Friday, November 30, 2007

Authority, Obedience, and Selfishness

The title of this post reminds me of the “which one doesn’t fit?” question often found on IQ tests and the like. Clearly, the answer to the above would be ‘selfishness’, but why doesn’t it fit? If we recognize that selfishness is insoluble with authority and obedience, why do the terms ‘authority’ and ‘obedience’ cause such discomfort in people? I would propose that a population conditioned by an environment and culture absolutely obsessed with individualism claiming that this individualism is what makes us ‘great’ has not a chance of escaping the pitfalls that are bound to occur – pitfalls characterized by the eventual rejection of obedience as a virtue and selfishness as a vice. When this occurs, recognition of authority as a good becomes a virtue held by a small minority, those who are diagnosed as sheltered, parochial, and even simplistic by the multitude of self-made pop psychologists who have it all figured out. They just can’t seem to figure out why their own marriages are broken, their own children are misfits, and the list could go on.

Evidence of this as the prevailing mindset of many today (although none would ever admit to it), is most clearly seen in the elementary and high school classroom, a veritable observatory of the many and varied errors the modern family has imposed upon itself with the children serving as guinea pigs for the new human cultural experiment performed by mad scientists that go by the title of ‘mother’ and ‘father’. In this experiment, a dual hypothesis is being tested: children will be better suited to reach the goal with less guidance, and they will be able to assimilate into the real world in a productive way without being conditioned to recognize the need for authority and more importantly the need to accept another’s authority.

There is an insidious movement of parents away from the role of teacher, guide, and disciplinarian and towards the role of friend. This establishes a relationship in which authority has no place, and the results of this new experiment are quite telling. Since mothers and fathers have decided to be simply peers to their children, there has been a corresponding rise in apathy towards those things that create a stable society – education, self-discipline, faith, and marriage. This should raise a question in our minds: Why would lack of authority on the part of parents within the home lead to such a result?

To answer such a question, we must first understand the nature of authority and, therefore, its purpose. Etymologically, ‘authority’ comes from the Latin auctor and auctoritas, meaning ‘model, teacher, and progenitor’ and ‘security, full power, and decree’, respectively. The purpose of authority is to provide a standard by which we learn and model our lives. It is meant to securely and with power guide those in submission to it into a life of goodness. Clearly authority can be abused in the most horrid of ways; nevertheless, this fact does not take away from its necessity for cultural stability. More specifically, authority in the home plays an even greater role. The role of the father, and consequently his authority, is meant to provide an image of the paternity of God to his children, thus forming the child’s notion of God and the submission due to Him by virtue of His authority. St. Paul assures us of this notion in Ephesians 3:14,15 where he writes, “For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom all fatherhood in heaven and on earth is named.”

The natural consequence of such a lack of authoritative parenting, most clearly seen when they choose to be their children’s peers, is a corresponding lack of acknowledgement of God as Father. This rejection may not occur in an explicit fashion but can certainly be discerned in the wayward decisions of those who adopt such a way of life. How could a child conditioned to reject the notion of valid authority somehow innately accept the authority of God? Faith, therefore, is no longer part of the equation. Neither is the concept of self-sacrifice, for if mom and dad have taken on the role of ‘friend’, then at what point will little Suzy or little Johnny ever experience the need to submit their will and desire to the greater good? This sets up children for nothing but failure, but not only children as individuals, but also the society of which these children will ultimately take control. With no appreciation for self-sacrifice and an overdose of selfishness, lasting and fruitful marriages become near-impossibilities, and as we are experiencing now, the breakdown of marriage translates into breakdown of the culture.

Another symptom of such rampant selfishness is the unveiling of its high-maintenance handmaiden that goes by the name of Materialism, which should be no surprise to the thinking individual. The materialist philosophy is a natural outgrowth of such an environment in that the one who rejects sacrifice for the greater good accepts only consumption for the benefit of self.

At the risk of sounding sheltered or parochial, I would gladly forgo the pleasure of being my child’s friend if it meant saving them from adopting the status of a selfish, materialistic, and faithless divorcee.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

God Desires Our Human Love and Its Perfection, Part Three

All Christians agree that God's Word to us in Sacred Scripture makes one truth abundantly clear: God loves us, and He sent His only son, Jesus Christ, to die for our sins so that we might enter the kingdom of Heaven (John 3:16, 1 John 4:9); and He desires for us to "abide in His love," to love Him and to love one another (John 15:9).

We see the call to imitate the love of God over and over again in His Word. "Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect." (Matthew 5:48) "Anyone who does not take up his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple." (Luke 14:27) "Love one another as I have loved you." (John 15:12) "Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly beloved children." (Ephesians 5:1)

God's love for us is perfect. He asks us to imitate His love. Thus we are asked to love perfectly - and yet some people argue that as Christians, we need not strive for perfection in love.

There are no new heresies, and when we hear what certain Christians have to say about the call to perfect charity, we hear the 21st-century versions of some of the oldest heresies in the book. The first, which smacks of the doctrine of "total depravity" embraced by Luther and Calvin, deems the perfection of our human love impossible, even with the help of God's grace. The second is much akin to Jansenism, which encouraged its adherents to set an example of rigorous piety and moral behavior. It argues that perfection in love is naturally possible, or that as humans, we can work to achieve it, presumably without the help of God's grace.

The latter heresy is easily refuted. We know that God's grace is necessary if we wish to amend our lives, and is therefore necessary for our perfection. Apart from Him we can do nothing (John 15:5). We say with St. Paul, "By the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace to me was not without effect" (1 Corinthians 15:9-11). That said, let's focus on the former - the denial of the possibility of perfection in love.

Many of the ideas set forth by Protestant author Brennan Manning, a former Franciscan priest, in his book The Ragamuffin Gospel, are prime examples of this denial. While Manning has no qualms about quoting the saints and using Latin phrases here and there throughout the book, he clearly harbors bitterness toward the Church, specifically towards the emphasis Catholic theology places on the call to perfect love and holiness.

"The gospel declares that no matter how dutiful and prayerful we are, we cannot save ourselves," Manning writes (p. 79). It's true that we cannot save ourselves, but dutifulness and prayerfulness are attitudes that constitute a proper response to the gift of our salvation. We prove we are Christ's disciples not by remaining as we are but by "bearing much fruit" (John 15:8).

In reference to Christ's teaching that we must be "like little children" (Matthew 18:2-4), Manning writes:
"The kingdom belongs to people who aren't trying to look good or impress anybody, even themselves. They are not plotting how they can call attention to themselves, worrying about how their actions will be interpreted or wondering if they will get gold stars for their behavior. Twenty centuries later, Jesus speaks pointedly to the preening ascetic trapped in the fatal narcissism of spiritual perfectionism... The child doesn't have to struggle to get himself in a good position for having a relationship with God... He doesn't have to create a pretty face for himself; he doesn't have to achieve any state of spiritual feeling or intellectual understanding. All he has to do is happily accept... the gift of the kingdom." (p. 53)

And yet our relationship with God demands by definition that we do more than "happily accept the gift of the kingdom" - it demands that we take up our cross and follow His Son: "Anyone who does not take up his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple" (Luke 14:27). It demands that we suffer with Christ. How do we suffer with Christ if not by striving to "avoid the near occasion of sin" and to love more perfectly? The journey towards perfection in love is arduous, but it is the path set before every Christian: the path to sainthood.

In 2 Corinthians 9:8, St. Paul reminds us that God will give us the grace to accomplish whatever good work we attempt: "God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work." If God's grace makes all works of charity possible, who are we to dismiss perfection in charity as an impossibility? It is as St. Teresa of Avila writes in her Meditations on the Song of Songs: "Many remain at the foot of the mount who could ascend to the top... I repeat and ask that you always have courageous thoughts. As a result of them the Lord will give you grace for courageous deeds."

We know that we are free to pursue perfection because the Church teaches that we retain our free will even in our sinfulness. "By our first parents' sin, the devil has acquired a certain domination over man, even though man remains free" (Catechism of the Catholic Church 407). In the light of this truth, the rejection of the possibility of perfection in love - the heresy of total depravity - is ultimately a denial of our free will. It gives Satan far too much credit, and in its attempt to highlight our great need of God's grace, it actually fails to acknowledge the full extent to which God's grace can sanctify us.

