Monday, December 31, 2007

On mercy and creation

For a long time, I have believed that much of divine mercy is material creation itself. I first heard the idea, I think, at a series of conferences on metaphysics at the University of Louvain; one of my professors, Ignace Verhack, asked our guest speaker his opinion on Thomas Aquinas' notion that God's reason for creation was "mercy".

I don't remember our guest's answer, or even his name--at the time I believed he had nothing to say that my own professors did not already know, and that they were just humoring him. But the notion that God created, not simply out of "love" (a common enough notion), but out of "mercy", captured my imagination. I pictured the Alpha and the Omega, the perfect interior dialogue of love within the Trinity, yet taking pity on finite being for its as-yet non-existence. Someone with no sense of poety would think this idea silly--and if taken on a literal or mythological level, it might be reduced to that. Yet it still seems to reveal something deeply true about metaphysics, and physics--that Creation is not merely an expression of agape, of perfect, self-giving love; but of mercy, almost of pity.

Some people--in particualr, my students--are often confounded by the idea that God created, knowing full-well that evil would enter the picture, and yet is not to blame for evil. They are too quick to scoff at the distinction between the perfect will and permissive will of God, and to lose hope that Creation is ultimately Good (reading the Harry Potter books as I have been, I find Potter's misguided anger with Dumbledore to be a profound reflection of a high school student's struggle with faith, but that is another subject).

Many students do not yet perceive even the simple point that God can scarcely be blamed for "doing it wrong" when the only other alternative is oblivion. Yet beyond this is another profound theistic fact: in the very Creation itself, even before the Fall, our First Parents were surrounded by safeguards, fail-safes, and protections. All around them, and inside of them--inside their very bodies--God had already infused nature with the means of regaining eternal life. Jesus Christ is not "Plan B". "Plan B" and "Plan A" are both ultimately "Plan A", right from the start. "Plan B" was in effect from the First Day.

If we are spiritual beings, created in the image of God, endowed with a Freedom "a little less" than his own, and with our whole being depending every instant and in every molecule upon him--then why do we not blink out of existence with our first ungodly thought? Or shoot straight to Hell, which if we really understood the depth of the contradiction between our sin and his Goodness, we would see really ought to happen?

Conversely, why was Satan not given an opportunity, or even the possibility in his will, for remorse and forgiveness? Why was a single thought of rejection enough to send the Light Bearer plummeting to the icy ninth circle? To this day I remember in grade school asking the visiting priest, "How many sins does it take to go to Hell?" and hearing his response: "Just one." He said the words with honesty but also with a cheer in his voice that assured me, even as he said them, that this was no reason for sadness.

What is it that sustains my being, within that awful span of time between a grave sin and the Sacrament of Confession, during which time I not only lose the inheritance of eternal life but even a claim on this one? What is it that carries evil and godless people (nb: a godless person and an atheist are quite different concepts to my mind) from one evil act to the next? The sun shines and the rain falls on the just and the unjust alike.

The just, and the unjust alike: they have bodies. Bodies are our great mercy. Bodies are our safety net. Not foolproof, certainly, but the body, and mortal life, is the first gift of God to be given, and the last to be taken away. The body is our vehicle from sin to remorse to forgiveness; it is the hand of God reaching out to catch us before we fall beyond recovery; it is the thread spoken of by Jonathan Edwards, by which we are prevented, for a time, from perdition.

There's a lot more going on here, but I need to return to this later.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Some more thoughts

I need to process some things.

First, I have recently come to understand something very important about myself. Everybody has his or her "baggage"--all of those unresolved emotional needs that hang around and make one or another part of our adult personalities more childish. I have known mine was present for a long time, but something about this week has thrown it into clear relief. Becoming freshly acquainted with it makes me realize that it may well be the source not only of my anxieties, but also my attachment and fondness for the Church.

Second, while I am here I continue to think a great deal about the World Religions class that I will teach. How will it be different? How will it be better? How will this experience I am having right now manifest in a religion course for 16 year-olds? I had many of my hopes for tapping into youthful "natural curiosity" crushed last semester under the weight of unbelievable apathy and laziness. I hope that God can give me the grace and gifts necessary to lead a classroom--even one devoted to the study of non-Christian traditions--closer to him.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Who is your favorite theologian?

