07 December 2012

If Three North will Please Pardon this Indiscretion...

To Mrs. Professor in Defense of My Cat’s Honor and Not Only

My valiant helper, a small-sized tiger
Sleeps sweetly on my desk, by the computer,
Unaware that you insult his tribe.

 Cats play with a mouse or
with a half-dead mole.
You are wrong, though: it’s not out of cruelty.
They simply like a thing that moves.

For, after all, we know that only consciousness
Can for a moment move into the Other,
Empathize with the pain and panic of a mouse.

And such as cats are, all of Nature is.
Indifferent, alas, to the good and the evil.
Quite a problem for us, I am afraid.

Natural history has its museums,
But why should our children learn about monsters,
An earth of snakes and reptiles for millions of years?

Nature devouring, nature devoured,
Butchery day and night smoking with blood.

And who created it? Was it the good Lord?

Yes, undoubtedly, they are innocent,
Spiders, mantises, sharks, pythons.

We are the only ones who say: cruelty.

Our consciousness and our conscience
Alone in the pale anthill of galaxies
Put their hope in a humane God.

Who cannot but feel and think,

Who is kindred to us by his warmth and movement,

For we are, as he told us, similar to Him.

Yet if it is so, then He takes pity
On every mauled mouse, every wounded bird.
Then the universe for him is like a Crucifixion.

Such is the outcome of your attack on the cat:
A theological, Augustinian grimace,
Which makes difficult our walking on this earth.

–Czeslaw Milosz,1
 translated by the author and Robert Hass

06 December 2012

The Desk Chair Review of Books, Continued

The Everlasting Stream: A True Story of Rabbits, Guns, Friendship, and FamilyThe Everlasting Stream: A True Story of Rabbits, Guns, Friendship, and Family by Walt Harrington
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book was recommended to me by a fellow hunter, and presumably an acquaintance of the author while I worked at the university where he now teaches (UIUC). Seven years later, I've finally gotten around to taking him up on that recommendation...

... and I'm pleased. The book is definitely more a memoir than a "book about hunting," but Harrington clearly experienced something profound in his annual rabbit hunts with his father-in-law and his friends. Indulged at first as an act of politeness for his wife's family, the annual rabbit hunt in Kentucky becomes the lens through which Harrington views his upwardly mobile, ambition-driven life in D.C. at the Washington Post. As his own son begins to grow older, Harrington articulates a perspective on the transition into fatherhood and the ways it grows from the inside out, taking root in the soil of one's own experience of being fathered.

I got a little weary of the personal biography in the middle portions of the book, but now that I've read the whole thing I do appreciate how Harrington was leading the reader into a perspective on hunting that required such apparent digressions. As a boy from a blue collar family who had worked his way into the East Coast elite, and stepped comfortably into the customs and privileges that attach thereunto, Harrington at first sees hunting as most of his colleagues do--a primitive, cruel activity that is completely unnecessary and therefore immoral.

Particularly insightful is Harrington's reflection on the guilt inherent to taking an animal's life as a recreational activity. What justifies such an action? Firing a weapon at a gentle, doe-eyed animal and collecting its bloody, still-warm carcass to cut up and eat seems the height of barbarism. Civilization has moved on.

Harrington mentions the arguments for the necessity of wildlife management, but the real treasure of The Everlasting Stream lies in its insistence that the animals don't care how they die: but we do. Whether it's a coyote or a disease or a charge of buckshot, it matters nothing to the rabbit; but the taking of that animal's life by a human being introduces consciousness into the equation, and therefore accountability--an answer to the question "why". The animal does not ask; we do. Harrington concludes that the "guilt" is precisely what is most important about hunting, precisely because it forces the hunter to question his place in the world--why do I have a right to exist, to let (or cause) other beings to die that I might live? In essence, the hunt goes on not despite the guilt, but because of it. In spite of the danger of making a mountain of a molehill, I have to wonder if perhaps our complete lack of familiarity with the true "costs of living" in our grocery-store world has laid to rest the question of our justification before it's ever even raised.

