26 March 2009

What Part of "I Don't Need Your Condoms" Don't You Understand?

Soviet agronomist Trofim Lysenko caught the attention of politicians and socialists alike with his bold rejection of Mendelian genetics in favor of theories of heightened production through "deep plowing" and unscientific planting tactics. In the early decades of communism, his theories were heralded as the path to abundance among the newly instituted farming communes, and the failures of these strategies were only acknowledged with ever more astounding propaganda claims for their success. Party ideologues found his theories amenable to their own strategies for industrialization, and so data that indicated they could not live up to their promises was ignored. Lysenko's theories were mandated as essential to the totalitarian aims of communism, and the losses in production are widely acknowledged as a signifcant reason why the USSR lost the cold war.

If you thought blind ideology was extinct, just peruse this little tidbit (via Zenit). A group of journalists from the West traveled to a HIV-care center in Uganda to see on the ground the conditions of this devastated region of Africa. If it wasn't so sad, it would be funny:
Seeing the condition of the HIV-positive women, they were moved. They decided to make themselves useful and do something for the women: they gave them a small box of condoms.

Seeing this, the director reported, one of the women at the center, Jovine, looked at them and said: "My husband is dying and I have six children who will soon be orphans. What use are these boxes you are giving me?"

Many who talk about using condoms in Africa do so without the slightest knowledge of the problem and the conditions of the continent.

Because of this, the director observed, the Pope's statements caused little controversy in Africa itself.

'The Pope,' Busingye emphasized, 'is doing nothing else but defending and supporting precisely that which will be useful for helping these people: affirming the meaning of life and the dignity of the human being.'

The only thing more saddening than the inability of the West to surrender its ideological prejudices over the true nature of the problem is the hopelessness and suffering of the people themselves. You would think that a continent decimated by this incurable disease would be capable of drawing us out of our latex-sheathed ivory tower ...

... But you'd be underestimating the power of ideology.

Read the whole thing here.

There's also a series of videos and commentary on the controversy here.

24 March 2009

Letter to the Students

This is the letter I sent to the sixteen high school students that spent their spring break serving the people struck by the Greensburg Tornado last year.


Well, it’s Sunday afternoon and I saw a few of you at Mass this morning, and so I’ve decided to sit down and write you all a little something. My hope is to give it to each of you Monday afternoon, but perhaps some of you won’t be there, so this might have found its way into your hands some other way.

What an emptiness I have felt since coming back from our trip! There is no way we could have sustained the pace of what we were doing for much longer, but isn’t it strange how I wish it hadn’t ended? Our bodies are too weak and fragile to do what we want them to, but still the desire for more is always there. Knowing what a difficult day Saturday would have been, I think I might have worked until I fell down in my tracks to hold off that day as long as I could.

Perhaps you have experienced the polite smiles and nods of those who couldn’t possibly understand the beauty of that week, no matter how many stories you tell or how enthusiastically you tell them. No doubt you’ve already asked yourself if it’s worth it to even try …. and it is, even if what we say cannot communicate the fullness and the breadth of that experience. As we struggle and fail to articulate our thoughts and feelings, however, we may come across someone else who has done what we thought impossible. This is the great pleasure of literature, and since our return, I’ve come back again and again to a book I read my first year in seminary entitled The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. It is one of the classics of literature and I hope that you will all get the chance to read it one day—slowly, for pleasure and edification, rather than racing through it for some lit class that you need to graduate. Dostoyevsky put into words what I could not, and I wanted to pass along the words that captured so well for me the spirit of our time together.

The story ends with the death of a young boy named Ilyusha who was once the outcast of his group of friends on account of his poor, weak, foolish father. Through the slow process of dying, the other boys (probably right around Noah and Naomi’s age) begin to recognize what a noble and generous soul their schoolmate was, who felt his father’s humiliation keenly and responded with fury to the taunts the boys of the town would make at his father. Their grief over the loss of their friend was intensified by his passing so soon after they came to love him. After his death, one of the Karamazov brothers, by the name of Alyosha, a young man preparing to leave and enter the monastery, speaks to them near a stone outside their village (and so this speech has been named “the speech at the stone”). It is addressed to the young boys who befriended Ilyusha, but it could just as well be addressed to each of you, young women and men alike, who spent their break in service to a pair of Ilyushas and their parents:

