Post 52

On the Wall: Mirrors Everywhere

The human race went a long time without having mirrors.

The animals still don’t use them, and apparently, even if they had them, they wouldn’t be able to make use of them. My dad told me that a study was done to determine which animals could recognize themselves in a mirror.

I’m undecided as to whether this study was a worthy use of time for the human researchers or not, but I feel safe in assuming that looking at mirrors was low on the priorities of the animals who were forced to participate.

In any case, the researchers concluded that the only animal tested who seemed to understand that the reflection was his was the magpie.

As a side point, these studies of animals puzzle me somewhat in the way that they are used. It seems that increasingly, they are used to ‘prove’ that animals are equivalent to (or better than) people. By drawing similarities between them (monkey and human both use tool; penguin and human both care for young; magpie and human both understand mirror), we can lose sight of the obvious and fundamental differences between people and animals. We forget about the gift of complex rational thought which manifests itself in our ability to think about abstract concepts, to write poetry and music, to communicate with others and so on. It’s this thinking ability which allows us to design and execute these animal studies in the first place.

But anyway, when mirrors were first invented, they weren’t very clear. That explains why, when you read writings from a long time ago, references to mirrors (or a ‘looking glass’) will sometimes mention how imperfect they are. The phrase, “a mirror darkly” comes from St. Paul’s letter to the people in Corinth, comparing our ability to see and understand on earth with our ability to see and understand in heaven. (The Revised Standard Version translation has it as “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face.”)

But of course, mirrors nowadays are crystal clear, big, and everywhere. Sometimes they have lights all around them.

When you buy a new home, the builders install a big mirror into every bathroom. It’s attached to the wall very firmly, glued with some sort of industrial-strength adhesive and then secured with fasteners. It’s not going anywhere, which is good from a safety point of view, but bad from a decluttering point of view.

And we don’t even give it a second thought. Until I started this post, for instance, I never questioned why it is treated as essential and non-negotiable as the bathroom’s sink, toilet and shower or why it’s so big. It’s no longer the modestly-sized item that it was in the bathrooms of previous generations – now it sometimes covers almost one wall of the bathroom and you can see nearly your whole body in it. And people appear in front of this big mirror before and after every shower. Hmm.

What effect does that have on us?

Is this healthy?

I think it’s something to think about, especially because it’s one of those things we don’t think about.

What effect does it have on us to see ourselves this way every day, in the privacy of our own bathroom?

I know I’m not going out on a limb to say that these mirrors are making us think about our own appearance a lot more. And we wind up thinking about it when we least expect it. We’re just busily occupied with some activity, and then we pop into the bathroom. The mirror interrupts our thoughts and our activities and seems to show us ‘reality.’ It happens when we aren’t looking for it. We didn’t reach for a hand-held mirror – the mirror on the wall was waiting for us to just show up at the appointed place. Surprise!

And what do we think upon seeing ourselves?

Woe to the person who thinks he looks fabulous. Narcissism is never pretty. Narcissism is a fascination with oneself, and especially one’s own sex appeal. It seems to me that it’s a worse trait on a woman than a man, and leads to serious problems as she looks for external confirmation of her attractiveness.

But that place in front of the mirror is not always one of vanity. Often it’s a place of discouragement.

It’s a place where we realize that we don’t look very good, and so it can be a source of unnecessary wounds, for women especially. Without even realizing it, women internalize probably hundreds of notions about how each part of their body is supposed to be. Men might be astonished to hear how specific the ideas are, and what efforts women go through in order to achieve certain effects.

Let’s talk about eyelashes for example.

Unless you were born yesterday, you know that a woman’s eyelashes are supposed to be thick, long and curl up at the ends. Look at any cartoon or child’s toy, and you’ll see that the primary way that you can tell the male apart from the female is that the female has big eyelashes.

Now in case you don’t know what proper eyelashes look like, pick up a women’s magazine, and you’ll see high resolution close-up photographs, where one eyelash is magnified to the size of your pinky finger, so that you can appreciate them in all their splendour.

Now obviously, the truth is that very few women naturally have such eyelashes. God has arranged it so that such eyelashes are found almost exclusively on hairy men.

But that doesn’t matter; we women are supposed to try for the look anyway.

Let’s discuss the tools at your disposal.

To begin with, there’s eyeliner. You can buy this in liquid or pencil form, and you will use it to draw or paint a line just above your eyelashes. This will create the illusion of thicker eyelashes. Many women will make the line lift up as it reaches the outside part of the eye, creating a slanted cat-eye effect, which is considered somewhat seductive. I understand that some women even have this line tattooed permanently into their skin, so that they don’t have to reapply every day. Black is the most common colour, but you can purchase eyeliner in many different shades.

The next thing you will need is mascara. This comes in a little bottle with a mini-bristle brush. Mascara is almost always black. In nature, eyelashes come in a wide range of shades, but in the world of make-up, only dark colours are acceptable. For a red-head to go out in public with fair blond eyelashes is, well, almost unforgivable. To apply it, you dip your little bristle brush into the goop and then paint it onto your upper and lower eyelashes, and a common method is to do both sides of each fringe of lashes, the underside and the top.

Of course, you may encounter issues with clumping during the application procedure. Sometimes the black goop clumps together and so you have little balls of it on your eyelashes. This used to be acceptable, but I believe that nowadays, this isn’t desirable, so you’ll have to remedy that somehow. There are mini combs which you can use; perhaps this is their main purpose.

One of the main rules to remember here is that you must not, once your make-up is on, rub or otherwise touch your eyes, and crying is also discouraged. If you are not careful, your black mascara and eyeliner may ‘run’ which means you may accidentally have dark ink on parts of your eyelid or cheeks that were not meant to be blackened. This is, of course, considered rather scandalous, so you really need to make sure that it doesn’t happen. On the plus side, the manufacturers have added additional toxins to these products in order to create ‘waterproof’ mascara, which means that you can probably weep with abandon.

But back to the tools, I must also mention the eyelash curler. This contraption is made of metal and will squeeze your eyelashes into a bent shape. You bring this to your eyes, and insert your eyelashes (hopefully not your eyelids) into them. Press and then release. Hopefully your eyelashes now look appropriately curly. If they don’t, well, I don’t know how to help you.

Or maybe I do . . .

If you have gone through all these steps, and you still are not coming away from that mirror with satisfactory results, then you can call in the professionals who will help you with your eyelash problem. (And you do know that you have a problem, don’t you? Everyone knows that the first step to a solution is admitting you have a problem.)

Nowadays, you can find, without too much difficulty, an expert who will glue tiny fake eyelashes to your real eyelashes. You can have just a couple of these falsies added to the outer edge of eyelashes (for that desirable “I’m actually a cat” look) or you can go the whole hog and get an entire set put in. I once almost got this done because my friend needed practice clients. I was scheduled to get “PermaLash” (which is not permanent, of course) but then providentially the appointment couldn’t proceed, because the esthetics school instituted a policy to protect unsuspecting clients. (Apparently sometimes the students were overzealous with the glue and you’d wind up owning fewer real eyelashes than you had before when all was said and done.)

But anyway, just to finish up, I think that the ‘gold-standard’ is currently to have “mink” eyelashes. I suppose this would be from the animal.

The point of all this is that there are many ways that women can respond to the culture’s directives concerning lush and curly eyelashes. There are tools and resources to ensure that all women over the age of 18 16 14 12 10 can reach their eyelash-related goals, and obviously the mirror is an indispensable tool for this part of the beauty routine.

Now onto the eyebrows . . .

 

Sigh.

The problem with all of this is that there is no end to the types of improvements that you can make. When you start down this path, you’ll find that the ‘destination’ becomes more and more distant. Every moment in front of that mirror will give you more ideas about how you can improve yourself and about where you could go for help.

Cosmetic dentistry for instance, will offer you many solutions to problems that you didn’t even realize you had, and every minute spent in an esthetics salon will educate you on how your appearance could be fixed. The madness actually never ends. As long as you have money and the time to spend at the salon or spa or whatever, they’ll find something else to add or subtract from your body.

So what about all the people who can’t afford the time or money to access all of this “help”?

Well, some of them feel sad. They feel discouraged that they don’t have the energy or time or money to work on their appearance the way they used to or the way they ‘should.’ They look at the mirror and it causes their mood to fall, feeling that they have failed in some important way.

So sometimes they go to the other extreme, and give up. They say to themselves that appearance really doesn’t matter, and they stop trying entirely. All efforts are abandoned and they go out in public wearing sweatpants and hoodies and with messy hair. They look disheveled and apathetic, which is not right either, because it obscures the dignity of the human person.

There’s a correct balance to all of this, which stems from the right view of our bodies. We should care enough about our appearance to look sufficiently dignified, but beyond that, we should do nothing. Beyond that, there is vanity or discouragement and stress and worry.

We distort our priorities when we focus on our appearance. The truth is that people aren’t supposed to be man-made; we’re supposed to be like other things in nature: unique in our natural beauty. Appreciating the diversity in nature includes appreciating the diversity in our own and others’ appearance. These whole-body makeover television shows are completely wrong, especially insofar as they encourage us to approve or disapprove of people based on how well their bodies conform the current notion of ‘ideal.’

We’re supposed to look different. I’m supposed to have eyelashes like this, and you’re supposed to have eyelashes like that. I’m supposed to have hair like this, and you’re supposed to have hair like that.

We broaden ourselves when we are able to embrace the diverse beauty of nature, instead of following the latest idea of what is correct.

If we saw someone trying to stake up a pansy in order to make it as tall as a sunflower, we would be confused at their aims. And if we saw someone trying to prevent a sunflower from growing, we’d think that was, on some level, wrong. Maybe that’s why bonsai trees have always bothered me – it’s not ordinary gardening or plant care; it’s more like that Chinese foot bondage intended to make little girls grow up with disproportionately tiny feet.

An emerald is beautifully green and a sapphire is beautifully blue. A meadow is beautiful in its differences, because even one clump of clover isn’t the same as the one next to it. Even a mass planting of Christmas trees can’t help but be beautiful because into man’s order, God introduces his own order, which is beauty in diversity. Each snowflake is supposed to be different, and each person’s face and body is also supposed to be different. Without these differences, how would we recognize each other? We’d all be like assembly-line mannequins.

I know that it’s these erroneous (and mostly subconscious) ideas which are the main source of our image-related vanity or stress, and not the mirrors themselves, but having the mirrors so prominent and numerous exacerbates the problem.

I wish that the mirrors in our home were tiny, just little hand-held items. You’d pull one out of the drawer to check if you’ve combed your hair adequately and washed your face well enough, and then stow it away and move on with your day. Mind you, the story of Snow White proves that any mirror can be bad news, on the wall or not.

The story of Snow White was about a beautiful woman whose mirror was kind of like her best friend. Every day, she asked this magical mirror the same question. I’ve heard two versions it. The first is:

“Mirror, Mirror, in my hand,
Who’s the fairest in the land?”

And the other goes like this:

“Mirror, Mirror, on wall
Who’s the fairest of them all?”

This vain woman was always happy with the mirror’s answer because the mirror told her that she was the most beautiful.

But, as happens in real life, the woman’s beauty was fading, and now there were others who were more beautiful. She was filled with rage upon learning that a young woman, her own stepdaughter, had now surpassed her in physical beauty (Snow White).

And so, in a spirit of competitiveness, something which is sadly so fierce between so many woman, this wicked woman set out to destroy her enemy. For the sake of remaining the most beautiful, this vain woman was willing to do anything.

(Botox, here I come!)

(And before I forget, I have to tell you something very fun to do when you meet with family over Christmas and New Year’s. Ask the men in the room to tell you the plot line of a famous fairy tale. It’s so funny! Watch them try to narrate Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty for instance. You’ll hear it in a way you’ve never heard before. Another interesting thing is to see whether they’re remembering the real version or the Disney version.)

But anyway, the fairy tale holds a lot of truth about the human person. In the same way that a mirror reflects back a distorted image (reversing left and right as I’ve mentioned before), the mirror also creates a distortion in how we view the world. We’re meant to look outwards, upon each other, noticing what other people need, yet a mirror causes us to look at only ourselves – in a superficial way.

Any self-examination is supposed to be more developed than that. We’re supposed to look inwards – we’re supposed to examine what we need to change about our own behaviour and our lives, with prayer making this examination more insightful and honest. We’re not meant to be staring at or studying ourselves in the mirror for any length of time.

Too bad mirrors don’t come with timers. My fridge beeps when the doors have been open for too long, and if it’s been open for really too long, the lights go off. That’s what they should have for mirrors.

How long should we make the timer? How about 90 seconds? After that you’d hear a beep, and at the two minute mark, the lights for the bathroom would go off.

I suppose you think that’s too harsh.

But after having written this post, I am feeling rather harsh towards mirrors in general. We think of them as truth-bringers but I’m thinking of them as illusion-makers. After all, when they’re added to our living spaces, we’re often trying to create the illusion of space, the idea being that a home which is bigger is better than a home which is smaller (is it?).

And the use of mirrors is a well-known technique employed by the ‘best’ designers of homes, hotels and shopping malls to create a sense of grandeur. (Fortunately, the people who design churches aren’t going the same route — at least, not yet.)

And mirrors are useful tools for magicians and those early film-makers who used mirrors to create optical illusions to trick or deceive the viewer. I think of them in relation to the circus too – a mad house is created by lining the walls with all sorts of distorting mirrors. Do we create some type of ‘mad house’ for ourselves when we put up mirrors everywhere? Is it the case that the more we surround ourselves with them and use them, whether for interior decorating or for vanity, the more we wander into unreality, in the same way that Alice did in the rather nightmarish story of “Alice Through the Looking Glass”?

There’s a superstition that if you crack a mirror, you’ll be in for seven years of bad luck. I’m not sure where that idea came from (maybe mirrors were initially super expensive and the superstition encouraged extra caution) but if it were true, you might not want to own too many of them. You’d be running quite a risk with every mirror that you brought into the home.

Fortunately, it’s not true, and mirrors should be fair game for decluttering. We should be allowed to have bathrooms without gigantic mirrors. We should be allowed to replace these with something more modest, like the tinier ones that hung in the bathrooms of yesteryear.

Oh well.

The home designers aren’t asking for my opinion. Because you know, if they did ask, I would have told them.

