instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Monday, November 29, 2004

Two formulas

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

Nicely put, I think, and widely applicable.

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

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


Sunday, November 28, 2004

No praise for Folly

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

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

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

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

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

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


Saturday, November 27, 2004

Practice makes perfect

Among the many things I learn that I ought to have learned at least twenty years earlier is this:

We should pray for things when we don't need them.

More precisely, we should pray that our virtues be strengthened and our vices be uprooted at times when we don't particularly need to exercise a virtue or need to resist a vice. Of course, we should pray at the moments when we do need to exercise virtue and resist vice. But if those are the only times we pray for them God is likely to say, with His proverbial insight, "Don't worry, I won't saddle you with that virtue or strip that vice from your hands. I can see you don't really want Me to."


Wednesday, November 24, 2004

My Angel of the Guard

Every now and then, Babelfish pulls a felix culpa. For example, it translates "ángel de la guarda" as "angel of the guard," which to me sounds a lot less childish and a lot more dignified than "guardian angel."

In that post, by the way, Hernan observes that, when small offences occur between friends or acquaintances, apologies or excuses are rarely asked for or offered. The reason why depends, he finds, on whether he is the offended or the offender:
When I am [offended], .... I am incapable of resentment and I quietly tolerate the offenses...

When I [offend], it is that I am so good that they can't get too angry with me... —- because, I repeat, I am good -— and automatically they pardon me everything.

My angel of the guard does not seem satisfied very with this explanation....


Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Resolutions for the new year

With a new liturgical year starting in just a few days, it's time to resolve to make Disputations better.

[What, can it be made better, you ask. I'm not sure I altogether care for your tone, I answer.]

Unfortunately, the best way to make Disputations better is to make me better, but why dwell on placing unreasonable burdens on me?

The next best way to make Disputations better is to make the comments better, which will be difficult, since they're already about as good as blog technology has yet managed to achieve. (I mean, have you ever read the comments at Shea's blog? Sheesh, it's like Monsieur Maillard's Maison de Sante over there.) Still, maybe a "pray to play" policy -- say, one "Hail Mary" for the Catholics and one Sub tuum praesidium for the non-Catholics for each comment left -- would lead to asymptotic improvement.

As for specific blogging policy, I'm thinking along these lines:
  1. No posts about the act of voting qua moral act. (Those can wait till 2006.)
  2. Deucedly few posts containing "qua."
  3. More praising and blessing, to balance out the preaching.
  4. Less linking to something just for the sake of ripping it apart. No one needs me to point out every error I think I come across.
  5. More poetry, or at least more poetical posts.
  6. Fewer inside jokes at the expense of people who wonder but aren't quite sure whether I'm joking at their expense. (You know who you are.)
  7. Less posting for the sake of posting.
Of course, just as people often binge before Lent, a list like this bodes ill for any posts between now and Sunday.

But if you have any other ideas for improving Disputations -- it's not just my blog, you know, it's our blog; I just maintain 100% control over its content and revenues -- let me know.


Metablogging: Answering the mail

Just so you know, if you send me an email asking me to plug your new book on my blog, it helps if you've edited a book containing a piece I wrote -- or, more generally, if I've ever heard of you at all.

Of course, I'll give your book a better plug if it isn't about young Catholics and you didn't think I was young enough to be included when you started editing this book. But then, not everyone is as wise as I am.

Now, if you send me an email asking me to plug your new book on my blog, and I've never heard of you, and not only don't you offer to send me a free copy of the book but you don't even bother to butter me up, then I'm not going to plug your new book on my blog. In fact, I might just quote the part of your email where you admit about your book that "the pretty conservative Relapsed Catholic blog gave it a nasty review." I can be petty that way.

Also, if you send me an email to butter me up, try to make it look more like an email to butter me up and less like a form email to draw attention to something you posted on your own blog. If you're such a fan of Disputations, you should know that people don't come here to find new and exciting links to stories about Protestant life in these United States.


Friday, November 19, 2004

Friday questions

Can God look at the world without seeing His crucified Son? Can He deal with any human being without thinking of His Son, killed and resurrected?

Eternal life is to be children of God and brothers and sisters of Jesus.

