Words to remember

"Never doubt in the darkness what you believed in the light."

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

B16's Address to Youth, Pt. 2

Picking up where we left off last time:
Para. 10: Our Holy Father places freedom in its proper context, rooted "in the truth of the human person". This is really the only functional and defensible definition of freedom available to mankind. What other definitions are proposed by our culture? They all seem to be variations of "the ability to do what you want, until you step on someone else's toes". The obligation is subordinated to the desire. But, by rooting freedom in an eternal truth, the privileges and obligations of freedom are subsumed in the same concept. This is brilliant, but also quite subtle. And he also demonstrates a keen awareness of the purpose of freedom: a free and gratuitous gift of God, but one meant to enable us to become drawn up into the life of divine and transcendent love. This is the realization of true freedom, paradoxically in a surrender of the self. When we think about it, however, it makes a lot more sense than might initially be thought. Think of people who would be called "liberated". You know the type: licentious, boorish, dismissive of any and all convention. They sleep with whomever, they smoke anything that burns, they wander about aimlessly looking for kicks. Freedom? Hardly. Slavery? You bet. And the worst part is, we are, in a very real sense, our own best jailers. Such people are enslaved to their passions, their desires- they are in thrall to sex, to drugs, to money, to whatever tempts them. Real freedom must have this sense of obligation or connection to some transcendent truth, or it really is just another blind for the serfdom of sin.

Para. 11: The imagery of light is carried through here to a truly poetic degree. Jesus' incarnation truly is a moment of light- the Magi and shepherds follow the light of the Star to the Light of the World. And this light, which comes into the world, leaps up in sudden brilliance again in the Blessing of the Fire and the Exsultet during the Vigil of Easter. This ties together the whole liturgical year, and the whole of Christian life. We don't just mark disjointed holidays- they are intimately and intrinsically connected. This gets into the idea of Catholic identity again, if subtly. We are presented not with a series of simple festivals which are celebrated for different reasons without any unifying concern. Rather, we participate in one glorious and continuing mystery.

Para. 13: His Holiness' Four Points: Personal Prayer and Silence, Liturgical Prayer, Charity in Action, and Vocation.

1) Personal Prayer and Silence
This ties into something I ranted about earlier on here: the lack of personal devotions. I may have actually cast that more in terms of the lex credendi, but it fits here as well. It seems that American Catholics have the charity thing down pretty well. What has been removed almost completely from Catholic life as it is displayed today is the sense of private devotion and prayer. This is, I think, an unintended consequence of an otherwise good part of Vatican II. One of the efforts, as I understand it, was to re-emphasize the centrality of the liturgy as part of Catholic life. This is truly wise. But it was carried through imperfectly: prayer became that "Sunday thing", saved for the weekends or perhaps before a really important test or interview. And it is true that God speaks to us and comes to us in a truly remarkable way in the Eucharist, no debate there. But what was lost is a sense of the consistent presence and work of God in our lives. This is what His Holiness wants us to take back. Silence is also an important component here. I can remember a very sad story I've heard of a person who "prayed and prayed and prayed" and really got quite theatric about it. Begging God to show Himself, to remove doubts, etc., to speak to her. Well and good: but how is God to get a word in edgewise? This is not meant to disparage God or imply that He is any less omnipotent, or to question sufficient grace. But if we ask someone for something, don't we always wait to hear their response? We don't say "How is the weather today is it raining is it sunny is it cloudy is it hot how hot is it why aren't you talking to me why don't you answer me don't you care that I want to know why won't you even speak to me you don't love me I hate you you abandoned me YOU DON'T EVEN EXIST!!" This prayer is ironically focused on self. It is a poor surrogate for real prayer. And it's a difficult balance to strike, but an important one.

2) Liturgical prayer and 3) charity in action have, I believe, been well-address in other posts here. Needless to say His Holiness' insights and plans here are of critical importance. Again, I'll have to cut it off here for now, as that's enough commentary from me for one evening, and I've got etwas Deutsche Hausaufgaben zu schreiben.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Sicut promissus

As promised, I'm going to just jot down a commentary on some of what our Holy Father said during his wildly successful visit to the U.S. There's a lot of stuff, and very important too, that he said, so it'd be a bit too much for me right now to address it all. As my reflections of late have been towards the university, education, life as a young Catholic growing up in contemporary culture, I want to focus particular attention on his address to us youth and to Catholic educators. Today, though, da yoot. :D

By way of introduction, these respond to His Holiness' address on 19 Apr. I'll cite by paragraph number. As always, many thanks to Fr. Z. for having posted the text of this speech, with his own very helpful and insightful commentary.

