24 December 2010

A Christmas Thought

And when we give each other Christmas gifts in His name, let us remember that He has given us the sun and the moon and the stars, and the earth with its forests and mountains and oceans--and all that lives and move upon them. He has given us all green things and everything that blossoms and bears fruit and all that we quarrel about and all that we have misused--and to save us from our foolishness, from all our sins, He came down to earth and gave us Himself.
Sigrid Undset
Merry Christmas to all!

21 December 2010

Gosh, Were Our Ancestors STUPID.

AL Daily linked to an interesting project over at Edge.org: a collection of now-disproven commonly held beliefs, scientific or otherwise.  It was a fun exercise to guess at some of the presuppositions and pet peeves of the contributors based on the paragraphs submitted.  There seems to be a wide range of respondents from many different disciplines, though there is certainly a bias toward standing aghast at some of the "scientifically driven" medical theories that were way, way off the mark.

One in particular caught my attention, not so much on account of its thinly veiled hostility to the influence of the churches on public policy (that sentiment was actually quite common, from what I found) but the preposterous inconsistency of his reasoning.  Eduardo Salcedo-Albar├ín had some strong words about the reprehensible practices of phrenology and lobotomy:

18 December 2010

From the Abbot's Desk

Working my way through the commentary of St. Bernard of Clairvaux on the Song of Songs has been a most rewarding journey (aided by the gift of the entirety of the extant sermons for my 30th birthday last year. . . you know who you are).  I've been posting miscellaneous quotes that seem to have a standalone value without knowing just how they fit into the overall context.  I've been posting them sans commentary, perhaps with emphasis here or there.  Another worthy entry from the Mellifluous Doctor, some prudent counsel for those who undertake to guide the Church as priests or engage in her mission to the world (which just about sums all of us up):

At this point we need to be warned not to give away what we have received for our own welfare, nor to retain for ourselves what must be expended for others.

08 December 2010

Holy Mother Takes a Stand

From von Balthasar's Christian State of Life, in honor of today's Feast of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, patroness of our seminary and of the United States:

"You are all beautiful, and
there is no blemish in you"
(Song of Songs 4:1).
An outdoor fresco outside
the Pantheon in Rome.
In Mary is proof that one does not have to experience all the ways of the world in order to know them. She, the Seat of Wisdom, knows the whole truth about the fallen world, for she sees in the torn body and spiritual anguish of her Son what this world actually does and is. In God’s view, no further knowledge about sin is either valid or useful. Mary does not have to leave the contemplation of her Son to dispense her love, her assistance and her mediation on all the paths of earth. She does so because her Son has done so before her in eucharistic prodigality, and it is no more necessary for her than for him to alter her stand in God’s will in order to bend pityingly and efficaciously over all the world’s suffering and guilt. She is so pure and loving that she needs no cloister to remain undefiled by the world. Wherever she goes, she brings purity, love and heaven with her; her love is its own cloister. Every dividing wall between world and cloister, earth and heaven, falls as she approaches it. She teaches Christians to be fearless in their following of Christ, who does not hesitate to send his own among wolves and to expose them unprotected to the hostility of the world. Where a cloister does exist, it is not an invention of fear; like the whole state of election, it has a representative value as the manifest symbol of withdrawal from the world and the taking of a stand in God.
 I just returned from a ceremony in which about a dozen of my brother seminarians finished the 30-day consecration to Jesus through Mary according to St. Louis de Montfort.  It was an edifying and "pious" gathering, not in the self-conscious, preening way we normally use that word, but in the sense of a quiet, devoted act of love for the Virgin Mother and the Son she was given to bear.

Thank you, men.

06 December 2010

The Census

An excerpt from my Advent reading on St. Joseph, felicitously and fortuitously coinciding with our theological studies on Origen of Alexandria:
Journeying to Bethlehem for the census in obedience to the orders of legitimate authority, Joseph fulfilled for the child the significant task of officially inserting the name "Jesus, son of Joseph of Nazareth" (cf. Jn 1:45) in the registry of the Roman Empire. This registration clearly shows that Jesus belongs to the human race as a man among men, a citizen of this world, subject to laws and civil institutions, but also "savior of the world." Origen gives a good description of the theological significance, by no means marginal, of this historical fact: "Since the first census of the whole world took place under Caesar Augustus, and among all the others Joseph too went to register together with Mary his wife, who was with child, and since Jesus was born before the census was completed: to the person who makes a careful examination it will appear that a kind of mystery is expressed in the fact that at the time when all people in the world presented themselves to be counted, Christ too should be counted. By being registered with everyone, he could sanctify everyone; inscribed with the whole world in the census, he offered to the world communion with himself, and after presenting himself he wrote all the people of the world in the book of the living, so that as many as believed in him could then be written in heaven with the saints of God, to whom be glory and power for ever and ever, Amen."

Origen of Alexandria
Eleventh Homily on Luke
Post-Apostolic Exhortation of John Paul II
Promulgated on the Feast of the Assumption, 1989
(the Eleventh of his Pontificate)

27 November 2010

Black Friday No More

Going through the list of catalogs piled on the kitchen table and hearing about the deals some of my friends acquired, I was amazed by just how good it gets on Black Friday. Not being in a position to buy much, I've generally avoided the Black Friday shopping spree, but it struck me this year that a disciplined shopper with a firm and restrictive list of needed items might really make out pretty well.  I'll have to wait until next year to test the theory, but until then, the rest of us might want to make sure the day isn't just an excuse to indulge our shopaholism.

07 November 2010

Simple English Propers Project

I just put up a button on the right column that links to the Church Music Association of America's campaign to raise money for the development of a public domain Roman Gradual in English--in other words, a book that will set to chant the various prayers of the Catholic Mass, allowing them to be sung by a schola in a "consciously sacred" English.

It's set up so that you can pledge money towards this eventually free resource for the benefit of English-speaking parishes around the world.  Your credit card will not be charged until there are a total of $5,000 in pledges raised, and we are only 37% of the way there!  Read more about the project over at the Chant Cafe.

I chipped in already . . . how about you?

[UPDATE 11/27/2010: Button removed, as the campaign reached its goal! Thanks to those who contributed, and be sure to keep tabs on the CCMA blog to get ahold of these propers when they are released.]

02 November 2010


A couple of recent articles at the New Atlantis and Time Magazine have caught my attention on the admittedly abstruse subject of molecular biology. 

What I understand this to be all about is that DNA is nowhere near as clear-cut as was originally supposed. The Human Genome Project meant to map the entirety of human genetic material and gain a complete understanding of what caused disease and dysfunction, as well as the processes that gave rise to organic diversity within the body. What has been discovered (and in fact was commonly known since the 1970s, but little attention was paid to it) is that the shape, arrangement, and cellular context of the DNA strands has as much to do with cellular function and genetic replication of proteins as the nucleotide bases of the DNA helix do. The level of complexity has been increased by several orders of magnitude--but what is most interesting is that it has provoked a re-evaluation of Lamarck's pre-Darwinian hypothesis, which insisted that species modification could happen in much less time than Darwin hypothesized (especially in times of stressful environmental factors). The giraffe could "stretch" its neck over the course of a few generations, whereas Darwin insisted (backing up his claim with strong scientific evidence) that such changes would take millions of years.  Needless to say, the word being tossed about is "paradigm shift".

A little teaser for you:
 When completed, the Human Epigenome Project (already under way in Europe) will make the Human Genome Project look like homework that 15th century kids did with an abacus. But the potential is staggering. For decades, we have stumbled around massive Darwinian roadblocks. DNA, we thought, was an ironclad code that we and our children and their children had to live by. Now we can imagine a world in which we can tinker with DNA, bend it to our will. It will take geneticists and ethicists many years to work out all the implications, but be assured: the age of epigenetics has arrived.

