Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Fifth day: the Great Novena to the Holy Spirit

As we know, there are both public and private forms of prayer. The public forms are those in which there are more or less regular structures or formulas - the "rituals" which follow printed scripts - yes, just like the script of a theatrical production, it specifies what is to be done and what is to be said. Such things have existed as long as human records have existed to record them - there are fragments from Egypt dating back perhaps five millennia. It is important to note, as we noted last time, that the script is not the prayer. This ought to be clear to us technical folks: we know that the orchestral score is not the symphony, the source code is not the program-in-execution, the CD is not the rock-and-roll drums and guitars blasting out of the speakers - even while there is some strong relation between these things.

The problem, of course, is that us technical folks don't even quite believe this - which is clear and easy. Oh yes. It takes quite some practice for someone to learn to perform a given piece of sheet music on a given musical instrument - but the concept of performance, and the general ideas governing that mystical five-line thing with the splendid squiggly treble clef and those clusters of black dots - why, that can be learned in an hour or maybe even less. You don't gasp at the complexity of a cookbook set next to the prepared meal, do you? Why should you then gasp at those other mystical pairs? Please. Sure it is hard to learn the physics and the electrical engineering and various other stages of development necessary to produce a CD (I mean a compact disk, not a certificate of deposit!) - but again, you could learn the general method, the why and the wherefore, of those stages in an hour. Yes it would take longer than the time it takes for you to pull the CD out of its plastic case and wedge it into your player - but you mean to say you BELIEVE IN IT as if it were MAGIC? Oh, no, no no!

I will omit, for obvious reasons, a repeat of this emphasis about computer programs - but believe me, I could make it, and at even greater length. (Some of my friends and I have started calling computers "the magic box" - the thing about which almost no one knows what it does or how it works, but which when you touch it, you become intelligent beyond the power of words to describe! How sad.)

But the same thing applies also to prayer - and especially to the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. I don't know why - unless it is that people don't want to spend even an hour to learn what it's all about. I know not everyone is going to spend the requisite time to really learn its structure, its whys and wherefores, its history and so forth - but surely we can learn enough to appreciate its wisdom and beauty.

Since I am a computer scientist, I could draw the obvious links to operating system design - and there are plenty... Here you whine - Doctor, please, aren't you forgetting this is the CHESTERTON blogg? Oh, no I am not. Indeed, one of the best hints of this strong link comes from GKC's writing! It is quite surprising:
In the course of a certain morning I came into one of the quiet squares of a small French town and found its cathedral. It was one of those grey and rainy days which rather suit the Gothic. The clouds were leaden, like the solid blue-grey lead of the spires and the jewelled windows; the sloping roofs and high-shouldered arches looked like cloaks drooping with damp; and the stiff gargoyles that stood out round the walls were scoured with old rains and new. I went into the round, deep porch with many doors and found two grubby children playing there out of the rain. I also found a notice of services, etc., and among these I found the announcement that at 11.30 (that is about half an hour later) there would be a special service for the Conscripts, that is to say, the draft of young men who were being taken from their homes in that little town and sent to serve in the French Army; sent (as it happened) at an awful moment, when the French Army was encamped at a parting of the ways. There were already a great many people there when I entered, not only of all kinds, but in all attitudes, kneeling, sitting, or standing about. And there was that general sense that strikes every man from a Protestant country, whether he dislikes the Catholic atmosphere or likes it; I mean, the general sense that the thing was "going on all the time"; that it was not an occasion, but a perpetual process, as if it were a sort of mystical inn.
[GKC "The Conscript and the Crisis" in A Miscellany of Men]
A perpetual process - this is about as literally precise a term from operating systems theory in computing as you will ever find. But it is far more. It is biblical:
For from the rising of the sun even to the going down, my name is great among the Gentiles, and in every place there is sacrifice, and there is offered to my name a clean oblation: for my name is great among the Gentiles, saith the Lord of hosts.
[Malachias 1:11]
From the rising of the sun to the going down. Yes, the kind of thing that is "going on all the time". In your computer, there are perpetual processes, programs unlike all the rest, that run without ending. (It is a superlative scholastic joke to say that their "end" is to not end!) But the mystery of the operating system is far more than this. It is most Christian, and most Eucharistic. The operating system seems to some to be the thing in control - they think of the "Master Control Program", the famous electronic villain in "TRON" - but they do not understand the truth of its existence, the purpose of every Program is to serve its User!

