Thursday, December 31, 2015

From Fr. Delp's Diary, 31 December 1944

Spiritually we seem to be in an enormous vacuum. Humanly speaking there is the same burning question - what is the point of it all? And in the end even the question sticks in one's throat. Scarcely anyone can see, or even guess at, the connection between the corpse-strewn battlefields, the heaps of rubble we live in and the collapse of the spiritual cosmos of our views and principles, the tattered residue of our moral and religious convictions as revealed by our behavior. And even if the connection were fully understood it would be only a matter for academic interest, data to be noted and listed. No one would be shocked or deduce from the facts a need for reformation. We have already travelled so far in our progress toward anarchy and nihilism....

That England is on the down grade even I am beginning to believe. The English have lost their keenness and their spiritual gifts; the philosophy of materialism has eaten into England's bones and paralyzed the muscles of her heart. The English still have great traditions and imposing forms and gestures; but what kind of people are they? The social problem has been overlooked in England - and also the problem of youth and the problem of America and of spiritual questions which can all too easily masquerade as cultural or political questions.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

From Fr. Delp's Diary, 29 December 1944

Far more than a civilization or a rich heritage was lost when the universal order went the way of medieval and ancient civilizations.  Western humanity today is spiritually homeless, naked and exposed.  The moment we start to be anything beyond "one of the masses" we become terribly aware of that isolation which has always encompassed the great.  We realize our homelessness and our exposure.  So we set to work to build ourselves some sort of house and shelter.  Our ancestors, those among them who were really great, could have left us a legacy much more helpful for our progress.  We can only account for the contorted thought of men like Paracelsus or Böhme on the grounds that life's insufferable loneliness and lack of design forced them to build a shelter for themselves.  And although it is such a self-willed and distorted and angular structure it still has the marks of painstaking care and trouble and in that must command our respect.  Goethe had rather more success; his instinct was surer and it led him to guess at some of nature's more important designs.  Moreover, he had a good - thought not in all respects dependable - master whose ideas he copied to a very large extent.

Every now and then someone comes along and tries to impose his own plan on the rest of the world, either because he knows he has stumbled on a universal need or because he thinks he has and overestimates his own infallibility.  Such people will never lack followers since so many people long for a well-founded communal home to which they can feel they "belong."  Time after time in the end they come to realize that the shelter offered is not all it purports to be - it cannot keep out the wind and the weather.  And time and time again the deluded seekers conclude they have been taken in by a mountebank; the man probably had no intention of deliberately deceiving but he was nevertheless a charlatan misleading himself and others.


It is quite remarkable.  Since Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve I have become almost light-heartedly confident although nothing outwardly has changed.  Somewhere within me ice has been melted by the prayer for love and life - I cannot tell on what plane.  There is nothing tangible to show for it and yet I am in good heart and my thoughts soar.  Of course the pendulum will swing back and there will be other moods - the sort that made St. Peter tremble at the wind and the waves.


I have a great yearning to talk with a few well-loved friends... when?

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Fr. Delp on the Fourth Sunday of Advent: The Final Hour of Darkness

Fr. Alfred Delp's meditation for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, written in jail while he awaited trial at the hands of the Nazis, is considerably longer than that for the First Sunday, making it impractical to reproduce in full. Nevertheless, the first paragraph alone is worth quoting, quivering as it does with the anticipation of Christmas, made all the more striking by the personal circumstances of Fr. Delp's life.
What is true of the Advent prayers applies also to Advent in life. Before the curtain rises and the scene is disclosed, stretching into infinity, expectation mounts in a crescendo of excitement. Our confidence is well founded and so is the suspense of waiting because the promise is already fulfilled and its truth demonstrated. Day triumphs and the darkness shrinks back into nothingness - like the shadows in the wings when the stage is set as a temple of light. On the forth Sunday in Advent the acute awareness of shrouded mystery is deepening for the final hour of darkness that heralds the dawn. There is an intense awareness of captivity, of crippling disability and despair, but it is already shot through with a premonition of divine grace - the premonition that will soon become certainty.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Alfred Delp on the Meaning of Advent (and Life)

On 28 July 1944 the German Jesuit Alfred Delp was arrested by the Nazis for his links to the German Resistance movement, some members of which had just attempted to assassinate Hitler in the July 20 plot. While in prison, he kept a diary and wrote reflections, most notably on Advent and Christmas.