An admittedly popularized version of the concept, with the customary breathless predictions, but stirring nonetheless.

25 October 2010

Michael Patrick Rosner, 1976-2010

I wish for peace, I yearn for it and for nothing more. The man who is not satisfied with peace is not satisfied with you. For you are our peace, you have made us both one. To be reconciled with you, to be reconciled with myself, this is necessary for me, and it suffices. For whenever you set me in opposition to you I become a burden to myself. I am on my guard, and will neither be ungrateful for the gift of peace nor intrude sacreligiously on your glory. May you glory remain yours, O Lord, in undiminished splendor; all will be well with me if I shall have your peace.
Prayer of St. Bernard of Clairvaux

27 September 2010

The Mellifluous Doctor, II

You too, if you would make prudent progress in your studies of the mysteries of the faith, would do well to remember the Wise Man’s advice: “Do not try to understand things that are too difficult for you, or try to discover what is beyond your powers.” These are occasions when you must walk by the Spirit and not according to your personal opinions, for the Spirit teaches not by sharpening curiosity but by inspiring charity. And hence the bride, when seeking him whom her heart loves, quite properly does not put her trust in mere human prudence, nor yield to the inane conceits of human curiosity. She asks rather for a kiss, that is, she calls upon the Holy Spirit by whom she is simultaneously awarded with the choice repast of knowledge and the seasoning of grace. . .

But knowledge which leads to self-importance, since it is devoid of love, cannot be the fruit of the kiss. Even those who have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge, may not for any reason lay claim to that kiss. For the favor of the kiss bears with it a twofold gift, the light of knowledge and the fervor of devotion. He is in truth the Spirit of wisdom and insight, who, like the bee carrying its burden of wax and honey, is fully equipped with the power both of kindling the light of knowledge and infusing the delicious nurture of grace. Two kinds of people therefore may not consider themselves to have been gifted with the kiss, those who know the truth without loving it, and those who love it without understanding it; from which we conclude that this kiss leaves room neither for ignorance nor for lukewarmness.

From Sermon 8

23 September 2010

On Waking Up In the Middle of the Night with a Runny Nose

Me: [blowing my nose into the bedsheet] It's a good thing I have this big handkerchief here! This would've been a big mess otherwise.

Me: You idiot, that's not a handkerchief, that's a bedsheet. 

Me:  [sheepish]  Well, at least it won't get all over everything now . . .

Me:  You idiot!! Blowing your nose in a bedsheet means IT'S ALL OVER EVERYTHING

19 September 2010

Through the Lattice

From a sermon on the Song of Songs by Ronald Knox:

That voice at the window brings to my own mind a fancy which I have often had, which I suppose many of us have had before now, in looking at the Sacred Host enthroned in the monstrance. The fancy, I mean, that the glittering disc of whiteness which we see occupying that round opening is not reflecting the light of the candles in front of it, but is penetrated with a light of its own, a light not of this world, shining through it from behind, as if through a window, outdazzling gold and candle-flame with a more intense radiance. Such a visual impression you may have for just a moment, then you reflect that it is only an illusion; and then on further thought you question, Is it an illusion? Is it not rather the truth, but a truth hidden from our eyes, that the Host in the monstrance, or rather those accidents of it which make themselves known to our senses, are a kind of window through which a heavenly light streams into our world; a window giving access on a spiritual world outside our human experience?

... At the window, behind the wall of partition that is a wall of partition no longer, stands the Beloved himself, calling us out into the open; calling us away from the ointments and the spikenard of Solomon’s court, that stupefy and enchain our senses, to the gardens and the vineyards, to the fields and the villages, to the pure airs of eternity. Arise (he says), make haste and come. Come away from the blind pursuit of creatures, from all the plans your busy brain evolves for your present and future pleasures, from the frivolous distractions it clings to. Come away from the pettiness and the meanness of your everyday life, from the grudges, the jealousies, the unhealed enmities that set your imagination throbbing. Come away from the cares and solicitudes about tomorrow that seem so urgent, your heavy anxieties about the world’s future and your own, so short either of them and so uncertain. Come away into the wilderness of prayer, where my love will follow you and my hand hold you; learn to live, with the innermost part of your soul, with all your secret aspirations, with all the center of your hopes and cares, in that supernatural world which can be yours now, which must be yours hereafter.
Most appropriate given some of the influences on the name of this blog, meant to evoke the super-reality that lingers just outside our immediate existence, in the corner of the soul's eye.

16 September 2010

The Desk Chair Review of Books

Philosophy and Theology
by John Caputo

In an effort to renew the relationship between philosophy and theology, John Caputo traces the relationship between these rivals back to the source of the conflict between them. In the present day, philosophy and theology are commonly understood as different perspectives on the same set of questions. Philosophy is understood as driven exclusively by reason from its principles to conclusions, without reference to any external authority and universally accessible (at least in principle). Theology, on the other hand, makes use of rationality, but derives its foundational content from revelation, and is conducted by people already invested in the community defined by its belief. Attitudes about philosophy and theology are largely determined by whether they are seen as two modes of thinking that are mutually complementary and capable of coexisting “in the same head” or as defining two entirely different types of worldviews that are fundamentally at odds with one another.

The latter view being the more common, Caputo takes up the history of the conflict to discover its contours. In the Middle Ages, figures such as St. Anselm and St. Thomas exemplified harmony between reason and faith. Anselm proposed his ontological argument not so much as a proof for God but a way of “clarifying something intuitively obvious to all those who experience God in their daily lives.” Thomas was disposed to seek God more in outward, tangible manifestation. Under both accounts, faith sought understanding by way of the gift of reason. However, in this synthesis reason was subordinate to faith, and the rise of modern science in some sense proceeded as a backlash against faith’s supremacy.

According to Caputo, the development of modern thought allowed natural science to displace philosophy and enthrone itself in the cathedra once occupied by theology. Descartes severed the link between faith and reason with his foundationalist approach, building all knowledge on the certainty of the dubito and undermining the longstanding authority of theology to arbitrate valid insight. Reason was thereby elevated to unprecedented levels of independence and universality. Kant took this a step further by regarding philosophy as a mere “second order reflective science” that contributed nothing to the enterprise of reason; theology was to abandon historically mediated dogma and be constrained to the limits of reason alone. Finally, the atheist critiques of Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche pushed theology into a romanticized interiority based primarily on feeling.

Caputo values the tutelage modernity offered to human reason, seeing the period as a traumatic transition to maturity. Nonetheless, he takes up Kierkegaard’s insistence that the overreaching scope of reason which sought to construct a totalizing system was faulty. Postmodernity emerged out of skepticism toward the Enlightenment project that arose from a recognition of the historically conditioned presuppositions of all reasoning. The paradigms of human knowledge, postmodernists insist, are not purely objective, but demand that facts be incorporated within plausible yet necessarily provisional accounts of reality. The effect of this awareness is to engender skepticism towards all-encompassing narratives.

The transition to postmodernity weakened the barriers behind which modernity had walled up philosophy and theology, giving them the chance to once again “assert their rights.” Wittgenstein saw each rational discipline as carried out according to its own proper rules that cannot be simply translated into some supreme way of knowing. Theology is just such a discipline, and the postmodern turn has given theology a credible voice again. The relationship theology has to philosophy is no longer one of hierarchy, with one exercising authority over the other, but of commonality, such that knowing and believing look more similar than ever before. For reasoning involves a reliance upon a kind of faith in the presuppositions of all thinking—such as the reigning paradigms of knowledge—while faith permits one to assume the pivotal interpretive “as” that bestows a perspective and a vocabulary with which to carry out the pursuit of insight. Philosophy and theology’s relationship isn’t so much “reason versus faith” as “philosophical faith along with confessional faith.”

