Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Discernment of Heroes - Week 2

This week we have fewer questions to discern than last week, but these are weightier matters.  Several of these topics would be deserving of an entire week by themselves.

How you talk: There are a number of directions in which to take this.  In some ways the most obvious is to ask whether you engage in "right speech" - not profaning the Lord's name, not gossiping, always speaking the truth.  Undeniably, these are good things.  But I think it can be tricky for many of us to notice our own speech.  After all, we've been listening to ourselves for a very long time, and we tend to think that we talk like - well, we talk like ourselves!  So let me suggest an exercise: try writing a description of how you talk.  Maybe you're describing a character in a novel or a film.  What kind of accent does he or she have?  Does he speaking quickly or slowly?  Loud or soft?  What kind of metaphors does she use?  Does he talk like his friends and co-workers?  Does she have catch phrases?  If you manage to write out a description, lay it aside and try listening to yourself over the course of the next day or two.  Do you match your own description?  Now that you have begun to pay serious attention to how you talk, ask yourself: Do I engage in right speech?  Do I use my words to glorify God?

Physical habits:  This is essentially an extension of the previous question.  What kind of body language do you use?  What do you do with your hands?  How do you sit?  How do you walk?  Cataloging your physical habits may simply be an interesting exercise, but it may also reveal to you habits that you ought to change: slouching or biting your nails or maybe, standing before an audience you "saw the air too much with your hand, thus."

Special skills:  Every hero has 'em, right?  But do you?  Matt Bird argues that Zero to Hero stories are rare and don't work well as narratives.  Heroes almost always start out with some special skills.  That finds an echo in Christian theology, which tells us that we are made in the divine image and we are made good.  But, you might be saying, what kind of skills do I have?  Oh, I can fix a radiator or type real fast or program computers, but those are hardly heroic skills.  Christianity is ultimately not about natural perfection, but supernatural perfection, accomplished by the grace of God.  But grace builds on nature; God works with us beginning where we are.  He draws out and makes use of our natural skills in ways we could not image or do on our own.  So as you're tabulating your list of special skills, be creative - be zany!  Because something you might not consider important, something you wouldn't bother to put on the resume, might be the very thing God wants to show you.

Vulnerabilities and ordinariness: Bird contends that a hero who is too awesome makes for a lousy story.  Now, let's be clear about some theology: Christianity teaches that perfection is good, it is possible, and it is the goal of the Christian life.  But Bird's observation is still insightful.  Heroes who are too powerful are boring because we cannot identify with them.  And why not?  Because we are imperfect.  You might be good at all sorts of things; you might be rather successful in life.  Your list of special skills may be five feet long.  But you have weaknesses and failings too.  And Christ wants to heal and redeem those.  He wants to transform your weakness into His strength.  Because that's the kind of God He is.  But sometimes it is hard to offer to him struggles or failings that we did not know we have.  So spend some time and ask yourself: how am I broken?  How am I weak?  How am I tempted and vulnerable?  And how am I simply ordinary, like my fellow man?

Today's image of Ben Cross (l) and Nigel Havers (r), playing Harold Abrahams and Lord Lindsay, respectively, in Chariots of Fire, comes via Wikipedia.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Everlasting Yea

Thomas Carlyle's Sartor Resartus is like Thus Spake Zarathustra, but with a sense of humor.

Sartor Resartus is the effort of an imaginary English translator/editor to describe the life and opinions of a solitary, mysterious German writer named Diogenes Teufelsdröckh ("God-born Devil-dung"), professor of Things-in-General at the University of Weissnichtwo ("don't know where"), residing in his rooms on the Wahngasse ("Madness Street"), and author of the treatise Clothes: Their Origin and Influence. The book, containing pompous "translations" and summaries of Teufelsdröckh's autobiographical scribblings--literally scraps of paper sorted in bags by symbols of the zodiac--and of his magnum opus, is in part a parody of German philosophy in the first half of the 19th century, but also a vehicle for Carlye to expound some of his own opinions.

Carlyle himself seems to have been a proto-existentialist, a branch of philosophy generally associated not with him but with the later Nietzsche. Both the men and their works share important similarities. Both Carlyle and Nietzsche grew up in sternly religious families and were expected to become ministers, but both rejected the faith of their youth. And yet the writings of both men retain a strongly religious feeling. The most striking evidence is that both men make use of hermits to stand for wisdom-seekers in their philosophy. Teufelsdröckh, after being rejected by his true love Blumine roams the world like the Wandering Jew, pursued by his shadow. Zarathustra, on the other hand, remains in solitude on a mountaintop before deciding to re-enter the world. (Interestingly, Nietzsche also used the figure of the wanderer and his shadow, as witness his dialogue Der Wanderer und sein Schatten.)