Can God look at us without seeing His crucified Son? Can we deal with any human being without thinking of His Son, killed and resurrected?


A Catholic for love

I learned a lot from Gerard Bugge over the years. Not just from what he wrote, but what he chose to write about, and how he wrote about it.

This morning, I found what was probably one of the first things I'd read of Gerard's, a post to from 1995. In it, he wrote:
I am taken with what Chesterton calls "The Romance of Orthodoxy" ... the truth is that I rediscovered the beauty, power, consistency of orthodox Catholicism and have some of the fervor, perhaps, of a "convert". I also believe that orthodox catholicism and catholic orthodoxy is the wave of the future; alon[e] capable of captivating the whole person: mind, heart, soul, imagination, body and emotions.
This call to experience the Faith as a romance, and the thankfulness which came through almost everything he wrote over the past few years, are what I will remember most of Gerard.


Tuesday, November 16, 2004

A fruitful fragment

This fragment of prayer, directed to Jesus, shows two important qualities of St. Catherine of Siena's style, of what I think of as "Catherinian":
You say that some people persecute the fruit of Your cross.
Now You Yourself are the fruit of Your cross....
The first quality is the conversational tone, which you might expect from someone whose major written work is called The Dialogue. Prayer, for St. Catherine, is literally a conversation with God. She reminds Him of what He has told her, either to ask further questions or to draw new insights.

Notice, by the way, that her words are not, "Scripture says," or, "The Church says," but, "You say." St. Catherine's faith lies in nothing less than Christ Himself.

The second Catherinian characteristic is the use of metaphor, in this case the Cross as a fruit tree.

That's a powerful metaphor (not, of course, unique to St. Catherine). In the Garden of Eden, the serpent told Eve eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil would make her like a god. That was a lie, of course, and it is only the fruit of the tree of the Cross that can repair the damage done by the lie. The fruit of the Cross, Jesus Himself, makes those who eat it not just like gods, but actual (albeit adopted) children of God. Of the first tree, God told Adam and Eve, "the moment you eat from it you are surely doomed to die." Of the second tree, Jesus said, "whoever eats this ... will live forever."

(Yes, in John 6 Jesus is speaking of Himself as bread, not fruit, but fussiness over keeping metaphors straight is very non-Catherinian.)

Note also what St. Catherine says in these words I quoted, that some people persecute Jesus Himself. We (by which I mean "I") think in terms of "persecuted Christians," and some ("not I") are quick to claim the mantle of persecuted Christian for themselves when they're offended by something in a newspaper.

But St. Catherine teaches us here (and if you prefer a more ecumenical authority, see Acts 9:3-6) that, if anyone is being persecuted, it is none other than Jesus. When other Christians are being persecuted, we cannot remain indifferent if we truly live by Christ's Spirit. When we ourselves are offended, we cannot respond with petulance and a sense of aggrieved personal honor if we are to respond as Christians.

If Christ is being persecuted, then we should respond as Christ would respond. If it's only ourselves being persecuted, rather than Christ in us, then our response should be proportionate to the realization that we are they who are not.


Monday, November 15, 2004

By the way

Woo hoo!

Say what you like about soccer, D.C. United scored 3 points within 27 minutes of kickoff yesterday. It took the other D.C. professional football team more than 54 minutes to score that many points.


Those who know the darkness

One downside to St. Catherine's lifelong pursuit of self-knowledge and humility is that she has a tendency to say things like this:
I only know how to talk about the darkness, because I have not followed the fruit of Your cross, I have only known and followed the darkness. I admit that those who know the darkness know the light as well. But not I -- I have followed the darkness.
It doesn't take much in the way of self-knowledge and humility to conclude that, if St. Catherine has followed only the darkness and not the fruit of the Cross, the rest of us can pretty much hang it up and start pricing asbestos underwear.

I'll go out on a limb and suggest that the proper response to St. Catherine's sense of personal inadequacy is not abject despair.

What is the proper response depends, I suppose, on your temperament. If you're inclined to scrupulosity, to thinking that your own sins are too numerous or too grave to be forgiven, then you might see that the sins of great saints are also numerous and grave, objectively speaking, and that for God to forgive you is basically the same thing, from His perspective, as for God to forgive St. Catherine. And guess what: He forgave St. Catherine!

