instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Friday, August 29, 2003

Pascal's Wager is hopeless

Pascal's Wager is the best known example of applying what I call an "actuarial expectation" to salvation. A standard form of the wager is to generate a table of expected values of believing in God and not believing in God, depending on whether God exists or doesn't:

God existsGod doesn't exist
Believe in GodInfinity-m
Don't Believe in God-Infinityn

Here m and n are, respectively, the cost of believing and the benefit of not believing when you don't need to.

According to this payoff table, believing in God is the rational choice.

There are a whole lot of problems -- philosophical, cultural, theological, anthropological -- with Pascal's Wager, but right now I just want to look at what it does to the virtue of hope.

According to probability theory, if there is a non-zero probability -- and it can be arbitrarily small -- that God exists, then the expected value of believing in God is infinite.

So where does hope fit in? In a sense, it doesn't. You can always hope that God exists, but even without hope, going purely on actuarial expectation, you expect infinite happiness. All that hope does in this case is add m units of happiness to infinite happiness. According to the formulation of Pascal's Wager, hope is optional.

A religion in which hope is optional can be many things, but it can't be Christianity.

To be fair to Pascal, he thought up his wager more or less while inventing probability theory, so he can be excused for not forseeing this kind of expected value analysis. He also intended the Wager for a specific type of skeptic, in a specific type of situation, not for general evangelical or theological purposes.

Today's Christians, though, don't have the same excuses. I've seen Pascal's Wager proposed in several places as though scientific-minded atheists ought to find it an unanswerable argument to hie them to the nearest church. It should probably be stamped with the warning:

For conversational purposes only. No wagering.


Persisting in hope

The old Catholic Encyclopedia begins its article on hope with these words: "Hope, in its widest acceptation, is described as the desire of something together with the expectation of obtaining it."

This despite my having recently written it is "important to distinguish between hope and expectation," and not in the sense that expectation is one aspect of hope.

Just to clear this matter up, let me refer to Fig. 1:

Fig. 1. Expectation vs. Difficulty of Obtaining Desired Future Good

It's basically self-explanatory. The blue line represents the way the "natural" or "actuarial" expectation of obtaining a desired future good moves from certainty of obtaining it to certainty of not obtaining it as the difficulty increases from guaranteed to impossible. Any expectation in the pink region indicates a measure of hope associated with that expectation; the green region is a region of despair. (The vertical distance from the expectation to the blue line is a measure of the hope or despair involved.)

(The theological virtue of hope operates along the right boundary of the square, salvation being impossible for man but nothing being impossible for God. There's a certain breezy confidence in one's fundamental goodness that wraps this chart into a cylinder, with the right and left edges of the square touching. "Well of course God will save me/all my friends/everyone, silly!" But that's not hope. I'm not sure it's even reasoned enough, in many cases, to count as presumption. The curious thing about hope is how it only really shows its true colors when all is hopeless.)


Thursday, August 28, 2003

Reeves in the Summertime, concl.

“I use the word ‘baffling’ advisedly, Reeves. You see, after being distracted by Berggo I gave up the loaves and fishes wheeze as a lost cause and segued as smoothly as possible into an a capella rendition of ‘Come Holy Ghost.’”

“Baffling seems a strong word for that, your excellency. The melody plays to your strengths as a singer.”

“You stray from the tale, Reeves. It was not my a capella rendition of ‘Come Holy Ghost’ that is unaccountable. In fact, I’ve tried the same gambit once or twice in the past when I’ve noticed an audience begin to freeze over in the shallows, and it’s always been a smash. This time, however, just as I was beginning the second verse, a plump fellow in a Roman collar stood up in the back of the room and began singing ‘Kumbaya.’”

“'Kumbaya,' your excellency?”

“’Kumbaya,’ Reeves.”

“A most perplexing action on his part, your excellency.”

“You may well say it was a most perplexing action on his part, Reeves. It threw the whole room into pandemonium.”

“It is not difficult to imagine the confusion, your excellency.”

“There were boos, whistles, and shouts from all corners. A few joined in ‘Come Holy Ghost,’ a few in ‘Kumbaya.’ The meeting dissolved before my eyes. A fellow named Figg was all but ripped in two like a wishbone between two hearty female academics.” As the memories returned, I wished briefly for something stiffer than tea. “Then something warned me as if in a dream to depart for my own country by another route, and I slipped out a service door, through some hidden corridors, onto the street, and into a cab to the airport. It was in the cab that I met Berggo, who had been moved by a similar spirit of discretion.”

“A decision of commendable prudence on your parts, your excellency.”

“Yes, we rather thought so.”

“Your story provides the context for understanding the message I received at five forty-five this evening, your excellency. Mr. O’Brien called at that time, asking me to inform you that the meeting was a disastrous ruin.”

“A disastrous ruin?”

“Those were the words Mr. O’Brien used, your excellency.”

“Just as well, wouldn’t you say, Reeves?”

“There appears to be no irrecoverable loss, your excellency.”

“Assuming Figg came through with both shoulders still attached.”

I mused.

“One thing, Reeves. I believe that plump fellow in the Roman collar had been introduced as a sociology teacher in an East Coast seminary.” I paused delicately. “You don’t happen to know any plump sociology teachers in East Coast seminaries, do you, Reeves?”

