29 December 2009

Day Twenty

Once again, we’ve been in study mode—two classes and another session with our instructor on Islam. Illness has begun to creep in among us, laying one of us out for a couple of days, and giving others unusually deep or wheezy voices that persist far beyond the morning; thankfully, most of us have to this point stayed reasonably healthy and functional. We are gearing up for the Christmas celebration here, and it has every promise of being an exceptional year (though for many of the American-born seminarians at least, it is the first year away from home and family for Christmas).

Our sessions on Islam have been somewhat frustrating, as Islam is a notoriously difficult belief system to lie out in systematic form. Part of our learning has been to absorb the vast and varied reality of the Islamic worldview and practice, very little of which makes immediate sense to adherents of western Catholicism. Islam is by no means monolithic—much less so than Catholicism, or even Christianity; when we ask what it is that Muslims believe about this or that issue, there is very little that an introductory session can offer to plumb the many interpretations that exist. As an analogy, imagine explaining what Christians believe about salvation to a friend unfamiliar with Christian doctrine, who could no more than guess at the meaning of the words “Protestant,” “Orthodox,” and “Catholic,” and who approaches religion as a vague mixture of magic and pop psychology. In many respects, we are worlds apart.

For these and many other reasons, the discipline of being here in the Middle East is difficult to sustain. It requires a perpetual restraint against gut reactions and generalizations; to step into this world is, for many of us, a more radical transition into unknown territory than ever before, and when in unfamiliar territory, there is a temptation to resort to accustomed modes of thinking. The culture, language, history, and temperament of the land and its people are truly unique, and while there are many points of similarity, the differences can often be startlingly broad. Simply adjusting to the fact that the Qu’ran is broadcast for general consumption at tremendous volume five times a day requires special flexibility and patience for those of us accustomed to the general secular tone of the West and suburban noise ordinances.

The countdown to our departure from Bethlehem is winding down, and many of us are hitting the shops to make our purchases before taking off. The shop owners have become familiar faces in our movement about the city, and the more savvy among us have become quite adept at discovering the finest goods at the lowest prices. Many of us have saved for months, if not years, for this trip, and there are ample opportunities to acquire fitting items to commemorate our pilgrimage and enjoy for years to come. A number of us intend to acquire chalices and other liturgical goods, and all of us are accumulating many gifts for friends and family. There is a sense that it’s very possible we will only be here once, and there’s no reason to let a good opportunity pass us by.

24 December 2009

The Mystery Beneath her Heart

A merry Christmas to all.  Let's approach the mystery of the Incarnation together, with a hushed attentiveness to the reality that is only beginning to unfold in the world, even now, thousands of years later.   Let us consider what manner of child this is, and what sort of woman is his mother:

The Virgin, harboring a mystery under her heart, remains in profound solitude.  In a silence that almost causes the perplexed Joseph to despair. Incarnation of God means condescension, abesement, and, because we are sinners, humiliation.   And he already draws his Mother into these humiliations.   Where did she get this child?  People must have talked at the time, and they probably never stopped. It must have been a sorry state of affairs if Joseph could find no better way out that to divorce his bride quietly. God’s humanism at once begins drastically. Those whose lives God enters, those who enter into his, are not protected.   They have to go along into a suspicion and ambiguity they cannot talk their way out of.  And the ambiguity will only get worse, until, at the Cross, the Mother will get to see what her Yes has caused and will have to hear the vitriolic ridicule to which the Son is forced to listen.
Hans Urs von Balthasar

On behalf of your friends and family members here in Bethlehem, you are remembered here in prayer this holy night.

19 December 2009

Humiliation Incarnate

Our first “official” day here in Bethlehem began with Mass in the Grotto of the Nativity.  The Grotto is nestled underneath the Greek Orthodox portion of the Basilica, which is also the most ancient portion of the complex.  The entire church has been built over the stone where, it is said, Jesus was brought to light.  The grotto is clearly ancient, and as one descends down the steps rounded over with the awed shuffling of countless pilgrims, the air becomes warm and thick from the vapors of the lamps burning within the small, enclosed chamber.  Here and there, the sooty black stones show through the gaps in the drapery and brocades that shimmer in the light of the dim flames.  The eyes adjust and begin to discern dim shapes and faces on the walls dark with age.  A marble altar draped with a curtain woven of gold and silver thread sits astride the stone, and so in order to reverence the holy place as the shepherds and Magi did so long ago, the faithful literally have to prostrate themselves as they approach.  Our Mass was offered just a few feet away, on an altar built beside the stone on which the manger sat.  

Clearly, one of the more obvious tensions here in the Holy Land is to be found at the holy sites themselves.  Aside from the conflicts over jurisdiction between the Orthodox and the Catholics of the Latin, Armenian, and Ethiopian rites, the sheer number of people who come to visit presents problems of its own.  A case in point was our own Mass, offered in a space barely large enough to fit a dozen of us and a priest—yet brazen visitors, either oblivious to or apathetic towards the Mass, elbowed their way over to the manger and snapped trios of flash photographs just a foot or two from Father Lodge as he proclaimed the Gospel!  The hum of chatter and the shrill commentary of tour guides can often shatter any semblance of respect or humility before the mystery, and it is difficult for many of us to feel no small exasperation over what appears to be total disregard for the sacred nature of the place.  Yet in some sense, their conduct is understandable; many of them have saved up for years to accomplish their life’s dream to visit the Holy Land, and they may only have a few minutes of their whirlwind tour to dedicate to each place.  They will not be stopped!  It is for us, who have the tremendous privilege to contemplate these places again and again, to yield to the less fortunate. 

Yet is it not just the pilgrims who behave in discouraging ways; our own Elliot was confronted by a young Orthodox priest not much older than he.  Elliot had been standing by the door to block access to the grotto for the few minutes we’d be celebrating Mass; this, we had observed, was common practice on the part of other groups who had celebrated their own liturgies in the grotto in days prior.  Within minutes, this young priest came swaggering in, sarcastically demanded to know who was in charge.  When Elliot gestured toward the priest celebrating Mass, this young man stabbed his finger into his chest, declared that HE was in charge, and told our fellow pilgrim to get out!  Rightfully feeling that argument would only exacerbate an already ridiculous situation, he (and a few others along with him) complied.  Observing this petty tyrant from just a few yards away, I was all rage and shame, bewildered that such a display of playground bullying should take place not six feet from the very site to which we’d come to offer worship.  Those of us here for the first time couldn’t understand it; the more experienced shrugged it off as the way things are.

Yet, in some sense, this is the very mystery we have come here to contemplate.  Is it not a fitting icon of the reality of the Incarnation itself?  Are we surprised that the God who descended from His throne on high submits meekly to the mistreatment we are all too ready to offer him?  Does not this shoddy icon melt into a glassy mirror, disclosing to us our own irreverence, our own disobedience, our own sin? 

12 December 2009

For Your Enjoyment

New images are up at my personal photoblog (A Secret of a Secret), and a new series of photojournal entries and reflections will be posted on the official seminary site (A Seminarian's Tale).  Both are linked above, and will be posting continuously for the next week! 

