Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Is that infused knowledge flowing into your head?

Someone asked the above about my nifty alien girl icon, so I thought I'd explain that it was an illustration for an article about gene therapy, which (for now, anyway) is delivered to patients' cells using viruses. Our scientist girl is levitating a a virus, illustrating her mastery of gene therapy, and evidently she's also receiving some treatment herself through the nifty portal in her head. No doubt it will cure the nasty condition that's causing her skin to be green. I picked her for an avatar because she's a redhead, she does scientific stuff, she has magical powers, and she's stunningly beautiful, and almost all these things are true of me!

But I rather like that "infused knowledge" theory, and it would certainly explain why I have always felt myself qualified to pronounce judgments on topics about which I have studied very little and reflected even less.

In fact, now I almost feel like naming my blog "Infused Knowledge". It's suitably theological and highly pretentious! "Would You Like Blog With That" is merely a placeholder since I couldn't think of anything better and I don't want to change names until I've got one I truly like...

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

What I read in church today

This is why I love the Liturgy of the Hours-- you get readings like this, from the "Detailed Rules for Monks" by Saint Basil the Great (Bishop of Caesarea, born A.D. 329):
How, then, shall we repay the Lord for all his goodness to us? He is so good that he asks no recompense except our love: that is the only payment he desires. To confess my personal feelings, when I reflect on all these blessing I am overcome by a kind of dread and numbness at the very possibility of ceasing to love God and of bringing shame upon Christ because of my lack of recollection and my preoccupation with trivialities.
How about that? Sometimes I know how St. Basil felt. So did the men who wrote these lines:
Oh, to grace how great a debtor
Daily I'm constrained to be!
Let Thy goodness, like a fetter,
Bind my wandering heart to Thee.
Prone to wander, Lord I feel it,
Prone to leave the God I love;
Here's my heart, oh take and seal it,
Seal it for Thy courts above!
and these:
O, make me Thine forever!
And should I fainting be
Lord, let me never, never
Outlive my love for Thee.
I sing those hymns a lot. So anyway, then the Office of Readings included this from Psalm 68:
They see your solemn procession, O God,
the procession of my God, of my king, to the sanctuary:
the singers in the forefront, the musicians coming last,
between them, maidens sounding their timbrels.
I assume this is another Psalm about the Ark of the Covenant being brought into the Tabernacle. And it reminded me of a Eucharistic procession I saw a video of recently-- the priests and people processing through crowded New York streets with the monstrance under a canopy and boys in surplices swinging incense and all. The Old Testament is more vivid now that I'm Catholic. Practices that I used to think were superseded, I now see are not extinct at all but fulfilled.

For another instance, the OT reading for Mass today was from 2 Samuel 6, so I started reading the following chapter which begins:
Now when the king [David] dwelt in his house, and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies round about, the king said to Nathan the prophet, "See now, I dwell in a house of cedar, but the ark of God dwells in a tent."
Which is still true because my church has had construction problems that necessitated the removal of the walls, and so the sides of the church have consisted of white sheeting for about two years now and it's just like a tent! :) All right, that might not have been intended as fulfillment of Old Testament practice, but it should have been.

Continuing on in 2 Samuel 7, Nathan gives David a message from the Lord: don't build me a temple just now. Rather, says God, I will build you a house: "Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure for ever before me; your throne shall be established for ever." This of course is a Messianic prophecy; when Jesus came he was called "Son of David". King David, on receiving this incredible promise from God, "went in and sat before the Lord." That has to mean he went to the Tabernacle (the tent) to sit before the Ark of the Covenant (where the presence of God dwelt). I read this while I myself was sitting in our tentlike church before our own tabernacle, where the Body of Christ is kept. That's the kind of thing I'm thinking of when I say that the OT means more now that I'm Catholic. :)

Here's the beginning of the prayer David offers in thanksgiving as he sits before the Lord:
Who am I, O Lord God, and what is my house, that you have brought me thus far? And yet this was a small thing in your eyes, O Lord God; you have spoken also of your servant's house for a great while to come, and have shown me future generations, O Lord God! And what more can David say to you? For you know your servant, O Lord God! Because of your promise, and according to your own heart, you have wrought all this greatness, to make your servant know it....
When I read this today I felt I was praying the same thing. "Who am I, O Lord God, that you have brought me thus far?"

My future is very unknown right now. I haven't even got a guess of what I'll be doing a month or three months from now, or next year, or five years from now, or fifteen. I do know it won't be the same thing, since my last day of work is this Friday. Life has changed a lot recently, in my job and where I live and the friends I've made and the church I go to every day and my doctrine-- so I've been feeling unsettled. Then today I read God's promise to David and David's amazed reply, and I can't explain it: I felt as sure, as happy, as overwhelmed with gratitude, as David must have felt. I have no prophetic promise about the future, but there's this: "'I know the plans I have for you,' says the Lord." It's enough that He knows what I don't. His plans might not be the easiest but they will be the best--He has already given me such grace.

