Post 24

Got Talent? Reflections on the Imbalance in Talents

I once watched as two housecleaners disagreed about vacuum cleaners.  One said Miele was better but the other said Dyson was better.  They went back and forth, each bringing forth an anecdote to prove that her own vacuum was superior, but neither convinced the other.  Then the Miele advocate stopped, because she knew that if it went any further, it would get ugly.

Nowadays, you can kind of get away with saying that one product is better than another, or that such-and-such a band or reality television show is better than another.

But when it comes to the really important things, like religion and belief systems, well, you can’t even get started.  These topics are off limits, verboten.  It’s an unstated rule that anybody who knows anything must not speak of such things, and we cordon them off: beyond this line, you must not go.  We can discuss anything else under the sun except the things that really matter.  So long as it doesn’t matter, we can talk about it.  That’s why nowadays we can talk in a casual manner about every aspect of human sexuality, because we’ve pushed it into the category of things that don’t matter.  The only things you’re allowed to be earnest about are the trivial things.  About the serious things, you can only joke.

But there is one thing that is infinitely more absurd and unpractical than burning a man for his philosophy.  This is the habit of saying that his philosophy does not matter, and this is done universally in the twentieth century, in the decadence of the great revolutionary period.  General theories are everywhere condemned; the doctrine of the Rights of Man is dismissed with the doctrine of the Fall of Man.  Atheism itself is too theological for us to-day . . . we will have no generalizations.  Mr. Bernard Shaw has put the view in a perfect epigram: ‘The golden rule is that there is no golden rule.’ We are more and more to discuss details in art, politics, literature.  A man’s opinion on tramcars matters; his opinion on Botticelli matters; his opinion on all things does not matter.  He may turn over and explore a million objects, but he must not find that strange object, the universe; for if he does he will have a religion, and be lost.  Everything matters – except everything.

– G.K. Chesteron, Heretics, Chapter 1

It’s partly because of relativism.  The dominant assumption is that truth depends on your point of view, and that, in general, all religions and belief systems are pretty much equal.  It’s a flattening out of everything, in a false equality.  You can’t say that one idea or set of ideas is better than another.  Use the word ‘better’ at your own risk!  After all, those who utter this word prove that they are judgmental, arrogant and, of course, wrong.

And then this spills over into other areas, where we are afraid to say that one student is better than another student (hence the assigning of grades is now considered damaging and outdated), and we of course can’t say that one person is more talented than another person, except in the context of a TV contest.  If you were to say that, then you’d be quickly corrected.  Someone will point out:  “Ah, but everyone’s good at something; everyone has their special talent!”

Is everyone good at something?  Does everyone have that special talent?  Are we all kind of the same that way?  You’ve got your thing, and I’ve got my thing?

I don’t really think so (even though I think that many people are a lot more talented than they realize) and for a long time, I’ve disagreed – secretly of course – that things are so neat and tidy like that.

The whole issue of talents seems to me way more messy and complicated.  Indeed, from what I can tell, talents are like almost anything else on this side of heaven: distributed very unevenly, like fresh water or any other natural thing.  Some people have a lot, and others don’t.

I mean, you don’t have to know much history to know that there were some people who were head-and-shoulders above their contemporaries.  And when we consider the people that we’ve met in our own lives, it’s easy to bring to mind individuals who are incredibly gifted.  These individuals could barely choose a profession because their gifts were so diverse.  Shall I pursue a career as a physician or as a concert pianist?  Physical engineering or ballet?  Go to any medical school or law school and you’ll find that many of the students are also athletic, attractive and really likeable.  And JustOne and I have on occasion talked about how, on the whole, the stereotype about the unintelligent athlete is inaccurate (after all, outward health, beauty and ability can signal inward health and mental balance). But in any case, these talented people have so much of everything, they’re almost unbelievable – except, they are real, and we’ve met them.

Turning to the other end of the spectrum, to those who, from birth or from later in life, have suffered with various disabilities or who seem generally less talented, it is futile for me to argue that they do not have at least one special talent (it’s always impossible to argue definitively against the existence of something; I don’t know how atheists can be so sure).  After all, we can redefine ‘talent’ to include latent talent, hidden talent, unused talent, undeveloped talent, compromised talent, damaged talent, area of strength, area of interest, so that the statement continues to be true, but my point is that the saying emphasizes and suggests sameness, when the reality is difference.  The reality is that the distribution looks pretty much haphazard, and, to be frank, unfair: one person can do so much so well, and another person can barely do one thing to the level of his peers.

When we deny the differences, when we flatten them out and pretend they’re insignificant, we do not tell the truth about those people who have been blessed with superabundant talent.  And conversely, when we deny the differences, we do not tell the truth about those people who started out with very few, or no, visible talents.  Does every biography begin the same way?  Does every story of a saint’s life begin by identifying the person’s primary talent and then build from there?  Of course not.  There are those saints like Pope John Paul II who were multi-talented, but then there are saints like St. Joseph Cupertino who were not.  Everyone is given very different internal and external components from conception.  God’s talent, so to speak, is in raising up saints from every starting point.  The apostles’ ordinariness, for example, is an essential part of the New Testament narrative for many reasons, including the fact that it shows how we can be completely transformed when we follow God’s plan for our lives.  A genuine relationship with God will always involve “total regeneration.  His spirit is too new, too vigorous, to be forced into old moulds, which are ceasing to be the proper ones.”  (Navarre Bible, Commentary on Matt. 9:14-17)

But the other thing that I dislike about this idea of equality of talent is that it seems to carry within it the notion that people should have (at least) one talent.  I think it over-values talent, and it’s a way of saying that everybody is special because they’re equally talented.  You have a special talent, and I have one, therefore you’re special and I’m special.  The idea is that everyone brings something to the table, everyone is contributing something.  On the face of it, this doesn’t seem like a negative, but I think it’s an unfortunate mix-up.

It’s a mix-up that our modern society would tend to make, because we do value people based on their abilities and usefulness.  It’s becoming dangerous in our society to be seen as not productive.  The disabled, the elderly, the unborn, the unemployed, are vulnerable in a society that measures you by what you can do and by what you have, materially and otherwise, instead of by what you are.  And this is becoming increasingly the case. (Hence it’s not considered a bad thing to be busy, because that means you’re part of the game.)  People are more and more being evaluated for their functionality and features, as if they were vacuum cleaners.  It’s no wonder then that we rush to say everyone’s got their gift.

And furthermore, it’s a mix-up that our modern society tends to make, which is to say something false because we so badly want to say something good and true.  We say something stupid, like men and women are the same, because we want to say men and women are equal.  It’s true that they are equal, but it’s not because they are the same.  There is equality even where there is difference.

After all, if two things are not different, then it’s a piece of cake, to say that they are equal.  Being somewhat lazy, then, we keep looking at things that are obviously different and saying, ‘these are the same’ because then we can just move to the desired conclusion, and say they’re of equal value or worth.  It’s back to the fear of saying that something is better than something else.

That’s why the teaching of the church is startling.  The church teaches that the equality of persons persists despite the differences.  A slave is equal to his master.  A woman is equal to a man.  A child is equal to an adult.  An unborn child is equal to a born child.

If there were no differences, then it wouldn’t be so shocking to say these different people are equal.  And it is shocking.  The Church always sounds shocking in what she teaches, because the teachings are not in accord with the current fashions of thought. In one era of human history, people did not see that a slave was equal to a master, and so we scorn the blindness of that era.  Do we acknowledge how Christianity enabled that thought process to take place?  Meanwhile, in our current age, it seems outrageous to claim, as the Church does, that the unborn child over here is equal to that child prodigy over there.  It seems outrageous to claim, as the Church does, that the old woman with a feeding tube over here is equal to the Hollywood darling over there.  We have our modern blindness.

The Church’s claim brings our attention to something deeper.  How can these people be equal if they are superficially so different?  How can that promising, well-rounded Rhodes Scholar be considered of the same worth as the unemployed beggar who sits near the bank machines?  Aside from the fact that life can amazingly change the one into the other, the Church will answer that it’s because their equality arises from something more profound than their external circumstances or even their different internal qualities.

And here’s the crux of it.  Our abilities are, at the end of the day, just something that we have, not who we are.  Our talents are always in flux, waxing and waning as we journey through life.  They are subject to all the limitations of our human bodies and can be irreversibly lost to us when we cross the street at the wrong moment.  No, this is not the source of our value.  These things can be as different as day and night, and we remain utterly equal to each other.

It doesn’t matter that there is incredible disparity and inequality in the raw materials of our lives, because our equality arises from our equal dignity as human beings.  That’s what we are: human, with body and soul, no more, no less, and that’s enough.  It’s nothing shocking or scandalous to point out all the ways that we’re different, and we can even celebrate these differences, provided that we keep in mind that we are nevertheless completely equal because we have equal dignity.

