instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Monday, June 20, 2005

The source of authority

Destination: Order links to a Holy Whapping post that begins with the bold assertion:
I submit to you that beauty is really the source of authority.
Andrew goes on to write:
Explaining the True will work for those who already recognize and love Truth, if they are intellectually gifted; explaining the Good will work for the morally fit. But the Beautiful, the Beautiful is compelling to all.

Basically, my point is that the crux of true conversion, the best means for speedy evangelization, seems to be beauty. Propose something beautiful, and only then might people truly "submit" -– and yet, it hardly feels like submission: it has become "an authority that does not threaten."
Let me try this:

When we hear someone speak of what is true or good, we brace ourselves for the implied imperative to change our lives. We don't like that. But beauty, well, we already seek beauty, and if you've got something more beautiful than I've got, then I'm happy to have it and thanks.

Following St. Catherine of Siena's figure of the Bridge, beauty might allow us to hop right to the second stair. Beauty connotes no fear of punishment; we go straight to enjoyment of the pleasure we derive from it.

That would be a strictly limited submission to authority, limited by the duration and quantity of pleasure we experience, until and unless we advance to the third stair, of filial love for the Beauty Who created us.

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Sunday, June 19, 2005

A good idea

Amy Welborn asked for reading recommendations for her 14 year old daughter; to date, she's had about fourteen dozen suggestions, including not only every book I might have recommended, but practically every historical fiction and fantasy novel I've ever read.

The one recommendation I absolutely cannot agree with was this:
Sooner or later she's going to tangle with Ayn Rand, and she should - anyone who is going to lead life guided by a philosophy ought to understand competing philosophies in their intellectual environment, and understand where they agree and disagree, and why.
As I replied in the following comment, all you need to know about Ayn Rand is that she was bull goose looney; objectivism sort of dissolves under the weight of its own bile, and there are better things to do with your time than acquaint yourself with the locus classicus for tripe like that.

But it does give me an idea for a book I think would be very helpful for teenagers: The Not-So-Great Ideas, a compendium of bum philosophies that captivate nineteen-year-olds when they first encounter them. Objectivism, solipsism, Marxism, materialism, nihilism: the dead-end sinks of human thought and sources of human misery. Collect them in a single book for high school students that, if nothing else, will teach them their parents aren't the only grown-ups who have lousy ideas.

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Friday, June 17, 2005

The human drama

Logres directs me to a Godspy article, "Faith and the Human Drama," by Peter John Cameron, OP.

Fr. Cameron was the speaker at last week's Third Order Congress who made the point about Dominicans starting with the virtues rather than the commandments. He also wrote the passion play we saw Friday evening, and is the founding editor of the American edition of Magnificat.

The article shares a theme Fr. Cameron mentioned in his talk last week:
One main reason why the human being lives bereft of the meaning of life is because he has nothing to inspire him to search the depths of his self so as to discover the truth of his human "I." For the person who confronts the evidence of his own existence comes face to face with three key truths about the human "I":
  • first, I didn't make myself;
  • second, I have desires that I did not give myself and that I cannot delete which are infinite in their scope; and
  • third, I live with the expectation that I will be happy -- the certainty that I have been promised meaning and fulfillment in my life.
In his talk, he suggested Dominicans are well-suited to accompanying people as they face these truths. In the article, he describes theater's role in this.
We go to the theatre to experience an encounter -- not an encounter only with an "idea", but an encounter with a personal presence that corresponds to something primal and vital in the human soul.

... Theatre in the service of the evangelization of culture recognizes and takes full advantage of the "sacredness" of acting as a participation in God's chosen method of salvation -- the Father sent Jesus Christ the actor into human history.
Fr. Cameron also marshals quotations from our two most recent Popes to show that the medium of the theatre is, not action, but language. And when you have an actor present and speaking to an audience of people who have come to hear the actor speak to them, you have a vehicle that in important ways parallels the revelation of the Father's love in Jesus Christ. As Monsignor Luigi Giussani, the founder of the ecclesial Movement Communion and Liberation, is quoted, "the true motive of communication is affection."

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Thursday, June 16, 2005

Should teach His brethren, and inspire

In a comment below, Rob writes:
The Crucifixion did not "just happen" to Jesus: He *chose* it.
Yes.

But.

What Jesus chose -- the object on which He fixed His will -- was to do the will of Him Who sent Him. That the will of Him Who sent Him was that He be crucified was, if I may so put it, accidental to Jesus' choice.