As a hunter who loves to hunt animals and to eat animals but hates to kill them, I found the author's resolution of this primal dilemma to shed a completely new light on hunting. I recommend this book to anyone who is bewildered by a husband, father, brother, or son that spends way too much time in the woods watching animals while holding a weapon.

View all my reviews

28 May 2012

One Down, Countless More to Go

Today is the one year anniversary of my priestly ordination, so blessings on my classmates and fellow priests celebrating this day! A Mass has been offered for you all. What a gift to have so many memories of God's blessing on me and the people of Holy Mother Church.

At a recent ordination, a newly ordained priest asked for advice for the first year. All I could come up with was:
  • Buy some good insoles for your shoes. You're going to be standing up and talking with people. A lot.
  • Get an iPod or smartphone that will play podcasts in the car. The countless hours spent shuttling around will become fruitful opportunities for education, enrichment, and prayer.
  • Don't make any plans, and get used to improvising on the spot. There's very little you can do to anticipate anything that will be expected of you. Just do it as best you can and take notes for the next time.
  • As George MacDonald once put it, one of the most dangerous things for the spiritual life is handling the outside of sacred things. Boredom is inevitable. What's important is having a plan to prevent it from sucking the life out of everything!
Thanks to all who have been very supportive (and forgiving) this first year, especially the pastor of Most Pure Heart of Mary. Here's to many more.

totus  +  amdg  +  tuus

13 May 2012


Just a short notice that weekly homilies are being posted at my parish website:


The Desk Chair Review of Books, Continued

I purchased this book after reading a brief review of it in First Things. There's no question it's a beautiful book, and while I enjoyed reading it and learned a great deal about Renaissance art, I was disappointed on a couple of points. By far, the weakest portion of the book are the middle chapters, especially those on Benedict, Sebastian, and Catherine of Siena. Perhaps there was a dearth of source material involved, but Kiely's treatment of this series of paintings seemed like he was more interested in keeping up his postmodern art critic credentials than providing genuine insight into the art and artists in question. "I, too, can recognize the barely suppressed sexuality in these religious paintings," he seems to assure the reader. Admittedly, this is all part of the Renaissance rediscovery of the body, the Incarnation, and the ability of art to convey the power of the body to convey glory. Yet it is repeatedly is served up in a way that seems to regard these artists as prophets of postmodern socialist ideology. For instance, Catherine is portrayed as the obligatory prototype of the unconventional woman of authority--which indeed she was, but Kiely offers little insight beyond the typical ideological platitudes and recounting the "discomfort" even contemporary popes supposedly felt toward her life. Presumably this is to come across as bold and insightful, but to me it rang hollow, imposing a narrative and a lens upon the art that doesn't seem to gel with the motives of artists to defy conventionality in the name of presenting goodness by making explicit its implicit beauty.

Another example is the "gay reading" of art portraying Sebastian. It's confusing to me how an acknowledged emphasis on the beauty of the body and consequent shamelessness in the midst of physical glory should also be simultaneously read as homoerotic display.

In his favor, Kiely doesn't rest with such conclusions, instead ranging far and wide, touching upon these dimensions of art without confining himself to them. He indulges in what ends up being a lengthy but enjoyable monograph on Ruskin in the midst of a chapter on St. Lawrence. I was entirely ignorant of him, but Kiely provides a helpful introduction to him even without being familiar with his life and work. "It is as if [Ruskin] always entered churches, especially Italian churches, by a side door and remained off center, examining an obscure chapel in the transept while High Mass was being sung on the main altar." Right up my alley--he was a man with an eye for the hidden, and the beauty of the decrepit.

Kiely does seem to have a theological background and whatever errors I came across in his research were negligible. It is refreshing to read a scholar's opinions that have been formed by the very same concepts and beliefs that were at play in the lives and hearts of those who composed and viewed these paintings.