General observation: Pope Benedict exceeds expectations. Not only those of the nay-sayers, but also of his admirers. I think it is fair to say that he outdid himself in this visit. In his speech, there is no sense of being out-of-touch with young people, there isn't any feeling of preachiness or finger-wagging. He connects, he makes his arguments with grace and clarity and careful consideration, but for all that what he writes is not dry, dead, or too lofty for his audience. He has a certain expectation of the people listening to them, and doesn't talk to them. This is extremely wise. Trying to behave too much like us only makes us think one has never been, nor is now, very much like us.

Para. 2: Pope Benedict speaks of our lives becoming a "journey of hope", with our goal to walk in the footsteps of Jesus Christ. This is subtly brilliant; how many times do young people find that they lack direction in their lives? And even when they know what path they want to take, isn't it so difficult to find and bring meaning to this? We do things, but they become routine and joyless, devoid of higher purpose. After all this education and preparation, we go out into the world and do our jobs and make our money (for some, but Deo volente not for me) and then what? We can't take it with us. But His Holiness shows us the way through all these brambles: life is about walking in the Way, that is, Jesus Christ. The sense and feeling of a journey are understood in the light of the highest principle.

Para. 3 and 4: And we are provided with examples. We are given people to follow who have walked the same road. Diversity is mentioned here, but in its true sense. It is divorced from a political agenda and all the trappings and hidden bids for power that characterize "diversity" today. These are people who really did come from widely different backgrounds, and not because they were selected by a government process to make sure that everyone feels like their faction gets represented, but in demonstration of the fact that God calls all men and women to follow Him. I am also struck by the fact that, of all the institutions in the world, the Church truly is the most diverse, without ever having to enforce such an agenda. There's a lesson in that.

Para. 5: This lets us see some of the very keen understanding I think His Holiness has of American and American Catholicism. It has been my experience that practically (praxis, deed/act), the Church in America, and really the wider Christian community in America are exemplary. As a whole, we are generous, involved, and highly active. The notion of service is one that is really vibrant in the Church in this country. If you were to ask a Confirmation class, what they remember most about their experience throughout the process, my sense is that most would mention something relating to their service or work with people. This is altogether commendable and in line with the exhortations to charity, mercy, and our obligations to our brethren and all mankind.

The problems, however, come in the philosophical or theological component. Americans don't have a problem with the externals, as I've noted above. We have a very keen sense of the outward duties of a Christian. The ad extra part is, in a sense, easy, or at least natural, to us. It's the ad intra that's difficult. So many times we hear from teens today: "What does it matter whether or not I believe in the Trinity, or the Virgin Birth? I'm living like Christians are told to. In fact, I'm living better than some of the higher-ups at Rome who don't ever take the time to help the less fortunate and live like princes." What we seem to have lost is the sense of "knowing God" as He has revealed Himself to us. The truths about Him which the Church teaches, the truths which the Church teaches about herself, aren't simply arbitrary or the accretion of centuries. So what Pope Benedict presents are models of Christian living who are very much centered in the traditions, beliefs, and teachings of the Church.

As a bit of a digression here, I'd like to take yet another go at the notion of achristian morality or goodness, i.e. the ability of people to be good without belief in Christ. This is a particularly popular notion in our country, and I suspect it has been one that has raised its ugly head plenty of times throughout the history of the Church. This goes back, in fact, to the Epistle to Romans.

Yup, that's right, it's the big Protestant canard of salvation through works. I think we need to do more to dispel this notion. But because good non-Christians can be paragons of virtue, more so than some Christians, this is a tough sell, and probably always will be. My own particular strategy is two-fold: 1) we need people to disprove this. We need saints like Mother Theresa who completely outstrip people's expectations for charitable actions. Whenever there has been such a challenge to the Church before by a popularly heretical notion, saints have risen to the occasion. More to the point, they have been very orthodox saints (even if their particular methods have been unorthodox qua atypical and unconventional). Look at St. Francis and St. Dominic and the orders they formed, and in response to which problems. This is a point which has been driven home for me in reading Hinnbusch's History of the Dominican Order. A new monastic order would be interesting, but perhaps not practical or possible. A lay movement would probably gain much support, but is more difficult to manage. Reinvigorating the existing orders is an excellent and necessary first step. So that's one. 2) In a certain sense, we need to address the people who make the argument that you don't need to be a Christian to be a good human being. We need to ask where this goodness comes from, or what it is oriented to, if not God. And, in the case of certain vocal anti-Christians, I think we need to point out the statement's hypocrisy. This was something which occurred to me when Bill Maher recently made a tremendous podex of himself by stating that you don't need to believe in Christ to be good. Well, that's fine- but of course, right after that, he went and spread lies, terrible insults, and really inflammatory and disparaging statements. Are these the marks of a good man? In so many cases, when people assert their own sufficient self-goodness, they are assuming something which may not be evident because it might not exist, or at least not to the extent they believe. This doesn't mean going after really good people. This means tackling the loudmouths and the hypocrites. It also means demanding that people put their money where their mouths are.

