instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Lost Verses of the Lectionary

I get that there are chapters in the Bible that don't make for great readings at Mass. Some passages are dull obscure. Some passages -- like most of Proverbs and much of the Wisdom Books -- are epigrammatic and come off as choppy and disconnected when read aloud in long chunks.

Still, I'm puzzled by discontinuous Lectionary passages like Sunday's First Reading: Sirach 3:17-18,20,28-29.

Sometimes, when a single verse is skipped, it's one of those deprecatory bits that, while having God as their Author, can be distracting within the setting of the holy Liturgy. In this case, though, the excised verse 19 is:
For great is the power of God; by the humble he is glorified.
Not only is this harmless -- in fact, it would make a fine daily prayer -- it completes the thought of the previous verse.

Then we get verse 20:
What is too sublime for you, seek not, into things beyond your strength search not.
A capital verse, to be sure, but merely the introduction of a four-verse passage that I'd expect to hear all at once. (And, for that matter, a passage I could profitably hear often.)

Then follows four more proverbs, which may have been omitted for their negativity toward lack of knowledge, stubbornness, and pride. (Is avoiding deprecatory proverbs one aim of the Lectionary? I have no idea.)

After 7 skipped verses, the Lectionary resumes with two more proverbs, largely unrelated to the rest of the reading (and to the skipped verses as well), and then stops one verse shy of finishing the chapter. The overall effect is still a sequence of unrelated proverbs, with no hint that still more unrelated proverbs are not being read.

For the record, and since the mind of a sage appreciates proverbs, vv 21-27 are:
What is committed to you, attend to; for what is hidden is not your concern.
With what is too much for you meddle not, when shown things beyond human understanding.
Their own opinion has misled many, and false reasoning unbalanced their judgment.
Where the pupil of the eye is missing, there is no light, and where there is no knowledge, there is no wisdom.
A stubborn man will fare badly in the end, and he who loves danger will perish in it.
A stubborn man will be burdened with sorrow; a sinner will heap sin upon sin.
For the affliction of the proud man there is no cure; he is the offshoot of an evil plant.


Friday, August 27, 2010

No double rewards

In a comment on a post below, Pauli writes:
There's no reason that I know about which would prevent someone from BOTH blogging complaints about the world AND offering up their trials. Even the saints and spiritual writers complained, but without losing their peace.
You can do both, but not at the same time with the same thing. To the extent you complain about something, you can't offer it up. To complain about something is to share it with others, and you can't give to God what you're already sharing with others.

To put it another way: If I offer up some minor trial, I hand it over to God to draw some good from it. If I complain about that same minor trial, then I am seeking a reward for having endured it from someone other than God. It's akin to blowing a trumpet before me when I give alms. Better to get my reward for enduring a trial from God than from man.

To put it another way: Complaining about it reduces the value of a trial. A complained-over trial is worth less as an offering than a non-complained-over trial. To complain over a trial is to use it; to offer up a complained-over trial is to offer up a used trial.

This is not to suggest you may not or should not ever complain, nor even that you may not or should not ever offer up a trial you complain about. Before complaining, though, the prudent Christian considers whether Providence permitted his trial so that he would complain about it.


