Saturday, December 25, 2010

Merry Christmas! The Bringing of Jesus' Human Body into the Trinity is Forever!

It is truly awesome to think of the endless blessings for mankind of the Incarnation--the Word becoming flesh to dwell among us.

I tend to emphasize in my thoughts, when recalling the reality of Jesus' humanity, that God became one of us and was born into our human condition (but for sin) on that blessed day in Bethlehem. But, it blows me away to think about this as well, that ever since the Ascension, a living, glorified human body has entered into the very life of the Divine Trinity itself--forever.

God has so dignified and lifted up our human nature that He has even brought this nature into the very heart and center of the blazingly glorious life and love of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit for all eternity. Out of the entirety of His wondrous and beautiful creation He has only chosen one nature to enfold into His very divine self--human flesh. When the child Jesus was born, who could have imagined this destiny? Praise God for this ineffable and incredible mystery!

I want to extend heartfelt wishes to you, dear readers, and your families, and all whom you love for a most blessed, peace-filled, and joyous Christmas!

Anyone who reads this blog and is so disposed let us keep each other in prayer, that we might always eagerly embrace the superabundant grace of God which is poured into the world through the life of that precious babe born in Bethlehem in a manger on that blessed day.

"And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us." (Jn 1:14)

In the joy and peace of the infant Jesus,

[Ascension Icon from]

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Foodie Shows Reveal the Natural Human Reaching Toward a Standard of Perfection: How "Top Chef" is a Rebuke to the Strange Avoidance of Standards in Contemporary Visual Art

This thought came to me earlier this evening as I was eating some canned soup (If you eat canned soup, I recommend Progresso). Food shows like Top Chef (Bravo) and Iron Chef America (Food Network) and many others that are available now on cable networks demonstrate this very intriguing facet of life: even in the midst of a great variety of cultural experiences, underneath this we find it a naturally human thing to want to rate artistic endeavors on some kind of common scale from worse to better to best--from less to more valuable to the culture.

Cooking on a high level where artistry and great culinary talent and skill are on display, I would say, falls within the realm of artistic endeavors. Now, I'm not talking about a hot dog stand, but about cooking that aspires to deliver something culturally wonderful, ennobling, exhilarating--something excellent and valuable as a culinary production. Great chefs are artisans; this is integral to their vocation. And even though we acknowledge that high cooking is an art, it seems to me that the world of the culinary arts is the most subjective of all the arts. Truly, can it be said that a particular dish prepared by a particular chef is greater than all other dishes? No. But does this imply there are no standards by which we may assess a dish's level of perfection? No.

For example, imagine three chefs are making a dish using the same kind of fish--cod, let's say. And let's imagine that each of them makes a dish that is very different from the other two--different styles, different spices, different ingredients to complement the fish. And let's imagine they are in a competition and a panel of judges is tasting their dishes (such as on a show like Top Chef). Even though the dishes are very different, the very fact that they are being judged against each other and are ranked by the judges in order of excellence as first, second, and third, implies the obvious assumption that there are some common standards by which to judge them. The fish, for example, should be cooked properly. Undercooked or raw fish would be unacceptable. Likewise, overcooked fish would be unacceptable. The presentations on the plate are different, yet, they are expected to be appealing and attractive to the eye. The use of the ingredients is expected to complement the fish, not drown it out or clash with it. The way all the ingredients are prepared would be expected to display a high level of skill in using the knife and likewise in all the ways the ingredients were handled.

There are some expected standards of cooking that the judges would rightly expect to see in a great dish. Nobody expects the food of different chefs to taste just like each other. Yet, nobody seems to object to the idea that we can judge and rank different chefs in comparison to each other, even as they prepare different dishes and use different ingredients. Travel guides and web sites and newspapers have a variety of rating systems whereby they indicate the level of excellence of a particular dining establishment. Food critics are people whose profession is to taste food and critique it, judging it and rendering a final opinion as to the level of excellence of a particular dish or of a particular chef or restaurant.

So, there is a great (seemingly endless) diversity in culinary styles and in types of prepared food dishes--Italian, Chinese, Greek, Indian, Thai, French, Mexican, etc. There are regions within regions. There are chefs who specialize in certain regional foods and ethnic food customs, and yet each chef has his own particularly distinctive character as an individual chef. One French chef's food does not taste exactly like another French chef. Yet, we do not think it strange or impossible or unfair that we should compare different chefs and render a decision as to whose food is better. And this is as it should be. Of course we can judge different chefs and conclude who is best. Every travel guide giving the number of Michelin stars awarded to restaurants is a testimony to this.

How is it that we can do this? It is because, underneath the vast variety and differentiation among food styles and among chefs, there still remains a body of some common standards by which we judge the final results. Fish cooked properly has certain characteristics, no matter what sort of dish it is in. Food should not be over-seasoned (or under-seasoned). A gravy should not have lumps. Watch the judges make critical comments and render their final conclusions about various dishes on a competitive cooking show like Top Chef or Iron Chef America, and you will see there are common expectations even in the midst of the dizzying variety. And of course, the bottom line that is always present no matter what--the food should taste good!

Now, switch from the culinary arts to considering the visual arts--particularly contemporary art. All of a sudden, what we find obvious and natural and take for granted in the realm of food--that we can use common standards in judging widely varying food dishes in comparison to each other and that we may rank them in levels of excellence in respect of each other--we seem to completely forget and ignore when it comes to contemporary visual art. (Or, more accurately, this applies to "professional" art critics and other regular figures of the contemporary art world). Why do we do this?

If anything, it seems to me, judging food is even more subjective than is the endeavor of comparing visual artworks. And yet, the gurus of the contemporary art world try to insist there is really no common standard of artistic excellence. Art, so this view goes, should be whatever the artist wants it to be. Each artist's production is like it's own independent cultural world, sealed off from the rest of reality, especially from the rest of the art world--especially that art which hails from the past.

I find this strange and even somewhat inhuman. We should approach visual art more like we approach the creations of great chefs. Yes, there is tremendous variety and uniqueness present among the works of different artists. But, this does not thereby render us unable to compare them to each other in the order of artistic excellence. There are natural, commonly apprehensible (even if difficult to articulate in words) standards which we can and should use to judge works of visual art. Visual art, though endlessly divergent and diverse, can be called better or worse; some works of art are of greater overall cultural value than others. And similarly, as with food, while there is a component of individual taste there are still commonly understandable standards even in the midst of vast variation.

I think most ordinary citizens realize this, even if they don't normally think about it in a particular way.

And so, this is how foodie shows--especially competition shows with judge's panels--manifest the universality of our human striving toward a commonly recognizable perfection through the activity of creating art. And because such shows indicate an implicit acceptance of a shared understanding of perfectibility toward which artistic creativity strives, they also, I would suggest, constitute a rebuke to the strange avoidance of standards in the assessment of contemporary visual art. Perhaps if you watch Top Chef, you might become better (more comfortable?) at evaluating other types of art, being more rooted in the naturalness of applying universal standards to a variety of artistic outputs.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Catholic Teaching on Concupiscence: Further Information in Consideration of TOB, part 3

Following is my third comment on Dawn's blog (May 25, 2009).

Catholic Teaching on Concupiscence: Further Information in Consideration of TOB, part 2

Following is my second comment on Dawn's blog (May 25, 2009).

Catholic Teaching on Concupiscence: Further Information in Consideration of TOB, part 1

This post, and the several that will follow this one, are intended as an expansion and further fleshing out of the topic of my original June, 2009, post, "Concupiscence, Catholic Teaching on."

This topic continues to be very relevant especially given the ongoing discussion in various internet quarters, sometimes testy, about Christopher West and the popular presentation of John Paul II's Theology of the Body.

In my above 2009 post, I linked to several comments I had made a few days earlier in discussion threads on Dawn Eden's blog, The Dawn Patrol. I would like to pull out those comments from the depths of the thread netherworld and reproduce them here in the hope that they might be helpful for this ongoing and important discussion. My primary aim is to help illuminate a bit more deeply the important background that is necessary to have understood before a person has a chance at carrying on a fruitful discussion about popular presentations of TOB. This background is the Catholic tradition's teaching about the interior tendency to commit sin (called concupiscence).

Following is my first comment on Dawn's blog (May 25, 2009).