I'll leave you with a passage from C. S. Lewis' The Four Loves, from the chapter about Charity, that says more beautifully what I have been trying to say all this time:
"God, who needs nothing, loves into existence wholly superfluous creatures in order that He may love and perfect them. He creates the universe, already foreseeing - or should we say 'seeing'? there are no tenses in God - the buzzing cloud of flies about the cross, the flayed back pressed against the uneven stake, the nails driven through the mesial nerves, the repeated incipient suffocation as the body droops... Herein is love. This is the diagram of Love Himself, the inventor of all loves." (p. 127)

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Compassionate Killing: Reflections on Recent News and Malcolm Muggeridge's "The Humane Holocaust"

The culture of death marches on, and the late "enfant terrible" remains relevant as a social prophet. Malcolm Muggeridge, the famed British journalist, convert, and champion of Mother Teresa, wrote the essay "The Humane Holocaust" in 1980, decrying the use of subjective and selfish standards spewed with a spin of compassion in justifying the destruction of life. Muggeridge asked:

Which vision are we for? On the one hand, as the pattern of our collective existence, the broiler house or factory-farm, in which the concern is solely for the physical well-being of the livestock and the financial well-being of the enterprise; on the other, mankind as a family, all of whose members, whatever physical or mental qualities or deficiencies they may have, are equally deserving of consideration in the eyes of their creator, and whose existence has validity, not just in itself, nor just in relation to history, but in relation to a destiny reaching beyond time and into eternity. Or, in simple terms, on the one hand, the quality of life; on the other, the sanctity of life.

The supposed "quality of life" argument gives a pretty facade to the ugly reality that some people find other people's lives inconvenient and costly, so much so that they would opt to destroy such lives. The option becomes much easier if you can drop the killing conotation, and can be twisted into a moral good if you have a feel-good utilitarian motive for it.

Such notions are being found on both ends of life in the battles over abortion and euthanasia.

Recently,The New York Times celebrates the heroic Dr. Susan Wicklund, a woman who became a compassionate abortionist after having an unpleasant experience while receiving a legal abortion in her early twenties.

Wicklund reveals a prick of conscience in her heart before offering opposition to regulations on abortions:

Dr. Wicklund describes her horror when she aborted the pregnancy of a woman who had been raped, only to discover, by examining the removed tissue, that the pregnancy was further along than she or the woman had thought — and that she had destroyed an embryo the woman and her husband had conceived together.

While that couple's tragedy is never mentioned again, Dr. Wicklund's story ends on a high note:

One question Dr. Wicklund hears “all the time,” she said, is how she can focus on abortion rather than on something more rewarding, like delivering babies.

“In fact, the women are so grateful,” Dr. Wicklund said in the interview. “Women are so grateful to know they can get through this safely, that they can still get pregnant again.

“It is one of the few areas of medicine where you are not working with a sick person, you are doing something for them that gives them back their life, their control,” she added. “It’s a very rewarding thing to be part of that.”

Muggeridge discussed a similar dose of poisoned compassion:

To quiten any qualms Christians might have about it, an Anglican bishop has devised an appropriate prayer for use on the occasion of an abortion which received the approval of the Archbishop of Canterbury. It runs, "Into thy hands we commit in trust the developing life we have cut short," though whether with the idea of God's continuing the interrupted development elsewhere, or of extinguishing in Heaven the life that was never born on earth, is not clear. In the case of euthanasia, a hymn more in keeping with the occasion - "The life Thou gavest, Lord, we've ended. . . ."

Muggeridge and most of the pro-life advocates a generation ago saw abortion and euthanasia intimately linked. The issues could not be separated from the root of selfishness and power. The unborn child and the elderly cost money to maintain, and they are weak. As abortion became more prevalent, euthanasia became a greater likelihood. Muggeridge played the social prophet against the Culture of Death:

Euthanasia, it is true, has not yet been legalized except in some American states, but notoriously it is becoming practiced on an ever-increasing scale. Already among old people, there is reluctance to go into government institutions for fear of being done away with. As for governments - hard-pressed financially as they all now are, and unable to economize defense expenditure for fear of laying themselves open to the charge of jeopardizing national security, or on welfare expenditure for fear of losing votes - will they not look ever more longingly at the possibility of making substantial savings by the simple expedient of mercy-killing off the inmates of institutions for the incurably sick, the senile old, the mentally deranged, and other such? With abortions and family-planning ensuring a zero population growth rate, and euthanasia disposing of useless mouths against the debilitated old, besides mopping up intervening freaks, the pursuit of happiness should be assured of at any rate financial viability.

Yesterday,The New York Times article "In Hospice Care, Longer Lives Means Money Lost" reported, "Over the last eight years, the refusal of patients to die according to actuarial schedules has led the federal government to demand that hospices exceeding reimbursement limits repay hundreds of millions of dollars to Medicare." While the piece does not mention any advocates of euthanizing the patients, the poorer quality of thir care in light of the Medicare penalties is noted:

A number of hospice providers said ethical and legal constraints would prevent them from discharging patients who outlived their profit potential. But some said they sometimes delayed admission for those patients with illnesses that might result in longer stays.

Viewing the elderly as inconvenient is not limited to governemnt and health care bureaucrats. Consider these quotes from Lillian Rubin's piece on how advances in geriatric care are cutting into inheritances:

“I always expected to inherit some money because my parents have been reasonably well off for most of my life. Not rich, but comfortable and careful with money,” explains a sixty-two-year-old college professor. “But now, I doubt it. My father had Alzheimer’s and spent his last years, nine of them, in a nursing home. I don’t think anyone who hasn’t been through it really understands how terrible that is. I don’t mean just the financial burden, which, by the way, was over three-quarters of a million, but the human cost. Seeing someone you love turn into a thing, not a person, and there’s no way out, it’s just terrible, one of the worst experiences in life.”

He stops talking, visibly moved, struggles to contain his emotions, then brightens. “My mother, bless her, is eighty-two and doing great. She moved into one of those assisted-living places a year or so ago, and before she was there a month, she was already practically running the place. It’s great; it keeps her busy. But it’s very expensive. Even with the money she got from selling their house, if she lives another eight to ten years, which right now seems likely, she’ll use up her money, and my sister and I will have to find a way to pay the bills.
“That’s a big twist, isn’t it? You go from knowing you’ll inherit money from your parents to wondering how you’re going to support them. I don’t begrudge her, don’t misunderstand me.” He hesitates, smiles, then in a voice that mimics an Old West cowboy twang, “Ah’m just tellin’ you the facts, ma’am, just the facts.”

and another:

“I love my parents, they’re good people, but you can’t help wondering: How long will they live? My mom’s only seventy-two and Dad’s seventy-six, which isn’t very old these days. If I have to take care of them, and I will, what happens to me and my family? What about my retirement? Who’s going to take care of that?”

There are many active ways people dehumanize one another daily - it happens everytime we sin against one another. However, consciences are clearer in the assertation of self when you deny the full personhood of another person, especially the least of these with whom Jesus so readily identified himself. Granted, the people in Rubin's article are not lobbying for euthanasia, but we can easily anticipate society taking the selfish slouch towards the slippery slope. Likewise, we can anticipate the crowd that calls good evil and evil good shouting down any objections to their shaky life ethic as inhumane and lacking compassion.

The only antidote is active participation in a culture of life.

Muggeridge uses Mother Teresa as our guidepost:

In Christian terms, of course, all this is quite indefensible. Our Lord healed the sick, raised Lazarus from the dead, gave back sanity to the deranged, but never did He practice or envisage killing as part of the mercy that held possession of His heart. His true followers cannot but follow His guidance here. For instance, Mother Teresa, who, in Calcutta, goes to great trouble to have brought into her Home for Dying Derelicts, castaways left to die in the streets. They may survive for no more than a quarter of an hour, instead of feeling themselves rejected and abandoned, they meet with Christian love and care. From a purely humanitarian point of view, the effort involved in this ministry of love could be put to some more useful purpose, and the derelicts left to die in the streets, or even helped to die by the requisite injection. Such calculations do not come into Mother Teresa's way of looking at things; her love and compassion reach out to the afflicted without any other consideration than their immediate need, just as our Lord doeswhen He tells us to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, clothe the naked. She gives all she has to give at once, and then finds she has more to give. As between Mother Teresa's holocaust of love and the humane holocaust, I am for hers.

The choice is still between those two holocausts, the holocaust of love and the humane holocaust. Love never fails. Movements will fail. Politics will co-opt our sanctity for selfishness if we are not on guard. We too will march to the drums of the culture of death, unless we dig in our heels now and insist on loving God and our neighbor, without any utilitarian considerations.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Summorum Pontificum

The Pope’s release of his “Summorum Pontificum” was the subject of a recent Parousians presentation at UL-Lafayette given by Fr. Jason Vidrine. Because it made such an impression on me, I thought I’d comment on part of Pope Benedict’s letter to the Bishops about his controversial Apostolic Letter, “Summorum Pontificum.”