In his sermon for the First Sunday of Advent, Delp points out that even if humanity did not need salvation from sin, our own longing for transcendent fulfillment would exceed anything of which we are capable on our own and thus we would still need God. But this is not our circumstance, for the world is clearly torn by sin and violence in countless forms.

Amidst our frustrations and suffering, Delp reminds us that our longing for something better is not simply a self-diagnosis of our problem, a reminder of what we do not have, but - in the mystery of God - this longing itself brings us closer to God, who is our fulfillment. But he warns us: "To try to bring the quest to an ultimate conclusion" by our own efforts is folly. God accomplishes this work. Moreover, we can neither hurry the process nor postpone it "to suit our convenience." It must happen in God's time.

Here is the full text. If the tone is heavy, it is because Delp beheld his nation on the verge of destruction, itself the author of horrendous bloodletting, while his own fate was unknown, as he awaited trial. But amidst such gloom, he also saw hope.

Unless we have been shocked to our depths at ourselves and the things we are capable of, as well as at the failing of humanity as a whole, we cannot possibly understand the full import of Advent.

If the whole message of the coming of God, of the day of salvation, of approaching redemption, is to seem more than a divinely inspired legend or a bit of poetic fiction two things much be accepted unreservedly.

First, that life is both powerless and futile in so far as by itself it has neither purpose nor fulfillment. It is powerless and futile within its own range of existence and also as a consequence of sin. To this must be added the rider that life clearly demands both purpose and fulfillment.

Secondly, it must be recognized that it is God's alliance with humanity, his being on our side, ranging himself with us, that corrects this state of meaningless futility. It is necessary to be conscious of God's decision to enlarge the boundaries of his own supreme existence by condescending to share ours for the overcoming of sin.

It follows that life, fundamentally, is a continuous Advent; hunger and thirst and awareness of lack involve movement toward fulfillment. But this also means that in this progress toward fulfillment humanity is vulnerable; we are perpetually moving toward, and are capable of receiving, the ultimate revelation with all the pain inseparable from that achievement.

While time lasts there can be no end to it all and to try to bring the quest to an ultimate conclusion is one of the illusory temptations to which human nature is exposed. In fact hunger and thirst and wandering in the wilderness and perpetual rescue by a sort of life-line are all part of the ordinary hazards of human existence.

God's promises are given to meet and deal with all these contingencies - not merely to satisfy human arrogance and conceit. All we have to rely on is the fact that these promises have been given and that they will be kept. We are bound to depend on them - "the truth shall set you free." That is the ultimate theme of life. All else is mere explanation, compromise, application, and then to get away from ourselves, back to him. Any attempt to live by other principles is bound to fail - it is a living lie. This is the mistake we have made as a race and as a nation and are now paying for so bitterly. We have committed an unpardonable sin against our own being and the only way to correct it is through an existential reverse - back again to truth.

But this reverse, this return, must be made now.

The threatening dangers of our sins. Recognizing the truth of existence and loosening the stranglehold of this error are not matters that can be postponed to suit our convenience. They call for immediate action because untruth is both dangerous and destructive. It has already rent our souls, destroyed our people, laid waste our land and our cities; it has already caused another generation to bleed to death.

None that wait on thee shall be confounded. We must recognize and acknowledge the hunger and thirst for satisfaction outside ourselves. After all it is not a case of waiting for something that may not happen. We have the comforting assurance of all those who wait knowing that the one they expect is already on the way.