The most important similarity between Sartor Resartus and Thus Spake Zarathustra, though, is the message at the heart of their existentialist philosophy: each individual must need for affirm the goodness of the world, say yes to it. This is a message that can and should be taken up by Christians, albeit with some modifications, as it was by Josef Pieper in Zustimmung zur Welt. [1]

In the biographical section of Sartor Resartus, Carlyle sets out three states of soul through which Teufelsdröckh passes: The Everlasting No, the Center of Indifference, and the Everlasting Yea. Only in the Everlasting Yea, when he affirms the goodness of the world, does he attain spiritual perfection. The "everlasting No" is not simply rejection of the world, but is also profound defiance. It can best be given in Teufelsdröckh's own words from his conversation with himself during a quasi-mystical experience on the Rue Saint-Thomas de l'Enfer in Paris, when he was sunk in misery after Blumine forsook him to marry a mutual friend:

Despicable biped! what is the sum-total of the worst that lies before thee? Death? Well, Death; and say the pangs of Tophet too, and all that the Devil and Man may, will or can do again against thee! Hast thou not a heart: canst thou not suffer whatsoever it be; and, as a Child of Freedom, though outcast, trample Tophet itself under thy feet, while it consumes thee? Let it come, then; I will meet it and defy it!"

In the Everlasting No, the individual is totally alienated and is thrown back upon his own freedom. In the midst of his despair, he decides to face death with nothing but his own will power to aid him.

The Center of Indifference marks an intermediate stage through which souls pass from the everlasting Yea to the everlasting No. The soul is still sick, but is also recovering from the defiant despair by which he has been afflicted up until now; the worst symptoms are now in remission. Or, as Teufelsdröckh's English editor describes it, in terms of demonic possession:

We should rather say that Legion, or the Satanic School, was now pretty well extirpated and cast out [of Teufelsdröckh], but next to nothing introduced in its room; whereby the heart remains, for the while, in a quiet but no comfortable state.

Only the everlasting Yea marks the decisive break with despair and defiance. Teufelsdröckh's account of his conversion bears quoting in full in his hyperbolic, exaggeratedly Germanic and professorial style:

Es leuchtet mir ein, I see a glimpse of it...there is in man a Higher than Love of Happiness; he can do without Happiness, and instead thereof find Blessedness! Was it not to preach-forth this same Higher that sages and martyrs, the Poet and the Priest, in all times, ahve spoken and suffered; bearing testimony, though life and through death, of the Godlike that is in Man, and how in the Godlike only has he Strength and Freedom? Which God-inspired Doctrine art thou also honoured to be taught; O Heavens! and broken with manifold merciful Afflictions, even till thou become contrite, and learn it! O, thank thy Destiny for these; thankfully bear what yet remain: thou hadst need of them; the Self in thee needed to be annihilated. By benignant fever-paroxysms is Life rooting out the deep-seated chronic Disease, and triumphs over Death. On the roaring billows of Time, thou art not engulfed, but borne aloft into the azure of Eternity. Love not Pleasure; love God. This is the Everlasting Yea, wherein all contradiction is solved: wherein whoso walks and works, it is well with him.
What is noteworthy about this passage is that Teufelsdröckh preaches something higher than happiness, for happiness would be too selfish. Instead, he preaches blessedness in the form of annihilation of the self. Love of God, and affirmation of the world, are one and the same thing, but they entail annihilation of the self. The result of this affirmation is to be "borne aloft into the azure of Eternity." The sense of disappearing into God and nature--if there is even a distinction in Carlyle's mind--is palpable here.

However, even though all three writers believe that affirmation of the world is necessary, they all differ from each in exactly how they affirm the goodness of the world. Nietzsche sings the glory of affirmation in poems and rhapsodic prose in Zarathustra, and even states in one of his posthumously published aphorisms: "To have joy in anything, one must approve everything." But in his post-Zarathustra writings it is not quite clear whether he actually can affirm the goodness of the world. He writes his autobiography and calls himself the "Antichrist." Nietzsche may claim that he just wants to affirm the world, but it seems that he is really more of a rebel, defiant in his despair, and angry at the Christian God. As Romano Guardini says of Nietzsche, his portrayal of the perfect man as a "man who can dance" on the surface of nothingness is a Sehnsuchtsbild, a projection of his longing to attain a freedom of spirit and affirmation of the world that he could never actually achieve himself. [2] The man who wanted to overcome himself tragically could not overcome the Everlasting No.

Carlyle reaches a more authentic affirmation than Nietzsche, but he is so full of irony that it can sometimes be hard to tell whether he secretly harbors reservations. On the positive side, his humor can be seen as a sign that he has come to accept the world. He can call the young Teufelsdröckh by the diminutive "Gneschen"! Nietzsche never could have written about a spiritual hero and called him by the nickname "Thustralein." Carlyle's English "editor" can also point out flaws in his author's style and organization, and even criticize some of his opinions. The sometimes flippant humor shows that he is not in continuous agony, like Nietzsche.

Moreover, Carlyle recognizes that our very existence is a miracle. This is one of Carlyle's core beliefs, and one which forms the basis of his affirmation of the world. He repeats this belief in clearer form in his essay on Odin in On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History: "This world, after all our science and sciences, is still a miracle; wonderful, inscrutable, magical and more, to whosoever will think it." (Carlyle also holds that wonder at the divinity of nature is the chief characteristic of paganism--strikingly similar to G.K. Chesteron's views.)

On the other hand, Carlyle's irony may signal that he still feels some detachment from the world. One wonders at times whether the irony really indicates that Carlyle cannot but view the wanderings and despair of Teufelsdröckh with quiet ridicule. He may still be stuck in the Center of Indifference.