Of course, the real beauty of the book is to be found in the art, and Kiely really has put together a marvelous collection of Renaissance art that is truly breathtaking and inspiring. He does communicate a great love for the art that he discusses, as well as the figures it portrays--most especially Saint Francis of Assisi. Titian and Tintoretto are probably the two that stand out as consistently worthwhile in their technique, composition, and grandeur. They, of all the many artists included, did more for me to bring to life the stories of the saints they portrayed and the people who venerated them. In his chapter on Sts. Mark, Rocco, and Sebastian, in which Tintoretto looms large, he writes, "the bare muscular leg and turning torso once again show the influence of Michaelangelo, but they also make a point: that the vocation of the artist, like that of the evangelist (at least this evangelist, if not the demure young John who writes sedately beside him), requires intense physical effort--that is, work. When Nietzche wrote that Christianity is the 'hypochondria of those whose legs are shaky,' he could not have been thinking of Tintoretto's Mark" (117).

Now if I just was pastor of a parish where these pieces wouldn't look glaringly out of place.....

29 January 2012

Him You Will Hear

Homily for the 4th Sunday of Ordinary Time

What does it mean to have authority? To speak with authority?

"Authority" is a loaded word in today's world. We don't like to recognize or submit to authority. Typically we see the authority of others as a threat to our own freedom. Over and above this general human tendency, as Americans we tend to look critically toward authority—with apologies to Lord Acton, "authority corrupts, and absolute authority corrupts absolutely".

So that kind of authority isn't always positive. But there's another kind we recognize—the kind that comes from within. It's the authority of someone who speaks with conviction, from experience. We are much more willing to submit to this kind of authority. We get a sense of a person's access to truth, of having "been around" and gaining perspective through the school of hard knocks. We encounter this all the time, especially in those who have authority on account of what they've suffered—war veterans, mothers against drunk driving, cancer survivors, recovering addicts, what have you.

I think there's still a third sort--the authority that comes with being given a mission, of being grasped by something (or Someone) and responding with everything we have. A young woman by the name of Maria accompanied the Kansas delegation to the March for Life and spoke to us of her experience in sidewalk counseling with women in front of abortion clinics. She was a young, intelligent, articulate, attractive personality that clearly had some success in convincing women that it was not in their best interest to abort their own child. Her presentation was engaging and convincing. You might get the impression that she had come up with this idea on her own--saying to herself: here I am, a good listener, compassionate, generous, and convicted about this particular issue. I know, I'll become a sidewalk counselor!

Yet the reality is quite different--as I spoke with her afterwards, it became clear that this was most definitely not something she dreamed up for herself. Quite the contrary--she would be physically ill in the days and hours leading up to the morning on the sidewalk. These women, these unwanted babies, aren't her problems; but she makes them her own out of love for Christ. She spoke with an unassuming authority that was extremely compelling.

So, in what sense did the Gospel writer want us to understand Jesus' authority?

In the first place, we have to acknowledge Jesus' authority went far beyond a simple authoritative tone of voice, or speaking convincingly. He backed up his words with signs and wonders—in a sense, no one would've taken him seriously otherwise, given that he was subtly claiming divinity. For the way in which Jesus "spoke with authority" here meant not quoting a respected scholar of the law or referencing a venerable tradition of interpretation, but making himself the source of truth. 

As we well know, this was more than startling—he was, in a very real sense, claiming to be God in terms his contemporaries would have understood unambiguously. "You have heard it said…. but I say …" A good Jew would never speak in that way—it would be blasphemous to point to anyone other than God as the source of truth, yet Jesus claims this very thing!

It had to be more than just a subjective kind of authority. In fact, Jesus is the one promised by Moses in our first reading, a prophet chosen from "among the people", one that they will listen to.

You may have noticed in the reading that the prophet is promised because the people cannot endure the direct experience of God's self revelation on Mount Horeb. God appoints someone to speak on his behalf, so that the people are not overwhelmed by the "great fire" of God's glory. (What a great poetic way to refer to God--a "great fire"!) In the Bible, the result of seeing God face to face is death. The appointed "interpreter" is precisely what is meant by the biblical term "prophet": not so much someone who predicts the future (though it may involve this), but a mediator, someone who is able to endure direct communication with the Most High.

