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]

Post 14

Big Words: Breaking out the Dictionary

I’m usually too lazy to look up words that I’m unfamiliar with; I guess I forget that it’s just a quick internet search away and I don’t want to haul out the dictionary.  Besides, context is usually enough of a clue to get the drift and keep going, but now it occurs to me that I could keep a running list of ‘new-to-me’ (I know, not to you) words and it would keep me motivated to keep learning.  And as the English vocabulary erodes at breakneck speed, it might be nice to go in the other direction, putting the spotlight on these less frequently used words.

Casuistry: I came across this word twice within a couple of days, from different sources: “I have never talked about impurity, and I have always avoiding falling into a distasteful and meaningless casuistry. (St. Josemaria Escriva, “Marriage: A Christian Vocation” in Christ is Passing By)” AND “However, in Jesus’ time, in some places, rabbinical casuistry had led to the accretion of so many rules that people lost sight of what true worship of God meant. (The Navarre Bible, commentary on Mk 7: 1-23).
= the determination of right and wrong in questions of conduct or conscience by the application of general principles of ethics.

Succour: “The Lord allowed his disciples to enter danger to make them suffer, and he did not immediately come to their aid; he left them in peril for the whole night, to teach them to be patient and not to be accustomed to receiving immediate succour in tribulation. (Theophylact, as quoted in The Navarre Bible, commentary on Mk 6:45-52).
= assistance or help in time of distress.

Rancour: “Charity is a prerequisite for prayer: when one approaches God in prayer, one must not harbour rancour or any other feeling that is unworthy of God.” (The Navarre Bible, commentary on Mk 11:12-25).
= bitter, long-lasting resentment; deep-seated ill will [like the word ‘rancid,’ this word comes from the Latin word rancere, which means to stink]

Bathos: I’ve heard of pathos but not bathos: “Arnold refers to [St. Francis of Assisi’s] asceticism as if it were an unlucky but undeniable blot on the beauty of the story; or rather as if it were a pitiable break-down and bathos at the end of the story. Now this is simply to be stone-blind to the whole point of any story. (G.K. Chesterton, Saint Francis of Assisi, Chapter 1)
= a ludicrously abrupt transition from an elevated to a commonplace style OR an anticlimax OR (as in this quotation) the lowest point, a nadir. Comes from the Greek word for depth, from bathus, for deep.

Subterfuge: “Our Lord calls us to internalize the commandments – by being generous and open-hearted, by not suing subterfuges or merely giving lip-service, etc.”  (Navarre Bible, Commentary on Matthew 5:17-48.)
= An evasive tactic used to avoid censure or other awkward confrontation.  Example: “the paltry subterfuge of an anonymous signature.”  Synonym: artifice.  From the Latin word subterfugere, meaning to flee secretly.

Calumny: “The passage also tells us the seriousness of sins against charity (resentment, hatred etc.) which easily express themselves outwardly (in gossip, backbiting, calumny etc.)” (Navarre Bible, Commentary on Matthew 5:17-48)
= A false statement, maliciously or knowingly made to injure someone.  From the Latin word calumnia, meaning trickery or deception.   So this one is really bad because it’s deliberate!

Endue: “May Jesus endue your soul with life and by his grace make it always dearer to him.” (Letter of Padre Pio to Padre Agostino, written October 4, 1915, from Padre Pio of Pietrelcina, Letters, Correspondence with His Spiritual Director)
= to provide with some quality or trait, and that sense of the word comes the Latin’s inducere, to induce, or
= to clothe, and this sense of the word comes from Latin’s induere, to don.
I find it interesting that this word has ‘two parents’!

Post 13

Sitting Pretty: Reflections on Duties

Catholic women are rather divided on the issue of how much they should care about their appearance, and even the same woman will often be conflicted within herself about where to draw the line.  Isn’t it vain and superficial to direct our time and energy into our looks? Aren’t we supposed to be thinking heavenly thoughts, instead of thinking about such worldly concerns?

And so it’s not uncommon to find that within Catholic circles of married women, many aren’t very concerned about how they look. They’ve got my grandmother’s mentality – she would say, “Eh! Who looks at me anymore?” Or maybe it’s a variation on, “What’s inside is what really counts,” or “I don’t want to be the cause of anyone’s sin,” or “My husband loves me just the way I am.”

