Wednesday, November 27, 2013

St. Augustine and a Blanket

It has been quite a while since I have written a blog post. But I found this blog (through another blog) that hosts a link-up that includes two of my recent activities: reading and knitting.  This link-up is called Yarn Along, and is hosted by Ginny at Small Things.


So what have I been reading and knitting?


Reading: 
St. Augustine's Confessions.  This semester I am taking an online course on the Confessions, and it has been very interesting.  The work is divided into 13 books, in which St. Augustine tells the reader about himself, his conversion story, and most importantly, God.  I'm going to "double dip" by sharing one of my discussion posts from the class:

Throughout the Confessions, Augustine speaks of God in a few different contexts.  A significant example is Augustine speaking in the context of how Manicheeism was wrong about God’s nature, which he begins in book IV.  A second significant example is Augustine speaking of God in the context of how the Neo-Platonic works helped him to understand the Christian concept of God.

Augustine speaks of himself as a convert who has learned from his past sins, and has been maturing spiritually and intellectually on his journey toward God.  He acknowledges his intellectual weakness in comparison with God’s wisdom, and seeks a better understanding of God. 

The relationship of which Augustine speaks between himself and God takes the form of acknowledging their comparative and complementary natures, and in the recognition of God as the highest relationship of the human heart.  Augustine points out that God is independent while he himself is dependent on God as his creator; that God is changeless, and he himself is changeable and is able to seek God; that while he as a person is spirit and matter, God is pure spirit, and chooses to dwell in human memory, through which the soul may seek him.  At the very beginning of the Confessions, Augustine clearly states this very important relationship between and human person and God: “Nevertheless, to praise you is the desire of man, a little piece of your creation.  You stir man to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you” (I.i).


Knitting: 
Knitting has been my hobby for a while now, and most recently I've been knitting something for the baby we're expecting in February!  

At first I was thinking it would be a blanket, but I recently came up with a new idea.  It's not finished yet, but it will have all the colors of the rainbow (because babies like colors). After the purple, will be blue, then green (and so on if I want it bigger).  I'm thinking of making another one with more contrasting colors, maybe black and white, and sewing them back to back, with some batting in the middle, to make a double-sided playmat type thing. If I don't do all that, then it will be a colorful blanket.

The pattern I'm using is the "Ten Stitch Blanket," by Frankie Brown, found here on Ravelry.


Sunday, September 1, 2013

Conscience and Tyranny

A little while ago, I was hiking up a mountain in Lake George, NY with my father, two brothers, and youngest sister.  Happily the mountain was a very small one, for my father and I probably could have handled little more.  As we huffed and puffed in growing fatigue, my sister, then about 5 minutes ahead of us, waited for us to catch up and then told us about some disfavor she had fallen into at her work.  In response, I told her about a tyrant who once showed a visitor to his garden.  Among the plants in the garden, one had grown above the rest.  The tyrant showed his visitor about the garden and as they approached the one plant that grew above the rest, the tyrant pulled out a machete and quickly cut it down to the level of the others.  The message was clear: no subject must be allowed to rise above the rest.  Tyranny can tolerate mediocrity but never excellence. 

The tyrant in question might have been any number of men over the years.  It might have been Napoleon  Stalin, or Henry VIII.  Robert Bolton captured well the attitude of Henry VIII toward the few men that dared raise their heads above the rest, toward the few plants that dared grow above their appointed bounds.  When Henry VIII broke with Rome and declared himself the head of the Church of England, he demanded that everyone follow him.  Nearly everyone did—but nearly was not enough.  When almost everyone else went along, Thomas More, did not.  He did not speak or write against Henry, he simply remained silent.  One silent man perhaps should not have seemed too much of a threat to Henry VIII, but Henry did not want More’s silence, but his approval.  When everyone else supported Henry, why should one silent man have bothered him so much?  Bolton’s Henry, speaking to More, gave the answer:
            Because you're honest... and what is more to the purpose, you're known to be honest. There are those like Norfolk who follow me because I wear the crown; and those like Master Cromwell who follow me because they are jackals with sharp teeth and I'm their tiger; there's a mass that follows me because it follows anything that moves. And then there's you...