08 December 2009

Happy Feast Day, America

On the Immaculate Conception:

The two dogmatic propositions entailed by the quality of Mary’s Yes, namely her virginity and her freedom from the original sin common to all men, are wholly a function of Christology. The latter affirmation, namely, that she “was conceived immaculate”, says nothing but what is indispensable for the boundlessness of her Yes. For anyone affected in some way by original sin would be incapable of such a guileless openness to every disposition of God. Her virginity, on the other hand, guarantees a christological fact: Jesus acknowledges only one Father, the one in heaven, as his own. This becomes evident in the response he gives as a twelve-year-old child in the Temple. No man can have two fathers, as Tertullian pithily and accurately says; therefore, the mother has to be a virgin. The point of this christologically motivated virginity lies, not in an antisexual, merely bodily integrity, as if it were an end in itself, but in Mary’s motherhood; in order to be the messianic Son of God, who can have no other Father than God, she must be overshadowed by the Holy Spirit, and she must say to that overshadowing a Yes that includes her whole person, both body and soul.

Hans Urs von Balthasar
Mary: The Church at the Source

(Image copyright Matthew Alderman, 2008)

06 December 2009

On the Ground

Well, we're here, safe and sound ... a bit jetlagged, but that's nothing a couple of rest days haven't been able to fix.  The connection here is slow and tenuous so photos are going to be a luxury, I think.  That's not for lack of subjects, however!  The city of Bethlehem is a visual feast, and the weather has been outstanding thus far, enabling us to get out and enjoy the city (and its shrines) as we please.  The following is a short journal entry for our trip over.  More to come!


Wednesday, 3 December 2009

The first leg of our travels has brought us safely to Zurich.  I can safely say that the eight hour flight was one of the more pleasant ones I’ve ever taken.  We were offered most every amenity, including real silverware for dinner—though to my chagrin, I slept through the offering of the hot facecloth right before breakfast.  A lamentable disappointment.  Those unable to sleep whiled away the hours with the ample in-flight entertainment; Elliot managed a pretty convincing impression of a thirteen-year-old by playing Space Invaders games for hours on end, fueling his binge with one cup of apple juice after another.  A Jewish man moved to the back of the plane to offer his prayers, wrapped in a white shawl and rocking back and forth on his heels while turned to face Jerusalem.

It’s a sobering thought to recall how difficult our 8-hour journey would have been even a hundred years ago.  The rapidity of global travel has erased any real concept of distance we once had.  Whether dining on hot chicken and rice over Newfoundland, sipping a glass of red wine with Iceland on the horizon, or enjoying a hot roll and chilled yogurt while the English Channel sails by under the wing, there is no question that our experience is a far cry from the ever-tossing, frigid, cramped accommodations enjoyed by the passengers of yesterday.  I could almost picture them, green and shivering in the hold of a ship pitched over hard to leeward in a gale, terrified that the timbers would give way with each thudding wave that smashed into the bow.  Friends, I very nearly pitied them as I spread strawberry jam onto the warm croissant in my lap and took a leisurely sip of hot, black coffee.  The collective and sustained efforts of aviators, engineers, navigators, and entrepreneurs has whittled down the grueling, even life-threatening character of a transatlantic voyage to one night of mild discomfort offset by the consolation of any number of amenities at hand to keep the mind off the dreadful inconvenience of it all.  There are days when I wonder if we wouldn’t be better off without the phenomenally advanced technology of our day, with all its tendencies to numb our souls and distract our consciences.  Today was not one of those days.

Zurich is tidy and quaint, but as one of my fellow pilgrims put it, I’ve only got so much pilgrim juice in me, and there’s no sense in handing it out indiscriminately.  It’s naptime at our hotel, a nice hot shower before dinner, then back on the plane this evening to Tel Aviv!  Bethlehem, here we come.

30 November 2009

On Pilgrimage

I suppose you've noticed things are a bit different on the blog here.  The changes are, in case you haven't guessed, meant to reflect my "pilgrim" status over the next three months.  I hope you'll be back to visit soon, as I'll be making regular journal entries along with some thoughtful and well-crafted photos meant to emphasize quality and not quantity.  Six other seminarians will also be posting journal entries and photos on the Official Seminary Journal, the link to which can be found above ("The Seminarian's Tale").  We're leaving on Wednesday, so good stuff will soon be forthcoming!


In the meanwhile, to tide you over until our first entry, I thought I'd share a little piece of artwork recently commissioned for a priest friend of ours. It's a bookplate, designed to be pasted into the inside front cover of a book, and identifies the owner in a distinctive way.  These were all the rage back in the day, but as we hold our books cheap these days, this sort of investment hasn't caught on.

However, the fellow in question is quite the learned man, and is an earnest lender of books.  What better gift than a bookplate?  So we thought, and indeed it turned out better than I'd hoped.  The very talented Matthew Alderman, a recent graduate of Notre Dame architecture, designed a custom drawing that we had printed using offset lithography (the same process used to print books).

The drawing is of Bishop Frederic Baraga, the first bishop of our friend's diocese.  He was known as the "snowshoe priest" during his years of working with the trappers and natives, slogging from village to village with a seemingly indefatigable fervor.  In his right hand, he holds a book entitled "Kije-Manito o Masinaigan," which if you knew Chippewa, you'd be able to translate as "The Holy Book of God," i.e. the Bible; you see, Baraga wrote the first grammar of the Chippewa language (which, interestingly enough, I was able to use to look up the Chippewa word for Bible... thanks GoogleBooks!).  The fleur-de-lis in the moon symbolizes the Mother of God, to whom Baraga had dedicated the very first church he christened in the territory, according to a vow he'd made years before.  The lily is also a common symbol of purity, and has been used in iconography for St. Aloysius Gonzaga, patron saint of youth as well as of the small Salvadoran village in which our friend served for three years before entering the seminary.  The national bird of El Salvador, the torogóz, is reclining at the foot of the left stave, and a small hare is poking its head up above the roof (the Salvadoran nickname for the man was "el conejo").

But the finest detail is hidden to the untutored eye.  This newly ordained priest had done a pilgrimage following in the footsteps of the saintly bishop, tracing a path from the first Mass offered in the mission to his tomb in the diocesan cathedral.  You'll notice in the snow behind Baraga are footprints leading to the treeline.  It might be hard to see, but there's a silhouette of a man standing in an opening in the trees, heading out to "follow in the footsteps" of the founding bishop of his diocese.  All in all, a rich symbolic icon of the man we know, and hopefully an encouragement to hold fast to his priestly calling and pursue excellence through the intercession of his shepherd's predecessor!

23 November 2009

Thoughts on Literature, Catholic and Otherwise

Recently, a discussion among alumni of my undergraduate institution prompted some thoughts about how Catholic literature has affected us and our maturation in the faith.  The following are my comments as they were sent out to the group.


