Category Archives: Essays

Mass Tourism VI – Time Traveler Edition


See introduction to Mass Tourism series here for the motivation behind these essays.

This week I did not visit a local parish or go to Mass while on vacation. I did not participate in some Eastern rite of the Catholic Church as I am wont to do. No, this time I went to the small Endre parish— located one mile east of Visby on the island of Gotland, Sweden built in the 12th century—where Fr. Anders Piltz celebrated the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass on October 5, 1450, the 18th Sunday after Pentecost, many years before the Protestant Reformation.

Fortunately, I was somewhat prepared, having studied the traditional rite as it was celebrated for 400 years from the Council of Trent to Vatican II. But this was even before the establishment of the Tridentine Mass and there are several differences.

Endre has distinctly older components, specifically a rood screen that separates the people from the priests and all liturgical activity. It is only until communion that the faithful cross into the sanctuary to receive the consecrated bread kneeling down. A small version of what looked like an iconostasis stood above the altar.  Thin narrow stained glass windows punctuated the front and sides of the sanctuary. A roughly crafted crucifix hung under the pointed Gothic arch in front of the public area. The nave was walled solid with fading frescoes. A dull, cacophonous bell was sounded at the usual parts of the ritual.

The rite was, of course, in Latin and many of the liturgical formulas (Gloria, Credo, Sorsum corda, Sanctus, Agnus Dei) are exactly the same as we use in the current Novus Ordo Latin rite although the responses were not provided by the people but by a professional cantor. Some responses were not evident, such as the Confiteor or Suscipiat. The vesting prayers I could not equate to those I studied in Latin class but I understand these can vary. The Mass readings and specific prayers for that Sunday in the liturgical calendar adhered to the 1962 Roman Missal I possessed. The priest stood ad orientem as was the norm prior to Vatican II and is presently being revived. The incensing of the altar and then toward the people prior to the Liturgy of the Eucharist is exactly as is done at St. Catherine’s most Sundays. Much of the intonation was barely audible as parts were conducted discretely. This was the practice for centuries—the sacredness and mystery of transubstantiation was too prone to misunderstanding and vulgarization, and catechumens were dismissed before the Eucharistic Liturgy as a precaution.

Even though the liturgy of the Mass has changed, it’s astounding just how much of it is still intact and recognizable over five and half centuries later including an overhaul of the rite in the early 1960’s. Should you also wish to travel back in time and witness what Mass was like to ordinary people, simply click here.

And bring an old missal.

Dr. Scott Hahn

Converts to Catholicism from various denominations of Christianity may attribute, at least in part, their conversion to the writings and teaching of Dr. Scott Hahn.  Many years ago when I was living in Burtonsville, my friend Mike, a devout Catholic, gave me a book written by Dr. Hahn, an ex-Protestant theologian whose learning led him to the Catholic Church where he now resides as a scholar and apologist.  With marginal interest I skimmed the book entitled Rome, Sweet Home, not entirely interested in what I thought were the complicated mechanisms of the Catholic traditions of Christianity, figuring that I’d “been there, done that”[1].  I handed the book to my ex-Catholic mom who was the best pitch for why I wasn’t a Catholic anymore. Understand that I wasn’t invalidating Catholicism, nor was I ever anti-Catholic, I just thought that it wasn’t the denomination[2] for me. To be honest, I had harbored some doubts about doctrinal items but then, in my mind, all denominations had their strange markings: no dancing, no drinking, no musical instruments, snake handling, women cover their heads, speaking in tongues, slain in the spirit, prophecy and other whistle-evoking distinctions. And that always struck me odd; it seemed every denomination had some preoccupation with an aspect of Christian teaching blown to the extreme and made into a denomination in its ultimate manifestation. This provided a certain liberty to do what I wanted because, after all, no one could agree on the color of an orange. I also chalked it up to God liking variety—seemed reasonable but then maybe not entirely true.