The existence of even one good man is a spur in the conscience of the wicked.  The existence of one good man tells the rest of the world what it should be and that it should not be what it is.  Even schoolchildren know this; it is why they dislike excellence in their classmates.  Henry stood condemned not by any word of Thomas More’s, but by his existence.  He stood judged not by a letter of More’s, but by his very life.  Faced with this condemnation, Henry could have beaten his own breast in repentance, or he could have beaten More’s head off.  He did the latter. 

More was not the first to lose his head to the tyrant’s blade.  John the Baptist lost his head in like circumstances to the same sort of petty tyrant.  King Herod had married his brother’s wife while his brother was still living and John forbade him this.  John was only one weak prophet.  He had no armies and was no threat Herod, save that he threatened his conscience.  But that was enough.  John was a good man, known to be a good man and hence by his very existence condemned Herod.  And so Herod (and his wife) had to destroy John.  If there were only one good man (or woman) in a bad world, the world would have to destroy that one man.  How could it not, when on a gibbet before the nations, it unfurled goodness itself (1)? 

The same persecution is still the case even today.  Many supporters of same-sex “marriage” insist they simply want to be “married” and will leave everyone else alone.  But this is not true.  There are multiple examples of bakeries refusing to make a cake in celebration of a same-sex wedding, and being attacked because of it (2).  Why that should be when many other bakeries would happily make such a cake should now be obvious.  It would not matter if 99 bakeries in a city would happily make a cake for such a wedding.  As long as only one would not, that one would be too much.  If one man only refuses to support same same “marriage” and stands on silence, that one man will be too much and it will be for the same reason Henry VIII could not stand for Thomas More’s silence.  As Bolton’s Cromwell put it, “silence can, in fact, speak--” sometimes too much for a guilty conscience to bear.

(1). Fulton Sheen, Life of Christ


Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Love and Tolerance

As modern society moves toward redefining marriage to include romantic attachments between members of the same sex, the rallying cry of the redefiners is “tolerance” and “acceptance.”  One should tolerate everyone and everything.  One should accept everyone as they are, not as they should be; those who fail to be tolerant and accepting, who obey God rather than man, are hateful, bigots, fit only to be attacked and demonized.  Tolerance is perhaps the highest value of a secular society, but not, however, of a divine one. 

When God walked the earth two thousand years ago, a member of the intellectual elite, wishing to test Him asked Him what was the greatest commandment.  Our Lord replied,  Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind'; and, 'Love your neighbor as yourself (Luke 10:27).  Later, at His last meal with his disciples before His death and Resurrection, He gave them a last command saying,
            A new commandment I give unto you: That you love one another, as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you have love one for another (John 13:34-35).

On multiple occasions Our Lord commanded love, but never once did He command tolerance.  Never did he command his disciples, “tolerate others as I have tolerated you.”  Never did He tell a sinner He forgave, “I accept you as you are.”  He never merely accepted a person as that person was, but sent that person away as he should be.  Recognizing that a person should be a certain way implied that the person as he was, was unacceptable.  But though a person’s actions might be unacceptable and intolerable, that person himself was still lovable.  Hence Our Lord could defend the woman caught in adultery from her attackers, but also tell her to “go and sin no more.”

Tolerance, as a former professor once told me, is simply the other face of indifference.  And Elie Weisel, concentration camp survivor and author of Night, once remarked that the oppossite of love is not hatred, but indifference.  Mere tolerance or acceptance is not simply a lesser form of love, but its oppossite.  No one who loves anyone ever merely tolerates them.  A wife who did not love her husband very much might tolerate his alcoholism (at least until it became inconvenient to her).  She might accept him as he was and not bother trying to change him for the better.  In such a case though, we should have to conclude the woman’s tolerance and acceptance indicated not the greatness of her love for her husband, but its smallness.  