The biblical parable about the talents illustrates how different we are in what we’ve been given, but it also shows that the call or invitation is the same to each of us: to serve our master with purity of intention and to the best of our ability.  This call does not depend on how ‘good’ or ‘great’ we are. “When God calls us, he does not expect us to have great qualities; he wants us to listen carefully, and to be prompt in our response” (Navarre Bible, Commentary on Matthew 9:9-13

Post 23

Looking Forward to It:
Reflections on Anticipation, Ambition and the Big Dream

It’s so natural for us to look ahead into the future, seeking happiness just beyond the horizon.  I came across this:

The Beatitudes are a map of the route to human happiness, and one reason they are such a good one is that they express the dual desire that God has written on the human heart – to attain true happiness on earth and eternal bliss.

Navarre Bible, Commentary on Matt. 5:1-12

The essential teachings of Christianity aren’t given to us in order for us to have a miserable life on earth followed by a sublime afterlife.  No – they show us the (counter-intuitive) method of how to be happy both on earth and in the life beyond.  The quotation says that it’s God who has “written on the human heart” the desire to be happy, both on earth and after death.  God therefore gives us the tools to attain abiding happiness in our everyday lives.

Lately I’ve been thinking about this human inclination to look forward – indeed, if you don’t look forward to anything, it can be a sign of depression or other dysfunction – and specifically to the differences between anticipation, ambition and dreams.

Anticipation is when you look ahead to something you’re pretty sure that you’re going to get.  You might not know exactly how it’s going to play out, but you figure it’s going to happen, and you’re going to like it.  From a spiritual point of view, there’s nothing wrong with anticipation, as Fr. Jacques Phillipe writes, provided that you can still accept the graces of today:

Sometimes, though, it isn’t worry that causes us to focus on the future, but the hope of something better or happier.  It may be a very specific event, like a reunion with someone we love or coming home after a long, tiring journey.  Or it may be less well-defined: the time when things will go better, circumstances will change, life will be more interesting.  At present, we tell ourselves, we don’t really have a life, but later we will ‘live life to the full.’  There is nothing wrong with that, but it does contain a certain danger.  We may spend our whole lives waiting to live.  Thus we risk not fully accepting the reality of our present lives.  Yet, what guarantee is there that we won’t be disappointed when the long-awaited time arrives?  Meanwhile, we don’t put our hearts sufficiently into today, and so miss graces we should be receiving.  Let us live each moment to the full, not worrying about whether time is going quickly or slowly but welcoming everything given us moment by moment.

Jacques Philippe, Interior Freedom, Chapter 2

Then there are ambitions.

An ambition is further down that continuum of likelihood.  Unlike the objects of anticipation, the passing of time does not guarantee that you’ll fulfill your ambition.  Nevertheless, ambitions are, for the most part, attainable and rather concrete.  Here, the attainment of our goal seems to depend very much on how we play our cards and there’s a strong sense of ‘earning’ when it comes to our ambitions.  Do x, y and z with the right amount of effort and in the right amount of time and you stand a good chance of getting what you want.  St. Josemaria Escriva encourages us to have a healthy dose of ambition, and he’s not speaking only of ambition for heaven.

He emphasizes that we gain credibility by our reputation for good work in our field.  He says we are supposed to do natural things, like work, with a supernatural motive.  It’s part of being a good Christian: you have to put your heart into what you do.  St. Josemaria even laments those who view themselves as holy while doing shoddy work.

And then there are dreams.

A dream is a mixture of the attainable and unattainable.  It’s a dream because it’s out of reach for you right now in some significant way.  You lack the necessary mix of circumstances to get what you want.  Waiting, in and of itself, won’t bring about your dream, and there’s a lot less that you can control to make it happen.  The notion of ‘earning’ isn’t as strong, because so much of it is not within your power.  It’s more like a prayer answered, a wish granted.

A few weeks ago, I was talking to a young man who made his living as a rickshaw driver.  He pedalled tourists around using an electrically-powered bicycle.   He said, “Sleep is death,” – obviously an ambitious fellow.  But I was curious – with that amount of drive, he must be heading somewhere.  So I asked him what his life’s dream was (first time I asked a stranger that).

Chesterton says we tell the most important things to the complete stranger, since in them we see unadulterated Man.

The rickshaw driver told me that his dream was to design a certain type of app, which he would then market.

You usually would never guess what a person’s dreams are because their current line of work gives you no hint.  I can think of several instances in just the last little while, where people have mentioned – without my asking – what their dream jobs would be, or would have been: the dental hygienist told me she had dreamed of being a forensic scientist, the lawn care worker told me he would like to support himself as an actor, and my friend told me that her engineer husband always wanted to be an artist.  (Probably the most popular hidden dreams relate to the less ‘practical’ pursuits.)

I was surprised that St. Josemaria Escriva commented about the big dream, about the kind of forward-looking which gropes for the unattainable.  But why not?  Dreams are an important part of the human condition. We aren’t dogs on a couch who think only of our next meal – we so easily begin to think of more; we yearn.  Even the ‘couch potato,’ outwardly idle, has his idea of the dream career – he watches sports imagining himself as one of the athletes, or at least as the commentator.

Anyway, it was this quotation that stopped me in my tracks:

Persevere in the exact fulfillment of the obligations of the moment.  That work – humble, monotonous, small – is prayer expressed in action that prepares you to receive the grace of the other work – great and wide and deep – of which you dream.

The Way, no. 825

I find this fascinating.  Does it suggest, counter-intuitively, that the faithfulness of the rickshaw driver to his bicycling duties will ready him for making and marketing his app?  Indeed, it says that the critical preparation for “the other work” can be accomplished in the context of something which appears utterly at odds with it.

If so, then achieving our dreams isn’t as dependent on all those factors that we first think of, and which we can’t control – our present circumstances and all those external things like knowing the right people and being in the right place at the right time. Instead, it’s more like a mysterious underground seed, waiting for certain conditions.

St. Josemaria Escriva is saying that fulfilling our dream depends on what is internal and invisible.  We need to make ourselves ready, by continuing in our duties of the moment with the right motives.  And this behaviour will, according to this quotation, have two effects: first, it will change us inwardly to make us better suited for our dream work, and second, it will act as a prayer, a request for the grace of “the other work – great and wide and deep – of which you dream.”

And I see that this has the passive elements of anticipation, where you must wait patiently, but also the active elements of ambition, where you must work with diligence and precision.   Ultimately, though, it’s still a gift, a grace.

Post 22

My Pizza is Ruined! Reflections on the Small Battles

So let’s say you order a pizza.  You’re not a vegetarian, so you’ve gotten the one with the bacon.  You’ve paid the pizza delivery man, opened the box, and it hits you: they’ve left off the bacon.  Just completely omitted it, as if you didn’t make it abundantly clear when you placed your order. And, as if that isn’t enough, they’ve added insult to injury, and covered the pizza with green peppers that you didn’t even order.  What’s going on?  Didn’t they hear you?  Did the pizza place do this on purpose to save money?  That boy who took the order didn’t seem like he knew what he was doing, and here’s the proof!  Should you send it back and wait another forty minutes? This is terrible!  What are you supposed to do now – pick out each string of green pepper?  The indignity!  The outrage!

Is this an important moment?  Or is it just ‘small stuff?’  We’re supposed to stay cool and collected and laugh it off as the trivial moment that it is.  In the big picture, it’s nothing, so why are you so worked up about it?

I like what Chesterton says about “the little things.” When one character says, “I do not know that I would make away with courtesy, but only with all these small points of politeness, all these little things,” the hero of the story disagrees utterly:

JOHNSON: [interrupting with a roar]: Madam, that is all stuff. Reason will tell any one but a fool to attend to little things. The bullet that kills a man is a little thing. The pill that saves his life is a little thing. It is by his consciousness of little things that a man proves himself to be properly alive. He who is proud of being unaware of his surroundings, be he a sage of the east or the west, is proud of being a stock or a stone. A turnip is unaware of its surroundings.

— G.K. Chesterton, The Judgment of Dr. Johnston

I’m glad there are books and speakers who will encourage us to rise above occasions of frustration, but I differ in my characterizations of these tiny frustrations.  I’d say they’re the opposite of ‘small stuff.’  They are big moments, because they’re moments of suffering, and that’s when the real battles happen.

Suffering is when you get what you didn’t want (green peppers), and you didn’t get what you did want (bacon).

Now I know that such a word seems out of place and melodramatic in this hypothetical (I like green pepper, though red pepper is better) context. To say you experience suffering when you didn’t get the right topping sounds, well, a bit much, but isn’t that what it is?  Isn’t that the proper word for all those situations – big or small – where you were unexpectedly deprived of something which you wanted / expected / ‘deserved’ (I really dislike that word) / earned, and were instead given something else which you did not want / expect / deserve?

