instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Monday, December 27, 2004

A Christmas jumble

Here's a simple puzzle for your holiday pleasure. Rearrange the letters, spaces, and punctuation within each column to reveal the answer.

BE  C I S IAE A   DD    O  AF    

EF DEMNOTENCH DEEGKENTHNSE OR AA

IHEEETONTHRCLEOFFIOMOTIOSOFSS CIN

TTFISXSSWTSETF-RVRON,WNTTOUU,.HSS

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Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Advent Rosary

There's something that seems a bit... disjointed about praying the Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary in the week before Christmas. You get to that third mystery, and it's like unwrapping a present a few days early.

It occurs to me that a set of Anticipatory Mysteries might be substituted for the Joyful ones between December 17 and 24. Maybe something like:
  1. The annunciation of John's conception to Zachariah.
  2. The Annunciation.
  3. The Visitation.
  4. The annunciation of Jesus' conception to Joseph.
  5. The birth of John the Baptist.
Or, if you want a broader perspective on Advent:
  1. The protoevangelium of Genesis 3:15.
  2. The covenant with Abraham.
  3. The canticle of Hannah.
  4. The founding of the line of David.
  5. The messianic prophecies of Isaiah.
Something like that.

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Monday, December 20, 2004

A Christmastide cooking tip



Add booze. If that doesn't help the taste, you can always set it on fire. If there's one thing people think is fancier than cooking with booze, it's setting food on fire on purpose.

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A crooked man plays the straight man

Ahaz son of Jotham was, as you know, the great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather of Jesus. He may be best known from this passage in the Lectionary:
The LORD spoke to Ahaz:
Ask for a sign from the LORD, your God;
let it be deep as the nether world, or high as the sky!
But Ahaz answered,
"I will not ask! I will not tempt the LORD!"
Then Isaiah said:
Listen, O house of David!
Is it not enough for you to weary men,
must you also weary my God?
Therefore the Lord himself will give you this sign:
the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and shall name him Emmanuel.
At first, and knowing what Jesus has to say about asking for signs and tempting the LORD, Ahaz's answer seems pretty sound.

But there's something in Isaiah's reply that suggests the LORD wasn't happy with Ahaz's prudence. God didn't ask Ahaz to ask for a sign; He commanded him. Like the servant who buried his talent, Ahaz came down with an ill-timed case of fear of the LORD.

The more you learn about Ahaz, the clearer it becomes that his wasn't a pious fear. He was an opportunist and a coward; a bit of a sniveller, too, perhaps, who rushed to worship the gods of whichever neighboring kingdom was stomping on his head at any given moment.

Face to face with a true prophet, he wasn't concerned with offending the Lord so much as with not getting it in the neck. Isaiah wasn't fooled, though, and went on to make a glorious double prophecy, of both the near term delivery of Judah from its enemies and the long term delivery of all men from their bondage of sin. Sure, the same prophecy might have been made if Ahaz had asked for dew to appear underneath a woolen fleece, but as it is this is a clear example of good being brought out of evil.

And, though I speak for none but myself, I don't think the habit of self-interested piety died out entirely with Ahaz.

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Sunday, December 19, 2004

Leo sub specie aeternitas

In the comments on the post below, the question of interpreting Isaiah 11:6-8 has been raised. After several exchanges with me, Neil writes:
The Pontifical Biblical Commission has written, "... one must reject as unauthentic every interpretation alien to the meaning expressed by the human authors in their written text. To admit the possibility of such alien meanings would be equivalent to cutting off the biblical message from its root, which is the word of God in its historical communication; it would also mean opening the door to interpretations of a wildly subjective nature." I think this compels us to accept Isaiah 11 as a "description of life after the Second Coming."

But, the Pontifical Biblical Commission also writes, "Exegesis is truly faithful to proper intention of biblical texts when it goes not only to the heart of their formulation to find the reality of faith there expressed but also seeks to link this reality to the experience of faith in our present world." We have to be faithful to both the literal sense of the text and "the experience of faith in our present world."