I think we need to understand this logically prior choice to do the Father's will as distinct from the temporal choice to be crucified. Suffering as such is not good; suffering as such is lousy. Suffering sought out and offered to God like a dead mouse brought in by a housecat isn't much better.

"Son though He was, He learned obedience from what He suffered." Without fully addressing the question of how the Eternally Begotten Son can learn, this suggests that Jesus' human will underwent some temporal process of perfecting its obedience to the Divine will.

"Thy will be done," is the key, I think. Not, "I love You so much, I'm going to go suffer for You," but, "I love You so much, I will accept what suffering comes my way while doing Your will."

Do the cuts and bruises of everyday life constitute the crosses we are to take up to follow Christ? I would say they are a part of our crosses, even the sufferings we couldn't avoid if we wanted to. But a lesson of Gethsemane, I suggest, is that we can carry our crosses -- even our full crosses, with the persecutions in this world Jesus foretold for His disciples -- as followers of Christ yet in accordance with our own will; to be imitators of Christ, however, requires us to carry our crosses in accordance with the Father's will, and His will alone.



The above diagram shows the three ways in which our own wills can be conformed to the will of God. God's will is the blue circle. The red circle is the will of the prodigal, completely apart from God's will. The yellow circle is the will of the imperfect follower of Christ, lying partly but not wholly within God's will; this is the condition of the disciple who would go to Calvary without passing through Gethsemane. The green circle is the will of the perfect imitator of Christ, whose will is wholly determined by the will of God; there is nothing of self-will in what he wills.

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Letting the hobby horse out of the barn

In a comment below, blihs asks for a citation for the "begin with the virtues rather than the commandments" concept I'd mentioned. I pointed to the table of contents of St. Thomas's Summa Theologica and of Romanus Cessario's Introduction to Moral Theology as early and recent examples within the Dominican tradition. (With Amazon's "look inside" feature, you can also read a few pages of Fr. Cessario's introductory chapter.)

I need to be a bit cautious with this, since the need for a virtue-based moral theology, rather than the rule-based one most people now living associate with Catholicism, is one of my pet themes, but I am nearly as ignorant as I am enthusiastic on the subject.

My nickel speech is that the presentation of morality was separated from virtue, and therefore moral theology separated from the other branches of theology, largely as part of the Counter-Reformation; at a time of great confusion, it can help to simply have rules to follow.

In the intervening centuries, however, the rules have come to be seen as not merely the pedagogical vehicle for morality, but as the essential basis for morality. And, importantly, an essentially arbitrary basis.

We live now at a time of great confusion, and rule-based morality is being pushed as a part of the Counter-SpiritOfVaticanTwo. But we also live at a time of great interest in our Faith, when people don't (indeed, can't) rely on Father in the confessional and the pulpit to tell them everything they should and shouldn't do. They want and need to know and live the Faith in a whole and integrated way, not in the field-surgery style developed with one eye toward maintaining the distinction between who's a good Catholic and who isn't.

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Tuesday, June 14, 2005

And in the Garden secretly

The phenomenon of wanting Easter without Good Friday is well-known. (And perfectly understandable as well; those of us who disparage cheap grace ought to occasionally admit we'd be at the front of the line for it if it existed.)

It occurs to me, though, that there may be a related phenomenon of wanting the Crucifixion without the Agony in the Garden.

It's easy to downplay the Agony in the Garden as little more than the natural human anxiety anyone would experience while cooling his heels awaiting betrayal, arrest, condemnation, scourging, and crucifixion.

But Christ was not simply taking advantage of the down time between the Last Supper and Judas's kiss to slip in a few last-minute prayers. His, "But not My will, but Thine be done," was the final and complete self-emptying in prayer before His death, His formal surrender of all that He was in His humanity to the Father. Without that, there would have been some trace of human ego in the Crucifixion, a blemish in the sin offering for our redemption.

Christians naturally think in terms of following our Lord to Calvary, and in our better moments express a sincere willingness to suffer for and with Him. But I think we sometimes fail to see that, in order to suffer as He suffered, we must first empty ourselves as He emptied Himself. Otherwise, all of our sacrifices, even to death, will be to a greater or lesser degree about us, not Christ. They will be, at least in part, acts of narcissism or boasting directing others to notice our own wonderful wonderfulness, not the infinite mercy and love of the Father.