If we are terrified by the dawning realization of our true condition, that error is completely calmed by the certain knowledge that God is on the way and actually approaching. Our fate, no matter how much it may be entwined with the inescapable logic of circumstance, is still nothing more than the way to God, the way the Lord has chosen for the ultimate consummation of his purpose, for his permanent ends. Lift up your heads because your redemption is at hand.

Just as falsehood entered the world through the heart and destroyed it, so truth begins its healing work there.

Light the candles quietly, such candles as you possess, wherever you are. They are the appropriate symbol for all that must happen in Advent if we are to live.
From Alfred Delp, SJ: Prison Writings, with introduction by Thomas Merton (Orbis, 2004), pp. 22-24.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Muslims in the GOP

Is this the face of a conservative Muslim politician? Turns out, it is. Cemile Giousouf was elected to German's Bundestag (federal parliament) in 2013, the chamber's first Muslim representative of the conservative Christian Democratic Union party. As the Financial Times pointed out at the time, she is an example of a small but growing number of European Muslims who are abandoning the continent's secular left-wing parties because they feel more at home with Christian conservatives. In Britain, Sayeeda Warsi grew up in a Pakistani-British family and was appointed Vice Chairman of the Conservative Party in 2005. Two years later she was created Baroness Warsi and became the youngest member of the House of Lords.

Here in the US, the story is a bit different. It's not that there's a shortage of pro-life, pro-marriage, faith-infused, free trade, limited government, robust national security-minded Muslims out there. The Republican Muslim Coalition and its president, Saba Ahmed, for example, embody just such values. No, the problem is that the likes of Donald Trump and the populist wing of the party seem to be doing their best to alienate such potential voters, as the FT reports. In 2000, George W. Bush won 42% of the American Muslim vote, a hefty piece of a growing pie (and probably one of the Republicans' strongest showings among any minority group). By 2008, 89% of Muslims were voting Democrat.

Back home in Arizona, I frequently voted for Mormons, not because I share all their theological beliefs, but because I found that I shared political and social values with many Mormon candidates. I'd be happy to vote alongside Muslims and for Muslim candidates as well, if only the GOP doesn't drive them all away.

Photo credit: Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger.

Monday, November 9, 2015

An Excellent Flag: Crozet, Virginia

I have been known to complain about bad civic heraldry. But today I would like to praise a worthy example.

Crozet, VA is a small unincorporated town of around 6,000 people a few miles west of Charlottesville. It is named for Claudius Crozet, a French engineer who, among other things, served as the first president of the Virginia Military Institute. As the Crozet Gazette explains:
In 1996, looking for symbol for the Crozet community, the Crozet Community Association investigated the family heraldry of the town namesake. Three emblems for the name were discovered in old French heraldry books at the University of Virginia Library, but all were depicted in black and white. For one, the least complex coat-of-arms, there was a description of the emblem’s colors and therefore it was officially adopted by the CCA and stickers and a handful of flags were made. The colors are happily compatible with the American flag. The emblem dates from the 1300s.
This flag has all the attributes of a good flag or coat of arms: it is simple, clear, distinctive, historically grounded, and aesthetically pleasing. Thus, it comes as little surprise that, although Crozet is a small community, its flag is a fairly common sight in the back window of vehicles in the area. I can only hope that more communities follow Crozet's example of using well-designed heraldic symbols to foster civic pride.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

English, But Not As You Know It

A couple months ago I read an article on cognitive fitness which encouraged various activities to keep the mind strong and limber: music, exercise, games, acting, and foreign languages, among others.

If you're anything like me, you may lack the time and ability to study a foreign language. But I strongly suspect that many of the same cognitive benefits can come about by working with a different dialect of English. The other day I stumbled upon one: Yola, otherwise known as the Forth and Bargy dialect.