Thus, we should avoid being dogmatic about the details of the description, extraneous to the "reality of faith there", but remain accountable to an underlying meaning expressed by Isaiah himself. So, concerning Isaiah 11, perhaps the description of the Euphrates is not a photographic anticipation, but we must retain the Exodus as our symbol of final salvation in a way that gives Jerusalem an eschatological significance. Likewise, we must imagine the Kingdom of God to include a cosmic reconciliation. There is no escape, I think, from the ecological ramifications.

Regarding our bodies and animal bodies, here is a quote from the Pope's Dominum et Vivificantem:

"The Incarnation of God the Son signifies the taking up into unity with God not only of human nature, but in this human nature, in a sense, of everything that is 'flesh': the whole of humanity, the entire visible and material world. The Incarnation, then, also has a cosmic significance, a cosmic dimension. The 'first-born of all creation,' becoming incarnate in the individual humanity of Christ, unites himself in some way with the entire reality of man, which is also 'flesh' - and in this reality with all 'flesh,' with the whole of creation."

My question is, then, whether we can suggest with consistency that our "flesh" has eschatological significance without suggesting that other "flesh" somehow shares in this. If we do, I fear that we risk suggesting that our "flesh" is strangely undefined by its nature and history.
You can read the whole thread for more context. I'll try to post my response later.

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Friday, December 17, 2004

Prelapsarian lions

"Creation," St. Paul teaches us, "was made subject to futility, not of its own accord but because of the one who subjected it, in hope that creation itself would be set free from slavery to corruption and share in the glorious freedom of the children of God."

Which means what?

Everyone knows that creation is subject to corruption; things fall apart, die, cease to exist. Our Christian hope, however, is for a time when creation will be freed from corruption; that which exists will not fade or wear away, much less die.

That fact by itself is worth repeating, considering the apparent popularity of the belief that, after the Second Coming, we will all "go to heaven" and sort of float around.

Looking backward in time, though, the idea that creation was made subject to futility raises the question of whether creation was not subject to futility before the Fall. The question sometimes takes the form, "Did lions eat sheep before Adam's first sin?"

The correct answer is, "Whenever they could."

The only reason to even consider the other possibility is because a handful of Scriptural verses, including those quoted above, can be interpreted that way. But such an interpretation neither required by the texts nor particularly tenable in its own right.

If vegetarianism were a part of unfallen lion nature, then plants -- which are as much a part of creation as lambs -- would have still been eaten, which means that part of creation, at least, would have been corruptible. We might also wonder at the current physiology of lions; are those teeth a consequence of Adam's sin, or did God plan ahead in His designs?

Then, too, fossils and other ancient evidence demonstrate for all but young Earthers that corruption has been a feature of this world a lot longer than man.

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Thursday, December 16, 2004

There's no such thing as a bad dog

Camassia's blogging like a fish on fire this week. I recommend reading everything you have time to read, and don't miss the comments.

Here I'll just comment on one part of one post on how a theology of nature can be combined with a doctrine of original sin:
I think one popular way of resolving the problem of natural evil is to say it isn't really evil; the word properly applies only when a free choice is made, and thus necessitates the human will...
But this seems to be mostly making a semantic distinction that is not terribly meaningful. For one thing, when we talk about the problem of evil we're generally talking about the problem of suffering, and natural evil creates plenty of suffering by itself. I don't think it hurts a parent less to lose a child to a bear than to lose it to a drunk driver.
Secondly, as I implied, the whole distinction between what is human and what is nature gets blurred in a Darwinian context... Is what we call "moral evil" really just a non-resistance to natural evil? Why does it suddenly become evil when it's within us?
St. Thomas regards evil as the privation of good, the lack of a good that ought to exist. The "that ought to exist" part is important, since everything lacks all kinds of goods: rocks lack sight, for example, and trees lack mobility. For men, death (the privation of life) is evil, but earthboundedness (the absence of flight) is not.

I don't think this perspective allows for the popular "natural vs. moral" distinction Camassia writes of. The evil of the death of a child is not of one type or another depending on whether it was caused by a free choice. Different circumstances might contribute different evils -- the lack of charity implicit in drunk driving, for example -- but these are all in addition to the evil of death.