With his letter to the Bishops, the Pope defends his position on the incorporation of the 1962 edition of the Roman Missal as issued by Bl. John XXIII. He writes:

“There is no contradiction between the two editions of the Roman Missal. In the history of the liturgy there is growth and progress, but no rupture. What earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and great for us too, and it cannot be all of a sudden entirely forbidden or even considered harmful. It behooves all of us to preserve the riches which have developed in the Church’s faith and prayer, and to give them their proper place. Needless to say, in order to experience full communion, the priests of the communities adhering to the former usage cannot, as a matter of principle, exclude celebrating according to the new books. The total exclusion of the new rite would not in fact be consistent with the recognition of its value and holiness.”

Though this passage has obvious relevance to the topic of the Pope’s discussion, it also has much wisdom to contribute to our understanding of the workings of the Catholic Church in general. The passage speaks of the rich tradition of our religion—that incredible treasure of centuries of ritual and custom that link present-day Catholics to the first Apostles and everyone in between. To “preserve the riches” of the Church’s sacred history is to participate in a universality that goes beyond the physical and extends to the eternal—the Church throughout the ages. To ignore what was held sacred by centuries of Catholics is to do a disservice to ourselves, and to contradict the tradition that is one of the Church’s greatest tools and most significant advantages over the comparatively new Protestant churches.

The last two sentences are also very important, as nothing is bad because it is new OR good because it is old. We therefore must incorporate the reforms of 1970 into the celebrations of the liturgy as well, for it also has worth and is sacred in its own right. In the “Summorum Pontificum,” Pope Benedict wrote that the 1970 reform came about because, “Vatican Council II expressed a desire that the respectful reverence due to divine worship should be renewed and adapted to the needs of our time.” It is necessary to remember that certain things should change according to social demands (though, of course, certain things should not, as was terribly demonstrated in the years following Vatican II). We must always bear in mind that the age of something does not necessarily determine its value, and use circumspection and careful judgment to evaluate what we incorporate into our faith lives. We must be active participants in our faith.

We therefore should make efforts to attend extraordinary celebrations of the liturgy according to the 1962 Missal to take part in the centuries of the Catholic Church’s tradition from which it springs.

[Oh, and just because I thought it was interesting, Fr. Jason told us about some of the things that Vatican II did not mean to be edited from the mass. These include kneeling to receive communion, the priest facing the congregation--as opposed to "facing east" (so called because, just like Jewish synagogues and Muslim mosques face certain directions, Catholic churches historically faced east, towards the rising of the sun, symbolizing our hope for the Parousia!), and the use of English (or the area's vernacular) as the sole language of the liturgy. Food for thought!]

Sunday, November 25, 2007

T.S. Eliot and Community: Part III of III

Miss Maria, feel free to read this post by the way. You may want to begin at the first post which is linked in the next paragraph.

In the first post I focused on identifying the linguistic illness of scientific reduction in the modern community. The second post examined the deterioration of communication when language ceases to signify. Now I shall see if T.S. Eliot offers any hope on these matters.

Often with T.S. Eliot, readers have a hard time discerning how pessimistic he really is about society and the possibility for community. For everything T.S. Eliot writes about the fragmentation of language and the isolation of individuals that are representative of modern society, he still chooses poetry as a legitimate means to communicate this with his readers. Such a communication presupposes a common language and meaning by which we could understand T.S. Eliot’s insights. No matter how far Eliot indicates that the destruction of language and community has gone, the fact remains that he is able to indicate this to the reader. Thus even Eliot’s approach presupposes the possibility for a communal understanding and the ability of words to signify. While T.S. Eliot portrays extremes to validate the importance of his critique of culture and seeks to identify the real threats to community, at the deeper core of his writings comes a certain sacramental and optimistic view of reality. Eliot’s own poetical communication of his insights show a certain hope of intelligibility that is most explicitly expressed at the end of The Waste Land and The Four Quartets.

Nearing the end of the last section in The Waste Land and The Four Quartets, T.S. Eliot has composed a theory of renewal. By previously emphasizing a bleak view on the future of community, the destruction of genuine communication, and the despondency of language, Eliot seems to disallow for any possibility of renewal from within this fragmented community, but he does still allow for renewal. If renewal cannot come from within it must come from without, or it cannot come at all. Whereas man creates the wasteland, something else renews it. “In a flash of lightning. Then a damp gust/ Bringing rain” [394-395]. The rain comes down as a gift to revitalize the land and offer the possibility of peace. This undeserved grace comes again in The Four Quartets. Eliot stresses the importance of history and past. “A people without history/ Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern/ Of timeless moments” (p.144). Only people with a history can be redeemed because they become aware of their folly and true nature. To ignore history is to ignore man’s beginning, his sin, and consequently his end. Renewal is on the horizon.
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time (p.145)

Eliot identifies a certain cosmic narrative in which the beginning signifies the end, and the end signifies the beginning. This may be akin to Aristotle’s understanding of formal cause - what a thing is, and final cause - the end toward which a thing is acting. Community and its history stand at the center of this revelation, and the gift of renewal stands as its redemption.

Although not explicit in either work, humility seems to stand as the fundamental core to this renewal. This openness to possibility and language is what Alfred Prufrock lacks. The problem with the positivistic scientific movement is that it prevents a holistic view on reality because it has no internal means to recognize the mystery inherent in reality and our experience. Prufrock stands as a prime example of being intellectually prideful, at least in the sense that he presupposes the disaster of his possible interaction without actually interacting. In this sense pride leads to fear and cowardice, which leads to loneliness and hell.

Rational scientific knowledge cannot totally inform our worldview because only a willingness to accept mystery and approach others in humility will maintain a community that can both give and receive in an exchange of language. When language attains full representation, the literal and spiritual become one. This redeemed language signifies exactly what the individual means thus eliminating any dichotomy between the signifier, language, and the signified, meaning. Renewal cannot come only or primarily from within because the individual would have to impose the model of self onto the community. Rather than being based on the individual, the paradigm for renewal is that of gift and love within a community. The gift must be given, received, and continually reciprocated in much the same fashion that language between persons operates in the context of a conversation. Grace stands as the transforming power. In other words, maybe we must receive grace from without before we can truly renew the world from within.

Friday, November 23, 2007

The Truth about Security and the Security of Truth

Materialism, being the raison d’etre of our present society, has proven itself to be the driving force for most decisions of most people. It is embraced as the means by which to obtain security, albeit an extremely false security as it is sought in that which is devoid of Truth.

Security is freedom from fear and anxiety as well as freedom from the danger of loss. This is clearly a good in the truest sense. There is not a sane person alive that would opt for insecurity over security. While understanding of how to obtain it may differ profoundly from one person to the next, the fact remains that security is good by its very nature.

To hold that security is good by its very nature should lead one to an even greater understanding of both God and security. Being that God is all-good, it is safe to conclude that the nature of security, which is good, receives its goodness from a certain source, that is, Security Itself – God. God also being Truth would necessitate that security can only be found in Truth. Through a simple method of substitution, we come to the realization that to be united to God is to be united to Security; in God, there is no fear or anxiety, nor is there any danger of loss. Conversely, to be separated from God (Truth) is to be united to fear, anxiety, and loss.

On a practical level, one can quickly ascertain the effects of materialism on the prevailing understanding of security and the means by which to obtain it. What is the reason that we buy and consume at an almost obsessive level? Why must our houses be turned into warehouses for our ever-expanding collection of stuff (for which we pay a great price) instead of a home for an ever-expanding family? The answer is that there is a certain perception of good in the possession of many things: increase in social status, establishment of a certain reputation, and an increase in options by which we amuse ourselves. Ultimately, these things are seen as synonymous with security – security for one’s reputation and social status, security in one’s ability to provide for oneself or family, even security to possess more through the inordinate amount of work done in order to make money that will be used to be even more stuff.

The fundamental problem in the above philosophy is that the very thing that it seeks is the very thing that it destroys. It seeks security as the ultimate goal, yet in amassing a great collection of goods, that person has only increased the potential for loss. For the materialist, the greatest good is the possession of many things; therefore, the greatest fear of the materialist must necessarily be the loss of those things. At this point, what should be clear is that materialism is marked by increased danger of loss and the accompanying fear and anxiety. This marks the complete loss of security. In fact, one of the most telling signs of the insufficiency of materialism at gaining security is the constant need to gain more….and more….and more. Why more if security has been achieved? Can we not rest on our laurels once we’ve arrived at the goal? Clearly, the Goal has not been achieved. It has been avoided completely, and it is this Goal that haunts those who insist on substituting Him with every form of idol known to man, from statues in the ancient world to sex and money today. Francis Thompson may be the poster-child for this essay. In The Hound of Heaven, he wrote:

“I hid from Him, and under running laughter.
Up vistaed hopes I sped;
And shot, precipitated,
Adown Titanic glooms of chasmed fears,
From those strong Feet that followed, followed after…

They beat – and a Voice beat
More instant than the Feet –
‘All things betray thee, who betrayest Me.’”