“There is good reason to believe the priest in question is the Reverend James Farmer, your excellency. I have not seen him in some years, but while we were at seminary together he was known for his fondness for starches.”

I was momentarily stunned by the thought of Reeves in a seminary. It was hard to believe he hadn’t been given purple socks with a silver cup at his christening.

“And what good reason, other than fondness for starches, is there to believe the priest in question is the Rev. Farmer?”

“I had suggested to Fr. Farmer that, should you happen to sing ‘Come Holy Ghost’ at Mr. O’Brien’s meeting, he should begin singing ‘Kumbaya,’ your excellency.”

I set my tea cup down with firmness. “Do you mean to stand there and tell me, Reeves, that you plotted behind my back to turn that meeting into a disastrous ruin?”

“The fundamental charge is supportable, your excellency.”

“We are agreed that it was no great loss. But why suggest me as his cue?”

“That would plant the idea that you were somehow responsible for the collapse of the meeting, your excellency.”

“But why…?” I am not ashamed to admit that at this point I sputtered. Given the hour, the state of my nerves, and the distance to the closest cocktail shaker, you would have sputtered as well.

“I am reminded of a second phone message, your excellency. This was from Cardinal Fratricidelli, who called at six thirty p.m. to congratulate you on diffusing a potentially damaging situation.”

“He did?” I unhunched the shoulders. “Ah." I unclenched the hands. "The scales fall.” I unfurrowed the brow. "Thank you, Reeves."

“It was necessary to correct the cardinal’s impression that I had provided you with some advice, your excellency.”

“Was it? Oh, yes, Berggo had told him my attendance was your idea.” A thought struck me. “But won’t your friend, Fr. Farmer, find himself in the soup when word gets out of his, what did you call it, perplexing action?”

“Fr. Farmer had called me to discuss his dissatisfaction with seminary teaching, your excellency. His bishop has been reluctant to transfer him to a quiet parish. The disruption he caused at the meeting should prove sufficient to prompt his bishop to change his mind.”

“You are a marvel, Reeves.”

“I endeavour to give satisfactory stewardship of my talents, your excellency.”

As I was shaving the following morning, I realized a way in which I could thank Reeves for his help, and I resolved to surprise him with it, as he had surprised me. There was some confusion when I called the photography studio – the young woman who answered seemed to think I was confirming an appointment rather than making one – but I did have my official portrait changed to one with a more spiritual, if less natural, expression. Of course, Berggo thought I looked like a calf startled by a sudden gunshot, but Reeves approved.



But not forgotten

Based on how often the subject comes up, the concept of forgiveness is a tough one for Catholics in the U.S. to get a handle on.

Whom should I forgive?
  • Someone who offends me and asks my forgiveness?
  • Someone who offends me and doesn't ask my forgiveness?
  • Someone who offends another, asks their forgiveness, and receives it?
  • Someone who offends another, asks their forgiveness, and doesn't receive it?
  • Someone who offends another and asks my forgiveness?
  • Someone who offends another and asks no one's forgiveness?
If something should be done, it has to be possible to do it, and to say whether forgiveness is possible in some of these cases you need to know what forgiveness is.

I think of it in the terms of debt (not a wholly original choice). When someone sins against me, I am owed some sort of reparation. If I forgive the person, I am, so to speak, giving them notice that this debt has been cancelled before they have satisfied it.

In these terms, I can't forgive someone a debt he owes to someone else. (Unless, of course, I have some sort of special authority to do so, as e.g. a judge or legal guardian, but even then I can only forgive certain legal debts, not the moral ones.)

But when someone sins against another, particularly if the sin is grievous or the one sinned against close to me, doesn't the sinner sin against me as well? I don't just mean in the "any sin injures everyone" sense. I mean, isn't the sin a scandal to me, a potential source of temptation to such sins as revenge or cruelty?

If this is so, then to say, "I forgive someone for sinning against another," implies, "I forgive someone for tempting me to sin against charity and temperance," which in turn implies, "I forswear the temptation to sin against charity and temperance."

So I can, in fact, forgive some notorious criminal who has committed no crimes against me, albeit the forgiveness isn't directly for the crimes he committed. And it does, in fact, do me good to do so, insofar as doing so is to resist the sins he has tempted me toward.

A final thought: It's often suggested that forgiveness is mercy triumphing over justice, and that's true. But more broadly, forgiveness can be seen as a point at which justice and charity meet (mercy being an act of charity). Put this way, I think it's easier to see that forgiveness always implies love for the one forgiven, and as we know love sometimes requires chastisement; and that the forgiveness demanded of us as Christians is not equivalent to unchecked and unreasoned clemency.



The current Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator fad has not received universal acclaim. As a classic INTP myself, I think the MBTI is largely bunk but not entirely without descriptive power.

Recently, though, I came across the work of Dr. Carl Friekan, who has created what he calls his "Accurate Personality Test" based on the traditional taxonomy of virtues and vices. Here is my result:
You are a Disputer.

