instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Monday, December 05, 2005

The annual feud

Happy Catholic calls our attention to all the
worrying and fretting there is in St. Blog's Parish about Advent and Christmas. We can all agree on the timing and that Advent is good and Christmas cause for extreme joy and celebration of the birth of our Savior ... but after that point it all breaks down.
There does seem to be a current of thought that there is a one true way to decorate your house for Christmas; to exaggerate slightly, some give the impression that the closer to the moment on Christmas Eve when a black thread and a white thread can no longer be distinguished that one begins to decorate one's tree, the closer one is to a life of fidelity to Christ.

A while ago, I made my peace with the dual nature of December 25 in our culture, as the last day of a secular season and the first of a religious one. And if the one borrows from the other, I'm okay with that. And I'm okay with people who aren't okay with that, but I'm not okay with people who aren't okay with my being okay with that.


Always helpful

If you're having trouble deciding what to get me for Christmas, here's a hint. If just 475 Disputations readers each chip in just $10, you can surprise and delight me with your thoughtfulness. In return, I'll host an open house every Wednesday evening, and anyone who likes can drop by for some conversation and a wee dram.


Saturday, December 03, 2005

Un cervello stravagantissimo

Q. What do Muhammad, Caravaggio, George Balanchine, and Francis Crick have in common?

A. None of them has ever been in my kitchen.

No, they're all subjects of current or forthcoming volumes in HarperCollins's Eminent Lives Series of "brief biographies by distinguished authors on canonical figures."

I knew basically nothing about the painter when I received a review copy of Francine Prose's book, Caravaggio: Painter of Miracles. Some of his paintings have been commented on in St. Blog's; The Incredulity of St. Thomas and The Calling of St. Matthew are two I remember. "A moving Caravaggio" was the expression used to describe Mel Gibson's vision for The Passion of the Christ. And I just learned Steven Riddle is a fan. But basically Caravaggio was just the name of some Italian painter.

Having now read his Eminent Life, I have learned that Caravaggio was... well, let me quote from the second paragraph of the book:
He was wanted for murder in Rome, for stabbing a man in a duel that was said to have begun over a bet on a tennis game.... He had been sued for libel, arrested for carrying a weapon without a license, prosecuted for tossing a plate of artichokes in a waiter's face, jailed repeatedly. He was [formally] accused of throwing stones at police, insulting two women, harassing a former landlady, and wounding a prison guard.
That may paint too rosy a picture of his character, though. He was basically a nasty piece of work as a human being, however great a genius as a painter.

There isn't all that much known about his life (he died in 1610 at the age of 39), apart from a general idea of which city he lived in when and rumors about which crime may have made it prudent for him to move on. Not much in the way of personal letters or contemporaneous accounts; at least one of his early biographers was also a bitter rival who skewed the already black facts. According to Prose, the transcript of his libel trial is the best source (other than his paintings, of course) of his own opinions about art.

A life of Caravaggio, then, is not going to be very nice and it's not going to be very detailed. Recognizing this, Prose finds her story in his paintings, a subject which can well sustain the 146 pages of the book. Reproductions of 11 paintings are included with the text, and she discusses in some detail several others. (Most or all of them can be found here; you may want to have Google handy if you read the book.)

Prose could be a bit less interested in the pretty and often underdressed boys Caravaggio so often painted, a bit more sympathetic to the Church (granted that the Church figures Caravaggio encountered were not heroically virtuous), a bit less post-everythingly broadminded:
The world needed to mature, to evolve past eighteenth-century decorum and Victorian prudery in order to accept the sexuality of Caravaggio's paintings, a sexuality that is at once bravely unapologetic and furiously private. It's worth noting that the spike in Caravaggio's popularity took place during an era in which our sensitivities were being simultaneously sharpened and dulled by artists like Robert Mapplethorpe, whose passion for formal beauty and stillness... made him as emblematic of his time as Caravaggio was of his. In order to love Caravaggio, we ourselves had to learn to accept the premise that the angelic and the diabolic, that sex and violence and God, could easily if not tranquilly coexist in the same dramatic scene, the same camera, the same painter.
...until very recently, critics were still making a strenuous effort to distinguish the living devil from the angelic, immortal artist.
Only now can we admit that we require both at once. The life of Caravaggio is the closest thing we have to the myth of the sinner-saint... the myth that, in these jaded and secular times, we are almost ashamed to admit that we still long for, and need.
I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that Caravaggio's popularity among Catholic bloggers is not due to the effect of Robert Mapplethorpe on their sensitivities. And I'm not sure that the story of his life ought to move people to love him, nor that we require him to have been a living devil. There are lessons to be learned from Caravaggio's life and work; that genius redeems immorality is not one of them.