So that's some of what I read and thought today. And today wasn't at all unusual. I could write a long post nearly every day about what I've just read in Scripture and how cool it was. But it would take forever and you, lone reader who's lasted to the end of this entry, would be the only one to read it! Now, to bring this long post to a spectacular close-- no, I'll settle for just ending it. :)

Blogger line spacing problem

Hey, all you Blogger users-- if you've noticed that your line spacing gets messed up when you use the block quote function in your posts, and if that annoys you as much as it did me, go here and follow the instructions in the post and in the first comment. :)

Sunday, January 27, 2008

"The Surprise" by G.K. Chesterton

Chesterton's play The Surprise was published posthumously and never performed in his lifetime, but EWTN aired a filmed version of it just before Christmas last month. It was a very low-budget operation but I really enjoyed it, particularly since it had Mark Shea playing one of the guards and a great performance from Kevin O'Brien (an actual actor!)

The play includes this interesting challenge: is it possible to produce a captivating story without a villain? Can you have conflict, drama, tension and resolution when all of your characters are good and all of their actions are good throughout the entire play? Chesterton's answer touches on the intersection of God's sovereignty and man's free will, and his final line packs a lot of punch.

The question reminded me strongly of a scene I've always loved from J.R.R. Tolkien's The Two Towers. Tolkien had lots of villains, of course, and a few characters (Boromir, Denethor, Theoden, Eowyn, Saruman) who were interesting mixes of bad with good, or nobility with debasement, or wisdom with immaturity. But in one scene, the conflict comes from two of the most heroically good characters in the whole trilogy. It happens when Faramir's men capture Frodo and Sam in Ithilien. Faramir and Frodo are immediately at odds: Faramir is charged with the security of the border region and so he has to know what Frodo's business is and not let him wander free in Ithilien, while Frodo is charged with a quest to save all Middle-Earth and so he has to keep his secret and get away. Faramir won't torture Frodo, or even imprison him if he can possibly avoid it, and Frodo for his part will not lie to Faramir.

So the conflict is expressed in a conversation that is equal parts tense and courteous, in which Faramir and Frodo both use their wits and insight to the best of their ability and quickly grow in their respect for one another as they try to defeat each other. Resolution is brought about by an interruption from a third heroically good (if not terribly sharp-witted) character: Sam.

Needless to say, Jackson's movie butchered this scene and sadly altered the character of Faramir. But I loved the movies for what they did well, so we'll ignore the parts they couldn't handle.

There, two of my favorite authors in one post. :)

Book meme!

Adrienne nabbed me, and this looks fun. Here be the rules:

1. Pick up the nearest book (of at least 123 pages).
2. Open the book to page 123.
3. Find the fifth sentence.
4. Post the next three sentences.
5. Tag five people.

The two nearest books are a Bible and breviary, but rather than quote Scripture I'll grab the next nearest book: Fire Within by Thomas Dubay. The sentences called for form their own paragraph:
If the reader recoils at the thought of much solitude and at the unappealing prospects of fitting it into a crowded schedule, St. Teresa is an understanding mentor. She adverts to our needing to learn to like and to appreciate being alone with God, and she is mindful that we need to get used to it, that it does not come easily at the outset. Determination is therefore in order to see to it that the first things do come first, that we are prepared to provide the suitable time and place for growth to happen.
Oooh, I was planning on reading this book soon and it sounds like it'll be good. :) I tag whoever wishes to play!

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Spread the love award.

Thanks, Athanasius! I spread this love on to Adrienne and to the two blogs I enjoy most when not in a serious mood: Catholic World News' Off the Record and The Ironic Catholic.

Thursday, January 24, 2008


Late last night I drove home on the freeway in such pouring rain that the tires kicked up a permanent spray obscuring the road, and we all seemed to be floating. It was surreal.

This morning when I left Mass the clouds overhead were heavy, but they didn't extend to cover the sun in the southern sky. So I had the odd experience of driving in full sunlight and pouring rain at the same time. Naturally there was a very bright rainbow ahead of me, and a faint secondary rainbow with colors reversed outside of that. But there was also a very faint weird-looking partial rainbow immediately inside the bright primary rainbow. I'd seen secondary rainbows before, but I'd never seen nor heard of that third rainbow. Wikipedia tells all: it was a "supernumerary rainbow", which is
an infrequent phenomenon, consisting of several faint rainbows on the inner side of the primary rainbow, and very rarely also outside the secondary rainbow. Supernumerary rainbows are slightly detached and have pastel colour bands that do not fit the usual pattern. It is not possible to explain their existence using classical geometric optics. The alternating faint rainbows are caused by interference between rays of light following slightly different paths with slightly varying lengths within the raindrops.
How cool! I'm posting the picture from Wikipedia; that's pretty much what I saw.