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Going Home: The House That Built Us Helps Point Us Back to Our Eternal Builder

Here is a beautiful country song, "The House That Built Me." [HT: Jill Stanek] It's sung by Miranda Lambert. I hadn't heard of her (I don't follow country music, though I do like it), but it seems she is a rising star in the country music world since she just won some big awards at the recent CMA awards show, including Female Vocalist of the Year. Take a listen. As you do, ask yourself, what is implied in a desire to learn something about myself through making physical contact with meaningful places from my childhood?

I'll bet this song strikes a chord with many people because it touches one of those fundamental themes that seems to be common to all people--a yearning to go home. In this song, it's a desire to make a visit to the house of one's childhood in order to kindle and relive cherished memories from the past. And, I think, also to gain a deeper insight into the person you have become as an adult. Sort of an imaginary look back at the child you once were from the perspective of adulthood, precipitated by a physical place that has a special meaning to your youthful self.

There is something mysteriously attractive about returning to special childhood places after you have grown beyond childhood. It's part, perhaps, of our continuing search to seek to know ourselves more truly, to answer that question, "Who am I?" The physical places where we lived and underwent our most formative experiences as a child seem to hold some essential piece to the puzzle of our true identity. And, there is probably no physical place more important in this regard than our childhood home.

I also tend to link this to the religious impulse that God has placed within us. By nature, we have a hidden, secret yearning to go home--to a home that is our true home, that place of genuine peace and belonging and deep, unquenchable joy. We want to find this place. And we seem to have a desire to connect this true home that we seek to that childhood place from which we came. Somehow, we sense that they are--or at least, should be--related.

Plato recognized that every human being who examines himself interiorly with some degree of seriousness discovers that he has certain longings and mysterious traces of understanding within his soul that could be interpreted as dim vestiges of a life before birth, barely discernible in the hidden and deepest depths of the soul. It's a kind of home, out of which one was taken, to be born into this world.

Now, as Christians, we realize that this is not true--we do not preexist the moment of our conception in our mother's womb. But, there is a trace here of something that is true. We come from God--we are loved by God into existence. And He knew us before we existed. We have a "home" from which we came that lovingly wove into our being a certain directedness to go back, to make a return to that place from which we came. We have a kind of spiritual homing beacon, pointing us back to God. And even though we may not realize it, when we seek to understand ourselves better by revisiting a cherished childhood home, we are also at the same time expressing in a mysterious way our desire to see more clearly where it is that we are headed toward--to gain some insight into that more perfect home toward which we want to go.

And although we can overdo this, it is true that the path into our future can be made a little bit more clear and understandable by going back to our past. And because we are bodily as well as spiritual creatures, this self-discovery-through-childhood-home-visiting necessarily has a physical aspect to it. As we touch and look upon a place which because of our personal past is special to our heart, without consciously trying, perhaps without even realizing this, we are also seeking to make our vision into our personal future a little more known to ourselves.

I listen to this song and watch this video, and to me, it's as though this song were saying on behalf of human society, "Oh house that built me, home of my past, tell me, to where am I going? What does my past life in your surroundings tell me about the as yet now-unseen place in which my heart desires to finally be?"

Monday, October 25, 2010

Multiculturalism: An Idea Promoting Unity or Divison?

[I take my train of thought here from remarks made by talk radio host Dennis Prager while I was driving in my car earlier today]

The idea known as "multiculturalism" has been very trendy for quite some time now. But, really, what the heck is this? What does it really mean? For a long time, there has been something about it--about what seem to be its social implications as it is usually promoted--that rubs me the wrong way.

It's not as though the United States has to be introduced to the idea that it is possible for a variety of people from a diverse array of ethnic and cultural backgrounds to live and work together in relative peace and harmony. There is no place on the planet as diverse and as relatively peaceful as the United States. It is one of our greatest identifying qualities that makes the U.S. special and unique. Just about everywhere else, significant differences of culture and ethnicity placed in close regular contact results in major strife and even violence.

There was a moment when this was made especially evident to me. It was while riding the Staten Island Ferry between Manhattan and Staten Island (at the time I was living on Staten Island and rode the ferry regularly to get to Manhattan). I surveyed the people around me on the ferry one day and I became suddenly amazed at how extraordinarily diverse the people on just that one, single ferry, truly were. That one ferry-load of people was a veritable United Nations of cultures. I'm not just talking about two or three. I'm talking probably a dozen, at least, different ethnic heritages were present on that one boat. People from seemingly every continent and every corner of the world. I'll bet there were easily 12--probably more--native languages spoken among the few hundred or so people. I was awestruck for a moment and thought to myself, nowhere but here--in the United States--could such an incredibly wide spectrum of people be together peacefully in one place and not only this, but that it might be a normal, everyday occurrence, so much so that no one particularly notices.

Sure, there are places in the world where different peoples live in proximity and intermingle regularly. But the sheer magnitude of the number of different heritages and the breadth of their diversity that is found frequently in American cities is unique to the United States. Nobody holds a candle to us on this front. We are human history's greatest living example of the peaceful coexistence of a vast multiplicity and diversity of cultures.

In light of this fact, what on earth is all this hubbub in the last 20 or so years of so-called "multiculturalism"?

I suspect that the term, "multiculturalism," is not meant merely to express positive sentiments about the peaceful and respectful coexistence of peoples of many cultures. If this were all it meant, it would be somewhat redundant; it would simply be a synonym for, "The United States of America." (And yes, I know that our history is not devoid of serious social clashes among us. But taking everything in our history into account we are still far, far more advanced on this than anywhere else).

So what, in the American context (the most diverse place on earth), is meant by this relatively new term, this supposedly new emphasis? What is implied in this term that is new or different from simply how America, on the whole, has been since our earliest days? What explains the perceived need for its use?

In the past, when people from other cultures settled in the United States, they desired to become American. They still had ties and maintained certain practices and customs from the places of their heritage. But, after making it here, they did not desire to remain associated above all else with the places from which they had come. Primarily, they wanted to be associated with being, simply, American. Living as and being an American was primary. Yes, secondarily, they were still Irish, or Italian, or German, or Vietnamese, or Korean, etc. Those things were not gone. They were still important. But they were no longer the most important thing about who they were. They were Americans first, and then (significantly, importantly, yet secondarily) Italian, Irish, etc.Would such people--our great-grandparents--be called multicultural by today's promoters of this idea?

I don't think they would. And here is the problem. Why not? "Multiculturalism" in today's lingo seems to imply that one ought to maintain your ethnic and cultural heritage as your primary identity and allegiance (especially if your heritage is from somewhere other than Western Europe). Your primary, personal, interior, psychological identity and highest value, in this view, is decidedly not placed upon American culture or being American. Rather, multiculturalism encourages a disregard for America as a singularly unique and special culture in its own right and puts in its place an allegiance to a (oftentimes, I suspect, more fantasy than real) largely imaginary bond to an overly romanticized notion of one's cultural heritage.

Why is this bad? Ironically, it creates division rather than unity. The older approach did not disregard the special and unique value of many aspects of one's own cultural heritage (though at times people were probably too quick to distance themselves from all of the particularly singular aspects of their cultural heritage). But, their continued identity as being a part of a unique heritage which is Italian, German, Cambodian, etc., was placed in second place to becoming and embracing life as an American. In other words, they were still Italian, but, willingly transformed by the unique set of values which are the foundational values of America. It seems to me that "multiculturalism" no longer even cares to recognize that there is such a thing as an American culture and values in itself. Rather, it seems to want us to maintain divisions among ourselves along ethnic-cultural lines to such an extent that there could be no other option but to live in a kind of lowest-common-denominator equality in separate enclaves. If there is no overarching culture which unites us together, how can the great melting pot which is America still be a single pot, with all the flavors coming together in harmony? The direction of multiculturalism's thrust does not envision different cultures coming together making one single, unified community (i.e. America, as based on founding American values). Rather, it seems to envision lots of small pots each with their own ingredients, never mingling together as one.

So, that's my issue (one, anyways) with so-called multiculturalism. I'm all for the ideal of many diverse cultures living together in peace and harmony and mutual respect, mutually benefiting from each other's rich cultural treasures. But if we are to do this in the context of the United States of America, it ought to be done in such a way that we truly come together under the big tent of shared values that are specifically American values. To the extent that multiculturalism does not support this (and may in fact even be hostile to this), I am of the opinion that rather than being a good thing, it is (as it is actually promoted) a cancer, instilling a potentially lethal sickness into our nation. This is a sickness that divides and pulls us apart in the name of "diversity."

Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Cult of Female Sexual Power: A Boon to Women?

Today I came across a very interesting article: "Aging," by former supermodel Paulina Porizkova.