This variant of English was spoken in County Wexford, Ireland. Although it died out in the 19th century, it evolved from Middle English and looks more like the English of Geoffrey Chaucer than modern American English. Those who are interested in the finer workings of pronunciation can find plenty of information online. But for those who simply want to try their hand at reading it, I'd offer the same advice I offer for Chaucer: read it out loud and then just listen to yourself. You might sound like the Swedish Chef from the Muppets, but you may find yourself hearing words that you didn't recognize on the page.

Here's a simple example of Yola, with a modern English translation, that I pulled off Wikipedia:

Ee mýdhe ov Rosslaarè
'Cham góeen to tell thee óa taale at is drúe
Aar is ing Rosslaarè óa mýdhe geoudè an drúe
Shoo wearth ing her haté óa ribbonè at is blúe
An shoo goeth to ee faaythè earchee deie too
Ich meezil bee ing ee faaythè éarchee deie zoo
At ich zee dhicka mýdhe fhó is geoudè an drúe
An ich bee to ishólthè ee mýdhe, ee mýdhe at is drúe
An fhó coome to ee faaythè wi' ribbonè blue
'Chull meezil góe to Rosslaaré earche deie too
to zie thaar ee mydhe wee her ribbonè blúe
An 'chull her estólté vor her ribbonè blúe
ee mýdhe at is lyghtzóm, an well wytheen an drúe
Ich loove ee mýdhe wee ee ribbonè blúe
At coome to ee faaythè éarchee arichè too
Fan 'cham ing ee faaythè éarchee arichè too
To estóthè mýdhe wee ee ribbons blúe

The maiden of Rosslare
I'm going to tell you a tale that is true.
There is in Rosslare a maid good and true.
She wears in her hat a ribbon that is blue
and she goes to the faith every day too.
I myself am in the faith every day so
that I see this maid who is good and true
and I go to meet the maid, the maid that is true
and who comes to the faith with ribbons blue.
I myself will go to Rosslare every day too
to see there the maid with her ribbons blue
And I will meet her for her ribbons blue
the maid that is enlightened and good looking and true.
I love the maid with the ribbons blue
that comes to the faith every morning too
when I'm in the faith every morning too
to meet the maid with the ribbons blue.

If that was too easy, you can find a more challenging text here, along with some modern English.

Those interested in learning a bit more about Yola may enjoy this short video:

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Alternatives to Flying the Confederate Battle Flag

I understand the sentiments behind flying the Confederate Battle Flag (or, at least some of them). People are fed up with excessive federal government and want to see the states empowered again. They're tired of a declining sense of heritage and local community. They're tired of being told by people they have never seen what they can and cannot do.

But in spite of this sympathy, I have grave doubts about the wisdom of flying the Confederate Battle Flag (more specifically the Battle Flag of the Army of Northern Virginia). This flag was carried by men engaged in rebellion against the United States - arguably the largest and bloodiest act of treason in American history - in defense of a would-be state that advocated slavery as a positive good and a "corner-stone" of its system.

Admittedly, for most people who fly the flag, it doesn't stand for those things. To them, it stands for home, heritage, freedom, and courage. Rather than getting sucked into the question of what the flag "actually represents," let us admit that different people view it differently. And it is doubtful whether it is prudent to elevate symbols which we know people will misconstrue.

Fortunately, there are a raft of alternative flags available to the historically-conscious individual who wishes to express the positive sentiments behind the Confederate Battle Flag while avoiding most of its negative connotations. The fact that many of these flags are today obscure may actually be a virtue, leading neighbors and passers-by to ask what the flag means, allowing the person flying it to explain.

Other Flags of the Confederacy

This is my least favorite option, since much of the negative connotation remains, but it merits mention. Why not fly one of the political flags of the Confederacy, particularly the First National Flag? This could be taken as a symbol of the hope (however naive or stillborn) that the Confederacy might peacefully secede and become its own nation. The battle flag is, in some sense, an admission that attempts at peaceful secession were a failure.