Furthermore, Carlyle was strongly influenced by German Idealism and its undercurrent of pantheism. While he was not a full-pledged pantheist, there are times when Carlyle blurs the distinction between God and nature. Moreover, in the tradition of earlier mystics, Carlyle also views happiness as an annihilation of self. In a later essay on Mohammad (also in On Heroes), he states: "Islam means in its way Denial of Self, Annihilation of Self. This is yet the highest Wisdom that Heaven has revealed to our Earth." This equation of denial of self--what Christ has called all his followers to practice--with annihilation of self--a false form of immanentism rampant in German Idealism--sets up a contradictory relationship to the world. If one hopes for one's self to be annihilated, how can one also affirm the goodness of the world? The two are not compatible--so long as one wishes to remain part of this world. An orthodox Christian, on the other hand, denies himself so that he can follow Christ more obediently and ascend to the source of this beautiful world with Him, not to be annihilated, even in the beatific vision. [3]

Only Pieper, with his characteristic serenity--remarkable for a man who lived through some of the most turbulent times in a country at the center of the last century's upheavals--seems to have actually assented to the world and reached the truly Everlasting Yea. And it is obvious from the types of books he wrote: a Theory of Festivity as well as Happiness and Contemplation; he wrote about affirming the goodness of the world without the rancor of Nietzsche or the irony of Carlyle. In a world turned upside down and full of fashionable sophists like Sartre who called being born absurd, he undertook the difficult task of explaining why the world was good, and why we should say "yes" to it. What made it possible for Pieper to attain the everlasting Yea was his belief in a transcendent God who does not demand self-annihilation as a prerequisite to happiness (or blessedness), as opposed to the quasi-Spinozan God of Teufelsdröckh and Carlyle. For Pieper, who saw himself as developing the key concept of Kreatürlichkeit ("creatureliness") he found in St. Thomas Aquinas, existence was even more of a miracle than for Carlyle--the free act of a Creator who was under no compulsion to make the world. Only with his belief in a transcendent God who created and redeemed the world could Pieper say, "Lord, it is good that I am here!"

The Everlasting Yea, in its sublimest form, is a fundamental affirmation of the goodness of the world and of its Creator. And for each of these authors, the Everlasting Yea is the source of any spiritual serenity they experienced.

[1] Pieper's book is available in English translation as In Tune with the World, but I hesitate to call it by that title because it is a mistranslation of the German: Zustimmung means affirmation, assent, agreement, or approval; it implies an active decision to say "yes" to something, not a passive surrender.

[2] Romano Guardini, Vom Sinn der Schwermut (Mainz: Matthias-Grünewald-Verlag, 2003), p. 24.

[3] Readers interested on the question of pantheism should consult Thomas Molnar, God and the Knowledge of Reality (New York: Basic Books, 1973).

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Benedict XVI at the White House, 16 April 2008

With so much discussion of  the Catholic faith and American politics lately, I took the time to re-read Pope Benedict's first address upon his arrival in the US four years ago.  It is worth sharing.


South Lawn of the White House, Washington, D.C.
Wednesday, 16 April 2008
Mr. President,

Thank you for your gracious words of welcome on behalf of the people of the United States of America. I deeply appreciate your invitation to visit this great country. My visit coincides with an important moment in the life of the Catholic community in America: the celebration of the two-hundredth anniversary of the elevation of the country’s first Diocese – Baltimore – to a metropolitan Archdiocese, and the establishment of the Sees of New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Louisville. Yet I am happy to be here as a guest of all Americans. I come as a friend, a preacher of the Gospel and one with great respect for this vast pluralistic society. America’s Catholics have made, and continue to make, an excellent contribution to the life of their country. As I begin my visit, I trust that my presence will be a source of renewal and hope for the Church in the United States, and strengthen the resolve of Catholics to contribute ever more responsibly to the life of this nation, of which they are proud to be citizens.

From the dawn of the Republic, America’s quest for freedom has been guided by the conviction that the principles governing political and social life are intimately linked to a moral order based on the dominion of God the Creator. The framers of this nation’s founding documents drew upon this conviction when they proclaimed the “self-evident truth” that all men are created equal and endowed with inalienable rights grounded in the laws of nature and of nature’s God. The course of American history demonstrates the difficulties, the struggles, and the great intellectual and moral resolve which were demanded to shape a society which faithfully embodied these noble principles. In that process, which forged the soul of the nation, religious beliefs were a constant inspiration and driving force, as for example in the struggle against slavery and in the civil rights movement. In our time too, particularly in moments of crisis, Americans continue to find their strength in a commitment to this patrimony of shared ideals and aspirations.

In the next few days, I look forward to meeting not only with America’s Catholic community, but with other Christian communities and representatives of the many religious traditions present in this country. Historically, not only Catholics, but all believers have found here the freedom to worship God in accordance with the dictates of their conscience, while at the same time being accepted as part of a commonwealth in which each individual and group can make its voice heard. As the nation faces the increasingly complex political and ethical issues of our time, I am confident that the American people will find in their religious beliefs a precious source of insight and an inspiration to pursue reasoned, responsible and respectful dialogue in the effort to build a more humane and free society. 

