Tuesday, December 30, 2014



Advent was especially deep this year: the home-made cards, the counting down of the days with the vintage German calendar, the Office in the dark each morning, 7 am Mass, the walks around the neighborhood at night, the opening of the heart, the forgiveness of self and others, the planning of the December 25th dinner.

Christmas eve I thought to attend a vigil family Mass.

I loved seeing the families and the children. After weeks of "O Come, O Come Emmanual," as always we finally got to sing a couple of opening carols.

Then the priest gave his homily.

He opened by addressing the kids. "We all get excited about our presents, don't we?" he said. "Well, I got so excited about mine that I opened one of them first. And you know what I got? A selfie stick!"

I froze. I did not know what a selfie stick even is but I knew it couldn't be good, and I could also guess. (One brand describes itself as "a Selfie taking package comprised of an extendable monopod and a remote bluetooth button)" [sic].

"Anyone who knows me knows I love to take pictures of myself and my friends!" the priest continued, producing a wand-like object from his cassock and turned it this way and that for all to admire.

This, while a poor woman on the run is undergoing labor in a manger. This, on the night the shepherds watched their flocks by night and the Savior of the world was born. This on the altar on which Christ was crucified.

A selfie stick.

The "new evangelization" was complete. A Catholic priest, on the holiest night of the year, was delivering a homily encouraging children to shop, buy useless consumer goods, and take pictures of themselves.

You could say, Hey, give the guy a break, so he likes to take pictures of himself and his friends. But gone are the days when we pasted the photos in an album reserved for our cousins, grandchildren and close chums. The whole purpose of selfies is to put them on the internet in order to project in image of ourselves as loved, as thriving, as "happy." The whole effect is to hide from ourselves our terrible emptiness, our fear that we are not loved, our terror in this culture of success of being perceived as losers.

While I'm on the subject, since when did the Mass become a low-grade Oscars ceremony? As this one continued, we were encouraged to clap six or eight times. We clapped for the children who read, the parishioners for whom this was their first time at the church, for the choir, the people who bought poinsettias, for the servers, for the priests.

We clapped for everyone but Christ for the very good reason that you don't clap for Christ, you prostrate yourself before him.

And don't try to pin it on LA. You know and I know this stuff goes on all over the world.

The next day I hosted Christmas dinner for 12 friends. Just as I stood to say grace, one of them straggled in late and before even saying hello, produced a camera and started snapping photos. "Put that thing down," I surprised myself by hissing. "Do not post pictures of this on Facebook."

Partly I was annoyed at the boorishness of a guest who'd show up an hour late to a sit-down Christmas dinner. Partly the day before I'd gone to my FB account and been confronted with a ready-made Year in Review, "curated" by some repulsively intrusive marketing algorithm. How dare you purport to tell my story, to witness to my life?

But mostly that Christmas eve Mass had shaken me to my core. I have always been an abjectly grateful convert. I have always quoted Romano Guardini; "The Church is the cross upon which Christ is crucified." I've always known to take what I like and leave the rest, not in the sense of being a cafeteria Catholic but in the sense of realizing that the aesthetic and sensibility of the Church is not tailor-made for me, and that nothing trumps the Crucifixion and the Resurrection, that the insult of bad music, bad art, bad homilies and sometimes bad theology are to Christ, not to me.

But this was an experience I'd not quite had before, of literally feeling like I was worshiping at an altar of a different God than the priest himself. To think a selfie stick is a good thing, period, never mind a good thing to promote to children on Christmas eve, evinces an orientation of heart, a prayer life, and a lack of concern for the suffering of the world and the forces from which that suffering springs that are so diametrically opposed to my own that I quailed. "They have taken my Lord away and I don't know where they have put him," as Mary Magdalene said...

Listen, I'm as narcissistically disordered as anyone: probably more so. That is precisely why I'm so often before the Blessed Sacrament, more or less ceaselessly in prayer, and continually examining my conscience, more often than not appalled at the extent of my half-heartedness, my hypocrisy, my out-for-myselfness. I struggle constantly with the need to make a livelihood from my writing, and thus to make known the availability of my work and speaking schedule, versus the very narcissism of which I speak.

But it's one thing to be cognizant of our tendency toward idolatry and another to celebrate it.  