I really would have.

But since they haven’t, and since your mirror is basically cemented to your wall in the same way that mink eyelashes are cemented to the face of that lady over there, I do have a temporary solution.

Don’t you think that the bathroom mirror would be the perfect well-lit place to display children’s art? You could start with one item in each corner just as a novelty. Later on you could make it into a border, a ring of pictures all around the edges. (Or you could print up some Chesterton quotations and use those.) Gradually, you could add more and more until you have just a small rectangle of actual mirror surface in the middle, just enough to see your face in.

Then later you could even go smaller . . . Leave only a tiny section of mirror exposed.

That little square would be for the birds.

After all, you never know when a magpie might stop by and want a peek.

Post 51

Roy G. Biv: What I Really Think About Impressionism,
Children's Toys, Cartoons and the Rainbow

The beauty of creation stems, to a large extent, from its multi-colouredness, a word which my spellchecker complains about.

It seems like the mono-coloured (another word my spellchecker dislikes) things are far rarer. At first I couldn’t think of any, but milk is all white, and sulfur is all yellowish. I think. Hmm. Or does milk even seem to have a faint blue line around the edge when its not as creamy? Does it seem tinged with yellow, especially at the edges when it is creamy?

Well, those are the tricky cases.

For the most part, you’ll be hard pressed to find things in nature which are solid colours (my spellchecker complains again at my Canadian version of “colours”). We think of a banana as yellow, but really, it’s got all kinds of other colours in there, such as tiny flecks of brown and white.

An apple or any other food is really very multi-coloured if you look at it, and with other things in nature such as leaves or flowers, you don’t even have to go outside to check. You just have to bring it to your mind to agree that they are very multi-hued.

Much of the beauty of nature derives from this trait.

When we see animals who appear to have more deliberate ‘lines’ on them, like the panda bear, the penguin or the zebra, we are amused because we know that’s kind of an exception in nature. And of course, closer inspection will show that these lines are composed of a very subtle kind of blending – thousands of little zebra hairs are fading into each other in this orderly pattern.

The impressionist painters capitalized on the multi-colouredness of nature, and exaggerated it. My dad’s friend recently went to Europe, and although only some of what he said relates to art, I’ll insert the whole thing because I thought his comments were insightful:

Europe is dying though. There are no young people. Graffiti is rampant in places. In touring art galleries, I think the slide may have begun at the end of the Renaissance. The top tier artists cannot be matched in imagination or depiction. I think that expressionists just painted what they saw and unfortunately they were nearsighted. From there art just becomes chaotic.

WWI changed Europe for the worse. A lot of people lost their faith and their trust in family or political institutions. The US did not suffer the devastation and kept itself together. Modern Europe is devoid of native children, heavily populated by immigrants who don’t assimilate (but have children), and the various nations have started to bicker with one another again. They sure are committed to green energy, almost to the point of worship.

In saying that the artists were near-sighted and lacked imagination, my dad’s friend (who is not a religious fellow) echoes Chesterton, who was critical of impressionism:

But I think there was a spiritual significance in Impressionism, in connection with this age as the age of scepticism. I mean that it illustrated scepticism in the sense of subjectivism. Its principle was that if all that could be seen of a cow was a white line and a purple shadow, we should only render the line and the shadow; in a sense we should only believe in the line and the shadow, rather than in the cow . . .

Whatever may be the merits of this method of art, there is obviously something highly subjective and sceptical about it as a method of thought. It naturally lends itself to the metaphysical suggestion that things only exist as we perceive them, or that things do not exist at all. The philosophy of Impressionism is necessarily close to the philosophy of Illusion. And this atmosphere also tended to contribute, however indirectly, to a certain mood of unreality and sterile isolation that settled at this time upon me; and I think upon many others.

— G.K. Chesterton, Autobiography, Chapter IV “How to be a Lunatic”

The problem with impressionism is that it leaves out the most important thing about objects: their limits. One object does not blend in with another. Colours do blend within objects, but the objects don’t blend with each other. The colour isn’t more important than the object itself. The lily-pad doesn’t become one with the water (unless it’s rotting into it) so that one thing becomes the other thing.

As I write this, I’m aware that impressionism is the most popular form of art.

I think it’s because it’s kind of blurry. It’s clear enough so that you can understand what it is (later art is so unclear that the populace just isn’t interested anymore) and yet fuzzy enough that you can feel unchallenged by it. Once you’ve looked at it and been able to figure out what it probably is, you’ve ‘solved’ the riddle and you can pat yourself on the back and move on. It’s not like the Renaissance or medieval work which is ‘beyond’ you, and which deserves your respect and attention – every corner of the canvas is covered with detail and so there’s always more for you to study. (Abstract art, by contrast, is like the tantruming child which screams for attention in the room, with its bizarre lines or obvious unnatural shapes.)

Yet impressionism is only one way to do it wrong. Impressionism exaggerates the multi-colouredness of our world so that the colours are the most important thing. The edges or borders are removed.

Nowadays we go in the opposite direction where we have no blending and now the borders are the only thing that matters. Consider animation for example. Go back to the leaf or banana in your imagination and convert it into an animated leaf or banana. How is this done? You create some sort of stereotypical outline and then colour it all one colour. You’re done.

Animation is therefore generally ugly.

There are, of course, degrees of ugliness. The best artists try to add as much detail as possible, in order to make the objects look more realistic and interesting to consider. The animators of Totoro, for example, retained a high degree of detail and therefore realism (which is not to say I like the movie; my views on it have changed 180 degrees) which makes the images compelling.

I remember looking at a sample of animation done by the wife of EquitableOne. She drew a child colouring with pencil crayons, and at the end of each pencil crayon, she had drawn a tiny circle of colour, representing the crayons the way they really are. Those are the kind of details that will give a child more ‘food’ for observation and thought. It’s more work, obviously, but it shows a diligence and self-respect that artists should have.

But at the other extreme, artists will misrepresent the human person. Instead of drawing the hand of a person with four fingers and a thumb, they remove one of the fingers. There’s no good reason for that, especially for a talented artist. I’ve written about the human hand before. If you are going to draw a person, draw the whole hand.

But the main problematic distortion of the human person is with the eyes. The increasing trend is to present people or animals as having gigantic eyes. This is not right. People are not lemurs, and all these other animals aren’t either, so why make them look like that? And why make the eyes of dolls and ponies gigantic and slanted and sultry? What is going on here? The manufacturers seem to be mixing the doe-like appearance of a child’s face with some kind of prostitute.

Sadly, there is an ever-increasing amount of the hideous and ugly art out there. I also can’t stand the bulging eyes covered with red vein lines (did that start with Sponge Bob?) and the one-eyed monsters. I place much of the blame at the feet of “Dr.” Seuss. Genius though he was, he is largely responsible for the exaltation of Ugly.

Why are we acting like this is good or funny? Is it really? Is it clever or inspired? Anybody can make a bad drawing or an ugly thing – that’s easy and not admirable.

In a world that already has a lot of sad things and pain, why don’t we try to create and promote things which are beautiful?

The best artist will attempt to show the beauty of the human person and nature, with realism in line and shade. God’s forte is his ability to blend so harmoniously and subtly, and the best artists do the same.

Why do we fill the world of children with colours which are so unblended? Why do we fill their world with toys made of plastic? Plastic is dyed with one colour at a time, and so we offer them object after object which is without nuance and subtlety. At least in the olden days, toys were wooden, so a child would be holding and considering an object which was inherently beautiful, both from a tactile point of view as well as a visual one.

Nowadays we change their world into a world of cartoons. Are we worried that they won’t be able to see their toys if we don’t make them hot pink and bright yellow? Yet their eyes are fresher than ours are; in general vision declines with age, instead of improving. My dad once speculated that perhaps for children, colours are more vivid than they are for those who are older. If this is true, then we’re ‘screaming’ at children with the toys we give them, like writing emails in all-caps.

And we do this for children with their religious art. Please don’t give them a colourful cross or a cartoon Jesus with two dots for eyes. I insist: children can appreciate real art. A children’s bible shouldn’t have ‘dumbed down’ illustrations. Let’s respect children by giving them images that we think are tasteful. If we think it’s kind of ‘dorky’ and don’t admire it, then why give it to our children? Aren’t we almost putting our faith into a laughable box when we do that? Instead of making the religious concepts ‘accessible,’ we’re making them ridiculous.

And as for the rainbow which has now been hijacked for social agenda reasons, well, they can have that one. It’s a cartoon mockery of the real thing. FearlessOne pointed out that it has only six colours, and he explained the significance to me of the number six. If I recall correctly, it represents, in the Hebrew teaching, the notion of incompleteness. Seven represents completeness he said.

When I learned in junior high school science about the colours in the rainbow, I was taught to remember a fictitious name, Roy G. Biv, representing Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet. That was important so that you could correctly name all seven colours in the correct sequence.

Some illustrators, out of ignorance or laziness, I suppose, omit one or more of the rainbow’s colours. I’ve even seen it reduced to something like four colours, which strikes me as bizarre, since I would think that an illustrator would welcome the opportunity to draw something which is beautifully colourful. Otherwise I wonder if he dislikes his occupation.

It is unfortunate that the rainbow has been transformed into a symbol for something else nowadays, in the same way that I’m not entirely happy that the colour pink so often means anti-bullying or fighting breast cancer. I feel that these causes are taking more than their fair share of the world in order to create reminders of their special interest. The special interest may be fine (or maybe not), but somehow claiming a whole colour (or, in the case of the rainbow, all the colours) – well, that seems a bit greedy.

The rainbow, for more than 2000 years, has represented God’s covenant with mankind, a promise that he will always be there for us, and will never again allow a flood to destroy everything. The sheer beauty of it in terms of colour (God here blends seven colours across a very narrow span) and shape (an arc from horizon to horizon) captivates people and especially the young. It is unfair to take it away from the children and make it into a symbol for a topic which is not suitable for the young.

But I realize that the cartoon rainbow is just a caricature, and the real rainbow will always put it to shame, showing the cartoon version to be an imposter of what is genuine. (Just ask Roy G. Biv.)

The real rainbow will continue to appear in the sky and glow with all its gentle beauty, as does the rest of God’s creation, and I hope that our eyes are young enough to appreciate it.

Post 50

Plastic Bottle Cap:
Reflections on Feeling Inadequate

Inadequacy is that feeling of falling short. It’s that feeling of being unfit for the task.

It’s the feeling that you don’t measure up to what is being asked of you, or to what you feel you should be able to do or be.

Some people have this feeling often, but there isn’t the connection that we’d expect between those who are capable and those who are confident. JustOne once said, “The incompetent are always confident.” (Which isn’t the same as saying that confidence indicates incompetence, of course.) I think there’s more than a grain of truth to that, in the same way that those who aren’t very bright are convinced that they’re smarter than everyone else; I once heard a criminal defense lawyer commenting that his clients are, on the whole, quite stupid. They imagine that they’re criminal masterminds, but really, well, they’re not.

[Addition on December 17, 2015: WiseOne and LoyalOne were telling me, with sadness, about a book that ridiculed criminals. They said that some of the stories — such as the time the criminal ‘phoned ahead’ to ask the convenience store clerk if there were a lot of money in the cash register, or the time the criminal broke into a bank and then spent so much time on the bank’s computer in order to google about breaking into safes that he was caught — display almost an endearing quality. While condemning the behaviour, we should be able to see the person too. As Chesterton says, a bad man is still a man.]

The true criminal mastermind doesn’t need a lawyer – he needs a conscience.

Still, it’s somewhat surprising when you hear about such-and-such a super-talented person having terrible jitters, like the world-famous concert pianist who is in the bathroom throwing up before every performance.

It’s a predicament familiar to everyone – when you see the big difference between the skills necessary to do a good job and the skills that you have, well, different emotions come upon you.

As for me, I recently laughed out loud as I considered writing a certain blog post. You see, someone had sent me a link to a post, and I was tempted to respond via my own post. In a way, I felt that I should reply.

But as I thought about the prospect (it’s still unwritten and may never be), a strong image came to my mind, and it was so vivid that it felt almost like an inspiration, were it not for the fact that the image was so far from inspiring.

I pictured myself as a white plastic bottle-cap – kind of squished too, if you want the gory details.

Poetic, hey?

It represented exactly how I felt as I considered the task ahead of me.

Who am I to explain that little issue of The Mystery of Evil and Suffering in the World? This was the topic up for discussion. Only that. Is there meaning in life’s suffering and pain?

Big topic.

A Chesterton-sized topic.

And I’m not Chesterton! (www.imnotchesterton.com)

Where is that big guy when you need him anyway?

He’s the one who should reply.

As for me, I would rather be his secretary.

In Maisie Ward’s biography on him, she says that Dorothy Collins, Chesterton’s personal assistant for the last decade of his life, was like the daughter that Gilbert Chesterton and his wife Frances never had (they couldn’t have children). She straightened out all his papers and dealt with their administrative details; she even drove them places. He dedicated Saint Thomas Aquinas to her:

TO
DOROTHY COLLINS
WITHOUT WHOSE HELP THE AUTHOR
WOULD HAVE BEEN MORE
THAN NORMALLY HELPLESS

That’s who I would have liked to be. I would have liked to be Dorothy Collins.

As a matter of fact, in my next life, I’d like to come back as Chesterton’s secretary. Can you see me as a Dorothy? How about Dottie? Or maybe just Dot? Dot is quite a modern name isn’t it? If I introduced myself, it would sound like I’m about to say dot.com. “Hi, I’m Dot Collins.” That’s who I’ll be.

Or wait.

I guess I’m not allowed to choose to come back backwards – as in, I can’t hope to be born in 1894.

Let me think.

I know.

I can say that I was Dorothy Collins. I can say I am Dorothy Collins reincarnated as a Catholic blogger. There you go.

I think.

Or wait.

But does that mean that I was so good that I got elevated to being a Catholic blogger? Or does that mean that I was so bad that I had to be demoted to being a Catholic blogger? I suppose if she was a good person, then that means I’m better (you know, you get promoted if you’re good), which means that I shouldn’t want to be her, because she was an inferior version of me.

I think.

Or wait. She didn’t die until 1988, and I was around by then.

Okay, never mind.

I wasn’t and can’t be Dorothy Collins.

Hey . . . I just thought of something.

Chesterton died in 1936.