Friday, December 02, 2005

Under the usual conditions

You've probably already heard this, but from the Vatican website comes this news:
Proinde Beatissimus Pater, cui maxime in votis est ut christifidelium amor et fiducia erga Deiparam Virginem augeantur et, Eius ductu ac sanctitatis exemplo, vita eorum sapientibus Concilii Oecumenici Vaticani II institutionibus fideliter conformetur in arta hierarchica communione cum Eo et propriis cuiusque Sacrorum Antistitibus, donum plenariae Indulgentiae benigne concedit, suetis condicionibus (sacramentali Confessione, eucharistica Communione et oratione ad mentem eiusdem Summi Pontificis) adimpletis, animo quidem omnino elongato ab affectu erga quodcumque peccatum, christifidelibus consequendum in proxima sollemnitate Immaculatae Conceptionis B. Mariae Virginis, si cui sacro ritui in honorem Eiusdem interfuerint, vel saltem apertum marialis devotionis testimonium reddiderint ante imaginem eiusdem B. Mariae Virginis Immaculatae, publicae venerationi expositam, addita Orationis Dominicae ac Symboli Fidei recitatione et aliqua invocatione ad B. Mariam Virginem sine labe originali conceptam (e. g. «Tota pulchra es, Maria, et macula originalis non est in te», «Regina sine labe originali concepta, ora pro nobis»).
In plain English, a plenary indulgence may be obtained "on the forthcoming solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, by the faithful if they participate in a sacred function in honor of the Virgin, or at least offer open testimony of Marian devotion before an image of Mary Immaculate exposed for public veneration, adding the recitation of the Our Father and of the Creed, and some invocation to the Virgin."


Thursday, December 01, 2005

The fix was in

Fr. Wojciech Giertych, OP, has been named to succeed Cardinal Georges Cottier, OP, as theologian of the papal household. Fr. Giertych is a theology professor at the Angelicum and the Socius (assistant to the Master) for Intellectual Life of the Dominican Order. What are the odds a Dominican would be picked to succeed a Dominican?

I'd think being theologian of Benedict XVI's household would be about like being beer drinker of Homer Simpson's household: you're not going to be asked to do something your boss couldn't do first and probably better.

In any case, there are a few pieces by Fr. Giertych on the Web. He is credited with writing Section 3, "Itinerancy in the Formative and Intellectual Journey," in Master of the Order Carlos Azpiroz Costa's first letter to the Dominican Order. He also gave an interview at last year's general chapter on intellectual life in the Order.


Wednesday, November 30, 2005

A marginal post

Video meliora, proboque; Deteriora sequor writes:
Concerning the salvation question, (which became especially onerous since the age of the Occamists when the sovereignty of God became more the focus than the goodness of God), perhaps it can be said we are like Peter walking on the water. If we take our glance off Christ and think of the danger of the crashing waves (i.e. hell) we fail. If we take our glance off Christ and think of how easy this is we fail. We can only succeed if we love him and we can only love him when we are looking at Him.
True enough. However, and as much as I don't like to take anything away from a swipe at the Occamists, I will make a small note in the margin to the effect that it is the sovereignty of God (properly understood) that proves His goodness. Since He is sovereign, He is bound by nothing outside Himself; no necessity imposes itself upon Him that is not Himself, so the good that He does us can have no other source than His goodness.


Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Can this be right?

Someone at UC Davis crunched some U.S. government statistics and came up with this:
According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistic's Consumer Expenditure Survey for 2002, there were 112 million "consumer units," with an average of 2.5 persons, 1.4 earners and two vehicles.... Average consumer unit income before taxes was $49, 400, income after taxes was $46,900....

The 112 million consumer units spent an average of $353, for total spending of $40 billion in fresh fruits and vegetables...

...consumers who pay $1 for a pound of apples, or $1 for a head of lettuce, are giving 16 to 19 cents to the farmer and 5 to 6 cents to the farm worker.
In short, the cost of farm labor to produce fresh fruits and vegetables passed on to the consumers represented 0.045% of their after-tax income. That's about $21.18. That's about forty cents a week.

That's about free.

In the past, I've talked glibly about not caring about justice for migrant farm workers if it meant saving 50 cents a pound on broccoli. I didn't realize broccoli would have to cost on the order of $8/lb for that to begin to be possible.

Now, no doubt there are dozens of other factors to consider about the causes and effects of changing farm worker wages, but if the above statistics are roughly correct, then even substantial changes in their wages would have very little effect on the retail price of fresh fruits and vegetables, and essentially no effect on most consumers. That's something to keep in mind the next time the discussion turns to just wages for migrant workers.

The UC Davis report implies that it's also something to keep in mind the next time the discussion turns to the need for loose immigration to supply inexpensive farm labor; if tighter immigration causes wages to rise, that benefits the workers at the cost of a few cents a day to consumers. If social justice were simple, we'd have it.


Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Next stop on the sacred art train


(Link via open book.)


I know what I like

I'm not sure what to say about the Fra Angelico exhibition at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, which I saw with a small group last Saturday. For me it was more a pilgrimage to venerate relics than a visit to look at paintings. You can read the review I'd have written at Clarity's Place; the three paintings she mentions are the three I'd have mentioned if I'd mentioned only three.

The criticisms of the exhibition are probably valid. The works displayed are bits and pieces (they sell a booklet containing a couple of essays on how tempera panels from the early Renaissance got split up and how, in one case, they were reunited); the arrangement is somewhat unsatisfying (the Cranky Professor says the space is too big; I didn't mind the elbow room, but the layout of the works was a little confusing); none of his frescoes are included (and in fact, I'm not sure I had ever seen pictures of more than a few of the paintings before).

