29 December 2008

Various and Sundry Engagements With Matters of Enlightenment

A few hours of desultory reading on the web can either be fuel for contemplation or a complete waste of time that calls into question one's character and sanity. Happily, this morning can be declared the former.

First Things has been on a roll with the daily article of late. R.R. Reno discusses some thoughts on how scientific discoveries are received by ordinary people, and sheds a tear of compassion for the well-funded, highly educated army of researchers whose labors do little to influence public opinion on matters that touch on basic human experience. The matter in question? Brain science, and the conviction among researchers that impending discoveries will put the last nail in the coffin of freedom (and hence moral responsibility). A recent study from the University of Utah suggests that regardless of the scientific consensus, certain basic convictions just won't be eradicated. Reno does a fine job of reining in our view that science has the last word on the humanum.
When a scientist reports that action x can occur if and only if there is an antecedent brain state y, which in turn requires brain state z, then he is identifying y and z as necessary condition for and not the causes of x. We all know that what counts as a free choice is not a mental moment suspended in ether, unconnected and uninfluenced by emotions, habits, and intuitions. The ability of science to explain and illuminate the webs of interconnection does not dislodge our deeper intuition that our deeply embedded, highly influenced, and profoundly physical mental lives are somehow genuinely our own—and somehow our responsibility to discipline and cultivate.

Reno's appraisal of the general reluctance to swallow massively counterintuitive scientific claims sits well with the perspectives of another FT contributor (and a favorite author of mine) Stephen Barr. I plowed through his Modern Physics and Ancient Faith on the exercise bike this summer, which I highly recommend to enthusiasts in the field of the philosophy of science. Dabblers might be more suited to print out an article that presents the thesis of the book in summary form, entitled "Retelling the Story of Science", and park themselves in an easy chair on a winter morning with a cup of hot coffee and a pencil. In it, Barr nails down five areas of scientific progress that have actually undermined the Enlightenment aspirations to eradicate religious perspectives on the world. The fourth and fifth these areas of discovery touch on the issues outlined by Reno above, but in a very different light. Barr takes up the favorite activity of ideological materialism, "debunking myths," and turns it back on its practitioners:

Here the scientist debunks himself. Here all the grand intellectual adventure of science ends with the statement that there is no intellectual adventure. For the mind of man has looked into itself and seen nothing there except complex chemistry, nerve impulses, and synapses firing. That, at least, is what the materialist tells us that science has seen. However, the story is really not so simple. Here again the plot has twisted. Two of the greatest discoveries of the twentieth century cast considerable doubt upon, and some would say refute, the contention that the mind of man can be explained as a mere biochemical machine.

What might those discoveries be? Read the article and find out.

On a note related to some thoughts on relativism earlier, I came across this interesting video of Penn Gillette's reaction to the gift of a Bible from one of his fans after a show (link via Creative Minority Report). A short encounter with a genuinely good Christian man had an obviously powerful effect upon him.

What is most interesting is the way he countextualized the simple gift of a small Gideon Bible. "How much do you have to hate someone to believe everlasting life is possible, and not tell them that?" Contra the popular conception of evangelism as judgment and condemnation, this self-proclaimed atheist accepted what this man was offering: the gift of God's love, despite the personal discomfort making such an offer would probably bring him. That offer worked on a level more profoundly than the merely intellectual:
I know there's no God, and one polite person living his life well doesn't change that. But I'll tell you, he was a very, very, very good man.
We have here something akin to what made Christianity such a popular religion in the first place. Benedict has said that
the conversion of the ancient world to Christianity was not the result of any planned activity on the part of the Church but the fruit of the proof of the faith as it became visible in the life of Christians and of the community of the Church … The Church’s community of life invited people to share in this life in which was revealed the truth from which this kind of life arose. On the other hand the apostasy of the modern age rests on the disappearance of the verification of faith in the life of Christians. In this is to be seen the great responsibility of Christians today. They should be reference points of faith as people who know about God, should in their lives demonstrate faith as truth, and should thus become signposts for others.

We have, in this short, unpolished video, an account of just what effect a life lived in fidelity to truth can have on unbelievers.

Perhaps it also gives the lie to a common saying that, in my opinion, is much abused: preach the Gospel always; when necessary, use words. A true statement in itself, but perhaps it's necessary more often than we've led ourselves to believe.

27 December 2008

Some Light Holiday Reading

Nothing says "Christmas" to me like a short essay on Jewish perspectives on marriage vis-a-vis the polymorphous ancient pagan practices. For your enjoyment.

Especially my classmates in Special Moral II.

On an unrelated note, I snagged a webcam for my folks for Christmas so if you're up for it, look me up on Skype.

A blessed Christmas season to you all!

11 December 2008

In Case You Thought That's All There Is To Say

The way multicultural-speak has completely saturated reflection on globalization, you'd think the only path to maturity as a human person within the body of Christ was coming to grips with the encounter of world cultures. And you'd be right, as long as you were aware it was a necessary but insufficient dimension of the process of purification that constitutes this life.

What I mean is that there is another equally important discipline to be held in tension with stretching oneself to swallow the broadness of the world. There is more to life in cultivating a vastness to the point of containing contradictory multitudes, as Whitman did. We must never lose sight of the wonder of living, in all its humbleness and unremarkability. The great "apostle" of this way of life is none other than the great Chesterton, who in his reverence for "beef, noise, the Church, vulgarity, and beer" offers an "alternative lifestyle" to the continent-hoppers.

I was reminded of this by a few casual remarks made during our multicultural presentation (referenced in the previous post) with regard to Rudyard Kipling, that author of such wide and varied influence absorbed by way of British colonization. Chesterton points this out in his introduction to a series of essays known as Tremendous Trifles, and in prophetic counterpoint to the globalization that we now experience, set up a sign of contradiction: a portly, golden-mouthed Renaissance man who saw no reason to set out beyond the confines of his own particularity. That is, he saw the antithesis to Kipling in no one other than himself.

Apart from pointing out the great value of paying attention to literature and the mutual influence it exerts and receives from culture, Chesterton points out to us from a vantage point nearly a century away certain broad features of our own time we fail to discern for our proximity to them.

I give you the pleasure of reading the (short) essay for yourself.

Once upon a time there were two little boys who lived chiefly in the front garden, because their villa was a model one. The front garden was about the same size as the dinner table; it consisted of four strips of gravel, a square of turf with some mysterious pieces of cork standing up in the middle and one flower bed with a row of red daisies. One morning while they were at play in these romantic grounds, a passing individual, probably the milkman, leaned over the railing and engaged them in philosophical conversation. The boys, whom we will call Paul and Peter, were at least sharply interested in his remarks. For the milkman (who was, I need say, a fairy) did his duty in that state of life by offering them in the regulation manner anything that they chose to ask for. And Paul closed with the offer with a business-like abruptness, explaining that he had long wished to be a giant that he might stride across continents and oceans and visit Niagara or the Himalayas in an afternoon dinner stroll. The milkman producing a wand from his breast pocket, waved it in a hurried and perfunctory manner; and in an instant the model villa with its front garden was like a tiny doll's house at Paul's colossal feet. He went striding away with his head above the clouds to visit Niagara and the Himalayas.
But when he came to the Himalayas, he found they were quite small and silly-looking, like the little cork rockery in the garden; and when he found Niagara it was no bigger than the tap turned on in the bathroom. He wandered round the world for several minutes trying to find something really large and finding everything small, till in sheer boredom he lay down on four or five prairies and fell asleep. Unfortunately his head was just outside the hut of an intellectual backwoodsman who came out of it at that moment with an axe in one hand and a book of Neo-Catholic Philosophy in the other. The man looked at the book and then at the giant, and then at the book again. And in the book it said, "It can be maintained that the evil of pride consists in being out of proportion to the universe." So the backwoodsman put down his book, took his axe and, working eight hours a day for about a week, cut the giant's head off; and there was an end of him.

Such is the severe yet salutary history of Paul. But Peter, oddly enough, made exactly the opposite request; he said he had long wished to be a pigmy about half an inch high; and of course he immediately became one. When the transformation was over he found himself in the midst of an immense plain, covered with a tall green jungle and above which, at intervals, rose strange trees each with a head like the sun in symbolic pictures, with gigantic rays of silver and a huge heart of gold. Toward the middle of this prairie stood up a mountain of such romantic and impossible shape, yet of such stony height and dominance, that it looked like some incident of the end of the world. And far away on the faint horizon he could see the line of another forest, taller and yet more mystical, of a terrible crimson colour, like a forest on fire for ever. He set out on his adventures across that coloured plain; and he has not come to the end of it yet.

Such is the story of Peter and Paul, which contains all the highest qualities of a modern fairy tale, including that of being wholly unfit for children; and indeed the motive with which I have introduced it is not childish, but rather full of subtlety and reaction. It is in fact the almost desperate motive of excusing or palliating the pages that follow. Peter and Paul are the two primary influences upon European literature to-day; and I may be permitted to put my own preference in its most favourable shape, even if I can only do it by what little girls call telling a story.

