Post 20

Bystander: Reflections on the Context of Suffering

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

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

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

Musee des Beaux Arts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[May 27, 2015]

Post 19

Blogging: Reflections on Reflecting Aloud

Here are 3 reasons I blog:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Post 18

Zip it: Five Reasons Not to Blog

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Jane Austen, Persuasion, Chapter 16

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

[May 19, 2015]

Post 17

Banquet of Beauty:
Reflections on How a Church Should Look

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[May 17, 2015]

Post 16

What’s the Word? Reflections on Capturing the Concept

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

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

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

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

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

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

. . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[May 16, 2015]

Post 15

The Real Me: Reflections on Unconditional Love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[May 15, 2015]

Post 14

Big Words: Breaking out the Dictionary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Post 13

Sitting Pretty: Reflections on Duties

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[May 9, 2015]

Post 12

Sine qua non: Reflections on Describing a Saint

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[May 5, 2015]

Post 11

Got You!
Reflections on Rhetoric and Argument

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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