But like I say, I wasn't there for the museum experience.

It's true, what I had been told, that you can't really tell what Fra Angelico's paintings look like from photographs; the colors are never reproduced quite right, and the colors -- not so much the hue as the saturation -- are key to both the artistic and theological meanings of his paintings.

This Nativity, for example, may be most notable for how uncomfortable the Christ Child looks. In person, though, what's most notable is how the Christ Child glows. I doublechecked the lighting to see whether they had some sort of microspot on the lower half of the painting. (Of course, it's not hard to glow if you're made of gold, and another thing that's hard to tell from reproductions is how much of a painting is inlaid gold -- like, in this case, the rays coming out of Baby Jesus.)

One of the most remarkable works in the exhibition is Christ Crowned with Thorns -- I mean that literally; a Google search on "Fra Angelico" "Christ Crowned with Thorns" returns half a dozen or more reviews of the exhibition that remark on the painting. It is so untypical of his work that, when I first saw it from thirty feet away, I assumed it was by one of his assistants and almost overlooked it.

When not on loan, the painting is in the Church of Santa Maria del Soccorso in Livorno, Italy.


Monday, November 21, 2005

Inside the brotherhood

If you ever wonder what life is like for the student brothers at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, DC, you probably need a hobby. Nevertheless, you can get some sense of their life at their website, particularly on their recent events page.

From there, you can discover something about the rich history of the Order of Preachers, in art, music, and even (despite what some petty folks say) physical activity. (Yes, physical activity. The old image of St. Thomas puffing his way round the cloister has been replaced with the vision of trim, fit friars, and steps have been taken to keep the physically unfit from entering the studentate.)

A number of the recent events documented on the site include reflections, such as one by Br. James Dominic Brent, OP, on making simple profession in the Order:
I may longer go where I want to go. I may no longer do what I want to do. I may no longer say what I want to say....
Yet ever since the moment of profession I have known a freedom like I have never known before.
Another reflection, by Br. Hyacinth Cordell, OP, reports on the experience of being installed as a lector:
There is a principle of the spiritual life, that the Lord of Providence never calls anyone to a task without providing the grace to fulfill it. And here the Lord of life was gracing us and entrusting us, through this sacred rite, to fulfill the ministry of living and manifesting the word of God. We have been officially commissioned to read aloud the liturgical passages of Scripture. But the mission of lector is wider than this, as the rite bears witness.


Happy Pro Orantibus Day!

Be sure to thank every cloistered monk and nun you meet today.


Friday, November 18, 2005

Someone remembers

God bless Karen Marie.


A dispassionate reaction

I was excited to receive a review copy of David Scott's The Catholic Passion: Rediscovering the Power and Beauty of the Faith. I think celebrating the Faith is, generally speaking, a much better way to evangelize than is defending the Faith. In the preface, Scott writes, "The early Christians spoke of mystagogy, a kind of life-long immersion in the mysteries of the faith. This book is a small exercise in twenty-first-century mystagogy."

A passionate immersion in the mysteries of the faith. What's not to love?


For one thing, there are niggling little mistakes (all Twelve were at Jesus' ascension?) and unclear writing (the Father was crucified?) that should have been caught before publication. It's hard for me to get caught up in passionate writing when I keep having to say, "Er, what?", or, "Not quite."

What really turned me off to the book, though -- and by turned off, I mean, set aside for a couple of months after reading forty pages, then returning to it just in case it gets better, and finding it about how I remembered -- is what I expected to love about it. As the publisher's blurb says:
Scott illuminates the Catholic mysteries with the insights of great Catholic figures of modern times—the American writer Andre Dubus, the French composer Olivier Messiaen, the Chinese human rights activist Henry Wu, the French martyr Charles de Foucauld, the American reformer Dorothy Day, and others.
Doesn't that sound great? It's not just some guy (well, Scott is a journalist and the editorial director for Scott Hahn's St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology) writing about what he thinks is wonderful about the Faith. It's a whole tapestry, a mosaic, a symphony of voices, from across the lands -- and across the centuries, too.

The problem is that a tapestry, a mosaic, and a symphony are all unintelligible without order, and to me, all the quotations -- and there are a lot of quotations -- were just a jumble. In one two-page stretch, we move from St. Gregory of Nazianzus to Franz Joseph Haydn to Gerard Manley Hopkins to St. Augustine to St. Paul. Yes, it's all on the same theme (how creation calls man to adore the Trinity), but it comes in such relentless succession that the effect -- for me -- is of a debater trying to win a point by sheer number of authorities referenced.

As I read, I try to situate St. Gregory, for example, in some context; one of the great Eastern Fathers, way back when. A paragraph later, I'm in Eighteenth Century Europe, then two paragraphs in Nineteenth Century England, then a skip off late Patristic Age Hippo and back to the First Century Mediterranean. If it's the first time someone is quoted, the quotation is prefaced by a sentence or less of biographical introduction. It's necessary (not everyone has heard of Julian Green), but disorienting.