I need scarcely say that I am the pigmy. The only excuse for the scraps that follow is that they show what can be achieved with a commonplace existence and the sacred spectacles of exaggeration. The other great literary theory, that which is roughly represented in England by Mr. Rudyard Kipling, is that we moderns are to regain the primal zest by sprawling all over the world growing used to travel and geographical variety, being at home everywhere, that is being at home nowhere. Let it be granted that a man in a frock coat is a heartrending sight; and the two alternative methods still remain. Mr. Kipling's school advises us to go to Central Africa in order to find a man without a frock coat. The school to which I belong suggests that we should stare steadily at the man until we see the man inside the frock coat. If we stare at him long enough he may even be moved to take off his coat to us; and that is a far greater compliment than his taking off his hat. In other words, we may, by fixing our attention almost fiercely on the facts actually before us, force them to turn into adventures; force them to give up their meaning and fulfil their mysterious purpose. The purpose of the Kipling literature is to show how many extraordinary things a man may see if he is active and strides from continent to continent like the giant in my tale. But the object of my school is to show how many extraordinary things even a lazy and ordinary man may see if he can spur himself to the single activity of seeing. For this purpose I have taken the laziest person of my acquaintance, that is myself; and made an idle diary of such odd things as I have fallen over by accident, in walking in a very limited area at a very indolent pace. If anyone says that these are very small affairs talked about in very big language, I can only gracefully compliment him upon seeing the joke. If anyone says that I am making mountains out of molehills, I confess with pride that it is so. I can imagine no more successful and productive form of manufacture than that of making mountains out of molehills. But I would add this not unimportant fact, that molehills are mountains; one has only to become a pigmy like Peter to discover that.

I have my doubts about all this real value in mountaineering, in getting to the top of everything and overlooking everything. Satan was the most celebrated of Alpine guides, when he took Jesus to the top of an exceeding high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the earth. But the joy of Satan in standing on a peak is not a joy in largeness, but a joy in beholding smallness, in the fact that all men look like insects at his feet. It is from the valley that things look large; it is from the level that things look high; I am a child of the level and have no need of that celebrated Alpine guide. I will lift up my eyes to the hills, from whence cometh my help; but I will not lift up my carcass to the hills, unless it is absolutely necessary. Everything is in an attitude of mind; and at this moment I am in a comfortable attitude. I will sit still and let the marvels and the adventures settle on me like flies. There are plenty of them, I assure you. The world will never starve for want of wonders; but only for want of wonder.

07 December 2008

Multiculturalism at its Worst and Best

This past Friday, the seminary took a break from classes to explore questions of Church and culture in a seminar on the multicultural setting of ministry. Many issues were raised that are of profound importance to the Church’s self-understanding and therefore to her relationship with the cultures in which she finds herself. I raised a number of questions with the rector during a brief conversation, and he made it clear that what was presented was not being proposed as an ideal for us, but a perspective that was to be critically evaluated and reflected upon. What follows is my attempt to do both.

Our presenter raised a number of very important points, but I will confine myself to a more abstract critique of the overall flow of his perspective. This perspective can be outlined as a description of the possibilities for interaction between cultures in an age of globalization, and a claim for which of those possibilities is the best one.

First, though, we have to pin down how the word “culture” was being used in our seminar. (A grasp of this is crucial for the full weight of my critique to be felt.) As it was discussed, culture is the man-made component of the external world in which human beings live. There are four dimensions in which each culture manifests its own proper characteristics, the first being its material aspect: artifacts and architecture are prime examples of this. Certain social institutions arise from culture, including family, government, trade, and explanations of the whole (such as religion or philosophy). It also includes the symbols assembled in language, stories, rituals, or writing. Finally, culture places emphasis on certain values, spoken or unspoken, good or bad, and exerts influence on society by holding them up as worthy of imitation either in the abstract or in concrete particulars. Being of human origin, all cultures are inherently limited and therefore biased (so it is said) in their grasp of ultimate values and realities. In other words, no one culture (religious or otherwise) has a stranglehold on reality; all cultures must collectively approach one another to gain mutual insight and approach the ultimate. While the Gospel transcends any one culture, there is always a danger that one dominant culture will insert its own bias into the Gospel and thereby place itself in a position of inherent superiority over all others.

In our age, technology has made it easier for people of different cultural backgrounds to encounter one another than in any prior age. Broadly speaking, the types of encounters can be placed on a spectrum. On the one end is monocultural interaction. This is simply the presence of one culture whose members are mostly homogeneous and unaware or uninterested in the existence of other ways of being in the world. By nature, most of us are comfortable in this situation and seek to reestablish it when equilibrium is disturbed by the arrival of persons of a different culture. Next on the line is the bicultural, signifying the ability of persons to effectively live within two cultural settings without the difficulties of transition between them. Moving along further across the spectrum, the multicultural world is one in which many cultures exist side by side without any real interaction, in which each culture bumps up against the others but retains its own integrity. A cross-cultural interaction is one in which members of one culture insert themselves into another while doing no violence to it, operating within its own proper dimensions. Finally, on the other end of the spectrum is an intercultural encounter in which people of many cultures do not merely coexist but actively interact, seeking to understand one another’s cultural setting through dialogue, clarifications, common projects, and tolerance of ambiguity, pluralism, and mistakes.

So far, so good. It can be safely acknowledged that this last kind of interaction is something the Church can hold up as desirable; being the sacrament of unity between God and men, it follows that her mission requires her to set aside coercion and violence while re-establishing harmony within humanity as a sign of the ingression of the kingdom into our historical existence.

Yet there is reason for caution here. By viewing the intertultural ideal through the lens of the four cultural elements listed above, it becomes clear that this ideal is itself a sort of culture with its own artifacts, institutions, symbols, and values. In this respect, the spectrum I outlined above bends back on itself to form a circle or an ascending spiral in which intercultural symbols and values become established as the elements of an over-arching meta-culture that exerts its own influence on the colliding cultures and subcultures within it while resisting any influences that oppose.

We must recall at this point that, being products of human activity, cultures are inherently biased; this is no less true, then, of our ideal of interculturalism. To the degree that interculturalism imposes its values, symbols, and institutions on its constituent cultures and subcultures, and is not open to other perspectives, it is guilty of the same absolutism it is meant to ward off. Anyone with eyes to see is very familiar with this imperialist enforcement of cultural (and by extension, religious) relativism. The prevailing winds of our media and higher educational system reek of such dogma—the turgid and tiresome political correctness, the obligatory endowed chair of religious studies held by an agnostic, the at once prolific and banal prophets who sermonize on the glories of diversity while failing to catch through the sea of fluttering rainbow flags the ironic smiles on the faces of “fundamentalist partisans” shifting from foot to foot in the wings. It is precisely this ideology that a certain Joseph Ratzinger named the “dictatorship of relativism” in his opening homily to the conclave which elected him pope, and this dictatorship is itself an institutional artifact of the Culture of Death.

The reason why we as Christians must qualify our assent to the intercultural ideal, then, is that there a real possibility that the values, symbols, and institutions of this ideal be derived from attitudes and philosophies antithetical to the Gospel. We can see the results of a premature and naïve embrace of the ideal in those once great missionary orders that now confine themselves to teaching missiology instead.

Yet if this possibility exists, then there is also the possibility that the intercultural ideal be informed by the Gospel and hospitable to it. This possibility echoes out from among the “great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue,” standing before the Lamb and the throne, crying out in a loud voice, “salvation comes from our God, who is seated on the throne, and from the Lamb” (Rev 7:9-10). The “stepping-out-of-oneself” which is so necessary for true intercultural harmony is a discipline integral to the giving of oneself that is humanity’s highest calling. Indeed, it is “law of the gift” that John Paul the Great so tirelessly preached, inspiring in the flock the paramount desire for the civilization of love that called upon each person—no matter how great or small in the estimation of the world—to discover herself through a sincere gift of herself (Letter to Families, 14). Yet this is not to be achieved through the de-mythologization of religion and the bracketing of our own very concrete origins in the person of Jesus, but through standing firmly upon those origins as upon rock. For the one who sees him “sees the Father” (Jn 14:9), and in him “the whole fullness of divinity dwells in bodily form” (Col 2:9). We ought not kid ourselves about the possibility of achieving for ourselves what is first and foremost the work of the Holy Spirit.


Recommended reading and works referenced in this essay:

Cardinal Ratzinger’s homily to the conclave
“Relativism: The Central Problem for Faith Today”
(PDF), an address given by Cardinal Ratzinger during the meeting of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith with the presidents of the Doctrinal Commissions of the Bishops' Conferences of Latin America, held in Guadalajara, Mexico, in May 1996. A very perceptive diagnosis of the conflict as it now stands, though light on solutions (as indicated by the title). You may disagree with Benedict but there’s few who can cast the conflict in such an illuminating posture. I would suggest this specifically to those who attended our seminar this past week.
John Paul II’s Letter to Families

04 December 2008

Flannery Gets You Somewhere

Just a couple of weeks ago one of my fellow seminarians (a deacon) mentioned he would be preaching at an all-school Mass for one of our diocesan high schools. Without any specific reason, I was reminded of a letter I'd read a few years ago written by Flannery O'Connor to a young man in college. He had written her regarding his struggle with faith occasioned by his university studies. (She mentioned in a letter to a friend that "he has the unlikely name of Alfred D. Corn III and if he weren't so typical I'd say he had invented the name and himself too.") Just the other night I came across the letter again, and I was pleased at just how fresh and timely Flannery's words are.

