Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Ghosts in the Vials

A New Zealand couple recently sold at auction two vials that they claimed contained the souls of a pair of ghosts exorcised from their house. Like many, my first reaction was to dismiss their claims as superstitious foolishness, but consider a pair of cultural markers.

The first is Nintendo’s popular Zelda video game franchise. In The Ocarina of Time, there are ghosts called poes that come out at night time on the field of Hyrule. If Link (the hero of the story) defeats a poe, he can capture it in a glass jar and sell it to an old woman in the village. It sounds an awful lot like our New Zealand couple, and maybe they got the idea from Nintendo, but I wonder where the Nintendo game developers came up with the idea.

The idea of capturing souls was a central plot element in Dean Koontz’s book, Forever Odd, the second in his Odd Thomas series. Odd Thomas, for those unfamiliar with the character, has a gift: he can see the spirits of dead people who, for whatever reason, have not moved on from this world. In Forever Odd, the antagonist is an occultist who has discovered Odd’s (Odd is the heroes first name; Thomas is his surname) gift and wants to possess it. She proposes to do this by capturing his soul in a stone that, she says, already contains thirty other souls. This would be done through a dark voodoo rite to capture his ti bon ange. Presumably, the process is similar to that used to make zombies.

I’d love to be able to shrug all this stuff off as so much hokum, but is it? All my life, I’ve heard exorcists warning about the dangers of trying to communicate with spirits, and the New Zealand couple claim that their two haunting ghosts (an old man thought to be a former resident of the house and a powerful and disruptive little girl) “turned up after the couple experimented with a Ouija board.” Even the Bible relates that Saul visited a witch who summoned the spirit of the prophet Samuel. When we profess in the Nicene Creed our belief that God created all things, seen and unseen, we are stating our belief in a supernatural reality inhabited by spirits – angels and demons and perhaps ghosts and disembodied souls.

We have not been told that it doesn’t exist; we have been told to avoid it, because it is dangerous. Folks who play with fire eventually end up getting burned, and in this case, the burning can be eternal. Remove the Ouija board from the story of that New Zealand couple, and there would be no haunting, no need for an exorcism, no auction and no buyer. As for the buyer, I don’t want to know what he or she has planned for the ghosts in the vials.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Old Man's War

This post is not about the John Scalzi book, which I read and enjoyed very much. Rather, it’s about one man’s struggle to defend his castle against invasion by a foreign species.

My sisters (the local ones) and I got together on Sunday to celebrate Dad’s 83rd birthday. I think that it’s fair to say, and I don’t think that he would disagree, that he is an old man. For years, he has fought an on-going war against the neighborhood squirrels. It has become customary for his grandchildren to give him squirrel-themed gifts, as a way of poking fun at his single-minded crusade.

Dad has never been a hunter. His war is strictly defensive in nature. If the squirrels leave him alone, he’s content to leave them alone. He is convinced, however, that the squirrels are boarding his home via the power lines and squatting in his attic. They are mounting an invasion, and they must be repelled. He has deployed live traps, not out of humanitarian concerns – he will not extend the rights of the Geneva Convention to his furry-tailed rivals – but rather because a rifle enfilade in town would alarm the neighbors and invite an unwelcomed visit from the local constabulary.

There have been times, as in any war, when mistakes have been made. He has learned the hard way that a ground-based live trap is as likely to catch a skunk as it is a squirrel. Any squirrel that is so unfortunate as to be captured (and let’s face it, they wouldn’t have been caught if they weren’t guilty) cannot look forward to a prisoner exchange. In this war, Dad doesn’t take prisoners – they are permanently removed from the conflict with what I am certain the old man considers swift justice.

The war continues. The squirrels keep recruiting new troops to send on their raids. Their supply of reinforcements at times seems limitless. The old man, on the other hand, has just grown another year older. Eventually, the commander’s baton will have to be passed on to a new general. Either that, or the rodent menace will finally have its victory.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Kings and Princes

I’ve been reading the biblical books of Kings and Chronicles lately, and I am struck by how quickly and thoroughly the People of God slip from faithfulness to apostasy. A cursory survey of the history of heresy should be enough to convince ourselves that we, as Catholics, are not immune to the same temptations.

As rulers, sons don’t necessarily follow their fathers. Hezekiah was King fo Judah at the time when the northern tribes of Israel were conquered by Assyria and sent into exile. He was faithful and true to God. The scripture says of him, “Hezekiah trusted in the Lord, the God of Israel. There was no one like him among all the kings of Judah, either before him or after him. He held fast to the Lord and did not cease to follow him; he kept the commands the Lord had given Moses. And the Lord was with him; he was successful in whatever he undertook” (2 Kings 18:5-7a).