Real love may even entail a significant degree of intolerance and unnacceptance, because love always entails truth.  In The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis said that one cannot love a lie, he cannot love a thing that is not.   Hence love entails truth and truth always entails not only the recognition of what is, but what ought to be.  It may entail recognizing that a thing that is, should not be.  Thus a woman’s love for her husband will entail recognition of what he should be and hence an unacceptance of him as he is and an intolerance of his alcoholism.  It will be so even if her husband protests about her intolerance, insists that he is happy as he is, and insists that his wife accept him as he is.


Jesus never merely tolerated anyone.  He loved them.  Not the love of a modern secular world that is only sentiment, or romantic attachment,  or a sort of weak tolerance or mere acceptance.  Love is not tolerance.  It is something both higher and holier, more terrible and more splendid.  It is a cross and a crown of thorns, a battle and a fight, but not tolerance and not necessarily acceptance.  

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Imagine No Religion...

In 1971, John Lennon composed one of his more popular songs, “Imagine,” where he asked listeners to imagine a world with no heaven, hell, or religion:

“Imagine there's no heaven
It's easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today...

Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too...”

I recently saw an internet meme that celebrated this song asking us to imagine all the supposed  benefits of a world without religion.  This is a common cant among the so-called New Atheists who, with much noise and little sense, rail against what they see as the evils of religion, its irrationality, and the stupidity of the deluded beliver.  Against the evils of religion, the  modern heathen asks us to imagine a world with no religion, no God, no heaven, and no hell.  In doing so, they think themselves progressive, modern, and ahead of the times.  Richard Dawkins, prince of the New Atheists, along with the death of God, proclaims that: “there is at bottom no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pointless indifference... We are machines for propagating DNA...”  He and his followers imagine themselves to be much ahead of their time.  In reality, they are at least a 100 years behind it. 

In 1882, Fredreiche Nietsche, among the first prophets of the modern God-is-dead movement, asked his readers to imagine a world without God.  He had his madmen proclaims God’s death:
                "Whither is God?" he cried; "I will tell you. We have killed him---you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon?... Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning? Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition? Gods, too, decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. "How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers?
Seeing the modern world slaying God, Nietsche proclaimed the advent of moral nihilism, the destruction of all meaning and value in life.  Dawkins, in imagining a world without God, a world with no good or evil, where man was only a machine, did nothing new.  He simply argued what others had done before him.  Likewise today, there is no need for the modern man to imagine the death of God and no religion, others, besides Nietsche, have already imagined this world.

Dostoyevsky saw the growth of atheism in Russia and imagined where it would lead.  Like Nietsche, he saw a world bereft of meaning and value, right and wrong.  In The Brothers Karamazov, he proclaimed that “If there is no God, then all things are permitted.”   What Dostoyevsky saw with fear, others worked for.  Josef Stalin imagined a world with no religion.  Yet he did more than simply imagine that world, he tried to create it.  He persecuted the churches and  purged his enemies.  Stalin’s world without God was a world where all things were permitted—to him. 

John Lennon was wrong.   In a world without religion, there was plenty to kill for.  Stalin found many reasons, as did Mao and Pol Pot.  Men have scarce needed religion to supply a reason to kill; the lust for power, wealth, and even sex has always provided adequate reason. 

Yet, Lennon was also partly right.  He was wrong in claiming that a world with no religion would leave nothing to kill for, but he was right that in a world without religion there would be nothing to die for.   If man is just, as Dawkins says, a machine for propogating DNA, then why die for a fellow machine.  Nor can one die for freedom; no machine is free.  This is why tyrants have either tried to control religion or to eradicate it.  Stalin knew what he was doing.  Likewise, if there is “no purpose, no evil, no good,” then how can one die for what is right?  There is no right. 