You might know of someone that could benefit from this sage advice. I sure can. Here it is, in full.

30 May 1962

Dear Mr. Corn,

I think that this experience you are having of losing your faith, or as you think, of having lost it, is an experience that in the long run belongs to faith; or at least it can belong to faith if faith is still valuable to you, and it must be or you would not have written me about this.

I don’t know how the kind of faith required of a Christian living in the 20th century can be at all if it is not grounded on this experience that you are having right now of unbelief. This may be the case always and not just in the 20th century. Peter said, “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.” It is the most natural and most human and most agonizing prayer in the gospels, and I think it is the foundation prayer of faith.

As a freshman in college you are bombarded with new ideas, or rather pieces of ideas, new frames of reference, an activation of the intellectual life which is only the beginning, but which is already running ahead of your lived experience. After a year of this, you think you cannot believe. You are just beginning to realize how difficult it is to have faith and the measure of a commitment to it, but you are too young to decide you don’t have faith because you feel you can’t believe. About the only way we know whether we believe or not is by what we do, and I think from your letter that you will not take the path of least resistance in this matter and simply decide that you have lost your faith and that there is nothing you can do about it.

One result of the stimulation of your intellectual life that takes place in college is usually a shrinking of the imaginative life. This sounds like a paradox, but I have often found it to be true. Students get so bound up with difficulties such as reconciling the clashing of so many different faiths such as Buddhism, Mohamedanism, etc. that they cease to look for God in other ways. Bridges once wrote Gerard Manley Hopkins and asked him to tell him how he, Bridges, could believe. Bridges was an agnostic. He must have expected from Hopkins a long philosophical answer. Hopkins wrote back, “Give alms.” He was trying to say to Bridges that God is to be experienced in Charity (in the sense of love for the divine image in human beings). Don’s get so entangled with intellectual difficulties that you fail to look for God in this way.

The intellectual difficulties have to be met, however, and you will be meeting them for the rest of your life. When you get a reasonable hold on one, another will come to take its place. At one time, the clash of the different world religions was a difficulty for me. Where you have absolute solutions, however, you have no need of faith. Faith is what you have in the absence of knowledge. The reason this clash doesn’t bother me any longer is because I have got, over the years, a sense of the immense sweep of creation, of the evolutionary process in everything, of how incomprehensible God must necessarily be to be the God of heaven and earth. You can’t fit the Almighty into your intellectual categories. I might suggest that you look into some of the works of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (THE PHENOMENON OF MAN et al.) He was a paleontologist—helped to discover Pekin man—and also a man of God. I don’t suggest you go to him for answers but for different questions, for that stretching of the imagination that you need to make you a skeptic in the face of much that you are learning, much of which is new and shocking but which when boiled down becomes less so and takes its place in the general scheme of things. What kept me a skeptic in college was precisely my Christian faith. It always said: wait, don’t bite on this, get a wider picture, continue to read.

If you want your faith, you have to work for it. It is a gift, but for very few it is a gift given without any demand for equal time devoted to its cultivation. For every book you read that is anti-Christian, make it your business to read one that presents the other side of the picture; if one isn’t satisfactory read others. Don’t think that you have to abandon reason to be a Christian. A book that might help you is THE UNITY OF PHILOSOPHICAL EXPERIENCE by Etienne Gilson. Another is Newman’s THE GRAMMAR OF ASSENT. To find out about faith, you have to go to the people who have it and you have to go to the most intelligent ones if you are going to stand up intellectually to agnostics and the general run of pagans that you are going to find in the majority of people around you. Much of the criticism of belief that you find today comes from people who are judging it from the standpoint of another and narrower discipline. The Biblical criticism of the 19th century, for instance, was the product of historical disciplines. It has been entirely revamped in the 20th century by applying broader criteria to it, and those people who lost their faith in the 19th century because of it, could better have hung on in blind trust.

Even in the life of a Christian, faith rises and falls like the tides of an invisible sea. It’s there, even when he can’t see it or feel it, if he wants it to be there. You realize, I think, that it is more valuable, more mysterious, altogether more immense than anything you can learn or decide upon in college. Learn what you can, but cultivate Christian skepticism. It will keep you free—not free to do anything you please, but free to be formed by something larger than your own intellect or the intellects of those around you.

[From the Library of America edition of her Complete Works, p1163]

For anyone interested in her work, I would highly suggest cruising over to The Morning Oil to pick up audiofiles of the author delivering one of her lectures, and reading one of her own most famous stories, "A Good Man is Hard to Find." These are very difficult to come by so I'd grab the chance while you've got it!

01 December 2008

In Her Passivity's Service

Vacations destroy me.

The last days of classes fill up with exams and papers, but I always insist on turning them in on Friday so as not to allow them to eat into my time off. Getting this done is complicated by my tendency to occupy myself with plannning out the use of two weeks of pristine, unclaimed, most delectable time. Each day leading up to the break sees an increase in the books I am going to read, the poetry I am going to memorize, the people I am going to visit, the hunting I am going to do, the days I am going to spend in silent meditation, and the number of languages I am going to learn.

This all goes well until about three or four days into the break, when I flip on the TV set for the first time. Never mind the Netflix queue of 104 films I've been hankering to devour for months and months; now, Live Free or Die Hard is on, and I'm watching it, though it's not crossed my mind once as something I wanted to enjoy. I stay up way too late and sleep in, burning up the morning between chapters of Horatio Hornblower and nursing that semiconscious state of interminably pleasurable awareness of how I'm-awake-but-I-don't-have-to-be. I get up for lunch with high hopes for the afternoon, and shake off the guilty pleasure of lassitude that hangs about me as best I can. I deserved it, anyway. This vacation. A few hours of goal-driven achievement, then a quick break with some novelties on the Discovery Channel. It's clearly starting all over again, I can see it coming, but I'm on vacation, dangit! Relax a bit! You can't be thinking all the time! (So true, but such a lie.) Soon it's dinnertime, and there's no sense in starting anything after supper. More languor, more dissipation, more distraction. Prayer becomes less and less of a merciful release and more and more of a burden. The breviary gets put off until later and later in the evening. Praying no longer animates the day but lays it down to sleep. Soon, I'm so frustrated with myself that I escape from being alone with myself or with God into more distraction, and then it all just comes crashing down.

To be honest, the only thing that keeps me coming back to visit my folks is the conversations we have over the dinner table. Time and time again, they are the sole redeeming moments of days on end (though I will admit to coming across some pretty sweet stuff on Time Warp last week). If it weren't for that, I'd be long gone. LONG GONE.

Yet tonight, at the rector's address to the whole community, it struck me that my experience on this past vacation (and nearly every vacation) isn't so useless. Admittedly, a little wasted vacation time helps to pull back the protective cloak of self-importance I wrap around this process of preparation. But as scrupulous or neurotic as my compunction about prayer and sleeping in and television viewing taken singly might seem, they are in common powerfully oppossed to the sense of purpose and progress that is present when I'm engaged in the formation process in the seminary. They are the wobble and yaw of the rocket that's exhausted its fuel before reaching orbit. Yet the unwillingness to confront personal weakness and let it BE in the sight of God, choosing rather to fly into various diversions (the very definition of sloth), itself is a powerful experience of what I would imagine many people live on a day to day basis.

Obviously this is not something I would restrict to the category of "people without faith". I would not classify myself as such a person. I believe this is a common experience not because I have a low opinion of people but because it's so easy. The challenges to living a serene, integral, and recollected life are legion, and almost nobody would ever chastise us for our complaints of busyness and frenetic activity. They are more likely to sympathize. Yet deep down, we know better, and we are begging for someone to tell us so.

A recent homily on the season of Advent by the vocation director of my diocese spoke powerfully into this personal situation, and managed to remind me that as usual, I've got it all wrong.
You and I are probably too timid to blame God for our exile, for our long-suffering inability to make ourselves into what we want to be. We instead blame ourselves, and ask God to keep his distance and to give us more time to tinker with our self-improvement projects . . . .

Advent is the time for us to stop asking God to leave us alone as long as possible so that we can mold ourselves before having to turn in the final product for judgment at an unspecified date . . . It is futile to pray that God will give us all the time we need. Rather, we are to expect that God is coming now, so now is the time to beg God Himself to mold us into what we are supposed to be, according to His will. Most of us are too timid to blame God for our exile. We are too self-centered to ask God for less time instead of for more.

If some of that language bothers you, thank God.

After a Brief Hiatus, the Beatings Will Continue

My trusty laptop, faithful servant these many years, has finally gone on the fritz, and I'll be trolling for a nice deal on a new computer. In the meanwhile, this quarter's class lineup has some real promise and will hopefully start sparking some juicy thoughts worthy of sharing.

Check back soon ...

11 November 2008

Slavery, Bootlegging, and Abortion ... A Winning Combination

The article of the day on the First Things site, written by a priest of the Archdiocese of St. Louis, resonates with my own thoughts from a few days back on what lies ahead for pro-lifers in the coming years. (Need I say it's a lot more lucid and practical. And there's no laborious rehashing of Tolstoy.) It's well worth your time. A short excerpt:

In a notable pre-election speech in St. Louis, former governor of Arkansas Mike Huckabee spoke about three legal innovations which he had witnessed in his adult lifetime: limitations on smoking, requirement of access to public places for the handicapped, and requirement of seat belts for drivers and passengers of automobiles. In each case, Huckabee pointed out, people were first persuaded that the proposed change was beneficial. Then, laws were enacted to mandate the change.