To seek security in anything but the very source is to deny ourselves of that which we seek. Indeed, the more we seek it elsewhere, the more bitterly it flees and betrays us. We have assurance of the converse in the words of the Word Itself: “Seek first the Kingdom of God and all these things shall be added unto to you.” In the non-canonical but creatively poetic words of Thompson, He reveals Himself to us as the goal that we desperately seek yet at the same time exclude in the words:

“Ah, fondest, blindest, weakest,
I am He Whom thou seekest!

Thou dravest love from thee, who dravest Me.”

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Thanksgiving: "It is right to give Him thanks and praise."

The Angelus (1857-1859), Jean-François Millet

Next week, I’ll conclude my three-part post, “God Desires Our Human Love and Its Perfection.”

On this Thanksgiving Day, I must first give thanks to God for the Parousians – for the community we have been blessed with, for our friendships, for our intellects and talents, for the gift of our education, for the intercession of our patrons, for Holy Mother Church, for our Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI, for all the priests who have made the Sacraments available to us, and most of all, for our salvation, for Christ's presence in the Eucharist, and for God’s grace and His good work in us that He has promised to bring to completion (Philippians 1:6).

God has blessed us abundantly, indeed. As we affirm each time we attend Mass, "it is right to give Him thanks and praise." Absolute gratitude, offered in humility, is the only appropriate response to the perfect love we see on the Cross and in the Blessed Sacrament.

I’ll leave you with these quotes about gratitude from some of our favorite saints and writers. In all humility, let us thank God with them for His many blessings.

“I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought, and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.” – G. K. Chesterton

“In all created things discern the providence and wisdom of God, and in all things give Him thanks.” – St. Teresa of Avila

"I sing praise to You, my Lord, for all You have made, especially for Brother Sun, who brings the day and through whom You give us light." – St. Francis of Assisi (Canticle of the Sun)

“As part of the spiritual worship acceptable to God (Romans 12:1), the Gospel of Life is to be celebrated above all in daily living, which should be filled with self-giving love for others. In this way, our lives will become a genuine and responsible acceptance of the gift of life and a heartfelt song of praise and gratitude to God who has given us this gift.” – Pope John Paul II (Evangelium Vitae)

“God has been wonderful to all of us. He has given us so many beautiful opportunities to put our love for God in living action. So let us show our gratitude by loving one another, as Christ loved each one of us.” – Blessed Teresa of Calcutta

“Gratitude is characteristic only of the humble. The egotistic are so impressed by their own importance that they take everything given them as if it were their due. They have no room in their hearts for recollection of the undeserved favors they received.” – Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen

"O my God, let me remember with gratitude and confess to thee thy mercies toward me. Let my bones be bathed in thy love, and let them say: 'Lord, who is like unto thee?’ (Psalm 35:10). Thou hast broken my bonds in sunder, I will offer unto thee the sacrifice of thanksgiving (Psalm 116:16-17). And how thou didst break them I will declare, and all who worship thee shall say, when they hear these things: 'Blessed be the Lord in heaven and earth, great and wonderful is his name’ (Psalm 8:1)." – St. Augustine (Confessions)

“I give thanks to You, Holy Lord, Father almighty, everlasting God. Not through any merit of my own, but only through the goodness of Your mercy, You have considered me – a useless servant – worthy to be nourished with the precious Body and Blood of Your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.” – St. Thomas Aquinas

“We ought to give thanks for all fortune: if it is ‘good,’ because is it good, if ‘bad,’ because it works in us patience, humility and the contempt of this world, and the hope of our eternal country.” – C. S. Lewis

“For here we do not have a lasting city, but we are seeking the city which is to come. Through Him, then, let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that give thanks to His name.” – St. Paul (Hebrews 13:14-15)

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The Wounding Beauty, An Unexpected Love (Part 3)

Part 1
Part 2

Objections to Beauty, drawn from Ratzinger’s “The Beauty and the Truth of Christ

Is beauty true or is it just a distracting deception? It seems that good and evil exist along side of each other, as we experience both very deeply. The same can be said of beauty and ugliness. Since both are experienced, this raises the question whether one should be put above the other, whether one is more true, more real. Why associate beauty with reality and not ugliness and evil? Ultimately, this is a question of ontology and priority: which is first in the history of eternity – a positive entity, and which holds greater force? Do we come in contact with true beauty or is it imagined? Is not sin, suffering, and death more real and prevalent than beauty? Where is truth ultimately rooted, in the beautiful or in the ugly? Ratzinger captures these objections succinctly for us:

“Can the beautiful be genuine, or, in the end, is it only an illusion? Isn't reality perhaps basically evil? The fear that in the end it is not the arrow of the beautiful that leads us to the truth, but that falsehood, all that is ugly and vulgar, may constitute the true "reality" has at all times caused people anguish.”

Ratzinger gives the example of Auschwitz, after which many questioned God: does He exist and if so, how could He allow such a horrible thing to happen? No longer able to deny the existence of evil, many denied the existence of a loving God. Did they not realize that they know evil is ugly only because they know that goodness is beautiful? Conversely, do we need to know hate to know love? The experience of evil is always a scandal; otherwise these questions would be irrelevant. Ultimately, we will either find that beauty exists and all evil and ugliness is a negation of it, or evil exists and beauty and goodness is a negation of that. While both are experienced, only beauty – that of love and redeemed suffering lead to truth. Ratzinger’s answer is much simpler: Christ.

“The One who is the Beauty itself let himself be slapped in the face, spat upon, crowned with thorns; the Shroud of Turin can help us imagine this in a realistic way.”

In His Passion, Jesus, the suffering servant was tortured, humiliated, and executed – this is the scandal of the cross, the most beautiful Person, Beauty himself, was defiled – similar to those who suffered and died in Auschwitz. In an even more direct way though, he suffered and died in Auschwitz because “as you did it to the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” (Mt 25:41). So yes, “God is dead;” he died in every suffering victim. Why did he endure it? What is the reality deeper and more powerful than evil? Love. God has transformed even the gates of death. Because of his love, he not only rises from the dead, but he raises us and shares his conquering of death with us.

“However, in his Face that is so disfigured, there appears the genuine, extreme beauty: the beauty of love that goes "to the very end;" for this reason it is revealed as greater than falsehood and violence.”

The deepest and truest reality of love should always inform our idea of beauty; the sacramental vision looks beyond mere appearances. Christ’s sacrifice, his infinite love, is greater than all the evil of this world. Even torture, humiliation, and an imminent death could not stop his love. Without any depth of sight, his beaten face and body is neither heavenly nor majestic. A beautiful face may be aesthetically pleasing, but unless the person is beautiful like Christ, there is no beauty to behold. Then, it isn’t her face which is beautiful, but her being, which is united to Christ who shines forth from within her. We notice and operate from this almost every day. Every time we meet someone, we immediately take in their physical appearance, but only when we get to know them better do they become more beautiful or less, some even repulsive. We are inseparably body and spirit. Our bodies thus mediate spiritual realities, giving them all the more significance.

Briefly, let’s return to the beginning of “The Truth and the Beauty of Christ” where Raztinger draws from Plato and Cabisilas for their description of true Beauty, that is, Christ’s beauty:

“Man, says Plato, has lost the original perfection that was conceived for him. He is now perennially searching for the healing primitive form. Nostalgia and longing impel him to pursue the quest; beauty prevents him from being content with just daily life. It causes him to suffer.”

“”It is he who has sent a ray of his beauty into their eyes. The greatness of the wound already shows the arrow which has struck home, the longing indicates who has inflicted the wound" (cf. The Life in Christ, Nicholas Cabisilas).”

Beauty draws you out of yourself, away from your present state of sin. You forget the self as beauty calls you to fulfill your nature as man, one who is created for the gift of self. Christ is this beauty and this call, this piercing wound, a reminder, a reason, the truth. We were made for his beauty, holiness. However, if it is not ugliness taking the place of beauty, then it is ugliness dressing up like beauty, attempting to appeal to our baser fallen desires. Falsities, like the devil, attempt to clothe themselves in beauty, which is not theirs. This is false beauty,

“a dazzling beauty that does not bring human beings out of themselves to open them to the ecstasy of rising to the heights, but indeed locks them entirely into themselves. Such beauty does not reawaken a longing for the Ineffable, readiness for sacrifice, the abandonment of self, but instead stirs up the desire, the will for power, possession and pleasure.”

This is the perversion of beauty that we cannot allow ourselves be fooled by. To be open to true beauty requires humility. For anyone to be “struck by the arrow of his paradoxical beauty,” he must be capable of receiving beauty as a gift. If he believes he is completely and utterly self-sufficient, his pride will reject any longing for reform; this wound calls for repentance, and a proud man will never repent.

