Monday, October 30, 2006

The virtue of hope

For the last few months, I have been writing short (~140 words) essaylets on various topics. Early on, I wrote the five-part bulletin article on beauty, which is now finally being published.

I am contemplating writing a similar 4-5 part bulletin article on the virtue of hope so that they can be published through the Advent season; then, for Christmas, I may do another series on the Incarnation. So I'm using this post to brainstorm certain features of hope I would like to teach about.

Certain things I've considered mentioning:
  • The fact that hope is a theological virtue, which means that, along with faith and charity, (a) that hope is a gift, (b) that hope can never be had in excess. However, unlike the virtue of charity, but like faith, hope disappears in the life hereafter, because one does not hope for what one already has (the only virtue remaining in Heaven is perfect charity).
  • Hope is deeply connected with the other theological virtues because, on one hand, it depends first upon faith (to doubt is always, in one sense or another, to despair), and hope itself is necessary for charity--for one must believe in the goodness and triumph of God before God can be loved.
  • This helps in part to explain why the "sin against the Holy Spirit" has been so often correlated with the rejection of hope, that is, despair. To "confound the [Holy Spirit] with the spirit of evil" (as it is put by the old Catholic Encyclopedia) is to despair, utterly, of the goodness and triumph of God, and thus to declare that death alone has the last word on this earth. Despair is thus worse than simple atheism or unbelief--these may simply be the result of ignorance. But despair takes a faith which is already present--the beginnings of salvation--and perverts it to its opposite, by first believing in God and then disbelieving in his goodness. If unfaith is the contraception of salvation, despair is its abortion.
  • Presumption the other side of the same coin as despair. It is the vain belief that (or behaving as if) one already has a salvation one does not yet have. This can take many forms. In religious language, it can be the forgetfulness or deliberate suppression of the "not yet" aspect of Christian faith. Sometimes this is called the notion of "realized eschatology;" an exaggerated (and perhaps naive) emphasis on the goodness of this finite world, at the expense of all necessary reminders not to be conformed to the spirit of the age, because this world is passing away. This kind of presumption is very common amid the romantics, starting with Jean Jacques Rousseau; it is also a temptation set before mysticisms of virtually all stripes (though spiritual masters like St. John of the Cross were always vigilant against it).
  • The virtue of hope--which again, is pure gift--is the beautiful combination of brutal realism about the world and irrepressible joy in spite of it. In perfect hope (as demonstrated by the saints), our joy (which is not a mere "feeling" and can be had even in a somber mood) is entirely decoupled from the contingencies of this death-ward earth, and thus is life-giving to ourselves and others. J.R.R. Tolkein captured this sense of hope in the character of Gandalf just prior to the raid on Minas Tirith... I need to find the quote, but the hobbit who accompanies him (Pippin?) observes that Gandalf's dark, concerned expression belied something underneath, something like a joyous laughter.
  • Because hope is so little spoken of in the modern day--both outside and inside Christianity (we are always more talkative about the plainer virtues of faith and love), the other two virtues are too often distorted and separated from one another. Hope is the glue between them. Without a religious language of hope, modern western society will be addicted to thinking of faith and love as somehow opposed--faith as the "conservative" virtue associated with belief in religious ridiculosities and the rejection of reason and science in favor of a historical construct which pretends to give all the answers; love as the "liberal" virtue, the banal philosophy of niceness which really doesn't need religion, and is the engine driving the feverish promotion of self-infallible Enlightenment values at the expense of objectivity or truth as values at all. Hope heals faith by declaring that the True and the Good are One; and thus reason must be employed to "give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope," (1 Peter 3:15). Hope heals love by reminding us that love has no place in a world where death has the last word; rather, love is essentially tied to the triumph of God, without which it is reduced to the evolved vestige of herd mentality.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

More Amateur Photography

Abstract? You bet! Actually, this is a severely water-damaged office ceiling just outside of my shower. It reminded me of the special effects from the Silent Hill movie--one reality would peel away to reveal another underneath. Anyway, I thought I could try some neat tricks with lighting, but they didn't turn out that impressive.

Much nicer are these photos of the massive vine growing on the fence outside of the church. I got one with and one without the solar flare from the sun. Which do you like better?

Finally, I captured this "little" guy.

Note the missing leg. Note also the ginormous size. It was pure luck (pure gift?) that I found this beautiful creature just as I was snapping a few for class the same afternoon. Look closely! You can see everything. As is custom for missing-legged creatures everywhere, I hereby dub him/her Pete.

The actual name is schistocerca nitens, or gray bird grasshopper. Reputedly the largest insect in So. California (I can't speak for Arizona, I just Googled it). It is supposedly similar to the locusts of the Biblical plagues, however, these do not swarm.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

A little crutch for memorizing the Ten Commandments

I teach a "family class" religious ed class every other sunday morning. One of the topics we're covering tomorrow is the Ten Commandments.

