Someone said to me the other day, "that song sounds like a dirge!" I immediately thought: hmm, "dirge," from the opening antiphon for the first nocturne for the Office of the Dead for the hour of Matins: "Dirige, Domine, Deus meus, in conspectu tuo mean," which means "Direct, Oh Lord, my God, my way in thy sight."
Then someone gave me a rosemary plant in the shape of a tree, and I thought: hmm, rosemary, named for the plant on which Mary was said to have placed the garments of Jesus to dry after washing them; God then conferred on the plant a special aroma, and thus it was called "Mary’s rose" or rosemary.
And that tree shape: hmm, originating from Medieval liturgical dramas staged in church that featured scenes from the Garden of Eden, featuring Adam, Eve, and the treeu2014all to celebrate the coming of the new Adam (Jesus) and the new Eve (Mary) at Christmas. These plays were suppressed, and so the trees were brought into the home.
Then I observed someone using careful table manners and recalled that American manners were so influenced by George Washington’s own fastidious ways, which were picked up from the 1595 maxims written by French Jesuits: Decency of Conversation among Men. It circulated widely.
Now, anyone who would voice these observations would either be considered the most erudite person in the crowd or a huge pain in the neck. But after reading Why Do Catholics Eat Fish on Friday by Michael Foley, there is nothing you can do to suppress such thoughts. The feeling becomes overwhelming that you are surrounded by the ghosts of monks, nuns, priests, bishops, and popes from all ages.
In two hundred pages, Foley (who teaches at Baylor University) covers the Catholic origins of everyday objects, words, practices, and institutions in our life, in entertainment, manners, food, music, sports, flowers, science, technology, law, and language. The title of the book is slightly misleading, since the purpose is not to explain Catholic practices but rather to show how we all practice Catholicism without really knowing it.
We can quickly note the Catholic origins of the names of certain cities: Los Angeles (Our Lady, Queen of Angels), San Antonio (discovered on the Feast of St. Anthony of Padua), and San Francisco (St. Francis), but the town of Boston founded by the Puritans? Well, it turns out that Boston is named for St. Botolph, a Benedictine saint who founded the Ikanhoe monastery in 654, and after whom many English churches and town centers were named, as in Botolphstown, later Botolphson, and then Botoston, and finally Boston.
Not even the Puritans could fully escape their papist history!
Apparently no one can.
The judge’s black gown derives from the clerical cassock worn when the clergy studied and practiced law. To be "born with a silver spoon in one’s mouth" is a reference to the apostle spoon given by godparents to newly baptized children. When we say there is "not one iota" of difference between this and that, we are recalling the debate at the Council of Nicea in 325 as to whether Christ was the selfsame substand as God (homoousious) or distinct substance (homoiousios), where the difference between orthodoxy and heresy was only one letter (i) or iota.
Do you see how this book can make you crazy? It sounds slightly nuts at first, almost like the author is obsessed with a single idea and can’t get it out of his head and teaches it relentlessly to students who can only roll their eyes.
I mean, how can the idea of autobiography be secretly Catholic? Surely not.
And yet: the prototype for the Western autobiography is St. Augustine’s amazing work Confessions, which is addressed to God and tells of his painful path from sinner to saint. Later the autobiographical genre was subverted by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who loathed Catholicism and wrote a narcissistic revelation by the same name that removed God completely from the picture. When I first read the author’s point, I thought: now that’s a stretch. But over time, the point has sunk in.
Here is one you won’t believe. Bowling has Christian origins in the form of a religious ceremony held in the cloister of a church. In the 3rd and 4th centuries, peasants placed the clubs they carried for protection, called kegel in German, at the end of a lane. The clubs were said to represent heathen and were toppled. The clubs later became pins. Don’t believe it? Then explain why a bowler is sometimes called a kegler.
Do you knock on wood? The wood is the wood of the Cross. Three times? It’s for the Trinity. The purpose is to invoke the blessing of God on what one wishes to be the case. Do you cross for fingers? It dates from the 2nd century. You are hoping that the glory of the cross of Calvary will cancel out the evil of the lie. Do you worry about Friday the 13th? Friday is the day Christ died, and 13 joins the number of Christ and his apostles, one of whom was the traitor Judas Iscariot.
Do you see how this crazy obsession of this professor is not so crazy after all, or, rather, how he works to draw you into his obsessive world, and manages it rather successfully? Of the sheer detail and expanse of the volume, you can only say "Holy Smoke!" which of course refers to the smoke that emanates from St. Peter’s after the Pope is chosen.
Maybe you would be better off not reading this book but rather watching something thoroughly non-Catholic like watching television, except that television stemmed from a technological breakthrough in 1862 by Abbe Castelli, an Italian priest working in France.
Most of what you discover in this pithy volume you won’t find out in college, even though colleges themselves are Catholic in origin, as is the cap and gown, which were both developed from medieval Catholic prototypes (the same goes for the academic hood, which derives from the cowls of the Middle Ages).
And there are the anti-Catholic bits here too. Hocus Pocus is a reference to the words of institution at the consecration of the blood ("Hoc est enim corpus meum"). A Dunce cap is worn to reflect agreement with the early modern attack on the work of Blessed John Duns Scotus of the 14th century.
Remember the invisible ink you used when you were a kid? You would write and not see it until you held it up to the light or covered it with a special liquid. This book is that light, that liquid, that brings into sharp relief what was there and yet could not see. These are the ghosts that surround us on all sides, and they are here to stay and dwell among us so long as we are civilized.
As to the origin of the idea of ghosts, well, just get the book and turn to page 16.