We need a mediator, not because we are deaf, but because the rawness of God's presence would annihilate us. Think of prophecy, of mediation, as something like the earth's atmosphere. The sun illuminates and warms our planet, but it also emits enormous quantities of radiation extremely hostile to organic molecular structures. Direct exposure to the sun's rays would lead to the rapid annihilation of most every living thing on earth. Yet the atmosphere (the ozone layer, etc.) absorbs that radiation while letting the light and heat through. So it is with prophetic mediation.

It was God's plan to ensure that through Christ's mission, that mediation would continue even after his ascension. He gave his own authority to his apostles, on whom he founded his Church. The voice that rebukes the demon and forgives sins had one single message to deliver: love God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your strength, and your neighbor as yourself; the promise of resurrection and eternal life is contained therein.

It is a commandment that is infinitely simple, but as anyone who has tried to live it out knows, it is also infinitely difficult. Yet it is not only possible for cloistered nuns and monks taking a vow of silence but in the everydayness of our mundane lives. So St. Paul points out in our second reading—not dismissing the married vocation as a distraction from serving God, but pointing out how some worldly people go about their lives seeking to please everyone but God. He says clearly: Each of us has a gift from God, by which we are able to serve him undividedly, with a whole heart, with integrity.

The Church preserves that message and speaks in Christ's name, calling the world from darkness into the light of love of God and neighbor. We ignore that voice at our own peril—picking and choosing what to believe and what to obey of what the Church proposes for a Christian life. We are called not to blind, irrational submission, but a trusting discipleship in which not only our minds but our hearts are active and engaged.

The Father's voice resounded above Mount Tabor at Jesus' transfiguration: this is my beloved Son, listen to him. Many listened, and obeyed; and followed him to the Cross. Many others found his teaching difficult and went their own way.

Christ says to us: this is my beloved Church, my bride: listen to her.

Lord, may we not be deaf to your voice!
Because of her unique structure, the Catholic Church is perhaps humanity's last bulwark of genuine appreciation of the difference between the sexes.
--Hans Urs von Balthasar

Saint Teresa Benedicta (born Edith Stein) composed these essays in the years following her conversion to Catholicism but before her entry into the Carmel from which she was eventually deported to the Nazi death camps. During this interim period, Stein dedicated herself (among many other things) to an articulation of a theological vision of femininity that both recognized the myriad changes in how women were being regarded (and how they regarded themselves) as well as the theologoumena of Christian revelation. With the upheaval generated by the first world war and the subsequent recovery efforts enlisting the help of men, women, and children alike, traditional feminine roles were called into question. Women seemed capable of accomplishment in the very areas previously denied to them. Stein sought to sort out the wheat from the chaff and present God's plan for man and woman in the midst of this world turned on its head.

I came across this book during research for a talk on the Catholic Church's reservation of priestly ordination to men alone, and Stein does touch on the issue briefly, but I found her presentation of the meaning of a particular calling for the male and female sex insightful and profound. Her philosophical training obviously shines through here, though without obscuring her points in technical terminology--most of these essays are adapted from lectures delivered to women's organizations simply interested in sorting through the rhetoric of women's emancipation. She even resorts to sampling from literary forms in her pursuit of the feminine vocation, earning a big A+ in my book for referencing a character in Sigrid Undset's quadrilogy The Master of Hestviken.

Some might consider a book written in the 1930s hopelessly outdated for a contemporary discussion on woman, but the power of her perspective has a ring of truth about it that ought not be hastily dismissed. I would encourage anyone with an interest in the subject to dive in to her essays and take her seriously.