It seems to me that one of the things radical feminism has done, at least in years past, is to buy into the idea that women gain back power over their sexuality by deliberately flaunting it. It's something the whole fashion industry culture seems to take for granted. An overt, over-the-top focus on the sexual values of a woman's body is presumed to be a boon for women overall in the culture at large. Just look at the clothes in department stores for teen girls for evidence (I don't spend time doing this myself, but many others have commented on this phenomenon).

And closely connected to this is our culture's excessive and unbalanced worship of all things youthful. If it has to do with being young, a thing is presumed to be good. If something has to do with being old (especially looking old), it is presumed to be negative. The modeling and fashion industries, and advertising in general, promote these ideas. And there seems to be at least a kind of loose association in the culture between this and the progress women have made in society compared to years past.

It is true that things have become better in many ways for women over the last century. And this is, of course, a good thing. But consider the following excerpts from Paulina's article. I think she makes very prescient observations.
My first recognition of age setting in was exactly on my 36th birthday. I have no idea why, on this day of all days, I looked in the mirror and realized my face no longer looked young. I didn't look bad: only, the freshness had somehow disappeared. I immediately became hyper-conscious of my looks and went out and bought the most expensive cream on the market. (For your information, it did nothing.) And I began the battle of acceptance, something I have to do now almost every time I face a mirror. 
 And later,
But would I ever have dreamed that I would miss the time I couldn't walk past a construction site unmolested? These days when someone whistles at me, it's mostly a bike messenger about to mow me down.
To me, to let yourself age means that you're comfortable with who you are. Yes, sorry, I do believe that all the little shots here and there, and the pulling of skin here and there and the removal of fat here and there, means you still have something to prove; you're still not comfortable in your skin. The beauty of age was supposed to be about the wisdom acquired and with it, an acceptance and celebration of who you are. Now all we want for people to see is that we have not yet attained that wisdom. Aging has become something to fight, not something to accept.
Contemporary fashion and marketing have made these negative experience worse for women. Does this indicate true progress for women?

According to the messages present in our popular culture (fostered at least in a background way by a radical feminist acceptance of the notion that control of sexuality is gained by flaunting it), the most important thing about a woman is her sexual power (and this is closely linked to her youthful appearance and exterior beauty). But in such a cultural climate what happens to society's valuation of women, and of women's own sense of worth to themselves, as they age?

I would suggest that the contemporary cult of female sexual power--the unbalanced hyper-emphasis of sexual values above all other human and personal values--has not been a boon to women. In the long run, it has turned into a curse, making them more vulnerable to abuse and to being seen as less than whole persons. The tendency to quickly demote and even disregard women as soon as they become less physically attractive with age plainly shows this. Women like Paulina know this. Do the rest of us?

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Conversion by Way of Evil, Part 4

See part 1 here, part 2 here, and part 3 here.

So, I had come to believe that only supernatural origins are able to explain, ultimately, the reality of both good and evil acted out in human life in all its complexity. And I became certain that this source influencing us toward actions that we call good (for the very meaning of "the good" entails this) is superior to that source influencing us to do what we call evil.

Again, if only nature were at play in the sphere of human action--with no supernatural influence involved--it should be the case that I should be able to always do that which I have decided rationally is the best thing to do. But I can't, and I don't. This split between the knowledge of the good and what I actually do bores a hole right through any merely utilitarian or pragmatic attempt to explain human moral sensibility--most especially in considering the wretchedness that lies in waiting at the darkest depths of our worst selves. This is no mere realm of earthly nature.

So, what is this "good"--this beyond-nature source of moral influence in human life that is superior to that which pulls us toward evil? I will speak in a very summary fashion. The source of goodness must be singular--one (there does not seem to be a competition among multiple systems of goodness). This is our human experience. Search our conscience, our heart, our soul, our psyche, and we find there a spiritual wellspring gently pointing us toward the good which is entirely consistent, whole, integral, of-a-piece, with itself. It is one. I do not wonder whether that which guides me to prefer beauty over ugliness, or love over hatred, or honesty over deceitfulness, is multiple or is singular. It speaks to my heart with a unified, singular voice. It is a single orchestra playing with perfect harmony. Or, more accurately, a single benevolent power, speaking to me through various spiritual instruments that nonetheless are perfectly attentive to his one conductor's wand. This does not mean that there are no competing voices in my heart, but, I recognize them as such. Powers that try to bend me toward depravity and selfishness I realize are different powers than that one unified influence which beckons me to choose the good.

Why does this superior, unified, spiritual power have any interest in me??? Why should there be any such thing as some beyond-nature being who cares one whit what I do with my life??? These are highly perplexing questions.

Philosophically I realized, if there is such a thing as god (meaning, one single supernatural being who is all-powerful), it can not be the case that god--a real god, that is--could have any need whatsoever for human beings. For if a supposed god had any need for us he/it would not be god. Any being who needs other beings for anything, well, what kind of a god is that? Not much of a god if he/it is not all-sufficient within himself. No, god is not god if he has to seek outside himself to supply some lack within.

So, back to the question. The explanation for god's manifest interest in human life cannot be--it is philosophically impossible--that he needs to be interested in us. In other words, if god is god, we cannot be for him a source of good that he does not already contain fully in himself. If all good does not reside in all fullness in him, god is not god. A god that has to take an interest in human beings in order to gain something he lacks within, is not god. As I thought about all this, I came to this conclusion: the only explanation for god's (the singular source of all goodness) interest in we human beings has to be because he loves us! It's not because we provide something he needs. He is interested in us out of sheer goodness--out of love--out of benevolent regard for us to be good ourselves. Nothing else (if god is god--a robust, full, real god--not some wimpy half-god who needs stuff from mere human beings) makes any rational sense!

I thought about this quite a bit. I tried to come up with a philosophically satisfactory alternative explanation that answers the question why does god (understood as the all-powerful, singular source of all goodness) have an interest in human life if not because of a completely gratuitous love? Can there be any other explanation? I concluded--no. Rationally, philosophically speaking, if god is god (lacking in nothing) only one reason offers any sensible explanation as to why he should care about human beings at all--sheer love; love freely given out of total, simple generosity, and not out of any necessity. I tried to find alternative explanations for god's interest, and there are none. The only way you can find an alternative possibility to god's regard for human life than freely given love is if you demote god to less than god so that his interest can then be explained in virtue of some necessity in him to go outside himself.

And, I have not traced this line of thinking out here, but along with all of this I was realizing as well that because of the nature of the good and its influence on human life, of its unified character, and because love is the only philosophically tenable explanation for god's having any interest in us at all, god (now, capital 'G,' God) must be personal. God is a personal being! He has to be if the reason He cares about us is because of love. Non-personal beings cannot love. I had become utterly convinced that God cares about us because He must love us. And therefore, He must be personal.

I had become a thoroughly convinced and believing theist, believing not only that God exists (as the only reasonable explanation for the source of goodness in the cosmos and for its unfailing superiority over evil), but that He is a personal being who loves us out of a freely chosen gratuitous love--that He is interested in us because He loves us; that, in fact, . . . He . . . loves . . . ME!!!

This totally rocked my world. I was no longer alone in the cosmos. I had come to know that I live under the benevolent regard of a personal God who loves me out of His sheer goodness. Thanks be to God! I started thanking Him for life, for His care, for creation.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Real Man Gives Life for Wife & Baby in Split Second Decision

Men out there. This is what manhood is about. Giving of ourselves with nothing held back. Sacrificing for others. Even until death.

So many things in our culture today encourage us (men and women both) to be horribly self-absorbed. We are lulled into a kind of self-killing self-preoccupation. I hope this video is a reminder to stop being so absorbed in ourselves and start giving more of ourselves away to others in love. This is the heart and power and significance of real manhood. Most especially, Christian manhood, modeled upon the self-sacrifice of Christ.

I hope this is inspiring to others as it is to me. So men, let's stop living for ourselves and start living for others, especially the women in our lives. We aren't being real men--men after the heart of Christ--until we do.

Note from this video that this real man was already in the long habit of readily giving himself for his wife--putting her first. Here is a question for us all to ask ourselves: If I had a split second decision to make like this, no time to think it over, would I be already in the habit of choosing others over myself? Would I instantly give myself, without hesitation, so another could live?

Help us, Lord, to react like you did on the cross!

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Conversion by Way of Evil, Part 3

See part 1 here and part 2 here . . .