From the chapter "Notes on Consumerism" in Jeff Dietrich's The Good Samaritan:

"This process of substituting image for reality, surface for substance, began with the invention of photography a little more than a hundred years ago. Stuart Ewen quotes Oliver Wendell Holmes in a euphoric but prescient vision:

'For Holmes, photography signaled the beginning of a time when "the image would become more important than the object itself, and would in fact make the object disposable." "Form," he proclaimed, "is henceforth divorced from matter." Men will hunt all curious, grand, and beautiful objects, as they hunt the cattle in South America, for their skins, and leave the carcasses as of little worth.' "

I'm sure that priest is a wonderful guy. I liked his bearing, his voice. I appreciated the way he said the rest of the Mass. But I can't get that image of a Catholic priest, brandishing a "selfie stick" on the altar, out of my mind.

And we laughed at the silly Native Americans who feared the white man's camera would steal their souls.



  1. I've run into this before--where the effort to be welcoming and relatable (well intended as it may be) has the effect of minimizing the sacred. I unfortunately used my disgust over one particular incident as an excuse to quit Mass for some time. I've since tried to think of it in the terms you write--the songs and homilies and music aren't to please my sensibilities. But it is difficult when the profane intrudes where it's not wanted.

    I've just discovered your work, and as a returning Catholic, it's been very wonderful to read. Thank you.

    1. Thanks, M. Lynn, welcome. I really don't mean to pick on the priest but the point is that the selfie culture is emblematic of something quite dark and not remotely Christ-like. And I am really pondering that ever more deeply myself.

      As Michael says below, poor people couldn't afford a selfie stick. And the cognitive dissonance of promoting such a thing on the altar, on Christmas eve...when Christ himself was born in a stable...well, you get it.

      Anyway, it's always been thus in the Church, or a variation thereof and as always, the question is not how can the other person change, but how can I?...

  2. [Typo? I appreciated the way "she" said the rest of the Mass.]
    I think maybe they should just skip the homilies and say the mass.

  3. What I don't understand is how one can feel this way and not be at all suspicious of the "Francis effect". I mean, he has posed for selfies, for starters.

    1. It's not a selfie just to pose for a picture nor to promote our work if the work strives for excellence as, say, literature or art.

      Pope Francis is deeply aware of the effects of consumerism/capitalism--namely poverty and war--and at great cost to himself and his "popularity" has spoken out vociferously against those things in a Church that barely mentions them, refuses to examine the huge part we play in creating and perpetuating them and, esp. in the U.S., consistently engages in the idolatry of nationalism.

      The real deal with the selfie culture, as I said, is that it masks our hunger and our pain--which are the very things that if we let them will bring us closer to Christ.

    2. Along the same lines, an add'l factor was that I'd had brunch that morning with some members of the Guadalupe Catholic Worker, who feed and clothe the poor, operate a free clinic, and regularly vigil against nuclear weapons (and are sometimes arrested for doing so) at Vandenberg Air Force Base. And these people don't even have a website! They just quietly live in voluntary poverty, raise their two teenage kids, and perform the works of mercy. This living out of the values of the Gospel--which is exactly what Pope Francis is urging upon us--is is a powerful witness and stood in extra-stark contrast to the selfie stick.

      It also reminds me that I can rail against this and that, but what cost am I willing to pay for discipleship?

    3. Thanks so much for your thoughtful reply. My coming of age years were marked by alcoholism, not social justice issues, and I came into the Church, and remain in the Church, as a sinner. I wrote of my own experience with abortion in a long essay called Poor Baby. Yes, it's wonderful Pope Francis is inviting us all to question the economic, social and cultural factors--esp. our culture of violence and war--that promote abortion, support abortion, and make abortion inevitable.

    4. Dear Loneliest Place in Rome--

      Oh I don't know. When we take away a man's bread, it's more or less inevitable that the man will steal it. I'm sure Lazarus at the gate violated a trespassing law or two but what's certain is that the rich man's sin was by far the more egregious.

      What makes me skeptical is people who insinuate abortion into every conversation, then use it as a weapon to try to impugn the fidelity of the other person to the teachings of the Church.

  4. I don't see you judging this priest at all, but what he was focusing on on such a holy night. What he was doing was bad for the kids and every one else and himself, I think. And darn, I'm so grateful for all our priests, including this one.
    It was the night God made man completely forgot Himself and emerged from under Mary's heart into this world that would eventually grow to hate, hunt and kill Him. Fr. missed that, to be sure. And it was first for the poor who don't know what selfie sticks are and couldn't afford any if they did, that Christ came.
    I need Christmas too, badly because of my selfishness and pride and constant tendency to disregard others. I'm going to pray for this priest (my diocese is very graced to have very little of that type of homily anymore) as one among the spiritually poor, that is, as one in a similar camp to me, for the remainder of Christmas. Our Lord has brought many priests in our diocese to a happier place through His grace and the patience and hard work of our very good bishop.