A Minnesotan once informed me that California does not, in fact, have Weather. He thinks our mild change of balmy seasons fails to live up to the name. Yesterday at least he was wrong. :)

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

This is awesome

Two days ago a friend of mine had her car broken into, again. Her cell phone and GPS were stolen. (No, we're not at the awesome part yet.) Today I had an email from her. "The clown who took my cell phone apparently wasted no time giving his buddies the phone number. The voice mailbox is back under my control and there are four new messages! I am on hold with the police to give them the phone numbers...."
Ahhh, dumb crooks and smart friends!

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Why Robert P. George is "moderately pro-choice"

It's the 35th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision, and close on 50 million unborn children have been aborted in this country since then, so here's Robert P. George's explanation of his stance. I've seen this brilliant paragraph before but it was the Pertinacious Papist who reminded me of it today:
I am personally opposed to killing abortionists. However, inasmuch as my personal opposition to this practice is rooted in sectarian (Catholic) religious belief in the sanctity of human life, I am unwilling to impose it on others who may, as a matter of conscience, take a different view. Of course, I am entirely in favor of policies aimed at removing the root causes of violence against abortionists. Indeed, I would go as far as supporting mandatory one-week waiting periods, and even non-judgmental counseling, for people who are contemplating the choice of killing an abortionist. I believe in policies that reduce the urgent need some people feel to kill abortionists while, at the same time, respecting the rights of conscience of my fellow citizens who believe that the killing of abortionists is sometimes a tragic necessity--not a good, but a lesser evil. In short, I am moderately 'pro-choice.'
Hopefully this is unnecessary, but I will now quote the Papist's disclaimer that "the foregoing statement is not intended to be taken at face value, but as a parody and reductio ad absurdum refutation of the fallacious reasoning employed pervasively by proponents of a 'pro-choice' position favoring 'abortion rights.'"

Monday, January 21, 2008

The sound of Tolkien's voice

This shouldn't surprise me, since I really had no grounds for expecting anything else, but nevertheless I'm very surprised to discover from this recording of a J.R.R. Tolkien interview that he sounded exactly like Alastair Sim in A Christmas Carol. I half expected Tolkien to suddenly inform his interviewer that "There's more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!"

I love Lord of the Rings. Love it. But many better writers have expressed themselves on the subject, so I'll spare you my panegyric. :)

Spurgeon and Xmas

I admit it. For the second time I have purchased the wares of a women who opposes my religious beliefs. Yes, the one I blogged about before. At this very moment I'm wearing the flannel pants she made, underneath a long skirt, and it's incredible how warm and cozy I feel on this cold and rainy day.

Once again, my order arrived with a stack of literature. There didn't seem to be much hope that I'd get another anti-Christmas tract-- but I did! This one is titled simply "Xmas", and it isn't as firey as the first was. But at the end it offers an unexpected delight: a quote from C. H. Spurgeon's exposition of Psalm 81:
"Blow the trumpet in the new moon, in the time appointed, on our solemn feast day." (v.3) Obedience is to direct our worship, not whim and sentiment: God's appointment gives a solemnity to rites and times which no ceremonial pomp or hierarchical ordinance could confer.... Those who plead this passage as an authority for their man-appointed feasts and fasts must be moonstruck. We will keep such feasts as the Lord appoints, but not those which Rome or Canterbury may ordain.... When it can be proved that the observance of Christmas, Whitsuntide and other Popish festivals were ever instituted by a divine statute, we also will attend to them, but not till then. It is as much our duty to reject the traditions of men as to observe the ordinances of the Lord."
Now here's what amuses me about this. A few years ago for Christmas I gave my mom a book of Spurgeon's sermons, entitled... are you ready for this?... "Spurgeon's sermons on Christmas and Easter"! Yes, his sermons on the birth and resurrection of Jesus have been assembled into a book to celebrate two man-appointed, Rome-ordained feasts! Poor guy must be turning over in his grave.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Tozer's Rules for Self-Discovery

Wow, these are some good questions. From Carolyn McCulley's blog, it's A.W. Tozer's list of rules for self-discovery. Carolyn writes, "Where God stands in our affections can be discovered through the answers to this list below. If we want to know better our own weaknesses and affections for this passing world, the answers to these questions will provide illumination."

Rules for Self-Discovery
1. What we want most

2. What we think about most

3. How we use our money

4. What we do with our leisure time

5. The company we enjoy

6. Who and what we admire

7. What we laugh at

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Question to cradle Catholics

Has anyone ever heard of the following?
If it is necessary to walk by a confessional, it is considered polite to cover one's ear with one's hand, to show respect for the sanctity of the confessional. This is a pious practice even when no-one is in the confessional.
I'm all for pious practices but I've sure never noticed anyone doing this one. There are some churches where you'd have to just keep your ear covered as you walk down the aisle.