5. Given the above steps one through four, I came to hold that evil deeds, whether done by others or by myself, are not wholly explainable by natural, practical, utilitarian reasons. This is especially clear in cases of truly horrendous human evil. I concluded that the evidence of the awful depths of depravity of the worst human acts, together with the evidence of my own inability to prevent myself from doing bad things even when I know they are bad, reveals that there must be some power stronger than myself--stronger than any human person--that somehow tries to pull us toward evil. In fact, I came to hold that there must be a supernatural source--a power greater than can be found in the realm of the natural world alone--acting upon human persons or involved in some way, dragging us down into the depths of depravity. I simply could no longer believe, given the reality of how we experience evil in our life, that evil is totally explainable without any supernatural reality factoring in to the mix. Evil has a source beyond, outside nature, beyond that which is merely human. To me, nothing else made sense. This was the first time in my adult life that I became completely convinced that there is, without a doubt, more to the universe of existing things than what we can observe with our senses. There is a supernatural realm. And this realm is not material, but spiritual.

6. Then, I realized that the source of what we call "good" in the realm of human experience, ultimately, must also be supernatural. Not only must it be supernatural, it must be more powerful--superior--to the supernatural font of evil. And it must be one--unified--singular. How so? What we call "good," is, by its very inherent meaning, better than and preferable to evil (bad). The very meaning of the term, "good," is that which we prefer and understand to be better than other things in regard to our happiness and the fulfillment of our own lives. We call a thing "good" because it is by its inner nature better than, preferable, and superior to things we call "evil" or "bad." Now, this has consequences. Evil, I had become convinced, is ultimately involved with a supernatural reality beyond this world. But, the good is always better than those things which are evil. We understand this. It is universal to human nature. And recalling that there is a fundamental and common moral sense of right and wrong which is universally shared by all human persons (e.g. it is wrong to steal) means that there are some ultimate goods that are always and everywhere understood by we humans as better (higher, superior, always preferable) than those things we call evil. This has to mean that the ultimate source of what we call "good" is more powerful than evil. If this were not the case, we would have no universal concept of "the good" as preferable to the bad. "Good" itself would not always be good if it were not rooted in something ultimately superior and more powerful than that in which evil is rooted. Now since evil is rooted in a supernatural reality the good, therefore, must also be rooted in a supernatural reality and indeed in a supernatural reality that is always and everywhere more powerful than that reality from which evil arises. If good were not the boss in an ultimate sense, of the bad, the very term "good" would have no meaning.

Continued in part 4

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Conversion by Way of Evil, Part 2

This continues part 1 . . .

4. This is closely related to no. 2, but now restricted only to one's own self. Notice carefully the interior situation of your own person in regard to doing bad things--those circumstances when you have done something wrong and you are aware that you did something wrong. If it were true that the universal human moral code that identifies what we recognize as "good" vs. "bad" human actions were merely a matter of practical and utilitarian observation, then our own personal lives do not make sense. Think carefully about your own experience of temptation and giving in to doing something you know is ultimately bad in the final analysis (though you probably have some justification based on a lower, more superficial good). It is true in my own life, and it is manifestly also true for others, that we often do bad things that we don't really want to do, and yet we find ourselves doing them anyways. This situation has to be explained in order that any particular viewpoint about the true nature of human life might be considered reasonable. With careful analysis, I came to realize that this seemingly simple (though so often frustrating) fact about human life--that we sometimes commit evil that we do not want to do--makes a merely pragmatic and natural explanation of the universal moral nature of mankind unreasonable, even irrational. It calls out for a hard-hitting question that a pragmatist has no answer for: If choosing good acts and shunning the bad were only a result of making conclusions based upon observations and experience of what works well for an ordered society and what doesn't, then why, oh why, do we still sometimes do what we know on the deepest level of significance that we should not? This makes no sense from an exclusively pragmatic viewpoint. In other words, if it were true that the interior urgings that prompt me to act in certain ways were only shaped by the conclusions that I have reached as a result of experience and reason I ought to be able to do what I know to be right--every single time! But, in fact, I don't. WHY??? If I know that certain actions are bad (whether of lesser or greater moral gravity) and my interior motivations were impacted only by practical reasoning, I should have no trouble simply not doing what I have identified as bad actions. All that should be required to avoid them, is simply to have categorized them as bad. But this is not real life. We still find ourselves seemingly pulled against our best judgment at times to do things we know we will regret, that harm the social order rather than up-build it. If life worked on solely utilitarian and practical principles, this would not be the case. Yet it is. Therefore, I concluded that a solely practical and utilitarian explanation of the reality of human moral life as it actually exists, is highly irrational.

And so, I came to realize that an exclusively natural, pragmatic approach to explaining morally relevant human action simply fails to explain human life as it really is in two very important arenas: in regard to the most heinous, depraved and despicable evil actions done by others, and in regard to the interior reality that I, myself, (as is true for each individual person) cannot always successfully avoid doing the bad things that I nonetheless know I should not do. Think deeply about these facts of life. Ponder them. Question them. I found that when I did so, I had no choice but to consider the pragmatic explanation of our moral nature as human persons an indisputable failure. And this, most especially when pondering the true character of evil acts as committed by others and ourselves.

Continued in part 3 . . .

Monday, August 30, 2010

Conversion by Way of Evil

A frend of mine asked me to write about this, so here goes. . .

As some reading this blog may already know, I am a convert to the Catholic faith. Although (thanks be to God) I was  baptized a Christian as an infant, as I became a teenager and then an adult, my personal belief about God was agnostic.  I thought that if a person was logical and scientific in his thinking, there was no way he could be certain that God existed. If God were real, we could only guess about him from a distance, never knowing anything with conviction. This was my personal belief about God well into my twenty's. Because of this, I did not attend church on my own. I realized that it would have been a rather false way of acting to be present in a church for the ostensible purpose of worshiping a God whom I wasn't even sure existed, and even less did I think that God (if he were real) might have wanted anything to do with me personally.

And then God came very surprisingly and unexpectedly into my life in an extremely real way. But I want to write now simply about the very beginning of this major change in my life, the change from being agnostic to being completely certain, in every fiber of my being, that God is real and that not only I, but human persons in general are open to God and can indeed become certain about his reality. And that this God is not a distant God, but that He created us out of love and for love and bends down to help us follow the path of Godly wisdom.

And this conversion began, for me, by way of evil. Let me explain. . .

It has to do with morality--the reality of a universal human moral compass. I have always believed (based on human experience, observation, self-knowledge, and philosophical reflection) that human beings have a fundamental moral compass inside of us; we have a basic, bedrock orientation to want to do what we understand to be good, and to avoid what we understand to be bad (i,e, evil). And not only do we have a moral compass differentiating morally relevant acts into categories of good and evil but, at the most fundamental level of life, setting aside matters of less significance, what we recognize as good and as evil seems to be universal to all mankind. Who thinks murder is good? What culture sees lying as acceptable? Who has no problem with someone stealing their property? Such things, and others, are held to be bad by human beings everywhere.

It may not be obvious, but this sort of thinking is a very important crack (at least it was for me) in opening a doorway in the human soul to come to know God. If you firmly deny anything like a commonly shared moral compass that all human beings possess, this train of thought may not have an impact on you. But, if you are a person who, as I did, accepts that there is such a shared moral tendency within us, you might find this line of thinking resonates with you.

I used to think that our moral nature as human beings was thoroughly explainable simply upon pragmatic and utilitarian grounds. My thinking went something like this. By nature we are communal creatures and we need to live in society with other human beings. In order to live in a society that functions well and does not descend into chaos, we have to follow certain moral standards. We quickly learn what these standards are (e.g. don't kill, don't steal, don't lie) and abide by them for the sake of being able to have the sort of human community that is necessary for the support of a healthy, happy human life.

This approach has a certain tidy reasonableness. But with much deeper analysis and reflection upon the reality of human evil this explanation, I came to realize, is totally inadequate to explain life as it really is in this world.

How, then, can the reality of evil open up a path to knowing God? I will summarize how this process worked for me in numbered steps.

1. Human beings are moral creatures by nature (see above). We have an inherent and commonly shared desire to do "good" (that which we desire to do as related to our human fulfillment and happiness) and avoid "evil."

2. Observe seriously the character of human evil acts--the worst of what human beings can and have done to each other. There is no explanation on a merely natural, practical level, for the most depraved of human evils. We are capable of horrible, heinous, wretched things. Think for yourself of examples of the most horrible things you have heard of people doing. Call to mind, for example, the things people have done to innocent children. Sexual abuse. Physical and emotional abuse and neglect. Think of the awful physical torture of other persons that human beings have engaged in. Mass murder on unimaginable scales. They are truly horrible. Words fail to capture the level of horror. They are, we sometimes say, "inhuman." Indeed, they are.

