instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Saturday, March 25, 2006

At long last

Kathy Shaidle begreep me!

Ik denk zij laatste, ook begreep.


Friday, March 24, 2006

Friday confession

I hadn't known that popes held the title "Patriarch of the West." I don't care that Pope Benedict XVI dropped it. I don't care why he did.


The third kind of lie

In yesterday's post, I broke several cardinal rules of quoting statistics. I didn't quote the sampling error, I didn't provide a link to the full report, I didn't double-check the figures. In short, I quoted a quotation of the statistics, which means who knows how the data should be interpreted?

And that, of course, is key. We can grant that the statistics are perfectly sound, but all that means is that if you asked everyone in the population, you'd get about the same distribution you got by asking only a tiny sample of the population. Statistics tell us nothing about what statistics actually mean.

I don't know if I used too many words in my "essay or multiple choice" bit, or what. Maybe my main point can be summed up, and understood, in these words: Giving one response rather than another to a question in a telephone poll does not constitute an act of Christian love.


Thursday, March 23, 2006

Essay or multiple choice

On dotCommonweal, mention is made of a recent Pew Research poll (whose results were published in the National Catholic Reporter) that suggests Catholics are disproportionately pro-torture. To the question, "Do you think the use of torture against suspected terrorists in order to gain important information can often be justified, sometimes be justified, rarely be justified, or never be justified?", the results were:

Total PublicTotal CatholicWhite ProtestantWhite EvangelicalSecular
Don't Know/Refused5%4%4%4%4%

One in four Catholics surveyed gave the answer of the Church. No one who reads Mark Shea's blog can be wholly surprised by this, though I would have guessed somewhat more than half would have answered at least "Rarely."

On dotCommonweal, Grant Gallicho writes:
How did this happen? U.S. Catholic bishops have been anything but silent on the issue.
Which, as excerpted, is an amusing little non sequitur, considering the encouragement and celebration of ignoring U.S. bishops that exists in many corners of the Church that otherwise have little in common. (And yes, his broader point is, "This is a teaching moment that must be seized." But then, so is every moment.)

Apart from the sheer pleasure of ignoring the bishops, though, I would guess that the approval of torture by the Church hierarchy in the past accounts for a significant amount of the Catholic shift away from "Never." It's far easier to say the former practices were moral than to say exactly how immoral practices could exist within an infallible Church. (The disproportionate number of Catholics who answered "Often" is more puzzling to me; perhaps Catholics are more likely to assume those wielding the sword know what they're doing.)

It has also been noted that four in ten "seculars" gave the correct answer, leading one dotCommonweal commenter to remark:
Sadly it is has been clear for a while that many humanists are so much more charitable than Christians.
I am not sanguine about this conclusion. Your answer to a multiple-choice poll is hardly evidence of your charity. Opposition to torture can be based on many things other than a genuine love of neighbor -- to say nothing of love in Christ of neighbor, which is the fullness of Christian charity.

It is possible for a person to choose the charitable thing without possessing the virtue of charity. A "secular" may oppose torture because he thinks that evil is an illusion, or that no one is responsible for his actions, or that the U.S. is the source of all evil in the world, or that if torture isn't opposed today the theocrats will be torturing seculars tomorrow, or that physical suffering is the greatest possible evil.

It is also possible for a person to choose against charity while yet possessing, albeit imperfectly, charity as a virtue. One may mistakenly believe justice demands torture when it might save lives, or that not torturing in that situation would be to fail to love those whose lives would be lost. One may regard torture as just punishment, perhaps even a sort of tough love toward the victim, who can thereby atone (whether he wants to or not) for his involvement in whatever crime led to his torture.

I suspect, then, that had the poll respondents written essays defending their answers, the picture would not have been quite as stark as the reported statistics paint. Not altogether heartwarming, maybe, but not as stark.



Midterm pining

With the midterm elections in the U.S. a little over half a year away, and the 2008 presidential campaigns revving up, it's about time for the biennial discussion among American Catholics about political homelessness.

This time around, I'm thinking about a fresh break with the "one from column R and one from column D" approach to constructing the ideal political party. What do you think of an Agrarian Monarchist Party?

I'm neither an agrarian nor a monarchist, and I think both groups are overrepresented by folks touched in the head, but I have to think the food (raised and prepared by the agrarians) and drink (imported and decanted by the monarchists) at the party meetings would be fantastic.


Tuesday, March 21, 2006

An invitation to decline

There's something fundamentally screwy about any conversation that all but requires, as the price of participation, a Homeric boast of one's own personal virtues. It seems to me two such conversations are occurring at the Crunch Con blog and at dotCommonweal.

Something about the way the whole Crunchy Con debate has been formulated invites people to testify on such matters as whether they love their children and whether they think of anything other than their material possessions.

