Tuesday, June 29, 2004

For all you ordained clergy out there,

I have come up with an idea for a Brilliant Homily. Yes, if you try this, they'll be talking about you for years. I offer it to you free of charge. Here we go:

Start your homily in silence. Then continue in silence. Oh, you can gesture if you like--maybe even some full-blown Fulton Sheenesque gesticulations would be effective. But say nothing.

Do this for at least five minutes, which is about three minutes longer than the time it takes a pause to become an uncomfortable silence.

Then finish with more silence, and continue the liturgy.

At the end of the liturgy, while giving the announcements for the upcoming bakesales and such, say "How did you like the homily? Was it good?" When people look back in puzzlement, say this, or something like it: "Oh, you didn't like it? I was just doing what so many other people do. When I ask them if they evangelize, if they spread the good news, they say they do, but quietly, by means of their actions. So I preached with actions, not words."

You can continue: "It didn't work? Well, then, perhaps you should contemplate these words of St. Paul: So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes by the preaching of Christ. (Rom 10:17) When's the last time you talked to your friends about Jesus?"

How will the world know the gospel if no-one preaches it?

(If you do use this as a homily, I ask that you let me know how it works. I'm not ordained, so can't try it myself.)

Monday, June 28, 2004

Another Aphorism

If you go to confession, and the priest says that something isn't a sin, you can be sure that the priest commits that sin. Unless you confess getting an abortion, in which case the priest probably paid for one.

Saturday, June 26, 2004

Some long overdue housekeeping

I've added a link to frequent commentor Nârwen, who, in addition to knowing all about Newman, apparently speaks Elvish. Also, I updated The Tower's link. My apologies for being slow.

Wednesday, June 23, 2004

The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.

That's how Mark describes Jesus' temptation in the desert--the Holy Spirit drove him out there.

In the early history of the Church there were many saints who were also driven out into the desert. In fact, there was a whole literature that grew up around their spiritual exploits. You can find a collection of these stories here. Lots of rich young men gave up everything and retreated to the wildreness of the Middle East in order to flee sin and pursue holiness. The most famous is St. Anthony of Egypt, whose life story can be found here. Anthony had many followers and imitators, and even played a role in the conversion of St. Augustine.

It is too easy for modern people to dismiss the stories as fanaticism (the English of a previous generation would have sneeringly called the monks "enthusiasts") and the extreme fasting and mortification as Manichaean hatred of the body. But I don't think that is true. Paul, Anthony, Hilarion and their like don't go to the desert out of hatred for physical things, but out of love for God and hatred of the sin that they find in cities and in themselves.

In fact, given the example of Christ, who was driven into the desert by the Holy Spirit, it might even be a Christian necessity to seek the desert. The Christian must in some way keep himself apart from the ways of the world, since the ways of the world are sinful. The Christian must also discipline himself, at times severely, in order not to be corrupted by the ways of the world. (By "world" I don't mean the world as created by God, but in the sense that the devil is called "The Prince of this world.")

How can we do this? I suggest first of all getting rid of television, or at least putting severe restrictions on its use--our rule is no TV except weekends and when working out, but I hope to strengthen those restrictions as my children get older. I don't want other people shouting bad things at them for hours a day.

The internet as well needs to be restricted, especially for men. You may not know that "adult" websites are the biggest moneymakers in cyberspace. They don't do this without customers. I hope that you, dear reader, don't know the depths of shameful stuff available on the web, but I assure you that it is there. The Christian needs to take stock of himself and decide whether the internet is safe for his soul. If you are married, you may wish to invest in a parental control program (so far I recommend Cybersitter) and give the password to your wife. If you live alone, or neither you nor your spouse is trustworthy in this matter, you might need to get rid of internet access altogether, and simply use library computers.

