Friday, September 1, 2017

Praying for Mercy

Inspired by recent events here in Charlottesville and by this article by Marc Barnes, I've been convinced ever more of humanity's need for God's mercy and, consequently, of the need to pray for it. As a result, three prayers have been on my lips more often of late.

The first is an ancient prayer popular among Orthodox Christians. It comes in a few minor variations and is often referred to as the Jesus Prayer:
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on me, a sinner.
The second is a prayer revealed to St. Faustina, typically prayed as part of the Chaplet of Divine Mercy, and again quite simple:
For the sake of the sorrowful Passion, have mercy on us, and on the whole world.
The final prayer for mercy comes from Fatima, and against reflects the them of praying for ourselves and others:
O my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of hell, lead all souls to Heaven, especially those most in need of Thy mercy.
These are prayers you can easily insert into your day.  Please pray them, often.  Look around - we need them.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Happy Feast of St. Clare - In Word and Imagination

"Brother Leo, what do you think I saw reflected on the water down in that well?"
"My Father Francis," said Brother Leo, "You would have seen the moon that was shining in the sky."
"No, Brother Leo, I saw there the face of our Sister Clare."

The Little Flowers of St. Clare

Francis and Clare, depicted by Giotto

The short passage above, from the Italian writer (and one time mayor of Florence) Piero Bargellini, captures my affection for Clare of Assisi. 

In honor of today's feast day I actually typed out all of Murray Bodo's "The Rooms of St. Clare" before I realized that I had already posted it nearly seven years ago.  Instead, let me offer this bit of verse from Clare's fourth letter to Bl. Agnes of Prague:

Happy indeed is she
                to whom it is given to share in this sacred banquet
                so that she might cling with all her heart
                to Him
                                Whose beauty all the blessed hosts of heaven unceasingly admire,
                                Whose affection excites,
                                Whose contemplation refreshes,
                                Whose kindness fulfills,
                                Whose delight refreshes,
                                Whose remembrance delightfully shines,
                                By Whose fragrance the dead are revived,
                                Whose glorious vision will bless
                                                all the citizens of the heavenly Jerusalem:
                                                                which, since it is the splendor of the eternal glory, is
                                                                the brilliance of eternal light
                                                and the mirror without blemish.

And, finally, the collect prayer for today's feast:

O God, who in your mercy led Saint Clare to a love of poverty,
grant, through her intercession,
that, following Christ in poverty of spirit,
we may merit to contemplate you
one day in the heavenly Kingdom.
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.  Amen.

Friday, July 28, 2017

The Lost Cause: Old, New, and What To Do About It

I am not a Southerner, but I am something of a guest of the South. Although an Arizona native, I went to school in Texas (twice), married a gal from Mississippi, and settled in Virginia. Like many Americans, recent controversies surrounding Confederate monuments have spurred along my ongoing efforts to understand Southern heritage.

I appreciated Gregory S. Bucher's "Romanticism of the 'Lost Cause,'" published in First Things, for one particular insight it brought me: just because one racist raises a monument to another racist, that does not necessarily mean that racism was the motive for raising the monument. Without disputing that the Civil War was fundamentally about slavery - the declarations of secession were pretty explicit about that - one can recognize that the 19th century worldview was considerably different from most contemporary worldviews. Lost causes - not just The Lost Cause, but all of them - had a particular appeal to many, both within and outside the South, quite irrespective of the content of the cause. Seemingly fruitless suffering, most in need of justification, was conveniently - in the Romantic worldview - most noble.

History sometimes grants us insights into the motivations of actors, but those insights are rare gems. More often we know what was done, but not why. Doubtless, some erectors of Confederate monuments raised them with the explicit intention to further white supremacy and do so by casting a cloak of courage and liberty - and thus respectability - over the Southern rebellion. But I suspect that many monument erectors, whether they were racists or not, firmly believed themselves to be honoring courage, sacrifice, and freedom, even if their actions had the effect of entrenching white supremacy in the South and whitewashing the historical narrative.

History informs how we behave in the present, but it does not dictate our behavior. Discussions of history and present policy, though interrelated, are distinct issues. We may be cautious about passing historical judgements, while still being clear about what contemporary society should do. But even if, with the value of hindsight, we recognize certain monuments as racist and conclude that they must go, we can still be charitable, perhaps even generous, toward many who erected them and still value them today.

* * *

While listening to Gillian Welch - whose music, though beautiful, is consistently depressing - it occurred to me that swaths of contemporary America have embraced a new permutation of the Lost Cause myth, depicted in a variety of musical and other cultural representations. The patchwork of folk and country references which follow many strike some readers as eclectic; perhaps other selections could have been made, but I think these demonstrate the breadth of this general pattern.