Something about the whole "Commonweal Catholic" discussion (which is by no means all of the discussion at dotCommonweal) invites people to preen over their intellects; they're thinking Catholics, you see.

I suppose that invitation exists whenever the topic is (or is taken to be) whether a particular group is superior to everyone else. Those who belong to the group are inclined to demonstrate membership in terms of their own superiority; those who do not belong are inclined to prove the thesis false by example of their superiority.

The results are often not very edifying.


Monday, March 20, 2006

The crowd there heard it and said it was thunder

What can those who have eyes to see -- which ought to include everyone who is baptized -- actually see these days?

Can they see the literally blind literally regain their sight, the literally lame literally walk?

Well, maybe, sometimes. I've met the woman whose eyesight recovery is being considered for the canonization of Bl. Margaret of Castello. Most people probably know someone who knows someone who experienced a medically inexplicable recovery.

Of course, materialists will be quick to point out that "medically inexplicable" refers to what the medical community happens to know today, not to what actually does have a material cause. And almost anything can happen to happen; it has to happen to happen often enough before it's something science can say something about.

Far more often, I suspect, those with eyes to see see things that leave materialists, not sputtering about what Science might learn in the next decade, but chuckling over the enduring superstitions of the simple-minded. All the little coincidences, ironies, synchronicities, and irruptions that come your way and remind you that God exists, that He is with you, that He loves you, that He calls you to Him: what will the materialist make of these things?

What do we make of them, when the pious old ladies at church tell us how, after a novena to St. Anthony, they've never had a problem finding a parking spot? What, for that matter, do we make of such things when our New Age sister-in-law starts talking about meeting the reincarnation of someone or other, or lucidly dreaming about a car crash that actually happened?

There's a scale of credulity, and everyone believes he occupies just the right spot between blind superstition and blind incredulity. But how do the incredulous tell us from the superstitious, and vice versa?

Let me make three suggestions.

First, we see by faith, which opens us to seeing a lot that science can't quite make out, and which prevents us from falling for certain superstitious traps. We might keep in mind, though, that with a faith-enhanced vision we can't prove we're seeing what is really there.

Second, I may not be shown everything you see, nor you everything I see. The subtle messages, the gentle whisper God so often speaks to us in, may not be intended to be overheard.

Third, we should not become attached to seeing God, even as our vision of Him becomes more acute, or we might be caught blind in a dark night.


Discussion Questions for Deus Caritas Est, nn. 2-8

Here are my notes for a discussion of the first part of the first part of Deus Caritas Est. The numbers in brackets refer to the section number of the encyclical containing the quotation.
1. "...we cannot simply prescind from the meaning of the word in the different cultures and in present-day usage." [2]
• What other words do the Church and the world use differently? (E.g., "tempting," "sinful," "truth")

2. "The Greeks -- not unlike other cultures -- considered eros principally as a kind of intoxication, the overpowering of reason by a 'divine madness' which tears man away from his finite existence and enables him, in the very process of being overwhelmed by divine power, to experience supreme happiness." [4]
• Does our culture think of love as intoxication or "divine madness"?
• What does the culture say love enables man to do?

3. "An intoxicated and undisciplined eros, then, is not an ascent in 'ecstasy' towards the Divine, but a fall, a degradation of man. Evidently, eros needs to be disciplined and purified if it is to provide not just fleeting pleasure, but a certain foretaste of the pinnacle of our existence, of that beatitude for which our whole being yearns." [4]
• What does the concept of "a degredation of man" imply?
• What happens when we don’t acknowledge that there is a beatitude for which our whole being yearns?

4. "... love promises infinity, eternity -- a reality far greater and totally other than our everyday existence." [5]
• What else in our culture makes such a promise?

5. "Purification and growth in maturity are called for; and these also pass through the path of renunciation." [5]
• What does "the path of renunciation" mean?

6. "... man is a being made up of body and soul... Should he aspire to be pure spirit and to reject the flesh as pertaining to his animal nature alone, then spirit and body would both lose their dignity. On the other hand, should he deny the spirit and consider matter, the body, as the only reality, he would likewise lose his greatness." [5]
• Why is this true, and how can we know it is true?

7. "Eros, reduced to pure 'sex', has become a commodity, a mere 'thing' to be bought and sold, or rather, man himself becomes a commodity. This is hardly man's great 'yes' to the body." [5]
• Can the culture see the truth of this?

8. In the Song of Songs, "Love now becomes concern and care for the other. No longer is it self-seeking, a sinking in the intoxication of happiness; instead it seeks the good of the beloved: it becomes renunciation and it is ready, and even willing, for sacrifice." [6]
• Do we desire to love in this way?
• What would make us desire to love sacrificially?

9. As it grows, love "seeks to become definitive... both in the sense of exclusivity (this particular person alone) and in the sense of being 'for ever'." [6]
• What has happened to our concept of love?