Isn’t that interesting?

Are you thinking what I’m thinking?

I wasn’t born yet. Or, to put it another way,

I. Wasn’t. Born. Yet.

Sooo, we might be on to something . . .

Or . . .

Or, maybe not.

Maybe not onto anything at all . . .

But anyway, where was I?

Ah yes, I was being a plastic bottle cap.

My point is that when I consider the abilities of Chesterton, and the size of some of these issues, I can’t help but be notice my own, well, my own non-Chesterton-ness. (My spell checker is acting like that’s not a word.)

And besides, on the topic of inadequacy, I know I’m a tiny dot in the blogosphere.

A voice says to me, “Who are you to think of challenging someone with Millions of Readers? You’re going to say he’s wrong?”

“And who are you?” exploded Vane. “Are your views necessarily the right ones? Are you necessarily in possession of the truth?”

“Yes,” said MacIan.

The magistrate broke into a contemptuous laugh.

— G.K. Chesterton “The Ball and the Cross” Chapter II “The Religion of the Stipendiary Magistrate”

You can’t help but think, who is going to care what I think? Should I even bother challenging someone who will probably never read what I say? And his readers don’t overlap with my readers so how would that work exactly?

On the other hand, WiseOne says that even if I had only 2 readers, it would still be worth the effort of writing about the issue, because those two readers are familiar with this idea, that everything happens for a reason, and its opposite.

And as a matter of fact, I do happen to have at least 2 readers.

There’s my dad, for starters. That’s one. (Hi Dad!)

And there’s CandidOne, who told me that she’s a subscriber. (Hi CandidOne!)

That’s two.

1 + 1 = 2

(My numbers are doubling right before your eyes.)

So there you go. Two avid readers.

Or maybe it sounds better like this: two avid readers.

(You are avid, right? Like, you don’t start skimming or anything, do you? You don’t go, “Hmm, how long is this post?” while you scroll to find the bottom, do you? Dad?)

I should change my subscriber page. The blogger who unknowingly provoked me encourages subscribing by saying, “Join thousands of readers.” (Well, actually, that’s what it said when I started this post. Today it says, “Join over 2 million yearly readers.” Apparently I’m not the only one with a Noticeable Increase.)

So mine is going to say, “Join 2 readers!”

That would be funny. A little misleading, of course, because there are more than two. (There’s you, for instance.) But still, funny.

But anyway, the truth is that feelings of inadequacy are good. When we see our weakness and inability, we’ve found a good starting point. You really can’t discuss the human person properly without talking about our tendency to err, to mess up. We’re so incredibly limited, even on our good days. Even on our good days, we misplace things, forget things, and mix up our words. Even on our good days, we’re prone to laziness, selfishness and hedonism. We want what’s comfortable, easy and pleasing.

When we focus on improving one aspect of our lives, the other aspects testify to our neglect. (Yesterday I was patient but today I kept my kitchen counters clean. The day before yesterday I wasn’t patient or tidy but boy, was I punctual!)

Acknowledging our limits is acknowledging the truth.

To discover our authentic self is to discover inadequacy. And as a matter of fact, authenticity is one of the side-effects of prayer – in those moments of being face-to-face with God, the masks that you might be wearing tend to fall away; in those quiet moments, we come nearer to perceiving ourselves as we really are.

(Does that make prayer easier or more difficult?)

It can be liberating to acknowledge our inadequacy and brokenness, and indeed, we can go ahead and acknowledge it as much as we want, provided that we follow two rules.

The first rule is that you mustn’t deny things for the sake of sounding humble. If you know that you’re a good singer, for example, you shouldn’t say, “I’m lousy at singing.” That’s not proper humility because humility is always grounded in truth. The truth might be that objectively speaking, you can really sing better than the average squirrel, and so you can acknowledge that. And there’s always this to think about: “Allow me to remind you that among other evident signs of a lack of humility are: . . . Speaking badly about yourself, so that they may form a good opinion of you, or contradict you . . .” (St. Josemaria Escriva, The Furrow, No. 263) (And you should see the other items on his list!)

The second is that you can’t despair. You can’t say that you’re so bad that you don’t deserve God’s love. You don’t get to decide things like that.

Despair, the feeling that your situation is too horrible for God’s mercy or compassion, is a big no-no, a big error. Everyone can start over, no matter what. There’s no excuse for despair in the face of God’s open arms.

But as long as you follow those two rules, you’re set. You can secretly rejoice or exult in your own inadequacy as the saints did. And if you do it properly, maybe you could go public with it, hosting an “I’m a Squished Plastic Bottle Cap” Celebration Dinner. Don’t fret if the casserole gets burnt and the salad is soggy; it’ll fit with the theme. Revel in your utter frailty and littleness. St. Thérèse of Lisieux was very pleased to claim for herself the littleness of a child – the child gets the most help, and is lifted right into the arms of her loving father.

I have a friend who will sometimes make a point of embellishing her supper table with a roll of toilet paper when she has dinner guests. She puts it there (instead of proper dinner napkins) because it instantly sets a laid-back mood: she wants to set her friends at ease. She wants the dinner to be about friendship, not Martha Stewart flair. And I remember hearing about how Bishop Fulton Sheen would adjust the buttons on his cardigan before a guest would arrive. He knew that many of them were intimidated about meeting him, and so he would make sure that the buttons didn’t line up properly. Seeing how even such a great man could make a silly mistake would make them feel less over-awed by him.

The point is that instead of hiding inadequacy, many good people almost flaunt it in order to be more welcoming.

Christianity is beautiful in the way that it acknowledges and recognizes the weakness of human nature – our inadequacy – while at the same time acknowledging the dignity and supremacy of the human being. Chesterton talked about this paradox in Orthodoxy.

He described how Christianity ‘saves’ two extremes so that they can co-exist in full force, without being cancelled out by each other. He gives lots of examples (for example, celebrating virginity and also fruitful matrimony), but the one I’m thinking about is his discussion about the pessimism about our human nature existing next to optimism about it, or you could say, between humility on the one side and hope on the other.

Christianity recognizes and validates all the natural human (rightful) disappointment with human frailty, while, at the same time – and this is the amazing thing – revealing the intended glorious destiny of the human person (the point of this life is beyond this life, says Chesterton).

So you have the fun of dramatically lamenting all the pathos of life as a human, while at the same time rejoicing in being the very apple of God’s eye. Both are legitimate expressions of what is true. There’s the sorrow of Good Friday and the glory of Easter Sunday – vigorous and wholesome contrast.

On the one hand, Man is great: “a statue of God walking about in the garden,” with a “pre-eminence over the brutes . . . not a beast, but a broken god.” His dignity is rightly expressed “in crowns rayed like the sun and fans of peacock plumage.”

On the other hand, Man is pathetic: “In so far as I am a man I am the chief of sinners.” The “abject smallness of man” is rightly expressed “in fasting and fantastic submission, in the gray ashes of St. Dominic and the white snows of St. Bernard.”

When one came to think of one’s self, there was vista and void enough for any amount of bleak abnegation and bitter truth. There the realistic gentleman could let himself go – as long as he let himself go at himself. There was an open playground for the happy pessimist. Let him say anything against himself short of blaspheming the original aim of his being; let him call himself a fool and even a damned fool; but he must not say that fools are not worth saving. He must not say that man, qua man, can be valueless. Christianity got over the difficulty of combining furious opposites, by keeping them both, and keeping them both furious. The Church was positive on both points. One can hardly think too little of one’s self. One can hardly think too much of one’s soul.

G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, Chapter VI: “The Paradoxes of Christianity”

In other words, Christianity proclaims that the correct balance is achieved by keeping both aspects – man is terribly broken and inadequate, but he is meant to be (and can be) terribly great.

To sum up thus far, the knowledge of our own inadequacy is fine, and Christianity even celebrates it. We don’t have to pretend to be super-heroes. In fact, we shouldn’t.

We’re all inadequate. We’re all bottle cap inadequate.

But the story doesn’t end there.

After all, there are different ways of living a bottle cap existence.

Humour me here:

Behind Door #1, we have the Egotist. He’s a bottle cap, but he doesn’t realize it. He’s full of himself and soothes his ego with knowledge of all of his successes. He stands on his ‘feet’ with the rim on the bottom. He believes he’s a giant. He won’t encourage others, because he has a mixture of pride (which tells him that others cannot compete with him) and fear (which tells him that others might compete with him).

Behind Door #2, we have the Realist. He’s a bottle cap, but at least he knows it. He says, “I might be nothing more than a bottle cap, but at least I’m standing.” And indeed, he also stands with the rim on the bottom. He may encourage others to stand, but it’s still about Self; it’s still about giving from your own stored-up knowledge and life experience. The answers are still coming from the mind of a bottle cap and not from something better or bigger. He struggles to point to anything beyond himself and sadly, he can almost sound like the Egotist.

Behind Door #3, we have the Undecided. He’s not sure what he is or where he’s going and he just rolls around everywhere. Then he gets recycled (that’s reincarnation) or something.

Behind Door #4, we have the Willing. He knows he’s a bottle cap, but instead of standing on his own, he is ‘face up’ – open to the heavens. He is capable of, and desirous of, being filled with something better than himself. He knows his own emptiness and inadequacy, but this inadequacy is just an opportunity. Sooner or later, the heavens will open, and this little guy is going to get filled up. Raindrops will collect and he’s going to be able to offer them to others. Even a squished bottle cap will have more to offer than one which is turned the other way, in defiant self-reliance.

In other words, you have to look outside yourself to find the answers.

We are all called to be filled up with the grace of God, Source of Truth, instead of ourselves, Source of Other Stuff.

On our own, we don’t have much to offer – we’re limited creatures – but when we’re willing to humbly accept that the truth is already out there, independent of us yet available to us, then we will receive something better than what we are on our own. God will fill us up with himself. And, as a matter of fact, our brokenness becomes our entitlement. “I come to call sinners.”

The saints did that – they responded to God’s invitation and by developing a relationship with him, they got more and more filled up with him. St. Paul had a lot to say about becoming a new person, which is much better than it sounds (it can sound like having a brain transplant), because it basically means becoming the best version of yourself; it means becoming the person God had wanted you to be all along. And God’s idea of you is infinitely better than your idea of you. We know how we are when we’re at our best (after that perfect mix of sleep, food, work, play, love, good news, etc.) but his idea of our best even beats that.

That’s why saints are captivating. When you meet a saint, you see something beyond the exterior person. You see and feel the beauty of a transformed person. You see ‘through’ them to Christ, who is pure goodness and love. It’s a lie that saints are difficult to live with; they are a consolation and a delight, and people gravitate to them.

Consider Mother Theresa. She’s a well-known example of what Christianity looks like when its lived authentically. She was completely transformed; she became another Christ, and she became a very attractive person.

She was a tiny frail-looking woman (who looked even shorter because she was all hunched over) but she radiated Christ’s love in all her words and her actions. She served the poorest of the poor in India, where the religion entrenched the idea of certain humans being ‘untouchable’ according to the laws of reincarnation and karma. And she spoke frequently about the need to care for that other group of vulnerable people, the unborn.

She became, by virtue of her relationship with Christ, someone with something to give. She became someone with Someone to give.

That’s the answer to our inadequacy. Go to God with open hands and an open heart; he will not hesitate to pour himself into your life, especially to the extent that he finds that you are empty and free from yourself. Your knowledge of your own unworthiness and inadequacy will draw him closer.

Then you, in turn, being filled with Christ, will naturally want to share what you have, and pour yourself out for others, as the saints did. I often think of the saying, bonum diffusivum est sui” — goodness pours itself out.

So let’s happily acknowledge that we’re plastic bottle cap inadequate. It’s not bad news – it’s good! It’s not the end of a sad story, it’s the beginning of an undeserved but glorious one!

This calls for a celebration indeed!

I’m breaking out the burnt casserole and the soggy salad! The toilet roll is on the table! My sweater is adjusted! The spinach is in the teeth!

(You know where this is going . . . )

Pull up a chair and join two million other guests as we “rejoice in our infirmities.”

Bon appétit!

And so there is no need for me to grow up. In fact, it is just the opposite: I must stay little and become less and less. O God, you have gone beyond anything I hoped for and I will sing of Your mercies!

– St. of Liseiux, Autobiography, Chapter Nine

My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.

– St. Paul, 2 Corinthians 12:9

Post 49

Sacrifice:
A Double-Dare Prayer for an Atheist

Our normal lives involve, constantly, a trading of one good for another. I work, and you pay. I’ll buy you pizza and a beer; you help me move.

(JustOne has a truck, and he says people say to him, “Hey, what are you doing next weekend?” But it’s a trap, because if he says he’s free, they say, “Great! Can you help me move?” Mind you, he understands; he says it’s the price you pay for owning one.)

Even marriage, which is supposed to be based on unconditional love, has this aspect of bartering too. Those who enter would admit that they have no idea of the curve-balls that life will send them, and they would further agree that probably their spouse will (or won’t) change, but having said that, they are still hoping to be more than be a giver in the adventure called marriage; they hope to receive. And I think in most cases, it goes beyond hope and into the territory of expectation. They look forward to a good measure of earthly happiness, in exchange for their commitment. And the more of a consumer mindset the spouses hold, the greater the dissatisfaction when those curve-balls and changes come (or don’t). Some people want a refund or an exchange after a few years. Turn back the clock so I can choose differently!

And those who have children are often also hoping for a measure of happiness in exchange for their parental sacrifices. They are looking for some kind of pay-back, some tangible sign of gratitude from their children.

But it’s not always like this. How admirable some couples become in the very last years of their lives together! There are scenes hidden from almost everyone, where one spouse becomes the caregiver of the other – feeding them or helping with other basic bodily functions.

And similarly, most parents do learn to sacrifice, as the popularity of early-morning kids’ hockey proves. (How anyone can regularly wake up on Saturdays at 4:30 a.m. to drive to an ice rink across the city is a mystery to me. That must be true love.)

And this parental sacrifice goes beyond the day-to-day and into the heroic. When tragedy strikes, many (most?) parents would be willing to give up their own lives in order to save their child’s life. In prayer, a parent of a terminally-ill child might offer his own life to God as a ransom for the life of his child.

It’s a shocking offer, but it happens all the time.

Consider – right now in some place, there’s a parent making this very offer.