Pro-lifers need to heed this lesson. For too long we have been demanding the passage of laws which, though happily supported by a growing number of our fellow citizens, still fall short of the acceptance needed to make them effective. Considering our president-elect is, as Princeton professor Robert P. George demonstrated brilliantly in his October 14 article for Public Discourse, not merely pro-choice but militantly pro-abortion, we need to shift the battle from the legal front and concentrate on changing hearts and minds.

Preach it, padre. Looks like we're going to have to win this the old-fashioned way: one soul at a time. It's a good thing it's what Christians do best.

09 November 2008

On the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica

For our homiletics class, I prepared and delivered this homily to my seminarian brothers this past week. I've touched it up a bit here and there but it's substantially the same as it was delivered. Being that the Feast of the Dedication of the Cathedral Church of the Bishop of Rome doesn't exactly speak to a whole lot of people, I tried to work in the significance of this event for the history of the Church.

As to how it was received: my professor said that the greatest thing about my reflection on this gospel passage was that I'd written a paper on it. He then said the worst thing about it was that I'd written a paper on it. What can I say ...


Jesus' words in today’s Gospel were used to charge Jesus at his trial. They are dangerous words. To the Jews of the time, they could be explained away as the ranting of a deluded maniac at best; at worst, they were treason and blasphemy deserving the penalty of death.

This, of course, is a very different sort of understanding than the usual one. We usually hear it described as the exercise of righteous anger. Jesus, they say, was correcting the sinful use of the sacred precincts of the temple for transacting business, and the Jews were just steamed because he called them out on their failure to reverence the sacred.

Well, not exactly. Since this event took place near Passover, there were literally tens of thousands of pilgrims coming to the Temple to participate in this feast, and there was simply no way each of them could bring their own lamb or kid to sacrifice all the way from home. It would have made an already chaotic situation unbearably messy. So, in order to fulfill their religious obligation, they had to purchase animals on site. And they had to pay the Temple tax, but they couldn’t use coins with the image of Caesar—so they needed to change their money into a currency that could be used for sacred purposes. There was a suitable place ready-made to provide for these needs already—the huge plaza known as the Temple Mount, recently completed under the patronage of Herod (the “46 years” it took to build the “Temple” actually refer to this architectural modification to the Temple building itself).

So what was Jesus getting at if this wasn’t about shoveling manure next to the Temple?

Contrary to what we often hear, this incident should not be referred to as the “Cleansing of the Temple” but the “Abrogation (or Rejection) of the Temple.” The words that accompany Jesus’ actions explain why this is. “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” What the Jews do not understand, but which the later Resurrection fully clarifies, is that Jesus is speaking “of the temple of his body.” In effect, John is saying that Jesus puts his own person on par with the Temple; indeed, he’s going even further than that: he himself makes the Temple obsolete. He is now the definitive dwelling place of God among men. Jesus’ Resurrection passes judgment on the Temple and its rituals. It declares that HE is the full revelation of the Father’s love to the world, NOT the Temple.

You can understand why the earlier Gospel writers didn’t put this claim on the lips of Jesus himself, but phrased it as a charge by his accusers during his trial. It didn’t exactly contribute to Jewish-Christian relations! Only John attributes them to Jesus himself—after a healthy distance between Jews and Christians had come about some decades after the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70.

We read in the seventh chapter of the Acts of the Apostles that the elders and the scribes brought charges against St. Stephen for “speaking blasphemous words against Moses and God,” and for constantly “saying things against this holy place [i.e. the Temple] and the law [i.e. the Torah].” For they had heard him claim that “this Jesus the Nazorean will destroy this place and change the customs that Moses handed down to us.”

These ideas weren’t incidental to the Gospel; they were on the lips of our savior and the first martyr within hours of their deaths. They were of such importance that they clearly found their way into the Church’s proclamation almost immediately.

So those early Jewish converts to Christianity knew the radical decision it took to follow Jesus. Everything had made sense until this Jesus guy had come along. Within a few decades of the Resurrection, Christians and Jews no longer worshipped together. Family members were set against each other by their decision to resist or join this new way of faith. Jews were worshipping side by side with Gentiles. Everything was new. Faithful Jews despised them; the Jewish authorities persecuted, imprisoned, and killed them, thinking they were rendering service to God. Converts from Judaism to Christianity were no longer covered under the legal allowance for religions older than Rome, because Christianity was considered a new religion—and so the Romans could legally persecute them as well. And for all practical purposes it was like they had broken with the thousand years of tradition that stretched from Moses to Judas Maccabeus. These Jewish convents must have asked themselves again and again, “what in God’s name are we doing?

Fast forward two hundred and fifty years to the dedication of the church of St. John Lateran. Things couldn’t look more different. Christianity isn’t being persecuted and reviled because the emperor, Constantine, has become a Christian. Sixty years after that, Christianity would be the official religion of the entire empire. In just a few hundred years, this despised and persecuted religion had flooded the Roman Empire.

Imagine the joy of the Christian people on receiving the news that what had been withheld from them for so long was finally being granted. It was the granting of a wish soaked in the blood of the countless martyrs, known and unknown, throughout the hundreds of years of Christian existence. If they had been at a loss for words, they might have prayed with today’s Psalm:

The Lord of hosts is with us;
our stronghold is the God of Jacob.
Come! Behold the deeds of the Lord,
the astounding things he has wrought on earth.

For us, the basilica of St. John Lateran stands as a reminder of their joy. It’s easy to lose sight of this memory underneath the many layers of meaning this church has acquired in the 1700 years of its existence. We have to hold fast to its meaning for us as a monument to the faith and radical commitment of all those who staked everything on Jesus’ promise that the gates of hell would not prevail against his Church.

And what fueled this faith? What was the source of their commitment? It was what came to mind every time they asked that question, “what in God’s name are we doing?” It was the conviction that each disciple had to follow his crucified master. They knew that if they were to be the dwelling place of God on earth, the Temple of the Lord, they had to be chiseled, and shaped, and smoothed in order to be fitted into their appointed places within this Temple. They were living stones willing to undergo the process of transformation, as the Scriptures encouraged them:

Come to him, to that living stone, rejected by men but in God's sight chosen and precious; and like living stones be yourselves built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.

1 Peter 2:4-5

While for some this meant heroic acts of generous, self-sacrificing love, for the ordinary people of the time it simply meant having an extraordinary love for God and neighbor.

So it’s very appropriate that this feast day follows only a week after the celebration of All Saints. It is another reminder that we have inherited absolutely everything we need to be extraordinary in love. Are we making use of that inheritance, or do we behave like spoiled children who are ungrateful when every need has been provided for them?

The seminary should be what the Christian community could be. There are all sorts of men here that constantly inspire me with their curiosity, their enthusiasm, and their conviction. Seek those men out. Befriend them. Try to be that kind of man for your brothers. Allow God to stretch your desire for his kingdom. Believe with every fiber of your being that the Holy Spirit is here, now, speaking to you in the Scriptures, giving you desires for faithfulness and glory, of which you had never dreamed? Are you willing to desire things that because of your weakness are so impossible that they become a manifestation of God’s power in the world?

There will come a time when our posterity will think upon us as we think upon our own fathers in the faith. What will the Christian people yet to come say about us? Will they remember our extraordinary love? Will they remember and rejoice over the revelation of God’s power that took place through our weakness? Will they be glad that we weren’t content to rest on our laurels and live off our savings? Will they recognize that we didn’t float with the current and allow the secular humanist agenda to compromise the Gospel? Will the Church flourish on account of our faithfulness?

We are standing on the shoulders of giants. And if we don’t love more than most, if we’re not even able to do the little things with great love, we have to ask ourselves:

What excuse do we have?

08 November 2008

A little backstory on this link: I first heard of Francis Beckwith on an evangelical blog. They were informing the evangelical community of his conversion to Catholicism. This caused quite a stir not only because he was a professor (of philosophy, I believe) at Baylor University in Waco, TX but the president of the Evangelical Theological Society. Needless to say, his resignation in that post came soon after. I was much edified by the news and filed it away for future reference.

That occasion presented itself sooner than I'd expected. Beckwith showed up at the 2008 FOCUS National Conference in Dallas and delivered a breakout session on defending the unborn in the classroom to a capacity crowd. It was outstanding. I have a copy of the talk if you'd ever like to hear it. It was exciting to meet him and his wife, and I filed this encounter away for future reference.

Not long after, I discovered he has been doing some blogging of his own, along with several other people of whom I have no knowledge other than their very articulate and well-presented thoughts. The blog is aptly named What Is Wrong With the World (presumably after Chesterton's collection of essays of the same name), and I recommend you check it out in general. Especially when you check my blog and there's nothing worth reading.