As to how Catholic writing has influenced me, my instinct is to approach it from my current situation as a seminarian immersed in theological study.  While on vacation—as I am now—my impulse is to set aside the often speculative and abstract world of theology in favor of the particular and concrete.  My leisure time is characterized by an immersion in narrative.  While on some level I see this as "recreation," in the sense that it recharges me to return to my studies with renewed enthusiasm, there is a fundamentally more important reason that I am drawn to fiction (especially the kind of epic fiction that takes up a person's story from life till death): it is an enfleshment of the beauty, goodness, and truth that is presented through academic study. 

21 November 2009

Nothing To See Here

Human beings are weird.

Last night I was walking back to the parking garage after a huge gathering for Catholic youth at the Sprint Center in downtown KC, MO.  18,000 high school students packed into a dome right in the middle of the up-and-coming, revitalized downtown, with another several thousand connected through video link over at the convention center down the street.  They were caught up in a frenzy of light shows, music, dance-skits, and a pretty stirring talk on chastity by Jason Evert and his wife.  There were some pretty good points made about Christian virtue, modesty, and the hypersexualization of our culture, in such a way that they really did get across.

That made the recent article in the NYT on the androgynous trends in clothing all the more interesting.  The most interesting comment being:

As if in this world one could EVER find a place in which to render oneself sexually neutral.  There was a time when dressing as a child might have done that; now, it's a fixture of the porn industry that the women are to appear as young as possible.  Few would argue that the line between "adult entertainment" and "abuse" is clear anymore. 
Mingling men’s and women’s clothing, others argue, is like waving a flag of neutrality. “It’s a way of breaking down sexualized relationships, of getting people to relax,” said Piper Marshall, 24, who is an assistant art curator at the Swiss Institute in Manhattan. “I work with lots of male artists,” she added. “It’s important to find a common ground.”

The question becomes, when sex is everywhere, where do we go to hide?

11 November 2009

Shucks, that Shore is Purty

He'd ride sometimes clear to the upper end of the laguna before the horse would even stop trembling and he spoke constantly to it in spanish in phrases almost biblical repeating again and again the strictures of a yet untabled law.  Soy comandante de las yeguas, he would say, soy y yo sólo.  Sin la caridad de estas manos no tengas nada.  Ni comida ni agua ni hijos.  Soy yo que traigo las yeguas de las montañas, las yeguas jóvenes, las yeguas salvajes y ardientes.  While inside the vaulting of the ribs between his knees the darkly meated heart pumped of who's will and the blood pulsed and the bowels shifted in their massive blue convolutions of who's will and the stout thighbones and the knee and cannon and the tendons like flaxen hawsers that drew and flexed and drew and flexed at their articulations and of who's will all sheathed and muffled in the flesh and the hooves that stove wells in the morning groundmist and the head turning side to side and the great slavering keyboard of his teeth and the hot globes of his eyes where the world burned.

From Cormac McCarthy's All the Pretty Horses

01 November 2009

New Avenues of Creativity

In preparation for our class pilgrimage to the Holy Land, I'm starting up a photojournal in the hopes of offering a daily image of some of the people and places we're privileged to visit during our 10 weeks there.  In years past, most of the offerings have been a chronicle of "first-we-went-here-and-saw-this-then-we-went-somewhere-else-and-saw-some-other-cool-holy-stuff," so it's my hope to offer more of a creative window into the places we visit and our experience of them.  Of course, the more I get to know my classmates, the more fascinated with their stories I've become, so you can expect to see some portraiture as well.

One image per day with a short entry, reflection, or commentary to accompany it seems the best way to accomplish my goal.  The images I've already posted on the photoblog aren't exactly stunning, but part of this is meant to be a discipline and apprenticeship into the photographic craft.  To this end, your comments, suggestions, and feedback would be much appreciated.  As was noted in the recent Brothers Bloom:

 A photograph is a secret of a secret.  The more it shows, the less you know.

I'll continue cross-posting on this blog for those of you that are following it, but feel free to bookmark the photoblog directly.  You can find it at the link below.

30 October 2009

We Want To Be Swarms

Image Journal runs a good article every once in a while.  Their latest, a short look at Rene Girard, is stupendous.

Contrary to the going rhetoric of the day, we don’t really want to be individuals. We want to be swarms.

10 October 2009

At Last, The Cavalry

Senator Jim DeMint, member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has traveled down to Honduras and seen through the fog of propaganda and outright lies that have cast the "de facto" government of that country as just one more regime of rabid, power-hungry usurpers and thugs in the long tradition of Central American fascists (New York Times). Besides the 400 or so Venezuelans imported in by Chavez to agitate in favor of restoring his stooge, it appears as if the Senator encountered only one person who actually supports the treasonous ex-president:

Obama's ambassador to Honduras, Hugo Llorens.

This is, of course, in direct opposition to the legal investigation conducted by a senior legal analyst of the Library of Congress in August--AUGUST, as in two MONTHS ago--which concluded that what has taken place there is absolutely, completely, undeniably 100% legal.

Senator DeMint's article is worth reading, and thanks be to God that somebody in the U.S. government has gotten to the bottom of this insanity. Here's hoping that something reasonable will be done to put the world's unreasonable treatment of this loyal ally of ours to an end.

09 October 2009

Greatest Show on Earth

It's nice to see at least some finer distinctions being made in the popular culture (even as they're crafted in response to the precisionless rhetoric of that same culture). A great example of this is the review of Richard Dawkins' new book, written as a magnum opus of evolutionary argument, over at the Grey Lady:

Dawkins is aware that evolution is commonly called a theory but deems “theory” too wishy-washy a term because it connotes the idea of hypothesis. Evolution, in Dawkins’s view, is a concept as bulletproof as a mathematical theorem, even though it can’t be proved by rigorous logical proofs. He seems to have little appreciation for the cognitive structure of science. Philosophers of science, who are the arbiters of such issues, say science consists largely of facts, laws and theories. The facts are the facts, the laws summarize the regularities in the facts, and the theories explain the laws. Evolution can fall into only one of these categories, and it’s a theory.

Read the rest here.

27 September 2009

Fake Media Picking Up The Slack

So I'm just now catching on to this ACORN scandal, but I don't watch the news much anyway-- that I'm not up on the latest horror is no surprise. Apparently the mainstream news channels aren't exactly jumping on this. Jon Stewart (along with the rest of the world) seems to be a little frustrated:

(Head's up, PG-13)

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
The Audacity of Hos
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorHealthcare Protests

I do have a little more respect for Jon Stewart, now. But what's with the people in the studio? They aren't laughing at any of the jokes. Makes you wonder who goes to these things.

After my summer in El Salvador listening to news outlets spreading all manner of ridiculous slander about the nonexistent "coup" in Honduras and serving as little more than a propaganda outlet for ChavezWorld, there's no question in my mind that we are not up against incompetence here ... it's a premeditated, direct assault on the truth.

All in the name of doing the right thing, of course.