Gentlemen, we shall be parting soon … I shall leave this town, perhaps for a very long time. And so we shall part, gentlemen. Let us agree here, by Ilyusha’s stone, that we will never forget—first, Ilyusha, and second, one another. And whatever may happen to us later in life, even if we do not meet for twenty years afterwards, let us always remember how we buried the poor boy, whom we once threw stones at—remember, there by the little bridge?—and whom afterwards we all came to love so much. He was a nice boy, a kind and brave boy, he felt honor and his father’s bitter offense made him rise up. And so, first of all, let us remember him, gentlemen, all our lives. And even though we may be involved with the most important affairs, achieve distinction or fall into some great misfortune—all the same, let us never forget how good we once felt here, all together, united by such good and kind feelings as made us, too, for the time that we loved the poor boy, perhaps better than we actually are … My dear children, perhaps you will not understand what I am going to say to you, because I often speak very incomprehensibly, but still you will remember and some day agree with my words. You must know that there is nothing higher, or stronger, or sounder, or more useful afterwards in life, than some good memory, especially a memory from childhood. You hear a lot said about your education, yet some such beautiful, sacred memory, preserved from childhood, is perhaps the best education. If a man stores up many such memories to take into life, then he is saved for his whole life. And even if only one good memory remains with us in our hearts, that alone may serve some day for our salvation. Perhaps we will even become wicked later on, will even be unable to resist a bad action, will laugh at people’s tears and at those who say, I want to suffer for all people’—perhaps we will scoff wickedly at such people. And yet, no matter how wicked we may be—and God preserve us from it—as soon as we remember how we buried Ilyusha, how we loved him in his last days, and how we’ve been talking just now, so much as friends, so together, by this stone, the most cruel and jeering man among us, if we should become so, will still not dare laugh within himself at how kind and good he was at this present moment!

Again and again the word that rises up in the peaceful moments of recollection is “dignity”. This is what you all came to understand better than you ever have before—the dignity of the needy persists despite their own inability or unwillingness to act in accordance with it. It is a dignity that demands to be acknowledged. Yet there was another discovery—a dignity that you can now call your own. The great John Paul II said that we only discover ourselves in the authentic gift of ourselves. Think back on the consolations you experienced once you “pressed through” your initial frustration and disgust and got down to the dirty work of actually doing something to help. That was a taste of the joy that comes with an authentic gift of self, and that is something that we can experience each and every moment of our lives. That is Christ’s promise to us. Take him up on it.

Last April, I went to New York to visit the Pope when he came to America, and he had some stirring words for the youth. He referred to the prayer for the light to overcome the world’s darkness—a prayer that echoes the opening words of John’s Gospel, and that is prayed each Easter vigil (which is coming up for us in a few short weeks!). He asked,

What might that darkness be? What happens when people, especially the most vulnerable, encounter a clenched fist of repression or manipulation rather than a hand of hope? It pertains to the heart. Here, the dreams and longings that young people pursue can so easily be shattered or destroyed. I am thinking of those affected by drug and substance abuse, homelessness and poverty, racism, violence, and degradation—especially of girls and women. While the causes of these problems are complex, all have in common a poisoned attitude of mind which results in people being treated as mere objects—a callousness of heart takes hold which first ignores, then ridicules, the God-given dignity of every human being. Such tragedies also point to what might have been, and what could be, if other hands—your hands—reached out. I encourage you to invite others, especially the vulnerable and the innocent, to join you along the way of goodness and hope.

I think that now we all have a better idea of what it means to make that invitation.

Finally, there is no one right way to react to the sights and sounds of those two houses in Bucklin. Some process their reactions by putting them in plain view, holding nothing back; others need to retreat into the “inner chamber” and work through things in solitude in the days and weeks that follow. Sometimes we can be put off or disappointed by the sort of response we see in others to what did or did not move us individually. Let it unfold as it will, and don’t force yourself to conform to expectations. Be attentive to your own graces so that you can more readily recognize them in others.

So, let’s not forget that family, and let’s not forget one another! Thanks for the week that made me, for the time I was with you, better than I am.

In Christ our Brother,

07 March 2009

The Desk Chair Review of Books, continued

The Christian State of Life
by Father Hans Urs von Balthasar

May I please begin this review by saying that The Christian State of Life should be required reading for every vocation director, director of seminarians, and spiritual director involved in helping others to discern God's call. I say this not because it offers practical advice on making the choice (there are plenty of perspectives on this already) but because of the grand, sweeping vision of the whole of Christian life that it presents. It might be called a work of "vocational theology," if such a term existed, one which is deeply immersed in the Scriptures (especially the Gospels) and the unique re-presentation of the longstanding mystical tradition presented by St. Ignatius of Loyola in his Spiritual Exercises. If the subject is of interest to you in the least, I would get ahold of a copy from the library (they're hard to find right now, as Ignatius Press is apparently between printings) and read the first sixty and the last forty pages. If they whet your appetite, start again from the beginning and take notes as you go—it's helpful for keeping track of where he is in the overall structure of the work.