That self-emptying is hard, perhaps harder than the suffering others impose because it is entirely our choice. Being martyred for the Faith is easy to do, if you have a passport and one-way airfare to certain places in this world. Or, as open book's epigraph says, "She could never be a saint, but she thought she could be a martyr if they killed her quick." But to be genuinely willing to be a martyr, or not, as God's will may be; to exist for an uncertain duration in a state in which you make no demands rooted in your own sense of self; to hand back to the Father everything He has given you, even the really good stuff? Who can bear to do this if he doesn't really have to?

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Monday, June 13, 2005

Living vicariately

For me, the most exciting (because most audacious, and therefore also most Dominic-ian) news at our Third Order Congress was that the Hawthorne Dominican Sisters are planning to open a house to care for the sick poor in Kenya, in the Dominican Order's Vicariate of Eastern Africa.

As it has been since their Congregation was founded, the Sisters' apostolate in Kenya will be to nurse and shelter, for free, incurable cancer patients who cannot afford care elsewhere.

Okay, so they don't offering solstice celebrations or massage therapy, but they do what they can. And they do it without fundraising campaigns; they don't even want me to put something in the sidebar here that says,
If you would like to support them in their mission of caring for the sick poor, please send a check to

The Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne
Rosary Hill Home
600 Linda Avenue
Hawthorne, NY 10532,
because they rely entirely on the providence of God to supply them with what they need when they need it.

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Sunday, June 12, 2005

Congressional reports

I met several people at the Duc in Altum Congress who read this blog, and I'd like to invite them (assuming that, having met me, they will continues to read this blog) to post a short comment or two here about the event. I invite in particular those who never leave comments; you don't need to post your email, or even your name.

Who knows, maybe the eLumen monthly newsletter will compile some of the comments for its special Congress issue. At the very least, your comments will help those who didn't attend get an idea of what Dominicans do when they're gathered in large numbers.

In lieu of a detailed report myself, I'll just list five things I learned:
  1. Dominican tertiaries who do the first three Pillars of Dominican Life (prayer, study, and community) but not the fourth (preaching) aren't in much of a position to look down on those tertiaries who only do prayer and/or community. We aren't the Order of Study.
  2. If Masses run long and mess up your schedule, there's not much you can do about it.
  3. That Dominicans begin with the virtues rather than the commandments is because of, and justified only by, the Incarnation.
  4. What St. Catherine said about human souls seems to be true also of the Dominicans, at the individual, chapter, and provincial level: they're always either progressing or regressing. If they're standing still, that means they're falling behind.
  5. Most people are confused when troublemakers tell them, "Say 'Veritas, baby!,' and he'll owe you a drink."

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Thursday, June 09, 2005

A distinguished gathering

Duc in Altum!, the Dominican Province of St. Joseph's Third Order Congress, begins this evening, with (in keeping with our charism) prayer followed by food, in the company of the friars of the Province, who are celebrating the bicentennial of the Province and the centennial of the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, DC.

The official motto of the Congress is, "The Third Order for the Third Millennium." But I will stand a drink for anyone who greets me with the unofficial motto, "VERITAS, Baby!"

There are a few events open to the public, and if you're in the neighborhood of Catholic University in Washington, DC, come on by:
  • Friday, 8:30 a.m.: Morning Prayer in the Crypt Church of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.
  • Friday, 10 a.m.: Ordination Mass in the Upper Church of the Shrine; five Dominican friars will be ordained priests by Cardinal Keeler.
  • Saturday, 8:30 a.m.: Morning Prayer followed by Mass, in the Crypt Church.
  • Sunday, 7:30 a.m.: Morning Prayer in the Crypt Church.
  • Sunday, 9 a.m.: Mass in the Upper Church; Cardinal McCarrick celebrating.

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Wednesday, June 08, 2005

In Dominican news

Nine feral cats will no longer be fed by the Sisters of Corpus Christi Monastery in the Bronx.

The government of Zimbabwe ordered the destruction of buildings in a relocation camp Dominican Sisters were using to help care for the poor, sick, and orphaned.

Guess which event is causing outrage throughout the United States.

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Woodpeckers redux

Having given the question of why Protestants who reject both the Marian dogmas and the Eucharistic dogmas so often regard the former as a bigger problem than the latter, and having even considered the testimony of a few actual Protestants, I think I now see why this phenomenon is reasonable and even to be expected.