“Is there anyone who does not know Dostoyevsky's often quoted sentence'. "The Beautiful will save us"? However, people usually forget that Dostoyevsky is referring here to the redeeming Beauty of Christ. We must learn to see Him. If we know Him, not only in words, but if we are struck by the arrow of his paradoxical beauty, then we will truly know him, and know him not only because we have heard others speak about him. Then we will have found the beauty of Truth, of the Truth that redeems. Nothing can bring us into close contact with the beauty of Christ himself other than the world of beauty created by faith and light that shines out from the faces of the saints, through whom his own light becomes visible.”

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

A Month of Sundays--A Continuing Discussion of The Man Who Was Thursday

Last week I wrote about the character of Sunday, the President of the Central Anarchist Council and a Police Chief, in The Man Who Was Thursday. Sunday is a man whom Chesterton meant to exemplify the idea of a god who is willfully elusive, both good and evil, and a general enemy of mankind. Towards the end of the novel, Sunday leads his band of six detectives on a bizarre chase through the English countryside, during which he throws them meaningless notes such as “The word, I fancy, should be pink” (161), and “Fly as once. The truth about your trouser-stretchers is known” (157). I believe Chesterton meant these nonsense “clues” to illustrate how many believe God works: by throwing us confusing and nonsensical tidbits designed, not to bring us closer to Him, but to further alienate us from Him. This is, of course, contradictory to the Catholic understanding of God as one who wishes to lead us to Him and help us use our reason to understand something of His mysteries.

Contradictions abound in this man/god-hunt, especially when the detectives begin to describe their views of Sunday. (A reminder: physically, Sunday is grotesquely large and inspires fear and wonder in those who look upon him.) For example, Monday perceives him as cruel because, when he met Sunday, Monday asked him serious questions that only elicited laughs from the President, who shook like “a base body,” or "protoplasm." Monday speaks about how awful it was to be “laughed at by something at once lower and stronger than oneself.”

Wednesday says that the awful thing about Sunday is that he is absent minded. He maintains that, “absent-mindedness is just a bit too awful in a bad man. We think of a wicked man as vigilant. We can’t think of a wicked man who is honestly and sincerely dreamy, because we daren’t think of a wicked man alone with himself. An absent-minded man means a good-natured man. It means a man who, if he happens to see you, will apologize. But how will you bear an absent-minded man who, if he happens to see you, will kill you? That is what tries the nerves, abstraction combined with cruelty” (167).

After each man has described his opinions of Sunday, Thursday says, “Each man of you finds Sunday quite different, yet each man of you can only find one thing to compare him to—the universe itself” (168). He goes on to describe his impression of Sunday from the back as a beast and from the front as an archangel, and that he is always certain that, whether he looks at his back or front, he is viewing Sunday’s true self. He explains himself by saying, “bad is so bad, that we cannot but think good an accident; good is so good, that we feel certain that evil could be explained” (169). He then goes on to say what could sum up the idea of the entire book (so read and think carefully!):

Listen to me. Shall I tell you the secret of the whole world? It is that we have only known the back of the world. We see everything from behind, and it looks brutal. That is not a tree, but the back of a tree. That is not a cloud, but the back of a cloud. Cannot you see that everything is stooping and hiding a face? If we could only get round in front—

The above passages warrant careful consideration: how are these views different from the Catholic view of the Lord and His creation? It is the crux of the whole novel (which I highly recommend you read!) and important questions for our faith as well.

Monday, November 19, 2007

T.S. Eliot and Community: Part II of III

Part I from last week.

In The Waste Land, T.S. Eliot furthers his description of the fragmented community. In the opening lines of The Waste Land, April is considered the “cruelest month” [1]. Rather than its traditional symbol of renewal and rebirth, April becomes an aching reminder of a better past in the midst of a wintery present. In other words April becomes an unfriendly reminder of the unhappiness that permeates the present. The past holds an account of our sins and acts as a conscience that brings man into contact with the true nature of the wasteland. The memory functions to make us painfully aware of the current ruins that surround us. But this experience has been deemed as cruelty because of the desire to be disconnected with the past. Accountability becomes unbearable. In turn this disconnection with the past has blinded man to his own nature and cut him off from the means of knowing and fulfilling his own natural end. Quite literally, the poem brings this image to life by showing people as ghost of their former selves.
Unreal City,
Under the brown fog of a winder dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet. [60-64]

People surround each other, but there is no communication and no community. People are more dead than they are alive, but unable to recognize that lack of life because they are unable to recognize each other. As with Prufrock, they are stuck in the world of the self.

This isolation takes concrete forms in the two unloved women of The Waste Land. In section II the aristocratic lady waits hopelessly for love and human affection. However, even the bird of love becomes meaningless.
Yet there the nightingale
Filled all the desert with inviolable voice
And still she cried, and still the world pursues,
“Jug Jug” to dirty ears. [100-103]

The voice of the nightingale is nothing more than a meaningless cry that ceases to signify. The symbol of love no longer signifies love; in other words, the sign is not signifying. This action with no meaning personifies the hopelessness of the women waiting for love. On the other extreme, the description of the second lady shows another type of isolation even more discontenting. The lady dreads the return of her husband from war who only wants “a good time” regardless where he has to go for it. Her husband will not sexually leave her alone. Despite this physical intimacy she feels alienated and used by her husband. Both women are not really loved and these two antidotes juxtaposed together identify two perspectives on the disconnection between people.

In the poem The Hollow Men it seems the best we can achieve is communal meaninglessness.
We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Learning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar [part I]

Here Eliot indicates that language no longer signifies and communicates meanings. We are without substance and stuffed with learning that only gives off the semblance of communication. Language is depraved of its creative power to transcend the physical and inspire the soul. This fragmented culture is left with “Shape without form, shade without colour,? Paralysed force, gesture without motion” [part I]. These contradictory pairs show how the meanings signified by certain actions are being divorced from their sign. Common language is destroyed and communion becomes impossible. One by one all things begin to lose their meaning: education, relationships, the singing nightingale, love, physical intimacy, and eventually language.

So if Eliot's poetry is correct about the current state of language, where does this leave the possibility for meaningful communication? I will look at this question in the next post.

Friday, November 16, 2007

An Ecstatic Suffering

In a great work of Christian literature, Sheldon Vanauken writes about his love for his wife, the tragedy of her illness, and his grief over her death in his book A Severe Mercy, but amidst the suffering they experienced something that can be described as awe and even ecstasy. He found himself awed at his love for her and hers for him. There was something about their sharing in the same cup of suffering that brought them out of themselves for each other. Consider this quote from Mr. Vanauken as he recounts an experience of joy shared between him and his wife during her illness:

“She knew without my saying that I was hers, that I was full of happiness that we were deeply together again, wherever the road led. And I knew without her saying that she had, somehow, come to a new understanding that God in his ample love embraced our love with, it may be, a sort of tenderness, and we must tread the Way to Him hand in hand. We understood without words that we must hold the co-inherence of lovers and be Companions of the Co-Inherence of the Incarnate Lord: she in me and I in her; Christ in us and we in him.”

For those who have never been through such an ordeal, it might be easy yet unintentional to gloss over the words “we must tread the Way to Him hand in hand…she in me and I in her”, but that would do a great disservice both to the author and to the reader. What Mr. Vanauken is describing is the loss of self in the loved one through abandonment in Christ, an abandonment that could only come about through such an experience of suffering. The greatest good became not the benefit of one over the other, but rather a sort of emptying of self in service to the other, and this service became the vehicle to the ultimate Good – Christ Himself, Christ in them and they in Him. To be poured out for another is to be outside the self, conforming oneself to a more perfect image of the Son, who as St. Paul teaches in Philippians 3:6-7, “Though He was in the form of God did not regard equality with God something to be grasped; rather He emptied Himself taking the form of a slave…”. The loss of oneself in the other is a bit of a misnomer. It is certainly not loss in any way. It is, rather, the discovery and therefore the actualization of our true nature as images of God, a God Who in Himself lives a mystery of personal, loving communion. I would even go so far as to refer to it as a sort of Divine Ecstasy. The ecstasy experienced in the loss of self between Mr. Vanauken and his wife became the place where they found themselves in each other and experienced a joy brought about not by personal, selfish gain but by baptism into Christ’s sanctifying suffering.