  5. The official name of the selfie-stick is The Wand of Narcissus.

  6. I agree--well done again.

    But don't feel too bad: at the parish where we started out (converts here as well), the priest began addressing prayers to Father/Mother God . . .

  7. You might find Susan Sontag's On Photography interesting. She was way over my head, though.

  8. Oh, thank you for this. I am so uncomfortable when people clap at Mass (for whomever and whatever, but often people applaud the organist after the recessional even on regular Sundays).

    And, I think your point about selfies is so true. I've increasingly become uncomfortable with the idea of the selfie in our culture, and am not quite sure what to do about it. I'm in my early thirties, with kids. I dread their entrance into social media.

  9. Oh, you are so not alone in this! I'm also a convert, a baby one in fact (2014), and these things make me feel uncomfortable. I am torn between knowing what is okay and trusting in my discomfort, if that makes any sense. So it's very nice to see how not alone I am. I will have to share this with my husband. Thanks!

    "And we laughed at the silly Native Americans who feared that the camera would steal their souls."
    Hear, hear!

  10. Dear Heather and friends above, Christmas blessings to one and all. I am a seminarian studying for the diocese of Wilmington, Del. (near your beloved Malvern retreat, Heather). Thank you for this reflection. As one discerning priesthood, I am constantly bombarded by parishioners and seminary professors alike to be ultra-current/fascinating/entertaining! But very rarely does anyone say to me: "Teach me about Jesus; lead me to Him." I think we've gotten so caught up in the consumerism of society, that Church is just one more life-moment that people expect only to take from. Please pray that I may always lead others to God and to love them wherever they may be on their respective journeys.
    Heather, I am making a "Poustinia" day tomorrow evening into the early hours of the New Year. With me I am taking the Gospels and your latest book. Be assured of my prayers for you and your ministry to all of us.
    God's richest blessings, one and all! Love to you.

  11. Last year, I attended a week-day half hour Mass in Ave Maria, Florida.No music, no announcements, no clapping, just the Gospel and the Eucharist.The homily was perfect and when I left ,I felt that I had encountered the holy.
    The end of the Latin Mass brought with it a drifting from the reverence of the Mass.I don't know if we can find our way back.

  12. I think the Church survives in spite of herself for no other reason than the Sacraments. For, even the most schtick-laden, irreverent, haphazard with the most banal and saccharine music accompanied with guitar band-with-tinkly-sounding-thing Mass has the most important component, Christ in the Eucharist. Frankly, I prefer Mass to be the equal of what one would find at Chartes or St. Peters but alas, not always the case and reflects more on my tastes and what pleases me than what does God. A friend told me recently that his long-time European immigrant parish has transitioned to largely Nigerian Catholic immigrants where Mass is accompanied with a "Nigerian" band/music, singing, much dancing and a very raucous atmosphere. I don't want to presume what God thinks or likes but 'm pretty confident Christ enjoys it as much as Chartres or Mass with the selfi-stick.

  13. This discussion reminds me that getting out of the liturgical mish-mash that we often now find ourselves in was a priority for Pope Benedict:

    The primary importance of Jesus Christ within the liturgy has been a constant theme of Pope Benedict’s teaching during his seven-year pontificate. He has often expressed concern that bad teaching can lead some Catholics to view the liturgy “horizontally,” as the creation of a parish or group in which the community celebrates itself.

    “The liturgy is not a kind of ‘self-manifestation’ of a community,” he told pilgrims.

    Pope Benedict noted that when priests or parishioners reflect on how to make the liturgy “attractive, interesting and beautiful,” they can “risk forgetting the essential; that is: The liturgy is celebrated for God and not for ourselves.”

    His book The Spirit of the Liturgy should be required reading for every priest.

  14. Indeed. There's nothing wrong, perhaps, with having a (horrid name, though!) selfie stick, but to make such a thing the locus, the focus, and the gist OF A CHRISTMAS HOMILY ... that would abrade against many souls, myself likely among them. However, as you note, the good padre has his virtues.

    I think you'd have liked my pastor's homily on Christmas day. It was about the gifts that Christ came to give us. It was quietly marvelous.