Thursday, August 26, 2010

μεγας Κυριος

Here's Psalm 144 (a portion of which is in the lectionary for today) from the Douay Rheims translation:
  1. I will extol thee, O God my king:
    and I will bless thy name for ever;
    yea, for ever and ever.
  2. Every day I will bless thee:
    and I will praise thy name for ever:
    yea, for ever and ever.
  3. Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised:
    and of his greatness there is no end.
  4. Generation and generation shall praise thy works:
    and they shall declare thy power.
  5. They shall speak of the magnificence of the glory of thy holiness:
    and shall tell thy wondrous works.
  6. And they shall speak of the might of thy terrible acts:
    and shall declare thy greatness.
  7. They shall publish the memory of the abundance of thy sweetness:
    and shall rejoice in thy justice.
  8. The Lord is gracious and merciful:
    patient and plenteous in mercy.
  9. The Lord is sweet to all:
    and his tender mercies are over all his works.
  10. Let all thy works, O lord, praise thee:
    and let thy saints bless thee.
  11. They shall speak of the glory of thy kingdom:
    and shall tell of thy power:
  12. To make thy might known to the sons of men:
    and the glory of the magnificence of thy kingdom.
  13. Thy kingdom is a kingdom of all ages:
    and thy dominion endureth throughout all generations.
    The Lord is faithful in all his words:
    and holy in all his works.
  14. The Lord lifteth up all that fall:
    and setteth up all that are cast down.
  15. The eyes of all hope in thee, O Lord:
    and thou givest them meat in due season.
  16. Thou openest thy hand,
    and fillest with blessing every living creature.
  17. The Lord is just in all his ways:
    and holy in all his works.
  18. The Lord is nigh unto all them that call upon him:
    to all that call upon him in truth.
  19. He will do the will of them that fear him:
    and he will hear their prayer, and save them.
  20. The Lord keepeth all them that love him;
    but all the wicked he will destroy.
  21. My mouth shall speak the praise of the Lord:
    and let all flesh bless thy holy name for ever;
    yea, for ever and ever.
This is a psalm meant to be sung by God's people, sung to Him and to each other. (It's also one of the acrostic psalms, with the first letters of each line (v 13 has 2 lines) spelling the Hebrew alphabet.)

It's easy to recite this psalm without praying it. "The Lord is just in all his ways" is the sort of thing we say in church all the time, with perhaps as much religious feeling as when we say "God bless you" after someone sneezes.

But I think it yields fruit with just a little effort. Asking the question, "What frame of mind would I have to be in to spontaneously praise God in these words?" might help me to see the frame of mind I should be in more often.

And some of the language is wonderful:
  • the magnificence of the glory of thy holiness
  • the memory of the abundance of thy sweetness
  • the glory of the magnificence of thy kingdom
The words sort of all run together, but in praising God there can be no excess. Each aspect of what is praiseworthy in God is itself praiseworthy.

Also, there's just something I like about verse 3:
Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised: and of his greatness there is no end.
"Great"/"greatness" are in the Latin ("Magnus"/"magnitudinis") and Greek ("μεγας"/"μεγαλωσυνης"), but the English translators put in the "greatly" to make the point even clearer (the Grail Psalter spoils the fun with "highly to be praised").


Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The need for better prayers at Mass

For the record, I'm all for increasing the sense of the sacred in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, and I have no objections in either principle or practice to the new English translation we'll start using next November.

That said, here's the list of effects I predict the new translation will have on the vast majority of Roman Catholics in the United States:
  • Irritation.
The primary cause of irritation will be having to learn a couple dozen trivial changes to prayers and responses they've been saying for decades. A secondary cause will be having to listen to other Catholics say, "But it's closer to the Latin!"

And if this is an accurate list of the changes in the people's parts, then yes, they are trivial. I count just two changes that are more than translation quibbles:
  1. "And with your spirit" does signify the unique ministerial role of the priest in a way that "And also with you" simply does not. It's a weird enough phrase that people will wonder why they are saying it, and they may be open to learning the reason.
  2. Reciting the Creed in first person singular does make a different theological point than reciting it in first person plural. I'm doubtful, though, that the grammatical difference will seem large enough to prompt widespread inquiry into the theological difference.
As for what the priest and deacon say, I can't see most lay Catholics caring much one way or another. Some, I suppose, will find it more sacred and like it; others will find it too fussy and dislike it. Most will at most find it a little different, and get used to it after a while.

