.” Ultimately, finding our way to one another is the only transcendence there is. 

Ecce! As promised in the gospels, that is where we encounter the reign of God as well. Taste and see. No Latin or magic required.