Friday, November 21, 2014

A Note from Myself

A couple weeks ago my wife and I visited my family in Arizona. Among other things, we went to mass with them on Sunday, the Feast of the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica. Also, I cleaned out some old school notebooks and things while I was there. Scribbled on the back of a reader from a UD History of Germany class, I found this short reflection:
Today's flight was glorious beyond description. We were in a small plane and flew low out of the Valley, due east, over the Superstition Mountains, some open pit copper mines, and a series of canyons. The landscape was so wild, and so beautiful, and so lovely that words fail me. I suspect that standing on the peak of Olympus Mons, surrounded by such barren beauty, would be rather akin to my aerial survey. I nearly cried to think that such wonders are passing away with the rest of the created universe, longing for that same redemption I seek. But I found solace in the thought of sharing such a vision, and in seeing it reborn in the hereafter.

-Sunday, November 9th, 2003
Feast of the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

What Guy Fawkes Day Means to Me

Guy Fawkes Day, also known as Bonfire Day, is a curious holiday.  It commemorates the failure on 5 November 1605 of the Gunpowder Plot, a scheme by a group of Catholics to blow up parliament and the Protestant King James I.  The plotters were betrayed, the barrels of gunpowder under the House of Lords were discovered in time, and the king's life was spared.

Members of the Gunpowder Plot
I find this a curious occasion to commemorate because it conforms neither to the major trend in holidays, nor to the primary exception.  Most holidays celebrate glorious triumphs such as victories in battle (e.g. Lepanto Day / Feast of the Holy Rosary), political successes (usually independence), or momentous spiritual events (e.g. the Incarnation or the Resurrection).  Some holidays, such as Thanksgiving, do not celebrate a particular triumph, but point to successes generally.  Apart from this major trend of celebrating victory, there is an exceptional category of holidays, which recall tragic failures, either gloriously defiant (e.g. the Alamo or the July 20 Conspiracy), or horrors from which we have, broadly speaking, taken some meaning or learned some lesson (e.g. Good Friday, September 11th, or Memorial Day).

But why do the English celebrate Guy Fawkes Day?  One might say it has become little more than an excuse for fireworks and bonfires, and this is probably true, but it only pushes the question to one step remove: why this day, and not some other?  The failure of the Gunpowder Plot was as much the fault of bumbling plotters as it was as success for the Crown and its supporters.  More to the point, the Plot was defeated not in honest battle or by national effort, but by shadowy intrigue.  Hardly the stuff of most victories.

Guy Fawkes Day, Lewes, England, 2011
Sadly, the real reason Guy Fawkes Day may have caught on in England is that it offered a chance to spite Catholics.  Indeed, the centerpieces of Guy Fawkes celebrations has traditionally been the burning in effigy of Mr. Fawkes and the pope.  Although other figures are often substituted today, this makes the holiday more than a tad bit awkward for Catholics.

But I have come to see the need for a third kind of holiday, the commemoration which does not yet possess resolution.  Perhaps my recent excursions into the historical books of the Old Testament have pushed me in this direction, for they are mostly filled with rebellions, defeats, and exile, epitomized by  Psalm 137: "By the waters of Babylon, / there we sat down and wept, / when we remembered Zion. / On the willows there we hung up our lyres. / For there our captors / required of us songs, / and our tormentors, mirth, saying, / 'Sing us one of the songs of Zion!' / How shall we sing the Lord’s song / in a foreign land?"  We have a small appetite for commemorating such events when they are recent, though memory quickly fades.  But history is replete with such calamities.  The burden of history, though it need not be overwhelming, certainly rests heavy on us, if only we open our eyes to see it.