You are most comfortable laying down clear, fundamental principles first, then acting in accord with them, and prefer to avoid situations in which no such principles exist. You prefer to think and communicate in verbal or symbolic ways, rather than visual or poetic ways. You often play with ideas to see where they take you. You have dubious time management skills. You avoid speaking about politics with others, because the more you know about their politics the harder you find it to respect them. It is difficult for you to feign interest in most casual conversation; you didn't do anything memorable over the weekend and don't really care what anyone else did either. You are moderately successful in hiding your irritation with all the idiots you run into. Liquor-wise, you prefer dark to light, and can't stand gin at any price. Occasionally, you make things up for your own amusement.


Wednesday, August 27, 2003

Liturgical errancy

(A true story, with errors.)

Child: Who did Jesus marry?

Adult: Jesus didn't marry anyone.

Child: Then why do they say He got married?

Adult: Who says He got married?

Child: At church. Everyone says He "suffered, died, and was married."


A proposal for a new Internet policy

"From this day forward, a Roman Catholic may complain about the artistry or lack thereof of a given crucifix appearing in a public place only if it is worse than this one."


Still hoping

The virtue of hope is, as Hernan pointed out in a comment below, analagous to the passion of hope. It is a habit by which we move toward a future, difficult, but obtainable good.

The "greatest" hope we can have is the hope for the greatest good we can obtain. Through God's charity, this greatest good happens to be God Himself. Since all truly good things are related to God's goodness as reflections to the source, so I think all true hopes are related to this one greatest hope. The hope I have for my children to live long and happy lives -- or, for that matter, that they have a nice day today -- can ultimately be grounded in the hope that they attain salvation.

Hope, of course, is one of the three theological virtues, and it has a close relationship with the other two. By faith, we see God as both lovable and attainable. By hope, we continue to move toward Him. By love, we desire Him more strongly, and so reinforce our faith and hope.

St. Thomas suggests another relationship, by which the theological virtues are distinguished in the way they adhere to, or draw us to, God. Faith draws us to God as the source of truth, hope draws us to Him as the source of perfection, and love draws us to Him for Himself.

Again, hope presupposes that obtaining the good is both difficult and possible. Properly speaking, a good that has no difficulty being obtained can't be hoped for, nor can a good that is impossible to obtain. To regard a good that is difficult to obtain as being of no difficulty is (under appropriate circumstances) the sin of presumption. To regard a good that is obtainable as impossible to obtain is the sin of despair.

(Well, if we really want to be strict, the good the theological virtue of hope regards is eternal happiness, so presumption regards eternal happiness as guaranteed and despair regards it as impossible, but lesser goods have correspondingly lesser hopes, presumptions, and despairs.)

This leads to something of a puzzle. If what we hope for is necessarily difficult yet possible to obtain, and what we hope for is eternal happiness, then eternal happiness must be difficult yet possible to obtain. But since the only possible way to eternal happiness is for God to grant it to us, doesn't this mean that eternal happiness must be difficult for God to grant us?

Obviously, nothing is difficult for God. Granting eternal happiness isn't a strain for Him, nor does He lie awake at night wondering what He ought to do in a particular case.

Maybe the better way of putting it is not that salvation is difficult for God, but that damnation is easy for us. If we keep in mind the idea that what we hope for is difficult to obtain, we will avoid presumption even as we hope in certainty.

(Wait! How is "hope in certainty" different from presumption? Because the certainty is based in trust in God's mercy, not in anything we might do ourselves. Presumption takes the position that God's mercy will see to our salvation regardless of what we do.)


Inerrant errors

I've been quibbling in Steven Riddle's comment boxes over the proper way of expressing the Catholic doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture. Specifically, I've questioned whether it's true to say, as Steven did, that "we know the Bible is without error in any aspect." It's the "in any aspect" that gives me pause.

In a followup post, Steven writes:
I guess I think of it like this. If God inspired it, it cannot be false. If God wished to convey the message of salvation first, it is unlikely that He would spend time giving special knowledge of the natural world to the writers. If He had done so, the people of the time would not have listened to His message because they would have thought the prophets and writers even more unhinged than they already considered them. Because the knowledge of salvation is eternal, it is without error. Because the statements of the natural world are confined to their time and culture, they are without error in their milieu.
I'll agree to that. But earlier in the same post, Steven quotes Fr. William Most: "Inspiration rules out any sort of error in the Bible whatsoever."

Can you move from "without any sort of error whatsoever" to "without error in its milieu"? If a statement is without any error whatsoever, mustn't it be without error outside its milieu?

I go back to the question of what the inspired author affirmed in writing, say, Luke's genealogy. Clearly [?], it wasn't a strict father-to-son genealogy. Does that mean there is, in some respect, an error in the Bible?

I have a Lay Dominican friend who might say that whether there is error in the Bible is, to an extent, an empirical question, much like the question of whether there are snakes in Ireland. If you go to Ireland and you find a snake, then there are snakes in Ireland, whatever the Pope, or even an ecumenical council, might say about it.

I see two murky areas in this discussion. First is the question of the meaning of the statement, "The Bible contains an error."

The Bible can be regarded as both a set of written texts and the written portion of God's public revelation. The Church has only limited control over the Bible as a set of written texts; once the Church defines the set, it is there to be read and analyzed by anyone. A person can point (and a lot of people have pointed) out that Genesis's two creation stories present incompatible creation sequences; that 1 Kings 7 and 2 Chronicles 4 contradict each other; that camels have split hooves; that Nathan was not the son of David, as Luke records. These are empirical observations.

