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]

Post 6

Hospital Gowns: Reflections on Dignified Clothing

A person is both body and soul; both have dignity. Sure, the body is the ‘donkey’ of the equation, and Chesterton says you shouldn’t forget that the body is a humorous thing (he says the Romans forgot this, almost worshipping it, and that was part of their undoing), but still, the body obviously has dignity; it’s who we are. We aren’t bodiless angels.

Christianity has a lot to say about clothing, which stands to reason, tied as it is to the dignity of the human person. Both John the Baptist and the Gerasene demoniac lived in the wilderness, but “John was clothed in camel’s hair and had a leather girdle around his waist.” The Gerasene demoniac isn’t dressed, but is like a wild animal living near the tombs. Jesus cures him, and one of the obvious proofs of this healing is that he has clothed himself. When you look at famous paintings and art in a really big museum, one that contains even the ancient Greek stuff, you see that one of the huge differences when you hit the Christian-influenced art is that the statues start wearing more clothing.

To clothe the body is to recognize its dignity, and while the body retains this dignity regardless of external appearances, some clothing has the effect of removing the appearance of dignity. Take hospital gowns, for example.

I’ve been reflecting on why people look so bad in hospital gowns, and in the end, I concluded that it has to do with the loss of dignity, by which I mean the loss of the appearance of dignity.

Is there such a thing as ‘dignified clothing?’ Even a child knows there is. But what are the attributes that are unchanging about it? I asked WiseOne and the first word she mentioned was ‘modesty.’ And of course, it stands to reason! The primary purpose of clothing is to cover, and so if it fails in its ability to cover, to conceal what should be concealed, then it has failed in its basic purpose. A car that can’t quite get you there isn’t a good car.

But then of course, visions of all the exceptions come flooding in – what about bathing suits, what about fencing gear, what about ballet outfits? Are all of these outfits undignified because they’re less modest? Well, yes, they aren’t as dignified, and for that reason you don’t wear them outside those contexts. But the thing is: we all understand that they are exceptions. We accept the bathing suit and the gymnastics outfit in their proper and limited spheres. The rest of the time, we don’t expect to see them. When a good reason exists, we accept diminished modesty.

Whether it’s chosen on purpose, or forced onto you, like the hospital gown, clothing which reveals what it should hide does not do its job of preserving dignity. The effect, subconscious or not, is that it causes those around you to also forget about your dignity, and that’s a real shame. Instead, human nature, almost always curious, is drawn to notice what should properly be hidden, or at least, obscured.

It’s such a complicated topic, and there are whole areas which I’m going to skip, such as the African tribesman wearing so little (still dignified) and the issue of fashion and cultural change which supposedly give license for things unheard of previously, and the issue of age (more modesty with age). I skip these subtopics because I’ve got to get to those hospital gowns . . . —

I’ve always hated them.

Tell me what kind of clothing in the history of humanity has flapped open in the back like that? These wretched things aren’t even as good as the bed-sheet-togas that the university students party in. They are nowhere nearly as good as pyjamas. Sure, you can close the gown at the neck, but nobody is even pretending that you can really close them well anywhere else. It’s all about getting access to the patient’s body, but nothing else. A thin piece of shifting cloth is all they are. The ones I saw were covered with little flowers or snowflakes or some kind of print. Who thought that was a good idea for a unisex outfit? “Here you go sir; here’s your flimsy pale blue gown that might reach your knees, as long as you don’t sit down. This number is adorned with teensy weensy stars. It closes up at the top just like a jumbo bib; you’ll find the ties here. Oh, and please feel free to accent this look with slippers that your wife brings you from home, because you’ll be wearing this get-up the entire time you’re here.” Instant degradation. Someone tell me: is this the best we can do? Is access to the body the only thing that matters?

Does it fall into the exceptions? How similar is it to the other situations where we accept less modesty? Obviously there’s a similarity, but because the other cases are voluntary losses of modesty, and because they often involve situations where there’s at least an equality between the viewers and the less-dressed, it’s quite different. Hospital patients don’t choose their predicament for the most part, and that merits giving them as much privacy and dignity as we can.

I’d say a big part of the shock of visiting a person in the hospital is seeing them as pathetically dressed as they are. The last time you saw them, they had a shirt and the latest jeans, leather shoes and some stylish sunglasses. Now they look helpless and forlorn wearing that smock, sitting in that bed with metal rails and a tube taped to their arm. Add a bit of fluorescent lighting and you’ve got quite the look. Who doesn’t seem 150% sicker with that costuming?

But yes, I know, I know, it’s really important for the hospital to have access to all your – parts – in case of an emergency, and it’s easy to launder, and so on. I get it, but I wish the hospital rule-makers would look at this issue from the perspective of the whole person and come up with something a little more dignified.