"An extremely conservative priesthood and hierarchy"

My workplace has access to the full text Time archives back to 1923, so today when some construction workers accidentally broke into a gas line and we all had to evacuate the lab, I went to the library and looked up all articles from 1968 mentioning the phrase "Humanae Vitae". (Wouldn't you?) This turned up exactly the sort of article I expected from Time-- there's much I could say but others have said it better. I just want to quote this astonishing sentence, speculating on the effects of that encyclical:
In some areas of the church with an extremely conservative priesthood and hierarchy, such as Los Angeles or much of Great Britain, it is probable that there will be countless quiet, unannounced defections from the church.
Yes, dear reader, that is what Time Magazine said. Great Britain and Los Angeles in 1968 were apparently reputed to have "an extremely conservative priesthood and hierarchy."

What happened???

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Price Influences Perception

This surprises me not at all.
A rose by any other name might smell as sweet, but slap on a hefty price tag, and our opinion of it might go through the roof. At least that's the case with the taste of wine, say scientists from the California Institute of Technology and Stanford University.
Antonio Rangel, an associate professor of economics at Caltech, and his colleagues found that changes in the stated price of a sampled wine influenced not only how good volunteers thought it tasted, but the activity of a brain region that is involved in our experience of pleasure. In other words, "prices, by themselves, affect activity in an area of the brain that is thought to encode the experienced pleasantness of an experience," Rangel says.
I think the same thing must be true of clothes. There's simply no other reason to spend $140 (or more!) on a pair of jeans. And don't get me started on the purses.

Monday, January 14, 2008

The Word Made Fresh

These posts from Alive and Young cracked me up when I read them last year. :)
Paris Hilton on Icons
Mr. T on the Mass

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Here's ham in your eye

A friend gave me a soup mix for Christmas. The mix included some beans and some instructions. I supplied the ham hocks, minced garlic, canned tomatoes, diced and sauteed onions, lemon juice, spices, and hours of labor. :)

I'd never worked with ham hocks before. I think it went pretty well. You boil 'em in the soup for a few hours, then take them out, cut off the choice bits of meat to add back to the soup, and throw away the fat and bone. I have learned, however, that when you yank back a layer of fat to get to the meat, it might slip out of your fingers and rebound pretty quickly, in the process flinging a particle of meat in your eye where it lodges stubbornly for a few minutes before (thankfully) falling out somehow.

The soup's very tasty!

Saturday, January 12, 2008

What's wrong with this prayer?

This evening I checked out a parish I've never visited before. From the bulletin I learned that January 22 is the 35th anniversary of the Roe vs. Wade decision, and "All Catholics are urged by the Diocese of Orange to participate in the Novena to End Abortion, January 13 - 22, 2008. The novena prayer is noted below in English and Spanish for your convenience." And here is the prayer in English:
Lord God, I thank you today for the gift of my life, and for the lives of all my brothers and sisters. I know there is nothing that destroys more life than abortion, yet I rejoice that you have conquered death by the Resurrection of Your Son. I am ready to do my part in ending abortion. Today I commit myself never to be silent, never to be passive, never to be forgetful of the unborn. I commit myself to be active in the Pro-Life movement, and never to stop defending life until all my brothers and sisters are protected, and our nation once again becomes a nation with liberty and justice not just for some, but for all.

Through Christ our Lord. Amen!

Do you notice anything odd about this prayer? Take a few moments to think about it if you'd like...

The prayer never asks God for anything!!! The subject of every single sentence is "I"! It's just, "Dear Lord, I feel this way about abortion and I will do the following things about it. Thanks for listening." That's good as far as it goes, but for Heaven's sake, I think we could use some divine assistance on this one.

But I am really glad the Diocese of Orange is promoting a novena to end abortion and I'd encourage anyone to do it. Perhaps with a different prayer. :)