I think for St. Thomas "moral evil" resides within the sinner; the good that is lacking ought to exist in the sinner's soul, I suppose in his will in particular.

This way of thinking doesn't seem to me to blur the distinction between "human" and "nature." A dog biting me can be analyzed in the same way as a man biting me. If the dog made the right decision for a dog, then there is no moral evil in the dog; if the dog made the wrong decision for a dog, then the dog has committed moral evil. The same can be said for the man making the right or wrong decision for a man.

Now, St. Thomas (if I may speak for him) would say that dogs by nature cannot make wrong decisions, that they are incapable of moral evil, and I would agree with him. I think his association of the distinction between human and animal with rationality needs patching up (if I understand him correctly, he straightforwardly accepts that animals are irrational), but I think it can be done without turning animals into moral agents. (And, for that matter, without denying "that what it means to be human is to possess some unique capacity that distinguishes humankind from that which is non-human," as Stanley Hauerwas and John Berkman do.)

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Wednesday, December 15, 2004

It's not simony...

...to give money to the Church in expectation of food, is it? Though you might be charged with receiving good stollens.

The ingredient list includes "the ubiquitous SECRET INGREDIENT!" If it really is ubiquitous, it would have to be something like nitrogen, or maybe quartz. Though in a convent of Dominican nuns, ice cream might count as ubiquitous.

It could also be love, which is both ubiquitous and often used in cooking. At least, I'm told my wife's pancakes are light and fluffy (rather than charred and leaden, like mine) because they're made with love (mine are made with cursing, though I haven't tried to make them since we got rid of the electric stove that only had "on" and "off" settings).

Of course, God Himself is ubiquitous, so it's possible the Trinity is the secret ingredient. Although I can't see that onion, celery, and green bell pepper would work in a stollen.

Update: Yum.

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Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Snow job

How did the snowman get to his girlfriend's house for their date?

On a bicicle.

What did he give her when he picked her up?

A dozen frozes.

Where did they go on their date?

To see The Blizzard of Oz.

How did they get there?

They hailed a cab.

What did they get for dessert afterwards?

Hot frost buns.

Did they like their dessert?

Yes, they scarfed it right down.

What was their favorite part?

The icing.

What did the snowman give his girlfriend when he took her home?

A one carrot ring.

Where did he get the money for it?

From his slush fund.

How did he know she liked it?

It melted her heart.

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Monday, December 13, 2004

The charge

Yesterday's Gospel reading is one of those benchmark passages in Catholic theology. The Fathers, generally speaking, saw John's question to Jesus as for the benefit of his disciples, that they may come to believe in Jesus after John's death. A lot of contemporary theologians seem to think John himself was unsure of Jesus, even though the same Gospel records him as saying to Jesus, "I need to be baptized by You, and yet You are coming to me?"

Be that as it may, why was John imprisoned to begin with? According to Mark,
Herod was the one who had John arrested and bound in prison on account of Herodias, the wife of his brother Philip, whom he had married. John had said to Herod, "It is not lawful for you to have your brother's wife."
And yet,
Herod feared John, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man, and kept him in custody. When he heard him speak he was very much perplexed, yet he liked to listen to him.
Not many of us would marry a woman named Herodias, perhaps, but otherwise Herod sounds like he would fit right in today: He liked to listen to the words of a righteous and holy man, although he found them perplexing.

What sort of words did John speak? Old Testament prophet-type words:
You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance....

Even now the ax lies at the root of the trees. Therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.

I am baptizing you with water, for repentance, but the one who is coming after me is mightier than I... His winnowing fan is in his hand. He will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.
Why would anyone like to listen to words like these? Maybe because they're kind of exciting and challenging and bold.

Ah, but as soon as the challenge gets too personal, the message too bold -- "It is not lawful for you to have your brother's wife" -- the challenge is rejected and the messenger imprisoned.

Who isn't willing to listen to generalities about improvement? Who is willing to listen to specifics?