But the Church is not primarily interested in the Bible as a set of written texts. When a pope or council writes of the Bible, it is not as a book but as Holy Scripture, by which God reveals Himself to man and teaches him (in the words of Dei Verbum) "that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation."

When I tell the story of the time I went duck hunting, and I get to the part where the sky turns black with ducks, do I speak an error because, as a matter of historical fact, the sky did not turn black with ducks? Of course not; I'm using a turn of speech, not affirming a literal meteorological condition. Still, if I wrote down the story, someone else can read it and say, "This part is in error," and they'd be right in the sense that they mean it.

So there are more than one way to regard the Bible, more than one way to regard error, and more than one way to understand what it means for a text to contain a meaning. When the Church speaks of Biblical inerrancy, she has a particular understanding of each of these, which isn't necessarily the understanding an individual might ordinarily have.

The second source of murk is in the equivocation on the word "author" in, e.g., the decrees of the First Vatican Council:
The Books of the Old and New Testament, whole and entire, with all their parts, as enumerated in the decree of the same Council (Trent) and in the ancient Latin Vulgate, are to be received as sacred and canonical ... because, having been written under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, they have God for their author.
God's authorship is analagous, not identical, to man's authorship. God is not the co-author of St. Paul's Letter to the Romans. He is the author. But St. Paul is also the author, not merely the recording secretary. When Providentissimus Deus speaks of Scripture being "dictated by the Holy Ghost," this dictation too is analagous, not identical, to human dictation.

To my mind, the dispute among orthodox Christians over Biblical inerrancy boils down to a matter of clarifying the language. Perhaps the most important point, though, was expressed by Pope Leo XIII in these words from Providentissimus Deus 5:
For the saving and for the perfection of ourselves and of others there is at hand the very best of help in the Holy Scriptures, as the Book of Psalms, among others, so constantly insists; but those only will find it who bring to this divine reading not only docility and attention, but also piety and an innocent life. For the Sacred Scripture is not like other books.


Tuesday, August 26, 2003

Totally awwsome

Ah wuzza wuzza wuzza. Ah wuzza wuzza wuzza.

(And for the proud parents, a little something to consider while they're on a roll.)


Quod est spes?

To a large extent, I'm still in the sophomoric stage where I can talk about matters of the Faith using grown-up language, but I don't really understand the words I use. And I don't mean fancy words like "theanthropic" or "soteriology." I mean simple words like "forgive" and "hope."

In discussing the irascible passions (i.e., those passions by which a person resists hindering or harmful attacks), St. Thomas identifies four conditions of hope. Properly speaking, he says, we only hope for things we regard as good, and these things must not only be not yet possessed, but also difficult to obtain, yet obtainable.

Hope for a certain good thing also implies desire for that thing, but hope is not a kind of desire. Desire for a thing is what draws us toward it (making it a "concupiscible passion," in Scholastic terms); as an irascible power, hope is what prevents us from being drawn away from it. In other words, hope is the thing in us that sustains our approach to a good thing in the face of the difficulties of obtaining it.

I think it's also important to distinguish between hope and expectation. Hope relates to the difficulty of obtaining some good, expectation to the likelihood of obtaining it. Obviously, difficulty and likelihood are related -- when there is no difficulty there is all likelihood, and vice versa -- but they are not simple inverses. Passing a test may be extremely difficult, but a well-prepared student might regard the likelihood of his passing as fairly high. He might, that is, have both great hope and great expectation of passing.

Of course, having made this distinction, I'm using "great hope" in a somewhat idiosyncratic way. Saying, "I am very hopeful that this will happen," usually means, "I expect this will happen." If, though, hope relates directly to difficulty rather than expectation, then you can only be "very hopeful" about something that is very difficult to obtain.

I can't honestly say that I have much hope of making it home alive today. Making it home alive is not a difficult thing to do for me today. It's not a good to which much hope can be related, like a teaspoon is not a vessel in which much coffee can be placed.

At the same time, I do (or ought to) have some hope of making it home alive today. I hope I don't die before I get home, or get sent to a hospital, or have to rush somewhere else, or fail to get home from whatever other reason. Since none of these strike me as particularly difficult goods, however, the amount of hope I have for them (as opposed to my expectations) is slight.

Still, that slight amount of hope is important. Presumption is the state of taking a future good as necessarily obtained. (Formally speaking, it's taking one's own salvation as necessarily obtained, but the idea can be applied more generally.) Presumption and hope are opposed to each other; presumption effectively treats a future good as a possession, and as St. Paul asks, "Who hopes for what he already has?"

Presumption is a bad habit for a number of reasons. First, it is incompatible with humility and self-knowledge; I can't guarantee a single future good by my own power. Second, it attempts to bind God's will to one's own; if I presume I will be alive tomorrow, then if I am not God will have failed to do what was obviously necessary.

But in referring to presumption as a "bad habit" -- and, for that matter, in bringing God into it -- I've moved from considering hope as a passion to considering it as a virtue.


Monday, August 25, 2003

Reeves in the Summertime, cont.