19 September 2009

NPH Short

During my summer at NPH, I often asked myself if I was putting undue pressure on the kids by carrying my camera around. Other than the fact that they consistently bombarded me with requests for a photo, and then a viewing of the photo, and then another shot to fix what they didn't like about the first one, I did wonder if the camera was serving more as a barrier than a window.

Then, one afternoon, I just turned it on. And this is what I got.

17 September 2009

Excerpts From the Diary of an Orphan in Training - Part Three

Three weeks after returning to the States, the process of sifting and sorting my experiences has gotten fully under way. Between tackling the organization of teen weeks’ worth of photos and video footage I’d accumulated, reuniting with friends who have lived at and understood NPH El Salvador, and the almost agonizing solitude of a 5-day silent retreat, those kids have been almost constantly on my mind. The frustration of being so far away was worst when reviewing the videos I’d taken of Carmen, the little girl I’d decided to sponsor; I’d never, ever grown so attached to a baby as I did to her. A number of times I simply had to stop watching, so intense was the desire to simply be there as she struggled to stand up or walk. They tell me that she’s already running about Casa Niño Jesús on her own; my insides twisted up when I thought of how much she’ll have grown by the next time I see her, and each day how much I am missing. I felt like a father poring over the few mementos of his young family he had to console himself in his time away.

As a Catholic seminarian contemplating a life of celibate commitment, such sentiments may seem out of place, but a summer spent with this gran familia could not have done more for me to put in perspective the meaning of spiritual fatherhood. In spite of the limited time commitment I was able to make, I sensed an interior freedom to commit emotional energy to the pequeños in a way that lined up with the sorts of exterior commitments I was (and am) preparing to make. Their eagerness and receptivity to the meager affection I had to share depleted my reserves even as they drew forth more and more in ways that, upon reflection, surprise me.

Yet I experienced another dimension of this relationship through the receptivity that was, in a real sense, forced upon me by the inability to communicate fluently. The outlets through which I’d presumed I’d be able to “give” were depleted rather quickly; it wasn’t long before I sensed that I didn’t have much to offer to this flourishing little community. With time, it was almost as if by allowing them to take a genuine interest in me—and demonstrating to them that I appreciated that interest—that something in them was satisfied.

The clearest case of this was a young man, only 14, who arrived at NPH with his three younger siblings not too long after I did. He entertained the other children in the clinic by roughing up his younger brothers, who were almost as big as he was, with preposterous wrestling moves and holds, flying leaps and whatever the Salvadoran equivalent to “cry uncle!” would have been. Throughout the summer, we’d cross paths often, and it was always a project to keep up with his rapid and slangy Spanish. One evening in the clinic, we got a little wild (I think the nursing staff was always too polite to chew me out for winding the kids up right before bed) and he fell on his rear after I boosted him up into the air for the last big jump of the night (“seriously, now, this is the last one”). More out of embarrassment than pain, he crawled under the bed like a whipped animal and refused to come out. For a long time after that, I found it hard to believe he was as old as he said he was.

The last day I had to spend in the clinic was the Sunday before I left. I spent the whole afternoon playing with the kids and letting them run around and take pictures with my camera. My young friend was there again with a broken arm—he had a knack for having too much fun. While I was off in another corner of the room, he got one of the others to hold the camera and recorded a short goodbye message to me. I curse the microphone on that camera that picked up every single decibel of background noise while muddling his already rapid words into a slurry of vowels, but in a way, everything that needed to be communicated was present on his face. In his short adios I saw the man within the boy—direct, earnest, and self-confident enough to communicate his affection and gratitude without embarrassment or awkwardness. It is an ironic gift that the most lively token of my friendship with a young man I habitually regarded as a child is a 25-second glimpse of the man who, with the help of NPH, he is one day to become.

Father Wasson was known to have said, “The most important thing is that my children practice charity, because if they love, they will be loved.” Strange as it may seem to say it, my only boast is that I was a recipient of the love of these young men, women, and children—and that by God’s gift, they were better for it. What a strange, wonderful, storybook place this is, where the famous paradox of St. Francis stands on its head: it is in receiving that we give.

12 September 2009

Excerpts From the Diary of an Orphan in Training - Part Two

Reflections on my summer in El Salvador, continued ...


My fascination with these children, teenagers, and young men and women has only grown as the time has passed. Perhaps not knowing the personal histories that are yet to be written only intensifies their mystique. It is certainly the case that as I find myself starting to settle in and feel like this place is pretty normal, having grown accustomed to the armed guards and the razor wire (which exist not to keep the children in but the hellish insanity out), accustomed to the fact that I will have rivulets of sweat running down my back at every meal, accustomed to the faces and names that seem all the more strange because so many are just Anglo names pronounced by a Hispanic tongue—it is then that the facade of normality is shattered. Shattered, because I remember that in every single case, without exception, each resident falls into one of two categories. On the one hand, each has some traumatic memory of a personal tragedy, anything from a sudden death to the slow decay of abuse or neglect—that has irrevocably altered the course of lives by destroying a family. On the other hand, for a good many of these children, there’s simply no memory of a (regular) family at all.


It is their bodies that display this terrible uniqueness. One day, I noticed that there were just too many scars on that little girl’s face to be the consequence of clumsiness. Another, I was informed that a certain young man’s lopsided gestures are the result of a broken arm in his youth that was never properly set.

The emotions that follow are almost never anger or pity at those who were responsible. Rather, this startling act of recollection ignites a fiery jealousy—not towards the children, but towards their caregivers and confidants, who in the natural and spontaneous growth of trust, have been admitted into this secret realm. It is then that each child, from least to greatest, infant to universitario, shimmers with mysteriousness. And even as I ask Who made them so?, the words of thanksgiving are ready on my lips. Gratitude for each one, each boy, each girl, whose unique capacity to manifest the glory of God to the world has not been lost to degradation and poverty and slavery. Yet, each light casts a shadow—and my prayer ends with a plea for those who have not found a place such as this one, whose corner is still too dark to be discovered—or who prefer the safety of a painful self-reliance to the blinding light of love.

10 September 2009

Excerpts From the Diary of an Orphan in Training - Part One

The next few entries will be portions of a short testimonial I wrote for the NPH website.


Today I complete three weeks in El Salvador. Just a short time ago, I was greeted by a gentleman holding an NPH sign outside of customs in the San Salvador airport, and I plunged headfirst into the world of The Foundation. I had friends and acquaintances that had told me a little bit about NPH before, but not much, and to be honest, I had come to El Salvador to learn Spanish during my summer break from the seminary—how and where that took place made little difference to me as long as I had room and board and a good teacher. NPH seemed like a good place to hole up for the summer, and with some Spanish under my belt, I thought I might even be able to help out a bit.

Yet from the moment I arrived, I was taken with the place. I was greeted by the scene of afternoon chores—hordes of boys and girls with brooms twice their height out sweeping the streets, mopping floors, and tending to other common spaces. It was the very picture of industry, with each one taking up an appointed place. Obviously, I was the most interesting thing to have come along in a while because everybody—everybody—made it a point to stop what they were doing, come up to the car, and say hello. By the time I’d finished dinner, I had hugged more kids and learned more names than I’d ever thought possible (though of course I had to start all over again after a good night’s sleep).