Freedom is not only a gift, but also a summons to personal responsibility. Americans know this from experience – almost every town in this country has its monuments honoring those who sacrificed their lives in defense of freedom, both at home and abroad. The preservation of freedom calls for the cultivation of virtue, self-discipline, sacrifice for the common good and a sense of responsibility towards the less fortunate. It also demands the courage to engage in civic life and to bring one’s deepest beliefs and values to reasoned public debate. In a word, freedom is ever new. It is a challenge held out to each generation, and it must constantly be won over for the cause of good (cf. Spe Salvi, 24). Few have understood this as clearly as the late Pope John Paul II. In reflecting on the spiritual victory of freedom over totalitarianism in his native Poland and in eastern Europe, he reminded us that history shows, time and again, that “in a world without truth, freedom loses its foundation”, and a democracy without values can lose its very soul (cf. Centesimus Annus, 46). Those prophetic words in some sense echo the conviction of President Washington, expressed in his Farewell Address, that religion and morality represent “indispensable supports” of political prosperity.

The Church, for her part, wishes to contribute to building a world ever more worthy of the human person, created in the image and likeness of God (cf. Gen 1:26-27). She is convinced that faith sheds new light on all things, and that the Gospel reveals the noble vocation and sublime destiny of every man and woman (cf. Gaudium et Spes, 10). Faith also gives us the strength to respond to our high calling, and the hope that inspires us to work for an ever more just and fraternal society. Democracy can only flourish, as your founding fathers realized, when political leaders and those whom they represent are guided by truth and bring the wisdom born of firm moral principle to decisions affecting the life and future of the nation. 

For well over a century, the United States of America has played an important role in the international community. On Friday, God willing, I will have the honor of addressing the United Nations Organization, where I hope to encourage the efforts under way to make that institution an ever more effective voice for the legitimate aspirations of all the world’s peoples. On this, the sixtieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the need for global solidarity is as urgent as ever, if all people are to live in a way worthy of their dignity – as brothers and sisters dwelling in the same house and around that table which God’s bounty has set for all his children. America has traditionally shown herself generous in meeting immediate human needs, fostering development and offering relief to the victims of natural catastrophes. I am confident that this concern for the greater human family will continue to find expression in support for the patient efforts of international diplomacy to resolve conflicts and promote progress. In this way, coming generations will be able to live in a world where truth, freedom and justice can flourish – a world where the God-given dignity and rights of every man, woman and child are cherished, protected and effectively advanced.

Mr. President, dear friends: as I begin my visit to the United States, I express once more my gratitude for your invitation, my joy to be in your midst, and my fervent prayers that Almighty God will confirm this nation and its people in the ways of justice, prosperity and peace. God bless America!

Image courtesy of the 40 Days for Life blog.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Discernment of Heroes - Week I

Each week of Lent I'll be posting a few questions for general discernment, drawn from the blogging of Matt Bird, a scriptwriter and film critic who is interested in heroes.

Ash Wednesday, a day when we recall that "You are dust, and unto dust you shall return" might seem like an odd day to begin discerning the heroism to which all Christians - indeed all men - are called. But in fact, humility is a key part of the story arc of every hero. Often the event that pushes a hero off on his heroic quest is a humiliating one. Sometimes the hero is threatened socially, other times physically, or spiritually. It is only out of such struggles, Bird argues, that a hero comes to understand his or her true nature, embracing strengths and rejecting vices. So that is our arc for this Lent.

Shifting gears a little... Bird suggests a number things a writer should know about his characters when crafting a script. If the writer does not have the full picture of a character, he or she will come off flat. In a similar way, self knowledge allows us to think about ourselves and God's call in our lives in a way that matches the vibrancy and complexity of life. Today we'll start with seven of Bird's items. Most of these matters are such that you could breeze through them in 5 minutes, or spend the entire day in meditation and prayer. A happy medium might involve taking a walk and spending a little time with your thoughts.

Age: How old are you? This might seem an open-and-shut question, but think of it in a fuller sense. Where have you lived? What have you done? What do the X years of your life represent? With God, all things are possible (Mt 19:26), but grace does build on nature. In other words, God works with us where we are. So where are you? How long have you been on the road.

The one-line description: This usually comes in the pithy form of “the sort of person who…” What sort of person are you? There are better and worse answers to this. You might be “the sort of person who puts ketchup on french fries,” but then again, most of us do. Slightly better, you might be “the sort of person who wears a tie with birkenstocks.” I am. But while that tells you something about my sartorial taste, it tells you less about my character. “The sort of person who turns a childhood hobby into a career.” Now we're getting somewhere. The possibilities are endless.

Who might play you: This question clearly shows its scriptwriting roots. But I include it for two reasons. First, it is a fun parlor game to wonder who might play you in a movie. Second, we often have trouble thinking outside ourselves. We're use to being on the inside looking out, not the other way around. That's why hearing your own voice is such an odd experience. Thinking about who would play you in a movie is a clever way to think about "seeing" yourself from a new viewpoint. If actors are not your forte, feel free to cast a fictional character or a friend as yourself. The exercise is more important than the outcome.

Profession: Like your age, your profession should be obvious, but related questions can be quite demanding. Why are you in the field you are? How did you get here? What does it mean to do X?