I would much prefer a book that featured perhaps a quarter or a fifth of the quotations Scott uses, to give their specific wisdom time to soak in, to draw out some of the insights and implications of, say, St. Gregory's poem:
The Trinity is one God
Who created and filled all things:
the heavens with heavenly beings,
the earth with creatures of earth,
the sea, the rivers and springs,
with creatures of the waters,
giving life to all things by His Spirit,
that all creatures
might sing the praises of their wise Creator,
Who alone gives life and sustains
all life in being.
Above all others, let the creature who reasons
celebrate Him always
as the great King and good Father.
Couldn't more be said about this than:
In this poem, he dwells on the Trinity's artistry... We are the creatures who reason, made to stand in adoration and worship before the creation of this great King and Father.
On the whole, I think I would have preferred reading the quotations by themselves, an edited Commonplace Book of Catholic Passion, to the whirlwind "If It's Page 58 This Must Be G. K. Chesterton" style Scott adopts.

That said:

Let me emphasize that my reaction is a matter of personal taste and temperament, even more than usual for opinions about books. The way my mind works and the way the book works are just not quite compatible, and from comments I've read elsewhere the book works terrifically well for some.

I think the concept of the book is great, and the content (niggling mistakes aside) fine, but it's just not my style at all.



Thursday, November 17, 2005

Plus ca change

In an old Catholic humor anthology, I found a selection from Frank Leslie's 1947 book, There's a Spot in My Heart, that, with minor changes, could have been written today. It opens:
Uncle George described himself as one of the "Church Militant" .... "Militant" was too fragile a word to define Uncle George's emotions on the Church. "Church Rampant" might have been more accurate, although "Church Berserk" was even closer to it.
The piece is about the discord between the narrator's uncle and grandfather, the latter being a temperate skeptic.
Uncle George, who was compounded, spiritually, in eccentric portions, of Savonarola, Saint Jude, and Father Dooley's bitch, accused Grandfather of lacking "respect for the cloth." My grandfather said that he had the highest respect for the cloth; he merely did not like to see it being used to wrap up a fool.
The story culminates with a visit from the new curate.
...Uncle George moved in with one of his favorite openings: the magnificence of plain chant versus the odious and uncanonical caterwauling of mixes choirs. Father McManus ... never quite realized what hit him when Uncle George swarmed all over him with decrees of the Council of Trent, more recent regulations of the Sacred Congregation of Rites, and direct citations from a bull of John XXII. Before he could regain his balance he was parrying an interrogation on the nature of Sanctifying Grace and, having countered with a Dominican defense, found himself buried under an avalanche of Jesuitisms. After a further incautious lead, he was hanging on the ropes, desperately endeavoring to duck a haymaker of the heresy of Jansenism which Uncle George was trying to land...

"Without a vigorous priesthood we cannot have a militant Christianity," he declaimed to the now helpless and bewildered curate. "Why are there no Christian martyrs in our times? Why are we Christians poorer in spirit than mere Mohammedans? ... We find those who profess Christ indifferent and slothful, wavering and watery in the practice and belief of their Holy Religion, while Mohammed's millions are still charging into the teeth of the Unbelievers' guns, greedy for that martyrdom whose recompense is lust! To think that we, who hold ourselves as Christians--"

"I wouldn't be so hard on the Christians, George," said my grandfather suddenly from the doorway. "After all, a Mohammedan can anticipate while a Christian can only hope."

The next time my grandmother got sick they sent the pastor.


Wednesday, November 16, 2005

We should dance

The only good Dominican is a drunken Dominican.
Dominican preaching is sometimes described, and for good reason, as doctrinal since it delights in pondering and proclaiming the mysteries of Creation, Incarnation, Redemption and Resurrection. But the manner in which Dominican preachers, like Catherine and Thomas, speak about imbibing the wine of the mystery of Christ, alerts us to the fact that real "knowing" is always accompanied by a certain amazement. The wine of truth which Christ gives us to drink is also a wine of astonishment. What we preach, then, are not just truths about God. We preach a wine of truth which we have actually tasted ourselves, and have drunk with living faith and joy.
Link via Contemplata aliis Tradere.


If they don't float, they're not witches

Wow! Linda Chavez begs the question so hard, I think I could claim it on my taxes.
Those on Capitol Hill and elsewhere who have been complaining of U.S. policy on the detention of enemy combatants got a wake-up call this week. It appears that one of the Iraqi men who bombed three Jordanian hotels on Nov. 11, killing 57, may have been in U.S. custody in Iraq for a time but was released... When authorities could find no reason to keep the man, they let him go. Lt. Col. Barry Johnson told reporters, "A review of the circumstances of his capture by the unit determined there was no compelling evidence that he was a threat to the security of Iraq and he was therefore released."
So according to the Army, there was no compelling evidence that Safaa Mohammed Ali was an enemy combatant. And this is a wake-up call for those who have been complaining of U.S. policy on the detention of enemy combatants because why?
The presumption of innocence is important in the criminal context -- indeed, it is one of the foundations of our legal system. But in a war in which our enemy doesn't wear uniforms, doesn't fight under a foreign flag, and targets civilians as a primary military strategy, we cannot afford to confer on the enemy the same rights and protections we grant ordinary criminals or even military adversaries in a traditional conflict.
So since we don't know who our enemy is, we can't afford to presume he's innocent? But don't we have to know who our enemy is in order to know that we can't afford to presume he's innocent?