10. "Love is indeed 'ecstasy', not in the sense of a moment of intoxication, but rather as a journey, an ongoing exodus out of the closed inward -- looking self towards its liberation through self-giving, and thus towards authentic self-discovery and indeed the discovery of God." [6]
• Does this mean we can take 1 John 4:7b -- "everyone who loves is begotten by God and knows God" -- literally?

11. "Yet eros and agape -- ascending love and descending love -- can never be completely separated. The more the two, in their different aspects, find a proper unity in the one reality of love, the more the true nature of love in general is realized." [7]
• Is this a new idea for you?
• How is this teaching lived in the Church?
• What might happen if the Church taught this clearly enough to the world?

12. Man "cannot always give, he must also receive. Anyone who wishes to give love must also receive love as a gift." [7]
• How important is it that love be received as a gift?

13.To "become a source from which rivers of living water flow... one must constantly drink anew from the original source, which is Jesus Christ, from whose pierced heart flows the love of God." [7]
• What does it tell us, about love and about our faith, that Pope Benedict identifies "the love of God" with the water (of baptism) and blood (that washes away sin) that flowed from Jesus' side?

14. "We have thus come to an initial, albeit still somewhat generic response to the two questions raised earlier." [8]
• What are the two questions, and what are the answers?
i. "[A]re all ... forms of love basically one"? [2]
ii. "Did Christianity really destroy eros?" [4]
• What does all this mean for us this Lent?


Sunday, March 19, 2006


God's little way of reminding you that physical beauty can co-exist with moral evil.


Friday, March 17, 2006

St. Patrick's Day Trivia

If you tell a child who attends a Catholic elementary school that, whenever St. Patrick's Day falls on a Friday, the celebration of St. Joseph's Day is transferred to the following Monday, which makes it like a four day weekend, except he has school on two of the days, the child will not be impressed.


Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Helpful distinctions

Recent discussions call to mind two distinctions that are sometimes helpful.

One is the distinction between distinction and separability. That two things are not separable -- that you can't have one without the other -- does not mean that they cannot be distinguished. The two sides of a coin, for example, cannot be separated1, but they can certainly be distinguished.

The other is the distinction between two meanings of the question, "What does this mean?" One meaning, which you might call the proximate meaning, is simply the literal sense of whatever the "this" is; the second (remote) meaning is what follows from the truth of the literal sense. You've seen, perhaps, the "Far Side" cartoon of the two fishermen on a lake, with mushroom clouds rising from beyond the mountains. The proximate meaning of those clouds is that a nuclear war has destroyed civilization. The remote meaning is expressed by one of the fishermen: "I'll tell you what this means, Norm -- no size restrictions and screw the limit!"

The first distinction would apply when discussing the names of God. In His simplicity, God is His essence and His existence (on a good day, I can make some sense out of that). Not only are God's justice and mercy inseparable, God is both His justice and His mercy. Nonetheless, we can distinguish between His justice and His mercy2, and still more between justice and mercy as creation participates in them.

The second distinction would apply in the ongoing look at the question, "What does 'God is love' mean?" The proximate metaphysical and theological meaning of the statement, "God is love," is definitely one worth exploring. But it's perhaps noteworthy that in the encyclical called "God is Love," Pope Benedict XVI is not much concerned with this proximate meaning. The letter is really about what follows from what follows from the fact that God is love, which is to say, it's about what follows from the fact that God loves.

Certainly our understanding of the remote meaning reflects back on our understanding of the proximate meaning, but love more than any other matter for reflection is something that must end in action. In bumper sticker terms, love is act, not fact.

1. Yes, you could get a precision saw and cut the coin in half, but that effectively destroys the coin, and even then you'd be left with two coins, each with two sides.

2. You can even oppose God's justice and mercy, as Pope Benedict does in Deus Caritas Est 10: "God's passionate love for his people—for humanity—is at the same time a forgiving love. It is so great that it turns God against himself, his love against his justice." But such opposition is conceptual; the Pope continues, "Here Christians can see a dim prefigurement of the mystery of the Cross: so great is God's love for man that by becoming man he follows him even into death, and so reconciles justice and love."


Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Simply, love

In a comment below, Steven Riddle brings up a subject I've been sort of poking at in my own mind:
Let's talk about the implications of St. Thomas's assertion (which I believe to be true) that God is simple, not composed of parts, and unite that to the concept that God is Love, without making love simplicity and without reducing God merely to the human notion of love, because although God is simple and God is Love, God is uniate and a lot more things than love. As with a diamond, we can choose to view the whole or look at a single facet and call that the whole.