Fast forward to recent years when another friend started handing me Lighthouse Media CDs which I would listen to—still defensively–on my commute. Some of these were testimonies from converts but many were teachings from Catholic apologists like Patrick Madrid, Fr. Barron and Dr. Scott Hahn. Hahn was particularly interesting since, due to his Protestant background, he emphasized the teaching of scripture and the fullness of Catholic conformity. One of the first teachings I heard from him was that on the Eucharist under the scrutiny of John 6 and this blew me away. He’s also did one on the office of the pope and that surprised me too. Finally, his book called The Lamb’s Supper talked about Revelation in ways non-Catholic Christians never hear—it was striking.

During my RCIA last year as I was quietly moving toward conversion I visited my Mom in her new duplex where she still had been unpacking. I had not planned to share with her the spiritual changes in my life when, suddenly, she handed me a book that she thought belonged to me—Rome, Sweet Home. To think it resurfaced then after 15 years. Of course this unleashed a torrent of dialog and when I brought the book home I read it all.

Fast forward again and the point of my post. As many know I enrolled in Christendom College Notre Dame Graduate School this fall working my way toward a Master’s in Theology—-uh Catholic Theology—uh Rather Orthodox Catholic Theology. Only a few weeks into it and the small student body was treated to a visit from none other than Dr. Scott Hahn. Now normally, Dr. Hahn will speak a popular message comprehensible to the laity and those with some biblical understanding. But this special audience got an uncut academic dose based on his new book Politicizing the Bible — a talk which almost went entirely over my head. Let’s just say that while most of the audience gazed on nodding with index finger leaning against the side of their head intellectual like, I stared out like Tennessee Tuxedo’s dimwitted side kick, Chumly, wondering if I should ask Mr. Whoopie. Like listening to a Shakespeare play it takes a while to get your “sea legs” in such matters and in the end I started getting Hahn’s drift.

No doubt Dr. Scott Hahn was extremely influential in my conversion. Although it is rare that people convert based on information alone, at least when God changed my heart, my mind was ready for it.

[1] Read my Far Country bio to understand why

[2] Catholics do not view Catholicism as a denomination. As one author put it, a denomination is defined by ones participation in it.

Dr. Scott Hahn visits NDGS

Dr. Scott Hahn visits NDGS


[1] Read my Far Country bio to understand why

[2] Catholics do not view Catholicism as a denomination. As one author put it, a denomination is defined by ones participation in it.

What Validation Means to Me

On March 17 2013, (St Patrick’s Day) as part of my journey to full communion with the Roman Catholic Church, my marriage of 21 years was validated.


The technical answer involves me having been baptized in the Catholic Church and not officially leaving as a teen and then getting married later without the Church’s permission. This all came as a surprise to me, since, I didn’t know I belonged to the Catholic Church, let alone departed unofficially, and needed permission to marry whomever I wanted. So I had to get two witnesses to fill out notarized affidavits as did Kimberly. Then we had a small ceremony which amounted to a wedding. Our daughters were our witnesses. It was really beautiful and extremely cool.

The not-so-technical answer came as a surprise to me too.  This was not so much explained as it was revealed to me while going through the process. To unearth my spiritual past, I discovered that the old non-denominational church through which I was married had no internal record of our marriage. I was directed to the civil authorities that maintain such records and licenses. In essence, my marriage was validated by the full faith and credit of the State of Maryland which is next to worthless anyway.

In addition, civil “progress” on marriage would have us believe that a marriage between a man and a woman is just one of many marriage formats including same sex marriage and the many that will follow—and they will. Forget natural law, divine law, social health and morality, what the people want, even arbitrarily, by popular vote and the force of media will become the civil definition of marriage. And so, my marriage, is simply one of those floating in a broth of what’s-happening-now.
But there is a governing body that thinks otherwise, one that has been around for thousands of years, transcending government institutions like the Supreme Court and simply outlasting the continuous cycle of hard work->prosperity->stupidity->moral decline->extinction nations are prone to repeat including ours. Now my marriage is validated, recognized and archived under a more logical and stricter definition. It requires submission on my part (i.e, conforming to the truth, not redefining it) but will also provide backing for the onslaught already in progress.