If by temperament you're unscrupulous -- meaning you tend to think your sins, if any, are trivial, or perhaps even charming -- then you might see what someone with an intimate knowledge of the holiness of God thinks of her own slightest failing and ask yourself on what basis you've calibrated the gravity of sin.


A vignette

You know the old joke: There may be a crisis of vocations to the priesthood, but there's never been a shortage of vocations to the episcopate. Still, many if not most priests know better than to want to become a bishop.

When the Dominican friar St. Albert of Swabia (c. 1207-1280) was pegged by Pope Alexander IV to become the Bishop of Regensburg in 1260, neither St. Albert nor the Master General of the Order of Preachers, Humbert of Romans, cared much for the idea. Humbert wrote to the Pope, "Could I ever believe that you of all people, at the end of your life, would thus tarnish your own glory and that of the order which you have rendered so glorious? ... I would sooner see this the most beloved child of my predilection in prison than seated on a bishop's throne!"

If Humbert ever did see St. Albert seated on a bishop's throne, he was one of the few people who did. After being installed in Regensburg, St. Albert spent his time visiting his diocese in the manner he deemed appropriate for a beggar-bishop: he had a donkey carry his luggage, but he himself walked. He wore a pair of ordinary boots, perhaps extraordinarily ordinary, earning him among his flock a nickname that might be translated as "Boots" (or "Clodhopper").

After a year, having done all he thought in his power to reform the diocese (in particular the clergy), he went to Rome to beg to resign. Twenty-six months after becoming Bishop of Regensburg -- part of the delay was due to the death of the pope -- St. Albert was officially relieved of his see. (In the "be careful what you wish for" department, he was then assigned to be a Legate of the Cross under Pope Urban IV.)


Friday, November 12, 2004

Rejoice over the children of the righteous

Following upon some comments by Neil and Rob, the canticle from today's Morning Prayer, Tobit's great song to Jerusalem, does seem to hint at the idea of thankfulness in eschatological fulfillment:
Praise the Lord for His goodness, and bless the King of the ages, so that His tent may be rebuilt in you with joy. May He gladden within you all who were captives; all who were ravaged may He cherish within you for all generations to come.

A bright light will shine to all parts of the earth; many nations shall come to you from afar, and the inhabitants of all the limits of the earth, drawn to you by the name of the Lord God, bearing in their hands their gifts for the King of heaven. Every generation shall give joyful praise in you, and shall call you the chosen one, through all ages forever....

Go, then, rejoice over the children of the righteous, who shall all be gathered together and shall bless the Lord of the ages.

Happy are those who love you, and happy those who rejoice in your prosperity. Happy are all the men who shall grieve over you, over all your chastisements, for they shall rejoice in you as they behold all your joy forever.

My spirit blesses the Lord, the great King.


Is evil really provident?

In the post below, I suggested that if it is proper to thank God when inconveniences are avoided -- and it is -- then it is also proper to thank God when they aren't.

But what about grave evils? It's one thing to say, "Thank you, Lord, for this gift of a dead car battery." It's another thing to say, "Thank you, Lord, for this gift of a murdered friend." As Job says, we can accept evil things... but be thankful for them?

Yet if God is the sovereign Lord of creation, all things, even grave evils, must happen within His providence. It seems as though, to be consistent, we either ought to be thankful for grave evils or not thankful for minor conveniences.

I think the resolution of this difficulty is suggested by what I wrote below that God actually does as a positive act when my car starts for me: nothing, other than "maintain creation in existence." Because maintaining creation in existence is, from my perspective, a very good and important thing. It is, further, a sine qua non of Divine providence. A Being that is pure act can't have a providential plan for something that doesn't exist.

This suggests (to me at least) that our aim should be not so much for discrete acts of thanksgiving as for an enduring habit of thankfulness. It isn't the particulars of providence for which we should thank God -- there is much wisdom in all those folktales in which good fortune leads to bad consequences -- but for the simple fact of providence, which is to say for God's love. Our thankfulness should be as constant as God's love.