The women of Opus Dei, however, always struck me as a little different in this regard, and on the whole, they were a lot more put together. I remember watching DiligentOne as she struggled with the straps or something on her new gigantic purse. I think I asked her why she had that one in the first place. She sighed, “Ah, trying to be fashionable.” I could tell that these women were of a distinct mindset as to how to approach this issue. They didn’t ‘look’ religious or holy, and I found that interesting.

But it makes sense when you read the writings of St Josemaria Escriva, Opus Dei’s founder. This man was obviously brave to dare to venture into the topic of a woman’s appearance. His words were in the context of his homily, “Marriage: A Christian Vocation.”  The points I’m focusing on were just an aside, not the main thrust of the homily.

He says it’s not only okay for a married woman to be putting some effort into her appearance, but it’s actually a good thing. In fact, he says it’s part of the duty of a married woman:

Wives, you should ask yourself whether you are not forgetting a little about your appearance.  Remember all the sayings about women having to take care to look pretty.  Your duty is, and will always be, to take as good care of your appearance as you did before you were married —- and it is a duty of justice, because you belong to your husband.

Can you imagine the scene if he showed up at the wrong address the day he gave this homily?  Hordes of angry women would’ve tried to push him off the edge of the cliff right after he said this. But before everybody becomes indignant at such sexist notions, we have to note that he gave a corollary duty to the men, and he says the husband also belongs to the woman, so it’s Even-Steven here; it’s just that from the men, he asks for something else, arguably more difficult:

And husbands should not forget that they belong to their wives, and that as long as they live they have the obligation to show the same affection as a young man who has just fallen in love. It would be a bad sign if you smile ironically as you hear this; it would mean that your love has turned into cold indifference.

(Interestingly, in his biography of St. Francis, Chesterton says that St. Louis, who was a king, said, “Vanity should be avoided; but every man should dress well, in the manner of his rank, that his wife may the more easily love him.”)

The word ‘duty’ is one that you don’t hear very often nowadays. In fact, it would be on the list of words repugnant to the modern North American ear. We bristle at the thought of anyone daring to tell us that we have any duties.

We will accept other reasons for acting the way we do, but not this one! When we keep to the speed limit, we are doing it because we want to avoid paying a fine, or because we want to avoid an accident, but are we doing it because we recognize a duty to observe traffic laws? It’s a word that nowadays suggests a lack of personal freedom and choice. If my parent lives in a seniors’ residence, I visit because I want to; I’m not doing it as a duty.

We think and talk as if it is far superior to do things out of desire, instead of duty, but this unconscious hostility to the word mirrors a hostility to the behaviour, and we act less and less from motives of duty.  We stay ‘real,’ ‘honest,’ ‘true to our feelings’ and in the end, the parents sit neglected in their seniors’ institutions.  I’m sure they would have far preferred the visit from the son or daughter that started out as a routine fulfillment of duty than no visit at all!

And I’d wager there isn’t a single person who attends Mass on Sunday who hasn’t occasionally or often or almost always brought themselves there out of a sense of duty. But duty is in fact a wonderful thing; a strong sense of duty will get us doing what we should be doing in the first place. It’s kind of like a fleshed-out voice of conscience. And doing the right thing, although it occasionally or often or almost always feels wretched at the beginning, almost always feels so right afterwards. I’m not sure if exercising is a human duty, but it would make a good analogy here.

But to return to this quotation, I think that it wouldn’t mean that a woman should aim for the same end results as she did in her single days, or use heroic Botox-esque efforts to approach that, but that she would maintain the same attitude — that it matters — and that she is trying (as Mother Teresa said, we’re not necessarily called to be successful).

And interestingly, if the standard is the same level of care shown during the pre-marriage days, then perhaps those women who were never very image-conscious would rightly continue with their pre-marriage practices?

Anyway, I think the duty would still exist even if the husband didn’t notice the most excellent results of his wife’s efforts. After all, some men are engineers, and far be it for them to notice that the wife has spent 5 minutes of her precious life doing her eyelashes or, for that matter, that she even has eyelashes. Appreciated or not, the appearance of the women still is a reflection on the marriage and it’s still a statement that the normal male-female dynamics are operative and important.