For me, Guy Fawkes Day commemorates the difficulty of living in the world but not of it.  It commemorates the confusion that results when trying to square the demands of eternal faith with the demands of temporal politics.  It commemorates well-intentioned devotion gone awry.  It commemorates the reality that my co-coreligionists have undertaken actions I cannot always explain or justify.  It commemorates divided Christendom.  This is, or should be, a painful open wound.  Although there are lessons to be learned, I do not think we are yet at the point where we can say that we have learned them.  For now, we must simply recall.  We must bear the weight of history and trust that wisdom, some day, will follow.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

St. Augustine on Music

I have recently been reading through a delightful little volume titled Augustine Day by Day (hence the recent post from his Confessions).  One of the joys found in reading these daily selections is that you start to notice certain recurrent themes and topics, such as these passages on music:
Dear friends, sing the Psalm with human reason, not like birds.  Thrushes, parrots, ravens, magpies, and the like are often taught to say what they do not understand.  However, to know what we are saying was granted by God's will to human nature.  Hence, we who have learned in the Church to sing God's words should be eager to do so.  We should know and see with a clear mind what we have all sung together with one voice. (Commentary on Psalm 18, 2) 
Indeed, Lord, the days were not long enough as I found wonderful delight in meditating upon the depth of Your design for the salvation of the human race.  I wept at the beauty of Your hymns, and I was powerfully moved at the sweet sound of Your Church's singing.  Those sounds flowed into my ears, and the truth streamed into my heart.  My feeling of devotion overflowed, and the tears ran from my eyes, and I was happy in them. (Confessions IX, 6)
Today's icon of St. Augustine comes from Monastery Icons.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Because Augustine Is Always a Good Idea

A couple passages from Augustine's Confessions for your Monday:
I asked the earth, and it answered, “I am not he”; and everything in the earth made the same confession. I asked the sea and the deeps and the creeping things, and they replied, “We are not your God; seek above us.” I asked the fleeting winds, and the whole air with its inhabitants answered, “Anaximenes was deceived; I am not God.” I asked the heavens, the sun, moon, and stars; and they answered, “Neither are we the God whom you seek.” And I replied to all these things which stand around the door of my flesh: “You have told me about my God, that you are not he. Tell me something about him.” And with a loud voice they all cried out, “He made us.” (Book X, 6)

Belatedly I loved you, O Beauty so ancient and so new, belatedly I loved you. For see, you were within and I was without, and I sought you out there. Unlovely, I rushed heedlessly among the lovely things you have made. You were with me, but I was not with you. These things kept me far from you; even though they were not at all unless they were in you. You called and cryed aloud, and forced open my deafness. You gleamed and shone, and chased away my blindness. You breathed fragrant odors and I drew in my breath; and now I pant for you. I tasted, and now I hunger and thirst. You touched me, and I burned for you peace. (Book X, 27)
From the Outlier translation, brought to you by Georgetown University.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Auden's "September 1, 1939"

Earlier this year I discovered W. H. Auden's poem "September 1, 1939," thanks to an article in the Financial Times. The poem records Auden's reaction to the news that the Germans had invaded Poland. I found the text at this website. You can also find comments on some of the more esoteric lines here.

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
About Democracy,
And what dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they talk
To an apathetic grave;
Analysed all in his book,
The enlightenment driven away,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again.

Into this neutral air
Where blind skyscrapers use
Their full height to proclaim
The strength of Collective Man,
Each language pours its vain
Competitive excuse:
But who can live for long
In an euphoric dream;
Out of the mirror they stare,
Imperialism's face
And the international wrong.

Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.

The windiest militant trash
Important Persons shout
Is not so crude as our wish:
What mad Nijinsky wrote
About Diaghilev
Is true of the normal heart;
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.

From the conservative dark
Into the ethical life
The dense commuters come,
Repeating their morning vow;
"I will be true to the wife,
I'll concentrate more on my work,"
And helpless governors wake
To resume their compulsory game:
Who can release them now,
Who can reach the deaf,
Who can speak for the dumb?