How is it, then, that his son turned out so rotten? “Hezekiah rested with his fathers. And Manasseh his son succeeded him as king . . . He did evil in the eyes of the Lord, following the detestable practices of the nation s the Lord had driven out before the Israelites . . . He bowed down to all the starry hosts and worshipped them . . . He sacrificed his own son in the fire, practiced sorcery and divination, and consulted mediums and spiritists. He did much evil in the eyes of the Lord, provoking him to anger” (2 Kings 20:21, 21:2, 3b, 6). Manasseh led the people of Judah astray. In doing these things, was he out in front of the people, or was he reflecting the will of his constituency? Does it matter? Is it really an excuse to say before God that you’re just giving the people what they want? Isn’t that the excuse that Aaron tried to give in building the golden calf?

The point that I’m drawing from all of this is two-fold. First, no matter how I live my life, my kids are going to have to make their own choices. While I can hope and pray that they grow up to be righteous adults, they might disappoint me and choose to swim in the cultural soup of the world. God will judge them; it’s out of my hands. Conversely, even though I might be a worm’s turd, my kids might turn out well, as Manasseh’s grandson, Josiah, did.

The second point that I’m drawing is that I can’t count on the prevailing culture to keep me honest. The fact that I live in an area that is predominantly Catholic doesn’t mean that I can assume that the cultural morals are always going to be based upon and informed by Catholic principles. Manasseh worshipped idols in the Jerusalem temple. We cannot assume that everything condoned by our local parish is spiritually good and healthy and pleasing to God. Rather, we must always return to the trustworthy sources: Scripture, Tradition, and Magisterium.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

30% More Beef

Burger King has been running radio advertisements for their new Steakhouse Burgers. Their big selling point appears to be that their burger has 30% more beef than McDonald's 1/3 pound Angus burger. Who, I asked myself, needs 30% more beef than 1/3 pound in their hamburger?

Then I saw a television advertisement, and now I gotta have one! I haven't given in to the craving yet, because the nearest BK is thirty miles away. Apparently, though, I am the guy that needs 30% more beef.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Healthcare Prediction

I would like to make a prediction. If the healthcare reform legislation currently on the floor of the House of Representatives is passed, healthcare costs will rise, and Republicans will say that it is because of the legislation forced through in a very partisan way by the Democrats. On the other hand, if the current bill is defeated, healthcare costs will increase, and Democrats will say that it is because of Republican obstructionism that blocked the reform that was needed. Either way, costs are going to go up, and somebody will get the blame. That's called spin, and it's one of the things I hate about politics (others including, but not limited to, the corrupting influence of money and the character assassination committed upon opponents).

My personal opinion (it's worth what you pay for it) is that the Democrat bill will do more harm than good by doing two things (setting aside for the moment the evil of Government-funded abortion). First it will start us down the road to a system of nationalized healthcare in which attempts to control costs will be made by bureaucratized boards who effectively ration care. These are the famous "death panels." They won't explicitly condemn anyone to death, rather they will rule that your loved ones don't qualify for the medical treatment that will extend their life. The second harm of the Democrat-favored reform is the damage it will do to the already fragile economy, in the form of increased taxation.

That's not to say that we should do nothing. We need to address tort reform and pre-existing conditions. There are, of course, details that would need to be worked out, but I see no reason why such focused and limited reform cannot be drafted and enacted in a bi-partisan fashion. The cost of premiums would be adjusted by market forces to accommodate the new coverage requirements.

Unless, that is, some of the politicians controlling the process are only really interested in feathering their own beds. If that is the case, then our only hope is to defeat them completely.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Incredibly Sacred

Anybody with children has probably seen the Pixar film, The Incredibles. It tells the story of two super-heroes, Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl, who get married and then to into a super-hero relocation program after the trial lawyers turn public sentiment against the "supers." The two have children and try to raise them in anonymity.

There is a scene in the film where their son, Dash, who has the gift of super-speed, is frustrated that he is not allowed to use his ability. He has a special gift, he argues, to which his mother replies that everyone's special. "Which is another way of saying no one is," he answers glumly.

Why do I bring up this scene from the Incredibles? Because of something that I read this weekend, in which the author was trying to assert that "everything is sacred: all places, all of creation, all of the times in our lives are sacred." To apply Dash's logic, that means that nothing is.

I can agree that all of creation is good, and can lead to an encounter with God. It's possible to meet God in a grove of trees. But in that case, you don't encounter God there because the grove is sacred, the grove becomes sacred because that is where you encounter God. When Moses encountered the burning bush, the voice told him to remove his shoes, because he was standing on sacred ground. This is sacred ground. When Moses left the area and left the presence of God, he was, presumably, no longer on sacred ground, and could place his shoes back on his feet.

Every sacramental celebration is an encounter with the divine and is, therefore, sacred. They typically take place is a consecrated space - a space set aside in a special way for sacramental celebrations. The consecration makes the space (i.e,, the church or chapel) sacred. When we start speaking in the language of universal sacredness, we risk losing our appreciation for the unique character of the truly sacred. If the grocery store is sacred, then why not offer mass in the bread aisle?