My teacher materials ask me to tell the class to memorize the ten commandments in order. Now, that's not so easy to do--I didn't do it myself until the first year in seminary--and asking anybody to memorize anything nowadays risks appearing like mere drudgery.

But I had a thought. Hey, they made us memorize the (formerly) nine planets. Why not commandments? It's just one more. Moreover, lots of people already know a variation on the "My Very Eager Mother Just Served Us Nine Pickles" thing. Why not something similar for the commandments?

Well, the commandments are not just one word each. So some familiarity with what they actually are is kind of necessary for this to work. The first step in the process was reducing each commandment to its most important key word.

  1. One (I am the Lord your God, no other gods, etc.)
  2. Name (Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord in vain)
  3. Day (Keep Holy the Sabbath Day)
  4. Honor (...thy father and mother)
  5. Kill (Thou shalt not...)
  6. Adultery (Thou shalt not commit...)
  7. Steal (Thou shalt not...)
  8. Lie (Thou shalt not bear false witness...)
  9. Wife (Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's...)
  10. Goods (Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's...)
OK, so some of these might be a stretch. But I figure, if you have a least a fuzzy idea of what the 10 commandments are, then knowing these words is a great way to remember their order and not to forget any of them.

Now, let's do the planets thing. The first letter of each of the above words gives us: O. N. D. H. K. A. S. L. W. G. Now, all we need is a sentence that incorporates all of those. Easy.

Our Newly Desired Holy Kingdom (is) A Serene Life With God.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Celibacy for the Kingdom

Tomorrow I am attending a two-day retreat of sorts for newly ordained priests; as a seminarian-on-leave, the diocese decided these might be helpful for me. The topic of the retreat is the meaning and the practicalities of celibate living.

In preparation for the retreat, they sent us selections from Theology of the Body and Christpher West's helpful companion to it. The only problem is that they only gave us every other page. The chapter out of West's book has only the odd pages; the chapter out of the Pope's book only has the even pages. It's as if the packets themselves were celibate--yearning for the Other that is their missing pages!

So I read every other page of Christopher West's chapter on Celibacy for the Kingdom. I didn't even try to read the Pope's stuff; reading John Paul is hard enough when I have energy and intermittent pages aren't gone. And West points out several angles of meaning for the celibate that reminded me a little bit of what made celibacy interesting to me in the first place.

For me, the conspicuous absence of a wife and children among priests--or of husband and children in the case of nuns--was always an indicator of a conspicuous presence of something else. This is not to say that a man's loves compete in a zero-sum game. They definitely do not, I say emphatically (against the tendency today to view children as burdens and strains on marital love). But that amazing sort of gap in a celibate priest's life, where otherwise a wife and children would fill, has exerted a draw on my attention in a similar manner to the missing leg of a stately and dignified war veteran, the deafness of a pretty girl I crushed on in high school; or to shift the analogy a bit, the poignant slouch of a centuries' old romanesque church sinking into the ground, or the seductive pathos attached to ghost towns, broken statues, and moldy books.

I imagine that there is something universal in human taste; a fascination with the mystery of the incomplete, with the abrupt interruption of expected completion with startling absence. After all, in Greek myth the Oracle is a blind woman. Although there are certainly futile absences and defects to which nobody attributes aesthetic value, other times human taste seems drawn always to defects suggestive of secret power. Among the statues adorning the entrance archways of gothic churches, I have always found the statue of fallen Israel, with her blindfold, broken crown, and snapped scepter infinitely more fascinating than her ecclesial counterpart, the regal and spotless statue of the Bride of Christ.

Why? Is it because of an inborn hero complex; a desire to complete that which is flawed; to fix; to fulfill? I used to think so; now I do not. I now see that what has always attracted me to these testaments of brokenness was not the project of self-affirmation through "fixing". Rather it was promise--or at least, the possibility--of learning an arcane secret; an ancient truth for which this person, or this object, has paid a dear price. Defects and absences that are earnest and simple (i.e., not merely affected) are powerful credentials. It is precisely in the pitch black darkness of a room where the alarmist center of our consciousness imagines any number of possible threats. A mime's gesticulations more powerfully evoke the presence of objects than if they were actually there. And is it not at least psychologically relevant that our highest symbol of hope is a man hanging on a tree?

Celibacy, I suggest, beyond having all of its proper theological meaning outlined in Theology of the Body, also participates in this natural, psychological phenomena of consciousness, of the play of absence and presence which tantalizes the human imagination. A priest--particularly, a joyful priest--is a man dancing ballroom style with no visible partner. To the world, such a dance, precisely because it is not normal, forces the question: what, or who, could possess this man to do such an odd thing? And if the answer is that he is not, after all, alone, then we welcome (as the beginnings of faith) the speculation as to the transcendent beauty of she who would enrapture him so much that he cared not how silly he looked.