A person only comments on a given subject if he thinks he has something to say and if he want to say it. Sola Scriptura Protestants are both more likely to have something to say, and more likely to want to say it, on the subject of the Perpetual Virginity of Mary than on the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. (Catholics, on the other hand, are more likely to have something to say and want to say it on the Eucharist, I suspect.)

There is an ahistorical, "plain [21st Century] meaning of [my preferred English translation of] Scripture" way of interpreting the Bible according to which the references to the Jesus' brothers and sisters puts the irrefutable kibosh on the doctrine of Perpetual Virginity. Everyone who interprets the Bible this way will consequently have something to say about that doctrine, and be quite confident about it. (Some may allow an outside possibility that the Catholic interpretation might be historically true, without allowing any possibility for imposing such a thing as a doctrine.)

The Real Presence, though, is a dicier proposition. There are no Bible verses whose alleged plain meanings refute it; there are even some that might be taken as support for it. Plus, what is the dogma of the Real Presence? How well does anyone, much less a non-sacramental Christian, understand what it means, compared to understanding what perpetual virginity means? What does anyone have to say about something that isn't simple and straightforward, that they don't much understand, and that doesn't really have anything to do with their own life?

And what if, just maybe, there's somehow something to the Eucharist after all?

On the matter of wanting to say something about a subject, attacking the doctrine of Perpetual Virginity has several advantages over attacking the doctrine of the Real Presence, over and above having a good idea of what to say. It keeps the debate centered on terms the sola Scriptura Protestant is comfortable with, terms with which Catholics -- whose principles of interpreting Scripture are quite different -- cannot come to grips. The result is an argument the Protestant unquestionable wins, as long as he's the one keeping score. And winning this argument is evidently important, I suspect because it discredits the Roman Catholic Church, and the claims the Roman Catholic Church makes about herself are such that you have to either discredit her, ignore her, or join her, and the honest Protestant would much prefer the first.

Debate on the Real Presence, meanwhile, is a much less clear-cut affair, which in the end would for the most part lead to the same end of discrediting the Church. So why choose the harder path?

If the above is roughly accurate, then my hypothesis about offering Mary to Protestants was incorrect. I'd replace it with this one: What the Church has to offer Protestants is the Eucharist. One way we can do this is by manifesting the centrality of the Eucharist to the Faith in such a way that non-sacramental Protestants cannot avoid or evade grappling with it as the primary significance of Catholicism. We should make the place of the Eucharist in our lives so evident that they cannot justify to themselves wasting effort on "Catholics worship statues" yawnfests, nor should we let them distract us with invitations to the stock Moebius-strip debates -- including those on the Eucharist.

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Friday, June 03, 2005

Debate, woodpecker style

In tenth grade social studies class, we studied Marx's theory of Communism, then had to write rebuttals to it. After we presented our rebuttals, our teacher told us we had, for the most part, done a lousy job. We had countered small and easy details, while leaving Marx's foundational principles largely alone. The image our teacher used, which I expect he used every year he gave that assignment, was this: If you want to chop down a tree, you don't drill holes in the trunk; you saw through it at its base.

I am reminded of this when I encounter Protestants who, while rejecting both the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist and the Marian dogmas of the Church, cannot stop expressing their dismay and concern that Catholics believe Mary is ever-virgin, because that seems to make her more like God (?!), yet have nothing to say about the fact that, in their opinion, we insist little pieces of bread are God.

I mean, on the list of Things That Worry Christians, wouldn't you think "idolatry" would rank higher than "tendentious interpretation of Koine Greek"?

I can understand the Marian doctrines being, as they often are, the last point of contention for people who are in the process of accepting the Catholic faith. But the first point of contention for people who aren't? It makes no sense to me.

In the conversations here over the past couple of weeks, though, I've come to suspect that, if what the Church has to give to the world is Christ, what she has to give to Protestants is Mary.

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Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Our tainted nature's solitary boast

Rob Zerbe has asked a couple of times whether there's a meaningful distinction between worship of God and veneration of Mary.
It just seems to me the closer you put Mary on the same pedestal with the Godhead, the less distinguished they become.
Well, on the one hand, you might quote St. Augustine to the effect that "that service which is due to men, and in reference to which the apostle writes that servants must be subject to their own masters, is usually designated by another word in Greek [dulia], whereas the service which is paid to God alone by worship, is always, or almost always, called latreia"; then follow up with St. Thomas's elaboration:
Now servitude is due to God and to man under different aspects: even as lordship is competent to God and to man under different aspects. For God has absolute and paramount lordship over the creature wholly and singly, which is entirely subject to His power: whereas man partakes of a certain likeness to the divine lordship, forasmuch as he exercises a particular power over some man or creature.
On the other hand, you can grant that there certainly seem to be Catholics who don't seem to distinguish between God and Mary as objects of adoration. I'm not sure why this error is any more telling against the veneration of Mary than the error of vainglory tells against examining one's conscience, but there it is.