3. Although I could convince myself that good acts are explainable by the need for societal harmony and thus are simply learned on a pragmatic basis, I ran into a serious problem when I thought of the darkest, most wretched depths of the worst of human evil actions. Any explanation of the human moral compass must explain both good AND evil. If you can explain only our preference for good, but cannot explain the darkest depths of human evil, your explanation fails. It is inadequate to the reality of life as it truly is.

Continued in part 2 . . .

Monday, June 28, 2010

The Legionaries of Christ: How is it That Good Priests Can Come From a Poisoned Seed?

Dawn Eden, over at Headline Bistro, wrote an interesting article, "The Holy Ghost in the Machine: Amidst the Legion Crisis, A Sign of Providence."

I plunged into making a comment after the article, only to find there is a 1500 character limit. My comment was considerably longer. So, I am publishing it here on my blog. The issue I wanted to comment about was, how is it that good priests were indeed able to be formed in the midst of a system that we have now learned had serious flaws, that was established by a man who can now be considered a manipulative, narcissistic sociopath?

I don't claim to have anything near to a full explanation of this. But here are a few thoughts that may at least shed a little light on this enigma. . .

I spent a few years (five) in the Navy. One of the things that is apparent during the experience of boot camp is that some young men are simply not constitutionally able to handle military life. Some of them leave or are weeded out during boot camp. But, there are also some young men who not only can handle military life, but thrive on it. Such men blossom in a disciplined environment of daily physical and mental rigor. The typical military man of this sort is not likely to be very interested in what is going on with the upper echelon leaders. He is simply eager to attack the challenges of the day and glad to be able to go to bed with the knowledge of a job well done, the day's obstacles overcome. Such a man loves the sense of camaraderie and esprit de corps that comes with living and working alongside other men who are eager to go into battle against great obstacles and overcome them--stronger, harder, tougher men in the end. There is something of this, I think, in every man. But some more than others seem made to embrace the masculine call to a life of self-sacrificing hardship in the form of military life. And it's not merely an eagerness for hardship and to do battle against evil--it's about entering a brotherhood, a brotherhood forged and toughened by a kind of shared adversity (and this must include physical adversity) that I'm not sure women quite understand (perhaps they do, though perhaps in a different way than men).

Why do I speak of men who thrive in the military brotherhood in the context of Dawn's article? In my opinion, there is a lot of explanatory light here.

The Legionary formation process was (still is?) presented in a way that calls very strongly to the sort of young man who would thrive under the hardships of military life. If a young man was pious, loved the Catholic faith, loved the Church, and would also be the sort to yearn for that kind of brotherhood forged between men doing battle side-by-side, he would probably find Legionary formation highly attractive.

I went on a Legion vocations weekend myself back in the 90's. And I have to say, I recall thinking to myself that it was very much like boot camp. But, boot camp forming men to fight in the army of Jesus Christ--to do battle, side-by-side, against Satan and his minions. There was a very military-like discipline and the sort of mental and physical rigor that the best American soldiers would love--strict silence, getting up promptly at the same time, showering and getting ready for the day in mere minutes, etc. The strict schedule of prayer, study, physical work, meals, physical play (often soccer) had a very military feel.

Also, consider this against the background of what I understand was a more typical American Catholic seminary life of the 60's, 70's, and into the 80's. Seminarians during that era, at least many of them, lived a rather less-disciplined life than the Legionaries. Physical hardships were not many. It was, as I understand it, in many cases a rather soft, cushy existence. I'm not speaking so much of the rigors of study and prayer, but in other ways (such as general discipline, physical labor, sports, and just a certain masculine vigor and energy of life) seminary life, at least from what I have learned of that era (and I'm sure there were exceptions), would not have been particularly attractive to an energetic, vigorous man of the sort who might have thrived in military life.

Now, what I am speaking of here is a natural attraction many pious young Catholic men would have had to the Legionary life (and I refer here mostly to their formation years because this is what seemed to be emphasized to prospective vocation candidates) simply because of its external form and its apparent camaraderie-forged-in-shared-hardship character. But, a natural attraction and a supernatural calling are not the same. They may overlap and complement each other, but they are not the same.

And, also recalling my military days, it is amazing what a merely natural disposition for military life can do to prepare for bringing forth certain natural virtues in those who become professional military men. I have had the privilege of witnessing men who had developed incredible abilities of leadership, courage, and physical and mental toughness through their military training and experience.

Place the same sort of man, who also loves Christ and His Church, in the Legionary formation of the past, and regardless of the bad seed at the top echelons, he might similarly succeed in developing at least some of the same kinds of natural virtues as a good soldier. Now, if this be a man of real and genuine faith, and eager to pray, you still have the potential for producing a priest of many fine and admirable virtues. After all, there is no lack of examples of Saints who had far less than ideal formative circumstances. The daily reception of the Eucharist, a deep prayer life, and frequent reading of Scripture, can shield a person from a lot. And I think for a man, that very yearning for a special brotherhood that can only be forged in shared struggle might have played a role in his not noticing the serious problems in regard to individual freedom of will and liberty of conscience that have since come to light as serious issues in Legionary formation.

Grace transforms nature. If there is a lot there on the level of at least some natural virtues (even though seriously lacking in important ways), there is much there to be transformed by grace, even as there still remain serious holes.

Monday, June 7, 2010

An Irony of Today's e-linked Culture: Retaining Our Humanity in a Tech Savvy Age

Here is a comment that a Facebook friend (Jeff Mauriello) posted on Facebook today:

So I'm at this coffee shop and I continue to witness a rather disturbing trend in our tech savvy society -- people seem to care more about updating their lives on their cool phones rather than conversing with the people they are physically next to. The more connected we are, the more isolated we become.
Sadly, this is so true. "The more connected we are, the more isolated we become." A very good way of putting it.

We should all stop and ponder this. In our craze to have every e-gadget to be "connected" with other people, are we becoming less and less able to relate as human beings in the most basic and most important way--in a personal, face-to-face interaction with someone who is physically right in front of us?

It is fine to use technology in ways that truly enhance and add positively to our lives. But we should never forget that if we are not careful technology can actually drive us away from those persons who are beside us in the present moment. It doesn't have to do this, but we must be conscious of this danger and strive (and pray) to use all forms of technology in a virtuous way--in a way that does not diminish our ability to remain fully human in the simplest and most fundamental of ways of interacting with other human beings.

A couple questions to help in our quest for a healthy, virtuous use of technology: Is a certain piece of technology controlling me, or am I in full control of it? Does my use of this thing make me more, or less human overall in the way I relate to other people?

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Attentive Humble Service Prevents Spiritual Blindness

If we spend our lives, for whatever reasons, only rarely doing the sort of humble yet significant everyday tasks in which we serve those with whom we live (e.g. washing dishes; laundry; grocery shopping; cooking, etc.), we risk becoming excessively self-enclosed creatures. Or, at least, we risk never going through the sort of spiritual enlargement of soul that such things work in us over time--that is, if we do such things with love, without bitterness, and while united to Christ.

I mention this in light of thinking about a particular spiritual danger faced by the wealthy. If you have enough financial wealth to afford hiring other people to clean and cook around your house, your day-to-day life can easily collapse in on itself in an encasement of solipsism. You are never (or rarely) forced to interrupt yourself from following your own whims for the sake of serving another person. You can go through the day serving mainly yourself.

Now, anyone can fall into this, and many of us do. But, I think it is a particular danger for those who are wealthy. The patterns we live for most of our lives fix themselves into grooves that are very hard to jump out of the older we get. If our life situation is such that we do not often, by the necessity of our daily activities, need to serve other people in humble ways, we should seek out regular opportunities to do this, such as volunteer and charitable work that involves simple personal service to others.

If we do not do this, and thus do not have regular times in our lives wherein we interrupt our interior fancies and reveries to reach beyond ourselves in humble, personal service to other human beings, we are likely to become blind to the real needs of others. We might become an elderly person who does not recognize the basic needs of a debilitated spouse.