Once again, St. Josemaria Escriva shows that even something so small, like the act of taking care of one’s appearance, can and should be motivated by these more lofty considerations.

[May 9, 2015]

Post 12

Sine qua non: Reflections on Describing a Saint

I remember how Pope John Paul II was praised by the secular media after his death. It seemed that his faith was treated as just one more attribute of his incredible life, as if it were just one more item, like his love of nature. I felt like the modern biographers were missing the whole point, because of course it was his faith, his intense Catholic faith, that made him who he was.

The coverage obscured the truth that Catholicism, when lived fully (especially in its requirement of Christ-like humility), is a very beautiful thing.

It happens all the time – the wrong connector word is used: Pope John Paul II was brave AND he was a Christian, but truly, it’s like this: Pope John Paul II was brave BECAUSE he was a Christian. It’s not: Mother Teresa of Calcutta loved the poor AND she was a Christian; Mother Teresa loved the poor BECAUSE she was a Christian.

Chesterton says that people notice the differences between St. Francis of Assisi and St. Thomas Aquinas but miss what is most important about them and how they are the same. He describes their many differences, but I like what he says in the first chapter of his biography on St. Thomas Aquinas:

It seems to be strangely forgotten that both these saints were in actual fact imitating a Master . . . when they sanctified the senses or the simple things of nature; when St. Francis walked humbly among the beasts or St. Thomas debated courteously among the Gentiles.   (my emphasis)

Even when it is known that someone was very loyal to their faith, this aspect is treated as an aside, as if he would be basically the same person without their faith. Now of course, as Chesterton says in that same chapter, “[e]very saint is a man before he is a saint.” Those wonderful qualities that we find in people are there even before they practice their faith (and indeed, we learn that grace builds on nature) but the genuine living-out of a person’s faith will make these qualities really come to fruition, to really develop.   About St. Thomas Aquinas, Chesterton writes in the same chapter: “The whole lesson of his life, especially of his early life, the whole story of his childhood and choice of a career, shows that he passionately loved the Catholic worship long before he found he had to fight for it.” Most saints leave this world without becoming well-known, but those who do become known are known because their personality bloomed in a wholesome, admirable and supernatural way under the influence of their faith.

The saints’ relationship with Christ is the sine qua non, the indispensable ingredient, in the recipe for their saintliness. Without that, you still have a person (and even a Christian), but you don’t necessarily get a saint, and you might never even know much about the person at all, because his life wouldn’t have radiated the same beauty — unfading and instructive for all types of people in every age – and so his story wouldn’t be as worthy of telling.

And speaking of being known, it’s funny to consider how well the Catholic Church remembers its saints. It’s ironic that these men and women —- many of whom voluntarily sacrificed worldly honours in order to go and live a hidden and celibate life —- wind up, after their (sometimes very short) life, famous throughout the world (the Catholic Church is catholic indeed). Karol Wojtyła (Pope John Paul II) gave up his life as an actor (which isn’t to say that all actors seek fame) in order to become a priest. I was surprised to see a mosaic of St. Thérèse of Lisieux on the wall of a public park, and it was in Italy, not in France. It was very beautiful and looked recently made, even though she died 118 years ago (at age 24 after spending her adult life in a convent). As Catholics, we choose our favorite saints from all over the world.

And Mother Teresa of Calcutta’s death occurred in the shadow of Princess Diana’s death, but the legacy of Mother Teresa will far outshine that of the princess. The years that elapse will create opportunities for people to read what Mother Teresa wrote, to watch videos of her interviews, hear stories of her life, and visit her birthplace and tomb. Over the years, churches will be built in her honour, schools will have her name, and statues, stained glass windows and mosaics will be made.

That’s even better than making the cover of Time magazine, I’d say!

