instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

What's your problem?

The best and most practical piece of natural wisdom I know is this: The world is full of problems. Figure out which problems are yours, and try to solve them. Don't worry about the problems that aren't yours.

Put that way, it means figuring out which problems are yours is the primary problem of your life (logically speaking; it's not necessarily the most important or intractable problem). Here I'll just suggest three things about doing the figuring.

First, God has revealed some important things relevant to figuring out which problems are yours. If you don't make use of the supernatural wisdom God has provided, then any natural wisdom you might use is, in the end, building on sand.

Second, don't automatically assume that any problem presented to you is your problem. A given problem might be be yours, or it might be someone else's, or it might be shared by you and others, or it might not be anyone's. Many times, too, a shared problem turns out to be two related problems, one belonging to you and one belonging to the other; an obvious example is a parent helping a child with their homework, where the parent's problem is not to find out what "X" is but to help the child learn how to find it out.

Third, that a problem is interesting or important doesn't imply that it is your problem, and that it is your problem doesn't imply that it is interesting or important. Sure, acting to increase the interest and importance of your problems may itself be one of your problems (the career problem, broadly speaking). But the saying of the speck and the plank applies here; who denies that the one with a plank in his eye might genuinely find his neighbor's speck of far greater interest and import?


Monday, February 23, 2009

For God's sake

Here is the last verse of yesterday's First Reading, along with the next verse in Isaiah 43:
It is I, I, who wipe out, for My own sake, your offenses; your sins I remember no more.
Would you have Me remember, have us come to trial? Speak up, prove your innocence!
The context of this is the end of the Babylonian Captivity, which we learn did not occur through any virtue on Israel's part.

There are, perhaps, two lessons here:

First, be careful if you're going to claim any virtue for yourself. God just might say, "Capital! Let's put you on trial and you can prove how virtuous you are, and therefore free to demand justice of Me rather than mercy."

Second, if while we are yet sinners God wipes out our offenses for His own sake, imagine what He might do if we were just a little virtuous, if instead of growing weary of God and burdening Him with our sins, we grew weary of our sins and burdened God with our repentance?


Saturday, February 21, 2009

This week's hypothesis

Much of what people do is nonsensical unless they do not believe they could go to hell. (By "could go to hell," I don't just mean "could go to hell for doing that one thing," I mean "could go to hell at all, ever, under any circumstances.")

A corollary: Much of what Catholics do is nonsensical unless they do not believe they could go to hell. It seems to me that there is a spirit active within the Church Militant, a spirit of, simply, "Always and Everywhere Saved."

If so, then there is an obvious catechetical need, one that won't easily be met since it's one that won't easily be recognized by those who have the need.


Longing for something?

Maybe it's God.

(Personally, I'd've gone with, but nobody ever checks with me first.)


Monday, February 16, 2009

Thelo, there!

I think there's something beautiful in the simple structure of the exchange between the leper and Jesus quoted in yesterday's Gospel reading:
"If you wish [thele^s], you can make me clean [katharisai]."

"I do will it [Thelo^]. Be made clean [Katharisthe^ti]."
This poses a clear challenge for us. Is our faith as strong as the leper's?

Or maybe the challenge isn't so clear. Plenty of demons knew that if Jesus wished, He could send them back to hell, and we wouldn't rest easy with a faith no stronger than a demon's.

St. Thomas identified two principal acts of faith: the internal act of believing and the outward act of confessing. Even the demons believe, but they don't like to admit it. Not even a direct command from the Son of God could stop that leper from confessing to everyone -- pretty convincingly, too, to judge by its effects.


Wednesday, February 11, 2009

A bad sign

Recently, Rod Dreher had a "sublime" meal at a fancy restaurant. Like any sensible newspaper columnist, he turned the meal into a column. I think he missteps badly, though, in his attempt to turn the column into a theology lesson.

He writes:
In theological terms, you call this [experience] a sacrament, which St. Augustine defined as "a visible sign of an invisible reality." ...

What invisible reality did Chef Avner's feast reveal on that startling January night?

For one thing, it re-enchanted the world...

Similarly, it made us resolve to be more mindful...

That glorious meal also revealed to us the importance of prizing excellence.
I am no expert on the thought of St. Augustine, but I'm willing to bet that he never called a good meal a "sacrament." He did use the term more broadly than our current Canonical Seven, insisting for example that:
There can be no religious society, whether the religion be true or false, without some sacrament or visible symbol to serve as a bond of union.
But as far as I can tell, for St. Augustine the celebration of a sacrament is necessarily an intentionally and explicitly religious act, and ,whatever else it might be, eating Viennoise of Dover sole and diver scallop in truffle pomme puree is not an intentionally and explicitly religious act.

