Friday, August 28, 2015

Ever Ancient, Ever New

Today is the feast of St. Augustine, bishop and doctor. In one of the most well-known passages from his Confessions, he describes his experience of coming to know divine Truth, which he compares to light. At first it is entirely overwhelming, so that he only knows that there is such a light; but in time, he comes to see by this light and to know Him as Christ. Here's the excerpt used in the Office of Readings:
Urged to reflect upon myself, I entered under your guidance the innermost places of my being; but only because you had become my helper was I able to do so. I entered, then, and with the vision of my spirit, such as it was, I saw the incommutable light far above my spiritual ken and transcending my mind: not this common light which every carnal eye can see, nor any light of the same order; but greater, as though this common light were shining much more powerfully, far more brightly, and so extensively as to fill the universe. The light I saw was not the common light at all, but something different, utterly different, from all those things. Nor was it higher than my mind in the sense that oil floats on water or the sky is above the earth; it was exalted because this very light made me, and I was below it because by it I was made. Anyone who knows truth knows this light.

O eternal Truth, true Love, and beloved Eternity, you are my God, and for you I sigh day and night. As I first began to know you, you lifted me up and showed me that, while that which I might see exists indeed, I was not yet capable of seeing it. Your rays beamed intensely on me, beating back my feeble gaze, and I trembled with love and dread. I knew myself to be far away from you in a region of unlikeness, and I seemed to hear your voice from on high: “I am the food of the mature: grow, then, and you shall eat me. You will not change me into yourself like bodily food; but you will be changed into me”.

Accordingly I looked for a way to gain the strength I needed to enjoy you, but I did not find it until I embraced the mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus, who is also God, supreme over all things and blessed for ever. He called out, proclaiming I am the Way and Truth and the Life, nor had I known him as the food which, though I was not yet strong enough to eat it, he had mingled with our flesh, for the Word became flesh so that your Wisdom, through whom you created all things, might become for us the milk adapted to our infancy.

Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you. In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you. Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would not have been at all. You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me, and I burned for your peace.
The phrase "ever ancient, ever new" has particular resonance for me of late, as a description not only of God but also the Church's life of faith. (Incidentally, it is no surprise that the same phrase could apply to both, since the Church is the Mystical Body of Christ.) Admittedly, this blog is a strong supporter of tradition and a whole variety of ancient things. It is tempting to assume that the oldest forms of the faith are the best and we should simply strive to replicate such storied practices. But Jesus himself teaches that “every scribe who has been instructed in the kingdom of heaven is like the head of a household who brings from his storeroom both the new and the old” (Mt 13:52). There was a time when monasticism was new. There was a time when the mendicants were new. Today we too are called to express Christianity in ways that engage with new cultures and the contemporary world, without abandoning the riches of our religious patrimony.

H/T to The Crossroads Initiative for the excerpt from the Office of Readings.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

New Zealand's New Flag

In case you haven't heard, New Zealand will be holding a referendum to decide whether or not to replace its current flag:

As an Anglophile, I'd be sad to see the Union Jack go.  And, as a vexillologist I appreciate the British flag's excellent design.  But putting a good design in the corner of your flag doesn't necessarily make the derivative flag a good design.  Moreover, flags are meant to be distinguishable and New Zealand certainly has a problem distinguishing itself from Australia.

There will be voting later this year to choose a candidate which will then go head-to-head against the current flag in a second round of voting next year.

Among the official long list of proposals, there are several that I like.  The white and black fern is a traditional symbol of New Zealand, used since the 19th century, and is a very clean design.  (There's also a nice variant of this with green.)

Another design, titled "Land of the Long White Cloud," incorporates the Southern Cross from the current flag with the colors of the Maori flag:

I also like the Black Jack, which is a stylized version of the current flag, but uses traditional New Zealand black and the koru, an unfolding fern frond, another traditional New Zealand symbol:

Of course there are more possibilities than just those that made the official long list.  One option would be to use the United Tribes Flag, arguably New Zealand's first flag, which incorporates elements of British vexillology.

Do you have a favorite from the long list?  Thoughts on when it's right and wrong to change flags?  Please, share!

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Willa Cather's "Spanish Johnny"

Reviewing the book proofs, reading Laudato Si (more on that later), and spending quality time with my family have prevented me from posting more frequently, though several new posts are in my head, if only I can find the time to write them. In the meantime, here is a poem by Willa Cather that Garrison Keillor sang on Saturday evening when he visited town.

Spanish Johnny

The Old West, the old time,
     The old wind singing through
The red, red grass a thousand miles—
     And, Spanish Johnny, you!
He’d sit beside the water ditch
     When all his herd was in,
And never mind a child, but sing
     To his mandolin.