The funny thing about the “language barrier” is that from the first moment, I’ve experienced it as exactly the opposite with the kids who grow up here. Having come from a Catholic parish setting where stepping into a gradeschool classroom was one of the things I dreaded most, I found the transition to a predominantly child-centered environment remarkably easy. No doubt the fundamental reason for this has been the incredible generosity and self-forgetfulness of the kids, who are so eager to know and be known—but it is also the lack of ability to communicate that has shifted my interactions with them to less cerebral (and more rewarding) channels.

A perfect example of this is Jorge. Within a few minutes of my arrival, Jorge had tunneled his way through the throng of boys eager to yank on my beard and had latched onto my leg. The minute this kid showed up, I could tell he was wired. It was like Jesus in the crowd when the lady was healed when she touched the hem of his garment—only I felt the power go into me.

He fired off all sorts of questions (little more than babble to me) interspersed with fits of maniacal laughter while he pounded his head against my leg. And in the weeks since then, I’ve realized that providing for the basic needs of five hundred dependents is the work of a highly dedicated team of professionals, but raising this boy is going to be most of all a matter of love and prayer.

04 September 2009

Unexpected and Inconvenient

Thanks for an outstanding retreat.

The header is new, something I've been experimenting with in Photoshop Elements. It may or may not be better, but it's different, and different is always good.

I'll be back on the keyboard before you know it.

30 August 2009

Off the Grid

Beloved reader,

I'll be on silent retreat this week and will be making it a point to pray for the many intentions of friends, family, and acquaintances. Thanks for your interest in this blog, and I'll be back on it soon. Please pray for me as I seek to grow in conformity to the heart of Christ.


08 August 2009

Not Your Everyday Gray Lady ... Plus New Video Blog Entry

An article in the New York Times (linked by First Things) caught my attention just a minute ago, and it's one of the more incredible testimonials of a marriage on the rocks that I've come across. This one is definitely going in the file:

Sure, you have your marital issues, but on the whole you feel so self-satisfied about how things have worked out that you would never, in your wildest nightmares, think you would hear these words from your husband one fine summer day: “I don’t love you anymore. I’m not sure I ever did. I’m moving out. The kids will understand. They’ll want me to be happy.”

But wait. This isn’t the divorce story you think it is. Neither is it a begging-him-to-stay story. It’s a story about hearing your husband say “I don’t love you anymore” and deciding not to believe him. And what can happen as a result.

Read the rest here.

And it's listed in the "Fashion and Style" section of the paper? Sadly, such perspectives are anything but the rage these days. Would that they were.

10th Anniversary Celebration ... Video Blog

Recently, NPH El Salvador celebrated its 10th year of serving homeless and abandoned children in this troubled region. The celebration was quite a party, and I brought the camera along.

This will be my last entry during my stay here, though I have lots more footage that I plan to put together once I've returned to the States--including an entry featuring the volunteers who give 1-3 years of service in return for the upbringing they received.

I return to the US on Tuesday the 11th, and I'll be heading off to the mountains for a little vacation. Posting will resume towards the end of August.

Peace and all good!

27 July 2009

Full Steam Ahead

The video editor is back up and running. I hope to have another video up soon. Most of this week is going to be spent preparing reflections for the kids that will be given during a daily "service of the word" in the absence of Father Ron. I'm no whiz when it comes to coming up with ideas to preach to kids in my OWN language, let alone Spanish.

Here it goes...

26 July 2009

Your Government At Work

The Lid has the latest on the current presidential administration's "non-interventionist" policy towards Central America in general, and Honduras in particular:
Based on the Actions of the Obama Administration, they believe that the Honduras Constitution doesn't matter. Maybe that's why Honduras is who Obama bullied today.
Read the rest here.

In other news, I've just returned from a weekend visit to the family of one of the Archidiocese's seminarians. It was outstanding, and I hope to put together an entry on it, but Corel has stonewalled my efforts to purchase their video editor and my trial version has expired. Customer service isn't exactly hopping on my problem, so until I get this fixed, there will be no new video entries. Sorry!

Check back soon for an update...

20 July 2009

Street View, El Salvador

I’m in a tough spot down here. I’m absolutely safe and sound within the confines of the walls of NPH, but it does start to get to a fellah when he’s in a foreign country and can’t ever get more than a hundred yards away from his door. The Foundation is almost 2 miles from a paved road, and it’s been known to shelter muggers around blind corners. I’m not to walk that path alone, nor am I to venture into the city without being in a group of some size. Taking the bus alone is out of the question. Yet in the midst of this, I would very much like to get out and see the region. If anything were to happen, I’ve been forewarned enough by a variety of friends and acquaintances here that it’s just plain dangerous here that if something were to happen, it would simply be the result of my own negligence or stubbornness.

I’ve been tempted once or twice to just risk it—what’s wrong with a little adventure when it might even result in a story to tell? Of course, that’s the selfish man’s perspective, because as a foreigner, it would put a lot of pressure on those in whose care I’ve been put to extricate me from whatever situation I’d gotten myself into.

To help put some perspective on things, my Spanish teacher told me a few stories today about some of the “current events” in his part of Santa Ana (which I understand to be fairly well off, as far as Salvadoran cities go). I have no doubt that we was trying to scare me (for my own good).

  • A man was shot yesterday just blocks from his house in the business district. We walked by the site just days ago when I stayed with him and his family. Cause unknown.
  • Two street vendors were killed a short distance away a few days ago. They sold coffee. Cause unknown, but probably was the result of their refusal to pay “rent,” which how “protection” rackets refer to what they force from the pockets of businesses in their “territory.”
  • A schoolteacher was told it was his day to die by two thugs on the street. When they demanded his cell phone and wallet, he informed them that he’d been robbed only 3 days before and didn’t have anything.
  • A schoolteacher received a phone call late one evening that went something like this: “Is this Don __? Listen, and don’t talk. I am going to speak, and you will not interrupt me until I am done. I am a bad man. I have bad friends. One of them killed too many people and the police are after him now. We need money to get him across the border. You will give me three hundred dollars by 10 a.m. tomorrow. We know where you live and where your children go to school. –But I don’t have 300 dollars. –We know you are a teacher with a salary and own two cars. You will get the $300. –I cannot get $300. –You will bring $50, then. –I could probably scrounge up $25 from the things I have in the house.