Where you work: This might seem like a repeat of the profession, but there are new details worth considering here. A scriptwriter needs to know what hours a character works, what the building looks like, who the co-workers are, and other related details. Just as those are not minor details in the hands of a good writer, but key details worked into the plot, so too the details of where you work reveal something about who you are, where you are, and where God - the Master Scriptwriter - may take you.

Hobby. Yes, life includes leisure as well as work! How we spend our leisure time - and how we came to the hobbies we have - can tell us a great deal about who we are.

Totem object. Objects certainly make great props for writers and they can certainly move a plot along. In real life, treasured totems are less common, but they certainly still exist. If you don't have one, try looking around your desk: What sits on it, and why? Or try cleaning out your wallet. (For some, that alone is Lenten penance!) What do you carry around? Why? Not only do these objects have stories in themselves, but the kind of objects you keep and the way you keep them also reveals a great deal.

Today's image comes from the LOTR Wiki.

Monday, February 20, 2012

How I'll Be Voting: The Rick Santorum Edition

A couple weeks ago I wrote a post weighing three presidential candidates - Romney, Gingrich, and Obama - against a series of issues I laid out earlier.  The short version of those ramblings was this: President Obama flubbed all of them.  He supports same-sex marriages in all but name and is beholden to the National Education Association, one of the biggest obstacles to school reforms.  He has shown no interest in overhauling the tax code or passing comprehensive immigration reform.  With regard to the national debt, his latest proposal is to expand spending, but expand taxation more.  That'll eventually get us there, but we need more.

Gingrich and Romney fared only somewhat better than the president.  Both support school choice and Gingrich understands the three-fold requirement for immigration reform.  But both are questionable on marriage - Gingrich' personal life leaves much to be desired in this regard, and Romney has a history of waffling on social issues - and although both gesture in the right direction with regard to the tax code and deficit, both seem more interested in slashing taxes than addressing the issues I am considering.

Meanwhile, events have overtaken my analysis.  With wins in Colorado, Missouri, and Minnesota, Rick Santorum now appears to have edged Gingrich out and may even be passing Romney in polls.  So how does he do?

Debt.  Santorum favors a balanced budget amendment, and is willing to talk about Medicare and Social Security reform.  Some of his particular proposals - such as halving the staff of USAID - I am less excited about, but there is a real commitment here to actually tackle the national debt crisis.

Tax Code.  Santorum explicitly favors simplifying the tax code.

Immigration.  Santorum favors reforming the immigration process, but only after securing the border first.  He is opposed to amnesty for illegal immigrants.  While I understand the opposition to amnesty, I don't see evidence here that he's considered the scale of the problem (10-12 million people) and the fact that some families are of divided nationality.  Likewise, while I have no problem with securing the border first, per se, I worry that subsequent reform might never happen.

Education.  Santorum favors pushing educational regulation toward the local level and increasing school choice.

Marriage.  There is no question that Santorum is a solid supporter of a traditional definition of marriage.

I would be equivocating if I did not say that this is easily the best slate of positions on these issues of any candidate I have yet considered here.  I will, however, make a few caveats.  There are other issues - foreign policy, healthcare, etc. - that I have not considered.  Likewise, there are other candidates I have not mentioned.  And Santorum has other positions I did not weigh.  (Perhaps typical of these is his first policy statement, against illegal pornography.  I quite agree that pornography is a pestilence destroying the soul of our nation; I do wonder, however, if government is the best tool for attacking it, or if there are more pressing matters to which government alone can attend.)  Moreover, a candidate with the right positions does not necessarily have a strong chance of winning a general election or passing his agenda if elected; prudence must dictate how far voters are able to compromise for political expediency before violating their consciences.

My colleague Stephen has made a compelling case that there is little a Catholic - or, indeed other persons of traditional faith - can do in the present political climate.  He argues that we must conduct intellectual and cultural resistance, beginning in our own hearts; we must withdraw from the politics that have already exiled us, while still caring for the society around us.  I find Stephen's comments quite persuasive, but I am certainly also intrigued by Santorum's recent success; does it represent a real breakthrough?

Image via ABC News.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

American Catholics & Politics

What stance should American Catholics assume toward politics in light of President Obama's contraception mandate? Is that stance reactionary?

Here on the Guild Review I have never really had an explicit agenda. The topics on which I write are sometimes quite random. What, for example, connects Goethe with Irish music? Nevertheless, there are certain concerns that color much of what I write here. Many of my posts over the last three or so years have been about how different individuals have come to terms with politics and the state. Hence my fascination with exile and persecution, the two situations when the individual is under the most pressure to figure out what sort of relation he can establish with the world of politics. For reasons I hope to make clear below, perhaps the best stance toward politics at the present time is that of the reactionary.

Recent events have given all American Catholics reason to reconsider their relation to the US political system. The HSS's new rule requiring Catholic employers to provide medical insurance coverage for contraceptives and abortifacients enraged this country's bishops, and President Obama's accommodation could not placate them either. The contraception mandate, then, would seem to mark the beginning of a Kulturkampf against Catholics in the US. Now any Catholic who takes the bishops' pronouncements seriously must ask himself: What stance am I to take toward a political system that has essentially declared war on my Church?