Interestingly, sometimes this offer seems to be ‘accepted.’ The parent is soon diagnosed with a life-threatening illness and dies, but the child manages to pull through and live. The amazing story gets told from person to person.

When faced with a story like this, the agnostic says that this is: 1) something with no explanation – pure coincidence, 2) something with a natural explanation, such as the stress of the situation exacerbating a pre-existing condition, or 3) something with a supernatural explanation.

He doesn’t choose, but he leans towards 1) or 2).

The atheist, by contrast, reduces the possibilities here (he ‘shrinks’ the world, as Chesterton says in Orthodoxy). The atheist says that there’s no such thing as a supernatural explanation, and therefore it must be 1) or 2).

(Chesterton said, decades ago, that even the concept of atheism has become too theological, and indeed, the average person nowadays is rarely discussing these topics to the same extent that previous generations did. I once asked a non-native English speaker if he was Orthodox. He said no, and even though his English was good, he struggled to grab hold of the word “atheist.” Probably he has rarely or never heard or spoken the word in English. Having said that, he might not need this word in the future, because he also said that as he gets older, he has increasing doubts about atheism.)

But anyway, the parent who is praying in this way for his terminally-ill child is being selfless, but is nevertheless still praying for an earthly thing – that his child would have a chance to live a ‘normal’ life. And he prays for someone who is his own flesh and blood.

So when you read the lives of the saints, you’ll see that they go beyond this, by a good margin. In the first place, they are willing to suffer for a non-earthly benefit. They are trying to prevent the loss of a soul. The thought of eternal damnation for anyone causes them a deep sorrow, and far from gloating at the thought, or exulting in it (in the way that weak Christians do), they want genuine repentance for all who are headed in the wrong direction. But because this goal is spiritual, these saints might not have the gratification of seeing tangible results.

(And here I must interject that measuring the success of a religion is not the same as measuring the success of a restaurant or a political party, for example. I feel like the media always misses the point of faith. The most important results of a good religion are not things that can be weighed or graphed. All the hospitals and schools, and scientific and artistic contributions of the Catholic Church are incredibly vast, and always forgotten and dismissed using false stories, but these things are not the primary purpose of religion, and are in fact nothing compared with the spiritual benefits that have been bestowed over the past 2000 years. When I think of all the spiritual assistance I’ve received over my life so far, for example, I see it’s enormous, and I’m only one person.)

In the second place, the saint’s sacrifice is bigger than that of the parent in my example because usually the saint is making his sacrifice for someone whom he doesn’t even know, for someone who won’t even appreciate it, for now. The saint’s love is so great that it includes all people – both saints and sinners.

The saint is united with Christ in his thirst for souls, and so he is willing to suffer in concrete ways (physical illness seems to be the most common way, but emotional and spiritual suffering is written about as well) in exchange for supernatural benefits for people that he hasn’t even met. He wants to re-bind everyone to God (the word religion comes from re-ligare, and ligare is like the word ligament – something which ties together), and if he has to suffer for it, well, he’s willing.

The saints believe in a supernatural interconnectedness between people and events in the universe. What you do will affect me, even if I don’t know what you’ve done, and what I do will affect you, even if you don’t know what I’ve done. I can pray for you or offer sacrifices for you, and this will have a positive result for you, either in this life or the next or both.

Many saints wrote God a ‘blank cheque,’ offering to suffer anything in order to save the souls of sinners. At the same time, they knew that the ‘beneficiaries’ of their prayers were most definitely not asking for any help. One saint (was it St. Therese of Liseux or St. Teresa of Avila?) said, Lord, I know the strangeness of my request: I am asking you to save those who don’t even want to be saved. She was willing to endure any suffering in order to save souls. The amazing thing is that these ‘beneficiaries’ would not have known about her suffering, and they probably wouldn’t have cared even if they did know.

St. Therese of Lisieux couldn’t offer herself as a victim of God’s justice, so she offered herself as a victim of his love:

In 1895 I was enabled to understand more clearly than ever before how Jesus longs to be loved. I was thinking of those souls who offer themselves as victims to the justice of God, so that, by drawing it down on themselves, they turn aside the punishment due to sinners. I thought this a noble and generous offer, but I was a long way from feeling that I should make it myself.

. . .

O Jesus, let me be Your eager victim and consume Your little sacrifice in the fire of divine love.

-Autobiography, Chapter 8

But later, she experienced a great suffering, and it was that she lost the sense of heaven. She had gone her whole life with a very “clear and vigorous” faith about the next world, but then this was taken from her, and thinking about heaven made her feel even worse. She experienced how it felt to not believe. She called it a “pitch-black darkness,” a “sunless tunnel,” a “dense fog,” a “wall which towers to the sky and hides the stars.” However (and this is a big ‘however’), she willingly accepted this suffering if it would help others to be able to sense heaven. She wrote that she was “ready to shed my last drop of blood to declare there was a heaven,” and she said she was “well content” if she could no longer “see with the eyes of the spirit the heaven which awaited” if it meant that Christ would open Heaven to those who did not believe (Autobiography, Chapter 9). The salvation of other souls meant more to her than her own most painful suffering.

And St. Padre Pio said the same thing:

. . . I suffer cruel torment, for my thoughts go out to the great number of those who are not in the least concerned about these heavenly delights, and to the many unfortunates who through their own fault will be deprived for all eternity of tasting even a drop of this bliss . . . I would willingly sacrifice the delights of my soul’s repose if I might hope to enkindle in other hearts the desire for this happiness which makes one blessed.

– Letter from Padre Pio to Padre Agostino, October 4, 1915

In reply to this letter, his spiritual director reminded him that the sufferings are all connected to the time that Padre Pio offered himself. Padre Agostino replied:

Continue, then, to envelop yourself in this state of affliction and pray for all, especially for sinners, to make up for so many offences committed against the divine Heart . . . I know that you once offered yourself as a victim for sinners. Jesus accepted your offering and he has given you the grace to bear the sacrifice entailed. So have courage a little longer . . .

– Letter from Padre Agostino to Padre Pio, October 7, 1915

These saints, like so many others, wanted to imitate Christ in saving souls from eternal separation from God. I like Chesterton’s quotation: “Losing one’s own soul is not a matter of degree.” (Daily News, April 10, 1909) People who love Christ want to join their own sacrifice to his. They even welcome suffering, despite the pain!

It’s quite a startling outlook, and completely contrary to the modern view of suffering as something to avoid at all costs.

And most modern Christians don’t have enough love or faith to offer themselves as a sacrifice in this kind of way. If we pray or sacrifice ourselves for family members or for those we like, we consider that we’ve done quite enough. Sometimes avoiding a mortal sin is our greatest accomplishment. How far different are we from these saints, who suffered acutely, yet counted their own sacrifices as almost nothing. They were the ones who knew how to really live their Catholic faith. After all, the crucifixion and resurrection are the heart of this religion: instead of killing those who have don’t share it, you die to yourself, sacrificing as much as you can, in the hopes of obtaining it for them. This is how we’re supposed to be, and, as a matter of fact, this is a realistic goal, with the help of God.

Mind you, Chesterton has a most interesting passage about Christians who fall short of the mark:

Most Christians fail to fulfill the Christian ideal. This bitter and bracing fact cannot be too much insisted upon in this and every other moral question. But, perhaps, it might be suggested that this failure is not so much the failure of Christians in connection with the Christian ideal as the failure of any men in connection with any ideal. That Christians are not always Christian is obvious; neither are Liberals always liberal, nor Socialists always social, nor Humanitarians always kind, nor Rationalists always rational, nor are gentlemen always gentle, nor do working men always work. If people are especially horrified at the failure of Christian practice, it must be an indirect compliment to the Christian creed.

– Daily News, February 13, 1906

But anyway, when you consider the Christian’s understanding of suffering for others from the point of view of a non-Christian, this kind of talk must seem downright ridiculous and delusional. If there is a God, what kind of story is this? What kind of God would allow his ‘best’ or most devoted to suffer like this? (Saint Teresa of Avila said, “Jesus, if this is how you treat your friends, is it any wonder that you have so few?”) What kind of God would honour this kind of ‘bartering’? It probably all sounds like an illogical and almost childish oversimplification. Exchanges and bartering are perfectly sensible with ‘real life,’ but certainly they wouldn’t have any place in supernatural matters.

It occurred to me, however, that an atheist could easily test out this notion. Thinking of some person whom he loves, he could say, “This month, I offer myself as a sacrifice for his/her good.”

I wonder.

I wonder if you could get an atheist to try this.

Maybe you could dare them.

Probably not.

They’ve been asked such questions before. They’d argue it’s a silly and meaningless game.

On the other hand, what if you double-dared them?

Hmm.

That might work. Not just a regular dare, see. A double-dare.

And I wonder what would happen if they did say such words. What would happen if they did say that?

What would happen?

I know a Christian woman who, along with her children, dedicated one month for the good of a certain soul, and they wound up having a really interesting month, filled with unusual difficulties. Of course, the atheist would say that this is either 1) purely coincidental, or 2) easily explainable – perhaps, for instance, the family became hyper-sensitive to any negative events that month, and probably didn’t have more difficulties than usual.

So if the atheist did the same test, then he could use a more ‘scientific’ approach, some standardized way of comparing an average month with an ‘offered’ month.

I don’t know. I’m probably missing something, but it’s a rather new idea to me: the atheist and the great saint can say the same words: the atheist because he means them and puts so much weight in them, and the atheist because he doesn’t put any weight in them at all. To an atheist, these would be just superstitious words, attracting no consequence because there’s nobody on the other side to accept such an offer.

Meanwhile, the lukewarm believers in the middle can’t bring themselves to say such words, because they have enough faith to believe that God would accept their offer, but, sadly, not enough love to be willing to say them.

Hmm. Maybe they need the prayer dare more than the atheists. The double-dare, I mean.

Oh, why be choosy?

I double-dare y’all.

Post 48

Make Your Day:
Reflections on Having a Spiritual 'Game Plan' and a Prayer for an Agnostic

It takes me forever to write a blog post. I’m used to that. But this time around, it took me forever and a day because I was going in the wrong direction for weeks.

You see, I was questioning the entire idea of schedules and plans and all kinds of regimens, especially spiritual ones. Should we even bother with lists for our spiritual lives? What if it’s harmful?

And in thinking about this, I divided the world into the easy-going types who didn’t follow a schedule, and the methodical types who did follow them.

But of course, that also wasn’t quite right. Everyone is following some sort of schedule or daily plan. It might not be written down, but it’s there, in the form of habits. A percentage of today is a repeat of what we did yesterday or the day before. We don’t reinvent the wheel every day, living an entirely new kind of existence.

Yet we don’t think of these habits as part of our daily plan because in most cases we didn’t plan them – they just developed, and now they’re so internalized that we don’t think about them at all. You deal with meals and clothing, for instance, in certain ways that feel, to you, entirely ‘normal.’ You wake up and you’re on auto-pilot as you open the curtains, check the weather or your emails.

(Wouldn’t it be quite interesting to compare an excruciatingly detailed list of those first five minutes after waking? How much of a person’s priorities are revealed by those minutes? The beauty queen is looking in the mirror to study a new wrinkle on her face while the bird-watcher is looking out the window for signs of bird activity.)

But of course there are the things which we do need to stop and put deliberate thought into – those things on our external schedule. We add into our calendar the activities that we don’t want to forget, whether it’s a couple of things for the week or a couple of things or more for the day. We do this for all those things that aren’t automatic for us. After all, we aren’t animals who can operate on instinct almost all of the time.

So I couldn’t actually condemn the idea of a schedule in and of itself – we all have one, in the form of a set of habits supplemented by a set of external reminders. It’s part of human life; to criticize it would be to criticize living.

No, I realized that my challenge had to be narrower than that. I was challenging the notion of adding a pre-meditated list of spiritual practices into our schedule. I didn’t like the sound of this, so I began thinking and blogging my way through the notion. I was going to argue against this approach, which struck me as so mechanical and artificial, and not at all like the relationship or romance that the Christian life is supposed to be.

Why can’t we all just love God and do whatever we want – you know, in the spirit of ‘love God and do as you will’? Look at Chesterton, I said to myself. He wasn’t very disciplined, but he was so good! He didn’t rise early (“Daybreak is a never-ending glory, getting out of bed is a never-ending nuisance” is one of his quotations and “The sun rises every morning. I do not rise every morning” from Chapter IV of Orthodoxy is another) but you can’t convince me that this defender of the faith wasn’t saintly. (I hope he’s canonized one day.) And Pope St. John Paul II was always late for everything when he was a priest; people teased him about running on “Wojtyla time.” The world is filled with so many different types, is it not? I was thinking of this quotation too:

People have very different and sometimes conflicting temperaments and ways of seeing things, and that is something to be recognized and accepted cheerfully. Some love to have everything in order and are upset by the slightest disorder. Others feel stifled when everything is overly organized and regulated. Those who love order feel threatened by anyone who leaves the smallest object out of place; those with the opposite temperament feel they are being attacked by anyone who insists on perfect tidiness. We are quick to attach moral judgments to such behavior, calling what pleases us ‘good’ and what doesn’t ‘bad.’ Examples abound. We must be careful not to turn our families and communities into permanent war zones divided between defenders of order and defenders of freedom, partisans of punctuality and partisans of easy-goingness, lovers of peace and quiet and lovers of exuberance, early birds and night owls, chatterers and taciturn types and so on. We need to accept other people just as they are, understand that their approach and values are not the same as ours, and to broaden our minds and soften our hearts towards them.

– Jacques Philippe, Interior Freedom, pg 62

So that’s the direction I was heading. If you have an authentic and strong love for Christ, then do you really need all these regimens? What about ‘love and do what you will’? What if you’re not the scheduling type? I looked at one list of spiritual practices (divided into daily, weekly and monthly items) and when I saw that it was called a “Spiritual Game Plan,” I felt confirmed that I was right in challenging the entire notion. Game Plan? Is the spiritual life something you ‘win,’ like a football game? Is it a matter of checking off a list and tallying up points? Certainly this wasn’t the correct spirit. It sounded cold and calculating, and I could imagine a Pharisee-like smugness associated with it.