I am currently on retreat, and I know that there may be something questionable about blogging in this context, but this reflection is not disconnected with my vocational discernment.

Most of my fellow retreatants are students of philosophy, theology, or both; interestingly, none that I know of are current or former seminarians. Earlier today, one of them asked us about our favorite philosophers, to which I personally answered William James--I have never gotten over my undergraduate admiration for this melancholy, supernatural-obsessed psychology professor who charismatically contended against the positivism of his day.

But later on in the same day, the subject of monks' chosen names came up (a favorite among monastic discerners), and I asked whether there was yet a Brother Robert. There is none. This left me intrigued, and so I looked up Robert Bellarmine on the good old Wikipedia.

I don't know why, but I have a tremendous love for this saint; more than for any other Doctor of the Church or any other intellectually-gifted holy man or woman that I've encountered. It isn't because of any cultural, national, or ecclesiastical affinities; and it isn't because I love his writing (I haven't read it yet). But the sheer fact of his influence in the Council of Trent, in the Galileo affair, and in the ideological struggle with Protestantism makes me believe that he exemplifies the little blurb I have on the upper-right corner of this page. St. Robert was a first-rate controversialist, and he worked unreservedly in the service of reason--a reason which, coolly and confidently, affirmed and defended Catholic faith with a surgeon's precision.

Is this my exemplar? Is St. Robert the model of how I am being asked to serve God? I cannot adequately answer this question without becoming more acquainted with him. Suffice to say that I am far (very far) from the cool-headed, sublimely Platonic machine of logic that I sometimes fantasize about being one day. But as someone whose faith was forged in the pale glow of computerized debate, and who aspires to fulfill it in a more or less similar capacity, I have a lot to admire in St. Robert.

St. Robert, pray that God leads me as deeply into my true destiny as he led you.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Note for metaphysical reflection

Just a note to self:

  • Gratia increatia (God himself)
  • Gratia creatia (grace)
  • Nature
  • Finitude (created non-being)
  • Privation

Monday, December 10, 2007

The morality of causing suffering, part 2

Upon reflection, I don't want any readers to think that I am making a case for corporeal punishment or for physical self-mortification. That is not my purpose. Rather, I simply observe that these things are, for better or for worse, traditionally sanctioned actions, and so it would behoove a tradition-minded Catholic not to uphold contradictory moral principles. Either these things are allowed or they are not (whether they are wise in a given case is a distinct issue). On the surface, it would seem odd that a religious tradition which defends and upholds natural law as a standard of moral truth would permit actions that, by all appearances, directly will damage to that which God has made, or that directly intend suffering, which was not part of God's creation.

The theory I am exploring is that the principle of totality--according to which the parts of the body exist for the good of the whole and thus, in grave need, may be compromised to preserve the whole--forms the basis for understanding suffering as directly willed yet not morally unjust. The key element is that the "whole" now includes the state of one's immortal soul. Thus, if corporeal punishment or mortification are to be permitted at all, they would be so under the same conditions as surgery or amputation would be permitted for the good of the body. Once again, those conditions are (loosely, from memory):
  • The whole is in imminent danger of death.
  • The only effective treatment for the threat involves directly intended harm to a part of the whole...
need to continue this later... I'm nodding off...

Sunday, December 09, 2007

The morality of causing suffering

(By the way, the discernment post below keeps on growing).

As a teacher, I am finding that punishment is an extremely complex human reality. The question was brought to my attention during my sacraments class's unit on the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick, and in particular our discussion of the authentic Catholic attitude toward suffering.

Certainly, we were able to establish some basic points to be agreed upon: suffering is not God's creation; Jesus Christ fought suffering and poverty wherever he was; yet Christ also transforms the meaning of suffering, gives it a redemptive power, and calls us all to a destiny better and beyond mere physical health.