What also came as a surprise is the deepening of my relationship with Kimberly. At least for me, it has changed me at the core and in ways words cannot describe. In the days that followed our validation and the resolve to live according to Church teaching, it was like being in love again. I couldn’t stop thinking of her; I wanted to get home as soon as possible to see her and be with her.
So then, reprobate world, redefine marriage however you want. Muster meaning in a world of malleable definitions including the ones that suit you. Let the governments of the world declare freedom for its people—freedom to marry whomever they want. Freedom to do what’s right in their own mind like a drug addict thinking more drugs will liberate him. But I have discovered true freedom: the power and desire to do what is right and I know now that everything else is a counterfeit.

Sweet about the soul

My wife reads her Bible every morning, assiduously studying it with colored pencils and supplemental material.

I eat cereal and drink coffee.

I suppose she could be getting ready for work outside the home so that we could have additional income. Or that she could find a career that would give her some public interface to our image conscious society. Our home could be filled with consumer goods and people like me who are pragmatic, scientific, self-actualized, driven, opinionated, informed and full of useless information.

That is, until the storms of life come.

Thereupon most of us might trust in the resources we’ve amassed: education, home-equity, mutual funds, retirement accounts, credit cards, health insurance, technology, organic food, shopping, alcohol, hobbies, the Internet, associates, information, video games, escapism, celebrities or any one of the infinite number of idolatries available to us in our modern age of irreligion.

But some storms can’t be weathered that way; there is security and then there is REAL security.

If I were to tell my wife, “I just won a billion dollars in the national lottery!” She’d be excited—no doubt. But it wouldn’t change her at all. She’d be up the next morning just like every other, reading and marking up her Bible.

Conversely, if I were to call home and say, “I’m quitting my job right now! I don’t know where our next check is coming from!” her response would be “So will you be driving by the store on your way home? We’re out of bread…”

Whereas I may know a thing or two about the Bible, my wife, well, knows the Author.


Our signal-to-noise ratio

A tech blogger made the announcement that he was doing something unorthodox, heretical and anathema: he was going to turn off his electronic gear, computers, internet connection and mobile devices to read a book—a real book, one made of paper and ink. In making this proclamation he made reference to an idea I’d been coining in my mind for years—that is, a reference to an overall increase in signal-to-noise ratio.

For those without engineering degrees, signal to noise ratio, or SNR, is a measurement of the energy of a signal relative to the environment in which it is received. A simple example is a busy cocktail party in which a friend is shouting something to you from across the room but you can’t make it out from the clamor. Your friend’s voice is the signal which is attenuated as it travels across the room. The overall din of conversation at the party presents as a summation of noise the signal must overpower in order to be heard. Other sounds from surrounding directions may pose as interference to your friend’s message too.  SNR is the ratio of your friend’s voice (signal) as heard at your ear over the combination of things that hinder you from hearing it (noise).

Increasing SNR is the goal of many engineering domains (communication systems in particular) and can be done using a number of techniques:

  • Increase signal. Tell your friend to speak louder.
  • Decrease noise. Tell everyone else to shut up.
  • Lower transmission loss. Move closer to your friend.
  • Spatial filtering. Cup you hand to your ear.
  • Spectral filtering.  Tune your hearing aid to the frequency of your friend’s voice.
  • Correlation. Use non-verbal cues and gestures to ascertain what your friend said in context.
  • Redundancy. Have your friend repeat his statement over and over until you get the entire message put together.

Things only get complicated if the cocktail party is being held in a marble cathedral which presents another form of noise called echo. But enough of this! What does this have to do with life, the universe and everything?  Does this train have a stop?