Post 5

Reciprocity:
Some Relationships Are More Equal than Others

We always want that reciprocity with our friends. When they’ve helped us out, we welcome opportunities to do a kindness in return. If things get too lopsided — if you’ve helped me so much but I haven’t been able to give back — the debt grows. I suspect it’s usually worse on the receiver’s side. Sure, someone who gives and gives can begin to resent it, but because giving has its own unexpected joys, the giver can often be generous for quite a while.

Do good friends even keep tabs? They’ll sometimes say they don’t, but I think they do on some level. They are grateful for the good they’ve received from the other, and it can feel uncomfortable to be too much on the needy side of the equation.

So we use actions or words to balance things out. Words often seem so short of the mark, but at least they’re something. (Chesterton’s definition of a beggar is someone who has nothing to give in return except words of thanks.) Imagine if you were unable to do even that! I remember a friend blessed with kindnesses when her husband was extremely ill. Friends and neighbours helped in a lot of ways, but in her state at the time, it was next to impossible to keep track of the various favours and to thank the people the way she would have liked. It must be a drop of sorrow in all that gratitude to be unable to say “thank you” the way you normally would. But it occurs to me just now that her husband would feel this same thing even more keenly. With increasing disability, he needed more and more care. He had already lost his ability to return his wife’s kindness with his own helpfulness, but now, having lost his ability to speak, he could no longer even whisper the words, “Thank you!” How he would have yearned to do so!

It’s a different thing though with the parent-child relationship. A parent expects to be the giver, and gives even before the child knows he takes. The baby will take the very minerals from his mother’s bones, but she does not begrudge this, and as she continues to bear him and then raise him, she will joyfully sacrifice and empty herself. The father too will expend his energy selflessly for his son, for his daughter. At least, this is how it’s supposed to be, in the natural order. It’s the human reflection and imperfect imitation of the supernatural order.

God gives in infinite measure and we cannot even tabulate the ways. We cannot comprehend his generosity. We receive and then we receive again. We take and take, and he gives and gives. The physical world, the intellectual, the emotional, the spiritual — he provides for us in so many ways. Each day he gives us a new dawn, with a brand new painted sky, never before appearing that way, and meanwhile in some far-away ocean, a diver discovers a new kind of coral that nobody knew existed. The abundance, even on the natural plane, is mind-boggling.

So how fitting it is then that God tells us to call him ‘Father.’ He didn’t choose ‘Supreme Being,’ ‘Almighty Power,’ ‘Infinite Deity,’ or something like that. He puts on our lips, ‘Father,’ that word of relationship, a relationship where we acknowledge ourselves as little children. We are indebted, hopelessly and completely.

[March 2015]

Post 4

Seeing the Bad Side: Knowledge vs Behaviour

Today I was flipping through a rather dull publication and I came to a complete stop when I saw some really bad head shots. I don’t remember ever seeing such bad portraits. The photographer used a really tiny depth of field, and they were close-ups, so the nose was in sharp focus but just a few inches back, where the ears were, the photo was out of focus. Strange and unflattering. They even printed a close-up of the woman who had blinked, which is hard to believe in this digital age.

So I’m not sure what happened there.

A good photographer emphasizes the good features, and chooses the angles that show the person to best advantage. So part of the task is being able to compare and notice when things don’t look as good. There’s that funny mix of knowing what’s bad in knowing what’s good.

It can be a shock to realize how much good people actually know about evil. They seem so mild and they behave so tamely that they seem much more naïve, stupid and clueless than they really are. They bite their tongue instead of making that clever put-down.

G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown stories are inspired by Father O’Connor. One time, Fr. O’Connor needed to enlighten Chesterton about an issue, and in order to do so, had to explain to Chesterton the practical and shocking nature of some morally abhorrent practices occurring in society at that time. Chesterton, intelligent and perceptive, and considering himself well-enough acquainted with immorality, was in for a shock. He writes in his autobiography, “It was a curious experience to find that this quiet and pleasant celibate had plumbed those abysses [of iniquity] far deeper than I. I had not imagined that the world could hold such horrors.

But a few moments after educating Chesterton, this same priest was criticized out of earshot by two young men, who, though they liked the priest a lot, dismissed him, saying that he “didn’t know about the real evil in the world.” One of these men said, “It’s a very beautiful thing to be innocent and ignorant; but I think it’s a much finer thing not to be afraid of knowledge.

Chesterton writes: “To me, still almost shivering with the appallingly practical facts of which the priest had warned me, this comment came with such a colossal and crushing irony, that I nearly burst into a harsh laugh . . .” He writes, “That the Catholic Church knew more about good than I did was easy to believe. That she knew more about evil than I did seemed incredible.

The photographer showcases your best features, but he knows how to do otherwise. The soprano could give you a pop song, but she gives you a cantata instead. The artist paints arches and columns, but he could have given you a splattered mess. Choosing to do better doesn’t mean a lack of knowledge about what’s worse; it’s often part of the package. And that can be a good thing. When it comes to the sacrament of reconciliation, for instance, we never need to worry about shocking the priest – he’s heard it all before!