Apparently not:
Short of torture, which President Bush has made clear we will not use, we should be free to hold suspected terrorists captured overseas for as long as necessary and to use harsh techniques to elicit information.
Of course, Safaa Mohammed Ali was not a suspected terrorist, so what this has to do with lessons learned from the Jordan bombings I don't know. I suppose it could be that Chavez is arguing that, once captured by the U.S., no one should be released until harsh techniques elicit sufficient information to prove they were innocent all along.

That's gravely unjust, but at least no one would deny it would be getting serious, which seems to be a greater concern for Chavez than justice. At the very least, she seems to think anything and everything "short of torture" is justifiable and presumptively justified.

(Speaking of that "short of torture" gambit, I think it's amusing how several people who comment at Catholic and Enjoying It! will switch between asserting that of course they oppose torture and insisting that there is no satisfactory definition.)

(Link via Kevin Miller.)



An undigested thought

For further rumination:

Christians can get caught up -- not without reason -- in the question, "What must I do to possess eternal life?" But the answers too often revolve around distinguishing what is necessary, without which one cannot possess eternal life, and what is sufficient, with which one is sure of eternal life.

Typical discussion space in conversations on eternal life.

As I say, these are reasonable points of discussion. But:

We're talking ETERNAL LIFE here! Life to the full, an overflowing fountain of life, a life of complete joy! How much time should we be spending, really, worrying about what is sufficient?

Potential discussion space in conversations on eternal life.


Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Behold, I am with you always

Daniel Hurley, MD, is the author of Facing Pain, Finding Hope: A Physician Examines Pain, Faith, and the Healing Stories of Jesus. It's a book on the fascinating topic of the human problem of pain.

By "human problem," he doesn't limit himself to medical, philosophical, or theological aspects of pain. It's not just "why" and "by what means," but "what now" and "what next." And the reason I say it's a "fascinating" topic is that the questions of what now and what next need to be answered, not just by those who suffer from chronic or acute pain, but by their medical caregivers and by their families and friends.

Though pain is only experienced as pain by the person in pain, it affects all those in close contact with the person, in important ways differently than other, more visible, medical problems do. No one would say to someone whose legs are paralyzed, "Can't you just, you know, climb the stairs if you really think about moving your legs?" It's not nearly so unthinkable to say to someone in chronic pain, "Can't you just, you know, take a painkiller or something?," or even, "Come on, it can't be that bad!"

A Catholic who specializes in Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, Hurley reads the miraculous cures of the Gospels in the light of his experiences as a doctor who daily works with patients in great pain. He's a good enough doctor to know that pain is not merely a physical phenomenon, and a good enough Catholic to know that it is in Jesus that the spiritual dimension of pain can best be come to terms with. He quotes Nicholas Wolterstorff's Lament for a Son:
Suffering is the meaning of our world. For Love is the meaning. And love suffers. The tears of God are the meaning of history. But mystery remains. Why isn't Love-without-suffering the meaning of things? Why is suffering-Love the meaning?
This leads Hurley to muse on the mystery:
With the arrival of God into the very history of humanity, good and evil manifested themselves around him as they do around every other person in the world.... Our Lord did not eliminate injustice or cruelty or death as entities unto themselves. He preached against the evil in men's hearts that lead to these things.
The Scriptures indicated that his name was to be Emmanuel, "God with us," not "God instead of us"...
What of our own laments to God? When we pray and search for him with all our hearts, feeling helpless, can we look back on the heartbreaking search of Christ's own earthly mother? If she was told she would suffer a sword of sorrow and was confused in her own direct searching for her son who was God, how can we expect to escape suffering? And do we trust that he is fulfilling the "business" of being God for us, even though we cannot see him doing so?
This comes toward the end of the book, in the chapter, "'A sword of sorrow shall pierce your heart': The Mystery Called Suffering." Several earlier chapters look at different healing miracles, accommodating them to Hurley's own present-day experience of patients, their families, and their doctors. (He shows, too, that these experiences were ever thus.)I've got some bookmarks in my copy* on various specific points, and hope to get around to posting on them.

In the meantime, I'll just say that Hurley has a lot of intriguing things to say about problems many of us do or will one day face. I don't agree with everything he writes, of course, but he does a good job showing how the miracle stories can speak to us today, with a meaning deeper than, "Jesus, being God, cured some people."

* Yes, my copy was sent to me by the publisher, Loyola Press. Will I write about your book if you send me a free copy? Try me!


Two quick thoughts

Say what you like, Kathy Shaidle is no respecter of persons:
Now, I couldn't care less, you understand. The idea that I'd be banned for life from writing fifty-dollar book reviews for some local Catholic paper really doesn't concern me. Book reviews have lousy ROI of time and energy, and if you don't know what ROI means, chances are you, well, work in Catholic publishing.
I laugh, because fifty dollars is fifty dollars more than I've ever been paid for a book review, which I don't write any more, because they have lousy ROI of time and energy. That, and I'll be posting about a book I was sent to review -- posting about the book, you understand, not reviewing it -- next.