Back to Papa Ratzi:

Para. 6: His Holiness establishes his "street cred". (I'm sorry, I couldn't resist using this Obamism. The irony is, of course, that B16 has always had it, whereas Obamessiah has had to manufacture it for himself) Our Holy Father knows what it is like to live under a brutal and terrifying regime which dredged up some of the worst of humanity. Fortunately, Nazi Germany is still considered such a potent example of evil by most people that this point is made quite striking.

Para. 7: He bolsters American resolve. He reminds us a little of what makes us unique as a nation and also how God has blessed us. This ties into his message of hope.

Para. 8: A great reference to the Easter season, the Paschal mystery, and the Exsultet. Hope again seen in transcendent and radiant terms.

What follows are what I shall call the Two Chains. Pope Benedict introduces two means by which we young people can become enslaved.
Chain 1: The Chain of the Heart. There are forces in our society which work to crush our spirit by denying and ridiculing our God-given dignity as human beings. Drug addiction, sexual depravity and the objectification of women, are all expressions of this. There are other ways in which this is seen. The great mechanization of the modern age is probably the most signal example. Men are increasingly becoming commodified. We are seen as having worthy only insofar as we are "productive" members of society, and so the old, the ill, the physically imperfect all have to fear for their lives. It has not come this far yet, Gott sei Dank, but it will, if unchecked. Make no mistake: the utilitarianism which infects so much of business, commerce, industry, and every day life is one of the most corrosive developments in human history.

Chain 2: The Chain of the Mind- this is the dictatorship of relativism, a recurrent motif in the thought of Benedict XVI. The idea that truth is relative to a culture, or country, or time, or an individual is not only untrue, it is ultimately destructive. We are afforded no clarity by such a notion. We are, in fact, paralyzed by it. Could we have fought the Nazis with such a notion? Taking relativism to its logical conclusion, there can be no objection to what the Nazis did. They did, after all, as was right by them; was not their version of truth simply different from ours? Who are we to say what is right and what is wrong? Aren't those simply expressions of our peculiar circumstances, and so devoid of universal value? Such a philosophy writ large cannot but put the wicked in power. And here again is an important point His Holiness draws out: relativism does not occur in a vacuum. It is, in fact, an agenda. It is something propagated by people who will use the resulting moral confusion and cacophony to seize power.

So this is where I must break off for the moment, but there is more to come!

Monday, April 21, 2008

More to follow as time allows

Wow, what a week. The highlight of the year so far has been the Papal visit to the United States. Say again: wow. His Holiness was in rare form. I would go so far as to say that in many respects, we got to see Pope Benedict XVI very near the top of his game. There's so much to talk about with regards to the visit, there's barely enough time left in the semester.

First, to get it out of the way, the liturgical aspects of the visit. The low point of this, it seems, was the music at Mass at Nationals Stadium. There, enough said. It was recently driven home to me that the experience of those present was so amazing and joyous that they could've played on a broken guitar with the singing of a strangled cat, and it wouldn't have made a lick of difference. I'm inclined now to leave it at that.

Second, Pope Benedict probably surprised a lot of people by not only speaking forcefully re the abuse scandals, but quite forcefully and often. Much praise to His Holiness for doing so. This was really a big blow to the credibility of the Church in the United States. More importantly, more seriously, it was an aspect which shattered the lives and faiths of so many innocent victims. I believe His Holiness made it clear that he wants to bring the Church out of this, and that he's serious about confronting it. At the same time, it was also strategically very wise. One of the major arguments made today so many times which drives a wedge between people and the Church is that the Church is essentially a bunch of hypocrites; look, we are told, they lecture about contraception and no extra-marital sex, but see what they do! Not so with His Holiness. He has made it clear that he intends to root this filth out. Perhaps somewhat uncharacteristically, our Holy Father also expressed the personal impact of the scandal, one which tallies with what I had heard from other priests. The shock, the shame, the humiliation visited on all priests by the act of some is truly heartbreaking.