Perusing this blog has lead me to some great insights by his fellow posters, especially a certain "Zippy Catholic." A recent post by this blogger sums up marvellously the task that lies ahead for our Church, so visibly divided over this election. He addresses Catholic supporters of Obama:
Now that we have a President elect, you see, there is no longer any justification for remote material cooperation in his wicked policies. Justified remote material cooperation with evil may have made it possible to choose him over McCain (though I think it did not), but now we have the absolute condition of a chosen President. If proportionate reason ever existed for remote material cooperation with his evil policies before the election, they no longer do now. Now your obligation is reversed, as I alluded to earlier. Now your obligation is to oppose his evil policies with all your heart, mind, and strength; all the more so because of your choice to vote for him.

Read the rest here.

06 November 2008

An Elementary Mistake

It is bewildering to me the faith that people have in political solutions to moral problems. A wise gal told me recently that as she's grown older, she's come to regard the political process as more of a thermometer than a thermostat. That is, the outcomes of elections have more to do with where people stand than where this country is headed. Though at times this thought produces in me the desire to throw up my hands in disgust and be done with politics, there is a kernel of truth there. The real work is done in the hearts of people and not on the campaign trail or at the convention.

I wrote my bachelor's thesis on War and Peace, and some of Tolstoy's ideas about the true causes of the movement of history strike me as relevant. Tolstoy is convinced that the conventional explanations for major events (the march of Napoleon's army into Moscow, in particular) completely ignore the true causes of those events. He insists that attributing the private acts of bravery, cowardice, cruelty, and heroism of tens of thousands of men to the wishes of one person (say, Napoleon) is preposterous, and such historians merely put in the hands of one man what they refuse to put in the hands of God.

Contrasted with this is the Russian general Kutuzov, who sleeps through meetings and has little to no military strategy in mind. His finger is on the pulse of what Tolstoy refers to as the spirit of the army. The ebb and flood of his men’s spirits are what he acts upon, not the limited tactical perspectives he and his staff are capable of observing. And it is this wisdom—this experiential tasting—that gives the Russian army the power to repel the advance of the vastly more powerful French.

It is this wisdom that leads Tolstoy to conclude that historical events are manifestations of the will and character of individuals and nothing else. He declares,

The battle of Austerlitz was the result of all the complicated human activities of 160,000 Russians and French; all their passions, desires, remorse, humiliations, sufferings, outbursts of pride, fear, and enthusiasm.

Mutatis mutandis, would it be much of a stretch to substitute “the 2008 election” for Austerlitz? I think not. We’ve seen where the American people stand, and honestly, I’ve seen more “outbursts of pride, fear, and enthusiasm” over The One than I have seen over anybody in the public square in a long time.

The question on most people I know and love is, “What does this mean for our hard-won advances in the pro-life movement?” Conscious that what I'm about to say may sound incredibly callous and ignorant, I think very little is going to change in the grand scheme (just as very little has changed over the last 30-odd years). Whether or not Obama makes good on his promises to liberalize abortion to unheard-of levels, it will affect the numbers of abortions by only a small percentage of an annual toll in in the seven-digit range. On the other hand, this or that pundit opines about the effect Obama’s economic and welfare policies will have on the factors most influential on women getting abortions. Quite frankly, I find these ideas ludicrous. The implication that having more money in the bank or a better job or more food stamps are what determine a woman’s choice to keep or kill her baby is an insult to women. How do you put a dollar sign on that choice? How much money is at stake here, exactly? Do these pundits believe that there are women who think “if only I had $1,000 more in income per year, I would keep this child!” And if they do, perhaps they imagine we could persuade them to accept less?

Of course, precisely the same is true of the legal solution. Making a law forbidding abortions will certainly save untold lives, but there’s one catch—changing the law requires elected officials who are convicted about this cause. Elected officials are, as we know, elected by citizens, each of whom is subject to their own proper “passions, desires, remorse, humiliations, sufferings, outbursts of pride, fear, and enthusiasm.” What leads us to believe that we can ever change a law without bringing about a conversion in the hearts of the citizenry?

Hence the "highblown" rhetoric for which the pro-life movement is often criticized. Yes, yes, to simply bandy words about doesn't help people in real situations who feel as if there really is no option but to get an abortion. The fact that in our country the moral is equivalent to the legal doesn't help; see Solzhenitsyn's 1978 address to the graduating class at Harvard. But what few people are aware of is the fact that the people with the moral rhetoric are usually also the ones getting their hands dirty out on the streets in the largely volunteer-run crisis pregnancy centers. It is highly unfortunate that this effort receives less publicity than it should; these people are too busy doing real work, instead of raising money to promote widespread recognition of their good deeds.

Recently, I've been in touch with a couple of these centers in Chicago and I am simply overwhelmed with the unseen efforts of huge numbers of volunteers. One of them, The Women’s Center of Chicago, has a budget of $1.5 million per year. That amount is what they fundraise through private donations from the citizens of this local area. If I had not gotten involved directly with praying at the nearby abortion clinic and raising money for them through our firewood sales here on campus, I would never have known about the place, or the innumerable hidden sacrifices and acts of heroic generosity that occur on a daily basis.

This is what the political landscape boils down to for me: people vote their convictions, and convictions are formed not by headlines or catchy slogans but the desire for happiness and justice. To seek political solutions to moral problems—which are ultimately spiritual problems—is foolishness.

I, for my part, am ready to spend my life in the service of the God who speaks to the heart of every human being on this planet, calling each into the fullness of their humanity. I believe God speaks uniquely through the Scriptures and nourishes us in the sacraments, and that these are directed most pointedly to forming the heart and mind. I am confident that my life can be spent in no better way than to help the people I encounter to be receptive to that invitation to conversion.

And I am confident that for me, the priesthood is the way in which God has willed from all eternity for me to fulfill this mission.

30 October 2008

Catholics in the Public Square

Our very own Archbishop Naumann gave an outspoken presentation to the Catholic Campus Center at the University of KU recently, and was featured in the Lawrence paper. This comes on the heels of a heated exchange in the publication Newsweek between George Weigel and Catholic professors Kmiec, Cafardi, and Kaveny, at least one of whom (Kmiec) is tenured at Notre Dame. I came across this exchange on the First Things blog; it is a site I check daily. Here are the links (and rebuttals) to this highly instructive debate:

Weigel's original essay: Can Catholics Back Pro-Choice Obama? (Hint: no)
The Response: A Catholic Brief for Obama

(This essay brings up an interesting argument: bishops intent upon excluding from communion politicians that support public funding for abortion should also take into account the complicity in evil that material supporters of the Iraq war take upon themselves. It is a fairly direct accusation of hypocrisy that I've not come across before.)

Weigel's Rebuttal: Flawed Thinking

Weigel doesn't respond to the "material cooperation in evil" argument. Keith Pavlischek over at First Things fleshes it out a bit:

It might be instructive to think about how their argument (if we may call it that) might be salvaged from complete incoherence. Absent a full-throated defense of absolute pacifism (which would render Obama’s support of the “good war” in Afghanastan equally subject to condemnation) the bishops could declare that selective conscientious objection to the Iraq war is the only morally permissible option for Catholics. On the assumption that the Iraq war is manifestly “unjust and unjustified,” the bishops could simply declare, that no Catholic may permissibly serve in Iraq as a soldier sailor, airman, or Marine. Such service would, they might argue, involve a Catholic not merely in moral complicity in evil acts but with direct involvement with evil (killing in an unjust war). They might then extend a similar judgment to Catholic politicians who support funding of the Iraq war.

You can find his comments in full here. (Go ahead and bookmark the site.)

My thoughts to follow.

27 October 2008

Little Demagogueries If Unchecked Will One Day Embarass You

The history of the stem-cell debate is a study of what happens when politics and science reach out to each other. The politicians were guilty, but the scientists were more guilty, for they allowed—no, they encouraged—politicians to make stem-cell research a tool in the public fights over abortion, public religion, and high finance.

In the small demagogueries of a political season, the science of stem-cell research became susceptible to the easy lie and the useful exaggeration. A little shading of truth, a little twisting of facts—yes, the politics corrupted the science, but the scientists willingly aided the corruption. And with this history in mind, who will believe America’s scientists the next time they tell us something that bears on an election? We have learned something over these years: When science looks like politics, that’s because it is.

From the latest First Things]

10 October 2008

Quote of the Week

Scene: A moral theology classroom. The sun streams in through the windows as groundskeepers run their mowers around the manicured lawns. A well-aged Jesuit with cropped hair and a thick southside accent slouches in the corner while a student presents a short summary of the day's assigned reading to his classmates.

Presenter: Given the choice to either stick with the clear definition of marriage present in the 1917 Code of Canon Law or shift to a more ambiguous but theologically cogent description, the Council Fathers resisted the counsel of the canonists to hold to the ultimately impoverished view.

Jesuit: Those lawyers always need something to sink their teeth into. They can't stand the gray areas, can they, counselor?

Former Lawyer: [short pause] There's a lot of money to be made on the gray areas, Father.

09 October 2008

A Feather In the Cap

The furious fascination I had with The Dark Knight back in the summer has subsided, but lo and behold, another review has just been posted over at The Catholic Thing and I was much gratified to see that it coincided with my own opinions on a number of different points.

You can read the new review here.