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Seeing the Beatitudes Anew

Recently I have been reading Matthew's Gospel and I was really struck by the Beatitudes, both for their forcefulness and their role in framing the rest of the Sermon on the Mount, indeed, arguably the rest of the Gospel.  I have probably heard these read from the pulpit a hundred times, but here they are again, from Chapter 5:
3 Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted.
5 Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the land.
6 Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied.
7 Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
8 Blessed are the clean of heart, for they will see God.
9 Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
10 Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 
11 Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you  because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven. Thus they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
For me, and likely many others, familiarity has largely emptied these statements of their meaning.  So permit me the liberty of re-writing these as a kind of manifesto for what it means to be a Christian, a member of the Body of Christ (which, after all, takes its lead from Jesus, the Head):
We care deeply about the holiness of the world and deeply lament the tragedy of sin (5:4, 6). 
We choose the values of the Kingdom over those of the world:
Humility over arrogance (5:5)
Poverty over wealth (5:3)
Purity over lust (5:8)
Mercy over vengeance (5:7)
Peace over war (5:9) 
In all these things, we expect and welcome the persecutions which will come our way, for so were the prophets and Christ Himself persecuted (5:10-12).
Before you go and start quibbling, let me offer several caveats for this rough paraphrase.  Jesus says that such people are blessed; He does not, per se, tell us that we need to choose such things, only that we are blessed if they come our way.  Still, I'm hard pressed to see why a Christian would not want to seek a life of blessing.  Admittedly, some of the terminology has been shifted a bit, for example, Matthew uses the phrase "poor in spirit," whereas I have employed simply "poverty."  However, in Luke's parallel, he simply writes, "blessed are the poor" (Luke 6:20) and, in any case, I think it is difficult to be poor in spirit without at least contemplating the possibility of literally being poor.  I have tied mourning and thirsting for righteous to the idea of caring about the salvation of the world.  You might argue that there is more to these two beatitudes than this particular reading, and you're probably right, but I think this kind of deep interior mourning over the eternal death of sin is a key part of what Jesus is talking about.  Finally, one might note that Jesus here praises poverty and peacemaking without explicitly condemning their opposites, though such condemnations are certainly to be found elsewhere (e.g. Luke 6:24, "Woe to you who are rich!").

I can only conclude that this is a profoundly radical, even otherworldly, call which is made to us.  You might call it counter-cultural, and so it is, though I think counter-worldly might be a better term.  Notice the nature of the blessings; they are blessings in the Kingdom of Heaven, not here below.  One can easily imagine someone deriding the Beatitudes: The poor receive the Kingdom of Heaven, but you can't put that on the table.  Will the meek really inherit the land?  More likely they'll be exploited.  "Children of God" may be the only compliment the peacemakers are paid; others will probably call them idealists or naïve dreamers.  Right here, at the beginning of His public ministry, Jesus identifies the Gospel with the "Kingdom," a strong, glorious, and strikingly political term.  He then promptly turns this kingdom on its head, marking it as a kingdom of humility.

And far from turning away from the Beatitudes, Matthew's Gospel continually comments on them.  The rest of the Sermon on the Mount elaborates upon them:
Blessed are the poor in spirit.  
  • "You cannot serve God and money" (6:24).  
  • "Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and decay destroy, and thieves break in and steal" (6:19).  
  • "Give us today our daily bread" (6:11).  
  • "Do not worry about your life, what you will eat [or drink], or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing?" (6:25).  
  • "If you then, who are wicked, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good things to those who ask him" (7:11).   
Blessed are they who mourn.
  • "You are the salt of the earth" (5:13).  Preserve it from wickedness.   
Blessed are the meek.
  • "When you give alms, do not blow a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets to win the praise of others" (6:2).
  • "When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, who love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on street corners so that others may see them" (6:5).
  • "When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites" (6:16).
  • "Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter into the kingdom of heaven" (5:20).   
Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness.
  • "You are the light of the world" (5:14).  Bring justice and truth to it.   
Blessed are the merciful.
  • "Stop judging, that you may not be judged" (7:1).
  • "Go first and be reconciled with your brother" (5:24).
  • "Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors" (6:12).
  • "Do to others whatever you would have them do to you" (7:12).   
Blessed are the clean of heart.
  • "Let your 'Yes' mean 'Yes,' and your 'No' mean 'No'" (5:37).
  • "Everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery" (5:28).
  • "If your eye is bad, your whole body will be in darkness. And if the light in you is darkness, how great will the darkness be" (6:23).   
Blessed are the peacemakers. 
  • "When someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other one to him as well" (5:39).
  • "Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you" (5:44).   
Blessed are they who are persecuted.
  • "The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and buffeted the house. But it did not collapse; it had been set solidly on rock" (7:25). 
As soon as Jesus comes down from the mountain, having preached all these things, He administers three back-to-back healings (8:1-15).  That's the fruit of this new life of humble dependence upon God: it heals our hearts, our relationships, and our society.  But we are reminded that the costs are high.  In connection with the healings, Matthew quotes Isaiah 53:4, "He took away our infirmities and bore our diseases" (Mt 8:17).  Yes, Jesus brings us healing, but at the price of His own suffering on the cross.  It is a life of suffering to which He calls us as well.  Lest we should doubt that this new life should cost us everything, Jesus reminds one would-be disciple that we must let go of our material goods ("Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head," 8:20) and asks another man to relinquish even the desires of his heart ("Follow me, and let the dead bury their dead," 8:22).  Do not doubt, however, that He to whom you entrust your life is capable of fulfilling all His promises, restoring you to wholeness and bringing you true happiness.  For as the disciples discover a few verses later, "Even the winds and the sea obey him" (8:27).  This is the King of Kings, the Lord of the Universe.  His word is good.