I've been intrigued by the implications of the encyclical and aspects of Thomistic philosophy since the encyclical came out.
By "poking at it," I mean "telling myself there's are some implications I have no clue at all about." That said:

Brandon Field replied to Steven:
When I read what St. Thomas wrote about God's simplicity, I recalled a reflection that you wrote a while ago about the fractaline nature of the Eucharist: any part contains the whole. This is what I understand St. Thomas' concept of simplicity to mean. So, could it follow that any act of love -- no matter how "small" -- contains some sort of fullness of love? At least in as much as we mean agape love, this might be related to the Little Way of St. Therese. Perhaps any act of sacrificial love contains God, not just a part of God -- since He can not in His simplicity be subdivided -- but God.
I'll buy that, except for that verb "contains." Though we know what we mean (or at least what we mean to mean), the Eucharistic species doesn't really "contain" Christ's Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity, in the ordinary meaning of the word. Or even in an extraordinary meaning of the word.

Instead, we talk about Christ's "presence in" the Eucharist, or that the Eucharist "is" Christ's Body and Blood, for some sacramental sense of "presence" and "being."

So we might say that God -- Father, Son, and Holy Spirit -- is somehow wholly present in every act of sacrificial love, and adopt an understanding of the Scriptural formula, "if we love one another, God remains in us," that is broad (i.e., not limiting the "love" to some sort of super-refined act only bilocating saints perform), non-tautological (i.e., not defining the "love" as "the sort of love through which God remains in us"), and literal (i.e., our loving one another, in and of itself, really and for true, means that God remains in us; no conditionals or exceptions necessary).

Now, to fold it back toward Steven's point that God is a lot more things than love, we might ask whether God's presence in an act of love is somehow essentially different from God's presence in any other act. As I've been mentioning, we read that "God is light" in the same epistle that gives us "God is love," so there's reason to be cautious about making theological claims based on grammatical data. For that matter, isn't "God Is" even more fundamental than "God is love"?


Discussion Guide for Deus Caritas Est

For what it's worth, here's the outline I used for a parish discussion introducing the papal encyclical:
  1. A Surprising Theme
    • Everyone knows God is love
    • Doesn't sound very Grand Inquisitorish
    • Doesn’t sound very meaty theologically
    • Why did he choose it?

  2. "God is Love"
    • What does "God is love" mean?
    • What does it mean to you?
    • Read selections from 1 John 4:
      Beloved, let us love one another, because love is of God; everyone who loves is begotten by God and knows God. Whoever is without love does not know God, for God is love. In this way the love of God was revealed to us: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might have life through him. In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as expiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also must love one another.

      We have come to know and to believe in the love God has for us. God is love, and whoever remains in love remains in God and God in him. In this is love brought to perfection among us, that we have confidence on the day of judgment because as he is, so are we in this world.

      We love because he first loved us. If anyone says, "I love God," but hates his brother, he is a liar; for whoever does not love a brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. This is the commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.
    • What's the difference between "God loves" and "God is love"?

  3. St. Augustine
    • "God is Love"/"Love is God": draws a parallel between 1 John 4:7-8, "love is of God... God is love" and John 1:1: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God."
    • Read from Homilies on the First Epistle of John, VII:
      "Love is God." What more could be said, brothers? If nothing were said in praise of love throughout the pages of this epistle, if nothing whatever throughout the other pages of the Scriptures, and this one only thing were all we were told by the voice of the Spirit of God, "For Love is God;" nothing more ought we to require.

      Now see that to act against love is to act against God. Let no man say, "I sin against man when I do not love my brother... and sin against man is a thing to be taken easily; only let me not sin against God. How do you not sin against God, when you sin against love?
    • Does "God is Love" mean "Love is God"?
    • What do you think of St. Augustine’s argument that sinning against man is sinning against God?
    • Read from Homily VIII:
      Love could not be more exceedingly commended to you than that it should be called God.
    • How is love commended to us today, and how do we commend it to others?

  4. The Catechism on "God is Love"
    • Read from the CCC:
      218 In the course of its history, Israel was able to discover that God had only one reason to reveal himself to them, a single motive for choosing them from among all peoples as his special possession: his sheer gratuitous love. And thanks to the prophets Israel understood that it was again out of love that God never stopped saving them and pardoning their unfaithfulness and sins.

      221 But St. John goes even further when he affirms that "God is love": God's very being is love. By sending his only Son and the Spirit of Love in the fullness of time, God has revealed his innermost secret: God himself is an eternal exchange of love, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and he has destined us to share in that exchange.
    • How do we share God's "innermost secret" with each other and with the world?

  5. Pope Benedict, in a letter to Famiglia Cristiana
    • Read selections:
      Initially, in fact, the text might seem a bit difficult and theoretical. However, when one begins to read it, it becomes evident that I only wished to respond to a couple of very concrete questions for Christian life.

      The first question is the following: Is it possible to love God?; more than that: Can love be something that is obligatory? Is it not a feeling that one has or does not have? ...

      The second question is the following: Can we really love our "neighbor" when he is strange or even disagreeable? ...