[May 5, 2015]

Post 11

Got You!
Reflections on Rhetoric and Argument

WiseOne, who is enrolled in a course which teaches the classical tools of composition, including rhetoric and a touch of logic, was thinking out loud, and said, “I don’t know which is worse —- to attack what you like, or to praise what you dislike.” In order to develop skills of argument, the students are asked to praise such-and-such a saying or attack the logic of such-and-such a story, and the sayings and stories are chosen by the course and not the student. By the time this section of the course is complete, the students have learned how to attack different types of literature (they will say the sample text is unclear and implausible and impossible and inconsistent, et cetera), and they may even believe that they are good at doing so.

The problem with this exercise is that it’s an exercise. Instead of saying what they really think, they are coming up with arguments. They’re not only being taught the rudiments of rhetoric, they are being taught a certain behaviour and spirit –- to separate themselves from what they really believe, and literally to earn points for each attack. There’s a lack of sincerity, and it’s argument for argument’s sake, to show the cleverness of the speaker, but not to arrive at what’s true, or even to honestly express one’s opinion. 

Logic itself isn’t the problem. Chesterton says nowadays there’s just not enough of it, and we’re relying so much more on the power of suggestion (and insults) rather than real arguments: “As a matter of fact, it is generally the man who is not ready to argue, who is ready to sneer. That is why, in recent literature, there has been so little argument and so much sneering.” (G.K. Chesterton, Saint Thomas Aquinas, Chapter 5). But even about rhetoric, he says later in the same chapter, “Rhetoric is a very fine thing in its place, as a medieval scholar would have willingly agreed, as he taught it along with logic in the schools . . .” He does point out, however, that St. Thomas never uses rhetoric, and relies purely on logical deductions.

My complaint is that the students are handed some knives and directed to use them on innocent pieces of literature. They walk away from the course thinking how awesome it is that they’ve got these shiny new knives, and they look forward to using them. And, not knowing about when it’s appropriate, and without knowing that they’re not as good at it as they fancy themselves, they’ll whip these knives out willy-nilly, indiscriminately cutting things up for the fun of it. It reminds me of the university student.

On university campuses everywhere, or at least everywhere in North America, there is the phenomenon of the back-packed debater who is more than pleased to debate everything with you. If you were to say that it’s a nice day, he wants to know on what basis you make that claim, and whether it’s logical for you to come to this conclusion on so little evidence. He will enjoy reminding you that the word ‘nice’ is extremely vague and should never be used, and that the word ‘day’ represents subjective segments of time, is affected by time zones, and should be more clearly defined. That he himself would agree it’s a nice day, if he were to consider it, really doesn’t enter into it.

So you are worn out before you’ve begun, and instead of talking to the real person with real vulnerabilities, who makes mistakes and knows it, and who is ultimately lovable, you’re left on the outside of someone who wants to dazzle you with his sword-tricks. He can’t listen to what you say, and certainly he cannot see the motive with which you say it, because he’s planning his next attack.

Rhetoric and debating, when separated from truth and sincerity, are extremely distasteful. Instead of saying what they really believe, these debaters waste time and breath raising arguments just because they’re able to think of them. It’s not difficult to be sarcastic, and it’s very easy to find fault with anything, especially if you can defend your attack with, “Oh, but I’m just saying,” or “Oh, but I’m just playing devil’s advocate.” If you want to argue, then at least say what you really think — it’ll take long enough to make any headway even if everyone is sincere.

Indeed, Chesterton says that argument takes a very, very long time, and it’s for that reason that God chose the path of divine revelation – it’s a whole lot quicker, and it’s available to the average person, and not just the geniuses. Speaking of St. Thomas Aquinas, who firmly believed that, given enough time, everyone could be shown the existence of God, Chesterton says:

Anyhow, one of the real disadvantages of the great and glorious sport, that is called argument, is its inordinate length. If you argue honestly, as St. Thomas always did, you will find that the subject sometimes seems as if it would never end. He was strongly conscious of this fact, as appears in many places; for instance his argument that most men must have a revealed religion, because they have not time to argue. No time, that is, to argue fairly. There is always time to argue unfairly; not least in a time like ours.

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

But I’ve been thinking that sincerity and the honest pursuit of truth, though necessary, are insufficient.  Sure, it’s better than egotistical displays of debating prowess, but even with sincerity and the love of truth, there’s often still a lot of blood needlessly spilled because the pursuit for the truth starts to overshadow kindness to each other. Let’s say religion is the topic. In the course of puzzling over some aspect of the faith, it can so easily happen that views diverge and in the heat of the discussion, people are cut down or at least pruned along with their notions and arguments.  In that moment, it seems justified, because isn’t it a sincere discussion aimed at getting to the truth?