A comment on a post at An Examined Life touches on the old "Are the Commandments good because God gave them to us, or did God give them to us because they are good?" party ice-breaker:
God's commands, on the common divine command conception, really are in danger of seeming arbitrary, because God is conceived in an excessively anthropomorphic fashion expressing his will, which is presented as radically disjoined from our nature. The solution to the problem, as I see it, is just as you've proposed here and elsewhere; God issues his 'commands' because they are good, and they are good because following them constitutes the kind of life that allows us to achieve our good.
I think this is related to something I wrote last week. The Church certainly speaks of God's commandments, but His commandments are only part of His revelation.

They are, I think you could say, God's revelation under the aspect of law. But the aspect of law neither exhausts revelation, nor defines its nature. As St. Thomas teaches, Revelation is necessary for man to know the end (viz, God) to which he is directed. So from the very nature of Revelation, it can't be arbitrary or disjointed from our nature -- and that includes the Commandments.


Monday, November 14, 2005

A no-talent homilist

As it happens, I was thinking about Jeremiah's call for nearly a week when I heard, in a homily yesterday, a point about the Parable of the Talents that echoed my thoughts. (It took me another day to recognize the echo.)

A "talent" is a unit of weight used to measure coinage. One talent seems to have been on the order of 90 pounds. A talent of gold would today be worth about $650,000, give or take $50,000. That's serious money, for most of us, certainly not the sort of thing many of us can pull together in an afternoon with our broker. On the other hand, it's not the utterly unthinkable sum of ten thousand talents from the Parable of the Wicked Servant.

Well, okay, thank you and you may close your Bible dictionaries now.

What I heard in the homily was a rejection of the customary "talents = talents" interpretation, where the money given to each servant by the master represents the talents and abilities given to each of us by God. (The modern English word "talent" even comes from this parable, as analogy according to this interpretation.) In fact, as the parable is recorded, the amount of money is given "to each according to his ability," so unless our talents are gifts given according to our talents, the straightforward interpretation needs some modification.

My pastor modified it in the soundest way possible: the talents given to the servants are nothing other than Christ Himself. A gift no servant could ever earn for himself, in the first and final analyses the only gift God has given to the Church. As His disciples, we are to bring Him into the world, where He will increase.

To bury Him, particularly out of fear, is to fail to see Christ as He is, as the Word of God Who is Love. But -- and here's the tie-in with Jeremiah -- it is also to think that bringing Christ to the world is our own work, at which we will succeed or fail according to our own ability. It's to look at the Gospel with a Pelagian mindset, as though it has no power greater than our own (the homilist allowed that most Catholics today aren't Pelagian, but suggested we're at least semi-Pelagian, some of the time).

Asking what the passage says about Christ is always a good exegetical tool. I hope I'll remember that He isn't always present in only one way, as with the master in this parable. TSO took the time to see what St. Jerome had to say about yesterday's Gospel, and unsurprisingly he saw the talents as "the Gospel doctrine," which is to say Christ under the aspect of teaching. It's always good when your pastor and St. Jerome are on the same page -- er, at least when it comes to interpreting Scripture. Pastorally, not so much.


Sunday, November 13, 2005

You know, He wasn't asking for your advice

The following sign is hanging on the side of my filing cabinet:
Only Genuine Pre-War American and British Whiskeys Served Here
It's from a Dashiell Hammett short story, and when the Continental Op reads sees this in a seedy dive, he passes the time trying to "count how many lies could be found in those nine words." He reaches "four, with promise of more," when the person he's waiting for shows up.

Every now and then, you come across a statement that packs an astonishing amount of something -- lies, maybe, or factual errors, or ways to take offense -- into very few words. Jeremiah 1:6, for example, which immediately follows the LORD telling Jeremiah that before he was born, he was appointed a prophet to the nations:
"Ah, Lord God!" I said, "I know not how to speak; I am too young."
How many mistakes did Jeremiah pack into thirteen words? Let's find five, and leave the promise of more.

He was wrong on the facts. He wasn't too young to be God's prophet.

He was wrong to say no to God. That's just never right.

He was wrong to tell God He had made a mistake. Hint: If there's a difference of opinion between you and God, change your opinion.

He was wrong to explain to God why he wouldn't make a good prophet. Did he think God was unaware of his age or of his speaking skills?

And he was wrong -- and in a big way -- to think that God expected him to be a prophet to the nations according to his own abilities. Jeremiah expressed a Pelagian mindset, that it was by a his own strength and power that a prophet did God's work.

But that term -- "God's work" -- happens to nicely express the orthodox Christian doctrine. It's not merely work done for God; it's work done by God, through the one He chooses to freely choose to do it. Jeremiah's youth and artlessness made him the perfect tool in the LORD's hand:
Say not: I am a child: for thou shalt go to all that I shall send thee: and whatsoever I shall command thee, thou shalt speak. Be not afraid at their presence: for I am with thee to deliver thee.... Behold I have given my words in thy mouth: Lo, I have set thee this day over the nations, and over the kingdoms, to root up, and pull down, and to waste, and to destroy, and to build, and to plant.
It was true of Jeremiah, as it was true of St. Paul, as it is true of each of us: When we are weak, it is then we are strong.


Thursday, November 10, 2005


Fr. Philip Powell, OP, who was ordained a priest of the Dominican Province of St. Martin de Porres this past May, has begun to blog his homilies at Domine, da mihi hanc aquam!. (That's Latin for, uh, "Lord, I got me a hankering for water." Must be a Southern thing.)