      Finally, this question is also posed: With her commandments and prohibitions, does not the Church embitter the joy of "eros," of feeling ourselves loved, which pushes us toward the other and seeks to be transformed into union? ...

      In the second part there is talk of charity, in the service of the communal love of the Church toward all who suffer in body or soul and are in need of the gift of love. Two questions arise here above all: Can the Church leave this service to other philanthropic organizations?

      The second question: Would it not be better to promote an order of justice in which there are no needy, and charity would become something superfluous?
    • Do we already know the answers?

  6. The Introduction itself
    • Note backward procession of Scriptural references, from 1 John to John to Deuteronomy
    • "Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person": recall the question, "Do you think of yourself as a disciple of Christ or a Catholic?"
    • Christianity is an encounter with love, so Christians must "speak of the love which God lavishes upon us and which we in turn must share with others."
    • Can we speak of our own experiences in such rich terms as "lavishes"?

  7. Things to look for in the encyclical
    • The essentially "ecumenical" character of the Gospel of Love; what non-Catholics, non-Christians, and non-theists might agree with
    • Historical development in Revelation – "The real novelty of the New Testament lies not so much in new ideas as in the figure of Christ himself, who gives flesh and blood to those concepts" from the Old Testament (n. 12)
    • The twofold "response to the gift of love with which God draws near to us" that goes all the way back to the Garden


Monday, March 13, 2006

The Irish Eating Song

Fans of Whose Line is it, Anyway? will know the tune:
Ai de di de di de di de di de di de di!

This year finds St. Patrick's Day
Falling on a Friday,
Which, it being Lent in March,
Ye'd think 'twas a fish-fry day.

Are we dispensed from abstinence?
Well, here's a little clue:
Me bishop's named McCarrick.
Tell me what you guess he'd do?

Ai de di de di de di de di de di de di!
Lyrics may (but probably won't) be continued in the comments, one line at a time.


Friday, March 10, 2006

More good men and women

And while I'm on the subject of Dominican vocations, let's not forget the Third Order.

Third orders in general are something of a mystery, with "What do you do?" and "What's the point?" being two of the biggest questions people have. The prayer and study angles are fairly straightforward, but in the case of the Lay Fraternities of Saint Dominic, how do we handle the preaching part?

That's a question we're still asking of ourselves.

They say that, if you've met one Dominican, you've met one Dominican. There are differences between members of the same chapter, between chapters in the same province, and between provinces. With that in mind:

Lay Dominicans live out the Preaching charism in all different ways. Some do churchy things -- teach RCIA or CCD, or work directly for the Church. Others choose a personal or group apostolate; I know of one chapter that sponsors an annual winter coat drive, another that writes letters to politicians, newspapers, and so forth on the moral matters of the day.

Some Lay Dominicans have no particular activity they regard as an apostolate; instead, they go out into the marketplace, as all lay Christians are called to do, but through their formation they go out as Dominicans, offering the fruit of Dominican style contemplation (prayer (Mass, Liturgy of the Hours, Rosary, etc.) and study (particularly the thought and spirituality of the Order's great saints).

Still others serve the mission of the Order through prayer. The idea that the job of each and every Dominican is to go out and preach is both a novelty in the history of the Dominicans and (I suspect) a minority view. Preaching is the mission of the Order, of the community as a whole; it's not the aggregate of tens of thousands of individual missions.

In my chapter, we have people who serve the Province by running the Third Order bookstore (the only such bookstore in the U.S.), helping with the provincial magazine, and serving on the Provincial Council. (A word of warning: competence (or even, in my case, regular attendance) runs the risk of being elected to all sorts of offices and councils; the upside is, they all come with terms of office that do eventually expire.) One member is a DRE for a nearby parish; another is devoted to presenting the thought of St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (yes, a Carmelite; the Holy Spirit blows where He wills).

As a chapter, we have sponsored various programs hosted at the parish where we meet. There is also a new initiative throughout the Province whereby each chapter is to sponsor a Bible study program; we'll be starting that up in the fall.

Do all these things really amount to preaching?

That's a subject of lively debate within the Order. There's the position that says pretty much every activity counts as preaching. There's the position that says only speaking to an audience counts. And everything in between.

My personal position is this: The charism of preaching expresses itself in many different ways. However, "preaching" properly speaking is speaking the Word to an audience that is physically present in the same room, and this preaching properly speaking is a unique and privileged means of expressing the charism, one without which the Order of Preachers ceases to be an order of preachers.

Beyond that, we don't record points or keep score. What "counts" is the salvation of souls.

Finally, anyone who's curious about the Order should be sure to ask any other Dominicans they meet or know these same sorts of questions, since they're sure to get at least a different slant, if not a diametrically opposed answer. If you've
asked one Dominican, you've asked one Dominican.