I don’t think it’s enough to call it a problem, a let-down, a disappointment, a bummer, a rip-off and so on, because those words are really external.  They make it sound like the problem is solely ‘out there.’ You can envision a problem without a person, but when you hear the word ‘suffering’ you know that there has to be a sufferer.  You can envision a crisis without a person, but you can’t think of a cross or a burden without visualizing a person under it.

These heavy-duty words, like ‘suffering,’ ‘mortification,’ ‘burden’ or even ‘cross’ show that the issue is both inside you (the way you wanted things to go) and outside you (the way things went).  We suffer because they don’t match.

And these situations of suffering are tests.  They are actually the battlegrounds where we show what we’re made of.  You are tested to see how you react.  Today I noticed how Matthew says that Christ “was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.”  In other words, I see that it was someone good who led him to that place where he’d be tempted.  It wasn’t a bad thing that he was going to be tempted; it was the whole point!  A test is a test, no matter what disguise it wears.  But usually they are pop-quizzes, a test in a moment and about something that you weren’t expecting.  You can’t choose the type of test, the only thing you can control is how you perform now that you’re taking it.  And are you ready?  Are you able to stay pleasant and charitable?  Can you keep your peace?  I bet you probably can maintain your composure when you have friends with you and you don’t want to make a fool of yourself.  And it helps if you’ve had enough sleep and you’re looking forward to a fun evening.  But how about if it’s not friends, and ‘just’ family?  How about if you’re super hungry, tired and still annoyed about what happened at work?  You may not pass this test with flying colours.

But the word ‘suffering’ is useful. It’s a special word signifying a moment in our life where we’re in some turmoil.  It would be a mistake to underestimate how important these situations are simply because the situation wouldn’t ruffle the feathers of an outsider.  If you watch children get into an argument, you’ll see that it usually arises out of something which seems so unimportant to the adults in the room.  For that matter, if you’re ever on the outside of any conflict, it seems like much ado about nothing.  But to come along and say that it is unimportant because it should be unimportant is to altogether miss the human drama that is happening here.

Any situation which causes you to suffer is an important moment.  It’s big stuff, because now you’re being tested.

The saints talk a lot about these moments, and how difficult they are.  They understand what’s at stake, and so they use words like ‘battle,’ ‘struggle,’ ‘fight.’  And indeed it’s the most difficult battle of all, because we’ve met our match when we fight ourselves.

The saints are admirable because they fought themselves day in and day out for the sake of a higher purpose. They kept trying to do the better and more difficult thing; they kept trying to resist their impulse to complain, to criticize, to make that snarky remark, to be lazy – and they resisted these things over and over again.  They are just like us, in that they have all the same urges and weaknesses and temptations.  They are different from us because they tried so valiantly to be the better version of themselves.  They were heroic in their moments of suffering.  And they would totally understand how an objectively tiny thing can be the cause of a lot of suffering, requiring tremendous self-control.  They’re human; they’ve had their pizza moments too.

St. Therese of Lisieux describes how she was in the process of putting away the keys when another sister wrongly tried to take them from her, on the grounds that Therese would be too noisy:

Then what we feared happened.  The noise we made woke you and all the blame fell on me! The sister I had opposed hastened to make quite a speech, the gist of which was: ‘It was Sister Therese of the Child Jesus who made the noise.’ I burned to defend myself, but fortunately I had a bright idea.  I knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that if I began to speak up for myself I should lose my peace of soul; I knew too that I was not virtuous enough to let myself be accused without saying a word, my only hope of safety was to run away.  No sooner thought than done: I fled – but my heart beat so violently that I could not go far and I sat down on the stairs to enjoy in peace the fruits of my victory.  It was undoubtedly a queer kind of courage, but I think it is better not to fight when defeat is certain.

— The Autobiography of Saint Therese of Lisieux: The Story of a Soul, Chapter 9

Many people would say that Therese ‘lost’ because she didn’t contradict her accuser; she didn’t win the argument and then made a fool of herself by running away, kid-style.  (As an aside, Chesterton points out in his biography of St. Francis of Assisi, “It is a curiosity of language that courage actually means running.”) St. Therese knows that she won a big victory in that little incident, and she mentions it for that reason.

I also liked this part:

. . . I see how far I am from being perfect.  If, for example, I settle down to start painting and find the brushes in a mess, or a ruler or a penknife gone, I very nearly lose my patience and have to hold on to it with both hands to prevent my asking bad-temperedly for them.

(I like her description of ‘holding onto her patience with both hands.’)  Every saint can sympathize with the natural feelings that rise up during things like the pizza topping fiasco.  In one case, bacon is missing, in another, the penknife is missing.  Both are instances of suffering, cases where we don’t get what we want, and suddenly unwanted emotions and thoughts rise up in us, and we have to regain control over ourselves in order to do the right thing.  It’s very difficult, but I’ve seen it successfully done.

I remember one time I was watching DiscerningOne when she poked her head in the door to ask her husband for two cloths.  She wanted them to wipe down and dry something in the back yard.  But instead of giving her what she asked for, he told her that she didn’t in fact need what she thought she did.  I could tell that she was trying not to lose her patience as it went back and forth a bit.  But then she agreed to his plan B and gave him a smile.  It wasn’t the best smile that a person could pull off, you can be sure.  It was one of those my-mouth-is-stretched-but-my-eyes-aren’t-buying-into-this kind of smiles.  But it was the best that she could do given how she felt, and that little victory of her better judgment over her natural response impressed me.

The point is that it’s not right to view things like the pizza disappointment as insignificant.  Any moment where we experience suffering is a test of character.  And any test of character is a big deal, a big moment.  The saints call these tests battles, because that’s what they are.  It doesn’t matter what it was that sent you onto this battlefield; the fact is that you’re here now, and you’ve got to do your best.  Indeed, let’s get our game face on, because a battle is a battle, and it’s time to conquer ourselves.

Post 21

Charlie Charlie: Reflections on Summoning a Demon

The Catholic Church, referred to as Mother and Teacher in Catholic documents, is attacked on all sides – it has largely been discredited by the modern secular media and by Hollywood, and then the modern love of scientism has made Christianity seem incompatible with intelligent thought.  And she is attacked from within when she is betrayed by those who are Christian in name but not in conduct.  Beyond all this, however, is the fact that this Mother, like other mothers, requires adherence to certain standards of behaviour, and that’s not very appealing for a world that sees rules about morality as pointless, suffocating and almost offensive.

But even when people are no longer listening to her as an authority on morality and other spiritual matters, they are still attracted to spiritual things.  They just turn their focus from Christian practices to non-Christian ones.

Indeed, nowadays paganism is quite fashionable.  Since we come from a Christian past, what is pagan is unfamiliar, and is utterly romanticized.  It’s glorified as something mysterious and attractive.  (The current trend is to identify a pagan precedent to whatever is Christian – that there are such precedents is not denied – in order to suggest that the pagan religions were better than Christianity, and in order to suggest that Christianity plagiarized other belief systems.)

Details like child-sacrifices and the grotesque self-mutilation that accompanied many of these pagan religions, for example, are not taken into account.  In fact, the whole climate of paganism isn’t understood.  It’s an idealized vision of paganism that is imagined nowadays, where the icky bits are deleted and all the rough edges of those religions are softened by our experience of a world shaped by Christianity.  As Chesterton says, Christianity didn’t invent religious impulses, it regulated them.

Because we haven’t yet dismantled all the effects of Christianity in our society (would this even be possible?), we see things through a Judeo-Christian lens for the most part.  When we envision the pre-Christian societies, it is almost impossible to avoid projecting onto them the Christian-based ethics we’ve inherited, such as ‘do unto others,’ and ‘everyone has equal dignity.’  We erroneously visualize a pagan world that contains a good portion of these ethics. We don’t realize what an incredible difference Christianity made; the Christian values moved humanity great strides away from what is cruel, inhumane and barbaric.  Society’s attitude towards the poor, the sick, the unborn, the infants, the disabled, women, prisoners, refugees, was radically improved.  True, sometimes it’s talk more than practice, but there was a time when the talk wasn’t even there.  Even warfare was changed by the Christian doctrine. We can’t experience the barbarism and cruelty of the pre-Christian world because we haven’t lived in it.

When we look back on history, it’s hard to remember to remove every last modern element.  And it’s always like this, even if we’re trying to think back ten years ago – when things change, you can’t imagine how it was before the change; you can’t go back, even in your imagination, unless you lived then and there. Things were different in so many ways even so recently. Do you know how things went and felt before the internet?  Before the cell phone and the cordless phone?  Before the phone?  And the further you go back, the more foreign it gets.  It’s the same with the pre-Christian times.  They didn’t look and feel at all like how our Christianized cultures feel.  Sure, people are people, but Christianity was a revolution like nothing before or since, and it left such an enormous footprint that we’re living in the contours of it without even realizing it.