In our eroticized culture of today, the word ecstasy is often used in reference to the pleasure derived from the sexual act and only that pleasure. To focus only on the pleasure of the sexual act and not on the primary goals of unity and new life is to focus only on the self. In other words, when pleasure becomes primary, selfishness is at its peak. The problem here is that the word ecstasy by its very definition and literal translation must necessarily and completely exclude focus on the self. Ecstasy comes from the Greek ekstasis, which means “to stand outside oneself”. Standing outside oneself can only be brought about by the opening and emptying of oneself. It is a complete self-giving. Ecstasy can only be obtained by complete self-giving; therefore, ecstasy can never be obtained by self-absorption. The ecstasy of self-giving and self-forgetfulness here on earth is a sign pointing us to the ecstasy of Heaven, where we will exist in a state of absolute self-giving and openness to the Other that is God and all those in unity with Him. This level of existence will be the pinnacle of the experience of pleasure, for to be in unity with God is to be in unity with Pleasure Itself. Ecstasy and pleasure, therefore, is rooted in self-giving and the emptying of oneself for the other in an expression of love.
From this perspective, suffering creates a new experience of ecstasy. For the suffering loved one, it is an opportunity to be conformed to the image of our suffering Lord and to learn to submit to the perfect will of God. Submission to the will of God amidst great personal suffering demands the denial of self-will. It demands a “standing outside of oneself” in order to stand within the will of God.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

God Desires Our Human Love and Its Perfection, Part Two

Last week, I looked at a couple of passages from Thomas Merton's Dialogues with Silence and began to explore the seeming paradox that God desires our imperfect human love but also desires its perfection. To recap: God desires us even in our sinfulness; as St. Paul points out, Christ died for us "while we were still sinners" (Romans 5:8). He wants us to love Him humanly - to love Him however we are able, and we are only able to love Him imperfectly - so that He can show us His great mercy. God desires our human love, yet at the same time, He calls us out of our sinfulness to sainthood, to perfect holiness. We are sinful human beings, yet as Christians we are to be perfect "as our heavenly Father is perfect" (Matthew 5:48).

Misconceptions abound among different Christian denominations about the possibility of this perfection in love and holiness, and I want to examine a few of them - but first, let's try to make more sense of this "seeming paradox" and turn to Chapter 15 of the Gospel of John.
"I am the true vine... Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine and you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing." (John 15:1, 4-5)
It sounds simple enough - we share in Christ's life, and consequently we bear the fruit of love, which manifests itself in holiness and good works. If we cannot humbly acknowledge that we need God's grace, if we lack the humility to see that we can do nothing without His help, we cannot bear fruit.

We glorify God by bearing the fruit of love (holiness and good works); and in a sense, when we bear fruit, we prove our discipleship. "My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples" (v. 8). We cannot divorce discipleship - our identity as followers of Christ and people who belong to Him - from the necessity of living a holy life, rooted in love and good works, that "bears much fruit."

Christ goes on to tell us: "As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and abide in his love" (v. 9-10). Christ has loved us - He has put His love into us - so that in turn He can command us to love as He loves, which He does in verse 12: "This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you." Christ commands us to love one another as He loves us, that is, to love perfectly. Of course, we know that we cannot even think of loving perfectly without God's grace, so Christ reminds us that He has first called us to love and gifted us with grace:
"You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another." (John 15:16-17)
In other words, Christ chose us first, and He gives us everything so that, in our nothingness, we can bear the fruit of perfect love and holiness and aspire to be saints. He has set before us an ideal, but not an impossible one - if He gave impossible commands, He would not be loving or just, and we know He is the perfection of both.

Next week, I'll examine two timeless heresies about the possibility of saintly perfection: one deems it impossible, even with God's grace; the other says it's naturally possible for everyone (humans can achieve it on our own). Until then, let us pray with St. Augustine:

There can be no hope for me except in Your great mercy.

Give me the grace to do as You command,
and command me to do what You will...
O Love, ever burning, never quenched!
O Charity, my God, set me on fire with Your love! ...
Give me the grace to do as You command,
and command me to do what You will.

Confessions, Book X: xxix)

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The Wounding Beauty: An Unexpected Truth (Part 2)

"Strive for peace with all men, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord" (Heb 12:14).

I commented on the beginning of Cardinal Ratzinger’s “The Beauty and the Truth of Christ” in my last post. I would like to continue this discussion with beauty as a form of knowledge. Perhaps you do not normally think of beauty as knowledge, but Ratzinger, quoting Cabasilas, posits true beauty as knowledge “in a superior form, since it arouses man to the real greatness of the truth.” Cabasilas differentiated between two types of knowledge. Ratzinger summarizes these for us as,

“knowledge through instruction which remains, so to speak, "second hand" and does not imply any direct contact with reality itself. The second type of knowledge, on the other hand, is knowledge through personal experience, through a direct relationship with the reality.”

In other words the first kind is like studying theology or philosophy, and the second is like prayer or being awed by the beauty of Christ. Ratzinger comments on the need to better understand and experience this second type of knowledge:

“Being struck and overcome by the beauty of Christ is a more real, more profound knowledge than mere rational deduction. Of course we must not underrate the importance of theological reflection, of exact and precise theological thought; it remains absolutely necessary. But to move from here to disdain or to reject the impact produced by the response of the heart in the encounter with beauty as a true form of knowledge would impoverish us and dry up our faith and our theology. We must rediscover this form of knowledge; it is a pressing need of our time.”

Tied to beauty is joy. If we forget that God is Beauty and Joy, theological reflection will have little meaning for us anymore. Such as just knowing about God is not enough, knowing about his beauty is insufficient also. “The knowledge of God is very far from the love of him” (Pascal, Pensees #280). Furthermore, we are created for God and thus desire his beauty – despite what popular culture dogmatically teaches – and this desire draws us out of ourselves. Sometimes it is only upon experiencing an appetizer to his glory that we realize our deficit and crave it more.

Peter Kreeft believes that the argument from desire for God is the most moving argument for God’s existence because it is based on an internal source, not an external proof. This inherit desire for God is stirred up by His beauty whether we realize it or not. I attended a concert years ago that featured a solo pianist; I was so tired from traveling that I could barely stay awake to 45 minutes of key pounding. However, I never would have imagined a more beautiful concert; it broke my heart. When it was over, I wanted something more than just the appetizer; in fact it seems I intuitively knew there was something more, but I didn’t know what. I do now of course: the never tiresome, never boring, and unending Beauty of God. People often stress that in heaven we will experience the eternal Love of God, but this also entails an eternal encounter with Beauty ever new.

Ratzinger poses a practical question concerning the state of reason and its misuse: “Everything makes sense, is so convincing, whom should we trust?” Truth does not always seem reasonable, and falsities can be made appealing. This is precisely where the experience, nay, the impact of the beautiful has so much force against untruths.

“The encounter with the beautiful can become the wound of the arrow that strikes the heart and in this way opens our eyes, so that later, from this experience, we take the criteria for judgment and can correctly evaluate the arguments.”

Beyond means of evangelization and didactic purposes, the Christian faith has been blessed with many icons for our holiness. I was attempting to summarize this for you, but it is just too good for me to butcher:

“Inner perception must free itself from the impression of the merely sensible, and in prayer and ascetical effort acquire a new and deeper capacity to see, to perform the passage from what is merely external to the profundity of reality, in such a way that the artist can see what the senses as such do not see, and what actually appears in what can be perceived: the splendour of the glory of God, the "glory of God shining on the face of Christ " (II Cor 4,6). To admire the icons and the great masterpieces of Christian art in general, leads us on an inner way, a way of overcoming ourselves; thus in this purification of vision that is a purification of the heart, it reveals the beautiful to us, or at least a ray of it. In this way we are brought into contact with the power of the truth.”

Every experience reveals mystery. Seeing beyond the outer experience of signs to the inward reality is something we as Catholics should be familiar with (if you are not, perhaps you should reconsider the sacraments). This is the sacramental vision which frees us from the limiting perspective of defining beauty by aesthetics alone.

In my previous post I drew a connection between beauty and suffering, both the suffering of the observer whose longing is not satiated, but also of the beautiful, Christ and his saints, whose suffering – no matter how insignificant or great, seemingly pointless or profound – is redeemed and glorified by God. However, it is not just their sufferings that are beautiful, but the goodness and truth of their lives, which sometimes can only be seen through a “purification of vision.” The more a person’s life represents the mystery of God, the more beautiful it will be. One of the most profound ways the beauty of God reaches us is through His people. Incidentally, I am going to close again with a quote about the saints in this lovely November; take it away Ratzinger:

“I have often affirmed my conviction that the true apology of Christian faith, the most convincing demonstration of its truth against every denial, are the saints, and the beauty that the faith has generated. Today, for faith to grow, we must lead ourselves and the persons we meet to encounter the saints and to enter into contact with the Beautiful.”

