30 September 2014

The Desk Chair Review of Books: A Man Without Words

A Man Without WordsA Man Without Words by Susan Schaller
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A certain episode of Radiolab featured this story as a way of considering the power and necessity of language for human flourishing. (You can listen at this link). Schaller tells the story of a young man she meets almost by accident at a class for deaf students at a university in California in the 1970s. After interacting with him briefly, she discovers that his inability to communicate is not ignorance about the particular signs of American Sign Language, but is actually a consequence of the fact that he was never taught any language at all. Her attempts to sign and communicate are simply mimed back to her by this obviously intelligent but clearly bewildered 27 year old, who observed everything around him intently but could make no connection between what was being done by others and their intention to communicate with him.
The story tells briefly how this young man, referred to as Ildefonso in the book, comes first to grasp language as an adult. This begins an odyssey not only for Ildefonso, but for Susan his teacher; she was charting new territory in a field that had long regarded languageless adults as unteachable.

My interest in the story derives not only from the remarkable story itself, but also from the philosophical writings of a 20th century novelist, Walker Percy. Percy was fascinated by semiotics, or "sign theory" first enunciated by the American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce. Semiotic theory gave Percy the means to develop a philosophical anthropology that was both scientifically grounded but that avoided a reductionist materialism that dismissed language as a mere epiphenomenon of neural activity. In The Message in the Bottle How Queer Man is How Queer Language Is and What One Has to Do With the Other, his collection of linguistic essays, he attempts to show how language defies comprehension in terms of linear, stimulus/response patterns, and that "meaning" is irreducibly threefold: sign, concept, and speaker cannot be broken down into a more fundamental binary interaction. In other words, language is an utterly unique phenomenon in the history of the cosmos, and science cannot explain it simply in terms of material and efficient causes.

One point of contact between Schaller's experiences with Ildefonso and Percy's linguistic theory was the moment that Ildefonso "gets" the fact that gestures "mean" concepts. Percy recounts a similar moment: the famous event in which Helen Keller, with water running over one hand and the sign for water traced on her other hand first realizes that "water" isn't just a sensation, but a name. Both Helen and Ildefonso enter the human community at that moment, and in Ildefonso's case, a lifetime of confusion and isolation is washed away in an instantaneous flood of tears.
Schaller writes with great passion for her subject matter, and her research into the ways in which languageless adults have been misunderstood in the past allows her to bring a fresh eye to much of human history and the study of language. Her love for the Deaf community also shines through and gave me insight into a segment of our society of which I know little to nothing. Highly recommended for parents of deaf children and all men of good will!

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13 August 2013


Kon-TikiKon-Tiki by Thor Heyerdahl
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Heyerdahl is the perfect mix between investigative theoretician and man of action--with an excellent measure of storytelling to season the dish. While I thoroughly enjoyed the story as Heyerdahl related it, and was terrified by the thought of floating on the open Pacific on a tiny wooden raft, the real value for me was the practical use of such a story to illustrate in vivid terms what is meant by the theological virtue of hope. A difficult task... inspired by evidence and reflection... an tradition of raftmaking handed on through legend... references to a white man from the land of the sun... many naysayers scoffing at the idea... a band of likeminded fellows... daring, fully aware of risks but confident in success... a long but surprisingly easy journey... many experiences of difficulty, but far more experiences of grace... a joyous and festive welcome in a tropical paradise...

...Coming to a homily near you...

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08 July 2013

Ecumenical Exhortation

If I profess with the loudest voice and clearest exposition every portion of the truth of God except precisely that little point which the world and the devil are at that moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Christ. Where the battle rages, there the loyalty of the soldier is proved. To be steady on all battle fronts besides is mere flight and disgrace if he flinches at that point.
Martin Luther

05 July 2013

Stay Thirsty, My Friends

Taking a break from regularly scheduled paper composition to update my readership!

As my fourth week comes to a close, I must say that I am extremely grateful for the chance to be able to take this time away from active ministry to dedicate myself to study.  This past month has proven to be an extremely fruitful enrichment. My studies have taken me far and wide, covering such disparate ground as Martin Luther's theory of justification to Ludwig Wittgenstein's philosophy of language. As a student, I am constantly in awe of the enormous intellectual treasures of our faith, its lively ability to selectively absorb the best that has been thought and said in human history and make it captive to the Gospel.  

Here, I am surrounded by masters of theology, each of whom has made it his life's mission to expound with clarity and consistency the beauty of our tradition. What a gift to sit at their feet. The depth of expertise and learning is truly staggering. As with any discipline, priesthood carries with it a certain level of expertise, and the priest is commonly the one who is generally the best informed about theological matters within the circles of his influence; but the danger there is complacency and entitlement. To be restored to a position of being taught rather than teaching is not only humbling, it's thrilling. It's a reminder that there is far more ahead to learn than the relatively little that's safely behind.