But as we move away from Christianity, something has to take its place.  After all, people are spiritual, and most people have an intuition that there’s more to our lives than what meets the eye.  So enter paganism.  It sounds like a good idea to many modern minds; it sounds progressive even.  People sometimes say, “I’m spiritual but I’m not religious.”  With paganism, you’ve got spiritual stuff without any rules!  How convenient!  How entertaining!  And there are variations on paganism – some practices approach occultism.

So one thing that’s becoming increasingly popular are the practices of spiritualism.  Spiritualism encompasses a range of practices, including the use of ouija boards, psychic readings, channelling, séances and so on.  Chesterton says that the increased modern fascination with all these things turned the corner during his lifespan.  In his childhood, barely anybody in his area believed in ghosts, but as he reached middle-age, “great men of science of the first rank claimed to have studied spirits as they might have studied spiders . . . At the time I write, the thing has grown into a considerable religious movement.” 

When they were younger, Gilbert Chesterton and his brother Cecil experimented with “planchette, or what the Americans call the ouija board.”  He writes in his autobiography, “I dabbled in Spiritualism without having even the decision to be a Spiritualist.”  They played with the ouija board as a diversion, asking it questions about various things.

Nowadays, in keeping with our love of convenience and our decreasing literacy, even the ouija board is too much of a hassle and has too many letters, and so yes-no versions of spiritualist practices are more popular.  Charlie Charlie was one of these.  The point is that there’s nothing really new about such games; we’ve just dumbed them down and made them more accessible. Or, for a legal analogy, we’ve gone from examination-in-chief to cross-examination style.

I found four things interesting about Chesterton’s discussion of spiritualism.

In the first place, he defends spiritualism against those who will say that strange occurrences related to these practices are not caused by anything supernatural.  Such people will say that there’s no such thing as the supernatural, and anything that seems odd has a natural and scientific explanation.  Against this, Chesterton’s own experience at the time, recalled in his autobiography at the age of 62, proved to him that something was definitely going on; something beyond the ordinary was taking place:

I saw quite enough of the thing to be able to testify, with complete certainty, that something happens which is not in the ordinary sense natural, or produced by the normal and conscious human will.  Whether it is produced by some subconscious but still human force, or by some powers, good, bad or indifferent, which are external to humanity, I would not myself attempt to decide.

G.K. Chesterton, Autobiography, Chapter 4

And with these words, he is not demonstrating ‘blind faith’ or superstition.  Chesterton relies on, and trusts, his senses – what he has seen with his not-blind eyes – and his own intelligence and reasoning powers, in order to reach the conclusion that what he experienced was not part of the natural order.

And when he considers those people who deny the existence of a positive and real evil, he excuses their naivety:

But when they say, ‘Evil is only relative.  Sin is only negative.  There is no positive badness; it is only the absence of positive goodness’ – then I know that they are talking shallow balderdash only because they are much better men than I; more innocent and more normal and more near to God.

As for himself, he mentions his pride in Catholic beliefs and then says:

But I am not proud of believing in the Devil.  To put it more correctly, I am not proud of knowing the Devil.  I made his acquaintance by my own fault; and followed it up along lines which, had they been followed further, might have led me to devil-worship or the devil knows what.

And with this as his introduction, he begins his discussion of the spiritualism that he experienced in his life.

The second noteworthy thing he says about his communications via planchette, is that it deceives:

The only thing I will say with complete confidence, about that mystic and invisible power, is that it tells lies.  The lies may be larks or they may be lures to the imperilled soul or they may be a thousand other things; but whatever they are, they are not truths about the other world; or for that matter about this world.

Chesterton gives a couple of examples, where his father tested planchette with questions that neither Cecil nor Gilbert would have known the answer to.  The answers that appeared on the board were entirely wrong but also entirely mischievous: Chesterton points out that if they had believed and acted on these lies, serious harm would have resulted.  In one case, when they asked planchette, in a spirit of fun, what advice it would give a certain British politician, the answer had nothing to do with politics: “Divorce.”

And the third thing which I find interesting, is that Chesterton wonders whether his involvement with these practices had something to do with this problematic phase of life, which was characterized by indifference, inertia and detachment.  Chesterton points out that his planchette activities were during “what I may call my period of madness” and during “a period of drifting and doing nothing; in which I could not settle down to any regular work.  I dabbled in a number of things; and some of them may have had something to do with the psychology of the affair.” Did the dabbling in spiritualism contribute to this state of mind?  He cannot say for sure, but wonders:

I have sometimes fancied since that this practice, of the true psychology of which we really know so little, may possibly have contributed towards the disturbed or even diseased state of brooding and idling through which I passed at the time.

And last, Chesterton would undoubtedly agree with the Church’s direction concerning divination and such practices – to avoid them.  He writes that he “would not touch her [planchette] again with a barge pole.”

The Catechism sets out the Catholic Church’s teaching on this point:

All forms of divination are to be rejected: recourse to Satan or demons, conjuring up the dead or other practices falsely supposed to ‘unveil’ the future. Consulting horoscopes, astrology, palm readings, interpretation of omens and lots, the phenomena of clairvoyance, and recourse to mediums all conceal a desire for power over time, history, and, in the last analysis, other human beings, as well as a wish to conciliate hidden powers. They contradict the honor, respect, and loving fear that we owe to God alone.

Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 211

Charlie Charlie, a game along the lines of the ouija board, is now being called a hoax, a mere publicity stunt to heighten interest in an upcoming Hollywood release.  But the word ‘hoax’ doesn’t apply here – the game didn’t just happen once on a television show.  It was repeated over and over at home by regular people, just like the ice bucket challenge.  And like the ice bucket challenge, there may have been less known about it than was later revealed, but the fact is that real people participated and they are the best judges of whether what they saw was natural or not.  The wild popularity of it suggests to me that people were getting results more unusual than they could explain.  But in any case, the ice bucket people poured water and got wet; the Charlie Charlie people called on a demon, and got – perhaps – what they asked for.

Chesterton said, in reference to these activities, that he was not taking them seriously, but he also says that this doesn’t change what they were doing:  “We were among the few, I imagine, who played in a mere spirit of play.  Nevertheless I would not altogether rule out the suggestion of some that we were playing with fire; or even with hell-fire.” 

No matter how such games start, and no matter what the intention is of those who play, those involved can get more than what they bargained for.  To experiment with these things is like heading into dry bush with gasoline and lighters. We are unaware or dismissive of what Mother would say about this behaviour; her rules might cramp our harmless fun, and so we proceed. We set a fire without knowing how to put it out; we call a demon without knowing how to send it back.

And if the fire rages, then let us do as many others have done: put aside our prejudices against the Church and request from her the kind of help that only she can give.

Post 20

Bystander: Reflections on the Context of Suffering

One of the components of suffering is the role played by those around us; their knowledge and reaction have an impact on what we experience, on how much we suffer.  From what I can tell, there are four different ‘states’ of the bystander: compassion, ignorance, indifference and pleasure.

Compassion: We are hard-wired for compassion, and fortunately, it’s usually the first reaction we receive in response to our suffering.  The crying baby is picked up and soothed, the child with the scraped knee is hugged, and the kindergartner is consoled and talked through their troubles.  And as grown-ups, we continue to need compassion in distress, and we learn to give it too, saying and doing the things that show we care. In walking with those who suffer, we are living the true meaning of the word compassion – ‘to suffer with.’ And when we suffer, it makes all the difference in the world to have that other person to share the suffering.  (It’s why we want to complain – we bring to life the story of the hurt, with all the gory details of what so-and-so said, and what so-and-so did.  If we have a female listener, she will probably know how to put balm on that wound; a man in this moment might do the same, or he might helpfully and reasonably point out what you could have done differently.)

Ignorance: But the most common context within which a person suffers is ignorance – people don’t know what is really going on with those around them; they don’t know the ‘real deal.’  There’s a poem by W. H. Auden: “Musée des Beaux Arts.”  He saw a painting in an art gallery by the painter Breughel.  Breughel, in turn, was inspired by the myth of Icarus, and, it seems to me, by the line referring to the simple labourers who see Icarus soaring through the air.  Breughel’s painting shows everyone going about their business while Icarus disappears from view, plunging into the water to his death.  And Breughel’s other paintings, also referred to in the poem, show the same phenomenon; normal life happens during King Herod’s massacre of innocent children (the Holy Innocents) and also while Mary and Joseph seek lodging.