So when, for example, Sr. Mary Ann Walsh, RSM, the USCCB's Director of Media Relations, says:
The church has 16 months to get priests and people in the United States ready to pray reverently, intelligently and together at Mass.
I have to reply, with all due respect, good luck with that, Sister! The Church has had forty years to get priests and people in the United States ready to pray reverently, intelligently, and together at Mass using the Ordinary Form. Getting everyone to say, "Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof," isn't going to change the reverence or intelligence with which we offer the Liturgy.

The saying is, lex orandi, lex credendi. But there's a whole lot more to orare than just recitare. I get the sense that a lot of people happy with the new translation judge its significance by the amount of difficulty and resistance the translation has had to overcome. Surely, though, the real measure is whether it will make English-speaking Roman Catholics holier.


Monday, August 23, 2010

You can't spell "disciple" without "discipline"

Yesterday we heard the following teaching from the Letter to the Hebrews:
Endure your trials as discipline; God treats you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline?*
This is a well-attested doctrine. The lives of saints are filled with trials, both physical and spiritual. Hence the joke that was old in the Fourteenth Century: When you look at how God treats His friends it's no wonder He has so few of them. (And even if the world and the devil leave someone alone, in this life the flesh never does surrender its fight against the spirit.)

Still, there's a difference between "attested" and "accepted." The idea that God disciplines His children is one that a lot of people resist. It seems out of character for a loving and merciful God, a God who desires not the death of the sinner.

The point, of course, is that in order for the sinner to avoid death, he must become holy, and becoming holy is hard work. If following God's commandments didn't involve opposition from sinners, then there'd be no reason for anyone -- including you and God -- to think you were following God's commandments rather than your own druthers. You can't serve two masters; without God's discipline, you wouldn't be able to choose Him as your master.

This is even true of God's only begotten Son, Who could not become incarnate in a fallen world without having to choose between God's commandments and the druthers of His own created will. Son though He was, He learned obedience from what He suffered; we might say He knew with His human intellect that He was obedient in the only way a human intellect can know it: by actively being obedient.

The Letter to the Hebrews teaches us, contrary to the wisdom of the world, to be enheartened by the thought that Jesus, Whom we acclaim the leader and perfecter of faith, struggled against sin to the point of shedding blood. We take heart, not only for the sake of the joy that lies before us, but even from our trials themselves, knowing by faith that they are signs of God's love for His children.

* The next verse, omitted from the Lectionary, answers that question.


Thursday, August 19, 2010

Quam omnes Deum nominant?

Here are the conclusions to each of St. Thomas's "Five Proofs" of God's existence:
  1. "...and this everyone understands to be God."
  2. " which everyone gives the name of God."
  3. "This all men speak of as God."
  4. "...and this we call God."
  5. "...and this being we call God."
A common criticism of this article is that there's no obvious connection between this "God of the philosophers" Whose existence St. Thomas argues for and the God of Abraham Who has revealed Himself, most definitively through His Son Jesus Christ. Christians don't give the name of God to the first efficient cause, they give the name of God to God. If God happens to also be the first efficient cause, so much the better for the philosophers' reasoning; if not, well, who really listens to philosophers anyway?

This leaves evangelical atheists in a tough spot. The being to which they give the name of God is, as it happens, God. Since they think God doesn't exist, they either a) think the first efficient cause doesn't exist; or b) think God isn't the first efficient cause.

Thinking the first efficient cause doesn't exist is a failure of human reasoning, and betrays the sort of hopeless metaphysics that makes reaching disagreement (rather than mere miscommunication) nearly impossible.

Thinking God isn't the first efficient cause is a mark of straight-up ignorance. When a grownup Christian's understanding of God is that of a second grader, it's regrettable, but he can still be a faithful Christian growing in holiness.

When a grownup evangelical atheist's understanding of God is that of a second grader, it's just embarrassing.


Sunday, August 15, 2010

A most secret core and sanctuary, not a church door

The thought occurs that, with all the chatter in recent decades about how one must follow one's conscience even when it contradicts Church teaching -- why, even Aquinas says so! -- we've sort of lost the fundamental point about conscience:

One must follow one's conscience even when it contradicts what one wants to do.