Stay thirsty, my friends.

Speaking of "the most interesting man in the world," please keep in your prayers Father Ed Oakes, SJ, one of my teachers who has been diagnosed with advanced pancreatic cancer and is currently undergoing chemotherapy. His prospects are not good, but we are praying for the miraculous intercession of Servant of God Augustus Tolton, a priest who ministered here in Chicago and is distinguished on account of being the first black priest ordained in the US Catholic Church. Thank you for your prayers of intercession on Father Oakes' behalf.

Pope Francis Publishes Encyclical Letter "Lumen Fidei"

Check it out on the Vatican's website!

04 July 2013

To My Parish, From Prison

Stone walls do not a prison make,  
  Nor iron bars a cage; 
Minds innocent and quiet take 
  That for an hermitage; 
If I have freedom in my love 
  And in my soul am free,  
Angels alone, that soar above, 
  Enjoy such liberty.
Richard Lovelace

02 July 2013

Newman on Pelosi

"The very idea of Christianity in its profession and history, is something more than this; it is a 'Revelatio revelata' [revealed revelation]; it is a definite message from God to man distinctly conveyed by His chosen instruments, and to be received as such a message; and therefore to be positively acknowledged, embraced, and maintained as true, on the ground of its being divine, not as true on intrinsic grounds, not as probably true, or partially true, but as absolutely certain knowledge, certain in a sense in which nothing else can be certain, because it comes from Him who neither can deceive nor be deceived.
"And the whole tenor of Scripture from beginning to end is to this effect: the matter of revelation is not a mere collection of truths, not a philosophical view, not a religious sentiment or spirit, not a special morality,––poured out upon mankind as a stream might pour itself into the sea, miing with the world's thought, modifying, purifying, invigorating it;––but an authoritative teaching, which bears witness to itself and keeps itself together as one, in contrast to the assemblage of opinions on all sides of it, and speaks to all men, as being ever and everywhere one and the same, and claiming to be received intelligently, by all whom it addresses, as one doctrine, discipline, and devotion directly given from above. In consequence, the exhibition of credentials, that is, of evidence, that is what it professes to be, is essential to Christianity, as it comes to us; for we are not left at liberty to pick and choose out of its contents according to our judgment, but must receive it all, as we find it, if we accept it at all. It is a religion in addition to the religion of nature; and as nature has an intrinsic claim upon us to be obeyed and used, so what is over and above nature, or supernatural, must also bring with it valid testimonials of its right to demand our homage.

John Henry Cardinal Newman, in his Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent

26 June 2013

The Excesses of God

Christ is the infinite self-expenditure of God… he points back to the structural law of creation, in which life squanders a million seeds in order to save one living one; in which a whole universe is squandered in order to prepare at one point a place for spirit, for man. Excess is God's trademark in his creation; as the Fathers put it, "God does not reckon his gifts by the measure."  At the same time excess is also the real foundation and form of salvation history, which in the last analysis is nothing other than the truly breathtaking fact that God, in an incredible outpouring of himself, expends not only a universe but his own self in order to lead man, a speck of dust, to salvation. So excess or superfluity––let us repeat––is the real definition or mark of the history of salvation. The purely calculating mind will always find it absurd that for man God himself should be expended. Only the lover can understand the folly of a love to which prodigality is a law and excess alone is sufficient. Yet if it is true that the creation lives from excess or superfluity, that man is a being for whom excess is necessity, how can we wonder that revelation is the superfluous and for that very reason the necessary, the divine, the love in which the meaning of the universe is fulfilled?

Josef Ratzinger
Introduction to Christianity

Your Argument––Should You Choose to Make One––Is Invalid

You may be aware of the recent public tiff between Congresswoman Pelosi and the founder of Priests for Life, Father Frank Pavone.

If not, fill yourself in (here is the letter Father Pavone wrote).

This situation of public figures professing to be Catholic in complete and utter contradiction to the very meaning of the word is becoming, unfortunately, more and more common. There are lots of reasons for this, reasons I won't get into here, but suffice to say, they are not reasons that are taking us in a good direction.

May I simply point out that Pelosi's response basically amounts to a smirking diversion? She characterizes Father Pavone's letter as "unworthy of the dignity of a response," due to its "hysterical" tone: and with a sweep of her hand the rational capabilities of her interlocutors are demolished, reduced to babbling nonsense before the shock & awe of Nancy.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is power.  

I shudder to imagine if the young men and women learning to argue, for instance, in a debate class, try to emulate Ms. Pelosi.  Perhaps their coaches will bow their heads in deferential silence to the magnitude of character required to sustain such forms of non-argument.

The fact is, she hasn't a leg to stand on, either religiously or intellectually. She is occupying the no-man's-land of the warmongering Quaker, the hedonistic Buddhist, the electric Amish.  To claim, as Ms. Pelosi does, that her faith has nothing to do with the clear and unaltered moral teaching of the Church is a canard, a cloak for her complete disregard for any coherence in her chosen path.  The only way to sustain such a path is through bluster, through spin, through deflection and doublespeak.  She (or her handler) has proven to be more than adept at this.  She is being called out, and her response is true to form.