On the other hand, let me point out a very common error Rob makes, which often mystifies Catholics when they encounter it: He suggests that the Church's Marian dogmas "put Mary on the same pedestal with the Godhead." But what are the Marian dogmas?
  • Mary is the Mother of God
  • Mary is Ever-Virgin
  • Mary is the Immaculate Conception
  • Mary was assumed body and soul into heaven
How do these make Mary God-like? God is Spirit, so her physical motherhood doesn't make her more like God; on the other hand, we are all to bring forth Christ in the world, as truly if not as physically as did Mary. Lots of people are ever-virgin. Her immaculate conception makes her more like Adam and Eve than God, Who is not conceived. And yes, the Assumption makes her like her Son, but it also makes her like all the elect -- and unlike God, since an assumption implies a corporeal body.

So no, the Marian dogmas do not put Mary on a pedestal with God. They put her on a pedestal with mankind as God intended and intends mankind to be.

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Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Perpetual virginity as Divine revelation of the eschaton

Here is a diagram that shows how the perpetual virginity of Mary the Mother of God functions as part of the Divine Revelation of the Incarnation of Christ, specifically as a realization in time of the eschatological dispensation toward which Christ calls us all:


Color State
    fallenness
    renewal
    fallenness + virginity
    renewal + virginity
    fallenness + childbirth
    renewal + virginity + childbirth

A few words of elaboration may be in order.

The diagram shows the relationships among four possible states, shown as overlapping, color-coded polygonal regions: fallenness, the state into which we are all born; renewal, the state to which we are all called by Christ; virginity; and childbirth. Where regions overlap, the colors are combined (as triplets, if that means anything to you). The boundaries of the regions representing virginity and childbirth are highlighted by yellow and orange lines, respectively.

The eschatological message that goes with this diagram is this: that, since the fall, all childbirth occurs within the state of fallenness -- except for the birth of the Son of God. To effect this exception, the Theotokos was granted the unique privilege of being conceived in a state of renewal, and preserved in that state even through the Nativity of our Lord.

Since in heaven there is no marriage, there is no childbirth either. It follows, then, that the small gray square in the middle of the diagram -- the state of virgin birth, which lies wholly within the state of renewal -- is occupied now and forever only by the Blessed Virgin.

Were she to have given birth to other children after Jesus, she would have necessarily moved into the state represented by the green rectangle, accepting a state of fallenness without necessarily having ever fallen. But that is unthinkable. (Note that this should be understood as an explanation of the doctrine, not an argument for it.)

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"Our Lady in the Middle Ages"

I looked upon the earth; it was a floor
For noisy pageant and rude bravery --
Wassail, and arms, and chase, among the high,
And burning hearts uncheered among the poor;
And gentleness from every land withdrew.
Methought that beds of whitest lilies grew
All suddenly upon the earth, in bowers;
And gentleness, that wandered like a wind,
And nowhere could meet sanctuary find,
Passed like a dewy breath into the flowers.
Earth heeded not; she still was tributary
To kings and knights, and man's heart well-nigh failed;
Then were the natural charities exhaled
Afresh, from out the blessed love of Mary.
Frederick William Faber

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Friday, May 27, 2005

My Manichee senses are tingling

The following comes from Barbara Nicolosi's notes for a recent speech to the Catholic Press Association, on Christian imagination and the media:
There is a beauty that is good for us, and there is a kind of beauty that is bad for us.
a) Spiritual Beauty Â? reveals that man has a spirit; leads totranscendentt; leads to wonder; begs to be shared
b) Sensual Beauty Â? revels in manÂ?s physical nature; "Eve saw that the apple was attractive to the eye and GOOD FOR FOOD." Sensual beauty stimulates the desire to eat; to possess; to consume; to dominate; to collect; to have sex with; it is the opposite of sharing.
That struck my "man is a union of spirit and body" chord, and I commented:
Sensual beauty is not "a kind of beauty that is bad for us." Humans are sensual creatures by nature; we know the good of creation in part through its beauty. Nor is it necessarily opposed to sharing; nobody owns a sunset.