His homilies, as you can see, tend to start with a bang:
  • "First, what belongs to Caesar? Nothing. Second, what belongs to God? Everything else."
  • "I want to conduct an experiment tonight. Let's see how obedient you are! I command you to stand. I command you to clap your hands. I command you to say hello to the people around you. I command you to sit."
  • "Wow. I know of no other way of expressing my amazement at tonight's readings. Wow!" (The homily I heard that day, Priesthood Sunday, began with the priest imagining himself as the Cowardly Lion jumping through a window.)
  • "I believe that most of us are idolators."
I wonder how these have been received. I particularly wonder how many people stood and clapped their hands.


A prophet to the nations

More than once, I've run into someone who has replied, "They made fun of Jeremiah, too," when he was ridiculed for saying something ridiculous.

Yes, and Alan Greenspan and I both chew our food before swallowing, but don't ask me to run a national economy.

Jeremiah is hardly the only figure in the Church whose mantle people like to assume on utterly trivial grounds. Are you obnoxious? You must be as learned as St. Jerome. Do you complain about bishops? Gosh, when I close my eyes I can't tell whether you or St. Catherine of Siena is speaking.

Jeremiah wasn't a prophet because he was ridiculed. He was ridiculed because he was a prophet. (And incidentally, the ridicule he endured was somewhat more substantial than being insulted on an Internet mailing list. Don't be so quick to claim his mantle; God just might let you put it on.) And he was a prophet because God called him, a calling recorded in a fascinating passage:
The word of the LORD came to me thus: Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I dedicated you, a prophet to the nations I appointed you.
"Ah, Lord GOD!" I said, "I know not how to speak; I am too young."
But the LORD answered me, Say not, "I am too young." To whomever I send you, you shall go; whatever I command you, you shall speak. Have no fear before them, because I am with you to deliver you, says the LORD.
Then the LORD extended his hand and touched my mouth, saying, See, I place my words in your mouth! This day I set you over nations and over kingdoms, To root up and to tear down, to destroy and to demolish, to build and to plant.
Those first words, "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I dedicated you," are well known -- I suspect for their beauty and profundity more than their utility in public debate. God knew -- and, being Love, loved -- each of us before we even existed.

But then there's that word "dedicated." Douay-Rheims has "sanctified"; other translations have "set apart" and "consecrated." The idea is of something (in this case, someone) made holy by being given over entirely to God's use. When a church is dedicated, it becomes a church, a house of God, not merely a building where Mass is sometimes said. Consecrated virginity is not a decision to go public with the determination to remain a virgin; it's a giving over to God one's virginity, which thereafter is holy and set apart from the things of the world.

Are we all dedicated by God before we are born, or was Jeremiah an exception? Well, one traditional interpretation of this verse is that Jeremiah was justified, washed free of original sin, before he was born, much as St. John the Baptist is said to have been when he leapt for joy at the sound of Mary's greeting. In that sense, no, we aren't all born free of original sin; most people aren't holy and righteous in God's sight at birth.

Still, before we were formed we were known, and if our personal dedications did not happen before birth, that doesn't mean we are never to be dedicated by God. What is set apart is set apart for a purpose, and for us humans (if you'll pardon the utilitarian language for a moment), our purpose is to work out God's plan for His creation in time. God's plan would not be perfect, God would not be perfect, if there were people who had no place in His plan, no purpose in His creation.

So yes, we are, all and each of us, known from eternity to be sanctified in time. Whether the time is before or after birth is a secondary matter.

[As for that utilitarian language, I excuse it with a reference to the Baltimore Catechism's "God made me to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him forever in the next."]


Wednesday, November 09, 2005

They blog so I don't have to

Flos Carmeli has been quite a joyful place of late.
We will not know joy until we come to love and trust... But love and joy both come in their own time through God's all-giving grace. I can make small motions toward these, but in the end it is God who grants them in their fullest as we dispose ourselves to receive them.

After all of this it boils down to--where is joy to be found? In gratitude, in grateful acknowledgment of all that God has given me, has shown me, has made of me, has offered me. This is the beginning. It is the small movement of will that disposes us to receive even greater graces. Gratitude--the simple courtesy to say, "Thank you," to the One who loves us.

Veritas looks at la nouvelle theologie's question, whether the death of God for us is Liberalism.
Now, why is liberalism understood in this sense the death of God for our times? Because of its amazing capacity to create and sustain (false) antagonistic dualisms, e.g. faith and reason; body and soul; church and state; religion and life. Note well: I'm certainly not denying that each element of each pair of terms is distinguishable from the other… that's obviously true. My point here is that liberalism doesn't merely distinguish between (for example) faith and reason: rather, it puts them in opposition to one another at a fundamental level.

Ultimately, liberalism is so problematic because of its propensity to separate religion from "everyday life". I'd submit that the vast majority of Americans fail to structure their lives according to their faith at an ontological (as opposed to moral) level. Were you to ask someone how being Christian informs and shapes (for example) their profession, you'd be lucky to get more than, "I don't cheat, lie, or steal because of my faith" (i.e. moralism). What we're talking about here is the split between the faith believers profess and the lives they live which Vatican II and Pope Paul VI referred to as the great drama of our times. And I think a convincing argument can be made that the origin for this drama is liberalism.