And it didn’t help that I could easily bring to mind list-oriented religious people who seemed to have forgotten how to laugh. They’re the ones who are quick to scold a group of women if they become too chatty at an evening meant for reflection. They’re the ones who suppress a smile when you joke, and hastily move to get the discussion ‘back on track.’ What’s wrong with laughing? Is mirth a sign of spiritual immaturity or weakness? What about all the saints who used to play practical jokes?

Chesterton was always having to defend his use of humour. He was witty, so some people thought he was being flippant or insincere. Yet he argued (especially in his chapter against McCabe in Heretics) and demonstrated that good ideas and goodness in general don’t have to be wrapped in grim packaging, nor should they be. A holy person should be a joyful person, not a miserable one. Chesterton wrote, “seriousness is not a virtue.” (Orthodoxy, Chapter 7) Amen to that. A solemn demeanor is appropriate for some occasions, but it’s not a virtue in itself. It’s not the same as taking an issue seriously or serious thought.

So I was putting on one side the uptight rule-keeper scheduling types, and on the other side, the easy-going types who were like Chesterton. I was in the mood to condemn (or at least criticize or limit) this goodie-two-shoes list-keeping and spiritual scheduling, in favour of something more romantic and fuzzy, more spontaneous and from-the-heart.

I wrote a lot of paragraphs in that vein. But I couldn’t get proper traction. I’d write for a while and then I’d find myself going off a cliff. So I’d start again, and I’d go off another cliff. To give an example of what I mean, I’d say you can’t earn your way to heaven by checking practices off a list, and I’d want to talk about Pelagianism, a heresy which said you could. But when I kept going, I found that I was nearly saying that ‘works’ (i.e., good deeds) don’t matter, and all you need is grace. What? What did I almost just say? Another cliff!

So I’d start again, but this time I’d say, well sure, this intentionality might be great for some of the expressions of Catholicism, but Catholicism has all kinds of spirituality in it. Not everyone is going to be another St. Josemaria Escriva, in the same way that not everyone is going to be a St. Francis. And I was ready to tell you about how the Church had to rein in the Fraticelli, the extreme Franciscans who wanted everyone to adopt that spirituality to the exclusion of all others. The world is full of different folks, was my point. As Chesterton says, “No men are more different than saints; not even murderers.” (Saint Thomas, Chapter IV “A Meditation on the Manichees”). I said to myself, that St. Josemaria Escriva, well, he was Spanish, so he couldn’t help himself. But it’s not for everyone, is it?

But aside from the fact that I was starting to sound like a fan of relativism, I had to admit that St. Josemaria Escriva wasn’t just about scheduling. He cared about everything that related to a person’s relationship with God and with other people. And I know that he was so incredibly lovable and cheerful. He had a twinkle in his eye and always a fresh and inspiring insight. He had so many people eager to vouch for his sanctity after his death. Sure, he wrote about being faithful to your daily plan, but what about everything else he wrote? He wrote so much else, and if you want humour, he had it in spades! And what an encouraging person he was – hard on himself, but forgiving of others.

I just couldn’t pigeon-hole him in order to discount what he said about scheduling. And I guess it shows you how anti-schedule I was, that I was even looking for an angle to use in order to set aside St. Josemaria Escriva’s advice on the subject. (“Virtue without order? Strange virtue!”) But my point is that I couldn’t pull it off. I had to accept that he was someone very much in love with Christ and yet very scheduled, and those two things could be successfully linked together. You could be cheerful and scheduled at the same time. And, truth be told, I could easily bring to mind religious people who were following daily plans and yet were very joyful. Hmm. So perhaps following a spiritual schedule wasn’t the issue, but rather, the method of implementation was the issue. Maybe if you did it correctly . . .

So I kept tripping myself up. For another instance, I’d want to say things like, surely when someone is in love, they don’t make a list of to-do items. Instead they just go ahead and do loving things almost as second nature without planning, right? Hmm, wait a minute. That looks like another cliff in front of me.

After all, a wife might well make a to-do list of ideas to make her husband happy and vice versa. I like Chesterton’s quotation that he never met a husband and wife who were ‘compatible.’ Men and women are so different (it was meant to be that way), that if someone offers tips about how to speak the language of the other gender, that’s very helpful! Didn’t I once read an intriguing list from Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus? John Gray had two fairly long lists of thoughtful deeds – one list was what women appreciate, and the other list was what men appreciate, and it was a good and insightful list; the suggestions were amusing because they were so accurate!

So was I really going to criticize someone who might jot down some ideas after reading such a list? Of course not! Such thoughtful behaviour deserves praise, not criticism. What woman wouldn’t be thrilled to discover that her husband was looking for new ideas on how to ‘keep the flame alive’? And if a husband makes plans to treat his wife to an evening out at a restaurant, wouldn’t many of those steps (checking restaurant reviews, Googling the address, phoning in a reservation, etc.) look strategic and ‘mechanical’? Romance in fact does look like that from backstage, and a woman would be really pleased that her husband felt that she was still worth all that effort.

The last straw was when I pictured myself going to heaven to take a quick survey.

“Okay, folks, so we’ve ruled out the ‘bucket list’ – but now we’ve got a new topic. We want to know how many of you followed a daily plan or schedule for your spiritual life. Raise your hands please!”

All of those who lived in convents and monasteries would raise their hands. That would be a lot of people.

And so many of the saintly clergy who didn’t live in community also were very deliberate about their spiritual practices, and so they’d raise their hands. They’d build schedules for themselves which involved very early mornings and hours spent in prayer, for example.

And then of course there’d be all the lay saints who did the same. They came up with ways to weave their devotional practices into each day of family life. When they weren’t peeling potatoes for the love of God (looks like multi-tasking to me) they were faithful about doing certain spiritual things at certain points of the day.

“And how many of you didn’t follow one? Please raise your hands.”

Now of course, hands would go up. And I have a feeling that a lot of these ‘easy-going’ non-planning types would come from the group of martyrs.

(Aren’t martyrs often the ‘last-minute crammers’ of the saint world? Some led really saintly and structured lives, of course, like St. Thomas More, but others I think were full of good intentions and love but didn’t commit to an intentional daily plan of good spiritual practices. Then the circumstances lined up so that they had to make a choice in that terrible all-or-nothing phase of their life. They sprung for it: strengthened by the Holy Spirit, they chose heroically, and they became our martyrs. Their heroism is all bunched up at the end of their life, like the soldier on the battlefield who suddenly astonishes everyone with his bravery and self-sacrifice. You can’t always see it coming with those martyrs. And as a matter of fact, they often didn’t see it coming.)

I know it’s just imaginary, but I couldn’t help but picturing an ocean of raised hands upon asking how many followed spiritual routines. Whenever you read the life of a saint, it’s so common to read that they woke up really early and prayed; it’s so common to read that they ‘never missed’ such-and-such a holy practice, such as attending Mass or spending time in adoration before the Eucharist; it’s so common to find out that they always did such-and-such on the first Friday of the month, or something like that. This faithfulness to daily activities that kept the relationship with Christ alive seems to be the rule when you read about them, not the exception.

So finally I did a 180-degree turn, suspecting that the truth about spiritual plans or routines was in the opposite direction, and as soon as I turned around, I found plenty of manifestations of this truth.

(Chesterton says “a man is not really convinced of a philosophic theory when he finds something proves it. He is only really convinced when he finds that everything proves it.” (Orthodoxy, Chapter VI) Indeed, that’s true too! When you hear something new, you compare it to your own life experience across a wide variety of contexts. When you see that it’s true in several instances – lining up with what you already know, confirming and explaining the patterns you’ve already observed – that’s when you buy into it.

And of course there’s the opposite of this. When you hear something new that just doesn’t sit right, it might take a moment, but you’ll be able to think of a couple of examples of how it’s wrong. And with more time, you’ll have more examples. And by the time that conversation is a week old, you’ve got even more reasons, “Wait a minute, come back here! I’ve thought of another counter-argument!”)

As soon as I acknowledged all the fruitful results of this deliberateness and intentionality, I found not only many happy instances of success in all manner of worldly pursuits, but I also found a family of words and values that I already cherish. Here next to Planning was Responsibility and Reliability, here was Diligence and Duty, and Constancy and Care. I found Loyalty, and I also found Love.

I found Love – and I finally had to admit that one expression of love was the plan, even “The Spiritual Game Plan.”

Of course.

Of course! (What took me so long?)

Of course a person in love would make a commitment of himself and his time. For richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health . . .

It is in fact the nature of love to be willing to promise to do certain things, to promise to be faithful in this way and in that. The greater the love, the longer the list of things that the lover is ready to offer.

And as time goes on, this list of devotions will, if faithfully followed, sustain the love, long after the honeymoon feelings have faded. I once heard Fulton Sheen, I think it was, remark that when people get married, they think their love will sustain their marriage, but in fact, it’s the marriage that sustains the love.

And how wise, in fact, is the person who makes such commitments to these practices. Such a person acknowledges his weakness. We get distracted, lazy and sloppy with all our relationships. It’s how it goes. It’s the way we are. We become neglectful, and we’re so neglectful that we don’t realize that we’re being neglectful. We’re just not keeping track; we don’t remember how we used to be.

By making a list, the wise person will be able to maintain at least a minimum standard for the relationship. And if good practices are kept up during the periods of ‘dryness,’ the relationship will be able to flourish again.

Last night I was skimming through Maisie Ward’s biography of Chesterton. She described how he was determined to not slip into a zone of mere ‘comfort’ with his marriage. He wanted to keep alive the ‘ecstasy’ of it, so he continued to lavish attention on her, writing poems and so on. It was very pleasant to read about his efforts in this way.

And, speaking of Chesterton, it’s difficult to know what all his habits were, but we know that he tirelessly worked to defend what was right while at the same time being very warm towards everyone who opposed him. Those who argued against him found that they really liked him, because he never meant to attack them, but rather, only the ideas themselves. He died without enemies; he died without resentment. He was a forgiving and extremely humble person, who loved his wife tenderly and showed so much kindness to the poor that they crowded around him knowing that he’d give away whatever money he had at that moment. I’ve heard that he did have spiritual practices that he incorporated into his daily life (such as making a sign of blessing upon entering a room), but don’t know much about these, because it’s not something that he wrote about.

But as for what I do know, I know that we should carefully consider what spiritual practices we could incorporate into our day, and then we should add them.

I do think it’s a mistake, however, to find a list of good practices and then dive in and try to do them all, even if the list itself is good. It would probably backfire because the list would outstrip our level of devotion. Instead, I think it would be wise, initially, to have the practices reflect the current state of our love. St. John Bosco, when advising young St. Dominic about attending Mass, suggested that he gradually work up to attending daily Mass. This is in line with what WiseOne had said – she was saying that you should begin by being able to attend the Sunday Mass well, before you start making yourself attend every day.

And as it happens, I recently heard a priest speak about how difficult it is to go to Mass and get anything out of it when you haven’t done anything spiritual the rest of the week. You arrive at Mass in a very distracted and ‘frozen’ state. How different it is if you’ve done a bit of preparation before arriving – you’ve ‘thawed’ yourself out a little ahead of time. He said that the loss of the practice of the family rosary is terrible, because it means that people are attending Mass and getting nothing out of it – you can attend Mass like a stone or like a sponge, he said.

So attending Mass every day would be one of the ‘biggies’ and not an easy entry point. By contrast, some very good devotional practices are really short, taking only about 20 to 60 seconds, but if they were done daily with a half-decent effort, they’d have a surprisingly big impact, in the same way that a kind smile from a spouse goes such a long way.

And speaking of ‘a long way,’ I certainly have come a long way from where I started. I started out very determined to criticize having a schedule of spiritual practices, but now I am convinced that having daily spiritual practices is a part of an authentic human life. Daily spiritual practices are for everybody, not just for religious people. After all, we’re not animals, just gathering our food, eating, mating and sleeping.

No matter what our current religious views, isn’t it good and right for everyone to have some sort of deliberate and planned ‘interruption’ of the day, to rise above the immediate life circumstances? What about, at minimum, the idea of an intentional pause, to momentarily consider and appreciate, what a wonderful thing it is to be alive?

The object of the artistic and spiritual life was to dig for this submerged sunrise of wonder; so that a man sitting in a chair might suddenly understand that he was alive, and be happy.

— G.K. Chesterton, Autobiography, Chapter IV “How to be a Lunatic”

It’s a duty of every person to continue to think about bigger things (i.e., the spiritual questions) as long as he has the power of thought. It’s not enough to question everything (or to say it can all be questioned) and leave it at that. It’s time to make decisions about the answers. Choose a side; where do you stand? To paraphrase Chesterton, has your open mind found something solid to close itself upon? And I like this section too:

We have no more questions left to ask. We have looked for questions in the darkest corners and on the wildest peaks. We have found all the questions that can be found. It is time we gave up looking for questions and began looking for answers.

— Orthodoxy, Chapter III, “The Suicide of Thought”

And if finding answers is something we should do, as a duty of human existence, then we need to give ourselves predictable and reliable slots of time in which to do such things. We need to commit to having these moments. We could read some good books, for example. (In a book club?) (Chesterton, anyone?)

After all, there might not be any culpability in not knowing the answers, but there is culpability in not even trying to find them. In other words, it might be accurate to label oneself an agnostic, someone who does not know, but then the search should continue, and hopefully the search will go beyond the confines of one’s own being, or ‘the God within.’ As Chesterton puts it, “Of all horrible religions the most horrible is the worship of the God within … That Jones shall worship the god within turns out ultimately to mean that Jones shall worship Jones” (Orthodoxy, Chapter V). To prevent that, here’s a prayer for an agnostic: “O God, if there be a God, save my soul, if I have a soul!” (Prayer of a common soldier before the battle of Blenheim, 1704, quoted in John Henry Newman’s Apologia pro Vita Sua of 1864 and paraphrased by Robert G. Ingersoll)

We can’t just let our time slip away while we are distracted with all of life’s ‘practical’ things. We need to have a bigger vision than that. A day is a symbol of a lifetime; it’s a little lifetime contained in itself, with a birth and a death. So let’s make sure (i.e., let’s be deliberate about it) that each day has a decent spiritual component to it, depending on our state in life and our current level of devotion.

And even if we can’t commit to a lot, we need to make sure that at least a touch, a glimmer, a spark, of spiritual considerations and thought has a protected place in each day.