Musee des Beaux Arts

About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

I find this contrast to be very noticeable in the context of a hospital.  Inside people are fighting the fight of their lives, and family members wait, and wait, and then intently watch the doctor’s expression as he delivers the news, but then when you step outside, you see that everyone is going about their business, completely oblivious to all the life dramas unfolding inside that building, stories that won’t make the evening news.

And it’s normal that we don’t know everything that’s happening around us, or even with the people that we think we know.  I read somewhere that St. John Vianney, the Curé d’Ars, who used to spend hours upon hours hearing confessions, said, almost as a summary of what he knew about human nature, that “People are much sadder than they appear to be.”  How true!  For the most part, we hide our sufferings from each other.  We hide our disappointments, our addictions, our struggles, and our sins.  Instead, we present a façade of cheerfulness and carefreeness.

And so, is it any wonder that some people feel that they are the only ones with such-and-such a problem?  I laughed when a friend wished she had a normal relationship with her parents, “like other people do”! Yes, she actually said that! And one time DiligentOne was saying how different it would be if everyone wrote out signs naming the type of struggle they have, and put these signs on their front lawn.  You could walk from house to house, and you’d say, “Hey, look, we’re not the only ones dealing with dealing with bankruptcy / addiction / abuse / chronic illness / disputes about inheritance / etc.” Because people don’t reveal their problems, they think their problems are much rarer than they are.

Truly, we should remember that every person with whom we interact is fighting hidden battles.  For the most part, we’ll never learn what these troubles are, but honest conversations do happen, and the more such conversations you have, the more you find that everyone is dealing with a few issues at any given time, and these issues are not radically different from one person to the next; it’s more like variations on a theme.

Indifference: The third context is indifference.  The more our culture becomes self-absorbed, the more people will find that the disclosure of their problems does not yield the response they were hoping for.  Instead of compassion, their plight is met with indifference.  People know something of your troubles, but for one reason or another, they don’t want to hear more, and they are not moved to action.   They are wrapped up in their own world, and they don’t want to ‘get involved.’  And I’m convinced that the more affluent the community, the less inclined people are to care.  But having said that, indifference isn’t unique to the suburbs of North America.  In the story of the good Samaritan, there were the others, who kept on walking.

Pleasure: So ignorance is pretty typical and indifference hurts, but the most painful context is that of pleasure: sometimes bystanders take pleasure in your suffering.  Consider the Christians who were brought out into the Coliseum.  Their death was a source of amusement, fascination and entertainment for the Romans attending.  (But of course not all the people felt that.  The steadfast faith of these early Christian martyrs was on public display, and it was a statement that these Christians valued something – Someone – more than life itself.)

But I’ve wondered how it must have felt to be surrounded by thousands of people who have no compassion for your suffering, who are watching so intently but with no desire to rescue you.  If you were drowning, struggling in the water, you would have been so relieved to see another person; here is succour!  To see another human face is to see your rescuer!  But here, at the Colisseo, there’s not only one face, but a sea of faces, and they all see you, but they have no compassion upon you; no, they are looking forward to watching you die.

And so it was.  But where I’m going is to say that the same thing is repeated every day, every minute of every day.  The sad truth of it is that so often people take pleasure in the sufferings of others.  They are not ignorant, and they are not indifferent: they enjoy this trouble that you have.  They want details, not because they feel compassion, but because it adds to their enjoyment.

It’s everywhere.  People enjoy hearing about the rich and famous who suffer; these stories sell.  And the media coverage of people suffering in war, persecution or from natural disasters reach a diverse audience; some watchers are dismayed and full of compassion, but other people just find it plain interesting.

And if you introduce an element of dislike, then the enjoyment factor increases: you feel somehow, that it’s alright, or even fair, or good, that so-and-so has finally gotten their comeuppance.

Or if you introduce an element of jealousy, then again, the enjoyment factor increases: they always had things so good, or so easy, and so this problem seems to level the playing field, and seems right somehow.

And this type of pleasure is also a big factor with lust – many types of pornography are based on watching another person being treated badly (and what a sorrowful thing it is when men, who have in their DNA the predisposition to protect, are drawn into this addiction).

It fascinated me when I learned that the German language has a word for the pleasure that comes from the misfortune of others: schadenfreude – how insightful into the human condition!

Even people who are trying to live holy lives are guilty of it.  When they hear that some wrongdoer has finally gotten his ‘just desserts,’ do they feel compassion or do they feel glad?  Is there a part of them that rejoices in the suffering?  And I don’t think that at that moment they are thinking of the sanctifying value of suffering through participation in Christ’s suffering for the wrongdoer!  No, it’s something a little less lofty that is kicking in right then: they are enjoying the thought of that suffering because revenge appeals to our fallen nature.

And of course, our reactions to the sufferings of others have many permutations, where we mix a bit of ignorance with pleasure, or indifference or whatever.  But at the end of the day the Golden Rule is still the fastest way to check whether our response is right: if I were in that difficult situation, what reaction would I want from others?

Compassion (n) mid-14c., from Old French compassion “sympathy, pity” (12c.), from Late Latin compassionem (nominative compassio) “sympathy,” noun of state from past participle stem of compati “to feel pity,” from com- “together” (see com-) + pati “to suffer”

[May 27, 2015]

Post 19

Blogging: Reflections on Reflecting Aloud

Here are 3 reasons I blog:

Number One: It brings structure into my thought life.  Instead of starting one train of thought and then letting it fade away, replaced by other ideas, writing forces me to make this train arrive at some sort of destination.  And it’s a bit of a ride for me too, because truly, nine times out of ten, I have no idea where I’ll go.  But the point is that with blogging I stay on track until I do get to a place of resolution, a place where I’m ready to get off the train.

So, of course the question is, why not write to yourself?  What’s the advantage of writing publicly? Well, for me, the difference is that the concept of an audience introduces a rigor into the process that writing for myself does not.  If someone is listening, then you want to make some sense.  (And as an aside, this is why talking to oneself should not be legal for people who have interesting things to say, because it makes the listener turn and look, only to find, with a touch of dismay, that the words aren’t for him.)  But anyway, I don’t want to invite people over for a dish of slop.  It’s not like writing in my notebook at home, where I don’t expect anything more than stream-of-consciousness stuff, filled with questions and unfinished topics.  It doesn’t matter – if I were to ever re-read it, I’d probably know what I meant.

And this, as it turns out, brings me to the topic of art (did not know I was going there).  I think the painter of abstract art is being unfair to his audience.  He is not communicating very well; he is babbling.  Take twenty people who have just looked at one of his paintings who know nothing about this artist and his million dollar art and see if they know what he has just said.  It’s the child who will call a spade a spade and tell you it was some boring circles on a white background.  All the adults will say it symbolized nothingness or the rhythm of life or something like that.  Now compare that with what he meant to say.  Maybe I don’t get it or maybe it’s the artistic version of relativism: you just make it mean whatever you want it to mean, no ‘meeting of the minds’ necessary, and then everyone goes home.

Contrast that with medieval art.  Now that is really incredible stuff.  I did not know that I liked it until recently.  Going through an air-conditioned museum with lots of art can be really deadening unfortunately, because your eyes start to glaze over.  It’s room after room of artistic output, but of course right when you’re in the heart of the place you realize that you have to use the bathroom, and at that point, you’re intently studying the museum map because the only picture you’re interested in finding is the one with the little stickman and his wife.

But anyway (see, didn’t think I’d be mentioning that either), I was in a museum, and then at some point I found myself in with some 13th and 14th century paintings, and I was suddenly awake again.  Talk about respect for the viewer!  Those artists really give you your money’s worth.  They are, as Chesterton says: “ . . . full of small touches that show a very large imagination.” (G.K. Chesterton, Saint Thomas Aquinas, Chapter 5).   The closer you look, the more you’re rewarded.  Look at Angel Gabriel’s cloak.  Yes, you saw that it was multi-coloured, but when you step closer, you see that this cloak is edged with gold, and then if you lean in, you’ll see that this gold embroidery is actually made up of an intricate pattern of vines and flowers.  The painter must have been using the very tip of a very teeny paintbrush by now, painstakingly adding these touches – no impressionistic shortcuts here!  And at this close range, you can see the way the drapery is fringed with little tassels and you can make out patterns on the rug too. For each moment you spend with the painting, the artist gives you more, not less.  It’s different from impressionism, where the artist’s technique draws attention to itself and seems to matter just as much as the message, and where getting closer makes the mystery disappear (at close range it’s just paint).  And it’s the total antithesis of abstract art, where the artist’s persona totally overshadows the message; the only mystery is what it’s supposed to be (even from a distance it’s just paint).