More than a few good men

I see the brothers in formation at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, DC, have revived the vocations blog for the Province of St. Joseph. Look for an update every week or two. (The students also have their own site, and their own PDF newsletter, the Dominican Review.)

Coming soon to a pulpit near you: the novices and student brothers of the Eastern U.S. province.


Shows what I know

I figured there wouldn't be many, if any, comments on the previous post, since I didn't think it was coherent enough. Maybe the four dozen comments reflect the readiness of people to respond to love, however imperfectly expressed.


Tuesday, March 07, 2006

As though we understood good

I'm beginning to believe God is love.

I've been struck by the inchoate notion that to speak of "the problem of evil" is to miss the fact that the problem we are truly facing is the problem of good. The real question isn't, "How can an all-powerful, all-good God permit bad things?," but, "How do we face the fact of an all-powerful, all-good God?" To theologize by thinking in terms of evil, as though we understood good, is like doing zoology by thinking in terms of objects that create elephant-shaped shadows, rather than in terms of elephants.

Okay, it's not very much like that at all. I said it's an inchoate notion.

But if God loves, then His love isn't just human love ramped up a million times, or even to infinity, any more than His existence is just a superduper form of our existence. It isn't just present in the things of creation as seasoning or leaven. It isn't really present in a manner similar to anything other than itself.

It's odd that something so explosive, something that simply replaces everything that is not itself, should be so easy to overlook, to ignore, and to forget. Love is weird stuff.


Monday, March 06, 2006

The way of the cross, iii

I suggested that Matthew 16:24 describes a three-step process:
Then Jesus said to his disciples, "Whoever wishes to come after me must
  1. deny himself,
  2. take up his cross, and
  3. follow me."
(And before any Carmelite gets the heebie jeebies, let me explain that this is a logical process, where the subsequent steps depend on the presence of the prior steps, not a chronological process, where each step occurs in sequence in time.)

I also suggested the first step amounts to deposing one's own will as the center of one's existence.

If these suggestions are sound, then in order to take up your cross it is necessary to depose your own will as the center of your existence. Why might what follows from such denial of self be considered the taking up of a cross?

Well, what does the taking up of a cross signify? I'd say it signifies the somehow voluntary acceptance of a foreseen path of suffering. It's not merely the stoic acceptance of an instance of suffering, but of a whole route of pain and sorrow, a route whose details may be unknown but whose end, Golgotha, can be seen from the start.

If, as the old love song has it, this world is a vale of tears, then pretty much every path through it is one of pain and sorrow. What distinguishes carrying a cross is the willingness (which is not simple resignation) to suffer, and to some extent the choice of a path that does not minimize suffering.

I'd say that what denying yourself contributes to taking up your cross is this: At every moment you bear your cross, you are tempted to set it down. "Setting it down" means bucking against the suffering, or even abandoning the path for one of less suffering. If you have not denied yourself, if your own will is still the center of your existence, two things follow. First, there is nothing but your own willpower keeping you from setting down your cross, and at any moment you might change your mind. Second, the cross you are bearing is in some sense defined by your will; it is a cross you design for yourself, rather than a product of the fallenness of the world itself.

Note, finally, that in what I've written about both denying yourself and taking up your cross, there is nothing explicitly Christian. You can depose your will in favor of all sorts of things -- of the Party, of a charismatic leader, of social forces. And you can choose a path of suffering from all sorts of causes; you can suffer for your Art, or for your children, or for the sheer cussedness of it.

Thus the final step of the process: "Follow Me." If we are following Christ, the first two steps become specific. It is God's will that becomes the center of our existence. It is the suffering of a Christian that we shoulder, with its twin character of internal self-discipline and external buffeting.


Sunday, March 05, 2006

Lenten Discussion Series in Silver Spring, Maryland

We have come to believe in God's love.

Is your Lent not penitential enough? Then come and listen to me lead a discussion on Deus Caritas Est at St. Andrew Apostle Catholic Church in Silver Spring, MD, this Tuesday, March 7, beginning with Evening Prayer at 7:30 p.m.


Friday, March 03, 2006

On the "Statement of Principles"

I read the "Statement of Principles By Fifty-Five Catholic Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives," and without bothering to pick it apart, the overall impression I got was:

They're asking for partial credit.


Thursday, March 02, 2006

The way of the cross, ii

It might be worthwhile to take a look at the passage from Matthew that introduces the idea of "taking up your cross":
From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly from the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed and on the third day be raised.

Then Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, "God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you."

He turned and said to Peter, "Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do."

Then Jesus said to his disciples, "Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it."
I shall now demonstrate my mastery of the obvious.

The disciples are here taught three lessons: that Jesus is the Messiah; that the Messiah must suffer; and that those who would follow the Messiah must suffer likewise.