One option, of course, is simply to refuse to engage the culture at all and instead retreat into to political "quietism" or aestheticism. Just as the French quietists of the 17th century saw spiritual perfection in complete passivity, the political quietist seeks a complete Nirvana-like cessation of all desires to participate in political life. Moreover, just as the French quietists were condemned as heretics, political quietism is not a viable option for Catholics. The Church has always recognized that man is a social creature and that participation in the common good is essential for his fulfillment. Even contemplatives in monasteries do not withdraw from all worldly concerns; they must participate in the life of their community, which both shapes and is shaped by the world outside the cloister. A truly hermetic life is exceptional even among contemplatives.

On the other hand, there are many types of engagement with politics and culture, ranging from living in a Catholic ghetto or working within the system to civil disobedience and military resistance.

When Catholics first immigrated to the US in significant numbers, they were discriminated against by the Protestant establishment. Fortunately, though, they were generally allowed to live within their own ethnic communities as long as they did not become too ambitious. This gradually changed throughout the 20th century, as Catholics became more accepted by Americans but also became themselves more accepting of American culture.

Ever since John F. Kennedy's presidency, American Catholics have not generally perceived any serious conflict between the two parts of their identity. Working within the system has come to seem perfectly normal to most American Catholics. Indeed, most would agree with Mary Ann Glendon's interview "Politics as a Vocation" (h/t First Things). According to Glendon, Catholics in America are blessed to live in a country where we can actually influence politics through our vote, or other ways of "making our voices heard." Glendon, of course, is not oblivious to the need for politicians to make courageous decisions, but she generally thinks that participation in elections and the regular political process can still bear fruit.

There are times, though, when one group fails to achieve its goals through the normal political process. That is when the group will turn to civil disobedience. In our imagination, civil disobedience is a drastic step to be taken only when a group is suffering under intolerable tyranny. Yet civil disobedience also presupposes that the "tyrant" in question is reasonable enough not to slaughter civilians en masse. Not that violence is never a possibility, of course; but, it is vital that the state not kill too many protesters. Gandhi, for example, when he undertook his campaign of civil disobedience against the British Empire, knew that the British were too civilized to kill all of his followers.

Only when civil disobedience fails do most people even begin to consider military resistance. And yet, just like civil disobedience, military resistance is generally optimistic in its own way. One engages in military resistance only if one believes that violence can solve the immediate problem and restore a proper political order.

Each of these stances toward politics assumes that politics is a struggle; there is no way to avoid conflict. That is obvious. But, what is the smartest way to fight? What if none of these stances is effective in stopping or repealing Obama's birth control mandate? What if engaging with the political system as it currently is actually creates more problems in the long run than it solves? For instance, civil disobedience may not work, because it will be hard for protesters to goad the federal government into using just enough violence to gain the support of the masses, but not too much violence so as not to suffer considerable loss of human life. Moreover, mustering mass support for her position may entangle the Church in dubious alliances that she may later come to regret. And, to go one step further, even considering armed resistance against the US military is just ludicrous.

Does that mean that American Catholics should abandon the fight? No! There remains open to them another option: the reactionary stance toward politics. For the reactionary, neither civil disobedience nor military resistance is capable of restoring a sane political order. Early on, some reactionaries, most notably the French reactionaries in the Vendée, took up arms against the revolution. But, by now there is no hope of restoring the old order. Indeed, it is not clear what the best one could hope for in the current situation is. The name of "reactionary" is an unfortunate relic of an earlier age, but at least it does connect the modern reactionary to his spiritual forbears.

The modern reactionary can best be compared to an exile who knows he cannot undo his banishment, no matter how passionately he still cares for and loves the homeland that has rejected him. The reactionary may appear to have withdrawn from the contemporary world, but in reality, he has taken up an even fiercer battle on a higher plane: the reactionary's paramount concern is intellectual resistance. He looks on contemporary politics with nothing but disdain, but not out of apathy--though cynicism is certainly a temptation--but out of a concern to keep his soul unpolluted, so that he can devote himself to intellectual resistance.

Intellectual resistance is more demanding than military resistance. As the Colombian aphorist Nicolás Gómez Dávila said, "To think against is more difficult than to act against" (source). Armed resistance certainly requires courage, but the soldier has an immediate enemy who could destroy him at any moment, which helps him remain vigilant. Intellectual resistance, on the other hand, consists of transforming a culture, without the fear of death to spur us onward. Moreover, the reactionary does not wage an empty war of words in newspapers, on TV, or on blogs. It is a battle for souls. It is a war in which we must convert, ourselves first and then others.

For the reactionary, therefore, the fight against evil is itself a grace from God. (See Donoso Cortes for a classic expression of this attitude.) Connected to the reactionary's view of combat as grace is the realization that he is not guaranteed victory in history. The reactionary does not require the worldly triumph of the Church as a condition of his hope in Christ. Instead, he views history (in Tolkien's words) as a "long defeat". His calling is to be a witness to the eternal values present in history, even if being a witness requires becoming a martyr. For this the reactionary is often derided as a pessimist, but if he is a pessimist, he is a peculiarly hopeful type of pessimist.