Also, man is perfectly capable of sinning under the influence of spiritual beauty as well as sensual beauty, even if for a lot of important reasons the latter is much more common than the former.
Barb replied that her distinction comes from Cardinal Ratzinger, and referred me to his 2002 speech, "The Beauty and the Truth of Christ."

Well, it's always awkward to have to correct the Pope, but isn't that why God made Dominicans?

Fortunately, in this case it won't be necessary to correct the Pope, who spoke of this stratagem of falsehood:
A beauty that is deceptive and false, a dazzling beauty that does not bring human beings out of themselves to open them to the ecstasy of rising to the heights, but indeed locks them entirely into themselves. Such beauty does not reawaken a longing for the Ineffable, readiness for sacrifice, the abandonment of self, but instead stirs up the desire, the will for power, possession and pleasure. It is that type of experience of beauty of which Genesis speaks in the account of the Original Sin. Eve saw that the fruit of the tree was "beautiful" to eat and was "delightful to the eyes". The beautiful, as she experienced it, aroused in her a desire for possession, making her, as it were, turn in upon herself...

So it is that Christian art today ... has to counter the deceptive beauty that makes the human being seem diminished instead of making him great, and for this reason is false.
I think I can agree with all three -- the Pope, Barb, and myself -- with the following caveats:

First, in place of Barb's terms of "spiritual" and "sensual" beauty, I would use the Pope's "true" and "deceptive" beauty, to avoid any implications of angelism.

Second, I would emphasize that, properly speaking, the two categories refer to experiences of beauty, and not to beauty as such. The tree really was "good for food, pleasing to the eyes, and desirable for gaining wisdom;" in that, Eve was not deceived. But she experienced this beauty apart from the truth of God's commandment, and so failed to experience it as it was truly intended to be: if the fruit is as beautiful as it is, how much more beautiful must God's commandment not to eat it be!

It's the perversion of beauty, the use of that which is good in itself for evil, that gives rise to the category of "deceptive beauty." Beauty itself cannot deceive, but it can be used to deceive -- and in fact, when it is used for any purpose other than to direct one toward his fulfillment in Christ, that's exactly what is going on. And you can't get too much worse than to use the truth to lie.

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Heroes and villains

"All men by nature desire to know," wrote Aristotle, and he was right (more or less).

But fallen human nature is a weird thing. Our desire to know often conflicts with other desires -- even, oddly enough, our desire to be right.

The desire to be right can lead to shortcuts. And as you know if you've ever been with an adventurous driver, shortcuts aren't necessarily shortcuts.

In this case, wanting to be right can lead you to put faith in someone else, faith that (for all you (quite literally) know) may be misplaced. Faith is a participation in the knowledge of another, so if we place our faith in someone who is right, then presto, we too are right.

Conversely, if we place no faith in someone who is wrong, we are also right.

The problem is that, as a practical matter, no one is always right -- not even my personal heroes -- and no one is always wrong -- not even my personal villains.

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Metablogging: New Commenting Policy

As of today, Disputations is a Non Sequitur Allusion to the Invalidity of Just War Theory-Free Zone.

Any comment that unnaturally introduces the topics of just war or pacifism, and any comment that subsequently takes up that topic, may and likely will be deleted on sight.

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Thursday, May 26, 2005

So what?

So the neophilia, the hankering for the new, the devotion of the month disease apparent in the Church may, in some instances, be symptomatic of good old-fashioned sloth.

Throwing off your sins, becoming a servant of God, becoming a child of God, becoming united to God: these are what the Good News calls us to. They should be a source of joy. We escape punishment! We get good things from God! We please God! We love God!

Ah, but it hurts. We mortify ourselves, deny our own wills, to become as God would have us be. And then it gets hard.

The call of the Gospel is one of perfection. Wherever we are, we aren't where we should be. If we aren't moving forward, we're moving backward. But sometimes, the next leg of the journey doesn't look like very much fun at all.

So rather than strike out on that next leg, we head off in another direction. Maybe an enneagram class? Meditative yoga? A pilgrimage someplace far away? A women mystics study group? A new sodality or confraternity or chaplet or saint or cause or movement or retreat center or spiritual director or daily regimen or author or CD?