I suspect people far more commonly don't follow their conscience than follow it in contradiction to Church teaching. Even if they're dissenting Catholics. Heck, even if they're not Catholics at all.


Saturday, August 14, 2010

The Divine Line of Credit

2 Cor 9:8 is a very encouraging verse:
Moreover, God is able to make every grace abundant for you, so that in all things, always having all you need, you may have an abundance for every good work.
That's pretty awesome, as the young priests say. Every grace, abundant, in all things, always having all you need, an abundance of grace for every good work. What more could you need?

Well, it couldn't hurt to notice the introductory verb: God "is able to make" these graces abundant. This verse is a dogmatic statement on which we have to place our faith that, in our particular case, He will make them abundant.

The context of the verse is also noteworthy: St. Paul is encouraging the Corinthians to keep their earlier promise to send a generous donation to the poor Christians of Jerusalem. That is, they have already begun a good work, and he is urging them to complete it, in faith that God will provide them with everything they need.

In other words, those abundant graces St. Paul is writing about aren't merely poured out willy nilly. They are poured out in order to support and sustain us in our own good works.*

The wonderful promise of 2 Cor 9:8, then, is not a promise of prosperity; the grace is free, but not cheap, and we receive it not as heirs but as stewards.

* There are other abundant graces poured out that start us on our good works, and even other graces poured out on the just and unjust alike. But that's not what St. Paul is referring to here.


Friday, August 13, 2010

O we of little faith

The phenomenon of "spiritual but not religious" people has been widely discussed. I think there's a similar phenomenon, found within the Church: that of "religious but not faithful" people.

As yesterday's post suggests, by "not faithful" I mean literally "not full of faith." I don't mean "not subscribing to this or that list of doctrines." Dissent is a symptom, not a description, of lack of faith. When His disciples cried to Jesus, "We are perishing!," He didn't rebuke them for heresy.

There are at least three causes of a religious (i.e., practicing) Christian having little faith: doubt, pride, and childishness.

Doubt is the ordinary opponent of faith. For whatever reason, a person might simply not have faith in Jesus. Doubt can be limited in scope (e.g. I might doubt that Jesus loves me) or more general (did God really become man?).

Pride resists faith because, well, the proud one just knows better. Perhaps Jesus was God and did die for our sins, but He wasn't really all that advanced, you know. No doubt He did His best, but much of what He said just won't do. And have you looked at the riffraff He left in charge?

Not that the prideful unfaithful necessarily believe the Gospels accurately reflect what Jesus said, or that He really did leave the riffraff in charge in the manner in which the Church teaches He did. To be prideful is to make oneself the judge and teacher of Revelation, to interpret Scripture and Tradition in the light of oneself.

Finally, by childishness I mean a woolyheaded relationship with Christ that hasn't advanced beyond the nursery. The "God" in which such people place their faith is an empty bucket with the words "Jesus Loves Me" painted on it. Whatever is nice, whatever is tolerant, whatever brings the greatest tranquility to the greatest number: this is what those who childishly lack faith put their faith in. They say things like, "The Jesus I believe in would never do something like that," without seeming to think that the Jesus they believe in might not be the Jesus Who is our Savior.

More causes of faithlessness could be named -- fear, for example, and ignorance -- but here my point is that people can be too proud or too childish to even notice that they are not faithful disciples of Christ. The proud correct Jesus' teachings to their own satisfaction, and might then follow that tolerably well, while the childish just invent His teachings out of whole (soft, fluffy) cloth.

This makes it difficult to challenge their lack of faith -- though no one who hasn't sent mountains into the sea should be too confident in his own faithfulness.


Enough with the mimosas

It's almost time for an Assumption Swizzle!