The point is driven home with the example of Derrida. An Augustinian autobiographer who nonetheless “quite rightly passes for an atheist,” he refused to lay to rest the play between confident reason and inquiring faith. Caputo sees in this painful straddle a source of vital tension that nourishes a more vigorous and satisfying existence where philosophy and theology go hand in hand, as “fellow travelers” who “are not opponents but companions on dangerous seas, attempting to make their way through life’s riddles.”

13 September 2010

The Erudite Doctor

The order of redemption is therefore the radical reversal of the order of original sin: over against the ascent to God by man on his own powers (which results in the elevation of man, his assumptio, in God).  In the Verbum caro factum est and in the way it was accomplished, namely by accentuating and emphasizing the difference between God and man, all of mankind has been shown the exact place at which and from which alone its old longing for apotheosis can be fulfilled.  Christ is no “pointer,” no “perfected,” or “illumined,” or “spiritual” man, no “high sprinit,” or “great personality.”  Rather, Christ is God in the nature of a “normal man”.  From the paltriness of the human conceptus on: from the poverty of the crib, the invisibility and marginality of the thirty years as a manual laborer to the simplicity and fatigue of his life as an itinerant preacher, which was the only way he could obey his Father and fulfill his task, to the disgrace and torment of the Passion and the ultimate separation from the Father on the Cross and in death:  Everywhere the stress is put on “nature.”   

Of course not on a “naturalistically” understood nature, or on a “passionate love” for the “earth,” or on ecstatic and romantic association with the “human, all-too human.”  Rather, this stress is always on that illusionless, simple and unpathetic nature, as in the “simple people” who know how to accept the harshness of existence along with the occasional joys that come their way, not making much fuss about either, experiencing and taking in a great deal, sacrificing themselves and wearing themselves out with work without taking overdue notice of it or thinking it is “anything special,” keeping back in the lower ranks as simply a matter of course, and finally departing from this world without leaving any visible traces in world history, never really understanding why they, of all people, should be “the first.”
Hans Urs von Balthasar
"The Fathers, the Scholastics, and Ourselves"

09 September 2010

Cubans Have The Best Dolphin Shows in the World

"Do you like dolphins?" Fidel asked me.

"I like dolphins a lot," I said.

Fidel called over Guillermo Garcia, the director of the aquarium (every employee of the aquarium, of course, showed up for work--"voluntarily," I was told) and told him to sit with us.

"Goldberg," Fidel said, "ask him questions about dolphins."

"What kind of questions?" I asked.

"You're a journalist, ask good questions," he said, and then interrupted himself. "He doesn't know much about dolphins anyway," he said, pointing to Garcia. "He's actually a nuclear physicist."

"You are?" I asked.

"Yes," Garcia said, somewhat apologetically.

"Why are you running the aquarium?" I asked.

"We put him here to keep him from building nuclear bombs!" Fidel said, and then cracked-up laughing.
 Read the rest of Jeffrey Goldberg's account of his time in Havana over at the New Atlantic.  It will make you laugh like it made me laugh.  This guy reads like a Percy novel.

07 September 2010

The Mellifluous Doctor

If you look back on your own experience, is it not in that victory by which your faith overcomes the world, in “your exit from the horrible pit and out of the slough of the marsh,” that you yourselves sing a new song to the Lord for all the marvels he has performed? Again, when he purposed to “settle your feet on a rock and to direct your steps,” then too, I feel certain, a new song was sounding on your lips, a song to our God for his gracious renewal of your life. 

When you repented he not only forgave your sins but even promised rewards, so that rejoicing in the hope of benefits to come, you sing of the Lord’s ways: how great is the glory of the Lord! And when, as happens, texts of Scripture hitherto dark and impenetrable at last become bright with meaning for you, then, in gratitude for this nurturing bread of heaven you must charm the ears of God with a voice of exaltation and praise, a festal song. In the daily trials and combats arising from the flesh, the world and the devil, that are never wanting to those who live devout lives in Christ, you learn by what you experience that man’s life on earth is a ceaseless warfare, and are impelled to repeat your songs day after day for every victory won. As often as temptation is overcome, an immoral habit brought under control, an impending danger shunned, the trap of the seducer detected, when a passion long indulged is finally and perfectly allayed, or a virtue persistently desired and repeatedly sought is ultimately obtained by God's gift; so often, in the words of the prophet, let thanksgiving and joy resound. For every benefit conferred, God is to be praised in his gifts. Otherwise when the time of judgment comes, that man will be punished as an ingrate who cannot say to God: “Your statutes were my song in the land of exile.”

Saint Bernard of Clairvaux
First Sermon on the Song of Songs

06 September 2010

More on Human Evolution

 The Guardian has published of a book I'd like to check out at some point.  Basing his theories of human evolution on the influence technologies such as cooking and baby slings have upon physical structure (and therefore on the potential for larger brain capacity), British archaeologist Timothy Taylor offers some interesting hypotheses:

After the switch to an upright posture, probably the biggest single anatomical change on the journey from apes to humans was the weakening of the jaw. In apes, the jaw is large and protrudes way beyond the nose. It is attached by muscle to a bony ridge on the top of the skull and has a force many times that of a human jaw. Recent genomics research has shown that a large mutation about 2.4m years ago disabled the key muscle protein in human jaws. We still have the disabled protein today, and that weakened jaw enabled a raft of innovations. The ape brain could not grow because of the huge muscle load anchored to the skull's crest, and apes cannot articulate speech-like sounds because of the clumsy force of their jaws. This mutation allowed the increase in human brain size and the acquisition of language.

But why did it happen? Wrangham maintains that it was cooking that led to the change. Cooked food does not need strong jaws. In genetics a function that becomes redundant always leads to the gene being disabled by mutations. Around 2.4m years ago an ape switched to mostly cooked food. In the fossil record, a new proto-human appeared 1.8-1.9m years ago: Homo erectus had a much larger brain and no crest on the skull, indicating that the weakened jaw muscle was now standard.

Read the rest over at the Guardian.  I don't agree with all the author's conclusions, but I do find it of interest that many, many theories of human evolution are constantly being advanced.  Recent genetic research seems to be offering new avenues for helpful guesses at the prehistory of homo sapiens, and it is fun to stay in the discussion on terms other than one's own.  Thinking about things in a way different from my own certainly does assist in the ongoing task of broadening the mind.

h/t AL Daily

In other news, I've settled on the blog header that does the job right, and I'm sticking with it.  Possibly for months.

28 August 2010

An Old Fashioned Solution to a New Fangled Problem

Well I've been fiddling with the header on this blog for some time trying to achieve a particular effect: having the viewer feel like he's looking through the plane of his own screen into a startlingly different dimension.  It seemed necessary to tap into paperly metaphors to accomplish this, and so the last few attempts have made use of various ripping and tearing visuals.  You may recall some of these:

But this one came up off the page, rather than sinking into it.  So I pushed it down:

That, of course, looked more like scratching the stuff off the back of a lottery ticket than an a supersubstantial reality busting through the computer screen into your face.  They kept coming up short, and I simply attributed this to my amateur knowledge of Photoshop.

So I looked up my graphic design buddy Dan, a fellow seminarian here at Mundelein, and asked him what he thought.

The conversation went something like this:

[I give a thorough and excessively detailed description of what I was trying to do, lasting approximately five minutes, expecting a fairly complicated answer involving filters, texture palettes, gaussian high pass edge flows, etc.]