With the tea coursing through my veins, I was beginning to feel more like a human and less like Rocky Marciano’s least favorite punching bag. “I opened by mentioning that the gathering brought to mind the miracle of the loaves and fishes.”

“Indeed, your excellency?” Despite the hour, Reeves looked as refreshed and capable as always. “I would have thought the circumstances would have suggested the parable of the sower.”

“Parable of the sower, eh? Well, I can see why, of course, but as bishop one occasionally likes to go beyond the obvious. Teaching office and all that.” I took another sip of the Lapsang S. “Of course, you know sermonizing has never been one of my strengths.”

“A correctable weakness, your excellency. I have just finished an excellent book on hermeneutics by the Dominican –“

“You know my policy on hermeneutics, Reeves,” I said with charitable reproof. “And as it is neither the early afternoon nor have I recently finished a satisfying but not overfilling meal, we shall table all mention of hermeneutics and excellent books on same until such conditions obtain.”

“Certainly, your excellency.”

“Now, as I was saying, although I am not an excellent sermonizer, I thought I got off to a fairly good start. Setting the scene, you know. But then I happened to glance down at Berggo, who was sitting in the front row next to Cardinal Fratricidelli. The cardinal whispered something in his ear, and Berggo’s face registered such abject horror that I completely lost track of what I was saying.”

“If I may, your excellency, I have found that is it generally unhelpful to make eye contact with Bishop Berger when one is making any sort of public presentation.”

“Sound advice, Reeves. Afterwards, I asked Berggo what he meant to signify by that look of gaping dread. He told me the cardinal had merely whispered, ‘So far, so good,’ and he was giving me a smile of confident reassurance.”

“A most regrettable failure of communication, your excellency.”

“My thought exactly, but the damage had been done. I couldn’t quite manage to pick up the thread of discourse, and after a minute or two of hemming I sensed I was starting to lose my audience.”

I fell into a brief reverie.

“Would you think it an act of vainglory, Reeves, if I said I am not completely without singing talent?”

“Certainly not, your excellency. Your voice is a pleasant tenor, with surprising robustness in the lower registers.”

“Thank you, Reeves. I would have said much the same, in all humility.” I wasn’t sure what was so surprising about my robustness in the lower registers, but now was not the time to quibble.



Show-off tunes

Steven Riddle offers a complaint regarding show tunes at Mass. That is, tunes that show off a cantor's voice.

While trying to sing along with what, properly sung, is no doubt a very pleasant melody used for the offertory hymn yesterday, I began to compose (ha!) some rough rules for writing congregational hymns:
  1. Make sure your lyrics scan. If they don't scan, at least make sure ev'ry stanza has the same meter. It's not that hard. English is a big language.
  2. 3/4 or 4/4, straight down the line. And don't get cute in the bridge to the refrain.
  3. Build the tune on quarter and half notes, please. Eighth notes in pairs only. We're not a jazz band. (Besides, if history is any guide, the congregation will add its own fascinating rhythms where and when it wants.)
  4. Save the whole notes for the end of the stanza or refrain. You don't want the congregation getting light-headed while standing during the processional.
  5. Keep the range under one and a half octaves. Keep the jumps between notes under half an octave. Because I will try to sing all of the notes, regardless.
I've heard professional recordings of some of the new standards, and some of them sound halfway decent, but they aren't necessarily suited for the typical American Catholic congregation unsure of itself when faced with anything more exotic than "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star."


Celestial masterpieces

The idea of making a masterpiece of your life makes it sound as though Heaven might be like a museum, where the blessed are put in lovely frames and hung on the wall for an eternity of statis in icon-like impassibility.

A better image is of a fancy party, where all the guests are dressed to the cloud nines in the finery they acquired during their earthly lives. Of course, the heavenly wedding banquet is a Gospel image, and there's even a parable of what happens to him who fails to dress himself for it with sufficient artistry:
"The kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son....
But when the king came in to meet the guests he saw a man there not dressed in a wedding garment. He said to him, 'My friend, how is it that you came in here without a wedding garment?' But he was reduced to silence.
Then the king said to his attendants, 'Bind his hands and feet, and cast him into the darkness outside, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.'"
Sort of makes it seem like making a masterpiece of your life isn't optional.

But then, every act you take adds, as it were, another brush stroke to your canvas, or another paragraph to your manuscript, or another pinch of sugar to your dough. By the mercy of God, we are able (usually through the sacraments) to erase our errant strokes and to unsalt our stew, but it is simply not possible to live a human life without making something of yourself. The question is, what, or rather, who are you making?


Beautiful questions

Barbara Nicolosi has a brilliant riff on a comment from Pope John Paul II's Letter to Artists:
"All men and women are entrusted first with the task of crafting their own lives; in a certain sense they are to make of their life, a work of art, a masterpiece."(Letter to Artists 1999, JPII)

... If you had to describe your life up till now, would it be a masterpiece?

Would it be a reproduction or an original?

Would it be the kind of thing you would feel safe to expose children to? Is it mostly tragedy or comedy? Is it an ascent (a story of growth?) or a descent (a story of squandering?) or is it without any climax at all?
A reproduction or an original -- that's an excellent question.