Only after His disciples confess that He is the Messiah does Jesus begins to teach them that the Messiah must suffer and die. Led by Peter, the disciples first learn who Jesus is (more or less), and only then does He go on to say what that truly implies. That He must teach them step by step is vividly illustrated by Peter's reaction to Lesson Two.

In this passage, Lesson Three follows hard on Jesus' grading of Peter's comprehension of Lesson Two. Note the repetition of "must" in these lessons: "that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly," "Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself." To be a student is to imitate the master. Perhaps that thought added a little extra to Peter's emphatic, "God forbid, Lord!"

Okay, now I come to the crux (man, I slay me) of the matter:
"Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me."
What Jesus describes is a three-step process, and I would suggest that understanding the second step requires understanding the first step.

The NAB note on this says that "to deny oneself is to disown oneself as the center of one's existence." The Catena Aurea quotes St. Gregory as writing, "He denies himself whosoever is changed for the better, and begins to be what he was not, and ceases to be what he was... He also denies himself, who having trode under foot the risings of pride, shews himself in the eyes of God to be estranged from himself." St. John Chrysostom is more expansive:
He that disowns another, whether a brother, or a servant, or whosoever it be, he may see him beaten, or suffering aught else, and neither succours nor befriends him; thus it is He would have us deny our body, and whether it be beaten or addicted in any other way, not to spare it.
To deny yourself, then, is to change, if not completely sever, your current relationship with yourself. Broadly (and figuratively) speaking, the change involves taking your will -- the satisfying of which is, for those turned away from God, the greatest good -- and trampling it underfoot.


The way of the cross, i

The periodic discussion on What is the Cross the Christian Must Take Up -- in particular Whether the Daily Trials of Life Count -- re-emerged yesterday, and continued over on Flos Carmeli.

Rob presents the objection:
But I firmly believe that it borders on blasphemy to equate the pain that comes of illness, failure of expectations, even loss of loved ones to death, as "crosses."

The only kind of affliction that rises to the level of a cross, is affliction that is endured for the sake of the Word. When one is afflicted for the sake of one's Christianity, and one accepts that affliction with praise for Our Lord at the opportunity, then, and only then, has one taken up one's Cross.
Steven answers it:
I would say that the attitude that separates suffering from the cross tends to make a mockery of human suffering. The strong implication of your words is that human suffering really doesn't have any meaning at all. I would pointedly differ with this. But if we accept that it does have mean, then it only has meaning as united to the sufferings of Christ on the cross.
Steven says it all better than I can, but I'll make what middling insights I have in the next post.


Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Have yourself a squishy little Ash Wednesday

Let me come out on record as 100% behind an unabashedly, unhesitatingly squishy fast.

Want to do more than the Church requires? Excellent! God will reward you in the spirit with which you fast.

Want to do no more than the Church requires? Excellent! God will reward you in the spirit with which you fast.

Want to do less, but wind up doing what the Church requires, while feeling guilty for not keeping a stricter fast? Excellent! God will reward you in the spirit with which you fast. The guilt, though, you're putting on yourself, and you should take it off yourself, too.

Keeping Lent, like keeping Christmas, can be a touchy subject. I think it helps to recognize that we can admire others without envying them, and that ideas can be shared without being prescribed.



In the comments on a post below, the discussion turned to the question, Whether it is harder for "cultural Christians" to become "true Christians" than for atheists to become "true Christians"?

Setting aside the question of defining and distinguishing "cultural Christian" and "true Christian,"* the basic idea of the Yea side is that those who are born and raised in a Christian culture tend to settle into a little well of complacency, so to speak, from which they are not easily roused. Atheists (or non-Christians in general), being less accustomed to hearing [what they are told is] the Gospel message, much less hearing they are good Christians, have a greater potential to accept Christ's call in their lives.

My take on the question is that we say which transition is easier, not only because we don't actually know, but because it's an ill-posed question to begin with. How "hard" it is for someone to become a true disciple of Christ is not determined by whether he is a cultural Christian or an atheist, and in fact the very difficulty of becoming a disciple -- an act which is, after all, utterly dependent on God's grace -- is not something that admits of being measured at all, much less between people.

The question begins by assuming a too-simple state flow:

But these are hardly the only possibilities. An atheist who becomes a Christian does not necessarily become a true Christian; giving oneself over to Christ is a process, often a long slog for the best among us. The just man falls seven times a day, and so forth. We can immediately explode the state transitions, and still not claim to have covered everything:

Does it make sense to rank these transitions categorically, according to difficulty?

If you think it does, and if you're inclined to try, then you should be sure to compare things that are comparable. For example, I don't think it's right simply to compare those atheists who became true Christians with those cultural Christians who did not, i.e., the red portion of this diagram with the green portion:

This sort of comparison neglects, not just the cultural Christians who become true Christians, but all the atheists who don't become any kind of Christian. A fairer comparison, I think, would look like this:

That is to say, don't ask what a cultural Christian would have to do to become a true Christian, ask what a former cultural Christian did have to do. And similarly with a former atheist. Otherwise, it becomes an exercise of listing the factors that keep cultural Christians complacent without listing the factors that keep atheists atheistic.