A reactionary, then, does not consider all participation in politics futile, but understands its limits and admits how difficult it will be to restore first principles in society and politics. But, how does one live as an "internal exile" in one's country, hoping to save it yet knowing that's not really possible? And yet, one lives for the future. The reactionary sows seed that will sprout in the future, perhaps only in eternity.

Besides having to keep his hope alive, the greatest difficulty for a reactionary is that he is an exile, a lonely figure, cut off from politics. How can he reconcile his isolated existence--which he has freely chosen--with man's social and political nature? Life as a reactionary is not an ideal, just as life as an exile is not an ideal. But, no matter how much inward reserve he maintains, the reactionary must act within a community, even if it is only a few loved ones.

But, what does all this talk of the reactionary mean for Catholics in America right now? Soon after the official announcement of the mandate, Bill Donohue predicted there would be fighting in the streets. But, that won't happen. President Obama and his supporters are too smart to provoke an open uprising, and they do not want to give the pro-life movement anything comparable to Roe v. Wade to serve as a focus of discontent. They see that final victory is in sight, and so they are willing to let the pro-life movement linger for a while, because it is a more sure death. They know that if they keep up enough pressure, but do not get too heavy-handed, most people will knuckle under. In the original Kulturkampf, Bismarck threw Catholic bishops in jail and banned Jesuits from the country; Obama will not repeat those mistakes. He will not allow Archbishop Chaput or Archbishop Dolan to be compared to Bishop Matthias Eberhard, much less to Cardinal von Galen. No nuns will be carted off to the guillotine, like the martyrs of Compiègne.

American Catholics should by all means work within the ordinary political process and use civil disobedience to oppose President Obama's contraception mandate. But, there is no guarantee that American Catholics will enjoy any success. Indeed, after Catholics are forced to pay for contraception, it is nearly certain that the federal government will impose a requirement to pay for abortions; this will play out in the same way that Catholic adoption agencies have been forced to close down after they refuse to place children in homosexual households. We Catholics will be exiles in our own country. The task of a reactionary Catholic, then, will be to figure out how to hand on the faith in an age of persecution, how to prepare an underground spiritual and intellectual resistance, to convert hearts and minds. We will need to wait and be patient. Above all, we will need to take Cardinal von Galen's words to heart: "Become hard! Remain firm!"

Monday, February 13, 2012

Discerning the Hero Within

With Lent just around the corner, I wanted to let you know that I am planning a series of posts designed for introspection and discernment this season. I will be taking as my jump-off point Matt Bird's Hero Project on his Cockeyed Caravan blog.  I hesitate to call these reflections "spiritual," since (a) I am by no means a spiritual director and, (b) they are drawn from a blog of a man for whose theological or spiritual bona fides I cannot vouch.

So what will these reflections be, and why?  The format will be simple: a few questions about oneself each week, for consideration.  The why is a little more complicated.  Bird is a script writer and film critic.  His musings on heroes approach philosophical questions, though from a dramatic angle.  At the heart of things, he wants to know what makes a hero.

All this is relevant to a Christian seeking self-knowledge in light of God's calling, because God calls us to be heroes.  Christianity is not about nice people sitting around and generally being nice to one another.  It is about amazing creatures - hybrids of spiritual and material substance - who are created good, who fall into evil, are rescued, and are then commissioned to share in the work of their rescuer, Jesus Christ, the Hero Par Excellence.

Bird's work asks about the relationship between heroes' strengths and weaknesses, the different kinds of heroes, and how the hero discovers his or her calling.  As Bird explains:
Anybody can become a hero, but they can’t become a hero by doing what anybody would do. They have to succeed because of something unique about them, not just because you put them up in a tree and threw rocks at them.
I intend to pose questions which allow readers to examine these matters in their own lives, and in a way that might be fitting for Lent.

Today's image was found here.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Henry Adams' Prayer to the Virgin of Chartres

My history students are currently studying the late 19th century, and references to Henry Adams (1838-1918) come up time and again. I am not having them read his autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams, though I may use it next time. In the course of my reading I came across this interesting poem (which includes a poem within a poem - how meta!).

Prayer to the Virgin of Chartres

Gracious Lady:--
Simple as when I asked your aid before;
Humble as when I prayed for grace in vain
Seven hundred years ago; weak, weary, sore
In heart and hope, I ask your help again.

You, who remember all, remember me;
An English scholar of a Norman name,
I was a thousand who then crossed the sea
To wrangle in the Paris schools for fame.

When your Byzantine portal was still young
I prayed there with my master Abailard;
When Ave Maris Stella was first sung,
I helped to sing it here with Saint Bernard.

When Blanche set up your gorgeous Rose of France
I stood among the servants of the Queen;
And when Saint Louis made his penitence,
I followed barefoot where the King had been.

For centuries I brought you all my cares,
And vexed you with the murmurs of a child;
You heard the tedious burden of my prayers;
You could not grant them, but at least you smiled

If then I left you, it was not my crime,
Or if a crime, it was not mine alone.
All children wander with the truant Time.
Pardon me too! You pardoned once your Son!

For He said to you:--"Wist ye not that I
Must be about my Father’s business?" So,
Seeking his Father he pursued his way
Straight to the Cross towards which we all must go.