Another question is which art form your life most closely resembles. Novel, or play, or poem, or painting, or sculpture, or garden, or dance, or pastry?


Leaving no analogy behind

Ephesians 5:21-32 does give plenty of room for thought. I can think of three takes on this reading I've come across. One is to dismiss it as an example of St. Paul's social conditioning, essentially meaningless today. Another is to take it as something of a joke, with husbands poking their wives with their elbows at v. 22 and wives poking back at v. 25.

A third way is to take it seriously as the word of God describing how Christian marriage images the great mystery of Christ and His Church.

I see the lectionary is considerate enough of those spiritual infants who might stumble over vv. 21-24, permitting these challenging words to be omitted from the reading. This is understandable -- we are in an age of infantilism, and the children of this age are children indeed -- but it expurgates St. Paul's first presentation of the relation husband : wife :: Christ : Church. This is important for two reasons.

First, the remaining presentation in v. 25 -- "Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ loved the church" -- describes a relationship of love; the first describes one of headship. But if there is confusion today over the concept of headship, "love" has so many meanings as to be almost meaningless. If the love a husband has for his wife is a love that involves headship, he ought to know about it. And if the purpose of being the head of his wife is to lead her to salvation, it's all the more important that he recognize this.

The other advantage to Christian men for hearing twice that they are to their wives as Christ is to the Church is that the repetition emphasizes the importance of the point. If I am to my wife as Christ is to the Church, then I am to Christ as my wife is to the Church. But Christ did not deem equality with God something to be grasped at; rather, He emptied Himself and took the form of a slave, offering Himself as a sacrifice to the Father on behalf of the Church. If I am head over my wife, Christ is head over all things, and the Church is His body. But St. Paul writes that it was only after Christ died that He was raised to head over all things.

For me to exercise headship over my wife, in the sense intended by Scripture, I must first (logically, if not temporally) sacrifice myself on her behalf. It's this sacrificial dimension of the love Christ has for His Church, which is to be imaged in the love a man has for his wife, that comes hardest to me, and I can use all the pounding I can get to drive it into my head and my heart.


Getting a head of myself

Sometimes, I expect my body to do things it can't do, like metabolize starches and refined sugars the way it did twenty years ago. Sometimes, I demand my body do things it shouldn't, like operate on too little sleep or lift with the lower back. When I do these things, my body does its best to comply, but in ways subtle and not so it tells me I'm wrong.

This suggests St. Paul's notion that "the husband is head of his wife" does not describe as one-sided a relationship as it may sound to contemporary ears. If the head directs the body, the body corrects the head, and they both get where they're going together.

There's also, I think, a clear message of anti-Manichaeism in this passage. St. Paul obviously wrote, "For no one hates his own flesh but rather nourishes and cherishes it," to a readership that didn't hate their own flesh and didn't think any other healthy-thinking person did, either. The soul and the body are a single, united entity; a man and a woman "shall become one flesh." If you understand the one idea, you can understand the other. If you misunderstand one, can you understand either?


Saturday, August 09, 2003

She's going to make it!

I've received word that Katy Zeitler will be entering the Nashville Dominicans on August 14 as she'd hoped. She found out on the Vigil of St. Dominic that a priest she knows will be taking care of the balance of her loan, so she's free and clear to become a postulant.

Prayers for Katy, for all postulants, and for all those facing obstacles to a religious vocation, continue to be appropriate.


Friday, August 08, 2003

O lumen Ecclesiae

I found this in an on-line collection of Domincan clip art.

The books St. Dominic is holding would include the Gospel of St. Matthew and the Conferences of St. John Cassian, the two books he is said to have always carried with him.

And don't forget to check out Kevin Miller's series of posts on St. Dominic at Heart, Mind, and Strength. Duncan Maxwell also has a series of posts there on praying the Rosary with children.


Thursday, August 07, 2003

Happy Feast of St. Dominic!

Reginald the Tiger Quoll says:

And from the archive, last year's post on St. Dominic. Also the "Top Ten Reasons to Join the Dominican Order."


Reeves in the Summertime, cont.

“Who invited the Vatican apparatchik?”

The speaker, a tall, thin specimen named Figg from one of those Northeastern colleges, looked at Cardinal Fratricidelli like a cobra appraising a particularly ill-kempt mongoose.

“Bishop Booster did,” Berggo injected before I had a chance to clear my throat.

“Ah, Professor Figg,” the cardinal said with a grimace that would have made an abbess think she had food on her chin. “Teach any good heresies lately?”

“Only that old one about God loving everyone equally,” the professor replied. “How about you, Cardinal? Betrayed anyone to the tender mercies of the Inquisition this week?”

“Oh, yes, one a day without fail. That’s why this room is filled with fear.” Cardinal Fratricidelli waved his hand to indicate the groups of people chatting amicably before the afternoon session came to order.

I was standing a bit too close and flinched when he gestured, which seemed to irritate him. “Bishop Booster,” he said, “weren’t you going to say a few words?”

“Oh, ah, yes. Seeing that you two already know each other, no introductions needed and all that, reminds me of the story of the fat nun who went into a casino –“

“Not a few words to us! To the entire group!”