Dan:  Why don't you tear up a piece of paper in the way you want it to look and then scan it?

So that's what I did, and what do you know, he was right.

Looking at the final iteration, though, makes me wonder if I was right to put a drop shadow in there.  The shadow makes it look like the supersubstantial reality is just another photograph, flat and lifeless like the gray in front of it.  It's kind of unavoidable given the text in the frame, but still, would it look better without the shadow?  Those of you that care about such things can give some feedback in the combox.  (I thought about putting up a poll but I think that would be ridiculous given the time I've spent on this already.)

Sans drop shadow:  click to enlarge


I had the chance to check out a dozen or so of the Tall Ships that were in Chicago this week, docked at Navy Pier.  It generated some fun photos, which I'll be posting over the next few days and cross-posting at the photoblog (linked at the bottom of the page as well).

Pride of Baltimore

18 August 2010

The Ground Zero Mezquita

One of the first words I learned using the Rosetta Stone program as I prepared for my summer immersion in El Salvador was the word for "mosque."  I was kind of surprised by this, but the Rosetta Stone has a way of inserting words that you'd never think were important into the Level 1 program--words like corcovear.  I couldn't find it in the dictionary, so I asked a number of my Mexican, Colombian, and Peruvian friends what the word meant.  They had no idea.  What business does this program have teaching me words that Mexicans don't even know? I wondered.  Turns out, it's more of a cowboy word--it means "to leap or gambol like an exuberant calf".  The American who had lived in a little Salvadoran village for three years working for the Peace Corps knew the word, but the chilangos had no idea.  Go figure.

Little did I know, mezquita was far more important than I realized at the time.  Fortunately I picked it up pretty quickly.  For one, it sounded much less intimidating than the English equivalent.  "Mosque" is a heavy word in my own tongue, with that long, sonorous "o" that rises in the throat only to end in a hiss and a "thunk", the "q" driving the word into the roof of your mouth like the blade of a guillotine slamming home.  Anglicized Arabic has all those "qu" formulations that look so odd; apparently the "k" just isn't good enough.  It gives the impression that there's something about the word that just doesn't fit in our language.  (At least it doesn't have the guttural apostrophe in there, like Qur'an.)

"Mezquita," however, has a light and playful sound, mostly nasal and dental sounds.  It also distracts, like a mosquito.  The fragrant BBQ seasoning is also called to mind, evoking memories of pleasant gatherings around the grill, smoke pouring from an outdoor oven plump with roasting meats.  This is why I think our current debate about the proposed Ground Zero Mezquita should be conducted in Spanish.  Everyone would be a lot calmer; it's harder to get in an argument while chewing mouthfuls of pulled pork and brushing away the insects on a hot summer's eve.

This occurred to me as I was brainstorming ideas for a thoughtful and measured post about what I thought was going on under the surface of this debate.  But then I realized I have several evaluations to write before the end of my chaplaincy, and expending energy on this question wouldn't put me in a good spot to finish them on time.  Also, the tone of the debate these days--degenerating into ever more shrill imprecations against the opponent's lack of enlightenment/common sense--doesn't invite measured, thoughtful contribution.  There are plenty of other people making them (such as Douthat's column, "Islam and the Two Americas", or Carson Halloway over at Front Porch Republic pointing out the presumably willful deception on the part of our president); why risk falling short and ending up rolling around in the street with the gang-bangers?

Anyway, if this thing doesn't end up getting built, there should  be plenty of other options for the struggling Manhattan Islamic community-builders (the two mezquitas that already exist on Manhattan island only blocks away from Ground Zero presumably aren't on the market just yet):

How about we just drop the "quita" and leave it at "the Ground Zero Mess"?

06 August 2010

A Little More Shine on that Apple

Apparently Steve Jobs sees Apple as having a "moral responsibility" to keep porn off their devices.

What a crazy statement to make this day and age.  To take a clear stand against the destructive presence of pornography in our society is courageous enough--but to assert that any business has any moral responsibility at all beyond the demands of the market is even more so.

Read more about it on LifeSiteNews.com, as well as the original exchange generated through a late-night email volley with a gawker.com columnist.  There's some salty language in there as well as some geeky back and forth about programming platforms but it's worth reading all the way through.  Tate's final comments about the "Orwellian" tone of Jobs' aim to give iPhone users "freedom from porn" is incredibly out of touch--even MTV has run reality shows about the inescapability of porn addiction and the destruction it sows in the lives of its thralls.  The struggle is mainstream, and even if Tate has been fortunate enough not to get addicted to the stuff, there are quite literally millions who have, and who also have the right to enjoy technology that does not feed into their weakness.  Those who disagree can simply choose another phone.  The indignant posturing of these kinds of people is simply ignorant.

I've been attracted to Apple for a while now given their excellent products, but I am really impressed by this little glimpse into what drives the company.

h/t First Thoughts

02 August 2010

Automation=Evil=Must Die.

So after spending an estimated 5,730 hours navigating automated phone menus in an effort to get the trivial pieces of information I’ve needed in various situations throughout my life, I’ve come to the conclusion that automated phone menus are going to be the downfall of our civilization.

It all started with a creative type, probably a liberal arts major-turned consultant who dreamt up the idea of the automated phone menu, allowing business, government offices, and customer service departments worldwide to eliminate call centers in lieu of some low monthly fee to be paid directly to him. 
“Eureka!” he shrieked, knocking over his chair as he leapt to his feet, unsettling the cup of chai tea next to his legal pads of poetry and Great Business Ideas.  “This automated menu could do wonders for businesses, government offices, and customer service departments worldwide, enabling them to reassign high-paid employees taking calls, thereby freeing up all sorts of assets to boost the economy and hyperinflate my bank balances!”

Well, I’m sure that guy did all right for himself, but it’s been one sad story of waste and disappointment for the rest of us ever since.  Just try to estimate how many hours you’ve spent hitting “4” to manage your account, only to be dumped into a dead-end menu that has nothing to offer you in your moment of need and giving you no options to extricate yourself.  * doesn’t work.  # doesn’t work.  *67 doesn’t work.  Repeating obscene phrases at high decibel levels into the earpiece doesn’t work.  All that’s left to you is to end the call and start again, or curse God and die.

I would imagine the ratio of total dollars saved by those who make use of automated menus to total dollars of employee productivity lost while navigating those labyrinthine systems and venting to their coworkers is on the order to 1 to 20.  That’s not even close to what it would be if we factored in property destruction.

Maybe if that lady at the KC, MO Police Tow Lot hadn’t let her phone sit on hold for 25 minutes while toasting marshmallows over a fire fueled by the reams of meaningless paperwork offered in sacrifical homage to the pitiless and cruel Solemn Arbiter of Motor Vehicles by countless millions, I would be a free man today.

Red Man Solo Tour

Red Man has been busy this summer!  Check out a recent collaboration from the IPF cycle at the link below:


Once Twice

The list of films that have made the cut of those worthy to be watched again is pretty short.  Of those films, I only own a handful, and several of those were gifts.  As I sit here and think about it, it’s hard to even justify watching some of those again—why watch when so many more must be sifted?