  15. What ever meager virtue I possess, it comes from a place of pain. If not from pain, it would be a source of pride, which is more evil than mere pain. I am young. I can see how shallowly we live when we are striving for that perfect shot. That shot where we look perfect. Attractive. Worthy of attention and love. We look hot, and we like that we look hot. That feeling that thank God I look attractive because I feel so utterly unworthy and unattractive underneath this skin. But if I look attractive, then someone will think I am worthwhile. But this idolatry can also be committed in other ways, thank God I am a virgin--because my worth is my untorn hymen- because then I will be worthy of a husband/wife. Thank God I have never succumbed to mortal sin in a way that has been embarrassingly visible --because what people think of me is more important than acknowledging the ways I struggle to keep it together. The selfie culture in my estimation, is just one more way to make someone feel worthy--or unworthy. Which strikes against the message of the Gospel, that we are always worthy of love. Even if you are not attractive, successful, or particularly good at the duck face. That said, I still like taking and seeing pictures of my family--and they like to see pictures of me. But when the experience of another soul is exchanged for the photo shoot--certainly that is regrettable. Whose job is it to prevent that from happening? Yours.

  16. This post made me cry because I couldn't agree with you more! We just moved and have been hopping around to different parishes because the lack of reverence and sacredness are too much fore and my family... It makes me sad that homilies are turning into a comedy act.

    I thought I was the only one who felt this!


  17. A wonderful post and a wonderful comment thread. This is what social media ought to be, and so seldom is.

  18. Reading this, I was sure that the priest, after holding up the stick, would then point out the narcissism of the "selfie" culture. I was totally shocked that he was, indeed, sincere about it.
    A beautiful post.

  19. I think you should go to Midnight Mass next year. We went to the early family Mass last year and it was more accommodating to the young children. This year I craved the beauty of Midnight Mass with all of the incense and reverent music, including the bell choir! What a difference!

  20. Cringe-worthy indeed. I didn't know what a selfie stick was either but smiled at "it couldn't be good". It's very surprising to me that someone can post a selfie to Facebook without irony, or even more so that the priest could hold that stick up at Mass.

    I try to view it that posting FB pictures of oneself is simply recognizing one's own dignity as far as being a creature of God, and I suppose on one level it's good to appreciate what God's created, even if it's our own mediocre self but...

    On image versus substance, heard on the radio today that for the past 50 years or so, since the dawn of the television age, the younger U.S. presidential candidate has always won, at least the popular vote (i.e. w respect to George Bush over Al Gore).

    1. Reagan is an exception to this...but the exception strengthens the point. Reagan had been an actor and was very comfortable in front of a camera!

  21. The Pontiff went on to explain three ways to have joy. The first, he said, is to pray, noting: "To have this joy in preparation for Christmas, first, pray: 'Lord, may I live this Christmas with true joy.' Not with the joy of consumerism which brings us to Dec. 24 full of anguish because 'ah, I’m lacking this, I’m lacking that …' No, this isn’t God’s joy. Pray."

  22. Of course the danger in the other direction is elevating form over substance--I've been to those Masses, too, and they're just as bad in another way: rigid, fear-and-rule-based, mummified.

    The aim is child-like reverence, wonder and joy--in the midst of sorrow. And the fruit of that attitude in a priest is a profound cognizance of the centrality of the Sermon on the Mount and the parable of the sheep and the goats.

    The fruit of authentic prayer, for any of us, is a profound concern for the poor (that always includes us and the people with whom we come in contact each day), a profound desire to end violence and promote peace, and a profound capacity for beauty, paradox, and action, no matter the cost.

    Pope Francis exemplifies that orientation of heart beautifully. To my mind, he's the best thing that's happened to the Church in ages and one of the greatest gifts of 2014.

  23. Liturgy matters. A lot.

    The Catholic Church teaches that: "The liturgy is the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; it is also the font from which all her power flows," and that "In the liturgy, all Christian prayer finds its source and goal."

    Pope Francis, in an address to representatives of ecclesial movements, new communities, and lay associations in 2013, said the most important target at which all those groups should aim could be stated in "just three words. The first: Jesus. ...The second word is: prayer. ...And the third word: witness." Note the order.

    1. Happy New Year, Lydia. Clearly, liturgy matters. That's why I wrote the piece. Here's another piece I wrote a few months back (one of many over the years) on the importance of the liturgy: http://shirtofflame.blogspot.com/2014/08/the-frightful-cost-of-peace.html.

