Sunday, October 15, 2006

Ever since I said that I wanted to begin a dialogue on culture, I've been feeling rather tongue-tied. I wonder if people realize how difficult it is to talk across the chasm between cultures.

I remember my own approach to Catholicism.How easy it was to discuss the concerns and considerations that I had with my secular friends. Even in conversations with my Catholic friends, it seemed as if we were on the same wavelength, sharing a similar perspective and a common vocabulary.

Somewhere along the way, however, the conversations dwindled. There were places I was exploring for which I didn't yet have words. When the words returned, they meant something different.. They were useless in talking across the chasm that had opened between who I had been and who I was becoming.

At the same time, my conversations with other Catholics were suddenly enriched with a deeper affiliation and a different emphasis. They moved from intellectual forays to spiritual explorations. As my experience deepened, Catholics stopped agreeing with me with formal and respectful acknowledgements. Instead, they would merely grin knowingly and say: Of Course!

I would share the most significant insights of my life, begin to explain the most profound changes in my understanding. Then my listener would smile and nod and affirm 'Of Course". If I assumed that I wasn't quite making my point, the listener would give me a Catholicism 101 rundown on the subject that completely summarized my brilliance.

I had moved from the world of the one-eyed to the world of normal Catholic vision. I was enthralled by a world that cradle Catholics simply took for granted. They delighted in that world but they knew it intimately and the most they had to say about it was 'Of Course'. These were the truths and a way of being in the world that my friends had never renounced and that I barely remembered.

Eventually, I too came to accept this worldview as normative rather than awe-inspiring. And once again, I could comfortably talk across the distance that separates Catholicism from modernism. I learned to communicate with non-Catholics as one learns a foreign language, adapting my thoughts and my arguments to the limits of an alien tongue.

My problem today is similar to that initial experience. It isn't that I lack the words or the love. But it does seem that the world is vastly ignorant of Catholicism itself. Most people don't seem to realize that Catholicism and the West don’t share the same backstory. Nor do they realize that any true cultural exchange must begin by summarizing the distinctiveness of our different traditions. Finally, it sometimes seems that, sharing a common language causes a greater misunderstanding than necessary. We use the same language so differently, often expressing very different concepts with a single word. Perhaps, if we knew from the beginning that our words themselves need to be defined, it might save the misunderstandings that often underlie our facile agreements.

I think that I am most grateful for the ruckus over the Pope's address, because it finally provides a framework for discussing our differences as well as our similarities. Over time (and I won't be posting every day}, I do hope to lay out some of those characteristics of Catholic culture that distinquish us, and also some of those characteristics of Catholic culture that bridge the divide between the various cultures that share our globe.

+ Ad maiorem dei gloriam +


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