Okay, so my point is that it’s about respect for the audience.  I need to give my best.  Sure, there are time constraints, but if I offer something for public consumption, it’s more important to put in that effort.  The public nature of a blog introduces an element of discipline into the thought process.  It doesn’t matter whether the audience is imaginary or not; the very notion of it still has an impact on the writer.   (And note that I say it’s my best, not the best that’s out there.  I know for a fact that many of my friends and relatives can process things faster and better than I can, and that they would smile to themselves to watch me make my way from point A to B, but like the marathoner, we can all just hope for our personal best, right?)

Number Two:  It’s human nature to tell people about things you’ve liked, and so it’s the same with me.  Some like to share their latest shopping finds, and I like to share the things I’ve read or puzzled over. It adds to the enjoyment.  Who wants to travel alone, when seeing breathtaking things only serves to remind you that you don’t have anybody beside you?  And I do like Chesterton so very, very much.  I almost called this blog ‘chestertonsays.com.’  And I figure that if I really like something, there are bound to be others who like it as well.  A good author like Chesterton brings truth to life in a really fresh way, and when you come across a good line, it can stay with you and clarify things for years later.  I want to pass along his insights and those of some saints and other writers, because I trust and like their thoughts; they’ve figured things out already and it’s great to enjoy the fruit of their labours (and now I’ll have recorded where their quotations came from).

Closely tied to this, is the bursting problem.  There are so many topics that I want to explore!  There are so many quotations with so much meat on them!  I remember Chesterton’s lament; he said he couldn’t get out one tenth of what he wanted to say.  Now I’m not Chesterton (I also considered that as a name: ‘imnotchesteron.com’ -still available), but I totally get that!  It’s an almost painful sensation to want to write about so many things but not have the time to do so.  Once a post is written, it’s like a release – there, it’s gone; I don’t have to carry it around anymore.

Number Three: It’s similar to writing a book or a play where the characters promote the writer’s perspective.  All fiction validates the author’s view of the world, even if that world view is nothing more than, “I’m confused about the meaning of life.”  (When it comes to stage scripts, that’s called ‘theatre that challenges.’)  Chesterton, who wrote tons of everything, including novels, said that he was at heart a journalist, not a novelist: “In short, I could not be a novelist; because I really like to see ideas or notions wrestling naked, as it were, and not dressed up in a masquerade as men and women.” (G.K. Chesterton, Autobiography, Chapter 14.)

Now, I like Chesterton’s fiction because I think he always rewards the reader with some good twists, and I think that his descriptions of everything – architecture, sunsets, and human behaviour – are really good, and in some ways fiction can be more universal.  But I do understand Chesterton’s point.  Sometimes you just want to say what you think, without blending it into a story.  Unlike a fiction writer, who can hide behind his characters (you can’t say the author believes that lying or stealing is okay – it was just one of his loveable characters who did that), a prose writer just comes out with it, and that can be refreshing, both for the reader and the writer.  So it’s similar in that world views are expressed, but blogging, being prose, is transparent.

And, being transparent, the reader knows what he’s in for with a blogger.  It’s not like the moviegoer, who seeks entertainment but gets a questionable moral message along with it (kind of like wanting popcorn and getting an industrial-version of ‘butter’ on top).  People can peek around in a blog, and either stay or leave, no harm done.  And the way I imagine it, things work themselves out; the uninterested and the cynical will either never show up or else move on if they do, and when the party’s over, when it’s time to turn on the lights and collect all the empty glasses, I’ll be left with those who are still listening.  And if nobody is there, then what’s the harm in talking to yourself?

Post 18

Zip it: Five Reasons Not to Blog

I almost never say, “I’m working on my blog” or “I have a blog” partly because I dislike the word itself.  It sounds like a word you should use to describe the creepy crawlies living under a log.  Now you can say, “as snug as a bug under the rug” and you can say “a little black blog under the log.”

Oh well.  Nobody asked for my opinion.  Because you know, if they had asked, I would’ve told them.

So, um, I’ve got a blog.  In addition to my issues with the word, I have come up with five downsides to blogging.

Number One: It’s time consuming to write.  You’ll syphon off precious minutes from your day in order to work on it, spending way more time than you intended in the first place.  Even someone who likes writing will be not perfectly satisfied once it’s all written down and will have to start revising.  In fact, probably the more you like words, the more apt you’ll be to keep fussing with them – here’s a better word, and here’s a clearer way to explain that, and hmm, is that grammatically correct?  And then of course one thought stirs up another and the post gets longer by the minute.  Meanwhile, the pancakes are getting pretty black on the one side.

Number Two: It’s time consuming when you’re not writing.  Anyone on social media is on it even when they’re not.  Instead of thinking about what’s in front of you, it’s so easy to slip away into thinking about that unwritten blog post.   I liked Chesterton’s description of Napoleon attending an opera, because I could relate, even before I started ‘blogging’ (it’s even worse as a verb than a noun):

. . . Napoleon would fall into a fit of apparent boredom at the Opera, and afterwards confess that he was thinking how he could get three army corps at Frankfurt to combine with two army corps at Cologne

– G.K. Chesterton, Saint Thomas Aquinas, Chapter 5

Which is not to say I’m Napoleon (do I even need to say that?).  These blogs and social media things can negatively affect your ability to absorb regular life.  It’s like you go from being a guest at the wedding to being the photographer at it, and you’re seeing everything with one eye through a funny lens.   And those who blog about their everyday lives can wind up in an unusual place where the incidents in their real life exist almost in service to the blog, as a source of material.

Number Three: It causes a loss of privacy, which Dorothy Day refers to in her autobiography as “that greatest of all luxuries.” I came across a comic strip called “Grand Avenue.”  The boy and girl are walking home from school.  She says, “Mr. D caught me passing a note, so he read it out loud to the class. I was so embarrassed!  It was mortifying to have my personal thoughts broadcast to everyone!”  He asks, “What did the note say?” and she responds, “See for yourself – I posted it on Facebook.”  So true.  With a blog, it’s not just your friends who know what you think.  Now anybody who cares to do so can glimpse into your mind, and those who dislike you will find exactly what they’re looking for – you’ve given your head to them on a platter.

Number Four: You can offend people.  In one-on-one conversation, you get to filter yourself, and you can choose your words depending on your context.  So when you’re with an ultra-sensitive person, you may soften your points, or, more typically, you’ll avoid the topic altogether.  (It’s either that or you realize that you’re a really bad candidate for a book club.)  I wouldn’t say in front of certain of my relatives that I don’t like abstract art, for fear of hurting feelings, but welcome to my blog, where I’ll devote 1000 words to the topic.  And to make matters worse, you have no idea whether you’ve inadvertently offended someone because you’ve now said so many things in front of who knows which people.

Number Five: You could be wrong.  The great thing about conversation is that you get to bounce your observations and conclusions off other people and compare it with what others have found or figured out.  You can be corrected where you’ve missed something, or confirmed in your thoughts.  It’s fun:

‘My idea of good company, Mr. Eliot, is the company of clever, well-informed people, who have a great deal of conversation; that is what I call good company.’

‘You are mistaken’ said he gently, ‘that is not good company, that is the best.’

– Jane Austen, Persuasion, Chapter 16

But blogging, even when inspired by these conversations, is still a solitary process, and you’re limited to your own thinking abilities and experiences.  And so as you write, you can thereby spread incorrect and even unfair impressions and conclusions. Mind you, this assumes you’ve got readers, which assumes you’ve admitted that you’ve “got a blog.”

[May 19, 2015]

Post 17

Banquet of Beauty:
Reflections on How a Church Should Look

If, through your entire life, you’ve been surrounded by modernity and newness, it is a mind-boggling thing to be plunged into what is old and historic.  For someone accustomed to the appearance of the North American city and suburb, the look of Europe is surprising in unexpected ways.

The ornateness of everyday things reminds me of what Chesterton said.  Modern efficiency “which makes the utmost possible uniformity over a large space merely gets further and further from mediaeval inspiration, which made the utmost possible variety in a small space.”  (His quotation was about modern German efficiency but nowadays this approach is everywhere.)

In Europe, one encounters the spirit of the medieval approach, where so much craftsmanship went into the most everyday things.  The door handles, the grates on windows, the wooden shutters, were exquisitely done. I took a photo of the little circular peep-hole on our apartment door because I loved how it had a tiny matching circular disc that you could swing to cover the opening again.  It was as delicate as the workings of a watch.

And so much was made out of solid materials from nature.  The buildings were made of stone, or at least bricks or blocks covered with the plaster and there was a lot of marble.  There’s enough visual pleasure in even the most mundane of places.  The first stairwell I climbed had white walls and white marble steps and the light poured into it from a window etched with delicate patterns.  I was mesmerized.