I remember the story about a saint — I think it was St Thomas Aquinas.  His grammar was corrected by someone when it wasn’t wrong, and later, when he was asked why he accepted this correction, and why he promptly redid his work with the error included, he replied that it would be better to have an error in grammar than an error in charity.

So in the same vein, it strikes me that sincerity and the love of truth, while a vast improvement over empty rhetoric, are still insufficient to make a conversation worthy. There must be also that overriding charity and compassion for the other party, which will keep uppermost in our minds the value of the person to whom we speak. The speakers must put their love of the other person ahead of their love of the argument. The line about the “clanging cymbal” is where I’m going here.

Chesterton was fabulous in the way he was able to criticize a false belief while leaving the person who held that belief intact.  He spent his whole life debating and detesting the ideas of George Bernard Shaw, but they respected each other.

And I note that this is something which is fairly easy to do in a one-on-one conversation, but far more challenging as soon as there are more people in the room!  How easy it is then for the dynamics to mirror that of a Dr. Phil show, much to our later regret.

Post 10

Wanting like a Miser:
Reflections on Staying Focused

I know that not everybody is like this, but some of us lose peace as we consider all the different areas in our lives that aren’t up to snuff, where we know we’re dropping the ball.

The problem is that there are just so many areas!  We are like the biblical Marthas, worrying about everything. If you don’t like the word ‘worry,’ you can substitute ‘wanting’ because they amount to almost the same thing. You want things to be a certain way, and out of that wanting comes unhappiness and lack of peace and some version of worrying.

The average person wants so many things. In the first place, our bodies have needs that won’t take no for an answer. Then of course our minds and hearts want as well; the world offers so much that is food for mind, heart and soul. Chesterton says the perplexing thing about life is that there are so many interesting things but not enough time to be properly interested in any one of them. You could devote your whole life to studying tulips and you’d still not even scratch the surface.

Then of course the internet comes along and encourages us to want even more. Here are 100 places to see before you die, and here are the top 10 wardrobe essentials, and here are ways to improve your home organization or keep yourself in shape. So instead of wanting a few things, we want a hundred, and the focus changes depending on what our latest inputs were.

This dissipation of focus means that we often don’t succeed at anything in particular. All desires get cancelled out by other ones.

We may have periods of intense focus, but once that project is done or that desire consummated, we go back to being scattered, wanting everything somewhat but not one thing radically. We think we want such-and-such a lot, but to be true to ourselves, we have to admit that it’s on the list of things we want, but not actually at the top. If it were at the top we’d know it, because we’d barely care to think of anything else.

Now, in contrast to that, St. Josemaria Escriva holds up for us the image of a miser, and the image of a ‘wretched sensualist.’ Why? Well, in the first place, the miser and the sensualist both have that single-mindedness, that fiery focus. They aren’t scattered at all. Every penny is sought after and the sacrifices along the way are barely considered.

The second thing to learn from considering the miser and the sensualist is that they’re not just talking about wanting something; they really and truly want it (even more than they’ll admit).They want it so badly that it’s accurate to identify the person by the thing that they want. A miser isn’t just someone who likes money, among other things; he deserves that label because his desire for wealth has taken over his identity. A sensualist doesn’t just want pleasure, among other things; he deserves that label because it’s what he has become.

So St. Josemaria Escriva is making a distinction between someone who thinks they want to, say, be a good person, or to be a better Christian, and the person who really, really wants that more than anything:

You tell me, yes, that you want to. Very good: but do you want to as a miser longs for gold, as a mother loves her child, as a worldling craves for honours, or as a wretched sensualist seeks his pleasure?  No? Then you don’t want to.
The Way, 316

Thus the people who are ultimately given the title ‘saint’ are simply being labelled by the thing that they wanted most of all, a relationship with Christ. Fr. Robert Barron, who was perhaps quoting someone else, said that a saint is someone whose life is about one thing.

Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things; one thing is needful.”  (Lk 10:41-42)

Post 9

Are you the Nurse?
Reflections on Uniforms

At my local bank I noticed that the tellers started wearing suit jackets, and it did create the impression of competence and so on.  You could tell it was a new dress code.  But then later I saw that the dress code had changed. They were all wearing fleece zippered tops with the bank logo on them. It didn’t really work as a uniform. They looked ready to break out the remote control and relax, not help me with my banking issues.  For sure, not all uniforms are equally impressive.

Nurses used to look more dignified in their white outfits with starched caps. (I was going to say that’s my opinion, but I guess in a blog that’s redundant.) Now they wear colourful versions of the surgeon’s scrubs.  Sometimes they have cute little cartoon pictures on them. It’s a free-for-all, with everyone choosing whatever colour or print they want. I guess it’s about self-expression, freedom and being down-to-earth. And it seems that almost everywhere else, structured clothing and structured uniforms are being cast out, replaced by outfits that have no independent shape; they either bunch and droop or else stay glued to the body via Lycra. And the hat, that potent little article, is banished almost everywhere, except if it’s a baseball cap.

It was neat when the roles showed through the uniforms; now it’s all a mish-mash, and when you see someone in a hospital, you can’t tell whether she’s a nurse or the unit clerk or part of the janitorial team. So you look for the context: he’s wheeling some blood-work supplies so he’s probably someone from the lab, and she’s wheeling janitorial supplies, so perhaps she’s part of the cleaning staff. She’s wheeling food, so she’s from food services, I think. Where’s the nurse? Maybe she’s at the computer; no, that’s the medical resident, I think, because when she turned, I noticed she has a stethoscope.  But sometimes nurses have stethoscopes -– okay, I give up!

The patients (and the families of the patients), who are already bewildered by the various types of people appearing suddenly at their bedside, are deprived of visual clues to know anybody’s role. (They can recognize their fellow patients, of course; they’re the ones walking around with their gown gaping open in the back.)

In an era when manners and respect are in short supply, a decent uniform could be a very useful tool. Chesterton said (through his character Mr. Burke):

“But believe me, men cannot obey that which is not dignified, or which does not believe in its own dignity. For this reason has all authority from the beginning clothed itself in trailing robes and towering head-dresses; and carried strange emblems in the hand and worn strange symbols on the head.”

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

As his quotation suggests, the uniform does have to have something to it, which is why the bank’s fleece zippered tops don’t really accomplish the same thing, nor do the nurse’s scrubs in all different colours. Those outfits are pseudo-uniforms; they’re so casual that they’ve lost their distinctness as uniforms. (As a matter of fact, I’ve now seen nurses wearing long-sleeved t-shirts, screen-printed with the name of their unit on them, and it was in the intensive care unit, which is the last place I’d expect to see such a casual look.)

But almost all the other uniforms work really well at conveying preparedness, professionalism, pride in one’s employer and occupation, dedication and dignity. I saw middle-aged men working at a gelato shop, and their uniforms, consisting of dress pants, white shirts, black bow ties and vests, added to aura of the place, and highlighted their ability in that line of work. I think the chef’s uniform is equally as dignified as the police officer’s, but I like all the other ones too: fireman, flight attendant (some countries have better ones than others), bellhop, Swiss Guard, UPS delivery person, bishop and priest, with that black cassock being the most dramatic of priestly garb, in my opinion.

Post 8

Expiry Date:
Reflections on the Unpredictability of our Lifespan

I suspect that most healthy people assume they’ve got a decent amount of time left to live. If they’re under 30, then they figure on another 50 years, give or take, and from their perspective, well, that’s forever.

Even people over that age don’t do the math very often, if at all. Do they say, “I’m 55 years old; that gives me about 20 years more”? Seinfeld says that everyone should be allowed to drive their age; if you’re 30 you can drive only 30 miles per hour, but if you’re 80 you should be allowed to go 80 because, after all, you’re pretty short on time! In that world, everyone spends a lot of time thinking about their age and how much time they have left.

If people do pause to do the calculations, they don’t do them the way the insurance companies do – instead, they’ll focus on something like the fact they eat well / never get sick / had a great check-up last year, or the fact that their mother lived to a ripe old age.