Friday, January 11, 2008

Things I do that others are afraid of

Inspired by a conversation with a friend who agitates her parents by working late and driving even later, here is a list of things I do that other people think are risky:
1) Swimming immediately after eating. I don't care what they said when you were in elementary school; you're not going to get a cramp and drown.
2) Eating cake batter or anything with raw egg in it. Salmonella poisoning is very unlikely, but supposing I did get sick. Is it worth giving up cookie dough, one of the world's greatest pleasures, for a whole lifetime, just to avoid one bout of a sickness that's easily cured with antibiotics? Any cost/risk analysis will give you a clear answer on that.
3) Eating foods that have been in any way genetically engineered, milked from cows injected with growth hormone, or sprayed with pesticide. Show me the data that says any of the above is genuinely bad for my health or the environment, and I'll reconsider. But I need real data, not just "pesticide sounds bad and organic sounds good!"
4) Eating food dropped on the floor, as long as it's been brushed off and looks to be clean. Chocolate is chocolate. :)
5) Walking neighborhood streets at night. I haven't met a mugger yet. If I do, he might be sorry.
6) Eating Pringles chips made with the fake fat-- people are quite mistaken about what the studies actually said on that. You'd have to eat a whole huge bag to feel sick, and that would make you sick if it were regular chips too!
7) Hanging around people who are sick. I always get one cold a year anyway; might as well be yours.
8) Sitting slouched with crossed legs instead of with ergonomically correct posture. I have had a bout or two with meralgia paresthetica, but I don't think my position has anything to do with that, especially since my sister gets the same thing.
9) Running (carefully!) in heels. Haven't fallen yet, but stay tuned.
10) ("Meralgia paresthetica" is nothing but a fancy term for "numb thigh".)
10) Getting vaccinated. As long as it's for a disease that's sufficiently dangerous, or one I'm sufficiently likely to catch, go ahead and shoot me up.
11) Driving at late hours. I've got my cell phone and AAA. :)
12) Walking in the rain. It's never made me sick, and it's so much fun.
On the other hand, can I think of some things I'm afraid of that others aren't?
1) Walking in snow. I've seldom done it, so I slip and slide and fall and get wet and cold and think, "People in Boston must just not realize that Southern California exists, or they'd all be here." Once I went on a hike with about seven others and we had to go through snow. The others did fine, but I needed someone to hold my hand the whole way.
2) Bungee jumping, skydiving, parasailing, whatever. That's the kind of thing that would qualify as a war crime if you forced prisoners to do it.
3) Skiing and snowboarding, at least if we're talking about a steep slope. I've never tried either.
4) Rollerblading, especially downhill. I've done it, but it's a bit scary. Proper roller skates have stoppers on the toes, but with rollerblades you can't stop unless you use the back stopper (which is tricky) or turn sideways (which I never learned.)

Thursday, January 10, 2008

The PCR song

This video is so nerdy. I love it! Watch the guy who sings "Denaturing, annealing and extending"-- he must actually know what he's singing because his hand gestures are illustrating each word.

The PCR Song

There was a time when to amplify DNA
You had to grow tons and tons of tiny cells.

Then along came a guy named Dr. Kary Mullis,
Said you can amplify in vitro just as well.

Just mix your template with a buffer and some primers,
Nucleotides and polymerases too.

Denaturing, annealing and extending.
Well it's amazing what heating and cooling and heating will do.

PCR, when you need to detect mutations.
PCR, when you need to recombine.
PCR, when you need to find out who the daddy is.
PCR, when you need to solve a crime.

(repeat chorus)

Practice of polymerase chain reaction (PCR) may require a license.

In my current job I use PCR mostly to make probes; in my old job I did a lot of QPCR to determine how many genetically engineered cells remained in a patient's blood. Once I thought it would be really cool to be one of those crime lab techs who uses PCR to solve crimes, but when I studied the job openings on the LAPD's website, it appeared that such techs have to gather their own samples-- that is, they have to go out to the crime scene, sometimes in the middle of the night, sometimes with the dead body right there, and try to collect DNA... yeah, I wasn't feeling that brave.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Blog of the devil!

Last night I posted about Cardinal Newman, and tonight I learn from Fr. Z that he's about to be beatified. Mere coincidence? Or an indication of the strange influence my blogging has on world events? You decide!

I'm very happy with the news. Some of Newman's sermons had a huge influence on me when I began to read about the Catholic faith. He got my mind thinking in the right direction and led me to join the Church sooner rather than later, so I feel much affection for the man now. :)

Monday, January 07, 2008

Cardinal Newman fisks a Protestant

I'm going to post this big long thing in the hope that somewhere out there is another Catholic nerd who will find it just as hilarious as I did when I discovered it. :)

In 1851, John Henry Newman (who wasn't a cardinal yet; this was six years after his conversion from Anglicanism) gave a series of talks which were later published as "Lectures on the Present Position of Catholics in England". Lecture 6 described the Prejudiced Man and his view of Catholics. The whole thing is clever and incisive; those interested may read it here at the excellent, excellent But the part that had me laughing out loud was Newman's point-by-point critique of a non-Catholic's observations of the rite of Benediction. Newman had a caustic wit and really let it loose here. (Please don't be offended, dear Protestants who may read this blog-- he's not tearing into all Protestants, just the ones who judge what they barely know. If you saw the kind of stuff that got published about Catholics in the 1800's, of which Newman gives only a mild example, you'd be the first to agree that the perpetrators deserved everything he gave 'em.)