Figg’s glasses flashed in my direction. “Is this true, Bishop Booster? I thought you were here in strictly a learning capacity.”

I leaned in toward Figg, the better to avoid seeing the expression on the cardinal’s face. “That’s right. That is to say, no, although I was. To speak.”

Figg was taken aback, or at least took a step backward, and said, “I, ah, see.”

I turned to murmur in Cardinal Fratricidelli’s ear. “I’d better just go remind Mr. O’Brien that I was planning on speaking after lunch. He, erm, may have forgotten.”

The cardinal’s face did not register unadulterated credulity, but he said nothing. He happened to know Milton O’Brien, and therefore knew it was entirely possible for O’Brien to forget almost anything that wasn’t related to the amusement business. The morning’s exposure had taught me O’Brien was a decent enough sort, but a bit of an ass. You know the type.

Berggo joined me as I strolled, as casually as possible, over to where O’Brien was staring glassy-eyed at the laicized priest sociologist, who was gesturing freely toward him with a glass of ice water.

“What are you going to say?” Berggo asked me sotto voce.

“I haven’t decided,” I answered. Cardinal Fratricidelli hadn’t been more than two feet from my elbow since I made up my nipping-dissent-in-the-bud story (passing it off as one of Reeve's plans was a rare stroke of genius from Berggo), and although strictly speaking the elbow is not directly involved in rational thought, the proximity was enough to keep me from doing any advanced planning.

Still, a Booster is never wholly unprepared, and no bishop is unfamiliar with speaking extempore. I possessed a few stalwarts that could be trusted to see me through anything. My a capella rendition of “Come Holy Ghost” was a sure crowd pleaser, for example, and I had a sermon on the parable of the sower that was adaptable to any occasion.

“Well, whatever you do,” Berggo said, “for pity’s sake spare us the parable of the sower.”




A couple of comments from T.S. O'Rama -- including this one:
I can't picture Thomas Aquinas' journal as anything but clear-headed and calm and full of peace.
-- makes me wonder what St. Thomas's to-do list might have looked like. In addition to illegible, that is.

    Facere list for Feast of St. Remigius
  • Say Mass.
  • Assist at Mass.
  • Breakfast.
  • Check w/ Gabr. on # & order of angelic choirs.
  • Confess. [Don't forget grave sins against charity in facere list.]
  • Refute Correct Averroist error re: single intelligence.
  • Lunch.
  • Pray.
  • Teach class. [Ask fr. Reg where classroom is.]
  • SquishNote weaknesses in St.-Amour's latest broadside published arguments like a bug.
  • Dinner w/ king. [Ask fr. Reg king of France's name again.]
  • Pray.


Burning down the House

After a spirited debate, the House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church, USA, voted yesterday to change the name of their church to the Trinitarian Universalist Church (TUC).

Opposition to the measure was led by a group of centrist bishops who feared that the change would lead to an exaggerated sense of the importance of the doctrine of the Trinity, alienating both progressive church members and prospective converts. Supporters affirmed and acknowledged that concern, but still maintained the new name should be adopted because, in the words of one bishop who spoke in favor of the change, "Whatever."

After the voice vote, the bishops issued a statement that read in part, "We know that many fearful, small-minded, and backward-looking people will wake up tomorrow surprised to find that they are no longer Episcopalians. But so what?"

"The word 'episcopalian' comes from a Greek word meaning 'overseer,'" one bishop who supported the name change explained. "And as a church, we really aren't into that anymore."

Wednesday, August 06, 2003

A real logic problem

Here's a puzzle I don't think can be solved:

Start with a three-legged stool. While sitting on the stool, saw off two legs. How long can you sit on the stool before you fall over?

Update: In the four years since I posted this, not a month has passed when someone didn't visit this page due to a web search for "clip art" and "Three legged stool." So here you go:


Tuesday, August 05, 2003

Reeves in the Summertime, cont.

I staggered into the hotel bar, feeling like a three pound trout hooked on a ten pound line. I was trying to gather my wits enough to speak to the bartender, but before I had a chance he waved his hands and a drink materialized on the counter before me. I clutched at it and tasted. A perfect bourbon and s.

I gazed in awe at this wonder-worker standing before me, but the barman simply shrugged. “We’re three blocks from the USCCB, bish,” he explained. “I’ve seen that look before.”

He frowned suddenly at something behind me, and another revitalizer hit the bar just as Berggo hit the stool next to mine.

“This is ghastly,” Berggo sputtered before taking a long draught of bourbon.

I nodded. “If the Knights of St. Celestine ever hear about this meeting, I’ll be in for years of decidedly frosty luncheons.”

“I should have suspected something was wrong when Sister Agatha encouraged me to come here. But I assumed the meeting was sound, since Reeves let you come.”

“Er, yes, quite. Look, why don’t we move to a booth?” I dropped some money on the bar, knowing from experience that to wait for the Most Rev. Patrick Berger to offer to pay was a near occasion of the sin of despair.

Once tucked into a booth, Berggo fortified himself with another healthy sip of restorative before unburdening himself. “I was cornered by this … this …”

“Hearty female academic?” I suggested, drawing from my own experience.