Time given to such reflections or deeds will pay great dividends, because that’s how it is with good deeds and good choices. Faithfulness to even little such sparks will bring increasing warmth and light into the rest of the day.

Indeed, they’ll make our day.

Post 47

The Elevator:
Reflections on a Post that Comes and Goes

I suppose you know what it’s like to have one of those highly non-scientific gut feelings that somebody you have just met is very bad news. You meet them and you almost gasp because they are giving off such a strong message of “I’m not okay.” It doesn’t happen often, but once in a while, someone just gives you this impression. DiscerningOne told me about how she could barely look such a person in the eye, the sensation was so unpleasant.

I have heard advice given to women about this phenomenon. It goes like this. You’re waiting for the elevator, and it opens, and you see a man standing there alone but he seems really creepy. You don’t want to seem rude, but there’s something about him. The message is, obviously: “Don’t get on the elevator! Never mind anything else, just don’t go!”

This sixth sense is, as I have said, unscientific, in the sense that you can’t point to any concrete thing to justify your reaction. And it’s not ‘sensible’ in the sense that your ordinary five senses haven’t discovered anything objectively wrong. You would barely be able to explain yourself. You’d probably stammer something like, “I don’t know what it was. There was something about his eyes, maybe, or the way he looked at me?”

A Christian who allows himself access to more realms of thought and experience than the strictly material, would more easily explain such a phenomenon. For starters, there’s the saying that the eyes are the window to the soul. Being able to talk about the soul is a distinct advantage because it’s a reality – an invisible reality, for sure, but a reality nevertheless.

I mention all this as an introduction to the idea of a mystic.

Last night I came across this Chesterton quotation about mystics: “Real mystics don’t hide mysteries, they reveal them. They set up a thing in broad daylight, and when you’ve seen it, it’s still a mystery.”

And this is so true. When they speak, they don’t even understand the riddle themselves. They say what they know, and it’s more than others know, but even after saying it, they don’t necessarily know why they are being given that knowledge. It doesn’t make sense to them sometimes. So, for example, a mystic will suddenly have a very strong feeling that something is wrong with a part of his home, so that he gets a priest in to have it blessed, but he can’t explain much more than that.

However, having said that, the way this works is that later on, the meaning becomes clear – or at least, clearer.

In early October, I wrote a post about Hallowe’en, and soon after I posted it, I was talking to GentleOne – a mystic – about it. She didn’t read it, but she told me that it would be better for me not to post it.

Not post it?

This didn’t make a lot of sense to me, especially because she said that it was a good post, and that someone should say such things. I pressed her for more of an explanation and she said it would be dangerous for me.

Dangerous? To me? To post this post?

Dangerous to me to post this post?

Yes, she said.

Really?

I asked her if this could change; she said that it might. That’s why the “Boo!” post kept its number of 42 even though it was hidden.

So I changed the status of “Boo!” to ‘Private,’ and I periodically I asked her whether I could post it. She always said no. The last time I spoke with her about it, she said that she might never know when it would be a good time.

Sigh.

It was one of my longer posts, and so it seemed sort of a shame that I wrote it for nothing.

Hallowe’en came and went, and my topical post sat there unpublished and unread.

Sigh.

But I spoke to her today, and she was the one who brought it up. “The post.”

“The post? The Hallowe’en post? I can post it?”

“Yes.”

“But why? Why now? Hallowe’en is over!”

“Yes, it’s calm now.”

“It’s calm, now that Hallowe’en is over?”

“Yes.”

“So how is this going to work? I can only have it up when it’s not Hallowe’en?”

“Yes.”

“And then whenever Hallowe’en gets closer, I need to hide it?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know.”

It’s the strangest thing. It means that when Hallowe’en is approaching, when it seems like the most sensible time to go ahead and talk about it, that’s exactly when I’m not supposed to ‘go there.’ It’s weird. At the time of year when that elevator door rises to ground level and opens, I’m told, “Never mind anything else. Don’t go!”

But apparently, the coast is clear. A new elevator has arrived, and it’s going up!

Happy All Saints Day!

So here it is again: Post 42: Boo!

Post 46

The News at 11: Reflections on a Good Number

These days I’m working on a post about schedules and daily plans. It’s a terrible choice of topic because I have a love-hate relationship with them. I revisit the issue a lot, because I feel like there must be a way to get everything done in a day, or at least, a way to get all the right things done. There must! If I could only find the right system . . .

So that post is currently a total mess of starting over and starting over. It’s also threatening to be very long, unless I can figure out a way to segment it. So I’ve decided to leave it aside for today so that I could write you and tell you that it’s 11.

(“What’s 11?”)

(“My favorite number!”)

(“Your favorite number is 11?”)

(“Yes, isn’t that exciting news?”)

(“You phoned me to say that your favorite number is 11?”)

(“Yes! Aren’t you glad?”)

(“What time is it anyway?”)

(“I don’t know. Maybe 11?”)

(“Well don’t you think you should be getting to sleep?”)

(“I suppose, but don’t you want to hear why it’s my favorite?”)

I was pondering it yesterday, and I’m pretty sure it’s number 11, though I must admit, I do like 12 a lot too.

The thing about the number 11 is that it’s aesthetically pleasing. Consider those two matching columns standing so proudly side by side. It has two lines of symmetry, so you can cut it in half horizontally or vertically. You could even turn it upside-down and it would not lose much of its charm. (This all assumes, of course, that you’re not doing it the European way with the long awning-like embellishment on the front.)

Number 8 isn’t as symmetrical, because the top half is smaller than the bottom half. Zero is good in this way, but I don’t really feel like zero is a proper answer to the favorite number question.

The number 11 also has the advantage that if you were to find another 11 and lay it horizontally, you could build a square. And if you’re feeling in an architectural mood, you can just place an arch on top, and then you’ve got columns plus arches, an unrivalled combination. That’s why 11 is better than just 1 all by itself.

And it’s white too, which is nice and calm. The digit 1 is white, so 11 is white next to white. White columns and an arch. Classic!

Do you see your numbers or letters in colour? If you do, then you’re a synesthete. The internet says that about 4% of people are synesthetes, but they’re not certain. I’m sure it’s more common than that – but nobody knows the real numbers because people don’t think of talking about it. If you have it, you think it’s normal and that everyone has it (that’s what I thought) or else you don’t have it, and it doesn’t occur to you that anybody would experience such a thing. And in the end, it doesn’t matter at all; it’s just one of those quirky things like wiggling your ears or folding your tongue lengthwise.

The most common version of synesthesia is the one where your brain assigns colours to different letters or numbers (grapheme-colour synesthesia). 578 seems blue red orange to me. I found it amusing to read how people with synesthesia can get really messed up if you give them math questions with the colours all ‘wrong.’ In other words, the heartless researchers would find out what colour associations that particular synesthete had, and then they’d switch the numbers up. So, for example, they’d ask you 4 – 3, but instead of using the right colours (green subtract yellow), they’d reverse them or do something like that. It disoriented the synesthetes, obviously.

Turning to the literary aspects, well, I must start with the fact that the number 11 almost looks like the very useful (I almost wrote ‘usefull’) double L. Watch this: The do11s a11 fe11 down the waterfa11. Pretty neat, hey?

And more importantly, the number 11 is one of the few number words that actually has three syllables. It’s quite beautiful. Listen to how smooth this is: eleven. And it looks good too. It looks and sounds like a combination of ‘elegant’ and ‘heaven.’ Hard to beat that, I must say.

Now I know there are all the three-syllable number words like ‘eighty-six.’ But really – most of them sound like old trucks pulling rusty trailers. And ‘forty-two’ – well, words like that bring the English language into disrepute; it’s very hard to gracefully end a word with the sound oo. Will you wear a muumuu when you come to my igloo for some tofu? How do you do? Yikes. It’s a good thing we don’t end words with the letter u.

(By the way, do you say twenty or ‘twenny’? I recently spoke to someone who emigrated here from Europe and he was surprised to hear Canadians using an Americanized pronunciation of twenty.)

And turning to morality, eleven is even a good number. Adding, subtracting and even multiplying are a breeze. No need to whip out the abacus with this number! It’s almost as cooperative as the number 1, but more interesting. When the School House Rock people did a teaching song about number 11, guess what they called it? “Good Eleven.”

But in terms of mathematics, I know that this is where number 12 really shines. Such a tiny number, and yet so many factors!

Admittedly, 11 is a prime number, but so is 7, and everybody knows how holy 7 is (7 gifts of the Holy Spirit, 7 days of the week, 7 corporal and spiritual acts of mercy, 7 sacraments).

But on the topic of holiness, you must admit that 11 is no slouch, being the number of good apostles, the Good Eleven, so to speak.

(“That’s it?”)

(“I think so.”)

(“Those are all your reasons?”)

(“Mm-hmm. That’s a11.”)

Post 45

Flubbed Lines: A Prayer About the Letter F

Dear Jesus,

So it didn’t work out.
As you know.

Why not?
How come?
How come you didn’t make it work out?

You could have made it work out.
You could have.

Or you could have prevented me from caring in the first place.
But I did care and I did try.
And then it didn’t work out.
After I tried and everything.

That’s disappointing.

I don’t like being disappointed.

It feels like suffering.
It is suffering.
I don’t like suffering.
It’s no fun.

And it’s a bit humiliating too.
It would have been better to not have cared in the first place, feels like.

The story-line isn’t linear; that’s the problem.
I do A, then B, and C is supposed to come next.
Instead I get an F.
An F!

F is for Failure.
You know I don’t like getting an F.
I don’t like getting an F.
You know.

I do A, then B, and C is supposed to come next.
Instead I get a 47.
47!
It’s not even a letter.

Lord, why do you do that?
Why do you write the story like that?
What kind of lines are these?
Why didn’t it just go the way it was supposed to go?

It would have been so good!
That’s what I wanted.
I thought that’s what you wanted too.

Or if it wasn’t supposed to turn out, then why did I care in the first place?
Why try?

Now what?

Why is there all this waiting all the time anyway, to figure out what we’re supposed to do?
Why is there all this waiting all the time anyway, to figure out how it’s all going to turn out?

Now what?

What is it that you want of me?

Trust?
Is that what this is all about?

JESUS, I do trust in you.
Let me trust in you more.
Jesus, I trust in you.
Let me trust in you more.

You know how the story ends.
You know how it goes.
You know what you’re doing.

Let me play the role of the fool.
Cast me as the Fool, if that’s the role you have for me.
Like an actor who just wants to be in the play, I’ll take any part.
Give me any part, as long as it’s one you’ve written.

I’ll take it.
I’ll take it.
Even if it starts with F.

Amen.

Post 44

Call Me When it's Over: Reflections on Book Clubs

A book is like any other work of art. The point is to have a worthy idea (in this case, a story) and execute it well. If you start with a story not worth telling, then no matter how skillfully you present it, it’s still not going to be worth people’s time. But if you have a worthy story, then at least you’re off to a proper start. Hopefully you’ll be able to do it justice.

So, obviously, some art is better than other art.

But not everyone is equally adept at telling the difference between good art and bad art.

Yet having said this, the arts need to be open to everyone, and should not be seen as a pursuit reserved for a select few. Art gets more and more warped and out of touch with what the average person finds beautiful when it has fewer regular folk participating in it or when it has some unnatural method of being kept alive. When the government or the multi-millionaire is financing the art, it rarely represents what the average person likes, and it degenerates into what is ugly and unappealing.

In the realm of the visual arts, for example, the average person who signs up for a painting class wants to do a pretty picture of flowers or a country scene. Mrs. So-and-so doesn’t sign up for splatter-painting or whatever it’s called. She figures that you don’t need to pay money to learn how to make a mess.

It’s natural for people to want to create things that are beautiful. It’s only when they get ‘advanced’ that artists want to create things that are ugly.

When children draw, for instance, they are doing their best to represent reality, or an idealized reality. Andrew Pudewa said girls draw nouns and boys draw verbs. The girls therefore draw horses or unicorns while the boys draw speeding cars and explosions. Their tools and ability might be amateur, but their aims are pure and distinct: they aim at accuracy, not distortion.

I once saw a group of children each take their turn at standing at the front of a classroom, holding their picture, having to answer the question, “What would you like to improve about your drawing?” And each of them, with one exception, said that he or she wanted to learn how to make something look more realistic. They wanted to make a more believable tree, bird or person. No child said he wanted to learn how to make something look more abstract.

As for the exception, well, that was funny. This girl, who was maybe about 5 years old, held up a picture of a horse and some people walking along the bottom edge of the page.

Teacher: “What do you like about your drawing?”
Girl: “Everything.”
Teacher: “And what would you like to improve?”
Girl: “Nothing.”

So I’m not saying art is only to be done by those who are ‘good enough.’ Certainly, more people should be actively engaged in art. Producing art is enjoyable and a mode of human expression. It’s too bad that our idea of experts prevents the average person from enjoying it to the full.

Nevertheless, not all art is equally good, and art can be evaluated for its quality. Moreover, I will even say that art intended for public consumption should be evaluated, because life is short, and you can only read a finite number of books in your life, and see a finite number of movies. It’s good to know what’s better. Hopefully, you’ll find a reliable source of information. But even more important than the time factor is the fact that art changes you; good art changes you for the better and bad art changes you for the worse. Sure, the change can be really small, but it’s there. And the human brain (or soul) doesn’t have a ‘delete’ button; the bad stuff lingers a lot longer than it should.

Such are my thoughts.

Too many thoughts, by book-club standards.

The atmosphere of a book club is supposed to be open and friendly and light-hearted. You’re with a group of women and presumably one of these women has suggested reading the book in question. She’s hoping that the other ladies will enjoy it. It’s supposed to be a pleasant night out, and the host has shined up her home and set out tea cups and wine glasses (there’s nothing like expecting a bunch of ladies to motivate a woman to shine the sink and wipe the doorknobs). Everyone is supposed to get along and socialize, have some dignified conversation, drink some wine, eat some goodies, laugh and go home, feeling enlightened and literate.

I know the drill.

But . . .

But what if I hate the book? What if I hate the book and I can’t stand the author’s agenda (all authors have one, for better or worse) and what if I can’t stand how he’s done it and what if I hate the way nobody can see or seems to mind what he’s trying to do and what if I can’t stand how everyone thinks this book is so edgy and clever when really it’s so lame?