In the final story of Chapter 8, Jesus enters a village.  Having proclaimed the Kingdom of God, a radical kingdom of humility but also of healing, having revealed its costs but also His power to save, Jesus now drives out the village's demons and destroys their unholy herds of swine (8:28-32).  The King has entered and offered to extend His blessings to them.  "The whole town came out to meet Jesus, and when they saw him they begged Him to leave" (8:34).  They want no part in the Kingdom.  May we have the grace to accept His call.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

My Short Reading List - Foreign Policy

As you might have guessed, I am a bibliophile.  I collect not only physical books but also lists of them: favorite books of various genres, books I recommend, books I'd like to read.  At one point my Amazon Wish List fulfilled this last function.  In some sense it still does.  But over the last several years this Amazon list has grown far faster than I could possibly keep up with.  It has been subdivided into various daughter lists, each of which now grows at a similarly impossible pace.  It is no longer primarily a collection of titles I would like to own or even read any time soon; rather, it is home to various titles I would like to remember for various reasons, mostly because they come strongly recommended by authorities I trust (though, admittedly, often very diverse authorities).

Hoping that perhaps others could make use of this conglomeration, even if I can do so only rarely, I have decided to share these lists here, for your perusing pleasure, in several installments, beginning with foreign policy.  I think you'll find them a far-flung bunch.  Perhaps you'll see something of interest to you and pick it up.  If you do, please, let me know what you thought.  And if you've already read some of these titles, likewise, please, share a short review.


Military History, pre-1900.  So vast is my interest in military history that I eventually had to bifurcate it.  This list runs the gammut from the ancient world, through the medieval period, all the way to the likes of the American Civil War.  It includes Michael Decker's The Byzantine Art of War, William Dalrymple's Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan, 1839-42, Robert Tonsetic's Special Operations in the American Revolution, and others.

Military History, 1900-present.  This list is my natural intellectual home.  My dissertation on the origins of Britain's Special Operations Executive (SOE) included discussions of conflicts in Europe, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and East Asia in the four decades preceding the Second World War and how lessons from those conflicts were applied by the Allies.  This list covers similar ground.  It's heavy on the Second World War and the British Empire in the 20th century (yes, including decolonization).  It includes a look at the Polish-Soviet War, studies of the role of the US Navy in the Allied Intervention against the Bolsheviks and on the Yangtze in the 1930s, several works on Japan and its war in China, and a history of the Stauffenberg family, one member of which tried to assassinate Hitler (about whom I have written).  Other intriguing reads on this list include David French's The British Way of Counter-Insurgency and an account of Karen rebels in Burma (for whom I have a soft spot).  The list also includes works on the Global War on Terror.

Diplomacy & International Affairs.  This list includes theoretical works (such as The Routledge Handbook of Religion and Security), books on historical case studies (including Foreign Affairs and the Founding Fathers and The Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878 and the Treaty of Berlin), and biographies of both American and foreign statesmen (among them Castlereagh, T. E. Lawrence, and the little-known Frank McCoy).  You'll see that, among other topics, I'm intrigued by Southeast Asia.

Intelligence.  Much of this list's potential material is covered in the above categories, but it includes a few intriguing titles, some critical (e.g. The Human Factor: Inside the CIA's Dysfunctional Intelligence Culture), some historical (The Archaeologist Was a Spy), others decidedly non-Western (Intelligence Elsewhere: Spies and Espionage Outside the Anglosphere).