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Thursday, December 09, 2004

More on suffering

On the subject of saints and suffering, St. Catherine of Siena made it clear in the opening pages of The Dialogue that the reason she desired to suffer was to atone for the offenses committed against God, by herself and others. God replies:
True contrition satisfies for sin and its penalty not by virtue of any finite suffering you may bear, but by virtue of your infinite desire.
So it isn't suffering as such that St. Catherine desired, but satisfaction for sin and its penalty (always understanding that all satisfaction occurs through and by Christ's sacrifice), and the ordinary way, if you will, of satisfying for sin is through sacrifice in general and suffering in particular.

For St. Catherine, suffering was simply the means to her double end of proper worship of God and of saving others -- or, more briefly, of loving God and her neighbors.

From this, it seems to me that for someone to desire to suffer would be imprudent if suffering would lead to a different end -- say, of becoming a perpetual whiner.

At the same time, St. Catherine's example might serve as a challenge to our own love for God and neighbor, if we realize we aren't prepared to suffer for them.

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Now we're cooking

This reminds me: the Sancti Thomas et Hieronymus, for all your Christmastide entertaining.

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Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Word association

If you were to ask me to list pairs of words that shouldn't go together, I might include "dancing" and "nun." I'm not saying they don't ever belong together, but for every St. Teresa there's going to be three Brumby's Bakeries commercials.

But if you're going to have a dancing nun, I think this is the way to do it. Dance shoes, a simple costume, and a fifteen decade rosary tied to the belt.

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Mere human strength?

Steven Riddle speculates:
The suffering of the saints may, in some odd way, help to alleviate the suffering on the cross. That is not to say that it makes it more pleasant, but rather that the offering of suffering throughout all of time even made it possible. We all know the story--the scourging, the crowning with thorns, carrying the Cross to Golgotha, and three hours upon the Cross. Christ was fully human and fully divine. Being fully human, it is unlikely that he could have survived even the scourging much less the rest of the ordeal on mere human strength. That goes without saying. He was strengthened by supernatural grace. But perhaps the channels of that grace were tapped into the suffering of Saints throughout the ages and this served in some way to be allied to the sufferings on the cross and allow Jesus to run the entire course.
Perhaps.

But I'm not sure where the idea, which Steven thinks "goes without saying," that it is unlikely Jesus could have survived even the scourging much less the rest of the ordeal on mere human strength comes from. "Pilate was amazed" that Jesus had died so soon, and the Jews (and perhaps even the Roman soldiers, one of whom used a lance to make sure) assumed His legs would need breaking for Him to die before the Sabbath began. Crucifixion alone wouldn't kill a man very quickly; that was one reason the Romans used it.

It's possible that the scourging Jesus received would have ordinarily killed any man within three hours. It's even possible, as some mystics have reported, that the crown of thorns by itself delivered mortal wounds when thrust on His head. But these possibilities aren't evident, or even hinted at, in the Gospel accounts, so I don't think they quite go without saying.

I'm not arguing that "the suffering of Saints throughout the ages" didn't or couldn't have "served in some way to be allied to the sufferings on the cross." I'm only suggesting that Jesus didn't necessarily require supernatural grace to be physically able to run the entire course.

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Sign of the timeless

For those who were wondering about manualism and rule-based morality, Dappled Things provides a link to an article featuring an advocate for virtue-based traffic flow.
The result: slower traffic, fewer accidents, shorter trip times.
I don’t say Aquinas has all the answers (certainly not on this of all days), but he’s a good place to start, whatever the question.

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Tuesday, December 07, 2004

But is contentment a gift of the Spirit?

Commenting on an earlier post that bugged him, Zippy writes:
See, the thing is, when I pray for a virtue I inevitably end up in ample - I would say far more than ample - circumstances that require its exercise. No pain, no gain, as the saying goes.

The voice of experience tells me - or I should say screams to high heaven with a voice of thunder, echoing across the universe - not to pray for virtues. Especially, in my own case, humility and chastity.

Better to pray for contentment and peace in whatever station one finds oneself.

If I could revisit my youth I would spend every spare moment praying for contentment in my ignorance, not praying for wisdom.
I want to think some more about this, but I'm posting it here for others to comment on it -- and also so I don't lose track of it.

I will say now that, at my last Third Order Dominican chapter meeting, the truth of the old line, "Never pray for humility. It's the one prayer God always answers yes to," was generally acknowledged.