When is restlessness caused by a lack of something needed, and when is it caused by a lack of desire to face up to what needs to be done?

I should add that although I am most suspicious of neophilia among the "journal your experience of Reiki in Celtic songs, then dance to them through the labyrinth" fads that slosh back and forth across the continent, the distinguishing feature for a neophiliac is that a thing be new to him. It's entirely possible to try to escape the sorrow of the Good News by immersing oneself in rogation days and the Little Office of the BVM and the Yuletide customs of medieval Bavaria, until those start to wear thin and it's on to devotion to the Five Wounds or mastering all the Gregorian psalm tones or learning Koine Greek.

Of course, there's nothing wrong per se with learning Koine Greek. There's nothing wrong with journaling, either. But the measure with which we will be measured is not hours per week doing religious-type stuff we wouldn't do if we weren't so darn religious. The measure is sanctity, and it's measured in love of God and neighbor. If you aren't doing it before attending that next workshop, how long are you going to be doing it after?

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Whether neophilia is a daughter of sloth

Objection 1. It would seem that neophilia is not a daughter of sloth. For neophilia is "The trait of being excited and pleased by novelty," as the Jargon File says. But sloth is a kind of sorrow, according to Damascene (De Fide Orth., ii, 14). Now love does not come from sorrow. Therefore, neophilia does not come from sloth.

Objection 2. Further, Gregory accounts sloth a capital sin (Moral. xxxi, 45). But to be excited by new things is not always sinful, as Isaiah writes, "From now on I will tell you of new things, of hidden things unknown to you." (Is. 48:6). Therefore, neophilia cannot be a daughter of sloth.

Objection 3. Further, Gregory assigns six daughters to sloth, viz. "malice, spite, faint-heartedness, despair, sluggishness in regard to the commandments, wandering of the mind after unlawful things." Now, none of these is neophilia. Therefore, neophilia is not a daughter of sloth.

Objection 4. Further, neophilia is the love of what is new, which is a kind of curiosity, and curiosity is a vice opposed to temperance. But sloth is opposed to charity. Therefore, sloth cannot give birth to neophilia.

Objection 5. Further, sloth implies a "certain weariness of work." But neophilia implies an eagerness of action. Since weariness does not give birth to eagerness of action, sloth does not give birth to neophilia.

On the contrary, the Apostle warns that "the time will come when people will not tolerate sound doctrine but, following their own desires and insatiable curiosity." (2 Tim. 4:3) Now, not tolerating sound doctrine is sloth, and following insatiable curiosity is neophilia.

I answer that, Neophilia can refer to a temperamental disposition toward excitement when presented with something new and unknown, and in this sense, neophilia is not necessarily related to sloth. But in the sense understood here, neophilia is the habitual movement of the will toward that which is new and unknown. But the will does not move toward a thing if it is satisfied with what it already possesses. Therefore, neophilia implies a certain dissatisfaction with the old and known.

But dissatisfaction is a kind of sorrow. A neophiliac is sorrowful that he does not possess the new and unknown, having only the old and known. Sorrow over the things of God, however, is what we call sloth. It follows, then, that the habitual movement of the will toward those things of God that are new and unknown -- which we call neophilia -- is a kind of sloth.

Reply to Objection 1. The form of neophilia that is a child of sloth is marked by a desire for the new caused by a dissatisfaction with the old. Sorrow causes a desire to alleviate that sorrow, which can be considered a love of what alleviates it.

Reply to Objection 2. The new things of God that are good to know do not replace the things of God already known, but fulfill it, as the Gospel says, "I have come not to abolish but to fulfill." (Mt. 5:17)

Reply to Objection 3. Neophilia is a "wandering of the mind" after things that are unlawful if pursued by discarding other things that are to be held fast.

Reply to Objection 4. As referred to its object, neophilia is a kind of sorrow, which in turn causes an intemperate curiosity.

Reply to Objection 5. The weariness of sloth is not an absolute weariness, but one relative to the good things of God. This weariness can be eased by turning the mind to new things, as in other ways a mind weary from study can be eased by engaging in play.

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Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Trees of love

In the course of St. Catherine of Siena's Dialogue, the question is asked, what fruit do the tears of those in the various spiritual stages produce? (She takes for granted that all stages produce tears, and she means actual, physical crying (though not only that).)