    At this point, the connection broke, and the schoolteacher loaded his revolver and sat in the kitchen all night, terrified for his family (two of whom are studying at the university in town). It's tough to know if these people are just leveraging fear or whether they really have the means to carry through on their threats. He called the police that night, and told them what happened. They assured him they could take his deposition in the morning. As to dealing with the threat, they advised him to “be careful.” At the police station the next day, they checked the phone number, and found that it was from Guatemala. This was outside their jurisdiction, and it meant they could do nothing. A colleague at work informed the man that the criminals had probably bought a phone chip in Guatemala and put it in the cell phone they were using to call him from across the street.
  • A schoolteacher was approached by a man on the street who had a cell phone in his hand. He said, —It’s for you. –For me? Who is it? —Just talk. TALK NOW. –Hello? —Are you the man with dark pants and a baseball cap? —Yes… —With your right hand in your pocket? —Yes… —We are watching you. We know where you live, know your family, and where your children are right now. If you do not give the man that handed you the phone all your money, and your cell phone, someone you love will die.
  • The owner of a corner market (a cross between a grocery and a convenience store) was approached by a lady (who was evangelical, he mentioned—not sure what that had to do with the story) who asked for the number to the store. She had tried to shop there a number of times but had found it closed, and she would prefer not to make the walk if she didn’t have to—to be able to call would be nice. The owner, of course, agreed. Within a few days, another lady came with a cell phone and told the owner that the call was for her. The caller claimed to be calling from prison. He said that the owner must give the woman who brought the phone (his mother) $50 every week or else he would put her in touch with his thug friends on the outside (clearly claiming to belong to a gang). The woman who brought the phone said that half the money was for her and half was for the gang, and if she didn’t comply, they would come after her, too.
  • The most common perpetrators of such threats are neighbors, co-workers, or even family members. However, there have been a few spectacular cases of corruption as well. A police captain was caught threatening members of his family. A bank owner had been selling loan information to people who would call the night someone had received a large loan for a significant purchase (a car, business renovation, whatever) and demand thousands. However, gangs are very active here, as well. Most of them have spent some time in the US and learned some of our own techniques to bring back with them after jobs fail and there’s no reason to stay.
  • The current regime is contemplating negotiating payments to gangs as a form of welfare—if the members had jobs, they wouldn’t be in gangs, so we can cut them a deal to stop committing crimes in exchange for a check. This seems pretty bad until you know about how the previous governing party handled crime. Thieves and burglars would get a slap on the wrist for 5 or 6 offenses, but periodically the police would send out death squads in the middle of the night to execute repeat offenders in their homes.
Given that millions of dollars are sent here from the US each year by immigrant workers, our present economic crisis is hitting El Salvador especially hard, in more ways than one—not only by cutting off the money flow, but as was just mentioned, sending malefactors back to make a living some other way (the chances being quite high that there would be no job waiting for them when they arrived).

Compound this with the political situation. The newly elected president, Mauricio Funes, is a candidate of the FMLN, the party of the “left” that won its first presidential election in decades. Upon news of his election, businesses from other countries began closing and selling their assets as fast as they could, convinced that soon the government would be nationalizing numerous industries (though Funes does not appear to march in step with the rest of his party). This cut many, many jobs, and people found themselves without income and no way to support themselves. All of this has conspired to create a violent cauldron of extortion and vengeance that would send me packing if I wasn’t as safe as I am in NPH.

And they’re saying that Central America is only beginning to experience the severity of the effects of the US’s economic woes. For most of the people I know in the US, their troubles come nowhere near to the situation your average Salvadoran, Guatemalan, Honduran, or Nicaraguan has to face each day as the result of this global downturn.

16 July 2009

Back To You, Niños

The next entry in the video log is up on YouTube! Take a close look at how a community keeps its whiteys so tidy when there's nary a washing machine in sight. Learn about the culture of apprenticeship that exists here and how it is much more than just vo-tech training to earn oneself a living--it's initiation into a tradition of humane labor that is "liberal" in the most ennobling sense of the word.

For higher quality viewing, make sure you click "HQ" in the lower right-hand corner of the player. Thoughts and comments welcome!

14 July 2009

Denver Archbishop Concerned About Public Discourse

Fans of Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death (mentioned in a previous post) will enjoy a recent article by Archbishop Chaput on the Archdiocesan website (via First Things):
America was born as a nation of readers; a nation of the printed word. The foundational defenses of our constitutional order, The Federalist Papers, first appeared as newspaper articles. The 85 essays are remarkable exercises in political philosophy. They’re done with an intellectual skill unmatched anywhere in the modern news media. Unfortunately, if they appeared today, few of us might read them. The reason is simple. Reading requires discipline and mental effort. But for the past 50 years our culture has been shifting away from the printed word to visual communications, which are much more inclined to sensation and passive consumption. This has consequences. When a print culture dies, the ideas, institutions and even habits of public behavior built on that culture begin to weaken.

Read the rest here: Catholics and the 'Fourth Estate'

13 July 2009

Honduras Abandoned?

A stirring trio of short videos released by PJTV provide an interview with Honduran legislative minority leader Antonio Riveras. You should check them out here for a good bird's-eye view of the question at hand.

PJ TV on Honduras

We are witnessing a startling series of events in the arrest and expulsion of ex-president Manuel Zelaya, and I can honestly say I am startled by the direction our foreign policy is taking.

In other news, the next video blog entry will be up soon, soon, soon!

11 July 2009

On My Mind

Not to get all hot and bothered over politics, but it's ridiculous. The press is getting this whole "Honduran struggle for democracy" all wrong. In a recent editorial by a Venezuelan journalist, the situation was clarified: we are witnessing the enormous courage of the Honduran people in the face of a den of miscreants that are putting all sorts of pressure on this country to collapse under the weight of Chavez' machinations. Well, Chavez and his OEA stooges weren't expecting the response they got--one that is uncharacteristically forthright and upstanding for a central American military (from my limited and stereotypical knowledge of history), which has sought to preserve the operations of democracy rather than rout them.

Those who are interested in following the situation more closely (believe me, socialism / communism is alive and well in this neck of the woods), you can follow it at "Honduras Abandoned," a blog run by an amateur journalist on the ground in Tegucigalpa whose reports have been more in accordance with the news reports here than on CNN and the NYT.


Also of interest is a recent article by a gal who is studying the effects of language on the processes of thought. This question delves deeply into how we understand ourselves and our relationship to truth, and being in the midst of rewiring my brain for another language myself, it does cast an interesting light on the process.

Believers in cross-linguistic differences counter that everyone does not pay attention to the same things: if everyone did, one might think it would be easy to learn to speak other languages. Unfortunately, learning a new language (especially one not closely related to those you know) is never easy; it seems to require paying attention to a new set of distinctions. Whether it's distinguishing modes of being in Spanish, evidentiality in Turkish, or aspect in Russian, learning to speak these languages requires something more than just learning vocabulary: it requires paying attention to the right things in the world so that you have the correct information to include in what you say.

Read the article in full here (it's pretty short):

"How Does our Language Shape the Way We Think?" by Lera Boroditsky

05 July 2009

A Day In The Life

The next video journal entry is up on YouTube.

A friend commented upon watching it, "I stayed for the whole ten minutes and I don't know why." That's kind about how I feel about this entry--I put all the work into making it but I'm not sure why. I look forward to making more episodes about the life of the kids here.