I wish I could conjure up a nice post for you, but it's midterm week and I seem to be burning up all my time on reading about the financial crisis. Soon I'll be neck deep in a crisis of my own. In the meanwhile, I'll just keep linking to old posts in the hope that one day I'll have what the critics call an Original Thought.

05 October 2008

Please Direct Your Attention to Everything

Our very own Father Robert Barron is working on a magnificent project worthy of your support. You can watch a short preview of his landmark series "Catholicism" at his website, http://www.wordonfire.org/

Keep an eye on this. It's going to be huge, I think.

02 October 2008

Do Yourself a Favor

... and read this article from the First Things daily posting.

The Regime of Science

It's outstanding.

20 September 2008

Wednesday, Part Two

Here's the rest of what I've got. If you like it, you might enjoy another post about Ruth I wrote last January.

Each Wednesday, the new seminarians take a hiatus from class and go out into the local community to get involved in some form of service; this is referred to by the formation faculty as “field education”. I’ve been assigned to a group called the Little Brothers, Friends of the Elderly, whose mission is visit isolated, homebound, or otherwise neglected elderly. Today is my first day on the assignment. After morning prayer and breakfast, I get in the car to drive down from the far northern Chicago suburbs, to the North Side, where I am to meet up with my program coordinator who will then introduce me to the first of the elders I am to visit regularly over this year.

Traffic has me in its clutches for an hour and twenty minutes. Inside my head, I rail at the drivers alone behind the wheel of each of the hundreds of cars obstructing my way, and then rail at myself for being one of them. Our lack of options does not absolve my conscience. Overhead, the sky is clear and solid. As I approach downtown, massive clouds hang low and thick over Lake Michigan, a snowbank corralled by the imposing skyline. Memories of the approach to Denver from the east drift along before me. Checking myself, the vista regains its immediacy. Say what you will about the Midwest and its paucity of grand scenery, but the vaulty sky reveals itself here in ways not glimpsed elsewhere. The crags and preposterous bluffs of the Cumulus Range are more precious for their precarity.

Stiff and cranky, I make my way into the central office of the Little Brothers, just inside the Loop. A National Geographic on the table occupies me as I wait for Seth, my program coordinator.

A perfunctory “You have a car?” jolts me from my world of burning sands and barefoot Bedouin guides.

We grab a few flowers from the cooler in the kitchen and throw them in the paper bag he’s got with him. On the way to our first visit, I learn a little about Seth in the awkwardly close quarters of the front seat of my vehicle. Having met him only moments before, we proceed to have somewhat of a disembodied conversation as I negotiate the traffic and pump the clutch. He’s a skinny guy, built pretty much like I am, and not much older. His arms swing through a long arc in time to his undulating gait. Three-day scruff grows in patches, and tones of enlightened foreign policy and human interest seep through his voice, the sort that would do well against a backdrop of ambient city noise or a hammer dulcimer on NPR.

“So, you like working with the … ah … old folks, huh?” I make a mental note to come up with better slang as I await the inevitable rejoinder: “Dude, ‘wrinkly hags’ is not the preferred nomenclature.” It doesn’t come.

He ended up with the Little Brothers after wandering a bit, getting ordained out in California from a school well known for its willingness (as he described it) to confer orders on pretty much anyone. As I stare down five years of post-graduate preparation for the priesthood, I teeter woozily at the edge of the chasm that runs roughly halfway between my passenger and me.

Seth’s not a Chicago native but has adapted well to the city life, with which I am not overly familiar. He recently moved after getting jumped by eight kids outside his apartment on his way to the corner ice cream stand one evening. He maced one.

“You maced him?”

“Yeah, I carry it all the time, now. I swear by it.”

This obviously isn’t terribly remarkable to him. I have to prompt him to get the facts that he doesn’t consider worth mentioning.

It turns out he had to use the mace another time on the ‘L’.

“A crackhead got in my face, yelling and screaming at me. I tried the apologetic back-down, telling how I didn’t know what I did to offend him, but that didn’t seem to work, so I got up and started screaming back at him.”


“That didn’t work either. I sized this guy up, and he wasn’t that big, but who wants to roll around on the floor of the ‘L’ with a crackhead? So I maced him.”

More chuckles.

“Did you just leave him there?”

“Well, mace doesn’t really knock you out. I moved back in the train a couple of cars and hoped he wouldn’t come after me. A few minutes later, I saw him coming—is this Addison? Uh, take a left here—so yeah, I headed to the back of the train. I grabbed a bottle on the way. You never know. He was definitely coming after me. There’s a bottle in his hand. I had nowhere to go ‘cuz the train was moving, so we just … stand off, you could say.”

Seth hints at to some of the tactical maneuvering of two bottle-wielders in a stalemate, neither willing to risk losing his one element of defense in a bold projectile offensive. He ended up jumping through the doors of the train just as they closed, implying a studied familiarity with their timing. His adversary pounded them in frustration, screaming with sunken-eyed ferocity as the train rumbled, hotshoes arcing, from the platform.

We make our way to an apartment building run by the Chicago Housing Authority just a few blocks from the lake in one of the nicer parts of downtown. Seth is new to the job, too, and so we’ll both be meeting these folks for the first time. Ruth comes to the door with a smile on her face. That is good; you never know what’s on the other side of that door the first time you knock. The fear of a really difficult encounter subsides as we take in the décor—every horizontal surface is crowded with trinkets and fleamarket baubles. Around her neck are necklaces of every conceivable variety, obscuring the pins, buttons, and ribbons on her blouse. Her wiry hair is pinned up close to her head and twin folds of skin hang from her neck like they did on my grandma; there was a day when I would sit on her lap and play with them until she got tired of it. I never did. They were so soft and parallel. We only saw her once a year when I was young.

Ruth is sweet and chatty, so she is well into her life story by the time we have been there fifteen minutes. She doesn't offered us a seat as there is nowhere that isn't already covered with stuffed animals. She tells us of how she grew up in an orphanage, made her way to Florida working for a wealthy family as a nanny, then went west to Texas and up through Oklahoma and Fort Gibson where she met a soldier who never wanted kids but got her pregnant every time he was home on leave to visit his young wife. She couldn’t support them on the money she earned from waiting tables so she gave them up for adoption when he didn’t come back from the war, and was reunited with them both in her old age.

Later I found out that he had not died in the war, but simply left her; yet that was not how she told it, and therefore not how I remember it. I believe that it’s not how she remembers it, either.

As the years sweep by in her story, the circumference of her life gradually shrinks in on itself until it scarcely reaches beyond the walls of her little apartment, like the interplanetary wanderings of a comet that has slowed to a tight orbit around the star that would eventually swallow it up. All the kitsch is the last sentimental remnant of a more widely distributed existence; age and weakness had served to concentrate whatever freedom remained to her and bind it to her tightly, and so she had populated these few square yards with the things that could still please her.

And slowly it dawns on me, as it probably dawned on her at some point in the past, that she is preparing for herself a small army of attendants and well-wishers to see her on her way when at last the time came for her to lie on her bed, never to get up again, and let this life of hers dwindle to vanishing.

We leave her the flowers. I’d lucked out. Ruth is a peach.

08 September 2008

Wednesday, Part One

My first year in seminary, I would travel into the city each Wednesday for what we call "field education," referred to in a bygone day as "apostolate," to carry out some form of service in the local community. It certainly had value as service, but I experienced it as a healthy way to keep our feet on the ground and make sure we don't get too stir-crazy going to classes all week long. It's a good balance to our academic and spiritual formation. The following was one of a couple different stories I wrote about one Wednesday in particular; seminary starting again reminded me of them and I thought I'd post them to get me off the hook from coming up with something original the first week of classes.

Enjoy! I'll post the next one in a little while.


Among the many things I’ve noticed as I’ve grown older is how infrequently I laugh. There was a time in my life when it was rare that I did not find myself doubled up over some foolishness, especially when in the company of those further along on the march – which, happily, seemed like just about everyone. The world was new and fresh enough to my youthful perspective that the slightest hint of a jaded or cynical outlook caught me off guard. When in the sixth grade, I would sputter and choke at eighth graders’ open defiance of authority. When in high school, the thought of the college student’s lackadaisical life, pompous and derisive of this or that professor, or class, or author was comical in its unfamiliarity. When home from college over the summer, working with blue collar tradesmen, the descriptions of their home lives, the relationships with their bosses and wives, their life-philosophies did not measure up with what I thought was appropriate for men of that age, and so, bewildered, laughter was all I could come up with. At the risk of sounding a little too philosophical, laughter was how wonder at people’s loss of a sense of meaning found its way to the surface. Not that I was aware of it then. Thankfully, my instinctual response was more disarming than anything.

Though there seemed to be no shortage of such opportunities to ignite my seemingly boundless mirth, these days encounters like these are more depressing than anything–not only because of their monotonous frequency, but because I sense the possibility for their settling into my own life. When I find myself genuinely laughing, as I did when a bit younger and more susceptible to the absurd, it’s refreshing. The dross is, from some hidden surface, buffed away and the luster is freed from beneath.

This week has been one of much laughter.

Breakfast has been with a handful of seminarians who have all by chance ended up around the same table each morning. A rich eruption of guffaws would boom through the subdued atmosphere of the refectory as it took its first meal of the day, like a lab reaction that had gone haywire. Echoing across the glassy smoothness of the nearby lake, a groggy heron or two was sent squawking into the air, flapping resentfully.