Anyway, that's all I can manage for now. Maybe more later! Vade in pace.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008


Pope Benedict has landed in the United States, beginning his visit to our blessed country.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

The Hero with a Thousand Faces and the One True Myth

I had been meaning to pick up Joseph Campbell's book the Hero with a Thousand Faces for several years now, but owing to circumstances entirely beyond my control (read: lazy), I hadn't done so before now. At any rate, I believe I have accumulated enough familiarity with the primary sources of many mythical stories, something I would've had earlier. I won't be finished with it for a little while, but here are a few preliminary remarks.

One of the most noticeable characteristics of the book is a heavy reliance on Jung and Freud (duh). Jung I'm not familiar with, beyond the theory of archetypes, so I'll leave that alone for now. As to Freud, however, I was under the impression that a lot of his theoretical work and methodology were now frowned upon by experimental psychology. It could safely be said that Freud produced an interesting theoretical framework, but left little that could be spoken to by the application of a scientific method. I'd have to agree with the Newsweek issue in 2006 which labeled him "history's most debunked doctor". For one, after reading Plato's Republic, Freud's division of the psyche into id, ego, and superego had a decidedly familiar ring to it. Interesting philosophy, but not great science. And if repressed sexuality counted for so much with Freud, one is honor-bound to ask: "Sigmund, perhapz eet ees teim fur ein Kold Schauer, ja?" What does his preoccupation with sex tell us about his own thought processes, and does such a preoccupation reveal a fatal prejudice? The Oedipus complex is a sham; the nomenclature itself is phony. Oedipus was never subconsciously attracted to his mother; he was quite consciously attracted to Iokastê. It would make very little sense for him to be attracted to the mother he never knew. That would necessitate an intuition or retention of childhood memories which modern psychology simply debunks. And it is by no means a foregone conclusion that the complex is as universal as Freud would imply. (Penny for your thoughts on that one, though, Sigmund) However, Freud has proven most difficult to dislodge in just about every discipline except psychology. Art, music, literature, politics, philosophy still cling to him. Campbell's reliance on him, then, I find a little problematic.

It was in looking in Campbell's timeline of the hero and how the figure of Christ fits into it that my ears pricked up. This is always where these analyses seem to fall apart. The treatment of Christ as a hero might have some credibility, but only to a degree. He breaks the mold in certain ways. The comparison that stuck out most vividly in my mind was that of Christ on the Cross to Buddha under the Bo tree. The motif of World Savior, World Tree is there, sure. While Christ's temptation by the dark Lord of the Earth comes earlier in the Gospel narratives, it is here that Buddha is challenged. Evidently, he pulls through, and is told by the gods to proclaim his particular brand of enlightenment to men. Here is where things seem to get dicy; Buddha's public ministry is just beginning. But for Christ, "it is accomplished". The wisdom He brings to Men has, in a sense, already been brought. Buddha's Way is only then disseminated. But in Christ, all else preceded His self-sacrifice on the Cross. It is redemptive, and enlightening insofar as it bestows the light of salvation on all mankind. Man gains Buddha's Way from the Bo tree. It is a philosophy. Christ indeed does give us a philosophy- but He also gives us something else. Knowledge of how the universe works is not enough. No concept of balance or universal harmony sufficiently encompasses what He gave us. And the focus on Buddhist reincarnation is a further point deleterious to the comparison. Where Christ promises the fulfillment of Creation, Buddha remains bound to the circles of the World, the cycles of birth, death, and rebirth. This is likely a product of the belief that there is no permanent and immutable self or soul.

Another critique is that the myth presumes a process of becoming or knowing in the reaching of heroism. A hero gains mysterious and awesome powers, which "are revealed to have been within the heart of the hero all the time". That doesn't work so well with Christ. He knew what powers He had, and constantly proved this. His miracles didn't start with the Resurrection. Before then He healed the sick, cured the blind, cast out demons, even rose Lazarus from the tomb. His powers were no surprise to Him, and they were not won in a quest or journey. They were part of His very being. He was from the Beginning God's Son, the Uncreated Word, and so did not, indeed could not come to know what that means. He always knew what it meant.

What makes many myths so fascinating is how they show one man suddenly coming to know his own abilities, the power that lies within him. This is one of the central pivots of mythology. But it is the reverse in the Incarnation. That is a story not of a human coming through diverse trials to a secret source of strength/knowledge/wisdom/might. It is a story of how God emptied Himself and took on the raiment of one of His own children, humbling Himself and sharing in our existence. So Christ again breaks the mold in some pretty signal ways (or perhaps it would be better to say that that mold was too small all along to contain Him).