The big stars, the blue night,
     The moon-enchanted lane;
The olive man who never spoke,
     But sang the songs of Spain.
His speech with men was wicked talk—
     To hear it was a sin;
But those were golden things he said
     To his mandolin.

The gold songs, the gold stars,
     The word so golden then;
And the hand so tender to a child—
     Had killed so many men.
He died a hard death long ago
     Before the Road came in—
The night before he swung, he sang
     To his mandolin.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Happy Feast of St. Benedict! How Do We Live It?

Today is the feast of the abbot Benedict of Nursia.

Inspired by Rod Dreher, himself inspired by St. Benedict, I've been thinking a lot lately about the so-called "Benedict Option," aimed at intentional Christian living in a post-Christian age.  Although more a set of questions than a real program, I think this conversation, which has been going on for a couple years now since Dreher's initial post, offers valuable food for thought.  I suggest you check out the following:

"Benedict Option," The American Conservative, the original blog post by Dreher from 2013.

"Christian and Countercultural," First Things, an elaboration by Dreher from 2015.

"Critics of the Benedict Option," The American Conservative, Dreher's latest blog post which addresses some misconceptions (and refuses to get drawn into greater specifics than the idea requires).

"Benedict Option Reading Suggestions (Updated)," Fare Forward, a guide to various comments on and critics of the Benedict Option.

O God, who made the Abbot Saint Benedict an outstanding master in the school of divine service, grant, we pray, that, putting nothing before love of you, we may hasten with a loving heart in the way of your commands. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

Saint Benedict, pray for us!

Today's image comes via the Saint Meinrad Archabbey.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Two Remarks on Obergefell v. Hodges

Justice Scalia, at the very beginning of his dissent in Obergefell v. Hodges, showed that he still is, and most likely will die, a legal positivist. Now, I have some sympathy for Justice Scalia’s position. Positive law is supposed to be about reaching logical conclusions. In any given case, the judge must ascertain what the applicable rule of law is and then apply it to the facts before him. Ideally, he should be able to summarize his ruling in a clear outline, with each conclusion following logically from the rules of law. The judge must also be able to justify the weight he gives to certain facts and his assessment of the various witnesses’ credibility in an intellectually coherent manner. Last Friday’s decision—as Justice Scalia is perfectly correct to point out—failed miserably as jurisprudence from the point of view of positive law; Justice Kennedy’s “rules of law” were, in Justice Scalia’s memorable insult, no more than “fortune cookie aphorisms."

However, Justice Scalia errs in foreswearing all notions of natural law or metaphysics, at the very beginning of his dissent. After all, where do the rules of law, the premises of our legal syllogisms come from? We lawyers are taught always to cite to the relevant authority, but we rarely admit that our citations to authority cannot regress ad infinitum. At some point we must discuss first principles. Justice Scalia’s solution to this conundrum is not the Catholic solution—he does not invoke natural law to supply him the premises for his arguments. Rather, he insisted last Friday, as he has throughout his career, that in a democracy these premises must be supplied by the people, as expressed in their legislation (Constitution and statutes). Vox populi, vox Dei is the supreme rule in Justice Scalia’s jurisprudence.

Justice Scalia’s solution, though, is false; it runs into two problems. First, it denies the fundamental insight of natural law that over and above positive law there is a transcendent justice which positive must respect; a positive law that contradicts this transcendent justice is null and void and cannot bind the individual conscience. Even though most Americans have a very skewed notion of this transcendent justice—and Justice Scalia is right to combat these errors aggressively—these same Americans are nevertheless correct in their intuition that an unjust law is no law at all, and that our nation’s highest court should say so.

Second, it is futile for Justice Scalia to protest against Justice Kennedy’s smuggling of quasi-metaphysical notions of freedom and equality into the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence when the 14th Amendment makes these same notions the very cornerstone of our law. Justice Scalia’s valiant efforts to limit the baleful influence of vague ideas of freedom and equality on America by resort to historical research and originalism have always been bound to fail because freedom and equality have been our dangerous ferment since the days of the Revolution. They have been acting throughout American history, sometimes quickly and sometimes slowly, but always there. Justice Scalia’s historical research ignores this fact.

In short, because of his own philosophical blinders—his legal positivism—and his own ideological commitments—to democracy—Justice Scalia will never actually address first principles, which was what our nation so needed to hear on Friday.

(Ed Peters makes a similar point in his post on Justice Scalia.)

The Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges also makes me ask whether ordinary legal processes are adequate for determining first principles. In fact, this gay “marriage” case illustrates perfectly why the answer to this question is “no.”