What exactly am I supposed to do? “Excuse me, Miss Hostess, do you happen to have a pillow that I could borrow? Oh great, thanks. I’ll just go and scream in it until you ladies are done praising the book.”

Okay, all done!

Could you please pass the dip?

I know, I know. There’s a middle ground here somewhere, a way to do this well. In fact, I am sure there’s a saintly way to do it.

Hey, maybe I could bring St. Josemaria Escriva along to such a meeting. He’ll endear me to my liberal-minded friends when he say this:

Books. Don’t buy them without advice from a Catholic who has real knowledge and discernment. It’s so easy to buy something useless or harmful.

How often a man thinks he is carrying a book under his arm, and it turns out to be a load of trash.

The Way, No. 339

They’ll never forget us. They’ll call him the book-burning fanatic. “Did you hear him? He called this book ‘trash!’ Doesn’t he realize it’s a New York Times Best-Seller?”

And if you’re thinking that things would be better if I were the one choosing the book, I must say that there’s a wrinkle with that, which goes something like this:

Unsuspecting Friend: “I don’t know. I wasn’t really that excited about it.”
Me (looking astonished): “What?!”
Unsuspecting Friend: “Well, I just don’t know about this G.K. Chesterton fellow.”
Me (looking alarmed): “What?!”
Unsuspecting Friend: “I’m just not sure if he really works for me.”
Me (looking aghast): “What?!”
Unsuspecting Friend: “Maybe we could try someone else.”
Me (looking appalled):“What?!”
Unsuspecting Friend: “You know, someone a bit more . . .”
Me (looking green): “What?!”

And I can’t say that I enjoy that ‘noble’ book club called a Bible study group very much either. Now of course the bible is great and encyclicals (also the basis for some study groups) are really rich and amazing, but I don’t like looking at them with friends. I always get squirmy. “Are we done yet?” I want to keep the people, but replace that workbook and all its dry questions with a plate of nachos.

Conferences are tricky too, even if they feature, in theory, good Christian speakers talking about good Christian things. Like my friends, I’ve paid the registration fee, and I’m full of expectation. But by the time the presentation is done, and the audience is clapping, they’re satisfied and I’ve got a litany of criticisms. I try to act normal as we walk out of the conference room – you know, trying not to let my eyes bulge out too much. My friends are saying how much they’ve enjoyed it while I’m coaching myself: “Don’t speak, don’t speak, don’t speak.” But inevitably, someone turns to me and says, “Wasn’t that great? What did you think?”

The internal circuits start firing madly, but still, I hang on, valiantly. To speak or not to speak? Dare I start? What if I can’t stop? Where do I start?

And lest you think I have absolutely no self control, I’ll tell you that there have been times when I have deflected the question.

“Hey, look, an airplane!”

But then there are the other times. There are the times when I provide ‘the list.’

Unsuspecting Friend: “But why didn’t you like it?”
Me: “Well, if you must know, here’s an itemized breakdown of all of my issues with the presentation.”
Unsuspecting Friend: “Oh.”
Me: “Yeah.”
Unsuspecting Friend: “That’s a lot of issues.”
Me: “Yeah.”
Unsuspecting Friend: “Well I thought it was a nice presentation.”
Me: “Well, you’re wrong.”
Unsuspecting Friend: “Excuse me?”
Me: “Wrong. You. You’re wrong. It was no good.”
Unsuspecting Former Friend: “So you’re saying that you know better than me as to what’s a good presentation?”
Me: “Yup.”
Unsuspecting Former Friend: “Alrighty.”

Okay, so it doesn’t happen exactly like this. I don’t say, “You’re wrong,” but you could say that there’s a very strong suggestion that I might be thinking that.

So the truth is that I really think twice about attending conferences, and often I don’t go.

Mind you, it doesn’t always happen this way. Sometimes I really, really like a presentation or a performance or author or work. I get really excited, and I will provide anyone within a radius of 200 meters a copy of my itemized breakdown of everything that I loved about it.

WiseOne wondered aloud whether it’s a case of always holding an extreme opinion.

WiseOne: So you either really love something or you really dislike it?
Me: Well, not exactly. I could probably sometimes give a score of 7 out of 10.
WiseOne: Mm-hmm.
Me: Sometimes.
WiseOne: Mm-hmm.
Me: Well, not often, but it does happen. Or sometimes I might give it like a 4.
WiseOne: How about a 5?
Me: What?
WiseOne: A 5. Do you ever give a 5?
Me: A 5?
WiseOne: Yes, like right in the middle.
Me: How do you give a 5? Who gives a 5? You mean, like you’re not sure?
WiseOne: Yes, or like you don’t care.
Me: No! Of course not! I never give a 5!
WiseOne: Yes, that’s what I thought.
Me: But sometimes I could give a 4. That’s kind of like a 5. Does that count?
WiseOne: And you probably would give a 6.
Me: Yes, maybe a 6.
WiseOne: But never a 5.
Me: Well, no. What really is a 5?
WiseOne: 5 is medium, right in the middle.
Me: Medium?

 

Yeah.

So this is how things stand.

Some would say that such a person is opinionated. The thing about being opinionated is that it means you care about things. If you don’t care about an issue, you won’t have a strong opinion about it. The more things you care about, the more opinions you’ll have. I care about issues related to morality and about literary things and visual things. Crayons, for instance, have issues which are visual and literary and arguably moral, and so I have opinions about them.

But on other things, such as fractions or furnace filters, I’ll be fairly neutral. I bet if you gave me a questionnaire about such things, I could probably give out a lot of 5s. A lot. It would be like this:

5
5
5
5

Yeah, that would be me.

5
5
5

I’d be just so middle-of-the-road, so dispassionate and level that you’d think 5 is my favorite number. No, let me correct myself: you’d think I didn’t even have a favorite number, that’s how neutral I’d be.

Mind you, if the furnace filter is dirty, this would become a visual issue, and I’ll have an opinion. And arguably, this becomes a moral issue, because is it not the case that it is our duty to regularly replace the filter? Do people have a moral obligation to maintain their household appliances? Is this not an aspect of fully appreciating the gift of home? Yet wouldn’t proper maintenance of all our household appliances to the standards set out in the operating manuals involve the neglect of every other aspect of our life? And certainly people are not to become the servants of their possessions?

(Imagine if we only kept the number of appliances we were able to properly maintain! What if appliances had policemen who would come and confiscate the appliances that you don’t take care of? In that case, we probably would neglect our other responsibilities just to save our things.)

But anyway, where was I?

Right – I was thinking about the role of an opinionated person in a book club.

I think I know.

The opinionated person should be the designated driver.

I’ll drop you off.

Have a nice time.

Enjoy the wine and tell them I said hello.

Post 43

Zoom Zoom Beep Beep:
Reflections on a Restless Culture

Modern life is characterized by a lot of rushing around.

The car and the transport systems of the big city have made it possible for us to move around very easily, and so we do. It’s normal for us to cover many kilometers getting to work, to school and to essential places like the grocery store or the doctor’s office. The layout of most North American cities presupposes the use of a car, and I once saw an interesting documentary which said that the automotive industry played a pivotal role in the typical layout of the modern city; sprawling suburbs are good for the industry.

And when we’re not commuting to school or the workplace, we’re still on the move. We have evening and weekend activities which are also car-dependent and we drive here, there and everywhere.

This is normal life in a big city. We live a mobile sort of existence, and we fill it with wireless technology that will move with us, giving us the sensation of connection when we don’t have physical nearness. And we have drive-through food, drive-through coffee and drive-through banking. The home isn’t much more than a place to sleep, store our possessions (I sure like the photo book Material World: A Global Family Portrait) and recharge our phone.

And when this normal cycle of go-go-go is broken by the long-awaited vacation days, it’s rather amusing that one of the first things that we do is hop on a plane and go!

If they had feelings, surely our homes would feel quite rejected!

Leaving so soon?

Remember when you used to commonly see a little decorative plaque on the wall or a cross-stitch design that spelled out the words, “Home Sweet Home”? The sentiment seems almost out-of-date now, and you’ll rarely see it for sale in the stores anymore. Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz said, “There’s no place like home,” and she meant it as a compliment, but nowadays we seem to have mixed views about home – it’s not praised as uniformly anymore, as you can see from the attitude towards women who are ‘stay-at-home mothers.’ Staying at home – whether it’s what you do instead of working downtown, or what you’re planning to do over the long weekend – always sounds like a lesser choice; it’s safe, it’s boring, it’s non-threatening and narrow. The ‘real world,’ by contrast, is ‘out there.’ In a home (goes the thinking) you’re insulated from the difficult and exciting stuff.

So now instead of “Home Sweet Home” you’ll see a photo on the wall from that trip a few years ago, back when we used to get our photos printed out. (Nowadays we whip out our phone, “Just hang on; I have it right here – scroll, scroll – I thought it was – scroll, scroll – oh, here it is – it’s a video actually – we went zip lining – just watch this.”)

And even though not everyone travels, it’s usually a case of not being able to, instead of not wanting to. People admire the lifestyles of the famous, who are frequently ‘on tour’ promoting their music or their books. If you gave out free airplane tickets, then truly the suburbs would be entirely deserted during the summer. These days I get recorded phone messages telling me I’ve been “randomly selected” by Air Canada or West Jet for travel. It’s an attention-getting message because people like the idea of being able to travel more frequently or more affordably. Air Miles and similar programs are popular for the same reason. A woman complained that whenever there’s an Air Miles promotion, her husband buys more cereal than they can eat just so he can collect the points.

You often hear people say they wish they could travel the way others do – they mention the double-income-household-sister-in-law who goes so many places so often that you can’t keep track, let alone keep up. I understand the sentiment; how can you blame them? When everyone and their dog is going everywhere, and when talking about big trips is like talking about the weather (“How was your summer? Did you go anywhere?” “How was your winter? Did you get away?”), it’s no fun to feel like you’re the only one who didn’t go. Staying home is out of fashion, and has been for some time, if the words of Chesterton are any indication: “It is the whole effort of the typically modern person to escape from the street in which he lives.” (Heretics, “On the Institution of the Family”)

And so the “typically modern” person considers different destinations, and the perception is that certain types of people go to certain places. One of the biggest ways that advertisers sell things is to convince you that you are ‘expressing yourself‘ by purchasing their product. There’s something similar with a person’s ‘travel resume,’ so to speak – if you go to beaches or Vegas, you’re fun and spontaneous. If you go trekking in some mountain-range somewhere, you’re fun and fit. If you go to Europe, you’re cultured. If you go to Chile or India, you’re cultured and open-minded.

Indeed, travelling to a different part of the world can be taken almost as an intellectual and even spiritual accomplishment, even though the main components are a passive plane ride and the ability to choose good footwear. To what extent are you really broadening your intellectual horizons? It’s not as though there’s really such a place as the Land of New Ideas and New Thought, to be contrasted with home, the land of Stagnant Thought and Old Ideas.

The connection between physical movement and intellectual or spiritual movement is misunderstood – the one is given credit for causing the other.

I’m not saying that new ideas don’t come to you when you travel – of course they do – but they’ll also come to you when you don’t. Arguably, they’ll come to especially when you don’t. And one person who has argued this is Chesterton.

Travel is not ‘better‘ than staying home, in the sense of being a higher good, or a superior choice, even though our modern language really suggests this (someone who is ‘going places’ is someone with a future and someone who is ‘a mover and shaker’ is someone who accomplishes a lot and influences people and events, but someone who is ‘provincial’ or ‘tied down’ is someone to be laughed at or pitied).

As a matter of fact, Chesterton says that travel is, in many ways, an inferior choice and less of an experience! It’s an interesting perspective.

For starters, he reminds us that so much of this movement is an escape from reality, not a greater appreciation of reality. Even when a trip involves physical hardship, it’s still usually a deliberately-chosen diversion, a running-away from, and not just a running towards.

Sure, travelling means a different daily routine, and more life hours spent figuring out where to eat and sleep and get your clothes clean, but on the other hand, you will be left untroubled in important ways.

You’ll be untroubled by anybody who wants to really challenge you on things that matter. You’ll be untroubled, for the most part, by serious conversations about your life and your choices. Nobody will care enough about you to raise an eyebrow or question you. Your superficial interactions will be brief and fairly pleasant. You’ll play the part of a paying customer and you’ll be treated like one. It’s not a difficult script to follow.

If you want to be really challenged and pushed out of your comfort zone, stay at home! If you want to have some genuinely alarming and get-under-your-skin conversations, stay at home! Look to your left and look to your right – there are a lot of people all around you who are ready to clash with you about all manner of things. Home is where you’ll be dealing with people in a more in-depth way. And if it’s approached properly, these interactions will help you figure out how to be a better person. Here’s St. Josemaria Escriva talking about people not being marshmallows:

You clash with the character of one person or another. It has to be that way – you are not a dollar bill to be liked by everyone.
Besides, without those clashes which arise in dealing with your neighbors, how could you ever lose the sharp corners, the edges – imperfections and defects of your character – and acquire the order, the smoothness and the firm mildness of charity, of perfection?
If your character and that of those around you were soft and sweet like marshmallows, you would never become a saint.

– The Way, No. 20

In that quotation, St. Josemaria Escriva refers to our neighbours. The key thing about the neighbours is that we don’t choose them: “We make our friends; we make our enemies; but God makes our next-door neighbour,” says Chesterton (Heretics, “On the Institution of the Family”). He praises the fact that scripture doesn’t talk about humanity in general (who is that?) but about the person who is right in our face – flesh and blood – our neighbour:

That is why the old religions and the old scriptural language showed so sharp a wisdom when they spoke, not of one’s duty towards humanity, but one’s duty towards one’s neighbour.

– G.K. Chesterton, Heretics, “On the Institution of the Family”

The vibrant unpredictability of the actual people in our lives is what makes regular home life as exciting and interesting as it is. We can’t control it. We don’t get to choose who is in our family or our neighbourhood and we don’t get to choose how they treat us.

Everyone is a wild card.

We think it’s the others who are odd. Meanwhile, they think they’re normal and we’re the odd ones. It’s quite funny when you think about it.

A good priest once said to me that if we were to visit an institution for the mentally ill, we wouldn’t be surprised to see that everyone was acting very strangely. He said that the truth is, there’s something wrong with everybody, and we shouldn’t be surprised to see how everyone acts.