Balthasar begins with a treatment of "love in the abstract," a long catalogue of the qualities of love as it is in itself and not as human persons are capable of it. The author reveals himself here as a disciple of the mystics, most especially Bernard. The pages read like a gloss on Bernard's sermon on love, in which he writes,

Love is sufficient of itself, it gives pleasure by itself and because of itself. It is its own merit, its own reward. Love looks for no cause outside itself, no effect beyond itself. Its profit lies in its practice. I love because I love, I love that I may love.

Balthasar is infused with the same intoxicating fervor of the immensity of love, and he takes utterly seriously the commandment to love the Lord with all one's mind, heart, and strength. One has the sense here of being in touch with the Love that is the source of all things, and it's hard not to be drawn into such contemplative intensity. This passage constitutes a real examination of conscience for the reader, and certain phrases ring out with clarity many weeks later: "Love does not ask what must be done, but what can be done; the first is not a question that love asks."

The states in life are rooted in God's original call for humanity to be in relationship with him through loving obedience, generous poverty, and fecund purity. This is the state of our first parents. Balthasar treats the "original state" with the sort of naivete (if one can call it that) of a practiced exegete who has come full circle to the text once again by way of the many insights of scholarship; he approaches Scripture with a refreshing straightforwardness that unlocks the secrets of Scripture not as a critical examiner but a disciple. With this method, he dives into the Scriptural accounts of the creation and fall in order to shed light on the redemption and the Church as the continuation of Christ's mission.

Balthasar then examines minutely Christ's own "state of life" and that of his mother in order to demonstrate how the present possibilities for the Christian life are rooted in their one "stand" in the Father's will. These sections draw on Balthasar's Trinitarian and Christological theology, subjects few of us have the knowledge to master, but they nonetheless place the life of discipleship firmly within the context of the Trinitarian life and the whole economy of salvation. (This subject was the material for my term paper, one of the most difficult and rewarding papers I've written so far, and I would be glad to share it with anyone who's interested in looking more closely at the subject.)

After a lengthy examination of the states of election and the secular state (i.e. the state of the vows and the ordinary "lay" state) and their relationship to one another, Balthasar takes a close look at the ministerial priesthood and where it fits within this whole economy. I can say very little about this, as my research forced me to put my time in elsewhere, but suffice to say I will be returning to it in the very near future to explore his insights. What is most intriguing is what he does with the concept of priestly service as one of representation and sacrifice; it reaches its perfection, of course, in Christ, but for the reason that here priest and victim are one. Balthasar concludes from this that the most perfect sacrifice (and therefore the sacrifice Jesus himself offered) is the one in which one surrenders even the consciousness of love in the performance of it; everything one does, then, becomes the impartial performance of a purely formal, external act. Some of his most stirring words are to be found in this section (though I may be partial to the subject). Particularly notable is the justification for the Church's authority, which Balthasar perceives to be constituted by the very unworthiness of those who exercise it:

No human way of life is ever totally adequate to the greatness of the divine mission conferred with the priestly office. For how can any human person be worthy to impart the word 0f God? How can he be permitted to dispense the grace of God, to say in the name of God's Son: 'This is my body' or 'Your sins are forgiven you', to bind and loose in such a manner that his action is ratified in heaven? Only the consciousness of an incurable unworthiness that reaches to the very depths of his being can be the halting response to the call to such a ministry. This is true even if the one so called strives in duty and in gratitude to let his whole being be re-formed in accordance with the ministry bestowed on him by God himself. This mark of absolute imparity between person and office is the beginning and end of the Church's authority. It helps him who is charged with the office to bear it and him who must obey it to look beyond the person and even the weakness of the minister to the divine character of what he administers.

The final section of the book is a treatment of the nature of the "call" itself, its recognition, and the possibility to reject or accept it in freedom. Other commentators, based on a more precise reading of Balthasar than my own, would quality some of his harsh language regarding the need to follow one's vocation; I defer to that judgment as a whole, with the qualification that such incentives (exaggerated as they may be) are necessary for a generation of Catholics largely ambivalent to the question of radical discipleship. The lack of commitment to forms of religious life and the ministerial priesthood—and even to the married state—would suggest that among the many other factors that undermine readiness to "follow the Lamb wherever he goes", the lack of insistence by our pastors that vocational discernment is a necessity for every single Christian is one of the most disheartening. The last fifteen pages of Christian State of Life will certainly make you take a serious look at your own discernment!