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Saturday, December 04, 2004

Exchange update

Going by the comments on my previous post, I seem to have lost control of my syntax in that last paragraph. No, I am not arguing that Linda Chavez be banned or shunned or labeled unclean. I wouldn't even insist on her torture article being removed from the Catholic Exchange site if it could be presented as an opening argument in a debate.

Because it is a debate we need to have. The government has to answer the question of what actions are justified in what situations. That answer will continue to change with time, as it always has, and Catholics have the duty before God to do what they can to see that it is answered in accord with divine and natural law.

And if Catholics are going to contribute to the public conversation on torture, that means Catholics are going to have to discuss and debate it with other Catholics.

I don't see Linda Chavez as a Bad Catholic, but as one of a large number of Catholics who favor a very bad idea. The thing to do, as Therese points out, is to help them see how bad the idea is, and to arrive together at the truth of what actions, in which situations, are in accord with divine and natural law.

And yes, that's arrive together, since there's no guarantee that any one of us is already standing at the whole truth and nothing but the truth. That one side would permit evil doesn't mean that the other side wouldn't forbid good, and experience gives me good reason to doubt that my untested instincts on what is just are not infallible.

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Friday, December 03, 2004

A fair exchange

Mark Shea, a columnist for Catholic Exchange, comes to its defense after I mentioned it published a pro-torture column by Linda Chavez:
We operate the site on a skeleton crew and a shoe string budget. We received a regular feed of article from a wide array of "established writers" and so do not always closely vet the material since it's assumed it will not be nutty. So occasionally slip-ups happen. But when they do, we try to correct the error, which is why the Chavez piece disappeared from the site fairly early yesterday: because we are trying to be a Catholic site.
And now, even as I write this, the last trace of the article has disappeared from the Catholic Exchange website. (The first trace had disappeared around the time of, though of course not because of, my post yesterday.)

It's all perfectly understandable on the part of a website on a shoestring budget.

Still, as far as I know it remains in the mind and heart of an established Catholic writer who supports Pope John Paul II's call for a "Springtime of World Evangelization" enough to let the website reprint her columns at deep discount (possibly even free). Which reminds us, if reminder is needed, that, for many American Catholics today, the idea of good guys torturing people is not at all nutty.

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Thursday, December 02, 2004

A casuistry of torture

After the New York Times revealed that the "Red Cross has charged ... that the American military has intentionally used psychological and sometimes physical coercion 'tantamount to torture' on prisoners at Guantánamo Bay," Scrappleface countered with an article headlined, "Red Cross: Al Qaeda May Violate Geneva Conventions."

I suppose tu quoque is good enough for a satirical website. But what's good enough for a columnist writing on a website "endeavoring to evangelize the world via the Internet with the Good News of Jesus Christ in the Catholic Church in obedience to Pope John Paul II's call for a 'Springtime of World Evangelization'"?
What if, for example, we had captured one of the terrorists who held Nick Berg captive while Berg was still alive? Would we have been justified in using whatever means necessary, if he might have led us to rescue Berg?

... The ICRC does not appear to have uncovered anything approaching real torture. But perhaps it's time we put aside our squeamishness on this issue and opened a genuine debate about exactly what methods a humane society is justified in using to save innocent lives.
We have a prominent public figure publicly wondering whether the ends might justify the means and criticizing the squeamish for their reluctance to talk about the difference between evil torture and good torture.

Those who know me will see where I'm going with this:

It's the Jesuits' fault.

See, if we were satisfied with choosing the good and avoiding the bad -- the bad, in this case, being "whatever...attempts to coerce the will itself" -- then we wouldn't need to "draw the line between what are admittedly unpleasant, coercive methods used to elicit information that might save lives — thousands, even millions of them — and actions that are so repugnant they may never be used," as Chavez writes. We wouldn't ask whether, "if such methods [mentioned by the Red Cross] are 'torture,' is the United States justified in using them anyway?" We wouldn't couch our discussion in terms of nomenclature ("real torture") or sensations ("unpleasant," "repugnant"), but in terms of what objectively is.