03 July 2009

A Question I Want Answered

So, Lord, that time I was living in El Salvador for the summer as a seminarian? Yeah, nice work getting me there, that was a TRIP. So, two things: when I left that coral snake in a soda bottle for 5 hours in my room without the cap on, can you set me up with some instant replay of 1) how he got out of the bottle without tipping it over, and 2) where in Creation did he GO? Because so far as I can tell, that thing straight up DISAPPEARED. So, thanks for protecting me from the wiles of the serpent and the shadow of death and all, but to tell you the truth (what else would You want?) I'd almost rather have been bitten just to have the security of knowing WHAT IN YOUR NAME HAPPENED. Weeks on end of shaking my clothes out and keeping an eye on the drain while I shower just isn't worth it.

30 June 2009

Welcome to NPH El Salvador

The next entry in the video journal is up:

To take advantage of the high quality video I've been using, I would suggest viewing the video on the YouTube site rather than embedded here at the blog. To do this, click "play" and then click on the video once again, and the YouTube site will load. Don't forget to click "HD" in the lower right corner to load the highest possible quality!

I had some problems at the tail end of production, and some of the footage was lost ... thanks be to God the whole thing didn't disappear! I've learned a lot about my video editor, including that it can randomly erase portions of one's work immediately before saving. A bit frustrating, but all in all I'm pleased with this entry. I hope you will be, too.

PS: Will those of you that load this video post in the comments box whether it fits inside the allotted space on the blog? it doesn't on my computer (running Firefox), but hopefully it does on yours.

24 June 2009

Bowels on Fire, Part II

I've uploaded the second part of my interview with Father Ben Hasse and his sister Libby during our visit to the eastern districts of El Salvador. The quality is a bit better as I've secured the [temporary] use of a video editor with some nice capabilities. However, it's still just the three of us sitting around talking! In addition, when we recorded this version, my camera ran out of disk space just as Fr. Ben was ending his comments about the war. Nonetheless, quite interesting (if you ask me).

I've got big plans for my next entry, which has involved a lot of filming around the campus here, and I've gotten my hands on some nice footage.

Hope to see you again soon.

22 June 2009

Bowels on Fire

Those of you familiar with the work of Father Barron have no doubt visited his site, WordOnFire.org, to peruse his latest doings on YouTube and some of his international travels to complete the Catholicism Project. While I can claim no such illustrious status, in pale homage to his YouTube channel, I offer you the first of my entries to the VideoBlog:

Have Priest, Will Travel (Viajes Salvatruchas), Part I
[YouTube has a 10 minute maximum]

You can view it either as an embedded video here, or you can click on the video once it's open to view it on the YouTube site with fullscreen options. The quality leaves something to be desired, but I've already finished editing part two and it's much better.

The second half should be up within a day or two. Check back soon!

17 June 2009

We Have Visual

For those who would like to see some of the photos taken during my trip to Cantón San Luis in the eastern part of El Salvador, you can view them on Picasa. Closed captioning included.

(Select "slideshow" for an optimal viewing experience.)

2009 San Luis

14 June 2009

I've Been Thrown A Bone

After a recent excursion to a small town in eastern El Salvador to visit a newly ordained priest-friend who was passing through, I was able to secure some disks to get my computer up and running again, though as of right now, there's no promises that Microsoft will let me register this copy of Windows. For a month or so, at least, I'll be able to post here on the blog.

Coming very soon: a video blog entry from Canton San Luis, El Salvador! Check back soon!

05 June 2009

Abandoned Until Further Notice

Unfortunately, my laptop isn't functioning and there's only one computer here that I can use for the internet (which I'm using right now, and the keyboard isn't exactly cooperating). If things get up and running again, I'll be sure to catch up on the happenings, but until then, don't hold your breath.

I'm kind of enjoying being off the grid anyway.

28 May 2009

In and Out

As the school year draws to a close, I'm preparing to leave for a Spanish immersion in Santa Ana, El Salvador. The next few days are going to be crazy as I throw the most crucial material supports to my life (clothing, books) into suitcases and the rest into unused rooms in my parents' house. Before the madness gets too overwhelming, I did take the chance to touch up some photos from our diocesan pilgrimage to the cathedral of St. Paul, MN to commemorate the end of the Holy Father's Year of St. Paul.

Pilgrimage to St. Paul, MN
(The photos look the nicest in the full-screen slideshow.)

We popped in to the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, in Lacrosse, WI on the way back. It was a fine week, with much conversation and the honor of having our own Archbishop Naumann in company.

I had fun taking the photos, and have been learning about my camera as I prepare to do more serious traveling. I hope to continue posting to my blog while I'm out of the country, so check back periodically for pictures and stories.

vaya con dios

18 May 2009

Senior Moment

I found the following quote startlingly relevant:

It is said that Christianity, if it is to survive, must face the modern world, must come to terms with the way things are in the sense of the current drift of things. It is just the other way around: If we are to survive, we must face Christianity. The strongest reactionary force impeding progress is the cult of progress itself, which, cutting us off from our roots, makes growth impossible and choice unnecessary. We expire in the lazy, utterly helpless drift, the spongy warmth of an absolute uncertainty. Where nothing is even true, or right, or wring, there are no problems; where life is meaningless we are free from responsibility, the way a slave or scavenger is free. Futility breeds carelessness, against which stands the stark alternative: against the radical uncertainty by which modern man has lived—as in a game of Russian roulette, stifled in the careless ‘now’ between the click and the explosion, living by the dull grace of empty chambers—the risk of certainty.
John Senior
The Death of Christian Culture

17 May 2009

I Watched the President's Speech, and All I Got Was a Lousy Lecture

Am I the only one who grows uncomfortable when people in positions of power warn their opponents about the need to grow in humility?
Remember, too, that the ultimate irony of faith is that it necessarily admits doubt. It's the belief in things not seen. It's beyond our capacity as human beings to know with certainty what God has planned for us or what He asks of us. And those of us who believe must trust that His wisdom is greater than our own. And this doubt should not push us away from our faith. But it should humble us. It should temper our passions, cause us to be wary of too much self-righteousness. It should compel us to remain open and curious and eager to continue the spiritual and moral debate that began for so many of you within the walls of Notre Dame.

This much is clear: President Obama has achieved a coup that we will be working to unravel for years to come. The country saw a rejuvenated portrait of dissenting Catholicism today, thanks to the poise and polish of Fr. Jenkins, the careful camera work, and the talking heads falling over themselves to get behind Obama and his brave new world. Even the President got caught up in the moment--though even as he held himself up as an examplar of fair-mindedness and aggrieved generosity ("I mean, look, I changed the wording on my
website ... and then said a prayer... "), his finger-wagging was clearly discernible beneath that diaphanous cloak of chameleon-skin.

One begins to wonder if even
he believes what he's saying.

And the real irony? Amidst the glamor and the high words and the hearts warm with pride and goodwill (isn't he wonderful? He
accepted the invitation!), no one thought it ridiculous that on the 55th anniversary of one of the most important Supreme Court decisions in favor of universal civil rights, an ideological lieutenant of a woman's right to choose--at the expense of all other rights--received an honorary degree at the hands of some of this nation's most prominent Catholics.