We hear stories of the young person who was killed in a car accident, the other person who succumbed to cancer, and another who was diagnosed with the rare fatal illness, but it still does not penetrate into our day-to-day consciousness to be grateful for the gift of time and to be aware of the fragility of life. We aren’t amazed every morning that we’ve been given another day to live, and we aren’t thankful for it. Most of us just assume that we’re going to be here tomorrow and that those we love will be around as well.

It’s something we seem to prefer not to think about at all, and it’s only at certain times, such as during an illness or before taking a long trip, that the thought comes, unbidden, into our consciousness.

We may even be aware that so-and-so is praying fervently to fight their dangerous illness (and we’ll rightly pray for them too), but if we’re healthy, we never think to bring the issue of the length of our own life into prayer. It’s as if we subconsciously think that we get by on our own steam, whereas that person over there needs to depend on the will of God.

But of course, none of us is getting by on our own steam. We’re all, in fact, at risk, and we’re all kept alive for an unknown amount of time by God’s unfathomable will. Who has a guarantee of a ‘normal’ number of days?

I’m sure it’s good that we don’t know how much time we have left on this earth, and I’m sure it’s good that we know our own age as time elapsed since birth (some products are marked with the date of production) instead of the time remaining until death (most products are marked with the approximate date of expiration).

(Imagine such a world — it’d be weird enough if we had an estimated age, but even weirder would be knowing the actual amount of time we all had left! You would see a middle-aged person walking around with the number 6, meaning 6 years left, and next to him would be an elderly lady with the number 20, showing 20 years left. I suppose we’d get used to it, but imagine — in this world, you could easily come across a child walking around with the number 3, showing 3 years left!)

But anyway, wouldn’t it be good, once in a while, to do some guesstimates? After all, even though the amount of time is just a guess, it would be a positive act to put our mind to it, and admit that we really and truly don’t know. At the same time, we’d also notice that the ‘best case scenario’ of living to 115 still doesn’t leave an infinite number of years for us to live.  Perhaps that act of life-math would be enough to stir us out of our complacency and make us grateful for each gift of a day.

Post 7

The Wisdom of the Hospital Patient:
Reflections on the Preciousness of Time

Being a hospital patient reduces us to our very essence. For the moment, we have no occupation, no home, no car, and no (proper) clothing. Our social status, education and connections are really unimportant in this place. Our worldly possessions have been reduced to some flowers in a vase and a mylar ‘Get Well Soon’ balloon.

Here and now, you are who you are, without ornamentation. You possess only your time and your will.

And being thrust into this state, you recognize that those are the only two things that ever mattered anyway: time and will. What is life if not a time to express our will by the choices we make?

The other night I was awakened, struck by the sudden thought of how fearsome a thing life truly is – how what seem to be days filled with inconsequential choices are in fact choices which shape our eternal destiny! It was not a pleasant thought – it was more on the horrifying side. Who can pass this test? Who can live life so purely and courageously, always choosing the better? For a few seconds my mind flailed about, and then I found it – I remembered Christ’s mercy and fell back asleep, knowing it was a fulsome answer to the awful question.

So, back to the hospital patient – here are people who acutely feel the preciousness of time –‘More time!’ is what they want for themselves. They want more days and years of everyday life. Some are inspired to start fresh, to make better choices going forward, but no matter what, time is the canvas on which we paint the story of our lives, and the hospital patient knows it.

They also appreciate the time that others will spare for them. In the context of the illness or injury that has brought them to the hospital room, most people dearly love to be visited, and that gift of time is more valuable than any other kind of gift. All the other types of possessions and gifts that they own are left miles away at home, and they don’t really matter. It’s only time that they want, especially from those they love. How wise is the Church to include ‘visiting the sick’ on that short list of the corporal acts of mercy.

Hospital patients are like people attending a religious retreat, where those attending are given talks on ‘the last things’ (death, heaven, hell and purgatory). These themes (at least the first one) are at the forefront of their mind, surrounded as they are with all the reminders of life’s fragility. They focus on what really matters, and I suspect that it’s often a far wiser person who emerges from the hospital.

[April 1, 2015]