instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Friday, December 28, 2007

OPIE & Friends, Vol I, No. 1


Thursday, December 27, 2007

Comedy is a funny subject

No, seriously.

According to Aristotle, comedy as a dramatic form "aims at representing men as worse... than in actual life":
Comedy is, as we have said, an imitation of characters of a lower type -- not, however, in the full sense of the word bad, the ludicrous being merely a subdivision of the ugly. It consists in some defect or ugliness which is not painful or destructive.
He goes on to say that satisfying endings -- when "the poet is guided in what he writes by the wishes of his audience," is a pleasure
proper ... to Comedy, where those who, in the piece, are the deadliest enemies- like Orestes and Aegisthus- quit the stage as friends at the close, and no one slays or is slain.
So if we have ludicrous characters who reach a happy ending, we have a comedy.

Daily life provides the characters, Christian Revelation provides the ending. The conclusion is inescapable: The story of creation is a comedy.

And yet... well, I mean, is this funny? Human defects and ugliness are all too often painful and destructive. Is it even meaningful to talk about representing men as worse than they are in real life?

Maybe the way to keep the comedic perspective without denying the sorrow is by building the story around the most ludicrous joke imaginable: the Incarnation. How laughable, to see God Almighty as a human infant! That's even better than seeing the bank manager get a pussful of cream pie. Talk about imitating characters of a lower type.

Christians can be too close to the Gospel -- can I say too reverent? -- to categorize it according to human experience. We might even be particularly resistant, since in recent times a lot of effort has been put into reducing the Gospel to just and merely a human experience.

But while Christ's life, death, and resurrection are unique in all sorts of ways, they are still (though not merely) human experiences. In the interests of evangelization, we should be prepared to talk about them as such -- and, I'd add, in the interests of entering more deeply into their mysteries, we could do worse than thinking about them as such.

In all the complexities of human nature -- including our propensity for story and drama -- God has, so to speak, scattered lots of rifles, and I believe He's too good a dramatist to intend that they not be fired in the final act.


Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Repeat after me

In his Angelus for St. Stephen's Day 2006, Pope Benedict XVI gave a good short explanation of the suitability of celebrating the first martyr on the second day of Christmas:
For believers the day of death, and even more the day of martyrdom, is not the end of all; rather, it is the "transit" towards immortal life. It is the day of definitive birth, in Latin, dies natalis. The link that exists then between the "dies natalis" of Christ and the dies natalis of St Stephen is understood.

If Jesus was not born on earth, humankind could not be born unto Heaven. Specifically, because Christ is born, we can be "reborn"!
I noticed one echo of the Christmas Liturgy of the Word (for Mass at Midnight) in the St. Stephen's Day Mass. Isaiah prophesied:
The people that walked in darkness, have seen a great light: to them that dwelt in the region of the shadow of death, light is risen.
And Luke wrote of St. Stephen's vision before the Sanhedrin:
Now hearing these things, they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed with their teeth at him. But he, being full of the Holy Ghost, looking up steadfastly to heaven, saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God. And he said: Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God.
God's glory is made present on earth. The words of Isaiah and the words of St. Stephen are the same words. They're the words we're supposed to speak to the world, which we can do if we too look up steadfastly to heaven.

UPDATE: The echo continues into the first reading for the Feast of St. John the Evangelist:
What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we looked upon and touched with our hands concerns the Word of life-- for the life was made visible; we have seen it and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was made visible to us-- what we have seen and heard we proclaim now to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; for our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ.
Light, glory, life: it's all visible to those who look for it.


Monday, December 24, 2007

Merry Christmas Season

From the Nativity of the Lord, through Epiphany, to the Baptism of the Lord, may the Goodness of the News so fill you with joy that the world can't help but sing with you.


Sunday, December 23, 2007

Short takes

During today's Offertory, we sang "Like a Child Rests," with the Psalm 131-inspired refrain,
Like a child rests in its mothers arms,
So will I rest in you.
Towards the end of the Offertory, a mother made her way from one of the front pews down the side aisle with a squalling infant in her arms. And I thought that's about right: we rest in God for a while, then we squall.

Speaking of children, I was thinking about the way so many of the kings of Israel and Judah outlived their virtue. Even the ones who started out okay wound up, if not completely venal (Saul, Solomon), then at least doing some really bad (David) or boneheaded (Jehosaphat) things.