In this matter, my Brothers, as I have already said, the plain truth is the keenest of satires; and therefore, instead of using any words of my own, I shall put before you a Protestant's account of a Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, which he went to see in the Chapel of the Fathers of the Oratory in London. I quote his words from a publication of an important body, the British Reformation Society, established in the year 1827, and supported, I believe, by a number of eminent persons, noblemen, gentlemen, and ministers of various denominations. The periodical I speak of is called The British Protestant, or Journal of the Religious Principles of the Reformation. It would seem to be one of the Society's accredited publications, as it has its device upon the title-page. In the 62nd Number of this work, being the Number for February, 1850, we are presented with "Extracts from the Journal of a Protestant Scripture Reader." This gentleman, among his missionary visits to various parts of London, dropt in, it seems, on Tuesday, January 8th, to the Roman Catholic Chapel in King William Street; which, he commences his narrative by telling us, for "the large roses of every colour, and laurel, was more like the flower-shops in the grand row of Covent Garden than a place of worship." Well, he had a right to his opinion here as much as another; and I do not mean to molest him in it. Nor shall I say anything of his account of the Sermon, which was upon one of the January Saints, and which he blames for not having in it the name of Jesus, or one word of Scripture from beginning to end; not dreaming that a Rite was to follow, in which we not only bow before the Name, but worship the real and substantial presence of our exalted Lord.

I need hardly observe to you, my Brothers, that the Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament is one of the simplest rites of the Church. The priests enter and kneel down; one of them unlocks the Tabernacle, takes out the Blessed Sacrament, inserts it upright in a Monstrance of precious metal, and sets it in a conspicuous place above the altar, in the midst of lights, for all to see. The people then begin to sing; meanwhile the Priest twice offers incense to the King of heaven, before whom he is kneeling. Then he takes the Monstrance in his hands, and turning to the people, blesses them with the Most Holy, in the form of a cross, while the bell is sounded by one of the attendants to call attention to the ceremony. It is our Lord's solemn benediction of His people, as when He lifted up His hands over the children, or when He blessed His chosen ones when He ascended up from Mount Olivet. As sons might come before a parent before going to bed at night, so, once or twice a week the great Catholic family comes before the Eternal Father, after the bustle or toil of the day, and He smiles upon them, and sheds upon them the light of His countenance. It is a full accomplishment of what the Priest invoked upon the Israelites, "The Lord bless thee and keep thee; the Lord show His face to thee and have mercy on thee; the Lord turn His countenance to thee and give thee peace." Can there be a more touching rite, even in the judgment of those who do not believe in it? How many a man, not a Catholic, is moved, on seeing it, to say "Oh, that I did but believe it!" when he sees the Priest take up the Fount of Mercy, and the people bent low in adoration! It is one of the most beautiful, natural, and soothing actions of the Church— not so, however, in the judgment of our young Protestant Scripture Reader, to whom I now return.

This Protestant Scripture Reader then, as he calls himself, enters the chapel, thinking, of course, he knows all about everything. He is the measure of everything, or at least of everything Popish. Popery he knows perfectly well, in substance, in spirit, in drift, in results; and he can interpret all the details when they come before him at once, by this previous, or what a theologian might term "infused," knowledge. He knows, and has known from a child, that Popery is a system of imposture, nay, such brazen imposture, that it is a marvel, or rather miracle, that any one can be caught by it—a miracle, that is, of Satan: for without an evil influence it is quite impossible any single soul could believe what the Protestant Scripture Reader would call so "transparent a fraud." As a Scripture Reader he knows well the text, Second of Thessalonians, chapter two, verse eleven, "He shall send them strong delusion that they should believe a lie," and he applies it to the scene before him. He knows that it is the one business of the Priest to take in the people, and he knows that the people are so inconceivably brutish that nothing is too gross or absurd a trick to take them in withal. If the Priest were to put up a scarecrow, they, like the silly birds, would run away as if it were a man; and he has only to handle his balls or cards, and flourish them about, and they take him for a god. Indeed, we all know, he gives out he is a god, and can do what he pleases, for it is sin to doubt it. It is most wonderful, certainly, as to this Popery, that in spite of the Parliament all in a bustle, passing laws, as if against typhus or cholera, yet there it is, and spread it will; however, Satan is the father of lies; that is sufficient. With this great principle, I say, clearly impressed upon his mind, he walks into the chapel, knowing well he shall find some juggling there; accordingly, he is not at all surprised at the scene which passes before him. He looks on at his ease, and draws up his own account of it, all the time that the Catholic people are bowing and singing, and the Priest incensing; and his account runs thus:—

"After the sermon," he tells us (I am quoting the very words of his Journal), "another young priest came in with a long wand in his hand, and an extinguisher on the top of it, and a small candle, and he began to light others." "Another young priest:" he thinks we are born priests; "priest" is a sort of race, or animal, or production, as oxen or sheep may be, and there are young priests and old priests, and black priests and white priests, and perhaps men priests and women priests; and so in came this "other young priest" with a wand. "With a wand:" he evidently thinks there is something religious about this lighter and extinguisher; it is a conjuror's wand; you will, I think, see presently I am borne out in saying this. He proceeds: "The next part of the play was four priests coming to the altar" (it is as I said; everything is a priest), "four priests and Gordon in the middle:" this is a mistake, and an unwarrantable and rude use of the name of one of the Fathers of the London Oratory, my dear brother and friend, the Reverend Philip Gordon—for it was not he, and he was not a priest; accordingly, I should leave the name out, except that it adds a good deal to the effect of the whole. "One of them," he proceeds, "took from a small cupboard on the altar," that is, from the tabernacle, "a gold star;" this is the head of the Monstrance, in which is placed the Blessed Sacrament, "and screwed it on to a candlestick," that is, the foot of the Monstrance, "and placed it on the top of the altar, under the form of a beehive, supported by four pillars," that is, under the canopy. He calls the head of the Monstrance a star, because it consists of a circle surrounded by rays; and he seems to think it in some way connected with the season of the year, the Epiphany, when the Star appeared to the Wise Men.