Monday, October 16, 2006

It's not your fault.

In my life, there have been a handful of what I can only call religious experiences--moments of the infinite love of Christ ripping into my dark and cramped world, pouring on it an almost shocking release that ultimately leaves me in tears of joy and thankfulness. The last time this has happened to me was the summer of 2003 in Salamanca, Spain. I was deeply depressed while I was there. Isolation is never so keenly felt as by a cultural and linguistic foreigner, and I was internalizing the grief over the decay of Christianity in western Europe. Yet one afternoon I was in the Iglesia de San Marco, the small, ancient church off the southwest corner of the Plaza Mayor. Something happened--some small, quiet interruption of my negative thinking--and momentarily everything that was darkening my perspective broke apart and floated away. It was emotional, physical, and spiritual; it was as if I had been given a glimpse of the End when all things would be restored, and nothing would remain in its current broken state.

But anyway, these experiences that I have had have not been without content. There is a datum. There is something communicable about them, even though the experience and the datum are not the same thing. I can tell you about some of the meaning that these moments had for me, but unless you have experienced something similar, you will not be quite able to know just how amazing it is. Sorry for the esotericism.

So what is it? It is complex. But there is one strain in it I want to point out. It is almost as if someone with absolute authority said to you, "This (the evil, in the world, in your life) is not your fault. It is not your doing." Now, a human being could tell you something similar, and if you're like me, you give a half-hearted assent, because though factually obvious, it doesn't solve any problems and does nothing vis-a-vis your helplessness before the evil. This "whisper" is different. It is an Authority. It is a Messenger of God. And it says: All of this Evil is not yours. You are not its originator. You are not its savior. It is not your responsibility. Stand Aside.

Let's consider this for a moment. Social justice minded folks might be the first to object. This is spiritualized complacency! Some cartoon of my childhood (was it the "My Little Pony" movie?) had these strange little sentient creatures on another planet, who yet had failed to solve some great problem because each one chanted its mantra: "It's not our job."

This is quite different. This experience did not inspire complacency in me; rather, its opposite. "It's not your fault." The world is losing its faith. People turn to casual sex and passing fads, political movements for meaning, and all wind up in the same place: despair, or else more feverish grasping. "It's not your fault." The churches are decadent, here substituting a philosophy of niceness for the gospel, there spreading division through sectarian preaching, so many of them driving away people who lack patience. "It's not your fault." People are hungry in the third world and despondent in 1st; futures are destroyed and the world laughs. "It is not your fault."

There is something absolutely necessary and healthy in these words; something to shake my internalizing psyche lose from the heavy debris of concern for the world; something to kill the creeping despair. It is NOT your fault. You were born into this world broken by sin. It was broken and suffering before you were born, and your lifetime will not appreciably roll back its destruction. Thus you are not its slave. There is no ledger of the net sadness your life has caused the world. This earth is not your judge.

I made this world, and I made YOU, and I put you in this world, just the way it is right now. What will you do? Turn back the Holocaust? Undo the 30 Years War? Uninvent the nuklear bomb? Erase Martin Luther? Stop the sexual revolution? Ha. I gave these things to you. And I will deal with them. Your purpose is small--so very small. I gave you only the most meager of tasks, and it is so easy. Love my children. Love them with my love. As I have loved you. Do you not see that I have only given you one thing to do? Do not mind the Evil. It is not your fault.

Of course, "It is not your fault" is only one part of the message which seems delivered to me on the crest of this flood of emotions. It comes hand in hand with St. Julian's "All will be well, and all will be well, and all will be well." Related to that is God's own supreme assurance that He is history's author and he does not need an editor.

I cannot tell you how little what I have written here approaches what I am trying to convey. I suppose I could be accused of sentimentalism; of perpetuating more banal pseudo-Catholic pop-slogans, of retelling that awful "footprints" story, or the "serenity prayer," or that thing that goes "Work as if everything depended on you, and pray as if everything depended on God." All of these things are contemptible--and perhaps, even my own scribblings--because they fail to be vehicles of that fundamental truth that only God can communicate directly. Only he can tear aside the thick lie that pervades our senses, that the world is damned and we ourselves are the ones upon whom its evil fate rests. Only God can personally explode the conceit of our depression, by recalling forcefully (yet so breathtakingly pleasantly) our insignificance.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Failure is not a reason to be sad.

In this age, failure has ceased to matter. For the same reason, so has success. And I am not thinking only of minor successes and forgivable failures. I am thinking of colossal failures, and brilliant successes. As such, in themselves, they have no value as success, nor penalty as failure.