Life’s test is: how well can you deal with the real people who are in your space?

The best way a man could test his readiness to encounter the common variety of mankind would be to climb down a chimney into any house at random, and get on as well as possible with the people inside. And that is essentially what each one of us did on the day that he was born.

 – G.K. Chesterton, Heretics, “On the Institution of the Family”

And as you can see from this quotation, Chesterton puts family members in the same category as neighbours in this way; in both cases, we don’t have any say about who gets ‘invited.’ Every family is a very inadvisable mix of personality types, the kind that no event planner would recommend. “What? And you’re going to bring all those people together during Christmas? With liquor? What are you thinking?”

And every time a child marries, the combination becomes even more unruly – that family of three daughters changes enormously when each daughter finds a spouse. And as if that’s not interesting enough, these new spouses bring with them siblings and parents and hairless cats. It gets less and less predictable with each addition. When children are born, the complexities are magnified again.

But Chesterton says this is the whole point. Differences of personality is what humanity is about, and the best place to find ourselves thrown together with a cross-section of humanity is by being in a family. He’s right. When you consider the members of your family, are they the type of people that you would have sought out as companions? And are you the type of person that they would have selected? I’ve spoken to so many parents who are just flabbergasted at the differences in personality between their children, no matter how many they have.

Chesterton says you can’t defend the institution of the family by saying it’s so ‘nice’ or so ‘congenial.’ The dictionary says congenial means 1) having the same tastes, habits or temperament, sympathetic, 2) suited to ones needs, agreeable. No! He defends it as being a group where you specifically won’t find everything suited to your tastes and needs. It’s something like the St. Josemaria Escriva quotation about people not being soft and sweet like marshmallows. But the good in all of this is that you can defend the institution of the family because it’s all about getting to know and love people for who they really are, not who you wish they were:

Of course the family is a good institution because it is uncongenial. It is wholesome precisely because it is uncongenial. It is wholesome precisely because it contains so many divergencies and varieties.

– G.K. Chesterton, Heretics, “On the Institution of the Family”

It’s about loving people without having ‘good reasons’ to love them. It’s about loving people even when they don’t ‘deserve’ it, or when they don’t satisfy your needs. Somewhere else he said that when you admire someone, you have reasons to admire them, but when you love them, you love without reasons.

And he goes on, providing the following hypothetical, which amused me:

It is exactly because our brother George is not interested in our religious difficulties, but is interested in the Trocadero Restaurant, that the family has some of the bracing qualities of the commonwealth. It is precisely because our uncle Henry does not approve of the theatrical ambitions of our sister Sarah that the family is like humanity.

That quotation is so accurate – you can picture the chaos of different interests and levels of interest and disinterest. Everyone is thrown together and the mix is so unpredictable – and that’s before anybody really says much of anything (a look can be worth a thousand words). But if you want to stir the pot, you know which conversational topics will do it! Perhaps nowadays you don’t dare go there. Add to this the carelessness with which family members sometimes treat each other, and Chesterton is so right to say a family is “like a little kingdom, and, like most other little kingdoms, is generally in a state of something resembling anarchy.” (Heretics, “On the Institution of the Family”)

In a family, the people are not just a blur of faces that you see from the outside. You can’t fast-forward past all these people! They’re sitting across the table from you today, and they’ll probably be there tomorrow too! And so you realize the complexities and mystery of people. You are reminded daily that people are so immensely complicated, because even the people that you thought you knew so well are continually shocking or surprising you and catching you off-guard. Seeing real people up close is a valuable education, and this makes your world and your life bigger and richer:

If we were to-morrow morning snowed up in the street in which we live, we should step suddenly into a much larger and much wilder world than we have ever known.

– G.K. Chesterton, Heretics, “On the Institution of the Family”

He likes small towns for the same reason:

The man who lives in a small community lives in a much larger world. He knows much more of the fierce varieties and uncompromising divergences of men. The reason is obvious. In a large community we can choose our companions. In a small community our companions are chosen for us.

– G.K. Chesterton, Heretics, “On the Institution of the Family”

(And because ‘diversity’ is a loaded word these days, we should say – and Chesterton would say – that diversity has obvious limits in the context of a club or religion. The title of his book is Heretics, after all. A member of a group who wants to actively work against the stated and settled aims of that group should leave. You don’t serve bacon at a vegetarian potluck and still call yourself a vegetarian and you don’t serve soya bean “hot dogs” at a Paleo potluck. In the same way, a person who actively opposes the Catholic Church’s teaching and encourages others to do so – no matter the reason – should stop calling himself Catholic. You shouldn’t wear the jersey of Team A while cheering for Team B.)

So to return to the notion of travel, Chesterton says you’re stepping out of a bigger, more challenging and unpredictable world while you travel. You’re not having nearly as many of those raw and real interactions that are part of life at home. It’s not that you can’t connect with people, but it’s necessarily more fleeting. You enter a world where your human interactions are more likely to reduce people to that blur. You won’t get to know them; you’ll consider them just from the outside. You’ve made your world more simple, smooth, predictable and small. It’s an escape.

He can visit Venice because to him the Venetians are only Venetians . . . He can stare at the Chinese because for him the Chinese are a passive thing to be stared at . . .

– G.K. Chesterton, Heretics, “On the Institution of the Family”

And another aspect of Chesterton’s criticism of travel has to do with the idea of place. In the same way that people become a blur when you don’t spend much time with them or get to know them, places become a blur when you don’t approach them properly. You must be slow, patient and loyal about a place before you will really understand it.

It is inspiring without a doubt to whizz in a motor-car around the earth, to feel Arabia as a whirl of sand or China as a flash of rice-fields. But Arabia is not a whirl of sand and China is not a flash of rice-fields. They are ancient civilizations with strange virtues buried like treasures. If we wish to understand them it must not be as tourists or inquirers, it must be with the loyalty of children and the great patience of poets. To conquer these places is to lose them.

– G.K. Chesterton, Heretics, “On Rudyard Kipling and Making the World Small”

To really understand a place, you must be still. You must be there for a long time, so that it stops feeling like ‘a place.’ When it becomes a part of who you are, then you will know its secrets.

It’s a common theme in his writing. He often presents the idea of focusing on a small thing in order to see the bigger picture. When you try to take in everything, you necessarily don’t go as deep, and so you feel like you understand it, but it’s all been quick and superficial. When you try to really understand something well, then you learn so much more about even the bigger picture. It’s the idea of quantity versus quality.

So when you really get to know one person well, you’ll come away with a better knowledge of humanity as a whole than you would if you got to know many people in just a surface way. If you get to know one place really well, then you’ll gain a better knowledge about places, cultures and homes than you would if you restlessly moved everywhere, like Rudyard Kipling did. Chesterton criticizes Kipling for his lack of loyalty to any one place. He never attaches whole-heartedly to a home; his reminiscences provoke Chesterton to call him a “philanderer of nations.”

The world-traveller who has, in theory, seen so much, has had time enough to notice only the differences in external appearance and behaviour. He “has seen all the races of men, and he is thinking of all the things that divide men – diet, dress, decorum, rings in the nose as in Africa, or in the ears as in Europe, blue paint among the ancients, or red paint among the modern Britons.” But all the seeing doesn’t cause better or bigger thinking. In his movement, this traveller hasn’t been able to digest as much.

And on this topic, haven’t you wondered what the ideal speed is for the human brain to absorb a place? We need time (2 minutes? 3 minutes?) to adjust to new surroundings, whether it’s an unfamiliar doctor’s office, a train station in a foreign city, or a grocery store with a different layout. So when we move from one place to the next, it seems like there’s some kind of an optimal speed to do that too, in terms of human well-being. It seems like it would be healthier if the speed of the change were to match the processing speed of the human brain, in the same way that we talk about ‘human-scale’ or ‘pedestrian- friendly’ buildings. Walking does seem about the right speed for taking in this kind of data. In the country-side, those four-legged walkers (donkeys, horses) are fine, but in the context of city streets, even a horse-drawn carriage goes way too fast. Sure, it’s fun, but it’s not quite what we’re wired for.

It’s a theme that Chesterton alluded to in his poem “A Fat Woman Speaks.” The woman who rushes by the fields while riding a train is appreciating the field so much less than the woman who walks through it.

In contrast, “the man in the cabbage field has seen nothing at all; but he is thinking of the things that unite men – hunger and babies, and the beauty of women, and the promise or menace of the sky.” (G.K. Chesterton, Heretics, “On Rudyard Kipling and Making the World Small.”)

And here we can picture a man who is living a slower-paced life and yet really considering the nature of all these things deeply. Look at what Chesterton says about such a person: “The man standing in his own kitchen garden, with fairyland opening at the gate, is the man with large ideas.” (G.K. Chesterton, Heretics, “On Rudyard Kipling and Making the World Small.”)

Large ideas! Chesterton gives the credit for large ideas to the one who is staying still!

And he mentions the “kitchen garden.” In other words, not acres upon acres and fields upon fields, but something small and homely, like a tiny patch of earth, or, at best, a “cabbage field.” It’s simple, not glamorous.

It brings to mind what was written about St. Thérése of Lisieux’s living space. Her life was so externally limited, yet her spiritual ideas were huge, unlimited and revolutionary. Fr. Jacques Philippe had the opportunity to visit the convent and grounds of St. Thérése many years after her death, and he was stunned at how cramped and small her surroundings were:

I realized what a tiny world, in human terms, she inhabited: a little provincial Carmelite convent, not outstanding for its architecture, a miniscule garden . . . However, and this is the paradox that struck me, when you read Thérése’s writings you never get the impression of a life spent in a restricted world, but just the opposite . . . Thérése lives in very wide horizons, which are those of God’s infinite mercy and her unlimited desire to love him. She feels like a queen with the whole world at her feet, because she can travel to every point in the globe where a missionary needs her prayer and sacrifices!

 – Fr. Jacques Philippe, Interior Freedom, Chapter I

And this description confirms what we find repeatedly in the stories of those who led saintly lives, and for that matter, in the stories of many great scientists and artists. In so many cases, they brought forth their “large ideas” when they were enclosed in tiny and humble spaces.

You could name so many saints who went through a period of enclosure and solitude – St. John of the Cross, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Thomas Aquinas are a few that come to mind. They imitate Christ’s forty days in the desert and his early mornings of prayer in lonely places. The time of being a hidden seed, growing in solitude and stillness, yields a rich harvest. The documentary, Into Great Silence, gives a taste of the beauty and richness of the contemplative religious life.

Joseph Pearce has spoken about how the gift of inspiration, called a ‘muse’ by the pagans, or ‘grace’ by Christians, which comes to artists and others, is a pure gift which must pass through the human artist. If the artist himself is pure, then the art will be better. If the artist is more mixed-up, then the gift will be more deformed and distorted as a result.

This would explain, then, how the artist/thinker/scientist who is distracted by the rush of life cannot keep the space within himself pure enough to receive inspiration well. The budding ideas will be trampled by the rush of images and sounds. The signal will suffer interference, so to speak.

Charlotte Bronte’s words bring to mind something like a walled garden, when she says: “There would still be recesses in my mind which would be only mine, to which he never came; and sentiments growing there fresh and sheltered . . . “ (Jane Eyre, Chapter XXXIV)

In other words, there’s an interior place within us (our soul?) which needs quiet and stillness in order to receive and preserve the “large idea” which Chesterton refers to. If we have that, then we might have almost everything we need. You could be physically restricted in the cell of a convent or a jail cell, but the interior world is not closed to you, and in fact, is more accessible to you than ever before.

The idea of the person who ‘finds Jesus’ when he spends time in prison has become almost a laughable concept, but I believe the sincerity of it. I believe that the people in prison can be light-years ahead of the rest of us in terms of the amount of time they’ve spent thinking about big things.

By contrast, the ‘movers and shakers’ of the world perhaps are moving and shaking the good ideas out of their grasp, and could use more time spent in stillness. I note that people who write about time-management (usually for businessmen) will always emphasize the importance of carving out some quiet alone time in order to think carefully about what they’re trying to accomplish.

The saints advise the same thing. They all say that you need the time alone with God through daily prayer in order to make any progress at all. It’s a relationship, and with zero time invested in communication, it’ll fall apart. The relationship will be lost in all our movement and noise. There’s the Old Testament story where Elijah was told to wait for God:

And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still, small voice. And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. And behold there came a voice to him. . .

– 1 Kings 19:11

The message here is that if you are looking for God, you have to listen for the “still, small voice.” God has good manners, and he’s not going to display himself in a way which is overpowering and irresistible, which takes away your power to decide. His way is very quiet and subtle, so that you can avoid or ignore him if you choose. Small voices, such as the one of our conscience, can be over-ridden.

And so if you wish to receive God or even one of his gifts, such as artistic inspiration or the “large idea,” then you need to stay in one place and wait receptively. And so when Christ spoke of prayer, he said that we are to go into a room and close the door. We’re putting a stop to the movement of the wind, the earthquake and the fire. We are making a decision to be anchored to one place. The word ‘still’ has two aspects: the idea of not moving and the idea of not making a sound.

In motionlessness and quietness, there is life, as Chesterton says. “The more dead and dry and dusty a thing is the more it travels about; dust is like this and the thistle-down . . . Fertile things are somewhat heavier, like the heavy fruit trees on the pregnant mud of the Nile.” And then he turns to the expression, “A rolling stone gathers no moss.” He says, “The rolling stone rolls echoing from rock to rock; but the rolling stone is dead. The moss is silent because the moss is alive.” (Heretics, “On Mr. Rudyard Kipling and Making the World Small”)

In motionlessness and quietness, there is a space where God can visit us. So he asks us to be alone, but it’s not so that we can be alone in some sort of lonely Buddhist or nihilistic yoga way. He asks for this separateness so that he can have us to himself for a few moments. It’s a relationship, and so it has many of the same elements that a romance does. The man in love wants time alone with the woman he loves; is it any wonder that our God would want time alone with the human he loves? He asks that we cross the threshold with him, in the pattern of the newly married husband and wife.

What do you think? Shall we unbuckle ourselves from the car and the zip-line? Can we unbuckle ourselves? Perhaps we’ve forgotten how!

But we should try.

We should go into our room.

And we should close the door.

Be still and know that I am God.

– Psalm 46: 10