The noise of our daily life –the news, radio, television, internet, social networks, media, addictions, sin, idolatry, fear, self talk— all drown out the small faint signal of God’s voice, the one speaking to us over the din of the “cocktail party”.  The season of Lent is designed to increase SNR: we move closer to the one that is speaking to us while silencing those things that contribute environmental noise. As Jesus spent 40 days in the desert to fast and meditate, so Christians spend the forty days starting on Ash Wednesday in preparation and in expectation of Easter, the day celebrating the Resurrection.

So, this Lent, increase your SNR.

Devotions for the Skeptic – Part I Mathematical Meditations

This is an introduction to a potential series of essays that I’m entitling Devotions for the Skeptic.

This entry is the first of what I am perceiving as a set of Mathematical Meditations. Given the notations required including the equation editor, I have to submit the post as a link to a PDF file. I hope  you are able to read it.

2011.12.04 Mathematical Meditations


Man’s Ascent

A particular rant on a popular social website lay claim to the “ascent of man” while insulting and name calling a presidential candidate in the most profane and uncivilized manner. This seemed ironic, for in what way do we measure and lay claim to man’s ascent? By bashing someone?

I began to think about this a bit more and concluded that the ascent of man will never be measured in our species’ artistic or technological achievements. If that were so, the nation of Israel would not have a problem staging the operas of Richard Wagner. But they do have a problem because, even though Wagner’s music is lauded as a massive humanistic achievement, his anti-Semitic views expressed during his life cannot be overlooked by the Jewish state even though anti-Semitism is not readily apparent in his operas. And many times we are called to boycott someone who has expressed a certain viewpoint even though their talent or work seemingly contributes to our supposed “ascent”. Why?

Because the “ascent of man” is not really expressed in what we do with physical mediums such as marble, wood, metal, sound, film, silicon, technology or physiology. It is advanced in how we treat other human beings when we are both powerless and powerful. It is shown in how we treat others when we disagree politically, ideologically or demographically.

When I think of man’s ascent, I don’t think of marble statues, works of literature and massive operas. I think of the great manifestation of divine attributes like forgiveness, mercy, compassion, humility, sacrifice, honesty and things for which only a few people have been lauded but which each of us can exercise everyday—despite our talents or resources. Do we?

Consider these individuals that have contributed to the ascent of man even though you may not find their work in a museum or cinema:

  • Nelson Mandela
  • Martin Luther King, Jr.
  • Dietrich Bonhoeffer
  • Corrie Ten Boom
  • Jesus of Nazareth
  • Paul of Tarsus
  • Mahatma Gandhi
  • Oscar Schindler
  • Amish Congregation of Nickel Mines, PA.
  • Mother Theresa
  • Saint Francis of Assisi
  • Albert Schweitzer

So next time you feel the need to rant about Republicans, Democrats, Christians, Atheist, Wall Street protesters, Tea partiers, Michelle Bachmann, Barack Obama or anyone else and drag them through the mud with a stream of spewing vitriol, please don’t claim a role in man’s ascent. You have forfeited that alliance.

Penn Jillette’s Biblical World View

In a recent interview with John Stossel, atheist, author and magician Penn Jillette talked about his new book, “God, No!”, espousing an active moral life without the need for God, deity or divine authority in general. It sounds like a book I might read since the author stated that the tone wasn’t mocking, i.e. Christians and people of faith as I’ve come to expect from such books, but a tone of sharing in the marketplace of ideas.

During this interview, Jillette made the claim that, should you remove all the atheists from the world, 97% of the Academy of Sciences would be gone whereas only 1% of the prison population would be affected. I’m not sure about the numbers but I will support his claim that a preponderance of people in high social positions such as top scholars, top scientists, celebrities and business people are overly represented by those who call themselves atheist vs. those who would claim to be Christians or theists. I would also say that you will find the reverse in such positions in the ranks of the poor, destitute, uneducated and, yes, incarcerated.


That’s right, I agree with Penn Jillette. People of faith are at the bottom of the social pyramid and people professing no faith or an atheist worldview are at the top—generally speaking. Ironically, this squares perfectly with the Bible and its teachings, the very thing that Jillette repudiates.