Pray for her, and all who live and think as she does.

25 June 2013

So, What Exactly is Father Nick Up To?

Sometimes it can seem kind of mysterious where it is your clergy seem to be going all the time––seminarians come and go, priests move about and disappear for months at a time. Most parishioners seem to take it all in stride; but perhaps there are some of you who are curious about how these things work. This post is for you.

As for how I myself have ended up back at the seminary after being ordained a priest for two years:

My undergraduate work took place at Thomas Aquinas College in CA, where I received a heavy background in philosophy in theology. When I applied to the seminary in 2006, the Vatican had just released a new set of guidelines requiring an extra year of philosophical education, bumping the normal seminary education track from 5 years to 6. My philosophy credits from college more than satisfied the requirements and so I was allowed to modify my course of studies to start on theological work right away.

This meant that I had worked my way through the theological curriculum in about 4 years, leaving me with extra time on my hands.
Fortunately, the seminary at which I was studying had, in addition to the theological faculty, what is known as a "pontifical" faculty––which doesn't refer to a separate group of instructors, but simply that the university has an accreditation to grant not just American degrees but Roman ones as well.

The American system grants seminarians a "Master of Divinity" degree (abbreviated M.Div); the PhD equivalent in this system is a Doctor of Divinity (D.D.). The American seminary system, for obvious reasons, is largely Protestant.  The Pontifical faculty, based in the Roman university system, grants a different set of degrees: the Baccalaureate, License, or Doctor in Sacred Theology (STB, STL, and STD). After completing the requirements for my M.Div., I began chipping away at a degree in the Roman system--taking a few extra exams, writing a few extra papers, and eventually receiving my S.T.B. and completing almost all my classwork for the S.T.L.  So, I graduated and was ordained with an M.Div and an STB degree––one American and one Roman degree.

The S.T.L., or Licenciate is somewhere between a Master's degree and a PhD in the American university system.  In addition to 2 years of classwork, one must demonstrate competency in Latin and at least one modern theological language (such as German, Italian, or French), serve as a teaching assistant, write a 60-80 page thesis, and take a comprehensive exam that demonstrates familiarity with the overall history of theology in general and a few select theologians in greater depth, in the areas of the doctrine of God, Christian anthropology, theological method, and sacraments. If you're really interested in the requirements, you can read about them  here

I really thought I had a shot to finish my STL while still in seminary, but I was wearing myself out getting the work done, preparing for ordination, etc.  Finally, I let go of the idea not long before getting ordained. I figured if the Lord wanted me to get the degree, he'd open a door, and let it at that.

Last summer, Father Brian and I were chatting and I mentioned that I had always had an interest in study. He asked why I had never finished the STL, and I informed him that I had very little left in order to complete the degree.  He was quite surprised at this, and immediately suggested I look into a summer study program to complete it.  (I took this as a divine sign and an answer to my previous prayer for God to open a door. The thought of Father Brian suggesting I leave the parish for 6 weeks two summers in a row to read some pretentious books would have been unthinkable by any stretch of the imagination.)  He spoke with the Archbishop, I checked with the registrar in the seminary, and two weeks later I had my academic schedule.  

Of course, this was all before there was any talk of Father Brian being transferred to a new parish.  My guess is that right now he is sincerely regretting his generous suggestion, being the only priest on hand to minister to the needs of the parish while trying to pack up and move!  Let's just say his life isn't neatly packaged into rubbermaid filing boxes; from what I can tell, for the most part it's crammed in large piles into the trunk of his car.

The plan for me, then, is to finish two classes this summer, and then return next summer for a final class and thesis preparation.  Hopefully I'll get a lot of the reading done for that during the year, as well; then, of course, at some point I'll need to take my comprehensive exams, which is a one hour oral interview with three professors.  That may sound intimidating, but it's nothing compared to being cornered by a parishioner after Mass who didn't like my homily!  If I can get through that, there's nothing to worry about ....

23 June 2013

Back to the Mines

I had the great pleasure this weekend to make some new friends on a remote farm in southwest Wisconsin. Three families, at least two dozen children, houses built by hand from wood harvested and milled from the property. My friend DMac summarized it thus: "It's like going to camp: coffee, alcohol, meat, pancakes." A thoroughly Catholic mix.

So after a hearty dose of poetry, bare feet, sheep, two-stroke exhaust, pouring rain, steaming piles of cow manure, Iowa skinnies, a long porch that's cool in the sun and warm at night, barn swallows, did I mention more children than I could count?, a Wisconsin earth goddess and a Celtic poet...

... Kant, Schleiermacher, and Möhler are here waiting for me, right where I left them.