      Whether or not all priests should read Benedict, we should definitely all read the Gospels. Because surely Pope Francis is absolutely right to put Jesus first. Surely when the Church stresses the importance of liturgy, she doesn't mean to put the liturgy ABOVE Christ and his new commandment upon which the entire Crucifixion and Resurrection rest; namely, "Love one another as I have loved you."

      Christ is the SOURCE from which liturgy flows. The purpose of the Mass is to come with our broken, fallen hearts, to express our love, and to equip us to go out to the world and perform the works of mercy. We need supernatural help for that. That God is EVER able to cut through our natural selfishness and fear long enough so that we can go out and comfort one of our fellows is a miracle of such incredible magnitude that we consecrate time and space in order to bow down before and give thanks for it.

      My objection to the Christmas eve Mass wasn't that it failed to comply with my sense of "Catholic" propriety. It was that with a childlike heart, everything in me was focused on the manger. The baby, the baby! The ineffable God who took on human flesh, pitched his tent among us and came into the world as a baby...No-one goes into the room of a woman in labor, hands the camera off to another visitor, strikes a pose, and says, "Here, take a picture of ME"

      So it wasn't even really the Mass that bothered me--which apart from the homily, or the way the homily struck me--was beautiful, by-the-book in all the right ways, and lovely. It was that as a single, childless woman without the usual form of family (though thank God for my siblings, cousins, nephews and nieces), with my own mother gone, with my own unborn children ever in my heart, to see other families, to celebrate the family, is extra important to me--especially at Christmas! So it was that we didn't get to celebrate, to exult, to weep over the baby...

      You often comment, contradict, or try to make a point with which I'm not even arguing. You always seem over-focused on form. I wonder if you have ever felt that child-like joy at Mass, that simplicity of heart of which I'm speaking. I hope so.

      Speaking of which, the priest could very well simply have been expressing his own child-like joy at a new toy. Afterwards, I thought what do you bet he's taking care of his Alzheimer's-afflicted mother, or disabled brother, or schizophrenic sister. Because isn't that always the way? We judge someone and then discover he or she is carrying a cross beneath which we would stagger and collapse.

      The purpose of a "good" liturgy isn't so that we can leave church smugly self-satisfied that the priest has done it "right." It's to break open our hearts to be in solidarity with our fellow man. I've been thinking a lot lately of the many many people in my life with emotional/sexual wounds. More and more I see the Mass equips me to quietly (I hope), invisibly...simply be present to, with, for them. That's true even, perhaps especially, of a Mass with a less than stellar homily.

      Several folks emailed me privately to say 'Oh you should only go to daily Mass" or "You should go to a different Mass than the family Mass." But that misses the point. Nothing short of the actual desecration of the Host on the altar could dissuade me from going to Mass frequently, indiscriminately, and with as little thought for my own preferences as possible. I need the Mass to live, to breathe.

    2. Very well said.

    3. Yeah, that's it -- I'm anal retentive to the max! But thanks for the lecture.

      Have a blessed and happy 2015.

    4. Hi again Lydia, actually it wasn't a lecture; it was an observation that you often argue points when we are actually on the same page, it was an invitation to a discussion instead of mindless sniping; it was an attempt to discourage you and others from anonymously venting your hostility on a target who is not anonymous.

      Because this is not some idle little thing I do in my spare time. It's something I do with focused intention, that matters to me absolutely, that I offer as a labor of love while also working full time and more in order to make a living.

      I'm searching for the truth here which is why I spent almost an hour crafting a deeply-thought and felt reply.How much time did you spend on yours?

  24. How's this for a timely posting, from Word Spy: The Word Lover's Guide to New Words --


  25. Loved this article Heather and I think you are spot on! Somehow, seemingly promoting the art of focusing on oneself via the "selfie stick" (seriously when I read this I thought he was going to talk of some sort of stick fashioned in order to swat oneself with when tempted to take a selfie! wrong!) just rings inappropriate from the pulpit. Thanks for broaching the topic of "self promotion" via social media, which many of us are afflicted with and I'm sure would like deliverance from. Mea culpa! You hit the nail on the head with " The whole purpose of selfies is to put them on the internet in order to project in image of ourselves as loved, as thriving, as "happy." The whole effect is to hide from ourselves our terrible emptiness, our fear that we are not loved, our terror in this culture of success of being perceived as losers." I feel a reevaluation ahead as well as a purge coming on. Thanks for an insightful piece Heather!
    Peace and all good,


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