Only whether one loves, and how much, matters. A loving failure blesses; an unloving success condemns. There will perhaps be times when one is successful for having loved much; and perhaps times when one has failed for lacking love. Yet in such cases, too, the terminus ad quem is irrelevent.

Give success to the work of our hands--an earnest enough prayer, but note that it means that God alone is Lord of success and failure, the author of history. A deeper petition than this is Give us this day our daily bread--the love, the caritas, that alone gives success its savor and failure its mysterious providence.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

More amatuer photgraphy

I took the following pictures when I went to Mass at Holy Family parish on the west side of town. There happened to be some amazing weather and light at time, so I struck gold with a few shots.

Ignore my toes, since I'm going to crop them out when I print this.

This is a better memorial photo. I tried to get several shots with cars/parts of cars in them, and this was my favorite. Really tells the poignant story.

See what I mean by striking gold? I don't even know what to call the amazing light show in this photo. As far as editting, I plan to remove the telephone pole wires, and crop out a portion of the right and the bottom. But, dang, just look at that. I was blessed to have been on church property when this happened, so that Christ could get the credit for this miracle.

Here's a photograph of the same statue, this time from an imposing point of view. The sun is still behind the clouds, so the light on the statue is soft. I had to contort my body a little bit to get this shot--I was aiming for framing his head with the clouds. The diagonal angle is sort of an accident, but it works. But wait till you see the next one...

Same idea, but what an effect! The sun peeked out from behind the clouds and lit up the whole church yeard. The Christ in this picture looks a great deal kinder and more merciful than in the other photo, and the clouds frame his head much more precisely. This Christ looks much more alive, yet less frightening than the previous one.

Our Lady of the Boring Overcast Sky.

The Woman Clothed with the Sun.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

First attempts at photography...

I had my first photography class today. It was mostly just introductory stuff, but prior to class, everybody was supposed to take a few pictures to bring for critique and orientation. Here are the ones I took.

This one was just a shot I did for the self-portrait thread of some chat forums. It was accidentally quite good. The professor complemented what she called the "light echoes," i.e., the darkness on the right sight of my face corresponds to the darkness in the upper left corner; the light side of my face offsets the brightness of the right side of the room. I just love the melancholy mood. Somebody who saw this picture joked: "For a relaxing time, make it a Santori time" (Lost in Translation reference).

That's $7.52, in case you were wondering - there's a half-dollar in front. I was hungry for a hamburger but short on cash, so I raided my change cup and, much to my delight, had plenty. I started arranging the coins into stacks, including 50 pennies (not easy!). It was only after I finished that I saw a great photo-op, so I cleared some of the extraneous stuff away, and made sure each coin stack was the exact same length from the edge of the nightsand.

I then used the money to buy a Wendy's classic double. It was delicious.

This one took me the most work, actually. The crucifix is a gift from St. Anthony of Padua parish in Casa Grande; it shows Christ along with the instruments of his suffering and death: the crown of thorns around the center, the spear and sponge on the left, and a latter on the right. I wanted the light to shine from above instead of below, and I wanted it to be harsher for better contrast. I took the lampshade off of the porcelain lamp on my desk, and held it up with my left hand while I stretched out my right hand with the camera. Took about five shots--one of them got just the effect I was looking for. I also used the color balance tool in the GIMP to give the wood background a more oaky look.

On a different day, I walked to the park nort of the Park Mall, and took a couple creative shots of the trees. This one intreegued me (yuk) because of how low it branched into two seemingly equal sub-trunks. The preview here is a little borked--click on it to get the whole thing. I also have a portrait version. Which one do you like better?

This is one of my favorites, and after I took it I was so pleased with myself--that is, until I noted the huge freaking blade of grass that ruined the whole thing. I tried to find the location in the grass where I found this picture, but alas, all of my subsequent attempts were worthless. If you haven't noticed, I like pictures that make the viewer feel very small. It is our smallness relative to the world that makes us free to move about it.

And finally, one more self portrait, in the same park. Me, doing what I like: readin' some Copleston.


I think of reason like animals; some part of reason, we have domesticated into the physical and social sciences, like pets and beasts of labor (even then, they are not gauranteed not to misbehave). Yet just as there are far many more creatures on earth living in the wild--and they survive and thrive quite well without our restrictions, fences and leashes--so also is there a vast sea of reason, not bound by the Method (nor even absolutely by textbooks of logic, which are ever being improved upon), which we ignore at our peril.

Debate on the nature/philosophy of religion.

Well, it seems that some crazy fellow calling himself "Godefridus," who has absolutely no connection with me, and most certainly is not me (why are you looking at me like that?), has got himself into a lengthy conversion about the nature of religion and the philosophy of religion. You can see his contributions to the discussion here, although you may be required to create a free account in order to read it. It is some of my his best work on the topic.