“The mot juste. Or mots justes, I suppose, although it doesn’t make much difference while speaking, does it? Anyway, this hearty female academic collared me during the first break and launched into some prepared remarks on deontology and Greco-Semitic socioculturalism, the upshot of which was to thank me for breaking with the Vatican in my support for women priests.”

“What did you do?”

“I gave her a look of stern disapproval.”

“And she …?”

“Offered me an antacid.”

I nodded. Berggo’s looks of stern disapproval are often mistaken for looks of mild stomach discomfort. “A laicized priest sociologist followed me into the men’s room to press me for statistics on reception of Communion at weddings in my diocese,” I said. “Apparently, there is a conjecture in something called game theory he believes proves Canon Law permits Methodists to receive Communion.”


“He says he needs further data on Presbyterians.”

Berggo suddenly let out a sort of squawk, like a slumbering parrot grabbed from behind by a four-year-old.

“You spoke?” I said.

“I was just laughing at how much that ex-Marine-type fellow who just came into the bar looks like the papal nuncio.”

“Gark,” I said, or words to that effect.

“But of course it can’t be Cardinal Fratricidelli,” Berggo went on, “because he’s in Washington, and we … we’re ….” His voice trailed off.

Had someone detonated a lightweight but powerful landmine under the table in the next booth just then, I would not have heard it over the sound of Cardinal Fratricidelli’s voice. “Booster! Berger! What are you doing here?”



Monday, August 04, 2003

Which switch?

Here's a fiendish little puzzle:

There is a set of three light switches (each with the on and off switches properly marked) in the ground floor entryway of an old house. Each controls one of three outlets in a windowless workroom in the basement. The only light in the workroom is provided by a hundred watt lamp plugged into one of the outlets. The geometry of the house is such that there is no way to tell, while standing in the entryway, whether the light in the workroom is turned on.

If you turn on the light switches one at a time, checking to see whether the workroom lamp was turned on each time, you can determine which switch controls the outlet the lamp is plugged into in at most three trips to the workroom.

Is there a way guaranteed to determine which light switch controls the outlet the lamp is plugged into with exactly one trip outside the entryway? If so, what is it?

[Having someone else check doesn't count; no special apparatuses or explosives are allowed; the bulb in the lamp is not blown; you're not allowed in the workroom before the attempt.]


Saturday, August 02, 2003

A game to avoid meditating on your spiritual progress

I was meditating on my spiritual progress when I composed this
Nighttime Examen for the Phenomenally Tired
Naturally, I tried to think of a corresponding Morning Prayer for the Unreasonably Busy, but none of them were any good.

On the up-side, they make decent ink-dinks, as ink-dinks go.

An ink-dink, for the puzzled, is a riddle whose answer consists of two words that rhyme. (Formally, an ink-dink's answer is two one-syllable words; an inky-dinky is two two-syllable words; an inkity-dinkity is two three-syllable words.) The riddle is supposed to be two words, too. (For example, "Irish wolfhound" is "bog dog" and "proposal deflection" is "marry parry.")

Try these:
  1. Praise YHWH.
  2. Loving equality.
  3. Helps' arrangement.


Friday, August 01, 2003

Reeves in the Summertime

"Oh, Reeves," I said as my secretary glided into my office. "Fancy a trip to our nation's capital?"

"For what purpose, your excellency?"

"I've just got off the phone with Milton O'Brien. You recognize the name?"

"Yes, your excellency. Mr. O'Brien is the CEO of Gunthorp Amusement Corporation, which operates amusement parks in sixteen states."

"The very fellow!"

"Company profits have increased at an annual rate of fourteen percent since Mr. O'Brien assumed control of Gunthorp in 1998."

"Have they?"

"Mr. O'Brien first entered the amusement business in 1974, having patented a device –"


"Yes, your excellency?"

"I was merely asking whether you knew who Milton O'Brien was."

"Yes, your excellency."

"The point has been sufficiently established for our purposes."

"Yes, your excellency."

"The time may come to share the whole fascinating story of his climb to prominence in the world of amusements, but that time is not now."

"Yes, your excellency."

I gave him a reassuring smile. Things had been somewhat strained between us, due to some dated ideas Monsignor Reeves harbored regarding the proper facial expression for a bishop in his official press photograph, and I didn't want the situation to deteriorate.

"As I was saying," I went on, "Milton O'Brien has just called to invite me to an informal meeting he is arranging in Washington to discuss certain matters pertaining to the Church and society away from the public eye."

"It sounds somewhat irregular, your excellency. How many other bishops have been invited?"

"Just a few, I gather. O'Brien said I was just the sort of bishop the meeting needed, and there aren't too many of us out there, you know."

"No, your excellency."

"Broad minded, I mean, with a listening ear."

"Quite so, your excellency."

"In any case, the meeting is next Wednesday."

"I should advise against it, your excellency. While Mr. O'Brien may have the best of motives, there's a question of appearances –"

"Excuse me, Reeves." Reeves is an invaluable asset to me as a bishop, but he requires the occasional glimpse of the iron fist beneath the velvet glove to keep him from overstepping his bounds. "I was not informing you of this to ask your advice, but to tell you of my decision to attend."

"Very good, your excellency."

The semiquaver beat before he spoke belied his words. I put it down to his ongoing discontent with the smile I had used when photographed.