(Part three next week: objections to beauty)

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Ghoul Who Was Sunday

I am feeling heroic today, so I will attempt to summarize the plot of Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday. Here it goes:

Gabriel Syme is a police detective in a city plagued by political turmoil and threatened by anarchist plots of destruction. By happenstance, he becomes an undercover agent in the Central Anarchist Council, which consists of seven members, each named for a day of the week. The Council is led by Sunday—a mammoth of a man terrifying in his intensity and deadly purpose. While desperately hiding his identity, Syme discovers that each of the other members of the council is also a disguised undercover policeman working AGAINST anarchy. They eventually join forces against Sunday, whom they all fear and despise. They then discover that Sunday is the very same man who, in a room so dark they could not see his face, had recruited them to be policemen in the first place. The plot culminates in a long and exciting chase that leads them to Sunday’s vast country estate, where they discover that Sunday is not a man at all, but, in his own words, is “the peace of God.”

Unfortunately, even a quite good summary of this novel (and I must say, this one is not that bad) excludes the philosophical asides, witty observations, and poignant comments about society and humanity. Many of these lovely tidbits regard the character of Sunday, an elusive and confusing man whom Chesterton meant to exemplify the “mysterious master both of the anarchy and the order” who is a “sort of elemental elf who had appeared to be rather too like a pantomime ogre” who would have inhabited the “world of wild doubt and despair which the pessimists were generally describing” at the time the book was written (these quotes were taken from an article Chesterton wrote for the Illustrated London News in 1936). This can be seen in the entire title of the work, which is, The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare.

Sunday is described as a huge man—very tall and very fat, to the extent that he looks unnatural and frighteningly inhuman. His dual roles as police chief and President of the Central Anarchist Council are in opposition to each other. Strangely, he openly acts as an anarchist in broad daylight but acts as a police chief only in darkness. He even holds the anarchist council meetings on a balcony during the day to discuss their plans, for he believes in concealment by not being secretive; in other words, because they are open with their dissention, they will not be taken as serious threats.

When the policemen (formerly members of the anarchist council) confront Sunday, he says,

You want to know what I am, do you? […] Grub in the roots of those trees and find out the truth about them. […] Stare at those morning clouds. But I tell you this, that you will have found out the truth of the last tree and the top-most cloud before the truth about me. You will understand the sea, and I shall be still a riddle; you shall know what the stars are, and not know what I am. Since the beginning of the world all men have hunted me like a wolf—kings and sages, and poets and lawgivers, all the churches, and all the philosophies. But I have not been caught yet, and the skies will fall in the time I turn to bay. I have given them a good run for their money, and I will now.

True to his word, Sunday then leads the policemen in a bizarre chase around the English countryside that ultimately leads them to his estate and then to a final unveiling of Sunday’s dualist nature, the nightmarish view of God that Chesterton was trying to expose as fallacy. I would like to continue about this particular aspect of the novel next week, so I will end on a discussion of the above quote.

The idea that God does not wish to be discovered or understood at all is horrific; it is the crux of Agnosticism and completely contrasts the Catholic ideas of faith and reason leading men to salvation. Belief in a god who amuses himself by playing cat-and-mouse with his creation would drive anyone away from faith—many people alienate themselves from the Church because they believe that God wills everything about it to be incomprehensible. We must not fall into the mire of despair about ever reaching communion with Him due to this folly. Growing in wisdom and understanding about our faith is one of our greatest tools to reaching salvation, and the history of great intellects in the Catholic Church makes this possible. We must actively participate in the search for Truth, a participation that has been sadly neglected among Americans and the youth of the world.
(Shameless Parousians plug!)

Monday, November 12, 2007

T.S. Eliot and Community: Part I of III

In the midst of the English literary tradition comes a prophetic figure, T.S. Eliot, warning against the destruction of language and community. T.S. Eliot pushes language to new horizons in his attempt to critique and expand the cultural consciousness and conscience of his generation. This awareness comes through his exploration of man’s folly and failure in bringing about a better world through feeble attempts at education and so called “objective” accounts of the world through reductive science. Rather than informing and deepening man’s understanding of himself and the cosmos, these attempts wedded to intellectual pride create a wasteland that engulfs society and undermines the mystical bonds of community. Through his poetic and mystical writings, Eliot can be understood as attempting a literary and cultural renewal by warning against the dangers of his society and its direction towards destruction and human isolation.

At the heart of any community lies a framework in which people share common experiences such as historical events, desires, insights, and goals. All these things are mediated among individuals within the community through language. As experience and thoughts are translated into symbols and communicated through verbal, oral, and physical gestures, language develops into the heart of a community. Because of the intimate connection between language and community, the destruction of one may lead to the destruction of the other. Likewise the renewal of one may lead to the renewal of the other.

T.S. Eliot realized that the present situation of a society in ruins must be understood and assessed for what it is in order to understand the fullness of the calamity that the community faces. However, because this process involves coming to terms with the problem and naming man’s folly, the difficulty of the prophet’s task increases when the means to express this calamity, namely language, has been intimately affected by the very destructiveness that T.S. Eliot hopes to identify. This may account for Eliot’s reliance on poetic verse and powerful images as primary tools of relating his insights in the context of symbolic narratives. When the very language system to be used to express meaning is fragmented, then expression within this system must be done with fragmented language. Thus, even Eliot’s style of poetry resonates with the fragmentation and alienation he identifies within his society.

Eliot’s dramatic monologue, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, gives an illuminating account of an isolated mind separated from the community. Alfred Prufrock tries to apply his rational knowledge of scientific relationships to the area of human relationships. At some sort of evening party he spends his time calculating possible interactions with women. He begins with his own inadequacies, such as thinning hair and undesirable physical traits, and concludes the inevitable failure of any possible interaction with the opposite sex. The logical end of his reasoning is to resist entering into a dialogue at all.

And I have known the eyes already, known them all—
The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,
And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?
And how should I presume? [5]

Prufrock’s consciousness of being judged prevents him from action. He falls into the problem that he cannot calculate how to begin. There can be no calculation of a beginning, therefore he stagnates into non-action. His ‘scientific’ need for certainty undermines his human need for community. Thus he pins himself to a wall and fulfills his own fears. Prufrock becomes trapped in the hell of the isolated mind with no hope of escape.

Education embodied in reason alone has rebelled against its master. Prufrock embodies the impotence of the educated by living in his head rather than in everyday human interaction. His intellectual musings become a hindrance to community rather than an aide. His mind has predetermined his end to be lonely. Limiting the scientific inquiry to the positivistic sciences has in turn divorced the academic mind from the community and human relations. Prufrock becomes unable to interact in community and has exiled himself.

Friday, November 09, 2007

The Rupture Between Sexuality and Procreation

“The libido of the individual becomes the only possible point of reference of sex. No longer having an objective reason to justify it, sex seeks the subjective reason in the gratification of the desire, in the most ‘satisfying’ answer for the individual, to the instincts no longer subject to rational restraints. Everyone is free to give to his personal libido the content considered suitable for himself.”

These words of Pope Benedict from his book The Ratzinger Report constitute his analysis of the implications of the modern mentality on human sexuality, which is at the core of the debate over homosexuality today – a mentality in which the objective reason for the sexual act is no longer rooted in the absolute for which it was created, that is, unity and procreation. Rather it is reduced to an act that is perceived and touted as one that is the least absolute in all of nature, thus losing a sense of intelligibility about the act. If this act, which in reality represents man as an image of God in nearly its fullest sense, is without intelligibility, then man himself loses intelligibility especially with regard to his relationship with the Creator in whose image he is made.

The defense of homosexuality represents an implicit denial of the intelligibility of man in that it makes the false assumption that there is nothing in the nature of man that should convince him that certain acts betray his nature. Stemming from an exaggerated personalist philosophy, the rupture between sexuality and procreation naturally leads to a rejection of objectivity in the sexual act and devolution into pure subjectivism where sexual gratification becomes the greatest good. Without intelligibility, there can be no guiding principle to act according to man’s nature, thus making it perfectly acceptable to use the body in any way one desires. If this is truly the case, then there is no basis for laws against pedophilia, rape, incest, etc. If there is no natural law guiding that which is most fundamental to the existence of man, that is, the sexual union between a husband and wife, then one would be hard-pressed to make a case for the existence of natural law at all with regard to man. This leads to a rejection of the entire concept of natural law, and thus, the nature of man. In other words, man has neither nature nor intelligibility. If man has no nature, then man is not man. If man has no nature, then man is nothing, for all existing things have a nature. If man has no intelligibility, then he is created by an unintelligible god, which is no god at all. Therefore, the defense of homosexuality is not only the implicit denial of man’s intelligibility, but also the denial of an existing man and an existing God.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

America Must Return to the Just War Doctrine.

Parousian Michael Denton affirms the dignity of the human person in this column for The Daily Reveille.