Thursday, August 12, 2010

A virtue, not a metric

Somewhere along the line, the term "faithful Catholic" changed from a description to a grade. The adjective "faithful" changed from characterizing actions to measuring opinions. It stopped referring to the theological virtue of Faith and started referring to The Faith -- specifically, The Faith understood as an itemized set of propositions to which assent is to be given.

I think it's time we stop preparing for the Council of Trent.

If we do that, if we understand "faithful" as properly applying to someone who lives by faith in Jesus Christ rather than to someone who signs off on a list of doctrines, then I think we will have a much better grasp of what's going on. (We also might be able to wean people off that noxious phrase of self-puffery, "faithful to the Magisterium.") At the very least, our conversation and thoughts will be about Jesus rather than about which revision of which list is the one that counts.


Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Ode to an Ant on my Countertop

What's the matter, little ant?
You look so all alone!
Are you wondering just where
All your friends have gone?

They were right where you are now,
Just a while before.
Care to join them, little ant? --
Oh dear, you are no more!


Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Less just and more beneficent

Here's a bit of the conversation at the April 3, 1778, meeting of the Literary Club, as recorded by Boswell:
Edmund Burke: From the experience which I have had,--and I have had a great deal,--I have learnt to think better of mankind.

Samuel Johnson: From my experience I have found them worse in commercial dealings, more disposed to cheat, than I had any notion of; but more disposed to do one another good than I had conceived.

Joshua Reynolds: Less just and more beneficent.

Johnson: And really it is wonderful, considering how much attention is necessary for men to take care of themselves, and ward off immediate evils which press upon them, it is wonderful how much they do for others. As it is said of the greatest liar, that he tells more truth than falsehood; so it may be said of the worst man, that he does more good than evil.
I'm not sold on Johnson's last proposition, though taking the meaning as "the worst man you might run into on any given day" rather than "the worst man ever" might at least bring it within poetic distance of the truth.

Both cheating and charity are generally hidden acts, so the inexperienced observer might well underestimate how much of each goes on. That the same person can be a great cheat and a cheerful giver is one of those things you don't so much explain as get used to -- or, perhaps, the explanation is simply that humans aren't particularly consistent.



Jeffrey T. Shark on the Great Et-Et

"My Cage", 8/10/2010:

Yes, Jeff. Yes it can.


Monday, August 09, 2010

Rich in the most valuable sense of the word

On Good Friday in 1778, Samuel Johnson ran into Oliver Edwards, whom he had last seen at Oxford in 1729. Edwards left college after a year, and later became a solicitor. Upon their chance meeting, the two old acquaintances spent the afternoon together, and the following is part of the conversation Boswell recorded:

JOHNSON: From your having practised the law long, Sir, I presume you must be rich.

EDWARDS: No, Sir; I got a good deal of money; but I had a number of poor relations to whom I gave a great part of it.

JOHNSON: Sir, you have been rich in the most valuable sense of the word.

EDWARDS: But I shall not die rich.

JOHNSON: Nay, sure, Sir, it is better to live rich than to die rich.
Though he had a respectable pension from the government in recognition of his achievements, Johnson himself was never rich. He was firmly in favor of living as luxuriously and comfortably as possible, but he also preached (and lived) the importance of helping those in need.*
EDWARDS: I wish I had continued at College.

JOHNSON: Why do you wish that, Sir?

EDWARDS: Because I think I should have had a much easier life than mine has been. I should have been a parson, and had a good living, like Bloxam and several others, and lived comfortably.

JOHNSON: Sir, the life of a parson, of a conscientious clergyman, is not easy. I have always considered a clergyman as the father of a larger family than he is able to maintain. I would rather have Chancery suits upon my hands than the cure of souls. No, Sir, I do not envy a clergyman's life as an easy life, nor do I envy the clergyman who makes it an easy life.
The clergyman who makes his life easy is certainly not to be envied. I wonder if, in light of the Great Commission, we can generalize Johnson's statement and say that the Christian who makes it an easy life is not to be envied.