But where all of this hit a snag was the question of whether Catholics should ever actively pursue suffering for themselves or inflict it upon others especially given that suffering is not, per Tradition, part of the original creation. The weight of brute tradition would seem to answer in the affirmative for both of these in certain cases: Paul gives us Biblical proof of the authentically Christian pedigree of bodily mortification; and Catholic moral teaching has positively and repeatedly affirmed the right of authorities (state and family) to punish wrongdoings, even corporeally; and in the case of the state this includes capital punishment in times of grave necessity.

What makes this question hairy is that the occasions we are speaking of are not merely a question of tolerating suffering for the sake of a greater good, nor is it matter of taking unavoidable suffering and uniting it with the redemptive, eternally present Passion of Christ. In both the cases of punishment and mortification, the suffering is directly intended. It does not conform to the doctrine of Double Effect. What this seems to mean is that we are limited to a few options:

  1. Maybe, to cause suffering, either of oneself or others, is sui generis a morally neutral act. Thus the moral ramifications depend entirely on other factors. Yet this has profound metaphysical implications which may not be orthodox, because there can be no moral neutrality when it comes to directly contradicting what God has made and declared good. Thus one would have to postulate that suffering may have been a part of creation. Though perhaps unorthodox, this theory would dovetail nicely with naturalistic theories of the universe's origin, since there can be no natural selection without suffering (at the very least, the suffering of beasts).
  2. As a correlate, it may be useful to distinguish between suffering and physical harm. I believe many would agree that it is possible to inflict the former without the latter. Everything from a slap on the wrist to the depression of somebody's high spirits ultimately is mere communication rather than flouting the goodness of the body. Yet even here there is a de facto disconnect between theory and tradition, as can be attested by a nation's right to inflict capital punishment, "just war theory," and the bloody self-flagellation of St. Josemaria Escriva (and other popular saints as well).
  3. Maybe, to cause suffering is not in conformity with the law of Christ or the Kingdom, but is tolerated as a concession to our broken natures, which would otherwise suffer even greater harm without the objectively sinful practices. A bit like how we explain the intermediary laws of Deuteronomy. However, I do not know if this argument can be valid for a consistent Christian morality. The main problems with this theory are that (a) in Christ we have the fullness of moral truth; there is no longer room for "concessionary" moral laws, even while pastoral judgment does make incidental concessions. There is only Christ. Also, even more problematic, (b) the ones who practice self-flagellation are not those who are weak, but rather those who are particularly graced and close to Jesus.
  4. Perhaps one could adapt the "principle of totality"--usually used to explain why surgery is not a moral evil--and expand it to include the salvation of the soul. While, on the one hand, one can never intend an evil so that good may come from it; on the other, where the totality of the body is under eminent threat of death, a part of the body can be "damaged" to ensure the survival of the whole. Infections can be amputated; skin can be opened; immune systems can be depressed, if these are necessary to ensure meaningful survival. The only reason why the principle of totality works is because of the essential relationship of the parts to the whole--thus, the entity which is being harmed and also being saved is one and the same. Thus, the damage and the healing are not related as cause and effect, but as morally one and the same act. The element of damage or harm is effectively "canceled out". When the immortal soul is brought into the same picture--and understood, in Thomistic fashion, to be not separate from the body but its very form, then Totality warrants an entirely broader range of moral action (at least so long as it is understood as eminently necessary).
This last theory has a number of advantages, among them being powerfully Biblical.
If your hand or foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter into life maimed or crippled than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter into life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into fiery Gehenna. (Mt 18:8-9)
Hold on, I'm not finished yet, but I have some suffering of my own to do right now (grading).

Friday, December 07, 2007

Wow, a post on vocation and discernment

Here is a rarity. I haven't written about my vocation since March. But, as I plan to spend a week and a half in a monastery again, maybe it's time to revisit this topic. I hope that God will guide me.

First, a little confession: yes, from time to time I do use online personals to meet girls, or sometimes I'll strike up conversations in pubs and such. All in all, it hasn't been that bad, but it hasn't been that great either. Upon hearing this, however, a friend reported to me, "You're farther away from the monastery than I thought." I don't know whether, or how much that remark was meant sarcastically, but regardless, it gives me pause for thought.