Finally (at least for today) you must discipline your body, since it is damaged, as everything is, by the Fall. Let me give you an all-purpose answer to spiritual problems, with thanks to Disputations:

Look at what St. Hilarion has to say. He was a young man who went into the desert to pursue a monastic vocation. As with most teenage males, he soon began to experience the usual teenage male problems. He gives very good common-sense advice: This little Christian novice was compelled to think about things which he had never thought about before, and a whole parade of ideas flooded through his mind about things of which he had had no experience. He got angry with himself and beat his breast with his fists as if he could drive his thoughts away by physical blows.

"You little donkey!" he said to himself, "I'll see to it that you don't trample me underfoot. I'll not give you any barley. Nothing but chaff! I will tame you by means of hunger and thirst, I will weigh you down with heavy burdens, I will subject you to both cold and heat! So you will end up thinking of nothing but food instead of such shameful things!"

Far better to fast and pray, and be thinking of food, rather than to allow one's libido to roam free. If going away from your next meal a little hungry could save your soul, would you do it?

Postscript: One caution about the desert fathers: they do engage in quite severe fasting and mortification. You may think either that 1) they are crazy, or 2) I'd be crazy to try this. In answer to (1): whenever you think the ancients were crazy, repeat this fact to yourself: "we sane Americans kill 4000 of our own babies every day." Once you have some perspective, go back and reconsider the ancients. In answer to (2): such mortifications ought to be undertaken only under the direction of a wise spiritual director. Find someone who is faithful, intelligent, and trustworthy, and do whatever he or she tells you to do.

Tuesday, June 22, 2004

An aphorism

On Modesty: If you are beautiful, you can't put on enough clothes to cover it up; if you are ugly, you can't take off enough clothes to be beautiful.

Prayer Request

If you get a moment, could you pray for a special intention which I am not at liberty to divulge at this time? It's sort of a "let this cup pass from me. But let Your will, not mine, be done," sort of thing.

Not too serious on the cosmic scale.

Monday, June 21, 2004

Tolkien Schmolkien

I'm currently rereading LOTR, and just picked up Pearce's book Tolkien: Man and Myth. I don't know if Tolkien is a saint, in the sense of having displayed heroic virtues. Perhaps not. I hope he is a saint in the ordinary sense of sharing in the beatific vision. Whether he is a saint or not, he was certainly wise. See this quote from the Professor on the historicity of Genesis, quoted in Pearce.

"It has not, of course, historicity of the same kind as the New Testament, which are virtually contemporary documents, while Genesis is separated by we do not know how many sad exiled generations from the Fall, but certainly there was an Eden on this very unhappy earth. We all long for it, and we are constantly glimpsing it: our whole nature at its best and least corrupted, its gentlest and most humane, is still soaked with the sense of `exile'."

Thursday, June 17, 2004

Rumors, rumors, and scandals

There are rumors floating around of some new awful clergy abuse story coming up soon. I'm not going to link to it--you can find such things for yourself if you are interested in them. I'm going to repost something I wrote on scandals and faith.

How many scandals are too many?

I had this thought the other day, and since I have a blog, every thought must be published! Here it is: there have been lots of people recently who claim that they just can't belong to a church which has so many abusive clerics. But what if there were only one priest who abused a child? Would that be enough to get you out of the Church? How about two? Three? If not three, then maybe ten? How about fifty? If one isn't enough, then how come fifty or a hundred is enough? Where is the limit? If one scandal is not enough to destroy your faith, but a hundred is enough, then we can put a value on your faith. John Doe's faith is strong enough to withstand 49 scandals, but no more. Mary Jane's faith can only withstand 10 scandals.

But faith is not a deal made with God: "I'll believe in You and follow You as long as less than 49 of Your ministers don't betray me!" It is a personal relationship with God which involves putting all of one's eggs into God's basket. We accept the free gift of salvation from God. But like all gifts, we can't put conditions on it. We can't say to Grandma that she can give us Christmas presents as long as it's an electric train and not a sweater. We just have to accept what we are given. We can't have faith in God and then reject it if difficulties arise. It would be bad manners. It wouldn't really be faith.