I suppose since it’s so short, it won’t be too hard to put them down here, in no particular order (though I must admit I’m leaving out the adolescent selections, as they’ve not remained with me into adulthood, and rarely stand up to a more mature scrutiny***):
  • “Master and Commander”—stepping into the lost world of the age of sail, with exquisite cinematography of battle sequences straight out of a Winslow Homer painting
  • “The Thin Red Line”—some have expressed frustration with the ponderous voice-overs, but Malick created something utterly fascinating with the cast of celebrities who fell over one another for bit parts in one of his films.  The intensity of this film is achingly, painfully beautiful.
  • “Punch Drunk Love”—the first serious acting I ever saw Adam Sandler do.  A truly funny film, alternately cross-eyed and sympathetic toward the quirky, neurotic cast.  “I have a love that makes me stronger than you can imagine. . . I would just say ‘that’s that,’ mattress man.”
  • “The Dark Knight”—just watched it again at the beginning of the summer.  While I am more inclined to side with reviewers that suggested it could’ve used some more judicious cutting, I stand by my fascination with this mythical story.
  • “The Big Lebowski”—delight in disorder.
  • “Children of Men”—I was shocked by how powerful this film was for me.
  • “Lonesome Dove”—a made-for-TV adaptation of McMurtry’s Pulitzer Prize winner.  An epic western that managed to capture the tragic side of the open range and its codes, tinged with glory.
  • “Princess Mononoke”—a Miyazaki anime feature, bizarre and outrageously imaginative, and masterful in the use of silence as the aura of the sacred.
I could go on. . . but the point is, not for much longer.

The most recent entry on this list is entitled, ironically, “Once”.  What I have to say about it won’t make much sense unless you’ve seen it, so I wouldn’t bother reading further if you haven’t—besides, you should already be making your way to your Netflix queue to get ahold of it. 

I was first turned on to this film by Barb Nicolosi’s review (back when her blog for her work with the screenwriting guild Act One was still up and running).  The soundtrack proved to be the hook for her, and so it has continued to be for me.  Piping it through my stereo last week inspired me to return to this little film, shot for cheap on the sooty, overcast streets of Dublin (though it could’ve been anywhere) . It tells the story of a busking guitarist who, meets a gal on a lonely street while cutting his chest open for everyone to see (lyrically speaking).  Her musical talents quickly become evident to him, and they mutually ignite a unique creativity that helps the guy to record a demo of his truly talented songwriting, and for both of them to get their lives back on track, discovering what they truly want and living up to the situations in which they find themselves.

What unfolds is something like a cross between a musical and a documentary on music production; you almost expect the camera to cut to a face-to-face interview with the characters who then explain what they were thinking at the time and how crazy all that was and how they pretended to like the gal’s mother-in-law but really didn’t, etc.  But of course, it never does, because these people are not being asked to step out of their subjectivity and feed it back to the viewer.  They thrive in it, steeped in the confusion and ambiguity of their attraction to one another amidst deeper and more lasting commitments to other people.  Neither is ever given a name, but these characters take on a warmth and charm that got me to root for them in a way I usually can’t when it comes to film (now novels, on the other hand. . . ). 

This was clearest for me in the sequence when the Guy decides to record a demo before leaving for London.  There is an amusing and kind of adventurous feel to the work that must be done in order to book a recording studio, including persuading a loan-officer-turned-songwriter to lend him the money to book a recording studio for a weekend.  In a spare yet rich scene, the studio engineer skeptically looks on as the unimpressive cadre of backing musicians and immigrants prepares to record their first take.  There was a rush of adrenaline as I watched them step up to lay themselves on the line.  This guy was taking a real risk—the music wasn’t just a dream anymore, pondered morosely in the upstairs room of his da’s house.  There was money on the line.  There were consequences to this performance.  And what comes forth from the various voices and instruments in that moment of risk is stirring.  In unison with the engineer, who had settled in for a long weekend of coddling some amateurs, we realize that this is something good.  They’re doing it, I said to myself.  This is a moment each of these strange people has been preparing for.  A moment of kairos, where time ceases to be a mere succession of “nows” and whirlpools into an axis of destiny—foreseen, intended, rejoiced over.  And honestly, it was beautiful to see them doing it—musicians played by real musicians, who knew the thrill of being thrown together with unfamiliar players at a moment of truth, and who could therefore create a believable now-or-never moment that drew out of me an unconsidered, unrestrained, fist-pounding burst of tears.  I said there and then, in a kind of prayer, This is real.  This is real.  This is real.  I believed every second of it, rehearsed as it was, in spite of never having experienced any of that myself . . . yes, I believed every second.  I drank it in through my eyes, thrust forward in the lazy boy, heart pounding like this was battle footage.  Watching people making music

This, my friends, is filmmaking.

In the bleary, waking unconsciousness of overwork, relationships evolve rapidly, and the film did a fine job of capturing the meandering, miscellaneous energy of creative collaboration in which the hours and days melt into one another.  But it also managed to help me see the joyful rest on the far side of it.  The Guy sits on the car hood, watching these familiar strangers goofing on the chilly beach as the sun rises, the fumes of a fresh success still swimming through him—a success that had nothing to do with recognition or payoff, but of the joy that came from being the lynchpin in the bringing into the world of something genuine, something marvelous in its exuberance and nuance.  It is in this moment that the Guy is really, truly enviable—having stepped forward into uncertainty and the possibility of failure, he was proven worthy to proceed, worthy to have led these nobodies into somebody-ness. 

They disband as quickly as they were assembled, without much explanation.  So pass our successes, recognized perhaps only by a few.  But those few matter to us.  They matter deeply.  “We cannot speak to ourselves the words we most need to hear.”  Those who speak them may be deeply attached to us, like fathers; they may be nothing more than familiar strangers with an eye to see the goodness in what we do, and the credibility to speak with authority—like the recording engineer who almost becomes a part of the band he is being paid to assist.  It is a deep mystery of human existence that we receive our flourishing not from within but from without.  It is given to us as a gift, a word of love that confirms to us beyond any doubt that it is good that we, that I, exist.

The filmmakers should be very, very proud of this film, and I encourage whoever has gone ahead and read this post without having seen the film to take advantage of the first opportunity to do so.

*** I am not and never will be ashamed of my devotion to “The Last of the Mohicans” throughout most of my teens.

19 July 2010


To continue with some thoughts from an earlier post on technology, a recent review appearing in the City Journal is worth some of your time.  It takes up the thesis of a "digital technology philosopher," a discipline in which I consider myself an amateur (in the etymological sense of the word--a lover).  The man in question, William Powers, has released a number of articles on the subject, including a paper on the effect the Internet is having on print journalism ... supposedly excellent.  I suggest you read the whole review yourself, and then follow up with some of the comments on First Thoughts, where I first came across the review.  Some excerpts:

In my experience, judging from e-mail conversations I have, when you learned to write affects how you use the technology. The people who learned to write and discuss things before the invention of e-mail find it a great tool, because it creates a new mixture of conversation and letter-writing, with something of the speed of the first and the distance and reflection of the second. You can respond fairly quickly, but with time to measure what you say, check your facts, dig up good quotes, etc.  But people who didn’t learn to write and discuss things then . . . tend to use it and similar technologies in the way it seems to encourage: to send short, pointed, undeveloped, often emotive and sometimes pointless, thoughts. The exchanges make a personal connection, which is probably all to the good, and communicate judgments and emotions, but not thoughts of any complexity.
A respondent brings up the very point that goes unasked with every new development: what do we bargain away in exchange for the gains we make?
Every breakthrough in communications technology involves the loss of some existing skill set, almost as compensation for whatever benefits accrue from the new technology.  Writing tended to undermine our ability to memorize long stories, lists, poems, etc. Printing undermined calligraphy (and typing destroyed handwriting); television undermined the listening skills and imagination required for radio (or reading aloud). It’s a constant process of trading off one thing for another, and each generation has to judge whether the game is worth the candle.
Scarier than all these developments is the fact that there aren't too many of us even asking the question. At what point do we sell our birthright for a mess of pottage?