You must begin to think as Chesterton - no, you must begin to APPLY the Chestertonian methods to other things, not just to World War I or to Shaw's plays or to Blake's paintings. There is here, in your operating system, hidden deep within your computer, a mysterious suggestion of a great biblical dictum:
Even as the Son of man is not come to be ministered unto, but to minister and to give his life a redemption for many. [Matthew 20:28]
The word "minister" is just the Latin for "servant", hence this passage is also translated: "The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve..." The system is there to serve.

Ah, but you do not like this electronic technology? You find it too magical? It's not. It's very straightforward, and can be taught, that's why it is called "technology", the study of an art! (Oh, you didn't study Greek? Neither did I, but I know enough to help, and I have Liddell and Scott too!) Well, let's try something else, maybe closer to you, and more familiar.

Do you know about the engine in your car? Do you serve it, or does it serve you? You must give it gas and oil and other maintenance, but does it not wait patiently in your driveway, in the parking lot, does it not go when you press the gas and stop when you press the brake? Ah... but then you have learned that a great lesson, indeed, the most amazing of all lessons to be found in the Gospels, since it was not taught by Jesus, but by a pagan.


Oh yes. It is so marvellous, that the very words of that pagan are recited in every Mass, yes, we Catholics are so catholic (the Greek for universal) that we adopted a pagan prayer and use it "from the rising of the sun to its setting". Because, if you understand that the car obeys, that it is under your authority, then you have grasped the famous Pagan Parable preached by the Centurion to Jesus:
And when Jesus had entered into Capharnaum, there came to him a centurion, beseeching him, And saying, Lord, my servant lieth at home sick of the palsy, and is grievously tormented. And Jesus saith to him: I will come and heal him. And the centurion, making answer, said: Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldst enter under my roof; but only say the word, and my servant shall be healed. For I also am a man subject to authority, having under me soldiers; and I say to this, Go, and he goeth, and to another Come, and he cometh, and to my servant, Do this, and he doeth it. And Jesus hearing this, marvelled; and said to them that followed him. Amen I say to you, I have not found so great faith in Israel.
[Mt 8:5-10, emphasis added]
Yes indeed. Those emphasized words are spoken at every Mass - and they are indeed a prayer (a petition for assistance) coming from a pagan (the Centurion). But the parable is a lesson in the nature of authority, and it is good that we study it.

I have one other point to make about the Mass, which might be a bit quarrelsome, but I wish to propose it for your consideration, since it gets to a difficult matter, and is intimately connected with the question of how such a spectacular and public prayer can also simultaneously be most private and personal. Here it is:

The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is a re-presentation of Calvary, and is sometimes referred to as the "Unbloody" sacrifice of the cross - though of course the blood is there, just as it was that Good Friday almost 2000 years ago. In some mystical manner, without concern for space and time, we who attend Mass are made to be present in actuality at the One Sacrifice on that little hill that afternoon in early spring... The question about "participation" might therefore be voiced as "How do we participate in the Crucifixion?" Are we the soldiers, nailing hands and feet, gambling on His robe, standing guard in bored indifference? The on-lookers jeering and challenging? Or are we standing silent nearby, opening our hearts and minds to the mystic truth of the God Who Became the Victim? Perhaps you might recall how Chesterton put it, in trying to emphasize the novel truth of the Mass, something missed perhaps because (as Father Brown says in "The Three Tools of Death") it is too big to be seen:
...nobody notices it, because it is not secret but public; because it is not cruel but humane; and because in that antique Italian idolatry, it is not the priest but the god that died.
[GKC The Resurrection of Rome CW21:455]
In other words, we can and should participate with our heart and mind, even if we are not otherwise called upon to move or speak according to the specified script. It is a profound mystery that we can be there at all, and we need to begin to take it to heart. Chesterton tried, again and again, by his use of novel vantage points of description, to bring the common things which everyone neglects back into view. It is the same thing with Mass. We are to try to bring this Great Event back into our view, daily if possible, even if we resort to automotive mechanics or to operating systems theory, for by that means "my name is great among the Gentiles, saith the Lord of hosts."

After all, even these things, the work of human hands, are not to be excluded from singing the Divine Praise:
And every creature which is in heaven and on the earth and under the earth, and such as are in the sea, and all that are in them, I heard all saying: To him that sitteth on the throne and to the Lamb, benediction and honour and glory and power, for ever and ever.
[Apocalypse/Revelation 5:13]

Perhaps we need to begin to think again that all human work, be it software or cars or CDs, ought to be fit to the praise of God. We might rejuvenate our world - and that, as you may recall, is the first psalm of the Mass:
Introibo ad altare Dei.
Ad Deum qui laetificat juventutem meam.

I will go in to the altar of God.
To God who gives joy to my youth.

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