The story goes something like this: America, or this corner of it, this was once an agrarian place. It was not prosperous, but homey and traditional: "We all picked the cotton but we never got rich," as Alabama sings. Or, in the words of the Carolina Chocolate Drops:
Runnin' with your cousins from yard to yard
Livin' was easy but the playin' was hard
Didn't have much, nothing comes for free
All you needed was your family.
In time, this agrarian world gave way to aspects of modern industrialization, things like coal mines and railroads. But many of its promises were unfulfilled and, after having broken the health of so many workers, this industrialization seems to have left them behind. Dan Zanes laments the railroad that never came:
Then up stepped a politician
He stopped her in her tracks
From what I understand
He turned her sent her back
The people down in Guysborough
Still waiting for a train
The dream they had for many years
Proved to be in vain.
Tom Russell describes the closing of a steel mill: "My wife stares out the window with a long and lonely stare / She says 'you kill yourself for 30 years but no one seems to care.'" 

The evils of industrialization are found in the traditional Lost Cause myth as well. Eric Foner explains, “The antebellum South was recalled as a benevolent, orderly society that pitted its noble values against the aggressive greed of northern industrial society.” In both narratives, industrialization is identified with outside forces; it is, at best, fickle, more likely deceptive and exploitative.

Yet for better or worse, industrialization came, and then largely went. So where does that leave us now? There's a strange mix of sorrow in the new Lost Cause at all that is lost and almost a celebration of the ills left behind. Gillian Welch sings:
A river of whiskey flows down in Dixie
Down along the Dixie Line
They pulled up the tracks now
I can't go back now
Can't hardly keep from cryin'.
Indeed, alcohol is a recurring theme, both in sorrow and in celebration. Charlie Daniels boasts:
People say I'm no good and crazy as a loon
'Cause I get stoned in the morning
And get drunk in the afternoon
Kinda like my old blue tick hound
I like to lay around in the shade
And I ain't got no money but I damn sure got it made.
Or, in a more elegiac form, Brad Paisley and Alison Krauss relate a tragic tale:
We watched him drink his pain away a little at a time
But he never could get drunk enough to get her off his mind
Until the night...
He put that bottle to his head and pulled the trigger
And finally drank away her memory
Life is short but this time it was bigger
Than the strength he had to get up off his knees.
Like the traditional Lost Cause, this new narrative admits to failure, but also accepts, even embraces it..

The musical threads of the new Lost Cause tapestry are certainly found in the old Confederate states, the traditional definition of the South. But they are also found across a wider geography, including much of the Rust Belt and Middle America. The areas where this new Lost Cause is found probably align well with parts of the country that voted for Donald Trump. And this should come as little surprise: according to this new mythology, much has indeed been lost, hence the need to make America great again. But amidst this narrative’s drunken post-industrial suffering, there is also a sense that greatness cannot be regained, at least not along the old lines. Thus America did not elect a senator or a general or even a Boy Scout, but, rather, a loud-mouthed, twice-divorced zillionaire with no record of public service. In the ruins of American society, you could say, this is the best we can hope for.

* * *

Southern writers reflect something of the new narrative as well. The characters described by William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, or Walker Percy are hardly winners. They are frequently insane and often vicious. If they have not had a stiff drink lately, they could probably use one. Suffering, these writers admit, is the way of our world.

Their writings share a certain quality of anti-modernism with both Lost Causes, the old and the new. Modern society, they implicitly argue, has not reached the deepest corners of the South or, if it has, it has failed to solve its ills. More likely, modernity has made those ills worse.

One might conclude from this sorry state of affairs that some kind of Southern revivalism is needed: if we reject the modern social, economic, and political arrangements imported from the North, if we go back to the old ways, all will be well. But I do not think this the approach that the likes of Percy and O'Connor would endorse.

Though these Catholic writers had a deep respect for tradition, they recognized that the flaws of the modern era run deep. Our common suffering is ultimately rooted not in modernity, however problematic it may be, but in man's fallen nature. We ought not celebrate our brokenness, but we must at least admit to it. Erecting monuments will not solve our problems. Hiding amidst the babble of modern psychology will ultimately leave us deeply unsatisfied, as Percy repeatedly underscores in Lost in the Cosmos. Rather, we must offer our pathetic situation, the husk of our individual selves and our broken society, to the one who has the power to save, Almighty God. Conversion has the power to accomplish what no amount of nostalgia or memorialization ever could. Lord, have mercy.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Happy Feast of Sts. Louis and Zélie!

God of Love, in Sts. Louis and Zélie
You have provided an exemplary model
of married love, evangelical virtue,
and unwavering trust in You.
May we share in their humble work,
remain ever in joy and Christian hope,
and so, like them, come to be called
the friends of God,
through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Today's image comes via the Communio blog.

Friday, June 9, 2017

"Under God" - On Its Necessity

In 1954 a joint resolution of Congress added the words "under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance.  Among those pushing for this addition were the Knight of Columbus, an American Catholic fraternal organization.

To secularists, these words are anathema, an attempt to establish an official religion and overturn the First Amendment.  To others, these words nail America's flag to the mast of Christianity, underscoring that this country is, and always has been - at least in their view - a Christian nation.

I am both less confident and less interested than this latter party in America's Christian heritage.  This is not a debate I wish to enter today.  Rather, I would like to contend that the words "under God" are essential for Christians, or indeed probably any people of theistic faith, to say the pledge.