"The Star," he proceeds, "glittered like diamonds, for it had a round lamp in the middle of it;" I suppose he means the glass covering the Blessed Sacrament, which reflected the light, and you will see clearly, as he goes on, that he actually thinks the whole congregation was worshipping this star and lamp. "This Star glittered like diamonds, for it had a round lamp in the middle of it; when placed under the beehive, the four priests began to burn incense, waving a large thing like a lanthorn" (the thurible) "towards the Star, and bowing themselves to kiss the foot of the altar before the Star." Now observe, my Brothers, I repeat, I am not blaming this person for not knowing a Catholic rite, which he had no means of knowing, but for thinking he knows it, when he does not know it, for coming into the chapel, with this most coxcombical idea in his head, that Popery is a piece of mummery, which any intelligent Protestant can see through, and therefore being not at all surprised, but thinking it very natural, when he finds four priests, a young priest with a wand, and a whole congregation, worshipping a gold star glittering like diamonds with a lamp in it. This is what I mean by prejudice.

Now you may really have a difficulty in believing that I have interpreted him rightly; so let me proceed. "The next piece acted was, one of them went to bring down the Star, and put it on the altar, while another put something like a white shawl round Gordon's shoulders." True; he means the veil which is put upon the Priest, before he turns round with the Blessed Sacrament in his hand. "Gordon next takes the Star, and, turning his face to the people, to raise up the Star, with part of the shawl round the candlestick, the other two priests, one on each side of him, drawing the shawl, it showed a real piece of magic art." Now what makes this so amusing to the Catholic is, that, as far as the priest's actions go, it is really so accurately described. It is the description of one who has his eyes about him, and makes the best of them, but who, as he goes on, is ever putting his own absurd comment on everything which occurs in succession. Now, observe, he spoke of "magic;" let us see what the magic is, and what becomes of the Star, the lamp, and the candlestick with the shawl round it.

"As Gordon raised the Star, with his back to all the lighted candles on the altar, he clearly showed the Popish deceit, for in the candlestick there is a bell." Here is his first great failure of fact; he could not be looking at two places at once; he heard the bell, which the attendant was ringing at one side; he did not see it; where could it be? his ready genius, that is, the genius of his wonderful prejudice about us, told him at once where it was. It was a piece of priestcraft, and the bell was concealed inside the foot of the candlestick;—listen. "As Gordon raised the Star, with his back turned to all the lighted candles on the altar, he clearly showed the Popish deceit; for in the candlestick there is a bell, that rung three times of its own accord, to deceive the blind fools more; and the light through the shawl showed so many colours, as Father Gordon moved his body; the bell ringing they could not see, for the candlestick was covered with part of this magic shawl, and Gordon's finger at work underneath."

Such is his account of the rite of Benediction; he is so densely ignorant of us, and so supremely confident of his knowledge, that he ventures to put in print something like the following rubrical direction for its celebration:—

First, a young priest setteth up a golden, diamond-like star, with a lamp in it, sticking it on to the top of a candlestick, then he lighteth fifty candles by means of a wand with an extinguisher and wax candle upon it; then four priests bow, burn incense, and wave a lanthorn before the star; then one of the priests, hiding what he is at, by means of a great shawl about his hands and the foot of the candlestick, taketh up said candlestick, with the lamp and gold star glittering like diamonds, and beginneth secretly to tinkle with his finger a bell hid in its foot; whereupon the whole congregation marvelleth much, and worshippeth star, lamp and candlestick incontinently.

He ends with the following peroration:—"This the power of priests; they are the best play actors in this town. I should be glad to see this published, that I might take it to Father Gordon, to see if he could contradict a word of it." Rather, such is the power of prejudice, by good luck expressed in writing, and given to the world, as a specimen of what goes on, without being recorded, in so many hundred thousands of minds. The very confidence with which he appeals to the accuracy of his testimony only shows how prejudice can create or colour, where facts are harmless or natural. It is superior to facts, and lives in a world of its own.