God Desires Our Human Love and Its Perfection, Part One

“In solitude I have at last discovered that You desire the love of my heart, O my God, the love of my heart as it is—the love of my human heart. I have found and have known by Your great mercy that the love of a heart that is abandoned and broken and poor is most pleasing to You and attracts the gaze of Your pity. It is Your desire and Your consolation, O my Lord, to be very close to those who love You and call upon You as their Father. You have perhaps no greater consolation—if I may so speak—than to console Your afflicted children and those who come to You poor and empty-handed, with nothing but their humanness, their limitations and their great trust in Your mercy.”
I was particularly struck by this passage as I read Dialogues with Silence, a collection of poems, prayers and sketches by Thomas Merton. As a Trappist monk, Merton spent much of his life praying and working in the deep silence of the cloister. The above passage, taken from his book Thoughts In Solitude, expresses beautifully one of the most poignant revelations Merton encountered in that silence. As Christians, we must come to terms with the truth that we love a God Who desires us as we are. God desires our love, though we love Him in the midst of our sinfulness, our broken-heartedness, our imperfections. He desires our love, though before Him we are all, as Merton puts it, “poor and empty-handed.”

I’m reminded of the first few lines of Francis Thompson’s famous poem about God’s pursuit of the human soul, “The Hound of Heaven.” God pursues us because He desires us, but we often flee from His love, as the speaker of Thompson’s poem recalls:

I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter...
From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.

It’s often tempting to flee in shame at the sound of those “strong Feet,” but God expects us to love Him out of our sinfulness. God shows us His love for us, St. Paul says, in the fact that “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). We must have a contrite heart, a profound awareness of our own sinfulness, in order to accept God’s forgiveness. We must love God in humility, without pretense, in order to accept the mercy He offers us from the cross. In another passage taken from Thoughts In Solitude, Merton points out that we can, in fact, only experience the “full sweetness” of God’s mercy if we love Him with an imperfect, “human” love:

“You desire the love of my heart because Your Divine Son also loves You with a human heart. He became a human being in order that my heart and His heart should love You in one love… If I therefore do not love You with a human love and with a human simplicity, and with the humility to be myself, I will never taste the full sweetness of Your Fatherly mercy, and Your Son, as far as my life goes, will have died in vain.”

Likewise, at the end of Thompson’s poem, God reminds the soul He has pursued relentlessly that His desire stems not from the soul’s own merits, but from His longing to offer Himself:

"Rise, clasp My hand, and come!
… Ah, fondest, blindest, weakest,
I am He Whom thou seekest!"

God desires us, and hopes that we will love Him humanly so that He can shower His mercy on us; but because His love for us is limitless, it doesn’t stop there. God desires our human love, yes, but He also desires its perfection. This distinction is the great truth we see shine forth in the lives of the saints.

In His great mercy, God calls us to press forward in our brokenness, to take up our own cross and to learn to love more perfectly (Luke 14:27). He calls us to strive for the perfect holiness of sainthood, to be perfect as He is perfect (Matthew 5:48). We read in Chapter 5 of Lumen Gentium that “all Christians in any state or walk of life are called to the fullness of Christian life and to the perfection of love.” On our journey toward this perfection, God’s mercy is indispensable, and so we must learn to go before Him, as Merton says, “with a human love and with a human simplicity” and the humility to be ourselves – and yet we must not forget where we are headed, which is towards perfection in love.

More to come next week, and perhaps the week after…

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

The Wounding Beauty: An Unexpected Love

The transcendental of Truth shouldn’t be our only weapon against the “tyranny of relativism” and modern man’s rejection of God. Rejection of God is more than a rejection of Truth but also of true Goodness and Beauty. For those who shut their ears at the mere mention of truth, perhaps helping them realize the truth and goodness within beauty is a first step.

We all feel the longing for meaning. Even those who are self-proclaimed hedonists living for the pleasures of the moment give partial lip service to their idol. They’re still living for something, even if it is a perversion of a good. Maybe they will best understand true beauty when they experience it – assuming they allow their hearts to be opened when they do.

As Christians we experience the true beauty of Christ, his love and his wounds. This beauty is both true and good in its essence, which are only different aspects of the same reality. In Cardinal Ratzinger’s “The Beauty and the Truth of Christ” he presents us with the paradox of a beauty not overcome by aesthetics or grotesqueness: the beauty of eternal love made manifest in the life, suffering, and death of Jesus, our Christ.

“Implicit here is the more radical question of whether beauty is true or whether it is not ugliness that leads us to the deepest truth of reality. Whoever believes in God, in the God who manifested himself, precisely in the altered appearance of Christ crucified as love "to the end" (Jn 13,1), knows that beauty is truth and truth beauty; but in the suffering Christ he also learns that the beauty of truth also embraces offence, pain, and even the dark mystery of death, and that this can only be found in accepting suffering, not in ignoring it.”

Ratzinger draws upon two sources, Plato and Nicholas Cabasilas.

“Plato contemplates the encounter with beauty as the salutary emotional shock that makes man leave his shell and sparks his "enthusiasm" by attracting him to what is other than himself. Man, says Plato, has lost the original perfection that was conceived for him. He is now perennially searching for the healing primitive form.”

Beauty begins and continually revitalizes man’s search for the “other,” an “other” who possesses perfection. It lifts him out of himself and causes him to suffer the longing for the restoration of that which has been lost in himself. Few could look at Mother Teresa at the bedside of the dying and not be wounded by the scene’s beauty. Here is a suffering so beautiful that it will break your heart.

He then cites Cabasilas:

"When men have a longing so great that it surpasses human nature and eagerly desire and are able to accomplish things beyond human thought, it is the Bridegroom who has smitten them with this longing. It is he who has sent a ray of his beauty into their eyes. The greatness of the wound already shows the arrow which has struck home, the longing indicates who has inflicted the wound" (cf. The Life in Christ, the Second Book).

What greater beauty can be found than in He who is Beauty, God incarnate. When we become like Christ, we reflect His beauty with all the wounds and humility accompanying this beautiful Christian life. We become the saints God predestined us to be, and “nothing but saints can save our world.”

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

The Grace of a Whiskey Priest: Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory

Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory is a riveting tale about a “whiskey priest” in a Mexican police state that has outlawed the Roman Catholic Church. The nameless padre is effectively trapped within a relatively small region of Mexico because, though he is constantly traveling towards the safety across the border, he is frequently waylaid by run-ins with either the militant police or desperate Catholics who haven’t seen a man of the cloth or received the sacraments in years. The little priest is embroiled in a game of subterfuge, stealth, and sacrament with his life and the faith of his countrymen at stake.

(Wow. That was both succinct and intriguing, wasn’t it? I totally should write for the back covers of books.)

The character of the anonymous priest is fascinating. He is a drunk, has had a child while on the run, and has been without any sort of spiritual food for so long that he has all but lost his own faith—or so he claims. He experiences such lucid awareness and deep shame over his own failings as a priest that he is loathe to perform his priestly duties, but always does so anyway. He is a slave to drink, doubt, and cowardice, but knows it and is humbled by this knowledge. In short, as the back cover of my book (where this guy did a pretty good job, too) puts it, he is “too human for heroism, too humble for martyrdom.” He is terrified of being found and executed, but is also so exhausted after almost ten years of being an undercover priest that he longs for that same end. He views it as his duty to protect his life, however, because of his service to the Lord and to his people, and therefore perseveres despite his absolute conviction that he is a terrible priest and the knowledge that he is living as a hypocrite.

He is a study in contrasts and—if only he had known it!—is a figure of grace because he strives to follow the contrast in conjunction with his vocation. However, this is not his most admirable quality, in my opinion. His (often) humility and (often) purity of motivation are what really strike me as I read it. He has been so trampled by his sins and is so humble because of it that his actions are almost completely without desire for vainglory or reward. He thinks of himself as damned (he has celebrated Mass and therefore received the Eucharist in the state of mortal sin, and, what is more important, thinks that because he loves his daughter he has not repented of his sin in conceiving her) and therefore acts according to his obligations to his vocation even though he is in constant danger of being caught and executed by the lieutenant who is hot on his trail.

Another interesting aspect of the book (really, there are so many—I HIGHLY recommend it for multiple readings) is that the priest’s sins cause him to have a heightened sense of pity and empathy for his fellow men. For example, when confronted with a revolting man whom he knows wants to turn him in to the police for a considerable reward,
“He prayed silently, ‘God forgive me.’ Christ had dies for this man too: how could he pretend with his pride and lust and cowardice to be any more worthy of that death than the half-caste? This man intended to betray him for money which he needed, and he had betrayed God for what? Not even real lust.”

And again, his compassion is revealed in another passage:

“When you visualized a man or woman carefully, you could always begin to feel pity—that was a quality God’s image carried with it. When you saw the liens at the corners of the eyes, the shape of the mouth, how the hair grew, it was impossible to hate. Hate was just a failure of imagination.”

The priest’s state of misery, self-disgust, near-despair, longing for grace, and insight into the nature of sin combine to make him a multi-faceted and fascinating character. The novel offers an interesting perspective on sin and holiness that I might just continue expounding upon later…