The Desk Chair Review of Books, Continued

Armed with a gift certificate to the greatest bookstore I know, I browsed the shelves with a light heart, eager to take a risk to purchase something both worthwhile and unknown. A difficult task. The Swan Lake Trilogy beckoned to me in the children's books section (on sale, and it's always a good place for gifts for my godchildren). I picked it up because I'd read the author's name somewhere briefly and was intrigued, though I would've had little to say if anyone had asked me who he was or what he wrote. The heft of the book, its creamy textured pages and startlingly luminous illustrations demanded further investigation. I opened at random and came across this passage:
He had no desire to kill animals. This was owing not so much to compassion as to respect, for not even memory can conspire to make a smoother line than the track of a bird wheeling silently in the sunshine over blue water. And when deer step gingerly in the heather, their precision of motion is art, and that is not to mention the perfect rocketry of their escapes. Were they to go faster, the result would not be so pleasing, and were they to go slower, they would not appear to be nobly disciplining themselves against flight (p. 49).
My first reaction, after the initial exhilaration over such verbiage, was that Helprin pays very close attention to things. I was hooked.

I made my way through the book over the course of a month or so, reading before bed. The initial sense that this was not a book for children, or even for adolescents, was confirmed throughout my reading, and I would be hard pressed to argue what its intended audience might be. I suspect that, in the words of CS Lewis, Helprin found that the medium of a fairy tale best suited the tone of whatever it was he saw in his mind's eye, regardless of whether his readers were children. That the vocabulary and tone can at times overwhelm the narrative is a defect only in the sense that it causes Helprin to strike a discordant note here and there, like an exuberant prodigy improvising on the piano.

The trilogy follows the career of a girl banished from her royal inheritance by the intrigues of a usurper, in the first person and then through the perspective of those who accompany her. I found the plot to be tight, with few wasted excursions into descriptive whimsy (though it is here that his prose can be most delightful). He builds to climaxes that are surprising without being arbitrary in their unexpectedness, and knows when a chapter is over.

Van Allsburg's illustrations are full of grandeur and depth, capturing both climactic and simple moments with a remarkable eye for twilight. Before reading the book itself, I took a couple young boys age 3 and 6 through the plates, and both were captivated by the dozens of scenes lifted from the story. We guessed at what they could mean, and found ample material for imaginative prequels in the bright color and elegant forms they portrayed.

A great book? A classic? No. But a delightful find on a winter's day in Wichita, unanticipated and simple? Most definitely!

09 January 2012


From the latest issue of Second Spring:

"Liturgy is communal. We don't do it for the convenience, and still less for the entertainment of individual participants. The whole point of the liturgy is that individual participants are transformed into a different kind of being altogether. It's not the individual 'I' who takes possession of the gift of the Eucharist; rather, I am received into the Eucharist, transformed into someone whose existence is formed through self-giving relations with others, relations that are grounded in love and friendship. In other words, through liturgy we receive ourselves as a gift. This creates an order within our souls which orients us to making a gift of ourselves to others. It is only by doing so that we are able to be ourselves."

--Paul Grenier

06 January 2012

Hitchens' Legacy

Now that the dust has settled over Hitchens' headstone, more sober appraisals of his work have been finding their way into the press. In particular, I enjoyed this short reflection on Hitchens by John Haldane of St. Andrew's:
Hitchens is a case worth studying. He is more interesting than Dawkins because evidently more psychologically complex and humanly engaging. If we Catholics are right about God and humanity, why was he so wrong? Or, put another way, what can we learn from his attitude about how to understand our own religious claims and about how our lives reflect them? Hitchens pointed to the record of evil associated with Christianity and with Catholicism in particular. It is glib to reply that humanism has its own tale of terrors, and problematic if we also claim that religious adherence brings transforming grace. If I were to take up Hitchens’s campaign against religion it would be to ask again and again: “Where is your grace and your holiness?”
Read the rest here.

Incidentally, a wonderful quote from today's memorial of St. André Bessette:
Those who are cured quickly often are people who have no faith or little faith. On the other hand, those who have solid faith are not cured so quickly, for the good God prefers to allow them to suffer that they will be sanctified even more.
An excellent biography of his life can be found at catholicism.org