I hope that the words I quoted were just not well chosen, and that they would be withdrawn and revised if questioned. It is representative, however, of a dangerous attitude. We cannot afford to treat the good as sacred, nor can we afford to treat the sacred as merely good.

Remember how we started with the Incredibles? Well, the villain in the Incredibles is an inventor who goes by the name of Syndrome. Just before he's captured by Syndrome, Mr. Incredible learns that Syndrome has killed off nearly every other super. "You mean you killed off real heroes so that you could *pretend* to be one?" Syndrome replies, "Oh, I'm real. Real enough to defeat you! And I did it without your precious gifts, your oh-so-special powers. I'll give them heroics. I'll give them the most spectacular heroics the world has ever seen! And when I'm old and I've had my fun, I'll sell my inventions so that *everyone* can have powers. *Everyone* can be super! And when everyone's super-- [chuckles evilly] --no one will be."

Friday, March 5, 2010

Apocalyptic Dreams

I had an interesting dream the other night. It was three o’clock in the afternoon, and I was at work. It was dark outside, and we were all sitting in our cubicles without any electricity, while the secretary went from person to person letting us know that the boss was sending us home.

Why was it dark, why was there no electricity, and how did I know that it was three o’clock? Given the tradition that Jesus died on the cross at three o’clock and that darkness covered the land while the earth shook and rocks split (see Matthew 27:45-56), the whole thing was frightfully apocalyptic.

The Phone in the Confessional

National Public Radio reported Wednesday that a French company has set up a telephone service for folks who want to confess their sins, but aren’t contrite enough to actually go to a church to speak with a priest. The French bishops are, understandably, not on board with the project.

To it’s credit, the service advises callers that anyone in a state of mortal sin needs to make a real confession

Stories like this one often remind me of the parish in Northern Virginia that we belonged to during my navy years. One of the confessionals had a telephone handset on the wall next to the screen. The telephone was to be used any time that Father Most, who was hard of hearing, was on the other side of the screen. The phone in the confessional led me many times to wonder whether one could, in fact, call-in a confession. The validity of the sacrament, after all, does not require any physical contact between the penitent and the confessor. Priests routinely bless television audiences, and some might argue that, if the priest offering the blessing intends it, the blessing could even extend to viewers of encore presentations. Could a viewer with a DVR then rewind the program and receive multiple blessings? There’s a hint of snark in the question, but the question remains, I think, legitimate.

And yet, a blessing is not a sacrament, and there is a lot of material that suggests that the sacraments do not have an infinite range (in the normal order of things – God, of course, is not rigidly bound by such rules, as the Centurion would surely attest). Viewing a televised mass from home does not fulfill the Sunday obligation, yet listening to a mass from an adjoining chamber (e.g., a crying room for parents of infants and toddlers) does. It is not, therefore, a line-of-sight phenomenon.

There are practical considerations in the matter of confession, as well. Privacy and the potential for eavesdropping is very real concern. There may be other concerns as well, on a pastoral level. There exists, as in all things, a potential for abuse. It is, I am convinced, a bad idea, and it is probably a violation of Canon Law [UPDATE: Yep, Canon 964], making it illicit. Whether or not it is licit could change over time. The question that I am asking is whether such a confession would be valid, and I think that the answer is that if the priest hears the confession in real time and says the words of absolution, the sins are absolved, subject to all of the usual disclaimers (nothing intentionally withheld, penance performed, etc.).

If I’m wrong, please let me know!

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Cohabitation and Marriage

The New York Times recently reported on a Study by the National Center for Health Statistics which found that “couples who live together before they get married are less likely to stay married.” This is not news to anyone who cares about traditional marriage and pays attention to statistics and attitudes towards the social institution. What was surprising and shocking, to me at least, was a statistic cited by the authors of the study.

The authors found that the proportion of women in their late 30s who had ever cohabited had doubled in 15 years, to 61 percent.

Can that statistic possibly be correct? Note that the authors define cohabitation as “people who live with a sexual partner of the opposite sex.” The statistic suggests that, if you randomly select any ten women in their late 30s, six of them will have lived with a lover. The definition, however, might not rule out married couples. Most of us, when speaking of cohabiting couples, specifically mean unmarried couples. Later in the article, however, we learn an additional statistic.

The study found that, over all, 62 percent of women ages 25 to 44 were married and 8 percent were cohabiting.

That suggests that the study did not lump married couples in with unmarried cohabiting couples. In other words, the 61 percent figure would be applied to cohabitation outside of marriage. Taking a peak at the full report is not reassuring. The authors of the study did indeed exclude married couples from the cohabiting numbers. The percentage is actually higher (63 percent) for women in their early thirties, and the report is based on information gathered in 2002, so the numbers today are probably even worse.

Fear for the future and pray for your children.