Again, though, I'm not sure it's a sensible question to begin with. And whatever else, we shouldn't lose sight of the central role of God's merciful grace in all of this.

*. For the most part, this discussion can be rephrased in terms of "cradle Catholics," "adult converts," and "Catholic disciples of Christ," with what I'll assume are obvious enough changes to not need specifying.


Tuesday, February 28, 2006

It really is sweeping the nation

Or at least the Maryland-National Capital Park system.

The Potomac Curling Club had an open house over the weekend. It was well attended.

I attended an open house there when the curling rink opened shortly after the 2002 Winter Olympics. There were a respectable number of visitors, but no lines out the door and down the sidewalk.


The penitential is personal

PAT: And what will you be giving up for Lent then?

MIKE: Sure and begob, I won't drink whiskey and beer until after the Easter Vigil.

PAT: Not drink whiskey and beer? Faith and begorrah! How will you manage?

MIKE: Well, on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, I'll drink whiskey without beer, and the rest of the week it's beer without whiskey.


Monday, February 27, 2006

Facing a dilemma

Yesterday's homily began with a question most Catholics (particularly in places where the Church is well established) should ask themselves from time to time:

Do you think of yourself primarily as a disciple of Christ, or as a Catholic? As a follower of a Person, or as a member of an institution?

Obviously, "disciple of Christ" and "Catholic" aren't contrary labels. "Catholic" ought to imply "disciple of Christ," and "disciple of Christ" ought to imply at least "in communion with the Catholic Church."

But ten thousand oughts do not make one is. There are unquestionably people who call themselves Catholics who would never call themselves disciples of Christ. You can follow good discipline -- in terms of receiving sacraments and following precepts -- without ever asking yourself if you're practicing good discipleship.

The key word in the question, though -- the one that prevents it from being a false dilemma -- is "primarily." You can understand yourself as both a follower and as a member, but at any given time one will take priority, one will be the way by which you understand yourself as the other.

The homilist proposed that those who understand themselves primarily as Catholics will tend to understand Lent primarily as a time of special rules. They fast during Lent because Catholics are to fast during Lent. The Church says Lent is a time for reform and repentance, so they reform and repent. They follow a program of rule-based growth in virtue.

The readings point to a new way of sanctification. As St. Paul writes, "the letter brings death, but the Spirit gives life." To live in the Spirit is to imitate Christ, to follow Him on His path to Golgotha and beyond. What Jesus did, the new wine He poured into new wineskins, was to preach the coming of the Kingdom of God, to bring Divine Mercy to those who called out for it (including those who thought they were just calling out for a medical cure), and to pray.

Jesus prayed. He stayed up late, He got up early, He went off by Himself to pray.

He fasted as well, of course, forty days in the wilderness, an act which in the Divine Economy prepared not only Jesus for His ministry, but the Church for her ministry, refreshed each year during Lent.

A disciple imitates his master. Perhaps we can't perform miraculous medical cures (do we even try?). We might not even be prepared to volunteer as preachers. But we can pray, and we can fast, and we can give spiritual alms by testifying to God's mercy at work in our own lives. And if our testimony is stammering and vague, we might at least (as we pray for the Spirit to speak through us) be thankful that no one will take us for glib snake oil salesmen, or agree with us merely because our words tickle their ears.

And we can do these things, not because the Church tells us to, but because Christ did them first.


An observed pattern

Most every group in which membership is voluntary is susceptible to a pattern of behavior that goes like this:
  1. Someone whose attitudes, preferences, or inclinations are, by the standards of the group, iffy or fringe, joins the group.
  2. Having joined, he puts a lot of effort into demonstrating that his attitudes, preferences, or inclinations are perfectly legitimate by group standards.
  3. Having demonstrated this to his satisfaction, he goes on to insist that his attitudes, preferences, or inclinations are not merely legitimate, but positively normative.
  4. Having talked himself into believing his views are normative, he begins decrying the standards of the group as iffy or fringe.
From there, all sorts of interesting things can happen. The group might accommodate him, allowing contradictory understandings of the nature of the group to co-exist. The group might kick him out, at which point he might repeat the pattern with another group, or become a professional embittered ex-group member, or find a group more suited to him. The group might split, with those sympathetic to the fringe member joining him in a new group.

Then again, the pattern might terminate at any point in the process. The fringe member might recognize that he is fringe; he might allow that his views are not normative; he might not think contrary views are beyond the pale.

The only thing that is always a safe bet is Step 1. Any organization that people can choose to join that is not exceptionally careful about who is allowed in (assuming membership can be formally denied) is going to wind up with fringe members.