Current State Flags

Every state has a flag, and several - particularly North and South Carolina (pictured left) - are not unattractive. (There is, however, still the problem that the Mississippi state flag incorporates the Confederate Battle Flag.) There's no requirement that state flags be flown in conjunction with the US flag. Moreover, it is not a breach of flag protocol to fly a state flag on an adjacent pole at the same height as the US flag.

Past State Flags

There is a wealth of possibilities here. If you think your current state flag is boring, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Texas have earlier flags you could consider flying, to indicate loyalty to both place and history. (Though admittedly, Florida's past state flags are so ugly you probably wouldn't want to try those.) As it turns out, the current Mississippi state flag, with the Confederate Battle Flag in the canton, was never used in Confederate days; during secession, the Magnolia Flag (pictured right) was used.

One particularly notable flag of yesteryear is the Bonnie Blue Flag (pictured left). First used by the short-lived Republic of West Florida (which encompassed parts of modern-day Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana), a version of the flag - sometimes with the original white star, sometimes with a gold star - was later adopted by the Republic of Texas, possibly because its original goal, like of that of the Republic of West Florida, was to be annexed by the US. The flag was used by Mississippi when it seceded in 1861 and was later incorporated into the Magnolia Flag. The Bonnie Blue Flag was likewise used across the Confederacy. Thus, this flag, elegant in its simplicity, can represent several states across the South and, while speaking to the region's Confederate heritage, also speaks to events outside that period.

Other historical flags include the aptly named Come and Take It Flag from Texas's republican days or the Alamo Flag (though its clear connection to the Mexican flag may not sit well with some nativists).

Some states also have flags from their colonial days, such as the old flag of French Louisiana (right, above). Those with an interest in ships might also be drawn to the South Carolina ensign (right below), used not only during secession but also during the American Revolution.

Other American Flags

The history of the United States offers even more options.  The Gadsden Flag (left above), with its iconic "Don't Tread on Me," was first used during the American Revolution (and is available on license plates in Virginia, maybe elsewhere too).  The
Bunker Hill Flag also harkens back to America's earliest days.  And the Fremont Flag (left below), carried by John C. Fremont on his expedition, may be taken as a symbol of the American West and its rugged individualism.

Religious Flags

Religion is a key part of many people's traditional heritage, and there are several religious flags to choose from, be you Catholic, Episcopalian, or Christian writ large.  Moreover, flying a religious flag may be seen as an expression for First Amendment rights against an overweening federal government.

Foreign Flags

At first glance, a foreign flag might seem an odd choice for someone wishing to show patriotism and a connection to a local place in the US. But there are two reasons why this might work. First, most Americans are descended from immigrants from elsewhere. Why not fly a Scottish, Irish, or German flag? Moreover, if you're interested in standing up for liberty, there are several notable groups overseas who have done just that. I am particularly drawn to resistance movements that opposed the Nazis. Why not fly a flag of the Free French (above left), the Polish Home Army (center left), or the flag proposed by members of the July 20 plot who sought to topple Hitler in Operation Valkyrie (bottom left)? Plenty of true heroes to emulate and celebrate there.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Laudato Si' Excerpted

Over at Laudato Si' Excerpted I'll be posting passages from the encyclical by Pope Francis several times a week for the next few months. Below is the introduction to the first installment.

When Pope Francis's encyclical letter Laudato Si' came out, I was a bit befuddled by the media coverage, which claimed that the pope had suddenly become an environmentalist, and also wrote about the poor, with a sprinkling of traditional Catholic condemnations of things like artificial birth control.  Frankly, it sounded like a pretty schizophrenic document (which, in any case, I didn't have time to read).

But I was again reminded of
Laudato Si' when I came across
a Financial Times article about Yellowstone that asked, "Are humans part of nature, or above it?  Why do we care about setting aside 'wild' lands such as Yellowstone?  Why do we care about the survival of wolves in the first place?  Does nature and wildlife have intrinsic value?"  So I picked up the document and was pleased to discover both insight and coherence.