Rendering ordinary, mundane, humble service to others--with love--increases our spiritual capacity to see other human persons before us as they truly are in the moment--to recognize their genuine needs as they are in the present, today. It is truly a terrible blindness to see a person in front of us and yet not be able to recognize their externally visible sufferings, not to see the basic needs which they lack. It is a great poverty not to be able to wash a floor for someone because we have blinded our ability to see such needs.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

The School of the Cross: Let Us Enroll Now, Well Before the Big Test

Just a brief thought here. . . If we want to suffer well at the end of our lives, assuming that we are given the opportunity by God of learning intensely from the school of suffering in the days leading up to our death, it is best if we do some preparation in advance.

While anything is possible with grace, it is not very likely that we will suffer well at the end of our lives if we have not learned, in the smaller everyday annoyances and pains of life, to unite our crosses with Christ. If, however, in our younger days we do practice the virtue of uniting our smaller sufferings to Christ, we will be much better prepared to be able to unite much larger sufferings to His cross as well, should this be what our Lord permits us to endure at the end of our lives.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Krauss and Plant on Artistic Collaboration, 2

Here is an interesting video with Alison Krauss, Robert Plant, and T Bone Burnett (who produced the album) speaking more about the process of making their collaborative 2007 album, Raising Sand. It relates to the subject of an earlier post, Krauss and Plant on Artistic Collaboration. (As well as this post, Yo-Yo Ma on Artistic Collaboration.)

I think this album is another example of artists producing something new and fresh as they deliberately embrace the work of those who have gone before them. In this process, the three (Krauss, Plant, and Burnett) seem to have had simultaneously in mind the spirit of the original artists and their songs, their own present-day musical intuitions, as well as the context of contemporary America with its similarities with and differences from the era in which this music was originally made.

We can see in this that paying careful attention and giving respect to the work of earlier artists--having the humility to follow in their footsteps--rather than stifling creativity, can actually serve as a strong and invigorating catalyst for producing something fresh and original and also delightfully accessible to a broad audience.

The Rounder Records promotional web site for the album describes the result as, "an album that uncovers popular music’s elemental roots while sounding effortlessly, breathtakingly modern."

When an artist remains trapped in the closed-in solipsism that seems to be encouraged in at least some modern art-world circles, I doubt if anything so enduring and broadly appealing (and therefore having such broad impact) could result.

For another musical example of the old and the new being creatively combined together to make something delightful, see Ray Charles, "Oh What a Beautiful Morning."

[And for more on the theme of the old and the new coming together, see here]

"A Living Prayer," Alison Krauss and Union Station: Wonderfully Catholic Sentiments

Here is a beautiful ballad, "A Living Prayer," sung by Alison Krauss with her band Union Station on the Tonight Show. The song was written by Ron Block, the man playing the guitar over Alison's left shoulder.

I can't help but think as I listen to the lyrics of this song, how Catholic it truly is.The sentiments behind wanting to be a "living prayer" to God as we go through life and wanting to live "inside the love the Father gives," are deeply Catholic. One could meditate and pray over these simple words with much benefit. Indeed, may we all strive, by the indwelling of the Spirit within us, to be a living prayer to the Father, learning to live inside His love in the way we care for others. The feeling behind these lyrics goes beyond seeing the loving deeds we do for others merely as a confirmation of the authenticity of our faith. These are the expressions of a heart that understands, on some level, that by being a living prayer in the way we give ourselves in love for other people, not only do we truly bring Christ to others through our own loving actions, as we do so, we ourselves also grow closer in personal intimacy to His heart.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Human Being in Heaven: Body and Spirit Together, Not A Body Only

When we think of heaven (those who do not believe that the human being is obliterated at bodily death), how do we imagine the joy that is there?

We can't, of course, know with any degree of thoroughness what heaven is like (1 Cor 2:9). But we can come to understand at least a few things, dim though they may be.

What does this have to do with the reality expressed in the title of this post, that human persons are not only composed of a physical body, but of a spiritual soul integrally united with a body?

Here is how this relates: I suspect that oftentimes when people of faith ponder the idea of life in heaven, they  imagine the joy of heaven in an unbalanced and thus incomplete way. By this, I mean that I have a hunch that sometimes we imagine only, or mostly, physical sorts of pleasures and leave out spiritual pleasure. And when we do this, we are shortchanging ourselves, hoping for a heavenly hereafter that leaves out a very integral part of our human nature. (Perhaps men are more prone to this than women.)

If I am at all correct in this, I have a suggestion as to why. It is because our life here on this earth, at least for many Americans, is so occupied and concerned with physical, bodily pleasures and discomforts. We are hyper-sensitive to our physical state of sensation, a luxury made possible by our contemporary American way of life. We want the best foods, the most comfortable cars, the most comfortable chairs, nice smelling places, the most comfortable temperature, etc. So much of what we call the enjoyment of life has become excessively concerned with physical comforts. This, in turn, tends to make us forget, or diminish, the spiritual aspects of our lives as human beings. And so, when we imagine eternity, perhaps we tend to translate our physical comfort-oriented existence here below into our notion of heaven.

Why might this be a problem? (For indeed, I believe that it is.) It is a problem because it can lead, perhaps, to our leading an unbalanced life here on terra firma before we die. If we neglect the reality of our spiritual souls, giving excessive attention to our body, we will not be able to grow and flourish as human beings in the fullest way possible. We have minds that are made for truth and goodness, and hearts that yearn to delight in the realization of beauty. This is also a problem because it might cause us to think of heaven in a rather inadequate way. The joy of heaven is no mere endless physical pleasure, like a never-ending ice cream cone. It is not a heavenly massage or a perfect recliner chair. This would not fulfill our nature as human persons, creatures of spirit and body both.

Whatever will be the myriad enthralling mysteries of eternal bliss that we will only know when we arrive, by grace, at our final home, we can say this with confidence. The experience of eternal joy that awaits us will delight every aspect of our human nature as human beings to the fullest extent. We will have unimaginable joy and delight of heart, mind, spirit, soul, and body. Life in union with the blessed Trinity will fully actualize the highest capacity of our mind's desire for truth, our will's desire for goodness, our heart's desire for beauty and for union with another person who loves us, and our psyche's desire for complete wholeness and integral and full self-possession. The full, total, and integral reality of our being will be engaged as never before.

So, when you muse about what might await us after death, don't sell yourself short and think in a way that would only imagine us to be bodily creatures who sense and feel. Realize too, that we have the faculties of our human spirit. And that our whole person, as an integral unity of body and soul, will experience the utter delight, peace, and joy for which we yearn.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Do We Have the Right to End Our Lives?

I fear there is something horrible taking place in our culture. And it has been gradually happening over the last couple of decades or so. What is this horrible thing? We are becoming, more and more, a society that has stopped believing that there is never a situation in which we may kill an innocent human being in order to solve the difficulty of suffering.

I have to believe that, say, 50 years ago, when my parents were teenagers, American society took for granted that we would never look toward killing as a way out of even the hardest situations. We handle our troubles and our sorrows by pulling together, sticking with one another, being there for each other, doing all that we can for each other. And as a nation made up mostly of people who believe in Christ, we pray. We look to Jesus on the Cross. And we trust in divine providence even when we don't have all the answers.

Or, we used to.

We are more and more a nation that no longer believes that our lives do not rest, ultimately, in our own hands. Increasingly, we consider ourselves masters of our own lives. But do we have the right even to end our own lives? Yes, even if it is for the sake of cutting short our suffering?

The fate of our society as a civilized nation largely rests on the answer.

More specifically, and of particular relevance today, may we choose to end a human life by withdrawing nutrition and hydration (food and water) from someone, in order to put an end to suffering?

Well, do we still heed the commandment, "Thou Shall Not Kill"?

No matter how it is done, deliberately killing an innocent person is a direct violation of this bedrock commandment. It is not ours to choose when or how we die. Our life is a gift from God. We do not, in the ultimate sense, own our lives. We belong to God. And He tells us, thou shall not kill.

Would it be OK to go up to a hospital bed of someone in pain, put a pistol to his head, and kill him? Why not?

If this would not be OK, then why is it OK to decide to kill somebody by starving and dehydrating him to death? In both situations, the result is the same--a dead person. And in both cases, death is the desired result chosen by those who make it happen. The intention is to kill. The only difference is that killing by pistol is messier and quicker. Death by starvation and dehydration is much neater (no blood on the walls; no loud bang), and much slower (days or weeks instead of a mere fraction of a second). But morally speaking, whether you kill by pistol or kill by removing food and water--you are just as wrong. You are doing the same thing: killing the innocent, taking life into your own hands.