For further reading, you can pick up my somewhat lengthy comments on the issue of what effects technology has on our lives here.

13 July 2010

Back in the Saddle

Now that I've thoroughly alienated any regular readership I might have had, I figure it's time for a fresh start.  Things have settled into their established patterns here at the hospital, and I'm hoping to start blogging again.

In the personal realm, the ordination has changed things in many, many ways.  It really does "feel different" to be ordained a deacon, and I am pretty excited about the upcoming ordinations of my brother seminarians.  I'm enjoying CPE a great deal, having been thrown into a fairly intense ministerial situation and finding my way through the grace of God, day by day.  And I'm keeping up the reading, which I hope to share on the blog through another couple of entries in the Desk Chair Review of Books.

One recent article that called up memories of a recently read book was an interview with a British entomologist, Jeremy Nivens, on the NYT website.  I became interested due to my recent enjoyment of an anthology of J. Henri Fabre's classic works, The Insect World of J. Henri Fabre.  It seems that the possibilities for the advancement of human biology, the derivations of animal instinct, and the simple wonder at some of the most abundant (and complex) species on the planet was not retired with the passing of the wizened Frenchman nearly a century ago.  He offers some interesting perspectives on his most notable discoveries:

You know, there’s this pervasive idea in biology that I think is wrong. It goes: we humans are at the pinnacle of the evolutionary tree, and as you get up that tree, brain size must get bigger. But a fly is just as evolved as a human. It’s just evolved to a different niche. In fact, in evolution there’s no drive towards bigger brains. It’s perfectly possible that under the right circumstances, you could get animals evolving small brains.

Interesting, no?  I certainly haven't thought out all the consequences of this, but it does give the lie to some perspectives on human evolution.  What "niche" is it that human beings have evolved to fill?  What biological need is there for a city-building, novel-writing mammal?  Food for thought.

It's good to be back.

18 May 2010

We're All Out of Sticks to Hit You With

We interrupt this frantic paper-composing to bring you some chuckles.
Cultures change. What is overlooked about the Crusaders, and the knights and nobility of the 10th century and thereabouts, is that they were very bloody-minded. They had been raised since infancy to devote themselves to fighting. They were very sinful. They particularly were into coveting wives. And they were very religious. 

The fact that these things can be combined strikes the modern mind as bizarre. But you have to deal with it if you're going to understand these people. They would commit a horrid crime, and their confessor would say, "I don't know if you can ever get over that one. I don't know if atonement is in the books for you. But you better walk barefoot to the Holy Land and hope that that works."

And they'd go. And then come back and sin some more.

It takes some stretching to understand what motivated these people.
 I don't know why, but that quote from this interview with Rodney Stark amused me a great deal.  I hope you find a few minutes to read it all the way through.

h/t First Thoughts

22 April 2010

Sex and Atoms

The terms in the title of this post have very little to do with one another, and the article to which I’d like to draw your attention doesn’t link them much more meaningfully than using one as an adjective for another.  Whether by that I mean “sexual atoms” or “atomic sex” must be discovered on your own.

A recent discovery of Front Porch Republic has proved to be a site thick with reflective offerings, the first of which situates the recent clerical scandals in the cultural context of our day.  The result is a chewy piece of writing that comes off like a speech in a Dostoyevsky novel.  The pacing is infectious; phrase builds upon phrase, the edifice rises, and crowds begin to gather.  Turgid fragments clamber over one another only to resolve, of a sudden, into peaceful vistas of clarity:
Of all the worldly empires that sought after power and wealth, surely none appears so pathetic as ours: we do not require great monuments or a grand historical narrative of man overcoming weakness and desire to establish something greater than himself.  We require only constant, super-saturating reminders that everybody is just a body that likes sex.
Anyone who has visited Italy would immediately recognize this shift, effected over centuries.  There, the monuments constructed half a millennium ago—many of which have ever been surpassed—seem transparent at times, like reflections in a lingerie-shop window.  They have not been defeated, but ignored as irrelevant.  More than once, the thought struck me: we are incapable of sustaining such projects. 

But as bad as things may seem, as overwhelming as the cultural forces arrayed against human flourishing may be, the author finds one, indefectible handhold: the goodness of creation.
Most of us live as isolated individuals whose daily life affirms the inconsequence of our actions, the meaninglessness of our role in any larger dramatic form, the blandness of our condition.  And yet, within that individuated loneliness, before which all social institutions, from the family to the city, to the nation and the Church wither as mere “subjective” and inessential extensions of the Cartesian bedrock of our selves—within that atomic certitude, I say, we sense some ineradicable spark of consequence and meaning.  While most of us root out and extinguish that spark as much as possible, it cannot be thoroughly dimmed so long as we retain a nervous system and therefore remain capable of the crude but inexplicable mystery, the ecstatic and superhuman but manipulable event, of sexual desire and satisfaction.
You may regard his optimism as naive.  Well, read the rest to see why he’s convinced sex can save the world.

20 April 2010

09 April 2010

A Light Kindled Against the Darkness

The tide of anti-pope journalism among the news outlets of the world isn’t universal, and it was nice to find one such holdout in the column of Damien Thompson over at the Telegraph.  The sorts of things I usually see on their site involve such ignorant claims as “Pope Appoints Opus Dei priest to Episcopacy As Revenge On Hollywood for The Da Vinci Code”.  Mr. Thompson, while not one to dismiss the gravity of the scandal, has been forthright with some of the facts overlooked in this most recent debacle.  Read about it at the following link, which pertains to the emerging scandal about financial malfeasance of the Legionnaires of Christ:

Pope Emerges as the Campaigner Against ‘Filth’

07 April 2010

The Church in Bondage to Therapy?

A recent “On the Square” web-exlusive at First Things makes for phenomenal reading.  Not too long ago, Rod Dreher pointed out the findings of the University of North Carolina’s National Study of Youth and Religion.  It summarized the general tone of American religious belief in three words: moralistic therapeutic Deism.  The article linked below takes up just what is meant by the term “therapeutic,” something I’d guessed at intuitively before, but probably couldn't have pinned down precisely.  John Buri makes it a little more specific. A sample:
Like the manager, the therapist is a specialist in mobilizing resources for effective action, only here the resources are largely internal to the individual and the measure of effectiveness is the elusive criterion of personal satisfaction. . . . Indeed, the very term therapeutic suggests a life focused on the need for a cure. But a cure of what?
The implications for ministry, preaching, liturgy (inculturation, anyone?) and evangelism are tremendous and far-reaching.  I look forward to reading your comments after you read the whole thing!

06 April 2010


Though the recent clerical abuse scandal that has broken in Germany and Ireland is once again wrenching the hearts of Catholics worldwide, the ramifications do not extend to the papacy--as the recent New York Times article has heinously alleged.  I find the whole situation (and by that, I mean all of it) terribly nauseating, but Raymond De Souza's response to the NYT article reveals another dimension of the tragedy:  the scurrilous character of the reporting.  I would insist that anyone who has read the NYT article or heard it discussed read over De Souza's response immediately.

I think it's clear that the press isn't just getting things wrong here and there; they're getting it completely backwards.

24 March 2010

Not To Get Political, But ...

... I'm going to get political.
Cardinal George pointed to President Obama’s executive order that said “it is necessary to establish an adequate enforcement mechanism to ensure that Federal funds are not used for abortion services."
The need for such an order underscores deficiencies in the bill, Cardinal George said.
“We do not understand how an Executive order, no matter how well intentioned, can substitute for statutory provisions,” he said also.
Not having followed this particular battle very closely, I can only go with what Cardinal George said during his last visit to the seminary:  this legislation represents a real step back in the pro-life cause, and no one really knows what is going to happen as a result.