As the Bible repeatedly illustrates and how history routinely bears out, rarely is the pathway to God traveled on the same road that leads to personal riches, self actualization, fame or academic prowess. God is almost never encountered at the “top of our game” but frequently when we arrive at the “end of our rope”. Only in our inability and desperation will we beat a path to the hope and forgiveness presented to us by His Gospel, whereas on our up-and-coming we usually abandon Him entirely, inflated with our own success, education, self confidence and other forms of idolatry. Sadly, but predictably, God is the choice we make only when we’ve exhausted every other avenue: influence, money, skill, education, degrees, intellect, medicine, nutrition, philosophy, good deeds and (no kidding) religion.

Charles Colson, one time advisor to President Richard Nixon in the early 1970’s, learned this the usual way. He was the type of person Penn Jillette talked about, the 97% component that comprises the apex of society and personal achievement—that is, until he was swept away in the Watergate cover up, landing him in jail where he embraced the Gospel and converted his life forever.

If the Bible is a concoction of myths as Jillette believes, the creators certainly portrayed this phenomenon accurately when they painted the “myth” of King David. At the bottom of society, David was a shepherd boy of no influence and yet marked as the Apple of God’s Eye. After rising to power with endless successes in battle, becoming well connected, well wed, rich and dwelling in a palace as the anointed king of Israel with an everlasting covenant to boot, David started believing his own narrative, believing his own PR, believing in his own abilities …and then it starts. In one episode he had a dutiful soldier in his own army murdered so that he could cover up an adulterous affair with the soldier’s wife. Does that sound like myth-making material—or does that sound like our modern headline news? What sort of myth is this where the heroes are curiously identical to the tragedies of today: Tiger Woods, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Anthony Weiner, Eliot Spitzer, Bernard Madoff, Bernie Ebbers and the countless fallen who once comprised that 97% of society’s cream.

Penn Jillette, self described as a a “puritanical atheist”, is smart, moral, sincere, and hysterical; I had the privilege of seeing his show at Ford’s Theatre centuries ago. And I agree with him that we won’t often find God in the great halls of the academy, the hills of Hollywood and the high offices of power. No, we will often find Him in want, in need, hungry, thirsty, sick and in prison. Perhaps if Penn Jillette had re-read Jesus’ description found in Mathew 25:34-36 he might be surprised just how much his world view correlates with scripture.




Traditions of literacy

What do the following literary quotes have in common?

  • The American businessmen, as a class, have demonstrated the greatest productive genius and the most spectacular achievements ever recorded in the economic history of mankind. What reward did they receive from our culture and its intellectuals? The position of a hated, persecuted minority. The position of a scapegoat for the evils of the bureaucrats. -Ayn Rand
  • Every parent is at some time the father of the unreturned prodigal, with nothing to do but keep his house open to hope. – John Ciardi
  • I wash my hands of those who imagine chattering to be knowledge, silence to be ignorance, and affection to be art. – Kahlil Gibran

Could you guess that each of the quotation above make some reference or allusion originating from the Bible?[1]

Frequently, one of the categories on the game show Jeopardy will test Bible knowledge. This should not be a surprise to anyone since, as even the creators of Jeopardy know, Bible knowledge is still considered general knowledge.  And this category should be a cash cow for all the intelligent contestants the show prides itself on cultivating; should you rather be entertained by a judicious selection of idiots and airheads, you may wish to tune into MTV. Unfortunately, I find that even the cream of North American intellect featured on Jeopardy is woefully illiterate when it comes to the Bible; one of the contestants may dominate the category while the other two stand there blinking like parakeets in a cage.

To say that the Bible is “just a book” is simply ignorant. The Bible is not “just a book” even if you don’t believe a word of it or hate it altogether.  Consider the following quote:

  • Not to know the Bible is, in some ways, to be illiterate, to neglect the very roots of philosophy, art, literature, poetry and music.