You can read the first set of excerpts at Laudato Si' Excerpted.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Ever Ancient, Ever New

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 23, 2015

New Zealand's New Flag

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Willa Cather's "Spanish Johnny"

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

Spanish Johnny

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

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

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

Saturday, July 11, 2015

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

Today is the feast of the abbot Benedict of Nursia.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saint Benedict, pray for us!

Today's image comes via the Saint Meinrad Archabbey.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Two Remarks on Obergefell v. Hodges

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 22, 2015

Thomas More's Priorities

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

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

Tower of London, 1534-35 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Happy Solemnity of the Ascension (sort of)!

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

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

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

Thursday, May 14, 2015

The Davidic Origins of "The Last Shall Be First"

Jesus was a rabbi.  We sometimes forget the very Jewish nature of his ministry and teaching.  I was recently struck by this reality while reading the Book of Samuel. When David and his band were away, Amalekites raided the city of Ziklag, carrying off the wives and children of David and many of his men. David set off with 600 men in pursuit of the Amalekites, but along the way 200 men tired and were left behind, while the other 400 continued the pursuit. When David and his men finally came upon the Amalekites they rescued their family members and captured a large quantity of plunder.

When David came to the two hundred men who had been too exhausted to follow him, whom he had left behind at the Wadi Besor, they came out to meet David and the men with him. As David approached, he greeted them. But all the greedy and worthless among those who had accompanied David said, “Since they did not accompany us, we will not give them anything from the plunder, except for each man’s wife and children.” But David said:

“You must not do this, my brothers, after what the LORD has given us. The LORD has protected us and delivered into our hands the raiders that came against us. Who could agree with this proposal of yours? Rather, the share of the one who goes down to battle shall be the same as that of the one who remains with the baggage—they share alike.” And from that day forward he made this a law and a custom in Israel, as it still is today. (1 Samuel 30:21-25)

Thus, when Jesus told the parable of the vineyard workers, all of whom were paid the same wage irrespective of how long they worked, he was not introducing a new teaching.  Rather, he was reminding them of the long-standing Davidic practice.

Nor was this the first time that Jesus invoked David's example.  In Matthew 12 he compared his own disciples to David and his band, who ate of the sacred show bread reserved to the priests.  With these examples in mind, it is perhaps all the more fitting that in Matthew 21, the very chapter after the parable of the vineyard workers, the crowds acclaimed Jesus as the "Son of David."  Here was one who revived the forgotten teachings of Israel, who called the people to rededicate themselves to the holiness of God's covenant.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Fairyland amid the Factories

I’ve recently taken to reading my son poems each night. Among our recent reads were Chesterton’s “Song of the Children” and the poem below, “Modern Elfland.” I found it particularly interesting because Chesterton is often assumed – among other things, because of his advocacy of distributism – to have been an agrarian romantic.  And maybe he was.  But this poem suggests that, in city or countryside, among fields or factories, the spark of life exists and can be found anywhere. For those inspired by the Chestertonian vision, seeking out the “heart of fairyland” in the midst of modern life may be a more fruitful path than trying to rebuild a lost agrarian world which, for most of us, is probably out of reach.

Modern Elfland
By G. K. Chesterton

I cut a staff in a churchyard copse,
I clad myself in ragged things,
I set a feather in my cap
That fell out of an angel’s wings.

I filled my wallet with white stones,
I took three foxgloves in my hand,
I slung my shoes across my back,
And so I went to fairyland.

But lo, within that ancient place
Science had reared her iron crown,
And the great cloud of steam went up
That telleth where she takes a town.

But cowled with smoke and starred with lamps,
That strange land’s light was still its own;
The word that witched the woods and hills
Spoke in the iron and the stone.