Shame, shame. For

16 May 2009

On the Proceedings in South Bend

My first response to the footage of the arrest of a priest and other peaceful protesters on the Notre Dame campus was embarassment ... couldn't they at least come up with a hymn that had a little more resonance with the public than "Immaculate Mary"? I mean, that means something to Catholics, but to the rest of the world it just looks like kookery. I felt bad about it, and all sorts of little voices started whispering about my apathy and lack of commitment over a tragic injustice. But it was just humiliating to watch those security personnel pick up a grown man, a priest, from the street, and haul him off for "trespassing."

And then it hit my why my sense of embarrassment wasn't entirely misplaced: through the camera lens and TV screen, I was eavesdropping on a private affair--a family affair. In a flood, the words of St. Paul washed over me:

When one of you has a grievance against a brother, does he dare go to law before the unrighteous instead of the saints? Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases? Do you not know that we are to judge angels? How much more, matters pertaining to this life! If then you have such cases, why do you lay them before those who are least esteemed by the church? I say this to your shame. Can it be that there is no man among you wise enough to decide between members of the brotherhood, but brother goes to law against brother, and that before unbelievers? To have lawsuits at all with one another is defeat for you. (1 Cor 6:1-7).

Calling security personnel to haul away your brother in Christ? An elderly priest, no less?

Can this get any more ridiculous?

14 May 2009

Gathering Facts Without Abandoning Meaning

Their lives were too human for science, too beautiful for numbers, too sad for diagnosis and too immortal for bound journals.

There's a fascinating essay up on the Atlantic's website entitled "What Makes Us Happy?" It features a prominent behavioral scientist, Dr. George Vaillant, who has been the champion of a 72-year study on the lives of a group of 200 Harvard graduates. Known as a "longitudinal" approach, such studies select a relatively narrow segment of the population but track it over a much longer period of time--a sort of antithesis to the Gallup poll.

What I found so intriguing about the essay (and the man it featured) was that for all the empirical data, the lives of the men who were being studied had not been reduced to that data. It struck me as a good example of the sort of science that a Catholic Christian could embrace. There were no cries of exhaustive explanatory power for what constituted the fullness of human existence, nor declarations of the uselessness of all other approaches to understanding human beings. Just patient, intensely observant attention. Here was a man who seems to instantiate the openness to all the purview of reason, as described by Lewis, Chesterton, and more recently, Benedict (you can read more about their diagnosis of the contemporary self-limitation of reason here).

While there's no clear exposition of the philosophical outlook of study's champion, the tone I gathered was mostly favorable, and I would recommend reading the essay if you've got a half hour or so to spare.

Via Arts & Letters Daily.

11 May 2009

Of Virgins and Vikings

From a stirring passage in my current indulgence, The Master of Hestviken:

It is an easy matter, Olav, to be a good Christian so long as God asks no more of you than to hear sweet singing in Church, and to yield Him obedience while He caresses you with the hand of a father. But a man’s faith is put to the test on the day God’s will is not his. I will tell you what Bishop Torfinn said to me one day—it was of you and your suit we were speaking. ‘God grant,’ he said, ‘that he may learn to understand in time that whoso is minded to do as he himself wills will soon enough see the day when he will find he has done that which he had never willed.’

... and if one only hears bass guitar and synthesizers in Church, what then?

13 April 2009

A Startling Concession

Via the First Things blog, and the New York Times:

It is no secret that a lot of climate-change research is subject to opinion, that climate models sometimes disagree even on the signs of the future changes (e.g. drier vs. wetter future climate).
The problem is, only sensational exaggeration makes the kind of story that will get politicians’—and readers’—attention. So, yes, climate scientists might exaggerate, but in today’s world, this is the only way to assure any political action and thus more federal financing to reduce the scientific uncertainty.

This admission from a Harvard Ph.D. candidate in applied mathematics and climatology is a really, really, really bad sign. We're witnessing the very subtle transition from "the facts demand action" to "the facts aren't demanding enough action". The tone of the first phrase is all concern, urgency, and instruction; that of the second is panic, irrationality, and fanaticism. It is the transition from teaching to manipulation; it's a corruption from being in service to a cause to enslavement to ideology.

It is also a consequence of the transition from print to visual media as the vehicle for transmitting information. Not too long ago, I drifted through Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death and his critique of television as a medium for public discourse came to mind as I ruminated over the quotation above. Postman claims that unlike printed media, which appealed to the structured, rational dimensions of the mind, television is image-based and therefore fundamentally oriented to the nonrational: emotions, dispositions, "the gut". This is, of course, fine for rhetorical persuasion, but his claim is that each medium carries within itself its own definition of what constitutes truth. A print-based culture, whose conversations were carried out verbally, considered the rational, linear, and ordered presentation of facts and arguments to be the standard for truth, however dressed up in elegant language they may have been. It measured its discourse by this rule.

An image-based media, however, operates by a different standard, and its truth-telling is not rigorous; it is "compelling" or "powerful" but not ultimately judged by its correspondence to reality. It is a truth primarily based upon its ability to persuade. The classic example is Richard Nixon's debate with JFK in the 1960 presidential race: many claim that Nixon's poor health and refusal to wear makeup to have been the deciding factor among the 70 million television viewers who decided Kennedy had bested Nixon (radio listeners pronounced in favor of Nixon). What is true is what persuades; can anyone be blamed, given such a milieu, for being persuasive at any cost?

Yet it is precisely the truth that disappears in such a milieu, for it is drowned by the voices straining to be heard over all others. Truth becomes a lie. It is a short road from "the
facts aren't demanding enough action" to "the facts demand that we exaggerate the facts". Is there any question that this last idea is tantamount to "the facts demand that we lie about the facts"?

A very helpful point on this subject was made in an article by Joseph Bottum and Ryan T. Anderson on the political history of stem cells. You may be wondering, Stem cells have a political history? I thought this was a medical question, a scientific question. You'd be right to wonder, and I think Bottum & Anderson strike the perfect ironic tone in the title of their article. Unfortunately, global warming isn't the first time science has gotten itself mixed up with politics, and vice versa. Science and politics aren't nearly so separate as we might believe.

Until the discovery of viable techniques of manipulating adult stem cells (known as induced pluripotent stem cell research, or IPSC), the question of embryonic stem cell research was used as a political weapon. Incredibly, many scientists tolerated this because they thought it would help them do the research they were convinced would lead to cures.

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.

It's hard to believe that scientists would place their credibility in the hands of politicians, but we've been watching it happen it for years. IPSC research is an OMELETTE on the face of the scientific stooges of the political left. I'm always hearing about how exasperated the rest of the world is about the idiots who have dug their heels and refused to capitulate to global-warming dogmatics, but I never hear anyone talking about how it's not always wise to trust someone just because they have some letters after their name and a job at a big university. It seems to me that such skeptics are simply holding scientists accountable for their past willingness to be the political puppets of fanatics and ideologues, and their failure to extricate themselves from the awkward alliances they have created.