A cardinal rule of appellate litigation is that a reviewing judge is not supposed to consider any facts (except the most trivial) that are not contained in the record; likewise, the litigating attorneys may not refer to any facts (except the most trivial) outside the record, except by way of analogy. The record—for all you non-lawyers out there—is the documented proceedings and testimony taken in the trial court. It contains the parties’ pleadings, the sworn testimony recorded by the court reporters, and, in some cases, the physical evidence. Even in our increasingly digital age, all the case records I have ever dealt with in my law practice have been bound collections of paper documents. In other words, if litigating attorneys want the reviewing judges to consider certain facts, it must be introduced into evidence at trial properly and then included in the record. If something is not in the record, it does not exist for the judge and the attorneys.

But, when the question is as complex as the nature of marriage and its incompatibility with homosexuality, a question which could be studied over the course of an entire lifetime, how does a litigating attorney even begin to develop an adequate record and a reviewing judge to read and comprehend it? The issues involved are too complex and the required expertise too variegated for busy attorneys and judges to master these issues within their own lifetimes.

Our legal processes are well designed to deal with discrete incidents, but not with broad social policy or great philosophical issues. Nevertheless, if the law is to have a firm foundation, it must ultimately have recourse to philosophy. But woe to the nation that looks for answers to the most vexing questions of philosophy to Justice Kennedy.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Thomas More's Priorities

Today is the feast of St. Thomas More.  Seeing as how he's one of my favorite saints, I've written about him before and shared some clips from the excellent film, A Man for All Seasons.  

Today I wanted to share a short poem or prayer - a psalm, he called it - that he wrote in his final days.  It hangs on my cubicle wall at the office, as a reminder of the importance of the eternal things and the vanity of this passing life.  If the tone sounds a bit dour, remember that this was written while More faced the prospect of death.  But also recall that More was a man prone to jokes and laughter.  If there is seriousness here, it is the fruit not of a melancholy personality, but of deep reflection by a man who had come to understand his utter dependence on God.

Tower of London, 1534-35 

Give me thy grace, good Lord: 
To set the world at nought; 

To set my mind fast upon thee, 
And not to hang upon the blast of men’s mouths; 

To be content to be solitary,
Not to long for worldly company; 

Little and little utterly to cast off the world, 
And rid my mind of all the business thereof; 

Not to long to hear of any worldly things, 
But that the hearing of worldly phantasies may be to me displeasant;

Gladly to be thinking of God, 
Piteously to call for his help; 

To lean unto the comfort of God, 
Busily to labor to love him; 

To know mine own vility and wretchedness,
To humble and meeken myself under the mighty hand of God; 

To bewail my sins passed, 
For the purging of them patiently to suffer adversity; 

Gladly to bear my purgatory here, 
To be joyful of tribulations;

To walk the narrow way that leadeth to life, 
To bear the cross with Christ; 

To have the last thing in remembrance, 
To have ever afore mine eye my death that is ever at hand; 

To make death no stranger to me,
To foresee and consider the everlasting fire of hell; 

To pray for pardon before the judge come, 
To have continually in mind the passion that Christ suffered for me; 

For his benefits uncessantly to give him thanks, 
To buy the time again that I before have lost;

To abstain from vain confabulations, 
To eschew light foolish mirth and gladness; 

Recreations not necessary – to cut off; 
Of worldly substance, friends, liberty, life and all, 
     to set the loss at right nought for the winning of Christ;

To think my most enemies my best friends, 
For the brethren of Joseph could never have done him so much good 
     with their love and favor as they did him with their malice and hatred. 

These minds are more to be desired of every man 
     than all the treasure of all the princes and kings,
     Christian and heathen, were it gathered and 
     laid together all upon one heap.

Today's icon comes from Monastery Icons.  And a tip of the hat to the Center for Thomas More Studies at the University of Dallas, which provided the text.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Happy Solemnity of the Ascension (sort of)!

Thursday was the Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord. But in most of the United States it is celebrated today. Ever wonder who gets to decide if it moves? No, it's not the bishop. It's actually the archbishop, so that an entire ecclesiastical province, composed of an archdiocese and its suffragan (i.e. affiliated/subordinate) dioceses have the same practice. So here in the Diocese of Richmond, we follow the practice chosen by the archbishop of Baltimore. In the ecclesiastical provinces of Boston, Hartford, New York, Philadelphia, Newark, and Omaha, the Ascension is celebrated on Thursday; everywhere else it is moved to the following Sunday.

Curious which ecclesiastical province you're in? Take a look! (Note that this map shows the archdiocese of each province in a slightly different color from the rest of the province. If that confuses, you, try this map instead.)

In the course of digging up the map above, I stumbled upon the historical map below, c. 1912, back when there were only fourteen provinces. You can see that the number of diocese and provinces has proliferated considerably in the past century, to thirty two Latin provinces in the continental US.