And even if you wanted to call eating it a religious act, Viennoise of Dover sole and diver scallop in truffle pomme puree is not a sign. Look again at what it was claimed to signify:
  • "it re-enchanted the world"
  • "it made us resolve to be more mindful"
  • it "revealed to us the importance of prizing excellence"
These are all subjective experiences of the diner in response to the food, not intrinsic qualities of the food itself. That one thing, call it Thing One, reminds someone of another thing, call it Thing Two, doesn't make Thing One a sign of Thing Two.

Moreover, when theologians speak of the "invisible reality" signified by a sacrament, they mean a supernatural reality. Here all that is meant is a certain mental state. I can with a look make my son resolve to be more mindful about putting his dishes in the kitchen sink, but that doesn't make my look a sacrament.

Now, why does it matter that a newspaper columnist makes hash out of theology? If he had simply cast the meal as an epiphany (as he does once), he would still have a point about the potential of material excellence to call to mind thoughts of immaterial excellence. Isn't it just nitpicking to point out how idiosyncratic the use of the term "sacrament" is?

The problem, I think, is that both represents and furthers a kind of muddled thought that kills the Church dead in the soul. If you don't understand the Sacraments, you can't understand the Church. We become members of the Church through the Sacrament of Baptism, and celebration of the Sacrament of the Eucharist is the source and summit of our life.

Watering down the concept of a sacrament to mean "an experience that makes you think virtuous thoughts" necessarily waters down the concept of the Church. Given the choice between going to Mass and going to La Bernadin, how many people would go to Mass? Do spiritual-not-religious people, who say they can experience God at least as well on a wooded path as on a wooden pew, need to be further confused about right living?

And what does this way of thinking do to the Sacraments proper? What if I receive the Eucharist and don't think virtuous thoughts, find neither the world re-enchanted nor the resolve to be more mindful? If a sacrament signifies a subjective effect, then where that effect is not felt is the sacrament really present?

Oops: Forgot to mention, link via Est Quod Est.


Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Wise as doves

Kathy Shaidle has a tagline for her recent posts about the Vatican: "These people aren't smart enough to tell me how to live."

Not the way I'd put it, but it's a fair point.

You could even say it's one of the keys to how the Church understands herself. We don't believe what the Church teaches because Church teachers are smart. Church teachers teach what was handed down to them by the Apostles, and from all accounts the Apostles were as sharp as a sack of wet mice.

The personal virtues of an evangelist make the Gospel more credible to those who hear it preached, but they aren't the foundation of a faith that lasts.


Monday, February 09, 2009

Self-rationed health care

These verses, from yesterday's Gospel reading, inspires something of a Pavlovian feminist response in some people:
Simon's mother-in-law lay sick with a fever. They immediately told him about her. He approached, grasped her hand, and helped her up. Then the fever left her and she waited on them.
I say the response -- a harrumph, to be precise, at the thought of this poor woman having to rise from her sickbed just to wait on a bunch of men -- is Pavlovian, since a moment's reflection shows it to be too absurd to be a product of rational thought. Surely waiting on the Messiah Who has just cured you and Who is now your guest is the proper response from a moral perspective, and I've not yet met the woman who would allow her son-in-law to usurp her role as hostess.

Consider, though, how this reflexive distaste for waiting on others -- whatever its merits in other circumstances -- plays out in the presence of Jesus. As I said, waiting on Jesus -- and, yes, His disciples as well -- is the proper response to being healed by Him, so anyone who doesn't want to serve others shouldn't want to be healed.

I think there are lots of people like that, as crazy as it sounds to prefer to be sick than to be a servant. What does such stubborn pride gain a person, after all? "Yes, I am in pain, in bed, dependent on others for care... but at least I'm not caring for someone else!"

Actually, I think a whole lot, maybe even nearly all, of us are like that. We don't refuse God's healing altogether; that would be a foolish consistency indeed. But we decide which of our wounds we want God to heal, and which we (mad sinners) prefer to suffer from, lest we be forced to act on the grace by which we could be healed.


Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Angry with reason even unto death

It's said St. Dominic, as he travelled Europe on foot, would begin to weep when he caught sight of the next town down the road. "What will become of sinners?" he'd cry through his tears.

We know exactly what will become of sinners, though, don't we? They'll have their clocks cleaned but good, and if they're lucky they'll be allowed into heaven eventually, where every time they run into us they'll flash a little smile of embarrassment over how wrong they were and how right we are.