When writing about the fruit of the tears of the wicked (those who, in the figure of the Bridge, are splashing about in the river), she returns to an arboreal image:
All of you are trees of love: You cannot live without love because I made you for love.
The branches of the wicked are the deadly sins; their flowers, leaves, and fruit are their evil thoughts, words, and deeds, respectively.

She goes on to suggest that God send four winds to blow against the trees of the wicked, in order to bring them to salvation: prosperity; adversity; fear; and conscience.

The last three make sense, but prosperity? How can prosperity make the wicked turn to God? Isn't it more likely to make the good turn away?

St. Catherine's explanation begins with the human soul's infinite capacity for desire:
So your desire is an infinite thing. Were it not, could I be served by any finite thing, no virtue would have value or life. For I who am infinite God want you to serve me with what is infinite, and you have nothing infinite except your soul’s love and desire.
That's important to those already on the Bridge, since it tells them how to serve God. For the wicked, however, it implies something else:
This is why [the wicked] can never be satisfied: They are always hankering after what is finite. But they are infinite in the sense that they will never cease to be… there is nothing greater than they except I myself, God eternal, and therefore only I can satisfy them.
Humans are made for love -- in fact, for infinite love. The wicked man who prospers, then, will find that his prosperity, even if he gain the whole world, does not satisfy his infinite desire. He will then weep for sorrow, and God willing come to see that, while nothing in the world can satisfy him, there is One Who can.

If not, if he resists the wind of prosperity, and the other winds, and remains steadfast in his sins, then he gains the true fruit of the tears that come from a corrupt heart:
…suffering in this finite life, and in the end… the never-ending company of the devils.

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Tuesday, May 24, 2005

We like the chase better than the quarry

A common objection to praying the Rosary is that it is frustrating. The mind begins to wander as soon as the mystery is spoken; you find yourself at the end of the decade without having formed one single thought related to Christianity, much less to the Finding of the Boy Jesus in the Temple; and you think you blew it. You tried an act of devotion, and you failed miserably. You can't do it, it's not for you, and if that isn't bad enough, the local Rosarianut is sure to ask you how it went and beaddevil you into trying it again.

Now, I am not one to argue (as some do) that the Rosary is the best of all possible devotions, always and for everyone. If the Rosary isn't for you, it's not for you. But I wonder whether the restlessness some feel when they pray the Rosary might indicate that something really is wrong with them -- not regarding the Rosary, but regarding their restlessness.

Blaise Pascal wrote, "When I have occasionally set myself to consider the
different distractions of men... I have discovered that all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber." (Pensees 139) Pascal had in mind "the pains and perils" of politics, war, seafaring and the like, and he might have been pleased at the thought of a widely available means of enabling men "to stay with pleasure at home" -- at least until he watched a few hours of television.

Our society today is one in which people can and generally do stay in their own chambers, but they don't do it quietly. We are habituated to visual and aural stimulation and become restless when confronted with stillness and silence. No wonder, then, that a meditative prayer like the Rosary isn't more popular.

If we aren't psychologically able to be still and silent, it isn't just the Rosary that we will find frustrating. But while I don't insist everyone pray the Rosary, I think God does tell each of us to be still and know He is God.

If we don't already know how to be still, I think we can learn how. And my guess is we really ought to.

A lot of people have found the practice of Centering Prayer to be a good way to develop the habit of stillness. I understand there is even evidence that a method like Centering Prayer develops the habit in a physiological sense.

If it's a question of cultivating a habit of stillness to draw closer to God, though, I would recommend lectio divina. Take five minutes -- three minutes, if that's all you can spare -- in the morning to read a paragraph or two of Scripture, to reread it, to draw the words into your mind and heart for the day, to chew over in the fleeting moments of rest that come and go during the day.

That in itself will not develop a habit of stillness and recollection, but it's a start, and there's no telling where the habit of reaching for the Bible every morning might lead you.

Who knows, you might even wind up with a set of beads in your hands every evening.

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Monday, May 23, 2005

We make our home in meanwhile

In a chaff-filled discussion at open book on caring for the homeless, one aside caught my attention:
But meanwhile...and there is a lot of meanwhile...
There is indeed a lot of meanwhile. One day, Christ will return. The Day of the Parousia, the Day that has no evening, and every tear will be wiped away.

Meanwhile...

One day I shall breathe my last and face my particular judgment.

Meanwhile...

One day, I'll have the strength and wisdom and grace to break free of all attachments and distractions that keep me from loving God and neighbor as I should.

Meanwhile...

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