So I too wandered off among the host
That racked the earth to find the father’s clue.
I did not find the Father, but I lost
What now I value more, the Mother,--You!

I thought the fault was yours that foiled my search;
I turned and broke your image on its throne,
Cast down my idol, and resumed my march
To claim the father’s empire for my own.

Crossing the hostile sea, our greedy band
Saw rising hills and forests in the blue;
Our father’s kingdom in the promised land!
--We seized it, and dethroned the father too.

And now we are the Father, with our brood,
Ruling the Infinite, not Three but One;
We made our world and saw that it was good;
Ourselves we worship, and we have no Son.

Yet we have Gods, for even our strong nerve
Falters before the Energy we own.
Which shall be master? Which of us shall serve?
Which wears the fetters? Which shall bear the crown?

Brave though we be, we dread to face the Sphinx,
Or answer the old riddle she still asks.
Strong as we are, our reckless courage shrinks
To look beyond the piece-work of our tasks.

But when we must, we pray, as in the past
Before the Cross on which your Son was nailed.
Listen, dear lady! You shall hear the last
Of the strange prayers Humanity has wailed.


Mysterious Power! Gentle Friend!
Despotic Master! Tireless Force!
You and We are near the End.
Either You or We must bend
To bear the martyrs’ Cross.

We know ourselves, what we can bear
As men; our strength and weakness too;
Down to the fraction of a hair;
And know that we, with all our care
And knowledge, know not you.

You come in silence, Primal Force,
We know not whence, or when, or why;
You stay a moment in your course
To play; and, lo! you leap across
To Alpha Centauri!

We know not whether you are kind,
Or cruel in your fiercer mood;
But be you Matter, be you Mind,
We think we know that you are blind,
And we alone are good.

We know that prayer is thrown away,
   For you are only force and light;
    A shifting current; night and day;
    We know this well, and yet we pray,
    For prayer is infinite,

    Like you! Within the finite sphere
    That bounds the impotence of thought,
    We search an outlet everywhere
    But only find that we are here
    And that you are--are not!

    What are we then? the lords of space?
    The master-mind whose tasks you do?
    Jockey who rides you in the race?
    Or are we atoms whirled apace,
    Shaped and controlled by you?

    Still silence! Still no end in sight!
    No sound in answer to our cry!
    Then, by the God we now hold tight,
    Though we destroy soul, life and light,
    Answer you shall--or die!

    We are no beggars! What care we
    For hopes or terrors, love or hate?
    What for the universe? We see
    Only our certain destiny
    And the last word of Fate.

    Seize, then, the Atom! rack his joints!
    Tear out of him his secret spring!
    Grind him to nothing!--though he points
    To us, and his life-blood anoints
    Me--the dead Atom-King!

A curious prayer, dear lady! is it not?
Strangely unlike the prayers I prayed to you!
Stranger because you find me at this spot,
Here, at your feet, asking your help anew.

Strangest of all, that I have ceased to strive,
Ceased even care what new coin fate shall strike.
In truth it does not matter. Fate will give
Some answer; and all answers are alike.

So, while we slowly rack and torture death
And wait for what the final void will show,
Waiting I feel the energy of faith
Not in the future science, but in you!

The man who solves the Infinite, and needs
The force of solar systems for his play,
Will not need me, nor greatly care what deeds
Made me illustrious in the dawn of day.

He will send me, dethroned, to claim my rights,
Fossil survival of an age of stone,
Among the cave-men and the troglodytes
Who carved the mammoth on the mammoth’s bone.

He will forget my thought, my acts, my fame,
As we forget the shadows of the dusk,
Or catalogue the echo of a name
As we the scratches on the mammoth’s tusk.

But when, like me, he too has trod the track
Which leads him up to power above control,
He too will have no choice but wander back
And sink in helpless hopelessness of soul,

Before your majesty of grace and love,
The purity, the beauty and the faith;
The depth of tenderness beneath; above,
The glory of the life and of the death.

When your Byzantine portal still was young,
I came here with my master Abailard;
When Ave Maris Stella was first sung,
I joined to sing it here with Saint Bernard.

When Blanche set up your glorious Rose of France,
In scholar’s robes I waited on the Queen;
When good Saint Louis did his penitence,
My prayer was deep like his: my faith as keen.

What loftier prize seven hundred years shall bring,
What deadlier struggles for a larger air,
What immortality our strength shall wring
From Time and Space, we may--or may not--care;

But years, or ages, or eternity,
Will find me still in thought before your throne,
Pondering the mystery of Maternity,
Soul within Soul,--Mother and Child in One!

Help me to see! not with my mimic sight--
With yours! which carried radiance, like the sun,
Giving the rays you saw with--light in light--
Tying all suns and stars and worlds in one.

Help me to know! not with my mocking art--
With you, who knew yourself unbound by laws;
Gave God your strength, your life, your sight, your heart,
And took from him the Thought that Is--the Cause.

Help me to feel! not with my insect sense,--
With yours that felt all life alive in you;
Infinite heart beating at your expense;
Infinite passion breathing the breath you drew!

Help me to bear! not my own baby load,
But yours; who bore the failure of the light,
The strength, the knowledge and the thought of God,--
The futile folly of the Infinite!

Text via Image via Wikipedia.