Let's keep hopes high and expectations low.  There is much work to be done on behalf of the weak and vulnerable of our society.  Posterity will be our judge.

 Read the rest of the USCCB's statement on the passage of this historic legislation.

19 March 2010

News To Me

The most interesting part of the New York Times’ review of “Greenberg” (opening in theaters this weekend) is the last line of the review:
“Greenberg” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). Swearing, nudity, drug use, emotional violence.
The Motion Picture Society of America: Classifying Objectional Content With Specificity Since 1922.

16 March 2010

Stop That Cameraman … He’s Swiped My Soul

A recent article in The Medium column over at the New York Times caught my attention.  Entitled "Framing Childhood", it is a self-critique of the modern parent's increasingly onerous hobby of capturing, organizing, processing, and publishing the digital images of one's progeny, beginning from the moment of parturition and never slackening.  The author finds his own captivation with the endeavor slightly disturbing:
My own son’s first word for laptop, when he saw a woman plugging away at one at Starbucks, was the word he used for himself: “baby.” What else could the woman be doing so intently at a screen but what he saw me dopaging through picture after picture of him?
Makes you stop and think, doesn’t it?

Now, I myself have been the recipient of numerous "fresh baby" emails, all of which I am always delighted to receive (if a bit skeptical of the insistent exclamations at the child’s parental likeness).  I would guess that most (if not all) my friends who are new parents have not fallen victim to the obsession detailed in the article above.  However, I believe there is a certain value to examining the "limit cases" of an activity carried to an extreme so as to understand it for what it is; such reflection often helps us to strike a balance in the lived reality that would otherwise be unrecognizable by an unreflective participant.  In other words, the fanatic devotee of image collection might offer some genuine insight into the casual use of photographic technology that most of us enjoy from time to time.

This catches my attention due in part to my recent travels.  As someone who volunteered to take responsibility to photograph our pilgrimage on behalf of the whole group, I've had a chance to think about what photography does to how we perceive our surroundings and ourselves.  It's become very clear to me just how powerful the photographic medium conditions our perceptions, both in positive and in negative ways.  While such observations often take the form of a diatribe against innovation or technology, a more judicious approach is simply to raise questions that others do not.  As the Dominican Fr. Marie-Dominique Philippe has put it, everyone is aware of what technology gives us; few ever pause long enough to ask what it takes away.

A casual remark made by a fellow seminarian who had gone on the pilgrimage the year before occasioned a real revolution in how I approached photography.  He mentioned that although he'd never been trained to draw, the sheer intensity of his reaction to the places he was visiting impelled him to make an attempt to render them by hand.  Such a thought has never, ever crossed my mind, even though I spent a good portion of my childhood trying to draw.  I gave it up for a number of different reasons, but since that time, the thought of putting a pencil to paper in the attempt to capture a scene simply was not in the realm of possibility.  While still in Bethlehem, I resolved to set aside the camera for a while and try my hand at drawing after a fifteen- or twenty-year hiatus.  

What I discovered on account of my friend's comment was really remarkable.  I'd found the camera lens an excellent window through which to contemplate the beauty of places and people, but my attempts at drawing revealed pencil and paper to be another such window.  There was nothing remarkable in the first sketch I attempted, other than that it was a sketch that I drew.  What was remarkable was the way it forced me to perceive differently.  I wasn't deliberately producing a interpretation of the landscape I'd chosen to draw; yet as I tried (and failed) to capture it, it became clear that every stroke, every line, every shadow was an interpretation, a choice.  To present what I saw, I had to select the details that would communicate to the viewer's eye the crucial form of the thing I was drawing.  This became clear when I'd finally finished (or gotten too tired to go on): my drawing was a cluttered mess.  My photographer's eye was fascinated with detail, but too much in a drawing overwhelms the subject and fails to evoke the form. 

The end result was disappointing—but I had a drawing, not a photograph, and I'd spent hours studying the scene I was working on.  Even now, months later, I can call it to mind effortlessly.  On reflection, I noticed an experiential difference between observation for the sake of photographic composition and observation for the sake of drawing.  Having invested myself in the art of amateur photographic composition, I was aware that there is more to a good photograph than just pointing and shooting.  A photograph is the result of an intentional process that encompasses many different artistic abilities, from simple technical know-how to the mysterious art of storytelling. (This was, in part, what motivated the choice to keep a photojournal that only displayed a single photo to accompany the day’s account.)  The abilities and limitations of the camera and its apparatus become something like the strings of a violin or the metrical structure of a poem—their characteristics are enlisted in the photographer’s attempt to communicate himself and what he sees.  They become a vehicle for the delivery of artistic expression, and therefore of meaning.  However, something was engaged in me by the attempt to draw that photography left dormant—so much so that the looking I was doing as an artist made the looking I did as a photographer seem like pure passivity.  It felt like what I'd been doing all along was more like “looking” than actually seeing, as if I’d passed over the very thing I was looking for in my haste to search over as much territory as possible in pursuit of my goal.

Having gained this insight, it became a matter of training the eye and hand to observe and then mimic what was most fundamental to the form of the subject—easier said than done.  I’m still working on it, obviously, but it’s as if I’ve experienced a small revelation of sorts.  Even as I enjoy the fresh perspective, it’s also invigorating to look ahead in hope of future insight.

Anyhow, to return to the point, this experience of being forced to look at a subject differently is what Father Philippe may have meant by the sort of thing that is lost even as technological progress offers a great gain.  Once we understand the tradeoff to which our artifacts force us to submit, we regard them less and less as the conditions of a fully satisfactory way of life; interestingly enough, this shift in attitude allows us to regard technology for what it is: a tool.  The temptation nowadays is to see technological prowess as an end in itself, rather than a means to fully human existence.  Once the human measure is jettisoned, technology becomes self-measured and therefore self-justified.  That is to say, technology becomes our master.

An interesting exercise to get a sense of where we stand on this question is to take something we can’t imagine functioning without—something about which we’d ask “how would anybody manage to get along without this?”—and then try to imagine oneself doing just that:  getting along without it.  Better yet, set it aside and actually live without it; chances are, it’s not that hard to do, and when (if) you take it up again, it will be with a different attitude. 

I’ve been asking this question about my cell phone lately.  It’s clear that the possibility of having a phone on my person at all times is quite valuable, and will be especially so as a priest.  But what is lost by this technological ability?  Has anyone ever asked this question?  Try raising the question with someone you know.  Float it by them:  “you know, I’ve been thinking about getting rid of my cell phone”.  I did this just last night with a group of seminarians.  You’d think they believed that prior to the cell phone, priests were permanently incommunicado and most people died alone and unabsolved for lack of a direct line to his pocket telephone.  Of course, I know they don’t believe this, but the tone of their slightly disapproving responses was, “why wouldn’t you have one if you could?”  Not to have one would imply some kind of lack of generosity on my part—which is entirely possible, but not automatically so merely in virtue of the choice to abstain from instantaneous and ubiquitous communication.  Their response ultimately boils down to the very sentiment I pointed out earlier: “how could you function well as a priest without one?” 

I’m not sure I know the answer to that question because I’ve not gone without a cell phone as a priest, but the guilelessness of my friends’ replies suggests that they haven’t considered the alternative, either.  That makes me wonder just what might be recovered by dropping Sprint and signing back up for Southwestern Bell.