Hence, perhaps, Jesus' solemn teaching, "Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven." Each day we presume we've got the hang of this discipleship, each day we don't humble ourselves like that child, is a day we grow older, meaning closer to outliving the grace God has given us.

I'm not sure where the expression "Every man his own pope" came from, but I think Catholics would do well to avoid using it while criticizing Protestant doctrines.

If anything, the expression reflects a Protestant misunderstanding of the Catholic doctrine of the papacy, a misunderstanding that regards the pope as a sovereign, free to promulgate whatever doctrines he chooses.

But of course, the Catholic Church teaches neither "sola pontifex" nor "sola Scriptura for popes," which means that, whatever sola Scriptura entails, it doesn't make every man his own pope. Every man his own church, perhaps, but the pope exists only within the Church, which means only within the Church's Tradition.

The celebration of the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist makes us present at Calvary.

Good news for those Apostles who fled from the Garden of Gethsemane. They were able to be sacramentally present later on, a sort of spiritual mulligan. (And in the end, they all paid for their faithfulness with their lives. Only the one who was physically present died peacefully.)

For those of us who had no opportunity to choose physical presence at the foot of the Cross, we should understand that sacramental presence is no less real than physical presence. Which means we are really present as Jesus says, "Behold your Mother."

The Eucharist makes devotion to Mary an integral part of the Faith.


Friday, December 21, 2007

A lamp for all time

Despite the unpromising source material, the Chronicler managed to record the story of King Jehosaphat's descendants in a way that plays up the Adventy angle. Of the thoroughly awful Jehoram, he writes:
He did evil in the sight of the LORD, but the LORD would not destroy the house of David because of the covenant he had made with David and because of his promise to give him and his sons a lamp for all time. [2 Chr 21:6-7]
The deaths of both Jehoram and his son Ahaziah are presented as "willed by God," in His typically unsentimental manner of preparing His people to receive His Son.

The revolt against Athaliah was spurred (on the part of the priests, at least) by God's promise to David:
Jehoiada [the priest] said to them: "Here is the king's son who must reign, as the LORD promised concerning the sons of David." [2 Chr 23:3]
And with the crowning of the boy Joash, the covenant between God and His people was reconfirmed:
Then Jehoiada made a covenant between himself and all the people and the king, that they should be the LORD'S people. And all the people went to the temple of Baal and tore it down. They smashed its altars and images, and they slew Mattan, the priest of Baal, before the altars. [2 Chr 23:16-17]
Judgment came upon the City of the LORD as soon as the presence of the hidden but true king was made known, and finally,
All the people of the land rejoiced.... [2 Chr 23:21]
And if you're really mining parallels, you've got the death of the Holy Innocents and the Flight Into Egypt prefigured by Athaliah's seizure of the throne and killing of her grandchildren.

Here, in an admittedly veiled form, both the Incarnation and the Second Coming are anticipated. Through all the idolatry, the scheming, the bloodshed, the LORD was guiding all things, speaking to and through those He found who fixed their hearts on Him.

Idolatry, scheming, and bloodshed: these words might well describe (metaphorically, at least) what some of us have been up to in the past month. Yet the LORD still guides all things, and He still speaks to and through those who fix their hearts on Him.


Think you're embarrassed by your relatives this time of year?

Looking for something new to bring to the conversation on Advent, I wandered more or less at random into the Old Testament and arrived at the sordid tale of King Jehosaphat's immediate descendants (2 Chron 21-23).

Jehosaphat, as you recall, "followed the path of his father Asa unswervingly, doing what was right in the LORD'S sight."

When his son "Jehoram had come into his father's kingdom and had consolidated his power," however, "he put to the sword all his brothers and also some of the princes of Israel." For the next eight years, "[h]e conducted himself like the kings of Israel of the line of Ahab, because one of Ahab's daughters" -- a real charmer named Athaliah -- "was his wife."

Jehoram did not have a happy death. Per Elijah's prophecy, "his bowels issues forth... and he died in great pain... He departed unloved and was buried in the City of David, but not in the tombs of the kings." (So not only does he die in great pain, he's also disrespected after death, and the Chronicler writes it all down, so that three thousand years later the whole world still knows what a bum he was.)