This comes from American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America by Chris Hedges who, as you know, is not at all sympathetic to my worldview. Having read all his books[2] I’m still not sure if Hedges even believes in God at all despite (or maybe because of) his Harvard Divinity degree. Nevertheless, he knows enough, as do all educated people, that the Bible is not “just a book”.

In fact the Bible is not even a book—it’s a collection of books with contributors from all facets of life: chronicler, fisherman, tax-collector, physician, farmer, intellect, king, lawyer, shepherd, philosopher, renegade, Jew, and Gentile.  The collection consists of multiple literary genres: poetry, history, prophecy, genealogy, biography, tutorial, lyrical, legal, letters and accounting.  The work also spans several millennia describing a chronology of events that include wars, empires, heroes, heroines, people and places that still exist or have been wiped off the face of the Earth altogether. And yet, with all this variety and scale, the book relates an astonishingly cohesive theme.

I will not propose that the entirety of the Bible is true since such a conclusion requires, at some point, an act of faith. No one can prove that everything in the Bible actually happened or is factual. Likewise, no one can prove that everything in the Bible is concocted and fictional. In any case, the Bible is not “just a book”.

Given the centrality of the Bible in Western thought and, yes, the religions that lay claim to it—what is astounding is our blanket censorship and virtual book burning of this work at all levels of public and non-sectarian education. At least when I was in high school a mere three decades ago, my polymath English teacher, Mr. Wesley Walker (who I believe was an atheist of Jewish and West Virginian descent) recommended, among other literary works, portions of the Bible including Job, Ecclesiastes and at least one Gospel. Today, with that same recommendation, Mr. Walker and the Montgomery County Public School system would be sued by the ACLU.

[1] If you could not guess that each of these quotes use a term, phrase or allusion from the Bible you may be suffering from a condition known as illiteracy.  Other symptoms may include dizziness from phrases such as “a pearl of great price”, “good Samaritan”, “walk on water”, “golden rule”, “doubting Thomas” and thousands of other references from the works of William Shakespeare, Thomas Hardy, William Blake, Johann Sebastian Bach, Sir Isaac Newton, Thomas Aquinas, Michelangelo, Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoyevsky and others.  Education may relieve the symptoms of illiteracy; as your doctor if an education is right for you.

[2] I do recommend Hedges War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning and Empire of Illusion.

A world without suffering

A recent video by wannabe pop-artist Rebecca Black has become viral with over 100 million views on YouTube.  “Friday” is a rap-like music video about a girl who

…cries out for reprieve from a life in the inner city where shootings and crime are a way of life? No.

…seeks peace in a country torn apart by war and bloodshed? No.

…lives in the shadow of a terminal illness? No.

…suffers from negligence and abuse? No.

…lives with an unusual perspective on life? Uh, no.

It’s about a fourteen year old suburban California girl with rich parents and a passive inclination to be famous – a girl whose point in life is to be “kicking” with two hundred of her closest friends on Friday after a week of activity, education and privilege.  Not that there are a myriad of songs with similar themes, except that her manufactured song is SOOooo bad, along with the accompanying music video, it’s downright cringe-worthy. Even an excessive use of auto-tune could not suppress the spiritually void execution of a song financed by her mom and outsourced to a professional music video company with a commission to make their little Veruca Salt[1] a star!  Well, it worked. Rebecca Black IS a star, in the imploding, red-dwarf sense of the word.

Juxtapose this music video to another less viewed one of a 22 year old Korean man Sung Bong Choi who lived on the streets since he was five selling gum and energy drinks.  If I am to believe the translation of this video of Korea’s Got Talent, the young man explains his story to the judges as he stands there in laborers clothes, apologizes that he does not sing well at all, but then proceeds to belt out a song that only a life of deep deprivation could supply. Only moments into the performance and the audience and judges were weeping.

If we ever manage to achieve our utopia where everyone is privileged, everyone is rich, no one works, no one is ill and no one suffers—don’t get me wrong, that will be great!!!

But our music will suck.

[1] Veruca Salt was the rich girl contestant on Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Her song “I want it now!” was well within character and required no auto-tune.