Truth be told, I am far from the monastery. But that's not a situation which I am inclined to celebrate. In some ways I recognize that I have not lived up to what I know is right, and in that respect I have not lived up to my humanity, let alone a lofty and uncommon vocation. But I know that I could. As a lay Catholic I have found that the temptation to "let myself go", to grow lax and lazy, has been too attractive to resist completely. But, stretched between a past clerical aspiration and a current lay career, I can see the landscape a little more clearly.

Let me enumerate the biggest issues which factor into my discernment at present.

  • I don't have a very strong personal prayer life, and I know that this, at least, is part of my present confusion and darkness about God's will for my life.
  • I still value the freedoms of the lay life. Although my sleep schedule is beyond monastic (typically 8pm to 4am), I won't lie about the fact that I enjoy making an income, having a pet cat, buying computers and gadgets, visiting pubs and fast food restaurants at will, meeting girls, using the apartment hot tub, sleeping in on Saturday, and throwing on jeans and a T-shirt when I'm not at work. None of these are sins, though they are all luxuries, and all of them together sort of make me into the wealthy young man of the Gospel. I resist now giving up all of these worldly things. But the question is not whether I'm called to enjoy these things or not (I am not). The question is whether I am called to religious life, or something else--and the deciding factor must be something deeper than cats and hot tubs. It isn't like I couldn't live happily without these things--I did, for six years. What is at stake is, rather: where will I finally find peace? And I can say sincerely that I am not in a peaceful state right now, but I don't know how meaningful that feeling is, given that first-year teachers are not expected to be at peace.
  • Teaching has revealed to me even more clearly the vices and issues that I tend to carry with me wherever I go; it has also been an occasion for improvement. Teaching is good for me, and the last semester has served as a purgatory in the most positive sense of that word. I have chipped away at my procrastination habits--though they still remain--and the other areas I need to work on have become strikingly clear. However...
  • I am weary of this life after five months. This is nothing to fear, so I'm told--so far I have not experienced anything out of the ordinary for a first-year. But the work of teaching has been brutally more difficult than I anticipated, and the rewards scarce. I'm a happier person than I was one year ago; just also a tired one.
  • I'm caught in a classic vocations dilemma: on the one hand, there is the desire to purify my reasons for desiring monastic life (and proving to myself and others that I have the ability to make a sober, enduring, responsible life choice). On the other hand, there is the slightly more romantic wisdom that says that the heart has its reasons which the mind does not understand; or as St. Benedict urged, to listen with the ears of the heart. I'm caught between a Pauline distrust of the passions and a Petrine impulsive enthusiasm. It is only because of my awareness of my own sins that I trust my feelings so little--but "sober" reason, fueled by pride (the desire to appear strong and self-controlled), can also be fooled. In Brideshead Revisited, Sebastian Flyte winds up a sorry alcoholic mess, stumbling in and out of the hospitality of an infinitely tolerant monastery--and that is his salvation (admittedly not a sainthood to aspire to, but a glory to God's mercy and better than the most prestigious damnation). By the mercy of God, the graces of the Church can supply, over time, what is lacking in individuals who at least say "yes" with whatever freedom they have left. But this encouragement is tempered by a warning: as long as there is breath in my lungs, life will be difficult, and no mere change in states of life will alter that fact. The question becomes then, is the difficulty in my life now the difficulty which God has been calling me to embrace since before I was born; is it his gift; is it my real cross? Or is the difficulty in my life now not the cross which was intended for me, but rather the merciful signpost that I am not where I belong? How do I tell the difference between these two difficulties?
  • I miss study. Admittedly being a teacher has given me a great opportunity for study; I have tightened my catechetical knowledge, and I continue to connect everything back to what I learned in seminary. I review old notes, and I read books which I purchased in the seminary but never read (I am still chugging through St. Gregory's Pastoral Care). But I miss the seminary, I miss the classroom, I miss writing papers and drawing connections through every class. I miss feeling like each hour was bringing me closer and closer to an authentic understanding of the human person, of the pattern of our salvation. It's true that my perfectionism and procrastion damaged my ability to continue through the seminary; but it's also true that I was never quite so happy and thankful to God as those moments of inspiration and discovery. I still have those, from time to time, but who can I share them with here? I recently asked a young Dominican sister to talk to my students about religious life and sacramentals. The chats that she and I had between classes were an experience I hadn't had in years. We spoke the same language. I had forgotten what it was like to talk theology without carefully pruning it for an audience to avoid confusion. I long for more of that.
  • Whether I entered the monastery or not, I want to give my life over to study, perhaps be a professor, and certainly to write books. I will not be satisfied until I've read everything and written everything. I want to participate in the Spirit's mission to "prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness;" I want to unfold the Sacred Mystery until it blankets the whole dying earth. Indeed, it had entered my mind that the monastery could conceivably be an easier path toward that dream, though I have no intention of treating any vocation merely as a means to anything. Indeed, the Rule and constitution do a fair job of eliminating that impulse through the postulancy and novitiate. Whether I remained a lay Catholic or entered the monastery, it would be a couple of years yet that I would remain out of the classroom. The main difference is that, in lay life, I have the distracting consideration of having to make a career out of it.
  • There's more...