So then Ahaziah, the only surviving grandson of Jehosaphat, becomes king. A bad king, in fact, "because his mother [Athaliah] counseled him to act sinfully."

Ahaziah teamed up with his uncle, King Jehoram of Israel, to attack the Kingdom of Aram. The attack didn't go well, and as if that weren't bad enough, the prophet Elisha had meanwhile arranged for Jehu, son of Nimshi, to be anointed King of Israel, and Jehu had both Jehoram and Ahaziah killed.

Then Athaliah, queen mother of Judah, "proceeded to kill off all the royal offspring of the house of Judah" -- which is to say, her grandchildren -- so that she could rule the country. One of Ahaziah's children survived, however: Joash, whose aunt hid with him in the Temple for six years.

Then a conspiracy arose between the priests and certain captains in Judah to have young Joash crowned king in the Temple. Athaliah was killed, as was her protege Mattan the priest of Baal, and the new king was seated upon the royal throne.

2 Chronicles 23 ends with the verse, "All the people of the land rejoiced and the city was quiet, now that Athaliah had been put to death by the sword." Not so much a story with a happy ending as a story that ends at a moment when most of the people are happy. (Let us not now ask how the reign of King Joash turned out.)

In its bare form, this story isn't striking for its seasonal appropriateness. It does hit the "yes, we do need a Savior" chord, certainly, but then, almost any story about any three consecutive rulers of any kingdom hits that chord. The only real preparing going on involves handing out spears to the Levites who are involved in the Temple coup. I'd bet the cost of postage that you can't find Christmas cards featuring a painting of Athaliah's summary execution at the Horse Gate (though you might be able to find some with altars to Baal).

But, as the Gospel According to St. Matthew makes clear, these are not just any kings (and a queen!) of just any kingdom....


By Maclaurin expansion, the one is approximately 1 - ♥2/2

Very nice:

From this site. Via Happy Catholic.


Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Double Vision

During Advent, we prepare for both the liturgical feast of Christmas --

No, let me say we prepare for the liturgical season of Christmas. That way, both the Nativity of the Lord and Epiphany are included, which makes our preparation nice and oecumenical --

and for the return of Christ in glory.

There are likewise two reasons we care about these events: our own sins, and the sins of others. Our sins need to be forgiven; the sins of others need to stop clobbering us.

They seem like very different reasons -- we need mercy for ourselves and justice for others. Really, though, the sinned against and the sinner are both just symptoms of a world estranged from God, so both can be overcome if God embraces the world.

Just as turning on a light in a dark room lets you move around without bumping into things and see what needs straightening up, so the coming of the Christ frees us from the yoke of our own sins and the lashes of the sins of others.

King David gives us a hint at the relationship in the parallels between the openings of Psalms 51 and 57:

Psalm 51(50)Psalm 57(56)
Unto the end, a psalm of David,Unto the end, destroy not, for David,
When Nathan the prophet came to him after he had sinned with Bethsabee.for an inscription of a title, when he fled from Saul into the cave.
Have mercy on me, O God, according to thy great mercy.Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me: for my soul trusteth in thee.
And according to the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my iniquity.And in the shadow of thy wings will I hope, until iniquity pass away.

How different the situations were, how similar the prayers.


Monday, December 17, 2007

His star in the east

What happens when a seventh grader is playing with a cheap digital camera in a brightly lit church just before the parish Christmas concert:


Friday, December 14, 2007

The Helpful Catholic's Guide to Discerning Other People's Vocations For Them

Apply this process to everyone you meet.

(Inspired by personal experience with helpful Catholics and the report of an interesting luncheon Br. Paul, O.P., had the other day.)


Thursday, December 13, 2007

A memory of Dachau

Priestblock 25487 is written episodically, almost like a journal. Here is one brief section that, I think, reflects the whole book in microcosm. The events occur just after Fr. Bernard has been admitted to the infirmary, from which few prisoners emerge alive:
Mealtime! The pails rattle as they come through the door. All heads are raised.

"Barley," I report to my hospitable neighbor [a priest professor at a Polish seminary], who can no longer sit up. "Oh!" is all he says, in delight.

"Do we get the same ration as outside?" I ask.

My neighbor doesn't answer. He is dead.

Cautiously I turn his head toward me and swiftly and secretly perform my priestly office. In the few hours we had spent together, I had made the acquaintance of a saint.