To return to the question of photography, then.  Our time on pilgrimage was filled with some truly amazing sights.  As a member of the photography team, I’d committed to keep a camera handy in order to record our pilgrimage in photos, so that we didn’t have 25 people all snapping away every time we moved to the next spot on the itinerary.  Of course, this didn’t stop our inveterate “posers” from insisting on having a photo taken of each of them in front of each and every landmark, statue, vista, and pile of ancient rocks.  What is it about people that want to be photographed in front of things?  Most would say that it’s to record the memory—to “document,” as my aunt would say.  But what if the preoccupation with getting the snapshot prevents you from ever really being present to the people or things you’re there to see? 

With reference to what I mentioned above, it’s worth imagining what it would be like to travel without a camera.  People did it for thousands of years and managed to “record their memories” just fine.  Diaries and sketchbooks take more work, it is true, but travelers usually had more time back then.  There was no rapid travel like we have now; if a fellow had both the time and the money to spare (a rare coincidence), seeing faraway people and places meant a commitment of months, if not years.   It meant you had a chance to sit down and contemplate, to get to know people, to soak up another culture and another context—in other words, to be changed.  There were none of the managed insertions to which we subject ourselves today; it was both more dangerous and more rewarding to see the world in days gone by.  Now our travel is sealed up in resorts, tour buses, and the air circulation systems of airplanes.  We are caught in the tension between enjoying unparalleled conveniences in travel and tourism, and scoffing at those very same conveniences for having obliterated any sense of remoteness or wildness from the places we’d never be able to visit otherwise.  “Tourism” (an extremely recent phenomenon) has both enriched and cheapened the experience of seeing the world.  It’s enough to make you want to spend three months barfing in the forecastle of a merchant brig during a nineteenth-century sea-crossing.

In our own days, the digital camera has occasioned the limitless multiplication of permanent records of people standing in front of landmarks to a hitherto unimaginable level.  Gone are the days when anyone might think the camera robs our soul; quite the opposite.  It’s as if we believed every time the ritual (sacrament?) of pose, focus, snap is enacted, the portfolio of the soul is enriched in its path to exhibition-worthy status.  A recent editorial in the New York Times mused at this proliferation, remarking that

it feels, some days, as though the whole purpose of our species is to create a perfect simulacrum of the life we lead even as we’re leading it.
Susan Sontag—a writer with whom I was unfamiliar until composing this little essay you’re reading now—referred to the camera as “the ideal arm of consciousness in its acquisitive mood,” a definition I am inclined to agree with at least in part.  We feel enriched by the camera’s acquisitions, do we not?  The photographer usually considers himself generous—a person who steps out of the action for the sake of posterity, for the sake of those present who will one day thank them for their archivism.  A recent First Things commentator captured this attitude admirably while musing over his daughter’s wedding, during which his family’s requests for no photography were disregarded.
They sacrifice their ordinary presence at the mere wedding to become a selfless, invisible recording eye, as though they occupied some interstitial space between the sacred, but still physical one of the church and—what, exactly? The not-yet-embodied future? It strikes me that they think they are made angels by the camera, observers unobserved.  But there they were, still in their bodies, perfectly visible to everyone.
His experience at least indirectly gets at what I began to sense during my time on pilgrimage.  It wasn’t that the photographers were clumsy or obtrusive and needed to find more discreet ways to shoot.  It’s more that the perpetual use of the camera had the subtle, even subliminal effect of inclining one to believe that an experience isn’t valid or valuable unless someone is there to photograph it.  The father of the bride noted that his resentment went beyond the simple fact that their request for no photographs went unheeded:
Something had been changed, and a little more than images had been taken away. Instead of being in the form, we were being forced by their very presence to see it as an artifact, and the unity of our wills with the couple’s intentions was interrupted.
You might think that such an opinion is typical of a couple of stuffy, high-church aesthetes with nothing more to worry about than whether to trim the boxwood hedge along the drive to the carriage house in the shape of a train of elephants or just tear the whole thing out and put in dwarf Japanese maples.  Yes, you might think that.  But there might be another way of looking at it.

An interesting and unexpected correspondence between my private reflections and our class reading fell into my lap just a day or two ago.  A reading assignment on St. Augustines De Trinitate explored some of the African Doctor’s imagery to explain the relationship between humanity and the Trinity.  The chosen metaphor was the idea of spiritual vision.  I began to sniff at something interesting when the author asserted, echoing Augustine, that
the vision of God will never be a passive or a voyeuristic vision.
Augustine goes into a detailed analysis of how spiritual vision is analogous to our earthly vision.  Though he is operating on a much different understanding of what goes on in bodily seeing, the basic idea is that just as the eye and the object are united in the vision of the beholder in sensation, so is the soul of the blessed united with the God whom it contemplates.  This “spiritual eye” must be cleansed and strengthened by a process of self-collection, a withdrawal from the longing for the variety of images which occupy the soul and draw it away from the proper object of its desire.  This distraction is described with some rather vivid imagery in his autobiography, which he describes as a kind of spiritual hemorrhage:
I have been spilled and scattered. . . my thoughts, the innermost bowels of my soul, are torn apart with the crowding tumults of variety.
The spiritual vision is not strengthened by ascetic withdrawal from the world; rather, it is invigorated by the prolongation of its vision through the things of the world into an almost desperate longing for the things of God while surrounded with His creatures.  This longing stretches the soul and increases its capacity for love, in which the final state of the saved consists and in which the fullness of earthly life participates here and now.  Augustine likens the disparity between earth and heaven to the difference between a fleeting glance and an enraptured gaze—an analogy that draws its strength from the everyday reality we experience as sight.

Augustine then makes an interesting move.  Is this analogy between physical and spiritual vision just an analogy, or does the very act of seeing well also prepare our spiritual vision in a mysterious way?  Augustine’s answer is in the affirmative.  Our capacity to properly apprehend creation is by no means irrelevant to our relationship with God. The article’s author summarizes Augustine’s attitude in a finely balanced counterpoint.

To look with the trained eye more deeply into visible things, and not to be preoccupied with possessing them, however, is a difficult and slippery task. . . one can easily slide either into devaluation of these objects, which effectively if implicitly ‘scorns the Creator,’ or into fascination with their surface beauty, and ‘to love this is to be estranged.’
Most interesting, given Sontag’s definition of the camera as the “ideal arm of consciousness in its acquisitive mood.”  Regarding photography, it’s clear that there is much more to the “preoccupation with possession” than a mere desire to own the content of the image!  No; the human capacity for misdirected or overreaching desire extends far beyond the mere accumulation of property.

Yet in an even more remarkable turn, Augustine takes a more speculative turn and asserts that the eyes of the body in the resurrection will be the means of spiritual vision. 

It is possible, indeed most probable, that we shall then see the physical bodies of the new heaven and the new earth in such fashion as to observe God in utter clarity and distinctness, seeing him present everywhere and governing the whole material scheme of things by means of the bodies we shall then inhabit and the bodies we shall see wherever we turn our eyes.
Preposterous?  Maybe.  Augustine himself acknowledged that his theory had no foundation in the Biblical testimony.  But it does help to situate our earlier reflections on photography in a broader and more meaningful context.  These aren’t the questions of highly-strung aristocrats or hair-splitting bookworms; when put in the right spirit, they can influence how we relate to one another and to God, fueling our desire for wisdom and a growth in love.  A phrase from a wonderful little book written by the Jesuit paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin puts it far better than I ever could, so it is with his words that I’ll leave you:
We hardly know in what proportions and under what guise our natural faculties will pass over into the final act of the vision of God. But it can hardly be doubted that, with God’s help, it is here below that we give ourselves the eyes and the heart which a final transfiguration will make the organs of a power of adoration, and of a capacity for beatification, particular to each individual man and woman among us.
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