In a lot of North American cities, the materials used are so cold, both to the touch and on the eyes.  Metal, plastic, glass, drywall, exposed concrete: it’s all so manufactured and hard, and yet brittle and temporary looking.  In the architectural sketches, they always have to add full-grown trees, just to soften the lines.

Give me any day the warmth of wood and stone, and if you must use iron and brass, then mold them into shapes that are serviceable and yet beautiful.  And as for glass, it also used to look more interesting a long time ago, when it had imperfections and waves like water.

As I walked through streets and open squares, the architecture and all these rich details were offset by the beauty of the sky and all the colours of spring in the grass and the budding trees.  There’s that expression, ‘a feast for the eyes’ and truly, seeing such beauty gave me the sensation of being physically fed.  It was as if I had been starved for so long and now I finally was able to consume as much beauty as I could handle.

And I wonder if anywhere there is an equivalent to the sound of church bells ringing?  We rarely hear that sound in the suburbs of North America.  But it’s a sound which has the solidity of earth and yet the promise of something so lofty and meaningful.  It makes me think of Chesterton’s description of man.  Chesterton was explaining how St. Thomas Aquinas views the nature of the human person:

And for him the point is always that Man is not a balloon going up into the sky, nor a mole burrowing merely in the earth; but rather a thing like a tree, whose roots are fed from the earth, while its highest branches seem to rise almost to the stars.

The Catholic church in Europe is almost always something to behold, even from the outside.  Some of them have gigantic doors, twenty, thirty, forty feet tall.  It’s as if you’re entering the house of a giant.  You are being put on notice that something here is different, and it’s like the story of Jack and the Beanstalk or Alice in Wonderland: either I’m really small or else something else is really big.

And entering inside, you are suddenly in another world.  It’s cool and quiet and your eyes are adjusting to the different quality of light, which is more diffuse and manageable.  You have all of a sudden left behind the tangle of streets, the noise of people and the mix of building sizes and purposes.  You enter a place where all is ordered towards the same thing.

You don’t know where to look first; the floor is covered in tiles which make patterns, there are columns in alternating colours of marble (there’s so often proof of the humour of the designers), and over there, some candles are glowing.  The windows sometimes are made of stained glass, and the ceilings are usually adorned in some jaw-dropping way.  There are paintings and statues.  Carved wood and marble is everywhere.  Some churches have large swaths of gold mosaic, and other churches have colorful frescos, sometimes vivid, but sometimes soft, perhaps with age.

I remember looking at the floor in one church.  It was made of stone tiles, that were cut pretty small, about 2 inches by 3 inches or so, and they were arranged into a pattern by colour: pink, amber, green, white and black.  The stones weren’t just flat; they were smooth but each stone was slightly convex, so that if you were to touch the floor, you’d find it to be undulating. I thought to myself that the craftsmanship on one square foot of that floor would be worthy of one hour of consideration and admiration.  And that was just one square foot! You can’t help but think back to the unknown artisans who were obviously so proud of their work and at the top of their game.

Some churches are extremely ornate, and some are more spare, but there’s always order.  All of the man-hours of all of these artisans, spanning decades or centuries, is all directed at the same thing: of giving one’s best for the sake of creating a beautiful place of worship.  And it struck me as fascinating that as Europe turns its back on its Christian past, the tourists continue to arrive (from all countries and even from all faith backgrounds), and they, like me, are so happy to drink in all the beauty found here.

It’s how a church should be.  As you stand there in that place, whether it’s the first one or the tenth one you’ve seen, you recognize pretty quickly that it’s more than you can absorb and appreciate.  It’s just impossible to digest it all, and you surrender, admitting that it’s beyond you.

You recognize that indeed, you really are very small, and you know that truly, you are in the house of somebody much, much bigger than you.

[May 17, 2015]

Post 16

What’s the Word? Reflections on Capturing the Concept

In early April I came across an incredible article that was written by H.I. Brock, a writer for the New York Times.  It was published August 18, 1912.  He had travelled to England and visited G.K. Chesterton.

After tea, he observed Chesterton working through some new concepts.

I loved this article, because I had just recently been noticing how time-consuming it is to figure things out.  I approach the topic, make a few inroads but then have to back up and try a new starting point.  All that groping around for words and angles makes for such an inelegant process!

Until then, I imagined that it was an entirely different process for the geniuses like Chesterton.  I truly thought it all came to him in a blinding flash of inspiration and all he had to do was express it.

I love how H.I. Brock was able to put into words what he observed:

Tea disposed of, Chesterton, a whale of a man with ambrosial locks and heavy tread, rambles like a huge blunderbuss about the room and talks.  And as he walks and talks he blunders about among his words exactly as he blunders about among the furniture.  He seems to be feeling his way through a blur of terms and names, struggling with the stiff, reluctant clay of language in which all thought is imprisoned, to get the right words to hold the true mold of sense.

. . .

He is fumbling–literally fumbling–after the truth, the “net” truth, as it were.  He is rummaging in the rubbish heap of words and concepts to which a slovenly race of thinkers has reduced the working dictionary of the English tongue. He seeks the clear word for the clear idea.

And that’s exactly it, isn’t it?  We see something or hear something and immediately there’s an impression, but we don’t have the words and the clear thoughts yet.  Such-and-such a person seemed so, so, — oh, what is it?!  And so we do fumble around, looking at all the words available to us (an even smaller “rubbish heap of words” nowadays, but over there a growing pile of acronyms and emoticons!) and trying to figure out what word will fit the bill.  From there, we can delineate the rules, the principles, the truths, which tie this impression in to the other ones we’ve got in storage.

KindOne once told me she heard that a person can think beyond their vocabulary, but not by much.  And that makes sense.  The words are little containers for ideas.  If we lose the words, we lose the ideas too.  How sad it is then that we’re losing our comprehension of the English language.  We’re not only losing access to great works of literature but we’re losing our ability to think!  Less and less, people are using their words to communicate ideas of substance.  Instead we’re getting to the point that we’re just expressing emotions, and even animals do that.

And then the tricky thing with finding the right words is that some words have changed their meaning or at least their associations.  A word that was formerly good enough to use as a first name, like prudence, is now is associated with being uptight and stuffy; who would be ready to give their daughter that name anymore?  Chesterton says, in the first chapter of Heretics, that the reversal of associations in the case of the words ‘orthodox’ and ‘heretical’ are proof of the corruption of the times:

Nothing more strangely indicates an enormous and silent evil of modern society than the extraordinary use which is made nowadays of the word ‘orthodox.’ . . . [Nowadays the heretic] says, with a conscious laugh, ‘I suppose I am very heretical,’ and looks round for applause.  The word ‘heresy’ not only means no longer being wrong; it practically means being clear-headed and courageous.  The word ‘orthodoxy’ not only no longer means being right; it practically means being wrong.

In the middle of a conversation with some relatives about religion, someone went and checked into the definition of atheism, and found a website – Atheists of America or something like that.  This group said that the original working definition that they had previously used of atheism was ‘the dogma that there is no God etc etc’ but they said that the updated (and presumably better) definition was that ‘they had no belief system whatsoever’ or something to that effect.  My point is that they were running away from the word ‘dogma’ because it sounded so very religious, and of course from their perspective, they wanted to be as non-religious as possible.  So they shunned the word, but thereby lost the truth that went along with it, which is that atheism does take a position; it is a set of beliefs.

So as our society gets less and less religious, it also discards its heritage of a whole bunch of really useful words, and, lacking these words, is far less capable of understanding itself.  So now an atheist says, “There is no God; I have no belief” when really he should say, “I believe there is no God.”  They just can’t stand the word ‘believe’ nor ‘dogma’ because now these words are equated with ‘superstitious’ or ‘group-think.’

But the association of words is there, and so it’s natural that when we like or dislike a word, it’s often because of that association.  When I was working on adapting Old Testament passages for a play, I was conscious of the fact that if I were to use the words exactly as written, the modern viewer would be really irritated, because the words now sound all wrong.  How can a character tell a modern audience that he has “lived righteously?”  That would be a cue to the audience that he’s the arrogant villain, would it not?  Everyone would be hoping for his ruin.  And yet previously, it would have been heard the way it was intended, just as a man who loved God and looked out for his neighbour.

And this is where the use of Latin makes a lot of sense.  Because it’s not being used ‘on the street’ anymore, Latin doesn’t suffer this shifting of meanings where a lapse of ten years calls for a translation.  The use of Latin keeps the meaning intact and useful for documents where the precise word is so important, such as in church documents which set out, indeed, dogma.  (Dogma is good, but more on that a different day).