Not Nature’s hand had ever curved
That mute unearthly porter’s spine.
Like sleeping dragon’s sudden eyes
The signals leered along the line.

The chimneys thronging crooked or straight
Were fingers signalling the sky;
The dog that strayed across the street
Seemed four-legged by monstrosity.

‘In vain,’ I cried, ‘though you too touch
The new time’s desecrating hand,
Through all the noises of a town
I hear the heart of fairyland.’

I read the name above a door,
Then through my spirit pealed and passed:
‘This is the town of thine own home,
And thou hast looked on it at last.’

From The Collected Poems of G. K. Chesterton (1927) via the Poetry Foundation.  Picture from the Chesterton Debate Series.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Boat Race Day!

Saturday 11 April 2015 is The Boat Race, the annual competition between Oxford and Cambridge on the Thames.  In the world of rowing, not to mention Oxbridge rivalry, it is as big as the Olympics.  And after last year's drubbing by Oxford, Cambridge has something to prove.

You can watch the Boat Race - or, rather, Races, since the men and women are rowing on the same day this year - online, courtesy of the BBC.  The women's race is at 16:50 (London time) and the men at 17:50.

To get in the mood, you might consider watching True Blue, a film based on the 1987 "Oxford Mutiny" and the Boat Race of that year.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Chesterton for Good Friday

The Song of the Children
by G. K. Chesterton

The World is ours till sunset,
Holly and fire and snow;
And the name of our dead brother
Who loved us long ago.

The grown folk mighty and cunning,
They write his name in gold;
But we can tell a little
Of the million tales he told.

He taught them laws and watchwords,
To preach and struggle and pray;
But he taught us deep in the hayfield
The games that the angels play.

Had he stayed here for ever,
Their world would be wise as ours--
And the king be cutting capers,
And the priest be picking flowers.

But the dark day came: they gathered:
On their faces we could see
They had taken and slain our brother,
And hanged him on a tree.

Image courtesy of The Work of God's Children Educational Project.

Friday, March 20, 2015

King David Chooses the Unlikely - and God Does Too

In the Book of Samuel, David, the anointed king of Israel, becomes a fugitive when Saul, the king from whom God removed His favor, tries to kill David. We are told that David "was joined by all those in difficulties or in debt, or embittered, and became their leader" (1 Sam 22:2). For a man about to raise a veritable guerrilla army, this does not seem like very promising material.  Then again, it sounds much like the "tax collectors and sinners" who appear throughout the Gospels following Jesus.

Interestingly, we learn a few chapters later from some shepherds who traveled through the territory of David and his outlaws that "these men were very good to us. We were not harmed, neither did we miss anything all the while we were living among them during our stay in the open country" (1 Sam 25:15).  It turns out that, under a leader like David, the indebted, the embittered, the outcasts of society, can become not only a capable fighting force but upstanding men as well.  Thus does the Old Testament foreshadow here, and in dozens of more prominent examples, the idea that St. Paul explained to the Corinthians: "God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise, and God chose the weak of the world to shame the strong" (1 Cor 1:27).

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The Rights and Responsibilities of Generations

Communitarianism never really took off as a political movement, but its emphasis on both rights and responsibilities broadly accords with the flavor of Catholic social teaching. With that in mind, and inspired by the consciously inter-generational charism of the Sword of the Spirit community, I have been thinking a lot lately, as I watch my own parents age and my children grow, about the rights and responsibilities of generations. Not yet having run the full course of life, I realize these are limited by my own experience, but here are a few thoughts:

  • Young people, from high school students to recent college graduates, have lots of energy and, although they rarely recognize it, time. I would strongly recommend to anyone about to finish undergraduate studies that they consider undertaking missionary work, joining the military, or going to graduate school. This is the season of life for such things. I am glad, for my part, that I completed my PhD immediately after my undergraduate education. While additional "life experience" in the midst of my studies would have been valuable, I cannot imagine trying to finish coursework or a dissertation while raising a family.