Mornings are always more likely times for mirth. At morning prayer, the chants were intoned by Drew, a late vocation who had spent ten years as a Chicago cop. The formal, Hebraic poetry acquired a new grandeur as it was recited in his South side accent. My insides twisted up as unusally forceful snorts and splutters clutched at me.

At breakfast today, the man of the hour was Ben, a seminarian from the upper peninsula of Michigan. Ben has the same inexhaustible storytelling ability as the sort possessed by my relatives of eastern Wisconsin, and the same accent. Bright eyes burned attentively above a thick, brown beard with streaks of clay and a round belly they call the Milwaukee Goiter. It’s common knowledge that the remote surroundings of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula attract many remarkable types; Ben has a number of stories of the unique individuals that inhabit that place. Among them, Otto, a neighbor of his, occupies a notable place. Otto has a number of exploits to his name, but of importance to us is the Day Otto Fed His Garden.

Otto is quite the outdoorsman, and outdoorsmen of this part of the country pride themselves upon their ability to keep in check animal populations that, without salutary and benevolent management, would multiply themselves with such ferocity that entire ecosystems would be no doubt rapidly annihilated in the ensuing feeding frenzy. This particular day, Otto has been plucking carp (commonly regarded as a pest) from the native waters at a pace commensurate with a woodsman of his skill and experience; that is to say, the water level of the lake in question is dropping at a noticeable rate in proportion to the loss of carp volume. With a reckless abandon matched only by stunt drivers and soldiers who’ve lost the will to live, Otto continues his haul with no regard for what he’s going to do with all these massive fish, flopping pathetically in the bed of his pickup. This is not important to Otto; he is a man of principle. The delicate balance of nature must be maintained, however dire the consequences might be.

Soon, Otto tires. Even sinewy woodsmen like Otto tire! He is, of course, a man of principle; it will not do simply to let these fish lie. They must serve their purpose in the circle of life: how, he cannot say. He is but nature’s humble servant; she will reveal her inscrutable purposes in her own good time. For now, the carp come home with Otto.

His ‘82 Chevy rumbles into the housing development, laden with prey. Carp are no good to eat though they can grow to be quite large fish. Surveying his lot, admiring his massive flower and vegetable garden with satisfaction as he muses over the problem of the carp, something is triggered … Blurry connections begin to form in his head.

As the earthy reek of fish guts mingled with two-stroke exhaust slowly permeates the neighborhood, one by one people come to their doors to investigate the persistent source of their discomfort. Very quickly do they learn it. For from not far down the street comes the sound of a small engine laboring under a heavy load, and the sight of Otto loading carp into his ten-horsepower chipper/shredder. Ragged, meaty fish parts chunk out the chute into a wheelbarrow. Fish too large for the hopper are cut to size with a chainsaw. And Otto, clad in running shorts, aglow with the vision of eight foot vines heavy with produce, calls out over the throb of the machine with all the certainty of a prophet:

“It might smell like fish now, but in a few weeks you’ll be smellin’ my roses!”

05 September 2008

Restabilization Complete

I have some ideas about the humane treatment of animals and human dignity that might get posted within the next week or so. As things have settled down, retreats are over, school is starting up, the life of the mind will resume its regularly scheduled program.

Check back in a week or so, and peruse the review of St. Margaret Mary's autobiography in the meanwhile.

The Desk Chair Review of Books, Continued

The Autobiography of St. Margaret Mary

I'll just come right out and say it: this book is disturbing. I'm not sure how else to sum up the reaction I have to this autobiography, though it is "offensive to pious ears" (as the theological notes would put it). Allow me to qualify this assessment: "disturbing" can be said in many ways. It is certainly disturbing on the level of spectacle; the saint performs some outrageous penances to overcome her sensitive nature, one of which was struck from the record as unfit to mention. Yet her story also stirs up something in me that justly accuses me of complacency, of coldness to the love of God and the unfathomable desire of the Sacred Heart to unite humanity to itself. I believe Margaret Mary is a saint and is now enjoying the fruits of reward tilled by a lifetime of confusion and suffering that perpetually conformed her to her suffering savior, but part of me wants to hold back from completely ratifying it as worthy of general consumption. Perhaps Pope St. Gregory the Great's adage applies here:
Those things are ours that we love in others, even if we cannot imitate them, and what is loved in ourselves becomes the possession of those who love it. Therefore, let the envious consider the power of charity, which gives us credit for the results of another person's work, without any effort on our part.
This "bond of charity," perhaps, is what one must keep in mind when hearing St. Margaret Mary describe the suffering she endured (and sought) in her all-consuming pursuit of perfection at the hands of her Lord.

Now, that being said, in the judgment of the Church, this woman is the recipient of private visitations that have been ratified by popes. My concern here is articulated best by a short piece on self-love by then Cardinal Ratzinger in a little book I highly recommend: The Yes of Jesus Christ. The relevant excerpt:
Man—every man and woman—is called to salvation. He is willed and loved by God, and his highest task is to respond to this love. He must not hate what God loves. He must not destroy what is destined for eternity. To be called to the love of God is to have a vocation for happiness. To become happy is a ‘duty’ that is just as human and natural as it is supernatural. When Jesus talks of self-denial, of losing one’s own life and so on, he is showing the way of proper self-affirmation (‘self-love’), something that always demands opening oneself, transcending oneself. But this necessity of going beyond oneself, of leaving oneself behind, does not exclude genuine self-affirmation. Quite the contrary: it is the way of finding oneself and ‘loving’ oneself. When forty years ago I read for the first time Bernanos’s Diary of a Country Priest the last words of this suffering soul made an indelible impression on me: it is not difficult to hate oneself; the grace of all graces would however be to love oneself as a member of the Body of Christ...

The realism of this statement is obvious. There are many people who live in conflict with themselves. This aversion to oneself, this inability to accept oneself and to be reconciled with oneself, is far removed from that self-denial that the Lord wants. Those who cannot stand themselves cannot love their neighbor. They cannot accept themselves ‘as themselves’ because they are against themselves and are bitter as a result, and the very foundation of their life makes them incapable of loving.
What I wanted to convey was that the kind of egoism Ratzinger rightly condemns ought never to seek justification in the lives of saints like St. Margaret Mary. Read her story, but imitate her only out of love of the Lord and not hatred of self.

31 July 2008

24 July 2008

The Dark Knight Spawns Controversy?

If I can offer some follow-up to my original review of Dark Knight, I would suggest you read two other views that give us some point-counterpoint to ponder. If you've read what I have to say about this film, you'll find me decidedly in favor of one of these two, and quite surprised at the blindness of the other. You can find them at




Please post your comments on the original review, if you please ...

19 July 2008

The Dark Knight Runs Because We Have To Chase Him

I’d promised a review of WALL*E about a week ago but I made the mistake of going out to see Batman this afternoon. Sorry little guy, but you just got bumped. The Dark Knight brooks no competition.

This movie provoked some incredible discussion afterwards that I’d like to put up here, but most of that will contain spoilers so it might be nice to put some preliminary thoughts down first. Let me just say that I have not enjoyed a movie like this for a long time—Children of Men was probably the last film to give me such a high as this one. The filmmakers were able to build on the foundations laid in Batman Begins, and there is no question that Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker takes the character to new heights (and/or depths). What a phenomenal film to have as one’s last.

As of today, the whole Batman world has taken on a more distinguished hue. The word “epic” has been applied to the film, and I myself had the feeling that what I was viewing was at least was striving to operate on the level of something like Greek drama. About three quarters of the way through the movie, I realized why this comic book figure has fascinated us for almost a generation now: it is a modern myth. It is the same sort of myth the ancients recounted as they circled around the fire and reminisced about their godlike heroes late into the night, perhaps only dimly aware they were telling stories about themselves. It is what their poets worked and reworked, fleshing the tales out over time, embellishing them with their own narrative inclinations and truncating what did not grip the imagination or fortify the soul. Where else in our age can we find this storytelling than in our more enduring popular literature and film?

Now, I am no reader of comic books. I’m sure there are plenty of deviations in the movie from who Batman is in those original comics. Most of what I have to say will have no awareness of the prior fieldwork that has produced this fruit; I judge the film on its own terms. As long as what is presented stands in basic continuity with its prior forms, there is room for legitimate reinterpretation of this heroic figure and his attendant nemeses. There are no copyrights on myths.


I should also note that I am chronically incapable of enjoying stories for stories’ sake. It’s like I have a compulsion to launch into abstraction without taking the time to delight much in characterization, scenery, or storytelling. This is nothing to boast about and is probably the reason why I could never write good stories (I mean stories with a plot and not just things that happened to me). Most of what follows is going to fall into this, so if that annoys you, bear with me.


Dark Knight is about the meaning of the unrequited suffering of innocents. (There’s a thesis statement for you.) Most crime heroes are concerned with one question—justice—and its corollary, the gratifying application of it to the deserving. Innocent suffering falls within this category, but the writers are doing more with it than just using it to demonstrate the bad guy’s lack of compunction. What snapped it all together for me was a friend’s observation of a significant fact about the Joker: each time he tells the story of his disfigurement, it always changes, and it always places him in a state of innocent suffering. The Joker, though he has no backstory (and is therefore all the more menacing—a great move by the filmmaker, framing him as a sort of absolute), in some way sees himself as embodying the unjustly wounded innocent and puts into the practice the only response possible to one who has despaired of healing. The Joker is the agony of unrequited (and unrequitable) suffering, run amok.