With no religion, there would be nothing to die for.  As others have said, if a man has nothing worth dying for, he has nothing worth living for.  Hence the atheist Camus saw that the only serious question was whether or not one should commit suicide.  This is the world Lennon imagined;  but he had no need to imagine it.  Others imagined it first.  Worse, others have tried, and still try, to make such a world happen.


Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Solemnity and Joy



A short time ago, on April 9, the popular Jesuit writer Fr. James Martin spoke to a large audience of Catholic students on the subject of joy, humor, and the spiritual life.  He gave a wonderfully entertaining talk, bringing with him the full range of Jesuit jokes (A Jesuit died and was accepted into heaven amid much fanfare.  A Franciscan, asking why he did not receive similar notice was told, “we get Franciscans here all the time, we haven’t had a Jesuit in the last 250 years.”) and a range of humorous stories. 

At the same time, he spoke seriously about the real value of humor and a sense of fun and its value for the spiritual life.  He talked about the value of humor to welcome, to express Christian courage (St. Lawrence, martyed by being roasted alive on a grill, said to his torturers “flip me over, I’m done on this side), and as a safeguard of humility.  A man should be able to laugh at himself and even be able to make jokes at his own expense.  If he cannot, he may be of the sort who “carries his own importance as though afraid of breaking it.  He urged against those who risked considering fun and humor as enemies of the spiritual life and who were too concerned with solemnity. 

There are two errors a man can make regarding solemnity in worship and spirituality.  The one is to deny excitement, humor, and fun any place in the spiritual life, the other is to give them an overwhelming place and deny anny significant place to solemnity.  The first error is puritan, but the second just as bad.  I do not think Fr. Martin intended to deny a legitimate place to solemnity in the spiritual life, and I do not think he meant to suggest solemnity to be the enemy of joy.  Nonetheless some questions asked afterward indicated that at least some of the audience had this impression and I think it worth reflecting briefly on.  If one danger is that we deny excitement, fun, and humor any place in the spritual life, then another is that we deny solemnity any and dismiss or ridicule any attempts at solemnity as “dreary puritanism.”  Likewise, we might wrongly assume that solemnity must be the enemy of joy.  Afterall, if one is joyful isn’t he naturally exuberant and excited? 

Well, no.  Solemnity need not be the enemy of joy; in many cases it may be its ally.  If I remember my own wedding rightly, it contained many elements of solemnity, but was not the less joyful for that.  Or a scene from The Wind in the Willows, Mole and Rat saw Pan in the woods:

            Then suddenly the Mole felt a great Awe fall upon him, an awe that turned his muscles to water, bowed his head, and rooted his feet to the ground. It was no panic terror--indeed he felt wonderfully at peace and happy--but it was an awe that smote and held him and, without seeing, he knew it could only mean that some august Presence was very, very near. With difficulty he turned to look for his friend. and saw him at his side cowed, stricken, and trembling violently. And still there was utter silence in the populous bird-haunted branches around them; and still the light grew and grew (1).

Awed into silence from what they saw, Mole turned to Rat and asked if he was afraid,

            Afraid?' murmured the Rat, his eyes shining with unutterable love. `Afraid! Of HIM? O, never, never! And yet--and yet-- O, Mole, I am afraid!'
            Then the two animals, crouching to the earth, bowed their heads and did worship.

The animals were no less joyful because they were the more solemn for their solemnity did not spring from dreariness, but from reverence.  The solemnity came from the awe and the reverence, whence also came the joy.  I read another writer who suggested that joy should come from wonder and awe not be based only in warm feelings and fun (2).  That seems precisely right.  Thomas Aquinas said that “no man can live without joy.” There may be times, however, when this joy may contain some elements of solemnity and it need not be the less joyful for that. 




(3) See also Peter Kreeft: http://www.peterkreeft.com/topics/joy.htm