My hang up is the word "allegiance."  Christians owe their allegiance to Jesus Christ, their Lord and their God.  He is king of the universe and king of their hearts.  All Christians are, rather literally, monarchists.

This does not necessarily mean that Christians should be theocrats, endorsing government by bishops or other clergymen.  Indeed, Jesus Himself insisted that that which is Caesar's should be rendered to him.  But I would contend - as I tried to flesh out some years ago - that the republics we establish by the consent of the governed must exist under the larger kingship of Christ.  He has granted us, so to speak, the right and responsibility of looking after the affairs of our particular polities. But this does not change the fundamental reality that He is the ultimate lawgiver, judge, ruler, and commander.

So when a Christian - or, so far as I understand, a Jew or Muslim as well - is asked to swear allegiance, the natural question would be, "Do you mean allegiance in the ultimate sense, or in the local, political sense?  If you mean in the ultimate sense, my allegiance is to God alone."

Perhaps, you say, it is obvious that a political pledge is concerned with allegiance in the local, political sense, and not in the universal, theological sense.  Perhaps that should be obvious.  But across the centuries - and certainly in the 20th - regimes have made claims that exceed the political.  They have demanded that their own fiat should trump the consciences of citizens, that the good of the state is more important than the moral law.  In such cases, the political has claimed an unholy, idolatrous precedence.

Let me be clear: I do not think America is on the verge of becoming a totalitarian dictatorship along the lines of the Communists or the National Socialists.  But it never hurts to make clear, long in advance of any problems, the terms of our discussion.  And let us not forget that the dictatorship of relativism is quite strong and that it must be opposed, in culture and, yes, sometimes in politics.

Concerns about the First Amendment's establishment clause are not to be taken lightly, but neither should we overlook the fact that, absent these two little words, large swaths of America would rightly have serious questions about taking the Pledge of Allegiance in good faith.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

A UD Education: The Road Goes Ever On

Ten days ago I sent the letter below to the University News at Dallas. I haven't seen it published yet; maybe they had a stack of better stuff coming in. In any event, I thought I'd share my sentiments here.

In May I will again visit the University of Dallas campus to attend graduation. It has been 11 years since that spring morning when I received my Bachelor of Arts degree, concluding an idyllic season of my life. With the passage of time the memories have lost some of their sharpness, and yet the insights, the vision, the thirst for recovering the great ideas of our civilization remain with me, making themselves apparent nearly every day. Far from fading into the darkness, my UD education continues to grow.

This may seem obvious to those currently steeped in the world of ideas that is the UD campus. It is far less obvious when you consider my present circumstances. Since graduating I have moved more times than I care to count, completed two additional degrees, married, settled into a career, started a family, published a book, and purchased a house. Much of my time is spent washing dishes, changing diapers, folding laundry, or drawing pink puppy dogs for the umpteenth time. But somehow, my UD education, time and again, worms its way back into my life.

One day last year my eye fell upon a copy of Newman's Apologia Pro Vita Sua­ on the shelf. (My wife had purchased it for a graduate class that never actually used it.) Although I wrote a paper on Newman for one of Dr. Norris's classes, I was too intimidated by Newman to actually read more than a couple pages. More than a decade later, I righted that shortcoming, and Newman did not disappoint: with every page his erudition and firmness of purpose show through, bathed in the light of eloquence, honesty, and joy.

Earlier this year a coworker mentioned that she was taking a class on the history of political thought and was writing on Aristotle's critiques of Plato. Excited conversation followed and the next day two large volumes came with me to the office, so I could read the Republic and Politics literally side by side. Just the other day a fellow dad mentioned Jean Leclercq's understanding of Benedictine education; that evening I pulled down my collection of essays in honor of the late Fr. Louis J. Lekai, O. Cist. and turned to Leclercq's contribution to that volume.

But these examples may be misleading: they suggest that a UD education is something contained in books and resting on a shelf, to be brought down as a curiosity. It is far more than this. To paraphrase Dr. Frank's introduction to my Phil & Eth class, a UD education is a sense of wonder, a quieting of the mind to focus on the things that matter most, and a relentless determination to seek the Truth, heedless of the cost.

Learning that I have a PhD, people often ask where I received it. Though I valued my doctoral studies, and am happy to share about them, I try to gently turn the conversation from that final degree to my UD education, the foundation that supports all my subsequent work. Whatever I have accomplished as a researcher, analyst, and writer comes from the skills I learned at UD. But even more important, UD nurtured within me the habits and virtues needed to be a citizen, a friend, a father, a husband, and a disciple. These are the things that matter most.

One cannot repay the kind of debt I owe to this school, just as one can never repay parents for their love. But I write to thank the amazing faculty, who taught me, and my fellow students, with whom I lived, studied, worked, and prayed, for four fantastic years. You are some of the most incredible people I have yet met. May God, who has so richly blessed us, continue to pour out his grace on this school and keep its spirit ever strong!