I should say the Joker is one of two erroneous responses to unrequitable suffering: the other villain of the film, Two-Face, constitutes the other, which I’ll get into later. In a way, these two are the twin spawn of this grief-stricken mother. Bruce Wayne refuses either of these and chooses a third way, which in a remarkable ending gave his character the shadowy depth that caused him to assume the mythical proportions I spoke of already.

So, the Joker. It is no stretch to see him as aggressive despair cloaked in violence. A world in which there is unrequitable suffering is devoid of justice and therefore is a world in chaos. There are no rules. He is driven by no motive, operates according to no plan, and as such, cannot be placated or intimidated. The fear with which Batman weakens his enemies is useless against this creature, and so this villain, in his immunity, is the Batman’s supreme enemy.

Yet, it should be noted, he is not Batman’s correlative (as it's often said). Joker insists “they’ll go on and on like this forever,” but that is a lie—not only is this the voice of despair at the cycles of violence and retribution, but in stark contrast to the Joker, Batman is a response to the parasitic presence of evil. His particular brand of vigilantism only came about through the rise of criminality (into which he was drawn, interestingly enough, by the unrequitable suffering of his parents), and it would cease if it achieved its purpose. Yes, the day may never come when criminals do not hold the populace at its mercy, but that does not mean good needs evil. Quite the opposite.

The Joker’s mandate for chaos requires him to inflict suffering on others. In his more personal encounters, he draws his victims into pity for him by telling a false story of his suffering to make them more vulnerable to his final blow. In the wide angle, he creates a number of dilemmas for his victims in which they are forced to choose between two equally abhorrent situations involving innocent suffering.

The most interesting of these is the ferry dilemma, in which an element of culpability is introduced with the boat full of convicts. Innocent citizens of Gotham are confronted with the possibility of saving themselves by electing to blow up this ferry full of convicts. Each ferry has the detonator to explosives in the other ferry, and will be spared if they are the first to use it. If neither use it, both ferries will explode and all will die. Thus, these people are given the semblance of control and freedom in a situation manufactured to inflict pain no matter what.

The citizens insist that “those men have made their choice.” The felons’ character has been unimpeachably established as unworthy. The citizens’ protests are fueled by an awareness of the injustice of the situation smashed up against their conviction of their own innocence. Compared to the men on the prison ferry, these people are clearly less “killable,” and they seem to intuitively recognize the reasonable course of action: blow up the other boat. We simply can’t be killed instead of them. We don’t deserve this—therefore, they do!

Note the modus operandi of evil here: it dehumanizes its prospective victims. The citizens see a crowd of mothers, children, elderly, and identify with them; that other ferry is full of felons and lowlifes. The antidote to this dehumanization comes from an unexpected quarter. The convicts' boat is the first to recognize good in the situation—one guard points out, minutes before their deadline, that “we’re still here; they haven’t killed us yet.”

That observation expands the space to surround both ferries, and it snowballs into one convict’s demand for the detonator to the other ferry. This con recognizes the guards can’t make the choice because they do not know what it means to kill. In a stunning and cathartic move, he chucks the detonator overboard and refuses to engage evil on its own terms, demonstrating the revulsion for doing evil that overpowers the visceral urge to live at any cost. To capitulate to the dilemma is to surrender to chaos concealed beneath a respectable veneer of the lesser of two evils. The businessman who attempts to take responsibility, however, fails to see any way out other than injustice because he has never felt the life of another run through his hands. A split-second intuition preserves him from doing what he does not understand. Only those who have done evil and experienced its meaning have the clarity to short-circuit the dilemma.

This is the only proper human response to unrequitable suffering (this side of heaven). Director Christopher Nolan insists that “the Joker's form of evil is a very human form of evil and I think it is very important you believe in him as a human being as well as a monster.” This lends credence to my intuition that what drives the Joker is not just insanity but something human gone into meltdown. This gives rise to a the common characteristic between these villains: facial disfigurement. What else but the face can sum up the whole of the person? Inflict pain in the foot and you will see it reflected in the face. Analogously, so too with the soul.

Now for Two-Face. He, too, finds his pathological genesis in truly unrequitable suffering. He, too, seeks satisfaction by inflicting injustice on others. “I did not deserve to suffer this loss, to be deprived of this promise of happiness, and there is nothing that can heal my wound. Others deserve nothing like this, either, but they don’t suffer, whereas I do—is there not injustice here? Would it not be just for all to suffer unfairly, then? Is this not my only hope for justice?” Such is the reasoned interior monologue of the bereaved Harvey Dent. With no hope to soften his own loss, he must inflict the same loss on others—and he does so by forcing Commissioner Gordon to “lie to his son and tell him everything’s going to be all right,” flipping a coin to decide the boy’s sentence.

Clearly, the ideal of this justice is not pure chaos (the Joker) or the restoration of balance between right and wrong (Raz al Gul, in Batman Begins), but blind chance. It is impersonal and requires no one to act responsibly, and therefore is an abdication of human freedom and the projection of it onto the cosmos. The law of chance is always watching and always acting. Nothing escapes its jurisdiction, and therefore it has appeal for this man who can find no tribunal to hear his claim. I would not be the first to point out the clear parallel to Anton’s coin-flipping discipline in No Country For Old Men, though Two-Face has been making his own luck for much longer.

How, then, does Batman himself fit in to all of this? We pick up in Dark Knight as Bruce Wayne is stepping out of the honeymoon phase of being a hero. We can sense his awareness of the grind of his double life and the relentlessly encroaching intensification of evil. We see a shot of the numerous scars across his back and arms from untold encounters with unscrupulous evildoers. Alfred, in perennially wise tones, informs Bruce he is still only a man, with limits. Something tells us we are going to witness a transformation in the Batman.

Indeed, it proves to be a transformation from symbol and executor of justice to despised bearer of secret truth. The Joker maintains the upper hand on Batman by playing on his reputation—only a weakling and a coward would allow a psychopath to continue to kill people rather than reveal his true identity (so goes the Joker's story). Batman’s ethics require him to rise to this challenge, and he does. It is here he discovers his limit—Commissioner Gordon saves his life when the Joker gets the best of the Batman. In Harvey Dent, Bruce recognizes the man who can do what Batman can never do: bring justice to the daylight. Dent is the White Knight; Batman only comes out at night.

It is this recognition that requires the “noble lie” following Two-Face’s death. This lie is required, we are told, because the people need an image of hope, and that “their faith deserves a reward.” This reward must be of the waking world, or not at all; shadowy vigilantes are no basis for a system of government, after all! (Nor are watery tarts distributing scimitars, but that’s another argument altogether.)

And so Batman assumes the role of the scapegoat. Like Plato’s just man, he is most truly just when he does right even when opprobrium and abuse is heaped upon him, even from the very ones he protects. A common enemy diffuses the rising tension and allows it to expend itself on a victim equally repulsive to all. Bruce Wayne has been thereby invited into a new way of being—one in which unjust suffering is its very condition. Yet he does so with alacrity. As we see him run from the scene, a new weight is upon him, which he bears willingly and secretly. Not only does Gotham’s order hang on his shoulders, but its sanity as well. In his acceptance of unjust suffering lies the rescue of Gotham.


Whew! Where does all this leave us? Unrequited suffering of innocents is a real question, and so we ought to expect faith to have something to say about it. It’s not exactly peripheral to Christianity, after all. I will not attempt a thorough answer to it at this point, but I do want to emphasize again how this film carries a portrayal of the longing for ultimate justice. It is the cry of the suffering innocent from beneath the altar in the Book of Revelation, where they cried out with a loud voice,

O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before thou wilt judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell upon the earth?

Revelation 6:9

It is this cry that nourishes Christian hope. In this case, God's judgment is good news! Not without reason did the Holy Father Benedict write his latest encyclical on this most fundamental of virtues. In a short hat-tip to the atheistic philosopher Theodor Adorno, Benedict addresses the longing for justice cast in dramatic terms in our film (and in so many films today). The answer to this longing is not to be found in ever more spectacular retribution against those who perpetrate violence and evil. Rather, it is only to be found in the final judgment. Adorno insists that the horrible injustices of history should not have the final word. There must finally be true justice. But that, in the words the Pope quotes from Adorno, would require a world “where not only present suffering would be wiped out, but also that which is irrevocably past would be undone.” In other words, there can be no such thing as unrequitable suffering, and therefore it is never justified to inflict it on others in order to preserve ourselves from it. Yet this would mean, as the Holy Father points out, something foreign to the thought of Adorno: the resurrection of the dead.

Behold my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my Spirit upon him,
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.
He will not fail or be discouraged
till he has established justice in the earth.

Isaiah 42:1-5

If we are to evangelize this culture, we need to find ways to unearth its deep longings and show what truly satisfies them. And if that means I have to go watch Batman again, then I think I’m up for it.

[Update: saw it again this past weekend. I stand by my interpretation.]