In a post on medieval studies at Cambridge, Contemplata aliis Tradere turns up a website on the disputatio. It includes this description of the quodlibetica disputation, when masters "made themselves available to deal with a question 'raised by anyone on any topic'":
What characterized it, in fact, was its capricious, and impromptu aspect, and the uncertainty which hovered over it... In the quodlibetica dispute anyone could raise any question. And that was the great danger for the master who was responding. The questions of objections could come from all sides, either hostile or shrewd -- anything was possible. He could be questioned in good faith to learn his opinion; but someone might have tried to force him to contradict himself, or to force him to speak on controversial subjects which he would have preferred never to broach. Sometimes it was a curious foreigner, or a worried soul; sometimes a jealous rival or curious master who would try to put him in an awkward position. Sometimes the questions would be clear and interesting, other times they would be ambiguous and the master would have great difficulty in grasping their exact significance and true meaning. Some would be candidly confined to the purely intellectual realm; others above all had implications of politics or of disparagement.... It was thus essential that whoever wanted to hold a quodlibetica dispute have an uncommon presence of mind and an almost universal competency.
Nowadays, universal competency is generally regarded as a fundamental human right.


Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Perspectives on faith

A lot of difficulties people have with the Faith seem to boil down to false dilemmas. Omniscience and free will, mercy and justice, faith and works: the standard arguments over these all seem to center on assertions of conflict, that either one or the other, but not both, must somehow win out or be true.

I think many of these apparent contradiction resolve themselves with the judicious application of St. Thomas's formulation "under the aspect of." If you look at something under one aspect or from one perspective, then look at it from a different aspect or perspective, the fact that you see different things does not demonstrate an inconsistency in the thing looked at nor a deficiency in one or another of the aspects looked under.

Imagine two people looking at a third person. Suppose one observer says, "I can see that this person's eyes are brown," and the other observer says, "I can't tell what color this person's eyes are, or even whether he has eyes." Before we conclude that the eye color of the person being observed is some unfathomable mystery, or that his eyes possess some occult property of revealing themselves only to certain select persons, we might first ask the second observer whether, from where he is standing, he can see the person's face. If he answers, "No, I'm looking at the back of his head," then we don't have much of a conflict between the observers' statements.

I think we need to be particularly careful about false contradictions when we refer to Scripture. If you put a verse from a Gospel next to a verse from the Pentateuch, you are comparing things that were written by different people at different times from different perspectives for different purposes. The unity of all Scripture lies, not in a single perspective, but in a single Spirit Who inspired it.

So, for example, the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew, which is coming up in the Lectionary in a couple of weeks, is told from a perspective of judgment. Last Sunday's reading from 1 Thessalonians, is told from a perspective of Christian hope. Other references to the Final Judgment (a term not without its own perspective) are made from perspectives of exhortation and mystery.

There are people who say things like, "I don't see how Jesus can be loving and say, 'Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.'" And yes, this objection can be answered in various arguments that "Depart from me, you accursed" can be said in love, but... they aren't really convincing arguments, are they? I mean, do they persuade many people who don't want to be persuaded?

It might be better to say, in so many words, that they are right, "Depart from me, you accursed" is not very loving, but that it comes from a story of the Second Coming told under the aspect of judgment. To hear the story of the Second Coming told under the aspect of love, look elsewhere.

Maybe this just shifts the problem, from "how do you reconcile these two verses" to "how do you reconcile these two perspectives." But it at least disposes of the immediate problem of an apparent contradiction, and changes the conversation from a stock proof-texting exercise to a shared exploration of the mysteries of Christ.


Monday, November 07, 2005

The Feast of All Dominican Saints

A common answer to the question, "What interested you in the Dominican Order?," goes something like this: "I was looking for a way to grow closer to God, and the Dominican way seemed like a good fit." Another answer is: "I knew some Dominicans, and I said, 'I'll have what they're having.'"

The former answer is based on the individual, the latter on the community. I suspect all Dominicans learn relatively quickly that you don't get the one without the other. The person looking to perfect himself finds out that the Dominican way insists he be perfected in community. The person wanting the joy of Dominican community discovers how much that joy depends on letting God transform his own heart from within.

Somebody once told me she couldn't really see the point of thinking of the Dominican saints in heaven as somehow more united with the Dominicans on earth than are all the rest of the saints in heaven. Yes, in this vale of tears a community has a clear role, but once we reach heaven, what need will there still be for Dominican and Franciscan, Sulpician and Josephite?

And I think part of the answer is that the community within an order is real. It's not just a fortuitous arrangement in this life; an order situates its members within the Body of Christ in a way that endures forever. The Dominicans of this world exist within the Church on Earth as the Dominicans of the world to come will exist within the New Jerusalem. The relationships that begin now as seeds flower in eternity. And those relationships extend now from the Church Militant through the Church Suffering to the Church Triumphant.

In Christ we are washed clean, not bleached. The perfections of our relationships with others in heaven will include, in some cases, the perfections of communion in a perfected religious order.

Happy Feast Day!