* Here is one statement by Johnson, on both luxury and charity: "A man gives half a guinea for a dish of green peas. How much gardening does this occasion? how many labourers must the competition to have such things early in the market, keep in employment? You will hear it said, very gravely, Why was not the half-guinea, thus spent in luxury, given to the poor? To how many might it have afforded a good meal. Alas! has it not gone to the industrious poor, whom it is better to support than the idle poor? You are much surer that you are doing good when you pay money to those who work, as the recompence of their labour, than when you give money merely in charity."

Nevertheless, Johnson did give a good bit of money to people who needed it, and even begged others for further aid on their behalf.



Sunday, August 08, 2010

What I did on my summer vacation

I recently finished reading James Boswell's The Life of Samuel Johnson. Johnson, if you don't know, was an Eighteenth Century English writer and literary critic, most famous for his Dictionary of the English Language; he also edited a collection of Shakespeare and The Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets.

Even if you've never heard of Johnson, you've probably run into a number of his sayings, e.g.:
  • "Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel."
  • "When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life."
  • "None but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money."
  • "Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully."
This last one I've seen occasionally used in arguments for the death penalty's good effect in prompting a wicked man to repent. Its wit was spoiled for me when I found out, in Boswell's Life, that Johnson was referring to a particular man who was, in historical fact, hanged in a fortnight. (Some people suspected Johnson wrote a speech William Dodd gave in his defense, since the speech seemed to be beyond Dodd's abilities. Johnson actually had written the speech, but wouldn't admit it while Dodd was alive without the latter's permission. The "concentrates his mind wonderfully" bit was a dodge.)

In person, Johnson was large, something of a slob, and he exhibited mannerisms and tics that have been interpreted as symptoms of Tourette's Syndrome. He was moody, loud, opinionated, hard of hearing -- and a brilliant impromptu debater who was more concerned with winning an argument than with which side he took (in conversation, at least; he was more careful when writing). Among those who knew him socially, he was often referred to as "the bear."

James Boswell, on the other hand, was a far less remarkable man. He'd be on any short list for the least remarkable author of a literary classic in the history of literary classics. The introductory note in my Modern Library edition refers to him as a "fool and tenacious interloper," and marvels at "the patience of Johnson and the rest in tolerating his company."

Still, he had sense enough to hitch his wagon to Johnson's star; he kept a detailed journal of much of their conversation and actively planned to write his famous friend's biography for years.

The book itself is a bit peculiar, not only because Boswell makes himself a principal character even though Johnson was 53 when they first met and Boswell (a Scottish lawyer) saw him for just a month or two each year.* A great deal of the book -- and there is a great deal of it; my copy comes in at 2,000 pages on the button -- involves someone no one's ever heard of asking Johnson for his opinion of someone no one's ever heard of, while Boswell states again and again (and again) that to the thinking reader no record of Johnson can be too trivial to record.

Boswell was mistaken.

Nevertheless, there's something very readable about it. Granted, it took me more than two years and a final, compulsive act of will to finish it. Still, the world of Eighteenth Century London, and its writers, politicians, booksellers, actors, painters, and poets, has a certain charm, and Boswell's supine worship of his subject -- though far too often too annoyingly expressed -- caused him to write a remarkable work of literature that, ironically, may well be better known and more highly regarded today than anything Johnson wrote himself.

The Life of Samuel Johnson is the result of a unique, and probably unrepeatable, combination of fascinating subject and dutiful observer. While I can't really recommend that anyone read it -- you'll probably know within a page or two whether to keep going -- I'd certainly say it's a fine book to have read. I've been tweeting short quotes and expect to blog one or two longer passages.

* The famous first words (note that Johnson was an enthusiastic bigot against everything non-English): BOSWELL: "Mr. Johnson, I do indeed come from Scotland, but I cannot help it." JOHNSON: "That, Sir, I find, is what a very great many of your countrymen cannot help."