It may be that the thanks I give when there's enough milk for breakfast is not so much a prayer of thanksgiving -- to use the old Adoration-Contrition-Thanksgiving-Supplication taxonomy of prayer -- as the final line of a prayer of supplication. We shouldn't pretend that God isn't the ultimate source of what we want, nor that we aren't pleased when we get it.

But the thanksgiving we owe God is something apart from any discrete gift, and should even be maintained in the face of whatever tribulation and trial God allows in our lives. I suspect such thanksgiving must be directed at God alone, with ourselves completely forgotten, for it to be sustainable.
"The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD!"


Thanks be to whom?

If you're like me, from time to time you give thanks to the Almighty for not suspending the laws of physics.

Maybe your car starts after you left your headlights on for several hours. Or your computer successfully reboots, critical data saved, after it froze up. And you say, "Thank God," and mean it, more or less, though the full thought might be, "Thank you, God, for sparing me the inconvenience."

I wonder, though, what exactly those of us who do this think God has actually done in these circumstances. Apart from maintain creation in existence, I mean. Did He send an Angel of Electric Charge unto the car battery? Assign a Recording Angel to make a celestial backup and restore it once St. Michael drives the crash-demons out of the computer?

Or was it simply the case that there was enough charge in the battery to last, that it was a recoverable error, and that God neither wrought a miracle nor even went out of His providential way so that the inconvenience would be avoided?

Well, I'm leery of "or" questions when it comes to God's actions in the world. It absolutely is God's providence that the car starts, which means it is fitting to thank Him when it does start, even if it is also true that no miracle occurred and no reason to presume Divine favoritism.

But the way we can know it is God's providence is because it happened, and whatever happens happens in accord with God's providence. If we should thank God for what happens according to His providence, we should thank Him for everything that happens.

In short, if we thank God when the car starts, we should also thank Him when the car doesn't start.
We accept good things from God; and should we not accept evil?"


Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Habitual listmaking

A post at Flos Carmeli quotes Dinesh D'Souza's Letters to a Young Conservative:
Let's make a list of the liberal virtues: equality, compassion, pluralism, diversity, social justice, peace, autonomy, tolerance. . . . By contrast, conservatives emphasize other virtues: merit, patriotism, prosperity, national unity, social order, morality, responsibility.
Now let's make a list of the Christian virtues: faith, hope, love.

To me, a virtue is a good habit, so I have to wonder in what sense "prosperity," say, can be called a virtue.

Steven suggests that D'Souza is thinking in terms of "societal" virtues, which sounds about right. But I think that risks equivocation, because societal virtues are not good in the way moral and theological virtues are good.

In particular, Christian virtues are all ordered to charity. Whenever two Christian virtues are in tension -- affability, say, and fraternal correction -- the tension is resolved in a way that expressed the greater charity. This order is implicit in each individual virtue; affability that is not ordered to charity is not true affability in the Christian sense.

So I could form a Christian organization that emphasizes the virtues of affability and magnificence -- come to think of it, I just might -- but implicit in that emphasis is the fact that the magnificent affability emphasized is ultimately ordered to love of God.

Put another way, there is no such thing as a patchwork of Christian virtues. The perfection of one implies the perfection of all.

I don't think that's true of societal virtues. "Merit, patriotism, prosperity, national unity, social order, morality, responsibility": this is a list of things conservatives value, the product of a human mind picking and choosing from a set of human ideas. It may be a wise list or a foolish list; my point is that it is an incomplete list. If it is ordered by any one principle -- I don't know enough about conservativism to say -- there is no guarantee that principle is the proper one by which society should be ordered.

This means that, when D'Souza speaks of the virtue of national unity, we must not think his use of the term "virtue" confers virtue in the Christian sense on national unity.


Saturday, November 06, 2004

A sure sign of intelligence

In À la recherche du temps perdu, Marcel Proust makes a sage observation about why people do or don't agree with us:
In reality we always discover afterwards that our adversaries had a reason for being on the side they espoused, which has nothing to do with any element of right that there may be on that side, and that those who think as we do do so because their intelligence, if their moral nature is too base to be invoked, or their uprightness, if their perception is weak, has compelled them to.
Hemingway might have made the same point a little differently:
He said he agreed with me. I said he was smart. I bought him a few drinks. I found out he was dumb. I said, "You're a good man, though." I bought him a few more drinks.