It’s kind of like the almost-archaic words that are found in legal documents, the really small print on multi-page contracts, or in wills.  I used to think they were horrible, because they were so hard for the average person to understand.  I used to like the ‘plain-language’ movement.  But now I see the beauty and the advantage in those original words.  The advantage is that those words have been tried and tested, by which I mean that the meanings of the words have been already hammered out through years of going through judicial decision-making, and so they’ve become a ‘known quantity.’  If it says, “per stirpes” in a will, that won’t mean anything to the grandmother whose lawyer has put it in there, but it will have a distinct legal meaning, and it will get the executor and the beneficiaries through the situation if they need to deal with it.  I guess that’s the way it is in any technical field, where the words have to be really precise so that everyone is talking about the same thing.

And on the topic of words, I really like how Chesterton says (in Chapter 6 of his biography on St. Thomas Aquinas) that the feel of the words is important, in all writing:

The new psychologists, who are almost eagerly at war with reason [as the modern philosophers], never tire of telling us that the very terms we use are coloured by our subconsciousness, with something we meant to exclude from our consciousness.  And one need not be so idealistically irrational as a modern psychologist, in order to admit that the very shape and sound of words do make a difference, even in the baldest prose, as they do in the most beautiful poetry.

This is so true!  The shape and sound do make a difference!  And there are so many evocative words.  I like “Once upon a time” (which I once spotted on a ‘Word Wall’ in a classroom using the whole-language literacy method, so perhaps it’s actually just one word: once-upon-a-time.)  I like “forevermore” too.

But back to Chesterton, I find it fascinating to hear that it cost him some effort, to hear that he too needed to struggle to put the right words onto the impressions and arrive at what’s true. I also find it interesting that there were passages in St Thomas Aquinas’ work that a genius like Chesterton could not keep up with (Chapter 6 in his biography of the saint):

Needless to say, I am not so silly as to suggest that all the writings of St. Thomas are simple and straightforward; in the sense of being easy to understand.  There are passages I do not in the least understand myself; there are passages that puzzle much more learned and logical philosophers than I am; there are passages about which the greatest Thomists still differ and dispute.

At the end of the day, then, it is good and useful to choose our words to the best of our ability, cost what it may, and fumble though we might.  The right word will clarify our thinking and enable us to reach each other with the minimum of distortion, and that’s a good thing.

[May 16, 2015]

Post 15

The Real Me: Reflections on Unconditional Love

We’re supposed to get a sense of God’s unconditional love for us through our parents.  Ideally, starting from birth, a baby receives both the masculine and feminine expressions of this love, and this brand new person is off to a balanced and wholesome start.  We need both.  I learned that Rembrandt’s Prodigal Son painting shows the father in the parable (i.e. God) as having both a male and female hand.  Sadly, nowadays in North America, the culture acknowledges the need for a mother, but underestimates the need for a father.  (The movie Irreplaceable showed well the devastating effects on both sons and daughters when the father was not part of the family.)

Anyway, in the family structure, we are supposed to be loved in our very essence, cherished even in the womb – in other words, loved before we even have a chance to flaunt our soft baby-ness with all its delicate charm and yummy smells, and before we even have a chance to make our first little gurgle or coo.  And being loved in our very essence is more than being loved for our ‘true personality’ because even everything that we consider our true personality can appear to change.  It’s beyond that.  Unconditional love is the acceptance of the very soul of a person, apart from their intellect, emotions and body.

And this type of love is what everyone craves, deep down.

And so our love-seeking-behaviour begins, even from childhood.  We do different things to make ourselves acceptable.

We make ourselves more externally ‘worthy.’  We make ourselves more acceptable through our appearance, our possessions, our credentials and our connections.  When we’re young, we make sure to dress the same way as our friends, and to like the same things.  When we’re older, we build up our resume, and our network of connections (and we probably continue to dress the same way as our friends).  And of course there’s Facebook, which is, for the most part, a non-subtle version of this approval-seeking.

Unfortunately, these ‘improvements’ can backfire because they add to the competitive atmosphere and build walls.  Is it any wonder that the more affluent societies are the ones where there is so much more loneliness and separation?  Some advertisers make a joke of it – ‘Make your friends green with envy by purchasing such and such.’   There’s a perfume called Envy (and later all the other vices will have their own scent – here’s Lust, and here’s Greed – hey, have you tried Rash Judgment?)  And knowing about the back-firing effect, Jane Austen said don’t buy that new dress to make yourself more appealing, because the men aren’t noticing the newness of your outfit and the women, who do notice the newness, won’t like you any better for it:

She went home very happy . . . the evening of the following day was now the object of expectation . . . What gown and what head-dress she should wear on the occasion became her chief concern.  She cannot be justified in it.  Dress is at all times a frivolous distinction, and excessive solicitude about it often destroys its own aim.  Catherine knew all this very well . . . and yet she lay awake . . . debating between her spotted and tamboured muslin, and nothing but the shortness of the time prevented her buying a new one for the evening.  This would have been an error in judgment, great though not uncommon, from which . . . a brother rather than a great aunt might have warned her, for man only can be aware of the insensibility of man towards a new gown.  It would be mortifying to the feelings of many ladies, could they be made to understand how little the heart of man is affected by what is costly or new in their attire . . . No man will admire her the more, no woman will like her the better for it.  Neatness and fashion are enough for the former, and a something of shabbiness or impropriety will be most endearing to the latter.  (Northanger Abbey, Chapter 10)

This isn’t to say it’s inappropriate to act conventionally, and to obtain the normal external trimmings, but it’s about the motive.  An excessive desire for acceptance which accompanies these ‘accessories’ to our personality is bound to be frustrated, because the person will wonder: do these friends of mine accept me or do they just like what I have or who I know or how I look?  The kindergartner notices that when she runs out of candy, those friends disappear.

The other method of obtaining acceptance is to make ourselves more internally ‘worthy’ by our interpersonal behaviour.  Even a child knows that good behaviour will please people and draw them closer.  And because people like people who (appear to) like them, this is far more apt to bring us the acceptance that we want.  And here, indeed, most women intuitively know how to put their best foot forward.  They know the type of support and empathy that people need, and so they can give it, or at least a reasonable facsimile of it.  I’m not saying men can’t be empathetic, but for the most part, they’re not as good on the mind-reading front.

But even this socially-pleasing behaviour is often still just a sort of payment in the world of conditional acceptance.  Would our friends still be there when we’re ‘acting badly’?  Would they still be there when we’re not as socially acceptable?  Will they be there for us when society brands us as losers?  Would they still be there if they knew us truly, with all our faults?

And this is where marriage comes in.  Ideally, there we find the person who accepts us beyond our accomplishments and possessions, and beyond our social know-how.  A really great marriage is a place for the expression and experience of God’s love.  Ideally, it’s a place of unconditional acceptance, except this time we’re being accepted as an adult.  Certainly, this person will know us in a way that nobody else does, and will have a front-row seat to watch our behaviour, and to get to know our strengths and weaknesses, in every department of our life.  And of course, we will change, in some ways for the better, and in some ways for the worse.  Yet we nevertheless hope to be loved unconditionally here in our very essence, for a long time, through all our triumphs and failures, and even as we deteriorate in strength, appearance and ability, and enter our second childhood, as Shakespeare says (“Last scene of all/ that ends this strange eventful history/ is second childishness, and mere oblivion/ Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything” – As You Like It)

But of course, it doesn’t always work out that way (since it’s a marriage of two fallible people, both somewhat broken), and divorce causes incredible damage, because it can feel like a failing report card, a statement that, at the core, you weren’t good enough, that at the end of the day, you weren’t worthy of unconditional love.  On the whole, both men and women are wounded deeply by divorce, and they are noticeably ‘tougher’ afterwards, which probably sounds like a good thing, but toughness isn’t the same thing as strength.  (Women are better at masking their pain, and are also able to tap into the support of their empathetic friends.  Men, meanwhile, show divorce-pain right on their faces, for years, if not for life.)  And divorce itself is a complicated thing.

So the difference with the saints is that they go right to the source. Whether they have experienced unconditional love from their parents or have sadly been denied it, these men and women and children make their way to a warm relationship with God, where they find the One who loves them for who they really are (which isn’t the same as unconditional approval of all their actions, but that’s another topic).  Many of them never marry and instead choose a celibate life.  They sacrifice themselves and their natural desires not because they oppose or under-appreciate marriage, but because they discern an invitation from God to live in this way.

And as it turns out, we’re all invited to experience this love, because every person is invited to be a saint (that’s the Master plan).  God looks at us lovingly, and sees through all our layers.  When Jesus was on earth, and people met his gaze, they just melted, because they knew that he knew them at their core, and yet they knew, at the same time, that he still loved them deeply, unconditionally.

After all, the ultimate and unconditional love that God intended for us to experience from our parents, our spouse and others, is, and always was, just a taste (a Costco store-sample) of the unconditional love that he wants to immerse us in, that he offers to us, at every moment of our lives and then into our next life.

[May 15, 2015]