If we accept that we may take life into our own hands and therefore may choose to kill suffering people by keeping food and water from them, we are not far from just putting a gun to their heads. Why not just put them in a gas chamber? Why not just stick a knife in their throat? Why not just put a bag over their head? In the end, there is no real difference.

For the love of God, may we reaffirm that we are a decent, caring, compassionate, God-fearing society. May we come to our senses and realize how shockingly sick and downright evil it is to even think that we might choose to kill the innocent, by whatever means.

In other words, please do not kill your mother or father, grandmother or grandfather, by starving them and dehydrating them to death. This is not what decent human beings do to each other. We do not kill as a way to escape our pain. Part of what makes us a civilization rather than a brutal mob is that in the face of even the biggest of troubles we do not turn on each other or abandon each other; we turn toward one another, share each others' burdens, and lift each other up in prayer. We hold each others' hands, we wash each others' bodies, we place food in the mouths of those who cannot feed themselves and provide water to those who cannot drink unaided.

Do we still believe that God has a mysterious plan, though partly hidden, for each of our lives? Do we no longer realize that we did not give ourselves the gift of life? Do we not know that God loves each of us no matter what? Do we not understand that as soon as we accept, in any situation, that we may choose to kill the innocent as a way to solve our problems that we will have at that moment become an inhuman, barbaric, decaying society that has chosen a path of hopelessness and despair over love and compassion?

Thou Shall Not Kill???

Unless we do it in a slow, bloodless, quiet way that seems so easy, by holding back food and water and  providing pain medication so our target starves and dehydrates comfortably? In a sane world, this is called murder.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Congratulations Tim Tebow!

To mark the occasion of the Florida Gators' football quarterback Tim Tebow being drafted yesterday to the Denver Broncos in the first round of the NFL draft, here is a link to an earlier post (Tim Tebow and a Special Date) that serves to remind us of the truly decent character he seems to possess.

Congratulations Tim! Congratulations, as well, to his parents for raising up a genuinely good and virtuous man. Let's hope that he continues providing this sort of example of real manhood as he moves into the NFL.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Formation in Noble, Dignified Relationships Between the Sexes: The Power of Example

In my previous post, I embedded a video clip of a couple dancing the Tango in Buenos Aires. I praised this clip because it manifests a pleasing compatibility between the music and the dance.

Here is the clip again.

In watching this particular couple dance in this video, I realize that I love this clip for another reason: it is a wonderful example of the civilizing and freeing virtue of chastity (i.e. that virtue which makes possible a noble, healthy, dignified relationship between men and women, enabling them to be passionate with each other without demeaning their value as whole, integral, unique persons who ought never be used but should always be authentically loved).

As I was looking for video clips of ballroom dancers, I noticed that the apparel worn by professional women dancers frequently makes the woman into a sex object. Their attire is often hyper-sexualized and emphasizes the woman's sexual attractiveness in an overly aggressive way as though the most important thing about the female dancer were her sexual desirability and everything else were of little significance.

Please don't get me wrong. I am not a prude, and I am not against female dancers appearing attractive and beautiful! But there is a difference between respecting the dignity of a woman as a whole person and lowering her to the level of a mere sex object to be gawked at. The latter demeans the woman and encourages men to look upon her as something less than a whole person to be respected and loved as a whole person--soul, mind, heart, body--reducing her to a body only.

As I watched this clip from Argentina, it struck me how this couple's dancing shows that it is possible to do the Tango in a way that is sensual and romantic, without becoming hyper-sexualized. The way they dance manifests a beautiful and subtle sensuality, revealing through their movement a little something of the enchanting spark that lives in the mystery of the attraction between the sexes. But, their dance does not reduce this mystery to mere animal attraction. They remain fully human; noble and dignified, even as they are passionate. I love this about the way they dance.

Wouldn't it be an awesome thing if boys, from a young age, were to consistently see the men around them treat the women in their lives this way? What if this were the normal example? If a boy were to see his father, uncles, older brothers, etc., act always with this sort of class and dignity around women, he would be given the gift of a powerful formation in the beautiful freedom of chastity even before any words were spoken. Then he, too, might one day dance a Tango as beautiful as this.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Fittingness of One Art Form to Antother: A Need for Greater Artistic Compatibility on DWTS

I don't regularly get to watch it, but when I do, I enjoy watching Dancing With the Stars (DWTS for those initiated). The show seems to have done a lot to spur a resurgence in the popularity of more traditional couples dancing. My father teaches ballroom, and many young adults as well as folks a little older have taken lessons from him in the last few years. I danced a little bit myself when I was younger.

Despite the positive aspects of the show, I have one bone to pick with DWTS. It pertains to how they match music and dance together. I am not enthusiastic about some of their music choices for particular dance routines (and I understand that the dancers do not pick the music so they have to work with what they are given). Sometimes, the style of the music does not coordinate well with the dance style.

The effect, especially if you have an idea of what the more traditional music sounds like, can be oddly incongruous. It can seem like the dancing and the music have no significant connection with each other. By contrast, the music that is traditional for the various dance styles is traditional because it fits so well with the movement of the dance. The dance movement and the music developed together and they correspond well--one could say they were made for each other (indeed, the type of music and the type of dance have the same name; e.g. "rumba" is both a dance and a type of music). And not only does the dance movement fit well with the traditional music of the same name, the "personality" of the dance, also, is very harmonious with the character of its music.

I understand that DWTS wants, and needs, to be contemporary for the sake of a young audience that was not raised on the music of Bossa Nova, Tango, etc. However, I do think it would be possible to find better contemporary music choices than some of the choices they have made. Whether the music is traditional or not, it needs to be compatible, even better--well fitted--to both the movement of the dance and the characteristic "personality" of each dance. Otherwise, we viewers have to endure watching something with our eyes that does not fit with what we are hearing with our ears.

This basic artistic principle, the need for a proper compatibility between the experience of what is happening visually on the one hand and the experience of the music that is meant to accompany it on the other, is something that has been honed to a fine art by musicians who compose and direct music for film. They are masters at matching visual (physical) form with musical form. DWTS could do better at this. Perhaps they should get some tips from composers who write music for the visual medium of film.

But, then, perhaps they do this mismatching deliberately because it tends to make a terrible lack of rhythm in a celebrity dancer much less obvious to the average viewer.

Here are two videos of the same type of dance to demonstrate what I mean. They are both Tango dances.

In this clip from DWTS, Apolo Ohno (celebrity) and Juilianne Hough (dance pro) dance to music that is definitely not Tango music. The dance begins at 1:47. They dance pretty well, but the music and the dance just do not go well together and the overall effect is thereby much diminished.

Now, here is a clip of a couple dancing the Tango in Buenos Aires, to Tango music. What a difference! To my eyes (and ears) this one is far superior because the dance and the music are harmonious. It is also striking to see the beauty of a dance like this in the context of its native cultural home.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Imitating Christ: Uniting Exhortation With Suffering Solidarity

Here is an aspect of suffering that every Christian with the help of God is called to embrace and that seems to be especially rejected today: the interior spiritual, psychological, and emotional suffering that accompanies being closely involved with other human beings who at times fail us, who sometimes hurt us, who fall short of what they are called to be and yet not turning our backs on them, not walling them off from the deepest core of our own selves (and without giving up on their potential). It is a suffering we often do not appreciate, and that I all-too-often fail to embrace.

There are two poles of this type of suffering, two places or roles in a human relationship that feel let down. First, is the person himself. When we ourselves fail to do what we should (if we want to become better persons), we are sad and experience suffering as we realize our own failings. This is the suffering of Saint Peter, “And Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said to him, ‘Before the cock crows today, you will deny me three times.’ And he went out and wept bitterly.” (Lk 22:61b-62) These are our tears too. Second, is the suffering of one who loves us, who because of his love wants us to become the best version of ourselves we can be, as he realizes our failings. This is the suffering of Jesus, who loved Peter, in the very same scene, “And the Lord turned and looked at Peter.” (Lk 22:61a) And imagine the human disappointment of Jesus when his friends fell asleep instead of remaining awake with him on the eve of his passion, “So, could you not watch with me one hour?” (Mt 26:40b) But, despite this pain of disappointment, notice that Jesus did not give up on them, he still called them on to a nobler life. And neither did he pull away from being close to them.

