Monday, December 30, 2013

Yes, Virginia, There Is Metaphysics

Although most commemorations of the jolly old elf, at least in the US, are past, the Church continues to celebrate Christmas. In that spirit, I want to share a bit of text I am ashamed to say I only recently read: the 1897 editorial from the New York Sun which includes the famous line, "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus."

I recall, as a child, watching one of the films of the same name. I do not recall the precise age at which this occurred, but it was one of those awkward years of elementary school during which most of the students had come to discover the truth about Santa, but several children - frankly, the slower and more childish - still persisted in their belief. This placed teachers, administrators, and the unbelieving majority of students in the position of having to profess at least agnosticism, in spite of their own better knowledge. In such a climate, my young rationalist self found this film and its catch phrase a poor rearguard defense of ignorance, a blatant lie in the face of the evidence.

But a few weeks ago a Dominican student brother brought to my attention the actual text of the Sun editorial. It takes Santa as its ostensible subject, but is about much more. Specifically, it is a defense of the idea that there may be more than that which can be measured or physically identified. I find this terribly refreshing, particularly in an age which frequently indulges in a rationalist denial of all that is immaterial.

To be fair, this editorial offers an incomplete argument. As my wife points out, belief in things unseen, any and all manner of things, can be terribly dangerous. Such unseen objects of belief, in addition to being false, can be horrifically evil. Thus, let us not fall into the fideist belief that belief itself, irrespective of the essential truth of its object, is virtuous. Nevertheless, I think the editorial, now more than a century old, may offer some interesting opportunities to engage with our culture and raise important questions about the limits of our knowledge what lies behind the physical world.

We take pleasure in answering at once and thus prominently the communication below, expressing at the same time our great gratification that that its faithful author is numbered among the friends of The Sun.

"DEAR EDITOR: I am 8 years old.
"Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus.
"Papa says, 'If you see it in THE SUN it's so.'
"Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?


VIRGINIA, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men's or children's, are little. In this great universe of ours man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect, as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.

Yes, VIRGINIA, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no VIRGINIAS. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.

Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies! You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas Eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if they did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove? Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that's no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.

You may tear apart the baby's rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived, could tear apart. Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, VIRGINIA, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.

No Santa Claus! Thank God! he lives, and he lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Peace on Earth

In December 1914, Pope Benedict XV called for a truce amid the bloodshed of the Great War, to offer some respite and "cease the clang of arms while Christendom celebrates the Feast of the World's Redemption."  The governments of Europe refused.

But a curious thing happened: On Christmas day, hundreds of thousands of soldiers laid down their arms, climbed out of their trenches, and celebrated together.  Songs were sung, small gifts exchanged.  The recent dead were buried.  Joint services were held to mark the holiday.  Modern British Christmas traditions - such as Christmas trees and many carols - are German in origin, so the festivities naturally overcame linguistic barriers.  In some sectors of the Western Front the truce lasted an entire week.

It is difficult to pin down what sparked this spontaneous celebration.  Pope Benedict's appeal likely had little direct effect.   The unofficial truce may simply have been the response of exhausted soldiers to the horrors of war.  But many, perhaps most, of these men were Christians, of one denomination or another.  It is striking that, in the midst of one of humanity's most terrible conflicts, in the midst of a conflict which nearly tore European civilization apart, in the midst of a conflict which no one seemed able to halt, grown men, surrounded by the carnage of death, paused to celebrate the birth of a little baby, the Prince of Peace.

Though "the nations protest and the peoples conspire in vain, [though] kings on earth rise up and princes plot together against the Lord and against His anointed one" (Psalm 2:1-2), may God, in His mercy, fill our hearts and our world with His peace this Christmas.

This image of soldiers from the 134th Saxon Regiment and the Royal Warwickshire Regiment together on St. Stephen's Day (26 December) 1914 comes from the Imperial War Museum's collection, via Wikipedia.  If you have never visited the IWM, you should.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Learning Humility This Advent

Advent is an anticipatory season. It is generally joyful. Nevertheless, there is a penitential element to it, and this is quite logical, when one thinks about it. If Christ is coming - into our hearts and at the end of days - we should want to make ready His way. And that includes undertaking penance to purify our hearts and so prepare to receive him.

In that spirit, I would like to offer the Litany of Humility for Advent devotion. Composed by Rafael Cardinal Merry del Val, Cardinal Secretary of State under Pope Pius X, the litany focuses on letting go of ourselves and our ambitions, that Christ may fill us. Although the tone may sound more Lenten than Adventine - and indeed it may be - I think it works for this season. The middle section addresses our need to be delivered, in large measure from our own false desires; may our Deliverer come quickly!  And the final section speaks to the way that a humble attitude toward ourselves can lead to a joyful concern for the well-being of others: "That others may be loved.... That others may become holier than I, provided that I may become as holy as I should." One who has learned to live these words has true joy and has indeed made room for the Holy One of God to dwell within.

The Litany of Humility

O Jesus! meek and humble of heart, Hear me.

From the desire of being esteemed, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being loved, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being extolled, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being honored, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being praised, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being preferred to others, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being consulted, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being approved, Deliver me, Jesus.

From the fear of being humiliated, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being despised, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of suffering rebukes, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being calumniated, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being forgotten, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being ridiculed, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being wronged, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being suspected, Deliver me, Jesus.

That others may be loved more than I, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be esteemed more than I, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That, in the opinion of the world, others may increase and I may decrease, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be chosen and I set aside, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be praised and I unnoticed, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be preferred to me in everything, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may become holier than I, provided that I may become as holy as I should, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.