Instead, thanks to the Jesuits' tourniquet of rule-based moral reasoning (which helped stop the post-Reformation bleeding but has since led to moral gangrene), people argue for a casuistry of torture: Let's draw those lines between good torture and bad torture. Let's matrix all the acts we can perform upon prisoners with all the conditions under which we can perform them. And then, as Chavez reports Andrew McCarthy recommends, let's set up a system whereby "the government would have to apply to a federal court for permission to administer a predetermined form of non-lethal torture."

Yes, by all means let's have the federal courts oversee the application of our torture matrix. Who doesn't trust the federal courts to adjudicate morality? (Sure, they don't do a good job with abortion-related issues, but now we're talking about situations in which thousands, even millions of lives might be saved.)

Update: Catholic Exchange has removed the Chavez column, which may be read here.

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Wednesday, December 01, 2004

When love grows

Early in The Dialogue of St. Catherine of Siena, she asks to suffer in expiation of the sins of her neighbors. God answers:
In loving Me you come to know more of My truth, and the more you know, the more intolerable pain and sorrow you will feel when I am offended.

You asked for suffering, and you asked me to punish you for the sins of others. What you were not aware of was that you were, in effect, asking for love and light and knowledge of the truth. For I have already told you that suffering and sorrow increase in proportion to love: When love grows, so does sorrow. So I say to you: Ask and it shall be given to you; I will not say no to anyone who asks in truth.
Ask in truth to love God, and He will increase your suffering. What a deal! It reminds me of the "with persecutions" Jesus threw into His promise of houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands and eternal life for those who follow Him.

But that is the nature of love. The more you love someone, the more you suffer when they are injured. Of course God can't be injured, but His love can be rejected, and the more we love God the more we will be pained when others -- to say nothing of when we ourselves -- reject God's love. Then too, Christ in His humanity can suffer, so the offenses against God are not a purely academic matter from His perspective.

What St. Catherine will insist on is that suffering, for it to be worth anything, must come from love of God. Indeed, everything must come from love of God, or else it is a finite, feeble, and dead thing.

(Let me just add that, in the first quoted sentence, St. Catherine completes the cycle she began in the opening paragraph of The Dialogue, when she wrote that "upon knowledge follows love." Here she points out that in loving we come to know more. Love is the end of knowledge, but it is also the source of knowledge, just as it is the source of suffering.)

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Monday, November 29, 2004

Two formulas

What was the conclusion of the first World Congress of Consecrated Life? According to one of the congress's organizers, it's the phrase, "Fewer professionals and more witnesses."

Nicely put, I think, and widely applicable.

What disposition is appropriate for the Advent Season? According to today's final prayer from the Liturgy of the Hours, Christ should find us "waiting, eager in joyful prayer."

Waiting. Eager. Joyful. That describes a lot of people in December, but not all of them because of the thought of Christ's return.

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Sunday, November 28, 2004

No praise for Folly

I eagerly started and forced myself to finish Erasmus's The Praise of Folly. It's a satire written as a speech the goddess Folly gives to show how important folly is to happiness in this life.

The basic argument is that everyone is foolish to some degree; that the more foolish a person is the happier he is; that wise people are unhappy and shunned; and that the greatest fools are those who consider themselves the wisest.

At the end, the work takes a sudden turn to argue that Christians who actually follow Christ will be accounted the greatest of fools, and in this sense folly really is something to be praised.

Now, I wanted to read this book mostly because it was dedicated to Erasmus's friend and my patron, St. Thomas More. But I don't think it holds up well; as satire, it's neither as funny as children's cartoons nor as pointed as blogging commentary. "Gosh, people are foolish" and "People who should be holy aren't very holy" aren't fresh themes these days.

To be fair, the translation I read was from 1668, which as you can see from the link is not ideally suited to modern tastes. Still, I suspect Erasmus was not quite as clever as he thought he was in writing his book.

Let me quote just this one passage, as an example of Erasmus's wit and a lesson Christians haven't learned too well in the past four hundred years:
How many are there that burn candles to the Virgin Mother, and that too at noonday when there's no need of them! But how few are there that study to imitate her in pureness of life, humility and love of heavenly things, which is the true worship and most acceptable to heaven!

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