This pertains to a dual calling that Christ modeled for us, the entering into which is a source of a hidden interior suffering to which we are especially averse. It is the calling to strive (in accord with our vocation and gifts) to inspire others to an ever-deeper faith, to an ever-deeper embrace of the highest ideal of what it is to be human, united with another call to a special personal solidarity with others—that is, of joining in compassionate union with others as they suffer in the realization they are not all that they should be (as do we in regard to ourselves). It is less challenging to focus on only one or the other facet of this dual calling than to hold both harmoniously together. I might be good, for example, at the former—at reminding others of the high bar that Christ has set and has invited us to attain with His help. Or, I may be good at the latter—of accompanying others in a union of one heart to another when they are saddened by the lack of their own progress (giving them the consoling presence of a compassionate and empathetic soul). But we are called by Christ to strive to embrace both in our relationships. This is very challenging, requires the help of grace, and brings into our lives yet another of the many faces of suffering.

Not uniting both together in ourselves—not navigating well the dual calling of Christ both to inspire others and to share in the interior burdens that accompany personal failings—is not to be an evil person. It is, rather, to miss a significant opportunity to become more like Christ. And it is a lost opportunity that I believe is especially common today. Perhaps one reason for this is the tendency of popular culture to recoil immediately against any form of interior psychological and emotional pain. Now, wanting to alleviate such pain is not a bad thing. But trying to live life as though it were possible to eliminate all psychological and emotional torment within ourselves or others is a recipe for despair.

I am reminded of this challenge by occasions where a religious leader (or any authority figure) preaches an exhortation to his flock to be better and more faithful Christians. The message is bracing, and, as far as it goes, matches the doctrine of Christ. But apart from the leader’s preaching, in his personal relationships with his flock, he demonstrates a significant lack of compassion—he has no heart to come close to those souls who want to heed his challenging words but who often fail and thus suffer a hidden inner pain because of this failure. They look for an understanding soul who will continue to inspire them but while doing so might also join them side-by-side as they walk the path of their interior crosses of unmet expectations. In other words, we want to continue to uplift each other as fellow disciples of Christ, but we also want to be able to have a meaningful brotherhood together as we share the journey in all its aspects—its failures and sufferings as well as its triumphs. Incredibly, this is what Jesus did with His followers.

Where in the Gospels do we see Jesus modeling for us this dual calling? In many places. But here are some that come strongly to mind for me: Jesus’ loving look at Peter just after Peter denied Him three times (which I mentioned above), paired with Jesus’ tender post-resurrection encounter with Peter on the shore (“Do you love me?” Jesus asked three times. And He responded to Peter, “Feed my lambs”; “Tend my sheep”; “Feed my sheep,” ending with, “Follow me.” [Jn 21:15-19]); and Jesus’ encounter with the woman caught in adultery (See Jn 8:2-11, Jesus asks her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” And she responded, “No one, Lord,” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and do not sin again.” Note in this scene the beautiful union in Jesus of the look of love, of mercy, and yet of gentle exhortation to reform her life.) This should be the image of what we all aspire to be for each other.

Dear Jesus, please grant us the grace to love one another enough to encourage each other gently and hopefully toward ever greater transformation in you. May we do so with humility and mercy, not forgetting justice, never giving up on keeping the fire of love alive in our hearts.

[Thanks to Jennifer Fulwiler for her excellent post, Safe Miracles, which inspired this post]

Monday, April 5, 2010

Marriage: Do the Two Really Become One?

The title for this post might conjure up many themes in regard to the unity that is supposed to obtain between a husband and a wife. But right now I want to mention only one (and admittedly not the most important): finances.

It seems to be a growing characteristic among married couples to maintain financial independence from each other after they get married. I see this as a serious problem.

When a man and a woman marry, at least in the Catholic understanding of marriage, the two become one. This does not just pertain to sexual union. Their lives are to be united together in an especially close and intimate way until death--a closeness of unity that is unique to marriage. Each spouse is called to grow, with the help of God's grace, more and more able to give selflessly to the other for the duration of their marriage. They are to form a single home. Without losing their personal dignity (indeed, in a way that enhances their dignity as one who relates deeply and profoundly with another), they belong to each other.

Personally, I do not understand why a couple who truly desire to be united to each other in the sacrament of marriage would plan to deliberately keep their finances apart from each other. Why would one spouse who earns a paycheck not want the other spouse to have access to that money? Why would one spouse think of income as his or her private funds as an individual, rather than theirs--collectively--theirs as a husband-wife union? Are there husbands out there who do not want to support their wives with the money that they earn? Or, if the wife is the primary breadwinner, likewise for them? If there are, I would suggest they either do not truly want to be married, or, they don't understand what marital union truly means.

What is one spouse saying to the other if each one intends to keep his or her money carefully segregated from the other? It's as if they are saying to each other from the start, "I'm committed to you, but not completely. I reserve the right to make it easier for me to break apart and leave. I don't intend, necessarily, to be committed to our union 'til death do us part. I am not committed to unconditional mutual support for each other when it comes to money."

I suspect that the growing practice of cohabitation before marriage contributes to this. Before marriage, a cohabiting couple naturally have independent financial lives. When they marry it is easy for them simply to continue this segregation because they have gotten used to living as though they were married, but without truly being so. Their union was not complete. And so after they marry they are already in a habit of living together but remaining separate financially. They unite, but not fully. They keep a part of themselves back from their union (just as they have already been doing).

But in some respects this is not surprising. Why should a couple who has been cohabiting, and thus become comfortable with living only as a partial union though under the same roof, not be comfortable continuing this same pattern of partial union when they marry? That the "two become one flesh" is now qualified by many footnotes has become accepted long before the marriage vows are made.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Jesus Is Risen!

Christ our Savior is Risen!

Thank you, Jesus, for rising from the dead, that we might rise also to a new life in you. May we never neglect or take for granted the incredible gift of the grace of your divine life within us.

Since this man, Jesus Christ, rose from the grave, everything on this earth is different.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Thank you, Jesus: Holy Saturday

Thank you, Lord, for opening the gates of heaven for those who could not have known you personally, but who embraced you in their sincere remorse for sin and their desire to live according to the good and the true and the beautiful.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Thank you, Jesus: Good Friday

Thank you, Lord, for giving yourself for us on the wood of your Holy Cross--
For redeeming the whole world;
For showing us the depth of your love;
For defeating the power of death;
For revealing to us a glimpse of the inner mystery of divine love as a total gift of self;
For uncovering authentic manhood;
For unleashing new streams of grace into the world, enabling our hearts to be made new so that we might love with a small share of your divine fire.

Thank you, Jesus

On the start of the Holy Triduum, I want to say thank you, Jesus, for giving us the Holy Priesthood. For through your priesthood, we, mere mortal flesh, can receive your sacred Body and Blood. Through your priesthood, we might receive through the channel of a mere man configured by grace to you, grace upon grace, and thus come to have your life coursing through our very souls. Thank you, Jesus!

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Should We Not Always Want Others to Put On a Happy Face? Misplaced Optimism as a Denial of the Cross

It is a good thing to want to encourage others to have a positive outlook about life. But sometimes this desire can be used in an inappropriate way. Sometimes there is no escaping the bitter pill of suffering. Consider the situation of when a close family member or friend is going through very real, serious suffering (such as the death of a child or terminal cancer). Sometimes we Americans are too eager to urge others to "put on a happy face," when we should do no such thing. Such efforts may inappropriately remove an opportunity to engage in genuine compassion--a beautiful virtue.

I wonder if a tendency to overemphasize putting on a happy face is yet another way that American culture rejects the cross. By encouraging others to smile through their troubles no matter what, we conveniently escape having to “suffer-with” those who are afflicted. And we thereby deny those in pain the blessing of traveling the road of hardship with someone who loves them at their side.

Do we, perhaps, reject a cross that we are called to take up—the cross of compassion (suffering-with)—by removing the suffering face of others from our midst? If we always and indiscriminately get our afflicted loved ones to put on a happy-face those signs of grief which would otherwise beckon us to leave our comfort zones, put our arms around their shoulders and provide help and companionship as they endure a cross they have no choice but to bear remain hidden; consequently, we do not have to respond to the face of suffering. It is far easier and more convenient for us to respond to a fake smile than to respond to genuine tears. But if we live this way we are choosing the easier path when we should choose the harder one, and are less human than we could be, than we are called to be by Him who made us.

I have seen this in hospital settings. Visitors, highly averse to pain and suffering, coax a seriously ill loved one to play along and pretend things are OK. Then, after they leave, the patient is left to cry alone. No one to suffer-with him, to share his cross. One wonders who really benefits when a visitor discourages outward signs of grief: the patient, or the visitor who doesn’t want to deal with the full human depth and piercing reality of suffering?

[Thanks to Katie at The Linde]