So I'm rereading the Lord of the Rings

again, for the tenth time. As I read it I'm pleased to note that much of the dialogue in the movies came from the book. It may not be said by the person who said it in the book, but it's in there. For example, the song that Pippin sings for Denethor is a traveling song from the very beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring.

Thanks again, Peter Jackson.

Tuesday, June 15, 2004

Large Women and Ungentlemanly Men

I went to a party last weekend. At this party were many woman that I had known in college, and many of them had changed through pregnancy. I will put it delicately: many of them were much larger than I remembered.

Now, this is not a bad thing, but a natural thing. Women's bodies change as they bring new life into the world. Some change more than others, but they all change.

But seeing all the wonderfully burgeoning pregnant women got me thinking--what sort of man would do that to a woman, putting her through such physical changes, and then leave her? No gentleman would, certainly. The very nature of pregnancy itself demands that take place only in marriage, for only in marriage can the woman be sure that she will be protected and loved no matter what happens to her physical shape.

Of course, when I say "marriage" I am referring to Christian marriage, where man and woman are sacramentally joined into one flesh.

I notice that as I post less

the Old Oligarch posts more. Perhaps I'm John the Baptist to his Jesus: "I must decrease, he must increase."

Old Oligarch has an interesting blog if you like theology, absinthe, guns, or burning things in your bathtub.

Wednesday, June 09, 2004

My choir director asked me to give the choir a talk on beauty

Here it is, with some editing.

Tim has asked me to say a few words about beauty, which is really not my area of expertise. I’m a philosopher, he’s the artist. But I will do my best to shed some philosophical light (which often obscures more than it reveals) on just what it is that artists do.

I start with a quote from John Paul II, in his letter to artists: “In a certain sense, beauty is the visible form of the good, just as the good is the metaphysical condition of beauty.” (3) Goodness and beauty are related, intimately. That which is beautiful must be good, since beauty allows us to see (or in the case of music, hear) the good. Take the example of a beautiful woman: she may be physically perfect, but that shallow beauty may be a lie if she is not herself good. It seems sacrilegious to have a beautiful person be mean.

Or take the example of fruit: a beautiful apple is beautiful because it is good. The beauty is the visibility of the good within it. The sparkling red, firm, shiny apple tells us “I’m yummy!” If the apple weren’t good, it wouldn’t be beautiful, and if it weren’t beautiful, we wouldn’t know it was good. The experience of the evil beautiful woman is like the experience of biting into a beautiful apple and tasting maggots. Beauty and goodness are different ways of understanding the same thing. Beauty is goodness perceived, made manifest.

What does this have to do with music? Music is revelatory: the pope calls art an epiphany, or, as we in the East would say, a theophany. Beauty, and especially liturgical musical beauty, is supposed to reveal the hidden goodness of God and his creation, just as the beauty of a woman is supposed to be a mirror of her hidden goodness.

The artist, then, and that includes us in this choir, has the obligation and duty to show forth the hidden, to create beauty. But here the word “create” is somewhat problematic. It is true that God is both the supreme Beauty and the supreme artist--just think of the words at the end of creation “He saw that it was very good.” But creation is to create out of nothing. In fact, in Hebrew, only God can be the subject of the verb “to create.” Humans can’t really create. We can make.

What’s the difference between creating and making? One creates out of nothing, one makes out of stuff. In carpentry, the stuff is wood. The carpenter is bound in his method by the material he works with. Ask any carpenter: can you make a stool out of balsa wood? The craft of carpentry has to follow the rules of the material. For the musician, who is also a craftsman, the material are tones and the length, pitch, and timbre of those tones. We’ve got to follow the rules there as well. Just as you can’t build a house without cross-bracing, you can’t show forth beauty in music that’s out of tune. That’s just as much a law as any law of science or craft.