Post 3

Unprofitable Talents: Reflections on Hobbies

I understand that there was a time when the word ‘profession’ referred to just three types of work: doctor, lawyer and priest. These were distinguished from the trades. This lasted for a long time. (Even in 1990, law students were being asked to research and discuss why law was one of the few occupations referred to as a ‘profession.’) Then, one by one, other disciplines wanted to be referred to as professions. Of course, once it started, it didn’t stop, and the word ‘profession’ came to mean anything you did for a living. A professional came to be defined as someone whose day job was that line of work. A professional hair-dresser means someone who cuts and styles hair for a living. A professional actor implies that the person makes enough money as an actor that he can forgo other types of income.

So along with this comes the notion that if you are really good at something, then you should be able to do it professionally. And then of course, not far behind is the conclusion that if you’re not making money at it, then you must not be all that great at it in the first place. Money equals talent.

So money becomes the final arbiter. The more money you make at something, the better you probably are at it, is the assumption that we make, often without realizing it. The truth is, however, that in pretty much every line of work, there are way more talented people than the number of available positions. Only a small percentage of women work as full-time models, but meanwhile, in countless small forgotten towns and villages, women equally beautiful are busy fetching water or walking a dog. And the same goes for the other disciplines. Who is to say that the community-theatre actor isn’t in fact as talented as a Hollywood name? Even when it comes to the cardiac doctor working in Chicago and renowned through the medical world, we have to admit it’s an unequal playing field. The world has a lot of young people with brilliant minds and a lot of drive, but those first stepping stones to success and recognition weren’t there for them.

But I digress. I had intended to talk about hobbies.

Money as measurement means that we almost consider it ‘thrown-away talent’ or a ‘waste of talent’ when money does not rise up to bless our side endeavors. It’s considered a great compliment to say to someone that they could “do it professionally!” But the truth is, we should celebrate those many talents that we all have by pursuing them as hobbies in our leisure time, giving no thought to the money that they will bring us. In fact, money would taint and spoil these pursuits. That’s the point G.K. Chesterton makes.

In his autobiography, he has a chapter called, “The Man with the Golden Key.” The name of the chapter has a double meaning: it describes a 6-inch-tall prince, made of cardboard and wearing a crown, but it also describes his father, who made the prince.

Chesterton’s father was a house-agent living in Kensington, England. I think nowadays we’d call him a realtor? In his leisure time, however, he turned to his many other interests. Chesterton describes how at one point his father wrote a book:

The book was one my father had written and illustrated himself, merely for home consumption. It was typical of him that, in the Pugin period he had worked at Gothic illumination; but when he tried again, it was in another style of the dark Dutch renaissance, the grotesque scroll-work that suggests woodcarving more than stone-cutting. He was the sort of man who likes to try everything once. This was the only book he ever wrote; and he never bothered to publish it.

Chesterton’s father had a workshop, and the inventions that he made there “created for children the permanent anticipation of what is profoundly called a Surprise.

His versatility both as an experimentalist and a handy man, in all such matters, was amazing. His den or study was piled high with the stratified layers of about ten or twelve creative amusements; water-colour painting and modelling and photography and stained glass and fretwork and magic lanterns and mediaeval illumination.
. . . [I]n my own household, it was not a question of one hobby but a hundred hobbies, piled on top of each other . . .

And then Chesterton says that at one time there was talk of his father using his talents as the basis for a career, but practical considerations prevailed:

There had been some talk of his studying art professionally in his youth; but the family business was obviously safer; and his life followed the lines of a certain contented and ungrasping prudence . . . He never dreamed of turning any of these plastic talents to any mercenary account, or of using them for anything but his own private pleasure and ours.

He created worlds of wonder for his family, while meanwhile the outside world viewed him as “a very reliable and capable though rather unambitious business man.

Chesteron writes:

On the whole I am glad that he was never an artist. It might have stood in his way in becoming an amateur. It might have spoilt his career; his private career. He could have made a vulgar success of all the thousand things he did successfully.

Chesterton identifies it as an American trait that all hobbies get reframed in terms of profit:

When the American begins to suggest that ‘salesmanship can be an art,’ he means that an artist ought to put all his art into his salesmanship. The old-fashioned Englishman, like my father, sold houses for his living but filled his own house with his life.

 

A hobby is not a holiday . . . a hobby is not half a day but half a life-time. It would be truer to accuse the hobbyist of living a double life. And hobbies . . . have a character that runs parallel to practical professional effort . . . it is doing work . . . it is an exercising of the rest of the mind.

So it is not a matter for discouragement that we cannot turn every single ability into a lucrative thing. In fact, it’s a wonderful thing that you remain an amateur baker, an amateur gardener, an amateur home-organizer. With these talents, undamaged by profit and concerns of profit, you’ll have new ways of sharing yourself with your family and friends. The outside world will know you by your day-job, but your inner circle will know so much more.