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Technology post, the third: review of the Asus Eee PC

In the tradition of 2007 summer films, we have a third-quel to the technology posts.

Last Wednesday I received from Newegg my Christmas present to myself: a black Asus Eee PC 4G. This 2lbs laptop is relatively cheap (about $475 when you include shipping and an 8GB storage card), and the reasons why aren't much of a mystery. First, instead of Windows, it comes preinstalled with a customized version (by Asus) of a customized version (Edge) of a customized version (Xandros) of a customized version (Debian) of Linux.

Second, even though the laptop is small, the screen is smaller. Although it looks as though the hardware could have fit at least a 9" screen, it is actually 7", with the thick bezel holding a pair of nothing-special stereo speakers..

Finally, savings are to be had via the absence of a "real" (magnetic) hard drive; instead, everything runs off of an internal, 4GB, solid state disk--hence the need to purchase a large SD card to store documents and music.

Unfortunately, in all the time I've had this machine, I haven't made much actual use of it. Instead, I have been suffering a long string of headaches directly attributable to attempting to install Windows XP Home on it. I've given up--as far as I can tell, my XP Home disk is corrupt. So I am back on Linux.

I dislike Linux intensely, but so far it has served me well. I belong to a class of people who are computer-proficient enough to desire advanced functionality and customization from their computers, but not enough to add an icon to the Launch menu (the "Start" menu of KDE, a customization of a... nevermind). Don't get me wrong: both Windows and Linux are sins against the anthropic principle of computing. A typical Windows installation has a nasty habit of rotting like bad fruit unless you give it constant coddling and massaging--fragmented hard drives, malware, registry errors, background apps, ugh. But at least the problems are at the tail-end of the experience.

In Linux, merely setting up and arranging the interface requires so much arcane knowledge that by the time I was able to install the GIMP (a graphics program), I was also clipping my cat's nails using voodoo magic and a stuffed doll.

Happily, most of the setup process is now complete, and I have been using the Eee PC with about as much ease as I would a Windows system. A gigantic plus of this situation is that Linux does not suffer from PC rot. If I stay with Linux, I will never have to clean the registry, defrag the hard drive, run spyware removers or pop-up blockers or anti-virus software. It doesn't slow down, it doesn't take forever to boot, and it doesn't crash--so long as I don't put a typo into the command line.

Another nice quality about the Eee is how quiet and peaceful it is relative to the desktops I'm used to working with. There is a subtly harrowing atmosphere caused by the buzz of speakers, a CRT monitor, and of course the fans and clicking hard drives of a desktop computer. With the Eee I can work with a machine with scarcely more pyrotechnics than a book. It really helps with the stress.

There are numerous features that I am missing out on because of Linux. It won't natively run my school's grading software (I'm still working out the arcane magic of remote desktop). It won't run at the processor's rated speed (It's an Intel Celeron M 90nm rated at 900MHz but clocked at 630MHz). It won't run many games at all. And as a Linux "n00b" I am constantly working under the burden of unfamiliarity and ignorance about the mysterious inner workings of this OS.

But for what I paid, this is a great machine.