Music is just as objective as carpentry. Certainly people will have different tastes, or prefer one melody to another, but no-one likes music badly done. That’s why we practice, so that we can match up to the necessities of the art form itself. Painters study canvas and paint, carpenters study wood, and musicians must study sound. All humans have ears, and ears hear sound the same way, simply because of the laws of nature set up by God. As a result, music that is out of tune, that isn’t together, that has different vowel sounds sung at the same time, that has consonants and sibilants uncoordinated, that isn’t blended, is just as objectively bad as a house built by bad contractors. As proof of the objectivity of music I offer the fact that no-one is beating down my door to hear me play the violin.

Part of the difficulty with communicating the ineffable glories of God in music is that since God is ineffable, there’s no specific chord or melody that can give us a vision of God. So lots of music could, theoretically, recall God’s glory. Lots of different types of tables could serve as a good dinner table. But in no case, do I think, could bad music do it as well as the same piece of music performed well.

Given that the beauty of music is in some sense objective, what is the point of it, especially liturgical music? We’ve already touched on that--it’s to show forth goodness. In our case, it is through beauty to show forth the goodness of the texts we sing. Can we do an example? Just listen to these words: “Let us who mystically represent the cherubim sing the thrice-holy hymn.” Say it. It’s a good text, pointing out the fact of what we represent at liturgy. But does it hit you? Now sing it! Can you hear the difference? Augustine says that “I wept at the beauty of your hymns and canticles, and was powerfully moved at the sweet sound of Your Church's singing. Those sounds flowed into my ears, and the truth streamed into my heart: so that my feeling of devotion overflowed, and the tears ran from my eyes, and I was happy in them.” The words communicate truth to the mind, the melody communicates that truth to the heart, by means of beauty. Or, as JP II puts it, “The `beautiful’ was thus wedded to the `true’, so that through art too souls might be lifted up from the world of the senses to the eternal.”

Dostoyevsky says that "beauty will save the world." Beauty can make us desire the good. It can call us out of a life of the ordinary, a life of sin and alienation, into the very life of God himself.

Tuesday, June 08, 2004

Let me recast my previous point

since the Reagan examples are not crucial to my argument. I used him not because I thought he was evil--far from it. I used him because the talk surrounding his death provoked thoughts in my mind, and this blog is a mirror of my mind. Or a bucket to hold my intellectual regurgitations.

So here's another example: when I was in seminary, there were lots of Irish seminarians who followed the news in their ancestral land passionately. I remember vividly a few of them talking about the bombings that the IRA carried out against civilians, saying that it was a good thing if it made Ireland free.

I suggest this test: if at any moment you find yourself thinking that evil act X, whatever it is, is worth doing to avoid evil situation Y, no matter how bad it is, at that moment you have ceased to think like a Christian.

We are not allowed to do evil so that good may come. Not even a little bit of evil for a whole lot of good. To say otherwise is not to trust God.

Sunday, June 06, 2004

Only people without faith can say "The end justifies the means."

Today I've heard some comments critical of a departed president of whom I was fond. The commentor pointed out the Reagan practice of arming various thugs around the world in order to use them in the Cold War against communism. He claims that we've been reaping the rewards of this strategy ever since.

Perhaps that's right. Communism was a very great evil, which is a fact that must be pointed out often to young people these days. But can you fight evil with evil? In other words, can you use a bad action to get rid of a worse evil? Is winning the Cold War and saving Europe from Soviet tion worth arming Osama bin Laden and the like?

For a Catholic, the answer must be an emphatic no. We are not permitted to do evil so that good may come, no matter how small the evil or how great the good.

But this teaching seems very hard, especially when one does reflect on just how bad the Soviet Union was. So perhaps we should rephrase it in a positive way: Faith requires the Christian to live in a firm assurance that everything turns out well, in the end. The theological virtues of faith and hope and charity are all connected. Faith in God leads us to hope for what God has promised, which is eternal life. The Christian must know that despite despots and killers, everything ends well. Having hope that everything ends well makes it unecessary for us to do evil actions to gain good ends, since we are sure that in the end, despite everything, we will get the Good End.

To say that we aren't allowed to do evil, no matter what, is the same as saying that we expect the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come, amen.

P.S. I remain fond of Reagan, and I pray that he may attain eternal rest.