Anyway, that's all for now. The book could easily do without the thin notion that Christ is just another man, or just another man-made hero. It's an interesting book, though. Hope I can finish it without torpedoing what little is left of my GPA.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Yes.... we...... caaaannn...... ::sob::

The Messianic hopes and motifs which recently have been appended (both with and without his collusion) to the candidate Obama are truly fascinating. I admit, I had been observing the whole primary cycle with marked dispassion, given how doggedly I would follow politics but a few years ago. My interests have lain elsewhere for a while now, but this has been snowballing for a while. I intend to make a serious study of the manifestations of the popular idolatry of the Democrat's rising star, but I am somewhat behind the curve in that regard. But, if I may be permitted a few preliminary observations.

I would really like to ask the folks who promulgate the mantra "Yes We Can" to complete their sentence. Can, of course, is a complement; it needs an infinitive to fill out its meaning. But that's where things get fuzzy. Yes we can.... do what, pray tell? Given such a nebulous slogan, I'm inclined to think that the first possibilities listed would be woefully vague. "Change the world" might be the most platitudinous and sophomoric tripe to be served up, but what little money I have puts it in the top 5 for most respondents. Because who doesn't want to change the world? And when all it takes to change the world is depressing the little lever at the voting booth, or making sure that a chad is completely punched out, it almost becomes a no-brainer. Now, instead of doing missionary work to Africa or providing for the building of a well in El Salvador, you can claim that you've done more to change the world simply by bestowing on the poor backward U.S. of KKK A (what an odious and puerile word-play! If you're going to be provocative, please be something more than a provocative hack!) a leader who can and will change the world. Innit just great?

But I'm wondering what happens when you get into specifics with the Obama fangirls and -boys. My sense is that Obama is in this respect a tabula rasa. He is the canvas on which all kinds of different policies, ideologies, and philosophies are imposed. This is greatly helped by running on a platform of "change you can believe in". Being somewhere in between a Ciceronian and a monarchist at this point, I am obviously very suspicious of that sort of candidate. He is able by his very lack of definition to become what people want him to be, whatever that might be.

What is becoming progressively (everyone should also catch the subtle pun here) more creepy about all of this is the degree to which Obama's messianic mythos is becoming standard fare. Witness his wife, who, every time she opens her mouth, proves she should be strongly dissuaded from opening her mouth: "We need a leader who's going to touch our souls because, you see, our souls are broken". Another whopper, from Oprah: "We need politicians who know how to be the truth." Anyone else's skin crawling? I suppose Christ had better take note; He's evidently not been doing His job. Someone else, apparently, is the way, the truth, and the life.

With this sort of drivel, one must start to ask if he attended that wacko church as a man simply adoring the one on the Cross, or to be adored as the one upon it! Politicians may touch my sympathies; they may touch my sense of duty and patriotism; they may touch my wallet very infrequently and with utmost restraint, but I don't want their grubby little digits anywhere near my soul. But notice in that quote an important point as well, one which Christopher Dawson first observed and which Russell Kirk later expanded- with the lack of an overriding religious conviction, something else begins to take its place. I am not surprised in the least that a congregant of that blasted and benighted church finds themselves somehow cheated of real religious conviction. And let's look at the recent efforts by the Democrat party to win back "the religious vote". Well, here's where it's all being channeled.

As usual, I have overstepped my bounds and been unduly provocative. I don't think all Democrats are that way. I doubt that the majority of Obama's supporters think that way, at least consciously. I imagine a good deal of the support for him comes from an enthusiasm on their part which is greatly helped by a stage presence Broadway actors would kill for, an eloquence that elicits occasional grudging admiration from even prematurely curmudgeonly yours-truly, and an aura of youth, health, and vitality that's been absent from the political scene lately. But still, there are enough making these outlandish statements about him that it deserves comment. And ridicule.

Addendum: It ought to be asked as well where the usual "absolute separation of Church and State" cries have gone in this. If it's completely unacceptable in this country for a piece of legislation to be unduly connected to the one who, 2000 years ago, "claimed" to be the way, the truth, the life, the incarnate Word, then why are so many secularists suddenly getting a collective for this candidate using exactly the same terms? For the love of the saints, does he plan on becoming Divus Obamus after his term is up?

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Ioannes Paulus Magnus, ora pro nobis

Today marks the third anniversary of the death of the Servant of God, John Paul the Great.