Nor would it be at all to the purpose to object, that, had he known what the rite really meant, he would quite as much, or even more, have called it idolatry. The point is not what he would think of our rites, if he understood them exactly, for I am not supposing his judgment to be worth anything at all, or that we are not as likely to be right as an individual Scripture Reader; the question is not, what he would judge, but what he did think, and how he came to think it. His prejudice interpreted our actions.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Journey of the Magi, by T. S. Eliot

It's Epiphany! I shall celebrate with a poem my mom always liked to read to us. She would point out that the great climactic event, the worship of the child Jesus as described in the Gospel, is here described in one understated line. Eliot makes us rather reflect on the suffering and sacrifice and doubt the Magi endure to reach the glorious moment when they can kneel and offer their gifts. And then having seen the Lord, they die to the world and long only to be with Him again. As for the notion of His birth being like death, someone said Jesus Christ was the only person who was born to die. For us death is a sad consequence of the Fall; for him it was his purpose in coming.

Journey of the Magi

A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.
Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

-- T. S. Eliot

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Catholic questions in Trivial Pursuit

Six of us were playing it tonight. We all had different areas of expertise (the guy who knew geography beat the rest of us hands down), but we were all kinda hoping for some Catholic questions. And we got one: "What controversial Mexican priest became the first indigenous Latin American to be canonized, in 2002?" The wording may be off but that was the gist of it. No one knew the answer. And that turned out to be because the question was completely wrong! It was supposed to be about Saint Juan Diego. I doubt he was controversial, but anyway he sure as heck wasn't ever a priest, as all of us knew.

So that was a disappointment, but at least we got another one, about how Cardinal O'Connor nixed a public funeral for John Gotti in New York on the grounds that large crowds might destroy the reverence.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Convert faux pas, part 3

I very nearly answered the phone at the convent last night with "Hail, Missionaries of Charity!" Fortunately I switched the first word to "Hi" just in time. I'd just started a Rosary; that's what messed me up.

But that's not as funny as the story Fr. Ed told from his own childhood. The family was praying the Rosary together and the phone rang. His little sister went to answer it while the others continued. She picked up the phone, and without thinking she chanted in unison with the others, "Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy name..." When she realized what she was doing she slammed the phone down in embarrassment. That must have been one confused caller!

Yeah, those aren't really convert faux pas, but they remind me of my previous posts on the subject. :)

In Reader's Digest I learned about the new soldier on guard duty who called out "Hark! Who goes there?" when someone approached. Unfortunately it was a superior officer, and the sentry had to do thirty pushups and say with each one: "This is the army, not a Shakespearean festival!"

Fr. Ed's story reminds me of a time when I was about nine and my younger brother and I were at a public pool. I happened to see him swimming by me and I wanted to talk to him, so naturally I seized him by his red hair and hauled him up to the surface. But when his face came up to my level I realized it wasn't my brother. It was another red-haired, freckle-faced six-year-old kid. I was so embarrassed I immediately swam away. No doubt there's a red-haired man out there somewhere with traumatic memories of this event.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

"You're a problem for other people if you don't have a mobile phone"

As soon as I read that quote from this article, I knew how true it was. Back when I didn't have a cell phone, at least three people complained to me about it-- one of whom actually offered to pay my monthly bill if I would get one. In the end I capitulated and now I have a Cingular pay-as-you-go plan that costs $100 a year, and a used phone I got for $30. I was really glad for it when my tire went flat the other day, too.

Hat tip to Al Mohler's blog.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

And another thing that makes sense now that I'm Catholic

Thanks to Fr. Stephanos Pedrano for explaining to me why New Year's Day is on January 1.

And here's one of MY babies

This is one of my sea urchin embryos at about a day and a half old. Yes, it's not as complex as the starfish, but look at how much structure it's already got when it was a single cell just 36 hours ago! You're looking at it in cross section; it's roughly a flattened sphere with a hollow tube (the gut) growing up the middle of it. The gut is darker than the rest because I've hybridized the embryo with probe for the z54.1 zinc finger gene, and that's where it's expressed.

Once I casually mentioned to one of my new Catholic friends that I had to "go work on my embryos," and she suddenly looked concerned. "Human embryos?" she asked tentatively. "No, no, sea urchin!" Ethically safe, Church-approved. :)

What's wrong with this snowflake?

A co-worker sent our whole lab this holiday greeting:

It's a baby starfish, nine months old . :) He took the picture himself in the course of his research. You know how teenagers get big feet and then grow into them? Likewise with the tube feet of the starfish; you can see them sucking on the glass slide.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

A blessed New Year's Eve, literally

I went to church last night and discovered we were having Benediction at 9 PM. A perfect way to end the year. (That Catholic Encyclopedia article is 100 years old but the ceremony is the same; apparently Bugnini never got to it.)

"Are you going to stay up till midnight?" I asked Fr. John. "I hope not!" said he. And I didn't either, but look, the new year came anyway. :) Father told me to offer my prayers in thanksgiving for all the graces received in the last year, which was about the easiest penance ever as there have been so many, it's ridiculous.

Happy new year to you all!