Quickly I turn him around so that no one will notice my bed-mate is no longer alive; then I get my food, and his, and eat both.

Only then do I call out: "Man dead!"
Finally, let me record, from the book's dedication, the names of Fr. Bernard's priest-friends who died in Dachau:
Théophile Becker
Jean Brachmond
Jean-Baptiste Esch
Monsignor Jean Origer
Joseph Stoffels, S.C.J.
Nicolas Wampach, S.C.J.
Because we should never forget.


Ceci n'est pas un review

You can't exactly review a memoir of a concentration camp. (To add, "It reviews you," would be too precious, though maybe not that far from the truth.)

But you can very briefly describe Priestblock 25487 as a matter-of-fact window into the insanity Fr. Jean Bernard experienced during his fifteen-month imprisonment at Dachau.

It's different from Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning and Corrie Ten Boom's The Hiding Place, to name the two other concentration camp memoirs I've read, in that there's no attempt to contextualize the experience, no lessons drawn, no afterwords of wisdom.

It's just the raw record of what happened, from the day Fr. Bernard was arrested in Luxembourg to the day after he was released. With a few changes -- replace the last two pages of Priestblock 25487 with the last two pages of The Trial, say -- it could pass as a Kafka novel. Intentional or not, it is an artistic choice that tells a truth a more polished or contextualized telling of the story couldn't.

In Robert Royal's introduction to the new Zaccheus Press edition, mention is made of Fr. Bernard's "strict regard for truth." He reports what he and his fellow priest-inmates did, which was chiefly trying to survive. This isn't hagiography; there are no hymns arising from a starvation cell; there are no jokes at the torturers' expense. There is heroic virtue, but there is also pettiness and craftiness and hopelessness. This is a story about men of God, with all that the word "men" entails.

I will say that I was irritated by the introduction, which seemed to me to overplay the "Catholics suffered under the Nazis too, you know" card. In fact, that's a card that you almost can't play without overplaying.

As I read the book, though, I saw Royal's point. Fr. Bernard's story is one of odium fidei, an explicit and taunting hatred of the Faith. The clergymen in Dachau were not all assigned to the same barracks because prisoners were sorted alphabetically by occupation, but so that they could be punished as Christian clergy.

Circumstances today are such that any attempt to tell the story of Nazi persecution of the Church will carry at least an intrinsic request to divert attention from Nazi persecution of the Jews. Written in 1945, when there was more than enough attention to go around, Priestblock 25487 has no such baggage. In particular, Fr. Bernard could refer to the mistreatment of priests in response to criticism from the Vatican as a matter of personal experience, without even a hint of anti-"Hitler's Pope" apologetics.

I should point out that Fr. Bernard had served as general secretary of the International Catholic Cinema Office before the war, so we shouldn't think he was unaware of how his account might be received in the post-war context. But his context was not ours, and whatever agenda he may have had that went beyond the dual message of "never forget" and "forgive" he expresses in his foreword is not in play today.

Which leaves us with this dual message: Never forget. And forgive.



Monday, December 10, 2007

All's I'm saying

Football's just a stupid game anyway.


Tuesday, December 04, 2007

In conclusion

Feel free to write your own moral of this story. Mine is: The Office for Film and Broadcasting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops shouldn't do movie reviews.

Update: The Office for Film and Broadcasting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops sums up the problematic aspects of The Golden Compass with these words:
The film contains intense but bloodless fantasy violence, anti-clerical subtext, standard genre occult elements, a character born out of wedlock and a whiskey-guzzling bear.
To which I reply, "Whiskey-guzzling bear? Now that's good eats!"


Monday, December 03, 2007

"Our God will come to save us"

I received a review copy of Zaccheus Press's new reprint, Priestblock 25487: A Memoir of Dachau, on Saturday. My first thought was, "Nothing gets you in the mood for Christmas like reading about concentration camps."

Then it occurred to me that nothing gets you to see the need for Christmas like reading about concentration camps.

When, through familiarity or thoughtlessness, we think of the Incarnation of the Son of God as nice, as a very thoughtful thing for God to have gone to all that trouble to do -- then, I think, we aren't really getting the point. We aren't getting the seriousness of sin, or the wrongness of the way things are, or the magnitude of God's love for us.

Okay, my first thought was, "Yay! A book!" I'm writing about my first relevant thought.