Wednesday, November 03, 2004

To Catholics who voted

So, the water is boiling and we've tossed our stones into the pot.

What we do now will show whether we're serious about our responsibility as Catholics in society. How we work to protect human life, promote family life, pursue social justice, and practice global solidarity, outside the context of an election, will go a long way in telling whether our political acts are based in our faith in Christ or our faith in politics.


Tuesday, November 02, 2004

The freedom of the sons of God

Countless Christians through the centuries have, I suppose, drawn solace from these words of St. Paul:
We know that our old self was crucified with him, so that our sinful body might be done away with, that we might no longer be in slavery to sin.
No longer slaves to sin -- in fact, "dead to sin and living for God in Christ Jesus"!

Yet, what a puzzle this is for those Christians who can't honestly claim to be dead to sin, who answer St. Paul's question, "How can we who died to sin yet live in it?," "Give it a few minutes and you'll see."

There is in this the already-and-not-yet paradox of the redemption of creation through Christ's sacrifice on the Cross. All Christians are baptized into Christ's death, and those who have not renounced the life of Divine charity in their souls remain alive in Christ, Who is raised from the dead by the glory of the Father.

But we are not yet dead to all sin, as perfect children of God are. And St. Paul, in explaining the meaning of Christian baptism to the Church in Rome, gives a warning that a lot of us don't much want to hear: That freedom from sin requires the crucifixion of the old self.

That's our choice. Crucifixion of the old self, or eternal slavery to sin.

For those predestined to glory, the crucifixion of the old self will happen whether they want it to or not. (Or, perhaps it can be said it will happen, but not until they want it to.) The crucifixion will be finished either before or after death, a choice that seems to be up to the individual.

Those who put it off, the poor souls in purgatory, are remembered today. We ought to pray for them as we would want others to pray for us, since it's quite likely they will be us soon enough.

In serving the souls in purgatory in this way, we loosen the bonds of sin and grow in the freedom all the children of God will enjoy forever.
Out of the depths I have cried to thee, O Lord: Lord, hear my voice. Let thy ears be attentive to the voice of my supplication.

If thou, O Lord, wilt mark iniquities: Lord, who shall stand it. For with thee there is merciful forgiveness: and by reason of thy law, I have waited for thee, O Lord.

My soul hath relied on his word: My soul hath hoped in the Lord. From the morning watch even until night, let Israel hope in the Lord.

Because with the Lord there is mercy: and with him plentiful redemption. And he shall redeem Israel from all his iniquities.


Red Sox, redeemed

The Kairos Guy offers a fresh approach to the problem of the redemption of evil.


Monday, November 01, 2004

The mode of the receiver

Hearing it yesterday, I thought the first reading from the Book of Wisdom was just the stuff. It wasn't till I read it this morning that I noticed how Catherinian it is.
Before the LORD the whole universe is as a grain from a balance
or a drop of morning dew come down upon the earth.
But you have mercy on all, because you can do all things;
and you overlook people's sins that they may repent.
For you love all things that are
and loathe nothing that you have made;
for what you hated, you would not have fashioned.
And how could a thing remain, unless you willed it;
or be preserved, had it not been called forth by you?
But you spare all things, because they are yours,
O LORD and lover of souls,
for your imperishable spirit is in all things!
Therefore you rebuke offenders little by little,
warn them and remind them of the sins they are committing,
that they may abandon their wickedness and believe in you, O LORD!
Admittedly, anything that sounds like a conversation with God will sound Catherinian to me these days.

Still, this is a bracing passage for those inclined to think too little of themselves -- which, paradoxically, is a form of pride. We should think nothing of ourselves; that allows us to see that God can do all things, including bringing us little by little to abandon our wickedness and believe in Him.

It's also a tempering message for those inclined to speak for God to sinners, who might choose to rebuke offenders in whacking great chunks, a reminder that God loves every soul and that His imperishable Spirit is in all things -- even in people who disagree with us!