  • On a related note: society desperately needs the enthusiastic service of young people. While service projects abound, it feels like many of them involve piecemeal efforts or the ticking of boxes. More organizations for sustained, dedicated service are needed, and more young people should be encouraged to participate in them. The Mormon missionary system comes to mind as a model of large-scale, coordinated utilization of young peoples' efforts.

  • Young single people need support. Two particular manifestations come to mind. First, I am deeply grateful for men a few years older than me who shared their lives. I have learned a great deal from them. With young children, my wife and I now find ourselves spending the overwhelming majority of our social time with other parents of young children. There are many fruits to this arrangement, but I fear that we are doing little to impart our wisdom (such as it is), sometimes gained with sweat and tears, to those who will need it in a few years.

  • Second, the debacle of the Texas A&M Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgendered Resource Center reminded me of how difficult it is to be a single person in a society saturated in sexual promiscuity. As Genesis reminds us, "It is not good for the man to be alone." Single life was a blessed season for me, but also a trying one, and I lived it in an extremely supportive environment. I cannot imagine doing so at a large public institution such as A&M (itself, by no means the worst of "party" schools). Why are there no Single People Striving to Live Chastity Resource Centers?

  • On the whole, our elders are neither accorded the seat of wisdom, nor would they know what to do with it if they were. Consider the term we use for those advanced in age: elderly. Literally, those like elders, but not actually such. Our society is so far removed from a reverence for our elders that most of us have no idea how to incorporate them into the regular habits of business and social life. Moreover, the generation now reaching retirement is a generation which - collectively, if not individually - rejected the oversight of their elders. If there was ever a sense for how elders gracefully receive deference and impart their wisdom while still permitting a younger generation to lead, that sense has been lost. Many of our elders today, so rarely receiving the respect due to their experience, are either embarrassed by the attention grasp at it in a way which is unhelpful. The wheel must be reinvented.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Spare Our Lives and Grant Us Patience

Simply reading the news reminds me of the urgent need to pray for Christians in the Middle East. The Chaldean Catholic Patriarch of Iraq, His Beatitude Louis Raphael Sako, has asked Christians around the world to pray the following:

the plight of our country
is deep and the suffering of Christians
is severe and frightening.

Therefore, we ask you Lord
to spare our lives, and to grant us patience,
and courage to continue our witness of Christian values
with trust and hope.

Lord, peace is the foundation of life;
grant us the peace and stability that will enable us
to live with each other without fear and anxiety,
and with dignity and joy.

Glory be to you forever.

Today's image comes via A Reader's Guide to Orthodox Icons.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Happy Feast of St. Gregory of Nyssa!

On a recent reading of St. John Paul II's Veritatis Splendor, I came across the following rather striking passage (from article 38), which quotes Gregory's De Hominis Opificio, Chapter IV.
Taking up the words of Sirach, the Second Vatican Council explains the meaning of that "genuine freedom" which is "an outstanding manifestation of the divine image" in man: "God willed to leave man in the power of his own counsel, so that he would seek his Creator of his own accord and would freely arrive at full and blessed perfection by cleaving to God" (Gaudium et Spes, 17; cf. Sir 15:14).  These words indicate the wonderful depth of the sharing in God's dominion to which man has been called: they indicate that man's dominion extends in a certain sense over man himself.  This has been a constantly recurring theme in theological reflection on human freedom, which is described as a form of kingship.  For example, Saint Gregory of Nyssa writes: "The soul shows its royal and exalted character... in that it is free and self-governed, swayed autonomously by its own will.  Of whom else can this be said, save a king?...  Thus human nature, created to rule other creatures, was by its likeness to the King of the universe made as it were a living image, partaking with the Archetype both in dignity and in name."

Today's image, a 14th century fresco of St. Gregory of Nyssa in Chora Church, Istanbul, comes from Wikipedia.